Tag Archives: debut novelist

The Eye of the North Book Launch

The author, modelling her book, at the launch of The Eye of the North. Photo credit: Jan Stokes

The author, modelling her book The Eye of the North, at its recent launch! Photo credit: Jan Stokes

Last Thursday evening, in Eason’s of O’Connell Street in Dublin’s city centre, I had the great joy of welcoming my book into the world in style. With the support of my publisher Stripes Books, and the fantastic organisational skills of Eason’s management and staff, I got to drink wine, make a (terrible) speech and read the first chapter of The Eye of the North to a motley crew of friends, family and well-wishers.

It was a truly wonderful experience, and I will be grateful to everyone involved for as long as I have full use of my mind (which, hopefully, will be quite some time).

However, because I made rather a mess of the speech I had prepared – including forgetting to thank some very important people – I’ve placed the text of it here, to give those who couldn’t attend a sense of the night and to assuage my own guilt at the bits I forgot. So. Without further ado:

The first thing I think of when I look around this room full of dear and beloved people, my friends and family, is this: have yiz nothing better to do in Dublin on a Thursday evening? Thank you all for being here. Every one of you is here because you’ve been in some way helpful or encouraging or supportive – perhaps you sent a Tweet, perhaps you did more than that – and you’ve all had a role to play in bringing this book to life. Thank you all.

I particularly want to thank, of course, the staff and management of Eason’s for hosting the event for us here and making us so welcome, and my publisher, Stripes Books, who have been a dream to be involved with. Beth Ferguson and Lauren Ace are absolute gems, who’ve managed to get me out of my comfort zone as kindly as possible, and they’ve helped arrange this fantastic event which is more than my tiny culchie mind could ever have dreamt of – so thank you, Beth and Lauren. Thanks to Katie Jennings, too – Katie is my editor, so she deserves your sympathy and admiration as well as my gratitude. The whole team at Stripes are just wonderful, and they’ve made me look very good, so they have my eternal devotion. I also need to thank two people in absentia – my agent, Polly Nolan, is the first of these. Polly’s hard work, her belief in me and in this book, and her commitment to me before we’d even signed up to work together, meant that I had the encouragement I needed to keep going when it seemed like a book deal was an impossible dream. The other is author Kieran Fanning, who has believed in this book since before it was even a thing – and that support has meant more than I can express.

I won’t detain you long, but I do want to say a few small things while I have a fairly captive audience. The first is this: I don’t come from power, or wealth, or influence. My grandfathers both worked in factories, among other things; my grandmothers were in service, taking in washing to make ends meet, doing whatever they could to support their large families with very little. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to follow any artistic or educational dreams they might have had, as such things weren’t for people like them. I am fiercely proud of all of them, and of all my family, and of where I come from. The fact that I stand here today not only as an author launching her debut novel but also as a person with a PhD is an overwhelmingly emotional thing. I wish my grandparents were alive to see me do this thing, this thing they could hardly have imagined, and I hope they would have been proud of me as I am of them.

The second is: I began my reading life at home with my parents, who did everything they could to feed my mind and my curiosity, to give me access to books, and to encourage me. Sometimes I think I scared them a bit with my appetite for words and knowledge, and I think at times they didn’t understand where it came from – but I think they always knew they were raising two children, my brother and me, who had artistic leanings and a sensitivity to creativity. They helped us fly. I want to thank them for all they have done, for being entirely unsurprised at the fact that my brother is a playwright and short-story writer, not to mention the editor of a literary magazine and the holder of an MA degree, and I am what you see before you, and for loving our odd little ways. I don’t think it can be overstated that doing as my parents did and giving a child access to books, encouraging their literacy – both in terms of reading books and in reading the world around them – and allowing them to know their dreams are realisable are the best gifts a parent, teacher or carer can give. As an author and a parent, I am so proud to be a small part in that huge and wondrous process, that amazing thing where I get to share what I have been given and light the flame anew. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

My two wildest dreams are in this room. I’m holding one, and my husband is holding the other. I am so glad to have both my babies here with me this evening, and I am so glad to be sharing all of this with all of you. Thank you.

So. If you were there – thank you so much. If you weren’t, but you’re reading these words – thank you, too. Nobody writes a book alone, despite how it feels at the time. We all need our net of support to keep us going. I’m so lucky to have one like you.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender’

One of the ways in which I know a book is good – or, perhaps, that it’s resonating with me – is that I read it with a pack of post-its to hand, ready to mark particularly beautiful passages or memorable quotes.

My copy of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is festooned with such ribbons of remembrance.

Image: librarymice.com

Image: librarymice.com

This book took me by surprise. I heard its author, Leslye Walton, speak at the recent CBI conference, and – perhaps as a result of the conference’s focus on children’s and YA books – I had expected Ava Lavender to be a more ‘typical’ YA novel. This is despite the fact that Ms Walton several times referred to her work as ‘magical realism’, and so I should have been prepared for it to be wonderful, otherworldly and captivating. I guess I forgot that, and it was all to the good in terms of my reading experience.

The novel begins with a letter penned by the 70-year-old Ava, telling us that she is going to relate ‘the story of [her] young life as [she remembers] it’ (p. xi), and she tells us from the get-go that she was born in March, 1944, with the wings of a bird. These wings – speckled, beautiful, an intrinsic part of her skeleton and circulatory system – create different reactions among the people who encounter Ava throughout her singular life, but throughout it all Ava knows the truth about herself – she is ‘just a girl’ (p. vii).

But before we even get to any of that, the book sweeps back to the beginning of the twentieth century and tells the story of Ava’s grandmother, Emilienne, a young Frenchwoman brought to America by her idealistic father. He believes that he, his wife and four young children will have a better life in ‘Manhatine’ than they will en France. We learn of their fates in the years that follow their arrival, the tolls that life in New York take upon them and the various adventures, and crushing disappointments, and soaring beauties, which love visits upon them. Eventually, Emilienne (who, by now, has been left entirely alone in the world) marries Connor Lavender, whom she believes to be ‘a man [who] would have trouble leaving anywhere, or anyone for that matter’ (p. 29), and they move to Seattle, settling in a strange house which was built for a semi-mythical child named Fatima Ines de Dores many years before. The reader is then swept into Fatima’s story for a time before the narrative weaves us back into the lives of the Lavenders, and the strange town in which they find themselves living.

In time, Emilienne gives birth to Viviane, a baby who grows up largely ignored in the midst of her parents’, and eventually her mother’s, bakery. Viviane, too, falls in love as she grows, and finds the experience one which shackles her to home instead of freeing her to follow her heart wherever she wishes to go. When she is unexpectedly made pregnant, and gives birth in due course to Ava and her twin brother Henry, there is already a love in her life which she cannot see or appreciate and which she risks losing forever unless she opens her eyes to it – but her old love, the one which imprisons her, refuses to relinquish its hold on her.

Image: perpetualpageturner.com

Shut up! So what if I am? Image: perpetualpageturner.com

You won’t have missed the fact, of course, that all this happens before Ava Lavender is even born. The fact that a girl with wings, and her twin brother who does not speak, yet knows what’s truly going on in his family, are characters in this novel is just another jewel in its crown. This is a book stuffed with wonders, and I’m still not sure whether I am sad or glad that Ava, and her wings, almost seem normal in this cast of unique and engraved-upon-your-heart-at-first-glance characters.

An oft-repeated refrain in the novel is ‘Love makes us such fools’, and that’s one of its main themes. Love which beautifies and disfigures us, love which elevates and enervates, love which destroys and which bestows life – all those loves, and more, are in this book.

Here’s a quote I stickered with gusto:

By this point Viviane Lavender had loved Jack Griffith for twelve years, which was far more than half of her life. If she thought of her love as a commodity and were, say, to eat it, it would fill 4,745 cherry pies. If she were to preserve it, she would need 23,725 glass jars and labels and a basement spanning half the length of Pinnacle Lane.

If she were to drink it, she’d drown. (p. 107)

I am not normally a fan of books about love (yeuch). I don’t do romance, usually. But this isn’t a romance novel, really; we’re not talking pages of swooning dialogue and creaking bodices and burning glances stolen across crowded ballrooms, or any of that old nonsense. We’re talking souls and fanaticism and obsession and devotion; we’re talking maternal and paternal and grandmotherly love, and the sort of love that persists between siblings, even long after death. We’re talking the sort of love that gets crushed between the grinding cogs of a bad marriage but which haunts an abandoned partner in their dreams, all the same. We’re talking friendship so profound that it overlooks difference.

This is a story about the effects of love, more than love itself. It’s written beautifully, it’s gorgeously spun, the characters are marvellous, and the ‘baddie’ suitably deranged and horrific. A climactic scene involving Ava and someone who has convinced themselves they ‘love’ her was mentally scarring to read; the rehabilitating power of ‘good’ love was, by comparison, a balm. The ending was perfect, if a little surprising.

Emily Dickinson once wrote: ‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers’, and I think that’s what this novel has at its heart like a treasured secret. Ava is determined as much by her hope – that she will be happy, that she will be accepted, that she will find companionship of all kinds – as she is by her wings.

So, let’s just say I loved it – no pun intended. It’s a wonder. Read it as soon as you possibly can, and then buy a copy for someone close to you, and watch them as they read it.

Have a happy, and feathered, weekend, everyone.

Saturday Book Review – ‘Half Bad’

Sally Green’s début novel, ‘Half Bad’, has been getting a lot of press lately. It’s been called an ‘edgy and gripping success’ by the Telegraph, but the Guardian declared that ‘any sense of menace had been magicked out’ of it; over on Goodreads opinions appear similarly divided, with some readers feeling it owes a little too much to Harry Potter and others quite certain that its magical rites and traditions are utterly unique.

As for me? In typical fashion, I can see the merits of both points of view.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

Nathan Byrn lives with his grandmother and siblings (or, more technically, half-siblings) in an unnamed town in a country we can reasonably assume to be modern-day England. His eldest sister, Jessica, hates him with utter conviction, but his other siblings – Deborah and Arran – are depicted as kind and caring. Their mother, we soon learn, took her own life at some point in the past. Jessica, Deborah and Arran’s father is also dead – killed before the book begins by Marcus, the greatest and most powerful Black Witch in existence. Marcus also happens to be Nathan’s father.

After a very brief introduction to the child Nathan, the book opens in stunning form, introducing us to an older Nathan who is – for reasons unexplained – locked in a cage and living as a semi-slave under the total control of a tall, strong woman who is utterly immovable, both physically and emotionally. It takes us through his daily routine, his attempts to keep his sanity, his desire to escape. Those parts of the story which deal with Nathan’s imprisonment are narrated in the second person, an extraordinary technique which simultaneously makes the reader feel what Nathan’s feeling while also expressing his desire to distance himself from what is happening to him:

“You’re dizzy so it’s easy to swoon, sinking to your knees. She grabs you by your armpits but your left hand isn’t injured and it finds the handle and slides the knife out of her boot while she grapples with your dead weight and as you let your body sink further you bring the blade to your jugular. Fast and hard.

But she’s so bloody quick, and you kick and fight and fight and kick but she gets the knife off you and you’ve no kick and no fight left at all…”

(‘Half Bad’, page 17)

The text backtracks to show us why, and how, Nathan ended up in this situation, beginning as he starts secondary school at age eleven and comes into contact with the O’Brien children, who are powerful White Witches. The book takes place in a world where witches and ‘fains’, ordinary folk, intermingle – most fains aren’t aware, or don’t care, that witches exist and most witches are utterly indifferent to them, too. However, within the world of witches a huge gulf exists between the White and the Black. Hatred isn’t too strong a word to describe what they feel for one another. Nathan, as a half-Black, half-White witch, apparently the only one of his kind, is a focus for the Whites’ anger and disgust for Black magic, and receives severe treatment at the hands of the O’Brien boys.

It is the O’Brien’s sister Annalise who shows Nathan kindness and acceptance, and Annalise who becomes his only friend. That is, of course, until her family forces them apart.

Fearful that Nathan will develop into a Black witch – and perhaps one as powerful as his fabled father – he is kept under strict control. His life and freedom is curtailed by decree after decree, he must present himself for regular testing by the Council of White Witches, and – eventually – he is imprisoned by them. Not the most effective way of encouraging Nathan’s White side, inherited from his mother, to emerge, perhaps, but it’s such a human, bureaucratic, blind course of action that it feels utterly real. Throughout the book, the idea of White magic as ‘good’, no matter what it thinks of itself, and Black magic as ‘bad’ is constantly questioned; certainly, the White witches in this book are cruel, inhumane and severe, almost to an individual.

But of course we can’t forget the Black witches and their tendency to commit murder, most particularly Marcus, Nathan’s father, who not only kills his victims, but also eats their hearts…

Nathan embarks upon a quest to discover the truth about who he is – White or Black, a murderer or not – and, of course, the clock is ticking. He must figure all this out by his seventeenth birthday, the traditional day of a witch’s Giving ceremony, where they imbibe (along with the blood of their ancestors) the magic which will define them for the rest of their life.

I enjoyed this book. It was compelling, and well-written, and the central characters (particularly Nathan, whom I really warmed to) were fully drawn and fleshed out. I could see the similarities to the world of Harry Potter – the Hunters were a little like Aurors, the looming figure of Marcus was somewhat Voldemort-like, Nathan was scarred, like a certain Boy Who Lived – but I really feel Sally Green has done something different with her magical world. Of course, J.K. Rowling drew on folklore and witch-lore for her books, too, and Green draws on the same store of knowledge, but that doesn’t mean they are telling the same story. ‘Half Bad’ is gritty and violent and ‘real’, for a book about witches; it is about pain and suffering and struggle more than it is about magic. It’s about finding out who you are when you’re not sure you’re going to like who you are.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the ending – and, if I’m being honest, the last quarter of the book lost its hold over me, just a little – but nonetheless I’ll be impatiently waiting for ‘Half Wild’, its sequel, due for publication this time next year. I’m intrigued by Nathan Byrn, and I want to see how he ends up – and that’s recommendation enough for any book.

Image: s.667.photobucket.com, created by devillygirl88

Image: s.667.photobucket.com, created by devillygirl88