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.

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven + guest post/Q&A

I’m absolutely delighted to have Helen MacKinven on the blog today discussing her debut novel Talk of the Toun. In a slight variation to how I usually do these posts, Helen’s written a guest piece on her use of Scot’s dialect in the novel, which is up first. That’s followed by my review and then, because I love the book so much and there were so many things I wanted to ask about it, there’s a Q&A with Helen too. Enjoy!

When I read your excellent piece in Fiction Uncovered, on reading regional and cultural accents it expressed sentiments that are central to who I am as a writer and a key theme in my debut novel. I grew up in a council housing scheme and everyone I knew apart from the teachers at school, the doctor and the parish priest was working class. I was the first person in my immediate and very large extended family to get a degree. To be a writer wasn’t something that ever seemed like an option and I’d no role models to aspire to, writers weren’t real people, they belonged in the world of books. I enjoyed the escapism of following the adventures of the girls in Mallory Towers who had midnight feasts and toasted marshmallows as a parallel universe to playing chap door run and making my way home when the street lights came on. There were no characters that I could relate to in the books I read, they didn’t act like me or speak like me and it was a long time before I found the inspiration I was looking for to find my own writing ‘voice’.

Writers like Anne Donovan in her novel Buddha Da, gave a voice to characters I could understand and relate to and her use of dialect was a model for the style of writing I aspired to achieve, that of an authentic and credible voice.

It’s taken me ten years of writing to find my own ‘voice’ and realise that rather than copy formats that sell, I want to write about subjects and settings that aren’t necessarily commercial. I feel that this has made it harder for me to get published.

When I was looking for a publisher, this was the response; ironically the company is based in Edinburgh.

“The Scottish dialect in your novel flows effortlessly and was appreciated and understood by the Scottish members of the team. But readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect found the novel too demanding and challenging.
We suggest that you submit your novel to a publisher more focused on publishing Scottish novels.”

I’ve taken the gamble of using Scots dialect in my writing which might be a barrier to some readers but not to the ones I want to reach. My novel is a coming-of-age story where the main character wants to go to art school but has to fight against the expectations of her circle of influence and find her own identity. I know how hard that can be, even although I lived in the same type of council house as my classmates because I was clever and wore glasses, laughably I was called posh!

When I started writing the first person narrative of my novel I immediately knew I had no choice but to write the dialogue in a local dialect to make it sound real and natural, anything else would be false. Of course my book will not appeal to every reader, and if one of the reasons is that there’s too much dialect, then my work here is done.

Angela and Lorraine have been friends since the first day of primary school. Lorraine’s been a teacher’s pet and a cry baby ever since. Now the girls are seventeen and Lorraine’s crying because the rector’s in school showing them an anti-abortion film.

There were only two weeks left to go before the school holidays and with the exams finished, it was obvious that the teachers were filling in time and were literally using murder to kill off any ideas that we had of a summer of sun, sea and sex. Most of us wouldn’t get as far as the beach at Burntisland wearing cagoules as it pissed down, but every one of us could get shagged if we put our mind to it. And I was determined that me and Lorraine wouldn’t be coming back for sixth year as virgins.

Beside this short-term ambition to lose her virginity, Angela’s got her sights set on Glasgow School of Art. Encouraged by one of her teachers, she’s hoping to get off the council scheme she’s grown up on and pursue a different path. Not if her parents have their way though, they – her dad in particular – are intent on her getting a job straight from school, just as they did.

It was getting harder and harder to speak to them. My mam and dad talked at me, not to me. I’d outgrown them when I was about twelve and we’d lived on different planets ever since.

But Angela has her gran, the pet psychic, Senga Shepherd, to turn to. She dog sits Bimbo, the white poodle, for Senga when she goes to the bingo and also nips to her gran’s for lunch on Saturdays. Senga’s got plenty of wise words and advice as well as knowing the local gossip.

Lorraine’s family’s quite different. Her thirteen-year-old sister Janine is disabled – in a wheelchair and reliant on others for her care. Her mum, Rita, is a devout Catholic – or at least she is now, Angela’s mum and gran have plenty to say about what Rita got up to before she had Lorraine – and they live on a Wimpey estate nicknamed Spam Valley by the locals from the scheme:

…where the weans got a row from their mammies if they used slang words that they learnt in the playground at school.

But the catalyst in the novel for the problems in Lorraine and Angela’s friendship comes from two people who Lorraine becomes close to: Pamela, a girl from school who Angela refers to as ‘Little Miss Brown Nose’ and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘…a total ride. Ah’d sook him tae the root’, who both of them fancy.

The novel follows the girls’ friendship over the summer as they try to shed their virginity and Angela aims for art school.

MacKinven covers a number of big themes: sex – women’s sexuality particularly, class, religion, family relationships, friendship. They’re seamlessly integrated into a very tight plot.

What really impressed me about Talk of the Toun though was how it’s grounded in its time and place. The use of Scottish accent and dialect is perfectly pitched. I disagree with MacKinven’s earlier point here that the language she’s chosen to use might be a barrier. There’s the odd dialect word that readers might not know but they’re not difficult to discern in the contexts in which they’re used and if someone really needs to check them, the internet has the answers!

The other way in which the setting is well realised is through the use of 1980’s references. These take two forms: the first is the myriad mentions of cultural things from the time – Rubik’s cube, Rimmel’s Heather Shimmer lipstick, Cagney and Lacey, Kerplunk, Care Bears and so on. The second is more complex and a brave move on MacKinven’s part – references to attitudes of the time in relation to race and women’s sexuality. This leads to some passages in the novel that are very difficult to read in 2015. I cringed through them, not only because they’re so far from anything most people would dare to say these days but also because I know they were attitudes members of my own family held and vocabulary that they would use. Although it makes for uncomfortable reading, it allows MacKinven to do something really interesting with the end of the novel that’s completely in keeping with the time. It should lead to some interesting discussions and I’m glad she was brave enough to do it and not stray into a more modern response.

Talk of the Toun is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. I heartily recommend it and hope novels like this one keep chipping away at the idea that novels have to be written in Standard English to succeed.

Talk of the Toun is set in the 1980s and there’s some great references – Betamax videos, Take the High Road, Care Bears, Heather Shimmer Rimmel lipstick to name a few – that really help to ground it in this time. However, there are also some comments by characters that are very difficult to read in 2015 – Lorraine’s disabled sister is ‘handicapped’ ‘a Windae Licker’ and takes the ‘Nut Bus’ while there are a number of racist names used (along with protests from some characters that they’re not racist when Angela challenges them). Was it important to you to convey the social attitudes of the 1980s as well as the fashion and culture?

Absolutely! Initially I was uncomfortable even writing words and phrases that these days are socially unacceptable and I worried about reading passages aloud and the impact on the audience. My concerns as the writer were that the offensive terms could be interpreted as my own thoughts, rather than those of the characters and it was tempting to whitewash the manuscript. I had to reflect on whether or not I wanted the novel to be an accurate depiction of the ‘norm’ for the era or simply an easy read. I took the decision, along with using vernacular in the dialogue, that my aim was to create a credible sense of time and place and therefore I had to include the language and attitudes of the 80s. I hope that this will provoke discussion on how much things have changed, or not, in Scotland now.

There’s a lot in the novel about attitudes to women regarding sex and pregnancy that for me still felt very relevant to conversations happening now, were you thinking about parallels whilst you were writing the book?

Again, it was a case of trying to write a realistic situation and use my own memories of the attitudes to sex and pregnancy when I was a teenager in the 80s. Like the main characters, I was brought up as a Catholic and was indoctrinated at school and within the home that to become pregnant, unmarried, would bring shame on the family and scupper any thoughts of further education or a career. The first chapter in the novel has a scene where the senior pupils are shown a graphic anti-abortion film and this was based on my own experience at school. Being force-fed these messages meant that sex was equated with fear amongst me and my friends, your worst nightmare was to fall pregnant. I feel that attitudes like those highlighted in the novel are realistic in certain communities at that time and made an impact on how young women grew up to view their bodies and their sexuality. However, although times have changed, I wonder how many other young women are still on the receiving end of negative images and concepts?

Although most of the voices in the novel are working class ones you avoid stereotyping, particularly through Angela and her desire to go to Glasgow School of Art. Was it part of your aim to show a range of views and experiences?

My dad was one of fourteen children so I had many cousins (too many to count!) and yet I was the first in my extended family to go on to further education and achieve a degree in Primary Education. Growing up, the only middle-class folk I encountered were teachers at school, the doctor and the priest. My family’s mentality was that “sticking in” at school was the way to get on in life and I was encouraged to work hard and aim high. My personal experience doesn’t reflect Angela’s but it was easy to see how some of my contemporaries could feel held back by their social class. Angela is encouraged by her art teacher to use her talent to explore a world beyond her small town life and I wanted to show that a postcode doesn’t dictate your dreams.

The novel deals with a number of serious issues but it’s also very funny. Was the humour there from the first draft or was it something you added during the editing process?

Some years ago, I attended an Arvon residential course and as part of the one-to-one feedback from the tutor she remarked that it was interesting to critique a piece of black comedy. It took me a minute or two to realise that she was referring to my work as I’d never given my writing that label. But the more I wrote, the more I realised that my natural ‘voice’ enjoys using humour and so I consciously built in the light to offset the dark. The many drafts that ended up as Talk of the Toun always had humour running throughout the manuscript and I couldn’t imagine it in any other form.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

I have quite a list but in relation to inspiration for Talk of the Toun I would say that Buddha Da by Anne Donovan would come close to the top as it features working class characters and uses rich Scottish dialect. I love to read Scottish contemporary fiction and also admire the work of writers such as Janice Galloway, Jackie Kay, Kerry Hudson and Karen Campbell. As you might guess, I like to do my bit to champion women who showcase quality Scottish fiction!

A huge thank you to Helen MacKinven for a fantastic guest post and Q&A and also to Thunderpoint Publishing for the review copy.