Umami Mart

You’re probably wondering how long it’s going to take me to talk about all the food I sampled on my short trip to Hong Kong at the end of last year. Well, we still have a long way to go because WE ATE A LOT. This week, I talk about some of the snacky places we stopped by in between our meals. Go and check me out at Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish!

In bookish news, I went to see Eleanor Catton in conversation with Booker Prize judge and author Robert Macfarlane at the Union Chapel in Islington and what an event. Catton is articulate and wise for her age and spoke with such passion about her book and her research into her country’s history and astrology, especially her love of astrological apps which allows you to check the historical position of constellations from anywhere. Particularly interesting was her discussion of the role of women in gold-mining towns such as Hokitika which features in her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries, and how she wanted to portray her female characters as more than just prostitutes or bar/brothel managers and to avoid any lazy characterisations which is so prevalent in fiction. This is something which happens too frequently, is disappointing and will really stop me from taking a writer seriously. So I’m excited to see how she’ll go about it. I’m right in the middle of The Luminaries at the moment, enjoying it immensely and in awe of Catton’s talent.

The English translation of Haruki Murakami’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage will be published this summer but I’m even more excited to learn that Murakami’s new collection of short stories is out in Japan today! It’s titled Onna no Inai Otoko Tachi (女のいない男たち), which can be loosely translated as Men Without Women/Men Who Don’t Have Women, and this is apparently Murakami’s first collection of short stories in nine years.

Dead Travel Fast

Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries, beginning with Silent in the Grave, has been a quiet hit in these parts and with six volumes in the series, my friends and I are eager to read more. Raybourn’s writing is easy and polished and her love of words evident in the care she takes in crafting her sentences. I also have a penchant for gothic romances and vampires so I was eager to try her debut, The Dead Travel Fast, which features both.

Take one headstrong Scottish woman, unmarried and practical with a talent in crafting stories to frighten impressionable young ladies, a suffocating household and an invitation to visit a school friend who is about to get married in Transylvania. And so Theodora Lestrange travels to meet her friend Cosmina who is staying in bleak Castle Dragul in the high Carpathian mountains, cut off from civilisation by snow and superstition. Here she meets the brooding and handsome Count Andrei Dragulescu, Cosmina’s cousin and fiancé, who fascinates and frightens her and won’t leave her alone. Taking the opportunity to use this experience to start writing her novel, Theodora soon realises that not all is as it seems at Castle Dragul. Why do they warn her not to keep her windows open at night? And why is there a sprig of basil hanging over her windowsill? And what of the strange dreams and ashen features of Cosmina and her aunt? And when one of the maids is found dead and drained of blood, Theodora’s fear crystalises.

I really enjoyed The Dead Travel Fast, which is full of references to classic gothic and Victorian sensation novels, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, which I am sure Raybourn loves. The ending wasn’t as dramatic as I expected but I liked the twist which distinguishes this novel from other classic vampire tales. There was a good mixture of surprise and familiar comfort. That is no mean feat as finding something new to say, in what is fast becoming a crowded genre, is pretty difficult. But I think what elevates this book is the care with which Raybourn crafts her writing. She writes beautifully and her novels really deserve a lot more attention than they get. And yes, maybe some may not think the subject matter may to be serious enough but, as Donna Tartt says, reading should be as much about enjoyment as well as the well crafted sentence. And you get both in The Dead Travel Fast.

Daunt Books Festival 2014

The end of March saw the inaugural Daunt Books Festival in Marylebone which featured some exciting events and authors. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Daunt Books, but the flagship store on Marylebone High Street is a wondrous cavern of delights filled with natural light and an incredible selection of books divided by country. I’m off to Spain and Portugal in June and had a good look around for books to read and came away with a couple – Journey to Portugal by José Saramago and Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi.

When I tweeted about visiting Daunt Books and getting a copy of Comyns’ Sisters By a River, they contacted me to say there was a Virago Modern Classics event where four panelists will be discussing Comyns, amongst others, and would I like a ticket. It’s the first time I’ve seen an event featuring Comyns and jumped at the chance as Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is one of my favourite books. I got myself another ticket to see four up and coming authors too and took a half day off work.

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The first event of the morning, Celebrating Virago Modern Classics, featured Susie Boyt, Maggie O’Farrell, Deborah Levy and was chaired by Virago publisher, Lennie Goodings. Virago was set up almost forty years ago to champion the importance of women’s literature and experiences, from forgotten classics to new writing.

Levy spoke of her love of Muriel Spark’s spare and precise prose to Angela Carter’s luscious, subversive novels. O’Farrell spoke of how it was impossible to see Comyns’ literary heritage as her novels are so unique. She used to buy any Virago Modern Classic she came across, no questions asked, because of their quality and feminist slant, especially Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour about the Anglo-Irish in the dying days of the Empire and its keen calibration of society and family and Rosamund Lehman’s The Weather in the Streets, sequel to Invitation to the Waltz. And finally Boyt discussed Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories, a novelist whom she describes as a writer’s writer who can achieve in one sentence, everything that needs to be said, and one with startlingly original ideas and who doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

The session was packed and it was incredible to see how popular the Virago Modern Classics are even today.

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The second session, Bright Young Novelists, featured Adam Foulds, Rebecca Hunt and Evie Wyld and was chaired by literary critic Edmund Gordon. I had heard Hunt read a few weeks earlier from her new novel but it was interesting to see the discussion with her fellow writers. All three novelists have published their second and third novels: Hunt has just published Everland, Foulds, In the Wolf’s Mouth and Wyld, All the Birds, Singing.

Asked why none of them wrote zeitgeisty books, they agreed that they needed to be interested in what they were tackling as it needed to sustain them for a very long period and writing something too close to home, in time and place, would place a greater pressure to get things right. Also on the process of writing their second and third novels, Hunt said she felt as though she was learning all over again, Foulds that each book is different and difficult in new ways and Wyld that with each novel, you think you are going to write what you really want but it doesn’t quite happen and that is what keeps you going. What an interesting discussion which provided an insight into the working life of young writers.

Both sessions came with perks, the first was a cup of fresh juice from The Natural Kitchen and the second was a delicious sausage roll from Ginger Pig.

I’d like to thank Daunt Books and Emily who kindly invited me to Celebrating Virago Modern Classics and for organising such a lovely, vibrant festival. I’m already looking forward to the next one!

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Shiny New Books!, a quarterly online literary magazine edited by four wonderful bloggers, Annabel, Harriet, Simon T and Victoria, is launching its inaugural issue today! It’s packed full of bookish information and reviews including fiction, non-fiction, re-prints and book buzz, so do make sure you take a gander.

And in the first issue, you will find my review of Mahesh Rao’s beautiful The Smoke is Rising which has just been published by Daunt Books so do check it out!

Smoke is Rising

Firestation Book Swap

The second event I was very much looking forward to in March was the Firestation Book Swap organised by publisher and blogger Scott Pack and novelist Marie Phillips, author of Gods Behaving Badly, at Foyles. Since their inaugural book swap in a firestation in Windsor was such a hit, it’s become a monthly event and I’ve been dying to go to one. But Windsor is so far… Tickets were a fiver and we were told to bring a book to swap and that there would be cake.

On arrival, I was given a piece of paper to write a question that had nothing to do with literature or writing and which we put in a bowler hat for later. The guests were writers Matt Rudd, author of The English: A Field guide, and Nick Harkaway, author of The Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World, who began by pitching the books they brought to swap to hilarious effect, especially Rudd’s copy of Mindfulness of which he apparently has three but has never managed to read. Then there were random questions from the audience picked out of the hat including snappy ones such as ‘cheese or wine?’ and ‘when was your first crush?’ Cake was passed around (I had a ginger parkin) and a second bout of book swapping began culminating in a three-way. See, everyone leaves happy.

I don’t think I’ve laughed so much or had so much fun at a literary event before. People were pitching so many different books, there were lots of self-deprecating jokes and lots of home-made cake! It was so nice being in a place where everyone loves and enjoys talking about books in a very relaxed atmosphere. The evening ended with more cake (I had a slice of lemon and passion fruit sponge) and came away with a book I swapped with Scott for Jacob Ritari’s Taroko Gorge.

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It was also lovely to finally meet Scott who was so warm and friendly. His book blog, Me and My Big Mouth, is one of the first blogs I started following almost 5 years ago before I began chasing bawa. I can’t wait to dig into Brian Aldiss’ The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s.

I do hope Foyle’s will host another Firestation Book Swap which I urge you all to attend and if you do live near Windsor, lucky you!

Umami Mart

The food posts keep rolling in and I still haven’t finished talking about what I ate in Hong Kong. So check out what we had for breakfast in Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish! No toast for me!

In bookish news, I’ve finally started reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton on my kindle as it’s just too heavy to lug around in hardback on my commute. It’s only my second book which I’m reading on my kindle even though I’ve downloaded a gazillion titles since I got it this Christmas. Ahem. But I’m finding it delightful. I’m also tucking into a new novel featuring Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, Mr. Campion’s Farewell, a novel begun by Allingham’s husband, Pip Youngman Carter, and completed by Mike Ripley with the co-operation of the Margery Allingham Society. I’m a huge fan of Allingham’s mysteries so will see how this compares.

I also went to see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive starring the wonderful Tilda Swinton and morose yet dishy Tom Hiddleston with supporting roles by John Hurt, Anton Yelchin and Mia Wasikowska – all superb, an existential vampire film that is beautiful and reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love. My favourite scene is of Swinton’s character Eve packing to visit her depressed husband Adam, played by Hiddleston, and the only thing she packs are books. How wonderful. And with a cameo from the enigmatic Kit Marlowe himself, this was a gem of a film. I highly recommend it.

Only Lovers Left Alive

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March seems to be a busy month in literary and publishing circles with lots of parties and events and I recently went to two lovely ones. Penguin Books kindly invited me to their annual Bloggers Night with readings from some of their authors. And wine, of course.

The Bloggers Night at Foyles was Penguin’s fourth event of its kind. I went to the first one as a guest, missed the second, returned for the third and fourth. It’s interesting to see the change in faces and blogging trends and one of the main reasons I go to these events is to catch-up with some of my blogging friends. This year I got to say hello to Annabel, Jackie, Hayley, David, Simon T and Dioni who I have known for around 4 years but don’t get to meet enough to chat about books. Lovely crowd and wonderful bloggers all. And I met Alex from Bookanista and Watermark Books in King’s Cross which has an incredible selection of titles and which you must all visit.

The other main reason is to hear the authors read from their new books, of course. One of the things I love about hearing authors speak is they finish what the blurb on their books set out to do. Sometimes I may not be taken by an unfamiliar author or book but after an author has finished a reading, my interest is often sparked and I rush out to get the book. In this case, it was Simon Wroe who captured what was funny so succinctly in his short reading of Chop Chop that I was instantly seduced.

There was a nice mixture of genres from historical to literary culminating in a performance by Will Self which was very Will Self from his new novel Shark. We also heard from M.J. Carter who read the beginning of her new novel The Infidel Stain, the sequel to her delightful The Strangler Vine. Rebecca Hunt read from her second novel Everland about two antarctic explorations separated in time. I love historical books about polar explorations after reading Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter so I should get stuck into this soon. Elizabeth Fremantle read from Sisters of Treason about the fate of Lady Jane Grey’s sisters – I didn’t realise she had any and I’m sure their lives must have been dramatic. Emma Healey read from Elizabeth is Missing tackling dementia and a missing girl from long ago, Livi Michael from Succession about Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and Nina Stibbe from Man at the Helm about the hilarious consequences of a recently divorced mother and her three kids moving to a small English village in the 70s.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading Man at the Helm after hearing Stibbe read as it’s not the kind of book I would normally read but sounded hilariously charming but I’ll have to wait as it’s not out until August.

It was a wonderful evening and I came away with some books too – lucky me.

Everland by Rebecca Hunt
Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

And three books by Deborah Levy which I plan to read for #ReadWomen2014:
Things I Don’t Want To Know
The Unloved
Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography

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