Books of the Year 2019

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(photo: Tobias Fischer on Unsplash)

I’ve previously devoured the books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series (The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven). Set in Barcelona before, during and after the Spanish Civil War, they are gripping literary thrillers, and the latest instalment, The Labyrinth of the Spirits (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), didn’t disappoint. The books can be read in any order, and for sheer storytelling exuberance they are hard to beat.

Diane Setterfield made her name with two wonderful gothic mysteries, The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black. Her new novel, Once Upon a River (Doubleday), has a very different but equally evocative atmosphere. At an ancient inn near the Thames in Oxfordshire, the locals pass the time telling stories, but one night they witness something far stranger than any story they can tell: a drowned young girl is pulled out of the river and brought to the inn, only to wake a few hours later.

Two really enjoyable debuts: Isabel Rogers’ Life, Death and Cellos (Farrago) is a very funny tale of musical shenanigans set in the febrile atmosphere of the Stockwell Park Orchestra, while Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul (Bluemoose) is a charming and poignant story of two friends seeking to make sense of a confusing world.

Zoë Folbigg’s The Postcard (Aria) is the highly entertaining sequel to her bestselling novel The Note, based on the true-life story of how she met her husband. In The Postcard, Maya and James set off on a round-the-world trip, which tests their relationship to the limits. There’s a particularly grim description of a claustrophobic journey in the luggage rack of an Indian bus which has stuck with me long after reading it, and made me very glad that my backpacking days are long behind me.

Golden Child by Claire Adam (Faber) tells the story of twin boys in Trinidad, one of whom is considered a genius, while the other is seen as a bit odd. When one of them is kidnapped, it opens up huge fissures in the family. This was one of the most disturbing and affecting novels I have read in a long time, a real gut-wrencher, and hugely deserving of this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize.

Several short story collections stood out this year. Vicky Grut’s Live Show, Drink Included (Holland Park Press) was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and comprises stories published over a period of almost thirty years. One of the stories, ‘On the Way to the Church’, also featured in this year’s Best British Short Stories (Salt). Linda Mannheim’s This Way to Departures (Influx), Being Various: New Irish Short Stories edited by Lucy Caldwell (Faber), and the latest Mechanics’ Institute Review anthology featured some outstanding examples of the genre.

Szirtes

But my book the year is the only non-fiction title in this list: George Szirtes’ The Photographer at Sixteen (MacLehose), a memoir told backwards from the moment of Szirtes’ mother’s death in the 1970s. As we go back in time, we are drawn into some of the most horrific events of the twentieth century, including the Hungarian uprising against communist rule and the Holocaust. It’s a profound book about memory and family, and utterly compelling.

I had flashes …

I’m a relative newcomer to flash fiction – in fact, before I joined Twitter in 2016 I don’t think I had ever even heard of it, and I was certainly unprepared for how huge it is as a genre among writers. Over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to work on a few of these very short stories (fewer than 1000 words) and this week two have been accepted for publication – one by Lucent Dreaming and the other by Ellipsis Zine. These should be out in the next few weeks, so I’ll post links when the time comes.

Reviews Round-Up

Early days, I know, but there’s already a serious contender for my non-fiction book of the year. Poet George Szirtes’ The Photographer at Sixteen is an exceptional memoir of his mother. Told backwards from the moment of her death, it takes in several of the twentieth century’s most traumatic events, including the 1956 uprising in Hungary and the Holocaust. You can read my Sunday Times review here.

Szirtes

When I first started reviewing for the Sunday Times I did loads of very short paperback reviews, sometimes as many as six per week. I’d finish one book and immediately pick up another, like a chain smoker lighting a new cigarette with the butt of the previous.

It’s been a while since I did a paperback review, but recently I was asked to do two of the Costa Award winners: The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es, which won the Biography/Memoir category, and the debut novel winner, Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Both of these are remarkable, and I was glad I wasn’t the one who had to pick an overall winner from the five categories.* Reviews here.

* (Actually, scratch that – I would love to judge the Costa … Or the Booker … Or the Pulitzer. Do get in touch.)

Books of the Year

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(Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash)

First up is the only work of non-fiction that really got me excited this year: Matthew De Abaitua’s Self and I, an account of the time the author spent working as an amanuensis to Will Self back in 1994. The title is, of course, a nod to Withnail and I, and Self’s capriciousness is certainly Withnail-esque. Self often gets a bad press, and De Abaitua doesn’t downplay his idiosyncracies, but he comes across as a highly sympathetic character. Really, though, it’s an account of how De Abaitua tried to get his own literary ambitions going, and any would-be writer will empathise with the long, frustrating and often humiliating experience that entails.

Self and IBest British Short Stories

Now on to the fiction. I’m a great admirer of what Salt Publishing do – they have a wonderfully eclectic and risk-taking list to which I return to again and again. The annual Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle, is always great value, and the 2018 edition opened with one of the best stories I’ve read in some considerable time: ‘Paymon’s Trio’ by Colette de Curzon, a tale about a demonic music score. The story of how it came to be published is equally compelling: it was written in 1949 when the author was 22, but because she didn’t know anything about the publishing world and how to get published, she put away in a folder until her daughter found it 67 years later. She lived long enough to see it published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press before passing away in March this year.

The ChameleonThe Hoarder

Salt get a very big tick from me for publishing the always excellent Alice Thompson – she didn’t have a book out this year, but I read and loved her 2010 novel The Existential Detective. Salt did give us Samuel Fisher’s novel The Chameleon in 2018. Narrated by a book that can change its cover to blend in to any given situation, the story is both a poignant account of a man on his deathbed and a gripping spy thriller set in Cold War-era Russia.

I was surprised by Jess Kidd’s The Hoarder – not having read any of its reviews or any of her previous work, I picked it up thinking it would be a work of high gothic mystery (a genre I absolutely love). To a certain extent it is – there’s a big sprawling house full of secrets – but it’s got a fantastic blend of dark and knockabout humour that I wasn’t at all expecting. The narrator is often accompanied by apparitions of saints, who comment on her every move – St George is there clad in his armour, while St Valentine observes her attempts at getting a relationship going.

Perfidious AlbionOur Child of the Stars

In my day job as a freelance copy editor and proofreader I’ve worked on some fantastic novels this year. Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion is a fabulous post-Brexit satire that had me laughing out loud at my desk (great cover too), while Stephen Cox’s Our Child of the Stars is a moving work of sci-fi/fantasy that imagines an orphan alien adopted by an American couple. Sally Rooney’s Normal People has rightly garnered much praise – an intricate and intimate portrayal of a young man and woman and their on-off relationship as they navigate the awkward years of school and university.

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Finally on to two novels set in Northern Ireland. Michael Hughes’s terrific Country re-imagines the Troubles as an Homeric epic, with an IRA sniper cast in the role of Achilles and his enemy, a British soldier named Henry, as Hector. I’ve banged on a fair bit both on this blog and on Twitter about the Booker winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to say that I think it is one of the best novels I have read in years.

Milkman

Website Review: Jericho Writers

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(Photo by Lauren Mancke on Unsplash)

Around the turn of the millennium I reached a crossroads with my writing. I had written two unpublished novels and was working on a third, one that I truly loved, but which was pushing me right up against the limits of my abilities. I knew I needed help, but had no idea where to turn.

That was when I discovered the Writers’ Workshop, run by the novelist Harry Bingham. Their website was full of useful information and I decided to get a critique of my novel from one of their editors. This was one of the best things I have done in my writing career. It gave me encouragement when I needed it most, and ideas for how to improve the book. And although that book has also not found a publisher, I did go on to secure an agent.

Accepting I needed help was one of the big lessons I learned, and it’s one that has stuck with me to this day. Even after over twenty years of pretty solid writing, I often feel as if I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m still benefitting from the good advice that’s out there, if you know where to find it. Writers’ Workshop has recently morphed into Jericho Writers, and it remains one of the best writing sites around, though much has changed – not least the fact that there is now a members-only area, available via a paid subscription.

There is still lots of great advice available for free on the website. The Library section has posts such ‘How to Plot’ and ‘How to Get Published’, as well as ‘The 15 Most Common Mistakes Made By New Writers Writing Their First Novel’ (and this is not just for those writing their first novel).

The big question is whether the paid-for content provides value for money. I think it does. The members’ area includes videos from industry experts, including an entire ‘How to Write a Novel’ course, masterclasses on various writing techniques, such as creating vibrant characters, and a whole series on self-publishing. There are also in-depth interviews with agents, publishers and writers. The calibre of the contributors is high – for example, Debi Alper, one of the best editors in the game, provides a masterclass on how to edit your novel.

The ‘Conversations’ section allows members to pitch their novels live and direct to agents, while the ‘Ask Jericho’ feature gives members the opportunity to ask any question or to have their query letter evaluated. If you are looking for an agent, ‘Agent Match’ provides a database of agents, searchable on different criteria – size of agency, number of clients and so on. Members also receive discounts on the site’s other services, such as manuscript evaluation.

I have a couple of reservations. One is technical: if I go from the Members’ area to the free Library section, it logs me out of the Members’ section and I have to log back in again. The other is a slightly bigger niggle: the ‘Townhouse’ feature is a forum where members can discuss writing tips, agents and publishers, and self-publishing, and get peer review on their work. This was one of my favourite parts of the old Writers’ Workshop site, but putting it in the Members’ Area means that, currently, there are not the same numbers of people taking part. Obviously that will improve once the membership increases, but I did wonder if this was one area which would be more beneficial even to members if it was on the free part of the site. It’s a shame too that all the threads from the old site are no longer available.

Overall, though, compared with the cost of attending festivals and workshops, and especially compared with doing a creative writing MA, Jericho Writers offers a relatively inexpensive way of getting good-quality help. It’s like a whole festival of writing that you can enjoy in your own home, at your own pace.

Find out more about Jericho Writers here

Milkman Delivers!

Milkman

Delighted to hear last night that Anna Burns has won the 2018 Man Booker Prize with her novel Milkman. It seemed to come as a surprise to many, and there’s been a lot of talk about its complexities and lack of commercial appeal (see for example this article in the Guardian). Yes, it does have long paragraphs, and, yes, none of the characters are given names, but there’s one aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked: it’s one of the funniest novels I’ve read in years. In particular, there’s a subplot about a couple who abandon their family to become ballroom dancing champions that literally made me laugh out loud.

I have to declare an interest, of course – I was the book’s copy editor, so perhaps I am a little biased. And editing necessarily requires a very different reading experience to that of a general reader. But it’s very rare when in the depths of editing also to be genuinely entertained by a book.

A hugely well-deserved win for Anna.