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.

In the Media: May 2017

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight 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 as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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In prize news, the Granta Best of Young American Novelists list was announced:

Fiona McFarlane took The Dylan Thomas Prize for her short story collection The High Places, Maylis de Kerangal won The Wellcome Book Prize, and Sarah Perry and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave were winners at The British Book Awards. While Kit de Waal and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan were shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize.

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Chris Kraus and I Love Dick are having a moment:

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And The Handmaid’s Tale has generated even more pieces:

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

He Said/She Said – Erin Kelly

‘It’s going to be a classic he said/she said, textbook case decision by jury. Half the female jurors are already in love with him.’

Kit is an eclipse chaser. Not long after he meets and falls in love with Laura, he convinces her to go to Lizard Point in Cornwall to watch the 1999 eclipse. While they are there, Laura stumbles across what looks like a rape. The young woman doesn’t speak but the man tells Laura, ‘You’ve got the wrong end of the stick’. Laura doesn’t think so and phones the police. This takes place 16 years before the novel begins.

In London, 2015, Laura is pregnant with twins, the product of three rounds of IVF. It means that she won’t be travelling to see the eclipse but Kit, who she’s now married to, is heading off to the Faroes. We learn early in the novel that something terrible has happened in relation to Beth, the woman who was raped.

Beth has crossed the world to find us twice. We are only visible when we travel. A couple of years ago, I hired a private detective and challenged him to find us using only the paper trail of our previous lives. He couldn’t trace us. And if he couldn’t do it, then no one can.

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The story unfolds across the two time periods and, in the 2015 section, via two narrators – Laura and Kit. It’s no mean feat to plot a book across time periods and narrators but Kelly guides the reader smoothly between sections. She uses the different narrators for dramatic irony allowing the reader an insight into a couple of whopping secrets the couple have been keeping from each other.

Thematically the novel explores female friendship and marriage but these are largely considered through the lens of the rape and its aftermath. The perpetrator, Jamie Balcombe, is ‘public school, lovely-looking boy. His dad’s a big cheese, CEO of a FTSE 100, was in the same year as Prince Charles at Gordonstoun’. I can’t be the only reader to be reminded of the Brock Turner case as Balcombe relays the way in which his prospects at a big architectural firm have been damaged by the accusation. Kelly treads a fine line in terms of the way she presents events and how she uses them to serve the plot, exploiting the doubt that society sows around female victims. It’s difficult to say much more without ruining any of the plot but I was satisfied with the outcomes Kelly presents.

I don’t read a lot of psychological thrillers but when I do pick one up, I want to be taken by the hand and guided, via some flawless writing, up entirely the wrong path. While I’m eagerly looking for the foreshadowing, I want to be so wrong that the twists are shocking while still making perfect sense. I’m a demanding reader but with He Said/She Said, Kelly pulls this off with aplomb.

In a recent blog post, Kelly stated:

I’ve said before that Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith hugely inspired my work and they still do, but I don’t consciously measure myself against them like I did in the beginning. Anxiety of influence has been something I have gradually shrugged off over six books. This, at last, is all mine.

If this is book is all Erin Kelly then Erin Kelly has a new fan who’s keen for more. He Said/She Said is a gripping, satisfying, intelligent read.

If you want to check out the opening for yourself, He Said/She Said is this week’s Bedtime Bookclub pick on The Pool.

 

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the review copy.

In the Media: October 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight 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 as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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The fortnight began with the outing of Elena Ferrante. I’m not going to link to the original article, but there’s been a huge reaction to it:

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Photograph by Kate Neil

The other big story of the fortnight has been the release of the film version of The Girl on the Train.

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And the writer with the most coverage is Brit Bennett who’s interviewed on The Cut, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jezebel, The New York Times and Literary Hub.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists: