SPINE // Reads Of The Year
At this time of year, Reads of the Year lists are popping up in media outlets all over the place, filled with authors, journalists and broadcasters on what they’ve enjoyed most in 2016. Unfortunately, these lists all too often reflect subconscious bias, with some of them seeing male contributors recommend other men in 75% of their picks. I’m tired of Reads of the Year lists filled with men recommending men. To redress the balance and shake things up a bit, I’ve curated my own light hearted Reads of the Year list for TYCI, inviting friends likely to have fun and interesting suggestions to share their tips on their favourite writing by women in 2016.
For me, a few books stood out above the rest, and I’ve written about most of them in this column. From the cocktail-stick-sharp short stories by debut writer Lara Williams in the zeitgeist capturing collection Treats, to non-fiction Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City looking at artists inspired by alienation in the big city. Some of my favourite novels of the year were set in recent history, such as Bella Mia by Donatella di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson), following the emotional aftermath of families displaced by the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy with tender and well paced prose, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride steeped in 90s London, theatre, and love, probably my most eagerly anticipated publication of the year (my tear-stained copy didn’t disappoint); and in Han Kang’s follow-up to the success of The Vegetarian with Human Acts (translated by Deborah Smith), on the 1980 Gwangju uprising of South Korea. It may have been a challenging year for many but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it has also been a year that has brought us bold and original writing.
Regular readers of my SPINE column know that I’m just as likely to be reading something brand new as a book from a few years ago: reading habits don’t always follow the publishing calendar, and the same is true of my contributors. I asked for what they’ve most enjoyed and there are some brilliant sounding suggestions in here.
HELEN SEDGWICK // author of The Comet Seekers, her second novel The Growing Season will be published in 2017:
It’s been a year of reading poetry for me, from the microscopic precision of Alice Oswald – who I saw give a captivating performance of Falling Awake at EIBF – through Claire Askew’s personally political This Changes Things, ending with the wonderfully playful found poetry of Kate Tough‘s tilt-shift. Unsurprisingly I’m now desperate to write poetry myself, though 2016 also saw the publication of my debut novel The Comet Seekers. In terms of fiction, I found The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker delicious, and Leslie Parry‘s Church of Marvels haunting and memorable. Finally Kirsty Logan’s A Portable Shelter came out in paperback, reminding me that prose, as well as poetry, can be unsettling and beautiful.
AMANDA STANLEY // producer of TYCI’s podcasts:
I’m currently on my third re-read of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd because of how perfectly written it is. Short, but perfectly composed, chapter by chapter the elements of the Scottish Cairngorms are laid out like a love story. I’m yet to find another piece of nature writing that hits home so much – quite literally in fact as I grew up by the rivers and hills that Shepherd describes in this book. In that sense, it’s the perfect getaway for when I can’t actually get away for a quality countryside ramble. I recently gifted it to my best friend who isn’t living here right now in the hopes it’ll make her so homesick for the land she’ll have to return!
KAT LOUDON // graphic designer, one half of Design by Zag specialising in bespoke print and identities:
In September we took part in a group residency at Glasgow School of Art, called Building Blocks. The residency allowed gave us time to extend our research into experimental typography. Bauhaus Textiles: Women Artists and the Weaving Workshop was key to the work I made during my time there. It was interesting to see my practical paralleled by the Bauhaus artist’s use of shape, line and colour in the structure and texture of the textile craft. Kirsty Whiten is an incredible artist and it was a pleasure to collaborate with her on the design for Wronger Rites. We designed an adaptation of the Grili Type typeface, Walsheim and used it through the book to hint at an anthropologist’s writing on the fictitious modern day tribe Kirsty beautifully depicts in this body of work. Getting the boxes of books from the printer and seeing the fruits of our labour was one of the highlights from this year. Setting up a company 6 months after graduating was a pretty terrifying leap of faith however Don’t Get a Job… Make a Job: How to make it as a creative graduate by Gem Barton filled me with the confidence I needed to know I was doing the right thing. Filled with advice and case studies from young creatives who are in the same boat, this book is my recommendation for anyone thinking of setting up a graphic design business.
I received a beautiful copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood for my birthday last year published by the Folio Society. The women in The Handmaid’s Tale are politicised and controlled and the treatment of them is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the bible. Re-reading this book during the American presidential campaign and election felt like perfect timing. Although the novel is speculative fiction, there were an unbelievable amount of parallels between Trump’s attitude towards women and the depicted exploitation of women within the book.
ZEBA TALKHANI // writer and editor with an interest in identity, diversity, feminism and social deconstruction:
Three books stood out for me this year: Expecting by Chitra Ramaswamy, I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This by Nadja Spiegelman and The Mothers by Brit Bennett. All three explore themes of mothering and brilliantly so. Chitra takes us through her pregnancy with the help of Sylvia Plath, Nan Shepard, Pedro Almodovar, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf and others. Nadja amazes her readers with the strength and sensitivity with which she digs into her mother’s past and narrates an unbiased version of her findings. She is careful to note that our memories are our versions of the truth. Brit’s urgent and engaging novel recreates the oppressive nature of small-town conservative America with great talent. Her book also helps us question our (false) post-racial ideologies and presumptions surrounding racism.
ZOE VENDITOZZI //author whose novel Anywhere’s Better Than Here won the Not the Booker prize popular vote:
This year I’ve been trying to read things that will inform my own writing and hopefully nudge me into committing to a project that I’ve been procrastinating over for a few years now. There have been several novels and short story collections that I have been reassured, moved and intimidated by. Firstly, the Lucia Berlin collection Manual for Cleaning Women was the book I recommended the most this year. I actually had to limit myself to reading one story a night so that I didn’t guzzle it down thoughtlessly. I also loved the Sinead Gleason edited collection The Glass Shore and would really like to see a Scottish version taking shape as it was fascinating to see a range through the years of one country’s women writers voices. I also read the Patricia Highsmith collection Little tales of Misogyny which was a revelation for its nasty characters and pitch black sensibility. As for novels, Lesley McDowell suggested I read Jane Harris’ The Observations to see how fiction set in the past can be funny and I very much enjoyed the tone and the voices in the book and will definitely carry that over for my new novel which I was having trouble reconciling dark humour and the historical setting in. I had the pleasure of chairing Maggie O Farrell‘s event as part of Book Week Scotland and was blown away by how clever and fascinating This Must Be The Place Is and really appreciated what Maggie did with time and point of view. I would also heartily recommend Nell Zink‘s writing, particularly Mislaid, and am looking forward to her new novel, Nicotine in 2017. I’m currently reading Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh which seems a great point to end a grim year with the eponymous heroine being so richly repellent and horribly fascinating.
SARA SHERIDAN // Scottish writer whose books feature strong female protagonists and celebrate little remembered women’s stories from history. In 2016 she founded REEK perfume to memorialise women’s past and present, through scent:
This year a friend recommended I try Martine Bailey’s ‘culinary gothic’ novels set in the 18th century and I loved them. The narrative voice is both dry and optimistic, and Bailey weaves recipes and notes from day books into the story. There is an intriguing mixture of dark and light in The Penny Heart – the tale of a confidence trickster sentenced to a term on Australia in the 1790s. I love a juicy revenge plot! I can also recommend an Appetite for Violets where a household servant becomes embroiled in her mistress’s Italian intrigue. Storming.
ERIS YOUNG // writer and editor from southern California, currently living in Edinburgh:
In Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, Cho perfectly captures the tone and aesthetic of regency fantasy, while asking all the questions that Naomi Novik and Susanna Clarke fail to ask. Strong, central women characters and an interesting magic system that, like the best of them, creates more problems than it solves. Sorcerer to the Crown is an enjoyable read with engaging characters, perfect for anyone who wants Austen, but with a bit more action, or Forster, with a few more women. Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan is a beautifully written book, topical, humane and evocative, both science fiction and poetry. Fagan immerses the reader in the Scottish nuclear winter: I always had to bundle up while reading! The characters are complex and multi-layered, and in Fagan’s hands the apocalypse narrative is the perfect tool to explore their pasts and motivations and fears about the future. An elevated but approachable read, a gem of Scottish fiction.
HELEN MCCLORY // debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Freight in 2017:
Stories with a brilliant, dubious raconteur at their heart seem few and far between in contemporary literature, and even less frequent are fiercely smart stories of a brilliant, dubious raconteur written in collaboration with workers at a juice factory in Mexico City. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli is sharper than the human molars auctioned off within its pages, a novel that grabs the reader by the hand and drags them wild and laughing and wondering to the very end. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride explores the joys and strains of a deep connection in a foreign-familiar ‘90s London in McBride’s signature leaping, breaking style. It is beautiful and joyous, shifting and piercing and elevating – and, well, I just keep throwing adjectives in an effort to net the thing, and the book swims straight through it like a shoal of golden fish.
CLAIRE HEUCHAN // radical feminist and PhD candidate who blogs as Sister Outrider:
Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir was a fascinating fusion of the personal and political, illuminating the lives of America’s Black bourgeoisie. Her writing has real elegance, precision. In spite of the reader’s curiosity, Jefferson holds the audience at arm’s length and asserts her right to privacy, which I admire because Black women are often consumed as public property. Nadine Aisha’s debut collection of poetry Still is so rich and delicious – writing that nourishes. Her reflections on race and connections between women are captivating. These poems are gentle, but so powerful. Helen Oyeyemi’s latest book What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is an intricately woven collection of short stories. There’s a beautiful lesbian romance, queer puppeteers, and a compelling drama surrounding the theft of a Black woman’s diary. I love that this book holds so many innovative expressions of human nature. And Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. J. K. Rowling is publishing these gorgeous illustrated editions of Harry Potter, and I found great comfort in revisiting my favourite childhood books after my grandfather died. There is such warmth and creativity in Jim Kay’s art, and Rowling’s writing captures the imagination like nothing else. Returning to Hogwarts was a joy.
MICHAELA POINTON // freelance Illustrator based in North London, working under the fun loving moniker of Marti Illustration:
This year I have particularly enjoyed Singer and the Paint written by Mira Shapur. It’s a lovely story of siblings Amy and Sam who are helping to paint the furniture at home, when their cheerful dog Singer comes along to take part in the fun and ends up dressing everything and everyone in red and blue paint. The beautiful Illustrations were created by Mira’s father, Fredun Shapur (an all time favourite of mine) for the original 1966 version titled Spot and the Paint. Mira’s re telling of the story makes for the perfect playful read, I would recommend this to anyone no matter your age! Also on my list of reads for 2016 would be the wonderful Lodestars Anthology. Each issue takes you on a journey to a new and exciting corner of the world through stunning writing, illustrations and photography. I would recommend this publication to anyone with a passion for travel and exploration – it’s the perfect way to escape the everyday, from the comfort of your home.
CARA DICKENS // writer, currently working on a second novel:
The first book to come to mind was Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal, possibly the first or even only book on gender identity and sexuality to be specifically pitched at young teenagers. I’ve also been very happy to revisit Jaclyn Moriarty’s Becoming Bindy McKenzie, the story of a social outcast told through the main character’s writing, spanning from their diary to their schoolwork and even to post-it notes left on the family fridge. Both these writers give a highly personal and solid insight to characters that are regularly used, but often glossed over or seen as insubstantial.
MERRYN GLOVER // writer of fiction, plays and poetry and lives at the foot the Cairngorms where her current project is set:
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”… No, I’m not getting married (already am) but that phrase comes to mind as I reflect on the women’s voices that have struck me this year. The ‘old’ is not really that old but rather a favourite that I have read for the third time recently: Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things, because she is such a master of structure. The new is Helen Sedgwick‘s The Comet Seekers, a luminous book that also gave me the new experience of being chair at a literary festival. I look forward to more of both! The borrowed is a dusty library book called In the Glens Where I Was Young by Meta Humphrey Scarlett, a personal history of Badenoch by a woman with a long lineage in the valley where my current novel is set. Finally, Nan Shepherd‘s old but re-discovered work The Living Mountain, a small but potent description of her walking on Cairngorm, the giant hill that rises above my valley and whose colour, in a certain light, and whose name, in Gaelic, is ‘blue’.
NICOLE BRANDON // writer (comics, screenwriting, short stories), youth arts admin and parkour rookie who is living, working and jumping in Scotland:
Anybody interested in science, fiction or science-fiction will find something to love in The Need For Better Regulation of Outer Space by Pippa Goldschmidt, a collection of brilliant short fiction from this brilliant astronomer-turned-author. Perceptive, generous, and sometime subtle, sometimes spectacular – this is a great collection of stories ranging from the utterly surprising to the absolutely inevitable, all held together with so much that’s personal and professional about the study of science and space. I got something from every story between the covers, especially the ones I could peer at as if through a telescope, spending time trying to work out what they meant to me despite their distance from my reality. Nimona is written and illustrated by Noelle Stevenson. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some righteous havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the bastions of goodness everyone thinks they are. But as small acts of mischief (and, yeah, murder) escalate into a vicious wave of bloodlust, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit. This is a published adaptation of the phenomenal webcomic and I guarantee you’ll love it and read it in a night. It’s a story all about what it means to be a good friend, told with off-the-wall-wit and an accompanying willingness to jump tone from cute to crazed to craven in three panels, like plenty of friendships can and will do.
HEATHER MCDAID // freelancer, music writer, and publisher at 404 Ink:
Daisy Johnson‘s short story collection Fen has couples, sex, pubs, marriage woven through tales of magic and darkness. You devour it, especially when it’s a bit awks to read “How to Fuck A Man You Don’t Know” on a packed London Underground for too long. Jacky Fleming‘s The Trouble With Women asks the important questions in illustrated form: can women be geniuses, or are their arms too short? Through the history (or lack thereof) of women, and men’s smart hair, it’s loaded with spoonfuls of wit and sarcasm. Lindy West’s Shrill, Emma Cline‘s The Girls, anything by Sad Ghost Club. G’wan, 2016. You’ve been alright.
ELIZABETH REEDER // novelist and essayist who lives in Scotland:
Early in the year I devoured The Notebook by Agota Kristof and Human Acts by Han Kang. These are not happy books but powerful ones. This summer Evie Wyld’s All the Birds Singing held me and I finished it in a day. The end didn’t quite deliver but the rest of the book was immersive, hard, emotive. I re-read The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. I also re-read and taught Citizen by Claudia Rankine and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – both books that discuss issues crucial to our times via writing that is stunningly poetry and prose. They are basically hardcore, challenging, beautiful works of art. Over the holidays I will be reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
CHRISTINA NEUWIRTH // writer, works at IASH Edinburgh and Scottish PEN:
2016 has been a big year of reading and re-reading Ali Smith. Do pick up her new book Autumn, which is a warm comfort and a permission to be angry all wrapped into one magnificent story. I also read H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which I loved because it dealt so tenderly and honestly with grief, and it made me feel like I could train a hawk myself (even though I definitely can’t). This year I have been using my local library a lot more, and I also started a speed-reading competition with a friend in an effort to make us both commit to reading more.
DEBORAH ANDREWS // award-winning theatre practitioner turned novelist whose debut novel, Walking the Lights, finished Runner-up in the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2016:
Writing I’ve loved this year includes: Em Strang’s muscular, rich and resonant poetry in her first collection Bird-Woman; the fantastical worlds and characters of Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers; and the beautifully crafted prose of Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree – a gripping novel that speaks to me as a writer and illuminates some of Beckett’s work in a gorgeous inter-textual way. I’ve been saving what I think will be three of my favourite reads for the Christmas break: Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers, Mary Paulson-Ellis’ The Other Mrs Walker, and Jenn Ashworth’s Fell. I’ve read, heard and felt passionate about work by all these writers and, flicking through these books, I think I’m in for a treat.
ELEANOR COVELL // left wing and women’s rights activist:
Homecoming by Yaa Gyasi is a story written about two sisters in 18th century Ghana, growing up in different households unbeknown to each other. Effia is married to an English slave trader, whilst Esi is sold as a slave and sent to America, the book following their descendants lives through slave ownership, ‘freedom’, civil war, apartheid and colonial and postcolonial Ghana. It weaves a powerful story of the oppression of black people, colonisation and the struggle against it down seven generations of the family to the present day. It is a beautiful, sad and thought provoking discussion of racism, power and the people it affects.
JEN BOWDEN // freelance editor and writer:
A contemporary Arabian Nights type tale packed with adventure, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton is a story of finding yourself and knowing your own power. A strong, brave female protagonist and sexual tension you could cut with a knife. Amani is a heroine that generations of women will aspire to be like.
EVER DUNDAS // writer specialising in the weird and macabre, her first novel will be published in 2017:
In Naomi Alderman’s The Power, girls across the world discover they have a power that is located across their collarbone, in their ‘skein’, giving them the ability to discharge electric shocks. As the awareness of this spreads, and girls awaken it in women, society is turned on its head. The premise of The Power defamiliarizes current global socio-political norms. Demonstrating the constraints and violence men would be subjected to if gender inequality was reversed is an effective device. Alderman does this with some astute use of language by referring to men in the way women are often referred to, highlighting how damaging language can be. She depicts men becoming hyper-aware of their physical vulnerability as they go about their daily lives, showing how this affects their autonomy and sense of self. This all comes to a head in some brutal rapes and murder of men by women, violations stemming from and feeding back into social norms that consolidate their ‘power’ over men. It shouldn’t need pointing out that women are humans too. We shouldn’t need a narrative where men are subjugated to make us realise the extent of gender inequality, violence and femicide. But sadly, 2016 has shown that we urgently need this kind of book. The Power is a brilliant and adroit page-turner that should be read by everyone and should be on the syllabus in every school. It’s the kind of book that could change the world.
Read more in the SPINE series HERE.