An anthology of literary ladies

I love to read and those of you who know me even remotely will know this. As a little girl, I went everywhere with a book under one arm (and my favourite doll Cindy-Lou under the other) and whenever we went into ‘town’ (that was Brisbane in Australia peeps), Mum would let me choose one new book to bring home with me. Little Golden Books like The Poky Little Puppy, Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (and the one where he comes back) and the Meg and Mog series were among my pre-school favourites.

I’ve been doing reading challenges on goodreads over the last few years, essentially setting a target number of books to read each year. I start with the minimum of a book a week with a little extra added for my book-and-beach holidays where the rate can rise to as much as a book a day.

This year, I’ve set a similar target but in an effort to explore new genres, have also signed up for another challenge – to read 40 of these books across different themes: Themes like a book set in your home state, a dystopian novel and a novel with a protagonist who has your occupation. (This last one has me a bit stumped so if anyone knows of a book where the protagonist works in marketing, let me know!)

So far I’ve read twelve from the list of themes (out of the 29 books read so far this year) and loved East of Eden (a classic from the 20th century), A Town Like Alice (a book that takes place on an island), The Lake House (a book with over 600 pages) and Ferney (a book recommended by a family member).

I also love author interviews. Not just the authors I know and/or love like Jo Nesbo, Kate Mosse, Robert Harris and Chimamanda Adichie but also ones I haven’t read like Howard Jacobson or ones whose stories I’ve preferred on the big screen rather than on the page like Helen Fielding (she of Bridget Jones fame).

So yesterday’s inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival was right up my street. Held in the Royal Geographical Society buildings in South Kensington, the £20 ticket offered three ‘events’, a free drink on arrival and a rather gorgeous outdoor marquee to while away the time in between.

I started my afternoon with the Jessie Burton interview (she wrote The Miniaturist – read it, it’s fabulous) and loved her vivacious and self-deprecating take on changing careers to become a writer.  Her new book, The Muse, is out at the end of this month. I can’t wait.

I had two hours to kill before my next event. I had thought I might dash down the road to the V&A to wander through the Jewellery Gallery (which I’ve wanted to linger over since being marched through by security en route to an evening talk last year). Instead, I spent an entirely pleasant time in the marquee reading (The Book Thief – moving and lovely despite the grim themes) and chatting with the three other ladies sitting at the table about who we’d seen at the festival and what we’d read.

My second event was upstairs in the Library Room with Scarlett Thomas. I’ve not read any of her books but have recently downloaded her latest novel, The Seed Collectors so this was a great opportunity to listen to her chat about all sorts of things.

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The Library Room at the Royal Geographic Society. I still get a bit weak-kneed at the thought of a room lined with books despite my Kindle love.

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Scarlett Thomas (right) chats with Alex Peake-Thompson

Unlike Burton, Thomas is more established in her writing career and I found her refreshingly down to earth as she spoke of her books being borne of the collection of things that she’s interested in at the time – She referred to The Seed Collectors as her ‘Biology’ book. In her reading a few passages from it, she’s moved it up my list into ‘read next’ status. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of my goodreads challenge categories…oh well.

And finally, it was a return to the theatre to hear from Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read Instructions for a Heatwave and rated it 4-stars so I was interested to hear O’Farrell talk about her latest (and 7th) novel, This Must Be The Place. Her website promotes the book as being about “who we become as we search for our place in the world” which really struck a chord and listening to her talk about some of the characters and the editing process as she developed the story was fascinating. Even better, there were no spoilers so that’s another one on the “to read” list.

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Maggie O’Farrell reading from This Must Be The Place

After this luscious literary afternoon, I walked back to the tube station full of new things to read and inspired to keep writing (or tap-tap-tapping away as is the case right now). All three authors I saw spoke about the first step being just finishing the d***ed book – word by word, paragraph by paragraph – and the many, many times they wrote snippets on the tube and in the car (in all sorts of places really) which have ended up either in their novels or inspiring some other piece of writing.

And I was left with this thought: who knows what yours truly might end up cobbling together one day…

Finding Wonderland

It was wet and grey in London yesterday and if it hadn’t been for some existing plans I would have been perfectly happy to curl up at Gidday HQ on the comfy couch. But the British Library beckoned and so just after lunch, friend Aussie-K and I stepped out for some literary loitering.

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It was our first visit to the library. Yours truly has been here twelve years and until yesterday, had only managed a passing acquaintance last year by way of a talk at the conference centre next door. Given how much I love literature and reading, I am delighted to have ticked this visit off my London bucket list and to have moved from ‘I must’ to ‘I have’ at long last.

And what, I hear you ask, made me get off my backside and go?

Well, Wonderland of course!

2015 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a story that’s been told in a myriad of formats and iterations over the years, its other-worldly characters and trippy plot making it the subject of much interpretation and debate. I saw Robert Douglas-Fairhurst interviewed about his biography on Carroll – The Story of Alice – last year (which I am currently reading) and the Library has been running a temporary free exhibition which closes in April. So we entered the fray and hustled – with what felt like hundreds of half-term families – along the cabinets and displays.

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The front part of the exhibit was taken up with a series of twelve (or was it thirteen?) decorated mirrors featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland whilst in a rather cramped section at the rear, there was an opportunity to learn about the author himself, his real-life Alice (who happened to be a brunette rather than the blonde we’ve come to know and love) and see the ways in which this famous story has been communicated over the last 150 years. It was interesting – however the area was poorly-lit with little opportunity to linger and I found it difficult to read all of the information and look at the details of the books and manuscripts on display. I’m not sorry that I spent the time to shuffle through and see it but it’s just as well it was free otherwise I might have been a little put out!

It seemed a shame to leave after such a short visit and as it was still raining outside, we meandered across to the Library’s permanent exhibition, Treasures of the British Library.

Now THIS was my Wonderland and I spent quite some time poring over…

…drawings & notes from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo…

…musical scores from as early as 1050 and from geniuses like Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach (just to name a few) as well as a page of Puccini’s scribbled stage directions for his opera Madame Butterfly and a touch from the modern era, a burst of scrawled lyrics for The Beatles’ hit ‘Help’…

…pages and pages of penmanship from literary giants: 16th century greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, acknowledged classics like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and even a little something from Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond – who you could argue is one of the 20th century’s most iconic literary creations – and his short story, The Living Daylights…

…sacred texts, beautifully illustrated, from as early as the 4th century and from a  variety of religions including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddism…

…and one of the four Magna Carta documents dating back to 1215 which was sitting right alongside the original papal bull that annulled it just 10 weeks later.

It was absolutely awesome – in the true sense of the word – and these were just the highlights.

And after such a deluge of inspirational history, it was time to venture back out into the real weather, make a damp and concerted dash past St Pancras Station…

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…and around to the YumChaa Cafe in Granary Square for a warming hot chocolate and a slice of apple and apricot loaf…

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All in all, it turned out to be the perfect way to spend an inclement February afternoon in London.

Literary London…

For those of you who keep an eye on my literary forays – whether through The Book Nook or on Good Reads – you’ll know that my Year in Books has gotten off to somewhat of a prolific start. Having set my yearly target at 54 books (that’s one a week then bumped up to match last year’s tally), I am already reading #24. That’s right – three shy of the halfway mark and only 25% of the year gone. 

So I was walking up to North Finchley last week and noticed this street poster for CityRead London.


Intrigued I came home, googled and found out about this wonderful initiative.

Launched in 2012, CityRead London is an annual literary festival held in April each year which is designed to have us read a little something about London…together. Then throughout the month, the book is brought to life with literary events and talks in borough libraries all over the capital. This year it’s Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, a love story set during the first World War. Released early in 2011, this book was short-listed for the Wellcome Prize, the Costa Novel Award and The National Book Awards that same year.

There has been a plethora of authors eager to showcase London and all of its charms over the centuries (think back to Charles Dickens in the 1800s who actually wrote part of Martin Chuzzlewit just up the road here in Finchley). So the choice must have been a challenging one with so much to choose from but for all its accolades, I had not heard of Young or this particular book.

I love reading about this wonderful city: its history, its place in the modern world or simply as a backdrop to a cracking story. One of my very favourite books of the last few years is John Lanchester’s Capital so with all of this London literary love in mind, I have Amazon One-Click-ed Young’s war tale to Audrey‘s lovely e-pages. 

What an inspired and clever way to promote reading (and to get me to download yet another book to my kindle this week).