Women Writers Network Favourite Reads of 2018

For those of you who may not know, I’m part of the Women Writers Network. We are a group of volunteers who run a Twitter account dedicated to supporting and promoting women writers. It is a brilliant place to discover new writers or to be reminded of old favourites, to share blog posts, writing tips, and get support on those days when you might be flagging.

Here, some of our founder members give their recommendations of their books of the year. Unlike most end of year lists, the books didn’t have to have been published in 2018. It means that some old favourites or the new discoveries that may have been published several years ago can get a mention too. Here are our recommendations (in alphabetical order by contributor).

Gail Aldwin, poet, short fiction writer and novelist

Cover of My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth StroutI loved reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Stroud this year. The situation of a young mother visited by her own mother while in hospital sparks as series of memories that offer a patchwork of recollections that allows the reader to meander through Lucy’s early experiences. As a writer I enjoyed the journey which made me reflect upon the use of memoir techniques in fiction writing.

 

 

Sandy Bennet Haber, writer and editor

Cover of The Growing Season, a novel by Helen SedgwickThe Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick. Sedgwick’s speculative fiction is based on the premis of reproductive technology having been developed which allows both men and women to carry prosthetic wombs, thus sharing the work of gestating a child. We view the world Sedgwick has created from multiple viewpoints – those who see the technology as having liberated women from the dangers and drugery of natural childbirth, and those who are sceptical. A good page turner, with mystery and a nuauced exploration of sensitive issues around reproduction and birth.

 

Lynn Davidson, poet, creative writing tutor and researcher

Cover of Outline by Rachel CuskMy favourite reads this year were the wonderful, strange and riveting Milkman by Anna Burns, and Rachel Cusk’s trilogy of novels Outline, Transit and Kudos. Cusk’s books reveal, or rather explore, how men talk and women listen. I thought the last scene of Kudos was brilliant. I also read, getting to it rather late, Denise Reily’s poetry collection Say Something Back which is addressed to, and speaks about her late son. Along with much else, each writer explores voice, what it is to speak and what it is to be heard, and works the platforms of novel and poem to see what it can carry in terms of voice and points of view. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

 

Maria Donovan, novelist

Cover of Elfriede Jelinek's novel, The Piano Teacher

 

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek. This was recommended by my friend the writer, Melissa Ledwidge. This novel is so troubling and brave and startling – it reminds you there are such possibilities.

 

 

 

Rita Gould, writer, editor and blogger

Cover of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Among Rita’s recommendations is Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. This is one of the books that was referred to time and time again when we did our Women Writers Network Twitter chat on Women and the Environment earlier this year. Published in 1962, its stark warnings about pesticide use and other environmental catastrophes are as frighteningly relevant today as they were over fifty years ago. Other recommendations by Rita include novels by two Women Writers Network members The Chicken Soup Murder by Maria Donovan, The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor along with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

 

Helen Taylor, novelist

Cover of Milkman by Anna BurnsMilkman by Anna Burns. There are many books that I admire and enjoy but every now and then a novel comes along which I wish with every cell of my body that I had written myself. Milkman was one of those novels. Despite the difficult subject and the sinister undertones, it is a really funny book with a harsh, wry humour. I absolutely loved it.

Up there too was the beautiful Findings by Kathleen Jamie. A gorgeous collection of pieces about the Scottish landscape, simply written but full of poetry. It made me feel homesick and wistful.

As a rule, I don’t review books on this site. Now that I know lots of writers either personally or virtually, I find it a difficult thing to do. There is no way I’d want to write a bad review of a novel by someone I knew but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to compromise my standards and say I enjoyed something that I didn’t really. Which makes it such a joy to be able to say that both the novels by Women Writers Network members that I read this year were an absolute delight. I loved Maria Donovan’s The Chicken Soup Murder, an unconventional murder mystery which for me is really a beautifully written study of bereavement. That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina is an exquisitely told tale of love and loss, with lyrical writing and beautiful scenery that seems to be right there in front of your eyes. A heartbreaking story that I didn’t want to end.

 

Valeria Vescina, author, creative writing tutor and reviewer

Cover of Painter to the King by Amy SackvilleIn Amy Sackville’s Painter to the King (Granta Books, 2018), you see the court of Philip IV of Spain through the eyes of Diego Velazquez; the relationship between artist and monarch is poignantly portrayed. Another memorable novel involving a painter is Ali Smith’s How to be both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014): ingenious and riveting, it involves story lines separated by centuries and yet intersecting. Beautiful and unusual is the graphic-novel version (Feltrinelli, 2018) of La Mennulara, a collaboration between artist Massimo Fenati and author Simonetta Agnello Hornby; the original novel by Agnello Hornby is available in English as The Almond Picker (Penguin, 2006). Jhumpa Lahiri has written Dove mi trovo (Guanda, 2018) in Italian; the sparse literary style underscores the predicament of her central character, a woman longing at once for connection and detachment. Issued in 2018 with an introduction by Rachel Cusk, The Little Virtues (Daunt Books, 2018) is a collection of essays penned between 1944 and 1960 by Natalia Ginzburg, one of Italy’s greatest writers; each essay gives us a portrayal of a historical time we should not forget, as well as a wealth of timeless reflections.

 

 

I hope you enjoyed our recommendations. What was your favourite book that you read in 2018? We’d love to hear from you.

Contributors:

Gail Aldwin is a poet and fiction writer. Her collection of short fiction Paisley Shirt is available now from Chapeltown Books. Her new novel The String Games will be published in 2019 by Victorina Press. @gailaldwin

Sandy Bennet Haber is an Edinburgh based Australian writer and the editor of You Won’t Remember This — Travel With Babies and contributor to Waymaking a new anthology of women’s adventure writing, poetry and art. @sbennetthaber

Lynn Davidson is a poet, creative writing teacher and researcher. Her poems have been published widely, the most recent of which is a poem series entitled Return to Kāpiti Island (House of Three, 2017). @LynnDavidson8

Maria Donovan is the author of The Chicken Soup Murder (Seren Books). @mariadonovanwri

Rita Gould is a US-based writer, editor, and avid reader. In addition to writing short fiction and poetry, she blogs about writing and reading at An Artful Sequence of Words where you can find reviews of some of her recommendations. @ritakitty8

Helen Taylor, author of The Backstreets of Purgatory @TaylorHelen_M

Valeria Vescina is a writer, creative writing tutor and reviewer. Her novel That Summer in Puglia was published in 2018 by Eyewear Publishing

Women Writers Network @womenwritersnet

 

 

 

Measures of success

Sometimes it is important to stand back and look at your achievements with fresh eyes.

Self-doubt

The idea for this piece has been brewing for a while, and I think today is a particularly good day to get down to writing it. Why? Because, after a few weeks of travelling to various different events, I’m home again with nothing in the diary and I’m suddenly filled with Monday doubts and anxieties.

It is all too easy to flick through a Twitter or Instagram feed and measure yourself against others and find yourself lacking. Whether it is how you look, where you go on holiday, which parties you’re invited to. For me at the moment, it is all about book reviews. I feel like I’m yelling into a void, desperately trying — but failing — to attract attention for my novel, while at the same time succeeding in winding up everyone who is in earshot because of the racket I am making.

Photo of a seagull squawking against a blue-grey sky (by Anthony Robson, Flickr)

It’s hard. My publisher has a press department and sent out press releases for The Backstreets of Purgatory but apparently no one was biting. A debut novel by a total unknown? Little to no chance. Apart from the odd notable exception, it seems that the novels which get national press coverage are ones written by well-known writers, prize winners or journalists with contacts to the papers. However, not prepared to be so readily defeated, I have taken it upon myself to attempt to get some coverage. With that aim, I have sent out about a zillion emails to magazines and papers and potential reviewers (actually that isn’t true; it feels like a lot but they are targeted, not indiscriminate), torn between the knowledge that, on the one hand, journalists and books editors are swamped with unsolicited approaches every day and the last thing they probably want is me harping on about my book, and, on the other, that no one else is going to do this for me and I refuse to let this opportunity pass without giving my novel the best chance of success that I can. That said, I’m very aware (and not surprised) that most of my emails probably get deleted without being read.

So, Monday morning, sifting through the junk in my email with no sign of messages from magazine editors or reviewers, it is very easy to get demoralised. Failure feels like it is hiding around the corner, ready to stamp on my hopes and squash the life out of the brilliant moments of success that I’ve had so far.

How do you measure success?

The weird thing about success, though, is that you can always do better. You could always write more books, sell more copies, win more prizes, win a more prestigious prize, have a bigger audience. However successful a writer is, I  imagine that there are very few who feel absolutely secure in their success. Few earn enough to support themselves by writing alone. Few are celebrities (if that is your measure of success). Critical acclaim is seldom universal. Commercial success doesn’t necessarily mean critical success. You get my drift.

However…

It is also worth remembering how far you’ve come (and I’m talking to myself here obviously). To curb a display of intemperate Pollyanna-style melodrama, I won’t actually list all the things I should be glad about. But loads has happened this year that has been utterly and completely fantastic and way beyond my expectations (I’ll give the edited highlights).

Pollyanna Statue
Pollyanna (never knowingly underemotional)

Like getting The Backstreets of Purgatory published in the first place. I mean, come on. That was the dream.

And having an amazing — and I mean like totally amazing, couldn’t have dreamed of anything better type of thing — launch party with old and new friends. And getting some stunning reviews. And receiving hand written letters from readers. And travelling to New York to do a reading. Being invited to Cambridge to speak to Anglia Ruskin’s Women’s group; being invited to be a panelist at the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair, doing a Skype lecture/tutorial for an Italian studies class at Hull University. Honestly, these things had me buzzing with joy.

A montage of photos of The Backstreets of Purgatory and reviews

It is important to stand back sometimes. To not dwell on the fact that perhaps I don’t know all the right people, that I haven’t succeeded in persuading certain newspapers or whoever to take the novel for review, or whatever else I’m beating myself up about. Because there are lots of things that have gone brilliantly, including a great blog tour and some really generous reviews from plenty of other magazines and websites with many more offers in the pipeline. And of course, I have to make sure I remind myself that far more important events have happened this year — both personally and out there in the world — than the publication of my novel.

Goals achieved

When I set out to write my novel I had two real goals.

  1. To get it published and into bookshops.
  2. To affect readers with my writing in the way that I have been affected by books that I have read.

The evidence for the first is in bookshops all over the country, from Waterstones to Blackwells, the British Library shop to fabulous independents like Golden Hare in Edinburgh. The evidence for the second is in the letters, messages and reader reviews that I’ve had. And it is properly touching.

Therefore, by my own measures, I declare The Backstreets of Purgatory a success!!

Everything beyond this is a bonus.

(And, anyway, my real daily success is persuading the cat to give me a cuddle.)

Photo of Helen Taylor (author of The Backstreets of Purgatory) getting a cuddle from her cat.

 

Image credits

Mountain photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Seagull shouting by Anthony Robson, Flickr

Pollyanna statue from Wikimedia

 

 

Full Circle

Three years ago, I attended the inaugural National Creative Writing Graduate Fair at Manchester Metropolitan University run by the brilliant Comma Press. It was where I first met Rachael Kerr, Editor-at-Large for Unbound and where my publishing adventure (and boy, has it been an adventure) began. Last Friday I was a panelist at NCWGF 2018. I have, in some ways, come full circle.

Our panel How to get noticed as a writer included publisher Sara Hunt from Saraband and literary agent Julia Silk from MBA agents, and was brilliantly chaired by novelist and creative writing lecturer Sarah Butler. We talked about perseverance, resilience, Continue reading “Full Circle”

Life Lessons: Not everyone has the same taste in books

I’ve got lockjaw. Ok, slight exaggeration but several weeks of teeth clenching anxiety has left me with muscle spasm and a clicky TMJ. What’s the problem? Book reviews!

The Backstreets of Purgatory in 17 Degrees Magazine

First thing to say is that I’ve had some absolutely phenomenal reviews for The Backstreets of Purgatory. It started with a fabulous review from Zerofiltersaurus (‘unbelievable, incredible and all those other words that meant the same thing’), followed by a great blog tour where the words ‘audacious’ and ‘original’ were freely bandied about. And I’m still buzzing from the brilliant reception Backstreets received from Alistair Braidwood of Scots Whay Hae (‘She has written a Scottish novel of significance and I cannot recommend it enough’). Then the lovely folk at Undiscovered Scotland described the novel as excellent (‘the ideal book for someone looking for something just a little bit out of the ordinary’) and most recently it was chosen as one of 17 Degrees Magazine‘s Autumn Reads and described by the magazine’s books editor, Jill Adams, as ‘The One That I Can’t Stop Talking About’ (‘Fascinating and incredibly funny — this is a bold new voice is Scottish fiction’). To read that was thrilling beyond thrilling.

17 Degrees Magazine review of The Backstreets of Purgatory
Excerpt from 17 Degrees Magazine

Why the teeth clenching? Because for weeks now I’ve been writing emails to magazine and website editors asking if they would consider taking The Backstreets of Purgatory for review. Teeth clenching because I might not get any response. Teeth clenching because I might get a response and it might be no. Teeth clenching because I might get a response and it might be yes. All that teeth clenching and I haven’t even got to the bit where I continually refresh web pages to see if the review is live.

By the time I’d worked myself up into this frenzy of panic, I’d actually forgotten to worry about what the review might say. It wasn’t that I was so conceited as to think that everyone would love my book, but my stress had become simply about getting noticed in the first place. And if an editor agreed to take it, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude it didn’t occur to me to worry that they wouldn’t like it. My adrenalin-primed brain cells would probably have exploded if I’d given myself leave to take that on too. Plus, as I mentioned above, I was on a roll of absolute blinder reviews. So it was a bit of a shock to me at the weekend when Backstreets didn’t get the wholehearted endorsement of the reviewer from The Fountain. Understatement. Darn. (I sound casual. I was actually nearly sick.)

There are still several reviews in the pipeline. At this rate (and with this concern now at the forefront of my addled mind) I’ll have ground my teeth to paste before any of them are published.

Today however, I gave myself a good talking to (while massaging the muscle spasm out of my masseter muscle (try saying that with your finger in your mouth)). The main points of which were as follows (I’ve removed most of the offensive language):

  • Not everyone has the same taste in books.
  • There are loads of books that I love that my friends dislike.
  • There are loads of books that have had brilliant reviews that I didn’t take to.
  • The Backstreets of Purgatory has had some excellent reviews.
  • The Backstreets of Purgatory has had one not as excellent review.
  • It is The Backstreets of Purgatory that is being reviewed, not me. Emphasise. Not ME.
  • This is NOT a matter of life and death. It is a book review.
  • I have had messages, emails and letters from readers telling me how much the book meant to them, how beautifully written it is, how they couldn’t put it down, how it made them laugh and made them cry (and how it makes a great prop to keep their new baby’s Moses basket at a wee incline).
  • I have not heard from some people who bought the book, which might mean they hate it or think that it is crap but they are too polite to tell me (or perhaps that they just haven’t read it and maybe don’t intend to read it).
  • With the help of mentors and writing friends, I wrote, rewrote, rewrote and rewrote the novel.
  • With the help of Unbound’s editors, I edited and edited.
  • At the end of it all, I had the novel I had hoped to write.
  • At the end of it all, I had the type of novel I would choose to read.
  • The Backstreets of Purgatory might be the centre of my world at the moment, but it isn’t the centre of everyone else’s.
  • Get over yourself, H.
  • Not everyone has the same taste in books.

Here endeth today’s lesson.

There will be another one shortly about measures of success.

 

 

 

 

 

The Backstreets of Purgatory is launched into orbit

Standing room only at Waterstones on Byres Road

Ok, there is perhaps a slight exaggeration in the title of this piece but it pretty much describes how I’m feeling. It’s Monday and life should be back to normal but I’m still floating somewhere above Cloud 9.

On Thursday 19th July The Backstreets of Purgatory had its official launch party at Waterstones on Byres Road in Glasgow.

Book launch poster

What a fantastic night. Even with the chaos engendered by a wholly predictable technological failure. (Yes, I know, I shouldn’t have left it until midnight the night before to check that the computer and the projector were compatible, and yes, perhaps I should have checked earlier that there were in fact power leads for said projector.) The problems could have been overcome because I’d had the foresight to put the Caravaggio presentation on-line so that the audience could check their phones as I spoke. Only I was so emotional and in a flap that I forgot to mention it. The day was saved, however, by my glamorous assistant holding up A3 prints of the slides and waving them in the audience’s face.

 

To be honest, I’m not sure how many people were listening to me anyway because there was Irn Bru, cake and Tunnocks Teacakes to be had. I know the draw of Tunnocks Teacakes. And cake. I am in no way offended.

Cake
The best cake ever

It was standing room only by the time I got started. It was an absolute joy for me to have an audience full of family and friends, and to meet some of the people I’ve only ever met on-line or spoken to on the phone. I still can’t believe how far some people travelled to be there. I can’t tell you how touched I was. And I was thrilled that Carlo from the University Café came along. The interview I did with him was one of my first blog posts here.

After the presentation on Caravaggio, I intended to do a reading from chapter 13, Judith and Holofernes. In keeping with the nature of the proceeding thus far, I discovered that I’d left my copy of The Backstreets of Purgatory in my room. Fortunately, there was a stack of copies for sale. (I put back the one I borrowed when I’d finished. Hopefully without trace of my sweaty shaking hands. Sometimes I think it is harder to do a presentation to a room full of friends than a room full of strangers.)

Slide11
Judith and Holofernes by Caravaggio

A great Q&A followed the reading. Laura Rorato from the University of Hull (who, unlike me, is a real Caravaggio expert) had some exceptional questions although I didn’t answer a couple of them I didn’t want to give away the ending of the novel. We’re going to do a more in-depth interview when we have the chance.

Waterstones Book launch pic
A fantastic receptive audience

The overwhelming feeling for me, from Thursday night and from the whole experience of publishing with Unbound, is the warmth and generosity surrounding the book which comes from all the amazing people who supported it. It is brilliant to know that The Backstreets of Purgatory already has a substantial readership because of Unbound’s model.  I hope that now that it is on general release, it will find some new readers too.

 

Image credits

Photos by Alastair Cunningham and Alistair Braidwood

Judith and Holofernes by Caravaggio from Wikimedia