Jersey Festival of Words, Day Three

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It’s this morning when I realise how many female non-fiction writers are doing events at the festival. What a contrast to media and prize coverage which would have you believe very few women write non-fiction books. Today I’m seeing Ella Berthoud by Skype and Jane Hawking in person.

Berthoud’s session takes place in a room at Jersey Public Library. If you haven’t come across her, she wrote a book called The Novel Cure along with Susan Elderkin. The book centres on the practice of bibliotherapy, the idea that you can cure every day ailments with the power of fiction. Berthold tells us Aristotle used to practice a verbal form of it, recommending poetry and plays. In World War Two, it was used to treat shellshock. Jane Austen was prescribed for soldiers because it was very English, a reminder of home and Austen’s world is predictable and comforting. In the 1960s, books were recommended to children who were dealing with a bereavement, their parents divorcing or parents who were having a range of difficulties.

For Berthoud and Elderkin, their practice of bibliotherapy began when they lived in adjacent rooms as undergraduates at Cambridge. When one of them was dealing with an issue, the other would slip an appropriate book under the patient’s door.

Several years later, after Elderkin had published two novels and Berthoud worked as an artist, they decided they wanted to do something with their bibliotherapy skills. Around the same time, Alain de Botton was establishing The School of Life in London. They met with him and discussed setting up a one-to-one bibliotherapy service which would deal with a combination of reading habits and real life problems and issues.

Before people go to see Berthoud and Elderkin, they’re sent a questionnaire. The first half asks about reading habits. What do you read? Why do you read? Where do you read? When do you read? What are your most loved and most loathed books? Do you have any particular reading issues? The second half is about their personal life: biographical information, any issues they have at the moment, where they want to be in ten years time.

Sometimes people come with very specific requests, which Berthoud and Elderkin research but often they’re general issues: a career rut, bereavement, divorce, empty nest syndrome.

They started planning the book in 2008 because they wanted a textbook to go with their service. Planning in Elderkin’s cottage, they came up with every ailment they could think of – a total of 777! – and every great novel. Their editor told them to cut it to 300 ailments. Even so, the first version of the book had 50,000 words cut from it including a cure for cannibalism and some medical and psychological ailments where it was possible Berthoud and Elderkin’s intensions could be misconstrued. Their aim is to help and heal rather than cure.

Berthoud says the book’s really split into four different types of ailments – emotional: depression, a broken heart, agoraphobia; situational: moving house, taking a gap year; physical: a broken leg, hiccups, in which case the books are ‘to be taken alongside medicine’, and reading: too busy to read, surrounded by children, guilt, put off by hype, tendency to read instead of live and vice-versa.

If you suffer from reading related memory loss, Berthoud suggests keeping a notebook. She says to buy a beautiful, leather bound one and allocate a page a book. On that page you should write the title and author of the book, the place where you read it and a few lines about the book including how you feel about it, what you liked and didn’t like, the narrator and key plot points. It should be enjoyable, short and should only take five minutes. If you loved the book, this will get you through the mourning period!

At this point, before Berthoud begins to recommend cures to the audience, I have to leave to powerwalk over to the Opera House to see the first of three Owen Sheers’ events. Obviously he doesn’t qualify for this blog but, along with Irma Kurtz on Friday night, his is one of the best events I’ve seen anywhere.

After Sheers, there’s a screening of Travelling to Infinity, the film based on Jane Hawking’s book about her marriage to Stephen Hawking. I don’t attend as I haven’t read the book and I have rules about these things! I do, however, attend Jane Hawking’s talk afterwards.

‘I wonder how you would respond if someone came to your door wanting to make a film of your family?’ She said no on an annual basis to the filmmaker who wanted to tell her story. She preferred to share her intimate details with a single reader, she says.

There were three reasons for writing the book: one, it took a very long time before she reconciled herself to writing about her marriage to Stephen Hawking but his prognosis was for two years and he’s outlived that by 52 and his fame drew their life into the public arena. Two, she had a huge burden of memories, the weight of which were preventing her from pursuing her own independent life. Three, she wanted to publicise the horrors of Motor Neurone Disease/ALS to help carers, sufferers and their families.

She wrote a book called Music to Move the Stars but was accused by critics of writing ‘a kiss and tell’. Eventually the book was bought by Alma Books and with the help of an editor there it became Travelling to Infinity.

She speaks at length about the film. She was pleased it was made by Working Title rather than a Hollywood production company but she says there are still a number of inaccuracies. She tells an anecdote about meeting someone who tells her she met Stephen when she was a Cambridge undergraduate – she was never a Cambridge undergraduate!

However, she was ‘bowled over’ at the private screening. Despite the omissions of the hardships of day-to-day life and their extensive travels, she says it’s emotionally true.

She goes on to talk about some of the things that were omitted from the films. She says the wives of physicists were unhappy, disaffected, intelligent women trailed by kids. Mrs Einstein cited physics as the reason for her divorce, Hawking tells us. Stephen was having coughing fits that were dangerous and frightening. Jane was living in London during the week, trying to complete her undergrad and at weekends, painting their Cambridge college and championing the disabled access cause.

When the children came along, Stephen would sit thinking whilst the children played around him. This made Jane anxious – were the children too loud? Had she upset him? Was he ill? What he was doing was thinking in eleven dimensions and solving problems. She says wives and mothers were nothing in Cambridge society so she started a PhD.

She blames the collapse of their marriage on fame, fortune, illness and sycophancy. There was a disparity between public celebrity and private stresses.

She tells an anecdote about meeting the Queen. As Stephen bowled into the room where the Queen was in his usual haste, the royal pile got caught up in the wheels of his chair. Jane was behind him in heels and a tight skirt. She couldn’t see what had happened and couldn’t get round the chair to release him. At the moment when it looked as though the Queen was about to step in, two of her equerry’s vaulted Stephen’s wheelchair and resolved the situation. Despite the unusual setting, the event illustrated the reality of Jane and Stephen’s day-to-day life. ‘It’s been a very interesting life,’ she ends.

Jersey Festival of Words, Day Two

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The second day of the festival is a non-fiction day for me. The two women whose events I attend are Rachel Bridge, author of How to Make a Million Before Lunch and Irma Kurtz, who I’m sure many of you will recognise as Cosmopolitan’s agony aunt of 40 years. Her event is one of the best I’ve ever attended.

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The Opera House is buzzing when I arrive for Bridge’s event. There’s a wide range of people from school children in uniform accompanied by their teachers to post-work suited and booted/high heeled business types to over-60s in casual wear.

Bridge comes on to the Pet Shop Boys’ Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), her gold dress sparkling in the spotlights. She’s very enthusiastic herself as she tells us that entrepreneurs are the most inspiring, enthusiastic, optimistic people in the world. She then proceeds to give us the rules that will take us to a luxury yachts with a cocktail in one hand and a big cheque in the other (surely a bank transfer entry on our banking app these days?).

#1 – be madly passionate about what you want to do
#2 – do not invent anything
#3 – keep it simple. Don’t be the first in.

Between these, Bridge gives examples of successes and failures from entrepreneurs. By this point, I’m getting irritated because, besides a quick mention of the dragons from Dragons Den, they’re all men. Are there no female entrepreneurs?

She also gives us some tips between the rules such as ‘A lot of ideas are had in the pub. Write it down!’ ‘You’ve got to make a profit otherwise it’s not a business, it’s a hobby.’

#4 Don’t even think about opening a shop. You’ll be stuck inside while people are buying things on the internet. Sell on the internet or through other people’s shops. Shops are expensive, inflexible and restrictive.
#5 Don’t borrow lots of money to start up your business, it will weigh you down.
#6 Find out if there is a demand for your idea. This is the bit everyone forgets, Bridge says. If you’re stuck for ideas, think about what drives you mad.
#7 You have to be very focused and single-minded.

Bridge takes a tangent here to plug her forthcoming book Ambition. She tells us that successful people fit more into their day and gives us the examples of David Wolstencroft, creator of Spooks, and Bill Muirhead, advertising executive and Agent General for South Australia in London. Bridge met Wolstencroft at the baggage reclaim in LA after a flight from London. During the flight he’d edited a script and written two chapters of a book. He says if he has 15 minutes, he uses it, even if it takes five of those to fire his laptop up. Muirhead tells everyone he meets with that he only has 10 minutes for their meeting before he has to leave for something else, so all his meetings happen in 10 minutes. This sounds like the dream to me.

Bridge’s top three tips learnt from ambitious, successful people are:

  • carry a to-do list everywhere but only do three things at a time;
  • stop multitasking;
  • just say no – be selective about the events you go to and make the most of the ones you do attend

Then it’s back to the entrepreneur rules.
#8 You don’t need to be alone. Every successful entrepreneur has a team.
#9 Just do it! Don’t wait for everything to be perfect, there are always reasons not to start. The hardest thing about starting a business is actually starting it.

Bridge ends by telling us about her favourite entrepreneur, who is a woman (she has mentioned a few more by this point). Judy Craymer decided she wanted to write a musical. She spent 10 years working on this and came up with Mamma Mia. She didn’t write the music, she didn’t write the words, she didn’t invest any money in it. She made £90 million.

Bridge leaves the stage to Abba’s Money Money Money. On the way out a woman asks me what I thought. ‘I’m inspired,’ she says. ‘I’ve got an idea and I’m buzzing.’ I’m wondering about Judy Cramer and how I can make a fortune without much hard work at all. I think I might have missed the point…

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It’s a very different audience for Irma Kurtz. Mostly women aged between thirty and sixty, those of us for whom Kurtz was our agony aunt. She’s interviewed by Jersey broadcaster, Murray Norton.

He begins by asking her about the term ‘agony aunt’ and whether she minded it. ‘I insisted on it’ and that the column be called ‘The Agony Column’. Kurtz points out that she’s not a counsellor or a therapist, her degree’s in English Literature. ‘I’m a writer.’ She likes to travel alone, listening to strangers. She’s curious and that makes her a writer, she says.

She began at 14, advising a 16/17-year-old about her boyfriend. She says the key to her success is that she’s avoided telling people what to do. Should means ‘Because I say so’. She’s empathised and suggested what people could do. They then find the solution within themselves. ‘The real tool is common sense.’ ‘And wisdom?’ says Norton. You’re born with common sense, she says, wisdom takes time, observation and experience.

Being lonely because she’s an ex-pat and away from her roots has been key to who she is too. She’s from Jersey City, New Jersey which sparks some impressions of native New Jersey accents which continue throughout the event and a discussion about the differences between the island we’re currently in and the state in America and how one came from the other.

She mentions some of the anti-Semitism she experienced in her youth. In particular a group of boys who used to throw snowballs at her with rocks in the middle. The shouted, ‘You killed Christ’ at her. This confused her, ‘I thought Christ was a good Jewish boy.’

Norton names a number of prominent agony aunts including Claire Raynor. Before he’s reached the end of the list, Kurtz is adding names to it because she knows the connection – they’re all Jewish. Why does she think that is? It’s ‘the kitchen court’. While the men were philosophising, the women were in the kitchen arranging marriages. And common sense is portable.

They talk about Agony Uncles and why they didn’t work. Kurtz puts this down to them wanting to be therapists or counsellors. They needed an overarching theory to work under whilst women examine the everyday. ‘Gossip is a good thing when it’s used in a good way.’ Also, she says to much laughter from the audience, ‘The women were often in agony and the men were often causing it’.

She follows this up by saying she’s been in trouble for saying men and women are different but over the 40 years she’s been an agony aunt, the essential issues haven’t changed: lack of self-esteem and the immense difference bearing children makes to your life.

She talks about the recent Daily Mail article, ‘Irma Kurtz says rape is the victim’s fault’. She’s emphatic when she says, ‘Not in a million years’. She says it was painful to be accused of that and she couldn’t fight back. She does clarify that she said ‘don’t get so drunk’ and it’s a shame Norton doesn’t follow-up on this as it’s clearly a problematic piece of advice in this context.

In 1971, she decided she had to have a child. As her partner was an artist, she took the job at Cosmopolitan for a year, thinking it would tide them over. Later she says she never took a rise, making sure she did other things. She never questioned how equipped she was though, ‘I felt sisterly, I felt companionship. Sometimes annoyed, sometimes spooked.’ She’s ended the job this year because answering emails isn’t as attractive to her as answering letters even though, ‘The postman hated me’. She was receiving 500-1000 letters a month.

Whenever Cosmopolitan started up in a new territory, she would do the first few months of the advice column until they employed someone local. This means she’s recognised some differences in the types of advice asked for around the world. In Japan it was ‘endless in-law problems. Mother-in-law problems’. South Africa she found difficult. Usually she would travel to the country but it was during apartheid and her union wouldn’t let her travel which meant she didn’t know the local organisations, ‘What was open to the white women wasn’t open to their black sisters’. American women are angry, while the English are self-accusing. She attributes this to the American constitution and war. The constitution includes entitlement to the pursuit of happiness and she thinks many mistake this for an entitlement to happiness and it leads to anger when they don’t get it. The English have seen war in their own land and she thinks this is what affected their mindset. Although, she says, we’re much more homogenised now so the contrast has shrunk.

The big issues haven’t changed though: love, sex, sexual jealousy, family, friendship. However, the questions around sex have changed from worrying about being pregnant to not wanting to have children ever. Kurtz says she was glad when the sexperts arrived in the 1980s and she could hand these questions over! She says during the rise of feminism in the 1970s, she received many letters from women saying they didn’t like the ‘woman on top’ position and thought this was a betrayal of feminism. Others weren’t enjoying sex and some were falling in love with other women’s husbands. This was the only time she told them rather than advised. She said they’re ‘collaborators rather than a lover’ and they needed to know that.

Norton asks about the men in her life. ‘Let’s not, we haven’t time.’ She talks about moving to New York City, to Manhattan, as soon as she could. Going to Greenwich Village and listening to the poets (apart from Dylan Thomas who used to sit in the corner drinking but never reading his work). Despite her parents’ disapproval, she raised money waitressing to go and live in Paris but struggled there. After someone bought her a ticket to see a production of King Lear she decided ‘to go where the language comes from’ and moved to London as a way of avoiding returning home to ‘I told you so’. This was 1968 and when a well-off friend moved out of her flat, Kurtz paid £8 a week to live on Kings Road.

She returns to the letters. She’s had death threats from America when she included abortion as an option for a pregnant 15-year-old. She can spot a fake letter – she says it’s harder with emails. The fake letters were often from men and began with what they were wearing! She’s only had one letter that shocked her. It was from a woman who’d had an argument with her boyfriend and then gone out for a drive. During the drive, she picked up a hitchhiker, took the gun from her glove compartment, shot him and pushed him from the car. There’s a collective gasp from the audience. Kurtz says the postmark was from a state where there was capital punishment, so she couldn’t answer the letter in print, no editor would take it. She wasn’t supposed to answer letters that weren’t printed but of course, she did.

Kurtz ends by telling us more about her ‘complicated, exciting’ life. Throughout her career, she’s also written articles on a variety of things including the Klu Klx Klan and the Vietnam War. When she interviewed the Grand Dragon of the Klan, he heard her name as Curtis, which she wasn’t about to correct. He took her to the Klavern where the woman who opened the door said, ‘I can tell a Jew by the look on their face’. Kurtz said, ‘It was an interesting experience. I smiled. There was a look on my face’.

As for the war, ‘I’d never really seen a warzone and I wanted to see a warzone’. She compares this to Londoners visiting Bedlam. ‘I’ve always been a bit ashamed of myself for wanting to see a warzone and glad I did.’

She tells us that Tennessee Williams saved her life: she was due to interview him, he changed the interview, the plane crashed. And finally that her son complained when the boys at school discovered she was an agony aunt, ‘I was living in Soho at the time, it could’ve been much worse’.

She’s currently working on some fiction but then she’ll write a memoir. With a life as fascinating as this one, I can’t wait to read it.

Jersey Festival of Words, Day One

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I arrive in Jersey to glorious sunshine. It might be the first of October but the island clearly hasn’t had the memo about Autumn yet. I’m here for the Festival of Words, Jersey’s new literature festival. It’s an added bonus that I also get to discover a place I’ve never been to before.

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The headline events are taking place in Jersey Opera House which, as you might expect, is a beautiful Edwardian theatre in St. Heller. Over the four days of the festival it will play host to a range of writers including Holly Smale, Irma Kurtz and Jane Hawking. But today I’m here to see Isabel Ashdown along with her agent Kate Shaw and, later on, Carol Ann Duffy.

Isabel Ashdown’s here to discuss her latest novel Flight and her career as a writer. Her agent Kate Shaw’s here to talk about the business side of things.

Ashdown begins by reading a short passage from Flight – she will read three in total throughout the event. Flight is about a woman, Wren, who wins the lottery then leaves her young family and disappears. A subject Ashdown describes as a modern taboo for women.

All of Ashdown’s books revolve around the themes of families and relationships, she says. Shaw’s asked what’s hot in the publishing industry and whether she can predict this. No, she says, but insiders can give the impression they can due to the period between a publisher buying a book and the publication date. Genres are a construct of the publishing industry but sometimes a book comes along that spawns a genre. She refers to Holly Smale, another of her clients, whose Geek Girl books led to the creation of the ‘clean teen’ genre.

Ashdown talks about her journey as a writer. She used to work for The Body Shop head office but after having children enrolled on an English Literature and Creative Writing degree. She quietly wrote short stories and poetry, eventually being persuaded to submit them to competitions and magazines. She was met with a deafening silence she describes as worse than rejection! But then she won a Mail on Sunday competition with an extract from Glasshopper which then became her first published novel.

Shaw tells us she receives around 1000 submissions a year – she likes physical submissions because the pile makes her feel guilty – and takes on approximately 12 writers a year. She says she wants to see submissions from writers taking themselves seriously, something she emphasises throughout the event. She cites entering and being placed in competitions and doing creative writing courses. There’s quite a discussion about how useful creative writing courses can be. Shaw says only three of her writers have a creative writing MA so they’re far from essential but both her and Ashdown (who has taught on an MA course) emphasise the community/workshopping element of these courses in helping to hone talent.

The actual writing is largely a solitary pursuit though and this is explored more when Ashdown discusses how important place is to her work. She has a camper van which she drives to the locations she’s set her novels in – Treyarnon Bay in Cornwall for Flight and the Isle of Wight for Summer of ’76 – walks, absorbs and writes. She grew up in a coastal town and it’s something she keeps returning to in her work.

She also talks about planning, which she describes as ‘the death of creativity for me. I write into the darkness for about the first third of the book.’ Her routine is to read the last 1000 words she wrote, write the next 1000 and then write a single sentence summary of what the following day’s passage will be.

The conversation moves on to the role of the agent and self-publishing. Ashdown says Shaw gives her security, she can throw ideas at her and get valuable advice in return. She didn’t consider self-publishing because the Mail on Sunday win meant she didn’t need to but Shaw says the stigma that used to exist around self-publishing is changing due to the high profile novels that have gone on to be traditionally published. She says she understands why someone would self-publish – how can a small number of agents in London understand everything people across the country want to read, never mind across the world? But she does add a warning about the low earnings of many self-published authors and that there are a disproportionate number of prizes for debut writers and self-published authors aren’t eligible for the majority of these.

Ashdown finishes with some tips for writers: enter competitions; read to yourself aloud; use a page in the back of your notebook to list your bad writer habits; ‘read and read and read and read’; don’t make excuses, find the time and write. Shaw finishes with ‘Don’t give up the day job!’ but it is possible to make your living from writing.

It’s dark when I return to the Opera House to see the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, perform poems from across her career. She’s accompanied by John Sampson who’s brought a range of instruments – crumhorn, descant and treble recorders, goats horn, cornetto – most of which are used for musical interludes but occasionally he plays as she reads.

Before Duffy does read a selection from The World’s Wife, she says how delighted she is to be at the festival, supporting a new literary initiative: ‘It makes us all human and that’s what’s needed in these times’.

Personally I’m delighted that she begins by reading ‘Mrs Midas’. (I’ve loved it since being presented with it in my A level English Literature exam as the unseen poem and credit it with my result!) Duffy’s reading is sharp and playful. She pauses to allow the audience to react to particular lines, emphasising what a fool Midas is. It’s a demeanour she maintains as she moves on to ‘Mrs Tiresias’, showing us through her facial expressions exactly what she thinks of him being turned into a woman as punishment and turning herself to look at Sampson when she mentions Tiresias getting his first period:

One week in bed.
Two doctors in.
Three painkillers four times a day.

 And later
a letter
to the powers that be
demanding full-paid menstrual leave twelve weeks per year.

She ends this first section by reading ‘Mrs Faust’. It’s clear she’s in a wicked, provocative mood when, eyes sparkling, she tells us that Faust sold his soul to the devil for unbelievable powers, ‘like Jeremy Corbyn’.

Before she reads a group of poems from Rapture, her collection of love poems, she talks about how she aimed to use the sonnet form to capture moods, describing the form as ‘the little black dress of poetry’.

The tone changes again after this, back to the political. Early in my secondary school teaching career, one of Duffy’s poems ‘Education for Leisure’ was banned by the exam board AQA after an invigilator wrote to her MP accusing Duffy of glorifying knife crime. Clearly it still rankles. ‘30 years ago, when Meryl Streep was prime minister’, Duffy says, she wrote a poem that she thought was pro-education. ‘My poem was arrested, taken into a dark room, pulped and shredded.’ She doesn’t read that poem, instead she reads the poem she wrote to the invigilator. ‘I wanted to immortalise the invigilator. That’s not actually the correct verb,’ she says. The rest of this section is characterised by poems written as responses to national events – from the Post Office asking letter writers to no longer include the county on addresses to the Hillsborough Disaster.

The event ends with Duffy reading from The Bees, bookending the section with poems about the death of her mother. It’s interesting to hear how she responds to the personal and the political. The word play is always evident as is the passion she has for her subjects. It’s clear the audience appreciate her style and her range of subjects as she returns to the stage, with Sampson, for a second bow as the applause continues. A wonderful start to the four-day festival.

You can find out more about the festival by clicking on the banner at the top of this post.

Buy Books for Syria with Waterstones

 

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You might have seen that Waterstones have teamed up with a number of publishing houses and big name authors to create a campaign to raise money for Oxfam’s Syria Crisis Appeal. ALL of the money from the sale of each of the books in the campaign will go towards the appeal.

Waterstones asked whether I’d champion one of the books, which I’m delighted to do. I’ve chosen Jojo Moyes’ The One Plus One. Moyes is one of my favourite writers and I think The One Plus One is her best book (Disclaimer: I haven’t read her latest yet.) Here’s what I wrote about it on publication:

‘…families are different shapes now, right? It doesn’t have to be two point four anymore.’

Jessica Thomas is a cleaner and a barmaid. She’s good at practical things – grouting, picture-hanging – and budgeting, because she has to be. She’s got two kids, Tanzie who’s gifted at maths and Nicky, her eyeliner-wearing, sullen, continually being beaten by nasty intolerant kids stepson. Marty, their father upped and left over a year ago, telling Jess he needed time to sort himself out. This is the thing that upsets Jess the most:

There were lots of awful things about the father of your children leaving: the money issues, the suppressed anger on behalf of your children, the way most of your coupled-up friends now treated you as if you were some kind of potential husband-stealer. But worse than that, worse than the endless, relentless, bloody exhausting financial and energy sapping struggle, was that being a parent on your own when you were totally out of your depth was actually the loneliest place on earth.

At the beginning of the novel, Jess receives a phone call about Tanzie; the local private school has tested her and wants to interview her for a subsidised place. Tanzie’s successful and desperate to attend the school, where students can walk around reading without getting beaten up, but Jess needs to find two thousand pounds to pay for the first year. Marty refuses to help. In what could have been an oh-so-predictable plot twist, Tanzie’s maths teacher telephones Jess to tell her about a Maths Olympiad that Tanzie is eligible for. The prizes are £500, £1000 and £5000. However, it’s in Scotland. Despite the resources it will take them to get to there, Jess starts putting a plan together.

But The One Plus One isn’t just Jess’ story. It’s also Ed Nicholls’. Ed’s story begins with him being suspended from his own company, by his partner Ronan, while the Financial Services Authority search his office. After his actress wife, Lara, left him, Ed had hooked up with Deanna Lewis, a woman both Ed and Ronan had fancied at college. However, she turned out to be exactly not what Ed needed six months after his wife left him and in a bid to get rid of her – she’d love to travel but can’t afford it – he tells her to buy some shares in his company as they’ve got something new about to be released. Deanna tells her brother, they make some money and Ed gets himself arrested. There is one thing Ed doesn’t need to worry about though:

He told [Deanna] of the day they’d gone public, when he had sat on the edge of his bath watching the share price go up and up…
‘You’re that wealthy?’
‘I do okay.’
‘Define okay.’
He was aware that he was this close to sounding like a dick. ‘Well…I was doing better until I got divorced, obviously…I do okay. You know, I’m not really interested in the money.’

Spoken just like someone who doesn’t need to think about it.

It’s not difficult to work out that somehow Moyes is going to bring Jess and Ed together – they’re exactly what each other needs, right? In the hands of a less experienced writer, this could have been forced and difficult to believe but Moyes allows the story to unravel in its own time. It’s helped by Jess’ absolute determination that she will look after her kids and do everything she can to get Tanzie to Scotland and Ed’s sister, Gemma, who seems to be almost constantly berating him for being a useless brother and son. Despite everything, Ed doesn’t want people to think he’s an arsehole, cue a road trip from Southampton to Scotland featuring Ed, Jess, Nicky, Tanzie and Norman, their enormous, slobbering dog.

The One Plus One is a mature piece of work. It looks at the current state of the UK – the poor get poorer with little hope of escape while the rich get richer without curtailment – and wonders what if? What if someone from either side of the fence was allowed to look at each other’s life, what would they see? What would they think? How would they behave? And what’s really great about Moyes’ characterisation is Jess and Ed aren’t stereotypes; she allows neither of them to be entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ nor does she judge either of them for their choices.

I thoroughly enjoyed The One Plus One and I think it’s Moyes’ best book yet.

If you’d like to support the campaign and fancy a read of The One Plus One (or know someone who might), click on the picture below to buy it. I’m told you must use this link as only certain editions are eligible.

TheOnePlusOneCardIf you want to look at all the books in the campaign then click on the picture at the top of the post to take to you to the page for all titles. Now you’ve got a legitimate excuse for topping up the TBR pile!

WIN A Signed Copy Of Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Giveaway now closed.

I know lots of you love Margaret Atwood’s work so I’ve teamed up with Virago Books, publisher of books by women and a perfect match for this blog, to bring you a Margaret Atwood competition. There are nine competitions running on nine blogs across this week and next and each have a prize bundle which includes a signed copy of Margaret Atwood’s short story collection Stone Mattress, published in paperback last week, and something related to one of the stories from the collection.

I chose ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ which means my prize bundle includes a nail varnish set. Why? Because it’s a story about a story about a sentient hand (no, that isn’t a typo); nail varnish is brilliant, and, having spent many a half hour painting my male friends’ fingernails in my parents’ kitchen, I don’t consider it a gendered prize.

To whet your appetite, here’s the opening:

The Dead Hand Loves You started as a joke. Or more like a dare. He should have been more careful about it, but the fact was he’d been blowing a fair amount of dope around that time and drinking too much inferior-grade booze, so he hadn’t been fully responsible. He shouldn’t be held responsible. He shouldn’t be held to the terms of the fucking contract. That’s what had shackled his ankles: the contract.

And he can never get rid of that contract, because there wasn’t any drop-dead date on it. He should have included a good-only-until clause, like milk cartons, like tubs of yoghurt, like mayonnaise jars; but what did he know about contracts back then? He’d been twenty-two.

He’d needed the money.

If you want to be in with a chance to win, all you need to do is leave a comment below before 4pm UK time on Friday 2nd October. A winner will be chosen via random number generator soon after the closing time and the winner notified by email. UK only, this time, I’m afraid. Good luck!

Stone Mattress avatar - large - NAOMI

And if you fancy a personalised Stone Mattress ebadge, like mine above, then head over to the Virago site where they’re giving them away.

I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry so, for example, Cleo is #1, Jaime Walker #15, Georgina #28 and lindarumsey #46. And the random number generator says…

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Congratulations, Rhoda K! Check your email for information as to what to do next.

Thanks to all of you for entering. There are eight more opportunities to win across eight more blogs. Information on the Virago website as to the blogs and the additional prizes.

Thanks to Virago for the prize.

Mãn – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman)

From my #TBR20 pile, read during #WITmonth and posted today for #TranslationThursday and #diverseauthorday. Such a fantastic book to celebrate all these things with.

Mãn is raised by her third mother after the first dies and the second retreats from the world. Maman takes her to a big city and passes on the things her mother has taught her.

When mothers taught their daughters how to cook, they spoke in hushed tones, whispering so that neighbours couldn’t steal recipes and possibly seduce their husbands with the same dishes. Culinary traditions are passed on secretly, like magic tricks between master and apprentice, one movement at a time, following the rhythms of each day. In the natural order, then, girls learned to measure the amount of water for cooking rice with the first joint of the index finger, to cut “vicious peppers” with the point of the knife to transform them into harmless flowers, to peel mangoes from base to stem so they won’t go against the direction of the fibres…

Maman finds Mãn a husband. Originally from Saigon, he’d lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before going to Montreal. After three dates in four days, he has to return to Canada but – in a very blunt, almost entirely one-sided conversation – says he will send the paperwork and they will have children.

Before the point when Mãn joins him, Thúy takes us back to Maman’s experience in the Vietnamese Revolution. Thúy conveys the turning upside down of Maman’s life in six short powerful pages which conclude with the last time Maman saw her father.

Mãn tells us she doesn’t know who her father is but the gossips suspect he’s white as she has pale skin and a ‘delicate nose’. She tells us her name means

“perfectly fulfilled” or “may there be nothing left to desire” or “may all wishes be granted” I can ask for nothing more because my name imposes on me that state of satisfaction and satiety.

When she arrives in Montreal, Mãn finds a space between her new home and her old one in the timelessness that seems to exist in her husband’s restaurant kitchen. As the restaurant becomes more and more successful and the business grows, Mãn travels to Paris where the cookbook she’s co-written has also been a success. There she meets another restaurant owner and her name no longer suits her:

The mistake followed from that second-too-long when my fingerprints had time to become imbued with his. Could I have done otherwise? I had the hand of a child and his was a man’s, with a pianist’s fingers, long and enveloping, whose grip commands and reassures. If my jaw had not been locked and my arms linked, I might have quoted these lines by Rumi that had suddenly appeared in my head:

A fine hanging apple
in love with your stone,
the perfect throw that clips my stem.

Mãn feels like a quiet book. It’s unassuming and very measured but oh so powerful. The language Thúy – and, of course, Fischman – chooses is both beautiful and surgical. Indeed the climax of the novel hangs on the power of language and communication and choosing the right word in the right situation.

Thúy separates the story into vignettes, some as short as a paragraph, others no longer than three pages. That these are so effective demonstrates the power of her writing but there’s also a danger in being able to read them so quickly and miss savouring the language. (Although you could always do what I did and go back and read it again.)

Through the use of first person narration and the amount of time Thúy uses to build up to the affair, we’re drawn to sympathise with Mãn. This is interesting: a woman with two children whose husband appears to be reasonable, if maybe lacking passion, embarking on an affair across two continents. And yet, I found myself rooting for her despite seeing what the consequences might be. It’s a beautifully written and emotionally engaging novel. Highly recommended.

UKYA Extravaganza: Sheena Wilkinson

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I’m absolutely thrilled to be part of the blog tour leading up to the second UKYA conference on the 10th October in Nottingham. The first one looked such good fun and the second one promises to be too.

I’m also particularly pleased that I get to welcome the Irish writer Sheena Wilkinson to the blog. Sheena has written five novels for young adults and won an array of awards, including two CBI awards for her debut Taking Flight and another two for the follow-up Grounded making her the only author to have won the Children’s Choice award twice. She has two novels out this year, Still Falling and Name After Name.

Name After Name is set in Belfast in 1916. We see events through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Helen who watches her family tear itself apart over ideas around Home Rule and fighting for the British in the war. Helen’s father’s side of the family are Protestant and her mother’s side are Catholic.

She didn’t know – or care – much about Home Rule, and being Irish or British. She just knew she hated people talking about it. She had always quite liked having the excuse that she could see both sides because of Mama and Papa being from different religions. But maybe that was just laziness? Maybe she ought to be able to make up her mind?

 With one cousin from her dad’s side, Sandy, already on the front line and another from her mum’s side, Michael, keen to join up, Helen gets to hear more about WW1 and the disagreements within her own family. And then the Easter Rising happens and Michael’s in the thick of it.

Still Falling tells the story of sixth formers Esther and Luke. On the first day of term, Luke has an epileptic fit in their tutor room. Esther’s the only one who knows what to do.

‘Shut up. Give him space,’ I order. My voice comes out clear and strong like I expect everyone to obey and they do, even Baxter. Even Jasmine and Cassie, huddled together, their eyes nearly popping out of their mascaraed sockets. I pull the chair well away from Luke and shove my cardigan under his head to cushion it. Blood blurs his cheek, from the desk I suppose. I yank at the tight knot of his tie, open his collar. His head flails, froth blooming from his mouth, his arms and legs spasming in a mad jerking dance.

Slowly a relationship develops between the two of them, much to the surprise and dismay of the popular girls in the form and Esther’s dad. Esther’s dad is a teacher and the head of pastoral care at the school which means he’s aware of Luke’s background. Luke’s in foster care. His mum’s dead, his previous foster carer’s nowhere to be seen and he’s come from a rough school. He can’t be good for Esther, can he? When he’s accused of a sexual assault at a party, it seems as though Esther’s dad might be right.

I enjoyed both of these books. Wilkinson excels at conjuring characters’ voices, making them and their stories engaging to read. Her plots have a pace and timing which keep you turning the pages desperate to know what happens next. I have to confess to a soft spot for Still Falling though. The good girl/boy from the wrong side of town story gets me every time (see Robert Swindell’s Daz 4 Zoe which I used to love teaching) but this was heightened by Luke’s epilepsy which was utterly believable and brought a different dimension to the story.

I asked Sheena a few questions about the books and writing for young adults in general.

What made you want to write books for a predominantly teenage audience?

It was less a conscious decision than the way it worked out. The stories and characters that came into my mind tended to be young adults. It’s a great age group to write about because everything you feel then is so fervent. And to be honest I remember my own adolescence very clearly indeed, though I don’t think I was very like any of the characters I’ve written about. I hope to keep writing for this age group, but I’d like to see the UK market get behind a greater range of books, subjects and authors. It can be frustrating to go into bookshops and see mainly US YA, when there’s such a wealth of talent in the UK.

Name After Name and Still Falling are powerful books, how do you decide which themes and issues to write about?

I’m glad you found them powerful! I don’t decide on ‘an issue’ as such: for me it always begins with a character and I suppose some kind of difficult situation. In Still Falling, for example, I wanted to write about someone being accused of a sexual attack, and I wanted the reader – and the character himself – to have doubts about whether or not he’s guilty. From that, it was mostly a matter of working backwards to see what led up to the accusation, and that’s how I got to know the character of Luke.

Similarly, with Esther, I didn’t decide I wanted to write about body image and self-esteem, but when I started thinking about the kind of girl Luke might get involved with, I realised that these were some of the anxieties which affected her. I realise I have written about suicide in both Grounded and Still Falling, and that was a conscious thing. Not in the sense of it being an issue, but in the sense that the stories involve people being driven to the absolute edge of their tolerance.

What sort of research do you do?

Heaps! For Still Falling, I did a huge amount of research into epilepsy – I was very conscious that I’d set myself the task of describing a seizure and its aftermath from the inside, as well as what it might feel like to live with that condition, without having personal experience. Obviously I used books, websites, etc., but there comes a time when you have to stop researching and write. I’ve been pleased with the response to the portrayal of epilepsy, including from readers with the condition.

Name Upon Name was different because of being historical – it’s set in 1916; but it’s the same principle. It matters hugely to me to get the details right, but that’s only the start of it. Getting the tone right is much harder, and just as important. Luckily I’m pretty steeped in that period, as I’ve written a lot about it over the years.

Is there anything you think is off-limits for Young Adult novels?

Not really, as long as it’s done with a sense of responsibility. I mean, I’ve written about alcoholism, drugs, pregnancy, suicide and sexual abuse; but I’ve always approached those issues, if you want to call them that, very thoughtfully. For example, there’s a completed suicide in Grounded, and I spent a day with a suicide charity to help me deal with it thoughtfully. And it’s important for difficult issues to be dealt with in the relatively safe space of a book. I mean, researching suicide for Grounded, I came across some horrific stuff online. Readers are going to come across that too, quite apart from what they actually deal with in real life. I was sexually assaulted on a bus when I was fifteen, and even though I was a confident young feminist in some ways, I internalised guilt and self-blame about it for years. I’d have welcomed reading about that kind of situation in a YA novel.

There’s been some debate in the media recently as to whether adults should be embarrassed about reading YA literature, where do you stand on this?

It annoys me that some sections of the media seem to think it’s second-rate. There are many wonderfully-written YA novels, and plenty of badly-written ‘adult’ ones. (And vice versa!) I don’t like the assumption that because something is for younger readers it might be in some way inferior – but that’s nothing new. Girls’ fiction, in particular has a long history of being disparaged. This is what my PhD was about!

My blog focuses on female writers; which female Young Adult writers did you grow up reading?

There wasn’t a huge amount of YA when I was growing up, compared to now when there are so many great writers that I couldn’t begin to start naming them. I read a lot of school stories, well into my teens, and loved the way they foregrounded female experience and especially female friendship. In contrast, some of the YA around in the 80s was very focused on just finding a boyfriend, or issue-driven at the expense of the writing. But one writer I loved, and still love, and always go back to, is K. M. Peyton. She’s had an amazing career, writing for all age groups. Linda Newbery is another writer who was just starting to write when I was in my late teens – like K.M. Peyton, her books are beautifully written and very varied with the same kind of timeless quality that Peyton has. And hooray, she’s still writing wonderful books

A huge thank you to Sheena Wilkinson for the interview. If you want to find out more about her and her books (and I really hope you do), she has a Facebook page and is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can see everyone else involved in the UKYA Extravaganza below, along with details about the event and which writers and blogs are taking part in the blog tour so you can read all of the posts.

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Thanks to Little Island for the review copies of the novels.

Chinaski – Frances Vick

Carl Howell died at a quarter to two on a sunny afternoon three days before the plumber broke down the door. He wore jeans and a t-shirt with future tour dates printed on the back. He had one Converse trainer on and the other was lying at the foot of the bed.

Carl Howell is the lead singer of Chinaski, a band with a loyal following on the verge of being huge. There’s no suicide note or clear reason for his death. At the beginning of the novel news of his death is conveyed to a number of people – his band mate, Peter; the journalist who was instrumental in their success, Chris Harris, and his ex-girlfriend, Lydia. It’s Lydia we follow first as she deals with news of Carl’s death and we begin to discover who Carl was.

Five years since they met; three since they broke up; eighteen months since they slept together; a year since that terrible time she saw him with the girl; the same since they last spoke. But times, dates, meant nothing, it was all arbitrary, because they were connected in a way that no-one could possibly understand…Was it something she relied on? Oh Christ, more than anything! Years ago she had shifted all her ideas about her future, her sense of identity, onto Project Carl. It became her role to overcome his past, whip up his confidence, promote his ambitions, shape his future.

Lydia tells of the German tour where Chris Harris arrived and forced her out. Of Carl ’phoning her every day and then the calls stopping abruptly. Of getting to know Carl’s family and coaxing this young, shy man out of his shell.

But when the viewpoint switches to Peter, Carl’s school friend and band mate, we get a different picture of Carl. Now he’s a young man with a troubled past, a violent father and an interesting array of older friends who tires of Lydia fairly quickly.

And then there’s the journalist, Chris Harris. He appears to care for the band but really only cares about his own career. It’s his four-page spread headlined ‘Chinaski Syndrome’ that propels them to a major label contract:

Live pictures of Carl, his backlit hair fanning out like a halo, hands from the crowd grabbing and plucking at him; strobed shots of stagedivers; a few phrases in bold print, ‘…golden fissures of pure sound…a landmark in brutal beauty…rapturous meltdown of rock…squeezing your heart like a loved up boa constrictor…’

 Vick examines the myths that surround bands. She looks particularly at those tortured young men that front ‘indie’ bands and are worshipped and revered by male and female fans alike. She considers what anyone can ever know about another person, the role the media play in the success of a band and what a band might owe their fans. Although Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are mentioned as a band on the circuit at the same time as Chinaski, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between the two bands and lead singers.

The novel’s bookended by scenes at Carl’s grandmother flat. He’s lived with her on-and-off during his teenage years and it’s where his body’s found. Unfortunately, these are the weakest scenes in the book. The first is a confusion of temporal markers which takes several readings to make sense of and the final one is unnecessary; I don’t think anything is added to the story by us knowing how Carl died.

However, what’s most interesting about Chinaski is the way to explores how a lead singer is created; the mythology which surrounds them and pervades their relationships with others. If you’re a music fan, particularly if you’re old enough to have queued outside a record shop to buy an album on the day of release or spent hours on the ‘phone repeatedly redialling to buy tickets for a gig, then this is an interesting and enjoyable read.

 

Thanks to Cillian Press for the review copy.

 

Shame – Melanie Finn

It’s strange – isn’t it – how I can take all the bits of the story and fit them one way, or another. I can make Martin appear and disappear. I can make him a mercenary in need of a holiday or a rapist or a man with a broken car. I can conjure a woman in a yellow shirt and the pale-skinned man who loved her.

I remember what Strebel said about narrative. But what he didn’t make clear was how malleable the narrative might be, how slippery the stories.

Shame begins with Pilgrim and her human rights lawyer husband, Tom, living in Geneva and spending weekends in Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin. On one of these weekends they meet Elise, the woman Tom will leave her for.

The novel quickly cuts to Magulu in Tanzania the following April. Pilgrim has added herself to a safari trip with Bob and Melinda, two Americans in their sixties. Melinda has been vomiting for two hours so the whole party is on their way to the local clinic. There’s nothing in Magulu but Pilgrim decides to stay. She can’t return to Arnau in Switzerland because there she is known as ‘Kindermörderin’: child killer.

In the first half of the novel, two stories begin to unravel: one is the story of how Pilgrim came to be called Kindermörderin and how the police investigation was carried out; the other is her time in East Africa, where she meets a cast of characters and is introduced to many of the local beliefs.

In Magulu, she meets Doctor Dorothea, a ‘small, odd woman’ with a range of outfits and wigs, who runs the local clinic.

I cannot treat people so of course they do not come to me and they continue to go to their mgangaand so nothing changes. We are still living in a primitive time and they believe if they take tea from this root or that tree bark it will cure venereal disease, will cure glaucoma, will make it possible to have a baby even though the woman’s uterus is full of infections. Her ovaries are scarred. No eggs can come out.

There’s also PC James Kessy, struggling to deal with the corruption in the local police force and Martin Martins, an East European, stuck in Magulu whilst he tries to get the fuel pump on his Land Cruiser fixed.

Not long after Pilgrim arrives in Magulu, a box is left. Some children find it in the roundabout and give it to Kessy who takes it to Doctor Dorothea. Dorothea opens it in front of Pilgrim. Inside are a kidney, a forearm, a hand, a heart, a liver and two ears, all belonging to an albino person. Kessy and Dorothea tell Pilgrim that this is a curse on someone; Pilgrim takes the box when neither of the others will. Dorothea tells her, ‘The uchawi will direct you’. Soon the two stories come together with horrific consequences.

What happens at that point is an abrupt change of point-of-view. In terms of maintaining the tension of the narrative it is needed but it’s also jarring. Initially we follow the narrative of Detective Chief Inspector Paul Strebel, the man assigned to Pilgrim’s case in Switzerland and then, towards the end of the novel, the point-of-view switches a number of times showing the thoughts and stories of the characters Pilgrim has met.

What’s interesting about this is we see the way characters construct their narratives and how they are similar or different to Pilgrim’s version of them and the events that have taken place. However, it’s quite a risk for a writer as this type of shift can be alienating for a reader who thinks they’re reading one type of story and then discover it’s something quite different. Finn does this because, whilst shame appears to be about different types of shame, it is really about the nature of stories and how slippery they are. It’s about constructing a narrative to suit your purpose. Finn does this and she has her characters do it too. The extent to which you’ve been played as a reader only becomes clear in the final pages. I found myself going over them several times to try and work out what had happened and how we’d ended up where we were; it’s the sort of ending you’ll love or hate for probably the same reasons – you have to unravel it.

 

Thanks to W&N for the review copy.

The Summer of Secrets – Sarah Jasmon

At the end of the day, whatever their provenance, these are stories belonging to a summer which existed outside of the bounds of everyday reality. And its abrupt ending, its total, final and underlying cut-off, leaves them floating there, fairy tales from a world so enclosed I am no longer certain what was real and what I had created for myself.

The Summer of Secrets takes place in 1983 and in 2013. In the latter year, we’re introduced to Helen as she sees a poster for an art exhibition by a woman called Victoria Dover. Helen’s tried to find Victoria several times since 1983 but never succeeded. Now she’s back in Manchester and Helen returns to the memories of the summer they spent together.

Sixteen-year-old Helen lives near a section of the Manchester canal with her father. Her mother has recently left them and gone to live in Southport. Helen refused to go, remaining with her father who is struggling to cope both on a practical level and mentally. Helen is free to come and go as she pleases, her father rarely checking where she is or whom she’s with.

As she lies in the garden reading a book, Helen hears scuffling and whispering voices. Going to investigate, she finds a small girl in the middle of the hedge. She’s been dared to get to the other end of the hedge without Helen seeing her. She identifies herself as Pippa Dover, sister of a twin brother, Will. She also mentions another brother, Seth.

Helen, Pippa and Will play in the garden until a girl arrives to claim them:

It was a girl of about her own age, but so different that she could have been dropped from another planet. She had long hair, heaped and knotted at the back of her head, and she was wearing a tie-dyed sundress, pink going through purple into blue, brown leather sandals with toe-posts, and yellow nail varnish.

This is Victoria Dover.

The Dovers are living in one of the cottages near the canal. It’s noticeably run-down alongside the two other cottages that stand in the same row. The children have a mother, Alice, who lives with them but is fragile and rarely present. Their father, Jakob is absent, it is his brother Piet who pays the rent and comes to check on the family.

Helen is fascinated by them and their freedom. With a lifestyle so different to that imposed previously by her own mother, she’s drawn to the family and the cottage, spending more and more time there as the summer progresses. But almost everyone is keeping a secret and the combination of a hot summer, freedom from parental control and a newfound knowledge about the world will make for a very dangerous combination.

The Summer of Secrets captures those childhood summers which seemed to stretch endlessly as you hung around with friends finding various ways to entertain yourselves during the long days. Jasmon captures the atmosphere of these brilliantly, transporting the reader to warm days by the canal.

The lane had been surfaced at some distant point, but what remained was cracked and dusty, the space reclaimed by the thrusting growth of dandelions and grasses. Helen stopped, pinching a grass stem between finger and thumb and sliding up, so the seeds gathered in a neat bunch. April showers, she thought, as she tossed them away. The sky was cloudless and the air heavy, the heat a dense curtain she had to push her way through.

The sections of the novel set in 1983 are told in third person subjective from Helen’s point-of-view while the 2013 sections are told in first person. Jasmon deliberately separates the Helen of the more recent sections from the person she was at sixteen. The reason for this is revealed at the novel’s climax after long-kept secrets are revealed.

The Summer of Secrets is a gripping read. Although the 2013 sections are drip-fed throughout – and discovering what happened to Victoria is clearly key for Helen – the tension created in the 1983 chapters through Helen’s more conventional lifestyle and behaviour rubbing up against the more bohemian way of the Dovers was what kept me reading. Every encounter between Helen and Victoria or Seth or Piet or Alice felt as though it could end in disaster. If you prefer your summer reading to be smart and a little on the dark side without venturing into psychological thrillers, this could be the one for you.

 

Thanks to Transworld for the review copy.