Backlist Books of the Year 2018

Some of the best books I read this year weren’t published in 2018 so I thought I’d put them in a separate round-up. I always try and keep this to ten books, I haven’t managed it this year, here’s twelve instead.

Union Street – Pat Barker

One day I’ll learn to read a writer’s work before judging it. I’ve always assumed that Pat Barker wrote books about men in war, then I had to read The Silence of the Girls to write the copy for her Manchester Literature Festival event. I posted a picture of me reading it on my personal Instagram and the brilliant Adelle Stripe mentioned Barker’s earlier, feminist works which she thought I’d like. She was right. Union Street begins with Kelly, stalked by an older man, then moves along the street, chapter-by-chapter, to tell the tales of the other women and girls. It’s a grim read filled with neglect, abuse, pregnancy and death but it captures life for white working class women and still feels as relevant in 2018 as it would’ve done in 1982.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire moves Sophocles’ Antigone to the present, telling the story of twins Isma and Aneeka and their brother Parvaiz. When the young women meet Eamonn Lone, son of the UK’s first Muslim Home Secretary, all of their lives are irrevocably changed. A compelling retelling which places a spotlight on the West’s treatment of Muslims and ideas of integration. My full review is here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Narrated by 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie, and the ghost of a boy named Richie, Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of a Black family in Southern America who can’t escape the ghosts of the past. Ward intertwines family history with that of Black people in North America and uses the present day to show the damage that history has wrought. It’s a devastating and timely tale. My mini-review is here.

A Thousand Paper Birds – Tor Udall

Another example of my work leading me to a book I’d previously overlooked. I was asked to interview Udall as part of a panel at Jersey Festival of Words and A Thousand Paper Birds was a real surprise. Jonas’ wife is dead. He retreats to Kew Gardens as a place to try and heal. There he meets Chloe, Harry and Millie, all of whom are keeping their own secrets. Beautifully written and affecting, an absolute gem.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (some sections translated by Lizzie Davies)

Another timely work. In 2015, Luiselli began working as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. Through the questions the children are asked, Luiselli tells some of their stories and the wider tale of how these children are being failed. My full review is here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy

Conceived as a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ and the first in a trilogy about Levy’s life and work, Things I Don’t Want to Know is a feminist discussion on women’s writing. Levy talks about the need to speak up, to write calmly through rage, to find a space in which to write. I underlined a lot.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

An unnamed woman struggles with new motherhood in a new country. She’s angry and frustrated but also full of love and lust, all of which spill out at inappropriate moments. Harwicz questions society’s expectations of women in this inventive, sharp novella. My full review is here.

The White Book – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

A fractured, often brutal book about Han’s sister who died two hours after she was born. Han uses the colour white repetitively as a meditation on grief and loss, writing her sister back into existence. Beautifully translated by Smith, The White Book is short and highly affecting but not without hope.

Kindred – Octavia Butler

One of the bookish things I’ve most enjoyed this year is taking part in the #ReadWomenSF discussions on Twitter, led by the writer G X Todd. It’s meant I’ve read a number of books that have been sitting on my shelves for some time and Kindred was one of them. In 1976, Dana, a young Black woman, is pulled into 1815 where she saves a young white boy’s life. He is the son of a plantation owner and one of Dana’s relatives. Through Dana, Rufus and Dana’s white husband, Kevin, Butler explores structural inequality, complicity and the normalising of horrific behaviour, all of which doesn’t seem so distant in 2018.

The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

Last year I loved Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said so this year I went back to the beginning and read her debut, The Poison Tree. In 1997, Karen meets Biba and is swept into her bohemian lifestyle. In 2007, Karen and her daughter Alice, collect their husband and father from prison. We know that at the end of the summer in 1997 two people died. But we don’t know how and we don’t know who. Tightly plotted and compelling with a perfect ending.

Die a Little – Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is one of those writers that everyone seems to rave about so I decided to start at the beginning with her debut. Set on the edges of Hollywood during the Golden Age, Die a Little, tells the story of school teacher Lora King’s investigation into her new sister-in-law, Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant. As her findings build, Lora uncovers a world of drugs and sex work as well as some secrets about her own life. Possibly the only book I’ve ever read that I thought was too short.

Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic

Caleb Zelic’s best friend dies in his arms in the opening pages of Resurrection Bay and the pace doesn’t let up until the end of the book. His best friend has been murdered and Caleb’s turns investigator to find out who did it. His mission is made all the more interesting – and sometimes scary – because Caleb’s deaf meaning sometimes he picks up on cues others might miss and other times he doesn’t hear people sneaking up on him. There are subplots involving his estranged relations – a brother and a wife – and some fun with Australian sign language too. My review of the follow-up And Fire Came Down is here, along with an interview with Emma Viskic.

Adventures into the Unknown: Jersey Festival of Words, part two

Late Saturday afternoon and evening at Jersey Festival of Words brings two new things into my life: Masterchef and Joanna Trollope.

If you’d asked me a year ago I’d have told you I didn’t do cooking. But in the last twelve months, with new work and only really myself to bother about, I’ve started to try new dishes. Turns out I’m alright at following a recipe. I wouldn’t know where to begin when it comes to creating dishes though so I’m somewhat in awe of Saliha Mahmood Ahmed who’s come to talk about her recipe book, Khazana, and her experience as the 2017 winner of Masterchef.

Two things really stand out: the first is how Saliha talks about her family and the influence they’ve had on the way she thinks about food. Her mother was a consultant working in the NHS with three young children but time was always made for them to have dinner as a family. The food was fresh and the rule was ‘Eat that or go hungry –  and you weren’t allowed to go hungry’. Her grandmother ‘cooked simply’ but was unique in putting sour apples in curry, ‘We had apples in every form.’ While her dad’s wanderlust took Saliha to places that inspired her cooking.

The second thing is her interest in the Mughal Empire and how that’s informed her cookbook. She describes a typical hareem with buildings constructed with marble, horticulture gardens and peacocks wandering around. The tables would be calico covering on leather on which food would be presented in huge portions in gold and silver dishes. Flavours in the room would include sandalwood and rose. Rose petals were used as a scent or a seasoning. They would feed chickens rosewater because they thought it would taste better. It’s this that inspired the Rose-Scented Chicked dish which Saliha cooked on Masterchef.

The book has 110 recipes, she tells us and – hurrah – was put together by an all-female team. Saliha wanted to capture the stories behind the recipes in the photography and used the influence of the Mughal Empire for the colours. There’s no doubt Khazana looks beautiful. Whether or not I’m capable of cooking anything in it remains to be seen.

Photograph by Peter Mourant

I am definitely, however, capable of reading a Joanna Trollope novel. Although, for reasons yet to be discerned, I never have. Not one of the 31 novels or one book of non-fiction she’s written during her 40 year career aka ‘forever’ as Joanna herself refers to it.

She says she writes to start a conversation about whatever society’s current dilemma is. In her latest novel, An Unsuitable Match, it’s a subsequent marriage between two heterosexuals in their 60s which the woman’s grown-up children have opinions about, particularly when it comes to who’s inheriting what.

Joanna talks about love and how she tries to show it in her novels. Valentines’ Day is ‘the seventh circle of hell’. Love is ‘unloading the dishwasher together’. ‘I deal in reality,’ she says, crediting the success of her novels to observing other people. She shares an anecdote about an ‘immaculate French woman’ who came to one of her signings in Paris and said to Joanna, ‘I don’t know what you’ve been doing sitting in my kitchen for the last three years’.

Interviewer Cathy Le Feuvre asks whether she’s ever felt pressure from her publishers to include a sex scene in her novels. She says no, she leaves them to the reader’s imagination, adding that her books started to become popular as the 80s bonkbusters were falling out of fashion. Ah, that’s why I’ve never read a Joanna Trollope novel: I was too busy with Jilly Cooper’s.

Photographs by Peter Mourant

Finally, on the Sunday lunchtime, I chair a panel on a subject that is even further removed from me than cooking: gardening. It’s difficult to write about an event you were part of; I find myself so focused on what’s happening in the moment I can’t remember much about it afterwards. However, all three of the books by the women on the panel are brilliant so I am going to heartily recommend them to you.

A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall is the story of Jonah whose wife has died by suicide following a series of miscarriages. After her death, he spends time in Kew Gardens where he meets Chloe, an artist, and they both encounter Harry, one of the gardeners, and Milly, an eight-year-old girl. It’s beautifully written, perfectly capturing the weight of grief. That makes it sound miserable but, honestly, it’s a gorgeous book.

War Gardens by Lalage Snow covers five years and several of the world’s most dangerous war zones. Working as a war correspondent left Lalage with war fatigue so when she discovered that people in conflict zones were maintaining gardens behind closed doors, she began to seek them out. The book tells the stories of a number of gardeners building new life in places of destruction. Lalage is also a photographer and the images in the book are fantastic.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury is a memoir, spanning a year after a relationship break-up when Kate moves to Brighton, buys a flat and tears up the decking outside to create a wildlife garden. She recalls her childhood gardens alongside the work on her new place – including the creation of a bee hotel – and then her mother falls ill and life takes a different turn. I might not know anything about gardening but if one book’s capable of convincing me to give it a go someday, this is it.