Saturday, 29 April 2017

My Life in Books

I saw this via @PoppyPeacock some time ago and thought it looked like good fun. The idea is to answer the questions using book titles you read in 2016. Here's my attempt at describing my life in books. I've also included one non-fiction book as it is a book I often refer too and fits in with my PhD studies. Let me know if you have a go yourself. 

* Describe Yourself:
* How do you feel:
* Describe where you currently live:
* If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
* Your favourite form of transportation:
* Your best friend is: 
* You and your friends are like:
* What’s the weather like:
* Favourite time of day: 
* If your life was a book: 
* What is life to you: 
* Your fear:
* What is the best advice you have to give: 
* Thought for the Day: 
* How you would like to die:
*Your souls present condition:

The End

Friday, 10 February 2017

Quick Reads Does Crime

The Quick Reads event at Foyles on Wed 8th Feb at 107 Charing Cross Road, London marked the launch of six new Quick Reads books, published on 2 February. The line-up featured some of crime's most wanted authors - Mark Billingham, Dreda Say Mitchell, Clare Mackintosh, and Harry Bingham - chaired by novelist and Quick Reads commissioning editor, Fanny Blake.

I attended both as a huge supporter of Quick Reads and in my capacity as Senior Library Assistant at the medical library in the North Middlesex University Hospital to pick up the latest six titles.

'Quick Reads are the bridge between literacy and literature. They’re the next step after learning the basics, they’re a crucial tool in the journey from being a non-reader to being someone who has the world of books and words at their disposal.' Cathy Rentzenbrink

Mark Billingham, Clare Mackintosh and Harry Bingham have all written a short story in the brand new collection, Dead Simple while Dreda Say Mitchell has written the new Quick Reads title, One False Move.

The evening began with Fanny Blake, Chair of the panel, introducing the authors:

Dreda Say Mitchell's books are inspired by the gritty, tough and criminal world she grew up in. She still lives in London's East End. In 2016, she became a Reading Ambassador for the Reading Agency to promote literacy and libraries.

Mark Billingham Mark Billingham was born and brought up in Birmingham. He is the author of 16 novels. Time of Death is the 13th Tom Thorne novel and is currently being adapted for television by the BBC.

Harry Bingham is a successful crime thriller author and the creator of one of the most critically-acclaimed and engaging female protagonists in crime fiction in DC Fiona Griffiths. He also runs The Writer's' Workshop, an editorial consultancy for first-time writers, and organises the York Festival of Writing. He lives near Oxford.

Clare Mackintosh spent twelve years in the police force, including time on CID, and as a public order commander. She left the police in 2011 to work as a freelance journalist and social media consultant and is the founder of the Chipping Norton Literary Festival. She has written two novels. She now writes full time and lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and their three children.

Fanny Blake asked Dreda Say Mitchell: Why did you want to be involved with Quick Reads?

Mitchell said she had been working with the Reading Agency for some time including the six book challenge. The first place she came across QR was during her work in prisons. She felt they worked well for prisoners, many of whom have reading difficulties, as QR are mature adult stories and work cognitively at adult level.

Mitchell grew up in the East End where she noticed girls progressed more than boys...some of the girls may have had babies young but would then later in life go into education.
She explained how her work in prisons evolved. "Somebody close to me ended up in a Detention Centre while I went to university and it affected me deeply.

One False Move by Dreda Say Mitchell (Hodder) - is a gritty novel set on the Devil's Estate in London, the same setting as her recent Flesh and Blood trilogy.

A young mum just out of prison, wants to go straight. Something happens and she only has twenty-four hours to get out of the dilemma and create a better life for her young daughter.

Fanny Blake asked Mark Billingham if he had encountered any problems while writing his QR short story:

Gillingham replied it had been great. And that when writing a short story there were certain things you didn't do, like going off on tangents. Making every word count. The short story is not in a good place publishing-wise. Plus it's harder to write. In the crime short story there's only room for only one twist. And how the prose ends up being muscular - hard boiled. His QR short story in the anthology is about a game of scrabble in prison.

Harry Bingham on the other hand, found it hard to go from his natural crime novel writing to something like the QR short story. He overcame this by thinking of a reader who may be encountering a crime story for the first time. As it's only a few pages, there should be little twisting and more emphasis on solving the conundrum.

Bingham edited the Dead Simple crime anthology (Orion) - the crime collection brings together eight writers including himself, Mark Billingham, Clare Mackintosh, James Oswald, CL Taylor, Angela Marsons, Jane Casey and Antonia Hodgson.

He also spoke about putting the crime anthology together and how he thought about an emerging reader - "you wouldn't want Noddy stories", he wanted a gender balance and feels the collection is like a chocolate box with a diverse list of author stories to choose from.

Fanny Blake asked Clare Mackintosh about literacy in the prison service:

Clare Mackintosh replied there was an absence of it. She grew up with books in every single room unlike the vast majority of people coming in to custody who couldn't read or write. Mackintosh felt literacy was creating an unfair divide. She came across QR when organising a literacy festival and thinking about literacy and accessibility. She read some QR because of event. Mackintosh added she had been terrified of writing the short story and found it really hard.

Dreda Say Mitchell grew up without books in the house with only her dad's tabloid newspaper and mum's bible. But her mother made sure they went to their local library once a month so they had access to books. There was always more of an oral tradition in their house.

Fanny Blake asked the panel how important was setting?

Mitchell replied that she is a lover of London and loves writing about the East London, it's a rich and diverse character.

Billingham said London had become a character in his books. But that he had a love hate relationship with it, i.e. writing about the city that has so much happening underneath and then standing on a bridge by the Thames and thinking wow! Crime writers can give a good introduction to a city, for example, if you want to know about Edinburgh just read Ian Rankin. He said, there was no point setting place somewhere dramatic if you can't write about it

All the authors agreed that a good sense of place sells a book.

Clare Mackintosh spoke about how the open landscape can be quite threatening, that she sometimes finds London threatening and will walk around like a person about to be mugged! She tends to research feelings rather than places and used to spend a lot of time sitting on the circle line to see how this felt for one of her characters.

Mark Billingham wanted to set the record straight, he did not wear a false baby bump when writing about a pregnant women! He tends to do less research these days, felt he had wasted time in the past researching, trying to get it right and yet still getting spoiler letters. He once placed a Starbucks in Brixton, when it didn't have one and immediately received letters: "I think you'll find there is no Starbucks in Brixton!" He said that some writers have a fetish-like approach to research, though things like DNA and getting that right is paramount.

Fanny Blake thanked the authors and handed over to the audience.

A question from the audience:
Do you have to have a devious mind to be a crime writer?

Harry Bingham:
No. You have to be in tune with your character. Bingham thinks about the crime, what it is, what it looks like. Is that devious? No, that's professional.

Mark Billingham:
No, you have to be a reader. He always has one looking over his shoulder when he's putting together a plot, and often thinks, that would fool them! "I create the best performance that I can". The key to creating suspense is the cliffhanger and characters that readers care about that makes them utterly gripped.

Another question: How are you matching up the young men with the books (Earlier in the evening the writers discussed how men tend not to read fiction as much as women)

Sue Wilkinson, CEO of The Reading Agency answered:
It's challenging and I can't ever say you do one thing. There are books available in public libraries and getting a book into young peoples hands is one of our aims. We go into public libraries, adult learning organisations, colleges, workplaces and prisons with the Reading Ahead scheme (formerly called the Six Book Challenge) it's a gateway. We support young people and adults by changing their perception of reading, opening up opportunities and building their confidence. The programme isn't just about books - it's about newspapers, magazines and websites too. The new name reflects this to help those for whom books might be a barrier to joining in. When they've read six things, they get a certificate. It might be the first time they've ever got one. "It's my job to get you reading and then you get your friend reading and he gets his friend reading and so on plus it's also important to see family members reading so we work with parents too."

Fanny Blake closed the panel discussion by asking the crime writers for their crime novel recommendations:

Dreda Say Mitchell - Sharp Objects (2007) by Gillian Flynn

Mark Billingham - Slow Horses (2010) by Mick Herron

Harry Bingham - Sharp Objects (2007) by Gillian Flynn

Clare Mackintosh - The Night Visitor (2017) by Lucy Atkins

Follow the authors on Twitter:


Sunday, 1 January 2017

Top Twelve Reads of 2016

My plan at the beginning of 2016 was to read Orphan Lit and review it. Here are some of my favourite reads, in no particular order, some reviewed and some not, from last year and nearly all of them feature orphans! 

Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days – Jeanette Winterson

I recently won a ticket to the Guardian Christmas event with Jeanette Winterson and Nigella Lawson where they spoke about traditions, recipes and memories and Jeanette red from her Christmas book. For the twelve days of Christmas, a time of celebration, sharing, and giving, she offers these twelve plus one—a personal story of her own Christmas memories.  These tales give the reader a portal into the spirit of the season, where time slows down and magic starts to happen. From jovial spirits to a donkey with a golden nose, a haunted house to a SnowMama, Winterson’s innovative stories encompass the childlike and spooky wonder of Christmas. Perfect for reading by the fire with loved ones, or while traveling home for the holidays.  The orphan narrative resurfaces in these Christmas tales featuring abandoned young children locked in or out of doors, trapped inside chests or treated cruelly as in Mrs Reckitt’s Academy for Orphans, Foundlings and Minors in Need of Temporary Office. Jeanette Winterson is a heroine of mine and this Christmas collection will become one of my treasured books. The perfect Christmas gift that I gave myself.

This is a strange book filled with old black and white photographs of peculiar children, an abandoned orphanage and a mysterious island. As the story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I felt the second half of this book works more for a YA audience. The film of the book was released in September 2016, and I look forward to watching that soon.

My Name is Leon - Kit De Waal

This book made me cry and I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget it. It is very well written and truly captures the voice of a traumatised child in care. Leon experiences what it is like to be nine years old and taken away from a mother and brother whom you love and adore. To be left alone in a strange world where all your belongings have disappeared and living with a stranger whose house rules you have to get used to.

Song of the Sea Maid - Rebecca Mascull

Written from protagonist, Dawnay’s viewpoint, the book opens onto eighteenth century life in London. We witness the terrible poverty and the way orphans, and women were treated. Ultimately though, this is a feel-good novel that re-writes the often terrible history of the neglected, nameless, and homeless orphan. This is ‘the age of sail, orphanages, the flora and fauna of islands, and even the origins of all humankind’. Impeccably researched, at times I had to wear a peg on my nose as the scenes of filthy London were so rancidly lifelike. In many ways this novel is the true definition of the ‘What if’ scenario. What if a poor female orphan was given an opportunity to become educated. What would she become? If you like stories about independent women, think Forever Amber, historical novels with a touch of romance, then this is the book for you.

The Fish Ladder - Katharine Norbury

Katharine joined us at last year’s Finchley Literary Festival where she spoke about The Fish Ladder, a beautifully written travelogue, memoir, with exquisite nature writing, fragments of poetry and tales from Celtic mythology. It explores the void, the hole, the ‘missingness’ that can quite suddenly engulf a person who has experienced trauma as a baby or a young child.

Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift

I’m currently re-reading this book and enjoying it even more. The writing is exquisite. The emotions of Jane Fairfax, the orphan, captured perfectly. Abandoned outside an orphanage at birth in 1901, this is a fairy tale about the transformation of Jane from servant to world-renowned writer. At times the lyrical waves of prose remind me of a stanza in the way certain refrains are repeated throughout the book – it’s very cleverly done. Mothers Day 30th March 1924, Jane looks back at this one perfect day that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

The Good Guy - Susan Beale

The inspiration for this novel came from Susan Beale’s adoption files. The papers included interviews with her mother, grandmother and one with her birth father. This is an extremely evocate, powerful and well-written novel that has truly captured the essence of 1960s suburban, New England and the plight and stigma of the unmarried mother.

The Mountain in my Shoe – Louise Beech

This novel is about a missing boy. A missing book. A missing husband. A woman who must find them all to find herself. But more than that it is about a young boy who has been fostered. Louise uses a Lifebook throughout the narrative – this is a book put together throughout a child’s time in care – to fill in the gaps – in this instance Conor’s past. It is a clever device and not one I had seen before. Exquisitely written and deeply touching, The Mountain in My Shoe is both a gripping psychological thriller and a powerful and emotive examination of the meaning of family … and just how far we are willing to go for the people we love.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

This Gothic novel was birthed to amazing reviews and it was one that had been on my TBR for some time. Along with many other people I also coveted the cover. From the first to the last page, I could not get enough of this book. Set in the early 1890s, and told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love and friendship, and the many different guises it can take.

The Mother – Yvvette Edwards

Another FLF guest, this novel is about a 16 year old boy who is stabbed and killed by another 16 year old boy. The book follows the trial of the boy accused of his murder and the narrator is the victim’s mum. A truly harrowing and emotional journey as the protagonist goes through a tidal wave of emotions dealing with that worst of all parent nightmares, losing a child. Extremely well-written, the narrative explores the harsh realities facing families who have lost children to knife crime.

Butterfly Fish - Irenosen Okoji

Irenosen also joined as at the Finchley Lit Fest where she spoke about Butterfly Fish, a powerfully told story of love and hope, of family secrets, power, political upheaval, loss and coming undone. Let go and fly with the flow of the narrative of this haunting and compelling magical realism novel. The Benin scenes are particularly breathtaking. It is a story of epic proportions, skillfully held together by Irenosen Okojie, an author to watch out for in the future.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – Vaseem Khan

Another Finchley Literary Festival guest, Vaseem kept us all entertained with his experiences in Mumbai that were the inspiration for the series. On arriving in Mumbai he was greeted with the unusual sight of seeing an elephant wandering down the centre of the road. This vision stayed with him and a passion for elephants developed – after cricket and literature of course! A well written book, easy to read and very entertaining with wonderful descriptions of the vibrant city of Mumbai. It is the first in the Baby Ganesh detective agency series, I have the second in the series on my TBR list.

All that is left for me to do now, is wish you a very healthy, creative, and booky New Year.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Writing Friendships

Writing Friendships took place at City University, last night and was introduced by Novel Studio tutors Emily Midorikawa and Emma Sweeney. As long-time friends who have supported each other's careers from the beginning, authors Emily and Emma know just how important building strong links with other writers can be.

They were joined by novelist Susan Barker, novelist and non-fiction writer Ann Morgan, and poet Denise Saul.

From LtoR: Emily Midorikawa, Emma Sweeney, Susan Baker, Denise Saul and
Ann Morgan  

The evening started with Ann Morgan who spoke about the ideas behind writing A Year of Reading the World. This started when Ann decided to read a book from every country in the world within a year and recorded this journey on the blog. The problems were many and and when she got to Burundi, the chances of finding a book that had been translated into to English were looking remotely slim. She turned to the refugee community and sent out some emails. She had an email from Edouard. He told of his old classmate from Burundi who had published two novels in English. Her name was Marie-Thérèse Toyi. She had lived through the Burundi genocide and relayed this through her fictional characters in Weep Not, Refugee. Ann also told us about the novelist Hamid Ismailov, Uzbek journalist, who was put on a watch hit list and whose books were burnt in the street. He and his family fled Uzbekistan to Switzerland. He explained after he fled he was removed from his audience. He had no one to write for and had to deal with the pain of being exiled from his language. Marie-Thérèse and Hamid were two of the big writing relationships from the book and Ann is still in touch with them today. She also said that whatever challenges we have, we all have barriers - confronting those barriers is very important and at the moment we still have freedom of speech and that we must fight to preserve that.

Next up was Susan Barker who told us about her non-writer writing friendship with Liang Junhong, in Shanghai. Susan had gone there to do research for a novel. She met Arts Officer, Liang at the British Council in 2007. She helped Susan find somewhere to live and also with the everyday things like joining a library, or speaking to electricians - though she couldn't help with the smog, Susan had gone to Shanghai to immerse herself in the culture and history but more often than not found herself locked in her room searching Shanghai on the Internet. Liang dragged her out and she learnt a lot through her. Susan found the transition from the UK to China difficult, the language in particular and without Liang's support she wondered if she would have coped. The research eventually became her third novel The Incarnations (Doubleday, July 2014) about a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing and interwoven with tales from the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium War, and the Cultural Revolution.

Poet Denise Saul spoke about her writing relationship with the charity Connect and how through her personal experience of aphasia, her late mother had a stroke, she created the videopoem: The Aphasic Mind. She went on to found the project Silent Room: A Journey of Language. This was a collaboration between Denise and film-maker, Helmie Stil. Aphasia is a communication disability which occurs when the language centres of the brain are damaged. The video poem focuses on language from the perspective of ‘the outsider’ or those who engage with an aphasic individual. Denise wanted to break down barriers in her writing and enter into new spaces, the carer's narrative and the disabled black body to bridge the gap and settle in those spaces. Denise said that everyone should be able to communicate and that it is important to explore other spaces as well as other disciplines. She added that she didn't really know what friendship was, it was slippery to her. She spoke more about the friendship of pleasure, of utility and virtue and that for her it was often about utility. Her top five tips for friendship included: creating and occupying new spaces; networking; accountability - she liked it when friends asked if she had finished a poem or collection, it kept her on her toes; collaboration - don't be afraid to cross boundaries; and sharing space.

Finally Emily Midorikawa  spoke about how she and Emily Sweeney had met in 2001 in a remote part of Japan. It was quite sometime after they met that they finally admitted they were both writing. They then began to post each other letters of writing and anxiously wait for feedback. Emily spoke of how literary friendships are important for writers. They began to discuss other writing relationships and realised the well-known writers were often about men Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge for example. They wondered if Charlotte Bronte had a writer friend apart from family members or Virginia Woolf in the male dominated Bloomsbury Set. They discovered there were female friendships but they hadn't been mythologised in the same way as the men. Emma and Emily went from friends who had something in common to actively working together both as tutors, and collaborators on a project. They created the blog Something Rhymed. This celebration of female literary friendship includes past authors as well as contemporary writers. From the blog came their forthcoming book: A Secret Sisterhood, which will look at the literary bonds between Jane Austen and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp; Charlotte Brontë and feminist author, Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

A Secret Sisterhood will be published, by Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA, in late 2017. The year coincides with the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death.

The panel shared their own experiences of literary friendship and offering practical advice for new and experienced writers on ways in which they can forge and develop meaningful writing relationships of their own.

As the event came to a close and myself and Lindsay, my writing friend made our way home, I reflected on our literary friendship...

Monday, 12 September 2016

Butterfly fish by Irenosen Okojie

It's funny how the very things that once irritated you about a person were the things you missed most when they were gone. Like phone calls held together by an invisible current, or rummaging through markets because we were two creased people who needed steam ironing. Lately I tried to fill the silences with... anything.

When Butterfly Fish begins, London photographer, Joy struggles to pull the threads of her life back together after the sudden death of Queenie, her mother. She has never known her father.

She receives some support from her kind but mysterious neighbor, Mrs Harris who is more than a little odd.

The first time I met Mrs Harris, she’d told me she was certain that Buddy, her garden statue Buddha, had been eating her roses.

But it is Mrs Harris, who saves Joy’s life when she tries to commit suicide and ends up in hospital. Soon after, Joy receives an unexpected inheritance from her mother: a huge sum of money she knew nothing about, her grandfather’s diary and a unique brass warrior’s head from the nineteenth century kingdom of Benin. Joy doesn’t take much interest in the artefacts, she's grieving.

The bus finally arrived in Whitechapel. I pressed the stop button and hopped off, relieved at making it through a plethora of sweaty bodies. The streets were bursting, people swarming this way and that. I wondered who of them had lost their mothers, whose chests were now holes filled with the fragments of memories. There are certain lies you tell yourself to stumble blindly through the bereavement. After the reality cracks you in two, you tell yourself that things will be okay. That time will erode the numbness away...

Joy will eventually search for the origins of the head which moves the narrative backwards and forwards in time; from contemporary London to 19th century Benin and the story of Adeusa, who is forced into becoming a wife of the king. Back again to 1970s London, for Queenie’s story and further back to 1950s Lagos, through the diary of Peter Lowon, Queenie’s father, who is in the Nigerian army.

In 19th century Benin, a special event is being held at the palace, where all the young women have to bring a dish they have prepared, and the king will make his choice of a new bride from the maker of the best dish. Adesua, still young, persuades Emeka, the local tailor, to give her some special material so she has something to wear to the palace. Suddenly, she sees a monkey that jumps on her back, grabbing her hair, scratching her face and neck and drawing blood.

She raised her palm in defence but it shot its head forward and bit her finger. By the time Emeka and a few others reached her, she lay in a heap; there was no hair on the ground, no marks on her body, and no blood…It was a sign of things to come.

Back in modern-day London, Joy is haunted by a woman, who at first appears in the street or in photographs and signally the slow deterioration of Joy's mental health and descent into madness. When she goes swimming, a silver and purple fish appears in the water.

The fish stared at me; inside its filmy eye shuttered a mini camera lens. A crowd gathered around us. The fish's mouth opened repeatedly. it trembled, then heaved and a worn, brass key slick with gut slime fell out of its mouth into my hand.

Although dead, Queenie’s life is skillfully interwoven into the narrative. How she moved to London in the 1960s is pivotal to the story: the life she left in Nigeria and eventually the story of Joy’s conception.

Dark family secrets come to light as Joy unearths the ties between her mother, grandfather, the wife of the king, and the brass head’s pivotal connection to them all.

A spiritual successor to the tales of Marquez, Butterfly Fish masterfully combines elements of traditional Nigerian storytelling and magical realism with the London immigrant and black British multigenerational take of the legacy of inheritance.

At times I found it difficult to know what was real and what was not. This was because of the magical realism and stream of consciousness descent into madness, but that is not to say it isn’t enjoyable. It is. It's extremely well done and more a case of the reader letting go and going with the flow of the narrative. Haunting and compelling, Butterfly Fish is a powerfully told story of love and hope, of family secrets, power, political upheaval, loss and coming undone. The Benin scenes are particularly breathtaking. It is a story of epic proportions, skillfully held together by Irenosen Okojie, an author to watch out for in the future.

Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian-British writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask Award in 2016 and she was selected by Ben Okri as an emerging writer to watch during the London Short Story Festival 2015. Her writing has been featured in the Guardian and the Observer and her short stories have been published internationally, including Kwani 07 and Phatitude. Speak Gigantular is her new collection of short stories due for publication 15th September.

Butterfly Fish (2015) is published by Jacaranda Books

You can follow Irenosen on Twitter: @IrenosenOkojie