Thursday, 4 January 2018

Ten favourite books of 2017

Sea water as refreshing as brilliant books

I read more than ten, loved more than ten, but here are the ten I most wanted to shout about. Five were published in 2017, two come out in 2018, and three are from the past decade – included because you need to know about them if you don’t already. 

The Sisters Brothers & Undermajordomo Minor, both by Patrick DeWitt (2012 and 2016, Granta)

It is tempting to say, ‘just read them and you’ll get it’, but in the spirit of festive lurgies, I’ll do my best to infect you with my enthusiasm for Patrick DeWitt. The author made a decision to embrace plot when writing both these books, and each is a breath of literary fresh air – stunning writing often with the precision and concision of a short story, and never lingering a moment too long over a scene or thought before galloping on to the next juicy development. I delighted in DeWitt’s affection for his characters, and their affection for each other; love is just as important as mortal jeopardy here. Mix in whiffs of Mervyn Peake, David Lynch, Elmore Leonard and even Wes Anderson, and you have two delicious, addictive and very different books. Bloomsbury will be publishing DeWitt’s fourth novel, French Exit, in the near future; I can’t wait.

Hagseed, by Margaret Atwood (2017, Vintage)

The expression ‘tour de force’ keeps springing to mind, so I’ll use it. This is The Tempest transferred to a jail, with a disenchanted theatre director at the helm. Also, the ghost of his daughter (Miranda, of course) is lurking at home. The joy of this book is watching the inmates interpret Shakespeare’s characters under the protagonist’s guidance, while all the time his own vengeful plot waits to take shape. If your memory of The Tempest is vague at best, let Atwood’s irreverent, hilarious version reacquaint you with a great tale of magic and revenge.

Strange Labyrinth, by Will Ashon (2017, Granta)

I expected to dislike this book thanks to the ‘mid-life crisis in a lacklustre forest’ blurb – I am a devotee of Epping Forest, the strange labyrinth of the title (or one of them), and I have little patience with disorientated forty-something males. But I immediately warmed to this somewhat self-effacing project, mapping the weird Epping Forest through stories of its erstwhile inhabitants and visitors, alongside real encounters with trees, their graffiti and their particular silent companionship. I am not a great reader of nonfiction, but this is the most pleasurable way to learn about the social history of a wood since Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest.

The Sing of the Shore, by Lucy Wood (2018, Fourth Estate)

Lucy Wood’s editor sent me this book with a request for a jacket quote if I liked it. Admittedly, this in itself was quite a thrill. Wood’s earlier collection, Diving Belles, was a beautiful and sometimes disturbing exploration of the effects – actual and imagined – of Cornish folklore on the lives of that region’s denizens. The Sing of the Shore delivers a more gossipy, murky depiction of Cornish life, the unwelcome trappings of modernity impacting us all the more harshly as we try to accommodate second homes, giant satellite dishes and washed-up shipping containers in amongst the many ghosts. I have never been more terrified of cows than when I read ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ – an uncanny, incantatory delight of a story. I highly recommend buying this when it comes out in 2018.

Swansong, by Kerry Andrew (2018, Penguin)

Another proof I was given, not to ask for favours but just because an editor thought I would like it. And I really, really did. At first a novel of disaffected youth forced to face boredom in Scotland, things become otherworldly and sinister in the extreme as the pleasure-seeking Polly meets a man with poor social skills and an obsession with birds – in particular, drawing skeletons with feathery wings. The ‘swan-maiden’ is a tale type well-known to folklorists, and one Kerry Andrew has drawn on to surprising, gritty and page-turning effect. Rare is the writer that can get away with drawing out a folk-tale idea to novel length, but Andrew has done it extremely well. Look out for this entertaining and unnerving debut in early 2018.

Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks (2007, Hutchinson)

This book has formed the bedrock of many conversations I’ve had with my mother about unreliable narrators – she is obsessed with them, and in 2017 it was finally time for me to understand what it was about this one that gripped her. Published ten years ago, Engleby charts the unsympathetic education and early journalistic career of an uncommon young man. And thank goodness he is uncommon, because from the start his account of his life has about it both the chill of unusual intelligence and the naivety of dangerous denial. The reader notices Mike Engleby’s omissions, his missteps amongst his otherwise unswerving observations, and knows something is wrong. Still, as wrong as it all goes, and as ghastly as Engleby is in many ways, I wept for him – a rare and disturbing experience akin to finding oneself enjoying the company of Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (2017, Bloomsbury)

George Saunders is widely adored in short story land. Thus, news of his first foray into novel-length writing made me and others nervous. What if he had been right to stick to short stories? What if I didn’t love it? Luckily, he produced a novel so unlike any other I had ever read, there weren’t any comparisons to be made – thus Lincoln in the Bardo is incomparable, I suppose. I had the joy of listening to this as an audio book, effectively a play for 166 voices with Nick Offerman and David Sedaris in leading roles, which only added to its considerable thrills. I cherish surprises in literature, and this entire book was a surprise – in its unique form, humour, filth, humanity and the delightful play that is Saunders’ hallmark being put to completely new purposes. Go in with no expectations and come out tearful and utterly refreshed. 

All the Beloved Ghosts, by Alison MacLeod (2017, Bloomsbury)

I got to know this short story collection better than most because I interviewed Alison MacLeod about it more than once. Her affection for Chekhov and his own fiction shines through in a triptych of short stories inspired by him, that to me are the heart of this book. Alison MacLeod’s confidence in taking up both Chekhov’s imagination and his life, and making of these such warm, funny and moving stories, is not only admirable but invigorating for the reader. Her ability to bring both the ecstasies and devastations of life to the page in the space of a single short story makes her a master of the form. Alison told me herself, “I really wanted to do joy in this collection”, and this really is a joyous book.

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr, by Tom Lee (2017, Granta)

I’m going to call this a novella, which is a compliment – I love the form, and it has been on the rise in recent years. This is a story told in exactly the right number of words, about a man whose exactly right life starts to lean perilously towards crumbling destruction when his face takes a similar turn and he wakes up with Bell’s Palsy. Watching James Orr deal haplessly and hopelessly with life altered by his slumped face is both funny and horrifying. We sympathise, try to block out the sound of alarm bells ringing, and then follow his increasingly bleak faux pas with a kind of black glee. Somehow the elegant simplicity of Tom Lee’s prose allows the bizarre to sit beside the mundane, to pleasingly uncanny effect.

Happy reading in 2018!

Monday, 17 July 2017

A Short Story in Seoul

Jeoungisus used to read novels aloud in the streets

You’re not supposed to use the word ‘suddenly’ when writing a story, but that is how this trip happened. In mid-June, I found myself with a Korean Air flight number, and 48 hours later I was aloft, along with graphic novelist Gareth Brookes.

I pretty much stayed aloft for the two weeks I was there. What a fantastic and fantastical place Seoul is, like being in a storyland you don’t quite understand, but in which grow endless delights. I freely admit I enjoy gorging on novelty, and culture-shock, the baffling and the bizarre, and so by the end of this trip, I was stuffed. I had also eaten a lot of awfully delicious food.

We were sent there by the British Council to take part in a kind of artistic exchange, between Bradford Lit Fest and Wow Book Festival in Seoul. I would write a story inspired by Seoul; this would be turned into a short graphic novel by a Korean artist. Likewise, Gareth would work with a Korean writer, to turn her short story (about Bradford) into a graphic novel. We got to visit Seoul. The Korean contingent got to visit Bradford. Suffice to say, we have all been inspired, and jetlagged.

Here, I share some extremely edited highlights, because I loved every minute of this trip.


The marmite of Korea: you either love them (most of Seoul’s inhabitants) or hate them (some older people, apparently). Wherever you stand, there will be a cat café within a few hundred yards. Cats appear in comics, art, design, everything. Soyeon, the Korean writer on the project, has a cat called Cattain Kirk. He has over 5,000 twitter followers. I now own a fridge magnet of Cattain Kirk.

One tired cat

When it comes to animal cafés, though, the cats are trumped by the meerkat café and the racoon café. Best to wear bicycle clips to those ones, I imagine.

Plastic Food

I love plastic food, for some reason, and it is everywhere in Seoul – one step up from the extremely useful pictures of food that adorn most restaurants.

Inedible appetising soup

Trumping both plastic food and picture food, though: golden anthropomorphic giant ginseng.

Ginseng promenade

Random statues and artworks

‘Random’ is a lazy way to say unexpected, incongruous, possibly even inappropriate… walking the streets of Seoul, I encountered surprising art everywhere. Some of it was beautiful, some hilarious, some haunting. 

A levitating girl

You might think from the above that I didn’t engage with any ‘proper’ culture while in Seoul. I will just say that photos of items in museums are even more tedious than photos of weird stuff.  The National Folk Museum of Korea was a great source of inspiration to me, not least the wet weather gear for agricultural workers displayed here: a thatched coat, wooden shoes and a concertina hat. Sou’westers and anoraks now look rather boring.

No such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing

The Cheonggyecheon

This deserves a blog post of its own. A former stream running through Seoul – once more of an open sewer like the old Fleet in London – was paved over with a four-lane road in the 60s and 70s. Then it was magically rejuvenated in the 21st century to become an unlikely place of respite for people, herons, carp, cormorants, and butterflies, in the middle of the city. Look up from sparkling waters and willow trees and you see soaring skyscrapers.

Remains of motorway pillars still standing in the Cheonggyecheon

Most days I dipped my hot feet in these waters (sorry, carp), enjoying some piped classical music and the sight of city-dwellers giggling on the stepping stones. The Cheonggyecheon ultimately inspired my Seoul story, which will soon be a webtoon by the amazing Hong Jac Ga.

Nature vs city

Non-plastic food (and drink)

It’s hard to write enthusiastically about food without sounding like a desperate hipster, these days. Even so, it was a thrill to be led through the inner mazes of Gwangjang market, to find cafes serving raw beef and mung bean pancakes to soak up the makgeolli. For a home-brewer, makgeolli (fermented rice drink) is intriguing stuff, milky-mousseux, homely yet exotic.

Bibimbap for one

Seoul is now about as hipster as it gets when it comes to beer micro-brewing, and I spent an enjoyable evening hearing from a proud brewer about his successful blends of Korean and American styles. But it was ginseng chicken soup that stole my heart; why is this not a craze in the UK yet? What are we waiting for?

Wonderful people

Thank you from the bottom of my Seoul-inspired heart to the Wow Book Festival and British Council people in South Korea, as well as to Soyeon and Hong, our Korean creative counterparts, for such a kind and brilliant welcome. I can’t wait to go back for the book festival in September, not least to see what wonders Hong has worked on my story, turning it into images in ways I cannot imagine. Seoul will be working magic in my mind and in my writing for a very long time to come.

A legitimate sweet shop.