Treasure Hunt!

So, as you know, I’m rather partial to books. To me books are the ultimate treasure. I hope you feel the same because I’m organising a treasure hunt.

I will be placing 3 signed copies of ‘Echo Hall’ at different places in Oxford with a literary connection. There will also be a copy available to win online. I’ll be putting up literary clues on twitter for you to solve. The game will run from about 11-4, depending how good my clues are. It will work like this.

1. I’ll post a clue on twitter, linked to a particularly literary location. When you’ve solved it, go to the place and send me a picture of yourself there.

2. When I’ve had several answers, I’ll post the next clue allowing you time to solve and get to the next place.

3. The final three clues will be for the prizes, so if you miss out on one, there’s still a chance to win.

4.I’ll have one last clue for online folk who can’t get to Oxford. The first person to send me the right answer will win. (Unless I get several at once, in which case I’ll pull the answers out of a hat.)

5. I will be in the last location, and will be very happy to chat and talk about the book etc.

To take part follow me on twitter at @aroomofmyown1 and use hashtags #oxfordbookhunt #treasurebooks.

Happy Hunting!

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Meeting a hero

It is not often you get to meet your heroes. Even less likely that you get to study alongside them.  I was lucky enough to meet mine – Sir Roger Bannister –  whose death was announced this morning.

Like many people, I grew up with the legend of the four minute mile, inspired by the grainy footage of the event which I can watch time and time again.  Bannister and later Coe, Ovett and Cram were the runners who drew me into athletics; even though I was a distinctly unsporty child, I loved to watch them, their grace and effort on the running track blowing me away every time. And when, as a student, I took up running myself, and learnt to appreciate the joy and pain of the sport, they continued to be my heroes.

So, when I arrived in Oxford in 2005 and discovered the famous Iffley Road track where Roger had completed his remarkable race, I was over the moon. A year later, my sister and I were chuffed to see him at a distance when he raced the starting gun on a charity race we had entered. I thought that was as close as I’d ever get to my hero, and it was enough for me.

In 2007, I was delighted to be proved wrong when I arrived at the induction session for my creative writing class and noticed a badge with the name ‘Roger Bannister’. It must be some relative of his, I thought, it can’t possibly be the great man himself. But then, suddenly there he was picking it up and climbing the staircase ahead of me to class. I couldn’t help burbling as I introduced myself, going on and on about how amazing it was to meet him. He smiled graciously, putting me completely at my ease. I realised then, that as a living legend, he must have got that a lot, and recognised my need to gush. He was such a kind man that his instinct was to tolerate this annoying behaviour without making me feel embarrassed or foolish.

After that, I kept my distance, not wanting to be a groupie. But the class was small,  we frequently broke into groups and Roger was quickly one of us. He was in his 70’s and though he’d written a fine book about running the four minute mile, creative writing  was new to him and he was unafraid of saying what a challenge it was. He was completely modest about his efforts, and his other achievements (4 minute mile, world renowned neurologist, Master of Pembroke College), which made us all just love him more.

Despite his modesty his contributions to class were always interesting and he was bold enough to allow himself to fail – the sign of a good writer, if I ever I saw one. Of the things he shared in class, we all appreciated the funny and kind poems in which elephants featured prominently. And I really liked an autobiographical poem he wrote about growing up in North London.

In the second year of our course, we each wrote a ten minute play for our lecturer, Patrick Collins, whose theatre company then performed them. My mother was delighted to attend and to meet Roger and his wife, Lady Moyra, but one of my strongest memories of the night was Roger’s contribution for the evening. I’d come to view him as a mainly comic writer, but his piece a scene of torture in Iraq was challenging and disturbing, raising many questions as all good drama should. With typical humilty he claimed it was all in Patrick’s editing, but I think it showed for me what a fine writer he was.

Like many of my class mates, Roger began working on a novel which I felt had great potential. It was based round a post war Oxford, and had a nice vein of English humour, that was quite Wodehousian. He did a great deal of work on it with help from our lecturer Dennis Hamley, but eventually decided not to pursue it. I think, by then, he knew he was ill, so I understand the rationale, but still think it a shame as he really had something.

As well as being a good writer, Roger was also a supportive fellow student. One day, when he met me coming out of a tutorial in despair at a mark I’d received, he offered the consolation and encouragement which I desperately needed. He was also somewhat anarchic at times. If he thought a visiting tutor was pontificating nonsense, he wasn’t averse to asking stupid questions just to wind them up.

I’ve met Roger a few times since we’ve finished the course. Each time, his illness had taken a little more hold of him, but he was always his usual gracious, kind and witty self. When I invited him to the launch of ‘Echo Hall’ he declined with typical  understatement, saying he was ‘confined to barracks with Parkinson’s problems’.

It’s not often you get to meet your heroes. Still less often that you get to spend so much time with them and discover that they don’t have feet of clay, and are in fact one of the nicest human beings you have ever met. That was Roger, and I was very very lucky to know him.

On Roger’s 80th birthday we were all amazed he chose to come to Jenny Lewis’ poetry class, and so to celebrate, we all wrote him a poem. This was mine.

Four minute mile.

Not many men have done it,

But only you can claim it first,

Some men would brag  but you,

Just smile and write another verse.

 

RIP Roger.  Thanks for all the elephants.

Love and condolences to Lady Moyra and all the family.

Rave Review. Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of 16 Australian authors by Ryan O’Neill

(Note: My rave review blogposts are reserved for the very best novels I read by novelists I don’t know. Just to be clear I do this so I don’t inadvertently offend someone I do know by not including them. I highlight novels by people I know through my plug of the month slots and author reviews.)

9781863958639

 

A few weeks ago,my lovely editor, Scott, posted on twitter that he had advance copies of the proofs of this novel for anyone who wished to read it in exchange for a review. When I checked out the blurb – a story written in the form of essays about sixteen fictional Australian writers* – I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

I’m so glad I did. This book is superb on so many levels which makes it a joy to read from start to finish.

First of all, there is the narrator’s style. It is a perfect rendition of literary biography: engaging, understated, curious, and peppered with enough ‘facts’ to give credibility to the fake biographer’s research abilities.

Secondly, there are the  ‘authors’ themselves. Each one is vividly drawn, some apparently inspired by real writers. But it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Australian fiction or not, because O’Neill has created such convincing characters that they feel  real to the reader. I can totally believe that there’s a school of science fiction led by a racist white supremacist called Rand Washington;  that a neglected poet called Matilda Young was treated shamefully by the men in her life, and dismissed until she later received the Nobel Prize; that the ‘Chekhov of Coolabah’ Addison Tiller could churn out his charming bush tales of Pa and Pete. It’s equally believable that an avant-garde movement called Kangaroulipo  could led by the seriously untalented Arthur Ruthra; a crime fiction hack,  Claudia Gunn, could become well known despite the quality of her writing.  and a talented young writer called Rachel Deverell could lose herself in the search for the mythical origins of literature. I suspect if I did some research about Australian literature, I’d appreciate the joke more, but the stories are strong enough to stand alone. (I did pick up on the title was inspired by the great Australian novel ‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin whose own real life story is  worthy of  inclusion in this collection).

The third thing that makes this book sing for me is the way the stories subtly interconnect. There are the characters real or imagined on the Australian literary scene, who pitch up on the sidelines of many of the chapters, some revealing more of themselves as the novel proceeds. Some, who appear early on, resurface as the star of their own essay, and with an interesting story to tell. Various literary movements are shown from their different perspectives, now in rivalry, now in alliance. There are scandals galore which make and destroy big names, and are seen from different angles as the book progresses.  The best writers often fail, the worst succeed, there is human suffering, fallibility and evil (some of which revealed by the things the author carefully doesn’t say). All of which enhances the sense that this is a real essay collection, and these people actually existed.

At the heart of the novel is the idea that the writers of fiction are themselves fictional . Very few of the subjects are as talented as they believe, and most have reinvented themselves to some extent. There’s even a character with literary output who is probably, himself, an invention. While the author  inserts himself into the plot as the ex-husband and widower of the Rachel Deverell, the novel’s tragic heroine, and has his ‘fiancee’, Anne Zoellner write the introduction. By this point, I was beginning myself whether O’Neill himself was a fictional creation. He does appear to be real, but in a book that rejoices in fakery, it is just possible to believe he  might have created an elaborate back story for himself…

All in all this is a delight, and a book that will definitely yield up more every time you read it. Put it on your pre-order list now.

‘Their Brilliant Careers’ by Ryan O’Neill will be published by Lightning Books in April 2018. You can pre-order here.

A proper author at last…

I have felt like a proper writer for some time, and up until this year, had two ISBN numbered books to my name, (Life without Jargon, Choice Press 1996 and Rapture and what comes after, Gumbo Press 2014). However, although I’m extremely proud of both,  I haven’t really felt like a proper author because of the small circulation.

That has all changed this year, the year I’m having not one but three books published.

Reclaiming the Common Good‘Reclaiming the Common Good’ is an essay collection which I’ve edited, was published by Darton, Longman and Todd in August. The book brings together the thoughts of 13 Christian writers, including myself and tackles issues such as welfare, austerity, migration, environment and peace and security. It identifies where the sense of the common good has been lost and how it might be recaptured. While it is drawn from a faith perspective, I hope it has something to say to everyone, regardless of belief or political persuasion, about the state of the world we live in, and how it could be better.

My long awaited novel (well long awaited by me at any rate) ‘Echo Hall’ will be out in echohall_finalKindle and print, on 30th November. I can’t tell you how exciting this is! The book is being serialised at the minute by The Pigeonhole and it is absolutely thrilling to read alongside readers and hear their thoughts which have been overwhelmingly positive so far. Additionally, my lovely book club, The Cowley Consonants were kind enough to review it, so I’ve made a little video of their thoughts to whet your appetite. The book will have its official launch at 7pm on November 30th at The Albion Beatnik Bookstore, Walton Well Street, Oxford, all are very welcome.

cover jpeg Nothing More And Nothing Less (2)Finally, I’m delighted to announce that on the same day, my Lent Course, ‘Nothing More and Nothing Less’ which is based round the film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ will also be published by Darton, Longmann and Todd. While this is only likely to be of interest to a sub-section of my readers, I am dead chuffed to have been commissioned to do this very important course, which highlights a major injustice being perpetrated by our government on the people who most need our help. And I’m hugely honoured that Paul Laverty the screenplay writer, has offered some kind words at the beginning and Sixteen Films have allowed us to use their iconic image for the front cover. It may  not be for you, but if you know anyone who you think might like  it, please do spread the word.

All of this means I finally have an Amazon books page. And I understand enough of the way the world works to know that I will rely on Amazon for sales, and reviews. (Please do consider reviewing all of the above if you like them, or even if you don’t. Honest reviews matter to me!)

However, I am passionate about bookshops and if you, like me want to support them, I would ask you to consider buying via your local bookstore. Or if not via Hive, who donate to local book stores for every copy sold.

Here’s a (not exhaustive) list of some fabulous bookshops you can order from:

The Albion Beatnik Bookstore, Walton Well Street, Jericho, Oxford

Big Green Bookshop 1 Brampton Park Rd, Wood Green, London N22 6BG

Blackwells 48-51, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BQ

Booka Bookshop Oswestry, 26- 28 Church Street Oswestry Shropshire SY11 2SP

The Book Case    29 Market St Hebden Bridge West Yorkshire HX7 6EU 01422 845353
Five Leaves Bookshop  Five Leaves Bookshop 14a Long Row Nottingham NG1 2DH
0115 8373097

The Book Hive 53 London Street Norwich Norfolk NR2 1HL 01603 219268

Bookish 18 High Street , Crickhowell,Powys , NP8 1BD   Tel: 01873 811256

Bookseller Crow on the Hill 50, Westow Street, London, SE19 3AF

The Bookshop Kibworth 52, High Street, Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire, LE8 OHQ 0116 2791121

Brendon Books Bath Place, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 4ER

Browsers Bookshop 60 Thoroughfare, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 1AL 01394 388890

Camden Lock Books Old Street Station, 4 Saint Agnes Well, Islington, London EC1Y 1BE.(020) 7253 0666

Chapter One  Chapter One Books, Chatsworth House, 19 Lever Street, Manchester, M1 1BY Tel: 01612780405

The Chepstow Bookshop 13, St Mary Street, Chepstow NP16 5EW.

Chorlton Bookshop  506 Wilbraham Road, M21 9AW

City Books 23,Western Road, Hove, BN3 1AF

Cogito Books 5 St Mary’s Chare, Hexham, Northumberland, NE46 1NQ 01434 602555

Daunt Books

Marylebone: 020 7224 2295
Holland Park : 020 7727 7022
Chelsea : 020 7373 4997
Belsize Park : 020 7794 4006
Hampstead : 020 7794 8206
Cheapside : 020 7248 1117

The Edinburgh Bookshop  219 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh, EH10 4DH 0131 447 1917

Falmouth Bookshop  Falmouth Bookseller, 21 Church Street, Falmouth, Cornwall
TR11 3EG, UK+44 (0 )1326 312873

Forum Books Corbridge  20a Watling Street, Corbridge, NE45 5AH

Golden Hare Books, Edinburgh Golden Hare Books, 68 St Stephen St, Edinburgh EH3 5AQ

Holt Bookshop 10 Appleyard, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 6AR

Jaffa and Neale

Chipping Norton 1 Middle Row, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, OX7 5NHC

Stow-on-the-Wold 8 Park Street, Stow-on-the-Wold, GL54 1AQ

John Sandoe  10-12 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea,London,SW3 2SR (0)20 7589 9473

Landers Bookshop  Ringers Yard, Hall Street, Long Melford, CO10 9JF

Little Acorns  Bedlam, 10-16 Pump Street Derry 0044 7776117054

London Review Bookshop  14 Bury Place, London, WC1A 2JL (0) 20 7269 9030

The Mainstreet Trading Company,  Main Street, St Boswells, TD6 0AT

Mostly Books 36 Stert Street, Abingdon-on-Thames, OX14 3JP – 01235 525880

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights   14/15 John Street, Bath, BA1  2JL

Much Ado about Books  Much Ado Books,  8 West Street,  Alfriston, East Sussex
BN26 5UX

Nantwich Bookshop 46 High Street, Nantwich, Cheshire, CW5 5AS

News from Nowhere  News From Nowhere, 96 Bold Street, Liverpool L1 4HY  0151 708 7270

Rossiter Books

Ross-on-Wye The Corn Exchange,7 The High Street,Ross-on-Wye,Herefordshire,HR9 5HL

Monmouth 5 Church Street, Monmouth, Monmouthshire, NP25 3BX

Sam Read Bookseller  Broadgate House, Grasmere, SA22 9SY 015394 3537

Scarthin Books  The Promenade, Cromford, Matlock, Derbyshire, DE4 3QF 01629 823272

Silver Dell Bookshop 61 Poulton Street, Kirkham, Preston, PR4 2AJ

St Ives Booksellers 2 Fore Street, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 1AB 01736 796676

Topping & Company Booksellers 

Bath The Paragon, Bath, Somerset BA1 5LS

Ely  9 High Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire,CB7 4LJ

St Andrews  7 Greyfriars Garden, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9HG

Wadebridge Bookshop 43 Molesworth Street, Wadebridge, Cornwall, PL27 7DR, UK.

Waterstones  Oxford  William Baker House, Broad Street, Oxford

P& G Wells 11 College Street, Winchester, SO23 9LZ

Wenlock Bookshop 12, High Street, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, TF13 6AA

Winstones Books

Sherborne 8, Cheap Street, Sherborne, Dorset, DT9 3PX

Sidmouth 10, High Street, Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8EL

Frome 10, Cheap Street, Frome, Somerset, BA11 1BN

White Horse Bookshop  136 High Street, Marlborough, Wiltshire, SN8 1HW

White Rose Bookshop 79-81 Market Place, Thirsk, Yorkshire, YO7 1ET

Wivenhoe Bookshop  23 High St, Wivenhoe, Colchester,CO7 9BE

Word on the water  York Way, Granary Square, N1C 4AA

Wordpower Books  43-45 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, Midlothian EH8 9DB

Urmston Bookshop 72A Flixton Road, Urmston, Manchester, M41 5AB

Ystwyth Books  7 Princess Street, Aberystwyth, SY23 1DX

And there are some more listed here.

Characters on the loose…

Starting today, three characters from the 1990’s section of ‘Echo Hall’ – Ruth (@thinkingwoman30) , her best friend Nisha (@dancinggoldman) and boyfriend Adam (@machomachoman59), will be tweeting some of their back stories.

In a dramatic week where the Berlin Wall  falls just before Remembrance Day, all three will face important choices which will change their lives, and lead Ruth on the path to Echo Hall…

Follow them on twitter to find out more…

 

It’s all getting very exciting…

I have just realised that I’ve shared the latest ‘Echo Hall’ news everywhere except here. Which is a bit remiss of me, considering this is the place I first started talking about the novel.

So first up. Here’s the fabulous cover designed by the wonderful Mark Ecob of Ecob Designs. It’s getting a lot of love so far, and so it should…

Secondly. I have finished the proofs. After so many years writing and re-writing that feels quite a milestone. I’m just waiting to hear back from Unbound that they’re OK and we are nearly good to go to the printers. Which hopefully means publication before the end of November.

Thirdly,  it is time to let the world know about the book. I am very excited that Unbound have teamed up with The Pigeonhole to release extracts over ten days around publication. You can sign up to this exclusive group and get the first section for free  (I can’t see what they charge for the rest). You will be able to chat with other readers as you read and talk to me and ask me questions. It’s going to be fun, so do join in!

I am also planning a number of other things. We’ll be launching the book at the fabulous Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford. I’m speaking to bloggers about reviews, I will be returning to twitter with Ruth’s story before Echo Hall, I’m hoping to come to bookshops for talks and more.

It’s all getting very exciting!

Summer Reads 4: New Kids on the Block

My last post on holiday reads features new  or (relatively) new books.

Shelter. Sarah Franklin

SheShelter-final-coverlter is the debut novel from Sarah Franklin, who hosts the wonderful Short Stories Aloud event in Oxford. Alas! I wasn’t able to get to either her launch party or her SSA event, but as it was published round my birthday I was lucky enough to have a copy delivered to me in Tenby.

Shelter is an unusual World War 2 story for several reasons. One is that instead of presenting us with a stereotypical wartime romance, the author has written a relationship based on uncertainty and ambivalence which is far more interesting. The second is that the heroine Connie subverts all our expectations of motherhood and behaves in ways that seem selfish mainly because she is a woman. And in another neat role reversal, while she yearns for freedom, it is her lover Seppe who longs for the comfort of safe domesticity. Thirdly,  the novel is set far away from the front lines in the Forest of Dean, which allows us to see the impact of war on ordinary people.

The evocative setting of the forest, the sense of everyone finding shelter under its trees and the well drawn characters make this a satisfying and enjoyable debut. I’m very much looking forward to Sarah’s next book.

How to Stop Time. Matt Haig

The title for this novel (another birthday present) comes  from a short section of Haig’s self help book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive‘ which begins ‘how to stop time:kiss‘ and continues ‘how to travel in time:read’ .  It is an entirely fitting title for a book that explores what it feels like to be disconnected from the world, and the struggle to remain human and alive. Haig has visited this territory before with his  novel, ‘The Humans’ in which his hero was an alien trying to understand humans. Here, the central character Tom suffers from a strange disease that means he ages very slowly. As a result, he has lived through centuries, hiding his secret for fear of being punished, after his mother was drowned as a witch and his wife died of the plague.

After centuries of searching for his daughter, who suffers from the same illness, he discovers an organisation of people like himself. When they promise to help him in his mission, he becomes an enforcer for them, killing those who would tell the world they would exist and changing his identity every eight years to avoid discovery. But, just as the alien in ‘The Humans’ begins to question his Vonnadoran masters who want him to kill the humans, Tom too, begins to realise he has made the wrong choice, particularly when the chance to love again comes his way.

This is a beautifully optimistic book with some lovely set pieces. I didn’t love it as much as Haig’s previous two, particularly because I felt the historical segments were too Hollywoodised (not surprisingly it’s being made into a film with Benedict Cumberbatch). However, these are niggles, because the central concept is so very strong, and in a world that constantly challenges us to be optimistic, we need books like this to remind us that human kindness and love will save us every time.

The Power. Naomi Alderman.

I had a weird experience on holiday, when I was looking at the pile of books we’d brought and was pleased to see someone had brought ‘The Power’ which I’d been meaning to read. When everyone denied buying it I realised belatedly that I’d purchased it as buy two get one free and completely forgotten about it. That’s the menopause for you…

Anyway I digress. I wasn’t sure about this one as I hadn’t particularly liked the last novel I’d read by Naomi Alderman, but ‘The Power’ was being hyped as THE feminist book of the year so I had to give it a go. And I’m very glad I did.  ‘The Power’ is a fascinating novel about what the world might be like if women were more physically powerful then men. The novel begins with a teenager discovering she literally has power at her finger tips when, her anger at a man trying to sexually harass causes her to electrocute him. All of a sudden all over the world young women find themselves able to fight back and the patriarchy is under attack. And when the older generation are also awakened by their daughters, the world changes dramatically.

This is such an interesting idea and Alderman deals with it well by playing out different responses. A liberal American politician helps contain the phenomena to ensure her rise to power, sending her daughter to a training camp to correct her, and hiding her own abilities. The wife of an Eastern European dictator kills the tyrant and takes over the country ridding it of domestic abusers. The daughter of a gangster takes revenge on her mother’s murderers before fleeing to America. An abused foster child reinvents herself as a religious leader. There are sexual revolutions around the globe and a young African man sets out to document it all. All of which leads to some searching questions about what gives us power, what having power means and whether we can ever stop the powerful from committing abuse.  For once, a novel that deserves the hype.

The Heart. Maylis de Kerangal.

This 2016 novel was another birthday present and was  very different from my other reads. It deals with a short intense period that follows the death of a young man and the decision his parents must make as to whether to have a heart transplant.

The book takes us from the moment the young man and his friends decide to go surfing early in the morning, through the accident that kills him, the hospital that receives him the horror for his parents and then the various medical issues that need to be resolved until the heart reaches the woman who is waiting.

It’s a really thoughtful book, well told that takes us from person to person as the events impact their lives from the devastated parents to the hopeful recipient. Though it’s not high on action, the emotions run deep, and the novel leaves you with a sense of both the fragility, and strength of the world. It wasn’t my favourite book of the summer, but still is well worth a read.

 

I did also begin The Bible this summer, nearly reaching the end of the Pentateuch, but since I haven’t finished it, and I couldn’t get it any one of my categories, that’ll have to wait for another time.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my holiday reads and found something to whet your appetite.