Wednesday, 10 August 2016

See you on the other side

In case you haven't noticed, I've been taking some time away from Lit Nerd. I don't know when - or, if - I'll be back, but I do hope that one day my enthusiasm for this little corner will return. After all, it's kept me going for nearly four years.

I'm still instagramming and twittering intermittently, if you start to miss me terribly.

See you on the other side


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Q&A with James Wilson

It has been a couple of weeks since I finished The Summer of Broken Stories but, as I said in my review, it's still floating around in my mind. For that reason I was very excited to have the opportunity to grill the author, James Wilson, about the novel and certain elements which stood out for me. 

Q. Both world wars cast a long shadow in this book and it’s clear that many of the characters were involved with and affected by war in one way or another. Was this a conscious decision to draw attention to the effect of war, or was it just an inevitable part of the novel because of the period in which it’s set?

A. That’s an interesting question. The answer is that it wasn’t a conscious decision, but a reflection of what I found on my return visit to my ten-year-old self. I realized that almost every adult I knew then had been directly affected by one or both of the world wars: my father had been evacuated from France (Calais, not Dunkirk) in 1940; my mother’s childhood home had been damaged by a German bomb; my grandmother had lost her fiancĂ© on the Western Front; one of my great uncles had been killed, and his brother, my grandfather, had been gassed, and remained a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. The strange thing is that, while these back-stories were a constant off-stage presence, people very rarely talked about them openly.

Q. Did you face any challenges whilst writing this novel?

A. There are challenges with every novel, starting with trying to find the right narrative voice. With The Summer of Broken Stories, the problem was to come up with an approach that acknowledged the lapse of time between the 1950s and now, but didn’t weigh the story down with hindsight: I wanted the reader, as far as possible, to be able to share Mark’s experiences as they happened. Only after several false starts did I hit upon the structure I eventually used: a short opening section set in the present, which then – by a kind of cinematic fade – moves back into the past.

Q. I loved the focus on stories, storytelling and imagination in the novel. Did you make up imaginary worlds like Peveril on the Swift when you were a child?

A. Absolutely! Like Mark, I had a model railway, and made up stories about the people who lived (in little cardboard and balsa wood houses) in the village next to the station. And like him, too, I spent a lot of time outside with my dog, imagining myself back in some earlier period – the eighteenth century, or Roman Britain, or the Middle Ages.

Q. There’s a lot going on in this novel – it explores a variety of themes, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Were you driven by any particular theme or message whilst writing?

A. You obviously read it very perceptively! Yes, there is a lot going on, much of it – as you suggest – beneath the surface. I can’t reduce what I was trying to do to a message, exactly, but there are certainly a number of themes. One of the most important is the power of the stories we tell ourselves, and their relationship with our experience of the real world. So, for example, Mark’s imagined community, Peveril on the Swift, is a kind idealized version of the village he actually lives in – the village as it would like to be, or he would like it to be – where he can take refuge from the tensions of his family life. 

Q. Was there anything in particular which triggered the idea for this novel?

A. Part of it stemmed from the death of my mother, and the realization of how much had disappeared with her. At a stroke, a lot of my life, the world I grew up in, became, literally, history. And I wanted to recapture something of what it actually felt like – or at least, what it felt like to me, growing up then – before it had vanished altogether. It was nothing at all like the popular view of the 1950s, which sees it as a kind of dull, monochrome prelude to the psychedelic sixties. The two world wars, as you say, still cast long shadows, and there was a good deal of anxiety about the future – a lot of it expressed in TV and radio dramas, and children’s comics, and the novels of authors like John Wyndham. And I was interested in what those stories tell us, not only about the time in which they were written, but also about the world we live in today.

Q. Finally, I’m pretty nosy when it comes to books so I’d love to know what you’re reading now?

A. My reading’s a bit hotch-potchy: a mixture, usually, of research for my latest project (currently, Rob Young’s excellent Electric Eden, about the visionary tradition in English music); classics I should have got round to earlier (most recently, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter); and contemporary fiction (I’ve just started Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One). 

Thank you very much to James Wilson for taking the time to answer my questions so brilliantly! You can find my review of The Summer of Broken Stories here and find the book on Alma's website here.

James Wilson can be found on his website and on twitter.


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Summer as Character || Mini Reviews

A few weeks ago I found myself reading two books with the word summer in the title back to back. They couldn't be more different - one is a debut thriller, the other a work of literary fiction from an established author - but I was struck by the role summer played in both. Summer, and heat waves in particular, acts as a crucible or catalyst in many novels (having read it this year, I'm reminded of Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave). These two novels take summer as their setting and weave tales that are inextricably linked to the season; one because of the heat, the other because of the school summer break.    

The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

In the blistering heat of Western Texas, Jasper Curtis returns home to live with his sister and her two daughters after ten years in prison. Jasper says he's done with trouble, but the town can't forget what he did.

I thought I'd like this novel when I first read the synopsis, but I'm surprised at quite how absorbed - almost addicted - I was. Donal Ryan's quote there on the front cover sums it's up pretty well, this novel is gripping, dark and compelling. The darkness that presides over it is thick with heat and uncertainty. I found myself losing sight of what's right and what's wrong the further I was led into the story and into Jasper's life.

The heat is an important part of this novel. It's oppressiveness is felt throughout and reading it I could almost feel the sun beating down on me, feel the panic of confinement and the discomfort of the thick air.

This is a novel that tips you upside down and makes you question your long held beliefs. Once it's done that, Ronan hits you with the climactic scene. I was surprised at how it played out, yet I was in awe of Ronan's gentle touch. Her writing is detailed, lyrical and tense. I turned those final pages with my heart in my mouth, but it never felt overdone or sensationalised. Her understanding of humanity and particularly of the need for revenge is truly something.

The Summer of Broken Stories by James Wilson

This novel is written from the perspective of Mark, a school boy who is busy spending his summer wandering with his dog and making up stories when he comes across a rather unusual man in the woods. This man is Aubrey Hillyard, a writer working on an ominous science fiction novel, who has been shunned by village society for reasons unknown to Mark. They strike up an unusual friendship based on storytelling, whilst the villagers plot to drive Aubrey out.

This book is set in 1950s England, where the shadow of the Second World War still looms. It's quite different from The Last Days of Summer in a number of ways, but it is equally as unsettling and memorable. I was struck particularly by how intricate the book became considering that the plot was relatively simple. What made it intricate was the sheer number of themes and issues it addresses, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. It explores things such as friendship and childhood, betrayal and rebellion, and yet it never feels overdone. Check back tomorrow to hear more about this as I was lucky enough to arrange a Q&A with James Wilson.

Summer here is like a character in a play. It's there to move things along and to instigate various actions, but it has a start and an end point which brackets the novel. There isn't so much a sense of oppressive heat here, rather the tension comes partly from the time constraints as the days before term restarts (and reality hits), slowly fall away. On a slightly more metaphorical level the passing summer also reflects Mark's childhood and the passing off his innocence as he gets more and more embroiled in Aubrey's world.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these novels and I've found it so interesting to reflect back on them in a slightly different way. The more I think about it, the more I realise how important the season is to a work of fiction. It can completely change the tone and tensions of a novel - I wonder how either of these would play out in the winter. Quite differently, I suppose.

Have you ever been struck by the role the season plays in a novel?

Thank you to the publishers for providing me with these novels for review. All opinions my own as per.


Friday, 24 June 2016

Holiday Reads

It's that time of year again! Today my sister and I are jetting off to San Sebastian for a long weekend, which means two days reading by the sea, as much tapas as I can squeeze in and a shed load of wine. I've not had a break yet this year and I can feel myself reaching potential burn out stage so this short holiday is coming just at the right time.

We're not really beach holiday people, preferring to explore cities and towns and really delve into a culture, but every so often you need a lounger, some sand and a huge pile of books. We decided on San Sebastian after a couple of recommendations and an urge to experience a different side of Spain than the one we encountered in Madrid a few years ago. I've also wanted to go to Basque country for a long time, probably since reading David Boling's Guernica.

As finances are a bit tight this year and I, ashamedly, have far too many unread books on my kindle, I made the decision not to buy anything new for the trip. We'll actually only be on the beach for two full days so I shouldn't need more than two to three books anyway and I most certainly have that many (far more than that many) on my kindle.

So, in order of preference, I will be reading:

Exposure by Helen Dunmore
I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers
Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

I'm also planning on taking along one paperback - Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore - as it's an ARC I unusually requested (Moore is one of my favourite authors these days), and a book about the seaside has to be read at the seaside, right?

Finally, I've downloaded a load of Desert Island Discs and The Widow by Fiona Barton. I think I'm set.

I'm slightly concerned about the weather for this trip as the forecast is heavy rain and chilly, but I live in hope. Should our beach lounging be rained off, I'm sure we'll settle for coffee shop and tapas bar lounging instead.

See you next week!

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Five Favourite Indie Bookshops

Persephone Books, London
I've waxed lyrical about this shop many times on this blog and I'd go so far as to say it's my favourite bookshop in London. I now work just up the road so I often take a stroll past to cheer myself up if I'm having one of those days. I've got one Persephone book left on my shelf that I want to read before going in for my next batch and I can't wait to explore the shelves once again. It's a tiny shop, but beautifully decorated and the staff are lovely and knowledgable.

Brendon Books, Taunton
In my home town we have a Waterstones, an Oxfam bookshop and this wonderful indie. I spent hours in all three as I grew up, but I always loved Brendon Books because it stocked the perfect mixture of new and secondhand books. The owner also ran a literary festival from the store and, in the last couple of months before I moved to London, I attended a book club in the shop after hours (always a strangely magical feeling).

The Minster Gate Bookshop, York
I've only been to this shop once, last September when I took a trip to York, but it left such an impression on me and I fully intend to go back. It's normal to plan a trip half way up the country just to visit a bookshop, right?! If I were to own a bookshop this is exactly the sort I'd want. I love the narrow crooked staircases, books piled on every stair and every surface, and the way it invites book lovers to find a corner and just pour over the books there, no matter the subject.

Foyles, London/Bristol
This is a no brainer really. I adore Foyles partly because it's so reliable. I can go in there looking for a specific book and actually find it, which in most bookshops is easier said than done. I also love that they stock such a range of publishers and magazines too. I always discover something new and I always need to be dragged out before bankrupting myself.

Any Amount of Books, London
I have never been in this shop and come out empty handed. Never. I have also yet to venture downstairs because I always find too many gems on the ground floor. I've talked about secondhand bookshops before and Any Amount of Books is perhaps my favourite in London. Browsing the shelves and narrowing down my purchases away from the bustle of Charing Cross Road is such a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

Do you have a favourite bookshop? 

 This week is Independent Bookshop Week so spread the love and pop in to your local indie!


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Joyce Girl || Annabel Abbs

It often takes me some time to get into historical fiction based on real people (I've read somewhere that this genre is called 'faction'). I have to make sure I set aside the things I know, or think I know, to really give myself to the story. This process was easy with The Joyce Girl for two reasons:

1. I'm fairly unfamiliar with Joyce and Beckett. I've read their work, but never looked into their lives.

2. The Joyce Girl is written so well that from the word go I was there in Lucia's head, in 1920s Paris,  and there was absolutely no way my mind could wander from that world.

'1928: Avant-garde Paris is buzzing with the latest ideas in art, music, literature and dance. Lucia, the talented and ambitious daughter of James Joyce, is making her name as a dancer, training with some of the world’s most gifted performers. When a young Samuel Beckett comes to work for her father, she’s captivated by his quiet intensity and falls passionately in love. Persuaded she has clairvoyant powers, Lucia believes her destiny is to marry Beckett. But when her beloved brother is enticed away, the hidden threads of the Joyces’ lives begin to unravel, destroying Lucia’s dreams and foiling her attempts to escape the shadow of her genius father.

1934: Her life in tatters, Lucia is sent by her father to pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung. For years she has kept quiet. But now she decides to speak.'

The relationship between Joyce and Lucia portrayed in this novel made my skin crawl. His labelling of her as his muse is the ultimate method of control: shackles seeped in false flattery. His constant calls for her to dance for him made me feel quite uncomfortable and yet it's when she's dancing that Lucia feels most alive.

'I could feel the muscles in my legs burning and the perspiration rising on my lip. And yet I loved this feeling, the tautness and control, the sense of every muscle at its perfect pitch, the way my teeming brain stilled in the effort.'

Abbs has brought Lucia to life with very little source material to go on. The majority of Lucia's letters, papers and even the patient notes from her sessions with Carl Jung were destroyed, but Abbs pieces her life together wonderfully and incorporates what source material is left - such as the review of her dancing in a Parisian paper - into the text. 

As I read The Joyce Girl I was reminded of Zelda Fitzgerald and her novel, Save Me the Waltz. There are many parallels between Lucia and Zelda and I was pleased to come across Zelda in the text. Zelda's breakdown and stay in an asylum foreshadows Lucia's own and adds extra depth to the commentary on mental health that is wound into the novel.

As with Fitzgerald's autobiographical novel, questions of identity - as a dancer, as a woman, as a daughter - are at the forefront of The Joyce Girl. Lucia is constantly struggling to find her place in the world and each time she comes close, most frequently when dancing, she's pulled back by one of the many controlling men in her life. She's shaped by the men around her, rather than by herself. I felt this added a tinge of sadness and poignancy to a novel which is otherwise so alive with energy. Not that that is a bad thing. On the contrary, Abbs skilfully handles the polarity of emotions and paints a stunningly real portrait of a woman trying to forge her way through a life which is dictated by her father, her brother and by Beckett. 

'And it struck me that being in love with Beckett was not dissimilar to dancing - the breathless sense of invincibility, the feeling of time and space falling away.'

Enthralled is a pretty good word to describe my reaction to this novel. It captured my imagination with its charm and energy and, immediately upon finishing, I was googling Lucia Joyce to find out more. I often wondered how much of the novel is fiction and how much is fact and I found myself forgetting it is a novel at all. Abbs creates a world and a woman so vivid and full of life that it's easy to believe that Abbs's Lucia is Joyce's Lucia. 

The Joyce Girl is truly an impressive debut (no wonder it won the Impress Prize for New Writers), and one I would urge you to read. 

The Joyce Girl blog tour is running until Monday 27th June. I'd highly recommend visiting the other stops on this tour as the reviews and guest posts are fab and well worth a read.

FYI, if you were as yet unsure about buying this fantastic novel, the profits from the first year of sales are being donated to YoungMinds in memory of Lucia Joyce, which is a wonderful way of commemorating and celebrating her life.

Thank you to all at Impress Books for inviting me on this tour and providing a copy of the novel for review.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #57

1// The Joyce Girl book launch On Tuesday I took myself off to the swanky King's Road in Chelsea for the launch of Annabel Abbs' debut novel The Joyce Girl. I won't say much about the novel as I'm reviewing it as part of the blog tour next Tuesday. I will say: go read it and thank me later. I've never been to a book launch before and I was a bit out of my depth (and holding back so much anxiety I thought I might scream), but I had a really enjoyable time. It was held in Waterstones and it was lovely to be surrounded by books, celebrating a new book, and generally talking about books for a couple of hours.

2// Free prosecco Every year at around this time Zizzi send an email enticing me back with a birthday treat - a free bottle of prosecco and a free main meal. I honestly could not say no to this, so I grabbed some friends and went for bubbles and pizza. Lots of fun was had by all.

3// A good old family knees up This weekend I'm in Essex having a bit of a family get-together. We went for a fabulous meal at our favourite tapas restaurant last night and I'm certainly nursing both my food baby and hangover this morning.

4// Trying to run On Tuesday I persuaded my sister to accompany me on a 'run'. It wasn't quite as successful as the last few times I've tried to go out, but I was prepared for that as my hips have been a little fussy the past couple of weeks. Still, I worked up a sweat and managed a sprint finish (can't resist racing to the end) and I felt great at the end of it. I'm learning that I don't have to do half-marathon every time I head out, even the shorter ones make a difference.

5// Excellent Women by Barbara Pym I started this on the tube on Friday morning and fell in love instantly. Barbara, where have you been all my life?!

What made you happy this week?
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