A selection of books Will picked out from the huge array of exciting reads in 2018…
Sam Byers, Perfidious Albion (Faber & Faber)
Sam Byers’ dystopian, black-mirror-esque drama is set against the backdrop of the unassuming provincial market town of Edmundsbury. Comic and dark in equal measure, Byers’ novel targets our digital world and the British political maelstrom through a lens of tightly drawn characters.
‘A bird of some sort, maybe a pigeon, clattered the bridge, trying to find a place to roost on its underside. It tried to gain a foothold but slipped and smacked its wings a few more times against the concrete before giving up. It flapped up above street level and across the middle floors of a high-rise before flying in the direction of my home.’
David Chariandy, Brother (Bloomsbury)
David Chariandy’s second novel is short but incredibly powerful. A compelling, read from the beginning, it’s a poetic story of two brothers lives in Scarborough, in the hinterlands of Toronto. Powerful friendships and the aftermath of violence portrayed starkly.
Norah Lofts, The Town House (Corgi or Tree of Life)
Amongst a number of ‘backlist’ books I’ve read this year solely because of the power of the Backlisted podcast. The Town House, first published in 1940, is the first volume of Norah Lofts’ trilogy recounting the successive tenants of a town house in fictional Baildon. In this book, we learn of a huge cast of characters, but largely revolving around Martin Reed who is the first resident, building the old house at the vine in the late 14thCentury.
“What kind of a party?” Denham asked Audrey.
“Oh the usual kind. Just standing about and talking.”
“Oh.” Denham had been to some of these and did not care for them.
Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (Virago)
Beautifully republished this year by Virago, another highlight was Macaulay’s Crewe Train (1926). Initially, I’d imagined this would be a claustrophobic thriller set inside a carriage waiting to change tracks en route to Crewe in northern Staffordshire. It’s definitely not that, but it is a wise, funny novel about Denham Dobie’s immunity to social mores despite her having been thrust into the middle of a close-knit circle of London reviewers, writers and publishers.
Joanna Walsh, Break.Up (Tuskar Rock)
Having previously enjoyed Walsh’s stories, Vertigo, published by And Other Stories, Break.Up gave back in large measures. The book is autofiction, reflecting on the end of a relationship – one premised on digital worlds. These reflections are interwoven with writing on and during transit, and reverberations of the other reading that seeps into the protagonist’s world.
Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am (Tinder)
A life seen through near-death experiences might seem a hard book to recommend, but O’Farrell’s episodic autobiography is intimate and profound. Written in dramatic prose, the book employs a novelist’s skills in bringing to life scenes which are chilling and effecting. The structure of recollection is incredible.
Toby Litt, Wrestliana (Galley Beggar)
Part memoir, part historical-biography and all-encompassing entertainment, this is an evasive but extremely rewarding read. On one level it’s the life of a famed Cumberland and Westmorland wrestler, William Litt, the man who literally wrote the book on the sport. On another, it’s a reflection on Litt’s writing life and his developing understanding of family, sport and masculinity.
Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall (Granta)
Slim, surprising and utterly unique. I’m a big fan of Sarah Moss, and loved her previous novel The Tidal Zone. This one has it all, border walls, contemporary Britain and echoes of the complex history of this peopled landscape. From the eery opening, this was hard to put down.
R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries (Virago)
Kwon’s novel was another book I devoured in the sun-drenched summer, full of flawed characters and shifting perspectives, examining contemporary America, religion and relationships from college campus to rushing city. The structure hooked me, as the opening serves up a powerful sense of foreboding to hang over the novel.
Thea Lim, Ocean of Minutes (Quercus)
This Scotiabank-Giller Prize shortlisted novel explores time-travel and relationships in a dystopian world timeline. It’s excellent, you should read it, and I’m hoping we get it into many many hands when it comes out in paperback. For fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
Sarah Perry, Melmoth (Serpent’s Tail)
A rich and chilling winter read. Melmoth jolts you, takes your hand and asks you to consider the burdens and responsibilities of your actions. Being constantly surrounded by jackdaws in Grasmere, their effective use in Melmoth can certainly change the way you feel on a perfectly normal street corner…
Tommy Orange, There, There (Harvill Secker)
A kaleidoscopic tale with well-drawn characters, a twisting webbed story and a searing response to the challenges posed to contemporary indigeneity in North America. This novel is especially good at appreciating how technological life affects the everyday. I read this on the basis that Helen Stanton at Forum Books was championing the novel and am really glad I did.
Kathleen Winter, Lost in September (Knopf Canada)
We were lucky enough to get a visit from Kathleen Winter in Grasmere in late spring, as part of a series of events we’ve put on this year, and her latest novel is immensely enjoyable. Best known in the UK for her Orange-shortlisted (Women’s Prize shortlisted) novel Annabel and a travel memoir on the Northwest Passage, Boundless, Lost in September is a distinctly different book. Here, 18thCentury British general James Wolfe has been reincarnated in contemporary Montreal and it’s the reader’s important task to understand why.
Amy Arnold, Slip of a Fish (And Other Stories)
Early in Slip of a Fish, Ash’s husband Abbott is astonished that a book can play on the mind, ‘“It’s a story”, he said. “A small paperback. It’s no big deal”’. However, Amy’s book is manifestly a big deal. A striking, complex, enticing work of literary fiction, told in a distinct voice, it is a worthy winner of the inaugural Northern Book Prize. Should appeal to fans of Deborah Levy, Jon McGregor or even early Margaret Atwood.
Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (Sceptre)
I’ve been describing this novel as Poldark with more balladeering and hints of war crimes. Don’t let that put you off. Written in mesmerising prose, with lively dialogue and introspection, which delivers on its promises. One of my favourite books of the year.
‘How small a step it is from a river of time to an ice core’.
Nancy Campbell, Library of Ice (Scribner)
Travel writing, cultural history of writing nordicity and bibliomemoir, Campbell’s book is a wintery joy. Presented in a stunning cover, this is shimmering, sparkling, crystalline writing on all things ice. Campbell begins the book at an arts residency in Upernavik, Greenland where contributing writing seems anathema to the hosts. Yet, Campbell’s Library of Ice is a gift to those who open its pages.
Olivia Sudjic, Exposure (Peninsula Press)
Sudjic’s first novel Sympathy was one of my favourite books of 2017, so this long essay, part of the excellent series begun by Peninsula Press, was a must-read. Through an account of a writing residency, here Sudjic writes about the exposing act of writing, publishing and being marketed as she discusses her experiences with anxiety.
*nb, Begun by kickstarter funding, Peninsula Press are bookseller-publishers with a great eye for interesting projects.
“What are you looking at?” she says, coming into the room. I’ve been poring over diagrams of early hive forms. There are coil baskets, clay vessels, a skep. A bunch of reeds woven into a hat shape, plastered with dung, puckered at the entrance with handprints.
Helen Jukes, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings (Scribner)
Honeybees and the modern world. Helen Jukes has moved to Oxford, and having spent time tending bees alongside another beekeeper in London, she contemplates getting her own hive in her new garden. The reasons behind this and the practicalities of starting afresh are interwoven with an evocative history of bees and bee-literature in a highly readable book.