Last Seen in Lhasa by Claire Scobie

What begins as a trip to Tibet in search of a rare red lily develops into a spiritual journey for Claire that eventually spreads over several years. Her friendship with Ani, a nomadic nun, is one of the two threads that run through the book, the other being the changing tide in Tibet. As Tibet unfolds in Claire’s narrative, we are able to glimpse behind the heavily curtained country to a land that is complex and politically raw, and where younger generations are having a crisis of identity. Their new identities are a hybrid; Chinese and Western influences sit uncomfortably with the spiritual and political history of their country, and their increased marginalisation is a stark contrast to the more spiritual passages of Claire’s story.

As her bond with Ani becomes stronger, we get a sense of Ani’s grace and unshakable belief in herself, but above all, Claire has captured what it means to care for another with your whole being, unconditionally. So palpable is the connection between Ani and Claire that it pulsates from the page. This is a book full of heart, short on clichéd sentiment and not afraid to explore the links between poverty and foreign influences, as well as the darker aspects of the mountaineering subculture. A book as rare as the red lily itself; beautiful.

Serious Men by Manu Joseph

Ayyan Mani is a dalit with an IQ of 148. He is the personal assistant to Arvind Acharya, the (Brahmin) Head of the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai. In an attempt to lift his family out of the chawls (high-rise tenements with shared toilets on each floor) Ayyan positions his son as a maths genius – a blatant lie that spirals out of control. But Ayyan is exceptionally shrewd. His years under Arvind have taught him the value of information, and he proves to be a gifted, if unethical, strategist. In contrast to the academics around him, who move only within their small, impenetrable circles, unable to relate to the ‘peons’ who make the Institute function, Ayyan deftly gathers information about his high ranking masters through his vast network, thus illustrating his power. When jealously attacks Arvind’s reputation from more than one source, Ayyan understands how to mobilise his knowledge to help his boss, and help himself in the process.

Manu Joseph’s writing is economical and stark, and thankfully lacks any patronising tones about poverty and slum living. Serious Men is a clever insight into the caste system, its rigidity and the power of subversion. Winner of the Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010, and rightly so.

Review: True Stories: Guilty Pleasures, Channel 4, March 2011

Julie Moggan’s True Stories: Guilty Pleasures gives a unique 360-degree view of the Mills and Boon romance. Told through the viewpoints of three readers, one male model (with over 200 covers to his name) and one writer, we are given a touching insight into the realities, fantasies, and individual expectations of finding and keeping love. The three readers (Shumita in India, Hiroko in Japan and Shirley in England) have been either let down by past encounters, raw and exposed by betrayal, or yearning for excitement in an otherwise satisfactory relationship. In a sense, their real lives match the narrative arc of the books they read.

The readers are very articulate; they express their desires and expectations of a relationship with extreme clarity, often setting high standards - standards that have been set by the fictional scenarios they read. Fiction sometimes acts as a catalyst for their lives, such as Shumita getting back together with her husband, Hiroko taking up dancing lessons and eventually persuading her husband to take part, or Shirley finding stability after a prior rocky relationship. When we see Shirley with her new husband, who is going through a bout of depression, it’s clear that love means supporting someone when they are at their lowest.

Back at the dance studio in Japan, the reality of tight finances threatens to overshadow Hiroko’s newly found joy. The spontaneity of taking up dancing to add some excitement to her marriage now seems misjudged to the point where events become ‘painful.’

In India, Shumita asks ‘what happened to the promises these books made to me?’ She is coming to terms with separating from her husband for good, and says that the books ‘have made me see the complexity of my life,’ concluding that ‘real life starts where the book ends.’

The most intriguing viewpoint, however, comes from male model Stephen, who finds love first by learning to accept himself whilst searching through the stack of self-help books by his bedside. His new relationship ‘will become what it will become,’ he says, not wishing to push the early, giddy days of love.

But this is more than a documentary about readers’ lives. There is much for the aspiring writer to take away from what initially seems like a snapshot of a booming industry, but it is actually a wonderful account of how writing, and storytelling, can provide escapism and hope.

Review: Milton Jones, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March 2011

If anyone can generate belly laughs with an overhead projector, Milton Jones can. The surreal one-liners come thick and fast, but he paces himself by letting his ‘granddad’ and supporting comic James Acaster warm us up a bit. Although the gags hark back to the days where comics told one-liners and used props, this is certainly not a predictable routine. He cleverly links tiny aspects of the show together at unexpected moments and shows that a ‘Sshhh’ to a heckler goes a long way. This is simple gag telling and word play at its best, and told in Milton’s gentle, mad-eyed way. The 3 best jokes for me were about Manchester United, REM and cyclists. I won’t ruin it for you, go and hear them for yourselves.

Review: Count Arthur Strong’s Command Performance, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March 2011

Like a mad uncle at an ill-advised family reunion, Count Arthur Strong guarantees to astound and amuse in equal amounts. Steve Delaney’s character is a delight. He is also a nincompoop. Wonderfully deranged, oblivious to the chaos in his wake, and choking on self-importance, he is a joy to watch. It’s worth taking a moment to watch the audience during his performance; you won’t be alone in shaking your head in disbelief at how Doncaster’s finest aging thespian manoeuvres himself into corners during monologues and arguments with his long-suffering friends. Some of the material may sound familiar from his Radio 4 series, but the visual dimension is well honed and gives the Command Performance a fantastic, old-fashioned variety-show feel. Every moment of this performance is perfectly timed. There is not a wasted word or stage direction from the Count and the wonderful Malcolm, his unfortunate lackey.

This is slightly surreal and bonkers at times, but a real testimony to the years of work that Steve Delaney has put in to polishing this rough diamond. I recently read that the Count may be gracing our screens. About time too.

Review: Mark Thomas, Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, Feb 2011

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is not the most obvious choice of theme for a comedy tour, but this is no ordinary tour and Mark Thomas is no ordinary comedian. Aided with a gigantic map of Israel and the West Bank as his backdrop, the evening begins with Mark explaining how he funded his latest work – a walk along the 750 km wall that divides Israel and Palestine – with a thank you to the Metropolitan Police. In 2010, Mark was awarded £1200 compensation from the police for an illegal stop and search they had undertaken in 2007, so he put the money towards funding the walk. ‘I asked them if it was alright to use their logo’ he says with a cheeky smile, ‘and they didn’t reply, so I thought, yeah, why not, I’m just showing my appreciation.’ Although his energy and writing are superior, what ties the show together are Mark’s impressions of his companions on the walk. The characters are brought to life with great comic effect, but it is the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theatre; stories told with poignancy and precision timing. Mark is a gifted storyteller, and this is easily his best tour to date. The story of the wall, his experiences both side of it, and the people that made the extreme ramble possible are all stories worth telling. Ultimately, he is a performer, and understands that this is a complex issue that cannot be played just for laughs – that simply isn’t his style. The stories of humiliation faced by the people he encounters, are often followed with a loaded silence, which he then punctures with a quick line offering some light relief.

The show is a testimony of courage too. In one town, Palestinian children as young as six are regularly stoned by Israeli settlers as they make their way to school. On the day Mark watches them make their journey, they gambol over the hill unscathed; they’ve made it. ‘This is the best it gets for them,’ he says. The silence is deafening, and a few sniffs can be heard amongst the audience.

Mark’s reputation as a campaigner has gone from strength to strength, helped by his tenacious attitude and passion for justice, and this tour sees him on form once more. The show comes highly recommended for those of you who want to look beyond the media images of suicide bombers and army tanks. Entertaining, thoughtful and very moving.

Review: Mark Steel, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, January 2011

First night of Mark Steel’s new UK tour - Mark Steel’s In Town - so ‘it might be great or it might be complete bollocks.’ It was a good start. I reviewed Mark’s previous tour over three years ago when he was last in Huddersfield. The crowd was smaller then, but tonight was almost sold out, and quite rightly. Mark’s presence on Radio 4 panel shows, such as The News Quiz, has allowed him to test his material, as has his column in The Independent and his blog (click on How I Spent An Afternoon – priceless) which has gone from strength to strength and shows off his love for history and politics. His writing, both on the page and on tour, is definitely sharper, but what stands out this time is his extraordinary talent for regional and country accents – Geordie, Northern Irish, London, Cornish, Brummie, Welsh and Scottish, each one matched with precisely the right combination of swear words that make the accents sing beautifully. He is quite the performer; articulate, smiley and potty-mouthed. Four stars, if anyone’s asking.

What happens when you clean up your website...?

...you find some old book reviews that could probably benefit from seeing some daylight. That's right, I've given my website a good spring clean and a makeover (after 3 years!), moving my book reviews and some articles to this blog in the process. This means that all my subscribers are about to be bombarded with old book reviews as I post each one here over the course of this afternoon. I promise to leave you all alone for a while to scroll through it all, and if nothing else, you might rediscover some good oldies. Happy reading people.

World Book Night reading

In less than 3 weeks, I'll be reading from The Living Library, a work in progress. The fabulous bods at Huddersfield Library are busy promoting the event with this lovely poster.

And guess who's going to be there......Michael Stewart, author of the award-winning King Crow, also reading from his book. I'll be giving away books from the World Book Night list too.  Hope to see you there.

“Expect the flu whenever you finish writing anything big.”

At the recent Society of Authors North meeting, we listened to Simon Brett tell us about the activity of Trying To Write. This was interspersed with gems about how a writer can look around the house and pinpoint which work paid for which bit of furniture, and the things you buy when you should have saved for the tax man. Then there was the warning that you will always get the flu whenever you finish something big, and we all nodded in unison. Simon reflected on making the transition from having writing as a hobby to making it your career. When you move your hobby to the centre of your life, this immediately creates a “job vacancy” for interests outside of work, and it’s important that you have other interests that balance your professional life as a writer.

This made me think about what I do outside of “writing” that could be classed as an interest or hobby. Does procrastination count? How about doing some half-hearted yoga whilst watching TV? Or staring at the garden willing fairies to come down and mow it? I’m really struggling to identify some part of my routine that doesn’t involve writing or reading. Can you relate to this?

In the afternoon, we listened to Julia Franklin reading extracts from the Books Are Loud portfolio and, for me, this was the best part of the day. It takes real talent to bring text to life using just your voice, and if you’re a fan of the audio book format, then you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, Julia and her colleagues are expanding their portfolio, so if you want your work read by pros, have a look at their website.

My World Book Day gift to you...

She is razor sharp and insightful. Her precise language captures the essence of what it means to be an award-winning, Croatian writer on the margins of a star-struck industry, and she does this without once gazing at her navel.

She uses Ivana Trump as an example of how anyone can be an author, but authors can’t penetrate other industries in the same way, such as become sports personalities or business leaders. Above all, she offers a cultural commentary on the cogs that make up the publishing industry, as well as a candid peek into the writers’ psyche, weaving in encounters with other writers and agents along the way.

Her name is Dubravka Ugresic, and her critically acclaimed book Thank You For Not Reading is a must read for anyone thinking about earning a living as a writer.

Read it and weep heavy tears onto your next tax return.

Valentine

Husband: What shall we do for Valentines Day?

Wife: What we always do.

Husband: Which is?

Wife: You know, say we're not doing anything, then rush out to the shops at the last minute to buy each other something - ANYTHING - so it doesn't feel like a normal work day.

Husband: Hmmph. We're not doing that this year.

Wife: Agreed.

Husband: So what shall we do then?

Wife: How about fight about your daily fruit and veg intake?

Husband: Excellent, I'll get the wine. It's made of grapes.

Wife: That's just fruit. What about the veg?

Husband: I'll eat a cabbage after.

Wife: What, a whole one?

Husband: For you, yes.

Wife: I love you.

Husband: I know.

The Living Library gets its first airing

Yesterday, I learned three secret ingredients to a good book reading: 1. Free tea and coffee 2. Free biscuits 3. A warm room

You simply cannot go wrong if your audience is fed, watered and warm. It makes them a captive audience, and there is nothing sweeter for a writer than reading to a captive audience. So, with a belly full of Viennese Whirls and tea up to my eyeballs, I began reading extracts from the first chapter of The Living Library. They laughed, clapped and asked me questions, and came out with some gems of their own:

Mrs H: I remember being taken to join the library by my teacher when I was 7 Me: Where was that? Mrs H: In Leeds, next to the school. I started working at the school as a teacher when I got older. I remember the smell from when I was a child. Still smelled of wet knickers.

At the end of the reading, one of the women gave me hug and a few others came and told me that they would happy buy the book, ‘but I expect it’ll be the library for free, so there’s no need to buy it.’ And with that, they were all gone.

The clever bods at Huddersfield Library have now hit upon a cunning plan for me to read from my manuscript throughtout the year, as it progresses. ‘It’s different from us hearing the final product,’ said the mastermind, ‘which is what usually happens.’ So watch this space...

This has been a big week on the writing front with the reading and also the creative writing group beginning again. Two hours a week for the next six months. SIGH. Oh my, how I’ve missed it.

What a year, eh?

Warp speed is an understatement. The prologue and first chapter of my library residency book, entitled THE LIVING LIBRARY (yeah, I am pleased with the title, thanks for asking) are ready! And you can read the prologue here. I’ll also be giving a reading from more bits of the manuscript on National Libraries Day in February, so stay tuned. This year has also been the year of the rush job, i.e. Nilam, can you just rewrite this paper/chapter/module/case study/donor report/exec summary, I need it next week, is that ok?

So now, I’m ready for a break and won’t be looking at the computer screen for a while. Bring on the Christmas boxsets! Happy doodah everyone.

Short story ‘Rouen’ published in Litro

Many moons ago, I blogged that I would write a story with a link to France, and it seems that the editors at Litro think it’s worth publishing.

This started as a comic piece about not being able to speak the language, but after rewriting the first paragraph as a ‘warm-up’ exercise at my writing group, the original was scrapped for something altogether darker.

And now I've made it into an ebook...

See what you think?

NaNoWriMo begins today

For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month. I have signed up. I have no idea why, except that I work well to deadlines. When someone says ‘write a 50,000 word novel in a month,’ I say, ‘OK, I will.’ But I’ve already decided that I’m using it to bang out new work that I can come back to next year. In the meantime, my manuscript on the library residency continues and the December deadline I set myself is hurtling towards me. Watch this space...

That’s all folks (not really)...

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last two weeks, it’s that library staff know EVERYTHING, and I don’t mean which books to read if you want to do a loft conversion. I mean they pick up on much more than you realise. Not only do they know what you eat and drink when you think they are not looking, they know your reading habits, how often you come in, the time of day they are likely to see you, and the way you walk, talk, behave and smell. This means that if, for some reason, you suddenly disappear, they start asking questions. It means that they care enough to find out what has happened to you – they are a real ‘social service' showing that what they do is sometimes above and beyond the call of duty. How many institutions can say this about their clients? The start of Summer Reading Challenge yesterday marked the end of my formal writing residency, but I’ll be back over the summer to top up my research as I write my manuscript. So you’ll get some more library stories over the coming months. Stay tuned and thanks for reading...

Summer Reading Challenge 2011

Yes, you could spend money on one of the new titles being promoted by the Richard and Judy Children’s Summer Book Club, or...you could sign your children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren up for the Summer Reading Challenge and its Circus Stars reading campaign. I’ve worked out that even with the half-price discount currently being offered for the Richard and Judy books, the price tag, if you chose to buy them all, would be just shy of £50. Thereare 6 books in 3 categories: Read Together (£19.94 for 6 books), Read By Yourself (£14.44), and Fluent Reader (£13.44). I know, I know...you’re not likely to buy all six books at once. Maybe you’ll buy one, as the others aren’t quite right, and wonder where to get something more appropriate. You know where I’m going with this, don't you?

Don't get me wrong, I think that the books being promoted are great, and it’s important that the authors earn a living from their writing. My point is this: why limit the children to just the books being promoted in the shops, especially, when they get the reading bug, they tend to devour books? One book per week may not be enough for the 6-week holiday.

Sitting in the children’s library today, the decibel level was as you would expect for a Saturday, but there was extra excitement amongst the little people about being able to choose LOTS of books to read over the summer. A boy came and sat next to me on the sofa, clutching his chosen books to his chest.

‘I got my books,’ he beamed, and showed me My Family, Trucks, Fire Engines and Alien Tales. His sister walked away with 4 books too, but they each had the freedom to choose up to 15 books. Next was a boy who walked away with 8 books, and I later saw him reading his Harry Potter whilst waiting for his dad to make his choices in the lending library. Another lay prostrate on the floor reading Roald Dahl, and there were plenty more like him. So, even if you decide to buy books recommended by other reading campaigns, please remember to sign your children up to the Summer Reading Challenge - they can never have too much choice when it comes to reading.

A small space

Space is a real issue for libraries: everyone wants a piece. The town and branch libraries use every inch of space for poetry groups, basic reading groups, a PALS (Practice Activity and Leisure Scheme) Art Group, children’s storytime, a birdwatchers group, a visually impaired reading group, school visits, coffee mornings with guest speakers, knitting groups, parents groups, Mumsnet groups, Manga groups, and much more besides. And these are just the groups who meet informally. I have asked organisers where else they could meet, and the answer has always been ‘we couldn’t, not without this place.’

During storytime in the children’s library, a woman asked me if there was any space for some groups she works with to meet at the library. It turns out that one of the local community centres has closed because of spending cuts. This means that 14 separate groups (run for everyone from women and children to asylum seekers) who once had a home, have been turfed out onto the street. Their first port of call for help was the library, in the hope that they would be able to continue offering their services, if only they could find a small space. Many groups already use the library to meet and run informal activities, but an additional few groups may well place a strain on the halls and committee rooms. From my experiences as a writer-in-residence, I know that the library is possibly the one public service organisation that will do all it can to remain inclusive. We are lucky that libraries are so very resourceful and accommodating.