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Guest Post: A Sense of Place by Alex Christofi #LetUsBeTrue

I’m very happy to welcome Alex Christofi today as part of the blog tour for his latest novel, Let Us Be True. Set in post-war Paris, it follows the stories of Ralf and Elsa, who meet there but come from elsewhere, and is a fascinating take on love and loss, home, belonging, and identity, especially that which we choose to conceal and how we present to others.

Alex very kindly agreed to write about his thoughts on the importance of place to understanding who we are and why where we are matters more than some of us might think. 

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that

Keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next. 1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place. Read more

Writing Elba: Guest post by Emylia Hall #TheThousandLightsHotel

Author Emylia Hall is my guest today as part of The Thousand Lights Hotel blog tour. As we’re both huge fans of Tim Winton, it’s little surprise that place is as important to her in books as it is to me. Which is why I’m thrilled to host Emylia’s post on writing place and the island of Elba, the setting for her latest novel, The Thousand Lights Hotel

All four of my novels have begun with place. I settle on somewhere first – a place bright in my memory, or a longed for destination – and then I ask, who might live here? What’s their story? The setting is what draws me in; everything else follows. This isn’t something I’ve contrived; it’s just the way it happens.

I’ve always been captivated by location. They say that it’s the people who make a place, and maybe that’s true, but relationships are fluid; people can swap cities, move countries, and exist outside of earth-bound constraints. We can gather all our favourite people together in one room, but places must stay put – we can only ever be in one at a time, and to me there’s something melancholic and kind of beautiful about that. This human limitation is why I sometimes feel wistful bordering on sad that I’m here, not there; why, when I’m washing up in my kitchen in Bristol, I’m thinking of a French mountain town, or a Californian beach, or an Italian island, and feeling such longing. I can’t be everywhere, any more than I can stop time. So… I write about place. I travel from my desk. I take what I believe is the Genius Loci, the spirit of somewhere, and I put it on the page. Because as long as I’m writing, or thinking about writing, I’m cheating time and space: I’m both here and there.

Alta & Marina
Alta & Marina

When I started working on The Thousand Lights Hotel I poured all my memories of the island, from trips in 2003 and 2012, into my writing. I lived again among Elba’s verdant hills and rocky coves and gilded beaches. Once more I took in the extravagant bougainvillea, the terracotta pots exploding with hibiscus, the plump and spiky prickly pears. I followed the swooping descent and ascent of the island buses, the rattle of scooters, the languid drifting of a sailing boat. I tasted the bittersweet tang of Aperol, the creamy depths of Torta della nonna, the garlic-rich prawns. I felt sand between my toes, coconut sun-cream on my skin, a midge bite on my ankle. It’s a place I love, and I loved making a novel from it, sitting in my writing hut, writing with clarity. Read more

Book Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

In her latest novel, Rachel Joyce’s writing is pitch perfect and every bit as healing as the tracks that Frank selects as prescribed listening for his customers in The Music Shop.

1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.

Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann.

Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind …

If you’ve ever played sad songs to make yourself feel better when you’re blue, if you’ve ever heard a song on the radio that makes you realise you’re not alone in how you feel, if a piece of music brings back memories of a person, a place or a time in your life or you’ve ever made up a mix tape for yourself or someone you cared for, if you can’t help starting to sway, dance or even sing along when the first chords of a track start, then you need to read The Music Shop.

Rachel Joyce creates a real community around Frank and his titular music shop, with his customers and assistant Kit, the other shopkeepers in the parade and residents of Unity Street. She shows how it comes together but also how it’s under pressure to change: record reps want Frank to start selling CDs like the Woolworths in the High Street and unscrupulous property developers are circling.

Rachel Joyce’s writing may seem gentle, deceptively so, but there’s real drama here too; her true range reflected in the music Frank chooses, and how she orchestrates the cast of characters. (I couldn’t help but assign each one their own musical instrument as I was reading.) Rachel Joyce’s words heal every bit as much as Frank’s musical prescriptions. The Music Shop is an incredibly moving novel about the power and importance of music in our lives, helping us to connect with our feelings and soothing our various ills and woes. It’s also a rather beautiful love story in which music brings two damaged people closer together.

You’ll want to listen to this book’s soundtrack while you read it, and you’ll wish that Frank, his racks of vinyl, listening booths and customers, everything which makes up The Music Shop were as real now as you once wished the fancy dress shop in Mr Benn was when you were a child. Brava, Rachel Joyce, you’ve scored something truly beautiful and life-affirming in The Music Shop.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce is out today and is published by Doubleday, a Transworld imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. For updates on Rachel Joyce, her books and events, visit her publisher’s Author Page

My thanks to Alison Barrow at Transworld and Lovereading for providing me with a copy for review. (A shorter version of this review was originally posted on the Lovereading UK site.) 

Book Review: Soot by Andrew Martin

Set in York at the end of the eighteenth century, Soot features an unlikely amateur sleuth in Fletcher Rigge. Plucked from the debtor’s prison by a questionable benefactor from the wrong part of town, he’s given a month to investigate the murder of Captain Harvey’s father, one of York’s silhouette artists. The suspects are his last sitters, with only their duplicate shades to identify them.

York, 1799.

In August, an artist is found murdered in his home – stabbed with a pair of scissors. Matthew Harvey’s death is much discussed in the city. The scissors are among the tools of his trade – for Harvey is a renowned cutter and painter of shades, or silhouettes, the latest fashion in portraiture. It soon becomes clear that the murderer must be one of the artist’s last sitters, and the people depicted in the final six shades made by him become the key suspects. But who are they? And where are they to be found?

Later, in November, a clever but impoverished young gentleman called Fletcher Rigge languishes in the debtor’s prison, until a letter arrives containing a bizarre proposition from the son of the murdered man. Rigge is to be released for one month, but in that time, he must find the killer. If he fails, he will be incarcerated again, possibly for life.

And so, with everything at stake, and equipped only with copies of the distinctive silhouettes, Fletcher Rigge begins his search across the snow-covered city, and enters a world of shadows…

The art of the silhouette maker appears to capture the essence of each character and it’s illuminating how much Fletcher Rigge is able to take from these deceptively simple shades of people. They represent the impression we leave behind and it’s for Rigge to fill in the detail, as he attempts to identify each sitter inside a month. In this, Rigge is the happy beneficiary of coincidence while pursuing his investigations but I can forgive him that in a York of this period. He also shows scant regard for his own safety or wellbeing. Maybe he thinks he has little left to lose, despite being drawn into a dangerous game where a murderer is still at large. Will Rigge prove to be a willing pawn or more skilled and capable of outwitting practised confidence artists and other undesirables than we expect? And why does he seem set on undoing all the good work he and others are doing on his behalf?

Soot held my attention from its first page when Mr Erskine, a lawyer, sends the York magistrate a bundle of documents concerning the violent death of Matthew Harvey. I tumbled headlong into the (rather aptly) shadowy world of this city at the close of the eighteenth century. Reading this collection of letters, diary entries and witness statements (complete with the lawyer’s annotations), the lawyer in me loved trying to piece together this whodunit/whydunit from all the material provided. Read more

Griffin Books in Penarth #IBW2017

Today’s Independent Bookshop Week post features Griffin Books in Penarth. It takes its name from its lovely, calm and gentle owner, Mel Griffin, and is a cool haven on the busy high street of this seaside town just south of Cardiff.

At the front of the shop, there are carousels of pretty greeting cards and postcards which are as hard to resist as the tempting top table. This is directly in front of you as you step inside and is regularly updated with titles which Mel and her customers put forward as recommended reads. She also asks one customer a month to give their top three reads to be included in a regular What’s On My Bookshelf? feature in Penarth View magazine.

Mel gives everyone space and time to browse and even makes coffee to sustain you through it! (Or squash if you prefer.) As you can see, Squizzey and I took breakfast along for us all to enjoy during last year’s Independent Bookshop Week.

The shop’s well-stocked and has a good mix of titles on offer including authors local to the area. It’s easy to find your way around, fiction is to the left, non-fiction to the right, reference books in the middle and the children’s section is at the back of the shop by the counter. And if there’s a particular title you need, Mel can generally order this in for you very quickly.

Mel (centre) and customers celebrating Griffin Books 2nd birthday
Mel (centre) and customers celebrating Griffin Books 2nd birthday

Once a month, Mel runs a late night opening event at the bookshop where you can browse in the evening and enjoy a glass of wine, and sometimes has a guest author or local poet, like Fran Smith, there to showcase their work.

Together with running the Penarth Literature Festival, Mel puts on a great range of author events throughout the year, which range from lunches to afternoon teas to evening readings and signings and venues for these range from the local tea rooms to a church to a hotel overlooking the sea and even the local rugby club. I’ve got Mel to thank for being able to meet and chat with Welsh rugby heroes Eddie Butler and JJ Williams for which I’ll be eternally grateful! But I’ve also enjoyed lunch with Jessie Burton, afternoon tea with Belinda Bauer, and evenings with Julia Forster, Kate Hamer and Emma Donoghue. Okay, yes, there may have been some other people there, as well.

This year’s Penarth Literature Festival is being held in July and the programme’s focus is on authors local to the area. There’s something for everyone, young and old, whatever genre you read. I’m looking forward to getting to events with Miranda Emmerson (Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars) and Natalie Haynes (The Amber Fury and The Children of Jocasta). You can get tickets in the shop or online (subject to a booking fee) through Ticketsource. For more details on the programme or to book tickets, click on the logo.

For more info on Griffin Books, check out their Website, Twitter feed or Facebook page

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible is the fourth retelling of a Jane Austen novel in the Austen Project series and arguably the hardest to do because of how well known and loved Pride and Prejudice, the source novel, is but I think Curtis Sittenfeld has pulled it off with aplomb. 

The Bennet sisters have been summoned from New York City.

Liz and Jane are good daughters. They’ve come home to suburban Cincinnati to get their mother to stop feeding their father steak as he recovers from heart surgery, to tidy up the crumbling Tudor-style family home, and to wrench their three sisters from their various states of arrested development.

Once they are under the same roof, old patterns return fast. Soon enough they are being berated for their single status, their only respite the early morning runs they escape on together. For two successful women in their late thirties, it really is too much to bear. That is, until the Lucas family’s BBQ throws them in the way of some eligible single men . . .

Chip Bingley is not only a charming doctor, he’s a reality TV star too. But Chip’s friend, haughty neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, can barely stomach Cincinnati or its inhabitants. Jane is entranced by Chip; Liz, sceptical of Darcy. As Liz is consumed by her father’s mounting medical bills, her wayward sisters and Cousin Willie trying to stick his tongue down her throat, it isn’t only the local chilli that will leave a bad aftertaste.

But where there are hearts that beat and mothers that push, the mysterious course of love will resolve itself in the most entertaining and unlikely of ways.

If you’re going to carry off a successful modern retelling, you can’t simply transplant a 200-year-old story to a modern-day setting. There will of necessity have to be changes, compromises and tweaks to the original and these all work for me here. The author transfers the action to modern-day Cincinnati, with brief excursions to New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, and really makes that work for her characters and the story. I could understand why Curtis Sittenfeld told the story the way she did, and in doing so, I think she creates something which is a clever retelling of the story with attention paid to how it would play out in a contemporary setting but also something which could stand on its own as a novel and quite happily be read for its own sake and enjoyment. Read more

Book Review: Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

A darker, more addictive read, Susie Steiner’s brilliantly written Manon Bradshaw series gets personal when a murder case threatens characters and relationships so well established in Missing, Presumed, which I reviewed here.

As dusk falls a young man staggers through a park, far from home, bleeding heavily from a stab wound. He dies where he falls; cradled by a stranger, a woman’s name on his lips in his last seconds of life.

DI Manon Bradshaw can’t help taking an interest – these days she only handles cold cases, but the man died just yards from the police station where she works.

She’s horrified to discover that both victim and prime suspect are more closely linked to her than she could have imagined. And as the Cambridgeshire police force closes ranks against her, she is forced to contemplate the unthinkable.

How well does she know her loved ones, and are they capable of murder?

Detective Manon Bradshaw returns and happily for this reader, despite having spent some of the intervening time since Missing, Presumed with the Met Police in London, she is back with the Cambridgeshire squad for its sequel, Persons Unknown.

While Manon retains the qualities which made me completely fall for her as a character in the first book, she’s also experiencing changes both in her personal life and her position on the force. This development is something which I really rate because it gives a sense of the characters’ lives progressing and carrying on… whether or not the reader is there to witness it happening! And this in turn makes them feel more real to me, in much the same way as Susie Steiner showing us the police not only working an investigation but also in their downtime, does. Read more

Cover to Cover bookshop in Mumbles #IBW2017

My second post this Independent Bookshop Week (IBW) is a bittersweet one because the bookshop in question is closing this Saturday, 1 July, and my squirrel sidekick and I will miss our trips there very much.

Run by Sarah Rees and her friendly staff, who always give us a warm welcome and sound book suggestions no matter how busy they are, Cover to Cover is a gorgeous little bookshop in Mumbles.

Squizzey and I first discovered it when we included it in our inaugural IBW bookshop crawl. Since then, we’ve seized every opportunity to add it to a Swansea or Gower-bound road trip itinerary. It’s a real treat to head round Swansea Bay, parking up overlooking the mud flats of Mumbles and climbing the hill past Oystermouth Castle to visit Sarah’s shop on Newton Road.

Cover to Cover always has great window displays to entice you in after spending a proper amount of time admiring them. I especially like this one featuring The Girl in the Red Coat, or the coat at least, which was done for a Kate Hamer event.

The shop entrance is off to the right-hand side which always made me feel as if I were sneaking in. That first sight of the interior is magical and a little overwhelming; here is an Aladdin’s cave filled with bookish treasure and pretty gifts to tempt you.

From children’s books and soft toys at the front of the shop, it progresses from young adult to adult to crime fiction along the side wall on the left until you reach the till. I can understand Sarah and her team wanting to place the crime section right in front of where they’re working, so they can keep an eye on things! New releases and hardbacks are behind the counter and in the middle of the front of the shop, gift ideas. A narrow passageway lined with bookish totes and maps and notebooks leads you through to poetry, nature, travel and other non-fiction sections.

It’s a lively, friendly shop with people popping in for book chat and recommendations, to place or pick up orders, and to put their names down for an author event. I particularly enjoyed going to a nearby beach cafe for a Kirsty Logan event where she read from and talked about her wonderful floating circus book, The Gracekeepers, while we munched on Gracekeeper character cookies and mobiles spun about above our heads. And afternoon tea with Susan Fletcher in a small hall was really fun and entertaining when she was there to talk about her novel featuring Vincent van Gogh, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew.

So, this is my THANK YOU to Sarah for always being so welcoming, and especially for being so squirrel-friendly. (I know it’s not always easy!)

Thank you for making us feel as if we were your only customers even when the shop was busy with others.

Thank you for somehow remembering small things said on an earlier visit.

Thank you for always making time to chat and recommend books to us.

Thank you for all the books, cakes, chocolate and cookies, and tote bags.

Most of all, thank you for being there. We’ll miss you!

For more info, go to the Cover to Cover website or their Facebook page or Twitter feed.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, Sarah’s been in touch and while the shop is closing this Saturday, it will reopen in August under the ownership of Tim Batcup which is wonderful news. We won’t miss her any less but it’s good news that this marvellous Mumbles bookshop stays on our road trip itineraries.

Book Review: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Having read and enjoyed Susie Steiner’s debut novel Homecoming, I was excited to read her second, Missing, Presumed, and the first in a new crime series introducing police detective Manon Bradshaw.

Mid-December, and Cambridgeshire is blanketed with snow. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw tries to sleep after yet another soul-destroying Internet date – the low murmuring of her police radio her only solace.

Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.

Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

I defy anyone not to completely fall for Manon Bradshaw. She’s brilliant. It’s such a shame she’s not real. Although she certainly feels real enough on the pages of Missing, Presumed. She’s frank and ballsy, brusque but vulnerable, clumsy yet perceptive. She finds it hard to leave her job behind at the end of a shift and falls asleep to the police radio on low volume. She’s refreshingly independent while also putting herself out there on a string of disastrous Internet dates; she wants some kind of social life leading to a home life but in the meantime doesn’t see why she needs to contemplate living like a nun.

Just as she does with Manon Bradshaw’s character, Susie Steiner builds a credible team around her, peopled not by stereotypes but those who are more like flawed and realistic human beings. One of the joys of this book is seeing the way that this team of officers is built up, where its strengths and potential weaknesses lie, and it’s a bit of a blow to discover that Manon’s plans might soon see her moving on to a new force. I’d got to know this one, and would be upset not to have at least some of them in any sequel. Read more

Book-ish in Crickhowell #IBW2017

It’s Independent Bookshop Week this week, so I’m posting about some favourites in my part of Wales, starting today with Book-ish in Crickhowell, run by the energetic and lovely Emma and Andrew.

It’s not exactly my local but as it’s only about 45 minutes away by car and close to where my in-laws live, I often wangle a bookish stop off on the way to or from there. And in between those visits? Well, Book-ish is always worth a special trip of its own, if you’re even remotely close to the area.

Crickhowell is a pretty town on the banks of the river Usk, just south of the Black Mountains. Apart from the wonderful walking and beautiful surrounding scenery, Crickhowell has managed to keep independent shops on its high street and that one of these is a bookshop makes it especially appealing to me.

Earlier this year, Book-ish moved a couple of doors up from the corner shop it started life in and now has more room for books, stationery, gifts and toys than ever before. It has a well curated book choice and I always find something new when I’m browsing the shelves and either come away with an exciting find or a previously unknown (to me) author. There’s usually a good selection of books signed by the author as well, largely thanks to its programme of events. I lust after their stationery selection, have sent quite a few of their greetings cards to friends, eye up a new Lamy fountain pen every time I visit and crave bookish gifts for myself from among their totes and mugs. Read more

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