Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Books from Down Under

Those who follow my sporadic blog will know that travelling and books feature quite often. I haven't achieved my aim of travelling to every country from where I have a read a book, or even managed reading a book from every country I have visited, although I'm working on it.



My next planned trip is to Australia in a few weeks, and at least I can say I have read a number of Australian books. The first, which I read as a child, was my mother's copy of Seven Little Australians by Ethel M Turner. My mother had been a little Australian herself, coming to UK when she was ten years old. I later read Under Australian Skies by Phyllis Power. The former is still hailed as a classic, while the latter is, I suspect, now politically incorrect and has been brushed carefully under the carpet. Then there were, of course, the Lindsay books: The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

My Australian reading continued through my teens to adulthood. I read Colleen McCollough, when The Thorn Birds was all the rage in the late 70s, but much preferred Nancy Cato's All the Rivers Run, another epic. Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life took a bit of reading but I was engrossed by it while My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin left me cold! I also read a couple of Peter Carey's novel and two of Bryce Courtenay's.


More recently I read Geradine Brooks' Year of Wonders which I enjoyed, and March, which I wasn't so keen on. I loved Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, but have yet to read his other novels. 

One book that interested me was Murray Bail's Eucalyptus. (You don't get more Australian than that, so much so that my mother planted one, which of course she called a gum, in the garden of my parents' place in Devon where it flourished. Unlike the character in the book, I can't identify the exact species.) 

I like Kate Greville's books, but loathe The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It gained critical acclaim, but although I thought the initial premise was an interesting one, I didn't consider the novel delivered anything worth saying and the author missed an opportunity to really examine his theme. And I'm pleased to say that none of the Australians I have met are as repellent as the characters he created. I hope I won't encounter them on my trip!

Another disappointment, that I gave up on, was The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham, which I thought poorly written. Clearly others disagreed with me as it, too, received critical acclaim!

On my Australian to-be-read list is Tim Winton - but do you have any other Australian recommendations?





Saturday, 9 July 2016

Ten top tips on attending lit fests.

Having helped organize five small literary festivals, we've learned a few things.

I'm sure there are authors who are lost in show-biz - those who demand they sip water sourced only from Fiji, who expect a chauffeur-driven limo to fetch them - but we don't have those sorts of authors at our festival. We have hard working writers who arrive on time, and thank us as much as we thank them for coming to our humble festival. And even one lovely author who requested we put her fee towards our next festival.

No, we're not complaining about authors (we love them.)

The majority of our audience members are great too. They send messages telling us how much they enjoyed the event but there's always one, isn't there? Always one (or sometimes two, or even three.)

So if you'd like to emulate The One, or two or three, follow our simple advice.

1.) Turn up late and keep keep your mobile on with the loudest ringtone you can find.

Yes, I know you'd think that anyone who wants to attend these sort of events would know that but apparently some don't. So I'm reminding them.

2.) When invited to ask questions, ask rambling questions that will confuse everybody so much they haven't a clue what you are asking.

3.) Instead of asking a question when invited, tell the authors about your own writing, because it's probably worth them having a glance at it and putting in a good word for you with their agent.

4.) Turn up to events and ask the organizers if you can read your poem. Especially if it's a very bad poem. Don't bother waiting until there's an Open Mic or consider working on your writing until it gets good enough so you are actually invited to read at festivals.

5.) Turn up to an event early while the organizers are still placing chairs, filling water glasses, greeting authors and doing a hundred other jobs, and start telling them about your friend's idea for a self-published book and ask them if they'd come over to give her a bit if advice right now because she has to go back to LaLaLand tonight.

6.) Fall asleep and snore during the author talk. You could even dribble a bit to make it really special.

7.) Never clap after a reading or talk, but look bored and fiddle with your phone instead.

8.) Tell the organizers the sort of events you think they should do - remember to always preface it with 'what you should have done is...'

9.) Ask the organizers if they will sell some of your books on the book stall, and produce a bagful of them. Even though they haven't a clue who you are.

10.) Leave some of your books on the bookstall - because you have better things to do than hang around a lit fest - and expect the bookseller to sell your books and give you the full amount. Remember to leave a note for the organizers telling them where to drop off the money and the books that are left.

And that, dear reader, is how to be a right pain in the cervical spine. (Like the anatomy/book reference there?)

P.S. Those who wish to adhere to these rules please don't put our next festival in your diary. If you're the rebellious sort of person who chooses to disobey them, then please do.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Finchley Literary Festival 2016. My perspective.

This year's authors are a wonderful bunch: Local writer Amy Bird, Harry Parker, Allen Ashley, another Finchleyite,  Irenosen Okojie, who we are thrilled to welcome back to Finchley, Yvvette Edwards, Catriona Ward, Joanna Campbell, who is judging FLF & Greenacre Writers short story competition; Antonia Honeywell, back for a second visit, our own Rosie Canning, Sunny SinghVaseem Khan and Katharine Norbury. Wow!

I copied that paragraph from my last blog post. And I was right, they are a wonderful bunch!

Each of FLF's event was unique, as authors approached their talks in slightly different ways. I can't pick a favourite because they were all so enjoyable and also because they were so different it's  impossible to compare.

After greeting participants at Anna Meryt's writing workshop on Friday morning, I bought a few festival supplies and met the other organisers at Church End library for our first author event.

Harry Parker
Harry Parker, in interview with Carol Sampson told us how his book Anatomy of a Soldier, came about, drawing on his own experiences of war. Like Captain Tom Barnes in the novel, he was one of the ones who nearly didn't make it. Harry, whose wife and baby daughter came along too, chatted to his audience as if we were all sitting around in someone's living room, rather than in a busy library. He read a brief extract and seemed almost surprised when we all wanted more, and he had to think which bits to read. The last reading was the first chapter - I could have happily had him read the whole book.

Our next talk with author A.L.Bird, was also at the library. Amy took a slightly more formal approach and after an initial reading from The Good Mother told us about her inspiration and a bit about the journey of the book. Several writers were in the audience and we always find this interesting as well as wanting to hear about the book itself. Amy's readings brilliantly evoked the tension in the story which, along with her answers to the questions posed by Carol and the audience, sold it to us!

Later that evening Allen Ashley had a lively audience for the launch of his novel The Planet Suite, and I'm sorry I wasn't able to stay beyond his initial reading as we were setting up the room next door for the main event of FLF. One of our helpers was so intrigued by Allen's work he stayed glued to his seat (earning a very well deserved rest).

Irenosen, Yvvette and Catriona
The following morning we welcomed Yvvette Edwards, Iresonsen Okojie and Catriona Ward to our first event. I knew Yvette and Irenosen had met before but they had not met Catriona. They all left as firm friends and swapped books. Each gave an introduction about her book and a reading.
   We were treated to an array of subjects and styles but there were common threads and these formed the basis of the lively panel discussion with thoughtful questions posed by Carol. The passion of these authors is what makes their talent shine.
   I am currently reading Irenson Okojie's Butterfly Fish (I'd intended finishing it before the festival but I once again I underestimated just how much work goes into the pre-festival week) but now I'm glad I hadn't because her views have given me deeper insights to her story. Yvvette and Catriona's books are a treat yet to come waiting on my To Be Read shelf!

Parallel to this Josie Pearse was busy as Dragon Mistress to a busy Dragons' Pen where writers pitched their writing for instant feedback from Gilly Stern, Antonia Honeywell and Cari Rosen. Having met the dragons before (Gilly and Cari when I entered the same dragons' den two years ago) and Antonia when she discussed her novel The Ship at FLF last year, I knew they wouldn't be too badly scorched. The winner was Matt Bourn who greatly impressed them among strong competition.

Joanna Campbell
The next event was one I had been anticipating for ages on two counts. Firstly I would get to meet Joanna Campbell whose writing I had first read when she entered Greenacre Writers short story competitions. I had followed her writing journey courtesy of Twitter and her blog and was delighted when she had her novel, Tying Down The Lion, published. It was every bit as good as I'd anticipated and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Joanna was an obvious choice to judge the festival's short story competition and here she was to announce the long awaited results.
  Joanna also read and talked about her own work including a story from her new book When Planets Slip Their Tracks. And yes, Joanna was just as I'd imagined, warm, friendly and generous.

Antonia and Rosie
Orphans In Fiction was presented by Antonia Honeywell and FLF's own Rosie Canning. Talking about the representation of orphans in fiction and reflecting on reasons why there are so many fictional orphans, was a topic that could have filled the entire day. Readings from a number of books illustrated their talk in addition to Antonia reading an extract from her new work in progress and Rosie from her autobiographical novel which is part of her
PhD in creative writing. Both sound brilliant.

After a short break I interviewed Sunny Singh about her latest novel Hotel Arcadia. Like all good interviewers I'd read the book and done my research, and re-reading bits gave me more time to think about its complexities. I'd listened to an interview with Sunny on YouTube that she did for Metropolitan University where the questions posed were entrenched in academia, making the questions I'd decided on look rather simplistic but Sunny reassured me they were fine! We were. after all, a lit fest, not a university course. Like other authors she spoke about her influences and a little about the process and gave readings from her unusual and challenging novel.

Baby Ganesh and Vaseem
An amazing elephant (created by 13year old Zaki,) accompanied our final guest of the day, Vaseem Khan, who chatted about his experience of first visiting India and how living in the modern India, so different to that of his parents' and grandparents' generation, gave rise to his Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series, the first of which is The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. We actually had to persuade Vasseem to read a bit for us! And we loved it.
   I've enjoyed many examples Indian literature since my travels there very many moons ago (just before the period of emergency declared by Indira Ghandi, that Sunny recalled in her interview) so this book is a welcome addition to my shelf.

It was the end of a busy day but more was to come. At ten fifteen next morning I was at Waterstones to help set up for Katharine Norbury who was interviewed by Mike Gee where they discussed her book The Fish Ladder. Part memoir and part nature travelogue Katharine read excerpts which had her audience intrigued and talked about the events that led her on her quest to follow a river from sea to source. Her journeys, many with her young daughter, led her to discover more than she bargained for.

Mike and Rosie then set off with a good number of walkers for the Finchley in Fiction walk, where lots of extracts from books and poems either mentioning Finchley or written by famous Finchleyites, such as Spike Milligan, were read along the way. I didn't accompany them as I needed some serious downtime because work would call tomorrow, but I kept an eye on Rosie's Twitter feed for the pictures I was sure would pop up.

The final event of the festival, held at Cafe Buzz, was the Music and Poetry Palooza organised by Anna Meryt who had opened the festival. Anna teamed up with poets and musicians and the festival was put to bed on a jolly note. (Literally.) All I had to do was shake the bucket for donations and eat red velvet cake and drink a Cafe Buzz cappuccino.

We achieved something great. We always receive such enthusiastic feedback and encouraging support from our invited authors and the audience, and this year was no exception, but I'm sad that more people didn't come along to enjoy and be enriched by the wonderful authors that the Finchley Literary Festival was proud to host.

Thank you all who took part in whatever capacity, and our generous sponsors.




Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The fifth Finchley Literary Festival - we're aiming high.

Once upon a time two writers decided to hold a literary festival...

It started as a half day event aimed at promoting the work of members of our writing group, Greenacre Writers. But we knew we had to have speakers with a bit more clout too and so FLF - then called Greenacre Writers Mini Lit Fest - was born in 2012.

We had such great feedback from participants as well as the audience we did it again the following year and included two writing workshops and an Open Mic event. Again, we had positive feedback from our invited authors. Indeed, two from the previous year were in our audience and speaker Alex Wheatle, aka The Brixton Bard, was pleased to be asked to join a panel discussion.

Alex joined us again for the following year in 2014 when we rebranded the event as Finchley Literary Festival. This was to give it an identifiable location and also reflected the participation of other members of the Finchley writing community. Alongside Alex, Emily Benet from the first festival also took part. We were getting something very right!

That year we managed to secure some funding from local sponsors and the festival expanded - 20 events in total. It was a great success, but whew, it was hard work. We vowed the following year would be smaller.

It was three events smaller. We had terrific authors and enthusiastic audiences. We were on a roll. Finchley shines at the end of May! Even if the sun doesn't.

Not quite a hat...
This year owing to something very exciting, for which I needed to go hat shopping, we weren't going to be able to hold the festival in May. I wondered whether we could even give this year a miss. No, we couldn't. FLF is in demand. So we shunted it to the end of June. 24th to 26th June to be precise.

So what makes FLF different or special? Firstly there weren't many (or any) literary events going on in Finchley area so we filled a huge gap. Since FLF's inception, Barnet libraries have two weeks of special literary events in February and the Middlesex University lit fest is now held in nearby Hendon during March. But we were the first lit fest in the borough!

Secondly we aim to support and highlight local authors - from Finchley and nearby, and have found a number of very talented people within a short distance. Some have even included Finchley in their novels. Highgate and Hampstead, our near neighbours with a long literary tradition, need to keep on their toes. But of course we open our doors to authors from further afield too - just not ones who need to be flown in on Business Class!

Thirdly, we're not about focusing on big names, although we have nothing against them - and indeed did try to persuade one such writer by offering him chocolate but he was busy, or didn't like chocolate - but we do attract brilliant authors. Miriam Halahmy and C.J. Flood were both nominated for the Carnegie medal, and Alex Wheatle's first YA novel, Liccle Bit, was on the 2016 Carnegie long-list. Not something to be sniffed at. Tasha Kavanagh, who read last year, from Things We Have in Common is on the Desmond Elliot Prize long-list and was also shortlisted for the Not the Booker Prize (which in my opinion selects far better books than the other lot). Joanna Campbell who is speaking this year was also long-listed on NTB with her debut novel, Tying Down The Lion, (both in my top ten reads of 2015). A number of speakers' books have been listed for worthy prizes including Jemma Wayne who read last year.

Fourthly, FLF embraces diversity in all its gloriousness. I don't think we ever said 'oh let's invite diverse authors,' we simply open our doors to good writers who happen to be a pretty diverse bunch. This gives FLF a wide range of topics, ideas and viewpoints. I know my reading has broadened since reading our authors - and I aim to read something from each one. My pile of books grows ever larger during each festival. (Pity I can't claim new books and a bookcase from expenses but I am not an MP.)

I have read genres I hadn't been especially attracted to previously and have been wonderfully surprised (Mike Carey's Finchley zombies for example.) I've travelled to places and cultures I knew little about, which always excites me.

This year's authors are a wonderful bunch: Local writer Amy Bird, Harry Parker, Allen Ashley, another Finchleyite,  Irenosen Okojie, who we are thrilled to welcome back to Finchley, Yvvette Edwards, Catriona Ward, Joanna Campbell, who is judging FLF & Greenacre Writers short story competition; Antonia Honeywell, back for a second visit, our own Rosie Canning, Sunny SinghVaseem Khan and Katharine Norbury. Wow!

We're not forgetting future authors for whom there are two writing workshops and a Dragon's Pen - the first of which I was lucky enough to win two years ago. As a result, I have completed a major re-write of my novel! And even if you don't like reading, preferring the outdoors, there's a green walk - so good weather please! And to round it all off there's performance poetry and music in our favourite Finchley cafe, Cafe Buzz.

And that is what makes Finchley Literary Festival well worth a visit! Plus, we're really nice and there will be cake!

For more information see Finchley Literary Festival.


Friday, 22 April 2016

Giving away books. World Book Night 2016

World Book Night is here again for its sixth year. I'm proud to say I've been a 'giver' for each of those years. But after all, what can be better than giving away books? 

I've blogged about WBN before so I'm not going to say much here, except that this year I'm giving away Last Bus to Coffeeville by J. Paul Henderson. If you are interested, read more about it here.

Knowing my penchant for a good cup of strong freshly brewed coffee one of my colleagues laughed and said I'd picked the right book! She's not a great reader so she'll be having a copy thrust at her with orders to read it pronto! I think she'll like it and while it's lighthearted it is about serious matters.  

I've never been to Coffeeville, and if I decide to add it to my travel destinations, I have a choice of four Coffeevilles; one each in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas. The one in the book is the Mississippi one. And yes, I did check I'd spelled that right. Now I have to go an see a man about a bus... 

Monday, 29 February 2016

Around the world in two months.

One of the few good things about February,
 which never fails to cheer me.
The first two months of the year are already past but in those two months I have visited India, Chile, Australia (twice), USA, (twice) France, Italy and embarked on a voyage to three countries in East Africa: Kenya; Tanzania and Zimbabwe, interspersed with four short stays back in UK. I've also managed some time travel - pretty impressive for an outlay of  less than £20.00.

Of course this was literary travel and even for the full price of twelve books it would still have been a bargain, but I bought only two at the full price. One was a gift, a couple were from the library, one was borrowed, another was a prize and the others were bought secondhand!

January and February are my least favourite months, with their cold dark days so to escape them I travel. Some years I actually board a plane to fly to sunnier places. Last year I enjoyed the experience of Laos and Cambodia during February. This year, so far, I've had to make do with daffodils and literary travel but what travels they were!

I have met a Mormon family in the throes of grief, an American woman researching her family history in France with some time travel back the the seventeenth century, visited a sleepy mid-west American town, uncovered the tragic events in a sleepy East Anglian village of the eve of the second world war, taken sides with a custody battle in India, been scared by unstable politics and organised crime in Chile and met a professor with Asperger's. I also met some awful people I hope never to encounter again at a barbecue, played with a couple of youngsters in the carefree days of the 30s in south Wales and observed a man trying to come to terms with the death of his mother when he was a child.

While these were all fiction I have also read an account of travels in colonial East Africa and lastly the heartbreaking autobiography of a hugely talented neurosurgeon who died at the age of 37 from lung cancer.

Curiously, these last two very different books both mentioned an exploit which one would not encounter in many thousand books, namely the Dreadnought Hoax, when Virginia Woolf and her cronies dressed up as the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage and boarded the pride of the British Navy's battleship, HMS Dreadnought, and were received with much ado and gracious hospitality. I love it when these coincidences occur in my reading - or are they coincidence? What guided my choice of these two books one after the other?

I'm now deciding which books to take with my next real travels (which are costing a lot more than £20.00).

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Lit Ward 10 - the latest outcomes for Literature Therapy.

The chief exec of Storyville Hospital was in a tizzy. The Minister for Health had been admitted to A&E with cuts and bruises and a dislocated finger. Eye witnesses had confirmed that he had had a nasty fall from a window. 

Someone on Twitter had suggested that junior doctors had pushed him but they were soon silenced by common-sense. No doctor would behave in such a loutish manner off the rugby field and obviously none would wish to create more work for themselves. Especially on a Friday afternoon which, as everybody knows, is just before A&E gets horribly busy. 

The minister’s memory seemed rather patchy – he couldn’t remember the incident and neither could he recall having been in the House of Commons for several important debates. He also seemed to be displaying some delusional behaviour. It was deemed that he should be admitted for observations.

A brain scan revealed an alarming absence of brain but no other defects therefore the neurological team argued they couldn’t admit him to their ward as there was nothing to work with and the psych team felt his presence on their ward would cause serious problems so Dr Read was persuaded to admit him to Lit Ward 10 where he had had a good night’s sleep and was now ready for Lit Therapy.

Nurse Gorgeous had to think hard. A book that would keep the minister busy and out of harm’s way while helping him become a better person. She hefted Middlemarch and Bleak House off the shelf and took them to the side room. They should keep him out of mischief for a while. Possibly months or even years. Doctor Read would ensure he had to take time off work too after he had been discharged.

They had put him in side room because Lit Ward 10 was exceedingly busy and the sight of him might have resulted in the resuscitation team being called to several other patients. Nurse Gorgeous made him a nice cup of tea and set it on his bedside table and adjusted his reading lamp. She went back the nursing station where a nurse said she’d just had her five-minute meal break and had logged on to Twitter. There were pictures of the Minister for Health flying through the air having fallen from his Ivory Tower.

He had fallen on a group of American tourists and while he was hardly hurt, two of them were also admitted A&E. (They had praised the NHS for the courteous and timely treatment allowing them to resume their holiday, albeit one with his arm in plaster, without delay.)

Nurse carried out a swift ward round. Dr Read was run off his feet – yes, he, a consultant, was working this weekend. A large number of people had been admitted with high blood pressure having read ridiculous newspaper accounts about the junior doctors’ dispute. The incinerator was going full blast burning copies of papers and magazines that distorted the facts. At one point Nurse Gorgeous had had to administer to Dr de Licious after he read the idiotic claims of junior doctors doing nothing but swigging champagne and having the audacity to take foreign holidays. Like a number of doctors, he volunteered in third world countries and had set up Lit wards all over the place to great acclaim.

Luckily most of the patients admitted that weekend were able to go home within a matter of hours with normal blood pressure after some restorative reading. None of them died even though it was the weekend. Nurse Gorgeous thought it wise to lock away murder mysteries in case it gave people ideas and all references to Guy Fawkes and blowing up of Houses of Parliament were removed from the reading material. 

Comedy novels were in high demand. Several had asked for The Confederacy of Dunces under the mistaken impression that it was about MPs, but they enjoyed it anyway. Numerous copies of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, an apposite choice, was devoured within hours, closely followed by Vile Bodies. Again, a few patients thought this was referring to members of the government. Catch-22 was another popular choice. The only unfortunate incident was a patient who laughed so much at the antics of Three Men in A Boat that he burst his stitches. He was just out of surgery and was full of praise for all the doctors and nurses. When he read scurrilous claims about the NHS in a rag he was so upset that his pulse went wild. Reading restored it to normal and Dr de Licious managed to sew him back up while Nurse Gorgeous read out some of the lovely cards they had received from former patients.

Lit Ward 10’s outcomes for the week were all excellent. The chief exec was happy even though the side room would be occupied for some time. Once again, Lit Therapy had triumphed.