Launch of the WoMentoring Project. Exciting!

WoMen3Today, Tuesday 15th April 2014, is the launch of the WoMentoring Project. It’s very exciting! I wish I was at a point in my writing where I was ready for a mentor because this just sounds brilliant.

The project offers free mentoring by professional literary women to up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities. It’s not just for fiction writers – the mentors also include non-fiction writers, editors, illustrators and agents.

What the WoMentoring Project says it’s all about:

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The WoMentoring Project is managed by novelist Kerry Hudson and all of the mentors are all professional writers, editors or literary agents. Many of us received unofficial or official mentoring ourselves which helped us get ahead and the emphasis is on ‘paying forward’ some of the support we’ve been given.

In an industry where male writers are still reviewed and paid more than their female counterparts in the UK, we wanted to balance the playing field. Likewise, we want to give female voices that would otherwise find it hard to be heard, a greater opportunity of reaching their true potential.

Quite simply this is about exceptional women supporting exceptional women.

How to apply for a mentor:

WoMentoringIllo2WebEach mentor selects their own mentee and it is at their discretion how little or much time they donate. Importantly, it’s about finding a good match between mentor and mentee. Using the application on the website, you apply to a particular mentor (and only one at a time) that you think fits what you’re looking for, and submit a 1000 word writing sample and a 500 word statement about why you would benefit from free mentoring.

So. Exciting. Check out the website here, which includes gorgeous illustrations by Sally Jane Thompson.

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Struck by Genius by Jason Padgett & Maureen Seaberg. Review & Giveaway

struck by geniusYou can win a copy of Struck by Genius by leaving a comment below by 16th April 2014 (UK only unfortunately).

Struck by Genius is the story of what happened after Jason Padgett was violently mugged and left with a head injury. Almost immediately, Jason developed synaesthesia (a kind of neurological blending of the senses), which in his case meant he could see geometric shapes, particularly fractals, wherever he looked. He also became a mathematical savant and could understand a high level of maths he’d never been taught. Jason was transformed from being an extroverted, physically restless party-goer, to an inquisitive, focussed introvert.

Jason’s story is unusual, in fact he is the only person known to have both acquired synaesthesia and acquired savant syndrome. Despite the inclusion of some of his drawings, it’s hard to imagine, but fascinating, to consider the way he literally sees the world. However, he does have some ‘trade-offs’ to his new abilities – he also develops OCD and PTSD, as well as experiencing a decline in his interest and ability to write (which is why he has a joint/ghost writer).

*Gets on soapbox* It is, quite frankly, ridiculous that he was unable to have the right scans and support after his injury because of the cost of healthcare. I will never understand a system where health is dependent on wealth. *Steps off soapbox*

It is a fascinating story, but I found myself wanting more from the telling of it. It was quite repetitive and in places over-written, and could have been edited down to become a much tighter, more engaging piece of writing. I found myself wishing Oliver Sacks had written it, both for style and for his ability to go that little bit deeper emotionally and neurologically. However, the explanations of neurological processes, such as the fight or flight response, were succinctly and simply explained for a range of readers.

fractal-interference-jason-padgett

Fractal Interference by Jason Padgett

Part of the repetition may come from Jason’s hyper-focus on his interests and passion to share what he sees. I do admire his new-found passion for learning and maths, but I also struggled to believe that every single person’s face ‘lights up’ when he starts talking to them about pi or fractals when they’ve come into his shop to buy a futon. Some, yes, but not all. He talks about how he developed heightened empathy as a result of his injury (which read to me more like a heightened awareness of others due to PTSD), but I wonder whether his passion for fractals exceeds this, and so he doesn’t always realise that some people just want to buy a futon.

Struck by Genius is a story of human resilience and the fascinating way the brain can work. I just wanted something more from it.

Struck by Genius is released on 22nd April 2014. You can view some of Jason’s beautiful fractal drawings here.

Leave a comment below by 16th April 2014 for a chance to win a copy of Struck by Genius. All names will be put in a hat and one will be chosen at random. UK only.

I kindly received a free copy of Struck by Genius from Headline in exchange for an honest review.

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Burial Rites & Hannah Kent at Waterstones York

imageIt’s a mark of a good book that, even though you know what will happen in the end, you are compelled to keep reading. Burial Rites is one such book. It’s based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in the early 1800s. Between being sentenced for murder and her execution, she is sent to live with a local family (who are less than pleased to have to share their home with a murderer), while a young priest is tasked with ‘delivering her to God’.

As Hannah herself said, it’s not so much a ‘who dunnit’ as a ‘why dunnit’. It gives a voice to a woman painted in folklore as a black-and-white monster, but, importantly, it’s not a wholly positive voice. Agnes is not all good, or all bad, and it’s this middle ground which gives her a more rounded humanity.

It’s also a book full of engaging description of the landscape – you can tell Hannah has lived in and loved Iceland as a place. The sense of place is so strong that it feels like if the story happened anywhere else it wouldn’t have happened in quite the same way.

I went to ‘an evening with Hannah Kent’ at Waterstones York this evening where she talked, read and signed books. She spoke of knowing she wanted to be a writer from about age 6, but also knowing she would have to do ‘something else’ alongside. Towards the end of high school she became increasingly anxious about what this ‘else’ would be, so applied to spend a year abroad on exchange before going to Uni. She opted to go to Iceland. Ending up in a tiny town, mostly in the dark, she spoke of how much she stood out as an outsider/newcomer in a small community. A person who was literally stared at in curiosity. It was also where she first heard Agnes’ story, though Agnes was only described as a monster and little more. She did say that after a few months she connected with others and fell in love with the place, but, feeling an emotional connection between her own isolation & Agnes’ probable isolation (being imposed upon a small community), the story stayed with her.

Hannah also detailed the huge amount of painstaking research she did, from Australia and on a research trip back to Iceland, on both Iceland in the 1800s and Agnes’ story. It was fascinating to listen to. She said her way of trying to guard against any kind of cultural appropriation or exploitation was to stick to the facts absolutely, and to fill in any blanks fictionally with her general research. It was great to hear an author talk about this issue, especially after reading HHhH, and I’m really glad that it’s something she thought about sensitively. It’s in the process of being translated into Icelandic, but reviews from Icelanders who have read it have so far been positive!

There is possibly a film in the works (currently Jennifer Lawrence is signed up to play Agnes – she would be brilliant). Hannah’s currently writing her next novel which is also based on a true story but this time set in Ireland. Another beautiful landscape which I’m sure Hannah will do beautiful things with. I can’t wait.

Hannah Kent still has a few dates left of her UK tour, so do go and say hello if you get the chance. But definitely read the book. (And if you can, pick up the paperback pictured above, all the page edges are black! Oh beautiful book production for brilliant books, I do love you so.)

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March reads (in-translation month)

In March I only read fiction in translation. I’d noticed my in-translation reading had dipped a little and wanted to get back into the swing of it, so thought the best way would be to only let myself read in translation for a month. I don’t really like restricting what I’m reading (as it just makes me want to read the Forbidden), but I’m glad I did it and will do it again if I notice I’m neglecting other languages again. Unfortunately I wasn’t well this month, so didn’t read as much as I was hoping (most of these are quite short), but I think having books I wanted to read but couldn’t should give me some momentum to keep up my in-translation reading. Onto the books…

nagasakiNagasaki by Eric Faye (Novel – French in translation)

Translator: Emily Boyce. This is a great little novella about a man who thinks someone else might be coming into his house. Faye has an excellent lightness of touch in his story-telling and is nice and ambiguous. Full review here.

beside-the-sea-book-cover

 

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (Novel – French in translation)

Translator: Adriana Hunter. This novella about a woman struggling with mental health problems and looking after her two young boys hurts. The mother decides that everyone should see the sea at least once in their lives, so takes her boys out of school and on a trip to the seaside. She tries, but everything goes wrong – the hotel is crappy, she doesn’t have quite enough money, they get wet and cold at the funfair – and a sense of darkness builds throughout. I’d accidentally seen a spoilery review, so knew what was coming, but the final paragraph was still painful. A little book that packs a powerful punch.

HHhHHHhH by Laurent Binet (Novel – French in translation)

Translator: Sam Taylor. This is a kind of ‘meta-novel’, about both the assassination attempt on Heydrich (a prominent Nazi), and the process of writing a fictional novel based on real events. The story about Heydrich’s assassination is really good, and I thought the ‘meta’ parts were an interesting conversation about historical fiction generally. But, at times, Binet’s comments are narcissistic and get in the way. There are also no page numbers for no reason I can fathom other than annoying post-modern ‘cleverness’. Full review here.

the true deceiverThe True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (Novel – Swedish in translation)

Translator: Thomas Teal. You may know Jansson’s children’s writing best, as she created the Moomins. However, I hadn’t realised that she spent the last 30 years of her life writing books for adults, of which this is one. I really enjoyed this, about a woman who is an outsider in her Finnish village and decides to stage a break-in at an elderly artist’s house in order to secure a financial future for her brother. It did feel like a children’s story for grown-ups, with its imagery of people and houses as wolves and rabbits, circling each other. Really great sparse but beautiful language. I wanted the ending to have a little more bite (if you’ll excuse the pun!), but I’ll definitely be picking up more of her work for adults.

down the rabbit holeDown the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (Novel – Spanish in translation)

Translator: Rosalind Harvey. This is told from the perspective of a precocious seven-year-old boy, Tochtli, who has a ‘devastating’ memory and lives in the secure compound of his Mexican drug baron father. Tochtli is kind of telling the story of wanting a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, but we, as adult readers, also see the story of drug dealing, corruption and prostitution. An excellent short novella with some great imagery at the end.

Sworn virgin elvira donesSworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (Novel – Italian in translation)

Translator: Clarissa Botsford. ‘Sworn virgins’ are women in Albania who switch their gender to male and take a vow of celibacy in order to gain the same rights as a man, usually when there are no male heirs. This is a fascinating book about culture, gender and family. Well worth a read when it comes out in May. Full review here.

CompletePersepolisPersepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Graphic novel, non-fiction – French in translation)

Translator: Anjali Singh (I there are also others but he’s the only named one). Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s child-/teenage-/young adult-hood in Tehran, Iran during the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, revolution, and war with Iraq. It’s just brilliant. There’s humour, horror, politics and a lack of sentimentality. Satrapi isn’t always likeable in this, and I really like that – it makes it feel like an honest portrayal. The art is simplistic black and white, and the way she draws herself evolves as she ages. Great graphic novel.

peter schlemihlPeter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso (Novel – French in translation)

Translator: Leopold von Loewenstein-Wertheim. This was written as a cautionary tale for children in the early 1800s. Basically, Peter makes a deal with a strange man and exchanges his shadow for a purse with everlasting gold. Alas, Peter finds he is hated and ridiculed for not having a shadow, and cannot live the life he wants. So the man returns, offering him a new deal… I did enjoy this, particularly the charismatic ‘devil’ character. I found people’s reactions to his lack of shadow a little odd/forced in the beginning. It also dipped a little in the middle (Peter spends a lot of time lamenting his lot in life), but picked up again towards the end. Nice fairy tale, though not my favourite.

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5 books NOT to buy for mother’s day

Books for when you want to say “I wish to express my love for you, my mother, with a book about a mother making dangerously questionable life choices.”

flowers in the attic1. Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews
So, a mother makes her children live in an attic ‘temporarily’ so her own father doesn’t find out about them. She basically forgets about them, makes them stay in there for years, and eventually tries to kill them. Happy mothers’ day!

MommieDearestBook2. Mommie Dearest by Christina Crawford
This is Christina’s memoir about life with her mother Joan Crawford. In it, she claims that Joan was abusive and neglectful, prone to violent outbursts and an alcoholic. The contrast between the title (if read sincerely) and the content could make for an especially passive aggressive mothers’ day gift, if that’s what you’re looking for.

beside-the-sea-book-cover3. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
It’s a about a mother struggling with mental health problems and looking after herself, let alone her two young boys. She decides that everyone should see the sea at least once in their lives, so takes them out of school on a trip to the seaside. Even though I knew what was coming, the final paragraph was still very painful. An excellent and well-written little novella, but maybe not a mothers’ day gift…

we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-book-cover4. We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Told in the form of letters written by his mother, Eva, it details Kevin’s life and Eva’s relationship with him from birth until he massacres his classmates at school, and kills his father and sister. Is Eva a cold, distant parent who can’t connect with her son, and this is what leads him to murder? Or has Kevin always been a Bad Child and there was nothing Eva could have done? Or is it somewhere in the middle? Or somewhere else?

Carrie5. Carrie by Stephen King
Carrie’s mother is an abusive religious fanatic, who locks Carrie in a closet for hours or even days when she has ‘sinned’ (‘sins’ include developing breasts or getting a period). This constant abuse, combined with bullying from her classmates, leads Carrie to kill about 400 people, including her mother.

 

Any other bad mother’s day book suggestions?

 

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Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones

Sworn virgin elvira donesTranslated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford.

‘Sworn virgins’ are, in Albanian tradition, women who choose to become men but are not necessarily transgender/transsexual. It is usually when there are no male heirs in the family, so a woman will take the role of the head of the household by adopting a male gender and taking a vow of celibacy. They are given the rights of men and treated as such. This book is about one sworn virgin, Hana, who becomes Mark to avoid an arranged marriage and run the household after her uncle dies. After living many years as Mark, he goes to join his cousin who has emigrated to America, and tries to figure out how to be Hana again.

I think if I hadn’t read the back blurb I would have been confused by the opening, when Mark is on the plane arriving in America and the pronouns/names keep switching mid-paragraph. But, knowing that Mark is also Hana, it was fairly easy to follow and was a nice way of illustrating that Mark was transitioning back into Hana and from one culture to another (you can read the opening here). Throughout, the text smoothly goes back and forth between Hana/Mark’s time in Albania and Mark/Hana’s time in the US.

There is so much in this book. It’s about family and sacrifice and immigration and culture and growing up and gender roles/identity in society. So much. And a good story too. The idea of effectively changing your gender in order to have the kind of life you want or need, or to have the place in society that suits you, is really interesting. In Sworn Virgin, it’s especially highlighted by Hana becoming Mark and then changing back into Hana, and what this means and how it’s done in terms of both outward signs like dress/posture, and how it changes the dynamic within the family. It also ties in with the theme of culture –those differences not just between countries, but within countries (between Hana’s rural life and her city university one in Albania), and between groups of people (men/women, teenagers/adults, immigrants/natives). Hana/Mark has to find a way to move from one kind of culture to another more times than most.

On the face of it, Hana has a fairly easy immigration experience – she quickly got a job, then a better one, her own flat and was quickly proficient in English. But it’s the chapters in which she is confronted with her femininity and identity that her inner struggles come to the fore. She mainly struggles to relate to her own body, and to some extent other people generally, having lived for 17 years in relative isolation as Mark. But at the same time, she has always been the ‘weird’ and intellectual one, even before Mark, so it felt like in some ways she was doing a more complicated teenage ‘coming-of-age’ later in life.

There’s an interesting piece in Slate on sworn virgins, with photographs taken by Jill Peters, and Sworn Virgin is due to come out as a film sometime this year. Before writing the book, Dones also made a documentary interviewing sworn virgins in 2007.

Sworn Virgin is a brilliantly written, fascinating book about culture, gender and family. It’s not out until May, so in the meantime check out Dones’ documentary and put it near the top of your TBR.

Sworn Virgin is released on 13th May 2014.

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HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhHTranslated from French by Sam Taylor.

HHhH stands for (in German) ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’. Heydrich was in charge of the Nazi secret service and the ‘protector’ of Czechoslovakia (where he was variously called ‘the butcher of Prague’, the ‘blond beast’ and ‘the hangman of Prague’). He was the one who organised Kristallnacht, came up with the idea of making Jews wear stars, and chaired the conference which finalised plans for the final solution. He was a scary guy. This book is about the assassination attempt made by two Czechoslovakian parachutists (Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis) who had been training with the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile in the UK.

But it’s not quite as straightforward as that. It’s also a ‘meta’ novel, in which Binet writes about the process of writing a novel based on real events, and how to be completely truthful when you can’t possibly know every conversation, etc, exactly. The chapters range from just one line to a couple of pages and it’s not completely linear.

The story about what happened around the assassination attempt and why it was so significant that they targeted Heydrich is actually really interesting. In that part of the book (towards the end), there’s also less of Binet’s introspective interruptions and the story is just allowed to be told.

Binet gets fixated on insignificant details like whether Heydrich’s Mercedes is black or dark green and it’s irritating. I suspect he’s doing it to illustrate that, in the end, it’s the story that matters, not complete historical accuracy in every detail. But there are also times when he will add a conversation or a detail and then admit they were made up or he’s just discovered it wasn’t true in the following chapter. It’s an interesting conversation about writing historical fiction generally, but, particularly near the beginning, there were times I just wanted him to get on with it. He occasionally refers to other films/books about the same events, but mostly to criticise their historical inaccuracy – which felt like was coming from a place of writerly insecurity on Binet’s part, rather than just snobbery.

Also, before reading this, I didn’t realise how much I liked to know how many pages there are in a book and what page I’m on. I have no idea why there were none in this book – it didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than to say ‘hey, I’m post-modern!’. I hate that kind of weird for the sake of weird thing; I’d have been fine with no page numbers if the omission added something.

All this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. It’s an interesting conversation about writing historical fiction weaved into a fascinating story. It’s just that it’s a bit like watching a film for the first time with the director’s (sometimes narcissistic) commentary switched on – sometimes you just want to hear the story and want the director to talk less.

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