Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I remember seeing starving Biafran children and babies with protruding stomachs on the television in the early 70s. I was living in a children’s home in Muswell Hill and two friends had come round for tea. We were chatting about the disco the coming Friday and practising the shuffle to Sex Machine by James Brown. Life was fun and we spent most of our time together bent over double, laughing hysterically. But when the horrific aftermath of war suddenly came into the living room I was shocked, first into silence, and then into floods of tears.

Recently, that memory came back when I began reading Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I now have a context to that memory, the history of the Biafran war. Through the medium of television, I saw children much worse off than myself. Possibly for the first time, and I never forgot those children, or the ravages of war and what guns do to innocent victims. 

The novel recreates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria, and the chilling violence that followed. Everything that happens within Half of a Yellow Sun has a cause, and often someone to blame along with it, with the British and the Hausa earning their fair shares. The reader is reminded that Britain and Russia supplied arms to the Nigerians. Adichie goes back in time through the remembered experience of her parents and family and those that didn’t survive. Beginning with the dedication:

My grandfathers, whom I never knew, Nwoye David Adichie and AroNweke Felix Odigwe, did not survive the war. My grandmothers, Nwabuodu Regina Odigwe and Nwamgbafor Agnes Adichie, remarkable women both, did. This book is dedicated to their memories: ka fa nodu na ndokwa. And to Mellitus, wherever he may be.

Mellitus, was Adichi’s parents’ houseboy during the war. She brings Mellitus back to life and tells his story, giving his memory a voice. Half of a Yellow Sun, is Adichie’s second novel and received the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. It takes its title from the flag for Biafra.

Red was the blood of the sibling massacred in the North, back was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.

The novel opens before the war, shortly after Nigeria wins independence from the UK, when middle-class life at Nsukka University is rich in food, booze, revolutionary rhetoric and hope. Ugwu, an Igbo boy from a bush village, goes to Nsukka to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor and radical.

Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greets, and had too much hair. Ugwu’s aunty said this in low voice as they walked on the path. ‘But he is a good man,’ she added. ‘And as long as you work well, you will eat well. You will even eat meat every day.’ She stopped to spit; the saliva left her mouth with a sucking sound and landed on the grass.

The book is written in four parts. Part One: The Early Sixties; Part Two: The Late Sixties; Part Three: The Early Sixties; and Part Four: The Late Sixties.

The narrative focus shifts between various characters attached to the university: Ugwu, Odenigbo, his beautiful girlfriend Olanna, and Richard, an English ex-pat who falls in love with Nigerian art and then Olanna's twin sister.

‘Nigerian food is quite all right, Harrison,’ Richard said. If only Harrison knew how much he had disliked the food of his childhood, the sharp-tasting kippers full of bones, the porridge with the appalling thick skin on top like a waterproof lining, the overcooked roast beef with fat around the edges drenched in gravy.

Food at the beginning of the book represents the affluence of their lifestyles, there is plenty of it, an abundance. As the circumstances change, so too does the food.

Nsukka University is evacuated, and Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu, and Baby move to the cities of Abba and then Umuahia. Their living situations get progressively worse as the war continues and Biafra’s food and money runs out.

Olanna glanced at the clutter that was their room and home – the bed, two yam tubers, and the mattress that leanded against the dirt-smeared wall, the cartons and bags piled in a corner, the kerosene stove that she took to the kitchen only when it was needed – and felt a surge of revulsion, the urge to run and run and run until she was far away from it all.

Food is symbolic of the progress of the war and the situation of the country. As distribution of food ceases and people start to starve, disease follows. Olanna meticulously searches Babie’s head for red hair and compares other children’s bellies to her daughter’s in search for signs of Kwashiorkor, malnutrition caused by lack of protein.

Were you silent when we died?
Did you see photos in sixty-eight 
Of children with their hair becoming rust:
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads,
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust?

The reader witnesses the role the media played in distributing images of starving children. “The world was silent when we died”, is a book that sometimes interrupts the narrative. It is being written by an unknown author who describes the larger political forces at work in the war. 

We are led to believe it is Richard writing the book, mainly because he is trying to write one throughout the novel. Adichie is playing with some reader's assumption that it is the white, western male that writes about Africa, rather than say a young, black village boy. She says: “I wanted to make a strongly-felt political point about who should be writing the stories of Africa.”

Half of a Yellow Sun has recently been named the best of the best winner from the last decade of the women’s prize for fiction both by the public and a 10-strong judging panel. Read more here.

I had put off reading Half a Yellow Sun, for quite some time. There were a number of reasons for this. The main one being the memory of the horror in the living room when I was thirteen. However, I was intrigued by Adichie and her stories and I wanted to read and learn more. The final push came a few weeks ago when a few bloggers and writers started tweeting about #DiverseDecember. You can read more about that here.

I found myself totally immersed in the lives of the characters who immediately came to life in my imagination. I understand how the war started, how those babies on the screen back in 1971 came to be there - even though the war had ended in 1970, their starvation continued for some years.

I'm looking forward to joining other writers and readers for #ReadDiverse2016 where I'll not only be reading BAME books, but also other diverse books and in particular books about care leavers who are totally under-represented in UK literature. The literature of the world should (by now) reflect the people of the world.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald

A strange woman is standing on Hope’s main street. ‘Hope’ presumably an optimistic place, but Sara isn’t staying there, only passing through to the aptly named Broken Wheel.

Her hair was a nondescript shade of brown, held back with a carelessly placed hair clip which didn’t stop it flowing down over her shoulders in a tangle of curls. Where her face should have been, there was a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl.

The literary allusion to Alcott’s Girl, sees the protagonist, Polly, leave the country to visit her wealthy city friend, Fanny. Sara has left Sweden to visit the USA. There are parallels between the two - though Broken Wheel, is not much more than ‘one big street’ rather than a city. And although initially Polly is rejected by the Fanny’s friends, Sara, is pretty much accepted straightaway.

This is a book about books and clues, clues that are littered throughout the text as the narrator and the town decide how Sara’s literary life will pan out.

Sara is 28, and has never been outside Sweden – except in the (many) books she reads. When her elderly penfriend Amy invites her to come and visit her in Broken Wheel, Iowa, Sara decides it’s time. But when she arrives, there’s a twist waiting for her – Amy has died. Finding herself utterly alone in a dead woman’s house in the middle of nowhere was not the holiday Sara had in mind.

As Sara reflects on how she has used books to hide away from life, she remembers how classmates carved meaningless symbols into desks or on lockers, while:

...she had been a geisha in Japan, walked alongside China’s last empress through the claustrophobic, closed-off rooms of the Forbidden City, grown up with Anne and the others in Green Gables, gone through her fair share of murder, and loved and lost over and over again.

[A few pages later]

Reading books isn't a bad way to live your life, but lately Sara had begun to wonder what kind of life it was, exactly. She had first been struck by this thought when she found out that Josephssons would be closing. It was as though ten years of her life had disappeared along with the bookshop; as though everything she had ever been had only existed on the greyish-white bookshelves of that dusty shop, among the people who bought four-for-three paperbacks in the summer, and anything-at-all-that-was-shiny-and-wrapped-up at Christmas.

Amy accompanies Sara’s narrative journey so the reader gets to see how their relationship evolved. Here in this town so broken it’s almost beyond repair are all the people she’s come to know through Amy’s letters: poor George, fierce Grace, buttoned-up Caroline and Amy’s guarded nephew Tom.

Sara finds herself staying in Amy’s house rent free, a situation she finds intolerable. She tries to find somebody to pay, but nobody wants her money. Money is symbolic, because more than anything, this is a story about community, about being needed and about belonging and that can't be bought.

Sara quickly realises that Broken Wheel is in desperate need of some adventure, a dose of self-help and perhaps a little romance, too.

There was something sad about the town, as though generations of problems and disappointments had rubbed off onto its bricks and its roads…On the other side of the road there was an advert for a pesticide: Control corn root worm! it shouted to the world, two by three metres in size and at least twenty years old.

In short, this was a town in need of a bookshop. And just as there is a romantic interest in Alcott’s Girl, namely Tom, so there is a Tom in Broken Wheel. ’It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Swedish tourist in Iowa must be in want of a man.’ No prizes for guessing the influence of that sentence.

Sara remembers a colleague from the bookshop where she worked in Sweden saying that every story begins with someone arriving somewhere – and this too refers to what this story is, and what it will become. And so as the story weaves its spell, twists, plots and allusions to literary twists, spells and plots, the narrative sometimes acts like a play, complete with stage directions. The townfolk plot and whisper prompts from the sidewings, directing and deciding which shape the story will take.

Caroline closed her eyes. The innocent tone wasn’t fooling her. My goodness, she thought. The woman had barely been in town two days and Jen had already started offering up its young men to her altar. Though, to be fair, it might just as well have been the woman being sacrificed. Like the oaks, the town’s bachelors weren’t exactly a tourist attraction…[Jen’s] gaze was fixed somewhere above Caroline’s head. ‘Don’t you think a holiday romance would be just the thing to get her to enjoy her time here?’ 

The text is littered with foreshadowing and allusions as to how stories work, particularly romance. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a book about books. All sorts of books, from Little Women and Harry Potter to Jodi Picoult and Jane Austen, from Stieg Larsson to Joyce Carol Oates to Proust. It’s about the joy and pleasure of books, about learning from and escaping into them, and possibly even hiding behind them. It’s about whether or not books are better than real life. For book lovers, this metanarrative is a joy. One that has been expertly handled, for here is a narrator, who like Sara, has spent a huge amount of time with books.

Sara feels she never belonged anywhere – save between the pages of a book – but as she becomes more involved in the town and is embraced by the residents of this far-from-perfect small town, she discovers they need her as much as she needs them.

The Readers of Broken Wheel is a lovely book, and like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a joy to read. It is a book that would benefit from more than one reading in order appreciate the complex narrative and literary intertwining. After such an interesting debut book, I wonder if Katarine Bivald's second book will live up to expectations. I hope so, and look forward to her new novel some time in the future.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015


Diversity in publishing has been hitting the headlines recently with a report commissioned by Spread the Word. Back in April 2015, researchers Danuta Kean and Mel Larsen discussed with publishers the key findings of their report: Writing the Future: Black and Asian Authors and Publishers in the UK Market Place.

This has created an ongoing conversation. You can see responses from the media here: The GuardianBooksellerBooktradeThe Publishers Association.

A survey of publishers and literary agents indicates that of the respondents over 74 percent of those employed by large publishing houses, and an alarming 97 per cent of agents, believe that the industry is only "a little diverse" or "not diverse at all." After reading these figures, Greenacre Writers decided something had to be done and along with writers and readers, organised a #diverseauthorday. And since then #DiverseDecember and now #ReadDiverse2016 has were launched.

Mslexia books editor Danuta Kean, joined broadcaster Nikki Bedi, book reviewer Naomi Frisby, and author Nikesh Shukla to discuss the report via Fiction Uncovered 2015 as part of a Diversity Panel. You can listen to the programme here.

Naomi Frisby was a guest editor for Fiction Uncovered where she asked: Do you ever reflect on the books you’re choosing to read? Naomi wrote about people with regional accents, the working class, BAME writers, the characters of the circus and the sideshow. 'What they all have in common', said Naomi, 'is that they’re outsiders. They’re not part of the dominant narrative; they exist beyond the mainstream.' You can read more here.

Alex Wheatle is the current guest editor for Fiction Uncovered where he has written The Bard on Hay, about his experience of attending the world famous Hay Festival. A seasoned author, Alex wonders whether he will be accepted by the white majority. He also wonders why more black novelists aren’t invited to Hay. You can read Alex's article here.

As well as Black and Asian authors there has also been a call for more diverse characters such as LGBTQ characters and disabled characters in literature.

More Diverse Conversations:

Kerry Hudson's first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was published in 2012 by Chatto & Windus and was the winner of the Scottish First Book Award among other awards. Kerry founded The WoMentoring Project and has written for Grazia, Guardian Review and YOU Magazine. On Thursday 9th July, Kerry Hudson presented a rousing provocation to a full house at the National Conversation debate: Lost Stories, Unheard Voices - Diversity in Literature
at Bloomsbury Institute. You can read the presentation here.

Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change. She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. Her weekly column reflects her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here.

Susan Barker grew up in east London. She studied philosophy at the University of Leeds and creative writing at the University of Manchester. Her two novels, Sayonara Bar (2005) and The Orientalist and the Ghost (2008), were both longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her third novel, The Incarnations, will be published in the US on August 18. Susan questions: Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write? Read it here.

Christina Fonthes is a Manchester-based translator, and Afrofeminist blogger. Born in Kinshasa, Congo and raised in London, she is an advocate for LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) rights. She recently wrote an article for Media Diversified: Book list for black girls: promoting self-love and empowering young black women. Read it here.

Susan Nussbaum is a playwright. Her works have been produced at many theatres. In 2008 she was cited by the Utne Reader as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” for her work with girls with disabilities. Nussbaum lives in Chicago. Good Kings Bad Kings is her first novel. She has written about disabled characters in fiction. Read more here.

Katharine Quarmby is a journalist, film-maker and disability rights campaigner. Most recently she has worked as an associate editor for Prospect magazine and written for the Economist. She has also worked as a producer on Panorama and Newsnight for the BBC and news-edited Disability Now. She has just published her first book, Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People.

The Bookseller recently published an article Trade 'needs to do more to promote BAME authors'. Sathnam Sanghera, author of the memoir The Boy with the Topknot (Penguin) and the novel Marriage Material (William Heinemann), was taking part in a debate hosted by Spread the Word, the writer development agency for London, and social enterprise Words of Colour. Sanghera said, Black and Asian writers are “not allowed to be average”. Danuta Kean said that diversity was about “a future-proof business”, adding: “It is about publishing reflecting the world in which we live, not one of the 1950s.” Read more here.


The British Blacklist, lists male and female authors, screenwriters, playwrights, poets and songwriters. You can find out more about the amazing wealth of UK writers of colour here.

The Bookbag, has almost 12,000 book reviews and features books from all the many walks of literary life. There are also lots of author interviews, and all sorts of top tens - all of which you can find on their features page. You can read a collection of LGBT reviews here.


Jen Campbell, is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops series, its sequel, More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, and The Bookshop Book. Jen is also an award winning poet and short story writer. Jen has an Ectrodactyly, a congential disorder and often has to put up with ignorant comments! This has not stopped her being a beautiful person and lover of books. In this vid-blog, she shares her philosophy, how to Be a Good Human and how books make us a better person. We hear about some of her favourite #diverse books here.

Holly Dunn, is a Graphic Designer and Book Designer who is passionate about properly representing authors' words through good design and of course books. Like Jen, she vid-blogs about books. Holly believes, the best way we can endorse reading diversely is to speak enthusiastically about our favourite writers from marginalised groups. She started the #readdiversely tag here.

This is just a tiny example of some amazing diverse conversations that are out in the world. Do join in the conversation today and share your amazing uniqueness, diverse authors and characters. 

Use the hastag #readdiverse2016

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Reviewers

Just recently a friend wondered how I found books to recommend. I told her, I tend to use Twitter. A lot of people that I speak to both via Social Media and person to person, complain that there is a lot of bilge out there and on Twitter in particular. So how do I filter the information? Of course it depends who and how many people you follow as to the amount of information that appears in your feed. One way to filter the stream of material is to make lists and divide your followers, which is possible on Twitter. 

My main interests via Twitter are literature, care leavers and libraries and I'm passionate about all three.

Once we are following accounts and people are following us back, we get into the business of trawling through the vast amounts of tweets and deciding what we want to read more about by following links. For me it is usually a new book that catches my eye or another library under threat or the government failing in their corporate parental role. And then there are literary events which are fun to attend, you get to hear an author speaking about their book/s and the writing process and you can choose to have your book signed. Twitter has changed the way we see authors, they are not hidden behind closed doors feverishly typing away anymore. Well they are, but they occasionally emerge on Twitter which means they are also accessible and we can have 140 character-type conversations.

Antonia Honeywell attended the Finchley Literary Festival in May, and was chatting to a member of the audience about the publishing world. I didn't have a clue what she was talking about. The publishing world is a mysterious entity to me. I know a bit about books and the authors I've read and that is mainly it. However, as I'm starting a Creative Writing PhD in September, I felt I should at least be a bit more aware of what is happening in the literary world. So I've been making more of an effort to keep an eye on book reviewers, debut novelists, and attend some literary events. 

One book reviewer in particular caught my eye, and that was Naomi Frisby @Frizbot - she is also doing a PhD and reviews books written by women – old and new, literary and commercial, fiction and non-fiction with the occasional YA title at the aptly named The Writes of Woman. If you want to learn about women and writing, this is the blog to look at. Naomi's In the Media section is an education all on its own.

Here are a few more girly reviewers:

A Life in Books @alifeinbooks picks out snippets of book news that interest her and hopefully others, She discusses some of the books and alert readers to titles that might not find themselves in the glare of the publicity spotlight. She tends to tweet about literary fiction and interesting debuts.

Women Writers, Women's Books @WomenWriters are an online literary magazine by and about contemporary women writers from around the world. 

JacquiWine's Journal @JacquiWine interests includes a range of literary fiction, both contemporary and older works – novels, novellas and short story collections. As well as the occasional non-fiction book, Jacqui is particularly interested in world lit/literature in translation, anything noirish/hardboiled and relatively modern classics. 

And now for some boys:

Tony's Reading List @tony_malone focuses on fiction in translation. German and French writing (mostly in the original language) and Japanese literature (AKA J-Lit!), plus taking in the best the world has to offer, including an increasing amount of Korean fiction over the past year or so.

Savidge Reads @SavidgeReads Simon Savidge is a book-a-holic, and blogs about older stuff, lesser known writes, quirky and the more contemporary literary big reads (though not all of them). Simon was a judge for this year's Jerwood Fiction Uncovered. He's also a Persephone fan. 

Eric Karl Anderson @LonesomeReader Avid reader, writer and book reviewer of contemporary literary fiction as well as first time novelists and slightly more experimental fiction. His favourite author is Joyce Carol Oates.

And finally:

Words of Colour @wordsofcolour is the only UK-based, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) led agency that supports writers from the main professional writing industries (creative writing, journalism, online writing, scriptwriting, plays and poetry). Includes book reviews, interviews and what's going on.

Read in Colour @readincolour US Blog about writers of colour including African-American, Asian and Latina. Ghana, India, Nigeria and Zimbabwe plus WOC for children and YA.

The Bookseller @thebookseller is the UK's definitive book industry magazine and website. News, analysis, Nielsen BookScan sales charts, jobs, Buyer's guides, and more.

Guardian Books @GuardianBooks has the latest information about books including prizes, News, Talking Points, Non-Fiction Reviews, Fiction and Poetry Reviews, People, Regulars, Children's Books, Pictures, Video and Audio, You may have missed section and popular hits within the books section.

I hope my tips and lists help you manoeuvre your way round the interesting though slightly confusing world of the Twitterspere.

Happy Reading!

Friday, 31 July 2015

By the People for the People

The Not the Booker Prize

In an effort to “get people talking about books, to promote previously unknown authors and to reward some quality books,” The Guardian called upon its readers to nominate their own choices for their favorite books of the year, stating in a July 29, 2009 article: “The judges of Britain’s most prestigious literary award pick the wrong book far too often. But who could be trusted to make a better choice? Why, the readers...of course.” Voila! The Not the Booker Prize was born. A sort of literary referendum by the reading public for the reading public.

*   *   *   *   *   *

I was very pleased to see Tasha Kavanagh's book Things We Have in Common (Canongate) on the Not the Booker list as I had heard Tasha reading an excerpt at the Finchley Literary Festival and found myself intrigued. 

Things We Have in Common is a creepy tale of loneliness and teenage obsession, described by its publisher as “Sue Townsend meets Zoë Heller”, with overtones of Emma Donoghue’s Room.

From the first sentence, I found myself sucked into a story that had me on edge. The narrative shifts between creepy, poignant and darkly humourous were overwhelming at times.

'I typed How to spot a paedophile into Google on my laptop. About a billion sites came up. I took a quiz on one. It showed pictures of people (men mostly) and you had to click Yes for paedophile or No for not a paedophile. I only got half of them right, which technically means there was a 50 per cent chance I was wrong about you.'

Kavanagh has captured the voice of the teenage outsider, the misfit, one who is overweight and living with a stepfather whom she dislikes whilst all the time missing her father who died the year before. She is ostracised and bullied by fellow classmates who are really cruel, the thing that gets her through is a massive crush on a fellow pupil, the pretty and popular Alice. With the help of her imagination, she makes up situations that cast her as a heroine and a much-wanted object of love.

Kavanagh writes the novel entirely from Yasmin's point of view in second person. Yasmin speaks to a man with a dog, who she calls `You' and whom she suspects wants to abduct the lovely Alice. Yasmin's story is essentially very sad but also disturbing, at times the reader is unsure of her reliability as she is prone to lying and being very secretive.

As a detective reader, I suspected how the novel was going to end but I was hugely surprised which is a good thing.

Yasmin’s young voice is so spot on, brilliantly realistic, whilst still being naive, optimistic and extremely fragile. The book is so well written that I felt at times I was prying into a young girls diary. It is a clever book and will keep the reader glued and guessing until the last page. 

*   *   *   *   *   *

Things we have in Common made the Not the Booker shortlist:

Kirstin Innes – Fishnet (Freight Books)
Kat Gordon – The Artificial Anatomy of Parks (Legend Press)
Oliver Langmead – Dark Star (Unsung Stories)
Paul McVeigh – The Good Son (Salt)
Tasha Kavanagh – Things We Have in Common (Canongate)
Melanie Finn - Shame (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

and now it's time for the Not the Booker Prize final judgment. Vote here

Thursday, 23 July 2015

My Guilty Book Confession

Back in January, I joined Eva Stalker's #TBR20 which meant wandering around my flat looking for 20 unread books. The idea being that I would read these before buying anymore. Eva completed her task and here is her final update. You can find out more about the original project here.

I haven't completed the task and I am not going to post excuses. At night I began dreaming about #TBR20 and the unread books. The task was supposed to have had the opposite affect and relieve the guilt of books that hadn't been read. To date I have read half the #TBR20 pile. Plus due to a few festivals and author events I now have another pile of #TBR books. You'll have to excuse me for a moment while I have a quick hunt and take a photograph.

Here they are! Now be honest, if you had attended the 17 events at this year's Finchley Literary Festival, would you have come away empty handed? Not only was I attending, I was organising too. I had to buy books, it would have been rude not to! One book, pinched by my Sci-Fi boyfriend is missing: The Ship by Antonia Honeywell who gave a fabulous talk. I've read this and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the rebellious Lalla. And in case you can't read the title of the book on top of the pile, that's The Hungry Ghost Festival (2012), a collection of poetry by Jen Campbell about her childhood and adolescence in the North East. 'Kitchen' and 'Lobster Girl' are my favourites.

And there's more...almost immediately after the festival, Greenacre Writers Book Club got involved with this year's Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction which meant reading one of the shortlisted books, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and reviewing the book

Myself and Meral Mehment were then nominated to attend the shortlisted readings at the Royal Festival Hall which was great fun. After listening to the six readings, I wanted Sarah's book to win, but felt sure that How to be Both by the outstanding Ali Smithwould be the winner. Whilst listening to her reading, I was reminded of James Joyces' stream of consciousness style in Dubliners (1914). The judges must have had a very difficult task as nearly all the books were captivating and I especially enjoyed an excerpt from The Bees, a debut novel by Laline Paull. And of course, I bought more books.

And then three writers, one of whom, gave a reading at the festival, decided to publish debut books in the same week. I had heard an excerpt from Irenosen Okojie's novel, Butterfly Fish at FLF and I found myself intrigued and fearful for the characters almost immediately. Greenacre Writers Helen Barbour and Anna Meryt also published books. I attended Helen's launch, The A-Z of Normal at The Phoenix Cinema. She gave a very interesting talk about her path to publishing which included all sorts of visual aids. Anna Meryt, came along to the Greenacre Writers Meet-up and brought a few copies of her book A Hippopotamus at the Table. Unfortunately, others beat me to them, so A Hippo is definitely on my To-Be-Bought (TBB) list. I hope to do this at her forthcoming book launch to be held at The Big Green Bookshop September 11th, 7pm. Just waiting for Irenosen's next reading to get my copy signed too.

As well as festivals and debut books, I've also been attending some writing events: The Tinder Press line up with Maggie O'Farrell Instructions for a Heatwave, Sarah Winman A Year of Marvellous Ways, and Sarah Leipciger The Mountain Can Wait, where yes, I bought even more books.

A couple of weeks later, last week in fact, I attended another event at Foyles, Charing Cross, to hear Matt Haig and Cathy Rentzenbrink discussing Cathy's The Last Act of Love. Cathy had the audience in tears with her friendly welcome especially for the broken people. I was particularly pleased to meet Cathy as she is the Project Director of book industry charity Quick Reads. I always choose Quicks Reads for my World Book Night choice. Did I buy books?

Well, I'm starting a PhD in September and living in a fictional world is one of the core themes, so I'm beginning to collect books that have reading as part of their narrative and in particular books that help to save people lives. Cathy and Matt write about how reading and writing helped them deal with personal tragedy and illness and continuing to live. 

And then I heard about Katarina Bivald's The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, just the title had me intrigued. And although at it's core it is about belonging, it is also about a love of books. I can't wait to read it!

It seems I have shifted from not buying books to buying even more. Whether that is a problem, well, I'll have to wait and see... if they get read. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Readings

On Tuesday 2nd June, I and three other readers attended the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction readings at Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Southbank Centre.

The first thing I noticed was the amount of people, it was packed. Was it always like that? Had the Baileys become more popular as reading it seemed had become
something to rave and get so excited about. Have you read this or this or even that? Meanwhile people were chatting and hugging and checking their phones and then the announcement. 'If you have a mobile phone, please turn it off and no photos.'

The lights dimmed, the Baileys was about to begin.
Kate Mosse arrived, there to begin and introduce the presenter, the introducer of the shortlisted authors.

The Baileys Prize, was of course originally the Orange Prize for fiction. The first Orange Prize for Fiction was won by Helen Dunmore for A Spell of Winter. The prize was established to recognise the literary achievement of female writers. The inspiration for the Baileys Prize was the Booker Prize of 1991, when none of the six shortlisted books was by a woman, despite some 60% of novels published that year being by female authors.

In 2014, the Baileys launched #ThisBook campaign. A definitive list of books chosen for their biggest impact on women. See the list here. Despite being the main buyers and readers of books, despite of Books about women don’t win awards. Most Booker winners are men who write stories about men. So, many readers still think a prize for women’s literature is necessary. Read more here.

I’ll be honest, I knew about the Baileys Prize and I listened out for the shortlist over the years when it was the Orange, but I didn’t really take much notice until this year *blushes*. I’m not sure why that is. Possibly because I want to know more about what is happening in the literary and publishing in general.

Back to Tuesday, and I saw the shortlisted authors appear on stage (If you’re interested in the longlist, you can see it here. Except Anne Tyler couldn’t make it and so Stanley Tucci took her place. And though he read well, I thought a man an odd choice at what was supposed to be a celebration of women’s writing and read by women authors.

2015 Shortlist

Yes, they are biscuits. Don't they look yummy. Designed by Biscuiteers who are passionate about biscuits and books.

I’m not going to talk about the books, Baileys Judges and others have done that already and you can find out what they said here.

Besides I’ve only read one of the shortlisted books The Paying Guests by Sarah Water as part of the Greenacre Writers Book Club, we were chosen to be one of the one of the book groups shadowing the Baileys Prize. You can see our reviews by clicking on the link above. I was very interested in how I would respond to the author readings. 

Rachel Cusk was first with Outline. She gave a rather scathing review of The Paying Guests and I wondered how she felt on the stage. Next up was The Bees which grabbed me immediately. It was so different, unusual and so very powerful. Based on that short extract I would have chosen that book as the winner. To me it represented everything I would imagine the Bailey’s Prize judges were looking for. A strong female voice, well actually more than one, the bee colony is ninety percent female, a female world, experimentation, and inspirational as well as being a debut novel.

Although I would have chosen The Bees, I thought after listening to the readings that it would be our book The Paying Guests that would be the winner. Sarah Waters drew the audience in to the story, it was an easy, exciting and enjoyable read - everything a good book should be.

However, I must accept that the judges knew what they were doing, having actually read all the books! The winner of the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction was Ali Smith. *Congratulations* I bought a copy of the book at the Bailey readings but I haven't opened it yet. Apparently there are two versions of the book, one starts with a renaissance artist of the 1460s and the other with the child of a child of the 1960s. It's a surprise to look forward to and be savoured when I do open the first page, begin to read...with Baileys, biscuits and Ali Smith, a wonderful end to a wonderful bookish experience.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Diary of a Festival Organiser - Day 5

Sunday 24th May

My sister and niece arrived last night so I had guests as well as trying to finish last minute instructions for The Walking Writer. My niece is fifteen and does not do the 'W' word. So my sister and I left her in lazing in bed and in good time to meet the walkers at West Finchley station.

A lot of people asked about the weather, when I had checked it said that rain was expected at 3.00pm, one of the walkers said it was 1.00pm. We set off in hope at 11.30am.

Our first stop was a field where there used to be an old house, Brent Lodge. Built in 1810 it later became the home of Francis A. Hamilton. Despite opposition from Spike Milligan and the Finchley Society, the house was demolished in 1971.
We journeyed on to Dollis Brook and saw the new path recently installed by TFL; the idea is that cyclists and walkers can both use it. Unfortunately it has caused a bit of upset amongst walkers. 

Then we did our first writing exercise which just involved closing eyes and listening to all the sounds. One chap couldn't close his eyes as he said he'd fall over. We then continued the journey in silence until we ended up at the lake for a lovely reading, The Lake by Roger McGough, actually it wasn't so lovely...
Down on the lake, piggy eyes glisten
They have acquired a taste for flesh.
They are licking their lips. Listen .. .

We had lots of readings and creative writing exercises as well as detours into hollows and wooded paths. We stopped for refreshments at Finchley Golf Club and had delicious sandwiches and drinks. Apparently the original owner had a thing for beavers. There are stone beavers outside and wooden ones inside, possibly having escaped from Narnia only to be captured by the beaver-loving golfer!

After lunch and a few Haiku's we continued on our merry way towards Whetstone but only after a few more detours. I began to be a bit worried that I wouldn't make the next event in time so phoned Lindsay to say I might be late.

We visited Brookdene wooded area that is under threat from developers (though not if we can help it). Mr Greenacres who has charted every green space in Finchley takes his role as Green Spaces Champion very seriously. He read an excerpt from Wind in the Willows (see below) and read poems where Spike Milligans house used to stand. The highlight was the finish! Tea and delicious home-made cake at Redwood Cafe in Swan Lane Open space just as the rain arrived.

`I beg your pardon,' said the Mole, pulling himself together with an effort. `You must think me very rude; but all this is so new to me. So--this--is--a--River!'
`THE River,' corrected the Rat.
`And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!'
`By it and with it and on it and in it,' said the Rat. `It's brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It's my world, and I don't want any other...'
For the final event of the day and indeed the 2015 Finchley Literary Festival, I'll hand you over to Lindsay, who has written an excellent account of an excellent event and awesome finale which you see here.

Diary of a Festival Organiser - Day 4

Saturday 23rd May

I was hoping to have a little lay in this morning but unfortunately my body clock seems to have got stuck at 6am. I'm not sure why this is because usually I cannot wake up in time for work and I'm often late though of course it's never my fault as usually I am abducted by aliens en-route. And usually when I wake, I lay sleepily in my bed drowsing. Not so at the moment, I'm like a zombie that smells human flesh - eyes wide and senses all alert.

I thought of fellow coordinator Lindsay, preparing for her Voice Skills Workshop and Katie Alford, fellow Greenacre Writer who would be running her first workshop ever. And in the meantime I tweaked my introduction speech for the YA event at Waterstones. My only dilemna was whether to take the bike or walk and in the end I walked.

Savita, Alex and Ellie
Arriving at Waterstones, Alex Wheatle and Ellie Daines were already there. I think I was more nervous than they were. It's really quite odd, the adrenaline inside my body was acting like a bottle of shaken fizz. I grabbed handfuls of flyers and stood outside the shop shouting at passers-by, 'Interested in literature, books, reading...' 'Come in out of the rain (and seeing one of the booksellers out of the corner of my eye) added, '...and buy some books,' just as Savita arrived and I laughed at myself. 

Once the introductions were over, I settled down to listen to these three Young Adult writers. I heard how Alex's novel Liccle Bit was based on a young person he had met through his community work. A young boy who had been sucked into a gang. He didn't want to be there and unfortunately he ended up in prison. Alex was so moved by his story that he began writing. 

Savita's novel The Long Weekend had it's beginnings when her child was in primary school and there had been a flyer doing the rounds about a man who had tried to abduct a child. She began to think about the incident and realised just how easily it could happen.

Ellie's novel, Sine Izzy Shine is about a mother who has amnesia and thinks she is the same age as her daughter. Even from the short extract I heard, I immediately grasped how the roles of mother and daughter had been reversed. Ellie explained how a relative suffered with Alzheimers and this was what had fired her imagination.

Leading up to the event there had been a lot of activity on Twitter about diversity in children's literature. Alex, Savita and Ellie continued this conversation with the audience during question time. I was very moved by Alex remembering as a child how he and his family were invisible in literature. Alex was an avid reader as were Savita and Ellie. Literature that is available in bookshops is determined by what the publishers believe readers want, it's about time that they actually spoke to readers and really heard what they have to say. The audience in Waterstones was pretty diverse with many nationalalities and backgrounds represented and these readers want to see themselves represented in literature.

I had been looking forward to the next event, Murder in the Library, all week. It was my chance to sit and write and not worry about anything for a couple of hours. I had been thinking about my inner investigator and I was torn between an intelligent buxom blonde and nervy, perceptive Kenyan librarian. So I decided they would work together. And what fun I had. My murder victim was the Councillor for Libraries and of course we all know that libraries are under threat so a lot of people hated him! (The perfect victim must be hated) I explored North Finchley library, where the event was held, for a convenient place to hide the body. Josie and Penny did an excellent job of discussing just enough about the various roles in a crime novel to get our imaginations well oiled. I'm going on a writing retreat in a couple of weeks and I'll be taking my investigators with me.

Our final event for Saturday was an absolute hoot! Anna Meryt organised the poets and musicians for the Poetry and Music Palooza that was held at Cafe Buzz in North Finchley. I think I've probably written enough for one day, so I'll hand you over to Lindsay who has also written about this event in more detail.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

The Barbers had said they would arrive by three. It was like waiting to begin a journey, Frances thought. She and her mother had spent the morning watching the clock, unable to relax. At half past two she had gone wistfully over the rooms for what she'd supposed was the final time; after that there had been a nerving-up, giving way to a steady deflation, and now, at almost five, here she was again, listening to the echo of her own footsteps, feeling no sort of fondness for the sparsely furnished spaces, impatient simply for the couple to arrive, move in, get it over with.

Waters evokes perfectly the atmosphere of losing a private space in a home. With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the 'clerk class', the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways.

Then she realised that Lilian was not moving away; she was simply looking out into the passage to be sure that no one else was near. Now, in fact, she was turning back, she was drawing breath, she was stepping forward-pushing off from the doorpost as if gently but bravely launching herself into a stretch of chill water.
And with no more effort than that, no more fuss, no more surprise, she came across the room to Frances and touched her lips to hers.

As passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

Greenacre Writers was selected as one of the 12 book clubs who were shadowing the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2015. We were given The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters was well as a lovely bottle of Baileys and some bookmarks.

This was the first Sarah Waters novel that I've read. I enjoyed being taken back in time and had no problem with the intensity of the relationship. I found the descriptions of paying guests arriving and living in the house and all that brings with it, like the loss of privacy very lifelike. It is almost as if Waters takes the traditional Lady and Servant roles and turns them up-side down. Lillian is the more bohemian, Frances scrubs floors without shame.

I didn't enjoy the suspense of the murder trial, though I enjoyed the plot (if that makes sense). I did feel the author rather let the reader down by the ending, I really wanted to know what would have happened had the outcome been different. This could possibly have been a book for which there were two endings.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Diary of a Festival Organiser - Day 3

Friday 22nd May 2015

Duncan Barrett
Our first event of the day took place at Waterstones, North Finchley with Duncan Barrett (unfortunately Nuala Calvi was unwell). Duncan spoke about their latest book The Girls Who Went to War. Their previous books include The Sugar Girls and GI Brides. I learnt a lot about women in the services during WW2, and interestingly though not unsurprisingly, they had to put up with a lot of unkindness from the general public who thought they were all 'tarts'. The Government were so worrried that they made a propaganda film The Gentle Sex. The Girls is already a bestseller and is at No.3 of the Sunday Times top ten.

While we were rehearsing for the next event, Paul Baker was meeting walkers at Finchley Central station and taking them for a literary walk. Paul, a qualified City of London guide, led a special Finchley Lit Fest walk. Two miles from Finchley Central to East Finchley, taking people past a number of Finchley's literary connections including Charles Dickens, Sir Edmund Gosse, John Betjeman, Spike Milligan and Will Self, amongst others and painters, William Hogarth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Ford Madox Brown. Even more Finchley in Fiction here.

The next event was Mike Gee's Literary Slideshow. This was a slightly different show from his usual secret green spaces event, it included readings by Lindsay, Mark Kitchenham, Chris Hurwitz-Bremner and myself of over twenty pieces of poetry and prose to lovely photos. I particularly enjoyed the last two lines of The Song of the Dandelion Fairy: (There are fairies with this link!) '...You can never drive me out, Me, the dauntless Dandelion!' However, this event nearly didn't happen. Just as we left Mike's house with a lorry-load of equipment, two fire engines went whizzing past. I didn't know where they were headed but I did instinctively feel we should go the long way round to the library. It was just as well we did because when one of the guests arrived he said there was a fire in North Finchley High Road and people were stuck in traffic for up to two hours. North Finchley library is at the top end of Finchley. There were some people who didn't make it but we still had fun and decided (to our peril) that it was a rehearsal for another literary slideshow in the future. Date to be confirmed!

I couldn't attend the Writing for Wellbeing event with Andi Michael but I heard from a participant that she had a wonderful time. More events tomorrow!

Friday, 22 May 2015

Diary of a Festival Organiser - Day 2

Thursday 22nd May 2015 - Part Two

Jen Campbell came to visit us in Friern Barnet Community Library as part of the festival. I've been following Jen on Twitter for some time and it was Jen that introduced me to Mike Carey's novel, The Girl with all the Gifts. Jen is a bit like The Girl with all the Books because she reads at least two a week and has a wealth of knowledge not just about books but about bookshops too. Not just books and bookshops but also the author of bestselling 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' series plus a very interesting Booktube channel

Jen gave us some examples of the weird things customers say: 'Do you have this children's book I've heard about? It's supposed to be very good. It's called Lionel Richie and the Wardrobe.'
But behind the fun aspect of Jen's books is the really serious and important message of how books and bookshops educate and inform. The same way as having access to libraries works: for information, other worlds, and a much needed peaceful environment. When a country wants to oppress its people, it often begins by burning books or closing libraries. Jen told us about a bookshop in Kenya that keeps being burnt down, Khaleb Omondi, the man who owns it keeps reopening new bookshops, his resilience is scary, brave and admirable. Book burning becomes emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence an aspect of a nation's culture.
We've had a lot of fun meeting such a diverse group of authors and book people, and there's more events happening. We've joked about zombies and book bugs but behind the festival is a serious message that is all tied up with access to books, access to information and why our theme this year is supporting our libraries. Holding events in libraries is sending a message to our council: we love libraries, we use libraries, we want access to local libraries in our community. We will support Unison and librarians when they strike 1st and 2nd June. We will not be shushed.

Also see The Library Debate