Tag Archives: book

The Guildford Book Festival 2017

The Guildford Book Festival was established in 1989, and has grown in scale and reputation ever since.

This year was the first opportunity I have had to embrace the Festival….and there sure was a lot to wrap your literary arms around.

As a travel writer and blogger, I have wondered if I could ever make the leap towards crafting a readable work of fiction. Step forward Rachel Marsh, and her engaging Creative Writing Workshop which ran all week, and introduced the lively class to character development, writing dialogue, plot, editing and getting published, amongst other fun and interesting themes. Watch this space….

Before the start of the Festival I had written an article for TripFiction, giving a sneak preview of the GBF events that featured authors talking about books with a strong sense of location.

With my journalist’s hat on, and with huge thanks to TripFiction for opening the door and Tamsin Williams from Wigwam PR for shoving me through it, I was privileged to interview some of the Festival authors. Here are links to my posts, published on TripFiction:

Somehow, I managed to learn enough about the migrant crisis, 19th century French Impressionism, Venice, the Palestine/Israel conflict, political thrillers and mountaineering to bluff my way through chats with these esteemed writers. Hopefully.

A couple of disappointments. Something went desperately wrong with directions to the venue for the Alan Hollinghurst event, talking about his new book The Sparsholt Affair. I missed seeing Alan, but that did at least mean I caught all of the Chris Bonington talk, which  made my phone interview with the knighted adventurer rather more rewarding.

And I’ve been stalking author Laura Barnett for a while, since reading her charming and hugely successful debut novel The Versions of Us.  She has been touring the UK, promoting her second novel Greatest Hits by performing gigs with singer Kathryn Williams, bringing to life the soundtrack of the book. Sadly, their performance at this year’s Guildford Book Festival was cancelled at fairly late notice, and with no real explanation.

But those small mishaps did little to dent my enthusiasm for a brilliant Festival. Thanks to the many people involved in making t all happen, and looking forward to 2018 already.

Book review – Red Notice

I’ve said it before, but one of the good things about being in the West Surrey Book Club is that I get to read titles I would never have chosen myself.

I turned the last page of Red Notice by Bill Browder this morning, and am looking forward to discussing it with the gang this evening.

Bill Browder’s grandfather, Earl, was a labour union organiser in the USA and ran for President under the Communist flag in 1936 and 1940. The Browder dynasty were all high-achievers in various fields, and it was no surprise that the fiercely ambitious and intelligent Bill didn’t follow any traditional route after gaining his MBA from Stanford Business School in 1989.

He looked eastwards, at the same time as the Berlin Wall and any semblance of Communist principles were collapsing throughout Europe. He founded Hermitage Capital Management and moved to Russia in 1996, making millions for himself and for his investors by piggy-backing on cheap state asset deals being gobbled up so opportunistically by the oligarchs.

But 10 years later, Browder was expelled from Russia and everything fell apart. To try and summarise here the extent of the underlying greed, corruption and violence visited on Browder and all his associates by high-ranking politicians, security forces and police would be challenging, and certainly hard to believe.

One of his legal team, Sergei Magnitsky, stayed in Russia to fight trumped-up charges. He was beaten, tortured and ultimately murdered in police custody, after which Browder and his team fought relentlessly to try and bring some sort of justice for the young lawyer and his family.

Image courtesy of The Prisma

Red Notice is well written and reads like a pacy thriller. It really is hard to believe that this is all cold, hard well-researched and proven fact, rather than the latest Jack Reacher novel.

Image courtesy of Publishers Weekly

I suspect Bill Browder is a hard person to deal with, but it is to his credit that his business activities seem to have taken a back seat whilst trying to find a way, as a political activist, to preserve the memory of Sergei Magnitsky.

I’ve always wanted to visit Russia. I’m not so sure now….

Book review – Beautiful Animals

I have wanted to visit Hydra since reading Sylvie Simmons’ superb biography of Leonard Cohen, and discovering that it was where Leonard Cohen lived happily for many years in the bohemian 1960s.

Leonard Cohen on Hydra – image from GTP Headlines

The urge has only been heightened since reading Beautiful Animals, an unsettling book written by Lawrence Osborne, which places the reader firmly on this tiny Saronic island, in Greece’s Aegean Sea and almost touching the Peloponnese.

Naomi knows Hydra intimately, spending every languid summer there at the family holiday home with her wealthy father, Jimmie Codrington, and spiky stepmother Phaine.

One day, returning from her secret daily morning swim in a quiet cove beyond Mandraki and Zourva, Naomi meets the preppy American Haldane family.

The other girl was younger than Naomi, maybe nineteen or twenty to her twenty-four, with eyes that were steady and cool: perhaps like herself a student of human beings and their calamities.’

Naomi and Samantha become close, their friendship taking a darker turn after they stumble across a half naked man sleeping in a remote part of the island. Later, they learn that Faoud is a migrant, fleeing Syria on the well-worn trail in search of a safer Europe.

Naomi concocts a plan to help the intriguing Faoud, but what are her real motives…and when it goes badly wrong, can any of their lives be the same again?

The author has been compared to Graham Greene, and I can understand why after reading this haunting novel. Covering multiple themes and with Greene’s eye for physical and psychological detail, he embeds the reader deep inside the troubled heads of his characters and under the blazing sun of a Greek summer, before making a dash for freedom with Faoud through southern Italy.

For me, place is everything… I spend more time thinking about that than anything.’

Lawrence Osborne

Thank you, Lawrence….see you on Hydra.

 

Book review – Exquisite

Where does imagination stop and reality kick in? How blurred are the lines between fact and fiction? How closely does art sometimes imitate life…..?

I’m asking myself all these linked questions a few minutes after turning the final emotional page of Sarah Stovell‘s striking debut novel, the psychological thriller Exquisite, published by Orenda Books.

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.

When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…

Or does it?

Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.

Bo and Alice embark on a passionate affair that threatens to undermine the outwardly stable family life Bo has established in idyllic Grasmere. But do they both have the same perceptions of their relationship…and is one more damaged and needy than the other?

Author Sarah Stovell lives in Northumberland, where successful author Bo leads the Creative Writing retreat and first meets  damaged and vulnerable Alice, herself an aspiring writer. Sarah is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Bo was born in 1977, just like Sarah….

I enjoyed Exquisite. The juxtaposition between Alice’s chaotic life in bohemian Brighton and the calm family existence led by Bo in the beautiful Lake District is stark, but ultimately deceptive. The way the story is told separately through the eyes of both Bo and Sarah, from the initial mutual passion to eventual destruction, is skilful and deeply engaging.

Alice’s own debut novel was about her all-consuming relationship with Bo.

I wonder what Sarah’s next will be about….

 

Book review – The Talented Mr Ripley

Read the book first, then see the film is the usual advice, right?

Well, I saw the marvellous adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley soon after it was released back in 1999, but hadn’t read the book until now.  The film version was beautifully crafted by Anthony Minghella as both Screenwriter and Director, and perfectly acted by a stellar cast, including Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles).

So how would Patricia Highsmith’s novel, a psychological thriller written in 1955, compare?

Tom is a feckless freeloader, struggling to make a living in New York City. He grabs the opportunity offered by wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf to go to Italy and coax his spoiled son Dickie back to face his responsibilities in the US.

But Tom is soon as much enamoured with the languid self-indulgence of life in Mongibello as Dickie. One fly in the Italian ointment is Marge, a fellow American who has clearly fallen for Dickie, though more than he for her.  And later there is also the irritating problem of Freddie Miles, a friend of Dickie’s, who is becoming suspicious of Tom’s motives.

The plot develops around exotic Italy, from Mongibello to San Remo, Rome and Venice, with the devious Tom using his many talents to ensure he can pursue as sybaritic a lifestyle as Dickie.

“Underneath he would be as calm and sure of himself as he had been after Freddie’s murder, because his story would be unassailable. Like the San Remo story. His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”

Ms Highsmith’s writing style is as languid as a day on the beach at Mongibello. Her real strength lies in the ability to make the reader engage with Tom Ripley’s character, even though he is clearly deeply flawed and – based on any objective analysis – largely amoral.

Ambiguity is at the heart of this classic novel, including the sexual inclinations of the main protagonists….just as they were for the author.

I enjoyed reading about Tom’s undoubted talents, but is it literary sacrilege to admit that – on this occasion, at least – I preferred the adaptation on the big screen?

Film from Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Into Film.

 

 

Book review – Fierce Kingdom

Fierce Kingdom tells the story of a couple of alienated young sociopaths on a shooting spree in a zoo park, somewhere in gun-friendly USA.

But really this book is all about a whip-smart, feisty young mother’s relationship with her 4 year-old son, and what she’ll do to protect him when faced with every family’s worst nightmare.

Joan is cajoling Lincoln out of the zoo at closing time, when she realises that the balloon-popping noise nearby was deadly gunfire, leaving bloody corpses strewn around the park.

Do they run, or do they hide? How long will it be before help arrives? Can she trust any other survivors?

The action takes place in real time, from 4:55 pm until 8:05 pm but the author cleverly paints a vivid picture of the dynamics between mother and son in a deft series of flashbacks.

His crying always starts with words. He tries to talk through the weeping, and the words stretch into wails, and then the words evaporate and the tears come, and once they are falling down his cheeks he has passed into something monotone and rhythmic like the ocean, only more grating.”

Joan and Lincoln are forced to leave their first hiding place, introducing them to danger and to other desperate fugitives, talkative young Kailynn and older Mrs Powell, once a teacher of one of the shooters. But will this help, or hinder, their chances of survival?

Author Gin Phillips has written a compelling psychological thriller, pulling the reader through the narrative as breathlessly as if trapped in a tiger’s cage. But it is the mother’s feral instincts to protect her son that will linger after the last page has been turned.

“Make yourself disappear”, she says, already standing, taking an extra second to put her hand on his head – the precious curve of it – as she lets the branches fall. He disappears except for his feet, so she reaches under and bends his legs slightly.

Fierce Kingdom is not without its flaws – would Joan really have thrown her phone away? Why don’t the police arrive earlier? Would a 4 year-old really be so damned clever? – but Ms Phillips has crafted a well-written, high-octane novel, which is also a warm tribute to her own son:

“To Eli, who has entire worlds inside him.”

Book review – Into the Water

The Girl on the Train was a stellar chart-topping publishing success for Paula Hawkins, the psychological thriller selling over 18 million copies worldwide and being adapted into a big-budget Hollywood movie, starring Emily Blunt.

So how does a writer follow that?

With Into the Water, another psychological murder mystery, but told this time from the viewpoint of multiple characters, and across seemingly disparate narrative threads.

In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.

Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.

But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.

And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . . .

One of the central characters is the fictional Northumberland town of Beckford, where Jules is forced to return for her sister’s funeral, and where she also has her own demons.

I struggled a little in the first part of this book. There seemed to me to be too many narrators, too many “inconvenient women” dying in the Drowning Pool, spanning too many years.

But like a dexterous seamstress, the author pulls together all the frayed ends and disparate threads in a nerve-jangling finale. My friend and colleague Tina, from TripFiction, observes in her own  review that: the book is constructed like a circular eddy, reflecting the motion of the water in the Drowning Pool – the characters, too, go round in circles. 

Exactly.

But – ultimately – I found this an engaging, well written and cleverly constructed novel, that will no doubt also end up on the big screen.

Thank you, Ms Hawkins…..where next, I wonder?

Paula Hawkins – image courtesy of the BBC

 

 

The Silver Travel Book Club goes to Sardinia

The story of my trip to Sardinia, for the Silver Travel Book Club, following in the footsteps of an author, her characters and locations in Sardinia.

Silver Travellers may already be aware of the Silver Travel Book Club (“STBC”), set up recently as a result of our new partnership with TripFictionSilver Travel Advisor members can now access TripFiction’s database of location-based fiction and travel-related memoirs, set in thousands of alluring global destinations.

Debbie Marshall, MD and founder of Silver Travel Advisor: “The worlds of travel and books go hand in hand, and we know that our members will enjoy browsing the wide range of novels and memoirs on the TripFiction site, providing ideas and inspiration for their future travels“.

Rosanna Ley, the authorThe first STBC book of the month was The Little Theatre by the Sea, written by Rosanna Ley. Two lucky Silver Travellers received a free copy of the book, and have been reading it along with Andrew Morris, one of our regular writers and Literary Editor of the STBC.

The Little Theatre is firmly rooted in Sardinia, and Rosanna’s vivid prose transports you to the wild, unspoiled west coast of this intriguing island. Newly qualified interior designer Faye visits friends Charlotte and Fabio in charming Deriu, where she is employed – by brother and sister Alessandro and Maria Rinaldi – to draw up plans to restore the crumbling old theatre in the village.

Bosa StreetThis engaging romantic mystery is a classic destination novel. Close your eyes, and the author will have you walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Deriu’s centro storico, where pastel-coloured houses tumble down from the old castle to the Temo river, just a short distance from the sea and the marina. Or eating local speciality spaghetti con bottarga, washed down with a bottle of Cannonau wine.

But our intrepid Literary Editor wanted to get even closer to the author, her characters and locations…so we packed Andrew off to Sardinia to see if he could track down Deriu and solve the mystery of the Little Theatre by the Sea.

Over to Andrew

Before heading out to Sardinia, I contacted the author – Rosanna Ley – and she kindly answered a few questions, giving me an insight into her writing approach and a few clues about hunting down some of the places, characters, food and wine she included in Little Theatre. You can read the detailed Q&A session on the Book Club Forum thread here.

Bosa rooftops from near the castle, looking down to the snaking river TemoMy first port of call had to be Bosa. Rosanna: “I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! I renamed it Deriu because it is easier then to “make it your own”, and hopefully none of the locals will be offended by anything I write about places & people which they might construe as being taken from real life.”

I wandered along the banks of the river Temo, spotting the converted houses on the river bank, where Faye stays with Charlotte and Fabio, and the ponte vecchio, where Faye gets closer to Alessandro.

But it is the centro storico that engaged Rosanna most, and which enchants Faye too: “the jumble of buildings lay mainly between the far riverbank and the hill beyond; Faye could see what looked like a castle on top of the hill, the other old buildings sheltered beneath. The cluttered houses were painted various shades of pastel, the river snaking from the cradle of the lush mountain valleys in the east through to the sea beyond.”

“That’s the centro storico, the old mediaeval town. It was originally founded by the Phoenicians – because of the fertility of the soil and the river.”

Malaspina CastleI too fell in love with beautiful Bosa/Deriu, home of the mythical Little Theatre. I ambled through the labyrinthine cobbled streets, craning my neck to see washing stretching from one pastel-coloured house to another. I climbed ever upwards towards the Malaspina castle, as Faye does when describing her quandary to her mother, and from where: “a prickly pear was outlined against the summer sky. From here she could see a jumble or orange roofs and flower-laden terraces; vines twisting around wooden pergolas, purple jasmine blossoming in a blue haze.” And I visited the Deriu Museum, from which Rosanna borrowed the name for her fictional town.

Outside Bosa, I went north – via a spectacular coast road – to Alghero, a fortified Catalan city jutting out into the sea. Faye eats “a delicious lunch of aragosta alla catalane, lobster with tomatoes and onions” with her father here. I had spaghetti con bottarga instead, another local speciality eaten by Faye back in Deriu, with Allesandro:Spaghetti con bottarga, local speciality with mullet roe “a type of caviar made from the roe of grey mullet. Faye’s bottarga was good; she loved the deceptive simplicity of Sardinian recipes and produce.” I also saw the restored Teatro Civico in Alghero, part of Rosanna’s inspiration for Faye’s redesign of the crumbling imagined old theatre in Deriu.

I found the marina at Bosa, where Alessandro works at a boatyard, but it was too large and on the wrong side of the estuary. Through the magic of social media, Rosanna pointed me in the right direction, teasing me perhaps in a game of literary cat-and-mouse.

Following Rosanna and Faye was a joy. I would love to have had more time to visit some of the other places seen by Faye, on different trips away from Deriu with Alessandro and with her visiting father, but I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing what literary stalking I did manage to achieve in Sardinia.

Where next, I wonder?

Book review – The Sound of Gravity

What would you say is your preferred environment….beach, forest, jungle, desert or mountain?

Margate town and seafront viewed from harbour wall.

My Mum & Dad have always been drawn to the sea, escaping from suburbia to buy a hotel in Margate in the 1960s, living on the south coast in later life and spending long winter holidays in Spain & Portugal, as close to the sea as they could find.

But my own addiction is definitely mountains. Climbing up or skiing down them, or just admiring from afar, I marvel at their infinite variety and the constant challenge they provide.

Fortunately, my adventurous wife Gill feels the same. We have been lucky to enjoy many holidays in the mountains – the Swiss and French Alps, Spanish Pyrenees, Italian Dolomites, the Majella in Abruzzo, and more. And still not sated, I summited the Big One – Kilimanjaro – for my 50th birthday.

But I’m definitely a walker, rather than a climber of mountains. Climbing is a vastly different technical skill and an altogether greater challenge. Just watch films like Everest or Touching the Void to begin to understand the sharp contrast.

Joe Simpson, a renowned mountaineer,  wrote the book Touching the Void, turned into a memorable docudrama film in 2003.

I have just finished reading his novel, The Sound of Gravity, published in 2011.

An unnamed man and his wife get caught in a terrible storm, high up a mountain, somewhere in the Alps. The man’s wife dies and he is haunted with guilt.

The first part of the book is told almost in real-time, describing with hypnotic detail events leading to her death, and how he ultimately survives the devastating storm.

The narrative is compelling, but even for mountain lovers the amount of climbing jargon and flowery language could prove as challenging as a difficult summit.

In the second part – 25 years later – the man – now known to be Patrick – spends summers in the hut, close to where his wife’s body fell.  The story becomes more human and readable, in my opinion, as other characters and story lines are introduced.

But the mountain remains the main protagonist, and despite some issues with the narrative, I enjoyed the book. How could a mountain-lover not, with descriptions like this:

The ice cliffs had changed in the waning shades of dusk. Where before they had been sharp-lit and bright-edged, they now glistened in faceted aquamarine. The colours had intensified, highlighting the dark, deep blue caverns yawning at their feet.

The encircling mountains threw up a snow-capped palisade to guard the glacier bay below him. Sinister layers of bruised purple veined the advancing storm front. In the shadowed valleys beyond he glimpsed the sheen of a distant lake, bright-sparkled by a flash of weak sunlight.

Book review – Tragic Shores – “A Memoir of Dark Travels”

One of the nice things about working with Tina & Tony at TripFiction is their access to publishers, and books I might not normally read.

Tina passed me a copy of Tragic Shores – A Memoir of Dark Travel – for review. Written by Thomas H Cook, this haunting collection of episodic travel stories is published by Quercus, and is the first work of non-fiction from this prolific crime writer.

Publisher’s “blurb”:

Thomas Cook has always been drawn to dark places, for the powerful emotions they evoke and for what we can learn from them. These lessons are often unexpected and sometimes profoundly intimate, but they are never straightforward.

With his wife and daughter, Cook travels across the globe in search of darkness – from Lourdes to Ghana, from San Francisco to Verdun, from the monumental, mechanised horror of Auschwitz to the intimate personal grief of a shrine to dead infants in Kamukura, Japan. Along the way he reflects on what these sites may teach us, not only about human history, but about our own personal histories.

During the course of a lifetime of travelling to some of earth’s most tragic shores, from the leper colony on Molokai to ground zero at Hiroshima, he finds not darkness alone, but a light that can illuminate the darkness within each of us. Written in vivid prose, this is at once a personal memoir of exploration (both external and internal), and a strangely heartening look at the radiance that may be found at the very heart of darkness.

Cook’s writing is profound in its content, and almost poetic in style. His use of tone and language force you to think deeply about these dark places he has visited over the years. It is no surprise to learn that he studied philosophy at Columbia University, before teaching English and History.

The way he links some of the Tragic Shores with others in the book, or with parallel events in life, is never contrived but clearly contemplated with gravitas and empathy.

Excerpt from The Forest and The Bridge:

But there are also public areas that attract private suicides, and two of these, the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, have been officially designated as the second and first most “popular” suicide sites on earth.

True, many suicides are rash reactions to some moment of grief and anguish or disappointment, one that might well have passed, and its passing, opened to a fuller, or at least more endurable life, and these we must do everything we can to prevent. But others are the product of a protracted ordeal, and it is these, if we cannot prevent them, that we must judge more tenderly, as I found myself doing that morning.

For it seemed to me that here, on this bridge, a final evaluation had been made, and a final judgement rendered, one that utterly rejected my long, trivial list of why a given human being should fine reason to live. For what is food when one no longer cares to taste? What is music when one no longer cares to hear? What is work when one no longer sees its purpose? What is the value of your life if it has grown so torturous that neither the fear of pain nor the fear of death can hinder you from taking it?

But from the writer’s experiences and thoughts on his own travels to dark places through history comes light, and hope. And he weaves his deeply personal – and touching – narrative thread from the same loom as others sowed fear, hatred, war and torture.