Sunday, 28 August 2016

An Evening of Bookish Delights

To the Bright Edge of the WorldIt may come as a surprise to any readers living close to bright lights and big cities but, as a denizen of a small village in middle England, it’s a relatively big deal when a local venue manages to get an author of note out into the wilds to visit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few author talks and attend the odd signing over the years but I have to admit to enviously watching the Twitter feeds of London-based bloggers who have a seemingly never-ending round of book launches and evening events to attend.

In recent years however, the glorious Booka Bookshop in Oswestry has been luring increasingly big-name authors north of Watford Gap and into the Shropshire borderlands. Already this year they’ve had Chris Cleave, Harry Parker and Lisa Owens (to name but a few) in attendance and Damon Hill, Ann Cleaves and Alexander McCall-Smith are all on the events calendar for the coming months. The problem, for me anyway, is that Booka is stretching the definition of local – whilst it’s one of the independent bookshops closest to me, it’s still a good 90-minute drive from my home which can seem a little ambitious having done a full day at the coalface on the day job. So despite being very, very tempted on more than once occasion, I’d not yet made it over to one of their events…until this week.

When I saw the announcement that Eowyn Ivey, bestselling author of the magical novel ‘The Snow Child’, was making Booka one of the stops on her UK tour to promote her second novel, ‘To The Bright Edge of the World’, I was very excited. Added to that the fact that she would be in conversation with Simon Savidge, blogger, vlogger and co-host of ‘The Readers’ (one of my favourite bookish podcasts), I decided to throw caution to the wind, ignore the fact that the event was on a school night and book a couple of tickets as a treat for myself and my mum.

Booka never disappoints (apart from the one occasion that I got to Oswestry and it was closed for a stock take – heartbroken!) and, upon arriving, we were instantly made welcome and offered a choice of wine or juice before settling in for the talk. We also got chance to sample some Alaskan Ice Wine, as an homage to Eowyn’s native country and the place in which both of her books are set. It was lovely but very sweet, reminding me of a dessert wine, with a crispness at the end that evoked a little of Alaska.
Eowyn Ivey 
The evening kicked off with Eowyn reading a passage from ‘To The Bright Edge of the World’, which follows Colonel Allen Forrester as he leads an expedition along the Wolverine River to chart its course and map a hitherto unexplored area of the Alaskan wilderness. Told through diaries, letters and other documents, the novel alternates between Allen’s adventures and the domestic dramas of his pregnant wife, Sophie, who initially resents being left behind. Eowyn has a lovely reading voice and I was immediately drawn in by the sense of character and location as she read aloud from one of Allen’s diary entries.

The conversation with Simon Savidge was equally fascinating. Having refrained from purchasing the book until the evening itself, I was pleased that the discussion stayed spoiler-free whilst still giving a real insight into the novel. Eowyn has clearly spent a great deal of time researching the book and her passion for accurately representing Alaska and its people in her work really came through. She also enjoys interweaving fact with fiction, ensuring that Alaskan culture is fully realised but freely admitting to making up the Wolverine River and the specific geography of her story to better allow for the telling of the tale.

Anyone who has read Eowyn’s spell-binding first novel, ‘The Snow Child’, will be delighted to know that she continues to blend reality with a little of the magical in this second book – although she did say that ‘To The Bright Edge of the World’ is deliberately written in a slightly different register. I felt, from the readings given on the night, that the book did seem a little more grounded that ‘The Snow Child’, which had a sense of the otherworldly all the way through. That said, I still got a sense of the wonder and mystery that comes with being a pioneer in an Alaskan wilderness and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the book and spending more time with both Allen and Sophie.

A further reading, this time from a section featuring Sophie, was followed by a Q&A from the audience, with questions ranging from specifics about the book to queries about writing life and the trials of getting published. Finally, the evening ended with Eowyn signing copies of her books and chatting with audience members. I also got to meet the lovely Simon Savidge and his partner Chris, along with his mum and sister who were in attendance for the evening (and primed with questions to get the Q&A rolling – good thinking Simon, it worked!) and nerd out about books for a few minutes, which was like the cherry on top of an already well-iced delicious cake of an evening.

All in all, it was definitely worth the trip to head over to Booka for the evening. I love author events but they can sometimes feel a little formal however Booka did a great job of creating a warm and friendly atmosphere and the ‘conversation’ format added to this, giving the evening the feel of a collective booky chat rather than a talk and reading. This was helped in no small part by Eowyn herself, who was absolutely delightful and answered all questions with both good humour and good grace. I can’t wait to start ‘To The Bright Edge of the World’ and hope to be back at Booka for another author evening soon!

Do you enjoy author events? Have you been to any particularly great ones? I’d love to hear off anyone who’s been to a book festival as I’ve not had the opportunity and I’d be interested to know what a larger event is like to attend. As always, drop me a comment down below, say hi on Twitter over @amyinstaffs or find me on Litsy at ShelfofUnreadBooks. And, until next time….

Happy Reading!

'To The Bright Edge of the World' by Eowyn Ivey is published by Tinder Press and is available now from all good bookshops in both hardback and as an e-book. A limited number of signed copies from the Booka event can be ordered on Booka's website here.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

A Tale of Two Childhoods: Foxlowe and The Trouble with Goats & Sheep

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep Child narrators can, for me at least, often be problematic in adult fiction. Too often the voice fails to convince being either too knowing or irritatingly faux-na├»ve. It was therefore a great pleasure to read not one, but two fabulous novels this month that featured child narrators in a convincing manner.

Joanna Cannon’s ‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ has been on my TBR pile for a while. I first heard about it from Simon Savidge over at Savidge Reads because, to be honest, he couldn’t stop raving about on both his blog and on The Readers. The novel also got featured in a number of Best of 2016 lists – quite a feat for a book that was published only a few weeks into the year. And, to be fair, I did try to read it when it first came out but it was one of those cases of ‘right book, wrong time’ and I put it back on the shelf about 60 pages in. This month was, however, very much the right time to be reading ‘Goats and Sheep’, which is set in the heatwave of the summer of 1976. So one sunny day, I picked it up and started again.

‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ is the story of 10-year-old Grace and her best friend Tilly. It is also the story of their parents and neighbours on The Avenue and the surrounding streets and provides a fascinating insight into insular communities from a child’s eye-view. At the start of the novel, Grace’s neighbour Mrs Creasy has gone missing, an act that causes some consternation amongst her fellow residents who are worried that she may have discovered the truth behind dark events of one winter’s night a decade before. Acting on some well-intentioned advice from the local vicar, Grace and Tilly begin a quest to find their missing neighbour and, in doing so, begin to uncover the secrets that the other residents have worked so hard to bury.

Although not told entirely from Grace’s perspective (there are switches to some of the adult characters, as well as flashbacks to 1967), it is Grace’s voice that really stood out for me within this book. Although a somewhat precocious 10-year-old, Grace was entirely authentic to me being perfectly balanced between childlike innocence and the increasing awareness of teenage years. And the old adage ‘out of the mouths of babes’ proves to ring true as Grace and Tilly confront the underlying prejudice and pettiness of their small community with an unknowing wisdom. To say more about the story would be to spoil the enjoyment of the narrative, which benefits from a creeping sense of dread as the reader comes to the realisation of what happened in 1967 well before Grace and Tilly get a true sense of events. This was however, one of my favourite reads of the year so far and an extremely impressive debut.

FoxloweI had a few more problems with my second book, ‘Foxlowe’ by Eleanor Wassberg, another debut and another one that I read thanks to Simon Savidge (it was his Litsy feed that did it this time – the book has to have one of the most gorgeous covers published this year). Set in a commune on the edge of the Staffordshire Moorlands, this is the story of Green, her ‘sister’ Blue and their peripatetic childhood with Founders, Richard, Freya, Libby and the rest of The Family, in the apparent idyll of Foxlowe. As with most communal idylls in novels however, it isn’t long before the reader realises that there is something rotten in the heart of Foxlowe. Green and Blue are affected by The Bad, which can only be cured by the light of the double sunset on the Solstice and which, according to Freya, is growing within them.

Once again, it was the voice that really stood out for me in ‘Foxlowe’. Alternating between Green’s childhood in Foxlowe and her teenage years when tragedy has driven her into the outside world, Green’s voice is by turns confidential, assured, insular and creepy and it does a fantastic job of conveying the dark and gothic tone of this twisted novel. Some reviewers have been irritated by the cadence of Green’s voice – the inclusion of many capitalised words and baby-like language as with The Bad, Leavers, The Family and The Founders – but I found this convincing in a child who has grown up without any form of formal education and, arguably, without any education of note at all. I also found that the use of these words, which are imbued with so much meaning for Green and her ‘siblings’ but foreign to the reader, added to the sense of the uncanny that runs throughout the book.

Whilst the narration was accomplished and erred on the right side of creepy, I did however have major issues with the plot. Without giving away major spoilers, all I will say is quite how none of the other adults realise that Freya is as mad as a box of frogs baffles me. Whilst I get that these are ‘adults’ who have deliberately chosen to walk away from the responsibilities of everyday life, the fact that they would wilfully choose to ignore child cruelty on the scale sometimes shown by Freya just didn’t wash. Whilst Freya is a truly hateful character throughout, she isn’t violent or dangerous (at least not in the beginning) and seems instead to operate through a mixture of fear, anger and spite. So how does she exert so much power and influence through the commune? And whilst I get that Freya evidently has severe mental health issues (although enough with the ‘evil’ characters having mental health problems already please! I could write a whole other blog post on that one), that alone just didn’t seem to justify her malicious hatred of Green and Blue. I read a brief but enlightening interview with Eleanor Wassberg in NewBooks Magazine in which she talked about the characters’ lack of agency due to ‘shoal’ mentality – the idea of a communal mania. And whilst this can and does happen in real life (take instances of mass suicide within cults for example), it usually has a charismatic central figure at the heart of it. For me, Freya was just not charismatic enough – I didn’t buy into the fact that all of the other characters would have bought into her hippie shtick and I think it led to an increasing disbelief with the events of the novel.

That aside however, I do think ‘Foxlowe’ is an accomplished debut and I would definitely recommend it to fans of the Victorian gothic, although I would add in a trigger warning for scenes of child abuse. Wassberg is clearly a very accomplished writer and, whilst I had issues with the plotting, I do think that the compellingly eerie quality of Green’s voice resonates with the reader long after you turn the final page. It was also nice to see my home county featured in a novel – although it is the setting for a cult so…..maybe not!

So if you’re looking for convincing young narrators, you can add both ‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ and ‘Foxlowe’ to your reading lists! If you have read either book, please let me know your thoughts by dropping a comment below or over on Twitter @amyinstaffs or Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. As always, I’d love to know what you’re reading or if you have any more recommendations for adult books with child narrators that you think I’d enjoy. And, as always, until the next time….

Happy Reading! x

Monday, 1 August 2016

July In Review

I cannot believe that today is the first day of August and we're over halfway through 2016 already! And although it a cliche to say it, July really has flown by - predominantly in a blur of furious activity at the day job and busy weekends with friends, neither of which have allowed for as much reading time as I would have liked. 

The Glorious HeresiesThe start of the month was, in all honesty, something of a dry period reading-wise. I bailed on 'The Glorious Heresies', which I just couldn't take to despite the accomplished writing and the many plaudits the book has been awarded since winning the 2016 Baileys Prize. And, despite having a TBR that now extends well beyond one shelf of unread books, I really struggled to pick up anything that hooked me. It was one of those intensely frustrating periods when just nothing on my shelves seemed to fit my mood. 

Time and Time AgainI did manage to finish my book club read for the month, Ben Elton's 'Time and Time Again', which was a reassuringly readable piece of speculative historical fiction that posits the interesting question 'if you could go back and change one thing in history, what would that be?' For the hero of Elton's novel, Max Stanton, the one thing is the start of the First World War and his quest to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and bring about the death of the Kaiser in order to do this makes up the bulk of the novel. Elton is a surprisingly good writer of historical fiction and clearly researches his books very thoroughly - the sections where he discusses the causes and effects of The Great War and its repercussions throughout history were my favourite parts of the novel. Unfortunately I do find that he sometimes pads his novels with unnecessary subplots, in this instance a rather pointless romance with an Irish suffragette whose progressive views seemed unbelievably enlightened even for a first wave feminist. It did make for a good book club discussion however and, for the most part, my group enjoyed the speculative elements of the plot and we had an interesting debate about what the implications of preventing the First World War could possibly be. 

The Trouble with Goats and SheepHaving finished one book, I was determined to keep reading so signed up for the #24in48 Readathon, which took place over the weekend of 23/24 August. This readathon challenges you to read for 24 hours out of 48 and, whilst I knew that work on the Saturday would prevent me reaching this goal, I thought signing up and being part of a readathon would encourage me to dedicate my downtime to books as opposed to mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. I also pulled one of my long-time TBR bench-warmers, Joanna Cannon's debut novel 'The Trouble with Goats and Sheep', off the shelf for this purpose. Set during the heatwave of 1976, the novel is a coming of age tale that follows 10 year old Grace and her friend Tillie as they go in search of their missing neighbour Margaret Creasy and uncover secrets and lies within their community. I'll be writing a full review of the book in a future post, comparing it to my other read from the latter part of this month 'Foxlowe', another coming of age tale but one that tackles the subject very differently. 

FoxloweSo although I didn't manage the #24in48 fully, the readathon weekend did get my reading back on track. The social media presence of the readathon on Twitter and Litsy really helped as I enjoyed sharing goals with other readers and the fact that there was a lot of mutual cheer-leading over the weekend. I was also helped by the fact that 'The Trouble with Goats and Sheep' was a really compelling read and I ploughed through it in a matter of days, followed by devouring 'Foxlowe' over the course of a weekend. All of which has really re-energised my reading life, allowing me to really look forward to August.

The Little Red ChairsI'm currently reading my next book club read, Edna O'Brien's 'The Little Red Chairs' - the first O'Brien I have ever read - and am narrowing down my holiday TBR for a planned weekend away later in the month. As always, I'd love to know how your reading has been going - did you have a more productive July than I managed? Have you also read 'Time and Time Again' or 'The Trouble with Goats and Sheep' and what did you think? What are your reading plans for August? Drop me a comment below or come say hi @amyinstaffs on Twitter and @ShelfofUnreadBooks on Litsy. And,until the next time...

Happy Reading! x