Books of the Year 2016, Part One

As usual I’m dividing my Books of the Year into two parts. Part Two, coming tomorrow will be fiction published in 2016. Part One is fiction published pre-2016 and 2016 non-fiction. If you click on the pictures of the books they will take you to my full review.

WL PBK FINALWaking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green finishes a nineteen hour shift at Soroka Hospital, six of which he spent helping to stabilise road traffic accident victims. In the time it takes for him to walk from the hospital ward to his car, he goes from exhausted to adrenaline-fueled. He decides to drive to ‘a particularly challenging SUV track’ he’s read about. Sprinting along, he hits a man and leaves him for dead. The next morning, Sirkit, the man’s wife, appears at his door along with Etian’s wallet which he dropped at the scene. Sirkit offers him a deal but it’s one that will have serious consequences for his home life and his job. Everything in Waking Lions is grey area. Sharp, thoughtful and challenging.

7016625Push – Sapphire

Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father. Suspended from school, she goes to Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. Precious tells the story of her time attending the group, in which she learns to read and write, intertwined with that of her family situation. Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination and Sapphire’s rendering of Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and authentic.

getimage239-669x1024.aspxOne Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg go on the run after Feinberg is caught having sex with the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer. The deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s, sends the pair to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain. But Markovitch refuses to divorce his wife, the stunning but cold, Bella Zeigerman. The backbone of the story is that of three women: Bella; Feinberg’s wife, Sonya, and Mandelbaum’s wife, Rachel. Gundar-Goshen uses them to explore the ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here.

51-2bjcqwu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Maureen kills Robbie O’Donovan when she finds him in her house. As the mother of Cork’s biggest gangster, Jimmy Phelan, she doesn’t need to worry about clearing up her mess. But the mess is bigger than a body and some blood: Robbie’s girlfriend, Georgie, is looking for him and she has problems of her own; Tara Duane, Georgie’s confidant is keen to know everyone’s business and she lives next door to Jimmy’s alcoholic clearer-upper, Tony Cusak. And then there’s Cusak’s son, fifteen-year-old Ryan, who loses his virginity, starts his first long term relationship and begins to step out from the shadow of his alcoholic, violent, widowed father. A bloody entertaining read.

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Ruby – Cynthia Bond

Ruby’s returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City. Everyone knows she’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which have attached themselves to her. As she gives herself to them, we learn about her childhood and the long-standing relationship she has with Jennings’ family. Bleak but threaded with hope and beautiful writing.

 

9781444775433The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position, finds himself in the Marshalsea for unpaid rent and other debts. He arrives after the widow of Captain Roberts has taken up residence in the debtor’s  prison after Robert’s murder made to look like suicide. Hawkins gets drawn into solving the murder as he deals with his roommate, the despised Samuel Fleet, and the prison’s regime, divided by rich and poor. Intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. Entertaining.

 
9781846689499Pleasantville – Attica Locke

Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. As a middle class, politically aware area, it also holds political power, a power which has become legendary over four decades. The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre. Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power.

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Negroland – Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family. Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities. Negroland is a superb book which consider the intersections of race, class and gender. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society.

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The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour. It explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth. Rigorous and fascinating.

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The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Laing examines the idea of being lonely in the busiest place on earth – the city, specifically in her case New York City. Part memoir, part mediation on art, Laing looks at a number of artists who’ve dealt with the theme of loneliness – in their work and often in their private lives too – focusing in on Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The Lonely City is a fascinating exploration of what loneliness is; how we attempt to stave it off; why some people are consumed by it, and what its relationship to artistic creation might be.

 

Jersey Festival of Words: The Crime Panels

My intention was that I would blog about Jersey Festival of Words while I was there. However, that was derailed partly because I had my own event to prepare for and partly because I was having far too good a time to sit down and write. What I’ve decided to do, as I’m now writing in retrospect, is to group events by theme, rather than do a day-by-day commentary. First up: crime.

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I attended two crime panels on the Saturday of the festival. The second, which I’ll come back to in a moment featured two male writers, JS Law and John Samuel, along with Louise Doughty. The first was at 10am and was a fascinating discussion between Antonia Hodgson, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown and author of a series of three historical crime novels which begin with The Devil in the Marshalsea, and Rachel Abbott, self-published author of six novels (Kill Me Again being her latest) and the fourteenth best-selling author (whether traditional or self-published) of the last five years.

Both writers say they got started by thinking about ideas on their commutes. For Rachel, this was plotting a murder in her head stemming from the question, what situation would be so bad a woman would murder a man? She says most of her books have a dilemma at the heart of them. She likes her readers to think about what they would do in that situation. She researched her latest novel, Kill Me Again, by sending her retired sister out in Manchester with a camera. When she went to the Pomona wasteland, near the canal, she asked the builders working there, ‘Can you tell me, is there anywhere decent to bury a body?’.

Antonia fell in love with the 1700s as it’s a period we don’t read or hear about as much, partly because George II was ‘the dullest king we’ve ever had, a ridiculous man!’. She finds the street level fascinating though. ‘I love a good plot, a good mystery, I love a good twist.’ She did her research mostly in the British Library, although for the third book in the series she also used the West Yorkshire archives. She describes the joy of looking at pamphlets that have been tucked away for years and finding personal notes on them. She hasn’t had anyone tell her that anything in her books is wrong but says she included the note about swearing at the beginning of The Devil in the Marshalsea after her American editor questioned whether people really swore that much at the time the novel is set. She says writing about a historical period reminds us how little human nature has changed.

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Bored in Italy, one snowy February, Rachel began to write for her own pleasure. She had no intention of trying to get her writing published but after mixed reviews from her family, she decided to give it a go. She sent the book to six agents. The first one wanted to take it on but didn’t think it was the sort of book that would sell. Because Rachel was 59 at the time, she decided to put it on Kindle instead.

To begin with, nothing happened. The book was published on the 15th November 2011 and sold 16 copies on Christmas Day, which Rachel thought was exciting at the time. However, her marketing background told her, ‘You need to get noticed’, so she put together a twenty-seven-page plan. She worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for three months, gaining two-stone from subsisting on biscuits! It took six weeks to get Only the Innocent to number one in the Kindle chart, at which point it was selling 3500 copies a day.

Antonia says, ‘I do think that talent will out, almost always, but it is a slog’. She thinks the industry needs to be more open about the process and describes sending a book into the world as ‘absolutely terrifying’. Her first novel wasn’t published. She says she knew it wasn’t right but was encouraged by agents who told her she could write. She didn’t self-publish ‘because I know so much about the industry: you have to be a brilliant writer and a fantastic entrepreneur’.

She talks about the idea of the ‘gatekeepers’ of the publishing industry, saying that these people are incredibly committed, enthusiastic, creative people, looking for books that will sell well. Although she does say that there is work to be done in terms of diversity. A range of people will lead to a range of tastes in the books bought.

Rachel says the problems in self-publishing are the lack of editing, the low pricing, sock puppets and buying reviews.

They both talk about having to be tough and taking expert advice. Rachel has an agent (Lizzy Kremer, who is also the agent of Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train). She talks about ‘When I first took her on…’ and that she did so because Kremer told her of one of her books, ‘I thought it was pretty good but you can do better than that’; because she guides her as to what to do next; because she reads and edits her work, and because she’s sold Rachel’s books into twenty different languages. There’s a great moment when she says about Kremer, ‘She’s the professional, she knows what she’s talking about. My agent’s very hands on. She’s quite fierce’.

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Antonia confesses to rejecting a book, in her capacity as an editor, that went on to become a bestseller, but that the book wasn’t for her. She says there’s room for both traditional and self-publishing. They discuss the things traditional publishers do that a self-published author would need to do themselves, or simply doesn’t have access to. For example, it’s difficult for self-published authors to get their books into book shops as retailers don’t have time to see each author rather than meeting a rep from a publishing house; traditional authors receive an advance from the publisher; self-published authors bear the costs of producing and distributing their book; self-published authors aren’t eligible for many competitions (although this is beginning to change) and aren’t part of promotions, whether Richard and Judy or Buy one get one half price.

Rachel says if you want to self-publish, you need to have your books professional edited, copy edited and proof read. Marketing is your responsibility. ‘Whether you’re a success of a failure, it’s down to the amount of effort you put in.’ She says you need to be bloody minded, determined, consistent, analytical and to persevere in order to raise awareness of your book.

If you’re going for a traditional deal, you need to have an honest conversation about expectations when the deal is signed, says Antonia. ‘You do have to go into it knowing what questions to ask’ with regards to the level of marketing your book will receive. ‘The role of the author is becoming far more central,’ she says, describing them as ‘a partner in the publication’. Writers don’t have to be on social media, but it is seen as a bonus if they are when launching a new writer.

Neither writing wants books to disappear and Antonia thinks that the apocalyptic warnings about the death of print are over and things are stabilising. Rachel says the number of ebooks you have to sell to reach number one in the Kindle chart is slightly lower than it was when she started out.

Interestingly, both writers end by saying the ‘essential’ thing you need as a writer, whether traditionally or self-published, is an agent.

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Cathy Rentzenbrink, JS Law, John Samuel, Louise Doughty

Late-afternoon, I was at the Opera House for ‘The Voice of a Thriller’. A discussion between three crime writers, chaired by Cathy Rentzenbrink. Because of the nature of this blog, I’m only going to cover what Louise Doughty, author of Apple Tree Yard and Black Water contributed to the discussion, but the whole thing was fascinating and I think it’s well worth looking up the other writers and their books if this is your genre.

Louise begins by reading two passages from near the beginning of Black Water. She tells us she loves reading from her books because it’s easier than writing them and she’s a frustrated actress, she wanted to be Glenda Jackson in her teens! She reveals that she wanted to do the audiobook for Apple Tree Yard and then her publisher told her they’d got Juliet Stephenson, so she had to relinquish that one!

The idea for Black Water came when she was at the Bali Writers’ Festival in 2012. She was hideously jetlagged, might have had a cocktail too many at the parties and was staying in a hotel above the Ayung River where the nights were noisy. As the monkeys, geckos and monsoon rain kept her awake, she had the image of a man lying awake, mortally afraid. He believed men with machetes were coming for him. He was afraid of something he’d done and Louise knew what was going to get him really was his own ghosts. She wrote the first 2-3000 words and then got stuck for a year.

She talks about how all her books have been different and that makes life hard for a publisher. It was her sixth novel, Whatever You Love, which was first described as a psychological thriller. She says the writer’s ‘only duty is to write the story that’s in your heart to the best of your ability’, it’s up to the publisher to place it within the market. She though Apple Tree Yard, which brought a new audience to her work via the marketing of the book as a psychological thriller, was ‘a feminist indictment of criminal justice’ but it would be ‘churlish’ to resent the way the book was marketed.

Black Water is more overtly political. Louise describes Harper, the protagonist, as a metaphor for a country: can he find love and redemption after a mass killing? She says she wants the book to form a bridge into an unknown world as well as entertaining the reader.

She felt she was ready to write from a male point-of-view for this book. The previous two had been female, first person, present tense. She kept Black Water in third person even though it’s from Harper’s perspective as she wanted him to be unknowable. She spoke to a lot of men when creating the character but, ‘I do fundamentally believe we are all the same’. She said it was the language that caused her a problem: how would Harper have a thought to himself? She uses the line, ‘to do a bit of shopping’ as an example. She says this implies a leisure activity and probably isn’t the way a man would express this. She changed it to, ‘to pick up one or two things’, although she kept a line about flip-flops being unflattering which a man did pick her up on. She liked the line though so it stayed.

Harper is mixed-race (Indonesian and Dutch) and uses his ‘floating ethnicity’ to his advantage. However, in the Netherlands, at school, he is bullied for being black; in the US he is bullied for being Japanese, and in Indonesia, where he works for a large, powerful organisation, he is considered to be white. Louise says she wanted him to be a comedian: he is constantly asked ‘Are you part something?’ in the novel, and that she wanted a man who is a perpetual outsider as ‘outsiders are observers’. She says writers consider themselves to be outsiders, it’s the one thing they all have in common. She ends on the intriguing note, ‘Harper is my most autobiographical character’.

The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

‘D’you know, there’s some say the devil lives in the Marshalsea. And – forgive me, sir. I’m not sure you’re ready to meet him.’

The sir in question is Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position in due course.

Three years ago – following an unfortunate incident in an Oxford brothel – I had abandoned that path. Now here I was, five and twenty, with no family, no prospects and no money. True, I had Greek and Latin and could dance a passable gavotte, but a man cannot survive on such things, even in London.

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It’s 1727 when we meet Tom with his oldest friend, Charles Buckley, celebrating in Tom King’s coffeehouse where, apparently, there are ‘only two reasons to celebrate […] a win at the tables or a full recovery from the clap’. Tom’s reason is the former. That morning an action’s been placed on him by his landlord and three others for twenty pounds in unpaid rent and other debts. He has one day to pay. He calls in favours, pawns everything of value he owns, borrows from Charles and then gambles the lot. The win will keep him out of debtor’s prison.

Leaving the coffeehouse, Moll, who runs the place, calls Tom a link boy to guide him home. But the boy takes him deep into St Giles, ‘the most infamous slum in London’, where Tom’s robbed and beaten.

The following morning, he’s arrested in the coffeehouse. His landlord is adamant he’s done with Tom following a letter sent to him that morning suggesting Tom’s been having an affair with his wife.

‘Mr Fletcher, sir. We are men of reason, are we not?’ I waved the note limply. ‘You must see that this is no more than malicious gossip? I mean no dishonour to your good wife, but…’

Behind me, Moll gave a little cough. ‘But he’d rather fuck his own sister.’

A man named Jakes takes Tom to Marshalsea. On the way, he tells Tom he reminds him of his old army captain, Captain Roberts, both in looks and behaviour. Roberts died in the Marshalsea. It looked like suicide but Jakes is convinced it was murder as is Robert’s widow who has determined to remain in the jail until her husband’s killer is caught.

Top of the suspects list and former roommate of Roberts is Samuel Fleet. Middle-aged, eccentric, fearfully intelligent, Tom ends up sharing Fleet’s cell, much to the disgust of the rest of the jail. Soon he has to decide who he can trust.

Hodgson does a superb job of conveying the sights, sounds and smells of the time, whether in the coffeehouses or the streets or the jail. The Marshalsea is fascinating in that those of a certain class, with access to money, were able to live on one side of the jail in relative privilege and luxury. Some were even allowed to leave for short periods. On the other side, however, the Common Side, disease, violence and death are rife. Part of Tom’s time in the Marshalsea is spent discovering how these people are treated and how William Acton, former butcher and deputy warden, runs the jail through fear and brute force. It’s difficult not to make comparisons to the current class divide.

Hawkins is an interesting character. Privileged but sensitive, ultimately he’s a good guy. Hodgson also does a great line in female characters, particularly Kitty, Fleet’s ward, who he’s educating. ‘He’s promised me that when we’re done there won’t be a single man in England who’ll marry me.’ And Fleet is one of the best characters I’ve come across; captivating, educated, conniving, he also gets one of the best lines:

‘I can count the number of men I like on one hand. Without letting go of my cock.’

The Devil in the Marshalsea is intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. I enjoyed it so much, the minute I finished the final page I ordered the sequel.

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Antonia Hodgson appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 10am, in the Arts Centre, along with Rachel Abbott. They will discuss crime fiction and routes into being published. Tickets are available here.

Jersey Festival of Words 2016 Preview

Some of you might remember that last year I attended the inaugural Jersey Festival of Words. It was a fantastic few days: great events, lovely people and wonderful weather. You can read about the events I attended on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

This year the festival returns bigger and better and I’ll be flying out to Jersey on the 28th of September for what I anticipate will be a glorious long weekend.

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If you fancy a long bookish weekend away at the end of summer, then I highly recommend a visit. The festival programme is here and includes a whole range of events from author interviews to workshops to reading groups to panel discussions.

If you can’t make it, then you’re in the right place as I’ll be covering the festival for the blog again this year. Not only that, throughout September I’ll be focusing on books by writers appearing at the festival including Victoria Hislop, Alison Weir, Caroline Lea, Tania Hershman, Erren Michaels, Antonia Hodgson, Rachel Abbott, Louise Doughty, Kat Banyard, Anne Sebba and Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum.

Cathy Rentzenbrink, whose memoir The Last Act of Love was one of my books of the year in 2015, is also appearing. She’s well worth seeing live – smart, thoughtful, honest and very funny. She gives great interview.

And, well, if you can only afford to go to one event…? I’ll be interviewing Sarah Turner, The Unmumsy Mum, on the Saturday evening in Jersey Opera House. We’d love to see you there.