Friday, 29 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Renee Knight

by Maryom

For my third event of the festival - and bear in mind this is still only Saturday lunchtime - I went to see Renee Knight, author of psychological thriller Disclaimer, who'd whizzed down from Harrogate Crime Festival to chat with fellow author SJ Watson (Before I Go To Sleep, Second Life).
Disclaimer is the story of a middle-aged woman who one day idly picking up a book discovers that the tale told within it bears a remarkable similarity to something that once happened to her... It grew out of a previous, unpublished story which drew heavily on real life events, during the writing of which Knight began to see how awful it must be to pick up a book written by a stranger but based on your life ... and Disclaimer was born.

It's the sort of 'domestic noir' novel that seems to romp up the bestseller charts and Disclaimer is currently No1 in the Sunday Times bestsellers list, and has been translated into 30 languages. Both authors' novels fall into this bracket, of thrillers which are set firmly in seemingly happy domestic situations; the 'chill factor' being that readers can easily imagine themselves transported into such a situation, normal and happy on the surface but with secrets lurking underneath, and, after all, how well do we really know anyone? Both agreed though that 'dometic noir' is not a new genre as such but has been around for a long while - Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Patricia Highsmith's novels being cited as earlier examples.
Asked about influences on her writing, Renee Knight named Lionel Shriver, Zoe Heller, and Colm Toibin, and is currently reading The Circle by Dave Eggers.

The discussion moved on to their fairly similar routes to publication - the first bad novel now hidden in a drawer, the better one that gets published, the usefulness of writing courses (for getting an agent or maybe just for encouraging the budding author to make time to write), and, when all this has paid off, suddenly having to learn to write to publishers' deadlines. The life of a successful author doesn't just involve sitting in solitude writing - there are signings and book events such as this one to attend; fortunately both authors have discovered them to be surprisingly enjoyable - they certainly are for the audience.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Andrea Wulf

 by Maryom

Most book festivals work on a system of the visitor paying for each event they attend. It's cheaper no doubt but it does mean that I, and no doubt others, rather pick and choose my events, generally authors whose work I've read and liked, occasionally someone who's grabbed headlines or I've heard praised by fellow reviewers. By contrast, at Curious Arts ALL author events (and music, comedy etc) were included in the admission price, and, with them taking place in open-sided tents, it was possible to join proceedings a little late, and to leave a little early. I took advantage of this to catch part of Rowan Pelling's talk with author Andrea Wulf.

Now, I must admit that before she won this year's Costa Biography award I hadn't heard of Andrea Wulf, but hearing her speak so passionately about her subject, Alexander von Humboldt, has convinced me that I'm probably missing out.
Who you might ask (I did) was von Humboldt?
Well, it seems to be only here in Britain that he's unknown; in other countries, not limited to his native Germany, he's as well known as Darwin. Born in Prussia in 1769, his early life was dominated by his mother, and it was only after her death that he could fulfil his dreams of scientific exploration. He headed off to Latin America, climbing mountains, peering into volcanoes, recording the changes in vegetation according to altitude; definitely a very hands-on scientist! I found it fascinating that as early as 1800, he was predicting the impact that human activity might have on climate change, after noticing the devastating effects of clearing and destroying natural habitat as plantations expanded across Latin America.

Although I couldn't stay for the audience questions at the end, I came away feeling that this was a book and an author that I'd missed out on, and should catch up with both as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - author event - Meg Rosoff

by Maryom

Looking at the events programme beforehand, I'd intended arriving at Curious Arts mid-afternoon on Friday with plenty of time to catch Deborah Moggach ... but you know what they say about the best laid plans, and it turned out motorway traffic had other ideas about how I should spend Friday, so my first 'book event' was on Saturday morning - Meg Rosoff talking about her latest novel, Jonathan Unleashed, to Rowan Pelling.

Meg Rosoff is well known as a writer of fiction aimed at teens and YA, and after a string of Carnegie, Whitbread, Guardian, Branford Boase and Costa short-listings and prizes she was recently announced the recipient of this year's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, but her latest book marks a move to a more 'grown up' audience. She insists it wasn't because of a dare to write a rom-com, but grew out of the first line which popped into her head fully-formed; "Jonathan came home from work one day to find the dogs talking about him" - obviously someone coming home from work is an adult, and the story just evolved from there.

Jonathan has been left in charge of his brother's dogs for six months, and quickly comes to see them as more than mere canine companions. All of us pet-owners give our animals credit for feelings and desires they probably don't possess, but Jonathan seems to take this a step further believing the dogs to suffer from anxieties and yearnings for freedom brought about by living in the city.
Meg herself sees no difference between writing for the different age-groups. What she's interested in is character rather than plot, particularly people struggling to find themselves, looking for more out of life than is offered by their current situation - whether that's Pell Ridley running away from home and her wedding in The Bride's Farewell, or Jonathan himself, trying to be a round peg in a square hole, stuck with the wrong girlfriend and in the wrong job. Jonathan Unleashed draws on the time, 15 years (!), that Rosoff spent in advertising before taking the plunge and becoming a writer - although she describes this novel as her 'revenge' on the advertising industry she's happy to acknowledge the fact that a marriage with both partners involved in creative work is tricky, as some-one needs to be the bread-winner and mortgage-payer. She gives her literary influences as Catch 22, The World According to Garp, and Lucky Jim, and the same quirky kind of humour showed through in her reading from Jonathan Unleashed.

Somehow (who knows?) I'd got an idea that Meg Rosoff was a very serious person, but she didn't prove to be - she's funny, sceptical of success and describes herself as dark and twisted; the sort of person I could imagine chatting to for hours.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - Family Friendly/Dog Friendly

By The Mole

The festival is held in the beautiful setting of the New Forest within a short walk of the sea and a clear view of the Isle of Wight.

Because we decided to take Dylan with us we chose to take our own tent and sleeping bags. Being new to camping we had chosen to strictly obey the "no food" on site rule and went with a bag of clothes, our tent, air beds and sleeping bags. (Plus food for Dylan because you can't mess with his diet, sorry - and I don't think this is what the rule is about).

The staff around were extremely helpful and friendly and not officious. The tents varied from 2 man bivouacs to 8 berth star shaped huge things and the families attending similarly varied from couples to families with 3 or 4 children.

I had also expected there to be a few dogs there and was surprised that it was dozens! We all know that not all dogs get on and we don't necessarily know why. Dylan is very much an Alpha who doesn't like to have his face sniffed. Other Alphas are offended by his Alphaness and words can be exchanged but it was great that we met no-one who didn't know and understand their dog and everyone behaved responsibly and got along very well. I suspect Dylan was getting a little tired of all the "What a gorgeous dog, may I say 'hello'?" - something he normally can't get enough of.

Dylan has a very thick coat and struggles with heat so has learnt to look for shade to lie in on warm sunny days and Saturday was one beautiful day. Throughout the weekend we were going to our own events and passing Dylan back and forth as we thought venues might be better for him. At the Jo Cannon event I went to a quiet corner of the tent that still had a very good view of the proceedings and sat on the floor with him while he caught up with a little of his much needed sleep. At Laurence Shorter's Lazy Guru event, which was far less formal, he still managed to find a little shade and masses of attention from other attendees who, at times seemed to forget why we were there!

A complete area of the grounds were set aside for children's events and included outdoor games for them as well. The events ranged from activities of making things to story telling, poetry readings and much more. Having no young children of our own (our 19 year old came with us) we didn't attend any full events but did catch a few minutes of Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson give a reading from the Princess' Blankets, with the children loving it.

With the comedy I think there should have been a warning of content to parents because, at times, some of the language and humour became a little bit adult, although no one seemed to be dragging their children away either.

Now the food... Let's be totally fair - prices were not cheap and we had not expected them to be. The sellers obviously had to pay for their pitch, their staff to be away from home and they also had to ensure that they didn't end up throwing away too much food. (All of which had to be reflected in the cost.) Apparently last year, according to a witness account, by Sunday there was almost no food on site and people had been told they couldn't take their own. And the event was much smaller than this year so the sellers have to take a gamble.

Of all the the food sellers we all had our favourites but for breakfast the most popular seemed to be Tea Sympathy. They produced an extremely nice cup of tea with a variety of teas on offer and bacon muffins whose popularity had them running out of bacon by Sunday morning and the sausage alternative also ran out before everyone had breakfasted. But for lunch and dinner? Anything from Sushi, to Halloumi fries, to fish and chips, to pizza, to pies. Pies? Why pick on pies? I'm afraid I found the pies to be hugely tempting. Feta cheese and pepper quiches, a quiche with cauliflower, cheese and other stuff, chicken pies, beef pies..., it was a huge range. OK, I opted for the vegetarian quiches mostly because I find that a lot of vegetarian food is made tastier than meat equivalents - and I wasn't disappointed. Would I have wanted to feed a small family from the range of food available? Breakfast would have been fine but trying to get 2 or 3 children to choose and agree might have been a nightmare and the fact that some people were flaunting the "no food" rule did not surprise me and the organisers were not enforcing it this year.

So was it Family Friendly and Dog Friendly? You bet it was. Would we go again? Should the opportunity arise then most certainly and we will be watching the calendar. Was it perfect? Well... a few minor issues which I'm sure will be addressed. Last year there were only about 20 tents but this year that number had risen significantly to possibly 150-200 so the portaloos in the immediate area (there were more elsewhere) were a little inadequate in number. There also was no immediate water available to the tents and a bowser, if nothing else, would have been appreciated. Also as a dog friendly event I would have expected to see dog water bowls (or something) by the event tents, food sellers, or even by the stand pipes. (With some signage to the stand pipes too please? Some were hard to find.)

It was a fantastic weekend and I would recommend it to anyone. The events were hugely varied with something for absolutely everyone. More about the events over the coming days.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Curious Arts Festival - a quick look

We're just back and catching our breath after a fabulous weekend away at A Curious Arts Festival held in the grounds of Pylewell Park in Hampshire. This is an event which mixes literary chat, comedy, fun and games for children, and late night music. We'd heard about it vaguely through social media last year, and were delighted to be invited along in a blogging capacity.

Celia Imrie

Over the next week or so,we'll be talking in greater detail about individual aspects of the festival but for now here's just a taster of what and who we saw.

Meg Rosoff

Skinny Lister

SJ Watson and Renee Knight

Billy Bragg
Jo Cannon

Andrew Miller talking to Paul Blezard

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

review by Maryom

When the bones of a child are found on the North Norfolk saltmarsh, DCI Harry Nelson half-hopes, half-dreads that they may belong to Lucy Downey who went missing 10 years ago when she was five years old, but these are far older bones. Forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway from the University of North Norfolk dates them as belonging sometime during the Iron Age, probably a ritual burial taking place in the tidal zone belonging to both land and sea. Nelson is struck by the similarities of how Ruth describes this pre-historic event, and instructions of where to find Lucy, contained in letters claiming to be from her abductor. He feels Ruth's knowledge of ancient sites along the coast, and her understanding of the beliefs behind these burials may be of help to him in his modern day, seemingly unsolvable case, and Ruth gradually finds herself involved in this long-standing puzzle. 

The Crossing Places is the first of the Ruth Galloway series, published back in 2009, and a book I've intended reading for quite a while - in fact since I first heard Elly Griffiths talking about the series three years ago.  I'd been intrigued by the mix of modern crime and forensic archaeology, and the setting, which for this story is the misty North Norfolk coast, where I know it's too easy to lose one's bearings and not know which way to head back to dry land - I've fortunately never been caught out on the marshes in a rising tide though, as happens in the story!  Anyway, when recently I spotted a free i-books download offer for The Crossing Places, I jumped at it.

I'd always wanted to start this series here at the beginning, and follow the characters and their changing relationships from the very start, although in some ways, having heard the author speak about them more than once, they were almost like old friends. 
The only downside to eventually getting round to something you've anticipated for so long, is that it might disappoint but happily this lived up to all my expectations. The plot is well-constructed, offering a variety of possible perpetrators and motives, easing into things gently but increasing the tension as Ruth herself is threatened, and the relationship between Ruth and Harry works well as a different thread. 
I loved the character of Ruth - that she's independent and determined to do things her way, ignoring all the presumably well-meaning advice from friends and family about losing weight or getting married and settling down. As it is, she's happy doing what she wants - pursuing her career, living with her cats in a small house in a place she loves, no matter how desolate others find it.

With the series now on Book 8, the Woman in Blue, I know that there's more to come in the relationship between Ruth and Harry Nelson, and more crimes for them to solve. I now intend catching up as quickly as I can.  

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult crime thriller

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

review by Maryom
Even as a young girl, Yael was nothing if not a survivor - at first by keeping quiet, doing as she's told, despite the pain and suffering she undergoes as a scientific 'guinea pig', then when she sees a way, she escapes. Personal survival isn't enough for her though. Working with the Resistance she's determined to overthrow the vicious National Socialist organisation that has ruled Germany, Europe, the Middle East and much of Africa for years - by taking the fight right to the top, and killing Hitler. Now, she has her chance - to take on the persona of Adele Wolfe, the seventeen year old girl who won the round-the-world Axis Tour motorcycle race in 1955, and looks likely to do it again this year, and by impersonating her, get close to the Fuhrer himself. Yael's unique abilities, ironically given to her by experiments carried out in the camps, make her the ideal, if not the only, choice for the task, and the wolves tattooed on her arm, not only serve to hide her camp numbers, but to remind her of those who helped her on her way.
 So Yael changes her appearance, and learns to ride a motorbike, to become as competent and competitive as the girl whose place she will take, but all her research can't let her into Adele's mind - and the relationship between Adele and her brother Felix, and with fellow competitor Luka Lowe could prove to get in the way of Yael's plans.  
Set in an alternate past where Germany won the Second World War, rules Europe, and the resistance is still fighting to topple Hitler, Wolf by Wolf is both an exciting, fast-paced action adventure thriller, and a story of suffering, fear and determination to survive. Yael is a strong, independent heroine in the Katniss Everdeen mould, inspired by her personal history and by the injustices she sees around her, to take on this seemingly impossible task. The story slips easily between the 'present', 1956, and flashbacks to the years that Yael spent in Nazi concentration camps or in hiding with the Resistance, building up the back story that created the person she's become. 
It's a great read, gripping, and exciting, with every page filled with incident as Yael races her way from Germany to Tokyo, up against riders of equal calibre and determination - none of whom are going to accept second place without a fight!

Maryom's Review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher - Indigo/Hachette 
Genre -  teen/YA fiction