Eight books I loved this year

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Two missing! (one on loan, one on Kindle)

I started 2018 with grand plans to keep good records and review every book I read this year. As usual, that lasted till about half way through February, so my year-end round-up of books I loved reflects those that really made an impact.

In no particular order, they are:

Icebreaker: a voyage far north
Horatio Clare’s account of life aboard a Finnish ice-breaking ship, busily keeping the Bay of Bothnia navigable to shipping during the long winter months, made me pine for the fjords. Something about Clare’s descriptions of the stoic and gloomy crew, the splendour of the ice and the implacable nature of the ship’s life appealed to me. Anyway, it may help to explain why I’m heading to Helsinki on Saturday to spend Christmas in the snow.

Golden Hill
It took me a while to get around to Francis Spufford’s rollicking novel of 18th century New York. I’d read about how beautifully it was written, how precisely it conjured the pioneering spirit of early Manhattan, how well it was researched… but I don’t remember anyone pointing out how side-clutchingly funny it was. Perhaps if they had, I’d have jumped in earlier. I adored it from start to finish, for its audacity, wit and precision.

Circe
Madeleine Miller’s retelling of the myth of the sorceress Circe was my stand-out novel of the year. It represents an enormous feat of imagination, conjuring a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses from the ancient world and bringing them to urgent, vivid life. Miller does not just make us believe in magic, in immortals. She makes us feel the pain of immortality, the toll that magic takes. I was so immersed in the world she created, I didn’t want to leave. For the first time in years, I read the last page then turned again immediately to the beginning.

Milkman
Anna Burns’ Booker Prize winner plunges you straight into the heart of 1970s Belfast, with its unwritten (but unbreakable) rules. The voice of the unnamed 18-year-old girl who tells the story is wholly original, striking and funny and alive with cadence and lilt. The density of the prose reflects the stifling conformity of the time and place, where the impossible is normal and what the outside world thinks is normal doesn’t apply. As someone who remembers the troubles only as a depressing and frightening backdrop on television news, this was a sometimes shocking glimpse into how it must have felt to grow up in the heart of it.

Against the Grain: a deep history of the earliest states
Big ideas and a big book from James C Scott. Deep history, the far-away origins of our species and how we may have lived, fascinates me. And this book gets down to the nitty-gritty, the ways we lived before states, before taxation, before parliaments and leaders, before we settled by the rivers to grow grain. Scott persuasively explains how the standard view of a steady progress from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculture and grain production was anything but steady. People, he asserts, were remarkably reluctant to settle down and till the fields. Indeed, city walls tended to be designed to keep people in, rather than repel invaders. The links between grain and taxation, war and surpluses, livestock and disease, are all explored in intriguing detail. A book to make you think differently.

Strange Labyrinth: outlaws, poets, mystics, murderers and a coward in London’s great forest.
Will Ashton was a delightful guide to this personal and whimsical memoir/history/travel book about Epping Forest. I spent a lot of time in Epping Forest this summer in preparation for leading a Refugee Tales walk of 120 people into and out of the woods. Happily we made it through without having to bunk up in the trees for the night. Knowing a little about some of the folk who had lived in the forest before, including poet John Clare and sculptor Jacob Epstein, brought fresh interest to every walk.

Life After Life
Kate Atkinson is fast becoming my favourite novelist of English life. This novel reminds us, time after time and life after life, of the delicacy of the thread on which every life hangs, the tiny decisions that turn fate one way or another. Mordantly funny at times, it’s also achingly sad as Atkinson repeatedly takes the world she has carefully constructed for us in its minute, precise detail and shakes it like a snow-globe. Despite the cleverness of the central conceit, and the way it insists on its own fictitiousness, it doesn’t pull its emotional punches. The opening chapter is a masterclass in how to start a story.

The Dark is Rising
About this time last year, I noticed a thread starting on Twitter, launched by nature writer Robert Macfarlane. People were reading or re-reading Susan Cooper’s creepy children’s book, The Dark is Rising, starting on December 22, the midwinter darkest day and finishing (as the novel does) on January 6. I hadn’t read the book before. It was something else – part-pagan, part-parable, a descent into the darkness and a struggle back into the light. The natural world is depicted with delicate menace. The uncanny is everywhere, in the way that early dusk can bring on the shivers in familiar lanes, or a blanket of snow makes everything unknowable. As the darkness wheels round again, I’m thinking of re-reading it this year, a companion into the Finnish night.

 

 

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Unlawful Things: out now

Unlawful Things 3D coverI’m delighted to say my first novel, Unlawful Things, is on sale now. Initial reviews and reader reactions have been all that I could have wished for.

The novel tells the story of the hunt for a missing final play by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. Walking tour guide Helen Oddfellow soon discovers there is a price to pay for uncovering secrets from the past. Like Marlowe’s most famous creation, Doctor Faustus, Helen has to ask herself how high a price she will pay for knowledge of unlawful things…

How Dan Brown's books should have been

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Ready to launch (almost)

Unlawful Things 3D cover.pngThose of you who’ve been with this blog for a long time (since the heady days of 2008, when I rented a wee flat in Bloomsbury and set out my stall as a Literary Lady) will know I’ve been writing a novel for a Very Long Time.

It’s been a long and winding road, but I’m delighted to say that Unlawful Things will be published in Autumn 2018. To that end, I have a brand new author website, and a newsletter, to keep you up to date with what’s happening with the launch.

I probably won’t be posting on this blog for a while (unless something comes up that I just have to write about…). I’ll let you all know when you can rush over to buy the novel, but until then, so long, farewell, and thanks for all the support.

 

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The Heat is Grate and growing Grater…

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My 1986 edition, with Julie Christie (from the film) on the cover

Outside, the sky has changed from a relentless Madonna-blue to uneasy, mauve-bruised clouds. It’s stupid hot, impossible hot, the sort of hot that robs you of the will to move, even to think. It’s too hot to stay inside; too hot to go out. I walk from room to room, hoping to find somewhere a shade cooler.

I open the front door, look hopefully at the clouds. Rain, I beg them. Please, go on. Rain. Rain rain rain.

There’s a great tradition of heatwave literature. One of the best, LP Hartley’s The Go Between, uses the growing heat of a long Edwardian summer to chart the intensity of a forbidden love affair. Innocent schoolboy Leo unknowingly acts as messenger between his aristocratic school-friend’s older sister and the sexy farmer she’s carrying on with behind her war hero fiancé’s back.

Every day, Leo goes to check the thermometer, as excited as today’s newspapers about the possibility of broken records, the mercury rising higher than ever before: “The thermometer stood at ninety.  It might still go up. Passionately I willed it to…” Marian, the friend’s sister, realises how uncomfortable he is in his Norfolk jacket and buys him a new, lightweight suit. Delighted, he felt “I had been given the freedom of the heat,” although when it all gets too much, he writes to his mother that: “the Heat is Grate and growing Grater;” his spelling deteriorating with the weather.

But even the longest, hottest summers come to an end. When the explosive ending comes, with Marian’s affair and Leo’s part in it painfully revealed, it is of course during a thunderstorm, “the indescribable smell of rain filling the air,” lightning “darting ice-blue from black clouds.”

How I’ve longed for that indescribable smell in the last week! And now, finally, the air is rich with petrichor, thunder rumbles overhead, lightning flashes and the rain comes down. Yes, I did run outside like a mad thing, letting the rain soak into my hair, my thin cotton clothes.

If I was to write a novel set in the heatwave of 2018, today would have to be the day it reached its climax, the day all the narrative threads collided and the suspended reality of enervating heat broke with a sudden shower of blessed rain.

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London Book Fair: the view from Author HQ

20180410_123947I’ve had one thing drummed into me by publishing friends: book fairs are not for authors. They’re for publishers and agents, the ones with the cheque-books, to do the grown-up bit about contracts and deals, rights and publicity. Authors, with their dreams and stories, just get in the way.

Well, I have news for them. I spent two days at London Book Fair, met loads of fellow-authors and had an absolute blast. The book fair had an “Author HQ” where they tucked us away with a brilliant programme of seminars, talks and networking events. Organisations for authors, from the august Society of Authors to the engaging Alliance of Independent Authors, had stands, alongside those keen to offer us “author services.”

The talks I attended were excellent and I learned a heap about successful self-publishing, trends in book-selling and buying, audio-book production and marketing. I also discovered how friendly, encouraging and helpful most authors are – just about everyone I approached was happy to chat and to share their ideas and experience. They say authors are introverts, but put us all in one room with a glass of wine in our hands, and it’s hard to stop us talking.

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Indie author rock stars Joseph Alexander, Mark Dawson and LJ Ross

In that spirit, here are the top things I learned at London Book Fair:

  • It is possible to make a living as a self-published independent author, if you write enough books, market them well and engage with your audience. If your plan is to write one literary masterpiece and retire to your ivory tower, it’s probably not for you.
  • Yes, audio books are the fastest-growing sector of the book trade at the moment. But they still represent only 4% of book sales, and they are expensive to do properly. I’ll be focusing on reaching the other 96% for the time being.
  • There’s not just one way to market a book. Although pretty much everyone I spoke to said you need a good email list to drive readership, sales and reviews. That’s high on my (ever-expanding) list of things to do.
  • Around a quarter of book sales are now e-books, and that figure has stabilised over the last few years. Sales of e-readers may be down, but that’s because people read on tablets or phones rather than dedicated e-readers. Did you know that 22% of e-book downloads in 2017 were of books by self-published authors? Me neither.
  • One thing is true – London Book Fair is probably not the place to go if you want to nab an agent or publisher. They’re all meeting each other in the big zones downstairs, fuelling their ridiculous schedules with caffeine and brownies. I’m glad I didn’t go with that aim – it would have been dispiriting and counterproductive.

How else to get the most out of the fair? I enjoyed listening in to some great interviews, notably Kit de Waal being interviewed about her new novel The Trick to Time, which sounds rather wonderful, and to children’s laureate and illustrator Lauren Child begging for children to be allowed to simply draw for fun. I downloaded the app before the show and ear-marked everything I wanted to see, which helped me organise my time better.

I also came back with a nice haul of free tote bags, magazines, pens and bookmarks! As a seasoned journalist who’s attended many vast medical conferences, I knew to take a sandwich lunch rather than rely on the over-priced and average food on offer at the catering outlets, and to ensure my footwear was up to a full day’s walking from one end of the exhibition to another (although I was rather astonished to see I’d clocked up 17,000 steps by the end of Wednesday).

Is London Book Fair a place for authors? I think it is, so long as you approach it in a spirit of  discovery and enthusiasm, rather than as a way for others to discover you. As a one-stop shop to find out all you can about the vast publishing industry, it’s unbeatable.

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