I am pleased to announce that I am now part of the affiliate programme for Blackwell’s!
Blackwell’s are one of my favourite bookshops and the Oxford branch (just up the road from me) is an institution. The downstairs section, know as the Norrington Room, is the largest single room selling books in the world (!) and is also often the venue for their amazing in store events. They also organise events that are held around the city. Two of the best I have been to were ‘An Evening With’ type things with two of my favourite authors – Sarah Waters and Donna Tartt. Both events were held in the beautiful Divinity School, which is next to the Bodleian LIbrary, and is part of Oxford University.
I’ve added the Blacwell’s logo to the right hand side of the site (just scroll down a bit) so you can click through and browse some lovely books! I’ll also add a link to buy books at Blackwell’s at the end of reviews, along with Wordery and Foyles.
There’s a chance you’re aware that Maggie O’Farrell has a new novel out – I may have mentioned it. She is doing a series of events promoting the books, one of which was a talk at Blackwell’s in Oxford with Sarah Franklin. I hadn’t organised myself to get hold of a ticket, but then my amazing friend Sam ended up having a spare ticket and invited me along – what luck!
I’ve seen Maggie O’Farrell talk about her work before, but it was still great to hear her in conversation about her new book. Sarah Franklin was a great interviewer and their talk was fascinating – I wish it had been recorded so I could share it with you here. Luckily the event was live-tweeted on the Tinder Press feed, so you can get a taste of the conversation there. Maggie talked about her inspirations for the novel, and how a few ideas for it slowly grew over several years, and finally came together to form This Must Be The Place. She is a charming speaker and it was a great relaxed evening; I even summoned the courage to ask a question!
The event started with Maggie reading from the opening of the novel, which was lovely – I always appreciate hearing an author read their work as it was meant to sound. And the evening ended with an informal signing – I got another first edition hardback of Maggie O’Farrell’s signed, which was great, and got to tell her how much I loved the book and the evening. A success!
Sarah Waters’ new novel, The Paying Guests, came out last week on 28th August, and of course it was amazing. I was very lucky to be sent an early copy, and also that I managed to nab a ticket to the event held last night (2nd Sept) in Oxford. Sarah Waters was in conversation with Viv Groskop at The Divinity School in the Bodleian Library. I saw Donna Tartt there in October (how could I ever forget THAT?) and it is such a lovely venue. It is not only beautiful, but atmospheric and really cool, being the first teaching room ever built at the University of Oxford (in the 1400s!). It looks like this:
And the event itself was just as lovely. I made notes like a nerd, and I’m actually glad I did as it’s helped me to remember all the things Sarah talked about. It was rather a lot really, and I can’t talk about it all here, but I will mention some of the absolute best things. Yes, in bullet points.
Sarah’s “kernel” moment when plotting was the question of what would happen if a wife’s affair was with a woman rather than a man. She had been looking at real life crimes of the early twentieth century that were caused by affairs, and she decided to mix things up. And you can’t have a Sarah Waters book without lesbians! (except for The Little Stranger – though someone there might have been a secret lesbian)
It was crucial that Frances and Lillian really love each other for the story to have depth and, I think, to veer away from sensationalism.
Her fondness for Frances, and the fact that she, in some ways, belongs to the feminism of the suffragette era – but she is also ahead of her time with her defiance and bravery. This is demonstrated very well through her differences with her mother, and also with Lillian in some ways.
Class is always a very good way of adding complexity to a historical setting. There were a lot of class shifts in the 1920s and it is a big issue in the novel. Frances was of the last generation of daughters that were expected to stay at home and help (Sarah talked about Vera Brittain giving up her degree to come home and help her parents with housework!), and Lillian is also very tied to her home despite being married.
The choice of setting. Sarah spoke about how her novels have grown out of each other, and that the 20s was a good halfway point between her Victorian novels and those set in the 1940s – this also meant that in some ways The Paying Guests has a past and a future in the Sarah Waters universe, which I really like.
Really, the novel is about what happens when ordinary lives are interrupted by passion. In my review I spoke about how the characters are ordinary people made extraordinary, so it was great to hear this! It’s something that Sarah Waters works with to great effect in a lot of her work (with passion, but also tragedy and drama).
I could waffle for hours about how brilliant Sarah Waters is. She is one of the most perceptive and intelligent writers I know, and is very down to earth and likeable. I could have listened to her for a lot longer.
A huge thank you to Blackwell’s and Virago, as well as Sarah Waters and Viv Groskop, for such a fantastic evening.
While I finish off my review of Freshta I thought I’d share with you the pictures I managed to take on Monday night. Now, I’m currently an intern at Duckworth Publishers, and my boss Jamie had a ticket for Monday night, but was too ill to go, so very kindly gave it to me. This ticket just happened to be for an evening at The Cambridge Theatre in Covent Garden (where they do Matilda, hence the set) to see Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman talking about Pullman’s new versions of the Grimms’ fairy tales. I thought, why not. The evening was hosted/moderated by Rosie Boycott, and authors Meg Rosoff and Audrey Niffenegger stood in for Philip Pullman, with Rosoff chatting with Gaiman and Niffenegger reading one of his new fairy tales at the start. This was called ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ and was excellent. Gaiman wrote about the event here.
The evening closed with Neil Gaiman reading a new short story of his called ‘The Click Clack The Rattle Bag’. It was terrifying and excellent, and is available to download from Audible. For every download, Audible will donate money to educational charities through BookTrust.org. Find out more and download the story here.
Grimm Tales for Young and Old by Philip Pullman was published on 27th September 2012 by Penguin. The tenth anniversary edition of Coraline by Neil Gaiman was published on 2nd August 2012 by Bloomsbury.
I was lucky enough to receive an advance proof of Grazyna Plebanek’s first novel to be translated into English, Illegal Liaisons, from publisher Stork Press. Stork Press are based in London and publish English editions of work by writers from Central and Eastern Europe: Plebanek is from Poland, and lives in Brussels, and has been very successful in Europe. Now, Stork Press have brought her latest work to the UK. Hopefully more of her work, including her back catalogue, will be translated into English.
I reviewed Illegal Liaisons a couple of weeks ago to a great response from the publisher and author, as well as my readers. Stork Press liked it so much they sent me a gorgeous final copy as soon as they came in, and another of their novels, Freshtaby Czech author Petra Prochazkova, which I have just finished reading and will review very soon. Extremely flattered and having really loved Illegal Liaisons, and with lots more I wanted to ask and to know, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to this great little event at independent bookshop Belgravia Books.
It is always interesting, whether good or bad, to meet the author of a book you like and to hear them talk about their work. I was fascinated not only by Plebanek’s work but also by the interview she did for the Stork Press blog, in which she talked about her motivations and process for writing Illegal Liaisons, and her thoughts on sexuality, passion, love, and gender. Luckily Maggie Gee asked wonderfully simple but insightful questions, prompting Plebanek to speak frankly about her inspiration and process. She cited Anais Nin as an influence and inspiration when writing about sexuality and relationships between men and women; and sitting with a male friend watching women walk past and asking him to comment on them in order for her to gain some insight into how men see women sexually. There is a lot of sex in this novel, and Plebanek’s narrator is male, so it is not surprising she had to do a little research to form his viewpoint.
No one in this novel is faithful. All relationships seem to be duplicitous and no one seems satisfied with what they have, no matter how great it is. I wondered if there is any belief in love and togetherness in this novel, any hope for a faithful relationship. When asked about the possibility of faithful love, both Plebanek and Gee agreed that the only faithful love in Illegal Liaisons is between parents and children – that is the only relationship that brings any of the characters any real happiness or sense of satisfaction.
With everyone being so unfaithful, there is the question of morality. Gee asked Plebanek if she was a moralist, and this lead me to be brave enough to raise my hand and ask if it was intentional that there is no real judgment from the narrator about the behaviour of the characters. Plebanek answered that yes, this was intentional – none of the characters are better or worse than each other, no gender is better or worse. We are all flawed and dishonest sometimes, and we all have the capacity to lie and betray. That said, there is hope for love in this novel, in whatever form it may take.
I was glad that although there was plenty of discussion about sex and relationships, Gee and Plebanek also discussed the politics of the novel. The central group are foreigners living in Brussels, and most of them, like Jonathan’s wife Megi, work for the European Commission, which Gee stated hangs over the group and indeed Brussels like an oppressive force and the only way to progress is to work for it. Jonathan does not. He writes, and looks after the children, and conducts his affair with Andrea, who also does not work for the Commission. They are rebelling, breaking the accepted rules of lifestyle – what they are doing is ‘illegal’ not in the literal sense but in the sense that it is taboo (even though everyone else is screwing around) and not the same as everyone else (they all work for the Commission). Gee stated it was an interesting choice of title for a novel set in the political and strictly law-abiding city of Brussels. It is practically satirical.
Some literary events are better than others. The bad ones are a bit quiet and awkward, and only people who already know each other talk. On this occasion, this was not the case. In the small but pleasant space of Belgravia Books, everyone sipped their free wine (thank you Polish Cultural Institute!) and talked freely. I was lucky enough to talk to Maggie Gee (I even bought her memoir, My Animal Life), and Grazyna Plebanek, and they both remembered my review and signed my books for me. A very interesting and successful evening in a lovely venue. Read this book!
Illegal Liaisons was published on 15th October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
The night of Thursday 13th October saw the launch of issue no. 3 of The White Review, a new quarterly dedicated to art and literature. Foyles hosted the event in the Gallery at their Charing Cross Road shop, a calm white space with wooden beams in the ceiling that remind one of a Grand Designs-type barn conversion; but much smaller. The room is pretty much the perfect size for this kind of event (a bit formal, a bit casual, free wine, intellectuals), as it is big enough to hold a sizeable crowd and feel like a party, but small enough that a few minutes of mingling familiarises you with the faces of most of the attendees.
Hannah and I arrived just in time to share the lift (though we didn’t realise at the time!) with one of the evening’s speakers – sculptor Richard Wentworth. In we went. We got our free wine (thanks Foyles) and positioned ourselves for the talk. Drinks lasted almost an hour, after which The White Review’s editors Benjamin Eastham and Jacques Testard welcomed us and introduced the ‘entertainment’ – a lively chat about current art and literature with writer and critic Marina Warner and sculptor (and our lift-buddy) Richard Wentworth. Seated and jovial, the pair had a rather general and brilliant discussion about various issues in art and literature that were at least vaguely relevant to the new issue of The White Review. The looseness of the discussion proved to be a good thing as these two greatly intellectual and intelligent, as well as experienced and wise, people were able to both entertain and teach their audience.
Marina Warner mentioned, in her complimenting of The White Review as a whole, on the fact of the care put into the creation of the quarterly. This lead to an exchange on the concept of care on art and literature – the act of the artist or indeed editor considering every aspect of the work as it is put together. Warner’s chief point in relation to The White Review is that the care that is put into a piece of work, whatever it may be, makes the work highly aesthetic but not without depth. The intellectual content is given just as much attention, as both it and the aestheticism of the work are given equal importance. In the case of The White Review this results in a beautiful quarterly that feels almost more like a book than a magazine, in which great attention and dedication has been given to every aspect. Richard Wentworth commented that the care put into the issue was such that it did not become neurotic and therefore grotesque – it was just the right amount it seems.
The ‘after party’ took place across the way at members’ club The Phoenix (attached to the Phoenix Theatre, lots of signed headshots on the walls) where we were packed in with our fellow attendees for a couple more drinks. The evening ended with us both – separately – looking through issue no. 3 on our trains home. Warner and Wentworth were right – the amount of care put into the Review is evident and enviable. It is a beautiful object, to look at and to hold, and the words and pictures contained within its pages are beautiful also.
Every month Faber holds its Social at The Social (ha ha). This month’s Social (held on Monday 3rd October) celebrated the art of the short story. The readers were Hanif Kureishi (charming, modest, witty), Sarah Hall (energetic, quiet but with a glint in her eye), Stuart Evers (lots of hair and jokes) and the amazing Edna O’Brien (ingratiating, engaging…lovely). They all read a story from their newest collections, all published by Faber – except Evers, who is published by Picador.
The Social is a mixture of things, one of which is a ‘venue’. How descriptive. It does feel quite a lot like a music venue though; the kind of place you go to see you friend’s boyfriend’s band because you’re being polite. Faber’s event was held in the basement, on the tiny stage with its white plastic lecturn. Benches and tables reach right up to the low stage so it’s rather cosy. And warm. Drinks flowed and the room had to be told to quiet down by Faber’s Lee Brackstone (MC for the night) every time he introduced the next reader. Though cramped and loud, it was a relaxed atmosphere that encouraged cheering and whooping from the adoring crowd.
Kureishi and O’Brien were undoubtedly the highlights of the night. They both read stories that were funny and yet tragic, beautifully embodying their troubled narrators and charming the audience along the way. They also both have lovely speaking voices and read clearly and slowly, engaging the audience and giving them no choice but to listen.
The evening ended on a rather odd but amusing note as Jarvis Cocker turned out to be the ‘special guest’. He read a short story from his new collection of lyrics, published by Faber, and sang a song to accompany it. Both were narrated by his alter ego Darren, an alcoholic with a grumpy ex-wife and strange dreams. Edna O’Brien and her ‘entourage’ (publishers etc) looked a little bemused but clapped politely with the rest of us.
The Faber Monthly Social is open to everyone to attend and details can be found at faber.co.uk/events. It comes highly recommended and it is not hard to see why.