Books: Northern Ireland through fiction

Last Thursday, from my safe Tory seat in rural Wiltshire, I voted with hope for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. What the country got instead was Theresa May so desperate to cling on to power that she is trying to get into bed with Northern Ireland’s DUP. When I saw that my old homeland had returned MPs only from the two extremes of the sectarian divide my heart wept a little. That one of these parties should now have the means to influence UK decision making is a serious worry. The peace, such as it is, remains fragile and to help broker disputes Westminster is required to remain impartial.

Recent events in Manchester and London have triggered talk of a fear of terrorists amongst my English acquaintances. I remember how it was to grow up in The Troubles, with terrorist incidents an almost everyday occurrence. The British army wielded their guns on the streets of Belfast with intent. They drove around in their armoured vehicles as a warning and a threat. The local police routinely carried guns and had the power to hold suspects without explanation. Of course, the illegal organisations were well armed as well. They killed and they maimed with their bombs and their shootings, and when they took their fight to the mainland were paid attention.

In the past week that attention has returned. Questions are being asked about why Northern Ireland’s residents cannot vote for the same political parties as the rest of the UK. Questions are being asked about why they are not afforded the same choices and rights.

Much has changed since peace was agreed but religious inspired intolerance remains. There is the opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. There is also insistence on provocative marching that incites violence every year. Just as homes were set alight to drive out Catholics or Protestants back in the day, attacks are now aimed at immigrants. Although integration has improved there is still religious segregation in many areas, of housing and schools. It may no longer be necessary to subject shoppers to bag checks and body frisking before allowing access to the city centre but a few simple questions about background will still quickly reveal upbringing. Walls of all kinds remain.

Shankill Road peace wall

Fiction is a fine way to better understand cultural difference. For those interested, the following books offer windows into the lives of those living in the province. They are also excellent reads.

Children’s Children by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)
Vinny’s Wilderness by Janet Shepperson (Liberties Press)
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber and Faber)
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt Publishing)
Eden Burning by Deirdre Quiery (Urbane Publications)
Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (The Emma Press)

I have heard that The Glass Shore (New Island Books), which is a short story anthology by various Northern Irish women writers (edited by Sinéad Gleeson), is also excellent. I cannot verify how strong its sense of place is as I have yet to source a copy to review.

For all the negative attitudes being highlighted by the past week’s politics, Northern Ireland remains an attractive place to visit. Warm welcomes are the norm for those who are passing through and recent development has provided much to see and enjoy. It would be a tragedy if Theresa May’s legacy was to break the hard fought for peace that has enabled such progress. As on the mainland, movement should be forward towards tolerance and inclusivity. Adherance to any religious lifestyle should be a personal choice.

 

Choosing a favourite from The Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist

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Today I will be travelling up to London to attend the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Winners’ Event. My thanks to Neil Griffiths for my invitation. Regular readers may have noticed that I have been running a feature on this prize for the past few weeks. I introduced this here: Reading the Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist. If you click on the covers below you may now read my reviews of each shortlisted book.

martinjohn   born-on-a-tuesday

finefrontsmall   lightbox

counternarratives   treats

forbidden-line   solar-bones-cover

How does one choose a favourite from such a stellar line-up?

This question led me to contemplate a more controversial one – what makes a book good?

A well known, much coveted literary prize has been criticised for being too high brow at times yet this is exactly what certain readers, some of whom admire their own good taste in literature, wish more of the popular books could be. Some decry the number of ‘genre’ titles being published each year despite these enjoying sustained high sales. The book buying public does not always conform to a standard the self professed literary elite consider desirable.

Of course, I understand that readers buy books brought to their attention, which is more likely to happen if a generous publicity budget is allocated, a cost the smaller presses would struggle to cover. Personally I choose not to read many of the most popular genres of books as I do not enjoy them, but those who do help to subsidise the market for everyone else. Bookshops need to shift volumes of these bestsellers if they are to afford the shelf space for more radical works.

To return to this prize, which aimed to draw attention to small, independent publishers producing brilliant and brave literary fiction, the shortlist was a pleasure to peruse. I have read many innovative, challenging, entertaining and all round excellent books from independents over the years – they are well worth seeking out. There are lots of small presses and, between them, they offer a wide variety of works. Some even publish ‘genre’ books.

I have no wish to criticise anyone’s choice of reading matter, although I will always encourage everyone to read more books. What I will also do is to shout loudly about those titles I consider worth reading, which includes several being considered here.

The benefit of literary prizes is that they generate discussion. Word is spread by more people of books they have enjoyed. For each individual reader, perhaps this is what makes a book good.

So, how did I choose my favourite?

Each of the above books is technically well written – the construction and use of language impressed. There was originality, a challenge to thinking and a compelling story to tell. Where I found differentiation was in entertainment and engagement. Not all succeeded in holding my attention to every word on every page.

In the end I carefully mulled between two novels – Martin John and Solar Bones, and two short story collections – Light Box and Treats. From here I chose based on the story that lingered.

I am not on the judging panel, which is perhaps just as well, but if I were asked to nominate a winner from this excellent shortlist it would be Solar Bones. We shall see if any agree with me this evening. Whoever wins, I can see how each would deserve the accolade.

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Reading the Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist

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In mid January I wrote of my plans to read the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist (you may read my post here). Between now and the announcement of the prize winner on 9th March I will be posting my thoughts on each book along with guest posts from those of their publishers who chose to take part in this feature. I am grateful to all who found the time to provide me with content.

I had previously read two of the books from the prize longlist which did not make it onto the shortlist. I have since read one other. If you click on a title below the photograph you may read my reviews.

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I had also previously read one of the shortlisted books:

Given the quality of the writing in all of these books I was eager to tackle the remaining shortlist and have not been disappointed. All credit to the prize judges for curating such an impressive selection.

On Friday I will post the first of my remaining reviews – Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). This has already won the Goldsmith Prize and the Irish Book Award Novel of the Year. It was the only other book from the Republic of Consciousness Prize long and short lists that I already had on my TBR pile. All other shortlisted books have been generously provided by the publishers for this feature – a big thank you to them.

Next week I will post my thoughts on: Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine by Diane Williams (CB Editions – who went into semi-retirement just before the shortlist was announced); Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories) which was also shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize and the 2016 Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction; Treats by Lara Williams (Freight Books).

My reviews for the remaining three books on the shortlist – Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (Cassava Republic) which was shortlisted for the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature and longlisted for the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature, Counter Narratives by John Keene (Fitzcarraldo Editions), and Light Box by KJ Orr (Daunt Books) – will follow along with the promised publisher guest posts.

Naturally I am not the only person reading these books. I recommend you check out the reviews being posted by the contemporary small press – A site for small presses, writers, poets & readers as they are excellent.

As a footnote to this introduction I will add one other thing that this exercise has taught me – how to spell consciousness. I have been hashtagging it on Twitter incorrectly for over a month. If you spot me doing this sort of thing again? Please let me know.

Reading the Galley Beggar Press backlist

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Today I should have been travelling to London to attend a book launch and party for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge, the latest offering from Galley Beggar Press and currently on the shortlist for the Republic of Conciousness Prize. Due to engineering works I had to pull out as my planned train home will not be running. This is disappointing, especially as I have been preparing for the event for some time. My preparation involved reading so actually no great hardship there.

For Christmas in 2015 I was gifted a Galley Buddy subscription along with copies of every full length paperback I did not already own from the publisher’s backlist. When no bookish shaped gifts appeared in my stocking last year it was pointed out by my not-a-reader husband that I had not yet read all of the previous year’s much wanted titles. When I was invited to this party I decided to pick up my neglected books. Galley Beggar Press publish ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’, just the sort of stories I enjoy. There will be no Gig Review this weekend as I had planned, but you may now read my reviews of all the books by clicking on the covers below.

forbidden-line   Adam-Biles--Feeding-Time

Alex-Pheby--Playthings   Anthony-Trevelyan--The-Weightless-World

wroteforluck    francisplug

randall--paperback   andrew-lovett-everlasting-lane-ebook

eimear-mcbride-a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing-paperback   simon-gough-the-white-goddess-paperback-v2

Should you wish to order any of these please consider doing so direct from Galley Beggar. Even a few extra sales can make a difference to the viability of small presses.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize

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I write regularly of my enthusiasm for books published by the small, independent presses. I am therefore following with interest a new literary prize set up to generate wider awareness of their work.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize was created by novelist Neil Griffiths to celebrate the “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Griffiths, whose novel Betrayal in Naples won the Writers’ Club first novel award and whose Saving Caravaggio was shortlisted for the Costa best novel award, said he decided to found the new prize after realising that works from small presses represented the best fiction he had read in the last year. He explains in more detail here.

Unlike many larger awards, publishers are not charged an entry fee. The prize pot, to be divided between publisher and author, was raised by raffling £10 tickets online which gave donors a chance to win a bundle of books by British and Irish presses. Publishers with a maximum of five full-time paid people working for them may submit one novel or single author collection of short stories per year.

The winner will be chosen based on two criteria, lifted from the Galley Beggar website, ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. These sound like my sort of books.

The Longlist, announced at the end of November 2016, contained the following titles:

  • And Other Stories for Martin John by Anakana Schofield
  • Cassava Republic for Born on A Tuesday by Elnathan John
  • CB Editions for Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
  • Daunt Books for Light Box by KJ Orr
  • Dodo Ink for Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen
  • EROS for Crude by Sally O’Reilly
  • Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene
  • Istros for Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić
  • Freight for Treats by Lara Williams
  • Galley Beggar for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge
  • Holland House for The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong
  • New Island for Beautiful Pictures of a Lost Homeland by Mia Gallagher
  • Peepal Tree Press for The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas
  • Peirene Press for The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift
  • Tangerine Press for The Glue Ponys by Chris Wilson
  • Tramp Press for Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Yesterday evening, at an event held in Waterstones, Piccadilly, this was whittled down to the following shortlist, decided by a small group of independent booksellers, chaired by Neil Griffiths:

  • And Other Stories for Martin John by Anakana Schofield
  • Cassava Republic for Born on A Tuesday by Elnathan John
  • CB Editions for Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
  • Daunt Books for Light Box by KJ Orr
  • Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene
  • Freight for Treats by Lara Williams
  • Galley Beggar for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge
  • Tramp Press for Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The winner will be announced in March and, if I can get hold of the first six of these books (the final two I already own) I will be reading along with the judges. Anybody care to join me?

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My Books of 2016

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First off may I express my gratitude to those who support my endeavours to spread the book love. Thank you to the publishers who provide me with the majority of books I review. Thank you to the wider book community, particularly my fellow bloggers, who so generously and enthusiastically share and retweet my posts. Thank you to my readers – some 30,000 of you this year – I hope that you have enjoyed and found value in my words. Thank you to the authors who enrich our lives with their art.

I write my reviews immediately after finishing each book that I may capture how it made me feel. In selecting this list of favourites from the 170 or so titles that I read and reviewed in 2016 I am choosing based on lingering impressions – the books that stayed in my head. I have not provided summaries here but if you click on the title you may open my review.

It has been a good year for readers, which is perhaps just as well given all that has gone down in the wider world. I felt somewhat ruthless whittling my list down to just these few when there were so many others that I enjoyed. Each of these titles went deeper than simple pleasure, valuable though this is. The writing and stories burrowed inside and have remained.

In no particular order, my fiction Top 11:

Non Fiction:

  • Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari  (Harvill Secker)

And just for fun, what every coffee table needs…

Please remember, should you choose to buy any of their books, it helps the small publishers if you order from them direct.

I wish you all a peaceful and happy 2017 enhanced by much good reading – sláinte.

 

Rounding off the Urbane Book Blast with a Giveaway

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I hope that you have enjoyed reading the reviews, interviews and guest posts from Urbane Publications and their authors over the past couple of weeks. You now have a chance to win one of the books featured, and you may choose which one you would like to receive. If you would like a reminder about my thoughts on each, click on the titles below.

Once you have decided on your choice of book, this is what you have to do to enter the giveaway:

  1. Follow me on Twitter: Jackie Law (@followthehens)
  2. Tweet me the title of the Urbane book you would most like to receive from those reviewed this month (pictured above) using the hashtag #UrbaneBlast
  3. Do this before 8am GMT on Wednesday 21st December 2016, after which I will randomly draw a winner.

The giveaway is open internationally.

Thank you to Matthew at Urbane for providing the prize.

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You may wish to consider joining the Urbane Book Club. For £99.99 you’ll receive a print and ebook edition of every new Urbane title published from the date you join for an entire year – Urbane currently publishes around 5 books a month. You’ll receive a 75% discount on any further purchases of Urbane titles through the Urbane website, including the entire backlist – all with free p&p in the UK. There are other benefits to joining, including opportunities to meet the authors. Check out the details by clicking here.

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