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.

The Hourglass Factory – Lucy Ribchester + Q&A + giveaway

Giveway now closed.

Ebony checked the binding on her legs, squeezed a handful of flesh into a more comfortable position, ran a thumb over the sailor’s knots she had tied, and wedged the wooden bar of the trapeze between the hollows of her feet. Annie passed her the banner and she bit its silk, and grimaced as its slippery perfume coated her teeth. She had done higher leaps than this and had felt sick before each of them too. But this time they both had Holloway to look forward to.

Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, and Annie Evans, seamstress, are set to make the front pages of the newspapers for their stunt in front of H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister. But it is April 14th 1912 and the Titanic is about to sink.

Six months later, we meet Frankie George, trouser suit wearing reporter for the London Evening Gazette. Sick of her only journalistic action being the column, ‘Conversations from the Boudoir’, she writes for the Ladies’ Page with rumoured former courtesan, Twinkle, she repeatedly asks her boss to give her juicier assignments. He tells her he wants her to do a profile of Ebony Diamond. Teddy Hawkins, a reporter who frequently gets the front page tells her:

‘There’s a suffragette performing at the Coliseum tomorrow night, an acrobat. Ebony Diamond. Know her?…None of us have a damned clue who she is. That’s why he wanted you in.’ He skimmed a glance down her trouser suit. ‘You’ll know a thing or two about suffragettes, won’t you?’

Unfortunately for Frankie, the only connection she has to the suffragettes is the Punch style cartoon she drew, published in the London Evening Gazette satirising force-feeding and the social class of the women in the movement. When she finds Ebony at the corset makers who provide her costumes, Frankie’s name is recognised, associated with the cartoon and she is given short shrift. Although not before Frankie has witnessed Ebony argue with Olivier Smythe, the shop’s owner, about a woman – ‘She’s up there, isn’t she?’ – and throw a large silver brooch with a gold pattern carved on it at him.

That evening, Oliver Smythe and a woman mistakenly identified as Ebony Diamond – she’s wearing one of Ebony’s corsets – are murdered. The following evening, Ebony disappears in the middle of her act at the Coliseum while Frankie watches. Ignoring her boss, Frankie sets out to investigate.

She’s not the only one doing so though. This is a murder investigation and the police are involved. They’re also not very big fans of the suffragettes, a movement of which Ebony and Annie were members.

Detective Inspector Frederick Primrose leads the investigation. He’s been placed in charge of the branch allocated to deal with suffragettes after an incident during the Black Friday demonstrations, November 1910.

Primrose, one of the hundreds of uniformed sergeants drafted in that cold afternoon, had found [May Billinghurst] abandoned in an alleyway with the wheels ripped off her wicker bath chair, and kindly escorted her home in a police car. Only afterwards his Super had told him she had been ramming the lines of police horses with her chair, making them rear. ‘A vicious piece of dynamite,’ the Super had said, ‘who would endanger lives as readily as she would butter toast.’ The wheels had been removed by another officer.

There’s plenty of conflict between Primrose and the other officers – superior or not – and it’s not going to make the investigation easy for him.

The Hourglass Factory is a tale of murder, subversion, class and the fight for equality. Set against a backdrop of the suffragette movement and a significant period of change, the novel covers a number of ideas and themes without ever relinquishing the plot. There are a number of threads to the story and there was a point when I wondered whether Ribchester could bring them all to a conclusion, but she does, skilfully so, making the book a satisfying page-turner with some serious points to make. A most enjoyable read.

I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Lucy Ribchester to the blog to talk about The Hourglass Factory.

Where did the idea for The Hourglass Factory come from?

It started out life as a very garbled post-modernist play, because that was the way I was intending to roll in my mid-twenties. I knew I wanted to write something about suffragettes and corsets after making the connection that music hall’s heyday was round about the same time the women’s movement gathered momentum. The two ideas of feminine boldness, the savvy showgirl and the militant suffragette, were very intriguing to me. I was still trying to grapple with how a woman can be both feminine and feminist – thus the corset interest – and alongside that the conflicts of women adopting more masculine clothing and mannerisms versus celebrating the ideal of ‘womanliness’.

This is all making it sound a lot cleverer than it is…All the ideas for storyline threads came together in a little melting pot, the play didn’t work out, and I remembered a very important fact, which is that I love reading murder mysteries and thrillers. I also wanted to create something that was fun to read and would give me the ability to share some of the suffragette stories I had come across, and hopefully pique an interest in readers to find out more about the women’s movement. So I set out to write the book that I wanted to read and anything that interested me popped up in it.

Some of the ideas in the book – feminism, class, the role of the media, issues surrounding gender identity – are current hot topics; was it your intention to write a historical novel that linked with the time we’re living in?

Not at all, not consciously anyway. It’s very interesting to see that those are the hot topics that have flared up recently. I guess they must have been flying round the minds of my generation – many of whom are now writing the news – five years ago when I wrote the first draft. I think I always set out to try and explore ways of emancipation and finding freedom; different ways of being ‘a woman’, and on the flip side of that different ways of performing the role of ‘man’, which in a way haven’t really changed much over the past 100 years. We still have very clear delineations and expectations for each gender, which part of me thinks is absolutely wrong, but another part thinks is a beautiful thing, so long as those different roles are kept as equals and there is ample room for crossover.

As for class, I’m not sure. I come from a very long and distinguished line of domestic servants, who, in the Edwardian era, wouldn’t have had the time or wherewithal to write, so maybe that has something to do with it. The other strands just came from bits of historical research that sparked my imagination. I do have a soft spot for (and a horror of) the seedy romance of the tabloid newspaper, so that was always going to end up in the book. Also female misogyny in the media is as fascinating as it is repugnant and that’s definitely something that’s still around today, and that I wanted to play around with parallels for.

Edwardian London feels very real in the novel – its sights, its sounds, its smells – how did you make bring it to life?

Thank you! Plain old common theft. I rifled through books written during the period – The Man Who Was Thursday, The Four Just Men, The Secret Agent, Vita Sackville West’s amazing The Edwardians (written later but based on her experiences), guides to newspaper making, a brilliant 1902 autobiog of a female journalist named Elizabeth Banks, newspaper articles in the Colindale archives, and history books – all the while sneaking little details off their pages to save for later. Sometimes I was very brazen and stole a whole real-life incident – as is the case with the suffragette courtroom riot, nicked from (but credited to at the back) a police memoir by William Thomas Ewens.

I also tried to pay attention to the techniques other historical writers use. Sarah Waters uses food so brilliantly in Fingersmith – the brandy flip! The pig’s head! Mrs Sucksby’s little rattling gin spoon – so through a combination of theft of artefacts and attempts to mimic other writers’ techniques you try to collage together a picture.

The book has a number of plot strands that you weave together to bring the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion; how did you go about writing something so intricate and ensuring it would be successful for the reader?

I’m so chuffed to bits that you think so. What a lovely comment. I can’t however take full credit for that. The book went through several rounds of edits before it even went on submission. One of the pieces of feedback I’d had from a couple of agents was that there were simply too many threads being told from too many characters’ points of view. There were prison wardresses, suffragettes, matrons all having part of the tale told through their eyes. One of the agents who represents me at L&R, Daisy Parente, had a brilliant idea for addressing this: cut the points of view down to two and develop Primrose as a secondary storyteller, giving all the extra scenes to him.

It was a ton of work but I loved the idea so was really happy to go for it. Then Clare Hey at Simon & Schuster was brilliant at making me see where the narrative needed to be streamlined down and where things needed better explanation. So it really is a complete team effort creating a book.

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

Ah-ha! A fabulous question. Most of my favourite writers are women, so I was actually a bit surprised when the ReadWomen2014 hashtag came about. But then this year I’ve paid more attention to things like award shortlists and it does seem like there is still disparity that needs to be addressed…

But here we go, top 5: Anaïs Nin, Angela Carter, Agatha Christie, Sarah Waters, and this year I discovered Caroline Kepnes. She’s only written one book so far, called YOU, but when her next one comes out I’m going to be like a greyhound out the traps to get hold of it. I also have a very soft spot for Lynda La Plante because DCI Jane Tennison is one of the most heroic women in fiction. I love my mentor Linda Cracknell’s writing and Beatrice Colin’s conjuring of place and time, and Sarah Hall’s short stories are just astonishing. Sorry that’s 9. Maths not my strong point.

Thanks to Lucy for such fantastic responses.

If that’s whetted your appetite for this fantastic book, Simon & Schuster have kindly provided five copies of The Hourglass Factory for you lovely lot to win. I’m afraid the giveaway’s UK only. All you need to do to enter is leave a comment below. Competition closes at 5pm UK time, Sunday 18th January. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

I’ve allocated everyone who entered a number in order of entry:

1 – Cath Martin
2 – ellieaiyana
3 – Lyndsey Jenkins
4 – Helen Stanton
5 – tizzief
6 – lachouett
7 – Jess Gofton
8 – Fran Roberts
9 – Helen
10 – Wendy S
11 – Kate Terence
12 – Val Frenett
13 – meganlilli
14 – Rebecca Foster
15 – carmenhaselup
16 – Jacqueline Bunn
17 – readingwithtea
18 – sarahcretch
19 – Elle
20 – Tara
21 – Cathy746Books
22 – Kate
23 – thefemalescriblerian
24 – CPhilippou123
25 – heavenali
26 – Amy Pirt
27 – Ann Bradley
28 – Markie
29 – Katie Skeoch
30 – Debra Brown/
31 – Poppypeacockpens
32 – Maria P
33 – Cleopatralovesbooks
34 – Jennifer Laird
35 – Helen MacKinven
36 – jayandrew25
37 – Ashley Sheets
38 – Tracey S. Rosenberg

And the random number generator says:

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.15.12 Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.15.21 Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.15.30 Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.15.02 Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 17.14.50

Congratulations poppypeacockpens, Markie, Rebecca Foster, Cath Martin and carmenhaselup. Check your emails. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy and the giveaway.