ESCAPE ROOM: ANDREW HOOK

Last time I saw this photo, the Rubiks cube was not solved…

My writing space is an alcove of the dining room using a regular PC, keyboard and screen. It’s not perfect, but when the house is empty or everyone’s asleep it does allow me to create some headspace and it does mean I’m surrounded by books; including the shelves containing everything I’ve been published in (out of shot in the pic). I did have a dedicated office space in the upper part of the house where I wrote for over sixteen years. It was ideal. But when our daughter Cora was born she moved in there so my ‘office’ went downstairs. Seven years later my eldest daughter moved out, Cora moved into her room, and my old office is now my partner’s office. Go figure.

I prefer to write when there’s either no one in the house or everyone is asleep. I’m a bit of a grouch when it comes to being interrupted. If I’m writing short stories then these tend to fall out of me fully formed. I rarely have to edit those other than a few word changes or grammatical edits. I tend to write them in one sitting. Anything longer than four thousand words just depends on the unavailability of everyone else. It can take months to write a novella, snatching a bit of time here and there. So whilst my writing days are few, when I do write it is productive.

Other than listening to music to create a mood (see below), I don’t have any other stimulants. I don’t drink tea or coffee, and very rarely drink alcohol at home. I might just have some ginger beer and some peanuts within reach. Other than that it’s just myself and my imagination.

Because my writing time is rare, anything that can shut out the rest of the world is welcome. Music is perfect for this. I sit down, hit play, and I’m immediately back where I left off in the story. I won’t choose anything too abrasive or lyrically challenging, as this works against the process, but anything subtle can help with ambience. And once I’ve begun writing, the music barely registers, it fades in and out of my consciousness, even when the same song is played over and over (the record for this is “The City Never Sleeps At Night” by Nancy Sinatra which I played seventy times whilst writing a short story called “Blanche” – published in “Something Remains”, Alchemy Press).

Favourites include Bjork, Blonde Redhead, Coeur de Pirate, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (but only the album “Push The Sky Away”), late Echobelly, The Flaming Lips. I know some writers prefer soundtracks and although that’s not my thing, for one nature-themed story recently I did write solely to birdsong. A few years ago James Everington asked me a similar question and a link to his blog (with links to the music) is here.

Distractions: the 9-5 day job, the Sunday job, the freelance proofreading I do most evenings… although the biggest distraction is a seven year old who has taken to staying awake til 10pm. On the other hand, my mini-collection “The Forest of Dead Children”, is inspired by my reaction to that. So, swings and roundabouts.

I can’t write without solitude. Interruptions border on the violent.

The most enjoyable part of writing is actually doing it. For me, writing is so much a part of how I identify that having the space and freedom to get on with it allows me to be myself. I don’t find anything about it that isn’t enjoyable. I know a lot of writers aren’t keen on editing, but I don’t tend to do much of that and don’t find it much of an issue. Being immersed in creativity is a real high.

I think my best writing in this space has been what I’ve come to call my ‘celebrity death’ stories. For those reading this who I haven’t already bored to death with this theme, I’ve written twelve stories based on the lives of Golden Era Hollywood celebrities who died young. I really felt I was channeling something important writing these pieces – and occasionally goosebumped myself in the process. They’re intricate, multi-layered, respectful and affectionate. It’s just a shame that I can’t seem to sell them for toffee.

For the first time in about ten years I’ve lost impetus with short stories. The market seems to have shifted and (from my point of view) it appears genre boundaries have returned to parameters which are more clearly defined and my work doesn’t easily sit within that. Last year I began a novel without any idea where it might go and as it turned out it didn’t go more than 7000 words. So I’m in a rare period where I feel disheartened. As an alternative, I’m trying my hand at non-fiction, working on a book about a film. I can’t say much more than that at the moment, but this will be my work for 2020. Of course, writing non-fiction is a hundred ways different to writing fiction: I can’t write with music, I tend to eat constantly, and I actually have to remember stuff and do research. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m writing fiction again, but I am enjoying it.

Andrew Hook is an unstable entity whose material form suffers from interdimensional glitching. His fictional output in our dimension has been prolific, with over 150 stories published, as well as several collections, novels and novellas. Find out more here or just go straight to EvilCorp and buy his books.

ESCAPE ROOM: MICHAEL WALTERS

‘It’s like being inside an elephant’

We have a spare bedroom that I use as a writing room. It used to be my daughter’s room, but we swapped, so I painted the walls grey with some leftover paint, mainly to hide the disastrous job I did removing her wallpaper, and now it’s a bit like living inside an elephant. The Christmas fairy lights have stayed up. My wife saved the poster from my book launch last August, which is now on the wall. I can’t play the guitar, no more than a few chords anyway, but I like having it next to me. There’s a bookshelf with old notebooks, a printer, all the short story collections I own (they used to live with the novels downstairs, but we ran out of space, so this was my quick, cheap solution), books about writing, and books I’m using for researching current projects.

Not in the picture is a cluster of three frames on the wall — a photo of me with my parents at Grosmont railway station, a self-portrait I made when I was four that my sister found and framed as a birthday present (‘This is me’), and my Creative Writing Masters certificate. It’s a little shrine of sorts.

I write every day in my notebook, often in a coffee shop on the way to work — how I’m feeling, what I dreamt the night before, what’s bothering me, how projects are going, that sort of thing. I’ll usually share something on Twitter too, which I treat as part of my creative writing practice.

There’s no routine for writing fiction. It’s led by the project I’m working on. I’ve just finished a short story, and for that I spent a couple of weeks letting ideas take shape in my head, another couple of weeks writing in short bursts, and a final fortnight editing it to completion. When I am writing drafts, I write whenever I can make a spare hour — before work, lunch hours, or evenings. I find these periods exhilarating at first, but they quickly get very tiring, and I can’t stop until I’m happy with it. Right now, I don’t want to write another word.

I can’t listen to music and write. I need quiet, or the background babble of a coffee shop. Music is too interesting.

Anything can distract me from writing if I’m not in the intense phase of a writing project. Over the years I’ve beaten myself up so many times for procrastinating, but looking back, a lot of that was trying to write something before I had a good idea. I wasn’t patient. Writing every day, or a certain number of words per day, doesn’t work for me. When I try, I just feel crappy, and what I write seems crappy. I haven’t found that showing up every day and writing creates good ideas.

My ideas come when I’m not writing but doing other things — watching films, having conversations, being with my family, just everyday life. Ideas pop into my head, and they’re usually not very good, but sometimes a couple won’t go away, and I’ll do something with them.

The most enjoyable thing is editing a draft of a scene and seeing something good that I hadn’t intended. A connection appears and the story opens up a bit more. That’s a wonderful feeling. Finishing something that I know is as good as it can be is great too. The relief and letting go. That is a much rarer thing because I haven’t written many stories that get to me to that place.

Writing is least enjoyable when I’m exhausted because I’ve pushed myself too hard. I have a full-time job as a software developer, and a family with two kids, so it’s really important to me that I look after myself and stay healthy. I find it hard to step back when a writing project is in an exciting phase. Self-care is a project that’s always in the background.

Finishing my debut novel, The Complex, made me very proud, and then finding out it had been picked up by Salt changed everything for me. It made me believe in myself and the quality of my work.

My next novel has a title, some locations, and characters. I haven’t written anything yet. It’s still swirling in my mind. I’m not sensing the need to start writing — but I do have some books I want to read related to it. The big projects are still pretty mysterious to me. A short story might take a couple of months, and I fancy writing another one, but The Complex took three years. I don’t know if the next novel I write will go the same way. Christ, I hope not. That one hurt.

In work and school, we focus on collaboration and working in teams, but there is something healthy and magical about working on something alone. Writing is how I explore personal issues creatively. I’ve learned over time that for me it is an essential activity. I’ve had writer’s block for long periods, several years at a time, and it was debilitating. Writer’s block can make you feel like utter shit.

The value of what we write isn’t always obvious. Writing makes no financial sense. I’ve wondered many times if it is the best use of my life. But I can’t argue with how I feel when I don’t have a writing project on the go, even just as an idea that is percolating. Most days, writing is a slow trudge through daily experience.

Slowing down and noticing how I’m feeling underneath the rush of daily life has become necessary if I want to stay healthy. It’s a manic world and there are plenty of ways to avoid your emotions, including reading and writing, if done in a rush. Creative writing isn’t just stories and poems, it can be writing about your day in your notebook, for nobody’s eyes but your own. This is most of my writing. And it’s a whole-body activity. Writing feels better when I exercise, eat lots of vegetables, get enough sleep, and stretch my aching body. I’m not getting any younger.

Michael Walters’ acclaimed debut novel, The Complex, is published by Salt and available now. Find out more here or tweet Michael @michaelwaltersx

ESCAPE ROOM: ALISON LITTLEWOOD

Did someone mention walkies?

I love my writing space! I have a study which I decorated and set up and filled with lovely things, so I feel very lucky. Our house is really old and the study has an ancient fireplace and creaking cupboards and a very wonky floor, so I decorated it in quite a traditional style with soothing greens. The desk though is modern (IKEA – Shhh!) and I put it together myself, which I discovered I really enjoyed doing, though it was tricky finding the precise spot to balance it on that wonky floor and I’m pretty sure it has a bit of a slant.

The green shelving was originally in another room but I pinched and painted it so that I could fill it with pen pots and cards from friends and ceramics and pictures and other nice things to look at when I’m supposed to be working. Oh, and it has a skull-monster in a bobble hat who lives in a vase (but everyone has one of those, right?) Behind me are more shelves with some of my books, my to-be-read pile and some handy reference tomes. There’s also usually a sleeping dog or two in here somewhere.

Fountain pens are never far out of reach. I’ve clearly become slightly obsessive about them, and indeed pen pots (it’s all fellow writer Priya Sharma’s fault), along with my favourite Leuchtturm notebooks. I have quite a stash of those ready to use and I really need to stop buying stationery, but just… not… yet!

My mornings are mainly about feeding and walking my two Dalmatian dogs, then once I’ve woken my head up with some fresh air, I can get stuck into work. I usually start off with any adminny stuff before I get my head engaged properly (or maybe that’s just called ‘procrastination’). Sometimes I’ll be drafting a novel, or I might be researching and jotting down ideas or working through piles and piles of editing. Some days I just sit there in a kind of catatonic state staring at the screen hoping that words will magically appear. Those are not good days.

I can’t listen to music while I write. I know some writers have playlists to go with whichever book they’re working on, and that’s all very cool and I love the idea, but somehow can’t do it in practice. I have images of myself happily typing away only to find I’ve typed out the lyrics of whatever I’m listening to, over and over…

There isn’t much I can’t write without, though my chair is one of those easily overlooked things that’s actually pretty important to me. It’s super-ergonomic and rescued me from some nasty neck/upper limb problems a few years back. It’s snazzily attired in a snood a friend gave me because it matches the dogs.

Speaking of which, my main distractions come in canine form. They’re really good at snoozing the afternoons away while I work, but that hour before lunchtime is another matter. Vesper can be especially insistent that it must be time to eat – she’ll paw at my desk and rattle my chair or nudge my arm or jump onto my lap or disappear under my desk and scratch at the footrest or whatever her latest ploy is. I should probably threaten to make her into a snood.

The most enjoyable part of writing is the writing and the least enjoyable part of writing is the not writing, if that makes any sense! What I mean is, there are days when my head’s down and I’m in the zone and don’t notice time flowing past. Those days are golden. Then there are days when it’s treacly and one word won’t seem to follow the next and ugh ugh ugh. That happens sometimes mid-book, because I’m not a very thorough plotter and I’ll sometimes write past the point where I know what happens next. I do like to allow for some flexibility in the middle of a novel, but it can also be frustrating.

Of the books I’ve written in this room, I’m probably proudest of my first historical novel, The Hidden People. It’s based around some of the dark fairy folklore I love – I’ve always found the idea of changelings delightfully creepy, whereby people are stolen away by the fairies and doppelgangers left in their place. It’s also the first book I wrote where I got halfway through and realised there was far more going on than I’d planned, and that the plot was going to get more complex than anticipated. I love it when a project takes on its own impetus and starts to surprise me.

At the moment I’m working on a mixture of things. I’m editing a novel based around the Cottingley fairies and indeed fairy lore, tinkering with a Victorian piece about – well, doppelgangers, but not changelings this time, and I’m starting to piece together a whole new idea which I’m excited about but it’s just too early to give any details. It feels like that would be putting an industrial fan in front of a little cloud of dust that’s just beginning to coalesce in the air. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive.

Right, it’s time to stop pretending I’m all healthy with that big glass of water on my desk and make a proper strong cuppatea…

Alison Littlewood is the author of several acclaimed books, including The Hidden People, The Crow Garden, and her latest, Mistletoe. She won the 2014 Shirley Jackson award for short fiction, and her first novel, The Cold Season, was picked for the Richard and Judy Bookclub. You can find out more about her work here.

there is other magic

Thinking about this new book, HONEYBONES. It’s a book that has driven me in strange ways. By which I mean, it’s a book that has insisted on itself. No compromises.

The story had been haunting me for a long time, a decade or more. I’d attempted it a few times, but it never seemed to work out. For quite a while I called it ‘The House of Mirrors’. It was about something – fairytales, crows, a house – but I couldn’t really make sense of it. I spent a lot of time dreaming about the book. I wrote in mirror-writing, inside out.

I can’t remember now quite how I came up with the idea of ‘dreeming’ and Dreemy Peeple. I know it started with the dolls, the creepy dolls Anna finds in the bedrooms of her stepdad’s house. It was the brand name, stamped into their plastic casing. Then, somehow, the dreem took on a life of its own. I worked it out in various short stories that ended up in my collection, THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS. (There’s an oblique reference to THOW in HONEYBONES – a million dinosaurs to anyone who spots it!) And finally, it started to bring forth this story.

Other things which didn’t seem quite to fit anywhere at first, like an exercise in ventriloquism from the cully king (himself a character from a much earlier story, CROW VOODOO), and then all these songs and bits of plays and other books – they all swirled about this girl, this house, this dreem. I cut 20,000 words. I cut another 20,000. When I had something that looked passingly like a story, I called it done. And – a stroke of luck – Andy Cox at TTA Press snapped it up.

That was lucky for lots of reasons. One big reason was that Andy, used to working with temperamental artists [insert eyeroll emoji here] wasn’t terribly bothered when I took the story back a few times and made some reasonably significant changes. He didn’t even mind too much (or at least he didn’t let it show) when I took it back again and re-wrote it SUBSTANTIALLY. Like changing the whole thing from third to first person, re-writing major plot points, taking out a couple of characters and, oh yes, completely changing the ending.

I couldn’t help it; I was seized by an instinct about how the book should be and I couldn’t sleep until I executed it. That last re-write took me a few days of writing, practically non-stop, sitting at my kitchen table drinking a whole lot of black coffee and not thinking, not thinking at all. When I was done, I knew I was finished for real this time and – for all its faults – HONEYBONES was as close to the story as I was going to get.

Another thing I have to be grateful to Andy for. The manuscript I sent him was a mess of different fonts, colours, amateur attempts at typographical effects. The cully king has to speak with this voice, you see; and the writing needs to fade away here; and this part should look like an old book; and and and. It was a lot. So many editors would have just said no to it all. Who do you think you are, House of Leaves? But Andy got it. He understood that it mattered for the book to look a certain way, feel a certain way, use text to tell the story. So he found a way to make it work.

I am as proud of this book as of anything I’ve written, possibly prouder, even though I maybe have no right to be. It wasn’t easy to write, except for when it was. But it pushed me. It made me experiment – sometimes from inspiration, sometimes from desperation. At other times as a ‘fuck you’ to the people and things that held me back. So forgive me if I bang on about it and spam you with links for where you can buy it (here! Buy it here!) And please don’t hesitate to ask if you need a review copy or an interview or anything else.

honeybones pre-orders

HONEYBONES is currently at press and now available to order here. If you want to buy Malcolm Devlin’s ENGINES BENEATH US at the same time (and you absolutely should!) then it’s an even better deal.

If you’re a book person looking to review HONEYBONES or interview me about it, please get in touch. I’m ready to talk!

honeybones

Here is the cover for my little book HONEYBONES, coming soon from TTA Press as part of their novella series, which will also see the brilliant Malcolm Devlin‘s ENGINES BENEATH US coming out at the same time. So please buy both books if you can!

Malcolm’s weird brother, the award-winning artist Vince Haig, did the cover illustration. I am so honoured to have had Vince illustrating several of my stories over the years. He somehow managed to tell the whole story in this picture – not an easy feat! It’s a beautiful illustration and I feel very lucky.

HONEYBONES is definitely in the realm of horror. It’s actually one of those twisted fairytales I like to claim I don’t write. It’s Bluebeard, Snow White, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses gone very, very wrong. It also features Dreemy Peeple (indeed this is where the Dreemy Peeps began) and a lot of mirrors and feathers and that sort of thing. A brief descriptive blurb says:

A troubled girl, a haunted book, a house of illusions and enchanted mirrors. Anna Carrow just wants to make things right between her and her mum, to please her stepdad, and keep out of the way of school bullies. But her efforts only seem to lead her further and further from reality, deeper and deeper into paranoia and delusion, until she finds herself tangled inside a twisted fairytale, face to face with the sinister Cully King. Now Anna has to decide which version of reality to believe in. But how can you know who to trust, when your mind is playing tricks on you?

If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, watch this space! HONEYBONES will probably be a bit like that. It’ll be available to buy very soon and I can’t wait to see what people make of it. Thanks to all for your support!

our side of the road

There’s probably a German word for the habit of urgently buying books you need right now and then waiting two or three years to read them… Anyway, this is how it was with Anna Burn’s tremendous novel, MILKMAN, which had been languishing on a shelf in my living room for some considerable time before I picked it up this week. I immediately wished I hadn’t waited so long for the sheer exhilarating effervescent brain-refreshment this book provided. I can’t remember when I last read a book that felt so new, that so charmed and delighted and reveled in its love of language.

Language in this book is a pure delight. The unnamed protagonist distracts herself from the traumatising troubles of her time by reading books, but only those written before the nineteenth century, so her narration and her rendition of others’ dialogue is a wonderfully original and enjoyable mix of working-class Northern Irish and extravagant, mildly-antiquated vocabulary and rhythms. In fact it does much that a nineteenth century novel does, in terms of the exposing of the ‘psychologicals’ of the characters. But it is resolutely, perfectly, acute and convincing in every revelation of the particular milieu in which it is set. It has much to say on gaslighting, gossip, how trauma is dealt with when it is an ongoing fact of life, and how a society shapes a mind and a body. I found it absolutely compelling.

Burns’ hilarious descriptions of the arcane and convoluted hierarchies of sectarian divisions, which extend to what television programmes, names, words, sports and hobbies one is allowed or otherwise to watch, speak, or partake in, somewhat put me in mind of Twitter and its increasingly strict and minute – yet largely unwritten – laws about what is and isn’t allowed, and what makes one ‘a community beyond-the-pale.’ It struck me quite forcefully that these divisions and politickings are sectarian in nature and go beyond any kind of logic to enforce a culture upon the ‘renouncers’ and the ‘supporters’; an authority which one is supposed to, and does, intimately adhere to without ever being instructed in its rules and ramifications. It is wrong, for example, to express a certain doubt, or doubt about a certain subject, or to support by way of a ‘like’ another person who expresses that same doubt or speaks on that subject. How demanding! How exacting is the standard! Some books and authors are acceptable, and some are not, and this seems to bear no relation to the actual words in their books or the ideas expressed by their authors; and no heed is to be paid to the fact of fiction at all, to the fact that authors make things up. Some are to be cancelled, and others to be celebrated, and it is all without sense or reason, though the self-appointed state forces will produce reams of highly intellectual writing on the supposed nuances and moral justifications of their cancellations of other authors, and like good little idiots, we all nod our heads and retweet their nonsense.

Well I have never lived in a war zone, or a sectarian community, or in conditions of unrelenting authoritarianism, and so maybe this comparison is trivial. Anyway, it strengthened my resolve to avoid Twitter more fastidiously than I have in the past.

I found in MILKMAN much to revel in, much to admire, much to laugh about, much to love. I read that, in addition to garnering awards and accolades and praise from luminous quarters, it also has sold now in excess of 500,000 copies. Quite something for a bold experimental literary novel. This fact alone has given me great hope. That so many can love a book like this gives me hope. That this wonderfully humane, joyous, perfect language can reach so many is an unequivocal good thing. Highly, highly recommended.

hear me roar (sort of)

A few updates for the start of 2020. I took part in a fantastic podcast experience with Alex Blott of Papertrail podcasts, in which I talk about writing stories, the unusual formation of my story Kuebiko, the editing process, and why you should never take advice. A really enjoyable experience for me – I hope you will like it too, and give Alex some feedback. Listen here.

One of my writing heroes, fountain pen aficionado, and all-round lovely person, Priya Sharma, talked to me about her fantastic debut novel, ORMESHADOW, in the current Black Static magazine, which also contains a review of her book, plus all sorts of other brilliant stuff.

Priya and I, along with fellow Undertow author, Laura Mauro, had a frank and fascinating chat about writing earlier this year and our conversation can be found here. We go into early influences, the role of politics in our writing, and why Women in Horror Month is not every woman’s favourite time of the year.

If you read that discussion, you’ll know my thoughts on Women in Horror – but I’m all in favour of buying more books by women any time of the year, and Undertow has a great, generous offer on their books by women writers right now. Check it out.

always a bear

A few words about Vicki Jarrett’s excellent novel, ALWAYS NORTH, recently out in paperback from Unsung Stories. I read this novel in a few short hours, and was variously thrilled, terrified, depressed, intrigued and ultimately satisfied. In places it reminded me of Peter Hoeg’s fantastic MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW. Later, it put me in mind of Michael Walter’s debut, THE COMPLEX. There’s a well-earned nod to Ballard’s THE DROWNED WORLD in there, too. But of course it is always only its own thing, pushing through the frozen seas to the frozen heart (or the plundered brain) within.

Personally I don’t know how many terrifyingly realistic evocations of the eco-apocalypse I can stand. This one was uniquely effective in its use of structure, making me long for the recent past that its characters were seeking, despite its inhospitable terrain. I found Isobel to be an excellent lead, a down to earth woman with a healthy sense of self-preservation and knowledge of her own worth. It was strange that she seemed to be the only woman in the novel – can there be only one real woman at a time? But perhaps it is part of the story, the way men seem to take things over, the way women are relegated to the background. Maybe if it wasn’t such a man’s world, it would feel like we had more of a chance. Either way, I would have wished for more women like Izzy to populate this world. It seemed strangely anachronistic that she was out there alone.

I do love novels that bruise through genre divisions without a backwards look. I love that sense of time collapsing in on itself, of stories that start feeding off one another. At various points I wondered: is it THE THING, is it vampires, is it HIS DARK MATERIALS? There was mystery, urgency, thrill, even moments of comedy, all tightly woven together with precise and flawless prose. While the structure was complex and ambitious, I had total faith in Jarrett’s ability to pull off the enterprise, and (barring a forgivable bit of handwaving towards the end) she absolutely did. This is a novel well worth your time. I hope it continues to garner praise and attention from all quarters. Highly recommended.

in through the out door

I read a lot of very good books this year, a few of which I reviewed either on my blog or in Black Static or Interzone magazines, including some of the titles mentioned below. I don’t know how much reviewing I’ll be doing in the New Year. I seem to have ground to a halt. I also don’t know how useful these kinds of lists are – I guess it’s just a way of summing up where I’m at with my reading these days.

I observed this year that some of the books I read were unsatisfying to me. They were, in some cases, just too good. They were all surface and slick. They were conventional. They were emotional but only within a certain range. There was something wrong with them. I struggle to say what I mean beyond that. I’m talking about books that are very good, very well crafted, excellent books. But there is a weakness at the heart of them, a lack of doubt, of ugliness, of courage.

Maybe it’s me.

Anyway, many of the books I read, and certainly my books of the year, are not that way at all. Each of them is alive and infected with horrible, gorgeous human stuff.

There were some excellent short story collections this year, of which Tracy Fahey’s NEW MUSIC FOR OLD RITUALS impressed me greatly with its storytelling power. Andrew Hook’s THE FOREST OF DEAD CHILDREN disturbed me and filled me with dread and wonder. I also frankly loved Rob Shearman’s chapbook teasers for WE ALL TELL STORIES IN THE DARK, his madly ambitious 101 short stories project. I read those and Leonora Carrington’s COMPLETE STORIES at the same time and the two authors sort of merged in my mind to create one, supremely messed up hilarious nightmare machine.

THE HEAVENS, by Sandra Newman, blew my mind and blasted me out of my complacency about what novels can do and be. It was compelling and bitter and full of complexity and magic.

Talking about what novels can do and be, it would be remiss not to mention DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT, Lucy Ellman’s transcendently lucid journey through an ordinary mind. It was boring, very boring in places. But hilarious and brilliant. It will change things, this book. It will change novels, anyway.

Julie Travis’ novelette TOMORROW, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, reminded me somewhat of THE HEAVENS but then it went one better in allowing me to live in its strange and wonderful world. Wonderful and perfect are the words I used to describe this book. It is full of love and humour, awe, strangeness, sorrow… I enjoyed it immensely and only wished I could stay forever.

GAMBLE by Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a novel I’ve talked about a fair bit this year, and for good reason. It is brutal in its precision, a skewer to the psyche, funny and so very, very sinister. Speaking of sinister things, I discovered a new writer, who I think is exceptional, in the form of Rebecca Gransden. I reviewed her novel ANEMOGRAM. on this blog. Her writing is unutterably strange, haunting, violent and funny. I don’t know where she will go with it but what I’ve read so far strikes me as profoundly brave and vulnerable, and I think she will do something great.

Another debut novelist, Michael Walters, impressed me with his book THE COMPLEX, which is far from perfect, and all the better for that. It’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since first reading: it has been growing on me/in me/around me. I was also reminded of it when reading Helen Phillips’ THE NEED, also featuring a stag-like being, but in a very different mode. This is a deceptively simple book that does something completely and utterly weird. I loved it.

Two books by Aliya Whiteley, THE LOOSENING SKIN and SKEIN ISLAND, impressed and disturbed me. I loved Deborah Levy’s weird and moving THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING and Anna Stothardt’s gripping and unbelievably good THE MUSEUM OF CATHY. Each of these writers are doing their own, strikingly original things and keep putting out incredible book after incredible book.

But my absolute favourite read this year must be Charles Lambert’s THE CHILDREN’S HOME. This is a book that’s hard to describe, since it resists and transcends and transforms itself as you read it. It is brilliant. When I finished it, I cried. It’s the kind of book you can’t even talk about because it’s too good, you’re too passionately in love with it, too in awe of its brilliance, and you don’t want to break it by understanding it too well. Just read it.

A book I cannot recommend at all is Paul Kingsnorth’s SAVAGE GODS. I can’t, because in fact he wrote it just for me. Or really, he wrote it for himself, and he’s a man, and that matters. But nevertheless, it was also for me, and I found it beautiful and cruel and sorrowful and true, and as someone who is also lost in that same wood, or one adjacent, I am very grateful for his story.