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

ghostbird cover final front only sm

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.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

Meagre in build. Mouthy in nature. One good owner and pottery trained: Josiah “Totty” Minton is bang out of sick notes and harbouring a dream of a three-bed semi with bay windows, fully-fitted carpets and enough of a garden to stretch his legs. He’s had this dream for awhile though there have been other dreams. Simple ones. Pipe ones. Filthy ones. None of them ever come true. It’s why he’s pissed off. Why he misses the urinal and pisses all over the floor.

Set in modern day Stoke-on-Trent, an area created from the six towns which made up The Potteries, Sitting Ducks considers what happens to a place and its people when an industry is decimated.


The novel’s centred around three characters and childhood friends: Totty Minton, Malcolm Gandy and Frank Blatch. Totty used to make ceramics but he’s been out of work for ten years with little prospect of anything suitable. His mother, Constance, has been helping him to bring up his children since their mother first left. Stunted growth and not very bright, Totty’s struggled his way through life. As the book begins, he’s had enough and takes a claw-hammer to the wall in the Jobcentre Plus, encouraging worn down, dipsomaniac, Jobcentre Plus employee, Maggie Gifford, to help him out with a long-handed screwdriver.

Malcolm Gandy heads up a private property enterprise that buys and sells houses:

How he acquired his properties was an equally sketchy business. He was known to have deals in place with nurses. He visited the old and the really very sick; had a weekly catch up with the council; and rumour had it there was a butterfingered copper who lost the odd file on a man sent down. But mainly he repossessed, from the living, from the dead, often swooping before the body had gone cold.

Gandy’s bought up an entire road of houses, Bennett Road, to be precise, ready for development, but he’s having trouble removing the family in number 13, the Mintons.

Frank Blatch is the local Police Constable, a job he’s held for twenty years. Since his wife was mown down by a drunk driver five years previously, he’s not done much beyond paperwork, traffic monitoring and bailing Totty out whenever he gets in trouble.

Events in the novel take place over five days around the 2010 General Election; the point when the Conservatives returned to power, intent on finishing what Maggie Thatcher had begun three decades earlier. Blower weaves a teacher, social workers, a teenage drug dealer and a local politician into the narrative, showing how lives are linked in a small town. She demonstrates how those who should be better off are one step from the lives the Mintons are leading and that only the corrupt and moneyed survive in this society. However, she doesn’t paint the Mintons as saintly either, showing their neglect of the children and stubbornness with regards to moving out of their house – for good or ill.

Sitting Ducks is an impassioned response to the damage the Conservative Party has wreaked on UK industry and the many families whose livelihood depended upon it. It paints a bleak portrait of the destruction of community and hints at the level of corruption present in those state services upon which people should be able to depend. It reminded me of the excellent 1996 drama Our Friends in the North and is a worthy addition to the canon of working class literature.


Thanks to Fair Acre Press for the review copy.