What We’re Reading: Durham Book Festival 2023 Edition

With less than a month to go until Durham Book Festival 2023 kicks off, we’re eagerly eyeing up the festival lineup on our office bookshelf. Find out the books we’re most excited to read, as well as some that we’ve already read and loved, and then go and check out the full festival programme!

Kathryn Tann

I LOVED reading Lady MacBethad, and am chuffed to bits that Isabelle Schuler is coming to Durham Book Festival to chat with Natasha Solomons about the oft-overlooked voices of two famous Shakespearean women. Lady MacBethad is the pacey backstory of Lady Macbeth, adapted from a play by the same author and set against wild Scottish landscapes and ancient folklore. It’s a story of ambition and politics – and there’s even a bit of romance too.

The book I’m really looking forward to next is Jeanette Winterson’s latest: Night Side of the River, coming out just before the festival in October. A collection of supernatural stories for a modern world… this one’s bound to be brilliant, and the perfect spooky autumn read.

Rebecca Wilkie

I am so excited that American writer C Pam Zhang will be visiting Durham Book Festival, as part of a brief UK tour this year. Her debut historical novel How Much of These Hills is Gold was an astonishing adventure following the lives of two Chinese-American siblings making their way through the extremities of pioneer life in the American west. It was released during lockdown in 2020 and was longlisted for the Booker Prize – it was my book of the year. Pam Zhang’s new novel, Land of Milk and Honey, is set in a very different time and place: it’s the story of a chef who leaves her job in London to take a new role at a mountaintop colony, seemingly free of troubles. It’s about food and desire and promises to be just as compelling as her debut.

Emily Wright

Jen Campbell’s new collection of poems Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit is set to be published by Bloodaxe Books this autumn. It’s a collection I’ve been anticipating for months now; anticipation that was only reaffirmed when The Poetry Book Society chose it as one of their Autumn 2023 Selections earlier this year. Jen’s writing is gorgeous, mythological and magical: she is obsessed with, and very knowledgeable about, fairy tales (check out her ‘Fairy Tales with Jen’ series on YouTube) and her books are dripping in folkloric imagery and turns of phrase. Jen’s first book of Northern-inflected poetry The Girl Aquarium goes deep into ‘the realm of rotten fairy tales, the possession of body and the definition of beauty’. Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit is set to be a beautiful sequel that follows on from the girl who runs through her first collection to a woman reflecting on her ‘relationship with hospitals – both as a disabled person, and as an adult reflecting on her childhood while going through IVF’. Jen has described this collection as ‘the closest I’ll get to memoir’; this will be an intimate exploration of disability, storytelling and ‘the process of mythologising trauma’, all characteristically written with threads of ‘Victorian circus and folklore, deep seas and dark forests.’ I can’t wait to read the book and see Jen speak alongside other PBS-recommended poets Mary Jean Chan and Kit Fan at the Durham Book Festival on Sunday 15 October.

Tess Denman-Cleaver

I can’t remember the last time I was as excited about a book as I am about Benjamin Myers’ Cuddy. Before reading it, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to how much I hyped it for myself. Cuddy promised a book about the histories of the North that I was introduced to via Basil Bunting; a celebration of Northumbrian art, Northern landscapes and local lives on a grand scale. When it arrived, I read it increasingly slowly in the knowledge that this would be the only time I’d get to read it for the first time. I took photos of pages of the book on my phone, astounded by the precision and poetry of it. I loved the mix of forms; Myers’ novel combines poetry, prose, dialogue, letters, and chapters entirely composed of quotes from non-fiction publications. This book is masterful in its construction and truly beautiful as an experience of language, whilst also being a moving and compelling sequence of stories set at different points in time, all anchored in the site of Durham Cathedral. Cuddy is a remarkable achievement from a writer totally in control of his voice and unafraid of experimentation. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Margot Miltenberger

I’m looking forward to reading Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin. It’s about siblings who flee their village after the last American troops leave Vietnam. After a perilous boat journey to Hong Kong, they navigate refugee camps and resettlement centres and then find themselves in Thatcher’s Britain. Here they have to build new lives, with only each other to turn to. Their journey is interwoven with the voice of their lost younger brother, Dao, following them from a place between the living and the dead, and the records of an unknown researcher intent on gathering the strands of their story. Already longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023 and shortlisted for the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize 2023, I’m sure it’s going to be heart wrenching but sounds like a must-read debut.

Joe Baumber

Charlotte Van den Broeck’s Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy discusses thirteen tragic architects and the infamous buildings that led to, or were at least rumoured to, their suicide. As a fan of literature with dark themes and deep questions, and someone who has always thought Grand Designs could do with being a bit edgier, Bold Ventures is right up my street. The main reason I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy, and hearing Broeck speak at Durham Book Festival in October, is because her book is more a philosophical enquiry than historical documentation. Bold Ventures looks at concepts like humiliation, suicide and the complicated relationship creators have with their creations and how the public display of their work impacts their personal life.

Anna Disley

I am interested in reading Isabel Hardman’s Fighting for Life about the history of the NHS. Through talking to patients, employees, managers and politicians, she gets under the skin of how it really works. It’s an apparently highly readable analysis of the reasons we have ended up where we have, which may also provide insight into where we go from here. New Writing North is currently working with Newcastle Hospitals on a writer’s residency, encouraging staff to write, and just a month or so in we can feel the urgent desire amongst staff to express their feelings about this flawed yet beloved system.

Carys Vickers

I’m sold on Furies: Stories of the Wicked, Wild and Untamed based on the cover alone (which is even more shiny and colourful in real life) – what a beautiful book! Furies is a collection of original short stories from 15 bestselling authors (including Margaret Atwood), in celebration of feminist publisher Virago’s 50th anniversary. The stories cross genres from contemporary and historical fiction, to magical realism and sci-fi, and even graphic novel. I’m intrigued to dip into what sounds like a diverse, compelling and fun collection in advance of our Durham Book Festival event, featuring author Kirsty Logan and graphic novelist Eleanor Crewes. The event is the brainchild of our Turn Up for the Books Young Programmers – they’ve done a fantastic job, I’d love to see them create their own festival one day!

Will Mackie

Mary Jean Chan is one of the most exciting poets to emerge in recent years and I’m so looking forward to reading their new collection and seeing them read at Durham Book Festival. Bright Fear (Faber), is the follow-up to their beautiful and eloquent Costa Award-winning debut, Flèche (2019). Bright Fear approaches themes of identity, language and belonging as Chan contemplates personal, cultural and family dynamics in the UK and Hong Kong. Their poems are both fragile and strong, with the capacity to sculpt new spaces for their reader. They are such a wise and intimate poet whose work deserves attentive reading and re-reading.