Category Archives: Books

The John Hewitt Society Summer School 2018 – An Unforgettable Cultural Experience!


It was my honour to have been awarded a full Bursary by the John Hewitt Society and my privilege to attend their prestigious Summer School in late July 2018.

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Situated in the Georgian surroundings of picturesque Armagh town, the Summer School takes place in the state-of-the-art venue of The Marketplace Theatre.

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I have used words like incredible, transformative, inspiring, engaging and amazing to describe the week’s enticing and immersive cultural timetable but in reality the Summer School is all that and more.

The thoughtfully designed schedule ensures that none of the individual events overlap. Days began at 9.45 am and there were at least five daily hour-long sessions outside of the creative writing workshops and at least one evening event.

In an attempt to give you a flavour of how the week progressed I have summed up most of the lectures, interviews and events that I attended. But some of you may not want to read all of this so I have clearly headed each session which will enable you to

  1. Skim through this and choose to read the ones that interest you.
  2. Read the whole thing (it is long!)
  3. At least scroll down to the paragraph about the Radio Drama Workshop and read on from there,
  4. Leave now and never talk of this again.

 

Opening Address

This year’s Summer School’s opening address was delivered by Dr. Martin Manseragh, former Fianna Fáil T.D. and former Minister for Finance and the Arts. His fascinating talk shedding illumination on the complexities behind ‘simple’ political messages, spanning recent centuries, North and South of the border.

 

Fiction: Patrick Gale

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Next up was an interview with author Patrick Gale who gave us insights into his writing process,
“Writing and reading are part of the same process.”
On character versus plot,
“Plot arises when you bring two characters together”
Answering a question about ‘wasted writing’,
“No creativity is wasted, you go down a path, and even if it is not used, you are enriched by the journey.”
I enjoyed this quote in particular,
“The whole fiction writing process is hugely therapeutic.”
He read and drew from his 2018 novel ‘Take Nothing With You’ during his interview.

 

Fiction and Photography – Travelling in a Strange Land: David Park & Sonya Whitefield

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The evening discussion was with author David Park about his novel ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ with photographs by Sonya Whitefield who, unfortunately, could not take part in the interview. Throughout the discussion we were given an understanding of the depth and spirituality of David Park, as a person and a writer, when he talked about his views of creativity,
“There is something redemptive and transcendent in art.”
“There are instinctive subconscious things in creativity.”
Also in his memories of the great snowfall of 1966,
“Never before and never after have I felt the weight of the universe.”
On his collaboration with Sonya Whitefield,
“The book is a finished item in itself but the photographs give it a different life.”
“There should be more opportunities for different art-forms to collaborate.”

Park read extracts from ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’

This lecture was followed by an exhibition of Sonya Whitefield’s thoughtfully taken photographs.

 

Poetry

On Monday evening we were treated to beautiful poetry readings by Imtiaz Dharker and Michael Longley.

I woke up on the Tuesday feeling that I had already been there for a week and was ready for more of the same.

 

John Hewitt and the Irish at Coventry

The morning sessions began with Ciaran Davis’ lecture on John Hewitt’s time as Director of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in post war Coventry (1957 -1972) and the difference in motivation behind his move (a secure job and a willingness to leave Belfast) in contrast to the many Irish people who were forced to see work in the city.

Hewitt’s vision was to help to regenerate the city and he felt that “A better society could be created by focussing on the local” and he brought in works by Stanley spencer and J.S.L. Lowry. While he was successful at first, ultimately, his vision was not supported by grant giving city officials.

 

Fiction – Liz Nugent

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We were treated to an interview with the always entertaining, generous and modest author Liz Nugent whose third book ‘Skin Deep’ was published earlier in 2018. Nugent answers gave advice to new and emerging writers.
“The first piece I wrote that was broadcast was for Sunday Miscellany about a pair of gloves (15 minutes). You can start out with something small.”
She explained how the characters from her short story ‘Alice’ “…wouldn’t leave me alone…” and evolved into her first book ‘Unravelling Oliver’.
Answering a question about her dislikeable characters she quipped “I aim to disturb.” She followed this by talking about ‘Skin Deep’,
“As a writer I thought it would be interesting to explore a character who doesn’t care at all

 

Politics – Facing Change: The Identity Perspective 

Tuesday’s post workshops session was a talk by Dr. Nabeel Goheer, Assistant Secretary General at the Commonwealth Secretariat, on the current state of flux we are experiencing in the world and what this means to our global Identities.
“All of the cooperations we started building up since the Second World War are now being questioned.”
With 6.5 Million people being displaced by conflict identity has come back on a global level as a topic. He outlined the meaning of a global citizen as anyone who has enough wealth to invest a percentage of it into global issues or globally recognisable individuals who have the best values and can reach a worldwide audience.

Music

Tuesday evening’s performance was a charming and quirky musical collection by Ulaid and Duke Special.


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Politics – ‘Cross Border Studies’ 

Wednesday started with an interesting lecture on ‘Cross Border Studies’ with Professor Arthur Aughey, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ulster University. He used the example of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the tangle of borders which were carved in Europe to demonstrate how,
“Frontiers are lines on a map but they are also a force of political ideologies.”
He went on to say that “One of the great objectives of the EU has been to remove the borders and the threats of the invasions of 1914-18 and 1939-45”
Issues in the Northern Ireland conflict was dominated by borders, terrorism and political identity and Professor Aughey recalled us that in 2017 Seamus Heaney suggested that the world had become a big Ulster.

 

Mary O’Donnell

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Mary O’Donnell, novelist, short story writer and poet, was the next author interview I attended. She was so interesting to listen to that I forgot to take many notes but I came away with a couple of gems.
“If something isn’t working in poetry I ask myself if this will work in fiction.”
One of O’Donnell’s general tips about being a writer,
“You need to be in good health and you need to be living a selfish lifestyle to be a writer and that is not possible for everyone.”

Panel – Writing and Refugees 

The guest that stood out for me from the *Writing and Refugees* panel was the multi-talented Annie Waithira, who made the most unforgettable entrance and then served us food for thought with some choice statements.
“If you cannot hear our stories then you will never be able to get to know us.”
“Dear Ireland, why have you forgotten the immigrant?”
To steal from the John Hewitt Society twitter account
“She represents the absent voice in many contemporary debates: the refugee woman.”
Waithira explained that not every immigrant is on the same journey.
“Just because we came on the same boat does not mean we are of the same situation.”

This panel was followed by the opening of an exhibition “Daily Lives: Asylum Seekers in Italy and Ireland” by Mariusz Smiejek.

Music and Dance – Edges of Light

Our evening’s entertainment on Wednesday was “Edges of Light” collaboration between Irish Dance legend Colin Dunne, fiddler Tola Custy, harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and uilleann piper David Power.
An energetic and very entertaining musical and dance interpretation of the time in 1916 when Ireland was 25 minutes and 12 seconds behind the UK and so to coordinate Ireland with GMT the time went back only 35 minutes that October (but not everybody stuck to the rule).

Towards the end of the week I was working on my workshop exercise (more about that later) and so didn’t get to as many of the events as I would have liked.

 

“Challenging the Two Traditions: Women, Memory and Literature.” 

Writer and PhD researcher at Ulster University, Eli Davies, investigated the Northern Ireland conflict through the lens of the women involved and the upheaval paramilitary activities had on marriages and relationships in literature about the period,
“During the conflict the home was politicised.”
“The female figure is portrayed as queen, victim, peacemaker, but often used in service of the bigger male narrative.”
“Nell McCafferty pinpoints the mundane duties that the conflict affected as opposed to the macro issues.”
In Deirdre Madden’s ‘One by One in the Darkness’. Davies points out that  “The house becomes a person or a character in itself.”

 

Fiction – Sheila Llewellyn

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The next interview was with author Sheila Llewellyn which centred about her debut novel ‘Walking Wounded’, which deals with how post-traumatic stress disorder was suffered and treated after the Second World War. The book has been praised by, among others, Pat Barker.
Llewellyn mentions that “the generation of writers who came after grew up with the narrative of the second World War.”
On research she said that “It satisfies my inner historian, I love doing the research but I have to hold myself back.”
While researching PTSD she came across recordings of soldiers recounting their experiences “You can hear them struggling to control the memories.”
One of her pre-war book loving characters returns with revulsion of literature because “Books lie because writers write a happy ending and life isn’t like that.”
Llewellyn says that a challenge that writers face is to portray some characters with as much integrity as possible while not liking them. 

 

Northern Ireland Political Collection at Linen Hall Library

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The next lecture was a visually centred lecture from Belfast’s Linen Hall Library on the topic of the Northern Ireland Political Collection.
The library is most famous for its local and Irish collections.
Sometime in 1969, Jimmy Vitty, then Librarian of the Linen Hall Library, was handed a civil rights leaflet in a Belfast city centre bar. He kept it. Since then the Library has sought to collect all printed material relating to the ‘Troubles’.
The Political Collection is the only one of its kind that began collecting before a conflict was started.
In 1972 the collection almost shut down under the Special Powers Act which banned dealings with any anti-Government literature.
A former librarian of Linen Hall quipped that the Political Collection has “Something to offend everyone.”
The library has various individual collections as well, for example, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Archive, Northern Ireland Women’s Movement and more. As well as that they hold a Troubled Images Project which comprises of 16 volumes of press clippings from the early 1970s to 1994,
The digitalisation of the Political Collection is currently underway.

 

Fiction – Michael Hughes

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The last event I attended was an interview with author Michael Hughes, whose most recent book “Country” is set during the Northern Irish conflict using the structure of Homer’s ‘Iliad’.  Hughes says said that he chose this approach because
“The Iliad took place among a small group of people who all know each other’s family history. A similar set up here in the Northern Ireland conflict”
He explained another reason for using the Iliad’s structure
“If you are writing about the conflict you will either to fictionalise or dramatise accounts of real people which isn’t fair to them.”

 

Creative Workshops

Throughout the week there was a choice of seven different creative workshops to attend, ‘Getting Started’ with Nessa O’Mahoney,’ Poetry’ with David Wheatley, ‘Poetry’ with Siobhán Campbell, ‘Short Story’ with Mary O’Donnell, ‘Fiction’ with Bernie McGill, ‘Memoir’ with Ferdia McKenna and the workshop that I opted for was ‘Radio Drama’ with Eoin McNamee.

 

Radio Drama Workshop

Eoin McNamee proved to be an excellent facilitator and on our first session he sent us out to the winding streets of Armagh with the quest of returning with a snippet of colloquial conversation. He then guided each of us to expand these snippets gradually into a short radio drama. The feedback he gave to the individual students acted as mini tutorials in the nuances of writing for radio for everybody at the workshop.

 

Creative Showcase

At 4.00 pm on Friday the Creative Writing Showcase took place. At least three people from each workshop read out their work. It was a shared pleasure to listen to the wealth of talent and promise from the bursary students chosen to read.

Thursday and Friday evening’s theatrical performances were a double bill from the remarkably astonishing mind and bodies (so to speak) of Mikel Murfi, “The Man In The Woman’s Shoes” and “I Hear You and Rejoice”. If you haven’t seen Murfi’s one man shows yet I urge you to rectify that. These two presentations were such a perfect way to finish off this culture laden week.

But it was not over yet. We all strolled down to the Armagh Centre for a fun open mic night.

During the week I met an eclectic range of people who fast became a strong foundation on which to grow a new creative family and it was their company that turned the cultural experience into an unforgettable adventure.

I woke up on Saturday morning in the charming and quirky Charlemont Arms Hotel with the feeling that I had been back to the best parts of university for a week – the pleasure of learning without the pressure of exams.

I came away with the feeling that I wanted to work towards something astounding but if I don’t manage that I’m definitely aiming higher than before.

If you have an interest in encountering culture I advise you to attend in 2019, see you there.

Finally I have to send many, many thanks the John Hewitt Society for awarding me this incredible opportunity and putting together an unforgettable week and to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs who kindly funded the ROI bursary students.

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History of the Rain by Niall Williams – Book Review


Bedridden bookworm, Ruth Swain, spins a story focused on the paternal genealogy of her family aided by the insights from the inhabitants of her rural Irish village and some famous literary characters.

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I am not surprised that this book made the long list for the ManBooker 2014. Niall Williams has created a work which is both deeply insightful, emotionally rich, evoking universal themes through a parochial lens and above all it is so beautifully written that you could imagine that each sentence might have taken a week to sculpt.

While it is set in the present day the story has a classic edge and is told by the agoraphobic, ill-stricken and well-read narrator Ruth as she occupies her time in the attic of her family home trying to paint a literary picture of her father. To do this she explains, she must begin with her Great-Grand Father. We are treated to their rich history which she patches together by borrowing from voices of long dead authors.

Ruth’s narrative is full of lovely ironic humour which underlines the regret she feels her ancestors sensed about their own offspring.

Even though the story is set in post-economic-bust Ireland the style is classic in nature. It is a first person internal monologue from the self-confessed unreliable narration from Ruth. She admits very early on that she knows little about her ancestors but manages to bring them alive through the many references from literary authors, their characters and gossipy allusions from the ‘real’ people who live in her village of Faha. It is these devices which breathes life and grounds William’s novel and its main character.

Like a song the music of the sentences lures you in and like a river the winding story carries you to the end.

Her own character is an amalgam influence of the classic texts of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson to which she alludes often. She is externally bitter at her confinement but her softly jumbled internal voice proves that lives can be lived and created through literature. Ruth Swain’s character exemplifies the differences between the way people think and the way we act.

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This is a novel about seeking and revealing truths about the world, about families, about community, about isolation, the overcoming of obstacles, loss and about writing.

As well as all of the above “History of the Rain” is a novel that speaks directly to readers and writers about how stories are put together. The allusions to literary characters are treated in such a way that readers familiar with them will warm to their memories but Williams introduces them with a style that will not alienate those unfamiliar with the texts. This combined with the narrator’s comic use of the colloquialisms from her neighbours throughout the story makes the novel in some ways a subtle guide to writing.

He is proving the point that he makes in this sentence which arrives toward the end of the novel.

“Each book is the sum of all the others the writer has read”.

This is a wonderful sum.

8/10

Wonder by R. J. Palacio – Book Review


Augustus Pullman was born with a combination of genetic abnormalities which gave him a severely distorted face. He has been home-schooled and understandably pampered by his family for the first ten years of his life. But this year is going to be different.

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Everybody feels like an outsider at one stage in their lives and Palacio puts this feeling under the microscope through August (Auggie) Pullman’s story of his first year in a proper school. Told from several perspectives she covers many themes that touch on all our lives, isolation, bullying, jealousy, family stresses, friendships and the misunderstandings that all make up the human package.

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Choosing a main character whose face is so misshapen and giving him a self-effacing sense of humour and a clear sense of his own self-worth makes the reader feel guilty at memories of anytime in our lives when we have sneaked a peak or reacted unfavourable to anyone we have encountered who might be physically different to ourselves.

Palacio does not just give justice to Auggie’s daily battles but she also gives a voice to those around him and the ripple effect that spreads through his family and friends.

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I laughed, cried, cringed, felt the aforementioned guilt, was scared and rooted for Auggie while reading his story. In the end I have the author to thank for bringing me on this touching journey.

Palacio has placed herself firmly on a bookshelf beside The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime, Holes and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas with her debut 2011 novel Wonder. It doesn’t matter that this book was aimed at 8-12 year olds because anyone who remembers feeling lost as a child whether it was in school or within your own circle of friends will be able to relate.

It deserves all the awards it has already received got and more.

10/10

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore By Robin Sloan – Book Review


Clay, previously of Silicon Valley and current victim of the crumbling economy takes a job in an ancient San Francisco bookstore which plunges him into a mystery involving ancient codes, hidden organisations and Google.

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Author Robin Sloan could be a version of me from a parallel universe. He has worked in a place whose product I am addicted to (i.e. Twitter) and published a charming mystery in which I found myself thoroughly lost.

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Reading the author’s bio it becomes clear that he based his main character around himself and then spun a wonderfully enigmatic story using his passions (while I found myself unemployed and turned my passions to self-employment, dammit why haven’ I finished my book yet!)

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Sloan has created a one volumed fantasy for the modern age without having to resort to the magic of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. We find ourselves in a pacy quest as the main character Clay starts to uncover the secrets he finds in the depths of his new job. An out of the way and ancient bookshop run by the not-quite equally-ancient and bright eyed Mr. Pemunbra who, for a bookstore owner, doesn’t seem to be interested in actually selling books.

Sloan as carved a nice mystery that book lovers, history enthusiasts and futurists alike will enjoy. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fiction. While lovers of fantasies and sci-fi will stumble across many recognisable references they are not so intrinsic to the plot as to exclude those familiar with the genres.

10/10

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – Book Review


Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika in 1866 via a long-winded route from Scotland to seek his fortune in the gold fields of New Zealand.  On his first night he casually stumbles upon a secret meeting of 12 men who have assembled in order to uncover the mystery that links, a politician, an opium riddled whore, a stash of Gold, and the murder of a hermit.

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It took me four attempts to get to page 20 of Catton’s impressive doorstop of a 2013 Man Booker prize winning second novel (830+ pages). I wasn’t re reading but I was not convinced that her late 19th century descriptive style was grabbing my attention. In that first 20 pages Catton describes Walter Moody’s effect and impression upon entering a room. Just before I gave in I turned to page 20 and realised I was hooked. I had fully entered the world of Hokitika and surrounded by the various colourful characters who busied themselves about its streets, hotels, taverns, businesses, goldfields, opium dens and newspaper, all peppered with the authors dry wit.

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In the first section of the book Catton presents us and Walter Moody with a mystery and the twelve men who are trying to uncover its secrets. But she delivers the different pieces of the puzzle on a spinning tray full of clever literary devices. Information is pieced together by the inner and outer voices of the characters so that the reader is the only one who sees the full picture, or at least the fullest picture.

By the time we find ourselves making our way down the now familiar streets of the gold-mining town of Hokitika in the second section our boots are muddied, sweat and opium fumes tug at our nostrils, dead men are hinting that there are tales to be told and we could easily converse with any of the characters about more than a handful of topics;  we almost uncover different aspects of intriguingly jumbled narrative with each line of every exchange and conversation.

Novelist Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal

Catton is a master a sculpting the delivery of her story and painting an engrossing background as if it was an afterthought. Up to around 760 I did not feel like I was reading a book of over one and a half reams but the final stretch or at least those last 70 pages began to sag and my interest flagged.

I did not take into account the astrological significance before or during my reading and despite how lovely the adventure of language and character I was on  the structure did not work in my favour. While I still enjoyed being in the company of these characters I missed the prominent earlier ones who had figured so much in the first half. But the first two thirds are still better than many entire books I have read.

There are two questions that remain unanswered in my mind but I will  not ruin the plot for those of you who are yet to dive into the wonderful world Catton has created.

If you have read it we have already begun to discuss plot points in the comments below. (Spoilers ahoy)

Nevertheless I would recommend The Luminaries and look forward to reading more from Catton.

7/10

Other posts which may be of interest.

2013 Man Booker Longlisted Irish Authors

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki Book Review

One Campus One Book


The idea of turning a vast landscape of people into a massive book club will be familiar to some of you. Dublin City Council have been running it for a few years now and aptly chose ”Strumpet City” by Joseph Plunkett for 2013 April ‘bookclub’ for the city.

The initiative is an idea that travelled over the Atlantic from The U.S. where libraries and Universities have also been running the One Campus One Book for quite some time.

You might have expected Trinity College Dublin or perhaps University College Dublin to have seized on the idea.

But no, it was the ever-forward thinking University of Limerick (UL) who beat the rest of the Irish third level institutions by choosing the 2013/2014 academic year to promote one book to the entire campus.

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They decided on the stunning debut novel “The Spinning Heart” by Donal Ryan. Ryan is a graduate of UL and a native of the county.

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The initiative came from UL’s Regional Writing Centre which aids the students and staff of the University with the overall aim of enhancing their writing skills.

What I find particularly special about One campus One Book is that I will be able to visit the University throughout this year and already have something in common with anyone I happen to meet. Whether it be a student, lecturer, or anyone who works on campus. They may not have read it yet but most of them will have heard of Donal Ryan.

The most recent last event took place on the 17th December when the author Donal Ryan spoke to an intimate group of about twenty people. The all were given a chance to ask him questions about his book. There was a great divide between questions about the story and questions about writing.

In March of 2014 UL will be conducting a public interview with Donal where a larger audience will have a chance to ask him questions about his own writing and writing in general.

The theme of “The Spinning Heart”, the effect that the recession on not just the country but on an individual level, is relevant to everybody living in Ireland today especially as his characters are representative the landscape of our country’s population from student, to single Mum, from labourer to professional, from the withdrawn to the local gossip and more.

University of Limerick “One Campus One Book” press release

A Tale For The Time Being By Ruth Ozeki – Book Review


An Author is distracted from writing her own novel and becomes obsessed by the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl that she finds washed up on a beach near her home in Canada.

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I had planned to read all of the shortlisted titles for the Man Booker 2013 awards but you will have to make do with two out of five. I have already reviewed The Testament of Mary.

I finished this book about two weeks ago and have had much difficulty in approaching the review; not because I did not enjoy it, on the contrary because there are so many layers that belie the 422 actual pages of the book.

What is it about? If I could sum it up in one word it is about ‘belonging’ and how that fits with our place in family, society and the world. But it is also about elevated teenage angst, Buddism, relationships between children, parents, grandparents and within marriages, a Jungle Crow, Japanese culture, notions of honour and suicide, a sixty year old watch, philosophy, horrendous on and offline bullying, displacement, a cat, alienation, ecology, and bad internet connections.

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Ozeki structures the novel in alternate chapters so that we get to know the two main characters Nao, the young frustrated Japanese diarist and Ruth the increasing unsatisfied novelist as she reads the diary which is written as if Nao is speaking directly to her as a confident. It may seem packed with themes from my description above but Ozeki manages to weave them together into such a seamless narrative that you might not even realise that you have digested particular messages themes until, like me and sometime later, you are standing in a queue for a bank and one arrives without warning.

This is an excellent example of what writer’s block can produce.

Everyone should read it.

Here is an interview with the author about her novel.

10/10