It's All In Your Head

Although I haven’t been posting much, I have been busy reading and attending lots of literary events.

This year kicked off with Han Kang talking about her astonishing novel The Vegetarian and celebrating the publication of her new book Human Acts at Foyles. I’m still gathering my thoughts in order to write about The Vegetarian and may have to do a re-read just because it’s so brilliant. I’ve chosen Human Acts as this month’s book group read for Riverside Readers so I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in. She was incredibly composed and collected and I definitely need to hear more from her.

Then I went to see Hanya Yanagihara’s at Foyle’s to celebrate the publication of her Booker Prize shortlisted A Little Life. I have yet to read the book which almost everyone I have met has ferociously recommended but I do have my copy ready. What was interesting was that at the talk, almost everyone had read it and was fangirl/boying over her. Considering the length and darkness of the book, I think that’s amazing. Yanagihara was so smart and vibrant and witty and I want to be her friend.

Then I went to Asia House to see Paul M.M. Cooper introduce his debut novel Rivers of Ink, a historical novel set in 5th century ancient Sri Lankan capital of Polonnaruwa. I don’t think I’ve read a novel set in Sri Lanka’s historical past since Colin de Silva’s Winds of Sinhala series in the 80s so I’m really looking forward to reading this. Cooper, who is currently in the throes of his PhD in Creative Writing at UEA had spent time in Sri Lanka and even learnt Sinhala – colour me impressed.

I also went to see Joanna Walsh in conversation with Claire Louise Bennet about their new novels Hotel and Pond at the London Review of Books Bookshop. Both were fascinating and I loved Hotel. It’s incredibly exciting for me to come across writers who deconstruct women’s lives in new and intellectually stimulating ways that are just outside conventional social norms.

I also attended a bloggers’ brunch to celebrate the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist chaired by Simon Savidge and with the shortlisted authors, Suzanne O’Sullivan for It’s All In Your Mind, Alex Phelby for Playthings, Amy Liptrot for The Outrun, Cathy Rentzenbrink for The Last Act of Love (Steve Silberman for Neurotribes and Sarah Moss for Signs for Lost Children were unable to attend that day). It was lovely to meet and catch up with other book bloggers some of whom I’ve known for a while now. I still think it’s wonderful to hear authors speak of their work as it makes you want to read books that you might not otherwise pick up. I found It’s All In Your Mind , which aims to demystify psychosomatic illnesses, incredibly compassionate and well-written and was really pleased to hear it won the Wellcome Book Prize for 2016.

And finally, I went to see my favourite Russian writer Boris Akunin talk about his Fandorin books and Japan at Asia House as part of their Georgia25 week celebrating Georgia’s independance. I’ve started his last one translated into English, The Diamond Chariot, which has a Japanese focus and loving it as usual. Akunin is such an intelligent, witty and self-deprecating man with such wide-ranging interest in almost everything. He spoke of one of his more disapproving critics (Putin) and how although he is ethnically Georgian, he has always lived in Moscow and wrote in Russian and how being cast into the perpetually alternating role of patriot/traitor can wear him out. He even spoke to me in Japanese when he heard my name and assured me that there is another Fandorin title being translated into English. Hurray!

Phew, that was a long list, right? So what have you all been up to? Any interesting books and authors I need to check out?

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A few weeks ago I was invited to the Penguin 2016 showcase at Waterstone’s Piccadilly. I had no idea of the line-up except that you know you’ll get to hear some very special writers. And I wasn’t wrong. As soon as I arrived, I headed to the bar to get myself a glass of wine and nibbles since it was a scorching day and picked up the order of readings to find some interesting names including Zadie Smith! I’ve never had the opportunity of seeing her read so I was really excited about this.

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Each reading was about 10 minutes, just enough to whet your appetite.

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The session kicked off with Alain de Botton reading from The Course of Love, the sequel to his first novel. de Botton was a brilliant speaker, engaging and warm and leaving his audience in stitches. My sister loved Essays in Love and his new novel explores what happens after you meet ‘the one’. Although optimistic, this is a critique of romantic love, and de Botton discusses how reading the wrong novels growing up often gives the wrong idea of love, that novels are pieces of moral eduction which may lead to trouble. Like many, he sees reading as a means to learn lessons in love. He touches on topics which are probably familiar to many readers; the reasons why we read and what we take from our reading and apply to our lives. Intriguing, no?

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This was followed by Naomi Alderman reading a chilling excerpt from her new novel, The Power, where she wonders what would happen if all the women in the world suddenly develops the power to electrocute at will. Whenever she announces this, she notices the women in the audience get a glint in their eyes. Alderman’s novel promises to be quite gritty, exploring many relevant issues that affect women in modern life. She gave a brilliant reading and this sounded very interesting.

Zadie Smith then read an essay from her new collection, Feel Free. Titled Flaming June, she recalls how she chose her first art poster to put on her wall as a first year undergrad. Wanting to be different from her fellow students who all chose between a set number of prints to impress the opposite sex, somehow she ended up with Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June. I’m such a huge fan of Smith’s writing and it was really lovely to talk about her work with other avid fans there.

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I have never read anything by Marina Lewycka but I know my father loved A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian and couldn’t stop laughing when he was reading it. Her new novel, The Lubetkin Legacy, is about a man living with his mother. When she dies, he is afraid he’ll lose her council flat and so gets another old lady to take her place and live with him. But she also has an agenda of her own. You can just imagine all the things that could go wrong.

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My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal puts the spotlight on two brothers who are up for adoption, especially when one is white and the other is mixed race. An interesting looking into identity and race in modern Britain.

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And the evening closed with Ruby Wax bringing a lot of laughs while talking about a very serious subject: how to manage and self-regulate depression. Having completed a Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Oxford two years ago, Wax new book Wake the F*** Up! discusses some of the issues she deals with in managing her depression.

As well as the readings, the Penguin team highlighted a number of new titles, especially The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle, about a man on his last con. This is a book full of twists and layers and the word on the street is that this is going to be BIG next year. You heard it here first! Javier Marias, one of Spain’s most celebrated authors and one I’ve had my eye on the last couple of years, also has a new novel novel out, Thus Bad Begins, about a man looking back to 1980s Madrid and his best friend with a chilling past. As well as fiction, Penguin is also publishing The Path by Michael Prett and Christine Gross-Loh on the application of Chinese philosophy to live a good and fulfilling life and Chronicles by Thomas Piketty, the best-selling and controversial economist, a relevant source in understanding how we have found ourselves in such a global financial mess.

It was a lovely event with lots of laughter. And to top if off, the canapés by Felicity Cloake were, and I don’t say this lightly, really delicious. It’s so rare to get quality, tasty canapés at events. There were aloo tiki scotch eggs, whoopie pies to die for and marshmallow and caramel crispy bites with a chilli kick. So moreish I had to go back for seconds. I’m definitely going to get her new book The A-Z of Eating: A Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks out in April next year.

And we all left with these. Can’t wait to read them. Thank you very much Penguin!

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Maigret

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to a reception held at the Groucho Club to celebrate Georges Simenon and his most famous creation, Inspector Maigret. Like many, I knew a lot about Maigret and watched a couple of episodes of the English TV adaptation starring Michael Gambon except that I hadn’t actually read any of his novels as I was obsessed by Agatha Christie when I was younger. But my first literary love has always been crime fiction and so in preparation, I dipped my toes into the smoky and boozy world of Maigret.

As well as learning more about Simenon and his work, I was also looking forward to meeting John Simenon who gave an insightful talk about his father and his work. What was particularly interesting, and astounding for me, was that Simenon had written almost 400 novels, often writing 5 a year. His Inspector Maigret novels were first published in 1931 with Pietr the Latvian and there are almost 75 volumes, rivaling Agatha Christie. Both John and Penguin, who are republishing all of Simenon’s novels in new translations, are hoping that people will get hooked on the novels and devour them one after the another.

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Simenon always saw himself as a craftsmen rather than an artist and was fascinated by the neurological and psychological aspects of crime. He was a humanist and was considerably influenced by the Church although he was often angry with it. He worked as a traveling journalist from 1919 to 1922, a period in which he made profound discoveries about his fellow men and what it meant to be human. The following decade was a period of apprenticeship where he produced pulp fiction until 1931 when he introduced Maigret to the world. But he soon wanted to change direction, moving on from crime, and began to publish his romans durs, what he called his pure, standalone novels. Regarding his writing habits, Maigret used a typewriter at first but then moved on to write with a pen and then edit and finish the draft with a typewriter. Even with such productivity, John recalls that Simenon always considered himself a father first and writer second.

And finally, we were all really excited to hear that a new TV adaptation of Maigret featuring Rowan Atkinson is in production. I can’t quite picture him as Maigret yet, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.

It was a lovely afternoon hearing John speak and to catch up with other bloggers including Annabel (do check out her post on the event) and to meet Sarah of Crimepieces, Elizabeth of Fictionbitch and Charlie of The Worm Hole. Thank you to John and Simenon UK for the kind invitation and for Penguin who supplied lots of Maigret titles for us to take away. I’d better get cracking!

Poirot

Last week I attended the Guardian Book Club where author Sophie Hannah and literary critic John Mullan discussed Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

You may not know this already but I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her mysteries when I stumbled upon a copy of Murder on the Links hidden away on a bookshelf in my grandfather’s house in Sri Lanka one hot summer. It probably belonged to one of my aunts and uncles but I took it with me when I left. I never learnt who it belonged to but I still have my well-thumbed copy and it still remains my favourite mystery to this day.

What is it about Christie’s novels that has ensnared millions of readers? For me, it was the sheer shock of finding the murderer was not who I expected. Stunned, I can still remember wondering how she managed to fool me. And with each novel, I would make a guess and get it wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t handle the tension and would take a furtive peek at the final pages which would inevitably spoil the rest of the novel for me but I just couldn’t help myself. And so my love affair with Christie began when I was nine and I went through her entire crime oeuvre, spending hours in English bookshops in far flung Asian cities counting the titles I had and hadn’t read, waiting for the special days when I was allowed to buy a book. Admittedly I did get better at guessing the murderer as I went through her novels but it was more a gut feeling. And once I got over that, I really began to enjoy her cast of characters and unraveling her fiendish plots.

So I was excited to hear Hannah’s views on Christie. Most of you will know by now that Hannah was chosen by Christie’s estate to write the new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last year . I, like many, was nervous about reading it but was completely won over by her intricate plotting and handling of Poirot. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hannah is on her third re-reading of Christie’s crime novels. Impressive stuff. She has a great love for Christie and her work, although she admits she is not as knowledgeable as John Curran, Christie’s archivist and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, whom she would phone with questions when writing The Monogram Murders for which he would have instant answers.

For the Guardian Book Club, Hannah chose to discuss Death on the Nile partly because she wanted something different to the usual choice which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, probably one of Christie’s most infamous novels, but also because it is one of the few that is successful in all mediums – book, tv and film. It is also one where you meet the characters going about their daily business before the actual murder occurs.

As much as they were bestsellers, I recall most notably in an English literature class at school that Christie’s novels were considered derivative and her characters two-dimensional, criticisms which still echo in genre fiction today. As young as I was, I did wonder why books you could race through weren’t considered serious literature however well written. It didn’t stop me reading or loving her novels, and when I re-read Elephants Can Remember a few years ago, I was surprised at how dark the plot was and how tightly written the prose. Hannah does point this out saying it’s an unfair label. She believes the characters need to appear to be two dimensional at first before the unveiling of the third dimension by the detective.

Christie’s strength lies in her interest in the psychology of crime especially how we assess others. She lets the readers mislead themselves and only at the unmasking do you realise your error in judgement. And one of the devices she uses in her novels is that a large proportion of her subjects are hiding something, all are guilty of something but perhaps not the murder. No one is perfect, everyone has a flaw. Christie is unparalleled in her understanding of character, human nature and psychology.

On accusations of stereotyping and stylised settings, Hannah does acknowledge that Christie recycles setting and plot devices but her tales are so interesting that readers don’t mind. A reader pointed out that The Murder on the Nile was somewhat similar to Endless Night and Mullan clocked on to a similar echo of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove which brought about a discussion on the limitations of plot. In some contemporary crime novels, the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the reader’s interest and so they pile on the bodies, but Christie doesn’t need to do this. However Hannah pointed out that Christie was fascinated by the possibilities of the crime novel and tried every possible permutation. She instinctively understood what every novel needed and was in total control. Christie is famous for being a meticulous planner before she put pen to paper and this can be seen in the very intricate way in which Christie manipulates her novels’ timelines. This was one aspect of the crime novel with which Hannah had difficulty and is also probably one of the reasons why she finds it so difficult to pinpoint Christie’s culprit.

For the serious mystery reader, the inability to guess the murderer is crucial. Christie overtly draws your attention to the clues, she is never sly or frugal in this, but still manages to fool you. You don’t know until the second Poirot or Miss Marple starts explaining who the murderer is. And she does this all the while increasing the tension bit by bit until you just have to know who did it.

The event ended with Hannah describing Miss Marple as a bit of a misanthrope and Poirot a romantic who liked to play cupid, often directing the attentions of a young lady away from a handsome rake to a slightly boring but more suitable man. Her favourite secondary character is Jane, Lady Edgware, in Lord Edgware Dies and one of her top ten favourite novels is After the Funeral as well as The Body in the Library which she says is flawless.

It was just a lovely evening to hear someone who loves Christie as much as I do talk about various aspects of her work and it has reawakened my urge to re-read some of Christie’s novels again as well as dip into John Curran’s books.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for Agatha Christie’s novels. If you have read them, which is your favourite mystery? And if you haven’t read any yet, which one would you like to start with?

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!

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!

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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