Books of the Year, Part Two: 2015 Publications

Here we are then, the books from this year I’ve read and rated most highly. I’m basing my choices on the very unscientific, I thought it was brilliant at the time and I’m still thinking about it. I was concerned this would skew the list towards the end of the year but it hasn’t at all – two thirds of the books are from the first half of 2015. Publication dates are UK (where applicable) and if you click on the cover it will take you to my review.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine 

A superb book. An examination of race and the treatment of black people in present day America. Rankine uses flash fiction, essays and poetry to explore the way people of colour ‘…feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’ and, by implication, how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background. Short, sharp and powerful, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household, taught in schools and university, and added to the canon. If you believe art can change the world, this is a book that should be able to do so.


A Little Life
– Hanya Yanagihara

It’s divided readers and critics but I make no apologies for including this book for several reasons: it’s utterly absorbing, I felt as though I’d been entombed in Yanagihara’s world; it focuses on male friendship which I think is unusual; the friendship group consists of four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and Yanagihara has written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through. It’s huge and harrowing and clearly not for everyone but I’m still thinking about it six months on.

 

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (translated by Alison Entrekin)

A short, sharp tale told in fragments. At the centre of the book is the story of the key given to the unnamed narrator by her grandfather: the key to his old house in Turkey, in Smyrna. There are four threads to the book: the narrator’s journey to her grandfather’s house; the grandfather’s journey from the house to the woman who became the narrator’s grandmother; the narrator’s relationship with her dead mother, and the narrator’s passionate affair with an unnamed man. A shocking and beautiful novella about exile in many different forms.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika
Kapur 

Mrs Sharma’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law. Her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, has been working in Dubai for over a year in a bid to raise enough money to cover his parents’ medical bills and send his son to college to do an MBA in business. She works as a receptionist in a gynaecological clinic and dreams of starting her own business. Mrs Sharma’s veneer begins to crack when she meets Vineet Seghal on a station platform. Tightly plotted with precise, often repetitive, language, this is a brilliant book about an unfulfilled woman.

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. She’s particularly annoyed and frustrated by the way men objectify women and the consequences of this behaviour. Donning a superhero costume for a fancy dress party, she stops a mugging and gets a taste for the vigilante lifestyle. Before long, she’s on the tale of someone who’s attacking teenage girls. A gripping and believable look at the concerns of a middle-aged woman and her life.

 

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

When Cathy Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her sixteen-year-old brother, Matty, was hit by a car and left in a persistent vegetative state for eight years. The book is Rentzenbrink’s story of the effect of Matty’s accident on her and her family. Told in an unflinching first person account with a huge amount of love and dollops of humour, Rentzenbrink brings the Matty she loved back to life and pays tribute to her parents without descending into mawkishness. Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Buy tissues before reading, I’m welling up just thinking about it.

 

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

A companion piece to Life After LifeA God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy and those who’ve shared his life – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he served alongside in the RAF. The structure’s non-chronological, creating a jigsaw puzzle of Teddy’s life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct; every chapter capable of standing alone as a story in its own right. The chapters set in the war are some of Atkinson’s best writing but this is more than a character study, it’s a book that explores what fiction is. Superb.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Mr Cheong chose his wife, Yeong-Ho, because she’s passive. But then, due to a set of reoccurring dreams, she turns vegetarian; a highly unorthodox act in South Korea. The reactions of Mr Cheong and Yeong-Ho’s family turn dark and sometimes violent quite quickly. But Yeong-Ho’s brother-in-law is fascinated with her and her mongolian mark which leads to him creating a physical work of art with her. A disconcerting story that explores society’s treatment of a woman who defies expectations and how her internalisation of those expectations affects her psyche.

 

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell 

In the not so distant future where banks have collapsed, the homeless population is out of control, food is scarce and the military rule, Lalage is protected by her father, Michael Paul, and his creation, the ship. The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. As it sets sail with Michael Paul’s chosen people on it, Lalage begins to question her father’s motives and what she really wants from life. The Ship raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It’s futuristic setting is misleading, this is really a novel about what’s happening to society now.

The First Bad Man – Miranda July 

Cheryl Glickman, early forties, lives alone and works for a company who make self-defence, fitness DVDs. She has two fascinations: Phillip Bettelheim and babies who might be Kubelko Bondy, the son of her parents’ friends. Cheryl’s bosses ask if their daughter, Clee, can move in with her until she finds a job. First Clee trashes Cheryl’s system for keeping the house clean and tidy, then she’s physically fighting Cheryl for extended periods before Cheryl begins imagining herself as Phillip having sex with Clee. It sounds absurd but it’s a sharp exploration of loneliness which transforms into something emotionally fulfilling.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation but an unplanned pregnancy, the death of her mother and the offer of a job supporting the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf to Great Britain sees her returning to the Lake District. The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. The precision of the language, particularly in the descriptions of the Lake District and the wolves, is superb as is the characterisation of Rachel. One of our best novelists, probably her best book.

Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex 
 – Joanna Walsh

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword of Grow a Pair transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas. Walsh mixes retellings of traditional fairytales like ‘The Princess and the Penis’ with new pieces. Filled with as many moments of humour as it is ones of magical realism, the collection allows its women to take control of their own sexuality and fulfilment. Entertaining, smart and thoughtful.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

A dual narrative following two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land with her bear, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, living on a tiny island by the graveyard and performing Restings for the dead. North has a number of issues to deal with – she’s engaged to Ainsel and his father wants them to live on land, but she doesn’t want either of these things; Ainsel’s mother is jealous, and North is pregnant to someone else. She’s also tied to Callanish in ways that only begin to reveal themselves when the two meet. A beautifully rendered world.

 

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay 

Mirelle is kidnapped in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly outside the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars. He refuses, assuming they will return her unharmed. She’s repeatedly raped and tortured. The majority of the book deals with the aftermath, looking at whether it’s possible to rebuild a life, a marriage, a familial relationship after such horror. An interesting examination of power and privilege.

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven

Angela’s short-term ambition is for her and her best friend, Lorraine, to lose their virginity over the summer holidays. Long-term, she wants to move away from the council scheme she’s grown up on and attend Glasgow School of Art. Her parents are determined she’s getting a job. Over one summer in the 1980s, Angela and Lorraine’s friendship will deteriorate thanks to Pamela aka Little Miss Brown Nose and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘a total ride’. Class, religion, family and friendships are all explored but it’s the perceptive look at women’s sexuality and the use of Scots dialect that really make this a stand out read.

 

Honourable mentions also go to The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester; The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips; Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey; Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, The Chimes by Anna Smaill and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller.

In the Media: 19th April 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was revealed this week. Sarah Shaffi of The Bookseller reports, ‘Experience tells on Baileys Women’s Prize shortlist‘ while Anna James of We Love This Book introduces us to each of the books and invites us to read along in this video.

Other big news was London Book Fair. For readers, this means announcements about new acquisitions from significant writers. Alison Flood in the Guardian reports, ‘Age shall not weary them: Diana Athill, 97, and Edna O’Brien, 84, are stars of London book fair‘ and ‘London book fair excited by Erica Jong’s new novel‘. The Quietus reports on Viv Albertine’s new book and the cover for Patti Smith’s sequel to Just Kids was released this week, see it in The Pool. If you want a glimpse into what goes on at the fair, Antonia Honeywell wrote on her blog about the panel she was part of, ‘Promoting Debut Authors – London Book Fair 14th April 2015‘.

The woman with the most publicity this week is Evangeline Jennings who’s interviewed on The Indie View, Col’s Criminal Library, Quirky Fiction, Omnimystery News and in character as one of the narrators of her short stories, Helen Wheels on Reflections of Reality.

In this week’s Harper Lee news, ‘PRH reveals Harper Lee title page‘ reports Publishers Weekly.

And in this week’s Elena Ferrante news, if you haven’t read anything by her, she’s this week’s Bedtime Bookclub in The Pool where you can read the first five chapters of My Brilliant Friend. Also in The Pool, Viv Groskop asks, ‘Is being a bestseller all in a name?‘ and Cristina Marconi writes, ‘Elena Ferrante versus Italy‘ on Little Atoms.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Music, Film and Television:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

  • What Did Sriraman Say?‘ by Perundevi (translated by Padma Narayanan and Subashree Krishnaswamy) in Words Without Borders
  • Highway‘ by Malathi Maithri (translated by Lakshmi Holmström) in Words Without Borders
  • Three Dreams‘ by Sharmila Seyyid (translated by Lakshmi Holmström) in Words Without Borders
  • Fear‘ by Krishangini (translated by Padma Narayanan and Subashree Krishnaswamy) in Words Without Borders
  • Shunaka: Blood Count‘ by Karthika Nair in Granta
  • Gone to Pasture/To Speak‘ by Natalie Eilbert in The Offing
  • Compromised Field‘ by Shareen Mansfield on The Honeyed Quill
  • Humbles‘ by Frances Leviston on Poem Today
  • The Handshake‘ by Isabel Rogers on her blog
  • A Psalm for the Scaffolders‘ by Kim Moore on Seren Books’ Blog

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 12th April 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

The results of the VIDA count was announced on Monday. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts have counted the number of female and male reviewers in the major literary publications. There are some improvements this year, but overall the picture remains grim. For the first time this year, VIDA published a separate count for Women of Colour, it’s as depressing as you might expect. Reaction came from Hannah Ellis Peterson in The Guardian, ‘Male writers continue to dominate literary criticism, Vida study finds‘; Radhika Sanghani in The Telegraph, ‘Men aren’t better writers than women. Literary mags need to close the book on gender bias‘ and on Bustle, Caroline Goldstein declared, ‘The Results of the 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count Are Problematic‘.

VIDA also produced a handout: Things You Can Do Right Now to Advance Women’s Writing. Immediately after the results of the announcement, good things began to happen in Twitterland; Marisa Wikramamanayake created a ‘Women Who Review‘ database. If you’re a reviewer, you can add yourself to it; if you’re an editor at a literary magazine with a gender balance problem, you can have a look at all the women you could approach with review commissions. Judi Sutherland is getting a group of women reviewers together to send reviews to the TLS, contact her on Twitter if you want to get involved, and Amy Mason created Sister Act Theatre (@SisterTheatre): Support + recommendations of/for women working in UK theatre/performance. Worked with a great woman? Need work? Promoting your show? Tell us.

While all that’s been going on, Katy Derbyshire has been collating ‘Some more statistics on translated fiction‘ on Love German Books.

The other big news this week came from an American report that found the number of women choosing to be child-free has increased. The report coincided with the publication of the Meghan Daum edited essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids and the launch of the film While We’re Young. It’s triggered a number of articles: Emma Gray at the Huffington Post says, ‘A Record Percentage Of Women Don’t Have Kids. Here’s Why That Makes Sense‘; Jane Marie wrote, ‘Why I Stopped Trying to Be a Supermom and Started Being Myself Again‘ on Jezebel’; Hayley Webster wrote, ‘I had an abortion and didn’t talk about it…and I no longer want to live in shame‘ on her website; Hadley Freeman wrote, ‘Why do we still have to justify the choice to be child-free?‘ in The Guardian; Jessica Valenti asked, ‘Why do we never worry about men’s childlessness and infertility?‘ also in The Guardian

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Music and Television:

 

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 5th April 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

As In the Media seems to be growing by the week, I’ve divided it into more categories. Comments welcome on what you think of the change and whether you’d prefer different/more section headings.

The big news this week is the launch of The Pool, a free, online resource written by women, for women. Writer and broadcaster, Lauren Laverne and writer and former Red magazine editor, Sam Baker are the women behind it, The Guardian ran a piece about the site earlier in the week. ‘Drops’ of content are released during the day; each piece tells you approximately how long it will take you to read/listen to/watch, and you can search by content or by time if you’ve only got a few minutes.  You can also sign up for an account which allows you to save articles to your ‘scrapbook’ either to read later or refer back to.

I’ve dipped in a few times this week and I love it; it’s clearly organised with some great contributors. My picks so far would be the book section (of course), where you can read the opening of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Girl and the opening of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum. There’s also an interview with Essbaum and 10 Things You Need to Know About Anne Tyler as well as an article by Baker about why good books often end up making bad films.

Elsewhere on the site, I’ve enjoyed Sam Baker’s ‘Does this mean I’m not allowed to be a LEGO any more?‘; Lauren Laverne’s blog, ‘Is being a teenager harder than ever before?‘; Sali Hughes’ ‘Why every woman needs a solo playdate‘ and ‘Is it ever OK to commit liticide?‘ (although I winced through the whole of that one); Holly Smale’s ‘Why can’t we just get over Cinderella?‘; Gaby Hinsliff’s ‘What would happen if men didn’t have the vote?‘; Stacey Duguid’s ‘Flares if you care‘ where Duguid goes around high street shops trying flares on like you do when you’re shopping (as opposed to raiding the magazine’s fashion cupboard); an extract from Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, and Laurene Laverne’s interviews with Caitlin Moran and Kim Gordon.

In Harper Lee news, ‘Harper Lee elder abuse allegations declared ‘unfounded’ by Alabama‘ says The Guardian.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society:

Music:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

Photograph by Jane Feng

 

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna was a good wife, mostly.

Anna Benz, an American, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their young children in Dietlikon, Switzerland – ‘the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led’. Anna feels isolated for a number of reasons – she doesn’t drive, she doesn’t speak much German and barely any Schwiizerdütch, she doesn’t have a bank account. When Anna’s psychotherapist asks asks if she’s ‘ever considered or attempted suicide’, she asks her to ‘Define “attempt”’.

She’d met this stranger in her German class. But Anna – his cock’s been in your mouth, she reminded herself. He’s not really a stranger anymore. And he wasn’t. He was Archie Sutherland, Scotsman, expatriate, and, like Anna, language student. Anna Benz, Language Student. It was Doktor Messerli who had encouraged her to take the German course (and, by a backspin of redoubtable irony, it was Bruno who’d insisted she see a psychotherapist: I’ve had enough of your fucking misery, Anna. Go fix yourself, is what he’d said to her).

Anna and Bruno spend most evenings in solitude – him in his office; her reading, watching television or walking up the hill behind their house. While they begrudgingly seem to love each other, they are not in love. It was Bruno who wanted children and wanted to move to Dietlikon, his home town, to provide a safe, stable upbringing for them. Anna is terrified of becoming a mother:

Still, Anna got pregnant. And then again and then again. It seemed to just happen. She never said Let’s do this and she never said Let’s not. Anna didn’t say anything at all…Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon rule. Where the wind blew, she went. This was Anna’s natural inclination.

It’s no surprise then that within minutes of Anna’s first language class, Archie has flirted with her across the table, she’s decided she likes the bus he’s driving and at the end of the class, she’s telephoned Ursula, her mother-in-law, to tell her she’ll be late back for the children and followed Archie to flat for ‘an hour and a half of uninhibited sex’.

On Tuesday and again on Wednesday Anna followed Archie home after class. On Thursday and Friday, they skipped school altogether.

Hausfrau weaves together Anna’s life with Bruno, the children and Ursula; her visits to Doktor Messerli; the language class, and her affairs. There is also a friendship with a woman expatriate, Mary (whom she meets at the language class) which is fairly one-sided.

No doubt a significant proportion of the discussion around this book will be about Anna being unlikeable: she’s passive; she leaves her children with her mother-in-law while she has sex with her lovers, she spurns female friendship (or indeed, any friendship). But it’s hard not to believe that if the sex of the protagonist were reversed, it would barely raise an eyebrow, never mind pages of discussion.

There are many impressive things about Hausfrau: the quality of the writing; the philosophical thoughts and the musings on language. Anna often poses questions to Doktor Messerli such as ‘“What’s the difference between passivity and neutrality?”’ and ‘”What’s the purpose of pain”’ while the thoughts on language take a variety of forms – the language class itself, the way one of Anna’s lovers speaks English, and comments that form part of the narrative which may be the narrator’s comments or might be free indirect speech. This one early in the novel pretty much sums up Anna’s character and hints at what’s to come:

Only in the present tense is the subject married to its verb. The action – all action, past and future – comes at the end. At the very end, when there is nothing left to do but act.

Hausfrau is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, it’s an outstanding debut and I can’t wait to see what Jill Alexander Essbaum writes next.

 

 

Thanks to Mantle for the review copy.

In the Media: 15th March 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s been a great week for women writers and prizes. The Wellcome Prize shortlist was announced on Monday, including four books (of six) by women. Congratulations Miriam Towes, Alice Roberts, Sarah Moss and Marion Coutts. On Tuesday, the twenty-strong Bailey’s Prize longlist was announced. Chair of this year’s judges, Shami Chakrabarti discussed the need for the prize in The Guardian and Buzzfeed created a guide to the longlisted booksThe OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature has five women (of nine) on the longlist. Congratulations Tanya Shirley, Monique Roffey, Tiphanie Yanique, Elizabeth Nunez and Olive Senior. The PEN/Faulkner award has three women on a shortlist of five. Congratulations Emily St. John Mandel, Jennifer Clement and Jenny Offill. The Stella Prize, the Australian prize for female writers announced its shortlist this week too. Congratulations to Maxine Beneba Clarke, Emily Bitton, Ellen Van Neervan, Sophie Lagune, Jean London and Christine Keneally. Marina Warner won the Holberg Prize 2015. And women won four of the six categories at the National Book Critics Circle Award. Congratulations Marilynne Robinson, Roz Chast, Ellen Willis and Claudia Rankine.

It’s Mother’s Day in the UK today. Jo Hogan writes ‘Surprised by a Jumper: On Being Motherless on Mother’s Day‘ on her blog; Scottish Book Trust list ten books that celebrate pioneering women; Emma Healey wrote, ‘From Offshore to Oranges: a literary tribute to Mother’s Day‘ in the Guardian; Emylia Hall wrote, ‘The Mother of All Years‘ on her blog; Windmill Books published an extract of Charlotte Gordon’s forthcoming book, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley on their website, and Kate Hamer wrote, ‘Literary matriarchs and their daughters, from Little Women to Carrie‘ in the Independent

Two in-depth Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie interviews have been published this week, one in Vogue and the other on Olisa.tv: part one and part two.

The woman with the most publicity this week is Caitlin Moran. She’s interviewed on Buzzfeed and on the British Comedy Guide with her sister Caroline Moran; Pilot Viruet wrote, ‘Caitlin Moran’s UK Series ‘Raised by Wolves’ Is the Teen Sitcom America Needs‘ on Flavorwire; she’s profiled by Vanessa Thorpe in the Observer and her own Times Magazine column this week was ‘What it really means to be a mum‘ which you can listen to for free here.

And the latest on the Harper Lee story: on Wednesday, The Bookseller reported, ‘State investigators interview Harper Lee‘ and on Friday, Lee’s agent issued a statement, The Bookseller reported, ‘Nurnberg blasts ‘shameful’ Lee claims‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

Claire Fuller Colour

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

My Bailey's Prize Wishlist 2015

You know that spring is almost here when the Bailey’s Prize for Women gets underway. Next Tuesday (10th March) the longlist of 20 novels (if it remains the same as recent years) will be announced. Eligible novels have to be written in English and published by a UK adult imprint between the 1st of April 2014 and the 31st of March 2015. Translations are not eligible.

Here’s what I’d like to see on the list. If you click on the cover, it’ll take you to my review, unless the book is yet to be published, in which case the review will be posted on the week of publication.

As ever, I’ll be shadowing the whole process. Check back on Friday for more details on this.

(Published 26th March)

(Published 26th March)

(Published 5th March)

And three I haven’t read yet but are strong possibilities:

Ones to Read in 2015

There are a number of preview lists in the media at the moment. Rather than tell you what’s coming up, I’ve been reading 2015 titles since October so I can recommend books I think you should watch out for in the first half of 2015. Bar the bottom three titles – which are by three of my favourite writers and therefore, highly anticipated by me – I’ve read everything included on here; all of these books are very good and some are superb.

Full reviews will follow on the week of publication. All publication dates are UK and subject to change.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay

On a visit to her parents in Haiti, Mireille is kidnapped in front of her husband and baby son. When her father holds out on paying the ransom, she’s subjected to brutal attacks. Her family will have to come to terms with the consequences but Gay clearly makes the personal political and An Untamed State is also about the treatment of women by men; the relationship between Haiti and America, and poverty versus wealth. This is an incredible book, if I read many better this year, I’ll be surprised.

Published 8th January by Corsair Books

Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna, an American, has lived in Dietlikon, a quiet suburb of Zurich for nine years but she’s never felt as though she belongs despite being married to a Swiss man and having had three children there. When her therapist suggests she attend a German language class, she meets Archie and begins an affair. Essbaum interweaves lessons about language and passivity with Anna’s thoughts and behaviour and adds her work to a line of women going against society’s expectations.

Published 26th March by Mantle

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

The Whitshank family could be any family on the surface – Abby and Red and their four children, son Denny causing problems and disappearing for long periods until someone needs him. The novel begins with Abby’s story and her descent into forgetting things before moving to how her and Red met and then to his parents and their story. A number of family secrets are revealed along the way and Tyler writes families as only she can – with a keen eye and an acute understanding of how the bonds between family members work.

Published 10th February by Chatto & Windus

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

Callanish is a gracekeeper, someone who performs the burial of the dead. North and her bear are part of the Circus Excalibur, a circus that sails around performing – there is no place on what’s left of the land for them. But North is betrothed to the son of Red Gold, the circus owner, who wants them to have a house on land and restore his family line to the earth. Not everyone likes his plan though and North and Callanish’s paths are going to cross and set them on a different course. Logan builds upon the promise she showed in her short story collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. The Gracekeepers places her somewhere between Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.

Published 7th May by Harvill Secker

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell

London is burning. The British Museum is occupied. The Nazareth Act is in force and if you can’t produce your identity card in seconds you’re going to be shot. Lalla’s mother has tried to show her some of the reality but she’s sheltered by her wealthy father, Michael Paul, who’s been building a boat and selecting the people who will travel on it. When her mother’s shot, the boat sets sail but where are they going and what will Lalla discover along the way? A thoughtful, genre crossing, page turner.

Published 19th February by W&N

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper’s fed up of tidying up after her graphic designer husband, Elliot and teenage daughter, Martha. When she’s on her way to her friend’s fancy dress party as a superhero and prevents a mugging, she gets a buzz from acting as a vigilante protecting other women. Add to this the graphic novel designed by Elliot, containing a female victim with an unrealistic body; the graffiti picture of a girl in the uniform of the school Martha attends, and a man who’s attacking girls in Martha’s year and Jenny has a purpose in life. Hard to put down.

Published 8th January by W&N

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

Peggy’s father is a member of the North London Retreaters, discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world. While her mother, professional pianist, Ute, is on a tour of Germany, Peggy’s father tells her Ute is dead and takes her to live in die Hütte somewhere in Europe. The structure of the novel moves between Peggy’s present when she has returned to London and her mother and her time in die Hütte and how she and her father survived. Fascinating and terrifying.

Published 26th February by Fig Tree.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

When Yeong-hye begins to have nightmares about meat and murder she decides to turn vegetarian, something highly unusual in South Korean society. It strains her relationship with her husband and her father but makes her highly attractive to her brother-in-law. Told in three linked novellas, each from a different point of view, The Vegetarian becomes odder and more unnerving as Yeong-hye deteriorates mentally and physically.

Published 1st January by Portobello Books.

The Chimes – Anna Smaill

Simon goes to London with his bag of objectmemories, and the name and tune of a woman his mother told him to find. Lives are run by The Order who tell them Onestory every day and erase their memory with Chimes every evening. There is no writing, no shared stories and communities are difficult to forge; music rules everything. But Simon has a purpose, he just needs to remember what it is. An extraordinary story told in a brave and unusual way.

Published 12th February by Sceptre.

 

Before the Fire – Sarah Butler

Stick and Mac are leaving Manchester for Spain. Stick’s had enough of the memories of his sister, dead in a fire; his father who left him and his mother after his sister’s death and now has a posh house with his new wife and kids, and his mum’s OCD which is giving them both sleepless nights. But the night before they’re due to leave, Mac’s attacked and now Stick’s going nowhere and life looks a whole lot worse, especially as the 2011 riots are about to take place. A great addition to working class literature.

Published 12th March by Picador.

 

The Shore – Sara Taylor

Some families just don’t work out. The Shore is a collection of three islands off the coast of Virginia. There live a group of people related to each other. The book begins by introducing Chloe and Renee, daughters of Ellie and Bo. There’s been a murder and people in the local store are gossiping about it. By the end of the first chapter, there will have been three. The book then goes on to tell the stories – past and future – of those related to this central family. The reader travels back to 1876 and Medora and forward to 2143 and Simian. Ambitious with plenty to say about the treatment of women.

Published 26th March by William Heinemann.

The Hourglass Factory – Lucy Ribchester

Frankie George, reporter for the London Evening Gazette, is sent to write a profile of Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist and suffragette, but that evening, Ebony disappears and a woman mistakenly identified as her is murdered. Weaving a murder investigation with the activities of the suffragettes, The Hourglass Factory is a satisfying, multi-strand story with some serious points to make about women and gender roles.

Published 15th January by Simon & Schuster

 

All This Has Nothing to Do With Me – Monica Sabolo (translated by Georgina Collins)

When MS interviews XX she hires him because he’s quirky, tall, young and a mess. MS falls into an obsessive, largely unrequited love which she fuels by keeping notes about XX and taking ‘mementos’ from their after-work drinks. These are documented in diary entries, emails and photographs. The book then moves to tell the story of MS’s childhood and her parents. Sabolo interweaves her own photographs and uses her own initials in this novel which seems to blur the boundaries of fiction and autobiography in a similar way to Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton.

Published 9th April by Picador.

And the three I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to:

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

In A God in Ruins, Atkinson turns her focus on Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy – would-be poet, RAF bomber pilot, husband and father – as he navigates the perils and progress of the 20th century. For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never expected to have.

I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson’s novels since Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the Whitbread Award (now the Costa) in 1995 and she’s never disappointed.

Published 5th May by Doubleday.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

For almost a decade Rachel Caine has turned her back on home, kept distant by family disputes and her work monitoring wolves on an Idaho reservation. But now, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale and his controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, she is back in the peat and wet light of the Lake District.

The earl’s project harks back to an ancient idyll of untamed British wilderness – though Rachel must contend with modern-day concessions to health and safety, public outrage and political gain – and the return of the Grey after hundreds of years coincides with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family.

The Wolf Border investigates the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness, both animal and human. It seeks to understand the most obsessive aspects of humanity: sex, love, and conflict; the desire to find answers to the question of our existence; those complex systems that govern the most superior creature on earth.

Hall’s been my favourite female novelist since I read The Electric Michelangelo; I think she’s one of the UK’s greatest.

Published 26th March by Faber & Faber

The Story of My Teeth – Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney)

Gustavo ‘Turnpike’ Sanchez is a man with a mission: he is planning to replace every last one of his unsightly teeth. He has a few skills that might help him on his way: he can imitate Janis Joplin after two rums, he can interpret Chinese fortune cookies, he can stand an egg upright on a table, and he can float on his back. And, of course, he is the world’s best auction caller – although other people might not realise this, because he is, by nature, very discreet.Studying auctioneering under Grandmaster Oklahoma and the famous country singer Leroy Van Dyke, Highway travels the world, amassing his collection of ‘Collectibles’ and perfecting his own specialty: the allegoric auction. In his quest for a perfect set of pearly whites, he finds unusual ways to raise the funds, culminating in the sale of the jewels of his collection: the teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ – Plato, Petrarch, Chesterton, Virginia Woolf et al.Written with elegance, wit and exhilarating boldness, Valeria Luiselli takes us on an idiosyncratic and hugely enjoyable journey that offers an insightful meditation on value, worth and creation, and the points at which they overlap.

I reviewed Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, back in 2012 and it was one of my books of the year. I’m looking forward to entering her strange, clever world again.

Published 2nd April by Granta.

 

Thanks to Mantle, Chatto & Windus, Harvill Secker, W&N, Fig Tree, Portobello Books, Sceptre, Picador, William Heinemann and Simon & Schuster for the review copies.