Book Fair in Geneva – Salon du Livre

On Thursday this week I had the pleasure of attending the Geneva Book Fair. This is a large annual event (by Swiss standards), but it attracts little attention internationally because it is geared towards French speakers (lots of foreign books, but they are all translated into French; I couldn’t find even Swiss German writers in the original) and has few big name invitations. Although I did get to see Linwood Barclay there last year.

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It is not a trade fair and many of the standholders and publishers say they don’t even sell that many books. (Hmmm, book prices in Switzerland may have a little to do with that – 25-30 CHF for a paperback is very common, about £20 or $30). Instead, it’s very much about raising awareness, the general public and education. Small wonder it was teeming with schools, children running around doing treasure hunts or learning how to draw BD characters, or toddlers reading with their parents.

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And it’s not just about books – there were many stands dedicated to associations (book clubs and writing groups), universities, arts and crafts, health and well-being, cookery workshops and wine-tasting. There are plenty of outlets for your own creativity.

Artworks made out of old books.
Artworks made out of old books.
The Factory: each container had a different theme for visitors' own contributions: a 6 word story, your favourite books, print your selfie, write your bio etc.
The Factory: each container had a different theme for visitors’ own contributions: a 6 word story, your favourite books, print your selfie, write your bio etc.

I minded the Geneva Writers Group stand for a few hours. We improvised a bit with the decorations, but next year we will create something truly magical! I had no books to display myself, of course (maybe next year or the year after?), but I was surrounded by talented members of the group who did: Katie Hayoz (I’ve reviewed one of her YA books here), science-fiction writer Massimo Marino and YA/NA author Olivia Wildenstein. And I’m not just saying that because they are nice people…

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In the afternoon I wandered around, bumping into Max Cabanes again and telling him I should pay him royalties for using his drawing as my avatar. The BD illustrators are a wonderful bunch, and I also enjoyed talking to storywriter De Groot (creator of Leonard, about a mad inventor, one of my boys’ favourites) and Batem (illustrator of the magical Marsupilami).

How to draw a Marsupilami...
How to draw a Marsupilami…

When I said it was aimed towards French speakers, I did not mean to imply it is not international. On the contrary, there are many special interest country and regional sections, ranging from the youngest canton of Switzerland (Jura) to Arabic nations of North Africa, Brazil to Armenia. Each one organises panel discussions or author interviews on small stages. But there are so many events competing for your attention that not all get the audience they deserve. I got to see Dominique Sylvain making some very witty and wise observations about writing crime fiction in front of just 5-6 people: in Lyon, she’d have been mobbed!

Russia was the guest of honour this year. Here's a selection of cookery books in Russian.
Russia was the guest of honour this year. Here’s a selection of cookery books in Russian.
The African Salon.
The African Salon.
And, of course, you can't forget Switzerland itself...
And, of course, you can’t forget Switzerland itself…
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The Philosophy Section. Unfortunately, the session I was looking forward to here, ‘What Use Is Poetry?’, was cancelled or moved.

I was restrained in my book purchases, because most of the French authors I wanted I can get cheaper across the border in France. I did find a book by Alex Capus in German Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs) – which I couldn’t resist, since I have a very good friend with that name. Besides, I’ve been meaning to read Capus for ages. There was also an English-language bookshop that was selling off their remaindered books at very low prices, so I bought a one-volume selection of prose by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber & Faber, and the deliciously gossipy looking Writers Between the Covers. The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes and Cads by McKenna Schmidt and Rendon.

Apologies for the shaky photographs: I hate taking pictures with my mobile phone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All About the Voice

UntetheredYesterday I read my first official YA novel – because I am of that generation that didn’t have literature aimed specifically at my age-group, or paternalistic age-banding on books.  By the time YA literature made its official appearance, I had grown up and preferred to go back to my childhood favourites when I was in a nostalgic mood (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Ballet Shoes). I had no desire to relive my late teens, when back in high school all I wanted to do was be as pretentiously grown-up as possible.

But for a friend and fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group (who moreover shares my love of popcorn!), the one-woman dynamo that is Katie Hayoz, I decided to forsake my stupid genre scepticism.  I find genre such a meaningless category anyway. Her book ‘Untethered’ is labelled YA fiction, as the protagonist is a teenage girl. (But then, The Lovely Bones, Catcher in the Rye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should all be categorised as teen fiction.) It’s also labelled a paranormal novel, which is more than a little misleading, although it does deal with astral projection.

However, this is not a post about genre fiction, fascinating though that subject may be. Instead, it is about the importance of narrative voice. The narrator of ‘Untethered’ has a remarkably clear voice of her own: self-absorbed and whiny at times, self-justifying and pretentious at others, but also sharply observant, funny and poignant. Unique and yet representative of teenagers everywhere. Or the teenager we think we remember we were.

This is the one thing that literary agents say over and over again about submissions: what makes them instantly prick up their ears and read on is this strong individual voice.  Yet it is far rarer than you might think.  I read so many books this year (140 at last count) and only a handful or two of those have that truly unique voice. Confidence, an above-average plot and a polished style: yes, there are dozens like that and I rank many of my favourite authors amongst these. But a voice that grabs you (even when you don’t much like it) and takes you into their world (however unfamiliar)… it is an exhilarating experience when that happens.  I’ve felt that this year with Katie Hayoz’s Sylvie, Denise Mina’s Garnethill, John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight, Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. All very different voices, but all whispering (sometimes shouting) potently in my ear.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin

Then I realised that it’s not just in literature, but also in music that I am bowled over by unique, strong, perhaps even unfashionable or unlikable voices. What I call ‘lived-in’ voices – people who have experienced much, suffered and not always overcome. Voices of experience, voices on the edge. Voices that you wouldn’t want to hear on your children, but in which you perhaps recognise just a little bit of yourself. Yes, I admire the perfect pitch, poise and modulations of great singers, but it’s these ‘broken’ voices, simultaneously world-weary and world-hungry, that make my heart do a double turn.

Good morning heartache, good morning Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison,

www.jimmorrissonline.com
http://www.jimmorrissonline.com

David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Maria Callas…

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