Claire’s and Tim’s Top Ten Books of 2019

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Here we are again, the end of another year of reading. More bookshelves built, more books bought, borrowed and lent. This year, as well as the bookshelves, Tim216 Aug 04 built me a free little library so that I can swap books with my neighbours and anyone who happens to come past. These are springing up all over the world and you can find the locations of many of them here.

This is the fifth year that Tim and I have been tracking our books and coming up with a list of our ten favourites of the year (read, rather than published). You can see previous lists here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

Some facts and figures about my list, compiled from the 94 books I read this year:

  • Five female authors, five male (of the 94, 63 were by female authors)
  • Three books published this year
  • Earliest was first published in 1919
  • One book not published until next year
  • One book in translation
  • One book of short stories
  • Seven books set in the USA; one in the Netherlands; two in England
  • One non-fiction book

My Best Reads of 2019

Top three (in no order)

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann

HalibutontheMoonThis is a tough but brilliant read. Vann has returned to the story of his father, this time as a complete novel covering a few days when Jim sees a therapist, and with his brother, visits various relatives and friends. We follow Jim’s most intimate thoughts, and can only watch his self destructive actions as he contemplates suicide. The story is agonising, the writing expressively perfect.

 

Mrs Bridge by  Evan S. Connell


MrsbMrs Bridge was Evan S. Connell’s debut, and it’s so damn good. Over the course of 117 chapters (some as short as a paragraph), we follow Mrs Bridge as she goes about her day-to-day life as a housewife and mother in 1930s Kansas City. She’s been brought up in a certain way, and wants to bring her children up in that way too. She can be bigoted and racist, but she knows this isn’t right, and yet she can’t seem to work out how to break out of her narrow boring existence of the country-club circle. Oh, and the ending is superb. I might be reading this again in 2020.

 

The Journal of a Disappointed Man by W.N.P. Barbellion

Journal 2I can’t remember the last time I underlined as many lines, as in The Journal of a Disappointed Man, or laughed as much, or cried. Actually cried, quiet rolling tears, while my husband slept beside me in bed.
This journal starts in 1903 when Barbellion (a pen-name) is 13 and wants desperately to be a naturalist (the journal is full of wonderful descriptions of nature), but has to follow his father and become a local journalist. Still, he is determined, and despite ill-health and being completely self-educated takes an exam and gets a job at The Natural History Museum in London (unfortunately, and rather amusingly the job he is given is to measure the legs on lice). He becomes increasingly ill, but (after much indecision) marries and has a child. All the while recounting his illness, and his thoughts on life and death. Eventually, while still in his twenties, he learns he has multiple sclerosis, only because he opens a letter from his doctor that was not addressed to him. He worries about money, and how his wife and child will manage, but he lives to see his journal published. He dies age 31.
So it is desperately sad, but W.N.P (or Bruce) is funny, and clever, and witty, and thoughtful, and despairing. 2019 marks 100 years since his death, and yet he seems so very real and close. (I came across this book via the Backlisted Podcast. Check it out.)

The Best of the Rest

 

Sleepless Night by Margriet De Moor (translated by David Doherty)

SleeplessThis novel is a subtle, enigmatic and beautiful elegy to a husband and marriage that ends in tragedy. De Moor’s writing is sensual and spare, whether she’s writing about love, a walk in an ice forest, or baking a cake in the middle of the night. There are layers of meaning here, which with adroit subtlety De Moor lets the reader puzzle out.

 


Valentine
by Elizabeth Wetmore

ValentineValentine – another debut – won’t be published until June 2020, and you should definitely look out for it. A wonderful cast of female characters are living in a small West Texas town in 1976 just as an oil boom hits. The terrible event that links them together is finely woven, the thread sometimes even disappears, but it’s the women’s and girl’s lives, their hardships, that kept me reading. Beautifully written, this novel and author surely is going to go far.

 

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

RabbitI’ve come very late to this modern classic, and at first I almost put the book down because I loathed Rabbit, the main character, so much. But I’ve always said I don’t mind reading about horrible characters and then anyway Updike’s writing won me over. Utterly.
At twenty-six, seemingly on a whim Rabbit deserts his wife and child, and hooks up with a young woman he lusts after while criticising her for accepting him. Everything gets messed up, of course. (Excuse the terrible cover – but it’s the edition I read.)

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

the dutch houseThis is the story of Maeve, as told by her younger brother, Danny. Before Danny can fully remember her, their mother leaves them in the care of their father who soon remarries. They live in the Dutch House – an ornate monstrosity with huge glass windows and all the furniture and belongings that a previous Dutch family left behind, and then they are forced to leave. For a while I kept waiting for something big to happen, but once I let that go, I completely fell for this book; fell in love with the family and Patchett’s writing.


Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs PalfreyThink of a funnier Barbara Pym and you’ll be halfway there with this novel. Mrs Palfrey goes to live at the Claremont Hotel in London in the 1960s, after her husband dies. The hotel is down at heel, as are many of the aging residents. Mrs Palfrey’s grandson doesn’t come to visit her . . . until he does. I laughed out loud many times, mostly at the spot-on observations of people and growing old. Highly recommended.

 

The Understory by Pamela Erens

the understoryThis is another debut, with wonderful lucid and understated writing. It tells the story of Jack an ex-lawyer who has been living illegally in his dead uncle’s apartment in New York for fourteen years. He has compulsive tendencies – visiting Brooklyn bridge every evening, a certain secondhand bookstore, and the same diner for lunch every day. When his new landlord wants to evict him, Jack meets and becomes obsessed with the architect employed to redesign his building. Each chapter alternates between this narrative and one from a few months on when Jack has left New York and is staying in a Buddhist monastery tending their bonsai trees (poorly). I loved it.

Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson

JesusA perfect collection of short stories all with the same main character. ‘Fuckhead’ is in his early twenties and he’s a drug addict and alcoholic. And no, a series of stories about drug-fuelled craziness narrated by this kind of man wouldn’t normally interest me, either. But the free-wheeling mind-altered narratives are so fresh and scary, and sometimes even funny. Don’t be put off by the subject matter, just read it.

 

Tim’s Top Ten Reads of the Year

Tim’s Top Three (in no order)

  • Half Wild by Robin MacArthur (Tim says: Brilliant intertwined short stories set rural Vermont.)
  • Lila & Theron by Bill Schubart (Tim says: Weirdly, also set in rural Vermont, spanning most of the twentieth century, a small-scale epic story of love and hardship.)
  • Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Tim says: The unflinching story of a man’s decline. Brutally honest and heartbreaking.)

Best of the Rest

  • Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
  • My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Mendocino and Other Stories by Ann Packer
  • In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
  • The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
  • The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich
  • Turbulence by David Szalay

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Let me know what your top ten reads of the year were, and I’ll do a post about some of them at a later date.

 

Signed cards for Christmas

Christmas books final

 

Personalised cards for Christmas

If you buy a copy of one of my books as a gift for someone this Christmas, let me know and I’ll post you a signed card for free, to include with the book. If you buy more than one book, I’ll send you as many cards as you need.

I’m happy to post cards to anywhere in the world, just send me a message, telling me which book or books you’ve bought, who I should write the card for, and what your address is. Or if you want to treat yourself this Christmas and buy one of my books for yourself, I’ll send a card personalised for you.

And if you post a Christmas-y picture of the book or books you’ve bought on your main feed (not stories) in Instagram, I’ll include a little extra gift. Just make sure to mention this offer and tag me (@writerclairefuller) so I know you’ve done it.

Happy Christmas!

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Buy a copy of Bitter Orange, Swimming Lessons, or Our Endless Numbered Days.

(The small print: this offer is only for physical books – not ebooks or audio; please try to buy your book from a real bookshop, not Amazon; I’ll try to get cards to you in time for Christmas, but can’t guarantee it; this offer is not for copies of my books you have already bought for yourself.)

Bitter Orange Long Listed for Dublin Literary Award

Dublin lit award

I’m stunned and delighted that my third novel, Bitter Orange has been long listed for the Dublin Literary Award.

This prize is an unusual one. Firstly the books on the long list are nominated by libraries around the world. This year (for books published in 2018) 400 library systems in 177 countries were invited to vote for up to three novels. Which has resulted in a long list of 156 books – a lot of reading for the judges. Books must be in English, but can be translated.

Secondly, the prize is the largest single book prize at 100,000 Euros.

I’m really not expecting Bitter Orange to make it to the short list of up to ten titles which will be announced in April 2020. I’m simply delighted that my third novel was nominated.

Last year, the wonderful debut, Idaho by Emily Ruskovich won the prize – a novel I’ve been banging on about since I read it in 2016 and it made my list of best books that I read that year.

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Buy a copy of Bitter Orange.

Bitter Orange Paperback Published in the US today

US paperback

The paperback is published today (Oct 22) in the US. It has the same wonderful cover as the hardback, but with a cut-back cover to show a quote from Time Magazine: “Unsettling and eerie, Bitter Orange is an ideal chiller”.

Although the novel is set in the blisteringly hot August of 1969, the novel has plenty of spooky, gothic elements for people looking for a book to cosy up with in a chilly fall.

It’s available today from all good independent bookstores, bookstore chains, and online. Click here to order.

In conjunction with my US publisher Tin House, I’m running a competition on Instagram to win one of two copies. You must have a US address to enter. Visit my account on Instagram: @writerclairefuller

Bitter Orange is an ideal book for book clubs, and this paperback edition has book club questions in the back to help get your discussion started. 

If you do read it, don’t forget to drop me a line to let me know what you thought.

Happy reading!

Shortlisted for Tom-Gallon Award

Tom-Gallon

I’m thrilled and honoured that my short story, Tiny and Pointed, has been shortlisted for the Tom-Gallon Trust Award. This prestigious prize, organised by The Society of Authors, has been running since 1943. The winner will be announced at a ceremony in June in Southwark Cathedral in London.

Bitter Orange paperback published

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Bitter Orange is published in paperback in the UK today. I love seeing that little penguin in the top right-hand corner.

To celebrate, I’m giving away a few signed copies. You can enter one or all of these:

  1. I’ll be giving away a signed copy to a UK-based subscriber of my newsletter. Sign up here.
  2. Another signed copy will go to anyone who follows me on Twitter and retweets my pinned tweet. Visit my Twitter feed here, or @ClaireFuller2
  3. Two signed copies will go to anyone who follows me on Instagram, and tags a bookish friend or two in the comments of my latest post. Find me @WriterClaireFuller

I can only post to UK addresses. All competitions close on Sunday 12th May.

Good luck!

 

Book titles: Bitter Orange

BitterOrange FINAL pb cover

Archaeology

The titles of my books have always tended to evolve, and Bitter Orange is no exception. Usually though, the early Word files are simply called, Book 1 or Book 4, or whichever it is. But my third novel had a title from the beginning: Archaeology. I thought it was going to be about people digging things up, literally and metaphorically.

I keep a writing diary and on 22nd April 2016 (the novel was started on 23rd December 2015), I thought that Archaeology was too difficult a word to write. ‘Those three bloody vowels in a row are beginning to annoy me,’ I wrote. And on 30th August of that year, I added, ‘I’m thinking of changing the title to Blood Orange’.

Blood Orange

For the rest of the time when I was writing it, the novel was called Blood Orange, and this was what it was called when I sent it to my literary agent, and when it was submitted to my publishers in the UK, the US, and Canada. And they bought it with that name. Blood Orange.

The story is about Frances, a woman who is commissioned to survey the follies in the gardens of an English country house in 1969. There she meets and becomes besotted by Cara and Peter and visits the orangery alongside the house which has (or had at the time of writing) a single blood DSCF8951orange tree, so enormous it has broken through the glass panes. Blood oranges are sweet, and the fruit are ripe at a certain time of year. Three blood oranges are picked from the tree and squeezed to make juice – a point integral to the plot.

Then, in July 2017, after the book was sold, my editor at Penguin told me that the sale of another book, a debut thriller by Harriet Tyce had just been announced in The Bookseller (the UK trade magazine for publishing), and it was called Blood Orange.

Titles of books, or albums or anything else aren’t copyrighted, but it was quickly agreed that publishing books with the same title around the same time was not a good idea, and Harriet’s had been announced, and mine hadn’t. It was mine that would have to change.

Bitter Orange

Changing a title I’d been happy with for months if not years was a difficult thing to accept. I was angry – at no one in particular – for quite a while.

I had lots of conversations with my editors and agents and lots of suggestions were bounced back and forth. I went through the novel with a highlighter and I wrote lists of word combinations. It was Sarah Lutyens, one of the founders of my literary agents, Lutyens and Rubinstein who came up with Bitter Orange. I think she just emailed it to HoAme one day – two perfect words.

Except, that a bitter orange (which is not eaten or juiced, but generally used to make marmalade), is a very different thing to a blood orange. I wrote to Patricia Oliver from Global Orange Groves who had been helping me with orange tree advice for the book. Bitter oranges fruit at different times to blood oranges, and the juice is barely drinkable. Anyone who writes will know that you make what might seem like a simple change in the text: blood to bitter, but the repercussions ripple on and on. If I needed my characters to try to drink the juice, someone needed to realise they needed sugar, then they had to get sugar, which meant someone had to go shopping, which meant someone had to leave the house when I needed them to remain there. I faced lots of niggly revising.

Bitter Orange is better

But once I’d sorted out the changes and had lived with the new title for a while, it seemed more suited than Blood Orange, which I think sounds very thriller-like, and Bitter Orange isn’t a thriller.

By the time the book was published in the UK, in the US, and Canada, I loved the title: Bitter Orange.

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What do you think about the title? Please leave a comment below.

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Bitter Orange is published in paperback in the UK on 2nd May, and is also available in the US, Canada and Germany (where it is called Bittere Orangen). Visit this page to buy a copy.

Sign up for my newsletter with information about forthcoming books, events and competitions.

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Where next?

Read an article on my favourite book titles.

Writing, Editing, Publishing Q&A

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Over on Instagram (@writerclairefuller) I recently asked if anyone had any questions about writing, editing or getting published. And there were lots! I’ve answered them all in brief in an Instagram post, but it’s hard to be concise with so many questions. So here are my longer answers. Do let me know if you have any other questions in the comments below and I’ll save them up for a future post.

My writing day

How I organise my writing time (@raluca1503 @tftmotherland)

I worked for so many years in a marketing company following normal office hours that now I write full time, I can’t rid myself of the old 9 – 5. Well, actually 9 – 6pm. But I’m doing much more than working on my novel in progress in that time, and it does depend on where I am in the publishing cycle. I have been known to be promoting one book, Continue reading

Learn fiction writing skills on an Arvon Writing Retreat

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Are you a fiction writer looking for help with your work? I’m delighted that I’ll be teaching a general fiction course at Arvon with fellow author Andrew Taylor, in May.

Based at The Hurst in Shropshire in the UK, this writing retreat runs from May 6th to May 11th. Andrew and I will be holding workshops and exercises around the main elements of fiction writing including character, theme, setting and narrative. Attendees also get two one-to-one sessions where we look at their specific pieces, and author David Hayden will be visiting for one evening. Plus there will be opportunities to share your work (if you want to), and plenty of writing time. And of course good food and great company. I’d love to see you there.

Find out more.

For over fifty years Arvon has been running residential writing courses in their three centres across the UK.

A Thousand Word Photos

Russian-Cadets_Anatasica-Taylor-Ling

A little while ago I was invited to take part in a writing project run by A Thousand Word Photos, where a photographer gives three of their photographs to a writer, who then selects one which is used to inspire a 1,000 word short story. The story is then published online and read out to stroke patients around the UK, as part of the charity, Interact.

The photograph I selected (above) was taken by the renowned photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, and without knowing anything about it, I wrote a 1000 word story called Intelligent Private Lines, which you can read here.

29 Jan 29

A Thousand Word Photos recently held their first live event in London, where six short stories written as part of the project, were read out to the audience by actors, and the image that inspired the story was projected on the wall. I was delighted that my story was selected to be read by the actor, Jessica Raine (of Call the Midwife fame).

 

The whole project has recently been featured in British Journal of Photography.