Colin Midson, Creative Director and programmer of the literary stages at the festival, picks out some of his favourite reads from the wonderful lineup of authors booked for this year’s fest.
When putting together the festival’s literary programme I always like to draw on the rich talent we have down here in Cornwall – it provides an important part of the festival’s character, I think. Patrick Gale, who moved here in the eighties and now lives out in the wilds of West Penwith, has arguably become one of our most beloved novelists. His latest, You Can Take it With You, is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man with a precocious gift for music (Gale himself plays both the modern and baroque cello) coming to terms with his sexuality. He’s a brilliant chronicler of those coming-of-age years, and his descriptions of music – particularly the pleasure that can be had from learning an instrument – are a joy to read. There is a generosity of spirit about his writing too – I always finish his novels feeling slighted bereft that his characters are no longer part of my day-to-day life.
One thing I’ve noticed over the last twelve months is the increasing popularity of dystopian fiction across the publishers’ lists; a sign of the times, surely. John Lanchester’s The Wall mixes themes of post-Brexit populism with environmental crisis to great effect, and I’m particularly excited about My Name is Monster, a debut novel by Katie Hale. It casts the narrator as sole survivor of some unexplained apocalyptic event and could be read as a feminist retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story. I was struck by her beautifully written prose – no surprise, as she’s a published poet – and its two elegantly mirrored halves that maintain an eerie tension while exploring some unsettling truths about motherhood, family and love.
I always try to strike the right balance with our non-fiction authors – no two events should feel the same and you have to include contributions from the worlds of science, memoir, the visual arts, nature, pop culture and current affairs. But for me this year there are some stand-out works of history in the mix.
Frederick Taylor – who lives down on the Lizard Peninsula not far from me – has made his name as a chronicler of German History with genre-defining books on the Berlin Wall and the bombing of Dresden. His latest, 1939 – The War Nobody Wanted, provides a compelling account of the inexorable march to war from the perspective of the British and German women, men and children who lived through it all. He’s great at approaching big historical moments with an eye for the everyday lived experiences – the accounts of Kristallnacht, taken from diary entries made by Jewish victims and the Germans who gave them sanctuary, will live long in the memory. Sadly, there’s a lot here that seems like essential reading in light of current political events. And we all know it didn’t end well…
I will fess up – I first came across Professor Kate Williams on the panel of an episode of Would I Lie to You. But whether it’s on a primetime comedy show or in the pages of her latest book, you can tell right away that she has a natural facility for storytelling. Rival Queens recounts the intense rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Each of them emerges as a fully rounded character trying to survive within a supremely dysfunctional family, and reluctant to be defined by their relationships with men. It’s a rollicking read and a useful reality check after the mythologizing of the recent Mary Queen of Scots film.