I’m so delighted and amazed that Unsettled Ground has won the Costa Novel Award 2021. It means a huge amount that Jeanie’s and Julius’s story will be more widely read, and it’s simply a wonderful privilege for the book to be chosen from so many entered and of course the brilliant shortlist. More information about the awards can be found here.
Unsettled Ground will now go forward for the Costa Book of the year where it will be judged against the other category winners: biography, first novel, children’s, and poetry. The overall winner will be announced on 1st February.
Winchester paperback publication event
On 13th January I’ll be celebrating the publication of the UK paperback of Unsettled Ground at Waterstones in Winchester. There are limited tickets to keep numbers low, so if you’d like to come, please do get yours soon. They are £3.00 each (including a glass of wine) and are available either by emailing email@example.com or by dropping into the High Street shop. More info here. I hope to see you there.
It’s time again for Tim (aka #LibrarianHusband) and me to give you our top ten books of the year for 2021. As always these are selected from books we read this year – 95 for me and about 50 for Tim. And as always it was such a hard decision. I had thirteen on my longlist, but was determined to reduce it to ten, so three beloved books were taken out.
One of my books – Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon – was an audio book, so I’ve mocked up an actual book in the photos. And Tim and I shared one book in our top tens – Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini. The Gloaming by Melanie Finn is called Shame in the UK.
If you’re interested in buying any of the books in Tim’s or my lists then, I’ve set up a Bookshop.org list, so that UK readers will be able to buy them easily while supporting UK independent bookshops. Readers in other countries will have to find the books themselves, but I do urge you to use your local independent or Bookshop.org rather than Amazon.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam It’s not possible to say too much about what happens in the novel without spoiling things, except: a white middle-income family, rent a remote airbnb holiday home a little way out of NYC for a week. Only a couple of days into their holiday the black, wealthy, owners knock on the door and say there is a power-outage in NYC and ask if they can they come in. Although the power in the holiday home is still on, the Internet and TV are down and so there is no way of checking what is happening in the rest of the world. I loved the mix of literary with horror with a pace that story that starts slowly and builds.
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated by J Ockenden This book crept up on me until I absolutely loved it. An old hermit lives in a remote shack in the Italian Alps. He forgets things – has he already walked down the mountain to the shop or not? He meets a dog, and the dog begins to speak. It’s not whimsical, but this dog is funny; this dog made me laugh out loud. They’re snowed in over winter and when finally they can go outside again they see a human foot sticking up out of the snow.
In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut This calls itself a novel, but the character’s name is Damon, and it feels very autobiographical in the way that real life will meander and not really have any resolutions. Damon, the central character relates three journeys and experiences from a distant future point. As with The Promise (which won the Booker Prize) he slips between first and third person naturally, gracefully. There is very little dialogue, and a lot of wandering around, but for all that there is so much tension, so much anxiety for the reader. In the first journey Damon walks in Lesotho with a German he doesn’t know very well and discovers he doesn’t really like. In the second he meets a group of Swiss friends and travels with them through Africa, always on the edge of something that is never quite achieved. And in the third he travels to India with a self-destructive woman whom he finds he cannot handle. Magnificent.
And the rest:
The Gloaming by Melanie Finn (called Shame in the UK) My perfect kind of novel. Beautiful writing, with every sentence crafted and considered, but with a gripping story and characters. In Switzerland, Pilgrim’s husband leaves her for another woman and shortly afterwards she has a terrible car accident, the consequences of which reach far across the world. She turns up in Tanzania, traumatised and guilty, waiting and watching for when her shame will catch up with her.
One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard Oh my, this was so good. A cross between Under Milk Wood and Lanny. Welsh village life with all its death, desertion, gossip, madness, and joy. Lyrical and sometimes mystical its unnamed narrator goes out one moonlit night and remembers his past. The end is shadowy and shocking. It was first published in 1961 in Welsh, and this translation is by Philip Mitchell. How have I only just have heard of this?
Life Among the Savagesby Shirley Jackson I’d read this snippet of dialogue before, but hadn’t realised it came from this book, which is a collection of family pieces Jackson wrote for women’s magazines in the ’40s and ’50s. Jackson is being admitted into hospital for the birth of her third child: “Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised. “Name” I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her. “Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?” “Writer,” I said. “Housewife,” she said. “Writer,” I said. “I’ll just put down housewife,” she said. . . . “Husband’s name?” she said. “Address? Occupation?” “Just put down housewife,” I said.
The whole thing is wonderful. Jackson is at her most observant and funniest. I’m sure it’s a highly idealised view of her life with young children (in fact having read both biographies about Jackson, I’d say it definitely is), but there are just so many perfect moments, so acutely observed.
That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry Filled with loners, edge-of-society types, and those trying to find their way, this short story collection is rich with unforgettable characters. The young woman waiting in the van for her boyfriend to come back from robbing a petrol station, or the character wooing a woman from Eastern Europe, or the man who is sexually alluring to women only in the house he inherited from his uncle – are all going to stay with me. Plus, Barry’s nature writing is stella. (This is a collection that my #librarianhusband and I read to each other.)
Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash Another short story collection that my #librarianhusband and I read to each other, and it was perfect! So many brilliant stories, brilliantly written. My favourites: In The Trusty, a convict on a chain-gang escapes and is double-crossed. In A Sort of Miracle, two lazy young men are embroiled in a plan to catch a bear. And in Three A.M and the Stars were Out, an elderly vet (in both uses of the word) visits his farmer friend who he was with in Korea, to help him deliver a stuck calf. They are all moving, witty, and I know this shouldn’t really matter with a short story – but a perfect length for reading to each other. (And I’d also recommend Rash’s collection, Burning Bright.)
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels Oh my goodness, this book. What a book. Densely poetic, stuffed with ideas and knowledge, rather experimental in structure, enigmatic with much of the story. And heart-breaking. I listened to it (read in a beautiful slow Canadian drawl by the author) and I immediately bought a physical copy so that I could go back and reread sections. Book 1 is Jakob Beer’s memoir, not finished because he dies in a car crash (easy to miss this and get confused). He describes in snippets of circular memories how when he was seven he was rescued by Athos after his parents are killed by the Nazis and his sister taken. Athos takes Jakob to Greece and hides him there before the two of them move to Canada. There is lots more, but I don’t want to spoil it. Book 2 is narrated by Ben – often writing ‘to’ Jakob – and details his life as the son of parents who survived the Holocaust. It’s about love and memory, fathers and sons, inherited trauma and so much more.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon I loved this slow unfolding of the history of a marriage. Nothing but Blue Sky is quiet and thoughtful and very moving. I listened to the audio version, beautifully narrated by the Irish actor, Stephen Hogan. In the slight present-day story David has returned to Aiguaclara, a small Catalonian resort where he has holidayed for the past twenty years with his wife Mary Rose. Except that Mary Rose died in a plane crash about a year ago, and David has decided to return to this place – so familiar and yet now, without her, so different. David remembers his marriage, examines his and Mary Rose’s differences, what they each hoped for, and what they both loved. He recalls his own difficult childhood and Mary Rose’s family. There is nothing here that is surprising or terribly shocking, and I loved it.
I’m thrilled to let you know that my fourth novel, Unsettled Ground has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards. This prestigious annual prize, which is fifty years old this year, awards prizes for books written by UK and Irish authors, in five categories: Novel, First Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book. One of the winners from these categories is selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year.
Unsettled Ground is one of four books in the Novel category, the winner of which will be announced on 4th January 2022. The five category winners will then be considered for the £30,000 prize announced in early February. You can read more about the prizes here, as well as seeing which other books are included in the novel category.
With this and the shortlisting earlier in 2021 for the Women’s Prize for Fiction it’s been quite a year! Keep your fingers crossed for me.
And if you’re in the UK and you’d like to buy a signed and dedicated copy of the hardback of Unsettled Ground, or any of my other books, click here.
This November and December, in time for Christmas, I’m offering UK readers a chance to buy signed and dedicated copies of my books, whether for yourself or as a gift. You can buy a single copy, several of the same book, or a combination. Find out more about Our Endless Numbered Days (paperback), Swimming Lessons (paperback), Bitter Orange (paperback), and Unsettled Ground (hardback). Once you’ve let me know which book or books you’d like and what you’d like me to write in them, I’ll calculate the cost of the books and the postage, email you a secure payment link, and once you’ve paid, I’ll get the books in the post. Simple.
So, although Unsettled Ground was one of the six novels shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, it didn’t win. The wonderful, Piranesi was announced the winner at the award ceremony last week. I can’t deny some disappointment, but I really enjoyed Susanna Clarke’s second novel (published after a long illness and sixteen years after her debut), and think it is a very worthy winner. And, it was amazing to be out in London, firstly reading from Unsettled Ground to an audience of 450 people (so great to be reading in front of ‘real’ people again), and on the following night attending the prize party. After the announcement I was finally able to relax and enjoy myself, and catch up with lots of old friends and meet lots of people who also love books. Thanks for having me, Women’s Prize!
As part of the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list festival, the wonderful actor, Juliet Stevenson read the opening of Unsettled Ground and now the video is available to watch. So if you’re thinking of buying a copy, this should serve as a taster.
Here’s a bit of extra info that you may not know: A few years ago I won the @pindropstudio / Royal Academy short story prize with my story, A Quiet Tidy Man, and the winner had their story read our by Juliet. So, not only has she read my work before but I got to meet her and I can confirm that she’s as friendly as she seems (see the picture above).
I have few in-person events coming up which you might be interested in especially if you live near Essex, Oxford, or London. Visit my events page for more details.
The UK cover of Unsettled Ground has had a refresh! The colours have been made much brighter, so now you can see all the creepy-crawlies in more detail, as well as the rotting fruit. Also included is a new quote from The Times (the previous one was about Bitter Orange, and some readers found that confusing), and the Women’s Prize For Fiction Shortlisted ‘sticker’ appears permanently in the bottom right-hand corner. I love how the cover really glows now, which makes it very eye-catching. Do let me know what you think. At the moment this new cover will only appear on the ebook.
Another week, another 100-word flash fiction story inspired by a photograph. My story is below. Feel free to join in, and if you post yours on your website or on social media, link back here and let me know, so I can have a read of it.
A Great Guy
Let me tell you ‘bout my uncle Jack. He added a kitchenette and a bedroom to his place on Switcheroo Road and let the rooms out to men who stole from him, small stuff mostly: teaspoons and hammers, glasses and tobacco, and left without paying the rent. Each time he said it’d be different: this man was down on his luck; another was a great guy. Reckon he was in love with them all, just couldn’t admit it. Finally, that annex stood empty for five years ’til my aunt Rosie rented it. Although, course, she wasn’t my auntie until later.
For any Oxford / Oxfordshire-based people, I’m doing my first in-person literary event for a long time, at Blackwell’s Oxford on 21st July, with author Lucy Atkins (Magpie Lane). It would be lovely if you could join us. Tickets here.
I want to tell you about a message I received recently from Betsy Teter, a reader in South Carolina, in the US. It has astounded me. But first I need to tell you a little bit about Unsettled Ground. And this is going to include spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, I urge you to stop reading this article now, if you’re planning on reading the book.
You could always go and buy Unsettled Ground, read it, and come back here. In fact, you could buy it from Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, if you’re in the US (as well as being a physical bookshop, they also sell online).
But anyway, the thing about Unsettled Ground is that I made all made up. None of it is based on anyone I know or any stories I heard. In the book (as you know, since you’ve read it – ahem) Jeanie has rheumatic fever as a child, and then when she’s twelve her mother tells her has rheumatic heart disease (RHD) and so she must live a gentle life with her, at home. Only when Jeanie is in late middle-age does she discover from her doctor that she never had RHD and so nothing is as she imagined.
Betsy wrote to tell me about her mother, Bette Hubbard who died in 2008. Here’s what she said:
‘The doctors told [my mother] at age 13 that she had rheumatic fever and they sent her to bed for eleven months. Then they told her a couple years later that it had returned, and she was put back to bed for 9 months. Her family was so worried about her they carried her back and forth to the toilet. This was the central story of her life. She missed a huge part of her childhood. Then, when she was in her late 70s and began to develop some symptoms of Parkinson’s, the doctors dropped a bombshell: she had never had rheumatic fever. She had been misdiagnosed.
‘Bette was very bright, and her parents sent her to college in the warmer climate of the American South to protect her health. She was one of a small handful of Northerners at her college (in those days she was tagged a Yankee) and in her senior year she was elected student body president.
‘She died of some sort of Parkinsonian disease – the doctors called it “white matter disease”. We saw dozens of doctors trying to figure out what this was, and along the way, one of them told her there was absolutely no sign that she’d had rheumatic fever. Her heart was strong until her last days.’
Thank you so much to Betsy for telling me this amazing story and letting me write about it here.
* The title of this piece is a quote said by the mother of the author, Anne Patchett, and I keep it stuck on wall next to where I write to remind myself about what it is I’m trying to do when I write.
If you live near Oxford you might be interested to know that I’ll be doing my first in-person event in a while on 21st July at Blackwell’s Bookshop with fellow author Lucy Atkins (her latest novel is the amazing Magpie Lane). We’ll be interviewed by Sarah Franklin about our ‘dark fiction’. Tickets are available here.
I’ve started writing flash fiction again after a break of a couple of years. I’m not sure why, but I’m enjoying it. I’m still responding to photographs, but this time from pictures that I own. And I’m still setting a rule of it needing to be exactly 100 words plus the title, and it must be a complete story, not just a scene. If you want to have a go, feel free to use the photograph above as inspiration for your own piece of flash fiction – you can work to my rules or you can set your own. If you post yours online, please do link back to this page, and if you want to post a link to your piece in a comment on this page, I’ll try to have look at what you’ve written (just to have a read, not critique) if I have time. If you want to write your own, you might want to write it before you read mine, so that my idea doesn’t get stuck in your head.
Goodman Orthodontics Limited
She watches him arrive for work, his shoulders slumped, head down. Wills him to look up and smile. A nice ordinary smile. His wife’s left him, she thinks; no, died tragically. He’s single and lonely. Has five sad children, or better, none. She discovers he works in dentures, and passes his office daily. She considers sending a memo: re your Status Update, re my Decision-Making, re our Team-Building. Then, at an adjacent table in the canteen, she sees his teeth glow too white, too bright, like luminous underwater animals.
The next day she works furiously, her back to the window.
My fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Read more about it here.