I had scoured the Cheltenham Literary Festival brochure, and worked out a nice programme of events, three on the first afternoon into the evening, and two on the following day. I saved them all to my wishlist and crossed my fingers. Living and hour and a half drive away I decided to treat myself to a hotel and booked a room at the Premier Inn, sadly not being surprised at the price being a third more expensive than normal for the festival! I then wondered if I should spend another £25 to get members priority booking – but decided to take my chances and save my cash – that was probably my first mistake…
Waterstones was offering Plus card holders the opportunity to book a day ahead of the general public – but the link provided didn’t let me move my wishlist into the basket yesterday. Anyway, it turned out that the Stanley Tucci event, which was in the biggest venue, was already sold out to those who’d paid for priority booking. ‘Oh well’, I said to myself. ‘Maybe he’ll come to Oxford?’ I still couldn’t get the Waterstones thing to work, so resigned myself to waiting for the open booking this morning – second mistake – should have phoned yesterday, but was too busy on the first day of school being back.
In the end, I was busy at school today too and couldn’t get to my laptop until midday, and by then the event that was at the very top of my list was sold out – that was Amy Jeffs and Zoe Gilbert – one NF, one fiction, both folklore – Gilbert’s book Mischief Acts still being the best thing I’ve read this year.
I could still go to the Nordic Noir panel on the Friday evening and the Art in Fiction panel on Saturday lunchtime, with Ian McEwan as a morning filler in between, but just the three events seems a waste of the hotel. If I could get there earlier on the Friday I could go to Kamila Shamsie, but that’s not possible, and there’s nothing I fancy in the tea time slot. Added to all of that parking is always a challenge in Cheltenham at festival time; I’d still have to drive and park at Didcot if I caught the train.
So in a fit of pique, I’m not going any more! Hotel booking now cancelled. Disappointed? Yes, but I’ll be able to pay my fuel bills.
Rant over! Now to a couple of shorter reviews.
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash
After publishing Wiley Cash’s latest novel earlier this year, Faber decided to reprint his first two books this summer. I’d not heard of him before, but the promise of a Southern Gothic feel was enough to tempt me.
A Land More Kind Than Home was first published in 2012. It is set in the Carolinas, in an Appalachian town where the ramshackle church set up in a former general store, with its windows papered up to prevent people seeing in, has a devout following. The novel begins with a confrontation between Pastor Carson Chambliss and Adelaide Lyle, the latter narrates this chapter:
Chambliss never forgave me for taking the children out of that church. He warned me then that in leaving the church I was leaving my life as I’d known it, and that those folks wouldn’t ever accept me the way they once had and that I’d always be an outsider. I told him I wasn’t leaving the church, I was leaving him, but I knew he was right. I lost friendships I’d had just about my whole life, and it hurt me. It still does. But for ten years I kept those children out, kept them safe.
Right from the start we know what risky business Chambliss is involved in is, as the reference to Mark 16: 17-18 on the church’s sign makes clear. If you’re unfamiliar with that, it’s about speaking in tongues and handling snakes.
In the second chapter, nine-year-old Jess Hall takes up the story. His older brother, known as Stump, is autistic and mute was taken to church that morning, and Jess’s friend Joe dares him to look into the church through a hole by its aircon unit. And what he sees shocks him then, and later even more after Stump dies at a healing event, and his death is hushed up. But Adelaide and the Sheriff both know what happened but it’ll be difficult to prove.
The characters in this novel are all brilliantly drawn, all their own battles and motivations are explored and the community comes to life too. Stump doesn’t talk for himself, but we see him through the others. The plot gets a little baggy in the second half, but its a great character study, and a good debut novel that I enjoyed a lot.
Source: Review copy – thank you! Faber pbk, 309 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
Managing Expectations by Minnie Driver
From all the times I’ve seen her on chat shows and the like, it’s always been clear that Minnie Driver can talk a good story, has strong opinions and is a rebel at heart. If she was going to write a memoir, you’d sense it would be slightly unconventional – and that’s exactly what she gives us in Managing Expectations; she even writes her own blurb on the back:
This book is memoir-ish. A tell-most. Largely because there’s a lot I don’t remember, and a lot that’s not worth talking about.
So this is a collection of stories about how things not working out – worked out in the end. How reaching for the dream is easily more interesting, expansive, sad and funny than the dream itself coming true.
The ten chapters form ten periods of her life, and begin with her returning to boarding school aged nine, playing the ‘I am being abducted’ trick to passers-by in the car with her mother, but to no avail. Her father left when she was six, her parents had never been married, as her father was married to someone else, and the courts insisted that her mother marry, find a house and get Minnie and Kate in school within just a couple of months in order to keep custody of her girls. Her mother managed it, but their stepfather is difficult and has no idea of how to deal with them, so the answer is boarding school, but that has bad bits too. She enjoys the lessons, it’s the rest she hates, and she’s always running away or hiding.
She takes us through her first jobs getting her big break on Circle of Friends, her agent sends her to New York to do publicity and she walks in on the co-directors of what will be the wonderful Big Night (one of whom is Stanley Tucci of course) having an argument and wins the part of Phyllis. This gives her some degree of celebrity.
Becoming famous was like everyone else had taken hallucinogenic drugs and I was the giant talking mushroom in their trip. It was hardly noticeable t first, people would smile in my direction sometimes, but it could have been at something happening behind me; then the next thing I knew, a guy was lying in the gutter as I’d get out of my car, trying to take a picture of my vagina.
She takes us through the process of the Oscars ceremony – she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Good Will Hunting. She later moved to Malibu, and when forest fires cut off access to so many properties, marooning residents – she and friends ran the gauntlet of the Californian coastguard to paddleboard in supplies to friends stuck there.
Everything she decides to tell us the most about is interesting, funny, poignant and revealing in her honesty. She writes so well – but then you’d expect her to! A wonderful collection of episodes from her life, this book was a joy to read. Highly recommended.