Books of the Year 2021

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

First, I want to highlight the fantastic work done by independent publishers. Over the past few years, and facing increasingly difficult challenges, they have consistently produced some of the best and most interesting fiction around.

Ashley Stokes’ Gigantic (Unsung Stories) tells the tale of Kevin Stubbs and the Gigantopithecus Intelligence Team (GIT) as they attempt to prove or disprove the existence of a Bigfoot in Sutton. Kevin is a very funny narrator, and in its mix of true believers and sceptics it’s like an episode of X-Files transported to Surrey (and I mean peak X-Files, not the awful later episodes). The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh (Louise Walters Books) follows the comic misfortunes of a trio of misfits in the fictional London Borough of Leytonstow as they battle their boss, landlord, and social hardship to organise an ‘urban love revolution’.       

A couple of years ago Bluemoose published Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, which deservedly became a word-of-mouth success. Hession’s follow-up, Panenka, is a similarly engaging story about a man whose life was changed irrevocably when he missed a penalty for his team by attempting a ‘panenka’, a delicate chipped shot that leaves the kicker embarrassingly exposed if executed badly (some successful examples can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4c7Ypx89Rs). Even if you aren’t into football at all, there’s much to enjoy here: like Leonard and Hungry Paul, it’s a poignant story of love and loss.   

Cold New Climate by Isobel Wohl was the first publication from a brand new publisher, Weatherglass Books. On the surface it’s a story of New York relationships, but there is a disturbing undercurrent running through it that eventually breaks out into one of the most disturbing endings I’ve read in a long time. The online literary magazine Storgy have recently branched out into publishing books, and I very much enjoyed Parade by Michael Graves, a Florida-set novel of faith, sex and drugs.

I read fewer short stories than I meant to this year, but my two favourite collections were Nicholas Royle’s London Gothic (Confingo) and Percival Everett’s Damned If I Do (Influx). Royle’s is the first of a planned series exploring the mysterious corners of different cities, with Manchester and Paris to come. The opening story of Everett’s collection, ‘The Fix’, is especially brilliant. A stranger is taken in by the owner of a sandwich shop and proceeds to fix broken items brought to him by people in the neighbourhood. His abilities soon exceed the merely practical, however, and come to seem increasingly miraculous, with tragic consequences.

I also loved the debut collection by Rhiannon Lewis, I Am The Mask Maker, published by the indie Victorina Press. They also published the wonderful new novella by Amanda Huggins, Crossing the Lines, based on her Costa-shortlisted story ‘Red’.

Fly on the Wall Press is a not-for-profit publisher based in Manchester, producing short stories and poetry that engage with political and social issues. This year they published a season of Fly on the Wall Shorts – six outstanding stories featuring pigs, tigers and Powerpoints among many other rich things. These are great examples of something that’s unfortunately all too rare: short stories published in single pamphlets. Nightjar Press (https://nightjarpress.weebly.com) also do sterling work in this area with their ongoing series of uncanny tales, while new kid on the block Seventy2One (https://massiveoverheads.com/seventy2one-books/) are planning to publish chapbooks amongst other things, but I’d love to see more.

I also read some great books from the big publishers. The first two novels I bought when the bookshops reopened post-lockdown were both exceptional. Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters (Picador) is based on a true story: in 1900 the three keepers of a lighthouse on the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides disappeared without trace. Stonex transports the story to 1970s Cornwall and weaves a haunting mystery around the three men, and the women they have left behind. Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan (Heinemann) is set at different periods during the twentieth century in an Edinburgh tenement building, whose inhabitants include a Beat poet, a psychic and the devil’s daughter. A fantastically strange novel that had me hooked.  

Like most people, I didn’t travel far on my holidays, but I took two books with me that transported me to Newfoundland and Berlin. New Girl in Little Cove by Damhnait Monaghan (HarperCollins) charts the trials and tribulations of a teacher who moves from Toronto to a Catholic school in Newfoundland and struggles to integrate into the local community. But what is she running away from? Calla Henkel’s Other People’s Clothes (Sceptre) also has fish-out-water characters, with two American art students renting a magnificent apartment in Berlin from a crime writer, who may or may not have sinister plans for them.

Zoë Folbigg’s fourth novel The Night We Met (Aria) is her best yet – a tragic romance filled with warmth and humour. Last but definitely not least is Iron Annie (Bloomsbury), the debut novel by Luke Cassidy, a riotous story of love and drug running in Ireland and England. 

Happy Publication Day!

Sunburnt Saints is published today! It’s a fantastic achievement by editors Andrew Leach and Hannah Persaud to get this anthology from conception to publication in just a few months.

My contribution, ‘Outage’, is a story of love and darkness, and I’m very proud and honoured to be among so many talented writers.

The book can be bought from Big Green Bookshop here: https://www.biggreenbookshop.com/big-green-exclusive-funstuff/sunburnt-saints-a-seventy2one-anthology/prod_1111.html

Read more about publisher Seventy2One and their exciting future publication plans here: http://massiveoverheads.com

Radio Times

Photo by Jacob Hodgson on Unsplash

Many thanks to writer and broadcaster Antonia Honeywell for dedicating her latest Chiltern Voice Book Club programme last Sunday to Seventy2One’s new anthology Sunburnt Saints. I was one of several contributors interviewed for the show, and we all got to choose a favourite song. So tune into the podcast to find out our picks. Oh, and to hear us talking about writing, of course: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/chiltern-voice-book-club/id1540563708?i=1000543272780

Antonia’s show is a great mix of book chat and music, and she’s got some fantastic guests coming up. It’s on http://chilternvoice.fm every Sunday 2pm-4pm, with the podcast landing shortly afterwards.

How I Wrote ‘Uffington’

I’ve loved the Uffington White Horse on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border since I first visited as teenager. One of the many figures carved out of the chalk hillsides across southern England, it’s the only one that has been dated to prehistoric times. Nobody knows for certain who made it or what it represents, though some say it’s a depiction of Epona, the Celtic goddess of fertility.

Over the years I’ve tried to write about this place many times, but nothing quite gelled. Then I read that in previous centuries there was an annual ‘scouring’ of the horse – a clean-up operation to keep the figure free of weeds. This scouring would be accompanied by much debauchery. The work is still done annually by volunteers for the National Trust, with new chalk hammered into the ground to freshen up the whiteness, but without the debauchery.

It was this notion of ‘scouring’ that really caught my imagination. Could this be applied to a character, perhaps in the sense of metaphorically sloughing off skin to reveal a new identity underneath?

So, the story would be called ‘The Scouring’ and have that element in it, plus lots more – betrayal, affairs, strange apparitions, debauchery . . . I did draft after draft over a couple of years and by the time I’d finished, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written.

But then several beta readers showed me that what I’d done was really not working at all.

Hard to take, of course, but once I’d licked my wounds I realised they were right. A line I once wrote in one of my many unpublished novels came back to me: ‘There are only three things wrong with this piece of writing: the beginning, the middle and the end.’

I went back to the drawing board, changed the title and the characters, and the whole premise. And the beginning, the middle and the end. The only thing that remained was the figure of the white horse itself.  

More drafts, and finally there was ‘Uffington’, which to my astonishment has won the HISSAC Short Story Competition. You can read it here: http://www.hissac.co.uk/uploads/Shorts2021.pdf

Sunburnt Saints

Here’s the first look at the cover of Sunburnt Saints, the debut publication from new publishers on the block Seventy2One, an imprint of Massive Overheads (https://massiveoverheads.com). It features a whole host of brilliant writers, and, er, me, with a story called ‘Outage’. Released on 30 November, it can be pre-ordered exclusively from the independent bookstore Big Green Bookshop: https://www.biggreenbookshop.com/big-green-exclusive-funstuff/sunburnt-saints-a-seventy2one-anthology/prod_1111.html

Two Longlistings

It’s been a pretty lean year writing-wise. My decision to enter as many writing competitions as possible has backfired spectacularly, with a tsunami of failures that have penetrated even my rejection-thickened hide.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

But two small and very welcome glimmers have come in the form of longlistings in the Cambridge Short Story Prize and the HISSAC Short Story Prize – both for the same story, ‘Uffington’. It’s a story that has been through quite a drawn-out and painful genesis, so I’m delighted it’s received some recognition.

I didn’t progress any further in the first of these competitions, but the second is still in train, so fingers crossed.