Sunday, 27 July 2014

Book Review: The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms

The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms
By Ian Thornton
Published by The Friday Project
Available in paperback and ebook

Ian Thornton's debut novel, The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is more than just a novel with hints of historical WWI truth. This is a novel about the bonds of friendship, a love story and the way people will go to many lengths to run away from reality.

This is a story that spans over one hundred years, covering all of the 20th Century. At the start of the novel, the protagonist, Johan Thoms is an old man with a plan - he must go back in time. Slowly he reveals his childhood and the tales of near death experience when he was a boy with a deer and his student days of booze and sex but this is not want he wants to go back in time for. It is not to re-live the days of him being a child genius at chess but to stop the outbreak of World War I because contrary to common understanding, he started World War I and has the deaths of millions on his conscience.

In June 1914, at the last minute Johan swaps with the usual chauffeur and is given the privilege to drive Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia through the city. However, this moment of great importance is hindered by him driving down a dead-end side street and his inability to reverse a car. A gunman stands and takes a shot and the rest as they say is history. Convinced he ruins everything he touches he flees, leaving behind the love of this life, Lorelei, his family and his university career. He goes on the run as the Great War unfolds around him. Each year the burden of guilt becomes greater.
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms reminded me of  a less superior version of Laurent Binet's HHhH and it also reminded me of Daniel Wallace's Big Fish with the way it explores the concept of truth, the retelling of history and the way stories form our lives. Johan's adventures across Europe have him bumping into Orwell and Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War and hiding out in the English countryside as he tries to maintain a grip on reality.

Other reviewers have complained that Johan doesn't develop as a character after his unfortunate involvement in the outbreak of World War I but I think he does. Johan has a constant battle with his conscience and is unable to untangle himself from the guilt. He must learn to either face up to the guilt or let it slowly eat away at him.

Johan's adventures through Europe are broken up with letters from Lorelei and her search to find Johan. I would quite like there to be a sequel to The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms and I would want it to explore Lorelei's search and her life in 1920s America.

If you like books routed in history, enjoyed HHhH and Big fish then this is the book for you. Its a great story. I'm looking forward to reading Thornton's next book.

You can buy The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms from your favourite bookshop.

I was kindly sent a copy of the book by the publisher.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Longlisted for the Man Booker prize

I wasn't longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. again.

One day they will accept unpublished novels stored on a computer hard drive and my novel will be front of the queue, waving its chapters around in the air, snarling at the other millions of people with novels on their hard drives.

Anyway, in the mean time I should probably carry on redrafting my novel. I am currently stuck with chapter thirteen. I think it starts too early in the scene so I'm hacking back and writing an alternative opening. Progress is slower than I would want as I would ideally like to be redrafting a different chapter each week but this one has been stuck on my desk for three weeks. Things like paperwork for our new house and a small thing called life are getting in the way and so they should but I think the reason why this chapter is being a pain in the backside is because it was the first chapter I wrote during last year's novel writing month. It is a bit wooly in places, vague and shapeless. I honestly can't understand people who write a novel in novel writing month who then send it off to agents once they have finished. These things need work. Lots of work.

Back to the Man Booker Prize. I bought Karen Joy Fowler's We Are Completely Beside Ourselves (which is on the list) the other week in London as a treat to read for when we finally go on holiday either in 'real life' or as a holiday from the review books I am currently making my way through. I always think its good to have a break every couple of books or the reviewing becomes stale. I have a great bunch of books to keep me occupied.

I have several reviews popping up on the blog for some great books so look out for them!

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Book Review: Thirst by Kerry Hudson

By Kerry Hudson
Published by Chatto and Windus
Available in Hardback / ebook.
Paperback forthcoming.

Kerry has gone from having one of the longest titles for a novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, to having the shortest title for her latest compelling novel, Thirst.

Thirst tells the unconventional love story of security guard Dave and Alena who has arrived in London from Siberia with her hopes of dreams of a new life already dashed and broken. They meet in an up-market department store where Dave is patrolling the shop and Alena is trying to slip out of the shop with a new pair of shoes.

Kerry takes the classic plot of will-they-won't-they love story and adds twists and themes that will have you laughing on one page and on the next page you want to wrap these characters in cotton wool and protect them from the nasty underbelly of London.

The beginning of relationships are meant to be about getting to know each other but for these two characters they must learn to keep the past hidden and keep each at arms length. They must battle to keep each other hidden from the others secrets.

Thirst is just as hard hitting as Tony Hogan with explorations of poverty, sexual exploitation, human trafficking whipped up with humour, love and family ties. This is a tender, heartfelt novel. Kerry has the power to write about this topics in an engaging way.

The only missing from this novel is the punchy first sentence that Tony Hogan had!

Normally second novels are flatter and flabbier than the first novel but Kerry has written a second book that fizzes and pops with a great plot and a delightful descriptions.

You can buy Thirst from your favourite online or offline bookshop.

I was kindly sent a copy by the publisher.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Book Review: Remember Me to the Bees

My review of Judy Darley's short story collection, Remember Me to the Bees is now up on the View From Here website.

You can read my review here > Remember Me to the Bees

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at National Portrait Gallery London

Virginia Stephen by George Charles Beresford, 1902.
This image can be seen at Virginia Woolf:
Art, Life and Vision
at the National Portrait Gallery, London
Today I was lucky enough to attend a preview a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London exploring the life and achievements of Virginia Woolf, one of the most important English writers of the twentieth century and the author of Mrs Dalloway, Room of One's Own, To The Lighthouse and The Waves. She also pioneered the stream of consciousness style of writing. A style equalled loved and loathed by creative writing students.

The exhibition is curated by biographer Frances Spalding who wanted to create an exhibition that caters for people who first come in to contact with Virginia Woolf by seeing pictures of her in the media or in the Internet as well as for fans of Woolf's books. The exhibition spans all of Woolf's life, starting with Woolf's early life with holiday pictures from Cornwall, where they would go for several months at a time and would take up a a whole train carriage with their trunks, as well as exploring her political interests especially with feminism and the Spanish Civil War and her literary interests with publishing and the set up of Hogarth Press, a publishing printing company with her husband, Leonard Woolf.

Woolf's diaries stretch over six volumes.
Some of the highlights include first editions of Virginia Woolf's novels and non fiction, extracts from her diaries. One of the extracts recalls how Woolf went back to her house in Tavistock Square, London to find it had been bombed and how she sets about climbing through the rubble to find her diaries.

There are portraits of Woolf by her contemporaries, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry as well as photographs by Beresford, Man Ray, Beck and MrGregor who photographed her for Vogue magazine. There are also portraits of those who were close to her during her life including Vita Sackville West and her husband, Leonard Woolf and members from their 'Bloomsbury Group.' The introduction of post-impressionism influenced Woolf's writing by looking at the textures and breaking the accepted conventions of the writing establishment.
'The Black Book'

As well having rare items from Hogarth press (including Virginia Woolf's novels and T.S Eliot's poems and Paris by Hope Mirrlees), there is also a book called the 'Black Book.' This was a list compiled by Hitler's Head of Counter-Espionage. Both Virginia and Leonard were listed along with other eminent public figures who would be arrested if the German army invaded Britain.
These are the last letters Woolf wrote before her death

The exhibition includes Woolf's walking stick, found by her husband by the river when she died. This is the first time this has been on public view in the UK. The exhibition also includes Woolf's last two letters before she committed suicide. These are normally held in the British Library's Manuscript Collection and this rare display of them in public is a must for any Woolf fans and fans of British literature.

This exhibition is an insightful and interesting look into Virginia Woolf's life - the portraits are fantastic as well as the diary extracts.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision runs from 10th July 2014 until 26th October 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Connecting Writers: The Writing Process

Thank you Teresa Stenson for nominating me to be part of this blog tour where writers talk about their writing process. 

What am I working on?
  • I am currently redrafting my novel. It's a slow process but I have set myself a challenge to try and finish a chapter each week. I am currently working on chapter thirteen.
  • I am also preparing a few short stories for submission but nowadays most of my writing time is spent on redrafting my novel or writing book reviews.
  • I am also getting back into the habit of writing flash fiction as they are great for creating stories with small word counts and for honing those important editing skills.
  • I have retired from writing poetry.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
  • I don't really think of genre when I'm writing my novel or even short stories. I write stories that I am interested in. I don't intentionally write for a specific genre.

Why do I write what I do?
  • I like writing and I like the challenge of trying to achieve a great story. Sometimes a story doesn't work but that's all part of the fun. Sometimes its great and the story will be published. It's a great feeling know that the story isn't just on your hard drive but is being read but other people who may or not be enjoying it!

How does my writing process work?
  • I tend to write the first draft without going back and making edits. I firmly believe in 'shitty first drafts'. If I do have a change of heart about a chapter, or plot then I write it down, ready to change in the next round of redrafting.
  • I normally tackle the redrafting process chapter by chapter and then once I have reached the end I will go back round until I know that its ready for someone to read. Each chapter needs to be printed off and editing by hand before I make the changes on my computer.
  • My last novel took four years and had a couple of near misses with agents. I'm hoping this current novel doesn't take as long but you never know.

I’m nominating Sara Crowley to take the baton! If you do, you need to answer the same questions I have and then pass it on to another blogging writer.