1. The Great Escape, Paul Brickhill
I’m giving it 3 stars for its literary content but it gets 5 stars for the sheer tenacity and ingenuity of the PoWs in the Second World War who made it their mission to escape from various prison camps around Germany and occupied Europe, partly to distract the German leaders from the war effort. From the tunnelers to the forgers to the tailors to the linguists to those at the listening posts and to those men, made famous in the film when they deposit the sand through bags in their trousers, they all deserve medals of the highest honour. I recently had my Short Story readers over for dinner and was shocked that none of them had seen the film. Why not, I cried? The film is a wonderful tale of derring-do. The book is more technical and certainly more sobering. Most of the 70+ men that escaped did not succeed and 50 of those men were randomly executed by the Germans as punishment even though International Law strictly forbids killing escapees. If you’re interested in WW2, in tales of survival and the human spirit to fight on despite the terrible odds, this is a book worth reading. Or, if you’re short on time, watch the film.
1. My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
Loved this short book. You can tell from the offset that the author has knowledge about fostering and adoption services. De Waal demonstrates huge sympathy for her child charges, and even for those who are less deserving of sympathy, namely the parents who mess up their kids. Leon is from a fucked-up family. Dad is gone, mum is an addict and by her own admission not fit to bring up her children. As a result Leon is separated from his baby half-brother and he spends the next year of his life trying to locate him and bring the family together. I won’t spoil the ending for those that have not read it, but his development over that one year is very considered and heartfelt. Maureen, the foster mum, is a legend, as is her bonkers sister.
1. The Many, Wyl Menmuir
Currently short-listed for the Man Booker, this is a short but haunting story set in, we assume, some coastal village in the UK. Timothy turns up at the tight-knit village and takes over the house that used to belong to Perran, who died 10 years ago. It’s a bad move, but it takes him some time to understand the significance of the house and the surrounding sea. And it takes the reader some time to understand why he moved there in the first place. There are some sinister container ships that seem to restrict the movements of the fishermen, and may also contribute to the few deformed fish that still float in these waters. Death and loss are the major themes but the setting is almost a character in itself. Chapeau to Salt Publishing for backing this one.
September was spent reading The Short Story submissions and in a spare moment, I dipped into the final copy of Victoria Hislop’s edited triology of short stories (Life; Love; Loss) written exclusively by women. I’m on Loss right now and I’ll comment on it more when I’ve read the last one. But it’s great, trust me.
1. Friend for Life: The Extraordinary Partnership Between Humans and Dogs. Kate “Ever So” Humble
Okay, it’s a crap title. But it was a birthday present from Katherine, my lovely, lovely friend, and she ASSURED me it was meant to be a good read. And d’you know what, it was…if you’re a dog lover. If you’re not, stop reading now. She doesn’t just tell funny stories about dogs. She’s done a bit of research and she charts what dogs bring to this world. They’re not just faithful companions. They are a damn sight smarter than a lot of humans and we haven’t even begun to tap into their true potential. I mean some dogs can smell cancer. How incredible is that? So, if you’re lucky to have a dog at your feet right now, give him a stroke behind the ears and a cheeky peck on the nose. Roll over, Fido, and turn off the computer while you’re at it.
1. Upshots and Other Stories: the London Short Story Prize 2015
I have to confess to some bias here as one of my own short stories was highly commended in the 2015 competition. For personal reasons I chose not to have the story included in the anthology but I was curious to see what was in this collection. I’d already read James Woolf’s excellent short story with the impossibly long title, R v Sieger – additional documents disclosed by the Crown Prosecution Service, and agreed wholeheartedly with the judges’ award of highly commended. Woolf cleverly weaves letters, emails and other notes to piece together a humorous story of pushy parent and the beleaguered school who has to battle with her ambitions for her son. It was also satisfying to read the conclusion of the winning story, Upshots, by Joanna Campbell. She’d read an excerpt at the award ceremony back in November 2015 but the twist had me reeling.
1. Love, edited by Victoria Hislop
This is the second in a trilogy of short story collections by women, edited by Victoria Hislop. The other two themed books are Life and Loss. It was a gift from my dear friend Marianna. What I particularly like about this collection is that it introduces me to writers I’ve never heard of before like Alison Lurie and Rachel Seiffert as well as stalwarts such as Dorothy Parker, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter. Now I’ve never been a massive fan of Atwood as I don’t really like sci-fi but her story The Man from Mars is excellent. Sad and touching at the same time, but with an underlying criticism of how the West views those from other cultures.
1. Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig
This year, Reasons to Stay Alive was my World Book Night choice. I chose it because I tend to hand out books to homeless people along the river Thames and around my neighbourhood. I hadn’t read it beforehand but I thought it might give a bit of hope to those lives blighted by mental health issues. It is a short, compassionate book about one man’s struggle with both anxiety and depression. There are a lot of lists, something I’m rather fond of myself, and I have to say chapeau to Haig’s girlfriend and later wife for standing by him throughout his darkest moments. I suspect that without her love and support this author who not have survived to write this book.
2. The Madman of Freedom Square, Hassan Blasim
My lovely sister-in-law bought me this book of short stories from Blasim, an Iraqi-born author now living as a refugee in Finland. The stories are utterly harrowing, reflecting the devastating impact on Iraq following the Bush invasion and beyond. The translation is somewhat clunky at times but it suits the backdrop well. Sometimes too smooth a translation takes the edge off the prose but this cannot be said of these stories. Tales of madness, murder and family revenge – not for the fainthearted.
3. The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015
I can’t claim to have read all of the winning stories in this collection because they were lent to me by a friend who rips the books apart to carry less in her handbag (sacrilegious, I know!). So, I only got a taste of the last five stories, but that taste was so sweet that I would like to get hold of the full set. I’m sure my friend has it in pieces in her home. Work by Joan Silber, Thomas Pierce, Elizabeth Strout (who wrote the excellent Olive Kitteridge), Vauhini Vara and Elizabeth McCracken. I’d heard of some authors but the majority were new to me, so thank you, Julia. And stop ripping your books apart!
1. The City & the City, China Miéville
Like the book, I’m a bit divided about this one. I love the way he has imagined the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Although it is set in the future, it feels grounded in reality when you think of divided cities past and present, like Berlin, Jerusalem and Aleppo. But the detective element is a bit weak. The reveal is on the thin side but is used as a cloak to design the backdrop of the city and the city. I’m told this is his best work, so I won’t be returning for more but very glad I had a taste with this one.
January – April 2016
Dipped in and out of these books: Hypnobirthing, The Wonder Weeks, The Baby Book, among others. Three guesses what happened to me at the beginning of this year. For a first-time mum, all very useful.
1. The Reputation of Booya Carthy, Phillip Drown
I’ve been familiar with Phill’s short stories for some years, so I was thrilled to get a copy of his self-published novel before Christmas. It is an ambitious story, particularly as Phill is writing about another time, place and culture. It tells the tale of musician Booya Carthy. Set in the deep South during a time of racism and injustice, Booya forges a life for himself, facing many challenges, not least of which imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet throughout his journey through life he maintains a sense of integrity and strength. I know Phill had to edit the book down and it feels there are a few “black holes”, particularly his time in Chicago. Occasionally the dialogue dips into overkill with the Southern dialect but I found the book quite the page turner. Congrats to you, Phill!