Desmond Elliott Prize shortlist event: Wed 18 June

The winner of this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize will be announced on Thursday 3 July, but this is just a quick heads-up to say that this Wednesday in London, you can catch the shortlisted authors – Robert Allison, D.W Wilson, and recent Baileys winner Eimear McBride – reading from and discussing their work with Chris Cleave, chair of the judges.

The event takes place at Waterstones Piccadilly, beginning at 6.30pm. More details here.

#6Degrees of Separation: The Luminaries

This is a blog meme created by the authors Emma Chapman and Annabel Smith, that runs on the first Saturday of each month. Everyone starts with the same book, then links it to another book in whichever way they like, and so on for a total of six links. This month’s starting book is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, and as that’s one of my very favourite books, I could hardly pass up the chance to join in. So:

luminariesThe Luminaries is the second novel by an author I first read in 2009; and so is…

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. This book has two parallel plot threads, one running chronologically forwards, the other backwards. Another novel with reversed chronology is…

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, which gradually reveals that its protagonist is a doctor who worked at Auschwitz. Another book with an oblique portrayal of Auschwitz is…

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, which was one of the first titles I read in my old book group. When the time came for me to choose a book for the group, I chose…

The Prestige by Christopher Priest, in which present-day characters learn about the rivalry between two Victorian stage magicians. Another novel involving present-day discoveryof Victorian strangeness is…

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karlinsky, which is a novel written in the form of a historical biography. And another novel that borrows a non-fiction form is…

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton, which is a novel in the form of an auction catalogue, and a book I really want to read.


Well, I didn’t anticipate that I’d end up there when I started writing this post, but the journey was certainly good fun. If you’d like to join in yourself, the rules are below:



Desmond Elliott Prize 2014: the longlist

de2014On the shadow IFFP jury, we’re just finalising our shortlist; as the first stage of that shadowing process comes to an end, I’m about to embark on another one. This time it’s for the Desmond Elliott Prize, which is awarded each year to a UK-published debut novel, written in English by an author who lives in the UK or Ireland (previous winners include Grace McCleen’s The Land of Decoration and Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet).

The judgeds for this year’s prize are the novelist Chris Cleave, bookseller Patrick Neale, and journalist Isabel Berick. Dan Lipscombe of the blog Utter Biblio has also put together a shadow jury to read and rate the longlist. As well as me, the shadow jury includes Jackie Bailey of Farm Lane Books; Heather Lindskold of Between the Covers; reader and reviewer Sarah Noakes; and journalist Kaite Welsh.

The 2014 Desmond Elliott longlist was announced shortly after midnight this morning; here it is:

  • Robert Allison, The Letter Bearer (Granta)
  • Sam Byers, Idiopathy (Fourth Estate)
  • Kate Clanchy, Meeting the English (Picador)
  • Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall (HarperCollins)
  • Katharine Grant, Sedition (Virago)
  • Jason Hewitt, The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster)
  • Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Donal Ryan, The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland)
  • Sathnam Sanghera, Marriage Material (William Heinemann)
  • D.W. Wilson, Ballistics (Bloomsbury)

I haven’t read any of these, so any first thoughts will be tentative, but… It seems a good mixture of talked-about titles and more obscure ones. I guess the biggest names on the list are Nathan Filer and Eimear McBride, who won the Costa and Goldsmiths Prize (two rather different awards, I’d observe) respectively for their books.

Looking at the list from a structural point of view, it would have been nice to see more books by women and writers of colour, and more small-press titles. Nevertheless, there are some titles on there that I’m keen to read: besides the Filer and McBride, I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Byers and Sanghera; I’ve read a bit of the Clancy and really liked it; and I enjoyed Wilson’s BBC National Short Story Award winner a few years ago.

I won’t commit to reviewing all the books; but I will be reading them all, and talking about as many as I can. You’ll be able to follow the shadow jury’s thoughts on each title on this page of Dan’s blog.

Reading the Clarke Award: 2014

Shadowing the IFFP has meant I haven’t started on the Clarke shortlist yet. But now’s the time, so here is this year’s list:

God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann (Gollancz)
Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door)

The only one of those I’ve read so far is The Adjacent, and I’ve linked to my review above. My IFFP experience has shown me that I should have time to read all these books, but not necessarily to blog them all; so I’m just going to review the books that I really want to. But, whatever happens, I’ll still read the whole shortlist and write an overview post before the winner is announced in May.

We Love This Book reviews: Hannah Michell and Deborah Kay Davies

Here are two of my latest reviews for The Bookseller‘s online book magazine, We Love This Book:

Hannah Michell, The Defections (2014)

DefectionsHannah Michell’s first novel is a tale of secrets and desire at a meeting-point of cultures.

Mia Kim is a translator at the British embassy in Seoul; she’s been able o work there despite her uncle’s history of political activism, and knows that in some ways she is still on shaky ground – her uncle now runs a school for North Korean defectors. Mia is infatuated with the new counsellor, Thomas Dalton-Ellis, whom she puts in her debt when she hides the evidence that he caused. The two embark on an affair, but then Thomas is given the assignment of running a discreet check on Mia background to see if anything might compromise her integrity – and Mia learns that one of her uncle’s young defectors, may be passing messages over the border…

The Defections is partly a novel of the past refusing to let go of, or threatening to catch up with, its characters: Thomas left his previous posting in Vietnam under a cloud; Mia’s uncle’s activities may affect her current position, of course, but she’s also haunted by never knowing the English mother, of whom she is reminded whenever she looks in the mirror. These stories combine to create a nicely complex background, and you never quite know which detail the plot will turn on next.

Much of the pleasure of reading The Defections comes from seeing the different plotlines play off against each other, as a perfectly explicable detail from one character’s viewpoint becomes open to misinterpretation when seen from another. We also see how easily the personal may slide into the political for these individuals. Michell has created an engaging novel which leaves the reader intrigued to see what she will write next.

(Original review)

Deborah Kay Davies, Reasons She Goes to the Woods (2014)

ReasonsDeborah Kay Davies’s second novel chronicles, in a series of fragments, the ordinary and extraordinary moments of one girl’s childhood.

Right from the beginning, Pearl is acutely aware of sensations: the rising and falling of her sleeping father’s chest; the feel of mud on her hands after she has been playing with worms; the sunlight and water of her beloved woods. The short, disconnected chapters (vignettes, almost) in which Davies writes reflect the intensity of Pearl’s experiences – place, action and emotion – are evoked vividly.

The Pearl depicted in these snapshots of her life is an ambivalent character: she can be cruel (she calls her younger brother “the Blob”, and often treats him with the contempt that implies), but she also has a strong capacity for love and friendship – when she lets people into her life. As the novel progresses we start to see more of the contours of Pearl’s world: the difficulties in her family life and suggestions that she may not perceive life in quite the way we had thought.

The full extent of this is revealed subtly: the tone of Davies’s prose and the closeness to Pearl’s viewpoint give Reasons She Goes to the Woods a slightly unreal quality, with a touch of the folktale. It’s up to the reader to tease out the reality of Pearl’s life (and to decide what ‘reality’ means in this context). We end up with a rounded, complex portrait of growing-up that has an atmosphere all of its own.

(Original review)


On the subject of We Love This Book, I must congratulate my fellow blogger (and Eleanor Catton fan) Anna James from A Case for Books, who is starting a new job at the end of this month as The Bookseller‘s books and media editor. So: congratulations, Anna!

Thoughts: a fraction of the whole book

grantaboybnI’ve now read a couple of the novels which were excerpted in last year’s Granta Best of Young British Novelists anthology; doing so has really brought home to me that a whole novel is not the same as a chapter or two. In a sense, of course, this is only self-evident; but it’s one thing to understand this in the abstract, and another to be able to compare a complete text with an extract which has been presented as a showcase of its author’s work.

Take Evie Wyld’s Granta piece ‘After the Hedland’, for example. I now know that this consists of the first three past-set chapters of All the Birds, Singing. So that means you immediately lose the alternating present/past structure which does so much; and you don’t necessarily spot that the chronology is reversed. That’s before we get on to the missing cues of tone, place and character. In other words, the context is gone; when you read ‘After the Hedland’, you can’t assume that you’re reading All the Birds, Singing.

Then there’s Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. The Granta anthology included chapter 7 of that novel; I knew at the time that I was inevitably missing quite a lot; but, even so, the whole book is again a very different work. For another Oyeyemi example, ‘My Daughter the Racist’ was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010; it works perfectly well as a standalone story, but it’s not going to prepare you for Mr Fox.

As I said above, this is obvious: a novel is a complete piece of work; you can’t judge from a snapshot. But the thing is that we do, perhaps more so with novels than any other art form; they demand so much time from us that we need some way of filtering out those that we don’t want to read. Rare is the reader who’ll do what Jenny Ackland did when reading The Luminaries, and plough on through 500 pages that that aren’t engaging them, in the hope that the book will suddenly be transformed. Rarer still, perhaps, is the reader who’ll find that it was worth doing.

But, in Ackland’s case, it was worth doing, and there’s the rub. I’ve seen several people around the book blogging world, whose opinion I respect, abandon The Luminaries relatively early on for one reason or another; I suspect that at least one of those people would ultimately appreciate what the book is doing, if they could carry on. I know I could have given up on The Rehearsal at one point, and I would have seriously missed out. What can we do to try to ensure that we don’t miss out, when we (probably) don’t want to have to finish every book that we start, and can’t guarantee that it will be worth carrying on ?

Well, consider what happens when a book suddenly clicks into place for us: it’s not the book that changes; it’s we who see more. So what I think we can do is be more open to seeing. We can take the view that a novel is not obliged to grab you from the first page (unless it is designed to!), but only to be true to itself. We can aim to be more attentive to what a book is doing, and less concerned with our own expectations. We can talk to each other about what worked or didn’t work for us in a book and why, and try to gauge our own likely reaction.

I think perhaps it ultimately comes back to treating literature as an encounter. It’s not an infallible strategy – nothing could be – but it may be a way of taking better chances.

Book giveaway: Further Confessions of a GP

Further Confessions of a GPLast week, I wrote about how much I enjoyed reading Further Confessions of a GP by Dr Benjamin Daniels. Now, courtesy of those good folks at The Friday Project, I have ten copies of the book to give away to readers of this blog.

To give you more of a flavour of the book, I’ll quote the blurb:

Benjamin Daniels is back. He may be older, wiser and more experienced, but his patients are no less outrageous.Drawing on his time working as a medical student, a locum, and a general practitioner, Dr Daniels would like to introduce you to …

The old age pensioner who can’t keep his hands to himself.

The teenager convinced that he lost his virginity and caught HIV sometime between leaving a bar and waking up in a kebab shop.

A female patient Dr Daniels recognises from his younger, bachelor years.

The woman whose mobile phone turns up in an unexpected place.

A Jack Russell with a bizarre foot fetish.

Crackhead Kenny.

Not to mention the super nurses, anxious parents, hypochondriacs, jumpy medical students and kaleidoscope of care workers that make up Dr Daniels’ daily shift.

Further Confessions of a GP is the eagerly anticipated follow-up to the bestselling Confessions of a GP. With more eyebrow-raising stories from the world of general practice, Dr Daniels will once again amuse, shock and surprise.

You’ll never feel the same about going to the doctor again…

Sound good? Here’s how you can win a copy:

  • To enter, simply leave a comment on this post.
  • Entries will be accepted up to 23.59 UK time on Sunday 9 February. Multiple entries will not be accepted. Sorry, but the giveaway is UK only.
  • After that time, I will use a random number generator to select ten winning entries.
  • If you are a winner, I will contact you via the e-mail address you leave with your comment, and ask for your postal address. I will then give your details to The Friday Project, who will send your prize to you directly. Your details will not be used for any other purpose.
  • I will publish the winners’ names, and the books they receive, on the blog.

Good luck!

Awards news

Here’s a round-up of some literary award winners, shortlists and other bits and pieces…

Costa Book Awards

The category winners were announced this week:

  • Novel: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
  • First Novel: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (HarperCollins)
  • Biography: The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Fourth Estate)
  • Poetry: Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape)
  • Children’s Book: Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell (Macmillan)

The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday 28 January. There’s also a Short Story Award, which is voted for by the public. You can read (or listen) to the shortlisted stories and vote here.

Transmission Prize

A prize for the communication of ideas, organised by Salon London. (The descriptions of the nominees here are taken from the prize’s website.)

  • Olivia Laing for her exploration of what drives writers to drink, in her psycho-geographic journey across the USA.
  • Professor David Nutt for giving us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the absolute truth about drugs.
  • John McHugo who, based on decades of experience, has created an understandable, and concise history of the Arab world.
  • Biologist Aarathi Prasad showed us how biology is redefining the rules of sex, and predicted the end of men.
  • Lloyd Bradley for piecing together 100 years of black music in the capital and giving us his sounds of London.
  • Perfumer and writer Sarah McCartney showed us how we can move both in time and our own experience through smell.
  • Barbara Sahakian who explored the ethical and moral questions surrounding neuro-cognitive enhancers, aka smart drugs.
  • Epigeneticist Tim Spector who showed us how we can change our genes, both those we inherit and those we pass on.

The winner will be announced on Thursday 6 February.

BSFA Awards

BSFA members can nominate works for this years awards until next Tuesday, 14 January.

Fiction Uncovered

Not strictly an award, but does a valuable job all the same of recognising writers who may otherwise be overlooked. It was announced today that Fiction Uncovered has received funding for another two years, with 2014′s list of titles to be announced in June. I look forward to seeing what’s on there!

Strange Horizons: 2013 in review

Strange Horizons has begun the new year with its traditional retrospective, in which SH’s reviewrs say a little about their favourites from the previous year. There’s some overlap between my contribution there and the Top 12 of 2013 that I posted on here; but it also includes some books that were bubbling under my main list. So, if you want to find out my favourite speculative fiction from last year (and to see what others have picked), take a look here.