Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Joanna Trollope

by Maryom

I'd hoped to start my round of book-ish events at this year's Curious Arts Festival on Friday, with Rachel Joyce, but our late arrival due to traffic delays put paid to that, and so I had to wait till the next day, and Joanna Trollope's event. She's one of those authors frequently referred to as a house-hold name, and most of us will have read at least one of her books or seen TV adaptations of them - along with others of my age, I probably 'discovered' her through Ch 4's The Rector's Wife back in 1994. In her long career she's written twenty novels as Joanna Trollope, and more under the pseudonym of Caroline Harvey.

On Saturday, she was talking to Rowan Pelling about her latest novel, City of Friends - the story of four women, firm friends from their university days, who by chance rather than design studied economics  and went on to have jobs in the finance sector, and specifically of Stacey, who, as the book opens, has just lost her job at a top private equity firm. 

Asked why she chose to write a novel centring on the 'work' aspect of women's lives, Trollope replied that there have been endless novels about women and relationships, women and family, women and sex, women and children, but the relationship between women and work hasn't been explored anything like as much. She then chose that the 'work' in question should be that of finance as this is still seen as a male bastion, and placed her characters in management consultancy, private equity and banks.  

During her research for City of Friends, Trollope spoke to many women working in Canary Wharf, in positions similar to those of her characters, and came to believe that there's only really space for one career-minded person in a marriage, and echoed an assumption that many of us have encountered - that no matter who is the major breadwinner in a family, dealing with the 'human' problems of children or ageing parents is the responsibility of women. She also feels that the dream of having it all - high-powered job, loving husband, lovely home, adoring kids - is basically just that, a dream, a modern fairy tale to replace the one of marrying a prince and living happy ever after in a castle.

In writing her characters, Trollope hopes to recreate that friend you have, who most of the time you'll agree, and get on well, with, but at others they'll irritate you beyond imagining. So, while she agrees at times with things they say or actions they take, she definitely doesn't agree with everything they say or do; in fact. it's necessary for a character to at times behave in ways she doesn't approve of, as they must above all be true to themselves, otherwise they lose credibility. 

In answer to the 'how do you start a new story', Trollope explained that she starts with a theme - this time, as mentioned above, it's that of the relationship between women and their work - then adds in the characters. As regards structuring the book, she plans the first quarter, and knows how the story will end, but in between events are allowed to develop as they will, within reason.

I thought it was a particularly interesting author talk, raising matters of equality, feminism, and our attitudes towards career women which stretched far beyond the boundaries of the novel itself.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Curious Arts Festival - 21/23rd July 2017

By The Mole

Izzy Bizu
Once again we were given the opportunity to attend the festival with complimentary tickets. Last years event was blessed with magnificent weather and a fabulous time was had so we were delighted to be attending once again.

Before we set out we knew the forecast was not as good as last year but we remained undaunted. We arrived as it started to rain and immediately started the erection of the tent which went well and we were soon undercover.

The drive down had taken longer than planned and we missed the first events we had hoped to see. Having arrived late we needed tea - a cuppa and so we went to research food and drink. The range had been extremely wide last year and we found that the range was equally diverse this year but different concessions with the addition (a wonderful addition) of one doing 24 hour tea and coffee. Yes, towards the end of the weekend they were looking tired but still provided our essential brew with a smile.

The larger Gorse tent
Gurkha curry was our choice of food and we then settled to some music in the much larger that last year's Gorse tent. Larger was a significant theme this year as, in its fourth year, the festival continues to grow. Friday night's headline act was Izzy Bizu whose "White Tiger" you are sure to have heard on the radio. We then caught Murray Lachlan Young, the poet, before retiring for the first night under canvas for a year.

Sunshine across tents
The camping area and car park, throughout the weekend, reflected the increased size and success of the event as a whole - as did the names on the program. The weather did curtail some of the children's outdoor activities but the many children didn't seem to mind and attended many of the adult events instead - although the new acoustic stage which was on throughout the day was a very popular choice.
Dylan admiring the car park

And dogs... Just as many dogs as last year with owners behaving very responsibly and causing other festival goers no nuisance whatsoever. Dylan enjoyed it all immensely and his fan club, once again, increased in size many fold.

On Saturday we saw Joanna Trollope, Matt Haig, Eimear McBride, Robert McCrum and all with an ongoing musical background from The Wandering Hearts, Marthagunn  and others in the acoustic tent. The evening was rounded off with music, once again, in Gorse where Whoredogs with John Illsley performed including music from Dire Straits followed by Tom Odell! And comedy... Simon Evans (R4) presented comedy with George Egg, Ferdy Ray, Paul Tonkinson and headlining with Mock The Week's Ed Byrne!

Sunday saw names such as Dave Eggers, Julian and Isabel Bannerman, Susanna Beard, Pete Brown and Jack Cooke to the strains of Southern Companion, and Morrissey and Marshall amongst others from the acoustic tent. Sunday's Gorse line up started with MJ's Big Choir (which included attendees of the festival) giving their much rehearsed performance and rounding off the festival with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing music from the bond movies. Comedy, once again introduced by Simon Evans, was headlined by the inimitable Ed Byrne.
You never know when you may have a "poet emergency"

We will be having quite a lot more to say about the festival in the coming days so watch out for it all. We did enjoy it immensely despite needing a slight push to get the car off the field at the end.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Free Lance and the Lake of Skulls by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

review by Maryom

The jousting season is over, and Free Lance is making his way from town to town looking for ways to earn his keep - a small tournament, a sword display, even a joust on the village green. One day he finds himself accepting a curious challenge -  a lord wants Lance to go in search of an enchanted crown, and in return he'll get a bag of gold. Lance is quick to accept but has he maybe been too eager? In the middle of a lake lies an island, and on that island is a mountain of skulls, the topmost of which belongs to an ancient king, and is still wearing his golden crown. It sounds like a simple task (ok, maybe not) but if the pile of skulls wasn't scary enough, there are creatures waiting for Lance in the lake ... and Chris Riddell's illustrations bring them to life in all their horror.

As always with books from Barrington Stoke publishers, care has been taken with the font, lay-out and even colour of the pages to make the book more appealing to dyslexic and struggling reader, but without compromising on telling a great story. There are illustrations on almost every page to lure the reader in, but, to be honest, I think the story will have grabbed them anyway. Each chapter ends at a 'cliffhanger' moment encouraging the reader to find out what happens next, rather than put the book down. 
 Lance may be a knight down on his luck, with rusted, dented armour, and an old, tired horse, but he's definitely the hero of the story. He's a bit quick to get into brawls in the inn but he's brave enough to trek alone through dark deep forests, paddle across the sinister lake and then climb that mountain of skulls, without once thinking of turning back. Kids will love him!
Yes it's gruesome and scary, but in a way to delight a young reader, and I think they'll squeal as much with laughter as with terror (maybe not suitable for the more squeamish though)

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - 8+, specially suitable for reluctant, dyslexic and struggling readers, knights, 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

review by Maryom

On a small island lives a group of people who believe themselves to be the only survivors of the plague and fires that scourged everywhere else. Their world is small, with no outside contact, patriarchal and repressive, with life following the rules, the "shalt-nots" set down long ago by the founders. The only people allowed to leave the island are the Wanderers, all men, who regularly travel to the "wastelands" in search of things the island cannot produce, and very occasionally bring back a family to settle on the island. Although claiming to hold their women in high regard, the men exploit them; a girl is married shockingly young - the first year she's old enough to bear children - she's allowed two children, and then her husband's sexual desires turn elsewhere. Childhood is brief, and for the most part hedged round by restrictions, but each summer when the mosquitoes are biting, the children run wild and free, naked and covered in mud from head to foot, over the island while the adults stay indoors. But one summer, rumours spread about something one of the girls has seen, which calls into question everything they've ever been taught.
Janey has always been known as an angry, troublesome girl, one who questions the rules they live by, and is determined to avoid marriage and the inevitable child-bearing, so by starving herself has delayed puberty. Her extra years give her a natural authority over the other unmarried girls, and when she decides to run away from home and live wild, they gradually join her. Janey's actions are seen as rebellion against the established order, which must be stamped out at all costs.
Gather the Daughters is disturbing, yet gripping, dystopian read, but a difficult one to review without giving away some of the huge reveals and plot twists within it.
In such an isolated community, whoever is seen as 'in charge' can bend facts to suit themselves - and that certainly seems to have been going on here for many years.  With a hint here and a revelation there, the reader comes to realise that everything is not quite as the islanders believe.  Anything could be happening in the wider world, but everyone has been brainwashed into believing the tradition that they are the few remaining survivors of the devastation; could it be nothing more than a horror story to frighten the islanders into obedience? It's hard to see how they'd accept that, but, with no one to tell a different story, they do. Same for the way girls and women are treated, and the dubious sexual practices considered 'normal' by the islanders; no one knows any different way, and although some feel it isn't right they are considered the odd ones out.
For some the emphasis may fall on the weird cult-like community and the treatment of their daughters, but to me there's a wider issue being raised here; in our alleged post-truth world, with little social media bubbles of like-thinking folk, how do we choose which sources of information to trust, and which beliefs to follow? It's becomes easier to see how people may become indoctrinated into believing almost anything, and convinced that theirs is the right and proper way to live ...

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult dystopian fiction,

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

review by Maryom

Through a series of seemingly unrelated stories, A State of Freedom paints a complex picture of an India in flux, with its great divide between rich and poor. On one side are the owners of luxury apartments, employing servants to cook and clean, and security guards to keep out the uninvited; on the other, not only those cooks, cleaners, and guards, but their even poorer relatives, left behind in isolated rural communities, living hand to mouth, with no financial safety net for illness or a ruined crop, often dependent on any money that can be sent home by those you've left.
At first we see India through the eyes of comparative 'outsiders', ie Indians living abroad - an American academic and his small son visiting historic sites, a young man returning home for his annual visit, at odds with his parents and their attitudes - then move on to those still 'trapped' by India. And 'trapped' does seem to be the appropriate word here - the caste system may no longer exist but people are still limited in every way by the circumstances of their birth, which for the majority is into a life of grinding poverty. The well-meaning outsider may try to understand their lives, but without having lived them, it's a gap almost impossible to bridge.

Attempting to leave that poverty behind is the great desire that fuels everyone's life, whether through joining guerrilla forces fighting for equality, trying to make a break for freedom as a wandering entertainer with a dancing bear, or moving to the city where there's work to be had supporting the lifestyles of the wealthy. The lucky find a relatively stable job, but still choose to live as cheaply as possible in appalling conditions, sending money home to their families who are worse off, or to finance their children's future.
 Plans, savings, dreams can disappear overnight and yet, maybe because there's no other choice, people carry on - strive to find a better job, save to put their children through school or university - and for a lucky few the dream comes true  - not quite the Slumdog Millionaire fantasy, but a boy from a poor farming family can win scholarships, and, supported by the selfless devotion of a family member, find himself at university in Europe.

From the  safety of our comfortable lives, this isn't always an easy read. The level of poverty and squalor is almost beyond our understanding, but Mukherjee gives these 'third world problems' a human face, makes us care for the individuals when we might ignore the masses caught in the same plight, and maybe it might change a few minds about people from all countries who choose to take a chance and try for a better life here.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Chatto and Windus 
Genre - adult literary fiction

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

review by Maryom

On a run-down backstreet of a city lies a small parade of shops - a religious gift shop, an undertakers, a tattoo artist, a Polish bakery ... and a record shop, packed with everything from punk to classics. Arriving one day in his battered van carrying little besides his records, Frank has made the music shop his home, and his life's work, but this is the 80s, and a shop dedicated to vinyl is a rarity and not overly profitable. First cassettes, and now those new-fangled CDs have threatened to take over, while Frank continues to insist that the proper, if not the only, way to hear music is on a record. It's a rather quiet shop but the welcome Frank extends to everyone, and the gift he has for picking the right music to suit his customer's mood, has helped him build a regular clientele. Then one day Ilse Brauchmann finds her way to his shop - and collapses outside it.
Frank is drawn to her, but puzzled because that feeling he has of which music would sooth or cheer anyone else is entirely absent. How can he hope to connect with her?
At the same time, Frank and his neighbouring shop-owners are having to fend off the attentions of a property development company intent on buying out their businesses, demolishing the street and building something new, exciting, but lacking all charm, in its place.

Rachel Joyce's latest novel is a tale of two lonely, introverted people, determined to hide their hurts from the world but, after so long building barriers to hide behind, can they open up enough to let love in? There's a light, heart-warming, rom-com feel to The Music Shop (there are plenty of occasions when you can easily imagine how it would appear on film), with its two engaging 'leads' and support of quirky characters, and, after troubles that take the story in an unexpected direction, that welcome feel good ending. But at the same time, it speaks of the value of community in the face of faceless development businesses, of the possibility of second chances, and music can help when almost everything else fails

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Nondula by Ana Salote

(The waifs of Duldred - book 2)
Review by The Mole

We left the waifs trying to escape from Duldred and getting hit by a storm. The storm carries them to Nondula where the people welcome them and try to help settle them into the lives they deserve. But the Felluns, their neighbours, are a violent dominant race who wish to enslave everyone else.

It becomes apparent (as we saw in Oy Yew) that Oy has certain abilities with regards to healing and this brings him into conflict with the Felluns and he becomes enslaved in animal pits. The other waifs try to find him and set off to rescue him. They also try to shake the Nondulans from their subservient acceptance of Fellun treatment in order to help them in their task

Candy Gourlay said of the first book "Oy Yew is a book that deserves to be discovered. Lyrical and magical". Lyrical and magical? It sounds trite but there is certainly something in the style and characterisation  that makes this really true. This story complements the first without compromising the style, the message or the innocence of the waifs.

In OyYew the story focussed around the title character but here we learn more about each of them and their "powers" or talents. But these powers stretch to being able to organise and catalogue, to being able to think on your feet in a tight situation, or the ability to use colour in design - skills that children can identify with and already possess in some measure - a message to underline that the reader is just as special as most of the characters.

Salote ties these characters together in a truly compelling way that keeps the reader involved, rooting for the waifs and, more importantly, reading.

I highly recommend this as a read for younger readers or to share with younger readers (and you may well, like me, enjoy it) but please make sure you start with "Oy Yew" or you will miss so much about the characters.

Publisher - Mother's Milk Books
Genre - Children's/Adult crossover,  dystopian