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A jewel of a story: Reviewing Spill Simmer Falter Wither

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 20 July 2016

Library assistant Alvina reviews Brave New Reads pick Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume - read on to find out why you're sure to love this stunning book:

From first unfurling to eventual denouement, Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes full circle in a torrent of emotional freedoms and physical escapes. Bound up with the seasons, this is an intensely felt love story.
We follow Ray, a hesitant fifty-seven year-old solitary dweller, as he discovers the quiet gratification of companionship with One Eye, a rescue dog as grisly and mangled as Ray envisions himself to be. Vicarious visions of One Eye’s world bind man and dog together in oneiric hyper-awareness; ‘Now you are my third leg, an unlimping leg, and I am the eye you lost’. Yet their bond is ever threatened by One Eye’s unpredictable savage outbursts towards others - one dangerous encounter drives them to flee house and home in a meandering road journey of evasion.

Baume’s precise, lyric language lifts this tale above tragic biographical narrative and reveals the myriad things we miss in our purposeful lives.

A tumbling kaleidoscope of miniature experiences suffuse us with the significance of small tasks and routine shared. Ray, like One Eye with his inquisitive nose, is attentive and observant of every small occurrence and change in his environment, exercising a gentle and mindful perception. His limitless empathy counters the pathetic pitiable character he believes others see: ‘I haven’t lived high or full, still I want to believe I’ve lived intensely’. Ruminating on the unimaginable wonders of others’ lives, Ray shows us our world from the outside in with poignancy and humour.

However, we also see Ray severely hindered by his self-acknowledged “inability to do things”. He cannot reach out, or within, to find reason for the constant puzzle and battle of his existence – ‘better to be content with ignorance, I’ve always thought, than haunted by the truth’. Darker hidden truths are gradually unearthed through confidences to his dog; which make a kind of sense of Ray’s situation. For someone unable to rebel, to completely let go as One Eye furiously does, these secrets offer a slight mitigation.

Truly the fable of the outsider and the outcast, reading this book was more akin to being so absorbed by a film you forget the screen before you. With such honest open feeling and vivid writing, I saw and lived the entire tale along with One Eye and Ray. An epic poetic relation of two small lives caught between the vastness of nature and the greater dangers of human society, I was engrossed by this jewel of a story and I think you will be too.

Live in Norwich? Join us at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, 6pm, on Tuesday 26th July to discuss Spill Simmer Falter Wither at the book club.

Read an extract of Spill Simmer Falter Wither to get a taste of the novel.

Borrow Spill Simmer Falter Wither from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries, or Suffolk Libraries.

Find out more about Sara Baume.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

About Alvina De-La-Mare
A long-time fen-dweller, I like to put a creative spin on my work as a library assistant.  Being part of the Readers’ Circle reawakened my love of reading for simple pleasure.  A scavenger by nature, I will delve into any book or subject that captures my interest and likewise often come home from bike rides with finds and forages from country roads. 

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Communications Intern Jo Thompson on her time spent with Writers' Centre Norwich

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 19 July 2016

UEA MA student Jo Thompson has just completed a three month internship within the Communications team at Writers' Centre Norwich. Here, she reflects on what she has learnt from the experience.

We are extremely grateful to Jo for all her hard work, especially with the City of Literature programme at Norfolk & Norwich Festival, and wish her the best of luck with her internship at Blake Friedmann!

I arrived at the Writers’ Centre in late-April to work one day a week with the Communications Team. I knew Norfolk & Norwich Festival was coming up and had already bought a few tickets. What I wanted, really, to find out, was what kind of work went into actually marketing a festival that goes on for two weeks, features dozens and dozens of performers, writers and artists, and sells thousands of tickets. It was a hectic process, but for me the best possible opportunity – I got to see WCN at its most lively, busy and creative. 

Throughout the year, there’s a whiteboard in the office of Dragon Hall, where WCN makes its home. In the run-up to the festival, it’s updated regularly with ticket sales. The numbers creep up steadily, turning green as events fill up. As you can imagine, the whiteboard receives due scrutiny – we need to know what’s already sold out, what’s clearly not been discovered by its audience yet, and what these sales are like compared to the equivalent numbers this time last year. For a rookie in the Comms world, it was exciting to see the practical reactions, and the discussions around how best to market different types of event.

Three months on, I still find it oddly amazing when marketing works exactly as intended. You promo the historical fiction event to audiences that might enjoy historical fiction, and, almost like magic, the numbers on the whiteboard start going green.

Part of the fun of Communications – and it’s all been really, genuinely good fun – is being involved in almost every project. You need to be tuned into everything that’s going on to proofread all the newsletter and website copy, and since more or less everything is for the public, you need to make sure it’s getting out clearly to the public. It’s definitely not all Twitter, which is a bit of a preconception I’ll guiltily confess to having at the beginning! Day to day, on top of managing social media, there are flyers and leaflets being designed, newsletters and emails drafted and sent out, feedback surveys analysed, and content constantly being formulated and adapted for the website.

I was a big fan of WCN and its events before my internship, but I think if there’s one thing I really underestimated, it’s the ambition and breadth of work. A lot of what people recognise WCN for is their local presence – things I worked on for instance with the Young Norfolk Poetry Competition, reaching out to local schools and creative writing clubs. But there’s a surprising amount being done further afield too. Last month when WCN was advertising two Norwich-based summer residencies for writers from Japan, a lot of my research and outreach was based around influential Japanese literary associations. At the moment we’re offering eight mentorships in literary translation, all in different languages. That’s an even more diverse mailing list. 

WCN is a dynamic place – there’s been no slowing down post-NNF. Dark plottings are taking place over Noirwich, the September crime writing festival, and the refurbishments to transform Dragon Hall into the National Centre for Writing will be underway in a few short months. I’m phenomenally grateful to the lively, interesting staff at WCN for letting me spy on their work and lend my inexperience. The internship promises to give an insight into how an arts organisation works, and for me it’s definitely delivered – looking (hopefully!) towards a career in the arts, I feel more informed, confident and, probably most importantly, more genuinely enthused.  

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'Walls within and without' - Mariko Nagai describes her residency so far

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 18 July 2016

Our Japanese writer in residence, Mariko Nagai, is halfway through her stay in Norwich UNESCO City of Literature. Below, she describes the voices that have resided with her so far.

'For the past two weeks (to be honest, I didn’t write at all during the first week), I’ve been writing fragments about Julian of Norwich, the 14th century anchoress whose real name has been replaced by the church she lived in; about Yoshiko Okada, a Japanese actress in the 1930’s who crossed the border to seek an asylum in the Soviet Union (and whose false confession later led to the execution of her lover, who defected with her, and two others); about walls we erect inside of us; about refugees and asylum seekers. I’ve been reading books about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the Black Death, Julian of Norwich, medieval England, theoretical books on borders and nationalism, Boccacio’s The Decameron, a book about female religious communities in Norfolk, and (to my delight) Ancrene Riwle, a 14th century manual on how to be an anchoress.

My writing has taken on the shape of Norwich: small dark alleys and fragments of conversations; voices of staff of the Italian Restaurant one street over, inflections of their mother tongues creating a new tonality in English; church bells that usher the hours forward, each with its own music; a species of birds that cry once around midnight that sounds startlingly like a child being strangled, not that I’ve ever heard a child being strangled; seagulls that call to each other or to no one on particular, but they call again and again; drunken men yelling something, the first vowel loud then fading away; the sun that does not set until 10pm. These images, taken individually, do not make sense, but this is how I see Norwich.  

I spend my days writing sentences like, “Her servants were Alice and Sara. We don’t know why they came, we don’t know who they were. Only that they lived in the room adjacent to Julian, their worlds divided by a window, but these three were a world unto themselves, unable to live apart, unable to be together,” and “This is a new land where the birds of the homeland go by other names, where familiar objects keep sliding in and out of understanding, where what used to be natural is seen as barbaric” and “Brotherhood hides in its letters the word ‘otherhood’. There are brothers. Then there are others”– nonlinear fragments that are written down but not understood. It seems as if my writing is trying to capture the shape of Norwich but to be honest, I don’t quite know what it is, this creature that’s coming into being. I think this writing is the evolution of the border book I have been thinking about, but instead of borders, now it is about walls: walls within and without. Walls that divide us, walls that bring us together. About rooms we inhabit, both imaginary and real.'      

Mariko Nagai is an author, translator and photographer. She is Associate Professor of creative writing and Japanese literature at Temple University in Tokyo. Mariko's residency in Norwich will take place between 1 July and 1 August. Website

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Voices from South East Asia - approaches to sharing stories and translation

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 08 July 2016

In May this year, WCN Associate Director Kate Griffin returned to Yangon for the second edition of the Link the Worlds translation festival, run in partnership with PEN Myanmar and the Select Centre in Singapore, and hosted by the Taw Win Garden Hotel.

You can read about Kate's previous visit in her blog 'Translating Myanmar' here.

Things have changed since my last visit to Myanmar. Blogger and activist Nay Phone Latt apologised that he couldn’t take part in Link the Worlds this year as he is now an MP. ‘With writers and intellectuals in Parliament, Myanmar is now the bright spot in South East Asia,’ according to Dan Feng Tan of the Select Centre. While international attention has focused on politics, Link the Worlds is concerned with finding voices from Myanmar and South East Asia, as well as sharing stories from elsewhere with local readers. ‘Literature goes deeper than the news,’ said PEN Myanmar president Ma Thida.

Sharing stories

Over the four days of the translation workshop we translated work by Tash Aw and Suchen Christine Lim, into Burmese, as well as a short story by the young Burmese writer Nay into English. 

Ten translators from Myanmar worked with their workshop leader Thintlu on an extract from Tash Aw’s ‘The Face: Strangers on a Pier’, part of a personal story that reflects the often complicated heritage of families in South East Asia. Tash talked about the diversity in the region created by huge flows of people moving from one country to another; through his writing he aims to illuminate this shared culture.

In another room, Suchen Christine Lim talked to her group of translators and their workshop leader Moe Thet Han about the cultural, historic and linguistic nuances of the opening to her latest novel. The River’s Song is an exploration of identity, love and loss set against the changes in Singapore over the last few decades and its fast disappearing past. In Myanmar, the strong tradition of censorship has meant that people are also unaware of the country’s past, a situation that publishers and writers are determined to change. 

Under the guidance of Alfred Birnbaum, a group of Burmese translators brought Nay’s short story ‘Thakin’ into English. With its universal themes of love, loyalty and jealousy, it’s a story that will have resonance with international readers. We were intrigued to learn that Nay, whose pen name means ‘blue sea’, is a merchant seaman, hence his strong interest in writing about man and nature.

Pictured: Tash Aw and Suchen Christine Lim

Talking translation

This year, Link the Worlds expanded to include a three-day festival, packed with panel discussions about various aspects of literary translation in Myanmar, both into and out of Burmese. Writers, publishers and translators from Myanmar, other SE Asian countries, Japan and the UK talked about everything from translating poetry to translation and technology.

Much of the discussion explored the current situation for translation in Myanmar. Yangon-based publishers such as Ngar Doe Sar Pay (NDSP) and Seikkuchocho (SKCC) are publishing work in translation. Sanmon Aung of NDSP is particularly interested in the outside view of Myanmar, publishing fiction and non-fiction about Myanmar by authors such Wendy Law-Yone and Pascal Khoo-Htwe. He is keen to encourage the younger generation to read more by bringing them graphic novels by Guy Delisle and bestsellers by authors such as Jonas Jonasson. 

Aung Si Thar of SKCC publishing house noted that local readers prefer popular writers from other languages such as English, rather than new books by writers from Myanmar. There are various reasons for this: education was almost lost during the socialist period; for many years censorship made it difficult for writers to get published; they have been isolated from the wider literary community; and there has been little support for writers wanting to improve their craft.

Older writers are popular once again with Myanmar readers, Aung Si Thar noted, both older writers from Myanmar and translated writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle. These are familiar names, and the quality of translation tends to be high, as the books were originally published in the post-independence era when literary translation received a lot of support.  

Nowadays, Aung Si Thar explained, the translation market in Myanmar is dominated by self-help books about how to survive daily life. With their lives in such a state of flux, people are looking for inspiration and advice rather than literature. He believes that the future of the country rests with young people, so SKCC and other publishers are focusing on books that encourage the mental and physical development of children. Translation is an integral part of this, as international stories will open up local children to other cultures. 

Likewise, Myanmar can offer literature from a diversity of voices and languages, from the classics to contemporary writing. After the hiatus of several decades, Myanmar publishers are keen to promote their literature to international publishers and to learn from them about editing, distribution, marketing and other aspects of the industry.  

Voices from South East Asia

While we were translating, an empty space on the third floor of the Taw Win Shopping Centre was transformed into a lively, bustling book fair, with thousands of local readers browsing and buying books from Myanmar and from other South East Asian countries, brought to Yangon by publishers from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Over the weekend, there were many discussions about the future of translation and publishing in South East Asia, and how to make sure that a greater diversity of writing from the region reaches readers internationally, including in the UK. 

From the outset, we recognised that South East Asia is not one homogenous place, but a region with great diversity of landscape, urban and rural lives, different languages and complicated histories. Rather than define the region by geography, we focused more on the independent critical thinking that is coming out of SE Asia, and ways in which we could promote these different voices and concerns.

Ma Thida talked about how in Myanmar and elsewhere in SE Asia people are brought up to listen rather than to be listened to; she finds that it’s hard to encourage people to speak out. Writers under censorship are skilled at expressing themselves indirectly; their readers are equally skilled at understanding what they are saying. This is not always the case in the West, where readers are used to more direct expression. Thida suggested that in SE Asia we should take advantage of this listening habit and read each other’s literature through translation, whether into English or other languages from the region. Kamolpaj Tosinthiti of Silkworm Books in Thailand noted that when Asian writers get attention from the West, Asian readers pay more attention.

The publishers around the table were all keen to publish more writing from SE Asia, particularly voices that reflect the diversity of the region. Kum Suning of Ethos Books told us about their publication of a collection of poetry by a Bangladeshi construction worker in Singapore, a group rarely acknowledged within the cultural scene. The collection was translated or transcreated in English by the Singaporean poet Cyril Wong.

In Malaysia, Fixi has published ‘Heat’, ‘Flesh’ and ‘Trash’, a triptych of SE Asian anthologies. They found writers through an open call, but Ted Mahsun acknowledged that there were gaps in their coverage, such as Myanmar. Fixi has recently opened an office in London, to promote their English-language list to a wider audience. However, Ted said that for more local fiction they would focus on SE Asia. In literary terms Malaysia is isolated from its neighbours; it is difficult to find Indonesian literature in Malaysia despite the common language.

Thai writer Prabda Yoon said that as a country Thailand feels autonomous from everywhere. The official version is that Thai culture is more civilized and other countries inferior. Despite this propaganda, he reassured us that most Thai people don’t treat their neighbours as enemies; through increased travel and use of the internet, they have been learning more about their neighbouring countries. He would like to see Thai readers gaining more access to literature from SE Asia as well, but there are barriers to this.  

One of the main barriers is finding translators for the various language combinations. In many SE Asian countries, the few who translate do it out of love rather than money. It is hard for translators to make a living, let alone a career, from literary translation. We discussed ways of supporting translators through training programmes, from translation courses and masterclasses, to mentoring schemes. Ideally such projects would link the translators with editors and publishers, and lead to greater publication opportunities.

The Link the Worlds workshops, festival and book fair provided an excellent platform for meeting and making plans; we hope that the alliances formed and ideas discussed will help literary translation in SE Asia flourish, bringing these different voices and concerns to the rest of the world.

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An introduction from our second Japanese writer in residence, Motoyuki Shibata

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 29 June 2016

We're very pleased to announce our second Japanese writer in residence, Motoyuki Shibata,who will be visiting Norwich UNESCO City of Literature in August as part of a programme generously supported by the Nippon Foundation.

'I am a Japanese translator of contemporary of American fiction. Among writers I have translated are Paul Auster, Steven Millhauser, Steve Erickson, Stuart Dybek, Kelly Link, and Laird Hunt.  Although I basically translate from English to Japanese, I edit an annual English-language literary journal called Monkey Business, which aims to introduce contemporary Japanese authors to the English-speaking audience and is published in the US through a generous grant from the Nippon Foundation. I also run a Japanese-language literary journal called Monkey, which is published three times a year in Japan, and in which I publish a lot of my own translations of stories and poems written in English.

This August I hope to get away from the infernal heat in Tokyo and work in peace on one of my projects, translating the two autobiographical books by Paul Auster—Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013)—at the same time editing the next issue of Monkey.  Needless to say I hope to benefit by meeting literary people in Norwich, about whom and which I have heard only good things from a number of friends.'

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(tags: Translation, UNESCO)

Mariko Nagai plans for her forthcoming residency in Norwich, UNESCO City of Literature

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 23 June 2016

WCN is excited to announce the first of two Japanese writers visiting Norwich UNESCO City of Literature this year, as part of a residency programme generously supported by the Nippon Foundation.

Mariko Nagai is an author, translator and photographer. She is Associate Professor of creative writing and Japanese literature at Temple University in Tokyo. Mariko's residency in Norwich will take place between 1 July and 1 August. Website

'I never know what a space would do to the projects at hand – I’ve often started a residency thinking I would work on a particular writing, only to find that the space demanded that I work on a different project. When I came across Writers' Centre Norwich's call for Japanese translators and writers to apply, I was in Singapore for a conference/research, thick in the history of karayuki-san (oversea Japanese prostitutes from the late 19th – early 20th century). Of course, I thought, this is what I want to work on, and Norwich, being in the UK, is a perfect place to work on this project. It would only make sense, I reasoned, to work on this project about imperialism and body trafficking and migrant workers in the country that was one of the imperial powers, the country which Japan looked upon as a model of imperialism. 

For the month of June, ever since I found out that I got the residency fellowship, I’ve been preparing for it: reading, thinking, creating an extensive outline, and daydreaming about these women’s lives who ended up in places like Singapore, Mumbai, Vietnam, Cape Hope, whose bodies were intimately connected with aspirations of the new empire. Then a week ago, when I invited Sawako Nakayasu to do a talk on translation (the 2016 PEN Translation Award winner, The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa) at my university, her talk inspired me to dig up an old manuscript – an eight year old translation of Fumiko Hayashi’s Hourouki – and to reevaluate my relationship with it. Though portions of it have been published in journals, I didn’t revise it enough to pitch it for a book publication. Is it time to rework on it? Yes, I thought to myself, Fumiko’s book needs to be read now, maybe not eight years ago, but now – her book which deals with earthquakes, collapsing economy, unemployment, militarism, patriarchy, all the things that are relevant today, needs to go out in the world. And of course, I have a new project I’ve been daydreaming about for a year or so -   about shifting borders and migrations and displacement and nationalism - that I still don’t know what narrative shape it will take. 

What will I work on? These are the projects I will be packing in my bag, but to tell you the truth, I won’t know until I get to Norwich. Maybe the city will reveal to me to a project I haven’t even dreamt up yet.'

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A moving tale that enriches the reader: Reviewing The Illusion of Separateness

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 21 June 2016

Readers' Circle member and retired library worker Joy Travers reviews Brave New Reads pick The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy. Read on to get a flavour of this astounding novel:

This beautifully written novel tells the story of how acts of kindness and compassion can have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. Inspired by true events from World War II, Simon Van Booy has skilfully composed an engaging read which captivates and engages from the start as we are drawn into the different life experiences of the characters.

Van Booy illustrates with clarity how the consequences of the actions of one person can shape, for good or ill, the lives of future generations. However it is one man’s simple act of compassion toward another, in a situation over which neither had control that provides the basis for the story.  This act is proof that the human spirit, although sometimes bowed can never be diminished.

The chapters switch between World War II and the present day, focusing separately on each of the characters, revealing how their lives are all connected, and how a single act of mercy resonates through the decades. The author masterfully disentangles each separate thread and destroys the illusion of separateness between the characters. He shows how the human condition can be shaped by seemingly random events whose importance is revealed only when the whole story has unfolded.

The six main characters narrate their own stories with clear and understated prose describing in concise detail the events that make up their lives. Without graphic language or violence, the full horrors of war, loss, death and separation are illustrated to the reader. Van Booy explicitly conveys the thoughts and feelings of each of the characters with elegance and beauty, even when the events themselves are shocking and ugly. 

There is a poetic dexterity and a delicateness of touch to the writing, making The Illusion of Separateness compelling to read even though it portrays events that are breathtakingly sad. I felt a warmth and empathy towards the characters and wanted to continue reading to hear their stories.  This novel succeeds in drawing together the seemingly unrelated strands of different countries, characters and timescales weaving them into a moving tale that enriches the reader and gives hope for the survival of the human spirit.

Simon Van Booy will be at Huntingdon Library, Wednesday 29th June, 3.30m. Buy your ticket for only £2.

Alternatively, join Simon at a creative writing workshop at WCN Dragon Hall on Thursday 30th June, 6.30pm. Priced at a mere £12, this workshop is open to writers at all stages of their careers: from those new to writing fiction, to the more practised.

Read an extract of The Illusion of Separateness to get a feel of the book.

Borrow The Illusion of Separateness from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries or Suffolk Libraries.

Find out more about The Illusion of Separateness

Find out more about Brave New Reads

About Joy Travers
I have recently retired from working in Cambridgeshire Libraries after a period of over 20 years service. At present I am using my new found freedom to travel and enjoy having the time to do the things that I like doing. Walking, keeping fit, socialising with family and friends and attending live music events are things I get a buzz from. I have also enjoyed having time to read for pleasure – not just to send me to sleep after a stressful day at work. Brave New Reads has been a stimulating and interesting way of going back to the library as a customer – a lovely experience.

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Concise Novel, Epic Poem: Signs Preceding the End of the World Reviewed

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 06 June 2016

Readers' Circle member Roland Ayers reviews Brave New Reads pick Signs Preceding the End of the World. Read on to see what he thinks:

Unusually there is no poetry selection among this year’s Brave New Reads. Yet with prose as poetic as Yuri Herrera’s, who needs poetry? In fact, the exact choice of words were not his, translated as they were from the author’s Mexican Spanish to English – or as the novel would put it, from latin to anglo – by Lisa Dillman. The Translator’s Note at the end provides some insight into the challenges translation presents. According to Lisa Dillman the original prose is ‘often infused with understated affection and tenderness’, its style ‘elegantly spare’, the use of language 'nothing short of stunning’. It is tribute to the meticulousness of her translation that such qualities shine through into anglo.

Language itself is one of the novel’s themes. Its sassy, yet tender-hearted young female switchboard operator protagonist Makina, operates phones in native tongue, latin tongue and the ‘new tongue’ of those who have crossed to the North. She ‘knew how to keep quiet in all three too’. The word verse is frequently used as a verb meaning to exit. In the Spanish, jarchar, from the Arabic kharja, it was inspired by concluding verses of Arabic and Hebrew poems of the thirteenth century. They would tell of a transformative exit, often a lover’s goodbye, in a feminine voice. The whole novel turns out to be just such an exit for Makina when she heads to the North (the word America never used).


The novel’s nine-chaptered structure draws on the rich literary heritage of the Meshika (known to us anglos as Aztecs) who told of nine underworlds to be passed through following certain kinds of death, each underworld the losing of something, a transition to something less human, something new. Underworld in general is a theme. An ominous opening passage sees a sinkhole open, swallowing ‘all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by’. Underground trains ‘ran round the entire circulatory system but never left the belly’. Tunnels lead out onto a deserted baseball arena where anglos ‘play a game to celebrate who they are’ and a top dog latin godfather plays out his own sport.

And that haunting final chapter. But you don’t want me to tell you about the final chapter, you want to be haunted by it for yourself, along with all one-hundred-and-seven pages of this concise, yet epic tale. And if you are reading this before 10th June, you will want to attend the Meet the Author event too. If you then visit a bar in Mexico, you’ll want to order an authentically unpasteurised and delightfully alliterative pecan pulque.  Alas, not served in the Norwich branch of Marzano.

Get a taster of Signs Preceding the End of the World with the opening chapters.

Borrow Signs Preceding the End of the World from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries, or Suffolk Libraries. Find out more about Signs Preceding the End of the World.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

About Roland Ayers
Roland Ayers is a Writers’ Centre Norwich member who is grateful to the Brave New Reads selection procedure for exposing him to literature, good, bad and amazing, he would not have otherwise discovered. When not reading potential Brave New Reads, he reads about neuroscience, linguistics, neurolinguistics, cognitive psychology, philosophy, running and North Korea.  

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Just Gripping: The Last Pilot Reviewed

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 25 May 2016

Sarah Salmon, Brave New Reads Readers' Circle member and librarian, reviews her favourite book of 2015: The Last Pilot. See what she thinks...

I am so happy that this book made it into the 2016 Brave New Reads as I’ve loved it for over a year and in fact it was my favourite book of 2015 – and I read over 200 books last year so this is quite a feat!

I knew this book was coming - the author Benjamin Johncock wrote it in the library where I work. We’d met, chatted, and discussed the book in advance of its release and I was haunting the Net Galley website* daily looking for the chance to read an advance copy. I was worried that this much expectation would only result in disappointment...

The Last Pilot follows the life of Jim Harrison, who doesn’t just fly planes – he tests them (to destruction). Jim is working in a famous test pilot school in the Californian Desert when he is picked to join the Astronaut corps. This, however, is during the time of the early space programme, when being an astronaut really meant you had to have “the right stuff”. Emotional weakness meant that at best you’d wash out of the programme and at worst the distraction could kill you. Jim is about to be tested to his limits.

I’m not going to say more about the plot because I want everyone to have the excitement of reading this book for the first time. Instead I’m going to say why I loved it so much.

I am a space nerd (I’m not hugely into the technology and the big rockets but I love the human stories). I’ve read numerous biographies, autobiographies and history books about the early manned space programme (and the later ones) and I’ve been privileged enough to meet, listen, and talk with these personal heroes. They were brave men (women didn’t join the programme until 1978) and they were foolhardy. They were also flawed, despite being presented as infallible heroes to the public.

The Last Pilot conveys all of this, and despite being fiction I was constantly convinced that Jim was one of the original astronauts from the era. The details were all so much in tune with what I’ve read and heard that as I was reading the book, I was walking in the same places and ‘seeing’ the action unfurl. I’ve read other novels set around the space race and they’ve either missed the feel completely or read like a history book – The Last Pilot was just a gripping read, and one that you can enjoy without being a space nerd like me (I can prove this as I lent my copy to a non-space-enthusiast family member and they read the book in just two sittings).

If you wonder if all of the elements in this book could happen—and there are some events that I thought did stretch credibility a touch—further reading and watching assured me that such scenarios could and do take place. This book is an incredible reconstruction of the heady early space program.


If you’ve read the book and want to read or see more about the space race then these are my top books and films:

Last Man on the Moon (film) – currently available to download from iTunes and other platforms, DVD due soon.
A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin (book)
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (book and film)
Moondust by Andrew Smith (book)
Carrying the Fire by Mike Collins (book)
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield (book)

The astronauts from this era are all in their late 70's and older now but they do still travel to the UK, along with men and women from later missions. If you’d like to hear them speak then I recommend looking at the Science Museum events page, the National Space Centre in Leicester and also the wonderful team who run Space Lectures who really take the motto ‘Failure is not an option’ to heart!


Benjamin Johncock launched Brave New Reads in Norwich with Colette Snowden (author of The Secret to Not Drowning). Listen to a podcast of the event below.

Read an extract of The Last Pilot to get a taster of the novel.

Meet Benjamin Johncock at Wisbech Library on the 16th June or at Woodbridge Library on the 19th July.

Borrow The Last Pilot from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries, or Suffolk Libraries.

Find out more about The Last Pilot.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

About Sarah Salmon
I am an avid reader and self-professed space nerd who will travel silly distances to meet these pioneering icons.  One of my proudest moments is getting a tweet liked by astronaut Tim Peake while he was serving on the ISS!

When not reading about the space program I can often be found at the theatre which is another passion, or out and about with my camera trying to capture photo of a barn owl. Despite the love of all things space and astronomy I have no wish to actually travel in space myself – I know I’d get space sick and not enjoy the ride!

*NetGalley is a site where book reviewers and other professional readers can read books before they are published, in e-galley or digital galley form

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Hurrah! Brave New Reads 2016 is here!

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 17 May 2016

May heralds the start of summer and the beginning of the bank holiday season. But most importantly, May brings Brave New Reads back to libraries in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

What’s Brave New Reads, I hear you cry!

Well, it’s a book club like no other. It recommends six brilliant books, chosen by readers for readers. It invites people (like you!) to go further with their reading, through book clubs, author events, book quizzes, creative writing workshops, and much much more.

Brave New Reads takes place in 18 libraries across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. In each of these libraries you can borrow the books, come along to the events, chat about the titles and pick up an array of our very beautiful print (including collectible bookmarks!). 

As I said earlier, Brave New Reads is special because the books were chosen by readers. We call these literature lovers the Reader’s Circle, and they hail from all walks of life and all parts of East Anglia. To choose the final six, this dedicated crew read a longlist of over 120 books and whittled down the selection again and again until we ended up with the crème de la crème of modern publications. 

Without further ado, the books are:

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

‘First light was a diesel spill across the sky. The ground was gray. The hard silence of the desert sung.’

Technically brilliant and emotionally charged, this novel will transport you to America in the early days of the space race. Jim Harrison is in training to break the sound barrier, poised to become one of the very first astronauts, but his promise will be tested by a family crisis of stellar proportions. Discover a different world in this economic, elegant, and hugely powerful book.

‘An outstanding read: riveting, snappy, and very very cool.’ – Sam, Norwich Readers’ Circle

The Secret to Not Drowning by Colette Snowden

‘“The secret to not drowning,” she says, “is to get out of the pool before you get too tired to keep swimming.”’

Marion can’t do anything without Him knowing. Her only escape is her weekly swimming trip, but soon she’ll learn that taking the plunge creates far-reaching ripples. An intimate and immersive glimpse into emotional abuse, The Secret to Not Drowning shows how the smallest of acts can be the bravest. Take a chance with this compelling and quietly wonderful novel.

‘A humorous and imaginative page turner, written with a terrifying sense of menace and discomfort.’ – Ruth, Cambridge Readers’ Circle

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

‘I was wrong to try and impose something of my humanness upon you, when being human never did me any good.’

The story of a lonely man, and his one-eyed rescue dog. One Eye and his owner are both outcasts from society, clumsily navigating the world as best they can, each completely dependent on the other. Simultaneously tender and tragic, this is a compassionate and claustrophobic tale of loneliness and friendship. Dog-lover or not, this poetically poignant novel is sure to touch your heart.

‘I found myself engrossed in this jewel of a story. Sensitive, funny and hugely affecting, Baume’s language ribbons naturally out onto the page.’ – Alvina, Ely Readers’ Circle

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

‘We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.’

This crucial and devastating non-fiction book takes us to death row, showing the heartbreaking histories of the prisoners and revealing the inherent prejudices of modern-day America. A scathing, virulent, and utterly necessary condemnation of the US justice system, this book is sure to leave you gasping, crying and raging, but also filled with gratitude and hope. Absolutely not to be missed.

‘An autobiography, a social history, a treatise on the importance of equal justice, and a gripping thriller.’ – Kathryn, Norwich Readers’ Circle

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (Translated by Lisa Dillman)

‘They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.’

Makina is gutsy, determined and not frightened of anything. When her mother asks her to travel from Mexico to the US to find her brother, she sets off almost immediately, pausing only to meet the local underlords. Carrying an unknown package from a kingpin, she traverses underworlds, borders, and boundaries, crossing dreamy lands. Echoing Greek myths, this breath-taking novella will move you to other planes of existence.

‘Full of heart and guts, poetic, brief and rich – nothing short of stunning.’ – Roland, Norwich Readers’ Circle

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

‘He did what they told him to do. He would have done anything they told him to do. He hid inside the pronoun we.

An uplifting tale of interconnection, coincidence, and the strangeness of life, this striking novel explores the impact of small actions. Moving across time and space, from wartime Britain to modern-day California, The Illusion of Separateness shows the tenderness of people, and how seemingly simple actions have great consequences. Haunting, luminous, and totally absorbing, this book will give you a fresh perspective on what it means to be human.

‘Beautifully written. A magical read, which kept me captivated until the very last page!’ – Joy, Huntingdon Readers’ Circle

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In Memory of Lakshmi Holmström

Posted By: Kate Griffin, 10 May 2016

Associate Programme Director Kate Griffin pays tribute to Lakshmi Holmström, the preeminent translator of Tamil literature, who passed away this week.

I first came to know Lakshmi Holmström when she took part in the Worlds literary festival, with the writer Ambai. Lakshmi had been translating Ambai’s work from Tamil into English since the early 1990s. As well as giving readings, they visited groups in local libraries and shared with them Ambai’s short stories, an unusual opportunity for readers in Norfolk to learn about the lives of Tamil women in India. And it is for this that Lakshmi will be remembered, for bringing contemporary Tamil writing to world readers. The editor R. Sivapriya has written a tribute to Lakshmi Holmström and her translations in 

In recent years, Lakshmi focused on translating poetry, particularly poetry from Sri Lanka during and after the war. At the British Centre for Literary Translation, Lakshmi gave a workshop with acclaimed Sri Lankan poet R. Cheran; her translation of his collection of poetry is published by Arc Publications. And in February this year, we were delighted to host at Dragon Hall the launch of Lost Evenings Lost Lives, a bilingual anthology of Sri Lankan war poetry edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström and Sascha Ebeling. It’s a powerful anthology, with a range of poets and styles, and many poems by women. You can listen to a recording of this very moving event here.

Lakshmi was particularly dedicated to bringing into English the work of Dalit (formerly known as ‘Untouchable’) writers such as Bama, and the voices of young women poets. Her anthology Wild Girls, Wicked Words, featuring Kutti Revathi, Sukirtharani, Malathi Maitri and Salma, was last month included in the Best Translated Book Award poetry longlist. One of the judges, Deborah Smith, wrote about the significance of this controversial collection here.

Lakshmi Holmström was widely recognised as the preeminent translator of Tamil literature, receiving a number of prizes, including the prestigious AK Ramanujan Prize for Translation in South Asia in spring this year. She was also a dedicated teacher and mentor, generous with her time and keen to nurture the next generation of Tamil translators. For the last year or so, she taught (with Subashree Krishnaswamy) the Tamil strand of our Translators Lab, determinedly balancing her bouts of chemotherapy with the more enjoyable demands of the online course, and encouraging her students, of whom she was proud. 

Lakshmi was an inspiration to all of us who knew her, and we will miss her very much. 

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(tags: Translation)

Our Communications Intern Jo Thompson picks her highlights from the City of Literature programme

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 09 May 2016

Simon Armitage, Irvine Welsh, Jackie Kay; our new Communications Intern Jo Thompson picks favourites from the City of Literature line-up at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016.

Seeing Simon Armitage and Daljit Nagra billed for appearance, I booked two tickets for Fierce Light before I’d started at WCN, or checked whether my partner had the night off. I now know this world-premier event commemorating the Battle of Somme is a part of the City of Literature Programme. The programme is the biggest it’s ever been, and working to prepare this bumper crop of big names and exciting events has, needless to say, resulted in buying more tickets.

It’s also meant bothering my friends. Every event is likely to appeal to someone. Fans of Trainspotting have been alerted to an evening with Irvine Welsh in the Adnams Spiegeltent. My fellow medievalists were made aware of the discussions on Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, two of the first women ever published. With Ben Rawlence talking from experience about life in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, bestselling authors like Kate Summerscale sharing their latest novels, graphic novelists discussing their craft, and the biggest names in poetry performing, the festival really packs a punch. Browsing the events is a joy, and real confirmation, if any were still needed, that Norwich deserves its UNESCO City of Literature status.

Fierce Light remains a standout event for me. New work has been produced by the poets to think seriously about war, its immediate complexities and what it can mean to us now, 100 years on. Accompanying the poetry are short films, specially commissioned. In one of her poems for the event Jackie Kay writes ‘the past is lively, impossible to pin down’. Perhaps this is why mixing film, poetry and images in an attempt to in some way recapture World War feels so appropriate. Jackie has worked with her father, discussing his experiences of war, as well as her son, a filmmaker, to create the multi-media work that will be showcased at Fierce Light. It all promises to be something really special, and I’m glad I’ll be there for it. 

I was less immediately sure what to make of The Story Machine. It’s enigmatic, advertised as a literary event like nothing you’ve experienced before, powered by literature and oiled by theatre, and has become the feature I’m most excited about. The participants hear live stories from world-renowned writers, but not from the usual distance, sitting in rows with an author at a microphone. The Story Machine will be held at Dragon Hall, the stunning medieval home of WCN. Attendees are encouraged to wander through its rooms, garden, cellars at their leisure, making use of the street food pop-ups and specially-curated bar, taking in short stories in unexpected, intimate, immersive, truly one-off ways.

It feels unusual to not know exactly what you’re in for with this event, the charming twists held back to genuinely surprise and enchant on the day, but the more I think about it the truer it seems to storytelling. Hearing about the plans in the office feels like a spoiler.  

The Story Machine is full of surprises, delights that must be discovered, live literature truly alive. It asks the audience to shift gear, let their cogs turn over in fresh ways, and put a little trust in an innovative literary festival bound to please.

Click to see the full City of Literature programme.

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French Tear, Red Lotus, Mr Jameson...our literary themed taster cocktails for The Story Machine

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 06 May 2016

Things are stepping up a gear at Writers' Centre Norwich, Dragon Hall as we begin preparations for the immersive, interactive, multi-sensory Story Machine.

With three hours of video projects, illuminations, live performances and more set within the (hopefully) sunny grounds of our beautiful medieval building, we're expecting you to get a little thirsty. So what's on the menu you ask? Take a peek...


Our taster menu - kindly invented by the cocktail connoisseurs at 42 King Street - corresponds with some of the stories taking place during the day. 

‘Theatre Six’ by Sarah Hall
French Tear: spiced rum, orange liquor, and fruit juice provide a tart accompaniment to this troubling picture of the near future. 

‘Here We Are’ by Lucy Caldwell
Red Lotus: a romantic combination of lychee liqueur, vodka, cranberry juice and fresh lime. A drinkable, fruity cocktail with a bright pink colouring resembling the neon of the early 1990s.

‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield
Rum and Raisin Old Fashioned: a modern take on an old whiskey classic.

‘Mr Salary’ by Sally Rooney
Mr Jameson: whiskey with a mixture of melon liquor and fresh kiwi to create a unique and unexpected mix. 

‘A Cruelty’ by Kevin Barry
Unexpected Classics: a choice between a rum based classic and a popular tequila cocktail served with an unexpected twist. Breaking the routine of classic cocktail drinking.

‘Still’ by Anna Metcalfe
Plum Negroni: a fitting twist on the timeless classic using plum liqueur to resemble the plum tree and creating a glorious culmination to the evening. 

Cocktails are £5 each, or you can have a taste of all six over the course of the event for £20. Steady on now, though...these will be smaller measures!

We've also got food available from the lovely Purple Plum Catering, including vegetarian and vegan options. Each meal comes with your choice of story: 'The Reader' or 'The Writer' by Etgar Keret. 

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(tags: Festival, NNF16)

Fierce Light

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 07 April 2016

Just over a month remains until the world premiere of Fierce Light, a major national co-commission from 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers' Centre Norwich. Below, WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock allows us to peek behind the curtain at what lies in store at this very special commemoration of the Battle of the Somme.


The past is lively, impossible to pin down.

So writes Jackie Kay in the brand new commissioned poem she has produced for Fierce Light, a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. And it’s this challenge of how we make sense of such vast and indescribably bloody events as the Battle of the Somme – casualty figures numbered around 57,000 for the British on the first day alone, of which nearly 19,000 were deaths – that inspired the idea for Fierce Light in the first place. The changes wreaked on our world by World War One reached beyond politics, economics and technology into the very fabric of our daily lives, our communities and relationships. It was the artists of that war – perhaps the poets above all – who took on the challenge to make sense of a world transformed almost beyond recognition.

So, to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Fierce Light has brought together outstanding poets from the UK and around the world to look once more at the legacy of battle, the forces changing our world, and the struggles we face to make sense of them.

Jackie Kay has gone back to explore the story of her grandfather, Joseph Kay, who fought in the second Battle of the Somme, was captured, and injured, and survived the conflict. She visited Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and with an historian tracked down the records of her grandfather – including the date he was captured as a prisoner of war and the names of the medals he was awarded. He’s remembered in Jackie’s poem as a ‘shy man, bit withdrawn, shrapnel in his arm’, singing the miners lullaby Coorie Doon in the pre-dawn light. 

On telling her ninety year old dad about this, Jackie reported that he was overcome with new knowledge and memories of his father. He appears in Jackie’s poem, too, remembering seeing his father up early to polish the buttons on his tram drivers uniform, and he, still singing Coorie Doon, ‘still singing his father.’ 

Jackie has subsequently worked with her filmmaker son, Matthew, on the film of Fierce Light, meaning that in one way or another, four generations have been involved in what you will see at Fierce Light. 

The psychological fallout of war, which can be explored in our event with Matthew Green, author of Aftershock: Surviving War, Surviving Peace, is also mined by Daljit Nagra, in his response to Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A 1940 Memory’. There’s a passage in Nagra’s piece which I find almost unbearably moving and utterly poignant to the memory of war, impossible as it is to pin down.

Dear Jack, what blurs you most
so great words forever moral
your mind to war recall? 
Is it the soldier smithereens 
at your arm, the Hun dispersed 
by your pluck that day you lay 
in their bunker to read sonnets?
Or how you just couldn’t die? 

Look at you now, our haunted

Elsewhere, Paul Muldoon’s takes us into the mind of a young infantryman from the Ulster Division, on July 1st 1916 - the first Day of the Battle of the Somme. It’s barely three months since the Easter Rising, and he finds himself ‘entrenched/no less physically than politically’ in the struggle for Irish independence. But he’s also a young soldier, big questions of national struggles and the world, take a backseat when compared to memories of home, and of Giselle, the girl he met just before departing for the front. It’s classic Muldoon, and the pastoral offers a contrast to what we know is coming in the forthcoming battle. This contrast, and what it opens up in contextualising the destruction of the battle and the fall of man, is also at the heart of Simon Armitage’s ‘Still’ that will be presented alongside Fierce Light. I’ll write more about that – and Yrsa Daley-Ward and Bill Manhire’s work in the coming weeks, as well as the wonderful filmmakers, who have been adapting these great new works of poetry. 

We hope to see you at the Fierce Light event at Norwich Playhouse on Friday 13 May, and the exhibition that runs at East Gallery throughout the Festival.

Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers’ Centre Norwich.


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Spring Short Story Competitions 2016

Posted By: Anna Scrafield, 05 April 2016

Spring is the time of plans and projects, according to Tolstoy, and who are we to disagree?
Forget the spring cleaning, and get stuck into these short story competitions. With prizes ranging from cash, to publication, (and even a rather quirky competition for those interested in writing the future!) there's a lot to keep you away from the hoover and focused firmly on the keyboard!

Happy writing, and do let us know if you are successful!

Deadline: 25 April 2016
Open to publish and unpublished writers from the UK and abroad, this competition accepts short stories up 2200 words, and has an £8 entry fee. First prize is £1000, and winners will be published in the anthology. 

Deadline: 29 April 2016
This year, the festival is seeking stories of up to 1000 words written by or for children. Winners will read their work at Oxford Festival of the Arts in June. 

Deadline: 30 April 2016
Open to published and unpublished writers, both UK and overseas, this competition is very open with entries welcomed from any genre. There's an entry fee of £8, and a first prize of £1000 available.

The Cardiff Review Short Story Award
Deadline: 15 May 2016
Open to new and unpublished writers, this competition seeks short stories of between 1000-5000 words, and winners will be awarded a cash prize of £150. Entry fee £2. 

The Sunderland Short Story Award
Deadline: 1 June 2016 
Open to younger writers too, with categories for 11- 16 as well as Adults, this competition not only has a cash prize, but those shortlisted will have their work read by a literary agent and by publisher Unthank Books, who will consider work for publication in their anthology.

Deadline: 10 June 2016
A prize for both short stories and flash fiction, The Brighton Prize folk have asked to be challenged and excited. Prizes of up to £500 available. 

Deadline: 20 June 2016 
A prize founded in commemoration of the centenary of one of our finest short story writers of the 20th Century, the annual prize of £1000 goes to the best unpublished short story and is published in Prospect, and RLS Review. 

Deadline: 30 June 2016
A new short story competition, with a little bit of a twist! Entrants are asked to submit poems or short stories on the theme of an imagined future England, and the competition features a twist... but we'll let you find out about that yourself! Winners will be published online, and there's no entry fee. 

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