Durham Book Festival 2019: Part Two


I was back at Durham Book Festival this Saturday, this time in the beautiful surroundings of St Chad’s college chapel, to take in two more literary events. First, I attended a Northern Showcase with fiction writers Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota – both have recently become assistant professors of creative writing at Durham University, which is broadening its traditional remit by now offering an MA in Creative Writing.


I haven’t yet read anything by Booth, but I was compelled by the two readings she gave from her most recent novel, Sealedwhich is set in an analog of the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, where a pandemic disease is affecting people’s skin, causing it to seal over any openings in their bodies. (She also spoke about her debut novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, which emerged from her academic research on fainting in literature and explores the story of a woman who wants to keep passing out.) As with Louise Doughty’s talk, writing horror was a prominent theme in the conversation – Booth explained that she finds writing a productive way to work out the things that bother her anyway. She quoted the US writer Eula Biss, saying that the central question of citizenship and motherhood is ‘what we do with our fear’, and that she was interested in exploring what Timothy Morton calls ‘dark ecology’ and how we are enmeshed with the natural world. She sees the novel as a work of ‘eco-horror’ that she hopes will get across the message that environmental contamination doesn’t just happen ‘out there’ but also in our own bodies, citing the work of Australian writer Rebecca Giggs.

In contrast, Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways was one of my favourite books of 2016, so it was delightful to return to the novel and to hear Sahota discuss it, along with his debut, Ours Are the Streets, which I still haven’t read. My review of the novel is here.


The final event I attended at the festival was a reading by the festival laureate, poet Raymond Antrobus. My friend suggested attending this event and I wasn’t familiar with Antrobus’s work before, so it was great to hear him read from his recent collection, The Perseverance, which won the Ted Hughes prize, as well as some more recent poems. As a deaf poet, Antrobus writes a lot about hearing and deafness, and the first poem in this collection, ‘Echo’, explores this theme in relation to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – he spoke about finding out that Gaudi saw cathedrals as containers for holy sound, a place to experience sound as angels would, and how he wasn’t sure if he could be included in this. He also talked about using BSL in his collection, and how different signs have had different meanings to BSL-fluent readers. Two poems on, respectively, teaching poetry in men’s prisons and on the shooting of a deaf man, Daniel Harris, by US police were especially powerful. Antrobus’s relationship with his dad, who recently died, is also a key theme of this collection, and he talked about being read to by his dad as a child and misunderstanding how to say his own name, because he could only hear half of it.


In the shadow of the Second World War: Akin (Emma Donoghue) & The Tenth Muse (Catherine Chung)

On the whole, I’m a bit tired of books that explore family secrets during the Second World War, but both of these new releases manage to twist this trope in interesting ways, wringing more out of it than I thought was possible.


Emma Donoghue’s Akin sounded initially unpromising but was unexpectedly delightful. It focuses on retired chemist Noah Selvaggio, who is returning to the French Riviera, where he spent his early childhood, on the eve of his eightieth birthday. Noah lost his wife some years back, and is happy to admit that, of the two of them, she was the one whose work really contributed to the sum of human knowledge, as she was a leading cancer researcher. The couple were contentedly childless, and so Noah is now winding down his own life in a predictable fashion, unsure what it has all meant but happy in the recognition of the privilege it contained. This is all upended when Noah becomes the temporary guardian of Michael, his eleven-year-old great-nephew (“Mr Selvaggio is your great-uncle”… “What’s so great about him?” Michael wanted to know.) Told that if he does not assume responsibility for Michael he will have to be put in foster care, Noah reluctantly takes the boy with him to France.

Akin isn’t a plotty book; how much you like it will probably be dependent on how much you enjoy this kind of dialogue, which makes up the bulk of the novel:

During the Occupation – when the German army took over from the Italians – you had to tape black over every window so American bombers wouldn’t spot any lights. And there was a curfew, which meant everybody had to stay indoors after dark.” [Noah said].

 “I know what a freaking curfew is.” [Michael said]

“Of course you do.” Home by four thirty every day.

“Mom and Grandma were all about the curfew,” Michael said.


 “You come straight home from school now” – in a gravelly old-lady voice – “and stay inside, live to be a man. Hanging around on the corner, you’re going to end up getting yourself shot like Cody.”

 The well-observed repartee between Noah and Michael has several reoccurring themes; Noah shocked by the reality of Michael’s turbulent childhood, and unsure where to draw boundaries with his charge; Noah trying to pass on his knowledge of the world to Michael, while constantly being surprised by what the boy does or doesn’t know, what happens to interest him, and what to protect him from. “You know a lot of stuff, but most of it’s sick,” Michael tells him. “Fair comment,” Noah replies.

The warmth which which Donoghue writes about both her characters offsets the hint of cliché in Michael’s characterisation (just because a portrayal is realistic doesn’t mean it can’t also be cliched). These long conversations also have a thematic purpose; Akin explores what we can pass on to the next generation, and what it’s worth. In this context, when Noah starts researching his family’s past during the Nazi occupation of France, this familiar plot feels fresher, especially as it’s juxtaposed with another miscarriage of justice that has been visited on Michael’s parents. Once again, Donoghue pulls something totally different out of the bag; I’ve read her on countercultural contemporary lesbian relationships (Stir-Fry, Hood) a pulpy nineteenth-century courtroom drama (The Sealed Letter) and the mysterious case of an Irish girl said to have survived without food for months in 1859 (The Wonder), as well as her most famous novel, Room, which is totally distinctive again. All were worthwhile, and although Akin can be a little slow at times, I’d rank it as among her best.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.


As a female Chinese-American mathematician in the post-war United States, Katherine knows that her path ahead won’t be easy, and that she will never be viewed on her own merits: ‘When I die, I know the first sentence in my obituary will read, “Asian American woman mathematician dies at the age of X”. Nevertheless, she refuses to compromise her principles for the sake of her career or her personal life. The central problem that will haunt her forever is framed early on in this novel; when still an undergraduate student, her professor confronts her, claiming she has copied her problem sets from her male friend. Of course, it’s the friend who is the plagiarist, but he refuses to tell the truth, and Katherine feels that the only way to prove her own merits is to work ten times harder. Later, when she begins a relationship with a well-known mathematician and they publish papers together, everyone refers to him as the sole author, and assumes she was only named on the papers because she’s sleeping with him. However, these early unjust incidents are only the preamble for two further events that mean Katherine must choose between the people she loves and the work that inspires her.

The title of Catherine Chung’s novel, The Tenth Muse, also refers back to this central dilemma. As she tells her story, Katherine repeatedly remembers two tales she first encountered as a young child; as she summarises them, ‘The tenth muse gave up everything to claim her own voice. Kwan-Yin gave up everything on behalf of everyone else.’ Katherine wants to believe there’s a middle way between these two poles, but her experiences constantly force her into difficult choices. Chung’s take on the damaging sacrifices we make for those we love is refreshing, and I admired the portrayal of a female protagonist who isn’t willing to always be the Kwan-Yin. She also interweaves the complicated story of Katherine’s heritage, which, like Noah’s, is rooted in the Second World War, carefully through the main plot. However, The Tenth Muse was a little too neat for me. Its message is spelt out several times. It’s very light on the mathematics it describes, which in one way was a relief, as I doubt I would have understood anything more complex, but this also means there’s little to make it stand out. Katherine is a compelling narrator, but her story remains a sketch.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Durham Book Festival 2019: Part One


One of the (many) things I love about living in Newcastle is what brilliant literary events we have in the north-east, and the highlight of the year is always the Durham Book Festival, which never fails to have an excellent line-up at relatively affordable prices. I headed to two events there last Saturday and am going to two more next Saturday, so here is the first installment of my thoughts!

The John Murray Proof Party was not one I was going to miss, as it offered three proof copies of upcoming 2020 releases as well as a discussion with the authors.


L to R: Rebecca Wilkie (New Writing North), Karen Raney, Guinevere Glasfurd, Sally Magnusson

The three books in question were:

All The Water in the World (January 2020), Karen Raney’s debut novel, which is told from the perspective of Maddy, a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer, and her mother, Eve. I was intrigued by the setting – the book takes place mostly in Washington DC and at a lake house in Pennsylvania – and as I, like Raney, have fond memories of visiting a lake in Pennsylvania as a child, as well as growing up in DC, I’m interested to see what she does with these places. Raney talked about wanting to show a ‘sound’ relationship between a mother and daughter that’s under great strain, which I liked – as she said, too many parent-child relationships in fiction are fundamentally dysfunctional. She also enjoyed writing from the perspective of a teenager, finding it easier to imagine, in Zadie Smith’s words, ‘the I that is not me’. I wouldn’t necessarily have bought this novel myself, as the premise sounds a little too familiar, but I’m looking forward to reading my free copy.

The Year Without Summer (February 2020) is Guinevere Glasfurd’s second novel. This sounds incredibly ambitious, using six voices – ranging from Mary Shelley in Switzerland, John Constable in Suffolk and a female farm labourer in the Cambridgeshire Fens – to tell the story of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the devastation of local communities, and the global impact of the ash cloud that led the ‘seasons to fail’ in the following year. I love the idea of looking at a period of historical climate change, and linking disparate places through this weird weather. Glasfurd spoke about how, during her research, she found that Tambora was ten times bigger than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and yet very little is known about it and it wasn’t reported for a year after it happened. She was also very interesting on wanting to challenge Constable’s bland image as the painter of ‘The Hay Wain‘, speaking of the vivid oil sketches that he completed in that year. I hadn’t heard of Glasfurd before this event, but this all sounds great to me.

The Ninth Child (March 2020) is also Sally Magnusson’s second novel, though she has also written a memoir about dementia called Where Memories Go and a number of other things. This book is set in the Trossachs in Scotland, specifically ‘on the line between the Lowlands and the Highlands’, and deals with the building of a waterworks at Aberfoyle in the mid nineteenth century that was intended to supply fresh water to Glasgow to prevent another cholera epidemic. Its three narrators are an elite woman called Isabel, a navvy’s wife called Kirsty, and Robert Kirk – the legendary seventeenth-century minister who wrote about ‘the secret commonwealth’ of fairy and was believed to have been taken by the fairies upon his sudden death. Magnusson said that she wanted to explore what might happen ‘if Robert Kirk came back’, so it sounds like there’s a hint of magic in this historical novel. I very much enjoyed Magnusson’s first novel, The Sealwoman’s Giftand I can’t wait to see what she does with this premise.

At the end of the event, we were all given copies of these three books in a gorgeous Two Roads tote bag, which was a present in itself!


The second event I went to last Saturday was a discussion between Louise Doughty, whose new novel, Platform Seven, is just out, and John Mitchison from Unbound.


When I first heard the premise of Platform Seven, I described it as ‘Point Horror meets literary thriller’, but you can judge for yourself:

Platform Seven at 4am: Peterborough Railway Station is deserted. The man crossing the covered walkway on this freezing November morning is confident he’s alone. As he sits on the metal bench at the far end of the platform it is clear his choice is strategic – he’s as far away from the night staff as he can get.

What the man doesn’t realise is that he has company. Lisa Evans knows what he has decided. She knows what he is about to do as she tries and fails to stop him walking to the platform edge.

Two deaths on Platform Seven. Two fatalities in eighteen months – surely they’re connected?

No one is more desperate to understand what connects them than Lisa Evans herself. After all, she was the first of the two to die.

I don’t seem to have cross-posted my Goodreads review of this gripping and chilling novel to my blog, but you can find it here.


Doughty started off by saying that she sees Platform Seven not exactly as a ghost story, but as ‘a novel narrated by a dead person’, and for me, this set the tone for the rest of the event. She explained that she was envisaging Peterborough railway station as a kind of ‘purgatory’, as, due to growing up in the East Midlands and attending university and work in Leeds, Norwich and London, she seemed to have spent a lot of her life waiting there in the freezing cold! However, she also reflected, later in the event, that it was exactly when she no longer had a reason to go to Peterborough, after her mother’s sudden death, that she ended up setting a novel there and spending a lot of time at the station doing research – so the novel itself was part of the grieving process. She wanted to capture ‘an affectionate portrayal’ of Peterborough and its inhabitants (and in my opinion, she definitely succeeds) – emphasising the individuality and significance of each of her characters, whether they’re a security guard or a station manager.

I managed to ask her at the end of the event about how, as a novelist, she handled the melding of horror and thriller in Platform Seven, and she explained how the inclusion of horror elements allowed her to explore certain themes in a different way – imagining Peterborough station as a kind of portal for unquiet souls allowed her to explore her characters’ hidden motivations in a different way (Lisa, the dead narrator, also has a limited ability to see into other people’s minds, so offers a kind of omniscience). She also argued that ghost and horror novels tend to be set in traditionally spooky places like an old manor house, but why shouldn’t Peterborough station be a portal? – to which I say YES, bring it on, because these traditional settings are something I find very tiring in Gothic fiction (I loved Ruth Ware’s recent chiller set in a ‘smart house’, for example). Basically, she concluded, she’s ‘greedy’ – she doesn’t want to be restricted by genre in the things she can explore. I love cross-genre fiction, so this all sounds great to me, and Platform Seven would be a perfect read for the RIP Challenge, or anyone wanting something creepy for Halloween!

I’ll be back at the Durham Book Festival next week, heading to an event with poet Raymond Antrobus as well as a discussion with Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota. I don’t think I have many readers from northern England, but is anyone else planning to attend anything at this festival? (And if anyone is wondering, Durham Book Festival didn’t actually sponsor me to write these posts, I’m just a massive geek…)


Cheltenham Literature Festival 70th Anniversary Blog Tour: Cygnet by Season Butler


2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, held this year from 4th to 13th October. As I live Up North, I’m unfortunately unable to attend, but I was excited to be asked to host an exclusive extract from Season Butler’s debut novel, Cygnet. Butler is speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Friday 4th October.

Cygnet, according to the publisher, is about a Kid who ‘doesn’t know where her parents are. They left with a promise to come back months ago, and now their seventeen-year-old daughter is stranded on Swan Island. Swan isn’t just any island; it is home to an eccentric old age separatist community who have shunned life on the mainland for a haven which is rapidly sinking into the ocean. The Kid’s arrival threatens to burst the idyllic bubble that the elderly residents have so carefully constructed – an unwelcome reminder of the life they left behind, and one they want rid of.’

I’m always interested in inter-generational conflict and speculative fiction, so this sounds like something I would enjoy!

Here’s the extract:

I open my eyes to the churning of the waves outside. They don’t rest, so I don’t sleep well either. I really should be used to it by now. At least it’s sunny. I try to use the thought to power my move out of bed and into my clothes and off to Mrs Tyburn’s house for work. To be honest, I preferred it last week when it rained every day. Rain in big wet slaps, the kind of rain you only get on islands, out to sea. On dark mornings there’s a reason why it’s hard to get up, an actual weight in the air to fight, something real to run from, to hide your face from. Today it’s clear and the light is coming through my window like the blond arm of a Christmas card angel. But fuck you, I don’t want to go.

The clothes I washed yesterday should be dry by now, out on the clothesline strung between two trees in the back yard. I don’t have a lot to choose from clothes-wise now that it’s summer, so I do laundry kind of a lot. It’s too hot for most of the clothes I packed to come here, when I thought this would only be for a week or two. That’s what my parents said when they left me on my grandmother’s old folks’ island – just a week or two, a month at the most, and we’ll come get you. My mother kissed me with those purple-brown lips of hers and said, ‘We’ll be right back, hold tight.’

Those dickheads are always late.

And the old folks, the Swan Island Swans, are past caring whether I have anywhere to go. Most of them didn’t care in the first place, were reluctant to agree to my coming here at all. By now they just want me gone.

Walking through the house, it’s easy to ignore the mess I’ve left. There’s a path from the stairs and into the kitchen and to the back door where that too-bright morning becomes big and real and takes over my field of vision. When I close my eyes, I can make the ocean sound like a city. Swells of traffic and millions of voices that flow together into a murmur. I walk towards it as if to an overpass at the edge of a highway. Normal people don’t live like this.

I open my eyes and try to judge how close to the edge I can go. I stop a couple of yards shy of the edge and look over into the waves. From my bed it didn’t sound this bad. I almost managed to pretend that I had dreamt it. No such luck. Another few feet of the cliff are gone. The end of the yard is a booby-trap, something out of a cartoon. There’s no ground under the grass, nothing underneath to support your weight, just a drop into the constant traffic of the waves against the rocks. Fresh rock and soil and dangling roots like the nerves of an extracted tooth are exposed along the C-shaped underside of the cliff face. One of the trees, a dogwood, clings to the cliff-side at a desperate angle, four-petalled blossoms shivering in the wind. It looks like it’s still falling. I can’t see the other one at all. My dogwood tree at the bottom of the sea.

One, two, three, four. A few more steps and I could end this. Five, six, seven, the end.

Shit. Oh, shit, Mom, where are you?


Has anyone read Cygnet? What were your thoughts?

Hit and Miss: Two Short Story Collections

Both these books are very green!

I sometimes feel that a particular piece of fiction would have worked better for me had I been in a different mood, but that feeling isn’t usually as acute as it was when I was reading two recent short story collections, Zadie Smith’s Grand Union and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other PartiesI’d pick Machado up one day and come across one of my favourite short stories of recent years, ‘Real Women Have Bodies’; the next, I’d feel baffled by a novella’s worth of redundant, rambling prose in ‘Especially Heinous’, which tries to tell the story of two pairs of dopplegangers split up in the style of episodes of CSI, but is just too clever for its own good. Similarly, Smith’s clever writing could be totally illuminating one moment, as when she writes about the inner psyche of somebody who has come upon sudden artistic success in ‘Blocked’, and lumbering and obvious the next, as in ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’.

To an extent, I expect this of Smith; her stories here have been collected across a number of years and seem to represent two modes of her writing. One is the bloated caricatures of White Teeth and On Beauty, which I always found to be too much, plus the annoying literary references that ran through her book of essays, Changing My Mind; the other is the clean brilliance of her more recent work, NW and Swing Time. Occasionally these two modes sit uneasily together, as in ‘Kelso Deconstructed’, which mixes a realist story about a black man being murdered by racists with surrealist encounters with great black thinkers such as Toni Morrison. Smith is also not afraid to try out new genres, but again, the two speculative stories here are hit and miss; the fantastical parable ‘The Canker’ is probably the best fictional take on Trump I’ve read (some of the contributors to A People’s Future of the United States could learn from this) but ‘Meet the President’, which imagines a virtual future, is wordy and confusing.

I feel even more conflicted about these two collections because it’s obvious, especially with Smith’s stories, that the individual stories I instantly ‘get’ and connect to will seem pretentious and impenetrable to other readers, and vice versa. Looking at reviews of the collection after writing the first part of this post, I can see that even two reviewers for the Times writing two days apart have received it completely differently; one calls Smith ‘an extraordinary talent’ while the other says that the collection is ‘still waiting for lift-off’. Publishers Weekly agrees with me about ‘Meet the President’ and ‘The Canker’ but not about ‘Miss Adele’. A lot of the Goodreads reviews rave about ‘The Lazy River’, which I thought was a cynical and cliched take on modern life.

However, in contrast with Smith, I was really expecting to love Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and I’m still surprised that I didn’t. In short, most of these stories were too disconnected from reality for me, and seemed to rely too much on Machado’s incredible prose rather than on their own substance. Exceptions, alongside ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, included ‘The Resident’, a nicely unnerving tale of a writer heading for a remote mountain retreat alongside the Girl Scout camp where she was tormented as a child. You never know what’s real and what’s psychological, but there’s enough here for this to be read as a ghost story rather than something that’s just going on in the narrator’s head, and I always prefer the speculative reading. Other stories devolved into strings of lists, especially ‘Mothers’. I’ll keep an eye out for Machado, because she can obviously write; unfortunately, most of these stories reminded me of Karen Russell and George Saunders, but weren’t nearly as good.

Trying to rate these two collections on Goodreads was difficult! For me, they both contain 1 star and 5 star stories. In the end, I gave Smith 3.5 stars and Machado 3 stars because Smith had more hits than misses, and Machado more misses than hits.

 I received a free proof copy of Grand Union from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rdOctober.

Three Things… September 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!



I’ve been delving into a subreddit called nosleep, which focuses on ‘realistic horror stories’; as you’d expect, it’s of very mixed quality, but contains some real gems. On Elle’s recommendation, I started with ‘Has anyone heard of the Left/Right game?’, and moved on to ‘I’m a search and rescue officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell’. The first is a straightforward ‘found footage’ set-up, focusing on a journalist called Alice who sets off on a journey along a terrifying road, and has a fully realised plot that is recounted to us through a series of files that Alice’s friend, the subreddit poster, claims to have found. The second doesn’t have a plot as such, but is actually even scarier as we’re introduced to a series of mysterious disappearances in one of the US National Parks, and the sets of staircases that rangers occasionally come across that lead to nowhere. They’re told by their superiors never to go near them or talk about them, but of course some people break the rules…

What I find especially fascinating about these nosleep stories is the way that they play with the genre conventions of message boards to create a new kind of fiction. In one sense, this is a very traditional way to tell a story – in serialised parts – but it gets interesting when commentators below the line start playing along, and treat the story as if it’s real, like this poster on the US Forest Service story: ‘I’ve heard about these staircases too, my ex was a SAR officer and he mentioned them and told me not to tell anyone. It pissed me off, because he didn’t know much about them and didn’t seem to find it as fascinating as I did.’ Obviously, part of the game is not knowing who’s recounting real stories and who’s deliberately playing into the theme of the board, and if possible, this makes these stories even more terrifying. Seriously, do not read either of these after dark, or, if you’re easily spooked, by yourself. Both of them remind me a little of James Smythe’s SF novels The Explorer and The Echowhich suggests how well horror conventions can be integrated into other genres (see also: George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords). But they also made me think about how horror rarely works well in long form, and how this is a new way to connect with readers.



On a very different note, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia recently! I went to see Wise Children’s production of Malory Towersadapted and directed by Emma Rice, at the York Theatre Royal. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels as a child but am in no sense a Malory Towers purist; I liked how this show drew on elements from all six novels in a mishmash of fun. The cast have a great energy and there are some hilarious moments, most notably Mary-Lou dangling from a cliff and being rescued by a horse.  School bully Gwendoline was also depicted wonderfully (I’m a Gwendoline apologist and so is this show). Nevertheless, it didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. I think this was partly the result of trying to handle too many characters; Rice rightly wants to show how all the girls are flawed and have their own secrets and complexities, but there’s just too much going on. Also, a number of the character choices for the pupils jarred for me. In the original, Sally is terribly jealous of her baby sister, and Alicia is an incredibly smart girl who struggles to empathise with others because everything comes so easily to her. In this, only child Sally is simply ignored by her parents and Alicia worries about keeping up with the other girls in lessons. In short, they’re both reduced to much less interesting archetypes, and I didn’t understand why.

Finally, Bill was a highlight of the show for me; played wonderfully by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven, the character is exuberantly gender non-conforming. The show itself did a good job of leaving it up to the audience how to interpret Bill, I thought; is he a trans boy, are they non-binary, or is she a lesbian in a very 1940s mould? However, the reviews of this show all seem to have decided that Bill is definitely trans (it’s not clear whether Rice herself intended the reading to be so set in stone). I find this a bit of a problem because the character in the play is produced from the rolling together of two Blyton characters who are canonically lesbian (some may question this, but they would be wrong; the two characters decide to live together and set up a stables at the end of the series, and for anyone who knows anything about inter-war lesbian coding, it’s written all over them). There does seem to be a tendency recently for media to operate a ‘one in one out’ policy on lesbian and trans characters; if your show has a trans man, it seemingly can’t have a lesbian as well (see also: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinawhich I’ve been watching on Netflix). Both trans men and lesbians are still chronically under-represented, so I think this is really sad. Why can’t we have both?



After giving my talk on ‘When children became evil’ at the British Science Festival, which was held this year at the University of Warwick, I enjoyed seeing some of the other talks. The highlight for me was probably Robin Allaby’s talk on ‘The lost landmass of Doggerland’ where he described his team’s scientific research on this lost landmass in the North Sea that used to connect Britain and Europe. I was fascinated to hear about a wide range of phenomena, including ‘Seahenge’, a submerged timber circle discovered in Norfolk, the remains of forests that can be found under the North Sea (I already knew about the ones found in Cambridgeshire peat fens!), and the Storegga Slide tsunami that caused an underwater landslide 8200 years ago, marking this hidden landscape. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland was already on my TBR list, but now I’m extra keen to read it. I was also fascinated by Diva Amon’s talk on ‘The dark heart of the ocean‘, which focused on deep-sea mining but also included some interesting bits about deep sea landscapes, such as how ancient many of the organisms are (tubeworms can live up to 1000 years and black corals 4200 years) and so how hard they find it to adapt to human interference. Finally, Hannah Belcher, Karen Leneh Buckle, Will Mandy and Hannah Hayward spoke on ‘Autism: the lost girls’, about how girls with autism are routinely ignored or misdiagnosed because of the ‘extreme male brain’ stereotype: the most moving part of this talk was the Q&A, where many audience members spoke of their own struggles with getting help for their daughters or granddaughters.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel at pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone.


Having just had a lively book group discussion about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, it has to be this one. Not everyone loved this story of Keiko, a thirty-six-year-old woman who is totally devoted to a convenience store, but it made us ask really interesting questions about what is ‘normal’ and who gets to judge. Personally, this is one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year, particularly good on capitalism and its myths of individual fulfilment. I enjoyed this interview with the translator.

2. A recently read ‘old’ translated novel you enjoyed.


I didn’t read this recently AT ALL, but I did enjoy Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, translated from the Italian by William Weaver. This unashamedly slow medieval mystery set in a Benedictine monastery culminates in the horrific murder of a lost manuscript (following the murders of some actual monks).

3. A translated novel you could not get into.


This has happened to me with a disproportionate number of translated novels and is one of the reasons I tend to avoid fiction in translation unless it’s specifically recommended to me. The first example that comes to mind is Michel Deon’s The Foundling Boy, which I found dully written and derivative; it was first published in France in 1975 but translated into English by Julian Evans in 2013, so it unfortunately combined my aversion to novels published between c.1918 to c.1980 with my aversion to a number of novels translated from French around that time (Suite Francaise etc.)

4. Your most anticipated translated novel release.


Not a novel as such, but I’m looking forward to Humiliation by Paulina Flores, a collection of short stories set in Chile and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. As part of the research for my new novel, I’m specifically seeking out recent fiction by Chilean writers, and I liked the sound of these stories. Humiliation is out in the UK on November 7th.

5. A ‘foreign-language’ author you would love to read more of.


I was fascinated by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and The White Book, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, so I’d now like to read Human Actswhich focuses on a violent student uprising in South Korea.

6. A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film.

I’ve tried very hard to find something for this category, but I can’t find any films based on a translated novel where I’ve both read the book and seen the film…

7. A translated ‘philosophical’ fiction book you recommend.


Jostein Gaarder is best known for his novel Sophie’s World, a whistle-stop tour through the history of Western philosophy, but my favourite of his books is The Ringmaster’s Daughterwhich centres on an unnaturally brilliant man and his facility for making up stories, which leads to him selling plots to authors. It’s not as overtly ‘about’ philosophy as Sophie’s World, but the narrator’s musings on fiction are fascinating. It was translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson.

8. A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long.


The book in translation that’s been on my Goodreads TBR the longest is Carole Maurel’s Luisa: Now and Then, a graphic novel translated from the French by Nanette McGuinness and adapted by Mariko Tamaki. Luisa, thirty-two, meets her fifteen-year-old self and confronts questions about her sexuality. I really ought to read this while I’m still thirty-two!

9. A popular translated fiction book you have not yet read.


Using the list ‘Popular Translated Fiction Books‘ on Goodreads, there are a LOT, but I’ll pick Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. Unfortunately I am unlikely to read this as I didn’t enjoy either Norwegian Wood or Kafka on the Shore.

10. A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read.


Returning to my Goodreads TBR, I’d like to read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; I’ve been hearing about this everywhere, and it has a great title. It’s set in a remote Polish village where people start turning up dead in strange circumstances.

If anyone else wants to have a go at this tag, please do – I’d love to see your answers.