The books your tokens are waiting for

As we all know, book tokens are second only to carefully chosen books, when considering the best gifts one can get. I had planned on putting together a list like so many others to recap on my reading this year to inspire gift choices, but I’m a few days or even a few weeks too late for that. These recommendations are the books I’ve loved this year, the ones Santa was kind enough to drop into my stocking, and the ones I’m looking forward to in 2017. That should be enough to be getting on with…

The one that outshone all the rest: novel category
Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Lorrie Moore has said this debut is ’cause for celebration’, and she’s not wrong. I read an interview with the author, who said that every time she sees the novel in a shop, she wants to rescue Yuki. I thought I understood that feeling, of an author who has put their first baby out into the big bad world. But that wasn’t quite it. Having read the novel, it’s a maternal ache that won’t go away when you see Yuki’s portrait splashed with paint, her unseeing face lined up in rows on a shelf. This is a book of opportunities lost and gained, the chances that you miss or when fate takes your hand and pulls you away. It’s a book of relationships, the hard must haves, the fleeting passions, and unknowing unbound love. As the novel concluded, I cried. Not a solitary tear, but body convulsing sobs. Yuki had got in, and I was with her, with all of the gains and all of the losses. That, is something not many writers can do, but I implore you – take this journey with Yuki. It’s worth it.

Close seconds: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon. Reasons She Goes to the Woods – Deborah Kay Davies. Two very very different child perspective novels which bring light to the worlds we encompass. Read them, they are brilliant.

The one that outshone all the rest: short story collection category
A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

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The short story category is always a tough one for me. I’m still writing /editing /rewriting /adding to my own collection, so I’ve found myself dipping in and out of collections over the past year. This collection was a gift last Christmas and it found its way to the top of the pile over the summer. These stories are retellings; subverted, twisted, and yet so close to the fairytales that should make you shiver.’Crazy Old Lady’ and ‘Little Man’ are two of my favourites, but it’s hard to have favourites in a collection of 11 stories that you wish wouldn’t stop at just 11. Even if you don’t like fairytales (what kind of strange creature are you?), try this.

Close seconds: Lightbox – KJ Orr. One Point Two Billion – Mahesh Rao. The Isle of Youth – Laura Van Den Berg. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July. Public Library – Ali Smith. Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood. A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin. Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman. Fen – Daisy Johnson. I told you I’d been dipping in and out of collections! All amazingly talented writers. Read them, even if you think you prefer novels (what kind of strange creature are you?).

The ones I have lined up next (aka Christmas Haul):

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The Accidental Dictionary – Paul Anthony Jones. The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises – Brian Kiteley. Angel Catbird Vol. 1 – Margaret Atwood. Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood. Fantastic Beasts: The Original Screenplay – JK Rowling. Autumn – Ali Smith. The Wonder – Emma Donoghue.

 

 

The one you should be pre-ordering now:
Ink – Alice Broadway

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I had the fortune of winning a copy of this book, which isn’t out until February. Order it. Order it now. I believe it will be categorised as YA, and it is a coming of age story, but it doesn’t matter your age, this book will get under your skin and leave its mark. The strong themes of story telling, what we leave behind when we’re gone, and the art of tattooing, make this a compelling read. Leora is a character that may believe she’s yet to be formed, but her sense of self is clear from page one. This is a beautiful unfolding of a life. I’m not sure if there will be more, but I can see this challenging the likes of Hunger Games for its ability to shine a mirror on the world we live in currently for a new age of ravenous readers.

The others I can’t wait for: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman, Winter – Ali Smith, House of Names – Colm Tóibín.

 

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Lists

So I’ve recommended my favourite short stories and novels from this year, but what else is out there? I’ve found that I’ve been inundated with book suggestions from websites, magazines and newspapers alike so I thought I’d conclude with a list of lists. These are my favourite sources when looking for some inspiration.

Want to read the books everyone is talking about or will be very shortly? Keep up with all the big book prizes by using Foyles’ very handy Book Awards page. From the Baileys to the Booker (and all the other prizes not beginning with B) they have it all for you within easy reach of a couple of clicks.

Not sure what to read next, or what to recommend? Lovereading is the site for you. Their regular newsletters and easy to use website is a great source of new inspiration. I particularly like their short story section which has recently had a refresh.

The Guardian Books section has always been a Saturday favourite for me, and their website ensures I’m up to date the rest of the week too. Their round ups are infamous, and this year’s part one and part two of the Best Books of 2015 are wonderful. This way you get to find out what your favourite authors are reading, as well as general recommendations in the Guardian’s brilliant article on the best fiction of 2015.

A fan of video over articles? Follow Jen Campbell on YouTube immediately. Her vlogs are humorous at times, always honest and insightful. You are guaranteed to find all the books you need for Christmas gifts with her.

Lastly, but of course by no means least, is Waterstones’ selection of Beautiful Books. If you’d like to gift an ageless gift, then here’s the place to look. There are many publishers now who are doing a grand job of making the book as beautiful on the outside as the inside. I’ll stop there with the book clichés. And the lists, for this year at least.

Books are for life…(the novel one)

Top 2015 Novels

I promised a novel version of my favourites from this year, so here they are in no particular order (yes, they are all that good).

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood
Know me well enough and you will have seen I have a shelf dedicated to Atwood’s books. Literally because there are so many of them. I’m going to explain why in my next post but for now, you can understand her work is a favourite. This latest novel is a step sideways from the MaddAddam trilogy, and I briefly reviewed it as the Handmaid’s Tale for this generation. It is an incredibly readable, darkly humorous look at where our world could get to without much work.

How to be Both – Ali Smith
At the other end of my bookshelf, I almost have a full shelf of Ali Smith’s books – yes, you can see the pattern emerging. Her latest novel is my favourite so far – I find joy in seeing how open she is to pushing the boundaries of what a novel can be and is never limited. This is a novel of two halves, and which half you start with depends on which book you pick up. It is the present and it is the past. It is what limits us and what sets us free. It is a book you have to read.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan
I talked lots about Logan’s short stories in my last post, and her debut novel is no less magical. A story of love, loss and finding connections – it is a gorgeous tale to get lost in. I cannot wait for more of her work.

The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood
I fell in love with Wood’s writing with his debut novel a couple of years ago which I go back to again and again. This is just as mesmerising. If you’re looking for a book for a writer or artist of any kind, then this is the one for them (or you). The lengths we go to for art, for love, for understanding are encapsulated here. I felt bereft at the end and yet entirely satisfied.

The Good Son – Paul McVeigh
Don’t let my friendship with this wonderful man seem like a bias. Paul’s debut novel is stunning. Want to learn more but also be completely transported? This is the novel with you. One of my top if not favourite child narrators, join Mickey on his journey through the Troubles. And if you’re a fan of audio books then wait for this to be released because if Paul’s performances are anything to go by then his narration is going to be mind blowing.

Vitus Dreams – Adam Craig
This is a novel I am incredibly proud of. Written by my publisher/editor/friend at Liquorice Fish, this is a book I’ve seen from in vitro to birth and I am so pleased that it is out in the world now. Walk into this journey with Vitus and explore the places between dreaming and waking, and the reality and losses of both.

 

The First Bad ManThere is one novel that isn’t in the picture, and only because it’s on my kindle not in paper form (a rare thing). The First Bad Man by Miranda July is a you-have-to-read-it-why-haven’t-you-read-it-yet book. Please read it and then find me and Charlotte (from Nothing Good Rhymes with Charlotte fame) because we need to have more people to discuss this book with. It may even start a book club.

Books are for life…(the short story one)

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Sculpture by Malena Valcarcel

This time of year brings the need to compile lists out in all of us. I’ll put the blame on the stories we were told by our loved ones in order to have some kind of clue (or just a short list) of what we would like to receive.

Books have always been high on my gift lists. Even before I could read, the greatest gift my family could bestow upon me was a well chosen book. I still have the first books my grandpa brought me – Swallows and Amazons, and a miniature library of the Beatrix Potter stories. They are among my most treasured possessions – a link to a man who I barely knew whose love I still feel through our shared imagination.

So there will be a few of these posts to inspire you to surprise your loved ones, along with the many more that are popping up across the internet, newspapers and magazines. First to start with my greatest interest at the moment – short stories.

20151121_164452This year short story lovers have been spoilt for choice. My currently-reading and to-read shelf is packed with collections from established and new writers, and I would recommend them all but for now here’s my top three female writers whose stories have fuelled my creativity and made me dream big whilst writing my collection.

Don’t Try This at Home – Angela Readman

Any book from And Other Stories comes with an automatic recommendation from me. They continue to publish incredible writers, and if you are unsure of what to get for the book lover in your life then look at their subscriptions which are guaranteed to delight. With Readman’s debut collection, there is real magic in the ordinary – think Angela Carter or Adam Marek if you want literary comparisons. There’s a reason Readman is collecting awards, including the Costa short story award. These stories have taught me to be fearless, to go beyond what you initially see or create, and will be a collection I return to again and again.

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It – Jessie Greengrass

Often with short story collections and anthologies, I dip in and out, selecting stories at the “right” time. Every now and then a collection comes along where I cannot help but read them in one go. With these I tried to pace myself, but consumed them all within a day or so. It was a day incredibly well spent. The stories are linked by the search of absolution which at times is captured rather than fulfilled. Most of all it showed that no matter whether in the past or future we continue to be surprised, out-witted and led by the creations of our imagination and our minds as a whole. ‘Some Kind of Safety’ reminded me that carefully chosen words and very little space (less than 3 pages) can create the most honest and intense stories. Greengrass is fearless when using the first person narrative allowing the reader to feel these stories as presented truths rather than tales. I found this collection on a table of selected short story writers at Waterstones Cambridge – well done them for selecting astutely. I had not heard of Greengrass before then but she will certainly be a writer I search out in the future.

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan

Another independent, Salt, who can always be relied upon to present us with wonderful storytellers (buy direct from them too ,- they have a 20% off offer on at the moment). I’m not sure how I had not heard of Kirsty Logan before, but ‘The Rental Heart’ is possibly the most perfect story and that level of perfection and exploration doesn’t stop there. Her retelling of traditional fairytales, are balanced by the creation of new ones. References to Angela Carter can be made again, as can those to Ali Smith and Marina Warner. Logan thrives in this condensed form, but her debut novel is also a fantastic escape; the extended tale of The Gracekeepers story in this collection. Along with her debut collection and novel, she has a second collection A Portable Shelter that came out as a limited run of 1000 beautifully bound books which now seem impossible to find due to 800 of them being pre-ordered! If anyone finds a copy, please remember I would love to receive this as a gift this Christmas! If you fancy seeing her read, and to get a signed copy of one of her books – come along to Word Factory next Saturday (28 November 2015).

I would love to hear about your inspirations – and let’s face it, we can all use a little help when picking out new books to surprise people with. Next on the blog will be the novel list…

 

What I’m really linking… 25th August 2014

The reading one(S)

beautiful1I am one story away from the end of Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference. I’m late to pick up on how challenging, honest and brutal Hall’s stories can be but I am savouring every one. Difficult to do as a short story fiend but this is a collection worth time.

stonemattresshowtobebothAdding to my reading excitement, two of my most favourite authors have new books out this week. Ali Smith with her Booker short-listed How to to be both, and Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. You know where to find me on Thursday when these hit the bookshelves.

The Philosophical one

weareverbsWhilst considering my next moves for my first novel and the second one which is becoming louder, I’ve been delving into philosophical discussion on how we develop as writers and as humans. We are Verbs is my favourite so far.

The writing one

wt-circleThis week I’ve been taking part in The Write Track‘s trial of audio writing exercises. Led by novelist and top creative writing tutor Julia Bell to work out if writers find audio exercises useful, the idea is to take exercises out of the classroom and into people’s lives as they live them, kind of like a pocket writing coach. Soon their the goal-setting community for writers will be launched online – if this trial is anything to go by, this will be an exciting community to be involved with.

I would love for find out what is inspiring you at the moment – please use the comments box for links and feedback.

A day for Flash

Today is a day of moments: the moment you can run between the car and house without getting soaked; the storms that rage are highlighted by flashes of blue sky. Can you tell the pathetic fallacy is getting to me as much as the rain? Today is National Flash Fiction Day and the weather is allowing me to indulgence in a couple of wonderful collections that we ought to all share.

Scraps_cover_frontpdfFirst up, Scraps, the second official anthology for National Flash Fiction Day. I talked about  Jawbreakers last year and if you haven’t got it yet then buy it now as even if it wasn’t in a free promotion until Monday 24th it would be very much worth the money. Anyway, back to Scraps. The collection features stories from Jenny Adamthwaite, Jenn Ashworth, Oliver Barton, Alan Beard, Natalie Bowers, Cathy Bryant, Joanna Campbell, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, James Coates, Claire Collison, Chris Connolly, L.A. Craig, Judy Darley, Ariel Dawn, Vanessa Gebbie, Kylie Grant, David Gullen, David Hartley, Kevlin Henney, Tania Hershman, Sarah Hilary, H Anthony Hildebrand, Eva Holland, Holly Howitt, Thaddeus Howze, Anouska Huggins, Claire Ibarra, Paul Kavanagh, RM Kealy, John Keating, Calum Kerr, Clare Kirwan, Mark Kockelbergh, Emma J. Lannie, Cathy Lennon, Beverly C. Lucey, Amy Mackelden, R A Martens, Ana Martinez, Thomas McColl, Stephen McGeagh, Danielle McLaughlin, Siobhán McNamara, Freya Morris, Andrea Mullaney, Clay Norman, John Paul O’Neill, Sonya Oldwin, Jim O’Loughlin, Amanda Oosthuizen, Jonathan Pinnock, Dan Powell, Amanda Quinn, Eabha Rose, Sam Russell, Shelley Day Sclater, Emma Shaw, Ian Shine, Diane Simmons, Tim Stevenson, Becky Tipper, Stella Turner, Tracey Upchurch, Bart Van Goethem, Alison Wells and Brendan Way…wow sorry, I ran out of breath too.

This collection has entertained, challenged and developed me in one afternoon. I no doubt will go back to it again and again as I do with Jawbreakers, but the stories that have captured me this afternoon are Finding Trainspotting by Clare Kirwan, Bright New Morning by Joanna Campbell, Feed a Fever by Freya Morris, Planets by Vanessa Gebbie, and The Short Tree Has its Hand Up by Tania Hershman. In fact I could probably go on about every single one of the stories but do us both a favour – buy the book and comment below, I’d much rather chat about it! As ever, these collections allow readers to explore new writing and new writers and I can’t wait to find out what else is available from these authors.

David+Gaffney+More+Sawn+OffNext is More Sawn Off Tales by David Gaffney. Following on with the tradition of secondary collections of flash fiction to prove their importance, this collection sequels Sawn Off Tales (2010). David’s works stretches storytelling and twists language within the tiniest of forms – even the titles could be, and have been, described as miniature works of art (Thanks Emma Jane Unsworth for that review!). It’s a collection that leaves you feeling slightly unsettled as though you have seen more than you ever thought you would, even though the sights were within a blink of an eye. If that’s not enough to make you run to the nearest bookseller, Salt sums Gaffney up as an “expert miniaturist with the ability to stuff an elephant inside a flea without the insect noticing…”. I think that should do it.

keepcalmAnd lastly, a website which everyone should get well acquainted with: Flash Flood. The site is literally being flooded today with flash fiction selected from entries that were submitted in the last week or so. It’s a fantastic place to find new writers whether debut in general or just missing from your shelves. So take a look a look around, wallow in moments or in the case of Paul McVeigh’s Safe – sit open mouthed in wonderful horror.

Literary Must-Reads…

RusbridgeSmithMcGregor
…from 2012 and coming in 2013.

As we shuttle towards the new year, here’s some recommendations to add to your library.

(come on, you know those Christmas pennies are burning a hole in your pocket).

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like YouJon McGregor
For those whose new year resolutions revolve around reading a short story every day, start here. Sarah Hall describes this collection of stories as “strange and lovely masterpieces”, for me they are things of wonder, unusual beauty and inspiration.

The Bellwether RevivalsBenjamin Wood
This novel is astounding, simply astounding. The Bellwether Revivals is an intricately written exploration of an outsider, Oscar, entering the strange yet fascinating world of the Cambridge student family of the Bellwethers. The characters stay with you long after the pages are closed, and the fantastic and real world of the musical and medical opens your eyes to new possibilities and realities.

RookJane Rusbridge
Another musically inspired novel, Jane Rusbridge’s second novel Rook is simply stunning. You are dropped into the deep and muddy depths and allows you to explore the characters’ like hidden artifacts with the changing perspective of time. There’s much more information on Rook on the review and Q&A posts on this blog.

Artful – Ali Smith
As always, Ali Smith strives to ensure her work is not constrained by restrictive boxes for genre and style. Artful is a collection of essays intermingled within fiction, full of inspiring ideas and information as well as a little bit of the fantastic with a creative view of change and handling love and loss. I’ll be writing another post on this shortly as I think this is perfect for any literary writers, as well as generally being an insightful read.

Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud – ed. Jonathan Taylor
Stories are made to be heard, and this fantastic collection is another to dive into for the New Year. This collection includes stories by: Judith Allnatt, Jo Baker, Claire Baldwin, David Belbin, Kathleen Bell, Will Buckingham, P. J. Carnehan, Ailsa Cox, Katy Darby, Louis De Bernieres, Vanessa Gebbie, Denise Hayes, Tania Hershman, Jane Holland, Panos Karnezis, Hanif Kureishi, Joel Lane, Emma J. Lannie, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, Adele Parks, Simon Perril, Alexandros Plasatis, Kate Pullinger, Adam Roberts, Catherine Rogers, Lee Rourke, Salman Rushdie, Gemma Seltzer, Robert Shearman, Felicity Skelton, Karen Stevens, Jonathan Taylor, Maria Taylor, Sara-Mae Tuson, Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Michelene Wandor, Aimee Wilkinson. A long list, and I for one cannot wait to hear as many of the stories aloud at the launch on the 8th January 2013 at The Betsy Trotwood.

Born WeirdAndrew Kaufman
“The Weirds have always been a little off, but not one of them ever suspected that they’d been cursed by their grandmother.” Blessings that are really curses take their part in the five Weird children’s lives, and they resolve reunite the family and all their “blursings” before their grandmother dies, properly this time. This novel, due to be published on 3rd January is simply, but strangely affecting, it plays with language and possibilities until they are reality.

Short Circuit: a Guide to the Art of the Short Story – ed. Vanessa Gebbie
This second edition of the original guide to writing will be published on 15th April 2013, with new essays to bring up to date insight into the world of the short story. Each essay from a writing expert discusses their writing processes, whilst they share tried and tested writing exercises alongside lists of published work they find inspirational.

So these are my recommendations, but what are yours?

Dedicated presents

I love receiving books with dedications within them. I recently came across a notebook which had been given to me. I may not have remembered where it had come from as I seem to have a never ending supply of notebooks; some people would think that this is a “problem” but I know I’m not alone. However, this one had a dedication within it with a reminder to keep writing because the gift giver loved my stories. It gave me a renewed sense of belief in my writing; I can’t explain why, the same friend has always expressed interest in my work, however this dated back to a time where I was just in the first throws of my writing development. Perhaps this is why it brings a smile to my face every time I write in it now.

Which brings me to the other kind of book with dedications which I love; secondhand books with dedications to other people within them. Wayne Gooderham has just begun a series of articles for the Guardian, along the lines of his blog, which explore “the secret histories of secondhand books.” This has prompted me to take a look at the secondhand books I have brought over the years, sometimes often chosen by the inscriptions or dedications written inside them. I loved the chance of stumbling across a moment in someone else’s lives and allowing my imagination to run wild over what could have been before the inscription and the journey the book had taken to arrive in my hands. I haven’t owned many that are as descriptive as the ones that Gooderham features, however the subtlety of a name is sometimes enough for a character: The Penguin Book of Women Poets owned by Janet Fraser in 1984; the first collection of Minerva Short Stories, owned by Caroline Goddard at some point in it’s life; the collection of letter from Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West that has poignantly placed post-it notes from another owner and now it has a Lindt rabbit wrapper and a day calendar page in other poignant places from it’s current owner; the Diary of Virginia Woolf with a Ollon to Aigle train ticket from Switzerland from 20th February 1992; the copy of The Hunting of the Snark owned by M. Joan Whitfield in September 1976.

I found a short but intriguing dedication within The Oxford Library of English Poetry – Volume 2 & 3 were simply marked by July 1986, however Volume 1 states:

Welcome home! BK of the Power Club. July ’86

And inside there is a bookmarked poem, Edmund Spenser – The Ruines of Time

Think on that as you will!

As writers, we are always on the look out for inspiration and take it from everyday life and imagined lives, and the book dedication provides both for hungry imaginations. Visit Gooderham’s blog to find even more inspiration, and feel free to share your favourite dedications in the comments: received, given or found!

One book too many…or make that twenty

I feel I should be blogging more frequently, however I am learning that in place of blogs (and lots of other things) that funding applications takes their place. Although, I’m hopeful of some exciting things to come along in the new year; fingers are very tightly crossed. In the mean time, I am still trying to get in some time to relax and mostly that happens with explorations into new worlds, through novels, poetry, prose and everything in between.

I have some very kind friends who have done some book swapping with me recently. Truthfully I’d love to buy all of these books for my personal library (already cramped full bookcases) but there’s got to be a line somewhere, and although my wife appreciates my love of books, I imagine she wouldn’t love it when the “piles” start reappearing in force. So, I have decided to move my bookshelves around and have placed the majority of the books I haven’t read yet up next to my bed. Which explains the picture; a sneaky look at my reading list.

Which got me thinking, what’s on your “must read” list at the moment? Old habits die hard, and I’m always looking for new imagination adventures, so please share out loud, or as close as possible on the comments section!