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Stuart Hobday: Encounters with Harriet Martineau

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 10 February 2016

Writer Stuart Hobday is in the midst of fundraising for his biography of Harriet Martineau, the first female journalist. Below, he recounts what first drew him to Martineau as a historical figure and the reasons why she should be remembered.


Writing a book about Harriet Martineau is the culmination of 15 years of reading and researching into this fascinating nineteenth-century writer. I stumbled across Martineau whilst studying for my History Masters and looking into the context in which Darwin announced his evolutionary ideas. In particular, James Moore and Adrian Desmond gave Martineau much credit for radicalising the young Darwin. I then found out that we shared a home city of Norwich and I realised she was not well remembered there. In fact she was better remembered as a founder of social science and as a first wave feminist particularly in America. Of the nine biographies written about Martineau, seven have been penned by Americans.

Harriet was born in 1802 and shares the same birthplace - Gurney Court on Magdalen Street in Norwich - as Elizabeth Fry. As a teenager she became increasingly deaf and inhibited by shyness and illness. To compensate she educated herself through reading, encouraged by a free thinking Unitarian family and community around the Octagon Chapel on Colegate. In her 20s she began to write. The failure of her father’s textile business and his subsequent death affected her greatly, not least in leaving her having to make a living through her writing and embroidery. She had also seen first-hand how economics affects people’s lives and in the late 1820s she began to write fictional tales illustrating economic and political factors. Within two years these tales were widely read and influential. Her economic creed, as outlined in the tales, was one that would resonate today. She favoured free markets but with responsibility and wrote of the benefits of mutualism, cooperatives and was vehemently outspoken against injustice particularly slavery.   

In 1830 she moved to London and her large readership meant that politicians courted her favour and writers and artists sought her company. She quickly became known for her ear trumpet which helped her overcome her deafness and to hold regular meetings with the great and the good. In 1834, at the height of her fame, she embarked on an intrepid tour of America. She was well known there for her anti-slavery writings but at first she kept quiet on the issue. The sight of the slave system in action abhorred her though and eventually, at a meeting in Boston, she spoke out against the still entrenched system. This made her a great ally of the abolitionist movement and the friends she made in the US were to inform her later journalism in the lead up to the American Civil War.

On her return she wrote several influential books. Society in America was one of the first books to closely analyse a society and its structures and was outspoken in its ridicule of religious dogma. She openly condemned the sexual motivations of slave owners and the chapter entitled ‘The Political Non-Existence of Women’ applied equally to Britain as the US. The book was widely reviewed in Britain and America and was widely condemned for its insolence.

It wasn’t just Darwin that she influenced; she was a free spirited, radical influence on George Eliot, Elisabeth Gaskell, Elisabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Bronte amongst others blazing a trail that they followed. In later years she became a strategic journalistic partner for Florence Nightingale’s campaign for cleaner, better hospitals and training for nurses and Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. 

Many written words have been expended providing sociological and gender analysis of Martineau’s career. In my book I wanted to portray the real human stories of her life and have devoted a chapter each to her encounters and relationships with these other nineteenth-century luminaries, many of whom she infused with defiant courage and causal determination. It was selected by Unbound for publication and I would be really grateful if you are able to support the crowd funding effort and help me get Harriet Martineau some of the recognition she deserves.

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(tags: Non fiction)


Libraries: A Tremendous Gift

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 09 February 2016

The fifth in our 'Love Your Library' blogs is by Ruth Cowan, a Cambridgeshire librarian, and explores the wonderful gift of a library.


 

My name is Ruth and I am a librarian. I have worked for Cambridgeshire Libraries since 1987 in various roles and in all these years I can honestly say that I have not experienced a day which was less than interesting, enlivening, stimulating, creative, worthwhile and fun. I feel privileged to work for a service which helps people and makes a difference in their lives. I would like to talk about libraries and what they and the staff who work in them offer to customers every single day.

Libraries are a tremendous gift to individuals, families, communities and society. They provide a magic door into the world of literature, knowledge and information of every kind and to meet all needs. It is free to join the library and go through that magic door.

You can browse the shelves and may find a poem originally written by a woman in China in the 9th century or in Africa last year. You may wish to explore the lush and beautiful trees of New Zealand. You may be wondering about fruit bats or the love life of King Henry the Eighth. You may need to read a book on adopting a rescue dog! Library staff will help you with your curiosity and your quest for knowledge or you can happily explore on your own if you wish. A library is infinitely more than just a building full of books.

We help people who are terrified of computers to be less terrified of computers by offering support with ipads, pcs, laptops and e-services. It is great to see their confidence grow. We sing rhymes with groups of babies and their parents/carers. Over the years we see those children grow up into people who love to read. We organise reading groups where you can read poems and explore exciting new books together, discuss them and help each other to enjoy them even more. We help children to find books to help with the urgent homework they need to finish by tomorrow (often on the last day of the school holidays). 

We can help people book plane tickets, find out about health and benefits and housing and jobs. The library is a place where you can meet your friends and do colourful knitting and laugh and drink tea. We host visits from schools in the library to share the joy of books and reading and support young people with their literacy skills. Local collections and their staff provide a treasure trove of information on your town or village with maps, newspapers, photographs, albums, histories, help, support and advice.

Collections of Mood Boosting Books offer solace from the January blues. Library staff and volunteers take library services out into the community with Library@Home for people who are housebound. One day you may visit your local library and find that your favourite author or illustrator is there or you may jump at the chance to join a Coding Club or a Creative Writing Group.

I know from my interest in history that literacy is a gift and even a generation or so ago many poor and working class people did not have the opportunity to learn to read and write. It is easy to forget this. When you are using the library you can read for the sake of reading itself and learn for the sheer joy of learning. The choice is yours.

 

Ruth Cowan is a librarian who has worked for Cambridgeshire Libraries since 1987 in various roles. Her first job was as an assistant in the Cambridgeshire Collection, the Local Studies department at Cambridge Central Library. She has also worked as a children’s librarian and more recently as a Community Engagement Librarian (Adult Focus) in Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire.

 

 

Thankfully at this present time there are no planned library closures in Cambridgeshire.

 

Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books.

Read WCN Development Manager Conor McGeown's blog The Treasure of Libraries.

Read Assistant Manager of Haverhill Library, Kate Ashton's blog The Library as Lifeline.

Read eight year old Morgan's blog on why Libraries are Cool

Read The Last Pilot author Benjamin Johncock's blog on The Lighthouse of a Library

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The Lighthouse of a Library

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 03 February 2016


 

Benjamin Johncock, author of The Last Pilot, writes on the practical function of a library, for the fourth of our 'Love Your Library' blogs:

Libraries have enduring associations. The hush, the stamps, the smell of old paper; knowledge, learning, the dewey decimal (whatever the hell that is).

Writers like to romanticise the library. I can see why. For children, for adults, libraries are airports for the imagination: ten thousand paper terminals waiting to transport your mind to any where and any when. The library can blast open the doors of your life. The library has the power to transform.

This is all very romantic.

However, there is a reality often overlooked in all this heady nostalgia and pontification, and it has little to do with books.

The library is the closest thing we have a to a universal hub for the community. It’s safe, warm, and free. And because of those things, it’s a lighthouse for people you don’t often notice; the people who exist on the edge, on the corners; the marginalised, the lonely, the unemployed, the mentally unwell, the poor.

They come to read the newspaper, check Facebook, send email, learn to use a computer, look for a job, apply for a job, play games, watch movies on YouTube, talk to their families on Skype, charge their phones, keep warm, eat in the dry. The library is a place to go, to see people, to be seen; to feel you exist beyond the four walls of your house. Guess what? There’s more to life than books. I see the regulars every day, often waiting at the glass doors for it to open.

Hannah Woodhall, a Library and Information Assistant at the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library recently said:

“I’ve worked at the Millennium Library for fourteen years. In that time I have seen lives changed and enhanced by the services we offer. A lady came in recently who was looking for help for her husband who has dementia. She was utterly alone and so desperate for help. I sat with her and talked about what we could do. I helped a lady who was fleeing domestic violence and needed to access the Council House listings somewhere she felt safe. I’ve helped a partially-sighted man get his bus pass renewed—he nearly cried he was so grateful. I serve people who have been made redundant after many years in the same job who are utterly petrified of applying for a new job. And in light of the current refugee crisis, I’m reminded of when we enrolled Congolese families—I still see them using the library today, integrated into our community, enriching it.”

The public library is a destination, a haven, a harbour, an asylum, a sanctuary, a port in the storm. It is so much more than the sum of its books.

 

Benjamin Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press's National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel.

 

 


Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books.


Read WCN Development Manager Conor McGeown's blog The Treasure of Libraries.

Read Assistant Manager of Haverhill Library, Kate Ashton's blog The Library as Lifeline.

Read eight year old Morgan's blog on why Libraries are Cool

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Three Seasons in China: Reflections before the year of the Fire Monkey

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 03 February 2016

In celebration of the Chinese New Year on Monday , WCN commissioned a guest blog from former Escalator winner and poet Eileen Pun, who recently spent time at The Sun Yat-Sen Center for English-language Creative Writing in Guangzhou, China.WCN is proud to work with The Sun Yat-sen Center for English-language Creative Writing, to advise and support them in developing their International Writers’ Residency programme.

WCN Programme Director Jon Morley attended the 2014 Consultation where potential sites and schedules were tested, helping to shape a generous month-long package of support for 18 international writers each year. Following SYSU Center Director Dai Fan’s exchange visit to Norwich as a delegate to the International Literature Showcase in 2015, WCN decided to assist a small cohort of UK writers to benefit from this unique opportunity. Philip Langeskov of UEA and poet Eileen Pun have been the UK participants to date.





Picture: Wudang Mountains, view from Hui Long Guan, Temple

Eight years ago, before I knew I wanted to write poetry, I travelled to China with the idea that I was still young and sound in body enough to really learn martial arts. I enrolled at The Capital University of Physical Education (CUPE) and lived in the Haidian District, a corner of Beijing with several universities and a pleasant student vibe. The backdrop of the forthcoming Olympics was energising, and I felt welcomed as people seemed to embrace the idea of China opening itself to the globe.   

My daily schedule, which began at dawn was vigorous, exhausting and satisfying. I ate at the canteen at fixed times, socialised very little, wrote voraciously in my diary and always slept incredibly well. Outside of my studies and training, I joined a small, grass-roots poetry group and gravitated to places like The Bookworm Library and attended their International Literature Festival.

Picture: Chengdu Bookworm Library

Eventually, these small connections landed me a job in revising translations for the New World Press. In fact, I did this work remotely with the expectation that I would join their Beijing offices the following year. The plan was: return to the UK, amass some savings and within a year, begin living, training, and working in China's capital city.

These plans never materialised. After I returned to England, my life took an unexpected direction. Like many unfledged writers, I had been a casual diarist and simply wrote for leisure. Somehow, in another geography, my musings whilst in China felt loaded. I was overcome by a keenness to push my own writing in the way I had pushed myself physically. Fast-forward slightly and I was thanking my lucky stars to be a 2010 Writers' Centre Norwich Escalator Prize Winner. Fast-forward a little further, and I am fully relocated to England's heart of Romanticism, Grasmere in the Lake District.


Picture: Eileen Pun training Wudang Sanfeng Taiji Jian (Sword)

Sometimes, I wonder after the me that went back to Beijing. Naturally, she became superbly trained, fluent in Mandarin and careered in the fast-growing Chinese publishing industry. Deep down, I know that things went the way they should have. I'm a softie, I'm still trying to master the English language, I have a strong affinity to the outdoors, and the pace that suits me best is slow, real slow.

Nevertheless, I haven't let go of the memory of a well articulated sequence, pivot or kick. There isn't really a match to these satisfactions, expect perhaps in poetry. Say, the way I feel when I manage to write something that strikes me. The frustrations too are a bit similar, most of the time there is just self-correction, calibration and ache. I've struggled to find a way to connect these art-forms, mostly it feels too idiosyncratic, too eccentric.

Last year, I expressed this yearning in an application to The Lisa Ullmann Travelling Scholarship Foundation LUTSF:

As a mature practitioner I must admit that I feel a certain physiological pressure to prioritise the development of my own movement practice. As a poet, I have been working on a sequence based on a dancer in Chinese history, Lady Gongsun. These are based on translations from the Classical Chinese poet Du Fu. A segment has already been published in the important anthology of new British poetry, 'Ten, The New Wave' by Bloodaxe Books. Not only do I feel this project will determine my path as a poet, it will also inform how effectively I can advocate art across disciplines as transformative and enriching - experiential values I deeply believe in.


Picture: Painting & Calligraphy of 'Song of Dagger Dancing to the Pupil of Lady Gongsun' by Du Fu.  Located in Tao Ker Inn Youth Hostel, Wudang Shan.

In the spring of 2015 I received news that my LUTSF scholarship application was successful. A short time later, I also found out that I had won a Northern Writers' Award. Holy green lights! This was exactly the permission I needed to bridge the poetry that I had found, with the kungfu (skills) that I had lost. I composed a project that would span over six months, ambitiously covering: training in Wudang Shan (mountains in Hubei Province); a visit to the DuFu Research Centre and Thatched Cottage in Chengdu (Sichuan Province); taking part in a writers' residency (Guangxi/Guangdong Provinces); and connecting with many scholars and artists, wanting my work to be as researched, informed, rigorous and creative as possible.

I arrived into China in July last year, at the peak of Beijing's hot summer and spent to two weeks visiting old haunts, friends and making new contacts. Unbelievably, my bank account was still valid, money from my editorial work - all those years ago - still available. China had welcomed me back.


Picture: Wudang Mountains, trail to The Five Dragon Temple  

Wudang Shan is a place that has captured the Chinese imagination for hundreds of years. It is steeped in legends, Daoist temples and stunning landscape of lush, tree covered mountains. Certain regions of Wudang and its monasteries received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1994 and can trace a long lineage of philosophy, martial arts and spirituality. This particular fusion is the reason it is considered one of the birthplaces of Taiji, a history that contains its share of heroes, hermits and outlaws.  

Considering my Romantic leanings, I'm not at all surprised by how at home I feel in these surroundings. At the martial arts school, I have a love-hate relationship with the rusty bell that dangles from the courtyard tree, constantly chiming us into training (discipline) and meals (carrots) in alternation. During these hot, two and half months I learn the extent of my physical regression - my rigid Western body. Eventually, I succumb to all this. Slow learning, slow recovery and even slower writing are all OK. I take some comfort from the reliable sunshine and the few books I have with me: The Rough Guide to China, Spleen by Nicholas Moore, Yellow Iris by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo and an e-reader with all of the works of Mavis Gallant.


Picture: Chengdu DuFu Thatched Cottage Museum

CHENGDU
By: DuFu

Sunset makes even my travel clothing
A little brighter; I have covered
Many roads and now arrive in a new
World for me; meeting new people,
Unable to say if ever I shall see 
My old home again; now the great river
Flows east, never halting, as indeed
My days of wandering have been; […]
Always there have been travellers,
Why should I lament?

Translated by: Rewi Alley
Foreign Languages Press

With my heart set to visit The DuFu Research Center and Thatched Cottage, I didn't need any extra reasons to visit Chengdu. However, its reputation as an exquisite centre for art, poetry, tea houses, pandas and 'delicious food', make it a welcome foray into a city. Nevertheless, the visit is a research trip and I wilfully keep myself focused on the reasons I am there. I need help to better understand Du Fu's work, and I want to connect with contemporary Chinese Art in some way.


Picture: Liu Yutong (Musician, Translator), Zhao Mi (Artist), Eileen Pun

After getting in touch with a number of arts related organisations, Catherine Platt, manager of the Chengdu Festival (BLF) and Liu Yutong, musician and event manager of the Chengdu Bookworm took it upon themselves to make me feel welcome and organise local introductions. One of which included a wonderfully dynamic afternoon with Zhao Mi, a well known calligrapher, painter and visual artist. We shared ideas about martiality, experimentation, the practice of art itself and the hope that we would extend our meeting into future collaborative work.  

I’m able to emerge myself in the happiness of thinking. When I’m painting, there’s a complex feeling of love and hatred. There are even moments where I have thoughts of escaping, and that is the ultimate of my emotions.  Zhao Mi, Artist

There is much too much to write here about how my visit allowed me to get a bit closer to Du Fu in my own work, or to convey the richness of conversations over tea and meals. I left Chengdu with renewed sense of purpose about my translation work, poetry, and very welcome new reading material; Du Fu Selected Poems from Foreign Languages Press and a copy of MaLa, The Chengdu Bookworm Literary Journal, Issue 3.  


Picture: Yangshuo karst mountains, strolling distance from residency quarters

Taking part in the inaugural Sun Yat-Sen International Writers' Residency (18 Oct – 16 Nov) was pivotal, dividing my time in China neatly in half. Professor Dai Fan, the programme director - also a writer  - met me and my partner at the Guilin train station in Guangxi Province after travelling over a 1000 km with all our belongings. I thought we must have looked a rabble, but if she thought so, it appeared she didn't mind. She was sleek and articulate, efficiently sweeping us into an organised car towards Yangshuo and explained the residency (a first for me) in great detail.  

Fifteen writers, as well as two documentary makers from eleven countries took part in a month long residency over three main locations in South China. These figures don't, however, give the correct sense of the territory that we covered, nor the number of people with whom we interacted. Translators, student volunteers, invited artists, academics, members of the community and the bureau of tourism joined at various points throughout.


Picture: Roberto Frias (Novelist, Translator), Professor Dai Fan (Programme Director,Writer), Lieve Joris (Writer), Catherine Cole (Writer, Poet), local calligrapher & poem by Wang Wei, Eileen Pun, Hu XiuZhu (Chairman of the Yangshuo Art Association)

The first phase was set in Yangshuo, a popular eco-tourism destination, surrounded by beautiful karst mountains. Choosing between, privacy for head space or, cultural activities (meeting mountain singers, musicians, calligraphers, painters to name a few) for stimulation was difficult, but possible. I had the annoyance of my laptop charger breaking, and needing plenty of solitude to write in long-hand and compensate for the inefficiency. Nevertheless, the setting was conducive for falling into interesting conversations, and the sharing of experience and craft. This shared link was particularly helpful to me, giving me courage and material for my poetry seminar, See Poetry Move that would take place the following week in Guangzhou.


Picture:  English Poetry Studies Institute (EPSI) Listed in no particular order Professor Tong Qingsheng, Professor Gao Wenping, Professor Li Zhimin, Associate professor Zhu Yu, Associate professor Lei Yanni and students at SYSU

The second phase took place in the garden-like campuses of Sun Yat-Sen's main campus, Zhuhai Campus, Xinhua College and Wuyi University where the residency had morphed into a conference. Here, more international writers joined the group. The number of ambassadorial students (all bright and heartwarming) grew and our timetable was packed with panel discussions, talks, seminars, workshops, readings, community presentations, tours, ceremony and banquets.

The discussions grappled with difficult issues, raising questions about censorship, the politics of publishing, identity, diaspora literature, feminism, language and the subversive. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. It was great to find ourselves stimulated, slowly drifting out of the lecture halls still talking about what had been discussed and exchanging reading material such as this article in the New Yorker.

By the time of the final phase, the rejuvenation promised by the hot springs of Jiangmen was needed. The region is known for its Chinese overseas ties and internationally recognised museum-villages with UNESCO world cultural heritage status. These have become architectural reminders of the social and global history of Chinese migration, of which, my own heritage is a part. More conversations happen and more sharing of personal stories, show how our talks have become deeper, warmer. One such exchange led to this touching documentary.  Maybe this is because we all know each other better, or maybe it is to do with the fact that a lot of our conversations are now taking place in our bathing suits in hot springs – it is hard to tell.   


Picture: My private hot spring! Gudou Hot Springs Resort, Jiangmen

Before emotional goodbyes, I am unable to resist some pretty amazing reading material and ignore my back-breaking luggage: A Cultural and Natural Jiangmen; The Art of the Knock, Short Stories by Philip Graham; Honeypants, poetry by Lynda Chanwai-Earle; Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone and The Hands of Strangers by Janice Harrington.

There is a great deal more that can be said about the residency, and anyone with an interest about China, international literature and where these intersect might enjoy keeping abreast of the following: The School of Foreign Languages at Sun Yat-Sen University have written an in-depth article about the residency; The Ninth Letter, literary journal of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will publish work by participating writers in a forthcoming online issue; Radio New Zealand will also feature a programme about the residency; a documentary is currently under production by film-makers Wei Donghua and John Hughes.

When I returned to Wudang it seemed to receive me cooly, but is not to be blamed. I left in one season and returned in another. My favourite street corner, usually busy with mahjong and card players had dwindled. The air was now cold, the light wintery.

I also hadn't foreseen that in a month's time, the school would close for its winter break and everyone would disperse to their families and hometowns for the new year. The question, 'where will you spend your Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)?' entered every conversation, and each time, I didn't know how to answer.  


Picture: Ice-skating in the park, Sujiatun District, Shenyang 

Eventually, the answer did come. An unexpected move to Shenyang, a large historical city in northeast China not far from Russian and North Korean borders. A teacher of Daoist philosophy and published translator, Hu Xuezhi was in search of an editor to help with a new and annotated translation of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi); I was in search of help with translating my research material and getting better access to ancient Chinese language and Classic literature – a worthy exchange.

These days, in the run up to the Spring Festival, the daytime temperatures are about -15, dropping to as low as -25 at night. Reflecting now - having made good on this long-awaited return to China - mostly, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to be here. I'm also chuffed that if I can handle temperatures like this, it probably means I'll not be such a softie when I get back.  








With thanks to the Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarship Fund.

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Libraries are Cool

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 27 January 2016

For the third of our 'Love Your Library' blog series, which celebrates libraries, Morgan, aged eight, writes about how libraries are cool and why he loves them:

The library is cool, because it has computer games. I’ve borrowed loads of games such as Lego ones for my DS, you can get games for Wiis and Playstation too.

There's an amazing amount of books. There's lots of good sections of books like video games, tv shows, poetry, history, gardening, cookery, adventure stories, a dragon story or two.

I've borrowed Doctor Who books in the past and books on Minecraft.  I first went to the library about five years ago when I got Percy Jackson; a sort of adventure story.

They run clubs at the library too like gaming clubs and programming clubs and craft club which I’ve been to lots with my mum. My granny goes to knitting club in the library.

Everyone in my school goes to the library, it's the most popular library in the country!

Sometimes in the kids section they have people dressing up like as Maisy Mouse.

It's good they have computers there so you can look up stuff if you don't have a computer or tablet or phone at home.

They have lots of exhibitions in the Forum like a theatre exhibition, you can win a tablet there now!

Another good thing is Pizza Express and all the cafes and toilets. There is good parking if you want to go to Chapelfield Mall or the Theatre Royal or a cinema.

And it's good for students if they want to look up information.

Morgan is eight years old and loves libraries, Minecraft and the How to Train Your Dragon books. Cats are his favourite animals and when he grows up he'd like to design computer games. 

 

 

 


Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books.


Read WCN Development Manager Conor McGeown's blog The Treasure of Libraries.

Read Assistant Manager of Haverhill Library, Kate Ashton's blog The Library as Lifeline.

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The Kindness of Strangers – a reading in support of Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 21 January 2016

















On Thursday 14 January, writers and literature enthusiasts from across the region gathered at Norwich Arts Centre for an evening of readings in support of justice, freedom and Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh. The event, which simultaneously took place at 122 locations in 44 countries worldwide, answered an international call for solidarity from the International Literature Festival Berlin. Fayadh, a poet and curator who is the son of Palestinian refugees and legally a stateless person, has been found guilty by a court in Saudi Arabia of spreading atheism and threatening the morals of society. His sentence is death.

Novelist and short story writer Sarah Bower gave a reading that evening which reflected on her time spent in Palestine - Fayadh’s birthplace - whilst researching for her new novel, Love Can Kill People, Can't It? During this time, she travelled to the West Bank to act as a protective presence to local people during the olive harvest, and to record any disruptive incidents by illegal settlers for the UN. 





The Kindness of Strangers

Image © Jenny Kassman

‘How can I charge you, after everything you have done for us?’ The doctor smiles at me across his desk. His smile is grave, and seems to lack practice. 

The doctor is a chest specialist, to whom I have been taken, bumping crazily over potholes, by my concerned host, Ahmed, the headmaster of the local boys’ school. I have a fever and a hacking cough which has been keeping everyone in our dormitory, including me, awake for nights on end. Call to prayer, barking dog, cough, occasional bray of an insomniac donkey. Litany of the night hours. Ahmed says he can feel the fever in my hands. Ahmed knows about illness; his wife, at 49, suffers from a heart condition for which she could be treated in Israel or Jordan, but not here, in the Occupied West Bank.

I cough out my gratitude and self-deprecation and hope the doctor will attribute the tears in my eyes to the coughing. For here he sits, among the diplomas on his bare concrete walls, dispensing what assistance he can to chronically catarrhal children, young men consumed by TB and hopelessness, and their fathers whose lungs are already filling up with tar by the time they reach their mid-forties. He has limited facilities and not much in the way of medicines, and the best hospitals are in Amman, which is about as much use to his patients as if they were on the Moon. 

Nor can most of his patients pay him for his services. Not for the first time on this trip, I’m caught in the bind of what the Palestinian Dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem calls ‘aggressive Arab hospitality’. I want to pay the doctor. I want to pay him twice what he would charge me, because it’s hardly anything to me and might enable him to treat someone else for free, but, if I offer, he will be insulted. Especially as I’m a woman. There’s that too.

The doctor has his practice in a small town near Nablus. I won’t name it, partly for the protection of the people who can’t leave, even to get medical treatment, or an education, or a job, because they are deemed stateless and cannot, therefore, obtain passports. Partly, also, because I want to let this town, and the villages surrounding it, stand for all the small towns and villages in the occupied areas, carrying on their lives in defiance of the State of Israel which is trying to strangle them.

It’s dusk when we leave the chest specialist’s house, on our way to the pharmacy run by Ahmed’s son. The stars are no doubt spread across the sky, those iconic stars that shone on the shepherds watching their flocks and the wise men coming from the east, and Herod fretting in his palace, but we can’t see them because the hilltops are flooded with halogen blue.

This spills from the security lights surrounding the illegal Jewish settlements that stand, like latterday crusader fortresses, on almost every hilltop. The settlements themselves are oddly elusive; at night all you see are the blinding lights, threaded through with troubling impressions of razor wire and guard towers. During the day, you might catch a glimpse of sugar-white concrete apartment blocks; and there are always the access roads, freshly cut and smoothly tarmaced, signposted only in Hebrew, great surgical scars that have transformed these hillsides into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, head and heart and limbs severed one from the other. Palestinians are not permitted to drive on these roads, even where they cut right through their own farms. Palestinians get stoned, or even shot, for using these roads.

The Dean of St. George’s, who might have stepped out of The Barchester Chronicles or The Vicar of Dibley, was giving a talk to a group of us who were travelling to the West Bank to act as a protective presence during the olive harvest. Olive harvesting in the West Bank can be a dangerous business because the illegal settlers begrudge the local people even what little is left to them of their traditional agriculture. The hills used to be covered with wild flowers in the spring, and terraces of vines and wheat during summer and autumn. The higher slopes were grazed by herds of lean sheep with floppy ears and sly, resourceful faces. But the settlers have diverted the springs that fed this agronomy, in some cases, if they don’t need the water themselves, merely smashing or poisoning the springs so the Palestinians can’t have it. They rustle the sheep, which means only those families who own enough land within their villages to pen the sheep can still keep a herd. 

They also burn olive trees, the one remaining crop which is tough enough to survive in the impoverished soil and with scarce water. There are trees in the olive groves which are hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old, in whose gnarled trunks and arthritic branches our entire history is locked. Destroy these trees and you destroy – just as much as American soldiers looting the Baghdad Museum or Daesh blowing up Palmyra – the history of all of us.

Our protective presence is intended to discourage the settlers from trying to disrupt the olive harvest, and to record any incidents which do take place for the UN. This is not merely a matter of spite or ethnic tension, it is strategic. Under Israeli land law, if a farmer 
fails to complete his harvest for three years in a row, the land will revert to the government because it is ‘abandoned’. Under this law, Israel has ‘legitimately’ seized thousands of acres of Palestinian land, squeezing the Palestinians into what will soon be little more than reservations.

So, every October, groups of brave and principled people travel to the occupied territories to help get the olive harvest in and to protect their Palestinian hosts from attack, because even the settlers will think twice about the adverse publicity they’d gain from stoning a rabbi or a genteel Quaker lady from the home counties. I was an interloper, of course; I was researching a book, and ended up being too ill to harvest many olives. I saw little, personally, of settler violence. 

What I remember are eloquent silences: the state of the art Italian olive press, for example, which Ahmed proudly detoured to show me on our way back from the chest doctor’s; the men sitting idle beside its empty conveyors because there are no olives to process. Ahmed’s son’s pharmacy, on whose shelves the medicines are gathering dust because no-one has the money to buy them. Hana’, the daughter of our village head man, who aspires to become a literary translator, but cannot get a passport to travel to London to study. 

Ashraf Fayadh is unjustly imprisoned and should be released. But he was imprisoned on account of his own conscience and creativity, unlike his fellow countrymen in the occupied territories who are imprisoned merely by an accident of birth and history. They, too, should be released and we citizens of western democracies should ask ourselves hard questions about the company we keep, the wretched irony of allying ourselves with states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia for the protection of our freedoms.



About Sarah Bower

Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. She is also a regular contributor to Words With Jam and the Historical Novels Review (which she edited for two years). She works as a mentor to other writers, and has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is currently based in her role as manager of the mentorship scheme for emerging literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation. In 2014, she spent a semester as writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Sarah is the author of three novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007. Her third, Erosion has an East Anglian setting, was published in 2014. Her work has been translated into nine languages.

‘My new novel-in-progress, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? tells two stories, that of a Palestinian fisherman called Amal and of Rose, an Englishwoman from an outwardly conventional but inwardly dysfunctional family, whose father’s experience of Palestine in 1947/48 formulates her interest in the region. Though their lives are linked much more closely than either knows, it is through their shared experience of key historical events from the Munich Olympics in 1972 to the civil war in Syria that I try to show how our history is informed by that of Palestine and vice versa.’

I’m indebted to Arts Council England for the grant which enabled me to travel to Palestine to research the book.’

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The Library as a Lifeline

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 19 January 2016

For the second of our 'Love Your Library' blog series, Kate Ashton, Assistant Manager of Haverhill Library of Suffolk Libraries writes about how libraries are more than just a sum of their books; they are a destination, a place where communities come together. 

When the Writers’ Centre asked me to write a blog on what libraries mean to me, I was flattered, then I thought, help, where do I begin? And so, I’ve shamelessly borrowed the following idea ‘thunk of the day’ from my colleague, Matt Shenton, our Literacy Ambassador. My thunk (also borrowed from Matt, thanks Matt by the way):

'Is a library still a library when all of the books have been taken out and borrowed?'

Take a moment to think about it, and then read on.

Ask this of me or any of my colleagues in the library service and you’ll get a resounding ‘yes, of course!’ but I’ll explain our thinking.

A library is so much more than just borrowing books (although as a confirmed bibliophile they are still hugely important). Your local library, regardless of whether it’s a big town library open all day every day, or a small village library open for a few hours most days, will offer you books, DVDs, CDs, games, free computer access, free wi-fi access, printing and faxing facilities (for a small charge), Bookstart activities for pre-school children, book groups, craft activities on a Sunday, activities for older people and of course the Summer Reading Challenge. From all of these activities, we have seen friendship groups form; there’s now a regular group who come to our Bookstart sessions and then go for a coffee and cake in the coffee shop next door once the session has ended.

Since we moved out of the county council in August 2012, our repertoire as a service has expanded. Take a look at our website, and you’ll find that you can download and borrow ebooks, eaudio and download and keep magazines and music – all of this is free. There’s also a whole range of activities going on, from music gigs to crime festivals, writing groups to tablet courses, and magic shows to visits by owls. All of this is provided by enthusiastic and passionate library staff with the support and assistance of committed volunteers from community Friends groups.

Increasingly, libraries are one of the remaining few safe, welcoming, non-judgemental and free spaces that you can visit regardless of who you are. We really are here for everyone!

Our ethos hasn’t changed from the time when Andrew Carnegie’s programme for founding libraries took off, although our purpose and function may have altered slightly, and as you can see, we do more than just books now. Libraries remain an integral part of society, we provide you with information and access to support services, such as our Warm Handover scheme, which helps people with specific needs to access support services in Suffolk with just one referral. This is a fantastic service which I think should be picked up and used in other authorities, and libraries are an ideal focal point from which such referrals can be made.

As societies and communities become more fragmented and isolated, libraries need to remain at the heart of their local community and become a focal point for people to come together and engage with others. We are all aware of people within our community who are isolated for many reasons, they live alone, language is a barrier, limited mobility,  and their weekly visit to a library is a lifeline, an opportunity to interact and engage with another person or group of people. We cannot record or quantify what that interaction means to someone but it is immeasurable.

As libraries, we want to sit at the heart of our local community and in Suffolk we now have greater flexibility to respond directly to the needs of our local community but we need you, to come in,  use us and tell us what you need. If you haven’t been in your local library for a while, pop in and take a look around… you’ll be surprised at what you will find!



Kate Ashton is an Assistant Manager at Haverhill Library in Suffolk.

I joined the library service back in September 2006 as a relief member of staff and have been Assistant Manager at Haverhill Library for almost 7 years. In my time at the library, I have dressed up as Max from Where the Wild Things Are for the Big Wild Rumpus and Tonks for Harry Potter Night. Outside of work I like to read and run, although I cannot run as fast as I can read. My literary heroine is Matilda Wormwood from Matilda – who wouldn’t want to be her? She could spell Mississippi by the age of 5 and outwit adults without breaking sweat.

 

 

Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books. 

Read WCN Development Manager Conor McGeown's blog The Treasure of Libraries

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#LibraryAdvent

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 12 December 2015

A library is many things to many people. It's a place of potential, of discovery. It's a land of dreams: of adventure and magic, of friendly dragons and other planets. It's a land of hope: of finding a new job or a new home, of learning a new skill or making a new friend. A library is many things to many people, so this Christmas WCN decided to celebrate libraries all around the world.

Every day of advent we shared a photo of a library alongside a quote from a brilliant writer, celebrating the gift that just keeps giving. You can take a look at all the quotes here, catch up with all the goings-on with Storify, or just scroll down.


#LibraryAdvent 2016 complete round-up



25th of December
Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library



'What a gift: democracy of reading, democracy of space. A library is for life, not just for Christmas.'

- Ali Smith


24th of December
Krakow Regional Public Library



'My first job was in a public library and I recognised, even at 16, how much of a haven it was for local people, somewhere for them to get away from the noise of the outside world as well as a place to educate themselves and their children.'

- Emma Healey


23rd of December
Norwich City of Literature



'Libraryness - it's a unique quality, only possessed by our libraries: the alchemy of a free place where people of all ages and all classes come together, seeking the adventures, discoveries, solace and sheer joy found in books. We must keep them open and cherish them, for they nourish us.'

- Patrick Barkham


22nd of December
Dunedin Public Libraries



'It was in libraries that I really explored reading. They are open to all and they cater for all. They never judge. You can pick something up on a whim, and find yourself with a new favourite book. Libraries contain wonders, they should be preserved.'

- Sally Craythorne


21st of December



'Under these leaf-libraries where
Melodious lost literature
Remembers itself!'

- 'Abernethy', Douglas Dunn


20th of December
Edinburgh Central Library


'Edinburgh is a city of books and learning, open to all knowledge.'

– Dame Muriel Spark 




19th of December
Norwich Cathedral Library



(Image Courtesy of Paul Hurst ARPS) 

'Latterly it has been used as a lumber room. I hope no one will be so unkind as to say it will be so used still.' 

– Henry Beeching, Dean of Norwich, 1913


18th of December
Norfolk Heritage Library



'We need libraries and their wonderful staff. They are part of the lifeblood of British culture. Libraries are indispensable to me and to us all.'

- Mark Cocker


17th of December
Municipal Library of Prague



'A house without books is like a body without a soul.'

- Julius Zeyer


16th of December
School Library
Angel Road Junior School




'Our library is a box of wonders that opens and lets me experience different worlds, meet different people, and explore my imagination.'

– Year 6 Pupil, Angel Road Junior




15th of December
Gainsborough Library
Suffolk Libraries


'What a sad adolescence I would have had without a library to escape to! And what a very different life since then: the library opened the door to my future.'

- Andrew Cowan


14th of December
Ballyfermot Library
Dublin City of Literature

 

 (Image Courtesy Patricio Cassinoni)

'The expected and the unexpected are always to be found in Dublin's libraries; the jewels in the city's crown.'

 

 

13th of December
Plumstead Road Library
Norfolk Libraries



'As a child, the library was my gateway - the only gateway available - to the world opened up by books. I read my way around every single shelf in the children's room of my local library, and was hooked. I am still today enthralled by the possibility for new discoveries which a library holds; the thought that you can discover something quite unexpected, and walk away with it tucked under your arm. I think in these days of tailored recommendation algorithms and curated digital experiences, the sense of rampant intellectual opportunity a library represents is needed more than ever.'

– Jon McGregor



12th of December
BCLT Library



'Free public libraries are one of the traditional guarantors of freedom, places where anyone may start to explore all that humanity has thought and recorded in words. The burning of books and libraries is one of the great barbaric acts: the closing down of libraries is a step towards the same barbarism.' 

George Szirtes



11th of December


'You made me feel at home, so far from home.'

- guestbook entry by Marcelo Figueras, author from Argentina, October 2010


10th of December



'it shone like a boxful of butterflies
it shone like a web at the wood's edge
it shone like blazing hilltop victory
it shone like the valley of last resort
it shone like the story of you and me

it shone all night'

- on the library, Alasdair Paterson


9th of December
Gladstone's Library

'Heaven, I am certain, looks like Gladstone's Library: Britain's only residential library, where you can live and study surrounded by a world-class collection of books and glorious Gothic architecture. You can choose to be alone, or converse with other visitors - a bishop at breakfast, and a poet at teatime. If inspiration fails (which it won't), you can venture outdoors to a cemetery, a valley, a ruined castle, a forest and a river.’

- Sarah Perry


8th of December
Library at the Dock
Melbourne City of Literature

 

(Image Courtesy Timothy Herbert)

'There was a tree outside the window where I worked, with a face in it, and I came to know it as my “permission” tree.

I did nothing in the library except write in front of that tree, and so every time I saw it, I was inspired to write.

Besides which, it is a beautiful, light library with minimal screaming. It was also during study week, so there were many other people working there, but all separately and silently. I felt part of a community, but not interrupted or under pressure to perform.'

- Anna Spargo-Ryan


7th of December
UEA Library
University of East Anglia



'Libraries are oases of quiet and learning in a distracted and noisy world, a human refuge, which should not be denied to us.'

- Rose Tremain



6th of December
Norfolk Mobile Library
Norfolk Libraries 



'On moving to a new town or city, the first place I seek out is the library because the library is the heart of a community. I grew up in the Norfolk countryside, but, because I had regular access to a library (in fact, many libraries: the library in my school, the library in a nearby village, a mobile library and the main public library in Norwich), I was able to learn about the world. Children who grow up with access to a library grow up with the understanding that access to knowledge is a right, and this gives them power. Books allow people to dream. I’ve been lucky enough to have had access to a library throughout my life. Had this not been the case, I would be an entirely different person.' 

- Megan Bradbury


5th of December
Huntingdon Library
Cambridgeshire Libraries


'Growing up, my local library was a place of wonder, imagination, excitement and safety. Ours had two floors: downstairs for adults, upstairs for kids. I both longed for the day I could stay downstairs and dreaded it. As a kid, I snuck books out of the adults’ section; as an adult I sneak them out of the kids’ section. Such are the contradictions of a reading life and the pure joy of a library.'

- John Boyne


4th of December
Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library
Norfolk Libraries



‘I wrote the vast majority of The Last Pilot in Norwich's Millennium Library and I saw first hand, day after day, how libraries are refuges for the most vulnerable members of society, from the lonely to the elderly; the unemployed to the unwell. The public library is so much more than the sum of its books: it’s a community hub, a place to go, to see people, to be seen; to feel you exist beyond the four walls of your house. The library is a destination, a haven, a harbour, an asylum, a sanctuary, a port in the storm.’

- Benjamin Johncock


3rd of December
Iowa City Public Library
Iowa City of Literature

'A library is where they live - words that burn
or freeze, cajole and tease, that sound of
barks, bawls, hollers, whispers, mutters
and storms...

May this, our library prosper, for
life without it would be smaller.'

- This Library, Marvin Bell


2nd of December
NUA Library,
Norwich University of the Arts

 

 ‘In their unique atmosphere there are portals to all kinds of worlds, knowledge, ideas, inspiration, it’s all there; brilliant reminders of the best and worst we can be as humans. The Whole Earth Catalogue 1972, where else could you see it? NUA library, small but perfectly formed.’
- Peter Martin, Course Leader BA Animation


1st of December
National and University Library of Iceland,
Reyjkavik City of Literature

(Image courtesy Indro Candi)

‘And there stood the library, waiting for him like an illuminated spaceship ready to whisk him away to distant planets.’
- Óskar Árni Óskarsson


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Recommended by the Readers’ Circle: A Selection of Brilliant Books

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 08 December 2015



Our fantastic Readers’ Circle (a collection of dedicated volunteers from around the East of England) have been devouring books from our Brave New Reads medium list. They’re reading, reviewing, and chatting about brilliant titles, from short story collections to non-fiction to poetry, to help us choose the six astounding books for Brave New Reads 2016.

Sadly, not every book can be included in the final six, so we’re featuring reviews of some of those which didn’t quite make it. Take a look below, and tempt yourself with some highly-acclaimed books (or find a perfect Christmas present!).

Interested in how we choose the featured Brave New Reads titles? Check out this earlier blog, explaining the very complicated process.

Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.


The Listeners – Edward Parnell

(Fiction)

This book is set in the woods and fields of Norfolk, starting in the summer of 1940, just as Britain was sliding into war. William Abrehart, an odd nature-loving boy, has remained silent since the death of his father but has promised to look after his two beautiful sisters and very withdrawn mother. The narrator shifts from person to person and William, Kate, Rachel and Louise all take a turn in speaking to us with their own interpretation of events and emotions present and past.  

This book is incredibly beautiful and desperately sad.  Beautifully written, with tender and lyrical descriptions of crumbling, haunted buildings and Norfolk flora and fauna. It is just as eerie and haunting as the poem by Walter de la Mare.  

Family secrets, self deception and lies sit at the heart of this novel, which depicts the heartbreaking and tragic destruction of a family over the course of a few days in a summer long ago. The depiction of the flourishing world of nature is a backdrop to the pain endured by the main characters in the book.  There are no lighthearted or amusing moments whatsoever, yet somehow it avoids being a depressing read. Wonderful sense of place and time. Takes you back to the 1940s!
- Reviewed by Cambridgeshire librarian Ruth Cowan


Beautiful Girls – Melissa Houghton

(Poetry)

Beautiful Girls is a compelling collection in which heartbreak shimmers along every line of its hauntingly exquisite and often masterful prose. Its tragedy-ridden tellings express a grim reality; how ripples from the core of grief radiate further darknesses into the girls' lives. Whilst it would prove a difficult read for some due to disturbing subject content, this really is quite a staggeringly stunning, albeit gut wrenching, collection that one should take the time out to consume.
- Reviewed by Readers' Circle member Zeena Thompson

 

 

 

Lay Me Down – Nicci Cloke

(Fiction)

I really enjoyed this haunting book; dark and heavy yet delicately threaded together. I was drawn in by a feeling of closeness which was almost claustrophobic, with the protagonists’ intimate first meeting and descriptions of their movements as witnessed by the other. There was a sense of uneasiness conveyed by the rapidity of Elsa and Jack’s first meeting to their moving to America, the fact they can’t see the Golden Gate Bridge (the reason for their moving) from the air, and the constant chasing away of memories. The more we come to know them as individuals the less they seem a couple.

This book is about the histories that people carry with them and the way these histories work their way to the surface. Jack and Elsa jumped into their relationship as it was a happy release from their past problems, but then the ripples of that choice begin to be felt. Understated but beautiful.
- Reviewed by Kathryn Elliot of the Readers' Circle

 

The Lives of Women – Christine Dwyer Hickey

(Fiction)

This was easily the best of the novels I have read so far. Christine Dwyer Hickey, like all of the great Irish writers, has the ability to say such a lot in a few words.

The story is excellent. It is divided into two halves with part in the past told by Elaine Nichol's sixteen year old self, and part in the present where she is a fifty year old woman returning to Ireland ostensibly to look after her aging father. The reader is aware almost from the outset that a traumatic event occurred which resulted in Elaine, our main character, being sent off, exiled, to New York.

The writing has such clarity: I remember when the women, who seem to live very meaningless and powerless lives, get together and one of them who has obviously been drinking is described "words sticky from her mouth" when she speaks. Brilliant!
- Reviewed by Tricia Andrews of the Readers' Circle


Reader for Hire – Raymond Jean, translated by Adriana Hunter

(Translated fiction)

I enjoyed this novella greatly. The idea that the female protagonist provides the commercial services of a reader to all and sundry sparked my interest. It may contain elements of a male fantasy but is also the exploration of the power of reading and listening, what we read and why we read it.

Marie-Constance trips through the looking glass into readerland; seemingly unaware of the effect she has on a range of listeners or at least believing that she can manage or control the expectations that they have. In the course of the novella political activism, crime, adultery, the corruption of minors (and possibly majors) whoosh by leaving her practically unscathed. Clearly, she has a determination to carry on reading on her own terms. I was very comfortable with the language of the translation. I found it enjoyable and mildly subversive!
- Reviewed by Jim Murray of the Readers' Circle

 

Check to see if the books are available from Norfolk, Cambridgeshire or Suffolk libraries.

Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list
.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

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Sarah Perry at the East Anglian Book Awards - East Anglia has 'never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom'

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 05 November 2015

Sarah Perry introduced the East Anglian Book Awards on 4 November 2015 having won the Book of the Year Award in 2014 for After Me Comes the Flood, also long listed for the Guardian First Novel Award in the same year. 







At the ceremony she shared her love of a region that has ‘never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom’. She praised the radical character of the East Anglia woman referencing Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Fry, Harriet Martineau, Edith Cavell and of course Boudicca. With much to say on the East Anglian landcape she gives the final word to WG Sebald who with his translator Michael Hulse ‘captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease.'

The East Anglian Book Awards not only hold a significant place in the literary calendar, but are very dear to me. Having been fortunate enough to have been awarded a prize last year, I know how the generosity and praise of peers can see a writer though a cold Tuesday afternoon when putting one word in front of another seems a hopeless endeavour. 

I also know that those of you whose books have secured a place on the short list will be feeling more than a little on edge, and so I promise I will not speak long. But I’d like to spend a short while touching on the cultural history of East Anglia, and its strange, marvellous landscape, and try to understand how this region has produced such an embarrassment of literary riches. 

Writing about Norfolk, and writing about writing about Norfolk, Malcolm Bradbury once said, “Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.” Those who live and write here I think will recognise this twofold effect: sometimes the shingle and the fens, the curlews and skies are consciously our subject - at other times they lie several inches behind the printed page - but always they are there. 

When I moved here after a wearisome decade in London, I remember quite clearly noting that the Norwich train bore an iron plate reading RAEDWALD. When at last I thought to look into it, it pleased me to see it referred to East Anglia’s king in the year 616, when this was the most powerful of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I like to think that East Anglia never quite stopped thinking of itself as a kingdom, and that this proud separateness is part of its allure. One does not arrive here by mistake, only by intent. Those of us who frequently make the journey home to Suffolk and Norfolk by train will know there is moment when, crossing (I think) the river Ouse - where white egrets stand impassively watching the trains - it is impossible to reach anyone by phone or email.

On arrival, the stranger will find the dialects of Suffolk and Norfolk not only thrive, but are contagious: I have barely been here three years, but find myself adopting the Norwich habit of using ‘that’ for ‘it’: “Good morning! That’s a nice day, that is!” Here, a jackdaw is a cadder, a bittern is a buttle, and a heron is a harnser (which, incidentally, is perhaps what Hamlet meant when he pointed out that he knew a hawk from a handsaw). The use of language here is nimble and witty: if you drive for any distance through the countryside you’ll encounter groan-inducing puns on signs for cafes, farm shops and roadside hot dog stands (the only one that currently comes to mind is ‘Bear’s Grill’). Hilary Mantel, who lived for a time in Norfolk, recalls seeing an elderly neighbour stand on the doorstep, peer disconsolately upward, and remark that there’d not been enough rain to wet a stamp. Even the place-names seem playful, and almost certainly designed to outwit the outsider: there is no mortification quite so bad as mispronouncing Happisburgh or Wymondham. In fact, playfulness and invention seems integral to the East Anglian literary character, from Thomas Browne’s coinages – antediluvian, jocularity, electricity – to George Borrow, who entitled his memoir ‘Lavengro’, after a Romany phrase meaning ‘word-master’.

East Anglia has a long history of radicalism: political, social and religious. There was the rebel Kett, who led 16,000 men against the king and was hanged for his pains from Norwich Castle wall; the 16th century butchers, labourers, constables and painters burned at the stake for the sake of freedom of conscience in Walsingham and Thetford and on Ely Cathedral green; there was Thomas Clarkson of Wisbech, abolitionist and noted redhead. I don’t think it fanciful to say that this radical tradition thrives in the contemporary literature of East Anglia, which is willing to challenge, wary of convention, tends towards idiosyncrasy and is often disruptive. 

It is impossible to account for the hold East Anglia has over writers and artists without considering its extraordinary landscape, much of which seems made of some element which is not quite water, and not quite land. It has a peculiarly eerie, melancholy quality: it does not dazzle, in the manner of the Scottish Highlands or the Cornish cliffs; rather, it clings to you, I think – like a scent, or like a sea-mist – often I find myself unable to distinguish between memories of walking on Holkham sand or the Aldeburgh shingle and all the strange dreams I have had. Robert MacFarlane’s description of a Suffolk sunset epitomises a kind of East Anglian nature writing which is beautiful, but which faintly disturbs: “At evening, as the sun was low and red in the sky, we crossed back over the River Ore, and into the woods and fields of Suffolk. A single mushroom-cloud of cumulonimbus dominated the eastern sky, and it was soaked in the red fission light of the sun.”

In H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald describes her beloved Brecklands, and again this is no chocolate-box landscape: “It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghost here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.”

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve seen more strange things in heaven and earth in the three years I have lived in East Anglia than in the thirty-two preceding. I have stood in the pine forest at Wells, where it is silent as a cathedral, and suddenly heard a volley loud as gunshot as all the pine cones overhead burst open in the heat of the sun. Later that same day, scanning the horizon over the sea, I saw a Fata Morgana, a disconcerting optical illusion in which fronts of cool air create refracting lenses that build strange, Brutalist black towers in the sky, which grew and diminished over the course of an afternoon.

Naturally enough, this uncanny land is ripe with myth – the most persistent kind of story: there’s Black Shuck, who scorched the door of Bungay church in 1577 and last made the headlines in 1971; there’s the Green Children of Woolpit, who would only eat beans, and the poor Orford Merman, who was tortured for refusing to speak and finally released back into the Ness.

It seems curious to me that those responsible for the new British passport could rustle up a mere two women of significance between them. They ought to have looked East: here lived Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love was the first book by a woman to be published in English; here also lived Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography to be published in English. Here lived the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, here was born the great sociologist Harriet Martineau, here also lived the novelist and abolitionist Amelia Opie. Edith Cavell lived here, is buried here, and is remembered whenever beer is drunk in the pub named for her, and which is a stone’s throw from her memorial. Maggie Hambling was born here, Boudicca of the Iceni lived and died here. Britain’s first female surgeon Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was of Suffolk blood, Anne Boleyn was born in Blickling, and legend has it her heart is buried here. The character of the East Anglian woman is radical, literate, rebellious, courageous, mystic and astute.  

I will finish by turning to the outsiders, since no-one should think that East Anglia – for all its remoteness and pride – does not welcome the stranger. In fact, one can barely cross the road without encountering a poet or novelist who has run here – often without quite intending to, yet never really meaning to leave. Eric Arthur Blair, born in India, named himself for the River Orwell; the great Irish writer Eimear McBride lives here, as does the Hungarian poet George Szirtes. Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, but lived here long enough: it is impossible to read – for example - The Cement Garden without seeing something familiar in its eerie, remote setting.

Last night, while musing on Twitter about the lure of this land, the writer David Hayden replied that since being here the landscape has ‘insinuated’ itself into his writing: “Always the dark woods, the lone trees, the green river, the night heron.”

I will give the last words to Sebald – one of the greatest of East Anglian outsiders, who with his translator Michael Hulse captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease. Giving an account of walking in Suffolk on a day sullen with heat, he said: “Several times I was forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain . . . In the end I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me – all this became oppressive and unnerving….months after this experience, which I still cannot explain, I was on Dunwich Heath once more in a dream, walking the endlessly winding paths again, and again I could not find my way out of the maze which I was convinced had been created solely for me.”

Thank you.


East Anglian Book Awards

Now in their eighth year, the East Anglian Book Awards are an important part of the literary and publishing landscape in the region. Since the awards began in 2008 they have showcased the work of well over 100 authors, 129 titles, and more than 80 publishers. Find out more about the 2015 awards here.

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Cutting the Long-list in Two: Choosing the Brave New Reads Books

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 02 November 2015



Rowan Whiteside, Brave New Reads Communications Coordinator blogs on how the Brave New Reads books are chosen:

How can you possibly choose just six books to be part of Brave New Reads? How do you decide which books are the bravest and brightest around, which titles are going to introduce readers to thrilling new worlds? Well, we do it with spreadsheets, colours, top fives, hundreds of reviews, and with the gracious assistance of the Readers’ Circle, a community of eager readers from across East Anglia.

The Readers’ Circle are all volunteers. They live in villages and cities and small towns across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. They come from different backgrounds, and have different reading habits: some snatch the time to read on lunch breaks or bus journeys, some are able to indulge their love for the written word all day everyday, and some squeeze their reading in when the kids are asleep. No matter when, where and how they read, every member of the Readers’ Circle have one thing in common; they share a love for reading and a desire to recommend great books. (Find out more about the Readers’ Circle.)

This year we started our selection process armed with a list of titles (sourced from individual recommendations, prize longlists, review pages, and recommended by publishers) including poetry, non-fiction, short stories, works in translation, and YA. Melanie, the Brave New Reads Programme Coordinator, got in touch with the publishers of the recommended titles and asked very nicely  if WCN could have copies of the suggested books. As the parcels started arriving everyone in the office gathered round, eager to get to the books inside.



The longlisted books, all 121 of them, were distributed to our Readers’ Circle and they started to read, and read, and read.

And this is where the choosing began. Each book that is read must be reviewed and marked red, amber or green. Colouring the review red meant that the reader disliked the book and wouldn’t recommend it, amber that the reader was unsure, and green meant that the reader loved the book. It’s only been two months and we’ve already had more than 500 reviews, with Melanie valiantly organising the feedback onto multiple spreadsheets.

In theory, it should then be a simple task to cut down the longlist according to the number of green, amber and red reviews. In reality, some books create violent reactions (marmite books, as I like to call them) with some people loathing them and others adoring them, skewing the numbers. Naturally some books are also reviewed less than others. Therefore, each colour is assigned a value so an average rating can be calculated. BUT, this still isn’t enough to have a truly representative view of the titles, so Melanie asks for all of our Readers’ Circle members to send a Top 5 of their favourite reads so far.

The Readers’ Circle meet regularly to discuss their opinions on the books, and last week we met in WCN’s new home of Dragon Hall to discuss cutting down the long list to a medium list  of around 60-80 titles. Using all the reviews, the Top 5’s and the colour ratings, the Readers’ Circle members debated which books should make it through and took the opportunity to champion their favourite books.

The next day, having well and truly crossed some titles off the list, and clutching handfuls of notes and comments, we began to cut down the list in a painstaking fashion. As a result, we ended up with 74 titles on the medium list, all of which have so far excited, challenged and entertained. 

One of the sad realities of having to cut down the Brave New Reads list is that some much-loved books don’t make it through to the next stage of shortlisting. As such, we’ve decided to feature three of the very-almost-made-it titles at the bottom of this blog, along with a review which might tempt you to check out the book (perhaps from your local library!).

As always, happy reading!


Making Nice by Matt Sumell

I thought this collection of linked short stories was excellent although perhaps mislabelled as a novel. It put me in mind of Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her both in tone and subject matter, although written from a different cultural perspective. Sumell's central character Alby is both likeable and immensely dislikable in a similar way to Diaz's Yunior. He is sex obsessed, prone to violent outbursts, a bit of a loser and immensely selfish. However he also shows softness, deep love for his family, and his grief at losing his mother and (almost) his dog are realistic and powerful. His portrayal of a dysfunctional and struggling family was accurate, funny and disturbing.
- Reviewed by Julia Webb of the Readers' Circle



The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyro (translated by David McDuff)

This book tickled my sense of humour and at times made me laugh out loud (something I rarely do when I read). It has the surrealness of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared with delightfully absurd images being created by Kyro. But it is also thought-provoking and very wise, exploring capitalism, migrancy, environmentalism, and how people are treated by various systems in society. Hugely compassionate, a joy to read.





Coastlines by Patrick Barkham

This book is a tour through the 742 miles of the British Coast owned by the National Trust. As in his previous two books The Butterfly Isles, and Badgerlands, Barkham proves an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining guide. Barkham possesses a journalist's gift of presenting a high density of historical and cultural detail with a deftness and lightness of touch that ensures the reader is never overwhelmed or bored.

I read the bulk of this book while staying in a caravan on the Norfolk coast and I would say its  effect is definitely enhanced by being read by the sea it so powerfully describes. Coastlines is no less enjoyable and informative for being infused with a certain melancholy. The sea seems to bring out in us a sense of awe and an acknowledgement of our own insignificance. The sea's abundance is constantly threatened by human predation as we seek to slake our appetite for its fruits whatever the consequences. The sea also exercises a pull on the desperate who are apparently taking their own lives at places like Beachy Head in ever greater numbers. Yet for all the sadness this is still an uplifting read.
-Reviewed by Ken Mason of the Readers' Circle


Check to see if the books are available from Norfolk, Cambridgeshire or Suffolk libraries.

Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list
.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

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A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation

Posted By: Anonymous, 19 October 2015

An original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.

In a world in which the internet, with its forums and discussion groups, has blurred the line between readers and writers almost to invisibility, the relationship between one and the other now seems increasingly difficult – audience participation in the creation of art is considered by many to be not only legitimate, but desirable.

Both on and offline, everyone has an opinion. And everyone has a platform from which to disseminate their opinions. Much of the time, this is a good thing. It allows a potential dialogue to exist between readers and creators. It allows readers to get in touch with the authors of work they have enjoyed. It allows writers to understand where and how they might have gone wrong, and how they can improve and grow. However, this breaking-down of barriers has also created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.

This is partly due to the fact that there are so many more writers than there were fifty years ago. The rise of self-publishing, e-books and fanfiction means that far more people are now able to identify as writers. And although this is a good thing in many ways, it does also help perpetuate the idea that anyone can write a book, and that the people who actually do so are simply luckier, wealthier, or blessed with more spare time than those who do not.

The truth is, not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner. The same combination of aptitude, experience and acquired skills apply to being a writer as to any other job. We would never think of telling a doctor that we were thinking of taking up medicine when we retired. We would never expect a plumber to work for free – or a plasterer, for publicity. We would never expect to hear the word “privilege” of a teacher who has spent their career working hard to earn a living. We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.

And yet, and yet, these demands are made of writers all the time. Perhaps it’s because the value of writing is such a difficult thing to quantify. Everyone dreams. Not everyone gets to dream for a living. But are we writers expecting too much? Can we keep artistic control, whilst expecting to earn a living? And, in a world in which the consumer increasingly calls the shots, can we still hope for a relationship with our readers that transcends that of mere supply and demand?

Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said. Therefore, just as a person ordering a salad in a restaurant should have the right to ask the chef for a different dressing, readers should also have the choice to enjoy a story without being exposed to language they deem offensive, or ideas that challenge their perceptions. After all, they said; isn’t that why writers exist in the first place? Are they not there primarily to serve the needs of the public, and does it not make sense that they should take those needs into account?

Well, of course our readers do have a choice. And of course, we writers owe them a great deal. But a novel isn’t a salad with interchangeable ingredients. Nor is the reader entitled to order from a menu. As writers, we are always grateful when a reader chooses one of our books. We hope that they will enjoy it. And most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.

The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction. Fiction is not by its nature a design for living, nor an imaginary comfort zone. Although it can be both those things, its range goes much further than comfort or escapism. Fiction is often uncomfortable; often unexpected.  Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.

I love my readers. I love their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage. I enjoy our conversations on Twitter and at festivals. I love their diversity, and the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them, and according to what they have experienced. Without readers, writers would have no context; no audience; no voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re employees, writing books to order. We, too, have a choice. We choose what kind of relationship we want to have with our readers – whether to interact online, go to festivals, give interviews, tour abroad, teach pro bono creative writing sessions or even live in seclusion, without talking to anyone. Writers are as diverse as readers themselves, and all of them have their own way of operating. What may work for one author may be hopelessly inappropriate for another. But whatever our methods of working, the relationship between a writer and their readers should be based on mutual respect, along with a shared understanding of books, their nature and their importance.

On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts - or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.

But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?

I think that for most authors, it comes down to two deceptively simple things.

The first and most prosaic is: we want to make a living. This fact is at the same time obvious, and fiercely contested, not least by many authors, who rightly see their work as something more than just a means of paying the rent.  

That’s because, many authors find it hard to talk about money. It’s considered vulgar for artists to care about where the next meal is coming from. And many authors are driven to write: would probably write whether or not they had an audience; or whether they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of writing. This is at the same time their strength, and also their downfall; with the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold. And yet, to the publishing industry, that’s exactly what they are; the product of thousands of hours of work: of editing; copy-editing; design; marketing; proof-reading; promotion. Publishers spend most of their time thinking about the readers – the consumers of our work - but for an author, thinking about the readers (or, even worse, the pay-check) while trying to write a novel is like thinking about the drop when performing a high-wire act; dangerous, counterproductive, and likely to lead to failure.

But if, as Samuel Johnson maintains, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, there must be a lot of blockheads in the writing community. I’ll admit I’m one myself. Nevertheless, however much we may cling to society’s romanticized views of art for art’s sake, authors and illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.

That’s where the readers come in. Many readers seem to believe that authors are earning millions. The reality is that most authors earn rather less than the minimum wage, and when touring, attending festivals, blogging, giving interviews, holding readings, writing guest posts for bloggers, too often give their work for free. That’s why it’s important for readers to show appreciation for the work of the authors we love; firstly by buying their books (as opposed to downloading them illegally); by borrowing them from libraries (because authors are paid for borrowed books, a sum which, though small, adds up and can often provide a welcome annual windfall); and most importantly, by supporting their work; by attending festivals and readings, by writing reviews and joining in discussion groups, and generally promoting awareness of their writing, and of books in general.

Because what authors really want (and money provides this, to some extent) is validation of their work. We write because we want you to care; because we hope you’re listening – that we can make a connection, somehow; that we can prove we are not alone.

Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.

So this is my manifesto, my promise to you, the reader. From you, I ask that you take it in good faith, respond in kind, and understand that, whatever I do, I do for the sake of something we both value - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.     

1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.

2. I promise not to sell out - not even if you ask me to.

3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.

4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.

5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.

6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.

7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.

8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new - even if the things I try are not always successful.

9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don't think you really want me to.

10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.

11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.

12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.

Joanne Harris has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. She has written two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. Harris plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.

This piece was commissioned as part of the National Conversation, a year-long discussion about the issues that matter to writers and readers. Find out more.

Listen to the provocation and debate here

Do let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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Mike Carey: How do we reflect the world in fiction?

Posted By: Anna Scrafield, 16 October 2015

 

In advance of our National Conversation event with Joanne Harris on Monday 19th October, we asked Mike Carey for his response to the question - what is the role of the writer in contemporary society?

I don’t believe that a novel is a mirror carried along a road.  That’s one of the many things it can aspire to be, but it’s generally not a realistic goal.  There’s too much of you in a novel for the rest of the world to fit comfortably.  All you can do is say “well this bit of the world looks like this from the angle at which I’m currently standing.”

Having said that, I think all novels are haunted by the real world in the way old repurposed buildings are haunted by their original form and function.  And I think you have to watch those angles pretty closely – the points where your stories lean up against reality.  They’re always going to be there because everything has to be supported by something.

Ursula LeGuin said that people who don’t read sci-fi think of its narratives as excursions, whereas in fact they’re incursions – raids on the real.  Wallace Stevens said that the beauty of Earth is the beauty of every paradise, and that I certainly believe.  It’s true of dystopias too, or should be: genre fictions, like all fictions, are curiously shaped and intricate tools for exploring what matters to us (and to the people around us) in the lives we lead in the world we all happen to share.  It’s not the only thing they do, but it’s an important thing.

It follows that you’re responsible, at least a little bit, for the inferences and assertions about the real world that either flit across the surface of your fictions or else get deeply embedded in them.

That may seem a bit controversial, even wilfully naïve.  The death of the author happened a long while back (I was sorry because I knew the guy).  We’re all agreed now that meaning, signification, is something that happens when the reader’s mind encounters the text, not when the author opens his magic bottle o’ meaning and pours in a big dollop of the stuff.

But still.  Your words exist in the world, in the same way a table or a chair exists in the world.  If you were building a chair you wouldn’t build it with one leg shorter than the other three.  Likewise you wouldn’t make a table with a nail sticking out so anyone passing by might injure themselves on it.  And it’s the same with stories.  

Please don’t mistake this for a parable about Not Giving Offence.  It’s absolutely fine for stories to give offence.  It’s both inevitable and perfectly acceptable.  You may think that Salman Rushide is an infidel and Michel Houllebecq is a racist jerk, in which case you can avoid their stories or – better – you can read them and think about them and try to formulate what it is about them you disagree with.

What I’m saying is more about function.  You have to be aware, as a writer, of what your story is about and what it’s for.  You have to own your meanings, insofar as they are yours.  You have to make sure the fiction is fit for purpose.

When you send it out to walk along the road, it’s reflecting you as well as the world.  Be in there as yourself, not as someone else.  And be honest.  It may only ever matter to you, but it should matter to you a lot.

Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer.  He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production.  He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz.  His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.

Joanne Harris will be discussing the role of the contemporary writer with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Lemn Sissay and Geoff Ryman on Monday 19th October at Manchester Literature Festival. Do join us, or read Joanne's provocation online after the event.

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If You Liked Brave New Reads, You’ll Love....

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 29 September 2015




 

Did you devour the Brave New Reads titles? We’ve picked out some books which we think you’ll also enjoy. Scroll down to see them all, or click the relevant title.

Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham
Black Country by Liz Berry
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov
Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement


We'd love to hear what you thought of Brave New Reads 2015. Please take the time to fill in this brief survey and you could win book tokens!


Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh


A brutal, compelling and savagely funny collection of interlinked short stories. Semi-autobiographical, Any Other Mouth is a candid and deeply personal exploration of grief, growing-up, family dynamics and explicit sexual experience. Mackintosh deftly reveals the raw reality of bereavement, balancing supreme honesty with a wrenching tenderness.

Find out more about Any Other Mouth.


If you liked Any Other Mouth, we think you might enjoy:

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth
Animals
is a hilarious, moving and refreshingly honest tale of how a friendship can become the ultimate love story.


Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by Lena Dunham
A hilarious, poignant, and extremely frank collection of personal essays by Lena Dunham, the acclaimed creator, producer, and star of HBO’s ‘Girls’.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Part memoir, part rant, How to be a Woman offers a new way to look at feminism from Caitlin Moran, one of our funniest writers.

Nobody Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
A remarkable collection of stories which explores seemingly ordinary people living extraordinary lives and how a single moment can change everything.

Eat My Heart Out
by Zoe Pilger
Fiercely clever and unapologetically wild, Eat My Heart Out is the satire for our narcissistic, hedonistic, post-post-feminist era.

Brass by Helen Walsh
Shockingly candid and brutally poetic, Walsh creates a portrait of a city and a generation that offers a female perspective on the harsh truth of growing up in  Britain.

Music for Torching by AM Homes
Homes lays bare the foundations of marriage and family life and creates characters outrageously flawed, deeply human and entirely believable.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy
Twenty-first century lives dissected with razor-sharp humour and curiosity, stories about what it means to live and love, together and alone.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
In language dazzling, energetic and pure, The Panopticon introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine on her way to the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.

 

Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham


Dig deep and discover the subterranean world of the humble badger in this compelling account of the animal’s history. In Badgerlands Barkham examines one of our most controversial creatures. Intriguing and instructive, Badgerlands debunks myths and proves that when it comes to badgers it’s never just black and white.

Find out more about Badgerlands.

If you enjoyed Badgerlands we think you might like:

 

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
H is for Hawk is an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald's struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk's taming and her own untaming.

A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson
A Sting in the Tale tells the story of Goulson’s passionate drive to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee to its native land and contains groundbreaking research into these curious creatures.

The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane
Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world of places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
Roger Deakin's unmatched exploration of our relationship with trees is autobiography, history, traveller's tale as well as incisive work in natural history.

The Dig by Cynan Jones
Deep in rural Wales, a farmer is struggling through lambing season when he becomes aware that his land is being stalked by a badger-baiter who brings with him the stark threat of violence.

Claxton by Mark Cocker
Passionate, astonishing and inspiring, this book is a celebration of the wonder that lies in our everyday experience.

Four Fields by Tim Dee
Tim Dee tells the story of four fields spread around the world: their grasses, their hedges, their birds, their skies, and their natural and human histories.

 

Black Country by Liz Berry


A soaring collection of poetry, which weaves birds of all kinds through the text and swoops from childhood innocence to sensual pleasures. Black Country melds traditional West Midlands dialect with Berry’s fresh and contemporary voice, creating a distinctive linguistic energy. Using precise language and an acute awareness of heritage, Berry creates an enchanting atmosphere of folklore and magic.

Find out more about Black Country.

If you enjoyed Black Country we think you might like:

 
Division Street
by Helen Mort

From the clash between striking miners and police to the delicate conflicts in personal relationships, Mort’s stunning debut is marked by distance and division.


Chick by Hannah Lowe
With London as their backdrop, Hannah Lowe's deeply personal narrative poems are often filmic in effect and brimming with sensory detail in their evocations of childhood and coming-of-age, love and loss of love, grief and regret.

Fire Songs by David Harsent
David Harsent's new collection of poems shares a dark territory and a sometimes haunting, sometimes steely, lyrical tone.

Moontide by Niall Campbell
Moontide is filled with images of the island's seascapes, its myths, its wildlife, and the long dark of its winters. Quietly reflective and deftly musical, these thoughtful poems explore ideas of companionship and withdrawal, love and the stillness of solitude.

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller
Acclaimed Jamaican poet Miller dramatizes what happens when one system of knowledge, one method of understanding place and territory, comes up against another, as the cartographer, a scientific rationalist, attempts to map his way to the eternal city of Zion.



The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov


Mesmerising and haunting, this otherworldly fairytale describes a life shaped by landscape. Yerzhan is seemingly an ordinary young boy, but as you travel across the Kazakhstan steppes together he’ll lead you through his blighted youth; from the nuclear wasteland of his home to his lost love. Emotionally true, The Dead Lake will echo long after you’ve finished reading.

Find out more about The Dead Lake.

If you liked The Dead Lake, you might enjoy:

 

Soul by Andrey Platonov, Translated by Elizabeth Chandler, Olga Meerson and Robert Chandler

'For the mind, everthing is in the future' Platonov once wrote; 'for the heart, everything is in the past'. The protagonist of Soul is a young man torn between these opposing desires, sent as a kind of missionary to bring the values of modern Russia to his childhood home town in Central Asia.

All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
All That is Solid Melts into Air is an exceptionally moving novel of interwoven lives, set amidst one of the most iconic disasters in living memory, Chernobyl.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, Translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

1867: a year of devastating famine in Finland. Marja, a farmer's wife from the north, sets off on foot through the snow with her two young children. Their goal: St Petersburg, where people say there is bread.

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Jones, Translated by Clarissa Botsford

Hana is forced to adopt male persona Mark to avoid an arranged marriage. After many years as a man, Mark is offered the chance to move to the US – but what does he know about being an American woman?

The Wall by William Sutcliffe
Joshua is a troubled boy who lives in a divided city, where a wall and soldiers separate two communities. One day Joshua discovers a tunnel, which leads under the wall to the forbidden territory of the other side.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Translated by Rosalind Harvey
A masterful and darkly comic first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish. Tochtli, son of a drug baron, has everything apart from his heart’s desire: a pygmy hippotamus from Liberia.

The Good Angel of Death by Andrey Kurkov, Translated by Andrew Bromfield
Koyla moves into a new flat and discovers an annotated manuscript hidden inside a copy of War and Peace. He decides to track down the author, and begins a very bizarre



Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery


Fallen Land
charts the downfall of three generations of land-owners and the disintegration of their American dream. Louise reluctantly sells her family land, property developer Krovik builds on it and goes bankrupt, and the Noallies family move in, ready for an untainted future but unprepared for what’s to come. Saturated with an eerie menace, the prose shifts and mutates to create an unsettling and gripping novel. 

Find out more about Fallen Land.

If you liked Fallen Land we think you might enjoy:

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
The Bellefleurs own vast lands and profitable businesses, they employ their neighbors, and they influence the government. A prolific and eccentric group, they include several millionaires; a mass murderer; a spiritual seeker; a wealthy noctambulist who dies of a chicken scratch; a baby, Germaine - the heroine of the novel - and her parents, Leah and Gideon.


The House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Immensely imaginative. Impossible to put down. Impossible to forget. House of Leaves is thrilling, terrifying and unlike anything you have ever read before.

Wreaking by James Scudamore
Three solitary characters remember their shared past in a sprawling, derelict psychiatric hospital on the English coast. Wreaking is an intricate, labyrinthine novel about the opiate power of place, the fragility of sanity and the fickle nature of memory.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it tells a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.

Absolution by Patrick Flanery
Sam Leroux returns to South Africa to write the biography of Clare Wald, world-renowned author. But as the project continues and her life story develops, the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred, and Sam’s own ghosts emerge. 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Over six decades, the consequences of a moment's impulse unfold, drawing an heroine Holly Sykes woman into a world far beyond her imagining. A kaleidoscopic story of an unusual woman's life, a metaphysical thriller and a profound meditation on mortality and survival.

The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In a sleepy little New England village stands a dark, weather-beaten, many-gabled house. This brooding mansion is haunted by a centuries-old curse that casts the shadow of ancestral sin upon the last four members of the distinctive Pyncheon family.


Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement


A potent tale of survival and determination, Prayers for the Stolen tells the story of Ladydi: a fierce young girl who masquerades as a boy to escape the grasping threat of drug cartels. Ladydi is taught defiance by her wisecracking mother, yet the mountains of Mexico are filled with dangers; from toxic herbicides to ravaging gunmen. Immerse yourself in her enthralling life, and an unforgettable adventure.

Find out more about Prayers for the Stolen.


If you liked Prayers for the Stolen, we think you might enjoy:


The Underground Girls Of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys by Jenny Nordberg
An Afghan woman's life expectancy is just 44 years, and her life cycle often begins and ends in disappointment. For some, disguising themselves as boys is the only way to get ahead. Exploring the historical and religious roots of this tradition, The Underground Girls of Kabul is a fascinating and moving narrative that speaks to the roots of gender.

The Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle
Two very different men find their lives entwined when wealthy American Delaney Mossbacher knocks down a Mexican pedestrian. The two men are fated to collide, and as Delaney attempts to clear the land of the illegal immigrants a boiling pot of racism and prejudice threatens to spill over.

2666 by Robert Bolano
On the Mexico-US border there is an urban sprawl that draws lost souls to it like a vortex. Convicts and academics find themselves here, as does a sportswriter, a student with her widowed father, and a reclusive 'missing' author. But there is a darker side to the town: girls and women are disappearing at an alarming rate...

Heliopolis by James Scudamore
As a child Ludo is plucked out of the shantytown and transported to a world of cosseted luxury; at twenty-seven, he works high above the above the sprawling metropolis of São Paulo. But this is not a simple rags-to-riches story: Ludo's destiny moves him around like a chess piece, showing him both extremities of opulent excess and abject poverty, taking him to the brink of madness and brutality.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Lilith is born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. As she comes of age and begins to understand her own feelings and identity, she dares to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman.

Any of these titles take your fancy? Check out the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire library catalogues and reserve the books online, or pop to your local bookshop.

 

Brave New Reads is brought to you by Writers’ Centre Norwich and the library services in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, and was created in Norwich, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature.

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Bookseller Louisa Theobald reviews Fallen Land

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 26 August 2015



Bookseller Louisa Theobald reviews Fallen Land, one of our Brave New Reads titles, written by Patrick Flanery. Get a feel of the book below:

Fallen Land is Patrick Flanery’s second novel and one that is stuffed full of themes which range from the nature of madness and cruelty, the legacy of family abuse and the intrusion of business into every sector of our life.

Most overtly, Patrick Flanery explores and dissects the American dream through his cast of diverse characters, and finds the dream wanting. There is the widow Louise Washington, a teacher who is unable to keep her farm profitable after her husband’s death. There is Paul Krovik, the callous property developer who buys Louise's land, driven by dreams of a gleaming subdivision which unravels into a nightmare of lawsuits and foreclosure. Sent mad by his failure Paul loses his family and holes himself up in an underground bunker attached to his former home. Into this house moves Nathaniel Noailles, a ‘director of rehabilitation’ at EKK, a corporation which seeks to monetize the prison population as effective slave labour. As the rain begins to hit this unnamed Midwestern land and a flood begins to rise, Patrick Flanery creates a tense atmosphere where the fates of these three characters collide and the book builds to a tragic conclusion.

It is partly a dystopian vision of corporate greed and partly a psychological thriller of two men’s descent into madness. It has a modern setting yet it seethes with a gothic menace. Patrick Flanery’s skill is building a world where the very land on which the characters place their feet seems to simmer with threat as sinkholes appear to swallow objects whole. Flanery's prose is dark and intense and wholly effective in keeping the reader turning the pages. It is an unsettling read, disturbing but fascinating.

Patrick Flanery will be reading from Fallen Land at Bury St Edmunds Library on the 22nd September, 7pm. Tickets are only £2 and can be purchased online, or directly from the library.

Find out more about Fallen Land.

Enjoy extra Fallen Land content, including podcasts and films.

Listen to a recording of our Brave New Reads event with Patrick Flanery below.


Follow Patrick Flanery on Twitter
@PFlaneryAuthor.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

Would you be interested in joining the Readers' Circle? Find out more about the group, and how to apply.

Fallen Land is available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge Libraries.

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