Literary Festivals from the Midlands: spotlight on Stratford and Birmingham

A short post today – more of a shout out really, a few dates for your literary calendars. If you’re based in or around the Midlands, you might be interested to know that both Stratford and Birmingham will shortly be launching their 2018 literary festivals. Stratford’s festival runs from the 22nd April and Birmingham’s from the 27th, with both ending on the 29th.

I won’t make it to Birmingham this year, but I have booked a talk at Stratford on the 26th. Very excited to hear Tara Westover talk about her much-written-about memoir Educated, alongside Aida Edemariam, author of The Wife’s Tale, a retelling of her grandmother’s stories of (to borrow from the programme) “an Ethiopian childhood surrounded by proud priests and soldiers, of her husband’s imprisonment, of her fight for justice, all of it played out against an ancient cycle of festivals and the rhythms of the seasons”. The focus of the talk is the genre itself and the challenges of writing a memoir, whether it be your own or someone else’s.

If you’re interested in the Birmingham Festival – featuring, amongst others, Jenni Murray, Kit de Waal and Salley Vickers – click here for a link to the website and programme.

For the Stratford Festival – featuring, amongst others, Rose Tremain, Jackie Morris and Marcel Theroux – click here for the website and programme. Stratford also has an amazing sounding children’s programme – I’m very excited about the possibilities next year when my daughter is a little older and will fall into the age bracket for a few more of the events. Have a gander here if you too have a small person who loves books.

Shiny new-ness (otherwise known as ‘my reading inbox’)

A snapshot of the shiny book-related loveliness that came into my home over the Christmas period and during the post-Christmas sales:

I’m currently reading Matthew Battles’ book Library (a history of the library as we understand it today) and have been left feeling extremely fortunate that compiling a personal ‘library’ of sorts is no longer something that is the exclusive preserve of the super-wealthy or those with the means to hire a few hundred scribes.

It’s also left me aware that the idea of the book as something to be admired for its beauty as well as its content is a relatively new idea in the history of the written word. So I feel doubly lucky to be looking at such beautiful things.

However, given that my own personal library goals are now more skewed towards curation than acquisition, the books that stay are having to jump a few more hoops than previously and a couple had to go to make way. Thinking like a librarian (or even a bookseller – thanks Shaun!) definitely helps me let go more than I could before.

But in the meantime, there is this mound to look forward to. I’ve already read The Diary of a Bookseller, of which more later, but where should I go next? I’m thinking Armistead Maupin but could be persuaded otherwise…


Costa Book Awards 2017 – the overall winner

It’s Helen Dunmore for her final collection of poems Inside the Wave.

I usually find the final Costa award slightly odd, in that it seems problematic to compare say, a children’s book, with something like a biography or a collection of poems.

However, on this occasion, I can see how this is likely a worthy winner given the immense courage it must have taken to write.

I’m not sure how it happened but I didn’t manage to read a single one of the Costa Book nominees for 2017. It’s true that I’ve been terrible at keeping up to date with recently published books for some years now, but normally, by luck if not design, I accidentally read a couple from the nominees for most major book prizes. And many of them were very firmly on my radar too – like Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, which pretty much every blogger I follow mentioned last year, or Stephen Westaby’s memoir of his 35-year career as a heart surgeon, Fragile Lives, which sounds like just my kind of thing.

Feeling a bit tired of being so out of touch, this little oversight had a hand in shaping this year’s bookish resolutions, in which I’ve sworn to read more newly published books when they’re actually published rather than a few months/years later. I’d really like to be more involved in the discussion, have more of an opinion and, ultimately, stop being that person who turns up enthusiastically brandishing their bottle just at the point where everyone else is pulling on their coats.

First on my list is Dunmore’s collection, although that was there regardless of the recent award. What an incredibly emotional night it must have been for her family. Has anyone else read Inside the Wave yet?

The women are coming – New Penguin titles

Topically, given that Sunday saw the 2018 Woman’s March in London in support of the recent Time’s Up campaign, there are some new books coming with a particular focus on women writers. Penguin have asked authors Penelope Lively and Kamila Shamsie to each choose two titles by women who they thought deserved to be better known. The idea is that these new editions will be published in February to coincide with the centennial of the Representation of the People Act – the act that saw women granted the vote for the first time in the UK (if they were over 30, of course. I guess it was a start!).

The book that made me sit up and smile was E Nesbit’s The Lark because I don’t think I’ve seen a previously out-of-print title so lauded in the blogging world. Here’s a selection:

Even if I was snoozing my way through life, I think I’d have got the message that The Lark just might be a book I would enjoy reading! That’s a serious line-up of reviews. Everyone loved it, and some even put it on their books of the year lists.

So Penguin have come in strong it would seem and we have Lively to thank for the Nesbit request. Also on the list is Lively’s pick by Mary McCarthy Birds of America, and Shamsie’s choices: Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days, which she describes as a ‘memoir of love and grief and nation, written in the most extraordinary prose style’ and Ismat Chughtai’s Lifting the Veil, a ‘gloriously provocative’ collection of stories about women’s lives and sexuality.

They’re coming on the 1st February according to the Penguin website. The Lark has an intro by Lively, which I am dying to read.

#TheDarkIsReading – a write up of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising

The recent The Dark is Rising readalong on Twitter was hands down one of my favourite collective reading experiences. It couldn’t have been a more perfect example of how art inspires art, how creativity begets creativity. And that fuzzy feeling you get when you discover a whole army of like-minded people just can’t be beaten.

I was one of the readers discovering the books for the first time.

I did read Over Sea Under Stone first, back in mid-December, and loved my trip to the fictional Cornish village of Trewissick, and the opportunity to meander around the Grey House. A relatively simple story of three children who discover an Arthurian map in the labyrinthine depths of their holiday house, I so enjoyed Cooper’s ability to conjure place, atmosphere and the breathtaking excitement of being on an ‘adventure’. There’s also a strong sense of threat throughout (Cooper doesn’t hold back on the scares, which I always admire in good children’s writing) and Barney, Jane and Simon quickly discover that they’re not the only ones searching for the prize, and that the forces against them might be darker and less human than they imagined.

Over Sea Under Stone also introduces Great-Uncle Merry. Pay attention to him. He’s important. Not that you can easily gloss over him, of course. I loved this introduction:

‘Nobody knew very much about Great-Uncle Merry, and nobody ever quite dared to ask. He did not look in the least like his name… In his grim brown face the nose curved fiercely, like a bent bow, and the eyes were deep-set and dark. How old he was, nobody knew. ‘Old as the hills,’ Father said, and they felt, deep down, that this was probably right. There was something about Great-Uncle Merry that was like the hills, or the sea, or the sky; something ancient, but without age or end.’

I can see why more people connect with the second book, The Dark is Rising, as it really is the kind of book that creeps under your skin and pulls you into its world. There is a clever connection between the books but you really don’t need to have read one to enjoy the other, nor does the order in which you read them matter particularly, I’d have thought.

The Dark is Rising takes us to the Home Counties – Buckinghamshire to be more specific – moving between the Thames Valley and the Chiltern Hills. The book opens on Midwinter’s Eve, with Will waiting for his 11th birthday to begin. There’s an unsettling sense of something strange and evil massing outside his cosy family home and, although Will doesn’t know it yet, the gathering forces will pull him into a life-changing adventure in which he will discover that he is one of the Old Ones and must learn to harness their ancient power. What follows is a story of awakening, history, magic, knowledge and the awesome force of the natural world.

TDIR is such a wonderfully primal book. I so love stories, and writing in general, that plants its roots so deeply in the natural world. Cooper weaves a fabulous extended pathetic fallacy out of the weather so that it comes to feel like a character in its own right. And the gathering forest sentinels outside Will’s front door become powerful symbols of place and time. There’s a strong sense that the natural world acts as a gateway between time present, past and future, via pathways – or old ways – that can still be walked by those with instinct or intuition enough to know where their feet stand.

I think that idea of instinct or trusting to one’s senses is one of the things that makes the book resonate so well with readers today. In a world where so many people feel a sense of disconnection between their lives and nature, where screens take us out of a place where we can indulge in what it means to smell, touch and fully engage with the world around us, it’s so reassuring to feel like the natural world can still exert such a big influence on our lives. Of course, that ended up being truer for some than others when England saw some unusual (these days, anyway) December snow both before and after Christmas, and some American readers, including Cooper herself, were affected by the snow bomb cyclone.

It’s probably not a coincidence either that a book about dark forces should reassert itself in such a public way at the end of a particularly gloomy year and at a time when many people feel there are dark forces at work in the wider world. Funny how reviled politicians always seem to have shameful environmental policies too – that link between evil and the destruction of the natural world is a strong one.

If you’re thinking of reading TDIR, I’d say do it. I suspect I’ll become one of the many who re-read it around Midwinter each year.

And if you haven’t yet caught up on the Twitter discussion, it’s well worth a look using the hashtag #TheDarkIsReading (or #TheArtIsRising). Some admirably in-depth discussion of core themes, given the character limits, excellent photography, and some atmospheric and inspirational original artwork in a huge variety of mediums. @EmmaJGrey collected together some particularly good pieces of thematic art and for original works check out @RobinsonKH, @claireddean, @marlinhoister and @rudivanetteger.

Plus – SUSAN COOPER REPLIED! Which I’m still smiling about.

What a way to begin a new reading year.

#TheDarkIsReading – A Midwinter Reading Group

Isn’t ‘midwinter’ just the best word?

A quick post today to bang a drum for an event that I’ve been quite excited about since hearing of it over on Dove Grey Reader.

Robert McFarlane and Julia Bird are hosting a worldwide readalong of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, second in her sequence of 5 books that goes by the same name. I missed out on the books as a child; how, I’m not quite sure. It’s so exactly the sort of thing I would have devoured and loved. It’s always a little sad not to catch a children’s book at the perfect, ‘magical’ age so when I heard about the readalong, the idea of enjoying them for the first time in the company of a few thousand other people (some newbies and some long-term fans) sounded like the ideal way to capture a little of the magic I might have experienced reading them as a child.

Because I am an annoying completist, I had to read the first book in the sequence beforehand – Over Sea Under Stone – but I’ve been reliably informed that isn’t essential.

The Dark Is Rising begins on midwinter’s eve, so the readalong picks up at the same otherworldly time of year (i.e. TODAY!). It’s due to carry on until Twelfth Night, but you can read at whatever pace suits you.

Julia Bird featured the event on her blog here, and you can keep abreast of the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #TheDarkIsReading (inspired).

A book is not just for Christmas: 9 Christmas gift ideas for book lovers

Lots of people have already finished their Christmas shopping and to them I say ‘Congratulations!’ I very much wish I was done, but I’m not quite.

For anyone who might still be looking for some inspiration, I thought I’d share a few ideas for ‘Things to buy for book lovers who already own and buy a lot of books, making it tricky to buy for them without spending ages checking their shelves first’.

Persephone books – always a good option for gifting because they are just so beautiful. Persephone also do box sets and a book-a-month subscription service.

If you’re interested in subscription services, the gold standard (priced accordingly) is Heywood Hill’s A year in books. I would LOVE to try this one day; I’m currently living vicariously through Thomas at Hogglestock’s subscription. There are cheaper options out there, of course. Not on the High Street offer a couple of options and if you really know your giftee, you could always try doing your own!

For the book lover who regularly loans out their favourites, how about a personal library kit?

Someone once bought the book map for me and it is hands down one of my favourite things hanging on my wall. Good for hours of poring over!

If your giftee happens to like both books and Christmas, how about a book about Christmas? I’ve read Judith Flanders’ The Making of Home and can recommend her engaging style and eye for an interesting detail.

If you want to risk buying a book, go for a current one. How about the Waterstones’ Book of the Year? (I have seen SO much buzz about this and am desperate to read it. It’d be lovely to own the beautiful hardback version.)

Another recent book getting a wonderful write-up (and one that is so beautiful it is automatically elevated to ‘GIFT’) is Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris’ enormous The Lost Words

How about giving someone the chance to meet one of their bookish idols? Both the Hay Festival and the Cheltenham Literary Festival offer gift vouchers for their events. There are bound to be others who do a similar thing.

And if you’ve saved every penny you found down the back of the sofa since the reign of Queen Victoria, you could perhaps swing for this? My own personal, well-a-girl-can-dream item.