Saturday, 25 February 2017

This book was “an act of letting go”

Emancipation of B, published by Roundfire books, is the story of the mysterious B. According to the book’s elusive description, “B is not a child of his time. As an outsider, he hides his secrets well. Freedom is all he dreams of. But when it comes at last, it is in the most unexpected way—and at a considerable cost”. Author Jennifer Kavanagh explains that the description is deliberately vague because “the book reveals itself slowly; it’s important not to give too much away to the reader”. She talks to me about what led her to write this intriguing novel, which is her first work of fiction. 

What inspired you to write this book and, in particular, create “B”—who, given he’s a single, childless man in his mid-30s—is very different from yourself (at least, on a surface level)?
Writing this book was not so much a willed act but an act of letting go and allowing things to unfold. The book first came to me as an image and this image turned to out to be the ending—I had no idea what it was about. At first, “B” was a woman but that didn’t work and eventually “she” turned out to be a “he” and this particular he. I found that, as I knew theoretically, characters take over. B was on my shoulder for a long time, accompanying me through life. It became clear what he would and wouldn’t feel, think and do.

B’s “emancipation” relates to his decision to cut himself off from society. It comes across that for him, this is a logical decision (ie. not because of mental illness). Do you think that modern-day hermitage could be a rational act?
I do believe that choosing to live a hermitage lifestyle can be a rational act. In fact during a nomadic phase some 15 years ago, I advertised for a “hermitage” and, for quite a few years, sought out hermit huts to stay in for a few days. My life in the early days of my faith [Jennifer is a Quaker] were like a pendulum between social action and withdrawal. Now, although my flat is a bit like B’s space in the book, my life is a bit more of an equilibrium.

What were the key challenges of creating an environment in which a character could realistically be completely cut off from society? (ie. so that the reader could believe that a person could go for months without seeing anyone or being seen)?
It was fascinating to work out the practicalities. How he could remain hidden and how he could get food etc. So I talked to people with experience of squatting and I also have talked, in the past, to asylum seekers (for my non-fiction book Journey Home).

In the book, B doesn't have access to any form of media (such as TV or the internet) and only really has his thoughts to occupy himself. What, for him, are the advantages and disadvantages of this complete solitude?
Advantages: not having demands made on him; being allowed to be himself—something he has struggled with in the past; greater awareness of the natural world; and being present to every moment. Disadvantages: loneliness, of course, and worry that he might go mad.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for you when you experience solitude?
For short periods, I have actively sought solitude. I don’t take any form of media with me, except a phone to use in an emergency only. The advantages have been allowing myself to enter a more contemplative space and to be more present to the natural world and what is present in my own life, moment by moment. There have not been any disadvantages since it’s been of my own choosing and short-lived. Though, yes, there is loneliness and I have to go through a boredom threshold in order to get to a different place.

If someone wanted to experience complete solitude (assuming that they didn’t want to become a hermit!), what would you recommend that they do to achieve that?
Go on a solitary retreat. I know a few places! But with a safety net in case it doesn’t work. Solitude may be possible without going away—just generally have times in silence; away from media.

Emancipation of B is available to buy from AmazonUK and other online providers, QuakerBookshop, and WatkinsBookshop

Sunday, 19 February 2017

How I read reviews

Before I start reading a new book, I only want to know two things about it: its basic plot and its average Goodreads score - a book that has an average score of 1 star doesn't exactly sound promising. What I don't want to know is the specifics* of why a person did or did not like a book, which is why I tend to only read a review of a book until after I finished reading it. 

I am particularly averse to reading the lengthy (and frankly, long-winded) reviews you see in broadsheet newspapers and supplements. I've never understood the appeal of reading someone else's in-depth interpretation of a book when I could be coming up with my own interpretation by reading the book myself. For the same reason, I don't read introductions to well-known books - particularly as they often contain spoilers. I know that there are some people out there who prefer to read these types of reviews rather than read the book itself, but that seems a pretty pointless exercise to me. If they can't be bothered to read the book, why go to the trouble of reading a review of it? (If it's so that they can pretend that they've read the book, that's really quite pathetic)

That said, I do read reviews (but on Goodreads or blogs rather than in newspapers) when I am not sure whether or not I want to continue reading a book. Sometimes, a book really only gets going after the first few chapters; therefore, when struggling to get into a book, I read a review of the said book to see if it will get better if I persist with it.

Reviews in this context can also help you to know when you definitely don't want to keep reading. Recently, I was reading a book that I wasn't finding as compelling as I thought I would. Given that it had an average 4.76-star rating on Goodreads, I decided to read what other people thought of it. While most people gave glowing reviews, one person noted that how uncomfortable they were that, essentially, one character RAPES another character and then these two characters, after much remorse on the part of the rapist and forgiveness on the part of the victim, fall in love. Also, according to another review I read, the rape victim never gets to have a voice. OK, so the story is based on folklore and the victim is a nymph-like creature rather than an actual woman but I really don't understand how that makes that type of story acceptable. If the author wanted to raise the issue of redemption and forgiveness after rape, why didn't they tell the story from the rape victim's point of view? Obviously, the huge caveat is that I haven't read the book and I am basing my views on those of someone else rather than my own interpretation of book. But, nope, sorry, not prepared to give such a book a chance.

Back to the point in hand,  as mentioned, I mainly read reviews after finishing a book. This is basically to see if someone agrees with my view of a book. I once went to an event where The Guardian columnist Tim Dowling was giving a talk. He said that most people only read columns that share or support their views - which pretty sums up my approach to reading reviews. That's not to say I don't read reviews that disagree with my view of a book; I just tend to keep reading reviews until I find one that does agree with me. (I might be shallow and egoistical in this respect, but at least I'm honest). I'd be very interested to find out how other people read reviews - so if you're reading this, let me know!

* = I hope my sister doesn't read this; she always takes the mick out of me for my inability to pronounce the word "specific"

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Book Blogger Confessions Tag

Having read Read By Jess's take on The Book Blogger Confessions Tag, I thought I would give it a go.  A tag, FYI, is (as far as I understand) set a questions that you have to answer on your blog/vlog when someone "tags" you  - so basically, a game of tag without the running about and gleeful shouts of "you're it". You can of course, as I am doing, do the tag without actually being tagged. With thanks to whoever came up with this tag in the first place (wasn't able to discern who did), these are my answers.

1. What was the last book that you didn't finish?
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier. I picked this up during a cold-induced library haul, so thankfully didn't spend any money on it. Didn't like the main character, didn't like that anyone working class was subservient to their "masters", and didn't care enough to find out whether or not Rachel was a baddie (the key mystery of the book).

2. Which book is your guilty pleasure?  
It's more books than book to be honest and these are Doctor Who spin-off novels. I detail exactly why I love them in this post

3. Which book do you love to hate?
Again, it's a type rather than a particular book. I have no time for "copycat" novels - books that quite clearly are trying to ride the coattails of another author's success. For example, I once saw a book that was an erotic retelling of Jane Eyre that incorporated Bronte's text. This seemed to be cashing in both on the (then current) trend for erotica (thanks to 50 Shades of Grey) and the success of Seth Grahame-Smith's parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Mark Twain once wrote that there's no such thing as a new idea - well a five-minute Google search says that he did anyway - but you should at least try to make a bit of an effort to do something original. Granted it's more than a tad ironic for me to write that given that this post is copying someone else's idea but at least I am acknowledging that I didn't come up with these questions (plus, the whole point of a tag is for lots of people to give their take on it). 

4. Which book would throw into the sea?
Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Still haven't got over the fact that I got to 25% (based on what my Kindle said) and no-one had left dry land. Therefore, throwing it into the sea might help to move the plot along a bit!

5. Which book have you read the most?
If you know me in "real life" or have just read previous posts, that answer is obvious - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 

6. Which book would you hate to receive as a present?
A celebrity "autobiography" of anyone from a reality TV programme. If I received such a book, I would assume that the giver didn't know me at all (in which case, why are they giving me a present?) or were deliberately trying to pee me off (don't get any ideas certain work colleague - you know  who you are). 

7. Which book could you not live without?
All books! My life would be poorer without books (including the bad ones).

8. Which book made you the angriest?
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I've never read a book before or since that was so blatantly racist. I get that it was written in the 1930s - a time not exactly renown for its championing of equal rights - but Mitchell acts like black people are sub-intelligent beings who like being slaves; that's an attitude that was outdated in the 19th century, let alone the 20th. 

9. Which book made you cry the most?
I don't really cry at books or films, so I am going to say "moved me the most". The one that stands out, of the books I've read in the last few years, is The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I find all of his books moving and this fantasy tale is no exception. Its message that we'd perhaps all be happier if we forgot what others had done to us and what we had done to them (ie. don't let the past ruin the present) is a poignant one 

10. Which book cover do you hate the most?
The film tie-in cover for Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. I do most of my reading on Kindle, which automatically uses cover of the latest edition of a book. Therefore because I read this at the same time that the film came out, I got a picture of Idris Elba as Mandela on the front rather than Mandela himself. Now I get that Elba is fairly easy on the eye but, fussy of me I know, I'd have preferred to have a picture of the person I was reading about on the cover. 

I hereby tag anyone else who wants to give these questions a go!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Cold-induced library haul

Feeling sorry for myself because I was - again - suffering from a grotty cold, I decided to visit my local library. I figured that as I had to venture to the shops anyway to buy yet more tissues (at this point, I had already gone through one box's worth and at least one bog roll), I might as well as do something pleasant while I was out of my sick bed. I ended up only borrowing three books because, to be honest, I couldn't face lugging back a load of books in my plaguey state. Mind you, considering that this was my second cold in as many weeks, grabbing one or two books from my library's display of "optimal health" books - rather than just giving them a cursory glance - would not have gone amiss. Ah well, these are the books I did get,

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler - Goodreads description
I've been wanting to give this retelling of Taming of The Shrew (part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project) a go ever since it came out last year. I was interested to see how Tyler would tackle the really rather sexist plot of the original  - gobby woman gets put in her place by bloke (though I have read Shakespeare was being ironic or something). Plus I really liked Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread, so I wasn't averse to reading more of her work.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier - Goodreads description
Having failed to re-read Rebecca for my Jane Eyre project because I couldn't face reading about someone else's anxieties (I have enough of my own), I felt I owed it to Du Maurier (not quite sure why to be honest) to try to read another one of her books. As My Cousin Rachel (boy meets girl he suspects of doing in his cousin; falls in love with said girl) has been made into a (soon-to-be-released) film, it seemed the obvious choice. 

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe - Goodreads description
I absolutely loved Stibbe's memoir Love, Nina - to the extent I once foisted it upon an unsuspecting member of my bookgroup as a secret Santa gift - but I was sceptical that I'd like this work of fiction about two girls trying to find a husband for their mum. Funny, insightful non-fiction writers aren't necessarily gifted fiction writers (and vice versa) as fiction and non-fiction are two very different mediums. Therefore, I decided to pick up this library edition  - the great thing being that I could try it without fear of adding to my "bought but won't read" pile.