Tag Archives: literature

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 – Terrorist by John Updike

John Updike is lauded as one of America’s greatest writers. He was a prolific creator of novels, short story collections, essays and literary criticism. He is one of only three people to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.

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And I’m almost ashamed to say that Terrorist, written in 2006 and one of the last works before his death in 2009, is the first Updike novel I have read. But it won’t be the last.

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Terrorist is eerily prophetic. It takes place a few years after the 9/11 atrocities invaded the minds of previously complacent Americans, but its characters and plot foretell with uncanny accuracy the constant jihadi threat facing Trump’s USA and the wider western world 10 years later.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is a US-born teenager, whose Irish-American Catholic mother Teresa had a brief relationship with an Egyptian, Ahmad’s now long-gone father.

They live in the ironically named town of New Prospect, the New Jersey equivalent of Trump’s mid-West rust-belt, where once vibrant businesses decay, people struggle to find work and neighbourhoods have become increasingly multicultural.

Ahmad is in his last year of High School. He is bright but has no immediate ambition, other than to drive a truck. He knows that his God – Allah –  will show him the right way forward. And, thanks to instruction of the Qur’an since he was 10, by Imam Shaikh Rashid at the local mosque, he knows not to succumb to the siren call of Joryleen, a sexually aware black girl in his class at school. As much as he is tempted.

Jack Levy is a world-weary careers advisor, who sees the potential in Ahmad. Jack’s wife Beth is fat and has become lazy, and he embarks on an ill-fated affair with Ahmad’s promiscuous mother.

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There is almost an overload of religious education in the first third of the book. We read swathes of the Qur’an with Ahmad and see how Shaikh Rashid begins to foment Ahmad’s radicalisation; Jack is a Jew, but struggles with his own faith and guilt; Teresa is clearly a somewhat lapsed Catholic.

At the age of forty, she has parted from a number of men, and how many would she want back? With each break, it seems to her in retrospect, she returned to her single life with a fresh forthrightness and energy, like facing a blank, taut, primed canvas after some days away from the easel.

As the plot develops and the characters’ lives intertwine, Updike’s powerful prose entraps you, like a fly in an arachnid’s web.

“What is freedom?”, Shaikh Rashid asks, his eyes opening and breaking the skin of his trance, “As long as we are in our bodies, we are slaves to our bodies and our necessities. How I envy you, dear boy. Compared with you, I am old, and it is to the young that the greatest glory of battle belongs. To sacrifice one’s life,” he continues, as his eyelids half shut, so just a wet gray glitter shows, “before it becomes a tattered, exhausted thing. What an endless joy that would be.”

Terrorist eases into being a conventional, taut thriller, but thanks to the author’s mastery of language and storytelling, it is so much more.

And it has also made me fear that there is no obvious solution to the threat of constant attack by so-called radical Islamists, who see death and destruction of Western infidels as the only Straight Path to follow in life.

Book review – H is for Hawk

I love all the different elements you’ve put on the plate, it’s beautifully presented and you’re demonstrating some real cooking skills. But for me, the dish just doesn’t come together as a whole.

This is but one of many oft repeated comments from expert judges on MasterChef, as they skewer the culinary hopes of another competitor. But I’m afraid the same thoughts began to run through my head as I got deeper into Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.

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Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and the Costa Book Award in 2014, it is an accomplished piece of thoughtful – and thought-provoking – literature.

The author is a writer, a naturalist and an academic. And, after the death of her father, she spent an intense year training a hawk. Not just any hawk…a goshawk. Which she named Mabel.

Helen Macdonald – Image courtesy of Time Out

The book is multi-layered. At its core, it is a moving autobiography as the mental and physical energy required to train Mabel distracts Helen from the searing grief of losing her beloved father.

There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning. 

I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness. 

A biographical thread also runs through the entire book, with the author recounting the parallel story of T. H. White’s own, less successful, hawk-training efforts, as told in his 1951 book The Goshawk.

And of course Helen’s own narrative includes some dazzling prose about the natural environment into which Mabel is gradually introduced. And in which the beautiful hawk is eventually flying free, rather than tethered to its trainer.

The hawk left the fist with a recoil of a .303 rifle. I stepped out to watch. Saw a chain of events so fast they snapped into a comic strip: frame, frame, frame. Frame one: goshawk spluttering from the fist in bars and pinions and talons. Frame two: goshawk low to the ground, grass streaking along under her. Chocolate wings, beating strongly, hump-backed. Frame three: rabbits running. Frame four: the pheasant, too, crouching and running into the wood’s safe margin.

Each element of the book is presented with consummate literary skill, but for me, the story just didn’t come together as a whole.

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