A guest blog from Olivia Scott-Berry from Penguin's teen site, Spinebreakers
I’ve never wanted to hate but couldn’t help loving so many people all at the same time.
Every now and then an event comes along and you think, you know what? My biology homework can wait, Masterchef can be recorded, dinner is reheatable- It’s a Wednesday night, but I’m going out! (It’s a phenomenon I like to call ‘the dilemma of the sixth-former’)
The Penguin General Bloggers' event then, was something pretty special. Imagine this: you receive an email telling you that seven of the most brilliant authors are going to be giving readings, and that you will get to talk to them afterwards and there are going to be goody bags. Can you honestly tell me that you would have said no, I have to finish this sheet on quadrat sampling?
Arriving at the event, I knew that I had made the right choice between my education and my passion for books, because not only were the free books stacked high, but the room was packed with people each with their own unique take on the publishing world- editors, bloggers, authors- people who I was really excited to talk to and hear their experiences and get some advice.
It was probably one of the most daunting things I’ve ever done as a Spinebreakers - by definition we are readers, which is an activity that calls for quiet and aloneness and the kind of imagination that thrives in that environment more than any other- but it was gratifying to see that the authors were just as true to their sixteen-year-old bookworm selves as I was and acknowledged the paradox of the modern author’s duties. (Not that any of that showed in their amazing readings!)
Equally gratifying was the real interest people took in Spinebreakers and what we do, and I only hope that I represented us well to this group of amazing people, who, after all, were not just composed of authors, but of bloggers too. It was incredibly humbling but also inspiring to see all these people who do what we do at Spinebreakers but to a whole other level, and who do it so well (as you can probably tell from the fact that I’ve written up my report the very next morning without going on iplayer once!)
If you’re anything like me, you probably want to hear all about the books, but I thinkthat whatI took away from last night was the knowledge that I can allow myself to meet the authors- it is not a sacrilege and it could in fact enrich the whole experience (even now I am itching to reread Anatomy of a Disappearance after hearing it in Hisham Matar’s own voice). So I’m going to compromise and tell you a little bit about the books (which you must read, all of them!), and a little bit about the authors:
If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to grow up in a modern commune, it sounds like (I haven’t read it yet- even the Penguin editors are waiting anxiously for their proofs to arrive) Wild Abandon will be the perfect book for you, and if you didn’t- you will now just to hear Joe Dunthorne’s comic take on it. The man himself? Two words: Funny. Shorts. (Get yourself down to one of his poetry readings now).
Landfall, Helen Gordon
Helen Gordon is a former associate editor of Granta magazine and the author of Landfall, the story of an art critic in South East London (woop woop), which sounds (again, I haven’t read this, but I do have the proof right next to me right now) totally brilliant in a knowing and satirical way, but when I spoke to her I didn’t know all of this yet. She took such an interest in Spinebreakers and encouraged me to keep writing (and had a jumper on which I coveted) that I now feel really bad that I didn’t ask her anything about the book, because it sounds amazing.
Mr Chartwell, Rebecca Hunt
Mr Chartwell is one of those books where you absolutely love the author and hate them for having the idea instead of you- and hearing Rebecca Hunt read, the feelings intensify. She is absolutely lovely and the kind of person I wish I was and an amazing speaker- who else could pull off the voice of a large black dog who happens to be a metaphor for depression? And do you know what makes it one of those books even more? Even if I did have the idea first, I wouldn’t be able to pull it off in prose half as sparkling as Hunt’s.
Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok
Jean Kwok is an absolutely lovely lovely person. I could hear my English teacher screaming at me for my limited vocabulary as I wrote that, but there is no better way to say it- she is the absolute embodiment of everything that is lovely. Not only did she make me feel completely comfortable talking to her, but she managed to command the floor like she was having a conversation with each one of us. Once I could tear myself away from her warm sunshine accent, I was equally fascinated- Kwok’s tale of arriving in New York and the troubles that ensued (having no central heating, working on a piece-by-piece basis in a factory, having a talent for school) has elements of truth with her own life. Even without knowing this, the novel is beautifully brilliant- it will make you smile.
Anatomy of a Disappearance, Hisham Matar
On TV programmes when someone dies or goes missing then those who are left behind are shows in crying in a series of artistic shots, and the cameras will only return to them once something changes in their lives. This is a nice idea to believe in, but it couldn’t be further from the truth- as Hisham Matar shows exquisitely in Anatomy of a Disappearance- life, ordinary life, goes excruciatingly onwards. The absence of the main character’s father is described with such poise, the everyday events imbued with such numbness that it comes to sit in your own heart as you read. This book made me extremely guilty that I didn’t know enough about the events that forced the disappeared father out of Egypt, and especially after I heard Hisham Matar’s mournful, silken reading, I am definitely going to find out more. I’m afraid I might have to disappoint my English teacher again and tell you that Hisham Matar is an absolutely lovely man, who wonderfully disarmed me by telling me that he liked my jumper. I can only respond with how much I loved his book.
Waterline, Ross Raisin
I’m not really sure how to do justice to the presence that is Ross Raisin- is it okay if I just tell you that, despite hailing from Yorkshire and not (as far as I could tell) having any particular links to Scotland that he did his reading in a Glaswegian accent, which, despite his warning that it wouldn’t, I thought sounded pretty good? His new novel, Waterline, sounds a world away from his first, God’s Own Country (which I loved), but looks to be just as brilliant. I’m going to take the words straight from the press release because I think they summarise everything that I am looking for in a book- ‘the tale of an ordinary man caught between the loss of a great love and the hard edges of modern existence’. Sold.
The Echo Chamber, Luke Williams
Luke Williams joins Rebecca Hunt in the ranks of authors I want to hate but absolutely can’t- the idea behind his first novel, The Echo Chamber, is brilliant. It tells the story of Exie, whose superhuman hearing means that she can hear things that other people can’t, and who is now writing up her memories of her life, beginning in Nigeria as the British Empire’s influence was deteriorating. I was instantly intrigued by this ambitious idea, and however much I want it to fail to make myself feel better, from seeing Williams read that doesn’t seem likely. He is so confident and in control and in sync with his story (though he actually is Scottish, he too pulled a Raisin and read in a voice completely different from his own) that I just know it is going to live up to my expectations.
Because I refrained so well from adding two simple words to the end of each of these summaries and because I’m pretty sure that my biology homework is going to have to wait for a little while because I will be taking my own advice, I’m going to end my review with what you really really must do. Read them. (Now!)