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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Elena, Elif & Edith

A new selection of Raven Readers books to take us through to midsummer:

Elena Ferrante first appeared on my radar last August during Women In Translation month when she was by far the most read & reviewed author. In the last few weeks there has been a groundswell of interest with pieces on her in the papers and on the radio so it seems the perfect time to move her to the top of my To Read stack. (April 30th)
The most recent novel from Elif Shafak, one of the most widely read Turkish authors, The Architect's Apprentice is "filled with all the colour of the Ottoman Empire, when Istanbul was the teeming centre of civilisation". (May 28th)

Edith Pearlman won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Binocular Vision in 2011 and I've been meaning to read these stories ever since. I love that she didn't publish her debut collection until she was 60. (June 25th)

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Saturday, 21 March 2015

Girls Prefer To Be Skinny, or, Why I Do Junior Bookclubs

The Maze Runner is a Young Adult novel which opens with around 60 teenage boys living in a fabricated Utopia-prison surround by a Maze they believe holds the key to their release. I met with a dozen 11-12yr old girls to examine the book and what follows is a small portion of a lively, engaged discussion which included authorial treatment of race, misogyny, narrative devices, tribes, inverted portals, and the minds of teenage boys.

How do you think the book would have been different if the gender was reversed and there were 60 teenage girls in The Glade?

It wouldn't have worked at all, girls wouldn't have been able to live like that, they're not strong for all the hard work.
And when a group of girls get together.... it can be a bit nasty, they wouldn't work as well together as the boys.
They wouldn't be able to what the boys did like sowing seeds and hoeing and weeding and slaughtering animals.
Yeah, they're more interested in make-up.

This is a life-or-death situation, do you think they'd care how they looked?

Well OK but girls prefer to be skinny rather than muscular.

[stunned pause]
Right. OK. Let's see how many females - fictional or real - you can name who have shown strength and courage.

Hermione Granger! Mrs Weasley! Professor McGonagall!

Good, how about beyond Harry Potter?

Katniss! Cassia! [plus a few others I didn't recognise and sadly can't remember]

Great, how about in real life? Any female sports heroes?


Yes! Anyone else in real life?

Countess Markievicz. Mary Robinson. Grace Gifford Plunkett.
Emma Watson! Malala!

Excellent! So, if you put all of those women in The Glade, would they have managed it?

Of course! Plus they would have solved it quicker.
Yeah, no way they would have spent two years running around a stupid maze.

Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver - Countess Markievicz

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Friday, 5 December 2014

The Snow Merchant

This is why I love Twitter: a few Fridays ago I tweeted that my #FridayReads was Sam Gayton's The Snow Merchant which I was thoroughly enjoying and anticipated choosing for our boys bookclub. Entirely of his own volition, the lovely Mr Gayton responded that he would happily do a Twitter chat with the bookclub when we next met. That meeting was today!
First, I had the boys think about and write down the questions they wanted to ask about the book and the author's writing/reading habits. Then, with a slightly rocky start as frankly ten hyper youngsters crowding around does slightly impede ones ability to focus on tweeting, the conversation began. I only wish I could include all of the reactions of the boys to Sam's responses. (I've ordered the sequence below to make for easier reading)

RB: @sam_gayton Hi Sam! Are you ready to go? Lots of enthusiastic boys here!

SG: @ravenbooks READY, STEADY, TWEET

RB: @sam_gayton Q1 (ready or not!): Why did you write The Snow Merchant?

SG: @ravenbooks A: World Domination

RB: @sam_gayton Great answer! Lots of giggles :)

RB: @sam_gayton A comment: I don't think you should be tweeting an evil mastermind, it might be inappropriate!

SG: @ravenbooks but... but... won't you guys be my minions? I plan to take over the world in the next few years

SG: @ravenbooks Also, seriously, I was working late one wintry night and looked out my window and saw all this snow on my windowsill. I got that

SG: @ravenbooks crackly magic feeling you get when you look out at snow falling. And I looked at my windowsill and I thought, 'Who put that snow

SG: @ravenbooks there?' (It was late, I'd had lots of coffee, I wasn't thinking straight). And at once I thought of this Jack Frost type guy,the

SG: @ravenbooks Snow Merchant, who brings snow to all the towns of the world, and I had the start to my story

RB: @sam_gayton Excellent. #thepowerofhobnobs

SG: @ravenbooks Oh yes indeed. I'd had a whole packet. The ones with the chocolate top!

RB: @sam_gayton Q2: How did you come up with the name Lettie Peppercorn?

SG: @ravenbooks my friend @lotteallan moved to Finland (snowy place) while I was writing it, so Lotte sort of inspired Lettie.

SG: @ravenbooks and a Peppercorn rent is sort of something people pay as a token amount of money for somewhere

RB: @sam_gayton Q3: Is the published ending how you first wrote it?

SG: @ravenbooks yeah it is! I wrote that first time and changed barely anything. It was the middle where things got really crazily rewritten

RB: @sam_gayton Q4: Were the characters influenced by real people?

SG: @ravenbooks YES My Uncle's name is Pat McNulty (he doesn't have a beard though)

SG: @ravenbooks and I have two Nans... wonder if you can figure out who they are based on...

RB: @sam_gayton Q5: Who is your favourite author (other than yourself!)?

SG: @ravenbooks an American guy called Cormac McCarthy. He's a genius. Very dark and terrifying. Also, I like Ursula K le Guin, Terry Pratchett,

SG: @ravenbooks MT Anderson, Shaun Tan, Stephen King... I've said too many, haven't I? You said just one. Sorrrrrrrrry

RB: @sam_gayton Q6: What is your favourite book, and what was it when you were 9/10?

SG: @ravenbooks I think it was... Hmm... Either REDWALL by Brian Jacques, or THE IRON MAN by Ted Hughes, or beautiful stories of RAY BRADBURY

RB: @sam_gayton Ray Bradbury is new to them, some have read The Iron Man, and one has read a comic version of Redwall

SG: @ravenbooks Ray Bradbury is magic. MAGIC. His stories are like ghosts. They get inside your skull and haunt you for years

SG: @ravenbooks Try 'The Day It Rained Forever' or 'The Martian Chronicles' or 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'

RB: @sam_gayton Q7: What would you be if you weren't an author?

SG: @ravenbooks taxi driver

SG: @ravenbooks rock star

SG: @ravenbooks stage-fight choreographer

SG: @ravenbooks zombie apocalypse survivalist expert

RB: @sam_gayton "Zombie apocalypse??! That's not gonna happen!"

SG: @ravenbooks that's what the zombies want you to think

RB: @sam_gayton Q8: What is the greatest adventure you've ever been on?

SG: @ravenbooks I went to LARPS once. It's where you dress up as an elf and get a foam sword and run around a forest pretending you're in Mordor

RB: @sam_gayton "Can you hit someone?"

SG: @ravenbooks yeah but the swords are rubber. I got carried away though cos there was a special move where you yelled out CLEAVING BLOWWW and

SG: @ravenbooks then bring the sword down over your head and stun the enemy and I did it too hard and really hurt a goblin and we had to stop

SG: @ravenbooks it was very embarrassing all the orcs were shaking their heads at me

RB: @sam_gayton Q9: Who is your favourite character in The Snow Merchant and why?

SG: @ravenbooks I like Teresa the best and in fact I have just written another story about her, and how she turns a nasty Prince into a kitten

SG: @ravenbooks she's the best because she's strong and sure of herself and makes big choices that make crazy things happen in the story

RB: @sam_gayton Q10: Have you ever been to Dublin? Have you any plans to visit?

SG: @ravenbooks never been, no. I would love to visit. Can I sleep on the floor of Raven Books?

RB: @sam_gayton "we'll use fictional books for his pillow" (that's a yes!)

RB: @sam_gayton Q11: Do you prefer reading fictional or factional books?


RB: @sam_gayton Q12: How long did it take you to write the book from first line to publication?

SG: @ravenbooks ~2 years in all. But I did have breaks in that time. It wasn't all just typing and hob nob eating

SG: @ravenbooks now can I ask you some questions?

RB: @sam_gayton okey-dokey!

SG: @ravenbooks Q1. Where do you think Noah ends up? Q2. If you were an alchemist, what would you turn your teacher/parents into? Q3. Ant or Dec

RB: @sam_gayton A1: In the ocean, with his gran

SG: @ravenbooks aww tragic

RB: @sam_gayton A2: A muffin, a goblin that runs into walls, a stick of dynamite, a dinosaur, someone that turns everything into sweets

RB: @sam_gayton A3: Dec. (most too young to know, bless)

RB: @sam_gayton Huge huge thanks from the boys

SG: @ravenbooks awesome, thanks it was great :-)

We're so grateful to Sam for generously sharing his time with us and heartily endorse The Snow Merchant as a lively, fantastical, adventure-laden read.

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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A Door to Spring

January seems impossibly distant yet will be with us before we know it. The three Raven Readers books to draw us out of Winter darkness into the Spring sunshine are as follows:

To start off 2015, The Door has been on my list for too long. Reading a recent interview with the translator (who said it was one of his most memorable works) spurred me to place it top of the stack. (January 29th)

A thought-provoking book, I hope, in preparation for the beginning of Lent - Jim Crace's Quarantine won the Whitbread (now Costa) Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker. I've enjoyed the others of his I've read. (February 26th)

Having been bowled over by Louise Stern's debut collection of short stories, Chattering, I am nervous and excited to dive into her first novel, Ismael And His Sisters. It is a select few writers who can move smoothly between the very different disciplines of a short story and a novel; I have high hopes Ms Stern will join their ranks. (March 26th)

A reminder that places are open but limited and it is essential that you let us know in advance if you would like to join in the discussion (7:30pm start time). Email us at hello@ravenbooks .ie

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Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Ironically for this being a memoir of sorts, the main story felt more like reading fiction than the novel Ru. The book was written by Byambasuren Davaa, originally from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, and Lisa Reisch, a German who worked with Davaa on her first film, The Story of the Weeping Camel. It was translated from German by Sally-Ann Spencer and is published by Virago.

The book is short, 137 pages including a glossary, and contains lots of wonderful photographs of their subjects, bearing witness to the richness of the nomadic life. It was written as an extension of Davaa and Reisch filming one family of Mongolian nomads and follows the same narrative. As such, the flow is uneven and jumps from "scene" to "scene", attempting to tell the family's story through their daughter Nansaa and her dog Zochor. The content is fascinating, a door opening on a culture I knew nothing about; two cultures really as Davaa also shares some of her memories of growing up a city girl in Ulaanbaatar, quite a different experience to that of her nomadic compatriots.

As both women are in the business of storytelling, I was disappointed that there wasn't more detailed exploration of Mongolian life generally though Davaa teases with glimpses such as the fact that by 1989 Mongolia had a literacy rate of almost 100%. The book was an excellent first step in discovering something of the way of life of the Mongolian nomads and a little of the country as a whole but I was left wanting more.

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Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Falling into Autumn

As summer fades, we look to our next three Raven Bookclub reads:

I've wanted to read Jean Rhys since hearing a piece about her on Radio 4 several years ago. Her best known novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), is as good a place as any to start. Should you wish for a more in depth discussion, Jane Eyre can be your companion read. (September 25th)

Welcomed with open arms, this is a reread for me. The most autobiographical of his novels, Crossing to Safety (1987) holds a very special place in my heart and is a good starting place for anyone who hasn't yet discovered Wallace Stegner. (October 30th)

I am aware that this is our third book this year with an attachment to Paris, it's not intentional, I promise! The House in Paris (1935) will be very different to either The Chateau or Paris Stories, though it is entirely possible the novel was read by both William Maxwell and Mavis Gallant as both were admirers of Elizabeth Bowen's writing. (November 27th)

A reminder that places are open but limited and it is essential that you let us know in advance if you would like to join in the discussion (7:30pm start time). Email us at hello@ravenbooks .ie

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Thursday, 14 August 2014


Ru is categorised as fiction, and the author insists that the protagonist embodies the experiences of many of the Vietnamese Boat People, not just her, yet it reads like a lyrical autobiography. Opening with the day of her birth, Thúy follows the protagonist's thought flow back and forth through childhood in a wealthy family in Saigon, the invasion of the Communists, escape by boat, the appalling refugee camp in Malaysia, arrival in and acclimatisation to Canada, becoming a mother, and returning with work to Vietnam.

Each anecdote, musing, snippet - most barely a page long - links to the next, often tenuously, the way a conversation will go; something one person says triggering a memory in the other person and so it bounces back and forth. This form never feels loose or accidental, there is a control in the weaving of memories and observations that leaves the reader with a vivid tableau of the drastic changes and adjustments the lives of the Vietnamese Boat People underwent.

At 153 pages, it is a tremendous achievement of the author's to leave the reader with a vastly expanded understanding of life in Saigon during and after the Vietnam War, the unspeakably deplorable conditions of refugee camps, the immigrant experience - simultaneously unique and universal, the expanse of understanding of ones own mother through maturity, the measure of cultural belonging when faced with the reality of a country that had been clung to from afar only to realise that, for better or worse, you are a foreigner there.

I loved reading this book. I loved finding out about Vietnamese culture (don't ever touch them on the head), I loved the complexity of the family and their interactions with one another, I loved the contrast of how immersed she was as a child in Saigon and how separated she was on her return as an adult. I loved her observations on love - how the men in her life were indistinct but the love she felt for her children was all-consuming. It was a wholly engaging and an enlightening read, and I definitely want to read her new novel, Mãn.

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