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A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips

3 out of 5 stars

Gwendolen watches her husband open a letter and frown slightly at it. When he breaks the news to her she finds out that he has received an unexpected inheritance. He offers to pay for them both to head back to her home of Dominica that she left as a small girl. Her brief childhood there still inhabits her memories, but it was a place of beauty and freedom. It is a place far removed from the grey days and lonely nights of living in England.

This trip home causes her to look back on her life spent far away from home, the steep learning curve of being in an English school, how her background closed so many doors and the moments spent with those looking to take advantage of her. Her visit to the home she left stirs memories that have long been suppressed and makes her consider where her future may lead.

This is a fictionalised account of Gwen Williams, who is better known as Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea. I have not read that book yet so knew nothing of her story. There were parts of Phillips’ story that I liked, in particular, the time she spent in Dominica as a child and when she returned at the end of the book. However, there were parts in the middle that really struggled to catch my interest. Not bad overall, but didn’t feel it excelled, I would give another of his books a go at some point.

The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel

4 out of 5 stars

English Oak. That regal tree. It is our cherished national tree as well as being the most common. It is loved by many and is deeply rooted in our identity. Other countries seem to think that it is theirs though; in 2004 Congress named the Oak, America’s national tree, it was considered sacred by the Romans and the Druids and three of the Baltic States have it as their favourite too.

We are fortunate that in the UK we have more ancient oaks that all of Europe put together. For example, the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire has a girth of more than 13 meters and is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old and there are loads more like this, all with their own stories to tell. Oak trees have been here a long time too, a single oak can support hundreds of different species and creatures. It has been used to build ships of war, and cathedrals of peace. In ages past it has been used to make tables to eat from, the bark used for leather and entombed those that have shuffled off from this mortal coil. It is said that an oak tree takes 300 years to grow, 300 years to mature and 300 years to die.

Oak trees make a fine home. The wood is straightforward to work when it is green and as it ages it shrinks and gets stronger pulling the frame in and strengthening it. An oak frame will outlast all the people in it and the stones that surround the house. It can feed us, you can make coffee from the acorns and as a fuel burns hot providing warmth.

Oak has always had a strong meaning for me as my surname is originally derived from the French, Le Chêne and my wife was originally a Le Quesne; Jersey French for the oak. I was really looking forward to reading this book from Lewis-Stempel about one of my favourite trees. As usual, he doesn’t disappoint either, it is full of anecdotes and snippets of information and written in his fine lyrical way and is a fine companion to his book on owls.

Shadow Panel Winner for the Young Writer Award

I cannot tell you all how delighted to announce for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick Shadow Panel winner is Imogen Hermes Gowar with the fabulous The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock (Published by Harvill Secker) You can read the official announcement here

Many Congratulations to Imogen Hermes Gowar for this. It was a really close call. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I didn’t make the meeting (thanks to Network Rail) and contributed via phone from the train as it made its way into London. It was a shame as I was really looking forward to meeting all my shadow panel members.

Here we all are holding the winning book

    

    

I am really looking forward to seeing what the real judges pick next week!

Follow our Winner on Twitter: @girlhermes. And her publisher: @harvillsecker
Here is the round up of all the shadow panel reviews.
Don’t forget to follow the award on twitter @youngwriteryear And the has tag #youngwriterawardshadow

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

2.5 out of 5 stars

In the village of al-Awafi in Oman, there are three sisters who are choosing different paths for their future. Mayya and Asma have taken the decision to marry, one out of duty, one after the man she loved broke her heart. The third sister, Khawla, heads to Canada after her beloved emigrated there. As Oman society goes through the changes from a traditional, slave-owning society, and into its current modern and complex version, Mayya gives birth to a girl. Rather than choose from the traditional names and she is heavily pressurised to do so by her family, she picks the name London.

This new child is the prism that shows Omani society. The Oman that she grows up into is changing but still remains very traditional in its outlook, with control from the patriarch of the family. The story is told from a variety of different perspectives each chapter, which occasionally can overlap and get a little confusing. It is not bad overall and is a fast read. What it does do well on though is an insight into Omani culture and customs and the complexity that that arises from family matters.

Publisher Profile: Influx Press

For me, independent publishers are the people in the industry who are prepared to take risks on new authors and books where the larger players either don’t wish to venture, or where they can’t see there being a return on. Each month in 2018 I am aiming to highlight some of my favourite independent publishers, along with some of their books that I have loved and also to have someone from the publisher answer a few questions. This month is the turn of Influx Press.

I was only vaguely aware of Influx Press but midway through last year Sanya contacted me asking if I wanted to read a book called Signal Failure. This book by Tom Jeffreys is his account of walking the proposed route of the HS2 railway from London to Birmingham. It is a wide-ranging book and he talks to those on the route how it will affect them, the loss of woodlands, the political capital being spent to push this project through and how one man can’t read a map. For me they were on the map now. First formed in 2012, they have published titles ranging from award-nominated fiction debuts, memoirs and radical poetry. They are a bold publisher and are prepared to explore subjects and authors that other publishers would not normally consider. Imaginary Cities is one of those; broad in scope, the author considers cities in literature and compares them to reality whilst also heading into the realms of psychogeography to invade and reinvent our urban future.

Coming up next year are four exciting books. Two I am looking forward to are Built on Sand by Paul Scraton and Mothlight by Adam Scovell. Both are going to push the boundaries of what we can expect from the dynamic range of idependent publishers in 2019. Anyway, onto the Q&A that Sanya was kind enough to answer below:

 

Can you tell me a little about the history of Influx Press?

Gary Budden and Kit Caless started the press in 2012, with Acquired for Development – it was supposed to be a one off thing but since the book done surprisingly well they decided to carry on.

How is the company organised today and how many people work for you?

At the moment there are three of us.

What is the company policy when it comes to selecting your catalogue?

In terms of the books we publish, they come to us a number of ways; through writers we approach or through agents who approach us, or when we open submissions (which we intend to do early next year). We publish fiction and creative non-fiction, books which often blur genres, fusing politics, place-specific narratives and or social commentary. Our tastes differ quite a bit, in terms of what we like to read, which I think has/will lead to an interesting list of authors.

Tell me about your process after selecting a book for publication?

In terms of editorial, it’ll go through structural and line edits, typeset, proof-read (by which time the cover design would have been chosen) and then publication.

How much effort goes into the design of the book, for example, the cover design, font selection and so on?

A lot of effort goes into the covers and interiors and with each step the author is involved. We work with the brilliant Austin Burke, who usually designs our covers after having read the MS. He’ll send in a couple of ideas and his thoughts behind them and get the editor and author’s thoughts back before developing the chosen cover.

Are there any up and coming books that you are publishing soon that we need to look out for?

There are four books we’re publishing next year which I’m really excited about. Bindlestiff by Wayne Holloway, is about a British film director who struggles to get his movie, Bindlestiff, made. The film stars Frank, a black Charlie Chaplin figure cast adrift in post-federal America. It’s part prose, part screen play and it sets to explore race, identity, family, friendship, war, peace, sex and drugs,

Mothlight by Adam Scovell, centres around Phyllis Ewans a prominent researcher in Lepidoptera, and her carer and companion, Thomas. When Phyllis dies, Thomas becomes increasing convinced that not only is she haunting him but that he actually is Phyliss – it’s a story about grief, memory and the price of obsession. 

Built on Sand by Paul Scraton is set in Berlin and centres on personal geographies of place and how memory and history live on in the individual and collective imagination. It explores how the past shapes and distorts our understanding of the present in an age of individualism, gentrification and the rising threat of nationalism, with stories of landscape and a city both real and imagined.

Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto is set in London, Chandigarh, Colombo, Paris and Kandy, during a time of communal violence and the rise of civil war in Sri Lanka. Through a multiplicity of narratives, we follow Minnette de Silva – a forgotten feminist icon and the first female Sri Lankan architect – from her infamous affair with Le Corbusier to her architectural pursuits and efforts to build a post-independence Sri Lanka that is heading towards political and religious turmoil.

 

What title of yours has been an unexpected success?

Attrib, and other stories by Eley Williams. The collection centres on the difficulties of communication and the way in which one’s thoughts – absurd, encompassing, oblique – may never be communicable and yet can overwhelm. We knew the collection was great, but it really took off, winning quite a few awards.

What would you say were the undiscovered gems in your catalogue?

Outside Looking On and Above Sugar Hill by Chimene Suleyman and Linda Mannheim. The first is a poetry collection, the latter a collection of short stories, both explore characters and place with nuance, and precision.

How do you use social media for promoting books and authors?

We’re really active on twitter, run by Kit and Gary, who share book reviewers, photos, author’s events, join in hashtags and engage with our readers and would be readers. It’s also a very effective way to contact bloggers/reviewers for upcoming book. We’re also on Facebook.

Is working with book bloggers becoming a larger part of that process now?

Absolutely, though we’ve always worked with bloggers I think now it’s become a vital part of promotion for any press. Bloggers have also expanded the ways in which presses can work with them from reviews and interviews to the writer taking over the site for a couple of days. Blog tours are becoming a huge part of book promotion.

What book do you wish you had published?

Preti Taneja‘s We That Are Young is a good read, a sort of rewriting of King Leah, it has everything I enjoy in a novel – politics, family drama, real evocation of place and stunning, stunning prose. Speak Gigantular and Things to Make or Break are also exceptional short story collections (by Irenosen Okojie and May-Lan Tan).

What does the future hold for influx press?                        

More and more books. As I said we’re opening submissions and are on the look-out for exciting new voices.


Thank you to Sanya once again for taking time out of her manic schedule to answer those questions for me. I really appreciate it. Their books are available from all good bookshops. I would urge you to buy them from an independent bookshop if you can as this supports them, the publisher and of course the author with one purchase.

Previous Publisher Profiles:

Stanza Stones by Simon Armitage

5 out of 5 stars

The Pennines are some of our most distinctive upland landscapes. The natural contours shaped by the environment are also deeply scarred by man as people have sought to exploit the resources in the ground. This place is raw and elemental. This is the poet, Simon Armitage’s home territory too, he was born in the village of Marsden and knows this landscape intimately.

 

You are lost, adrift in hung water

and blurred air, but you are here.

 

In 2012 he was commissioned by the Ilkley Literature Festival to write site-specific poetry for the footpaths in the region. The project blossomed and with Tom Lonsdale and started to explore sites that would be suitable locations for his poetry. Calling on the expertise of letter-carver Pip Hall the ideas started to form into solid entities. Secluded sites were selected, words were collected from the landscape and he began to form them into poems. This dynamic and iterative process that saw his words carved into stone

 

To take one drop on the tongue, tasting

cloud pollen, grain of the heavens, raw sky.

 

I can’t quite remember how I came across this book, I have a vague recollection of seeing a link or reference pass through on social media somewhere and thought that I might like that. My library had a copy and it turns out I loved it. This is a beautiful book is about the closely woven links between landscape, art, poetry and geology. Aged rocks that have centuries old patina and grime have a crisp font carved out by Pip Hall and are then placed in the landscape. The words Simon has written have profound resonance to the surrounding landscape.  It is a beautiful book and a stunning art project.

The link to the website is here : http://www.stanzastones.co.uk, have a look and then get the book.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

My final review for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick, shortlist, is for The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History before going on to work in museums. She began to write small pieces of fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with. In 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing. She won the Curtis Brown Prize for her dissertation, which grew into this novel. She lives, works, and walks around south-east London – an area whose history she takes a keen interest in.

My review:

Jonah Hancock hears frantic knocking on his from door one September evening. On opening it he finds Captain Jones, one of the captains of his merchant ships eagerly waiting to see him. He lets him in and then hears the news that he has bought. It is not good; he has sold Hancock’s entire ship for what he has been told is a mermaid. Stunned at first, Hancock is lost for words, but Jones persuades him that this will make his fortune, provided he stirs interest in it.

Turns out that lots of people have heard of this marvel and are desperate to see it. The showing is a success and he is being courted by the great and the good as he rises into the echelons of high society. Mrs Chappell, the sharp-eyed businesswoman sees an opportunity to make money from this wonder and offers to rent it from him for a staggering sum of money. He attends the first event, naïvely thinking that the owner of a bordello might not have an event that descends into a romp; but he was wrong. His chaperone for the evening, Angelica Neal, is one of the most beautiful women he has ever seen, but even her charms cannot keep him there so he leaves the party early.

He is approached with an offer for the mermaid and manages to negotiate a very high price for it; financially he is made for life. He is still seeing Angelica, and she requests that she would love him to acquire another mermaid for her, something that he would have considered almost impossible, but one has been found before.

Historical melodrama in not really my thing, but the advantage of reading a shortlist is that it opens your eyes to books that you wouldn’t have considered before. Gowar’s book is well researched and her attention to detail for the period is spot on. Even though it is almost 500 pages long, it didn’t read like a long novel. The prose is flowery and elaborate but suits the time period that it is written in well. It has a strong moral tale and about obsession, oppression and tragedy. It was a book that I liked but didn’t love it as these are not completely my thing.


There are lots of things happening online concerning the award if you want to follow it.

The website is here: http://www.youngwriteraward.com

The Young Writers Twitter Account is here: https://twitter.com/YoungWriterYear

You can find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/YoungWriterAward/

Or follow the hashtag: 

My fellow shadow panel members are also all online:

Amanda Chatterton – Bookish Chat – https://bookishchat.wordpress.com

Susan Osborne – A Life In Books – https://alifeinbooks.co.uk/

Lucy Pearson – The Lit Edit – https://thelitedit.com

Lizzi Risch – These Little Words  https://theselittlewords.com/about/

Or follow the hashtag: #youngwriterawardshadow

Wilding by Isabella Tree

5 out of 5 stars

Their land at Knepp in West Sussex had been farmed by them and the family before, for years, but it had reached the point where the farm had become unviable as a business. Not sure what to do with the land, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made that decision to let nature take over again. Fences were taken up and they selected some hardy breeds of pigs, Exmoor ponies and cattle to wander freely around the 3500 acres site.

Wildlife under the modern capitalist economies is taking an absolute pounding. A recent report says that we have lost 60% of our global wildlife and figures in the UK show this too; we are ranked 29th in the world for biodiversity loss: 56% of species are in decline and 15% are threatened with extinction. The species that we used to regularly see and hear are no longer around; when did you last hear a cuckoo?

Locals objected to several elements of what they were doing, ragwort was a particular issue with some people, but slowly the recovery began on their land. Species that had plummeted in the weald, begun to return. They were finding that they were suddenly one of the top sites in the country for creatures like purple emperor butterflies and turtle doves. With an abundance of invertebrates come predators and this rippled up until they realised that they peregrine falcons back. In fact, there were several species that had appeared that were not fitting in the niche that would normally be expected.

This inspirational book shows what can be achieved in just a decade, how we can regain a wilder country. Ensuring that we put things in place to support the natural world will make the world and our own lives a richer place. We can make some attempt to reverse the devastating trend even after a decade and whilst farms might not be able to implement all of what they have done, even some of these will have a marked improvement to our natural world.

 

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

My second review for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick, shortlist, is for Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

Adam Weymouth is interested in the relationship between humans and the world around them. It has led him to write on issues of climate change and environmentalism, and most recently, to travel the Yukon River and tell the stories of the people living on its banks. He lives on a 100-year-old Dutch barge on the River Lea in London. He has written for a wide variety of outlets including the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New Internationalist. Kings of the Yukon is his first book.

My review:

There are very few areas left in the world that haven’t had some interference from mankind, but one of the true wilderness areas left is in Alaska. It is through this part of Canada and America that the Yukon River snakes its way to the coast and it is this 2000 mile river that Adam Weymouth is intending to canoe along. Even this remote wilderness is showing the signs of climate change and the results of our ruining the planet.

Weymouth is also there to track the King salmon, or chinook as they are known in Canada, as they head upstream from the Bearing Sea to carry out their last act before dying; spawning. They have been away in the Pacific and no one knows exactly where they go, or indeed how they find their way back to the same river and the exact pool where they were spawned themselves. When they have committed this last act, they die. The return of the salmon brought food for the various predators and economic activity along the river for the people that choose to live in this part of the world. However the thousands and thousands of salmon that used to almost clog the river up in their desire to reproduce are no longer there, changes wrought by us and climate change hade decimated the populations.

His account of his four-month journey was in reality split over two years as the river was impossible to canoe down during the winter. That doesn’t lessen his desire to find the people with the stories to tell, and what stories they are. This part of the world attracts those that wanted to drop out of normal society. He meets the indigenous people too who have relied on the king salmon as an intrinsic part of their culture for thousands of years and who until recently have only lightly touched the earth. Weymouth takes time to talk to those he meets, tease out the stories and understand the shocking effects we have been causing on this otherwise unspoilt wilderness and the way that people who have depended on this natural resource are trying to change to reverse some of the changes. For a debut travel writer,  he is pretty accomplished. This is a really enjoyable travel book with a sharp focus and I am looking forward to reading what he does next.

 


There are lots of things happening online concerning the award if you want to follow it.

The website is here: http://www.youngwriteraward.com

The Young Writers Twitter Account is here: https://twitter.com/YoungWriterYear

You can find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/YoungWriterAward/

Or follow the hashtag: 

My fellow shadow panel members are also all online:

Amanda Chatterton – Bookish Chat – https://bookishchat.wordpress.com

Susan Osborne – A Life In Books – https://alifeinbooks.co.uk/

Lucy Pearson – The Lit Edit – https://thelitedit.com

Lizzi Risch – These Little Words  https://theselittlewords.com/about/

Or follow the hashtag: #youngwriterawardshadow

Elmet by Fiona Mozely

My second review for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick, shortlist, is for Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Fiona Mozley grew up in York and later lived in London, Cambridge and Buenos Aires. She has gone full circle and is now back in York, where she is writing a PhD thesis on the concept of decay in the later Middle Ages. Elmet was her first fiction book and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for fiction. She currently works part-time at The Little Apple Bookshop.

My review:

Daniel and Cathy live in a home that their father, John, built with his own hands. He is a huge man and an acclaimed bare-knuckle boxer but as a parent caring for his children, he is a gentle giant. They were never like the other children, and have an alternative upbringing, dropped out of school, spend their days foraging and hunting for food and share their fathers roll-ups and cider. He has told them that this is their home forever, but he has no truck with details like who actually owns the land.

Soon the ghosts from his past lives begin to haunt him once again, the local landlord and hood Price needs John to fight again, large amounts of money are stake and Price has leverage over John. The children notice a difference in their father, gone is the calm; now they see rage flame in his eyes. John decides to accept Prices request to fight, negotiating a deal to secure their future properly and so begins his training…

 I normally don’t read Booker Prize books as I have not always got along with them in the past but this was on my list to read as I was fortunate to win a signed copy. It is a dark tale of the underground culture of a northern village, with the characters deeply rooted in the very landscape they inhabit. I thought it did take a little while to get going, as Mozley takes time setting the scene and builds the atmosphere, however, the last quarter of the book flew by. The prose is sparse yet visceral and charged. Her portrayal of the characters, whose flaws give the plot the friction it needs, make this tale of a family who have stepped away from contemporary society, unnerving and disturbing.


There are lots of things happening online concerning the award if you want to follow it.

The website is here: http://www.youngwriteraward.com

The Young Writers Twitter Account is here: https://twitter.com/YoungWriterYear

You can find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/YoungWriterAward/

Or follow the hashtag: 

My fellow shadow panel members are also all online:

Amanda Chatterton – Bookish Chat – https://bookishchat.wordpress.com

Susan Osborne – A Life In Books – https://alifeinbooks.co.uk/

Lucy Pearson – The Lit Edit – https://thelitedit.com

Lizzi Risch – These Little Words  https://theselittlewords.com/about/

Or follow the hashtag: #youngwriterawardshadow

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