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.

Inter-Media

A few pieces I’ve enjoyed/found interesting in the last month.

Books wise the focus continues on the lack of coverage of books by women and on diversity in publishing. Syl Saller writes, ‘Why women-only initiatives are vital for the arts‘ followed by Alison Flood’s piece, ‘Publisher finds that writers’ influences are mostly male‘ both in The Guardian. The publisher is Sarah Davis-Gough of Tramp Press. Also quoted in the article is Deborah Smith, translator and publisher at Tilted Axis Press. On the And Other Books blog, she explains why Tilted Axis are having a year of publishing women. A woman much in the media of late is Harper Lee. Glynnis MacNichol writes ‘Harper Lee: the ‘great lie’ she didn’t write Mockingbird rears its head again‘ looking not just at Lee but other women who’s authorship has also been questioned.

Kerry Hudson gets angry and offers some solutions on the Writers’ Centre, Norwich’s website, ‘Lost Stories, Unheard Voices – Diversity in Literature‘. (Do read the piece by Nikesh Shukla that’s linked to at the bottom of that page also, you’ll be astonished.) In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Susan Barker, author of The Incarnations, looks at her own experience as someone mixed-race English and Chinese, raised in Britain but writing about China; ‘Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write?

It’s unlikely you haven’t noticed that the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced this week. Dawn Foster wrote, ‘Summer’s here – so it’s time to grab a Booker and start reading‘ in The Independent and there are excellent interviews with longlisted authors Hanya Yanagihara and Anna Smaill.

In other recent topics, Roxane Gay writes about the outpouring for Cecil the Lion while Samuel DuBose, Sandra Bland and the 681 other black people killed by police in the USA so far this year. Aisha Mirza asks, ‘London’s super-diversity is a joy. Why would you ever want to leave?‘ in The Guardian.

While Nina Stibbe looks at her experience of moving to the countryside in The Independent, ‘When village life turns nasty: An author reveals the dark heart of the English countryside‘ and Hazel Davis looks at the power of online friendships in Standard Issue, ‘iFriends‘.

Lots of good things on The Pool, as always. Sali Hughes writes, ‘A magazine cover that can make the world better for women‘, ‘“Housing benefit saved me as a teenager”‘ and ‘Hasn’t lying about your age gotten really old?‘. Lauren Laverne asks ‘Is work/life balance a big, fat waste of time?‘, ‘Who’s looking after all those successful men’s kids?‘ and ‘Too busy to sleep?‘. Sam Baker met Amy Poehler and I’m not remotely envious. Honest. Anna James looks at the 10 ways J.K. Rowling changed our lives and Alexandra Heminsley celebrates marketing campaigns finally realising ‘Exercise is not about getting skinny‘.

There’s been a number of other articles about women’s bodies recently. Eva Wiseman looks at the damage done to children through anti-obesity messages, ‘Learning to love our bodies‘ in The Observer. Lindy West writes, ‘My wedding was perfect – and I was fat as hell the whole time‘ in The Guardian and Shelley Harris says, ‘This Woman Can‘ on her blog in relation to Daisy Buchanan’s ‘A Letter I Wrote To Myself About Getting Fat‘ on her blog.

Elizabeth Day’s ‘Stop Calling Women ‘Lovely’!‘ for Elle UK makes me want to punch the air and shout ‘Fuck, yes!’

And being Yorkshire born and bred and having left and returned to the county twice, I love Sophie Heawood’s piece ‘I’ve lived half my life in London, but I’ll always be a Yorkshire lass at heart‘ in The Guardian.

In the Media: 1st 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.

I’ve spent a fair proportion of this week agog at some of the comment pieces, particularly in regard to the three girls from Bethnal Green who appear to be en route to Syria. Emma Barnett in the Telegraph wrote, ‘Stop pitying British schoolgirls joining Islamic State – they’re not victims‘; Grace Dent in the Independent said, ‘If teenage girls want to join Isis in the face of all its atrocities, then they should leave and never return‘; Mary Dejevsky wrote, ‘If Britons want to join Isis, let them go‘ in The Guardian and Allison Pearson said, ‘Let’s stop making excuses for these ‘jihadi brides‘ in the Telegraph. Judith Wanga responded on Media Diversified with, ‘The Denial of Childhood to Children of Colour‘, as did Chimene Suleyman with, ‘It’s Time To Talk About Why Our Young People Turn Against Their Country‘ and Nosheen Iqbal in The Guardian with, ‘The Syria-bound schoolgirls aren’t jihadi devil-women, they’re vulnerable children‘. Emma Barnett responded with ‘Racists are alive and well in Britain – but I’m not one of them‘ in the Telegraph. Chimene Suleyman also wrote, ‘‘Defining’ Terror, and Why ISIS Suits the West‘ on Media Diversified, prior to these most recent articles.

The Oscar ceremony was another place for some jaw-dropping comments. Megan Kearns wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette Undermined Her Own “Most Feminist Moment” of the Oscars‘ in Bitch Magazine; Betsy Woodruff commented, ‘The Gender Wage Gap Is Especially Terrible in Hollywood‘ on Slate; Maitri Mehta wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette Defends Her Oscars Backstage Comments On Twitter, But Still Misses The Point‘ on Bustle; Jenny Kutner also wrote about Arquette’s tweets on Salon, ‘Patricia Arquette doubles down on equal pay: “Why aren’t you an advocate for equality for all women?”‘; Amanda Marcotte wrote, ‘Patricia Arquette’s Feminism: Only for White Women‘ on Slate; Katie McDonough wrote, ‘“Fight for us now”: What Patricia Arquette got right (and wrong) about equal pay‘ on Salon. Brittney Cooper wrote, ‘Black America’s hidden tax: Why this feminist of color is going on strike‘ in Salon.

Remarks made by one television reporter about Zendaya Coleman’s locs prompted pieces by Loretta de Feo, ‘Why do we feel the need to taunt and judge black hair, rather than embrace it?‘ in Stylist; Jodie Layne, ‘Why Zendaya’s Response To Giuliana Rancic’s Awful ‘Fashion Police’ Comments Is Important‘ on Bustle, and Grisel E.Acosta wrote, ‘“Racism begins in our imagination:” How the overwhelming whiteness of “Boyhood” feeds dangerous Hollywood myths‘ on Salon.

The Brits were written about by Tracey Thorn in the New Statesman, ‘The Brits are so polite these days. One reason? There’s no bands left‘; Bidisha wrote, ‘Madonna is superhuman. She has to be to survive the ugly abuse‘ in The Guardian; while Salena Godden covered both the Oscars and the Brits in ‘Julianne Moore is 54. Madonna is 56.‘ on Waiting for Godden

Writing awards wise, the Sunday Times Short Story Award shortlist was announced and is dominated by women. As is the Walter Scott Prize longlist, released to the public for the first time.

There’s an entire series of articles currently being published in the Irish Times on Irish Women Writers. The link will take you to the round-up so far. While academic Diane Watt has just completed 28 days of LGBT book recommendations. You can read this week’s in a Storify here; links at the bottom of the page will take you to previous weeks.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Kim Gordon. She’s this week’s New York Times ‘By the Book‘; there’s an excerpt from Girl in a Band in The Cut; you can listen to Gordon herself read an extract on Louder than War; there are five standout moments from her memoir on Slate, and in The New Yorker, Michelle Orange writes about ‘Kim Gordon, Kurt Cobain, and the Mythology of Punk‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The lists:

The Chimes – Anna Smaill + Q&A

Imagine a world where there’s no written word. Imagine a world where communication happens mostly via music. Imagine a world where music is used to wipe your memory every evening. Welcome to the world of The Chimes.

The Chimes begins with Simon, the narrator, standing at the roadside waiting for a horse and cart to take him to London. He has ‘a name and a song to find, a thread to follow’. He takes with him his bag of objectmemories, a selection of objects that hold past memories, that yield their secrets when they choose.

At first it’s just the shouts and calls of song from traders. Then there are driving bursts of melody from highboy, viol, clarionet. We trot in past blankfaced buildings with hollow windows and buckled mettle and narrow cobbled streets. Music spills from the living quarters above shops, spins up from groups of musicians standing in door frames. Trompets send out brassy martial calls along the roof turrets. Viols speak with voices high and yearning and full of ache like human song. And under it all is the hard horsehoof beat of tambors. It grows and grows in a vast crescendo…The whole city is talking in music.

Soon after, Simon hears something different, ‘deep under the soundfabric of the city’, there is a silence, an absence of music and he doesn’t know what this means.

By the end of the second chapter he’s found and been dismissed by the woman, the trader, his mother told him to find. Simon can’t prove who he is and she refuses to help him. Then Simon takes us through our first experience of Chimes.

Chimes is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then it bursts like a flowering. Who can say if it’s very slow or very fast? Chimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to say what it is like.

It’s the melody simple first. We follow in solfege. Hands in concert as the sky is carved by it: Soh Fah Me Doh Ray Me Soh Fah Me Me Ray Doh Doh Soh Soh. Then the melody is repeated, but turned upside down. Then it comes again, but up an octave and another voice takes the inverted melody and they weave together. The chords wash over. They clean and centre me. The weight of the tonic goes down my spine and into the ground.

Follow the melody through its variations, through its opening and flowering. It tells of harmony and beauty. It tells of a beauty wider than any of us. My mind opens with it and everything there is in the world is shown in perfect order in the music. There is no space for any other thought.

When it’s over, Simon’s drawn to the river bed where he begins to dig – a bodymemory of working on his parents farm – and discovers a silver nugget. Before he can comprehend what he’s found, he’s attacked by a group – Brennan, Lucien, Abel – whose patch of the river he’s on. They take him back to the storehouse they live in and they tell him they sell the nuggets to the Order who use them to build the Carillion, the instrument used for Chimes.

We then skip forward thirteen months. Simon is now a member of Five Rover pact, searching ‘for fragments of the Lady’ to sell to the Order. At this point, the story could all become very repetitive and descend into tedium but slowly Smaill reveals there’s more to Simon than he or we realise and the novel becomes a quest with elements of thriller and dystopia too.

The Chimes is a brave book. It’s brave because Smaill puts the reader in the position of a boy who has no memory, repeating ideas with the slightest of variation. It’s brave because she uses the language of music as an element of Simon’s vocabulary. It’s brave because the style in which she writes is unusual – the use of invented words; stuttering sentences, some of which omit a verb. But it’s this leap of faith which she asks the reader to take – the one in which we place our trust in her writing and believe that it will take us somewhere wonderful – which provides such a great pay-off.

It’s not often you come across a book that feels unique, particularly from a debut author, but The Chimes – while containing elements that feel familiar – is, as a whole, like nothing else I’ve read. It suggests Anna Smaill is an incredible talent with a glittering career ahead of her.

I’m thrilled that Anna’s agreed to join me on the blog to answer some questions about the book.

Although The Chimes has some of the traits of dystopian fiction it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read, where did the idea for the book come from?

The idea really hit me in two parts. I had been pondering the possibility of a world controlled by a musical elite for quite a long time, probably in part inspired by a teenage love for Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I wrote a few scenes set in this world while I was working on my PhD, but the prose never felt right. I was plodding away in what was really a borrowed sort of prose, with a very four-square, third-person-past-tense perspective. Then a long time afterward, a completely different voice hit me, which ultimately revealed itself as the voice of Simon, the narrator. It really came out of the blue and it seemed to have its own rules and structures and to emerge from a very specific landscape. It took me a while to work out that these two ideas were part of the same novel. Somehow the difficulty of reconciling them was what made the writing process come alive for me.

Simon’s lack of memory means he’s often confused as to where he is; because he’s a first person narrator you’ve placed the reader in the same situation as him. It works brilliantly but feels like a brave move. What made you decide on the first person narrative and how did you ensure readers wouldn’t become frustrated and give up?

When I first heard Simon’s voice, it was clear he was speaking directly to a nameless listener – it was inescapably a first-person voice. At first I was completely oblivious to the difficulties from a craft point of view. But after a first burst of composition – about 10,000 words – I realised the difficulty I’d set myself: that everything would have to be revealed through this very limited consciousness. At this point, I actually did experiment with the narrative voice quite a bit. I wrote several passages in third-person, and for a long time moved back and forth between past and present tense. But I always found myself coming back to the first-person and to the present – it was just the way the voice sounded to me; other perspectives didn’t feel true to Simon’s experience. I was always aware that there would be a tricky balance in this book between withholding information and obscurity. It was a very gradual evolution. A lot of the editing, after I had a working draft, was focused on opening the world up, creating more toe-holds for the reader. I had learnt the world so gradually and knew it so well that I had ceased to fully grasp its difficulties for an outside reader – this is where the eye of readers like my agent and editor was invaluable.

The divide between the majority of the population and the ruling elite in the novel appears to echo the one we’re seeing in several countries at the moment; did you intend that to be the case?

To be honest the world of the Chimes wasn’t intended to reflect any specific existing political scenario. Rather I’m interested in how certain, fairly fundamental, human impulses might reveal themselves if they were pushed to an extreme, extrapolated outwards on a mass scale. I think we all have the capability to privilege the work our mind does, and treat our physical self as a sort of adjunct, a tool. To me there’s a danger in this – the mind begins to view the body as an impediment, a site of mess or danger. The intensity of making art, or scholarship, seem to invite these extremes. The ideas behind the Order were really an extension of this. But, of course, I think there are real-world overlaps – the distinction between spirit and physicality is a common theme in religion, and when it’s repressed the body often seems to return as a form of threat.

You trained as a concert violinist before doing your MA in Creative Writing; does your background as a musician help you as a writer?

My relationship with music has shaped pretty much everything I’ve done since, and very much my sense of the world and how I fit into it. This isn’t quite the same as a specific musical influence on my work. It’s more that, in pursuing a path like that from an early age, with a certain level of intensity, one’s identity becomes entangled with it in a very fundamental way. So, even when I left musical training, I felt very much defined by this break, and by the absence of this goal I’d had for so long. Drawing a direct link between my musical background and my writing is harder. I tend to hear rhymes and rhythms in words quite prominently, I think. Certain sounds act on my ear in a similar way to open strings on a violin – they set up a certain kind of vibration. I found this tendency can actually be a drawback in writing prose at times – sonorities and pleasing sounds can pull you away from some of the other functions that prose has to perform in fiction. I do think the ability which a musician trains for (which I’m rusty in) of holding a long piece of music in your head, so you can potentially understand how a single phrase sits against the bigger context of its development – that’s a pretty solid training for the broad fictional tasks, too.

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

I love your blog and the idea behind it, by the way. I never really thought about gender as a reader when I was growing up – I was a pretty androgynous reader and tended to identify with both male and female characters, as with male and female authors – but I’m increasingly grateful for things like this blog – it’s an important redress to what’s an often unthinkingly skewed balance.

My first loves as a reader were Rosemary Sutcliff, K.M. Peyton, Cynthia Voigt, Katherine Paterson, so I feel they should really be on this list. I love and always re-read Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, Jean Rhys, Marilynne Robinson and Janet Frame. I’m also a big fan of the New Zealand novelist Pip Adam. I’ve just discovered Elena Ferrante, and am thoroughly enjoying the knowledge that there’s a huge body of work out there to read my way through!

Thanks to Sceptre for the review copy and to Anna Smaill for the interview.

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.

In the Media: 14th December 2014

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.

This week there’s been a lot written about rape and the culture which surrounds it due to a piece published in Rolling Stone magazine about a gang rape at The University of Virginia. Responses came from Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker, Emily Yoffe on SlateMaya Dusenbery on FeministingRhiannon Cosslett of The Vagenda in TimeSalamishah Tillet in The Nation and Sarah Ditum in The New Statesman; Deb Rox wrote about working at a rape crisis program in ‘Truth Is a Fire I Couldn’t Hold‘ on The Butter; Lena Dunham wrote about her own experience of speaking out on Buzzfeed; Katie McDonough comment on Salon in a piece titled, ‘The right’s Lena Dunham delusion: Anger, misogyny and the dangers of business as usual‘, and Caitlin Moran wrote about the Ched Evans’ case in the UK. While from a story focus, Kathleen Founds wrote about Vonnegut and rape culture on Buzzfeed and Sarah Hughes wrote about ‘Rape on TV‘ in The Guardian.

It’s also been another week where #readwomen2014 has been highlighted. Creator Joanna Walsh reflected on the year in The Guardian; Lauren Aimee Curtis wrote about her year of reading women in Meanjin; Lorraine Meads wrote about creating the first Feminist Library in Nottingham on Dawn of the Unread; Rebecca Mascull wrote about her reading year on her blog, and @hashughes began a Women’s Writing Calendar – send her forthcoming events you’re involved in/are aware of so we can share in the goodness. Meanwhile, Nicola Sheppey at The Vagenda wrote ‘Why Women Need to Read Books By Men‘.

And the other big story was Vlogger Zoella’s novel. The fasting selling debut since records began was ghostwritten, it was revealed last Sunday. You can read the story in The Telegraph. Keren David wrote her thoughts about it on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure; Matt Haig defended her in The Guardian; thirteen-year-old Zoella fan Julia Brookes commented on Girl Online, and on Thursday, Siobhan Curham, the ghost writer involved, commented on her own blog.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction or poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

And the lists: