What we’re reading – NWN reads Read Regional 2018
We run Read Regional in partnership with 23 library authorities across the North, where you will find all of the books in stock. The authors will be taking part in 87 events across the region, from festivals to book groups. Find events near you here.
This month, New Writing North staff read the Read Regional 2018 selection. Here are our recommendations!
Fell by Jenn Ashworth
In Jenn Ashworth’s Fell, Annette Clifford returns to her dilapidated, damp family home, releasing the ghost of her parents, who narrate this story which moves between 1960s and contemporary Morecombe. In the 1960s charismatic Timothy Richardson infiltrates Netty and Jack’s lives with the promise of healing Netty’s advanced cancer, his powers are unsettling, they may or may not be real, but even he seems frightened of them.
I love how the brilliantly observed domestic detail combines with the other-worldly. And the landscape is part of this otherworldliness, with the sycamore trees in the front garden of the ruined family house threatening to invade the property, and Morecombe bay ever-present with its sense of threat and danger.
Basic Nest Architecture by Polly Atkin
I loved reading, and re-reading, Basic Nest Architecture. The poems take us on an extensive exploration of the book’s intriguing title, journeying through structures of place, the imagination and our own bodies, and the relationships between these. Polly Atkin’s poems are accessible in the sense that they smoothly draw you in to their rhythms and rich language, while at the same time being hugely satisfying – full of ideas and metaphors that gradually reveal themselves to you. There is some wonderful observation, such as in the poem ‘Jack Daw’ where the poet watches a bird as it builds a nest, the maker of its own home. As well as such natural architecture, there are built environments, like in ‘When I lived alone’ where the house is a nurturing companion to the poet and is strikingly brought to life with its comforting breathing and its ‘scent of damp sandstone and old warm wood’. Many poems are deeply personal, such as the reflective poem ‘The Centre’ and the quietly dramatic ‘Causeway’, yet by showing the exceptional in intense moments the poems resonate universally. There are many other brilliantly crafted poems, full of invention, surprising turns of phrase and imaginative sweeps.
News from Nowhere by Jane Austin
I really enjoyed reading News from Nowhere, the debut novel by York-based author Jane Austin, which is inspired by real family correspondence that her grandfather collected during the First World War.
The story is set in Bangor where 16-year old Brownyn has been left at home with her mother while her father and three brothers are sent to war. Through a series of letters from the trenches, we are given an insight into the horrors of war and its appalling waste of life. The novel wonderfully captures what it meant to be a young person 100 years ago. As her brothers grow old far too soon, Bronwyn is caught between duty, family tragedy, a growing political awareness and the delicious first tastes of a freedom that her female ancestors would never have known.
Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin
Weirdly enough, swirling round my mind while reading Chloe Daykin’s debut Fish Boy, was Guillermo Del Toro’s acceptance speech for Best Director at this year’s BAFTAs. Talking about his film Shape of Water, in which a mute woman strikes up an unlikely relationship with an amphibious man, Del Toro said: ’sometimes to talk about monsters we need to fabricate monsters of our own’. In a way not dissimilar to Shape of Water*, Fish Boy plunges the reader into an underwater world of magical realism through which the protagonist, Billy Shiel, comes to terms with his own personal monsters. Reading this brought to mind children’s books such as Skellig (Chloe cites David Almond as a big influence) and A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, as texts which also explore the difficulties of growing-up through the blurring of the fantastical with the everyday.
Chloe creates language with the onomatopoeic playfulness of Roald Dahl and peppers her narrative with feasts worthy of The Famous Five (cheese and pickle sandwiches anyone?), drawing on all the best bits of children’s literary tradition to create a narrative that feels very contemporary. I particularly enjoyed the way she fictionalised David Attenborough as a kind of omnipresent and God-like being in Billy’s imagination, turning the narrative into a kind-of bonkers and wonderful extended episode of Blue Planet. Despite being a fully grown adult, I was totally down for the sense of escapism, wonder and discovery that came with reading this 21st century parable, and think that it dealt with hard topics such as bullying and chronic illness in a way that put love and kindness at its centre. It’s fab and it made me feel the things.
*Shape of Water is most definitely not a children’s film. This may have been an inappropriate comparison to make.
Girl Zero by AA Dhand
AA Dhand’s second novel, Girl Zero, lives up to the incredibly high standards of his frenetically paced and explosive debut, Streets of Darkness. The story is set around Detective Harry Virdee who is living so far on the edge that his life seems constantly in peril. The complexities of Harry’s family are at the centre of the book. His marriage to his Muslim wife Saima has alienated his parents, while his brother Ronnie is a powerful criminal who navigates the Bradford underworld that Harry frequently finds himself drawn into. When a murder victim turns out to be Ronnie’s beloved daughter, the two worlds of the brothers collide with desperate consequences. This book is so exciting that it’s almost impossible to put it aside once it pulls you in. Part of its success is in Dhand’s portrayal of Bradford, in all its darkness, secrets and wonder.
The Companion by Sarah Dunnakey
I love a good mystery and this book did not disappoint. The Companion tells the story of two suspicious deaths, which took place in an eerie house on the Yorkshire moors in 1932. The story unfolds in two parts: through the eyes of 12-year-old Billy Potter, who lives in the house in, and through Anna, a present day archivist. I loved Billy’s perspective, but the dual narrative really worked in keeping suspense rife throughout the whole novel. It’s Wuthering Heights meets Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale – a proper Yorkshire page-turner.
An Honest Deceit by Guy Mankowski
An Honest Deceit tells the story of Ben, Juliette and their young daughter Marine, who dies tragically on a school trip. It’s a gripping book: Ben’s pursuit of the truth drives the novel, and the feeling that something dark is inevitable, lurking around the corner, meant that I raced through it. However, it’s also a touching portrait of family life, with the parents’ characters fleshed out so much more than just grieving mother and vengeful father. I loved that the novel took the time to let us get to know Ben and Juliette, their relationship before the tragedy and their relationship with the outside world. There were definitely layers to this book that I didn’t expect to find in its characterisation as ‘psychological thriller’.
How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus
Carmen Marcus’ How Saints Die tells the story of Ellie Fleck, a young girl who just wants to play ‘best man dead’, make fishing nets and be with her parents. Instead she is isolated in her traditional coastal upbringing, bullied for being different and doesn’t know where her mother is. She was always taught the ways of the world through stories and sea myths. She asks her dad ‘tell me my story’, to which he replies that she was born as he pulled her from the sea and cut her out of his nets. But when her mother has a breakdown, Ellie can’t find the right story to help her make sense of it.
Totally unique and completely heart-breaking, Carmen Marcus’ How Saints Die had me crying on public transport. This novel brings you back to the naivety of childhood. Marcus’ poetry spills into the story, absorbing you into her world with onomatopoeia and a weighted simplicity that vividly portrays Ellie’s childhood innocence while whispering underlying concerns to the reader. I found myself skipping alongside Ellie as she interacted with the world, finding a kinship in her coastal upbringing and fondly remembering my own childhood standing on bracing piers fishing for mackerel and pollock with my own dad.
The Zealot’s Bones by DM Mark
If you’ve never read a book by the crime writer DM Mark, The Zealot’s Bones is a great place to start. It’s a departure from his popular contemporary series fiction (as David Mark), taking us deep into a gripping story set in mid-nineteenth century northern England. At the centre of the book is the damaged and charismatic soldier Meshach Stone, a veteran of campaigns in India and Afghanistan who is now working as a protector to a Canadian relic-hunter called Diligence Matheson. The portrayal of Hull, a city in the grip of cholera and ravished by plague, is as captivating as it is horrific and will linger in my mind for a long time. If you’re already a fan of Mark’s books, then all the ingredients of his writing are here: it’s full of flawed, fascinating and sometimes terrifying characters, moves at lightning pace and is written in descriptively rich prose that’s a joy to read.
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst
This picture book takes readers young and old on a colourful journey through the lives of some of the most extraordinary women in the world. From Rosa Parks who ‘stood up for herself and others- by sitting down’ in 1950s Alabama, to Jane Austen who wrote her novels in secret, to avoid disapproval from society. Kate Pankhurst’s illustrations are a delight; her women leap from the page, speaking directly to the reader via speech-bubbles. There are lots of little facts and details hidden in both the text and illustrations, to be discovered on each re-reading of the book. This is a perfect book for sharing with boys and girls alike, with plenty for an adult reader to enjoy too. If this doesn’t inspire a new generation of fantastically great , world-changing women, I’m not sure what will!
A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth
I’ve never really listened to birdsong. To me, I only ever used it to make a self-conscious joke during a lull in conversation in the company of someone I don’t know very well and “the decibels are off the chart”. And dare I say it…I find ‘twitching’ a dry pursuit. But being a gentle, hippie-type, I was charmed by Richard’s introduction of the book to our Read Regional librarians, so I thought I’d pick it up.
What makes A Sweet, Wild Note so intriguing is that it responds to birdsong from a multitude of perspectives. Though it might seem obvious to many, I’d never thought of the possibility of it informing cultural identity, which Smyth proves in spades. I was overcome with wistfulness during the anecdote of a birdwatcher hearing a willow warbler in Gambia, a bird that is “ten-a-penny” in England, and describing it as like “meeting an old friend” or “coming home”. And, alongside the dwindling hedgerows, the reflection that birdsong may further decrease is incredibly uncomfortable.
Messianic it may sound, but the book has certainly opened my ears. I’ve already annoyed one cyclist on my way to work by stopping directly in their path to listen to an unusually delicate ‘cheep’ from a tree…I can’t say I’m any closer to being able to ID birds from 3 miles away, but we’re on a new level.
Take This One to Bed by Antony Dunn
I can honestly say Take This One to Bed is the first book to have four women huddled around in the New Writing North office, simultaneously reading its opening poem. This situation occurred after I described the poem as “a bit rude”, but Antony Dunn’s collection, despite its sultry name, is so much more than that. From poem to poem, you become part of, sometimes uncomfortably close to, the complexity of human relationships; from that moment after an argument, where neither party is quite yet ready to say sorry in ‘Take This One to Bed’, to a parent’s reaction to the news of children dying at sea in ‘Waves’. Sex, love, birth, parenthood, separation, illness, goldfish; Take This One to Bed has it all. It’s impossible not to see yourself somewhere within Dunn’s collection. For me, as a woman who has spent many hours liberating bees, removing snails from paving stones, and once rescuing a cat from a Tesco car park, ‘Animal Rescue’ held particularly true.
The call-out is now open for Read Regional 2019. Find out more here.