2017 Pultizer Prize Winner: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th April, 2017 (latest edition), Trade paperback 9th August 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 306

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER and a NEW YORK TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER FOR FICTION 2016

2017 Pultizer Prize Winner

‘Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime’ Guardian
‘Luminous, furious, wildly inventive’ Observer
‘Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I’ve read this year’ Stylist
‘Dazzling’ New York Review of Books

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

~*~

In the antebellum South, Cora hasn’t seen much beyond the cotton plantation she is enslaved at in Georgia. An outcast as a slave and amongst slaves, Cora’s impending womanhood heralds an uncertain and painful future – one that she longs to escape but doesn’t know how. Until Caesar tells her about the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses set up during the nineteenth century to help slaves escape to free states. Assisted by abolitionists along the way to navigate the route and keep hidden from the slave catcher, Ridgeway. Running for her life and freedom after killing a white boy who tried to stop her, Cora must take on new identities and try to blend – working with a system that at each point, brings disadvantage and bondage of different kinds, and faced with the ignorance that breeds racism in the antebellum South.

Separated at one stage from Caesar, Cora must continue alone, and rely on fellow escaped slaves, freemen and abolitionists, all working to abolish slavery in America, in the decades leading up to the Civil War of 1861-1865. In a penultimate confrontation at a community of former slaves and abolitionists, tragedy strikes and Cora must use all the strength she has left to cross over into the free states, and begin to venture into a life she has control over, but that is still scarred by the shackles and chains of slavery.

Before reading this book, I knew a little bit about the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad, and slavery from a university history course on the American Civil War. It did not go into too much depth from memory, so Colson Whitehead’s novel helped to bring these stories to life more for me. As I read Cora’s story, I found it engaging, and at the same time horrifying: it was a story that gripped me on a human level, horrified at the way Cora had been treated, and as soon as she had some hope, it was ripped away too quickly. As the key character, all events and characters are seen through her eyes, and her judgement, but as she travels the Underground Railroad and encounters a variety of people in all walks of life, it felt that Colson Whitehead was showing the breadth and depth of how different people reacted to slavery, and how they felt about it. This made Cora’s story more powerful as she worked out who she could put her trust in and when, and in her dealings with Ridgeway when he caught up with her.

Using this historical backdrop, Whitehead has created a world of authenticity with a darkness to it that can’t be escaped or denied when discussing slavery and the antebellum South in the nineteenth century. Whitehead’s story mingles literary fiction and historical fiction, with a nice balance of character and plot throughout, interspersing Cora’s story with perspectives of her mother, Caesar and an abolitionist’s wife who nursed her back to health when she got sick. Cora travels through states that are determined to drive out the black population entirely, and states who seem to deal with black people but still treat them like second class citizens, or worse. The dehumanising language of slurs and “it” to refer to runaway slaves are shocking – but necessary. They set the tone for the characters and the setting of the novel as well.

Colson Whitehead has sewn the threads of this novel together eloquently, and by evoking a sense of place for each stop along the Underground Railroad, a sense of self in Cora and utilising speech patterns that fit the characters and places, has created a novel that must be read to understand the other side of the story to slavery and the Underground Railroad: the hopelessness felt by slaves, and the way they were mercilessly pursued and viewed as property in many places.

By shocking readers with the raw brutality of this period in time, Colson Whitehead’s novel will hopefully open up a dialogue and allow these issues to be explored further.

Sydney Writer’s Festival Appearances and links:

Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad (Conversation)

Saturday 27th May 8.30-9.30PM

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/colson-whitehead-the-underground-railroad/

Pulitzer Prize Winners Colson Whitehead and Hisham Matar

https://www.swf.org.au/stories/pulitzer-prize-winners-colson-whitehead-and-hisham-matar/

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Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin

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Title: Rather Be The Devil

Author: Ian Rankin

Genre: Crime

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 3rd November, 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 310

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Some cases never leave you.

For John Rebus, forty years may have passed, but the death of beautiful, promiscuous Maria Turquand still preys on his mind. Murdered in her hotel room on the night a famous rock star and his entourage were staying there, Maria’s killer has never been found.

Meanwhile, the dark heart of Edinburgh remains up for grabs. A young pretender, Darryl Christie, may have staked his claim, but a vicious attack leaves him weakened and vulnerable, and an inquiry into a major money laundering scheme threatens his position. Has old-time crime boss Big Ger Cafferty really given up the ghost, or is he biding his time until Edinburgh is once more ripe for the picking?

In a tale of twisted power, deep-rooted corruption and bitter rivalries, RATHER BE THE DEVIL showcases Rankin and Rebus at their unstoppable best.

~*~

ian-rankin-2In Rebus’ twenty-first outing, Rather Be The Devil, which marks thirty years since the misanthropic detective who investigates the dark underside of Edinburgh and the crimes it tries to conceal. In Rather Be The Devil, Rebus is retired, though rather unwillingly, and is haunted by an unsolved murder from forty years ago: Maria Turquand. Alongside this, a crime syndicate is trying to evade justice and capture. Naturally, a retired Rebus becomes embroiled in these cases, assisting his former colleagues as he grapples with health issues that he is hiding from those who care about him.

Told in third person, most scenes involve Rebus but there are a few that are seen from the perspective of another character, giving the reader insight into the world Rebus lives in. It is a world of history and darkness, in a city I have visited and could picture in my mind: Princes Street lined by old buildings, the Royal Mile and cobblestones leading up to Edinburgh Castle. Even the names of some of the surrounding areas of Leith were familiar. It is set in a place that has a varied history, an interesting one, that towers architecturally over Rebus and his colleagues as they uncover the unsavoury figures that seek to destroy lives.

Rather Be The Devil refers to events that have occurred in earlier books, and though some things may follow on from what has come before, they do not have a large impact on the story. Hints of what has made Rebus who he is made me want to find out more, so hopefully I can track down some more of the books but overall, I was able to follow the plot as a stand alone story.ian-rankin-2017a

It is a dark and gritty story, but not overly violent. Ian Rankin has taken a beautiful city and placed a gritty misanthrope within it, and contrasted the beauty of Edinburgh with the horror of crime and rankled Rebus, and this works well. The contrast allows for an ongoing story to be told, and for immersion in Edinburgh and the world of Rebus.

With an interesting character, and a mystery that refuses to be let go until it is solved, Rather Be The Devil marks the thirtieth anniversary of Rebus well. Fans new and old will enjoy this outing of Rebus.

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Ian Rankin will be appearing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, held between the 22nd and the 28th of May. Appearances are:

Conversation: Ian Ranking – Rather Be The Devil, Saturday, 27th of May, 2017 7.30 – 8.30 PM at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/ian-rankin-rather-be-the-devil-parramatta/

Ian Rankin: Who Says Crime Doesn’t Pay?

Friday, 26th of May , 6.30-7.30 PM at City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/ian-rankin-who-says-crime-doesnt-pay/

Special Event: SWF Gala – Origin Story

Wednesday , 24th of May, 2017 6pm to 7pm at City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/swf-gala-origin-story/

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2017 Sydney Writer’s Festival

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The Sydney Writer’s Festival is held annually across various precincts of Sydney, with many ticketed and free events across the five days of the festival. This year, the dates are the 22nd to the 28th of May.

Each year, the Sydney Writer’s Festival presents over 300 events, with audiences of over 100,000 people over the week travelling to the harbourside events and many other precincts that host the festival. Whilst the hear of the festival is at heritage wharves in Walsh Bay, there are also events at the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Town Hall, the suburbs of Sydney and the Blue Mountains. The spread of these events means many can participate, but planning a day or days will need to be done carefully, to ensure getting to and from venues that aren’t that close.

One such event this year is the Keeping Company: Characters Across A Series, where Lynette Noni (Medoran Chronciles, Pantera Press) will be appearing and talking about writing characters in a series, as the title suggests. Other YA authors including Garth Nix will be in attendance. This could be a very interesting panel, but all of them sound good, and it is very hard to choose which ones to attend and which locations to focus on when booking and choosing.

The list of authors is diverse, from well-known authors to ones that might not be well-known but are just as good.

The Sydney Writer’s Festival unites writers from various forms of writing and backgrounds, including the best contemporary novelists, screenwriters, musicians and writers of non-fiction – some of the world’s leading public intellectuals, scientists and journalists. The finest writing and story telling are at the core of the Sydney Writer’s Festival; the programming is diverse and is driven by ideas and issues that animate a broad spectrum of literature.

The program is live, and you are able to purchase tickets and book events, as well as exploring the program to see what events will be the best options for you to attend.

There are many wonderful authors appearing at the festival this year, including S.D. Gentill, author of the Hero Trilogy, published by Pantera Press, who is hosting a Mining Mythology event on the Tuesday. Her trilogy delves into Greek Mythology and the idea of heroes and betrayal. Other events and authors will cover specific books, or genres of writing, and even hot button topics that can have an impact on what and sometimes how we write.

This is a festival that I hope to be able to go to, if I can decide on the events I would like to attend, as there are a few that interest me.

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The 2017 Richell Prize is open.

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The 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers, sponsored by Hachette in partnership with The Guardian Australia and The Emerging Writer’s Festival is open for submissions. It is a prize that is awarded annually, and it is now in its third year, honouring Matt Richell, Hachette Australia’s former CEO, who died suddenly in 2014.

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THE KEY DATES FOR THIS YEAR’S PRIZE:

ENTRIES OPEN: 27th March, 2017

ENTRIES CLOSE: 3rd July, 2017

WINNER ANNOUNCED: 1st November, 2017

From the Press Release:

Hachette Australia, along with the Richell family, is honoured to launch the third year of The Richell Prize for Emerging Writers, in partnership with The Guardian Australia and The Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF). 

‘Hachette Australia’s core purpose is to contribute to the development and health of Australian culture through the power of storytelling, The Richell Prize is integral to that aim, and we are so proud to once again offer this prize to emerging writers’ – Fiona Hazard, Publishing Director – Hachette Australia.

‘The Richell Prize has opened, and continues to open, so many wonderful doors, from the support, interest and expert advice given by Hachette Australia and many others to renewed self-confidence in the writing process.  It is a unique, exciting and generous prize, a real game-changer that keeps on giving’ – Sally Abbott, author of the forthcoming CLOSING DOWN (to be published by Hachette Australia in May 2017) and winner of the inaugural Richell Prize for Emerging Writers (2015).

The Prize is once again open to unpublished writers of adult fiction and adult narrative non-fiction. Writers do not need to have a full manuscript at the time of submission, though they must intend to complete one. The Prize will be judged on the first three chapters of the submitted work, along with a synopsis outlining the direction of the proposed work and detail about how the author’s writing career would benefit from winning the Prize.

‘The Richell Prize provides a unique opportunity for an emerging writer in that it not only comes with a cash prize – which directly translates into time to write and further develop craft – but also a 12-month mentorship with one of Hachette Australia’s expert publishers. The prize can provide a foot in the door to the publishing industry not only for the winner, but also other entrants and shortlisted writers.’ – Izzy Roberts – Orr, Creative Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival

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The winner of the Richell Prize receives $10,000 in prize money from Hachette Australia, a year’s mentorship with a publisher at Hachette, and the winning writer will work with Hachette to develop their manuscript – with Hachette receiving first option to consider the finished work and the shortlisted entries for publcation.

There have been two winners so far:

2015 – Sally Abbott – Closing Down, published in May 2017, and a shortlisted author from the same year – Brodie Lancaster – No Way! Okay, Fine to be published in July this year.

All details of the award can be found at www.emergingwritersfestival.org.au and www.hachette.com.au.

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RebusFest: Thirty Years of Ian Rankin and John Rebus – 1987-2017

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2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of John Rebus in print. Rebus’s first outing, Knots and Crosses, came out in 1987, and his thirtieth adventure, Rather Be The Devil, came out on the third of November 2016, so keep an eye out for my review of this soon. To celebrate this anniversary, Edinburgh, Rebus’s hometown, will be hosting RebusFest – all things Rebus. It will be a festival of literature, music, art and film, and will be on between the 30th of June and the 2nd of July.

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Rather Be The Devil, published in November 2016 – thirtieth Rebus title

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This festival will give fans – old and new – the chance to explore the town Rebus lives in, and discover the story behind this iconic character of crime fiction in the modern world. When I read Rather Be The Devil, this will be my first Rankin novel, and my first outing with Rebus. Edinburgh is a great place to set a detective series – the old and new combine to create a world shrouded in mystery, set in the historic town, where shadows and mist hide crimes that a detective like Rebus can uncover.

Ian Rankin has curated the festival of music, talks about the historic and contemporary influences on Rebus – I am looking forward to discovering these as I read. Other activities at the festival include walking tours, screenings, food and drink, and experts, performers and artists, who will give more insight into the character of Rebus with Ian Rankin.

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Knots and Crosses, first published 1987

I look forward to reading my first Rebus novel, and hopefully will read more from there. The upcoming festival sounds like it will be exciting and a fabulous experience for readers of this series.

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The full festival line-up will be announced on the seventeenth of March, in just over a month’s time, so keep an eye out for that too if you are interested in going.

As well as RebusFest in Edinburgh, Ian Rankin will be touring Europe, North America, the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) and South East Asia.

Use one of these links to purchase the titles in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series:

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Richell Prize Shortlist and Emerging Writer’s Festival

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The Richell Prize shortlist, and The Emerging Writer’s Festival

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Literary prizes and festivals help new and emerging, as well as established writers earn money and get publicity and exposure. They allow writers to interact with each other, with readers, with publishers. Festivals across Australia and the world, such as the Emerging Writer’s Festival, The Sydney Writer’s Festival and The Edinburgh International Book Festival all promote a wonderful world of literature that cannot be replaced by anything, and show that people value the written word.

 

In 2014, Matt Richell, CEO of Hachette, died suddenly, and a literary prize for has been named in his honour. Matt Richell believed in investment and support for new writers, and believed investment in new writers was vital for the future. The prize is in place to encourage and nurture emerging writers in Australia. It is open to unpublished adult fiction and non-fiction. In 2016, Michaela Maguire, the director of The Emerging Writer’s Festival, Hannah Richell, author and reviewer, Karen Ferris, a bookseller at Harry Hartog, Lucy Clark, Senior Editor at The Guardian, Australia and Vanessa Radnidge, a Hachette Australia Publisher, are the judges for the Richell Prize. The five books on the short list for this year’s prize are:

 

The Illusion of Islands by Andrea Baldwin

Dark Tides by Emma Doolan

The Clinking by Susie Greenhill

The Rabbits by Sophie Overett

Gardens of Stone by Susie Thatcher

 

The applicants submitted the first three chapters of their work, and a synopsis, and the winner receives $10,000, and a mentorship with a Hachette publisher. Hachette will work with the winning writer to develop their novel and be the first to consider the work for publication. I am eager to see who wins this prize, as it would be a great achievement for them and their career, and also, for Australian literature.

 

The winner will be announced in an awards ceremony on the 28th of September 2016. I hope to be able to post something on this blog about the recipient and review their book when it comes out.

 

The Richell Prize is organised by The Emerging Writer’s Festival, Hachette Australia, The Guardian Australia and Simpson Solicitors. Most literary prizes are aimed at already published books, but prizes like this that give encouragement and mentorship to emerging writers are wonderful to have in the literary world.

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The Emerging Writer’s Festival is an organisation based on supporting emerging writers in Australia. They nurture new voices and talent and encourage diversity in the stories. In the current climate and uncertainty of the fate of the Australian publishing industry in light of the Productivity Commission, organisations like this, which is non-profit, are beneficial to new and emerging writers.