Books of the Year 2017

Due to life interfering, I read half as many books this year as I have in previous years. What I have read though has, on the whole, been incredibly good. I’ve selected the ten I loved the most and included five others I highly recommend at the end of the piece. If I’ve reviewed the book in full, there’s a link at the bottom of the description.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

The story of a marriage between a young, educated woman and a university lecturer. When I Hit You is both a tale of domestic violence and of a woman becoming a writer by writing her way out of her situation. Kandasamy’s experimental style frames the experience as though the narrator is witnessing the horror brought upon her. It’s brutal, it’s thoughtful, it’s shocking. It’s incredibly relevant in 2017.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Meena Kandasamy here.

 

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky – Leslie Nnedi Arimah

Hands down the best short story collection I’ve ever read. Arimah does things with the form that shouldn’t be possible. In the first story, for example, the protagonist is held in a moment while the back story of everything that led to that point is revealed and yet the tension holds sharp. Many of the stories are concerned with the way women are shaped by/shape themselves around men, all of them carry an emotional punch.

 

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Two sisters, Effia and Esa, born in West Africa in the 1770s are separated. One becomes the wife of a slave trader, the other is shipped to America as a slave. Gyasi follows the two lines to the present day. Each chapter focuses on the next branch of the family tree and works as a short story in its own right. Alongside this runs the story of the creation of the black race, its reasons and consequences. It’s an incredible achievement.

My full review is here.

 

Attrib. and Other Stories – Eley Williams

Williams’ debut short story collection is full of animals, clever word play, humour and love. While all of these elements contribute to intelligent, engaging stories, it’s the emotions at the core of the tales which elevate them to something special. The reader’s transported to the position of the narrator, feeling their anticipation at the potential lover standing next to them or their loss at the one who’s just left.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Eley Williams here.

 

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. Almost everyone in Neve’s life is abusive in some form; Riley conveys this through a range of incidents told from Neve’s perspective, leading the reader to question whether or not she’s telling the truth. Searing and utterly pertinent in 2017.

My full review is here.

 

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more.

 

 

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

An unnamed narrator gives birth to a boy as floodwaters rise in the U.K. Soon London is covered and the narrator and her new family can’t return to their flat. They move to their in-laws and then on to a refugee camp. Also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. Taut and compelling.

My full review is here.

 

 

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

A collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. Only Moshfegh could pull that off.

My full review is here.

 

Elmet – Fiona Mosley

“Daddy“ builds a house in a copse in the woods for himself and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. The land on which he builds is owned by Price, the most influential man in the area. Daddy is fully aware of the antagonism this will cause, but, as the best bare-knuckle fighter in the U.K. and Ireland, he wields his own form of power. From this moment, the two men are pitted against each other; it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode. An exploration of gender roles and what happens if you transgress them, as well as a commentary on class and privilege.

I wrote about why Elmet is an important working class novel for OZY.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

At a party, Lucina feels a pain and blood begins to fill her eyes. She begins to go blind. The doctor tells her he can do nothing other than monitor the situation, leaving her to adjust to a life in which she has to rely on others to help her. She is furious and her anger increases as the story progresses. Told in flash length chapters with short, spiky, repetitive sentences. Horrifying and brilliant.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Lina Meruane here.

 

And the highly recommended:

Tinman – Sarah Winman

Ellis and Michael are inseparable until Annie arrives in their lives and Ellis marries her. A story of hidden love, friendship, AIDS and art. Beautiful and heart-wrenching.

A Book of Untruths – Miranda Doyle

A memoir about Doyle’s family. Every chapter reveals a lie that’s been told while questioning the reliability of memory and the purpose of memoir writing.

A Manual for Heartache – Cathy Rentzenbrink

An indispensable guide for when the worst happens to you or someone close to you. My piece about it is here.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

The love story of performers Rose and Perrot and also a scathing commentary on patriarchal society’s treatment of women, particularly with regards to sex and shame.

My full review is here.

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The sequel to Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. Sofia’s married to Conall but there’s a whopping great secret he hasn’t told her. Has a punch the air, feminist ending.

My full review and interview with Ayisha Malik is here.

Attrib. and other stories – Eley Williams

I should start with a confession: I love Eley Williams’ work. I’ve loved it since ‘Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley)’ was shortlisted for The White Review Prize in 2015. It’s a story I read repeatedly when I was trying to work out whether my own writing was experimental or not and it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s not even the best piece in Williams’ debut collection.

Williams’ stories are primarily concerned with three things: language, love (in many forms) and animals. These three things are woven together in almost every story.

The collection begins with ‘The Alphabet (or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than In Practice)’. The plot of this is not and will not be obvious begins the narrator. It’s such a bold statement I wonder whether it’s an intention for the collection. With regards to the story, it’s because the narrator has aphasia.

I completely lost it (the plot, not the glasses – they’re only mislaid) about two weeks ago around the same time that I mislaid you. If you were here you would make a filthy joke about my use of that word, about you being miss laid. Scratch that, then. Screw it or unscrew that work out of place. Two weeks ago is when I lost it – the plot – round about the same time that you were not mislaid by me but were misplaced. When you misplaced me. Two weeks ago is when we ceased to converge by the bedside table, beneath the sofa, by the fridge.

There’s a point towards the end of this piece where I’ve noted ‘There’s a real emotional oomf in this’, the loss of not just words but a lover, the two tied together as though they would be the worst two things to happen at the same time, which, for a lover of words, they just might be.

Williams uses a lot of humour in her work. The set up for ‘Alight at the Next’ is funny in itself: the narrator wants to ask their date to come home with them. They’re just working up to the speech they’ve composed to deliver in time with the slowing motion of the train

when the doors are opening and you are standing closer to me than you ever have, and I have been counting, and measuring, and the doors have opened and

 / / a man / / pushes on / / to get inside / / the carriage / / before I’ve had time / / to step down

so without thinking and certainly without hinges I am holding out my hand and placing a finger in the middle of his forehead.

The rest of the story takes place while the narrator holds the man by his forehead, preventing him from embarking.

As for the animals, well, look away if you’re an animal lover…

In many ways my workplace is the loveliest in the whole country. They are still songbirds, after all, even when they are screaming in the pot.

so begins ‘Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef’. In ‘Bulk’ a whale’s body is washed up on the beach; in ‘Mischief’ we encounter a rat trained to detect landmines, and in the final story of the collection, ‘Spins’ (shortlisted for The White Review Prize 2014), a spider weaves its web in the corner of the room an hour after the narrator’s lover has left them. A tip for beginners: spiders are not great conversationalists.

Williams’ work is clever, funny and thoughtful without being pretentious but what makes Attrib. and other stories one of the best books I’ve read so far this year is the huge beating heart at the centre of it all. There were points in some of the stories where I was so willing the narrator on in their quest to connect with someone that I found I couldn’t breathe. It’s a sign of a great writer when they can make you care so deeply about an unnamed fictional creation. Williams is a great writer and I have no doubt there’s even better to come from her.

I interviewed Eley about the collection, the state of the short story and completing creative work as part of a PhD thesis.

Did Eley insert a made up word in her collection?

You can buy Attrib. and other stories from Amazon and Waterstones or support your local independent book shop. If, like me, you don’t have one, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Eley for the interview and to Influx Press for the review copy.

In the Media: 10th May 2015

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

It’s Mother’s Day in 80 countries around the world today. Not surprisingly, there has been a whole range of articles, from a whole range of view points, about mothers and motherhood this week. The Hairpin ran a series including  ‘Mommy Queerest‘ by Sarah Liss; ‘Thoroughly Modern Murdering Mothers; or, Women Who Kill for Their Children‘ by Meredith Haggerty; ‘A Joke, A Story‘ by Naomi Skwarna; ‘Going for the Burn: Revisiting Jane Fonda’s Workouts‘ by Alison Hamm’ ‘Mothers and Moms‘ by Haley Mlotek, and Randi Bergman, ‘The Weirdest Beauty Tips I Learned From My Mom‘.

Tameka Cage-Conley wrote, ‘Motherhood, Art, And Police Brutality‘ on VSB; Amy Shouse wrote ‘My mom never wanted kids‘ on Salon; Anne Enright wrote, ‘When Mother Leaves the Room‘ in The New York Times; Cheryl Strayed wrote, ‘The ‘Painful Personal Toll Lung Cancer Has Taken on My Life’‘ on The Huffington Post; Monica Hessler, ‘The long drive to end a pregnancy‘ in The Washington Post; Mary HK Choi, ‘The Dicks Of Our Lives‘ on Buzzfeed; Mary Elizabeth Williams, ‘Sorry about Mother’s Day, my childfree girlfriends: Moms aren’t any more special (or unselfish) than you‘ on Salon; Edwidge Danticat, ‘A Prayer Before Dying‘ on Literary Hub; Brogan Driscoll, ‘I Refuse to Celebrate ‘Dad Bod’, Until We Appreciate the ‘Mum Bod’ Too‘ on the Huffington Post

Catherine Bennett wrote in The Guardian, ‘It’s dehumanising to be ‘an oven’ for someone else’s baby‘; Jessica Roake wrote, ‘An Ode to the “Mom’s Night Out”‘ on Slate; Rebecca Mead wrote, ‘A Woman’s Place Is on the Internet‘ in The New Yorker; Sophie Heawood wrote, ‘I’ve read all the advice, but I still don’t know – am I raising a serial killer?‘ in The Guardian; Laila K wrote, ‘Up with the kids‘ in The Pool; Dahlia Lithwick, ‘“Bye-Bye, Normal Mommy”‘ on Slate; Christie Watson, ‘The Joy and Pain of Trans-Racial Adoption‘ on Literary Hub; Meagan O’Connell, ‘It’s My First Mother’s Day As a Mom. Now What?‘ in The Cut; Kate Spencer, ‘How I Finally Let Go Of Grief For My Dead Mom‘ on Buzzfeed; Domenica Ruta, ‘Can Having a Child Help Me Get Over My Abusive Mom?‘ in The Cut.

Danah Boyd, ‘I Miss Not Being Scared‘ on Medium; Melissa Duclos, ‘To the Doctor Who Reported Me to Child Protective Services‘ on The Offing; Christopher Frizzelle, ‘The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life‘ on Literary Hub; Lauren Laverne, ‘“Mum” as a diss‘ in The Pool.

And if you’d rather read a book instead, Literary Hub suggests, ‘Five Intense Books for Mother’s Day‘ and the Huffington Post recommends, ‘Mother’s Day Reads: Eight Great Mother Characters in Literature‘.

Photograph by Idil Sukan

In the UK, there was a general election. 3AM Magazine ran a whole series of reactions including, Lauren Elkin, ‘an open letter to mark-francis vandelli‘; Juliet Jacques, ‘london – 2015‘; Eley Williams, ‘rosette manufacture: a catalogue and spotters’ guide‘, and Rachel Genn, ‘you wouldn’t like me when i’m disappointed‘. Other reactions included: Laurie Penny, ‘Don’t give in: an angry population is hard to govern; a depressed population is easy‘ in the New Statesman; Joan Smith, ‘Almost a third of all MPs are now women – a milestone has been reached‘ in The Guardian; Janice Turner, ‘Why the north is in revolt against Labour‘ in The Times; Beluah Maud Devaney, ‘Unfriending Tories on Facebook Is Not the Answer‘ on the Huffington Post

And there were a few pieces written prior to the result that I still think are worth reading: Sam Baker, ‘When voting doesn’t make you feel good‘ in The Pool; Suzanne Moore, ‘By Friday we’ll be reduced to bystanders at a revoltingly macho political stare-off‘ in The Guardian; Concepta Cassar, ‘Food For Thought: Hazlitt, Malthus and the Tragedy of Food Banks‘ in Litro; Katy Guest, ‘Sandi Toksvig’s Women’s Equality Party is a movement for which time has come‘ in The Independent; Salena Godden, ‘Colour-blind: What colour are you?‘ on her blog, and Isabel Rogers’ poem ‘The truth about political correctness‘ on her blog.

I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it but there have been a few good pieces written about the birth of THAT baby: Sian Norris, ‘She’s not like other girls…‘ on Sian and Crooked Rib; Heather Havrilesky, ‘Royal Baby Girl Fated to Lead International Mob of Fake Princesses?‘ in The Cut, and Viv Groskop, ‘She’s a tiny baby, not a Kardashian‘ in The Pool.

Congratulations to Gill Lewis who won the Little Rebels children’s book award with Scarlet Ibis this week; to Emily St. John Mandel who won the Authur C Clarke award, and to Alice Notley who won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Foundation Prize. A gender balanced shortlist was announced for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2015 and a female dominated one for the Branford Boase Award 2015. The ALS Longlist and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlists were also announced.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

Photograph by Cybele Knowles

The lists:

In the Media: 12th April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Music and Television:

 

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 23rd November 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.

It’s been Ursula K. Le Guin’s week. Awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, she gave a widely praised speech about the need for freedom. You can watch it here, or read the transcript here. She’s interviewed on Salon, in The Guardian by Hari Kunzru and there’s a piece on where she gets her ideas from on Brain Pickings

Arundhati Roy and Megham Daum are the women with the second most coverage this week. Roy’s in Prospect, talking about ‘India’s Shame‘ and the caste system and interviewed in The Observer, where there are plenty of unnecessary comments about her looks. While Daum is interviewed on FSG’s website, in The Guardian and on The Cut.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the best things I’ve read this week: