Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher


A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika


Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield


You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta


A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower


The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph


Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin


The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa


Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)


Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)


Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh


Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake.

The story she had grown up with was straightforward. Her sister drowned in a tragic accident and her mother couldn’t bear to talk about it. Then her father died too, and talking about that freaked her mother out so much it was frightening. She was already pregnant with me when he died. No wonder she hates me.

Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet.

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From early in the book, magic makes its presence felt: the ghost of Dora, Cadi’s sister ‘sits at the base of the tree overlooking the lake’ and, as the novel progresses, grows in strength, coming to Cadi’s consciousness, haunting her outside and inside her house. Lili is a witch.

Lili’s particular talent was for glamours which, rather than having the drama of invisibility, rendered her unimportant. Her mother told her anyone could do it, if only they had the patience to apply themselves. If Lili chose to, she could pass virtually unseen.

Gwenllian taught Lili that nature resisted arrogance and most spells were cast by the ill-advised. Magic, she said, was as much about common sense and intention as it was about spells. ‘I have recipes and cures; blessings and healings. Don’t ask me for spells, cariad; spells are for fools. If people need you, they’ll find you. And always be wary of showing your hand. When a certain type of person believes you have a gift, they’ll do anything to get you to use it.’

As Cadi becomes aware of her own gift, the family’s past begins to unravel.

Lovekin considers whether family secrets can be kept and – perhaps more interestingly – who has a right to those secrets and whether collaboration in keeping them can be demanded. She examines that most contentious of relationships between mother and daughter, accurately portraying the antagonism that can occur between this pairing and how it often plays out. This is also shown through Cadi and Lili whose relationship – while much stronger than that of Cadi and Violet – is not unproblematic.

The use of magic realism through the presence of Dora’s ghost is well done. Plausible through its roots in nature and Cadi’s awakening of both her own gift and the reality of her father’s and sister’s deaths. Nature becomes a character in its own right through the village, the lake and the rain. Lovekin’s adept at setting and atmosphere; not only could I picture the village, I could feel and smell the rain and the natural world after it’d ended too.

Ghostbird is an engaging, female-centred narrative that, in terms of atmosphere, reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s Human Croquet. A debut well worth a few hours of your time.

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Photograph by Janey Stevens

I’m delighted to welcome the author of Ghostbird Carol Lovekin to the blog to discuss the novel.

At the core of Ghostbird is the relationship between a mother, a teenage daughter and a daughter who died when she was very young. Why did you decide to make that particular relationship central to the novel?

Telling and re-claiming women’s stories has been important to me for as long as I can recall. Probably since I discovered feminism – when I was seventeen and decided it made more sense than any other form of political activism. I’ve listened to women all my life – not least as a rape crisis counsellor and a Samaritan volunteer. Everything of lasting and authentic value to me has been gifted by women.

My fascination with the nature of loss and survival, and how women in particular deal with it is deeply personal and informs the way I’ve chosen to become a storyteller. Fiction is the ideal vehicle to tell women’s collective and individual stories. It’s emotional and involving. The writer can create nuances in situations that may touch her reader on a profoundly affecting level.

Violet’s grief plays a huge part in Ghostbird. In the early stages of writing the book I confess her misery felt relentless. Eventually I recognised that was why I needed to find a way to get underneath her skin, empathise with her and love her.

One way or another, each of the central characters in the novel is a potential victim. They are Teilo’s victims in the same way Blodeuwedd was a victim of Math and Gwydion in the legendary and patriarchal past of The Mabinogion – in particular, Violet, Cadi and Dora. But also Lili, whose life is equally touched by her brother’s disposition and decisions.

The myth of Blodeuwedd seemed the perfect backdrop for a contemporary story about women surviving the consequences of a modern day man’s egotism and machinations. It was never my intention to demonise Teilo – I have some sympathy for him and I trust my reader to see that. The fact remains, he bears a great deal of responsibility for what happened to all the women in his life.

A sense of magic runs throughout the book: Lili identifies as a witch and writes fairytales for a living; Dora’s presence threads throughout, and Cadi’s own awareness that she has a talent grows. How did you go about making this plausible for the reader?

Lili’s insistence that the magic must be respected is part of my own ethos. I’m an eco-feminist and believe that women aren’t part of nature – we are nature. We are the birds and the ebb of the ocean; we are weeds and moths and lionesses. Even though Lili refuses to cast spells, I wanted her wisdom to attach to Cadi and for there to be a sense of a heritage being passed on. I’m asking my reader to consider that when women embrace authentic magic, the kind that is part of their psyche and autonomy, their voices will be heard. Even at the tender age of fourteen, Cadi can tentatively begin to alter consciousness, heal wounds and sing her truth. Dora – the innocent catalyst – is a baby ghost who has no idea what she is doing. In spite of this, eventually and joyously her song is heard too.

The novel’s set in Wales, uses a Welsh myth and has Welsh words scattered throughout. How important to you was it that it was rooted in Wales?

West Wales has been my home for a long time. The landscape illuminates my writing and even if I hadn’t decided to base the novel – however loosely – around the myth, I would have set any story I conjured in Wales. I love the cadences of the language; it felt important to use it. Blodeuwedd would have been a Welsh speaker anyway so it made sense for the ghost to occasionally speak it. Although my own grasp of Welsh remains rudimentary, I understand a fair bit. Welsh isn’t Lili’s or Cadi’s first language either, but they too know enough for it to be scattered throughout their conversation.

Nature plays an important role in the story, not least the rain! Indeed, it feels like a character in its own right. How do you view its place in the book?

I appreciate that, Naomi – it was my intention to make the rain a character. (And incidentally, there’s a name for a lover of rain: a pluviophile.)

Living in Wales, a relationship with rain is inevitable. You either exist in a state of perpetual frustration or learn to accept and even love it. As I walk a good deal and the places I choose are often by rebellious rivers, along wild beaches or through boggy woodland, I decided on the latter and invested in a long raincoat.

Once I moved to where I live now I acquired a small study. There was only one place for my desk – next to a window, overlooking the hills. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve compared the windowpane to a Jackson Pollock painting (grey period.) I became increasingly intrigued by how rain shaped the landscape. In the book, I’ve tried to make it a visual language, an accompaniment to the story. It’s also a metaphor for tears, in Violet’s case, unshed for too long. And tears, as Clarissa Pinkola Estés says in Women Who Run With The Wolves, ‘are a river that takes you somewhere.’

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

What a lush question! My favourite writer is Virginia Woolf. I became mesmerised by her vision in my early twenties and remain fascinated by her writing. Although I adore her novels, it’s her letters and diaries I still find most intriguing and inspiring. A Writer’s Diary never leaves my bedside.

As a teenager I fell in love with Charlotte Brontë. I read Jane Eyre every year and couldn’t resist making it the book Cadi reads. Other writers for whom I have a huge admiration include A S Byatt, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Atwood and Susan Hill. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of my best loved books. I admire Island book. (I shall never be persuaded to read, Go Set a Watchman!)

Some of the women writers who shaped my politics as a young woman are Doris Lessing, Germaine Greer, Mary Daly, Kate Millet and the inestimable Simone du Beauvoir.

I’m an admirer of numberless contemporary British women writers, including Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, Carys Bray, Geraldine Brooks, Joanne Harris, Judith Kinghorn and Sarah Winman. I recently discovered Louise Beech, Rebecca Mascull and Sarah Louise Jasmon. And Sarah Hilary blew my socks off! She reconnected me to the pleasure of a great crime thriller, this time with a fantastic female central character. I’ve learned a lot from many of these more recently published women writers, about how to ‘be’ as a newly published author myself.

Ending with my tongue in my cheek (because no one likes a crawler), I adore the wit of Dorothy Parker. I hope I haven’t gone on too much. As Ms Parker herself said, ‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie.’

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A huge thank you to Carol for such a great insight into the ideas contained within the novel and to Honno for the review copy.