What Book Clubs Mean to Me #AsymptoteBookClub

This is not a promotional post to encourage you all to take part in a competition to win a 3 month subscription for the Asymptote Book Club – although it would be great if you would! It is an explanation of why I have become so wed to the idea of an international virtual book club. But first, here is the information you need to take part:

The first book club I joined formed organically amongst friends. When I returned to Romania as a fourteen year old, I suddenly found many of my favourite authors were banned, sometimes simply for being from a certain country. (Those evil capitalist bastards etc.) At first, I tried to borrow books from the libraries set up by foreign embassies – until my father was told at his workplace that I should stop doing it, I was endangering the family. I persevered, underground. I went on to study Foreign Languages, and we all had our sneaky ways of getting hold of forbidden books (which might include the Metaphysical poets – we skipped from Shakespeare straight to Wordsworth in English literature, for instance): smuggled copies, photocopies, forgotten family inheritance, passing through all our hands. We spent long afternoons and nights debating them at parties (whilst listening to bootlegged Western music). It certainly made us value books for more than just their physical scarcity – they were the glimpse of a world beyond our own, the doorway to infinite possibilities when we felt we were walled in.

My second book club was more deliberate. I had developed a bit of a reputation amongst friends as the person who could always recommend a good book. After the birth of my first child, I was no longer able to go out to cultural events so frequently, so when I was invited to a book club run by local mums, which was meeting just a few houses down on my street, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember the first book we discussed was Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the meeting consisting mostly of wine and snacks, 10 minutes of chatting about Oxford (the setting of the book) and then the rest about babies, sleep patterns, potty training etc.

So I swore off book clubs for a while, although I kept hoping I would meet like-minded people. The Geneva Writers’ Group proved a good forum for some reading discussions, but we were mostly about the writing.

I then discovered my reading family online, via blogs and Twitter. First I developed a crime reading community, then I moved onto translated literature. I’m not giving up either any time soon. These are all people who are as passionate as me about reading, thinking about the reading, debating, listening to other points of view. But of course we all read books at different times, so the conversation sometimes takes a long while to develop. ‘Ah,’ I find myself saying after reading someone’s post, ‘I used to love that book in my teens, but I haven’t read it since.’ Can I really contribute to the conversation, when I can barely remember it, probably overestimate my reaction to it at the time, and would almost certainly feel differently to it now?

All of this is a long-winded way of saying how wonderful it is to be part of the Asymptote Book Club, which I would be supporting even if I weren’t helping out at Asymptote. Books from independent publishers from all over the world, books that don’t have the publicity budgets of the big hitters and risk being overlooked, books that are translated with much care and thought, the opportunity to discuss the same book with an international group of book lovers, to ask the translator questions, to find out more about the culture behind the book… And something that I can join in whenever I am free, without the risk of missing a meeting. Sounds pretty much ideal to me.

 

Hawksmoor: David Bowie Reading Club No.1

Being such a huge David Bowie fan, you can imagine that I jumped at once at the chance to join the virtual book club initiated by his son Duncan Jones. January’s read was Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd and what an interesting experience that was!

I struggled initially with the Samuel Pepys style and orthography in the 17th century timeline (although I enjoyed the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn in my late teens). I certainly preferred the 20th century timeline, perhaps because it felt like a more straightforward crime investigation. But of course it is nothing of the sort. How to describe the plot? In the late 17th century (or perhaps early 18th), Nicholas Dyer is an architect working with Sir Christoper Wren to rebuild London’s churches after the Great Fire. He seems to believe in pagan practices that a durable church building requires a human sacrifice (see the Ballad of Mesterul Manole in Romanian folklore (and similar to legends in all parts of the Balkans). Except that the folklore versions imply that nothing of artistic merit that is lasting and unique can be built without the creator’s self-sacrifice, while Dyer seems more eager to sacrifice other people, usually vagrants he finds on the streets of London. In the 20th century timeline, Nicholas Hawksmoor is a detective who is investigating some serial killings on the site of Dyer’s churches in London’s East End.

Past and present seem to brush against each other. Names, characters, places, events are mirrored, sometimes in unexpected ways, in both narratives, but it takes a very attentive reader to keep precise track of the similarities and differences. Certain themes are handled obsessively in both timelines: dust, shadows and time (running out of time, in particular). London appears as a sulphurous, sinister city, harbouring all sorts of evil thoughts and deeds, riddled with real and metaphorical plagues.

Certain streets or patches of ground provoked a malevolence which generally seemed to be quite without motive.

And for a moment Hawksmoor saw his job as that of rubbing away the grease and detritus which obscured the real picture of the world in the way that a blackened church must be cleaned before the true texture of its stone can be seen.

This is a multi-layered work and therefore open to many interpretations, but one aspect which stood out for me was the struggle between rationality (Sir Christopher Wren’s ordered, mathematical world – and that of Hawksmoor’s assistant Dyer) and irrational urges, impulses or dark passions of the architect Dyer and Hawksmoor himself. As someone who prides herself on being a rational creature of the Enlightenment rather than of dark medieval obscurantism, yet I keep demanding a pathos to go with all the logos, a heartbeat to go with all the analysis, I somehow felt stuck in the middle. But perhaps that’s the point: that these opposing forces exist in most of us. A fascinating read, but a bit exhausting, I have to admit.

I began to wonder if that was the reason why it’s been out of print: that maybe the patience and close attention required for such experimental fiction has fallen out of fashion. In my student days in the 1990s this would have been precisely what would have attracted me to this book: that feeling of co-exploration, of being made to work for your enjoyment. Perhaps true crime podcasts have replaced literary structural wizardry and the detective work required for piecing together clues finds its outlet elsewhere.

Henley Literary Festival: Amanda Jennings, Lisa Owens, Cesca Major

henleylitfestivalHenley Literary Festival is virtually on my doorstep, and it was the first literary event I attended, back in 2009. I met the dynamic and very accessible, friendly duo Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (better known as Nicci French) there, we discussed the Moomins and the Martin Beck series, and the rest is history. In other words, my passion for reading and writing was rekindled.

It has grown considerably since, in ways which are not always to my liking, although I do understand the motivation behind it. For instance, it relies heavily on sponsors, who are advertised EVERYWHERE. The eclectic mix of writers and TV celebrities has shifted perhaps a bit too much in favour of the latter. The timing of events has become a bit stricter, so there is less opportunity to chat with your favourite writers. But it is still an informal, friendly affair, with good ticket availability, and with many interesting panels introducing debut authors or authors I’ve not heard of previously.

Henley on Thames, from thamesriviera.com
Henley on Thames, from thamesriviera.com

So I missed it during the past 5 years that I was abroad and was keen to reconnect this year! I would normally choose to spend a whole day in the coquettish riverside town of Henley and attend a number of events, but I had work commitments and came down with flu this week. So the only event I did manage to attend was Book Club Friday at the Town Hall, where Cesca Major interviewed two writers I knew: Amanda Jennings and Lisa Owen. The three women were witty, charming, intelligent and very candid about their writing quirks and paths to publication.

[Sadly, I forgot my mobile phone and camera at home, so was unable to take any pictures, so I am relying on official author photos.]

Lisa Owens, author photo from Picador.
Lisa Owens, author photo from Picador.

Lisa Owens, author of the millenials’ manual for procrastination and disorientation called Not Working , did not expect to write the novel she did. She had left her job in publishing to do a Creative Writing MA and used odd fragments which she had scribbled down as the basis of her dissertation. She realised that there was a clear voice emerging from these fragments and was planning to turn it into a more conventional type of narrative, but, luckily for us, it’s those pithy observations and vulnerability mixed with cynicism which raise this book above any Bridget Jones comparison.

Amanda Jennings, courtesy of Shotsmag magazine.
Amanda Jennings, courtesy of Shotsmag magazine.

Amanda Jennings, meanwhile, admitted that In Her Wake, which is her most successful novel to date, was the one which initially caused her the most heartbreak. It was the second novel that she wrote and she dedicated so much time and effort to it, felt that she had neglected her family to give it her all, that she was devastated when it just didn’t sell. Her agent advised her to embark upon another novel (which did sell, The Judas Scar), and it was only a few years later (after 11-12 rewrites) that she finally found a home for it with Orenda Books.

Meanwhile, Cesca Major enjoyed writing romcoms but decided to put her knowledge of history and love of research to use to write a more serious and dramatic story set in war-time France The Silent Hours. Now she alternates between the two, as it provides her with much-needed light relief.

Cesca Major, from her author website cescamajor.com
Cesca Major, from her author website cescamajor.com

Other topics these authors addressed (often to much laughter from the audience) were: reactions to bad reviews, treating writing as a 9-5 job, leaving notes to self in CAPITAL LETTERS in the first draft and how you think you will write one type of book (Irish rural drama in Lisa Owen’s case, romance or bonkbusters in Amanda Jenning’s case) but you end up writing something very different, more in keeping with your voice. They also revealed what they read during the writing process. Lisa is the only one who doesn’t mind reading writers achieving the effects she is after, and reads a few pages of Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis for inspiration. Cesca and Amanda understandably say they try to avoid those writing works that are too similar to their own, as it can discourage you as a writer (‘They’ve already said it so much better than me’). So they comfort read: recipes books for Amanda, Enid Blyton and Jilly Cooper for Cesca.

The Friday Book Club format works very well: it felt at times like we were eavesdropping on a conversation amongst writerly friends. And it certainly made me eager to read Cesca’s works now as well. Wishing all three writers every success in the future and many more such events!

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Dee Kirkby?

2012 smallAt our virtual book club, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dee Kirkby, writer, runner, midwife lecturer, cake-baker, book patron and voracious reader.

Dee writes using the name D.J. Kirkby (for adults) and Dee Kirkby (for children). Although she does not write crime fiction (yet!), Dee is the author of Without Alice, My Dream of You, Realand, Raffie Island and Queendom (The Portal Series for children), Special Deliveries: Life Changing Moments and My Mini Midwife. She can be found online on Twitter or at her websites for children or grown-ups.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

My first memorable experience in crime fiction was when I read one of Sue Grafton’s novels from her Alphabet series. I then quickly went through the rest she had written in the series to date (up to E I think) and then all of the Jonathan Kellerman novels I could find in the library.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I have found that  I am gravitating lately towards the ‘cosy crime’ genre – my reading time is an escape and I no longer want to escape to the life exposed in some of the grittier crime novels.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

I presume you mean the most memorable crime novel? That would be either ‘Itch’ by Simon Mayo or ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ by Alan Bradley, which are both what I would class as YA crime novels. However, like most YA, they are suitable for older readers too.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King – some of the best and most versatile writing that I have had the pleasure of reading throughout my life. Oh, and if I am allowed two authors then anything by Dr. Seuss (yes, really).

Dee's incredibly tidy desk.
Dee’s incredibly tidy desk.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I am looking forward to reading The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling (because it has been on my TBR pile for a long time), The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett (because I am a patron of reading and like to read books I can recommend to mid grade readers) and After the Snow by S.D. Crocket (because the title intrigues me).

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

This is too eclectic a mix to answer concisely but I do list all the books I read each year on a dedicated page on my website: http://www.djkirkby.co.uk/my-2014-a-z-reading-list/

 

Thank you, Dee, for your forthright answers and I have to agree with you about the delights of Dr. Seuss and the charming Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley. I look forward to chatting to other passionate readers and reviewers about their criminally good reads over the next few weeks. For previous participants in the series, please click here

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Rebecca Bradley?

RebeccaBradleyTime to introduce the founding member of our online crime book club to you, the ever-busy and delightful Rebecca Bradley.  If you haven’t yet discovered Rebecca’s goldmine of a blog – a fun blend of book reviews, interviews, writerly news and really interesting video links – then please be sure to visit and say Hi. Rebecca is a writer herself, as well as an omnivorous reader. You can also find out more about the Crime Fiction Book Club on her site, a virtual book club which meets on the third Wednesday of every month via Google Hangouts. I always enjoy exchanging views with Rebecca about the latest crime novels we have both read, and I hope you will enjoy finding out more about her reading preferences.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I started reading from a young age. Like many, I loved Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven books and the sleuthing of the kids to solve whatever mystery had come their way. I then progressed to Nancy Drew and was in awe of her independence. My next stop was Agatha Christie. It seemed like a natural progression and I haven’t stopped reading crime fiction since.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I tend to like series and am pretty anal about starting at the beginning of the series. For instance, when I was recommended Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta books, she was already nine books in, but I started with the first book ‘Postmortem’. The reason for this is I like to follow the character arcs. Characters keep me glued to books and to series. Outside of series, I like police procedurals. They can be UK, US, or the more currently popular Scandinavian books. Location doesn’t matter as long as the story is good and I’m invested in the characters.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

That’s easy. Cry Baby by David Jackson. It’s a brilliant US based series book with a New York Detective called Callum Doyle. Jackson writes brilliantly, with humour and with a real and deep understanding of people, which is capable of touching you when he really needs to.

I did answer that question based on the fact that we are discussing crime fiction. I do read outside the genre and have recently read some great books that have also stuck with me. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion and Wonder by R. J. Palacio. I know you said only one book, but… these are one book – from different genres!

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Only one? Did you see my last answer?! OK, it would be Karin Slaughter. Her books are so character driven I love them and just can’t wait for the next one to find out what is happening to them. It’s like waiting for your favourite TV series to air again. And she’s not gentle with them either. Just because they’re a part of the series, nothing is out of bounds.

KindleRBWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

Ha! I have nearly 300 books on my Kindle and my bookshelves are nearly bending in the middle with the weight. There are so many books that I am desperate to read, I just wish I could read faster. I am looking forward to reading The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths though. It’s the second in a series, of which I read the first one at Christmas time last year. It’s something different for me. It’s not police procedural as the protagonist is not a police officer but an archaeologist. Nowadays I spend so much time trying new-to-me writers that I don’t spend the time I’d like to with series any more.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

I am becoming more and more interested in the YA genre. I initially thought it was for kids and had some negative preconceptions about it until I read one, and then another and found I loved it. YA can fit any genre that a writer wants to write in, and the books I’ve read have covered some pretty heavy topics, but have done it brilliantly well and have usually had me in tears at some point. And this brings us around the characters again. It’s a belief in the characters that draws me in and has me sobbing and I think YA can do that really well.

I generally think we should read as widely as we can. Try new things. Experiment with our reading habits. I’ve been surprised this past year with what I’ve read and what I’ve enjoyed. It’s all about the reading. Just love the reading.

Wise and beautiful words, Rebecca, thank you very much indeed for sharing your reading passions with us! Over the next few weeks, every fortnight or so, I look forward to chatting to other great readers and bloggers about their criminally good reading pursuits.