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Literally. I’m doing a lot for the brilliant Canterbury Festival this year, and the first of my ‘engagements’ is tomorrow night at Waterstones, St Margaret’s Street, Canterbury. The idea is this: you know the Man Booker Prize, yes? The shortlist announced two weeks ago, yes? Well, six writers from the area are ‘championing’ one book each from this list, then we are bringing our thoughts to three meetings for local reading groups. That’s two books per meeting, if you’re struggling with the maths… (Other writers include Andrew McGuinness,Tim Binding, Nina Bell, and Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski.

Anyway, I’m holding out for The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry — which I’ve read and very much enjoyed. The voices will stay with me, and the complicated central character Roseanne Clear/McNulty… She too will stay with me, and her oddly beautiful life in the midst of real darkness… Anyway, that’s mine. 

The other writer with me tomorrow is Danny Rhodes. He’s championing The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, and like a good girl I’m reading that too, in order to have a conversation. Since that’s what the get-together is about: discussion. A completely different book, with perhaps unreliable narrators in common — and perhaps too, this underlying deep violence and darkness. Through very dark comedy in the case of the The White Tiger.

Reading groups have been invited separately, but if you’ve read either of the books and want to join the discussion, do stop in. Admission is free but booking is advised; it’ll last about an hour, from 7.30 pm.

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The cool thing behind this two week extravaganza of reading is that on 14 October — that’s right, the night the winner of the Booker is actually announced — we will have our own Booker night, a final word about each and a counting of the online vote for Canterbury and environs. A little party. Fabulous idea, and so much fun. 

(Another cool thing is that I did a digital television slot about this series of events. When it comes online week after next, I’ll link it through!) 

 

I’ve been f(l)ailing in my duty somewhat, in my writerly self/blog, and actually have two new online reviews to point toward, here and here. Both kind and insightful. Heavens! Many thanks. I especially always appreciate it when reviews go onto amazon… those five stars go a long, long way. Says she mother of a twelve year old boy who steers much of his life around music, film, game and book starred reviews.

Might as well say thank you to the muse too, whoever she is for me, was for me in Losing You. She had something to say. Albeit in a quiet, succinct and mysterious kind of way.

Am waiting for hugely better photos than I took to wend their way from my brother-in-law before embarking on Italy and related subjects, so will meanwhile say what I’ve read the last few weeks:

1) The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak): at Valerie’s suggestion (or rather, insistence!). I fell right into this book, almost against my will, and found the narrator unusual and compelling. Liesel was a superb character, and Rudy, and Max and Papa especially. They were full of depth, colour and breadth immediately. It’s quite a feat I think to maintain strong character and nearly omniscient narration; one is often sacrificed for the other.  It was a journey. I loved the visual aspect of the book, and its typography too, and more than anything feel real relief that such an unusual book, with so many different components, can meet with real success. Like probably everyone else in the whole world, I wept all the way through the last 50 pages. I then passed it onto my sister-in-law. I could tell when she reached the same part, from her sniffing on the sunbed next to me…I was oddly disappointed by the ending, though, the very ending, as in the last couple of lines. They felt flat. Sorry to be so picky.

2) The Gathering (Anne Enright): Booker prize winner last year. I liked it alot. Can’t say that I loved it, but I thought it very well written, extremely so, subtle, enticing, troubled and troubling. The narrator here is very particular, specific first person, and the play with time and memory was very, very effective. However: once again I found myself dissatisfied with the ending. I felt that it didn’t quite hold up to the writing. The book was actually about elusive things, so it is no surprise that much of the book felt elusive… Yet, yet… I’d be curious to know what others think. I wonder if it never really, really got down to brass tacks? The constant veering away from subject by the narrator made the book feel veering away? Maybe. However, I am delighted that for once a rather slim volume, with a limited framework and canvas, made it to the Booker table. As a general rule, ‘limited canvas’ books are my favourites — and not the British public’s or Booker judges’. With John Banfield’s book two (?) years ago, room for variation seems to have started with the Booker, for which I am relieved….

3) Engleby (Sebastian Faulks): well, a different order of book I thought. Almost French somehow, in its methodology. There is a fundamental mystery here, but the book is not a mystery book. There is a oddball character here, but the book is not about that either. Somehow. Somehow — despite flagging a little, the narrative loosening in tension to the point of near collapse in the middle — the book becomes about how certain minds work at the edges of certain worlds, certain points of extremis that few if any of us know or understand. Yet the character, caught in this, being this, is also compelling, human, and strangely sympathetic. The book achieves this balancing act through near technical acrobatics I thought. I can’t give it away, but suffice to say that once a certain aspect of its creation is revealed — the whole endeavour takes on a completely different and more complex and gripping quality and motive. It’s impressive. It’s also funny — very dry, ‘smart’, almost cringingly so — throughout. And unlike the previous two books, the rather anti-climactic ending didn’t bother me. Where the other books I think are despite possible intentions dependent upon the narrative — Engleby isn’t. So I didn’t feel its lack in the final pages.

4) Noughts and Crosses (Majorie Blackman): young adult book passed to me by E, who read it for eight hours straight, barely stopping to eat. This again was quite compelling reading, though for different reasons. Its premise is one of the world being ‘reversed’ in discrimination, e.g. people of colour being powerful (‘crosses’) and white people being powerless (‘noughts’). It’s a star-crossed lover tale at heart, with politics, money, parenting and growing up thrown into the pot. The interesting aspect of the book is that the characters’ X or O status is rarely pointed up: there are few physical descriptions, and the world is close enough to ours such that as a white reader I had to remind myself many times of the ‘reversal’ of this imagined world. I was mortified and chastened time and again to realise that in my head I always imagined the people with power to be white — and the people without power to be black. Of course, I am liberal enough to know and think I understand that we are all complicit in our society’s racism. However, I have never read anything that so effectively brought me face to face with my own paradigms. The writing itself I felt was inconsistent — some wonderful moments, but also some rather weak ones (lots of adverbs, point of view slippages etc). Plot-wise though I couldn’t fault it. The writer set something up and followed it through, even if we didn’t want to see it…

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Of course the reading pile has no end. And much of what I read on holiday was just that — good holiday reading. I find that I am always trying to balance ‘keeping up’ with ‘reading off-centre’. Holiday time is where I do the former.

I’m now reading one of R’s books, given to him by  student, and one he read on holiday: The Life of David Debrizzi (Paul Micou). So far, it’s frankly hilarious.

And I’m desperate to read Sue Guiney’s Tangled Roots. And a writer E is now reading, who I think is just superb from my snatched evening reads to him: Siobhan Dowd (Bog Child and The London Eye Mystery). AND I read Caroline Smailes’ In Search of Adam some time ago and still haven’t reviewed it here! Not fair! I WILL.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about these the last few days. For a number of reasons. It’s just that there are so many different types. And I seem to be awash in them, with them. The acceptance of a gift brings responsibility. And openness. The giving of one, in the best world, means letting go. And a sort of hope.

There must be a small but determined fleet of these gift bubbles — I can’t help but see them as such, blown from one of those plastic child bottles, in surprising and joyful profusion — taking to the air over our double-glazed lives. This morning there’s a hard frost, but the urge to strike out and join them is almost overwhelming.

First there was Your Messages. Now there is Disraeli Avenue, by Caroline Smailes. I met Caroline at the Your Messages launch. But sort of knew her already, as she’d kindly reviewed Losing You.

She was lovely. I liked her piece. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read her novel In Search of Adam yet (because I’m not the best in the world at doing exactly what I want when I want, believe it or not; hand on heart though it is actually right at the top of my list).

Disraeli Avenue coverAbout Disraeli Avenue: a novella by Caroline, downloadable, by donation. In support of adult victims of sexual abuse. Remember openness? Remember hope? Some days that’s all there is. When the bubbles disintegrate, we’ve got to make sure there are decent landings. Get this book. And give generously.

At long last I’m able to get to something I’ve wanted to (get to) for a few days now. Things tend to amble into my (our) path(s) though, some enjoyable — the antics of the children, my time away, the Night Train launch — and some not so enjoyable — a grotty cold!

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Rachel Sarai’s VineyardSo. What I’m wanting to mention is Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard, by Deborah Rey. I finished it just before I went away, and thankfully any fear I had of it fading was unfounded: this is a book that stays with you.

The book moves between the grown-up Rachel’s world where her mother is dying and where she is left to deal with the funeral — and the child Rachel’s world where she is a runner for the Resistance, and where a triangulated emotional and psychological battle takes place between her mother, her father, and the beautiful violinist, Marie.

This is also a book that doesn’t pull any punches. The narrative style in the ‘present day’ voice of grown up Rachel swings between rancourous and sarcastic — and is at times insoluably vulnerable. The ‘child Rachel’ voice is closer to reportage: visual, slowly paced, and dealing more plainly with symbolism, letting emotional weight gather. Young Rachel’s wisdom, her determination to ‘be strong’ mixed with a real need and desire to love and be loved is… heartbreaking. Throughout the book, we are reminded of who she was, what was taken from her — and who she is now, what she has inevitably become, her own battles fought.

There are several striking, visceral scenes in the book, which Rey tackles with considerable courage. I found myself wanting to turn away, not to witness this — yet I had to, because Rachel had, and because, in some strange way as a grown-up now myself, I had to. I owed it to her to be with her, as no one had been with her then.

I cried twice while reading this book, and as I say practically held the book at arm’s length on two further occasions. I was flung all over the place.

More than anything, Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard strikes me as a book that absolutely had to be written. The experiences in it simply could not go unrecorded. I can only guess that it must have been simultaneously hellish and uplifting to write, the kind of piece you write with your hand over your mouth. You mustn’t say anything, but then again — then again — you must. And Deborah Rey has.

Now that this particular ice cap has been smashed through, it seems to me that there is at least another book in these experiences. It’s safe water now — not exactly clear sailing — but my instinct tells me the worst is over. I was particularly taken by the lyrical, observational, generous voice of young Rachel, and suspect she has more to say.

Rachel Sarai’s Vineyard is published by — yes — bluechrome, that Portishead bastion of the nearly unconventional. And I think that bluechrome being what it is has allowed this book full voice, much to the credit of author and publisher. A limited Special Edition is available now, and the full print run follows in April 2008.

I HAVE MOVED

From January 2010, my new blog is Waving and Drowning

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Who am I?


A writer born in Texas, who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (yes, like the song), and who's been living in the UK since 1988. I've published two books (see below), and teach creative writing at the University of Kent. I'm married to a composer, and we have two young children. See About for my full profile.