Book Club- Katharine Grant – Sedition Q & A

sedition_uk_cover1Our book club choice for January was Sedition by Katharine Grant. We had the pleasure of having Katharine come to speak to us about her book. Katharine has written a number of children’s books but Sedition is her first adult novel. I was delighted that she took the time to answer some of my questions.

1. The date of Sedition, 1794, is very precise. Why did you choose 1794?

In revolutionary Paris, the Terror reaches its climax in 1794. London holds its breath. Will revolutionary fervour hit its streets? Will a guillotine be erected in every London square? For subversive fever and revolutionary excess, 1794 is a perfect year. Having said that, Sedition is not a novel of the Revolution. Harriet’s French shoes are the girls’ only experience of France. Rather, Sedition is a novel about revolution with a small ‘r’, or about how five girls, whilst doing exactly as their parents direct, contrive to do precisely the opposite. But 1794 gives Sedition a particular edge. That’s why I chose it with such care.

2. Sedition is quite hard to categorise in that it’s both tragic and comic. How do you think of it?

I can see the value of labels for books: they’ve got to be described somehow! But just as life is darkly comic, so I see Sedition. It’s interesting that when people talk about it, some foreground the comedy, others the tragedy. If I was the reader, not the writer, I’m not sure which way I’d fall.

3. Did the plot of Sedition arrive first, or the characters?

I could see the concert scene at the end of the book. I think that came first, then I heard the music – Bach’s Goldberg Variations – then the girls. Perhaps the plot was in my subconscious. It’s actually quite hard to remember. A bit like spring in the garden, a novel creeps up on you.

4. Did you draw on real people for the characters?

That’s for me to know, and the models to discover …

5. Who’s your favourite Sedition character?

A bit like your children, it’s hard to have a favourite amongst your creations. If readers hate a character, that’s signals success for the writer in that the character has made a real connection. So, in a rather contradictory way, the most hateful and hated character can sometimes be a writer’s favourite. Amongst the Sedition girls, I’d be friends with Harriet, want to make music with Annie, and be frightened of Alathea.

6. Do you have a routine for writing?

I try and always fail. Writing is hard – can feel like breaking stones. Procrastination is much easier! Research, though necessary, can also be a form of procrastination. My 2015 New Year’s resolution is to write at least 200 words every day, on the basis that once I start writing, it’s like oiling a hinge. And actually, once a novel has found its voice, I write obsessively, almost blind and deaf to anything else. Sedition was written mainly in my study at home, but also in the supermarket queue, the dentist’s waiting room, in various carparks, and at Glasgow Central Station. (I’m a ridiculous traveller: I like to arrive at least 30 minutes before my train leaves.)

7. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

In an ideal life, I’d be a ballet dancer or a concert pianist. I think it’s a bit late for ballet! As for a concert pianist, I think people would pay to stay away …

8. Have you any advice for wannabe authors or even solicitors?

Writers of both novels and legal documents use the same tools. Use them with care to say precisely what you mean. The best friend of all writers is the delete button.

To learn more about the book please visit http://katharinegrant.com/

Book Review – The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

Last week our book club met to chat about The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. This was my book suggestion. It is a charming fable about the power of a hat that takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through French life in the Mitterrand years and it proved to be a popular choice with the group.

In November 1986 , 5 years into Francois Mitterrand’s 16 years reign as President of France , an ordinary accountant Daniel Mercier treats himself to a “bachelor evening” while his wife and son are away. Sitting in a restaurant indulging in oysters and a splendid bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse, Daniel can hardly believe his eyes when President Mitterrand and two of his associates sit down to eat at the table next to him.

After the presidential party leaves Daniel discovers that the President has left behind his black felt hat. Daniel perhaps emboldened by the wine he has drunk walks out of the restaurant wearing it. But this is no ordinary hat. Confidence that Daniel did not know he possessed soon comes out in unexpected ways. He criticises a superior at a meeting and gets promoted.

The hat is passed along by mishap and soon finds a new female owner, Fanny Marquant ,who is trapped in a long and unfulfilling love affair with a married man. When wearing the hat Fanny sees that being the other woman is not full of romance and secret meetings and she has the clarity to end her affair. She realises that the hat has given her this insight and that in turn she must pass the hat on to someone else.

The iconic item of headgear plays with the life of two further characters, a retired perfumer who rediscovers his genius and a ghastly right wing bore who suddenly becomes aware that all his friends are ghastly right wing bores, stops reading Le Figaro and starts reading Liberation. The hat changes the fortunes of all who possess it and eventually returns to its original owner in a unique way.

Can a hat change people’s destiny? Is this or is this not an allegory of power? While we wrestled with these questions we all agreed that we enjoyed the details of the book. Laurain captures each character quickly in a clever, colourful style with many subtle meanings. The short novel is shot through with a delicious sense of humour recreating vividly the everyday life of an era, being very much a hymn to la vie Parisienne in the 1980s.

That said the novel can simply be appreciated for its originality and fabulistic narrative. It acts as a reminder that many of life’s most important events can be the result of tiny details that shape our future in unexpected ways.

Book Review – This is Where I Am by Karen Campbell

This Is Where I Am

My daughter gave me a Jo Nesbo book for my birthday which I had already read so I took it back to Waterstones to have a browse and choose something else. I spent a couple of hours there- I do love a good bookshop. Anyway, I decided to buy This Is Where I Am by Karen Campbell and what a great choice it turned out to be.

The story revolves around Abdi Hassan,a refugee who has arrived in the UK from war torn Somalia via the dreadful  Dadaab camp in Kenya. With him he has his 4 year old daughter Rebecca and a red rucksack. He is sent to Glasgow where the Scottish Refugee Council introduce him to Deborah Maxwell, a recently widowed Glaswegian,  who is to be his mentor , helping him to settle in by teaching him about the life, culture and history of the city.

Initially Abdi and Deborah’s relationship is an uneasy one due to the language barrier and their completely different social and cultural backgrounds. Both are unsure as to how to proceed and it is by trial and error that slowly they work their awkwardness into some semblance of familiarity.

This is Where I Am is written in two distinct first person accounts and Deborah and Abdi’s voices are as believable as they are heartbreaking.  Both characters are alive and vibrant. They are rounded individuals, compassionate and caring, at times proud and self pitying, but they are always human.

One of the most difficult things for any writer, is to create recognisable, loveable and endearing characters while avoiding cliché, particularly when their subject matter is regularly dealt with in the media but Karen Campbell manages this beautifully. She takes people and situations out of the news and makes them real and right here showing the strife of the lives of others in a way which stays on the right side of sensational.

Being the staunch Glaswegian that I now am I enjoyed all the depiction of Glasgow as Deborah shows Abdi the city. She takes him to Kelvingrove Art Gallery, The Tenement House, Scotland Street School Museum and even to the Scotia Bar.

As the story progresses Abdi has moments of flashback to his life in the Dadaab camp in Kenya and it is in these sections that the full trauma of his life is laid bare and the book reveals its message: give refugees a chance  because it is impossible to imagine the darkness that they have experienced. It is a powerful message and one which will resonate with the ever increasing need to provide sanctuary to those in desperate need.

The book is ultimately about humanity.  It is a strong reminder that there is more that unites us than divides us. Humanity is shown here with all its faults and acts of brutality but what shines through is love for ones fellow man and the ability to connect with each another across cultures pain and humiliation and to cut through loss and fear by showing love and kindness  to each another.

There is so much in this novel and Karen Campbell has done full justice to the various issues she has talked about. It is safe to say that the book is very well researched and the author has done a great deal of homework before coming out with this novel.

And yes, I thought it was wonderful. A tonic for heart and soul.

Book Review – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage

I always think that when you are watching TV what you see looks like what it physically represents. A woman looks likes a woman, a woman with blond hair looks like a woman with blond hair and a woman with blond hair and a tattoo of a butterfly looks like a woman with blond hair with a tattoo of a butterfly. But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on paper or frequently now black pixels on a screen. To transform these icons into characters and events you must imagine. So it is in being read, that a book becomes a book and in each of ten different readings, a book becomes one of ten different books. For me therein lies the richness of reading.  It is what makes being part of a book group enjoyable, interesting and insightful.

Our book group seemed to fall by the wayside for a while but we are back up and running and last month we read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. This is a novel which you could love but one which some readers disliked. I happen to be one of the book’s fans.

The story begins with the arrival of an unexpected letter and an impulsive act. Harold Fry who has recently retired, lives with his wife Maureen in a small English town. Each morning Harold shaves, puts on a tie and sits in the same chair with nowhere to go. Maureen is irritated by nearly everything Harold does, even down to the way he butters his toast and she goes about her chores in sullen silence. Each day drifts into another, with Harold living in a state of emotionally numb passivity. Then one morning Harold receives a letter addressed to him in a shaky scrawl from Queenie Hennessey an old friend he has not seen or heard from in 20 years. Queenie is in a hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a reply and sets off to post his letter to Queenie but instead of doing just that he embarks on a 600 mile journey from Kingsbridge to Berwick upon Tweed. He somehow believes that as long as he keeps walking Queenie will remain alive. So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or mobile phone Harold begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside.

Harold starts his walk drained by life, full of self loathing and incapable of mending his ruined marriage. Along the way he meets many strangers who stir up memories, causing Harold to have flashbacks of his inadequacy as a father and his short comings as a husband. But as he walks the characters he meets begin to unlock his dormant spirit and help him to regain a sense of promise.  Harold remembers his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day and his joy in fatherhood allowing him to reconcile his losses and regrets. As for Maureen she begins to find herself missing Harold for the first time in years.

The prose is clear and simple and the novel while sad is ultimately uplifting. The last chapters deliver a couple of unexpectedly savage emotional blows but this is tempered with a sense of quiet celebration. I thought the novel quirky, sad and bitter sweet.

However, for some the novel did not inspire. Some felt the plot absurd, contrived and ridiculous with the language boring, overly sentimental and a bit twee.

But all in all I would, along with most others, recommend it as a good read !

Book Review – Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Our Book Club is formally reconvening in the New Year but in the meantime here is a novel I would highly recommend.

Tolstoy in Anna Karenina says “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” and is therefore more interesting.

For ten days in London in the summer of 1976 the tar is melting in the streets, it is the third month of a drought, the temperature has not dropped below 90F and people are becoming a little unhinged. At precisely 6.45 am , Robert Riordan, who has recently retired from the bank, went out just as he has always done for more than 30 years, saying on that particular Thursday morning , “I’ll just go round the corner and get the paper.” Only this time the devoted husband and father of three did not come back.

By teatime Gretta, his wife is panicking. She calls upon her middle child Monica to help, but Monica is too busy with a crisis involving her stepdaughters’ cat. Gretta then calls Michael Francis her eldest, who is in the middle of his own family drama involving two restless children and a wife deeply distracted and immersed in an Open University degree and Gretta cannot phone her youngest Aoife who has run away to New York, because she doesn’t have her number. But soon the three siblings come together to try to figure out what has happened to their father.

What ensues is a richly drawn portrait of a dysfunctional family. Robert Riordan’s disappearance takes place within the first five pages of the novel and the seismic shock waves which this act causes to flow through his next of kin, become the subject matter of the balance of the novel. Tensions are unearthed between Aoife and Monica, Michael Francis and his wife Claire, Monica and her husband, Aoife and Gretta and so on and so forth. Secrets concealed and congealed within the family leak out as the reader becomes drawn in, with O’Farrell slowly and gradually exposing the problems and flaws in each character.

I for one think Gretta is a magnificent creation- garrulous, unthinking, caring, loud, embarrassing , maternal, pathetic, loving, hypocritical, inquisitive- an altogether credible mixture of contradictions. The rest of the family is no less painfully believable and authentically drawn, all having their own secrets. The only son Michael Francis is a history teacher whose marriage is fragile and who has had a secret affair with a fellow teacher. Monica has a difficult marriage to an older man and she seems  as  though she is waiting to be rescued, her neurosis  achingly real. Aoife (my favourite character) is the black sheep of the family, plagued by her own deficiencies, suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia and being functionally illiterate.

O’Farrell does not shy away from complex dynamics and I greatly admire her skill in juggling four separate narrative threads (the disappearance of the father, plus the back stories of the three siblings) without there ever being any confusion. All the hallmarks of a good novel are here, a family with secrets, relatives long since forgotten, a claustrophobic uncomfortable feeling of emotional closeness. For me I find this an accomplished and addictive novel, a powerful, solid book providing the reader with a unique opportunity to inhabit another person’s consciousness for a while, facilitated by the wonderful texture of psychologically realistic fiction. The narrative landscape isn’t flashy, there are no vampires or car chases, the novel’s concerns are internal rather than external and because of this I believe it is a novel well worth seeking out.

Book Review – And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Our managing Partner, Morag Inglis, had chosen History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters by Julian Barnes as our latest Book Club book. However, with the summer holidays being in full swing we haven’t been able to fix a date for a discussion of that particular work.

So, in the meantime, being an enormous fan of both the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was delighted when one of my friends gave me the latest novel by Khaled Hosseini  And The Mountains Echoed. When you have enjoyed an author’s previous works so much, you always hope that you will not be disappointed by their latest publication. Not only was I not disappointed, I was enthralled. I loved it. I started reading on a Tuesday evening around 6.00pm and read all night, finishing at 8.13 am the next morning. I could not put the book down.

“You want a story and I will tell you one” Hosseini begins. It is 1952 in Afghanistan and a father permanently exhausted by the business of survival tells a bedtime tale to his two children, Abdullah and Pari. It is a narrative about a demon that draws a father into making a terrible pact. The father can gift to his favourite son a better life but only by giving the child away and never seeing him again.

Indeed, this is what Saboor, the poor Afghan father telling the story, is about to do himself. He gives his three year old daughter Pari, who has an unusually strong bond with her brother Abdullah, to a wealthy man in Kabul. This act, like a pebble thrown into a pool of water, creates ripples; not just one, but countless ripples. The reader could be forgiven at the outset for expecting a tale of a brother and sister who were forced to separate and how they ultimately were reunited by a unified sense of loss and yearning for each other, but the novel is much more multi-layered than that.

In fact the reader is taken on a journey which paints a subtle, complex and conflicted picture of Afghanistan. The themes of Afghanistan’s relationship with the wider world, the traumas suffered by those who remain living there and what happens to those who leave and then come back to rediscover their country are explored. There is nostalgia for the old Afghanistan which has become hardened by its clashes with Western freedoms and shattered by modern wars.

For me though it is the characters that held me spellbound. The story of Abdullah and Pari is a perfect spring board for tales about people surrounding the siblings. At first you may think the other characters are assumed merely as foils but they become gripping and captivating as the reader follows their own destinations. An uncle’s suggestion and father’s decision produce a storyline that spans generations of families, history and continents creating a complex novel about bonds and the making of difficult and incorrect choices and their long lasting consequences.

The writing flows beautifully and I was beguiled from start to finish.  And the Mountains Echoed is larger in scope than either of Hosseini’s previous novels, dealing with many more intricate issues. I enjoyed the journey of the novel. As Hosseini said, “A story is like a moving train no matter where you hop onboard you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later.” Very true, but from the start of the narrative I had no idea of the route being taken to reach the end and I did not know my heart would soar and break so many times along the way.

Book Review – The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.

Book Review April

Our choice of book for April was The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed OutThe Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.

How can you describe this novel?  Farce, satire and black comedy all rolled up into one.  Ageing is not the most uplifting of conditions but the main character of the book gives us hope.  At the age of 100, fed up with life in a nursing home and anxious for a stiff drink,  Allan Karlsson, donned his slippers,  hoists his creaking knees over the window sill and escapes from the old age home and mayoral birthday party into the flowerbed and towards Malmkoping’s bus station where a very unusual journey across Sweden begins.

Arriving at the bus station before he even boards a bus he is asked to keep an eye on a young man’s suitcase.  Deciding he does not like the young man he steals the suitcase which unbeknown to Allan contains a fortune of money that belongs to a criminal gang.  His destination at this time is determined by the route of Bus 202 which he boards.

Along the way Allan gathers new friends like the proverbial rolling stone, including a master thief who lives in isolation, a hot dog vendor, a hot headed red haired woman, an elephant called Sonya and a dog called Buster.  Naturally the criminal gang are chasing Allan and his unlikely allies as they move across Sweden as are the police as their worry for Allan’s safety grows.

The story of Allan’s extraordinary 100 year life develops alongside his escape from the nursing home as we hear of his past life as an explosives expert and his meetings with Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Winston Churchill, Robert Oppenheimer, Sigvard Eklund, Charles de Gaulle and Presidents Truman Johnson and Nixon.

Much of the interactions including starting and stopping wars, climbing mountains, crossing desserts, being thrown in jail and Gulags, razing an entire town,  and languishing in the Siberian snows.  All accompanied with Allan drinking copious quantities of vodka at every opportunity.

We agreed the novel was quirky, amusing, intelligent and charming, having  an absurd plot with more twists and turns than a Bond movie which brings me to the one criticism a few of us had of the novel.  It would make an excellent movie and we wonder if the plot was subject to a faint element of connivance regarding that.  That said it is a novel with an undecidedly unglamorous hero which proves to be a great testimonial to the achievements and moments in a person’s life.  I wish I had met Allan Karlsson in real life and shared a vodka with him.  I have also had the lesson reinforced that within every old person there will be a story worthy of acknowledging.

The next book our Club will be reading is History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters by Julian Barnes.  Review to follow here.