The Sunday Times Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with the University of Warwick Shortlist: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Cover imageFiona Mozley’s Elmet has already snagged the attention of several literary prize judges: it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year and shortlisted for 2017’s Man Booker Prize. Set on the fringes of what was once a mining village, it’s about Daniel and Cathy whose father has built a house on land owned by a ruthless landlord.

Daniel and Cathy have lived in the copse close to the railway since Granny Morely died when Daddy was out on one of his trips to who knows where. Cathy’s now just fifteen and Daniel’s fourteen. They no longer go to school, growing vegetables and foraging food alongside their father, a giant of a man who earns money from bare knuckle fights and settling disputes with his fists. Daniel knows very little about their mother, just a few memories of her infrequent visits which suddenly stopped. He wonders about asking Vivien to whom Daddy sends them for a makeshift education. Daniel and Cathy watch and listen, alert to any exchanges between Daddy and the rest of the village. They’re both outsiders but while Daniel is happy to cook and read with Vivien, Cathy takes her cue from her father. When Mr Price turns up, Daddy understands that he’s to have no peace. Together with an ex-miner, Daddy hatches a plan to overthrow this village tyrant ensuring fair wages and rents for all the families in thrall to him. Both know there’s not much hope of success but neither envisage the events that will culminate in Daniel’s desperate quest to find his sister.

Told through Daniel’s childlike voice, Elmet is reminiscent of a fable with the mythical figure of Daddy, the proud giant fiercely protective of his children, at its centre. Underpinning the narrative is a constant menace which contrasts with Daniel’s gentle voice, a menace that explodes into graphic violence at its conclusion in a scene not for the fainthearted. There’s a strong sense of social justice running through this novel. Men are so desperate to supplement their meagre benefits that they’ll work for a pittance; rents are high and evictions commonplace. Power is wielded by the few who mete out their own brutal form of justice. It’s a world where a young woman, confident in her own strength, lives in terror of violence. This is an extraordinarily impressive debut – bleak, beautiful and visceral. I wonder what Mozely will come up with next.

Just one more review as a shadow judge for me – Adam Weymouth’s Kings of the Yukon which I’ll be posting next week. I’m off to the bloggers’ event at the Groucho Club on Saturday then we shadow judges will be getting together on Monday to come up with our winner.

f you’d like to read two of my fellow shadow judges’ reviews of Elmet Paul’s is at HalfManHalfBook and Amanda’s is at Bookish Chat. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow.

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick: The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Cover imageOne of the many good things about shadow judging this award is that it’s made me review non-fiction. It’s not that I don’t read it but the last book I reviewed that wasn’t fiction was back in May. Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure was already in my sights before the shortlist was announced but if it hadn’t appeared on that I may well not have written about it and so wouldn’t have paid so much attention. Subtitled ‘How Books Restored my Appetite’, it’s about the way in which reading helped her to find a way to eat again.

Freeman was thirteen when she first felt there was something wrong with her body. Drying off in the sun after a swim with just one week of the holidays left before returning to her hated school, she’s seized with a wave of revulsion. So begins a gradual paring back of food until all she can do is stay in bed apart from the weekly outings to her therapist followed by a visit to Daunt’s bookshop on Marylebone High Street. Always bookish, Freeman takes refuge in Dickens, consuming almost his entire works. Over the fifteen years between her diagnosis and writing The Reading Cure, Freeman relished descriptions of food, from the resplendent plum pudding of A Christmas Carol which helped her eat her first sliver at the Boxing Day family dinner, to the essays of M. F. K. Fisher whose abandoned delight in eating got her over her potato hump, marking her steps towards recovery in literary milestones. Her journey’s punctuated by stops and starts, including three serious relapses, the third prompted by deluge of strictures from the clean eating brigade. By the end of her memoir, Freeman knows that the clamour in her head isn’t silenced forever but she has a stout defence next time the Jabberwock comes calling.

Freeman weaves her story lightly through her reading so that books are to the fore, describing her illness in plain language that rings with truth. She writes about books beautifully, picking out evocative descriptions of food which have helped her inch towards a less fraught relationship with it. Reading helps clarify her thoughts while walking muffles the voices in her head just as it did for Virginia Woolf as Freeman discovers in Woolf’s diaries. The epilogue is both a lovely testament to the love and help of friends and family, and an expression of hope that her book might help others with whatever ails them.

Freeman’s raw honesty and gentle humour coupled with a delight in books elicit empathy far more effectively than any full on confessional misery memoir. I wanted to cheer her on to the next small mouthful of bubble and squeak – the Nigel Slater recipe – or Cornish saffron bun, inspired by Laurie Lee, but my favourite moment isn’t book related at all. Sitting in a café having just heard the complicated, finicky order of a clean eater, Freeman defiantly orders a boiled egg with buttered soldiers and a proper cup of tea. It might not seem much to you, but it’s a pleasing indication of the many strides made by her.

If you’d like to read two of my fellow shadow judges’ reviews of The Reading Cure, Paul’s is at HalfManHalfBook and Lizzi’s is at These Little Words. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow.

Blasts from the Past: Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman (1989)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Lost in Translation is my first non-fiction blast from the past. It was published in the UK shortly after I became a bookseller and was one of the first books in huge demand that I felt I must read. It’s about many things one of which is the nuance of language, a subject dear to many readers’ – and of course writers’ – hearts.

At the age of thirteen, when most of us are beginning to forge an identity for ourselves, Eva Hoffman was uprooted from her beloved Poland to emigrate with her family to Canada. Born in 1945, her early years had been spent in Kraków, surrounded by friends, thoroughly immersed in a way of life she knew and loved. When she arrived in Vancouver, she had not only to learn a new language, but also a very different set of cultural references, a long, slow process which set her at a distance from other young people. When she won a scholarship to a university in the United States, she began to find ways of belonging in her new world without rejecting the old. Lost in Translation is an eloquent account of Hoffman’s experience of being caught between two cultures.

I’ve tried reading several of Hoffman’s novels over the years but none have made the impression on me that her memoir left. It’s come to mind often in the last few years when thinking about the refugee crisis and the cultural dislocation so many have had to face on top of their trauma.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick Shortlist: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Cover imageRegular visitors to this blog will know that I tend not to review historical novels. There are exceptions, of course – Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree and Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall be Entirely Free spring to mind – but generally my feet are planted firmly in the twenty-first century. You might be surprised then to hear that Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was already sitting on my shelves waiting to be read before its shortlisting boosted it to the front of the queue. Gowar’s novel begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died.

Jonah Hancock is haunted by the stillbirth of his son and the death of his wife, burying himself in business, proud of his astute merchant’s eye and glowing reputation. When Captain Jones arrives, bearing the mermaid acquired by the sale of his ship, Hancock is at first horrified then persuaded that this shrivelled figure will make his fortune. He finds himself courted by Mrs Chappell, the sharp-eyed madam of a bordello who spots a business opportunity, persuading him to rent her the mermaid. Mrs Chappell enlists the help of Angelica Neal, much reduced following the death of her patron, instructing her to devote herself to Hancock at the lavish opening party for the creature’s display. Hancock isn’t as green as he may seem – he’s visited a prostitute or two – but he’s appalled by the lascivious goings-on, shrugging off the attentions of Angelica but not before falling heavily for her carefully cultivated charms. Out he walks, leaving Angelica to conceive her own passion which leads her into desperate trouble. When he next sees her, Angelica sets him a seemingly impossible task: she wants him to find her another mermaid.

Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail. Women are dependent on men to make their way in this world – Mrs Chappell earns her money from their debauchery, Bel finds her way to respectability and security through marriage – Mrs Flowerday is perhaps the most independent, shrewdly using her dowry as a counterweight when her husband oversteps the mark. As in the best morality tales, there’s a great deal of sly wit running through the narrative:

Mr Trevithick steps aside to draw her attention to the flagellation machine which sits in the corner awaiting its weekly polish.

Gowar engages our sympathy for her characters, deftly rounding them out: Hancock is a decent man, hoping to step up the social ladder but ill at ease with it, and Angelica’s flightiness is tempered with memories of an impoverished childhood. Just one criticism: I found the mermaid’s voice a little jarring but her passages are both short and few. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction, both absorbing and entertaining with a hefty helping of redemption.

If you’d like to see what my fellow shadow judge Amanda at Bookish Chat thinks of Gowar’s novel, her review is here. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow,

A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley: Sadly pertinent

Cover imageFirst published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was championed earlier this year by the New Yorker who dubbed Kelley a ‘lost giant of American literature’. His novel is set in 1957 in an unnamed Southern state where the descendent of a slave performs an act which triggers the departure of the state’s black population in its entirety.

Tucker Caliban is the descendent of an African so fierce he’s been immortalised in a tale told frequently on the veranda of Sutton’s local stores by the town’s self-appointed elder to an audience of sharecroppers. Tucker, himself, is a taciturn man who grew up in the home of the Willsons, the family of a renowned Civil War general who paid money for the African. As a child, Tucker shared a room and bedtime stories with Dewey Willson, two years his junior. Fresh from his first year at college in the North, Dewey has come home to find that Tucker has set about systematically destroying the farm he bought from Dewey’s father two months ago before departing with his pregnant wife. Within hours the black population begins packing up and heading north leaving behind a bewilderment shared by the black pastor who arrives in a chauffeur-driven limousine asking questions about these strange events. As men, women and children pass by – some in cars, others on foot, all with their bags packed – the occupants of the veranda come to understand the repercussions of the black exodus and their mood turns.

Kelley begins his novel dramatically with the tale of Tucker Caliban’s ancestor, the African, an almost mythic figure. The rest of his story is told from the perspective of a variety of characters, from Harry Leland who is trying to raise his nine-year-old son to respect black people to David Willson, the idealistic descendent of the General. All are white. In clean, plain prose, each character delivers their own interpretation sketching in background details to Tucker’s calm act of destruction while revealing the complexity and nuances of the relationship between black and white through their stories. The ending, heartrendingly misinterpreted by Harry Leland’s young son as he lies in bed, comes as no surprise.

This new edition comes with a foreword by Kathryn Schulz explaining how the novel came to be republished together with some background to both the man and his work. I often skip these essays but this one’s well worth reading. Kelley was just twenty-four when he published A Different Drummer, his debut. It’s an astonishingly confident piece of work for a writer so young. Its rediscovery feels all too timely in the light of the current US administration, although it had its own Brexit resonance for me.

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick 2018 Shortlist

The shortlist for the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick was announced yesterday and I’m relieved to tell you that I’m looking forward to reading all four books. I hope my fellow shadow judges are equally pleased.

The titles are:

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

Weymoth’s book sounds like a proper piece of travel writing, charting the author’s voyage by canoe down the Yukon River, a distance of 2,000 miles from Canada to the Bering Sea.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Already longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Man Booker, Elmet is described by the publishers as ‘a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go’.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Described by the publishers as ‘a spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession’, Gowar’s novel sees a Deptford merchant take possession of a wizened little figure, said to be a mermaid, in 1785. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. These two meet at a society party and embark on a dangerous new course together.

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Freeman’s memoir is essentially about the power of books to cure what ails you. Diagnosed with anorexia aged fourteen, Freeman slowly found her way back to good mental health through a passion for reading.

What a great list! We shadow judges will be posting our reviews over the next few weeks. My first should go up on Friday. We’ll be revealing our winner on November 28th while the real thing will be announced at a prize-giving ceremony on December 6th.

If you’d like to know more about the award you can find out here. My fellow panelists will be posting their reviews at Bookish Chat, These Little Words, The Literary Edit and Half Man, Half Book. If you want to keep tabs on what we’re up via Twitter you can use #YoungWriterAwardShadow or follow @youngwriteryear.

What do you think of the shortlist? Have you read any of the books on it, and if so what’s your verdict?

Six Degrees of Separation – from Vanity Fair to The Mountain Can Wait #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Cover images

This month we’re starting with William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair which tells the salutary story of Becky Sharp, the opportunistic social climber who comes to a sticky end, so memorably portrayed by Natasha Little in Andrew Davies’ 1998 adaptation.

Andrew Davies also adapted Alan Hollinghurst’s portrayal of ‘80s excess and politics, The Line of Beauty, which left me cold, and Karen at Bookertalk agrees with me.

Quite the opposite feeling to my childhood love of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which led me to beg my parents to take me to Doone Valley every time we were anywhere near Exmoor.

Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated Rebecca is set in Cornwall, which is generally where we were off to as I watched the signs to Doone Valley flash past. At least two authors – Susan Hill and Sally Beauman – were confident enough to pen ‘sequels’ to Rebecca.

Leading me to Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley’s follow-up to Gone with the Wind which picks up our heroine’s story after the funeral of Melanie Wilkes, her old flame Ashley’s wife.

Based on his family history, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain shares the American Civil War backdrop, following a Confederate soldier home to the wife he married just before he enlisted four years before. Inman travels through a country as changed as he is – farms in ruins, terrible poverty, lawlessness and degradation.

With its striking sense of place and gorgeous prose, Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait was one of my favourite novels of 2015. It’s about a father whose need to protect the son who’s run away from a crime clashes with his own morality which, in a way, takes me back to the beginning of this post.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a nineteenth-century morality tale to a twenty-first century version. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat

Cover imageI owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. There’d been others along the way but it was Berlin’s collection that sealed the deal. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, this new collection lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women, perhaps because there’s a memoir due to be published alongside it, but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile.

Opening in segregated Texas in 1943 with the bright childhood memories of ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, these are vivid stories which glow with evocative descriptive language, often set against gorgeous backdrops, from the Chilean countryside to the Mexican coastline and the Arizonan desert. Many explore relationships between men and women with a dry wit and sharp insight. Men are artists, musicians and writers who expect their wives to get on with the humdrum details of life such as sorting out the plumbing and bringing up the children, not to mention dealing with the former tenants who never quite move out in ‘The Adobe House with a Tin Roof’. Humour and social observation are hallmarks of Berlin’s style, exemplified in ‘My Life Is an Open Book’ which sees town gossips use the opportunity of a potential tragedy to rifle the home of a single mother in search of her address book, but she can be sombre, too. In ‘Anando’ an apparently sophisticated fourteen-year-old girl is groomed for seduction by her father’s boss almost with her father’s collusion. My two favourites, however, are both darkly comic: in ‘Cherry Blossom Time’ Cassandra, bored with her teeth-grindingly predictable routine, imagines something different with dramatic results while ‘The Wives’ sees two ex-wives compare remarkably similar intimate notes on their rich junkie ex-husband.

Berlin is such an immensely quotable author that it’s hard to know where to start with her writing, or perhaps that should be where to stop, but these are a few of my favourites:

Alma was sweet and beautiful until late in the evening when her eyes and mouth turned into bruises and her voice became a sob, like she just wished you’d hit her and leave. Ruby was close to fifty, lifted and dyed and patched together. (Evening in Paradise)

Downtown the Washington Market is deserted until midnight Sunday when suddenly the fruit and vegetable markets open out onto the streets, wild banners of lemons, plums, tangerines. (A Foggy Day)

The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night. Dozens, hundreds, millions of shooting stars until finally a wisp of cloud covered them and softly more clouds covered the sky above us. (Sometimes in Summer)

It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway. (Dust to Dust)

In the airport women wore fur coats and their dogs wore fur coats. I was terrified by so many dogs. Little dogs with hair dyed peach to match the women’s hair. Painted toenails. Plaid bootees. Rhinestone or maybe diamond collars. The whole airport was yapping. (Itinerary)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick 2018: Shadow Panel

SUnday Times Young Writer of the Year shadow judge I don’t think I’ve posted twice in one day before but today’s the day the Young Writer of the Year shadow judging panel is announced and I’m on it. Past winners of the award have included Sally Rooney’s  Conversations with Friends and Grief is a Thing with Feathers while both Sara Taylor’s The Lauras and The Shore have appeared on shortlists, all right up my literary street, As you can imagine, I’m delighted to be asked to take part and looking forward to meeting my fellow panelists who are:

Amanda – Bookish Chat

Lucy –  The Literary Edit

Lizzi – These Little Words

Paul – Half Man, Half Book

The judges this year are Andrew Holgate (Sunday Times Literary Editor), Kamila Shamsie and Susan Hill. We’ll be reading and thinking about the four books on their shortlist then getting together to thrash things out, amicably I’m sure. There’s an event at the Groucho Club on November 17th to look forward to where bloggers will be able to meet the shortlisted authors. If you’re a blogger and haven’t yet been invited but would like to attend it’s not too late to register, just click here. I’m hoping  that  some of the bloggers I’ve had so many bookish exchanges with over the years will be there.

The shortlist will be announced on November 4th. We shadow judges will be revealing our winner on November 28th while the real thing will be announced at a prize-giving ceremony on December 6th.

If you’d like to know more about the award you can find out here. We’ll all be posting our reviews of the shortlisted titles on our blogs over the next few weeks. You can find out what we’re up to by following us on Twitter using #YoungWriterAwardShadow

Wish me luck.

Land of the Living by Georgina Harding: War and its aftermath reprised

Cover imageA new Georgina Harding is always something to celebrate for me. I’m a great fan of her elegant yet lyrical writing and her quiet perceptiveness. Her last novel, The Gun Room, explored the legacy of war through a photographer and the unwelcome fame endured by one of his subjects. Land of the Living revisits the theme from a different perspective. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence.

Charlie is a veteran of the Battle of Kohima, fought in the Indian province of Nagaland close to Burma’s border. His sleep is broken by nightmares, his days punctuated by flashbacks to the jungle patrol of which he was the sole survivor. Rescued by Naga warriors whose village he lived in for several months, he was taken to a British settlement where he met Hussey, a keen ethnographer and agent of the empire. As Charlie sets about his work, Claire wonders about the things he witnessed in Nagaland, colluding with the silence of this man she barely knew before they were married by asking few questions and playing the part of the frivolous woman. In 1947, three years after Charlie first met him and facing the independence of the only country he has properly known, Hussey visits the Ashes. During the night, Claire is woken from her own jungle nightmare by their laughter and wonders what the men can have found to amuse them. By morning Hussey has gone, leaving Charlie unburdened and Claire about to give birth. New beginnings are on the horizon.

Shifting occasionally from Charlie’s perspective to Claire’s, Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Much is left unspoken between these two , her apparent light-heartedness disguising her understanding of the chasm between them. Harding manages all this with characteristic deftness, quietly conveying Charlie’s dislocation from the prosaic everyday:

He drew the curtains and tended the fire then sat down in the armchair beside it with the whisky glass in his hand. The room only began to seem inhabited when the dog followed him in.

Much is communicated in a few well-chosen words while her descriptions of both Norfolk and Nagaland are lyrically evocative:

The fog wasn’t coming down again. The night would be clear and cold. The sky towards sunset was becoming unexpectedly lighter, pale turquoise-blue streaks bared in it, the first colour of the day.

With its exploration of the legacy of empire and war, the burden those who fought carry on their return and the silence with which it is often borne both by family and veterans, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.