10 Contemporary Scottish Writers you should have Read

Rabbie Burns, Bobby Stevenson, and Walt Scott are so 19th century! Ahead of the Edinburgh Festival next month we thought we’d bring you up-to-date with the current literary scene in Scotland.

James Kelman

Kelman has received slews of literary awards over the years, but he is still best remembered for the upset around his Booker Prize winning novel How Late It Was, How Late—definitely the first book featuring over 4,000 uses of f**k to win the award. His work is often accused of falling short of an agreed universal standard, but I find it excellent that he exposes why said standard is unable to live up to its own claims of universality. Pick up any of Kelman’s reads and you’ll find a political agenda trilling through guttural Scottish tones where the ‘bad’ language is actually a reflection of the language of the ‘common man’—not in the low sense.

‘[Al]l you’ve got to do is follow some people around and look at their existence for 24 hours and it will be horror. It will just be horror.’ James Kelman

Kelman rejects the conventional rules of English literature by abandoning quotation marks, which barricade working-class characters’ voices from the omniscient, authoritative standard English voice of the narrator flexing it’s interpretative prowess. Nicholas M. Williams deems obscenity in Scottish writing to be a form of scotology (1999, 225). Maybe we should all embrace it, but perhaps not at that next publishing meeting.

Catch him on 18th August at 1.30pm at the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre.

Janice Galloway

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is arguably the best novel of all time. The ‘80s and ‘90s saw an upsurge of Scottish fiction ‘formally and linguistically as well as thematically [different] from the accepted norms of the English novel’ (James English). The novel’s protagonist funnily enough lists Kelman and Alisdair Gray in her reading lists. Galloway’s novel also adopts the section breaks used in Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines (1984) and A Chancer (1985). Galloway expertly rejects standard typographical conventions to show the central character’s breakdown by allowing her first-person narrative to trickle into the margins.

‘Female experience in Scotland is dislocated by a national language which is both male and androcentric, an issue which is certainly tackled by both Kennedy and Galloway.’ Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

She mixes stylistic traits borrowed from Kelman and Gray with so-called female concerns—i.e., consumerism, domesticism, friendship, and health (Thomson, 166). One of the beauties of Scottish literature is its ability to reject the standard conventions of ‘Englisness’ and adopt it’s own postcolonial narrative in a country we almost forget was a colony—only joking, please don’t deport me Ms May. You definitely need to read Trick if you’re a fan of The Bell Jar.

Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay is most known for her poetry and short stories—click here to read her terrifically astute poem on ‘Climate Change’ (she said at a talk last year that it should be read in Nigel Farage’s accent). However, if you are only now being introduced to her, you need to read her novel The Trumpet. Focusing on a Scottish jazz musician, Joss Moody, the impulse came from the true story of Billy Tipton. Tipton was an American jazz pianist who on his death was discovered to have the body of a woman. While Tipton was white, Kay refreshingly interjects a biracial presence into a predominately white Scottish culture.

Her talk at the Festival is currently sold out, but you may catch a glimpse of her on 16th August at 1.30pm.

Ali Smith

Residing in Cambridge, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in publishing who hasn’t hear of Ms Smith. Smith is stylistically edgy but I find her more recent novels trickier to read. Infinitely more enjoyable are her short stories and the Winner of the Whitbread Award her novel The Accidental. She rejoices in steam of consciousness, which is no less apparent in her latest novel Autumn. The first instalment in a seasonal quarter of novels, which will be separate but connected to explore how we experience time. Smith abandons conventional forms and rejects gender stereotypes and conventional ideas of sexuality. I found her poetic tones did jar at times in her more recent novel, however, it was a linguistic marvel. Winter is coming, and I can’t wait to see what it has to offer.

See her at the Festival on 20th August at 5pm.

Alasdair Gray

‘The best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott’. Anthony Burgess

Perhaps overanalysed, Lanark: A Life in Four Books has wormed its way into the Scottish canon playfully blending genres to fuse the real with dystopian surrealist sketches of Glasgow. Every first year literature student had mis-quothed Barthes’ death of the author (who argues that the author is a construct and we should focus on the text), but it’s apparent that Gray fights against this interpretation with every fibre of his being by drawing attention to the novel’s fictionality.

'I want Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another.' Alasdair Gray

His novels (and even the four parts of Lanark) can be read individually, but they can also be thought of as a body of work which Gray obviously intrudes upon through his metafictional manipulation of literary forms. Rather than Barthes, Gray lends himself to Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’ and Wayne Booth’s implied author (The Rhetoric of Fiction). In these theories, the omnipresent author isn’t always a factor, and such is the case with Gray’s body of work.

You may not be able to catch him at the festival, but you can see his interviews on YouTube and the BBC.

Irvine Welsh

If your eyes are feeling slightly drained after the glare of beach reading, then you should relish the opportunity to see Welsh’s premiere of his new play at the Fringe. In his novels, Welsh (like Kelman) rejects the aforementioned narrative hierarchies by allowing his characters’ speech and perspectives to shine through. In Bakhtin’s terms: ‘authoritative discourse permits no play with the context framing it, no play with its borders, no gradual and flexible transitions, no spontaneously creative stylizing variants on it’ (1981, 78). Under these terms, Welsh provides a ‘polyphonic heteroglossia’ of assorted voices to allow multiple meanings, exposing political and class dynamics. I wouldn’t expect anything less from his new play and cannae wait to see it!

Catch The Performers at The Assembly Rooms from 3-27th August: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/performers

Alan Warner

'It's the most f*****g unbelievable country.' Alan Warner

Okay, so clearly not all leading ladies are Eliza Bennetts, and never has this been more apparent than in the painfully visceral Morvern Callar. This is one of the most surprising novels I’ve ever read. Alongside Welsh’s Trainspotting, Morvern Callar is considered as part of the ‘repetitive beat generation’ as popular music is an integral feature. From escaping post-industrial Scotland to the rave clubs of the Spanish Med to car stereos music. Definitely not easy beach reading, but one to reserve on the bookshelf for that right frame of mind.

A.L. Kennedy

Can we call her AL? Her writing is emotionally demanding and linguistically astonishing. With the rise of strong voices like Janice Galloway and A.L. Kennedy, it silenced the viewpoint that Scottish writing in the late twentieth century was an exclusively male arena. They articulate Scotland in their own way while seeming genderless. Kennedy is a master of blending fantasy and realism. A stand-up comedian, you may even catch her at the bijou Stand Comedy Club.

Catch her on 24th August at 11.45am

Anne Donovan

Cast in the shadow of Irvine Welsh, many Scottish authors (or rather female Scottish authors) are known as Rention’s bairns. In Buddha Da, Donovan shows an individual struggling with the knowledge that his own culture doesn’t fit him anymore.

‘Ma Da's a nutter . . . He'd dae anthin for a laugh so he wid . . . but that wis daft stuff compared tae whit he's went and done noo. He's turnt intae a Buddhist. At first Ma thought it was anther wanny his jokes.’

Expertly written in dialect, Donovan offers the viewpoint of each family member—whereas Welsh and Kelman share exclusively male perspectives. Her most recent novel Gone Are The Leaves was short-listed for the 2014 Saltire Scottish Literary Book of the Year Award—and we can’t wait for a woman to win this award again, as A. L. Kennedy was the last to win in 2007.

See a recording of a past Ed Fest interview at: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/media-gallery/item/anne-donovan-kirsten-innes-and-allan-radcliffe

James Robertson

Although brought up in Bridge of Allan, Robertson was born in Kent. A jack of all trades, and a master of the novel, short stories, and poetry, Robertson also runs an indie publishing house, Kettillonia, and is a co-founder (with Matthew Fitt and Susan Rennie) and general editor of the Scots language imprint Itchy Coo (produced by Black & White Publishing), which produces books in Scots for children and young people.

At a literary debate in the ‘80s, Robertson took exception to ‘a well-known Scottish novelist’ stating that there isn’t in any politics in Scottish writing. Like Robertson, I have always found that Scottish literature doesn’t need to be a political novel to expose a political agenda. Many have found that Scottish writing since the ‘80s has been a main contributor to Scottish devolution. Definitely start with Land Lay Still.

See him on 17th August at 3.30pm

Honourable mentions

Louise Welsh

Right. Confession. I know Louise Welsh should be on this list but I haven’t read the psychological thriller The Cutting Room but intend to. Welsh has a tranche of literary awards and I can’t wait to see what all the hype is about. Catch her with Heinz Helle on 22nd August at 8.45pm.

Jenni Fagan

As should Jenni Fagan. It feels like she’s been nominated for most of the awards out there and I’m looking forward to reading The Panopticon as soon as I can.

See her on 14th August at 8.30pm

Someone not make the cut? Post your comments below to tell us whom we missed.


Spotlight: ‘Hag-Seed’ by Margaret Atwood

‘Whenever people ask me that inevitable question, “Who’s your favourite author?” I always say “Shakespeare”.’ Margaret Atwood

The fourth novel to be released in Vintage’s Hogarth Shakespeare enterprise, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a mischievous retelling of The Tempest. Capturing Shakespeare’s elusiveness, she breaks from her traditional dystopian narrative to offer an unexpectedly charming play within a novel.

‘I couldn’t write it straight – all the islands are now known; Prospero would have been rescued by helicopter.’ Margaret Atwood

Betrayed/failed artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, Felix (Prospero) has let his inner demons take over and he’s cast aside because of his unwavering obsession with directing the greatest production of The Tempest of all time. He is grieving over the death of his daughter Miranda whose ghost continues to haunt him.

It rankles. It festers. It brews vengefulness.

12 years after he is usurped by his nemesis, his wrath continues to bubble as he gets a job as an acting tutor with Literacy Through Theatre at Burgess Correction Institution. He convinces them to perform his version of The Tempest­—even with the original actress who was cast as Miranda. Felix invites government officials to view the production in a rouse to gain funding—but one of the officials just happens to be the man who deposed him, Tony. Little did they know, the men who were the cause of his ruin are now ensnared in an interactive rendition of the play.

It follows Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), with Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to still be released. Atwood’s novel is a perfect retelling of The Tempest and will be indispensible to teaching those who’ve never read the play—or those who want a page-turner for their summer holidays . . . or better yet you could have a book inspired mani.

July Publishing Round Up

Easyjet Launches ‘Flybraries’ Children’s Book Club

The perfect solution to keeping kids entertained on flights, without fellow passengers having to listen to sociopathic birds killing pigs on ipads—headphones anyone? On the 18th July, saw 7,000 books take flight in 147 Easyjet planes. While children need to leave the books when they land, they can download free samples of other books from the Easyjet Bookclub when they get home!

Read more here.

Men are Now Writing under Female Names

Author of Final Girls, Riley Sager is actually Todd Ritter—and he’s not the first man to hide his gender under a gender-neutral pen name: Emma Blair (Iain Blair), Jessica Blair (Bill Spence), Alison Yorke (Christopher Nicole),  J. P. Delaney (a. k. a. Tony Strong), S. K. Remayne (Sean Thomas), A. J. Finn (Daniel Mallory). According to author of Before I go to Sleep, S. J. Watson (Steve Watson), it was his publisher’s decision to use initials and not include an author pic on the cover. Journalist would email to find out what ‘she’ was like and he was flattered that his character’s voice resonated in the intended key. This clever marketing ploy allows readers to engage directly with the characters through death of the gendered author. However, the Guardian had a slightly different outlook: ‘In a world where authenticity is prized, maybe the last fiction readers want to buy is the one about the author’s identity.’

Read more here.

200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death

It was the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death this month and fans across the world were celebrating her life. We revelled in the memory of Colin Firth’s Darcy post-swim, Clueless one-liners, and when that American book club recently asked her publisher if she could come to a book signing. Now we are overjoyed that we get to have her close to our favourite thing in life: money. As she’s the new face of the £10 note.

Read more here.

Pearson sells 22% stake in Penguin Random House

Betelsmann will now hold 75% of the business, while Pearson retains a 25% stake. With the majority share, Bertelsmann will gain greater governance rights at PRH, and will be able to appoint the group’s chairman. Markus Dohle, PRH’s current chief executive, will continue to lead the company. Highlighting the success of PRH, Bertelsmann’s chief executive, Thomas Rabe noted, ‘Today the group is the clear worldwide number one in book publishing.’ He also highlighted that PRH has been part of Bertelsmann’s identity for over 180 years.

Read more here.

Milo Yiannopoulos sues Simon & Schuster for Breach of Contract

Yiannopoulos claims that Simon & Schuster were in breach of contract when they elected not to publish his controversial memoir Dangerous—amidst the controversy over his notorious (and apparently) misinterpreted YouTube video.  Yiannopoulos self-published his book, which leaped to the top of the charts, however, his lawyers are adamant that it would have sold more copies if supported by the publisher’s brand. On the back of this, authors are now warned not to sign ‘morality’ clauses—this clause gives publishers the right to drop authors who act ‘immorally’.

Read more here.

It’s definitely the month for battling it out in the courts, as Hachette attempt to take legal action against a Cambridge comedy show.

Mr Men for Grown Ups is Almost Here!

We’re not quite sure how this happened, but we’re still falling over in excitement over hearing what Little Miss O. C. D., Little Miss Infidelity, and Mr Spray Tan get up to at the office party. We aren’t sure whether this is going to ruin our childhood, but we know that it’ll cash in on the success of the Ladybird and Blyton books for grown-ups. Available for pre-order now.

Read more here.


Our Ten Favourite Book-Related Moments with ‘Friends’

It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years since the last episode aired. The Friends were all avid readers—after all, the first piece of furniture Chandler and Joey put together in Ross’s new apartment is a bookcase—so here are a few of our favourite booky moments in Friends.

Episode: The One with Rachel's Book

Poor Rachel, if only she’d had a Kindle! You must remember the episode where the duck eats Rachel’s face cream and is sick all over Joey’s bed and the couch, so Joey finds Rachel’s bed a bit too tempting. Only as he snuggles under the covers he meets Zelda and the chimney sweep . . . her father, the vicar, wouldn’t be home for hours. Her loins were burning. She threw caution to the wind and reached and grabbed his . . . Strangely, this is the last episode where the duck is mentioned until the final episode.

Fun fact: The Magna-Doodle in Joey and Rachel's apartment has a drawing of a Claddagh ring.

Our favourite bit is obviously when Rachel calls him on it!

Joey: Hello, Zelda.

Rachel: Who are you supposed to be?

Joey: The vicar!

Rachel: Do you even know what a vicar is?

Joey: Like a goalie, right?

Rachel: (sarcastically) Yeah. Look Joey, it’s enough alright?! You keep making these stupid jokes and these sleazy innuendoes and it’s—I’m not—it’s just not funny anymore!

Joey: All right, I’m sorry. Rach I—Rach I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry! Maybe I can make up for it by, taking you roughly in the barn. (Giggles.)

Rachel: All right! Y’know what? That’s it! You wanna do it?! Let’s do it!

Joey: Huh?

Rachel: (starting to move closer to him) That’s right, I wanna do it with you! I’ve been trying to fight it, but you just said all the right things.

Joey: (nervously backing away) I-I-I-I did? (He puts a stool in front of her.)

Rachel: (moves the stool out of the way) Yeah! Oh, I’ve been waiting so long to get on that body!

Joey: This body? (He backs into the kitchen.)

Rachel: Yeah that’s right! Come on Joey; sex me up!

Joey: Hey-hey, you’re starting to sound like the butcher’s wife there in-in chapter seven.

Rachel: Oh, come on now, don’t keep me waiting. Get those clothes off! But, I would keep that helmet on because you’re in for a rough ride! (He backs into the door.)

Joey: I don’t want to, I’m scared.


Episode: The One Where Chandler Can’t Cry


So what? Chandler can’t cry and tries to read Chicken Soup for the Soul—did anyone else notice that he cries more than Ross and Joey in earlier episodes? Anyway, our real favourite part about this episode has to be that Phoebe is a porn star! Or rather her sister Ursula uses her name in cult classics, such as Buffay: The Vampire Layer: ‘Ah, I thought I’d find you here, Nasforatool.’  It also features an amazing cameo from Reese Witherspoon. 

Blooper: When Chandler throws his copy of the aforementioned book under the sofa and it goes across the floor to Monica's feet, she kneels down to pick it up by the counter next to the door, but when she rises, she's next to a chair that's under the table.

Episode: The One Where Eddie Won't Go


Rachel: How do you expect me to grow if you won't let me blow?

Ross: You - You know I don't ha - have a problem with that.

In this episode, it all got a little much for the girls as they were brainwashed by Be Your Own Windkeeper. The ‘wind goddesses’ they refer to are supposed to be a parody of mystical self-help books like Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women who Run with the Wolves. More importantly, despite being a good part into the second season, this is the second that Gunther has lines.

Blooper: Rachel says that Phoebe slept with Jason Hurley one hour after they broke up. Monica seems surprised by this even though she already found out that Phoebe slept with him right after he and Monica broke up in 'The One with George Stephanopalous'.


Episode: The One with the 'Cuffs


In the days where print Encyclopedias were still a thing—only joking!

Joey finds he can only afford the volume ‘V’. Did anyone notice that Penn Jillette (who plays the salesman) has his left hand ring finger painted red throughout the episode?

Fun fact: the exterior of Monica's parent's home is the same one used for the home of Tony Sopranos' mother in The Sopranos.


Episode: The One with the Butt


Despite his doctorate, Ross wasn't quite bright enough to see what everyone else could when the gang checked out this optical illusion book: Magic Eye 3D. Our favourite bit about the episode is obviously all the references to Joey’s butt, although we all see Joey’s baggy trunks when he’s supposed to be naked in the shower. Also, the Al Pacino film closest to the timeline that Joey could be bottom doubling for is Two Bits in which Al Pacino plays a senile old man.


Episode: The One After the Superbowl

While Phoebe plays her guitar for a group of school kids, Chandler reconnects with the childhood classic The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piperbut when Pheebs is about to play guitar (in front of love interest Chris Isaak).

Fun fact: Joey’s crazy, hot stalker Brooke Shields won the lead in her own sitcom Suddenly Susan based on her performance in this role.


Episode: The One Where Monica and Richard are Just Friends


In no way are these ranked in order, and this is by far the best literary episode. Rachel decides she will read Joey’s favourite book The Shining, if he reads hers, Little Women. But when Joey starts accidentally revealing spoilers, things get pretty nasty. However, when Joey reveals the spoilers the things he refers to don’t actually happen in the book, but are exclusive to the 1980 movie adaptation. Also, Joey mentions that Josephine March has a crush on her friend Laurie—did anyone else remember that she sadly doesn’t?

Note that in this episode, Ross is also seen reading the book Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession.

Bloopers: At the Central Perk while Robert makes a phone call, the coffee cups Phoebe's holding are clearly empty even when she just got them. Also, when Monica goes into her room to find Richard in his tux on the bed, backstage areas are clearly visible through the bedroom door behind Monica. Oops.


Episode: The One with the Dirty Girl

Tragically in love with Joey's girlfriend, Chandler finds her the perfect birthday gift: Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. Although it’s Kathy’s favourite book, there’s no mention that it’s Chandler so it’s odd that Monica rents him the pink bunny costume because of it in season 8.

Fun fact: This was the acting debut of gorgeous Rebecca Romijn who went on to star in Ugly Betty and the X-Men.


Episode: The One with Ross' Sandwich

First off, we all felt awful for Ross in this episode, but the sadness doesn’t last long when we see Rachel and Phoebe at night school in a literature class. In search of a new hobby, Phoebe decides to take up a literature class. Unfortunately, Rachel tags along as a classmate and is more interested in reading Vogue and stealing Phoebe's answers than truly participating. We laugh, but I bet you there will be a book about Jane Eyre as a cyborg soon. There is an Eyre Cyborg Gallery after all.

Blooper: In the scene where Joey has just brought home his date, he jiggles the door handle, which makes Monica and Chandler run off into Chandler's room. Chandler kicks a circle cushion off the mat, but when the camera cuts back, it's on the mat again, and then off the mat again when Rachel walks in. A red cushion also moves.


Episode: The One with the Rumor


Joey helps Rachel prep for pregnancy by reading Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You're Expecting by telling her’ that during pregnancy your fingers swell up to twice their size and never go back.’ Ach, we all know that we’re only casting back to this tenuous link to books so we can include a pic of Brad Pitt!

Bloopers: Towards the end of the episode when Joey comes in wearing the maternity pants, he pulls out the chair from the table twice. Also, when Ross reminisces about his relationship with the elderly librarian in his youth, the mirror behind him changes angles every time the camera cuts between Ross and the rest of the gang.


Episode: ‘The One with the Cake’

After forgetting to buy a present for Emma's first birthday, Joey improvises a touching reading of Love You Forever by Robert Munsch.

Blooper: In the panning shot of Ross and Rachel in Monica's Porsche, Ross is wearing a white shirt and he is wearing a seat belt. In the interior shot, Ross is wearing a black jacket and gray shirt and he doesn't put his seat belt on until after Rachel swerves while she is putting her phone on the back seat.

Thanks for stopping by! Have we forgotten any other moments? Let us know by commenting below.

The Handmaid’s Tale

‘Some books haunt the reader. Others haunt the writer. The Handmaid's Tale has done both.’ Margaret Atwood

Great dystopian literature will never cease to give us goose bumps from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Alderman’s The Power. It’s often hard for adaptations to create the same feeling of uneasiness we had from reading the novels, however, Hulu’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale reflects Atwood’s totalitarian Republic of Gilead and its Christian theonomy with brutal veracity.

4 out of 5 of the directors are women in this chilling adaptation where the 1985 novel is updated with references to Twitter and Craiglist. Atwood helped to modernise the dialogue in transforming to the screen and, according to showrunner Bruce Miller, she asked the scriptwriters to explain the meaning of Ofglen’s use of ‘carpet munchers’. There was consistent back-and-forth with Atwood over the discussion of TV vs. literature—and what is acceptable. In the novel, people with dark skin are consisted as descendants of Ham (Abel’s son in the Bible) and therefore cursed and forced to resettle.

In the face of adversity—a plunging birth rate linked to radiation and other environmental disasters—the fundamentalism of Gilead is able to prevail with its credo to ‘return to traditional values’. In a brutal misreading of Old Testament hierarchies, the fertile women have been stripped of their rights, including being permitted to read (is it ironic that Atwood’s novel has been banned?), and wrangled up like animals to be sexual conduits between husbands and their ‘infertile’ wives. (It’s murmured that the men may be unfertile, but cannot be openly announced.) While Atwood’s commentary borders on hyperbole, critics are comparing it more and more to Trump’s America, or even to the ideals of the BNP who form our coalition government.

The fertile women are known as ‘the handmaids’ and the novel’s title plays on the parts of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. We are shown the world mostly through the perspective of Offred (literally Of Fred), played by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men, and shown flashbacks to her previous life: before, during, and after the coup. The actresses have said that the white hats they wear outside act like blinders put on horses, completely obscuring their peripheral vision. Unless they look directly at one another, they are unable to see.

My name is Offred. I had another name, but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.’

It can often be a hard pill to swallow that Fred, ‘The Commander’, is played by the gorgeous Joseph Fiennes! (In the novel he's described as being wrinkled with grey hair.) There are glimpses where the handmaids show small triumphs when they pull away to rebel (although they’ll be punished by eye gouging, sexual mutilation, or death), or when they bond as a pack. Offred says her real name is June, but we’re unsure if this is a pseudonym due to its connotations with Mayday (the underground anti-establishmentarian society). Atwood also notes that she never intended her to be called June, but ‘readers are welcome to it if they wish’. The only thing giving Offred strength through her brutal subjugation is her need to survive for her daughter.

Dialogue is abrupt and confined to cult-like one-liners: ‘blessed be the fruit’; ‘May the Lord open’. Moss is spellbinding. Even cinematic angles sharply focusing on her face make viewers on edge. There are subtle jokes cruelly thrown in for good measure: the handmaids (Offed and her shopping partner, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel of Gilmore Girls)) take a relaxing detour along the river to admire the scenery, but this is where we feel the claustrophobia of blood stains walls where ‘they’ are hanging a ‘gender traitor’ alongside a priest and a doctor. Speaking of what happens to 'gender traitors':

It's hardly comic relief that the show is peppered with spots of black humour. During an illicit game of Scrabble between Offred and the Commander, one of the words used is ‘zygote’—an egg that has been fertilized by sperm. In episode one, the Commander’s Martha (female housekeepers) observes that ‘The Commander likes his eggs lately – make sure they’re fresh’. Ahem.

Aunt Lydia: ‘When I blow the whistle, what you do is up to you.’

The ending of the first episode further shows the reduction of the handmaids to animals as they massacre a convicted ‘rapist’. (Again, poignant as one wonders what Gilead’s interpretation of rape is.) Speaking of episode one, did anyone see Atwood make a cameo as the Aunt who slaps Offred when she doesn’t want to join the group shaming circle?

The music is stark and well-chosen akin to Offred often singing songs in her head in the novel. Funnily enough the final track of the first episode is women power anthem You Don’t Own Me by Lesley Gore.

We don't want to give too many plot spoilers, but the recent adaptation is spectacular. You need to watch it. But don’t do what I did and binge watch six episodes. Also, don’t expect there only to be one season. I made the mistake of thinking everything would be bright and shiny at the end of episode ten.

Publishing Round Up: June

We can’t believe June’s over already? If you feel like it was lost in a haze of equal measures of hot and dreich weather, here’s the run down of what you missed.

Naomi Alderman wins 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

The amazingly visceral dystopian novel, The Power won the Baileys Women’s Prize, and we’re not surprised. Part of us is excited to see the unavoidable adaptation; the other part is TERRIFIED!

Hear our thoughts on the shortlist here: https://thesyp.org.uk/and-the-winner-is-hachis-guide-to-the-baileys-prize/

UK Premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale

Dystopia is clearly the June buzzword (although 'Trump' was the OED children’s word). Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale had its UK premiere on Sunday 28th May and we didn’t sleep for a week! Never has this dystopian nightmare been more topical as the DUP has advised Theresa May to watch it instead of reading their White Papers.

Emma Watson is even hiding copies in Paris.

Catch up on Channel 4!

20th Anniversary of Harry Potter

Speaking of Ms Watson, you definitely were under a rock if you missed the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter. Our Harry Potter and the Murder Mystery event at the Red Lion was a great success!

Grenfell Tower auction

It was touching to see that many authors banded together to support the victims of the fire at Grenfell Tower. Philip Pullmann has raised £30,000 in his character name auction. His new book will feature a character named after a teenager feared dead in the Greenfell Tower fire.

Love Audio Campagin

An industry-wide #LoveAudio campaign launched on 19th June running until 25th June. Lots of high profile authors were involved and showed the impressive growth in audiobooks.

The Emerald Street Literary Festival

The social event of the season, this event saw literary glitterati Kate Mosse and Naomi Alderman, amongst others.

Copyright after Brexit

Ros Lynch, Director of Copyright and IP Enforcement at the Intellectual Property Office, has said that the UK government is continuing to actively engage in discussions around the Digital Single Market to ensure that any amendments do not damage the creative industries in the UK. Watch this space!

Links to equally exciting news:

Historian, Rebecca Rideal pulls out of Chalke Valley festival over lack of diversity.

Paddington Bear creator Michael Bond died.

Research shows children’s love of reading is at an all-time high.

Bath University Launches 25 word novel prize. Winning entries to be read by Jeremy Irons.

A Horse Walks into a Bar wins the Man Booker Prize.

Lauren Child was named the new children’s laureate.

Spotlight: ‘Men Without Women’ by Haruki Murakami

‘You are a pastel-coloured Persian carpet, and loneliness is a Bourdeaux wine stain that won’t come out.’

I was in a bookstore a couple of days ago and a woman bogarting the Jeanette Winterson section told her friend, ‘I don't like short stories; it makes me feel like I haven't eaten properly.’ I won't deny that I much prefer Haruki Murakami's novels to his show of shorts, but Murakami’s first collection of short stories in over a decade delivers yet again.

Men Without Women is another melancholy collection mixing between magical realism and the everyday. Five of the seven short stories had already been published—‘An Independent Organ’ and ‘Men Without Women’ are the only originals. He continues his go-to first person narrative, in the tradition of the Japanese ‘I Novel’, teasing readers into craving another story from a dowdy housewife Sherazade; offering a taste of his expert magical realism in Kino; and twisting perceptions in Samsa in Love by offering an inversion of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

It’s often thought that Murakami’s short and snappy sentences coupled with his exaggerated metaphors and similes make him the most easily translatable Japanese author (Strecher, 2002), nonetheless the two translators, Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, make it look effortless and it's hard to spot the difference in intonation or rhythm. Could you imagine being flattened ‘like a sand castle under an exuberant Labrador retriever’?

Perhaps part of the reason he’s so transferable is that the stories are saturated with non-Japanese cultural influences, particularly with relation to Western music and literature—yet again he names his stories after Beatles’ songs. In Drive My Car, Veteran actor, Kafuku is no longer able to drive his car due to an unfortunate incident involving some booze and an immovable obstacle. He has some interesting observations about women drivers—so much so that it made me question if I am one of the brusque ones that thinks she’s a good driver. Kafuku is currently rehearsing for Uncle Vanya—although it may as well have been Swan Song—and hires an unobtrusive female chauffer. When she asks him why he doesn’t have any friends, it becomes a discussion about his wife’s infidelities and how after her death he befriended one of her ex-lovers. Obsessive and wonderfully vulnerable, Drive My Car offers a look into a kaleidoscope of humour and despondency: ‘his heart was torn and his insides were bleeding.’

Yesterday is the second Beatle’s song of the novel, and not the only time that lyrics and stories will be rewritten by the characters. Tanimura’s friend, Kitaru, feels he is unworthy of his long-term girlfriend, Erica, and tries to set her up with Tanumura. As with many characters in Murakami’s novels, Kitaru can only connect with her through an intermediary and needs to satisfy his curiosity vicariously. He reasons: ‘I figure, if she’s gonna go out with other guys, it’s better if it’s you. ’Cause I know you. And you can gimme, like, updates and stuff.’

An Independent Organ brings us back into the allegorical world of Murakami where essentially Dr Tokai is going through an existential crisis. Heart surgeon, Tokai has a string of affairs, and eventually falls in love with one of his women. He becomes completely overwhelmed and when she takes his money to leave him for a younger man, he stops eating and becomes a shell of himself, literally dying of a broken heart: “Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie . . . ”

It wasn’t until reading Scheherazade that I realised that the unifying theme isn’t specifically ‘men without women’, as I thought it would be similar to Hemingway’s homonymous work (1927). The collection does look at loners haunted by the women who have touched their lives, but it centres on loss and sexuality (often through infidelity), similar to most of his works:

‘Murakami poetically condenses many aspects of post-traumatic experience: first, strangeness—the loss of the familiar; second, the past intruding into the present . . . ; and third, most importantly, the sense of randomness which follows in the wake of traumatic events, which wipe out our need sense of predictability and order’. (Thomas Rosbrow)

Central characters in the collection seek to understand themselves in relation to others—even if through a proxy. As Kafuku said in Drive My Car, ‘I don’t think we can ever understand all that a woman is thinking.’ Kafuku hungers to know why his wife needed to have affairs when they were happy in their marriage; Kitaru needs to know what it’s like to have sexual intercourse with his girlfriend through a proxy; and Habara needs to hear the end of Scheherazade’s story. The woman he dubs ‘Scheherazade’ is Habara’s housemaid. Murakami tantalizes readers, by not divulging why Habara is locked in his tower with only routine visits from his housekeeper for company. But better yet, he allows us to feel the panic of ‘Scheherazade’ sneaking into the house of a schoolboy (she’s infatuated with). She cuts the story short and as with many of Murakami’s short stories the reader is abruptly left with several answered questions. Read Scheherazade here.

Kino is haunting and Murakami’s magical realism is at its best—so much so that I wanted to hide under the covers like the eponymous hero. Bar-owner, Kino is being threatened when a mysterious customer, Kamita, saves the day. The story is punctuated with perfectly formed, but enigmatic lines, ‘No matter how empty it may be, this is still my heart.’ We are shown more of Murakami’s trademark focus on sexuality, ‘There were scars on her breasts, and beside her vagina’. Read in full at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/kino

In Samsa in Love, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa is transformed from insect into man and tries to find his feet in an alien world. A perfect transposition of Metamorphosis offering glimpses at the dystopian world outside. The most visceral of the bunch: Samsa thought his ‘starving belly would consume his own flesh and he would cease to exist.’ He grapples with his new found sexuality when he meets a hunchbacked girl who ‘twisted her body all over much the way the earth twists during a violent earthquake.’ Definitely the most optimistic of the collection, as it’s filled with possibilities: ‘The world was waiting for him to learn.’  Read more at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/10/28/samsa-in-love

Men Without Women we meet a man who abruptly receives a call that his ex-lover has committed suicide, which seems to be a recurring episode: ‘This woman was the third woman I’d gone out with who’d killed herself.’ Amidst his poignant reflections, the narrator tries to rewrite his story. Read an extract at: http://www.harukimurakami.com/book/men-without-women

In this charming new collection from Murakami, the women always move out of the line-of-sight and leave the men left questioning their own existence . . . or fading away to nothingness. Definitely recommend if you’re a fan of any of Murakami’s fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, or Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen.

Before They Were Famous!

Can you tell these literary aficionados from their childhood pics? Let us know if you think fame has made them even more quaffed, or if they’re a shadow of their former selves.


  1. I am the inventor of LongPen who has taught at the University of British Columbia. A frequent visitor to Oxford, I delivered the Clarendon Lectures in 1991. It took a publisher two years to consider my first manuscript. I also enjoy a good bit of cosplay.

2. No one has given us more nightmares, but this world famous author suffers from triskaidekaphobia—fear of the number 13. I own three radio stations in my home state of Maine. I once told fellow author Neil Gaiman, ‘If I had the chance to live my life all over again I wouldn’t change a thing. Apart from appearing in an American Express advert.’

3. When I was 16, I started a magazine called Metro with my mates. I keep bees and used to have a talking cat. My favourite Filipino mythological character is the manananggal. I believe books have genders and my favourite cheese is Wensleydale.

4. My mother didn’t want me to learn how to read, but finally let me go to a finishing school in Paris when I was 15. My first novel was written on a dare and my most famous character is based on a real person. I wrote six romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott. I’m a big fan of surfing.

5. I wrote four collections of poetry under the pseudonym of Clive Hamilton. When I was four, sadly my dog ‘Jacksie’ was run over with a car. After that, I would only respond to ‘Jacksie’—later Jack. I never learned to type and always used pens. I died on the same day as Kennedy’s assassination.

6. I am a comic book fanatic—particularly Marvel! I avoided the Vietnam War draft as a conscientious objector. I worked on numerous TV shows including Beauty and the Beast, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. I own a library tower and an indie cinema in New Mexico. My most famous collection would not exist without chess.


7. I wrote my first story at the age of six and own a Jane Austen first edition. My first marriage felk apart within a year when my Portuguese journalist partner forced me out of my apartment at five in the morning. My father sold a collection of my rare signed first editions in 2003 when I refused to settle his £100K business debt. When I was a secretary, I had a habit of writing my stories at work which led to me being fired. My clinical depression inspired the creation of some of the villains in my novels.


8. I was born in Norwich, but had to move to Australia when my mother remarried. My pilot father died in a plane crash when I was seven. Paradise Lost inspired me to write one of my famous novels. I resigned as patron from a literary festival over lack of pay for authors.

9. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, I changed my name because people found Chloe hard to pronounce. Upon entering the first grade, I was the only child who could read. My college thesis discussed suicides of famous authors. I used to be an editor at Random House and my home caught fire the year I won the Noble Prize.

10. I published my first work at nine and at 12 my IQ was recorded at 160. I worked my way through Smith College even though she had been accepted to Wellesley for free. I worked on a farm doing manual labour and later reflected on this in my work. My novel was rejected by American publishers and was later published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

Let us know how many you got!

  1. Margaret Atwood; 2. Stephen King; 3. Neil Gaiman; 4. Agatha Christie; 5. C. S. Lewis; 6. George R. R. Martin; 7. J. K. Rowling; 8. Philip Pullman; 9. Toni Morrison; 10. Sylvia Plath

The Great Outdoors

Summer is here! So we’d highlight a few good reasons to grab your brolly and factor 30 to head outside.

Twelfth Night at the Globe

When and where: 18 May – 5 August

Why to go: Nothing better than the Globe at sunset and tickets are very reasonable. Great to stroll along the bar strewn Embankment afterwards too!

What to wear: If you opt for the cheaper standing tickets, make sure you take comfy shoes and ditch the clutter from your handbag.

Emerald Street Literary Festival

When & where: 10 June at The Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AR

Why to go: The Festival is turning two and includes amazing authors; the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist will debate about why we love to talk about books; and much more! Tickets to amazing A-list events are still available. Check out the programme now!

What to wear: Crack out the Louboutins we’re off to Kensington.

Oxford Shakespeare Festival

When & where: 19 June – 12 August

The appeal: Fancy watching The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, or Macbeth? Book tickets fast!  

What to wear: Going to a castle in Oxford? Best opt for coat and tails!

A Tale of Two Cities at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

When & where: 7 July-5 August at Regent’s Park

The appeal: Nestled amid the splendour of London’s prettiest park, this unique theatre hosts a full programme of plays every summer.

What to wear: It’s a London park in the summer. Pile layers over summer sandals.

Latitude Festival

When & where: 13-16 July in Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk

Why we want to go: Need we say more than a glittering lake and fairy-lit woods? Lots more still to be announced across many stages, including Mumford & Sons, Goldfrapp, Cabaret, Literary & Poetry, Theatre, Pandora's Playground, The Faraway Forest and so much more! Check out the line-up here.

What to wear: They spray paint their sheep, so anything goes.

Port Eliot Festival

When & where: 27-20 July St Germans, Cornwall

The appeal: ‘Like falling from the sky into a magic garden where you will be constantly surprised and delighted’. This year’s literary line-up brings you a glorious mixture of big names and more than its fair share of surprises, including Matt Haig. See the rest of what they have to offer here.

What to wear: According to The Guardian a floral maxi-dress / plaid shirt and an artfully battered straw hat.

The Literary Tent at Wilderness Festival  

When & where: 3-6 August in Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire

Why to go: Who can say no to a bit of trapeze, Hip Hop Karaoke, or Veuve champagne bar? The Wilderness Festival will help you prep your literary taste buds before Edinburgh Fest or escape to chaos that is central Oxford in the summer! There are some great talks lined up already for the Literary Tent, including ‘How Not to Write a Novel’! Check out the jam-packed programme here.

Edinburgh Literary Festival

When & where: 12-28 August 2017 at Charlotte Square Gardens

The appeal: Too many reasons not enough time! It’s the Literary Festival of the year. (I may only be saying that because I’m from there.) Programme launches on 13th June.

What to wear: A parka and a scarf while all the Scots go topless.

Oxford Cult Screens

When & where: 23-25 August at a mixture of venues around Oxford, including Pitt Rivers

The appeal: Who doesn’t want a bevy of classic films at an open air cinema? 23: Jurassic Park; 24: Rogue One; 25: Moulin Rouge.

What to wear: Comfy cushions provided, so avoid the cocktail dress and heels and bring jeans and flats.

Festival No. 6

When & where: 7-10 September in Portmerion, Gwynedd

Why to go: Head to the north-west Welsh coast, to visit this festival dotted around numerous venues. Fancy a chance to meet Irvine Welsh or dance in the carnival? See you there! Check out the programme here.

What to wear: Join in the Sgt Pepper themed carnival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles hit.

And the Winner Is: Hachi’s Guide to the Bailey’s Prize

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

A little book which wallops you with hefty imagery, walking you ‘into the throat of the wind’ and taking you home to the toxic relationship with the master of passive aggressiveness who says, ‘Just so you know, I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew.’ Even his baby-talk of ‘my little compost heap’ borders on sociopathic, but however brutal the language, like Neve, you don’t walk away from Edwyn. You listen to Neve dissect and reflect on what’s happened in her life to reveal the present.

30-odd Neve drops readers into past and present with abrupt informality—or rather the timeline can be slightly difficult to follow. Often Edwyn will accuse Neve of ‘reenacting her own family dysfunction’, as cruelty is the only thing she understands resulting in her own viciousness. He’s harping back to her crude and abusive father who literally ate himself to death. We are also shown her tragically brief relationship with her occasional lover, Michael, for further insight into her attraction to toxicity. Her relationship with her mother is the only comic relief, and even then it’s not that funny.

On finishing Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel, part of me was unsure of what appealed to me as I tried to piece together a storyline, even a character arc. Instead I was content in the knowledge that I was confronted with a first-person narrator spouting pithy Haiku-like dialogue while trying to find who she is in the grand scheme of things—without the narcissistic diatribe. Able to set a scene in a few words, Riley is economic with her prose and snaps Neve’s dialogue away from wallowing with injections of humour, ‘Don’t let your mind get colonized . . . don’t act like a baby. Don’t be a cat . . .’

Many critics have touched on the fact Riley is also a 30-something married to an older man, that the dysfunctional family dynamic has been a recurrent theme in her novels, each story is narrated by ‘female writers who aged in step with Riley’, and it isn’t the first time her novels have featured a ‘tyrannical’ father. She responded to one such reviewer, ‘Well, in order to make statements like that you’d need to know the first thing about my life’, so in the spirit that I don’t know much beyond posing cute puppies in pictures let’s stay away from the topic of auto-fiction . . .

Suitable for lovers of A. L. Kennedy’s Indelible Acts, Janice Galloway’s Foreign Parts, or Ali Smith’s Autumn.

Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan

I was led to this novel slightly pessimistic. Another Great American novel? (I haven’t even cracked the spine of most of the others!) The cover, topic, and extent were slightly unappealing until I realized this book is as much about horse racing as To Kill a Mockingbird is about aviculture. Through dense, complex language, Morgan indulgently crosses the centuries to unveil the history of Kentucky through stories of race and horse racing. Spanning from the Revolutionary War through 2006, we focus on Henry Forge, his daughter Henrietta Forge, and one of Henrietta’s lovers Allmon Shaughnessy. There is no nutshell. The multifaceted plot would take a good 2,000 words and plenty of plot spoilers.

It’s hard to believe this was Morgan’s second novel, as she expertly weaves the story using a mixture of literary devices blending first, second, and third-person narratives with several narrative forms—sermons, dialogue, stage plays, flashbacks, etc. Unapologetically in-your-face, the language is suggestive and slightly ostentatious: ‘viburnum in the yards, pungent as an ovulating woman, pink labial pistils, the leaf bottom shaped like a heart’. The only real qualm is that it does feel that the characters’ fates are slightly contrived.

Although the novel ends before Obama becomes president, it shows that the outcome of the forthcoming election does not mean the end of centuries of oppression. The ambitious novel has received some criticism for its portrayal of racial divides by a white writer. However, Morgan candidly noted that one should ‘approach [race] apologetically, even deferentially, without agency, power, and passion that define mature artistry’.

Drawing on references from literary legends—notably Fitzgerald and Twain—Morgan should be applauded for this beast of a novel. You should read if you like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

‘In China you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you.’ Madeleine Thien

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Thien’s heart-rending third novel crosses seven decades of history. Beginning in Vancouver in 1991, we meet ten-year-old Marie (Jiang Li-Ling) and her mother who invite refugee Ai-Ming into their home. Thien hooks readers from her seductive opening line, ‘In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.’

While considering turbulent decades in China’s history from the beginning of Mao Zedong’s reign in 1949 to the present day, the novel is about so much more than politics. Thien masterfully interweaves stories, which focus on four eras: the land reform campaign, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square protests, and ‘the present’. At the core of these tales are the triage Sparrow (composer), Kai (pianist), and Zhuli (violinist) who come together through their passion for classical music during the Cultural Revolution.

Fragmented with forget and Marie’s inability to speak Chinese, we quickly learn from Thien that you learn a lot from what is not said—strikingly so as to be translated into Chinese, Thien will need to cut the third part of the book focusing on Ai-Ming’s involvement in Tiananmen Square. While there are several characters to grapple with, Thien’s effortlessly lyrical writing guides the reader by forming a new narrative through the stories that have passed between generations with linguistic simplicity. The author’s craft is particularly apparent when she discusses the effect that music has on Sparrow: ‘the notes collided into him. They ran up and down his spine, and seemed to dismantle him into a thousand pieces of the whole, where each part was more complete and more alive than his entire self had ever been.’

It shows how prevalent censorship is in our time and makes one question the significance of Sparrow’s unfinished symphony. Is this about censorship and what is not said, or does the novel hint that the story will never really be completed? The world (or rather China’s) history cannot be understood in absolute terms. History is not always linear or transparent, and does not have a fixed end point. Instead, as Marie discovers, ‘It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realize that the days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to the shifting centre.’

This book is for you if you liked We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, or The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. In fact, read it regardless, it’s a beautiful story! Want a little taste before you commit?

Read the first chapter in full at: https://granta.com/do-not-say-extract/


Dark Circle by Linda Grant 

WW2 is over in theory, but not in essentials. Food remains rationed and London is grimier than ever. It’s 1949, 18-year-old twins Lenny and Miriam Lynskey both have TB and have been taken to a modernist sanatorium. The venue is deliciously appealing. The NHS has emerged with the promise of free treatment and regular meals regardless of social status.

Previously an Orange Prize winner, it’s no surprise that Linda Grant’s hypnotic novel was a longlist contender. The Jewish Lynskey’s claustrophobic confinement pulls the reader in, as the sanatorium begins to have the eerie feel of a concentration camp: ‘the solid world of London dissolving on them [. . .] Everyone looked . . . half-dead, skeletons in pyjamas and slippers’. (Religion doesn’t feature prominently.) While rich in metaphor, the language can also be bitingly simplistic: ‘everything is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on the street was laughing so the jokes must be short too.’

There is a strong cast of characters: the teens, an aristocratic woman, a car salesman, a German lady, a uni graduate, officers, a lairy American, and a nurse. However, they avoid confrontation ‘keeping a low profile’ while falling ‘into lassitude and boredom’. Although the twins clearly have a bond, the lack of connection can make the story slightly stilted at points. Instead, Grant sweeps the reader up to show the palpable fear of TB at the time. Several critics have questioned whether this timely novel allows us to reflect on the state of healthcare today by looking at the emergence of the NHS.

While Grant won the award previously, this novel didn’t allow for the same level of reflection as the rest of the shortlist. Not that this isn’t a compelling read—quite the opposite. This is purely subjective and it could be that the genre didn’t appeal to my particular tastes—I watch Gilmore Girls reruns religiously people! But I think the aftershock of the other novels will make this a beautifully crafted runner up, and even though she doesn’t need more kudos I’m in two minds as to whether Atwood’s Hagseed should have been stricken from the shortlist.

You should read if you liked The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant or All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. In fact, Doerr’s novel will make you cry like a baby; Grant’s won’t.

Read the first chapter at: http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/The-Dark-Circle-Linda-Grant-Little-Brown.pdf

The Power by Naomi Alderman 

‘It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.’

A story framed within a story, Alderman’s The Power is intoxicatingly visceral. I approached this novel with an embarrassingly prejudice mindset, thinking how trite for a YA novel to be about harnessing the power within. I considered quotations from popular novels like Divergent, ‘Becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it.’ But it’s hideously understated to say this novel is about coming-of-age changing bodies. Instead, teenage girls begin to acquire supernatural abilities, making them unstoppable forces causing revolutions and palpable fear across the world.

Alderman allows readers to feel the transformation like an incision, ‘[She] feels the thing like pins and needles along her arm. Like needle-pricks of light from her spine to her collarbone, from her throat to her elbows, wrists, to the pads of her fingers. She’s glittering, inside.’ (Not the Twilight kind of glittering!) Each chapter alternates between four main characters Roxy, Tunde, Allie, and Margot. While in third-person narrative, it doesn’t mute the voices as each character is articulated with skillful precision.

The pace runs at a gallop. The novel will make you feel dominated, paralyzed, and painfully out-of-control. Roles are reversed as boys are warmed ‘not to stray too far’, made to lick glass off of the ground, or viciously raped and murdered. Call it speculative/dystopian/sci-fi, the novel is for readers of Atwood or Gaiman alike. Alderman has crafted a tinglingly vivid world. 200 pages in, I thought she was the clear winner, but the writing became uncomfortably invasive and in the end the judges will have a difficult decision.

Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

‘But the biggest lies are often the ones we tell ourselves.’

The tagline should read, ‘Just when you didn’t think it could get any worse it does!’ Offering a window into Nigerian culture, at the heart of the story is Yejide relationship with Akin and their inability to conceive after four years of marriage. The narrative subtly flits between the two characters perspectives. The heartache is delicately understated, but produces a numbing effect.

Yejide longs for a miracle—a child—and despite running a successfully business, she is chastised by those around her for not being able to fulfil this ‘most basic’ of wifely duties. Instead, she encouraged to conceive by the arranged marriage of a second wife for Akin. An entirely different world, we are confronted by superstition, bigamy, and nauseating family pacts. Yejide is so desperate to give birth she even breastfeeds a goat, ‘the goat appeared to be a newborn and I believed’, leading to a two-year phantom pregnancy. The story is peppered with the political chaos in Ilesa, Osun, in the 1980s, but Yejide and Akin’s relationship (and living nightmares) are at the forefront showing that life and love is seldom simple, ‘even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love’. The fragility of their relationship and conflicted feelings are expertly exposed, ‘“Hold it. Just hold it there. Please don't sweetie me again this morning.” But I did want him to call me sweetie again, only me and no one else. I wanted him to reach across the table, hold my hand and tell me we would be all right.’

The women exhibit strength in the novel, and while praised by their Moomis (mothers) the men make shockingly flawed choices. While in hospital with her son Sesan, Yejide notes: ‘His hand gripped mine with pain-induced strength that crushed my knuckles together. I welcomed the pain in my hand, aware that it was only a tip of what he was feeling. I hoped that by holding me, he could transfuse his agony into my body and be free from it.’ With every death of her child, Yejide accepts the cards fate has dealt her, and at times the bleak plot felt contrived. It would have also been useful to see Akin and Yejide’s earlier life together at university, as well as what happened in the fifteen year gap towards the end of the novel.

I loved this novel. It was breathtaking and I struggle choosing between The Power and Stay With Me. Well, luckily I’m not a judge and don’t have to choose, but I do wonder if Alderman’s ability to push me out of my comfort zone clinched the deal.

Read Stay With Me, you’ll enjoy it, particularly if you’re a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.

Thanks for listening! That was exhausting!

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