Tag Archives: Melissa Harrison

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2016

So after what feels like a few months, yet is actually mere weeks I have just been reading so much brilliant women’s writing, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2016 was announced last night and here are the six shortlisted titles…

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I have linked to those that I have reviewed, I still have three outstanding shortlist reviews (as well as five outstanding longlist reviews) because I have been reading so much, but they will be up on the blog in due course. What do I think of the shortlist, I think it packs a punch there is a mix of magical realism, comedy, grit, drama and most importantly some blooming great women’s writing and that is what this prize is all about after all.

That is also why I am not going to bemoan there not being X or Y author having gotten through to the shortlist, partly because it looks like sour grapes (and no one likes those), partly because there will only be one winner and also at the end of the day I am not a judge (and having judged prizes it is a tricky, yet brilliant, task) I would rather celebrate all the books that have been given the attention of the longlist and say congrats to the shortlisted authors. This is why I didn’t guess the shortlist publicly (though Eric of LonesomeReader has mine on his phone somewhere that he can use against me at some point, ha) I wanted to just enjoy the list and be Switzerland, neutral. Ha.

So before we focus on the shortlist over the next few months what would I like to say about the books that didn’t get shortlisted? Well since you all asked so nicely, bar Kate Atkinson and Melissa Harrison‘s novels I had not read any of them and I have been introduced to some cracking books. I wouldn’t have ended up whaling in 1908 with Shirley Barrett or being whisked away with the uber rich oligarchs with Vesna Goldsworthy. I wouldn’t have ended up being taken away with the circus by Clio Gray, in Nagazaki with Jackie Copleton or on a space ship with a Becky Chambers. I wouldn’t have discovered the tale of a recluse with Rachel Elliott or (on a polar oppsite scale) read a book about King David in 1000BC with Geraldine Brooks. I wouldn’t have got round to reading Elizabeth Strout so soon or getting back to Petina Gappah and joining Memory  in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare trying to discover her story. I wouldn’t have found a new author who seems to combine everything about my favourite TV shows (The Good Wife, House of Cards, Damages) in the book form of a superb political thriller with Attica Locke. I wouldn’t have discovered two novels with will probably be two of my books of the year with Sara Novic’s gripping and heart breaking tale of war torn Croatia’s or Julia Rochester‘s family drama with sprinklings of ‘the other’. Myself and Eric will be recording a podcast about all the longlist in more detail soon. In short though, that is a lot to celebrate! And celebrate we did last night…

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So commiserations to the authors who didn’t get shortlisted and congrats to those that did, what a corking list of books though either way – go and read lots of them. And a huge thank you to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction which once again has highlighted some incredible women’s fiction this year, ans it always does, and let me be a part of it (and continue to be, there is some exciting stuff to come) and for scheduling my reading for the last five weeks which I have rather enjoyed. I now have to go and choose what to read next – possibly in a bookshop if I fall into one though I have packed three potentials in my case – and the limitless possibilities is quite daunting. I may need another coffee. What are your thoughts on the shortlisted titles?

Oh and thanks to random.org I have picked a winner for the longlisted books giveaway, well done Cathling, you have been emailed.

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Halfway Through The Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist, So Let’s Give Some Away…

Hoorah! I have just (within the last twenty minutes or so as I type this) got over half way through the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, as I popped down my tenth read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, which I am reading for the Bearded Bailey’s Book Club. Whilst I have a break to celebrate, then play catch up on reviews and start book ten, I thought it would be a nice idea to give some of the twenty books away…

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This isn’t because I don’t want them or don’t like them, not at all. Thanks to the kindness of the lovely team at the Bailey’s Prize (who sent me the whole longlist last week) aswell as the kindness of some publishers who before, and since, the list was announced have sent me additional copies I have some extra. I thought that one of you might like them. Here is the selection…

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I also have a slightly battered copy of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, so if you want that I can pop that in too. So what do you have to do to win this lovely selection of books? Simple, just tell me (in the comments below) what your favourite book is by a female writer and why. The competition is open worldwide, as I am still in the birthday spirit, you have until Monday April the 11th when the shortlist is announced. Good luck!

UPDATE – We have a winner chosen by random.org. Congratulations Cathling, you have been emailed for your details!

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The Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist 2016

The clock has not long struck midnight (well GMT wise it has) and so it is officially International Women’s Day. What more apt a day could there be for the announcement of the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist than today? As some of you will have read the team at the Baileys Women’s Prize are very kindly letting myself and Eric, of LonesomeReader, become part of the family with the Baileys Bearded Book Club so we will be reading all the novels we haven’t, as well as doing some podcasts in the lead up to the shortlist in the next month and then a whole host of other things after that. But onto the longlist which is what you really want to see, the longlist of which I have read just the three, so someone is going to be a very busy bookish bearded bloke for the next five weeks. Here they are…

8th March 2016: The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

So as I mentioned I have read three, those have links to them, and I guessed a whopping four. This happens every year and yet every year I feel more confident and look more foolish. I will type up some more thoughts on the list later today when I have let it settle with me a little more, it is just gone midnight after all. My initial thoughts are of excitement though, all those books I have yet to read, all those adventures I am yet to have.

In the meantime what are your thoughts on the 20 strong longlist? Which have you read and what did you make of them?

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Guessing The Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist & Introducing The Bailey’s Bearded Book Club

A week today the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will have been announced. This is something I get excited about every year, as I am a huge fan of the prize and the books it has listed in the past as well as its reason for being, however this year I am particularly excited as hopefully I am going to be doing some very exciting Bailey’s Prize based things alongside the lovely Eric of LonesomeReader. Over the next few weeks Eric and I will be the Bearded Bailey’s Book Club. Not only will be reading the entire longlist (all 20) we will be doing some podcasts on it and then, once the shortlist comes out in April, fingers crossed be doing some specific posts and podcasts (with the authors if all goes to plan, on The Readers Bailey’s Bonus Episodes) that you can all join in on, as well as hopefully some give aways and other random bits and bobs. What makes this all the more exciting is that both the lovely team and the board at the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction are all behind these bearded posts so we might be able to do even more. Hoorah. We would love you to join in with it, beard not required and we are not going to be ‘mansplaining’ just to nip that in the bud pronto.

So all that is all to come from next Tuesday onwards, so in the meantime we thought (and Eric’s will be on his blog) we would share the twenty books that we would like to see on the Bailey’s longlist. Now I have to say firstly that it has been an exceptional 12 months for women’s fiction, as I was doubly reminded looking up lots of eligible books, so this has been no easy task. Secondly I haven’t tried to second guess the judges (no one can do that), I have just gone on the books I have read and think should be on the list as well as some of the books I would really like to get around to reading, though I had to whittle this down from a very long list of books I would love to read. Thirdly, it will be wrong and that is good as it will introduce me to lots of great new books as Eric and I read the longlist over the following month, four a week if we have read zero of them – no pressure.

So here are my 20 (I got down to 31 titles that tore my mind, which I have saved in a document that I will send to Eric after this goes live, as we don’t know the others lists) so if those seven are on I have proof I loved them) guesses of books that might make the Bailey’s Prize for Women longlist next Tuesday…

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The Kindness of Enemies – Leila Aboulela (W&N)
A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson (Transworld)
Devotion – Ros Barber (OneWorld)
Spill Simmer Falter Wither – Sara Baume (William Heinemann)

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon (Borough Press)
At Hawthorne Time – Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury)
Mr Splitfoot – Samantha Hunt (Corsair)
Fishnet – Kirstin Innes (Freight)

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The World Without Us – Mireille Juchau (Bloomsbury)
Things We Have in Common – Tasha Kavanagh (Canongate)
Hot Milk – Deborah Levy (Penguin)
Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh (Vintage)

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Signs for Lost Children – Sarah Moss (Granta)
Girl at War – Sara Novic (Little Brown)
The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien (Faber & Faber)
Under The Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta (Granta)

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Martin John – Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories)
If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa (Bluemoose Books)
Gold Flame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins (Quercus)
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Picador)

So those are my guesses, I daren’t even call any of them predictions for fear of jinxing them. Any I have read are in italics and those I have reviewed have links to the review. Do go and have a look at Eric’s, I will be as I haven’t seen it yet, over on LonesomeReader and most importantly let me know what you think of this list and which books you are hoping will make the longlist when it is announced next week. After all the effort that has gone into that I need a Baileys, though as this goes live (thanks to the genius of scheduling) I will be sat at my desk, so best not.

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Books I’m Looking Forward to in the Next Six Months

I know we are past the middle of the first month of 2016 but, as is my want, I thought it might be a nice idea to let you know about some of the books that I am really looking forward to reading over the next six months published in the UK. I know, I know, it is the list you have all been waiting for. Ha! For a few years now, every six months, Gavin and I share 13 of the books that we are most excited about on The Readers podcast, based on which publishers catalogues we can get our mitts on – so sometimes we miss some, so I thought this year I would make it a new biannual post. Getting to that final thirteen is almost impossible (actually one year it was a struggle) and this year it has been particularly tough as it looks set to be a year of corkers. In fact my longlist of books I’m keen to get my hand on is 60 books (and would have been 62 if I hadn’t already read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh) long. Yes that is right, 60 books. I have highlighted a few each month that I will definitely be reading or getting my mitts on. So, grab a cuppa tea and settle down with a notepad or bookstore website open next to you…

January

Mr Splitfoot – Samantha Hunt (Corsair)

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Nat and Rose are young orphans, living in a crowded foster home run by an eccentric religious fanatic. When a traveling con-man comes knocking, they see their chance to escape and join him on the road, proclaiming they can channel the dead – for a price, of course. Decades later, in a different time and place, Cora is too clever for her office job, too scared of her abysmal lover to cope with her unplanned pregnancy, and she too is looking for a way out. So when her mute Aunt Ruth pays her an unexpected visit, apparently on a mysterious mission, she decides to join her. Together the two women set out on foot, on a strange and unforgettable odyssey across the state of New York. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who – or what – has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road? Ingenious, infectious, subversive and strange, Mr Splitfoot will take you on a journey you will not regret – and will never forget.

Human Acts – Han Kang (Portobello)

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Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma. Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless. Already a controversial bestseller and award-winning book in Korea, it confirms Han Kang as a writer of immense importance.

The Widow – Fiona Barton (Transworld)
Paulina & Fran – Rachel B. Glaser (Granta)
The World Without Us – Mirelle Juchau (Bloomsbury)
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot (Canongate)
Sea Lovers – Valerie Martin (Serpents Tail)
Dinosaurs on Other Planets – Danielle McLaughlin (John Murray)
The Actual One – Isy Suttie (Orion)

February

The Sympathiser – Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair)

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A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, “The Sympathizer” is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. “The Sympathizer” is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, “The Sympathizer” explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta (Granta)

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One day in 1968, at the height of the Biafran civil war, Ijeoma’s father is killed and her world is transformed forever. Separated from her grief-stricken mother, she meets another young lost girl, Amina, and the two become inseparable. Theirs is a relationship that will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart. In this masterful novel of faith, love and redemption, Okparanta takes us from Ijeoma’s childhood in war-torn Biafra, through the perils and pleasures of her blossoming sexuality, her wrong turns, and into the everyday sorrows and joys of marriage and motherhood. As we journey with Ijeoma we are drawn to the question: what is the value of love and what is the cost? A triumphant love story written with beauty and delicacy, Under the Udala Trees is a hymn to those who’ve lost and a prayer for a more compassionate world. It is a work of extraordinary beauty that will enrich your heart.

The Butchers Hook – Janet Ellis (Two Roads)
The Narrow Bed – Sophie Hannah (Hodder)
Scary Old Sex – Arlene Heyman (Bloomsbury)
The Children’s House – Charles Lambert (Aardvark Bureau)
13 Minutes – Sarah Pinborough (Orion)
The Catch – Fiona Sampson (Chatto & Windus)
Gold Flame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins (Quercus)
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist – Sunil Yapa (Little Brown)

March

Where Love Begins – Judith Hermann (Serpents Tail)

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Stella is married, she has a child and a fulfilling job. She lives with her young family in a house in the suburbs. Her life is happy and unremarkable, but she is a little lonely-her husband travels a lot for work and so she is often alone in the house with only her daughter for company. One day a stranger appears at her door, a man Stella’s never seen before. He says he just wants to talk to her, nothing more. She refuses. The next day he comes again. And then the day after that. He will not leave her in peace. When Stella works out that he lives up the road, and tries to confront him, it makes no difference. This is the beginning of a nightmare that slowly and remorselessly escalates. Where Love Begins is a delicately wrought, deeply sinister novel about how easily the comfortable lives we construct for ourselves can be shattered.

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy (Penguin Books)

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Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, landing screen-side down. The digital page shattered. Apparently there’s a man in the next flyblown town who mends computers. He could send off for a new screen, which would take a month to arrive. Will I still be here in a month? My mother is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. Soon she will wake up and shout, ‘Sofia, get me a glass of water’, and I will get her water and it will be the wrong sort of water. And then after a while I will leave her and return to gaze at the shattered starfield of my screen. Two women arrive in a Spanish village – a dreamlike place caught between the desert and the ocean – seeking medical advice and salvation. One of the strangers suffers from a mysterious illness: spontaneous paralysis confines her to a wheelchair, her legs unusable. The other, her daughter Sofia, has spent years playing the reluctant detective in this mystery, struggling to understand her mother’s illness. Surrounded by the oppressive desert heat and the mesmerising figures who move through it, Sofia waits while her mother undergoes the strange programme of treatments invented by Dr Gomez. Searching for a cure to a defiant and quite possibly imagined disease, ever more entangled in the seductive, mercurial games of those around her, Sofia finally comes to confront and reconcile the disparate fragments of her identity. Hot Milk is a labyrinth of violent desires, primal impulses, and surreally persuasive internal logic.

Patience – Daniel Clowes (Vintage)
Rain – Melissa Harrison (Faber & Faber)
A Girl in Exhile – Ismail Kadare (Vintage)
The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories – Ken Liu (Head of Zeus)
An Unrestored Woman & Other Stories – Shobha Rao (Virago)
Vertigo – Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories)

April

The Sunlight Pilgrims – Jenni Fagan (Random House)

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Set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter – it is snowing in Jerusalem, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to arrive off the coast of Scotland – The Sunlight Pilgrims tells the story of a small Scottish community living through what people have begun to think is the end of times. Bodies are found frozen in the street with their eyes open, euthanasia has become an acceptable response to economic collapse, schooling and health care are run primarily on a voluntary basis. But daily life carries on: Dylan, a refugee from panic-stricken London who is grieving for his mother and his grandmother, arrives in the caravan park in the middle of the night – to begin his life anew.

What Belongs To You – Garth Greenwell (Picador)

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On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. And so begins a relationship that could transform his life, or possibly destroy it. What Belongs To You is a stunning debut novel of desire and its consequences. With lyric intensity and startling eroticism, Garth Greenwell has created a indelible story about the ways in which our pasts and cultures, our scars and shames can shape who we are and determine how we love.

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)

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There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, there had been a suburb, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins…There is no warning. No chance to prepare. They arrive in the night: thundering up through the ground, transforming streets and towns into shadowy forest. Buildings are destroyed. Broken bodies, still wrapped in tattered bed linen, hang among the twitching leaves. Adrien Thomas has never been much of a hero. But when he realises that no help is coming, he ventures out into this unrecognisable world. Michelle, his wife, is across the sea in Ireland and he has no way of knowing whether the trees have come for her too. Then Adrien meets green-fingered Hannah and her teenage son Seb. Together, they set out to find Hannah’s forester brother, to reunite Adrien with his wife – and to discover just how deep the forest goes. Their journey will take them to a place of terrible beauty and violence, to the dark heart of nature and the darkness inside themselves.

The Cauliflower – Nicola Barker (Random House)
Foreign Soil – Maxine Beneba (Corsair)
The Last of Us – Rob Ewing (Borough Press)
Fragments – Elena Ferrante (Eurpoa Editions)
A Different Class – Joanne Harris (Transworld)
Ladivine – Marie NDiaye (Quercus)
The Bricks That Built Houses – Kate Tempest (Bloomsbury)
Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama (Quercus)

May

The Doll Master & Other Tales of Terror – Joyce Carol Oates (Head of Zeus)

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Six terrifying tales to chill the blood from the unique imagination of Joyce Carol Oates. A young boy plays with dolls instead of action figures. But as he grows older, his passion takes on a darker edge…A white man shoots dead a black boy creating a media frenzy. But could it be that it was self-defense as he claims? A nervous woman tries to escape her husband. He says he loves her, but she’s convinced he wants to kill her…These quietly lethal stories reveal the horrors that dwell within us all.

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus)

It is the tutor who tells the young Gustav that he must try to be more like a coconut – that he needs a hard shell to protect the softness inside. This is what his native Switzerland has perfected – a shell to protect its neutrality, to keep its people safe. But his beloved friend, Anton, doesn’t want to be safe – a gifted pianist, he longs to make his mark in the world outside. On holiday one summer in Davos, the boys stumble across a remote building. Long ago, it was a TB sanitorium; now it is wrecked and derelict. Here, they play a game of life and death, deciding which of their imaginary patients must burn. It becomes their secret. The Gustav Sonata begins in the 1930s, under the shadow of the Second World War, and follows the boys into maturity, and middle age, where their friendship is tested as never before.

The Bones of Grace – Tahmima Anam (Canongate)
The Beautiful Dead – Belind Bauer (Transworld)
The Witches of New York – Amy McKay (Orion)
This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)
The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus)
Now and Again – Charlotte Rogan (Virago)
The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)

June

Fen – Daisy Johnson (Vintage)

Daisy Johnson’s Fen is a liminal land. Real people live their lives here. They wrestle with familiar instincts, with sex and desire, with everyday routine. But the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a – well what? English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention – in Fen, these elements have come together to create a singular, startling piece of modern fiction.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Profile Books)

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Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way. They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wassberg (Harper Collins)

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A chilling, compulsive debut about group mentality, superstition and betrayal – and a utopian commune gone badly wrong We were the Family, and Foxlowe was our home. There was me – my name is Green – and my little sister, Blue. There was October, who we called Toby, and Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg. There was Richard, of course, who was one of the Founders. And there was Freya. We were the Family, but we weren’t just an ordinary family. We were a new, better kind of family. We didn’t need to go to school, because we had a new, better kind of education. We shared everything. We were close to the ancient way of living and the ancient landscape. We knew the moors, and the standing stones. We celebrated the solstice in the correct way, with honey and fruit and garlands of fresh flowers. We knew the Bad and we knew how to keep it away. And we had Foxlowe, our home. Where we were free. There really was no reason for anyone to want to leave.

Daisy in Chains – Sharon Bolton (Transworld)
Everyone Is Watching – Megan Bradbury (Picador)
Addlands – Tom Bullough (Granta)
The Girls – Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus)
Black Water – Louise Doughty (Faber & Faber)
Early Riser – Jasper Fforde (Hodder)
The Little Communist That Never Smiled – Lola Lafon (Serpents Tail)
The Bed Moved – Rebecca Schiff (John Murrary)
Smoke – Dan Vyleta (Orion)
Our Young Man – Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

Phew! So that is the list, it has changed slightly since we recorded The Readers as Gav and I had a couple of snap choices and also I found out some other books were coming out earlier than thought or I simply only discovered them in the last few months. There will be many more I discover or hear about too I am sure. I have just thought of several I have missed (Kit De Waal, Nicholas Searle and a whole shelf of prrof I can’t get to due to scaffolding) so there will be many more. Anyway, quite a few for you to go and find out more about and a good list for me to have when I am stuck in a bookshop without a clue of what to by next – as if that ever happens. Right, I better get reading then. Which of these do you fancy? Which books are you looking forward to in the next six months?

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At Hawthorn Time – Melissa Harrison

I am sure I have mentioned more than once or twice that I love books set in the British countryside. I mean I love books set all over the world; from India to Australia, Japan to Brazil and everywhere in between, as part of the joy of reading is that you can experience the entire world through the pages of a book. Yet for me there is also something really interesting about reading a world you already know (for I was brought up in many different parts of the British countryside) as seen through other peoples eyes be it the authors or the characters they populate their books with. It was this that made me so eager to read At Hawthorn Time when I first heard about it, from the cover alone it screams this is a book about nature and the countryside. Sold.

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Bloomsbury Circus, 2015, hardback, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The end is the beginning is the end in the case of Melissa Harrison’s second novel At Hawthorn Time, as we witness the results of a car crash when the novel opens. What we are left wondering, and of course to find out, is who was in each of the cars and who the bystander is observing it all on the outskirts of the small village of Lodeshill somewhere in the wilds of the British Midlands. You might now be thinking ‘hang on is this some high octane mystery about a collision… you said it was about the countryside’ well I wasn’t fibbing, that is what we get as we read on.

I have mentioned before my issues with books that start with a bang and then settle down before sadly proceeding to peter out and become somewhat exhausted by themselves and the pressure the author put on them to start with. At Hawthorn Time is not one of these novels. What unfolds as we read on is a book that grips you not with bangs and whistles, instead grabbing you with its beautiful writing, its characters and its theme of human nature vs. the natural world itself, the latter which is struggling in part because we simply take for granted what we see before our eyes and almost become immune to, tending to forget and starting to forfeit. Whilst this is not the case with all but one of the four main characters, it is these characters integrations with nature that reminds us of what we are missing out on by not being as focused or grateful for the little things as we should be.

Howard and Kitty are recent incomers to Lodeshill, moving into the village for the start of their retiring years mainly because Kitty wants to head back out into the countryside despite the fact, much to Howards annoyance, that she isn’t originally from there. We soon realise that one of the couple hopes this will reignite their relationship and the other is there to reignite their creativity and to move further away from some of the secrets they hold. Jamie is a young man who has lived his whole life in Lodeshill, as have many generations of his family, and yet who yearns to get away from it as much as he feels completely tied to it. He knows the folk lore of the area, can tell you all the different types of trees and yet spends his days in a windowless distribution centre on the edge of the village day dreaming of upgrading the car he is remodelling and races down the quiet straight roads at night. Finally we have Jack, a nomad and a wanderer; who has dropped out of society for a simpler and more natural way of life, working when he needs to and sleeping the fields and forests as he goes.

Through all four of these characters Harrison looks at the different ways in which human nature and nature itself work together and against each other. For Howard and Kitty instead of lessening the divide between them it almost magnifies it. One it seems is much more cut out for the city than the countryside. While it reignites the creative spark in ones heart, it bores the other to death. One wants to go out to the forest and take all the nature in, the other wants to just go to the pub. This is a path well trodden in fiction, film and on the radio and I must say that Harrison both keeps you with them by writing their story in a way that is both filled with humour yet is also slowly more and more tragic as we read on, had this not been the case I might have been occasionally waiting for Jamie or Jack to stroll onto the page.

The swallows that nested in the eaves of Manor Lodge bore the same genes as the ones who had built the first mud cups there nearly 150 years before; the swallows at the rectory went back even further. Every April they arrived in the village from Africa, lining up like musical notes on the telephone wires and swooping for beakfuls of mud on the banks of the dew pond on Culverkeys Farm to repair their nests. When they first moved in Howard complained about them shitting on the Audi, but Kitty said they brought happiness to a home. Now they just parked the cars a little further from the side wall.

It is with Jaime and Jack that I found the themes more powerful and where the heart of At Hawthorn Time and strength of Harrison’s writing really lies. Both their sections had me completely lost within them. Jack is a man who is so much in love with nature he has gone back to the natural world without becoming feral. Yet considering his wants to be so at peace with the world society (on the whole) seems to either see this exclusion of all the trappings of modern life as something other, something weird or even something dangerous and sinister. You could understand why he would rather spend his time out with the trees and wildlife than with people who don’t understand him, judge him. or fear him. I found this fascinating. I also loved Jack and wanted to adopt him – even if he just wanted to live in my shed.

I found Jamie’s situation equally as intriguing and complex. Here is a young lad who loves everything about the place he grew up, the childhood he had and the people he spent it with. However as he grows older and discovers there is a world outside that is both petrifying and exciting, also tempting. How he deals with those two extremes and elements, the pressure from family and work whilst also wanting to be his own person and not be swayed rang so true to me. Do you dare to go out in the world and possibly change for good or for bad, or do you stay where you are and appreciate your lot or become embittered by it. This and the conflict of the old and the new is something that seems to be on the minds of some of the other characters in the book as we go forward and is what brings to the fore the whole theme of forgetting and forfeiting the wonders of the natural world all around us.

‘I mean , if you collected together all the mischievous fairies, black dogs and, I don’t know, haunted houses from all over the country, you’d soon see they’re all of a type – just ways of explaining what was unexplainable back then. Fortunately,’ he continued, turning to Chris with a grin, ‘we have science now.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, Dad. It must have been amazing growing up in those times: there’d be a story attached to every cave, every rock, every tree. It wouldn’t be, you know, there are some trees -’ Chris waved an arm at the general view – ‘and we know everything there is to know about them, though hardly anyone actually bothers to learn their names, It would be a case of, this tree, this oak tree, has a wicked witch in it, this willow tree is magic -’

I found At Hawthorn Time a really interesting, engaging and beautifully written novel. Harrison’s writing of the natural world is just gorgeous, making the divide between nature writing and fictional storytelling become wonderfully blurred. A scene can become a standout moment with just the addition of a bumble bee going about its daily life while all the human drama is unfolding in front of it without it even noticing. I have never seen this done in quite such a subtle and effective way before. I also think Jack is going to stay with me as one of my favourite characters of the year. I look forward to whatever Harrison chooses to write next and will certainly be heading to her debut Clay in the not too distant future.

Who else has read At Hawthorn Time and what did you make of it? Have you read Clay as I would love thoughts on that too. Also do let me know of any books you love which feature the English countryside heavily. You can see my thoughts on some great books featuring the British landscape I wrote for Fiction Uncovered here. Maybe it is time I did a top ten novels about the British countryside (if I haven’t already) or books featuring nature, what do you think?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing, Melissa Harrison, Review

Running A Literary Festival

Tomorrow night Gladfest 2015 will start at Gladstone’s Library. We all love a book festival don’t we? In fact many of us probably dream of running our own, even if it was just in our back garden with our favourite authors having a chat on the decking, but what is it really like to organise one? Gladfest 2015’s Festival Director, Louisa Yates, kindly took some time out of her hectic schedule to tell me all about the running of Gladfest and why hosting a festival means so much to her and all at Gladstone’s.

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So in case anyone missed me talking about the festival a while back, which I am really excited about, tell us all a bit about Gladstone’s Library and Gladfest?

Gladstone’s Library is a pretty unusual place – it’s a library, yes, but it’s actually much more than that. It was the vision of the Victorian Liberal statesman, WE Gladstone who decided that rather than bequeath his lifetime collection of books to the Bodleian Library or the National Library, he’d set up his own. With books at one end and the later addition of 26 bedrooms at the other (now, boutique style, I am pleased to report), it’s a residential library. It’s also the UK’s only Prime Ministerial library attracting writers, authors, academics, students and visitors from around the world.

 This weekend we’re hosting our third literary festival, Gladfest, and we have some great writers and authors including Jessie Burton, Michel Faber, Alice Oseman, Patrick Gale and Robyn Cadwallader. For 2015 we also have a much more extensive programme of activities for children and young people thanks to funding from Arts Council Wales.

With just a matter of days/hours to go before it all starts, what are you doing right now?

All the actual planning and organising starts around about December time and really kicks off at the beginning of the year when we are compiling the programme and signing up writers. I’d love to think that when we invite people to speak at Gladfest, it has something to do with my sparkling personality but I have to admit, that’s probably not it at all. The library is a truly special place.

We’re now at the ‘putting up the marquee’ stage and ‘getting the craft fair stands sorted’ stage and the ‘nailing fence posts in’ stage. It’s all hands to the pump and we call in favours from far and wide – friends, family and colleagues. This weekend, you’ll find me helping supervising the parking, handing out tickets and introducing the guest speakers –it’s full on but I love it.

Theology Room Gallery

Literary festivals are becoming increasingly popular, where did the idea for Gladfest come from and what’s different about it?

We first mooted the idea of a festival back in 2012. We wanted to stage a series of lecturers but could not find consecutive dates in the diary, so just 17 weeks later we staged our first Gladfest. We’ve tried to hang on to some of that impetuous spirit to make sure Gladfest is a friendly place to be. For us, it’s about the writers and the books and the audience. There’s no Green Room, there’s no VIP area, everyone mucks in together so if you happen to be with us this weekend, don’t be surprised if you are queuing up for lunch with Jessie Burton or Michel Faber.

I’d like to think that Gladfest is the literary festival writers would choose and that’s partly because we’ve been able to draw on a community of people that has been evolving for many years – our regular visitors and patrons include people like Salley Vickers, Terry Waite, Rowan Williams and Tony Benn. I think it’s also because we understand the practical flip side of being a writer. Earlier this year, statistics showed that the average annual income of a writer was about £5,000 and among the literary community, there’s been a lot of discussion about why so many authors and writers don’t get paid when it comes to taking part in cultural festivals. Why? Good question. There’s often an underlying assumption that art does not need to be paid for, and actually many literary festivals are more about ‘location marketing’ to attract visitors to a town or region than celebrating books and ideas. At Gladfest, we provide guest speakers with a package that covers travel, food and accommodation – effectively, everything they will need apart from booze! It means that although we have sold more tickets than ever before this year, we will only break even; at the end of the day we are hosting a community of writers and thinkers, helping bring their work to a wider audience.

Have you already got plans for Gladfest 2016?

 Actually we have! We’re in talks with some very exciting speakers so once Gladfest 2015 is wrapped up, we’ll give ourselves a well earned break during October and November and then get cracking again.

William Gladstone 2

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 A huge thanks to Louisa for taking the time out of her bonkers schedule this week. Gladfest takes place this weekend from the 4th to the 6th at Gladstone’s Library located Hawarden, North Wales. I am going to be there all day on Saturday seeing the likes of Sarah Perry, Jessie Burton, Melissa Harrison and Michel Faber, there are a load more wonderful authors over the weekend so do head to https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org  for more information

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