my top ten books of 2016

Because books didn’t let us down in 2016.  Books didn’t allow Poundshop Cruella to take over the UK. Books didn’t elect Dipshit McHairdo as US president. Books didn’t exacerbate and instrumentalise divisions between people. Books didn’t conspire with evil dictators around the world to usher in a new age of fascism.

Because books are good.

Alice, by Christina Henry

This book gripped me from the very first line, and had me enthralled right to the very last. I love Alice in Wonderland, and over the years have collected many versions and adaptations (some relevant ones here are Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, and The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor). Christina Henry’s version gives us Alice as a victimised, imprisoned, oppressed young woman, who finds within herself the will and strength to fight back against the gruesome misogynist magical regime of the Walrus and the Caterpillar. It is gripping, funny, gruesome, and feminist as fuck. Highly recommended.

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Creepy fiction about a bucolic summer in which something very strange happens to the members of a folk band recording their first album at Wylding Hall. The compelling thing about this book is its telling – each of the band members relays what they recall of that strange summer, and in the gaps and overlaps between their stories, we begin to see the shape of something very sinister emerging. By layering their stories one on top of the other, Hand is able to make a whole other story emerge, ghost-like, from the interstices. A brilliant book.

Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie

This is a book which keeps on unfolding and revealing itself long after you’ve read the last lines. Kirsten moves into an apartment at Wakewater House, a former hydropathy sanitorium. Her story intertwines with that of Evelyn, a woman treated at Wakewater House many years before. From there, this gothic ghost story is transformed by Leslie’s sensitive, passionate writing into a frightening and moving explication of the tortures that ‘unnatural’ women were subjected to, and the need to keep this history alive. Leslie is a superb writer of the feminist gothic and Bodies of Water is a very exciting first novel.

My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal

I had to stop reading this book on the tram because it was making me cry so much that it was actually embarrassing.  Leon is a young boy in foster care, broken up from his younger brother, and very lonely. His foster carer is one of those brilliant ordinary women who understand how to love and who rage against the racism and callousness of the care system. Set in Birmingham around the time of the Handsworth Riots, this is a story about family, love, racism, and power. If you like having your heart broken and put back together again, this is the book for you.

The Lost and Found, Katrina Leno

Full disclosure: Katrina Leno happens to be a good friend of mine. But I am only friends with the best, most accomplished, talented and interesting people, and she is one such. She has a unique voice which is both sensitive and sarcastic, and an imagination which knows no bounds. In her second YA novel, she tells the story of two young people who are brought together in a mysterious way, each on their own journey to solve their own particular problems. Leno’s evocation of falling in love is the most moving and compelling aspect of this book, which will make you laugh and cry. What more do you want?

A Spell to Conjure Violets, Kate Mascarenhas

Kate Mascarenhas is not only a fantastic writer, but a talented artist and a bookbinder. She printed, bound and covered each copy of Violets herself – which has sadly now sold out. You’ll be lucky to get your hands on a copy of this book, but if you can, then do! Because it is fantastically weird and beautifully written – a portal fantasy that goes fractal. It’s a novel about abuses of privilege and power, and also about what connects us to one another. A book of wonderful, frightening, enthralling possibilities. I treasure this book, and commend this writer to you with all my heart.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Jane Eyre has been one of my favourite books since I was a small child – so I’m not sure why it took me until this year to get around to reading Jean Rhys’ incredibly powerful sister-story, Wide Sargasso Sea. It tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and in doing so, it moves Bronte’s gothic sensibilities into new dimensions of power, privilege, abuse, racism, colonialism, and sex. This is a brilliant book in its own right, but to me at least a part of its greatness comes from the conversation with Jane Eyre, who is also oppressed as a female, yet is part of the system that oppresses Bertha and denies her freedom. A very beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking book.

The Bird King, James Knight

Total cheat, as this isn’t actually just a book, but a series of books, poems, and tweets which explore nightmares (both personal and political), other worlds, strange cabaret, the thing behind the mirror, Mr Punch, illustrations of your dreams, and more besides. James Knight is currently writing a novel, which will no doubt be brilliantly surreal, moving, and extraordinary in every way. In the meantime, you can buy one or several of Knight’s books here.

The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang

The Vegetarian grabbed everyone’s attention this year by winning the Booker prize – deservedly so. This short novel is about the madness and oppression of Yeong-hye, a woman who no one notices at all until she stops eating meat and thus begins her struggle to escape the imprisonment of her female body. An utterly brilliant, though bleak, book, which led me to Human Acts, Han Kang’s absolute masterpiece. This is not only the best book I read in 2016, but one of the very best books I have ever read. It is a shocking account of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, in which hundreds of students were viciously killed and their bodies carelessly thrown onto pyres. Han Kang carefully and lovingly draws out several strands of this story, bringing to life the humanity and need of each of the characters, taking us the reader into the heart of the horror, and then leading us back out to the light. This is a book of magic, with Han Kang working at the height of her powers to put the ghosts of Gwangju to rest. It is more connected and active than any writing I’ve ever come across – I came away with the feeling that the book itself is a form of prayer, a burial rite, and a powerful kind of healing. Han Kang is an extraordinary writer, a genius, an activist, and a luminary.

I read about 100 books this year, and many of them were excellent, but only ten of them can be on the list, because that’s the arbitrary rule I’ve invented to torture myself with. So sorry to those books I loved but didn’t make it. (Come back in 2017 when I’ll be reviewing some of the good ones I’ve read lately.) And happy new year! Read, write, and resist.

fcon by the sea: the story of a bookish fool

Now that fcon is well and truly over, convention dictates that I should write a blog post in which I drop the names of all the groovy people I met in Scarborough and talk about the cool stuff we did together… or at least the cool stuff we did near each other, or the cool stuff they did while I watched from a respectful distance. Anyway, it would be rude not to do a little blog, really, under the circumstances. I’ve been thinking for ages about what to write, and I don’t quite know where to start, or how to end, or what to say in between. I’m overwhelmed at meeting so many friendly, thoughtful, charming, engaging, fascinating, funny, and kind people all at once.  Thank you all. It was a fantastic weekend, so fantastic that I have in fact forgotten most of it already. I’m pretty sure that some of my comings and goings are fully known to no-one but the delightfully snarky concierge at the Royal Hotel Scarborough… I’m joking, of course. Even he doesn’t know everything… the only people who know everything are too dead to talk.

The very first person I bumped into on the Friday was Neil Williamson, who happens to be a person I actually know in real life. Neil sidled up to me at the bar and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing. Buying a glass of wine, I said. Neil shook his head. Amateur, he muttered. He whisked me away to James Bennett’s book launch, where he introduced me to several wonderful people, and several wonderful glasses of free wine. Amongst the people Neil introduced me to were Alistair Rennie, who turns out to be my neighbour in Edinburgh, and James Bennett, who turns out to be my neighbour in sick humour, oversharing, and excessive consumption of alcohol. That night, I gatecrashed Neil’s dinner with Ruth Booth, but she turned out to be in great demand and I lost her later when we ventured into the disco. (The less said about the disco, the better.)

I liked everyone so much that I thought I might explode with feelings. I was especially happy to meet Vince Haig, who I’ve loved since he illustrated my story, White Rabbit; and Helen Marshall, who I fangirled over like some sort of lovestruck booknerd. I took to following Vince and Helen around the con, and went to a lot of trouble to arrange things so that I’d “accidentally” turn up wherever they happened to be. Obviously I did my best to appear to be a normal person, but I think they saw through my act. At one point, Helen intimated that she may in fact have to kill me. She said that I carried within me the seeds of my own destruction – which I found quite apposite, as I had just downed several bottles of free red wine.

In my defence, I had only recently discovered that wine is free at fantasycon and simply appears before you whenever you buy a book. Or stand near a book. Or stand near Jess Jordan. It would have been cool to hang out with Jess and her partner, the talented and lovely Ray Cluley, but they kept getting away from me – though we do have plans to cause a scandal next time we’re together. Or is it that I have plans to scandalise them? One or the other. I talked to Tom Johnstone at length about my problems and opinions, which I’m sure he found completely inspirational and not at all like having an annoying drunk/hungover person talking at him non-stop for hours on end. I also spent many hours following Priya Sharma around and bending her ear about various things, which she tolerated because she is so very lovely and award-winning. Priya, Tom, Tracy Fahey, Victoria Leslie, Lynda Rucker, Rob Shearman, Maura McHugh, and my neighbour and co-panelist, Alistair Rennie, all generously tried to help and encourage me before my panel appearance on the Sunday, which I was fully dreading because of my severe lack of brains. They were all far nicer to me than I deserved, and my panel wasn’t a complete disaster. I managed to make a few jokes, and even threw in the words, ‘vagina monsters,’ so I think we can call that a win.

I bumped into Des Lewis on the seafront early Saturday morning, each of us going for a stroll and taking some pictures. At the launch of Almost Insentient, Almost Divine by DP Watt, Des told me that if I didn’t like the book, he would personally refund my money. But it seems unlikely I would give up on such a beauty. Sophie Essex took one look at my copy and the next several times I saw her she was asking me, have you seen DP Watt anywhere? I want to buy his book. Can you remember what he looks like? And I would say, not really. I remember he has dark hair, but that’s all… there’s just a blur where his face should be. I wonder if anyone has seen DP Watt – I mean, really seen him.

There was lots to do at fcon, but the readings were my favourite. Hearing Victoria Leslie read from her extraordinary novel, Bodies of Water, was actually thrilling. She read alongside Alison Littlewood, who gave us the first chapter of her novel, The Hidden People. The two books resonated weirdly together – we all wished for several hours of discussion afterwards. I also enjoyed hearing Priya Sharma read her nasty little fairytale, Egg – everyone was a little freaked out by that one. Tracy Fahey spellbound us with her old, deep story about Wild Goose Lodge. And listening to Helen Marshall not so much read, but propel her story into the world with all the force of her talent – that was cool af.

It was great to spend time with some really full-on, intense, super-clever, hilarious, unconventional, interesting women. I was lucky enough to hang out with Priya Sharma, Victoria Leslie, Laura Mauro, Cate Gardner, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Tracy Fahey, Sophie Essex, Lynda Rucker, Maura McHugh, Alison Littlewood, and Helen Marshall to name but some – each of these women alone is a brilliant talent, but put them together and you have a terrifying powerhouse of writing and artistic genius. Ideas proliferated, friendships and collaborations were initiated, and plans were put into motion. Great things are afoot amongst the women of genre… be afraid.

Biggest disappointment: All the people I didn’t get to meet, and not having enough time with those I did meet. I inflicted myself briefly on various excellent people such as James Everington, Phil Sloman, Jim McLeod, Teodor Reljic, Andrew Hook, Simon Bestwick, Emma Cosh, Sarah Watts, and the enigmatic Pam! to name but a very few (and I know I’ve forgotten loads of names along the way, sorry!)  I wanted to kidnap each and every one of them and get them into all sorts of trouble, but there just wasn’t enough time or rope, so, regrettably, I had to let many go free, unencumbered by the memory of my ingratiating smile or the chafing of the handcuffs as I declared us to be “friends forever.”

Best George: this was a tie between me (obvs) and the fabulous Georgina Kamsika. I’ve never met another proper George before! We were very happy to find one another and made immediate plans for world domination.

Best Secret moment: The highlight of the whole weekend was when Victoria Leslie and I stole Sophie Essex away to a quiet place and made her read her astonishing, remarkable poems to us. Other things happened in Secret Poetry Club that I’m not at liberty to divulge, but the genius of Sophie Essex ought not to be hidden from the world.

In conclusion: This was my first fcon and I loved it. The volunteers were friendly and fun and made everything run smoothly. The Royal Hotel was creepy and creaky, they made me gluten-free toast for breakfast, and their concierge was my best friend from the moment we met. Scarborough was gloriously sunny and weird, and running between the hotels with my arms full of books and wine and people was part of the fun. I barely slept but was running fine on alcohol and adrenaline all weekend. Also: books. And, furthermore: more books. I bought and was given several books – reviews and thoughts to come soon. In the meantime, thanks again – you’re all lovely, and charming, and I miss you already.

25 books that will stick with you and blow your mind

Apologies for the stupid title. I stole it from this stupid article, so do forgive me.

1. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikabu
The first novel ever written! Universally recognised as a great masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative, The Tale of Genji is an incredible insight into the moral, social, political and sexual values of its time and place.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
One of those books that changes lives, especially young lives. It teaches the importance of justice and integrity in the face of cruelty, racism, hatred and fear. A classic, by anyone’s standards.

3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein endures because of its insightful evocation of character and theme. Apparently, male-book-list writers also consider this a worthy book. Thanks a lot!

4. & 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
You can’t read Jane Eyre without reading Wide Sargasso Sea. Bronte’s novel is a fantastically gothic tale of the unloved, the orphaned, the abused and the unwanted, set against the wild Yorkshire moors. Rhys’ novel provides a mind-altering reading/rewriting of Jane Eyre. It’s a powerful story of dislocation, dispossession, sexism, racism, and the ways in which these oppressions can lead to “madness”.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
A dystopia that has proved to be frighteningly prescient. Atwood’s powerful novel is a brilliantly written, witty, and terrifying insight into religious fascism.

7. Human Acts, Han Kang
A novel about the Gwangju massacre of 1980. I don’t know if such horrors have ever been written about with such compassion. A novel that lays ghosts to rest. Han Kang is a genius of the highest order.

8. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “the worst enemy of politicians is a writer,” and it’s hard not to recall those words when reading this effortlessly brilliant story about the state of Biafra. Like ‘Human Acts’, it lays out the human truth and makes us care.

9. The Bloody Chamber and other stories, Angela Carter
Only read this if you like magic, fairy tales, blood, sex, horror, dreams, talking animals, Jungian archetypes, and beautifully accomplished writing. Classic writing that will endure.

10. Kindred, Octavia Butler
A rich and complex novel that combines slavery memoir with fantasy, and political allegory with time travelling science fiction. An absolutely astonishing feat of literature.

11. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
A ground breaking work of science fiction, with one of the most compelling settings ever devised. This novel explores sexual politics and colonisation within an adventure story that has you on the edge of your seat.

12. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
Narratively innovative, thematically complex, a brilliant collage of a novel that makes you fall in love and leaves you utterly bereft. The art works in this book deserve whole galleries to themselves.

13. The Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante
These lucid, original and page-turning novels tell the story of a complicated friendship, and in doing so chart the subtle effects of class, poverty, marriage, and education on individuals and their communities.

14. The Lover, Marguerite Duras
No one writes like Duras, with such vulnerability, sensitivity, and courage. The Lover is a book that is suffused with feeling and contradiction, ardour and terror.

15. White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
One of the best haunted house stories ever written. Oyeyemi is one of those perfect writers who can seemingly do anything at all, create ghosts out of thin air, anything she likes.

16. Netsuke, Rikki Ducornet
This short, terrifying novel takes us inside the mind of a dangerous narcissist as he hurtles towards destruction. Absolutely mastery from Ducornet: careful, precise, and shocking.

17. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
The same flavour of surrealist magical realism that Haruki Murakami writes – but Link does it better. These pieces expand the territory of the short story, setting up outposts in contemporary culture and politics, creating and dispelling illusions with masterful sleight of hand.

18. The Knife Drawer, Padrika Tarrant
This is the book I most frequently recommend to other book lovers. Why? Because it is utterly brilliant. Moving, funny, frightening, and very very weird. A Jan Švankmajer film in prose. Like nothing else you’ve read.

19. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The less you know about this funny, charming book before reading it, the better. One of the most awesome – and technically accomplished – twists of all time.

20. The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins this brave and magnificently furious book, so angry it could burst into flames at any moment and you wouldn’t be too surprised.

21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
An unreliable narrator, possible death-by-mushroom-poisoning, and angry villagers with pitchforks are just a few ingredients in this wonderfully funny and macabre book.

22. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Spark’s sparse and precise language here serves to emphasise the brittle brilliance of Miss Jean Brodie – magnetic, charismatic, an inspirational leader — and a fascist. One of the greatest fictional characters of all time.

23. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Lispector’s final novel, and her masterpiece. A deceptively simple story with a philosophically intense and ambiguous underlying narrative that echoes and ripples long after the end.

24. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
A big, American novel that both responded to and shaped the cultural conversation around motherhood and violent masculinity. Shriver writes with great authority in this deeply serious book.

25. My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
It’s only just been published, but I predict that this book is going to be huge. HUGE. And deservedly so – it’s utterly heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting, and full of heroes. An instant classic.

Notes:

* This list was compiled just off the top of my head in response to that seriously ignorant Independent article, and I’ve left out SO MANY wonderful writers – I could have mentioned Rebecca Solnit, Magda Szabo, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Nnedi Okorafor, Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis, Alice Thompson and so many many many others.

** This list – and my reading – could be more racially and geographically diverse. I’m working on it and welcome suggestions!

the star of the hour

Everyone’s talking about Clarice Lispector. A little synchronicity for me – I picked up The Hour of the Star before the summer, and within weeks, I heard her name spoken everywhere. I’m glad.

I recently attended a book event in Edinburgh. A.L. Kennedy and Janice Galloway read from their novels – respectively, Paradise and The Trick is to Keep Breathing – which have both been reprinted as Vintage Classics. Two extraordinary books, and two funny, clever writers. The chairperson asked the authors questions about their place in the literary firmament. They laughingly declined to answer. They said that as women, they don’t expect their books to last. When women die, their books die with them.

And yet, here is Clarice Lispector, long dead, and suddenly the talk of the town. Her stories, her passions, her language. (Her heroic cheekbones.)

The Hour of the Star is an odd, short novel, which contains within itself another odd, short novel, and its novelist, who appears to be writing himself into and out of the life of his protagonist, a colourless, stupid girl.  Only the novelist sees in her something very touching, something to love. Perhaps it is something he sees in himself. Nothing much happens. It’s not certain who or what the story is about. But Lispector’s writing is hypnotically strange. It’s weightless, then it sinks you with a moment too heavy to bear. Sometimes you have to stop reading and breathe.

Virginia Woolf once asked, “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” I think one reflection of this question is Clarice Lispector. She is ideological. She is avant garde. Her language is abstract and hums with its own peculiar rhythms. She is, perhaps, a little boring to the modern reader. We don’t want abstract passions and puzzles; we want story. We want the three-act structure and resolutions and we want things to go the way they should. That’s good writing, we say, when it happens.

I don’t know if a woman could write like Lispector now, with such freedom, or if anyone could. I say a woman but maybe I mean anyone. We seem to be so beleaguered at the moment. We seem to be so at odds with the world. We have to be very sure, we have to be rock solid and unshakeable, so we can stand atop our perches and be unmoved by the world’s opinions of us. But how then can a writer  experiment, how can she step out not knowing what’s beneath her? How can she balance with one toe on solid ground while the rest of her stretches out into other worlds, feeling for the force and the upswing, hoping for less gravity? Well, maybe she can, if she is monstrously brave.

 

 

fierce attachments

buy his paintings

There are some books which I consider to be unequivocally women’s books. Women’s books because they speak of female worlds which are secret and separate from the ‘real’ world, the outer world of action, which is seen to belong to males. These are books which needle out from under the skin the bloodied strings that tie mothers to daughters, where each mother passes to her daughter the exact amount of hate and love that she herself was gifted with. Nothing in these relationships is simple, but there is one story that keeps playing out: how the girl strains to escape the limitations of her society, which the mother has (weakly, stupidly, cravenly – in the daughter’s eyes) capitulated to. And how the mother attempts to hold the girl back, not just out of jealousy, but out of a need to perpetuate the same conditions that have stunted and stifled her own life, a need which she calls ‘protection.’  This is women’s culture, this is how it has been passed down through generations.

These books also have in common an almost supernatural brilliance, an ability to convey feeling and character with deft touches that practically defy analysis. It is done by truth-telling, by honesty without self-justification, without falling back on artificial narrative resolution. Such is the clarity of writing in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that I was convinced I had been given secret family knowledge, that hidden truths had been revealed. Gornick writes of growing up in an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx during the depression, but everything about that which is alien and other to me is rendered by her prose as familiar and intimate as if I’d lived it myself. I felt that I lived in her story, in her incredible sentences.

Gornick’s relationship with her mother is at the centre of the book and the centre of her life, and there is really nothing she can do about it, try as she might. There is humour in this, and even love, but most of all there is a kind of tragedy. Every woman in the story is affected by it; some are destroyed. Gornick and her mother fight, often. At one point, Gornick yells at her mother, “Don’t I get any credit for spotting a good idea, Ma? That one should try to live one’s life?” And her mother defends herself, says, “What did I have? I had nothing. Nothing.” But that’s not good enough, how can it be? It’s testament to Gornick’s talent and temperament that the reader never loses empathy with any woman: all are living out this culture, this practice that sets one generation against the next. (Our culture where pregnant women are told, “girls steal your beauty,” where thirteen-year-old girls speak ill of each other enough to kill.)

I had never heard of Vivian Gornick until I read about her in an essay by a wonderful writer, Rikki Ducornet, whose novel Gazelle is another book I would add to the category tales of women’s culture. I would also include Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Of course these books feature terrible, desperate mothers, but they are still mothers. They are the kind of mothers so many women have had, the kind that hold you down in the name of doing you good. The dominant myth of motherhood is that mothers are shining angels of goodness and of love. And some mothers are surely that good, and some are better. But what about the other mothers? It is brave to speak of them at all.

the best bit

The absolute best bit about writing is when you get a lovely new copy of a book containing one of your stories. There are other good bits, but this has got to be the best. It never gets boring.

It adds to the brilliance when you are sharing covers with some flipping amazing writers, like Priya Sharma, Nina Allen, and Carole Johnstone, to name but a few.

You can buy this book here or here or in a good bookshop.

everyone: shut up

On the bus this morning, I sat next to a woman who was reading one of those women’s magazines that say things like ‘HAVE SEX!!!!!!’ in giant orange letters across the front cover, alongside a picture of a minor celebrity wearing an outfit made of dishcloths.

She (the woman on the bus, not the dishcloth lady) had the magazine open at a double page spread, which I could not help noticing because of the frankly ridiculous title: ‘We ask 40 men one question: WHAT SHOULD WOMEN BE BANNED FROM SAYING?’

You think I’m joking, don’t you? I hope you think I’m joking. I’m not joking.

I have got pretty damn good reading-over-the-shoulder skills, but the answers from said forty men were so depressingly awful that I gave up after only a few. Save yourself the brain-rinse, I thought. Sadly, however, I did manage to read that women should be banned from talking about: their friends, their ex-boyfriends, their hair, clothes, beauty in general, celebrities, and sports. Oh and also,  we shouldn’t make ‘a big deal’ out of things.

“I hate it when they make a mountain out a molehill,” one fellow said.  “Stop moaning and get on with making my dinner. I’ll tell you whether something’s important or not,” he did not actually add, but I’m almost certain that’s what he was thinking. I could tell by the misogynist glint in his piggy little eye.

Having not read the whole double-page extravaganza of patronising, women-are-so-annoying chat, I can’t say for certain, but I imagine that other topics that may offend masculine sensibilities could be: work, politics, television, food, housework, and of course women’s rights. Better to stick to the safe side, and when males are lurking, limit your conversation to how freaking great men are! Better still, just be quiet.

There have been several studies which suggest that women’s IQ and self-esteem are significantly lower after having read a women’s magazine. No wonder, if they are all full of this sort of crap. I don’t read these mags myself – I’d rather read a book, or a short story. Actually, scratch that. I’d rather disembowel myself with a teaspoon than read any more of that rubbish.

Who’s with me?

 

five writers with teeth and claws

A few years ago, I became scared that I was losing my lifelong passion for reading. So many mediocre books! So many bad ones…  I threw ‘Atonement’ across the room in disgust. ‘After Dark’ was a yawn fest. ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ made me sick with disappointment. It was a dark time in my reading life. I felt that I was falling out of love with the world.

But then I came across these incredible writers, who reached out their claws and ripped out my heart. Monsters. I love them.

1. Kelly Link

If you don’t read Kelly Link, you are missing out on something wonderful. She writes the best short stories in the world.  I discovered Kelly Link at a very strange time in my life. I was trying to write a story called ‘Magic for Beginners’ – a terrible story that had nothing going for it except that great title. One afternoon I wandered into Waterstones where there was a display table full of a book called ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link. I felt the swift punch of fate to my solar plexus. Then I opened the book and started reading a story about a witch who gives birth to a house, and my life changed forever. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kelly Link taught me what a story could be – that it could be so much bigger and stranger than I had ever dared.

2. Rikki Ducornet

Before I read ‘The Butcher’s Tales’, I had no idea that anyone wrote the strange, very short, macabre vignettes that I had been trying to write myself for the past few years. Hers are brilliant little slices of flesh, still bloody, on a white plate. I went on to read her novels, of which ‘Netsuke’ and ‘Gazelle’ are particularly wonderful. Her writing is a knife to the heart. She sees everything. Be very afraid.

3. Kaaron Warren

Dark, dark, dark – they all go into the dark. Not quite sure how Kaaron Warren creates such spectacularly creepy stories that are still utterly involving and engaging. Her novels are diverse in subject matter and setting, but all share the disturbing ability to draw you in, and take you to places you never really wanted to go, but can’t bear to walk away from. Her novel ‘Slights’ has one of the most disturbed/disturbing main characters I’ve ever come across, and yet it is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read. I fear Kaaron Warren may have sold her soul to the devil to pay for her incredible storytelling ability.

4. Rachel Pollack

Many writers attempt to create new fairytales and myths. None, in my opinion, are as successful as Rachel Pollack. Her work as a Tarot reader informs her writing in many strange and unexpected ways. ‘The Tarot of Perfection’ is a collection of beautiful short stories that take the reader deep below the surface of things to explore the secret mysteries of the subconscious. Unmissable.

5. Greer Gilman

No one writes like Greer Gilman. No one else dares. ‘Cloud and Ashes’ is an extraordinary, beautiful book that has drawn comparisons with Shakespeare and James Joyce, amongst others. Read it. That is all.