Working at Durham Book Festival is always one of my favourite times of year. Not only do we get to work on lots of fun and interesting events, but we also get that sideways view from behind the scenes too. This year’s digital element to the festival means that we’re getting our backstage passes early, as it were – lurking off-screen on digital events with authors or captioning pre-recorded videos all summer long.
This is the Canon: Decolonise Your Bookshelf in 50 Books is one such event I’ve had the pleasure of working on, and my TBR list has grown a mile! While checking book titles for my caption check, it was very challenging not to slip them into my shopping basket, because the book’s authors Kadija Sessay, Joan Anim-Addo and Deirdre Osborne not only made me really want to read their own book, which makes the case for exploring and discovering the wealth of literature from around the world outside the traditional ‘required reading’ lists, but of course they enthuse about many other titles too, from NW by Zadie Smith and The Sellout by Paul Beatty, to a short story collection by Samoan writer Albert Wendt.
I am loving The Kids by Hannah Lowe, a collection of sonnets that moves back and forth between Lowe’s experiences as a teacher at an inner-city London sixth form and her own experiences of education in her late teens. There’s a continuity in these poems that invests them with a narrative that builds the more deeply you go into the collection. Hannah Lowe’s writing is liquid and natural – reading her poems is like watching water flow over rocks. Most of all, these poems are warm and personal, a tribute to the kids she taught and learned from and the people who had such a profound impact on her when she was the same age. Catch Hannah at our online Poetry Book Society Showcase on 9 October.
I’m currently reading the Durham Book Festival Big Read, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay. I don’t often read memoirs, but this one is so captivating just from the first few chapters. It’s quite shocking to see what Lemn went through, but I can tell it’s going to be a really important and powerful story and I’m interested to see Lemn in person at his event on 16 October. I’ve also added The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward to my TBR after captioning her ‘Thrillers With a Twist’ event with Abigail Dean. Again, I don’t really read thrillers or horror, but I am so intrigued by this one – the turning point was when I found out there are chapters written from the perspective of a cat. My reading the last few months has been very slow, so I’m in the mood for something that will fully pull me into its atmosphere and setting, and keep me turning pages even when I have other things I should really be doing.
I’m currently reading Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, which is the sequel to The Silence of the Girls. A feminist re-telling of the Iliad, it gives voice to the women who are silenced in the source material. The story is compelling and brutal and readers will notice parallels with the experiences of the women in the book and those now living in contemporary Afghanistan. To find out more about this brilliant book, I hope you’ll tune into our event with Pat Barker on 10 October, filmed in Durham University’s beautiful Bishop Cosin’s Library.
I was captivated by Kirsty Capes’s Careless. As someone interested in the inequalities within society, it was brilliant to come across such a human story of the care experience that is by turns agonising, funny and inspirational. I connected with the main character of Bess from the first page, and through her the book explores so many subjects pertinent to the teenage experience: friendships, romance, pregnancy, families, as well as hopes and dreams for the future. The fact that Kirsty herself is a care leaver lends the novel further poignancy, and I hope that this paves the way for further representation for care-experienced young people within literature. We’ve got a free, online event lined up with Kirsty on 13 October that I’m really looking forward to.
I have read and loved so many of our Durham Book Festival titles this year but happily I still have many more awaiting me. Particularly, there are a couple of non-fiction titles that I can’t wait to get to. Georgina Lawton is appearing in the digital event ‘Writing their Lives’, about the art of memoir, and her book Raceless sounds fascinating. Unravelling family secrets, it tells the story of her childhood in a home that, whilst being loving and supportive, refused to acknowledge her Blackness. Another non-fiction book I’ll be picking up this autumn is Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists by Julia Ebner. Working in a counter-extremism think tank by day, Julia felt that to truly understand these groups she needed to get inside them. Going Dark is the product of two years of Julia’s undercover investigations into the darkest recesses of extremist groups. Julia will be appearing live in Durham as part of an event with Russia expert Luke Harding.