A Playlist for Unsettled Ground

While I wrote Unsettled Ground, I listened to two pieces of music: Polly Vaughn (an old English folk song) sung by Tia Blake, and We Roamed Through the Garden, written by my son, Henry Ayling. Listening to only two songs for two years, it was probably inevitable that they were going to become part of the novel I was writing. But they had a bigger influence: Jeanie and Julius, the protagonists in Unsettled Ground became folk musicians.

I thought it might be interesting to create a playlist for Unsettled Ground, for those who are currently reading the novel or those who have read it already. I hope that this selection – which are all pieces of music I love – will help add to the atmosphere of the book.

Henry is an unsigned acoustic guitarist – teacher, performer, and composer – and therefore his song isn’t on Spotify. But you can listen to We Roamed Through the Garden, here: www.henryayling.com/music/ It is number five on this page.

The playlist below will allow you to hear a little of each song. Open it in Spotify to listen to all the songs in their entirety. And please do let me know which you might know already and if any particularly resonate. Happy listening!

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Unsettled Ground will be published in the US on May 18 and I have lots of online events planned, where, from the comfort of my writing room in England, I’ll be talking about the book, my writing process, and what it feels like for Unsettled Ground to be shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It would be lovely if any US or Canadian readers could join me on Zoom.

See my list of online events.

Buy Unsettled Ground in the UK.

Motivation for Writers

I was recently invited to a Words Away Zalon about motivation and inspiration for writers. If you haven’t heard about Words Away, its a small organisation that hosts events for writers on all kinds of interesting subjects. Sometimes these take the form of writers being interviewed about their process, or other times they run day-long writing workshops in London. At the moment everything is online, which means that anyone can join in.

What the audience were most interested in during my interview, not surprisingly, were the little tricks I use for my own motivation. I’m not a very motivated person when it comes to writing, and I have to use every technique I can think of to keep going. I don’t really like writing, what I enjoy is having written. I didn’t get to mention all my tricks during my Zalon, so I thought I’d put them down here.

Let me know if you start using any and find them helpful, and please do let me know in the comments what tips and tricks you use to keep writing. Perhaps I’ll do a list about inspiration next; but do let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to cover.

  1. Pretend to write something that isn’t your work in progress (WIP). Open a new document and write in a stream of consciousness style, or morning pages. Let yourself go, fool yourself, and you never know you might just start to write your WIP.
  2. Try the ‘This is Shit’ Technique. When those little voices in your head which tell you what you’re writing is rubbish get too loud, wherever you are in your WIP type [ and let the little voice have its say. Write [this is shit[, or [no one is ever going to read this] or [if I get run over by a bus please don’t publish this], and then when the voice has run out of steam type ], and carry on with your WIP.
  3. Interview a character or yourself about a plot point you’re having a problem with. For me this works best if I write it, but I know that for some writers they have an actual conversation and record it. Open a new Word document and type a heading. (I use, ‘We need to talk about xxx’.) Then type a question and let your subconscious brain answer it. I find it works best if I type the ‘interview’ very quickly without time for thought.
  4. Keep a writing diary for each novel. This is a long term project, but worth starting. Every time you have a writing session write in your diary the date, the current word count, and one line about how that writing session has gone and any major thoughts. For a start, it’s helpful to see the word count increasing – motivation in itself, and secondly when you go through a really difficult patch you can open a diary for a previous novel and see whether you’re feeling the same level of despondency at the same word count as then. (I always am.)
  5. Give yourself deadlines. If you haven’t been given deadlines by anyone else (publisher or if you’re on a course, for example), then give yourself some. Or ask a fellow writer to give you a deadline and make sure they follow up to see that you’ve achieved it.
  6. Read someone else’s (excellent) novel. Reading a bad book doesn’t make me think I can do better, but reading an excellent novel makes me try harder with my own WIP.
  7. Work on several projects at once.
  8. Find the music that’s right for your WIP (tone / style / period) and put it on every time you write. Eventually, putting it on will mean it’s writing time.
  9. Have a ‘word race’ with another writer. Agree a time you’re going to start and the length. Maybe 11am for an hour. Check in with each other just before you start and at 12 to see how it went. It isn’t meant to be competitive, but it helps to know that someone else is writing at the same time as you.
  10. Visit the work every day. Write some of your WIP if you can, but if you can’t, then think about it – when you’re driving, washing up, cooking, whatever. If you have a good thought, email it to yourself or record it (if you don’t, you won’t remember it, or at least I never do). If you do this every day when you do get back to writing the WIP you will have something to write and you will be able to jump into it much faster.

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My fourth novel, Unsettled Ground will be published in the US on May 18, when I’ll be doing lots of online bookshop events, including reading from the book, chatting about my writing process, the inspiration behind the novel and lots more. All tickets are free, but you need to register. See the list of dates here.

Unsettled Ground is already published in the UK, and is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Buy a copy here.

Dogs in Books

Johnny

This article was originally published on Isabel Costello’s blog – The Literary Sofa. Please visit her website for lots more author articles and information about her latest novel, Scent. Just before the post was due to be published I put out a call on Twitter for people’s dog pictures which could accompany the article. Many thanks to everyone who introduced us to their gorgeous furry friends. Isabel chose the adorable Johnny as Official Dog – thanks from Isabel and me to his owner Leah Bergen for use of the photo.

The dog in Unsettled Ground

This might be an odd confession for an article about dogs in books, but I am more of a cat person. I’ve never owned a dog; growing up, my family never owned a dog. We’ve always had cats, and my current one is a tabby called Alan. But I do like dogs, and that’s why I wasn’t too surprised when a dog appeared in my fourth novel, Unsettled Ground. A biscuit-coloured lurcher wrote her way in and became central to the story. But what to call her? I asked Twitter of course. Lots of people responded with their favourite dogs’ names (Luna and Mabel came up over and over). But in the end, I chose Maude, partly because that was what I thought her owner, Jeanie Seeder, would name her.

The Seeder family go through some difficult times and Maude, unfortunately, suffers along with them. What do you feed your dog when you can’t afford dog food, let alone meat? How do dogs behave when they sense illness, or when their owner is under threat? I did a great deal of dog research online, even joining a lurcher appreciation society on Facebook, where I lurked and read lots of posts about the funny things the members’ lurchers did. I watched lots of videos on YouTube of lurchers running (very fast) and sleeping (a great deal). I went for walks with my friends who had dogs, and I asked some of them lots of tedious details about how their dogs would react in certain situations. What I really learned from all my research, is that like humans, and cats, dogs have their own characters. Of course.

And just like human characters in novels, dogs in books can be used in all sorts of ways: to add tension, to gain sympathy, for light-relief and to reflect what’s happening to the human characters. If, like me, you love a good dog (or a bad one) in a novel, then here is a list of some of my favourite novels with dogs in them.

Fluke by James Herbert
I read this book about forty years ago but it has stuck with me all this time. James Herbert was a master of the horror genre, but Fluke is not horror. This is a story about a dog, told in the first person, who remembers being a man. He believes he’s been murdered and sets out to try and protect his family. It’s about life and reincarnation and is probably due a re-read about now.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
Three old friends in their 70s meet in the house of their fourth friend, Sylvie, who has recently died. They are there to help sort out the contents so the house can be sold. The three women, suffering from the usual ailments of old age and griping about each other, are wonderfully drawn. They might be getting on a bit but there are no old-age stereotypes here. Wendy brings along her old dog, Finn, who acts as a symbol of the women’s decline.

Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld
This is a short story collection with only three short stories in it. But what stories! In the first, White Women, LOL, Jill, a white Jewish woman is videoed accusing a group of Black people of gate-crashing her friend’s party. The video goes viral and Jill is ostracised by her friends for being racist. At the same time, an African-American TV presenter has lost her dog and the whole community wants to help her find it. When Jill discovers the dog in someone’s yard, she is determined to catch it. Sittenfeld’s writing and situations skewer suburban life.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
A wonderfully gothic novel with a haunted house (or person) which includes an old lab called Gyp. Caroline Ayres lives with her mother and disfigured brother in the run-down Hundreds Hall. They host a drinks party and their neighbours bring along their precocious eight-year-old daughter. At the party, the young girl is at first scared of Gyp, and then, behind a curtain she teases him, the dog bites, and the girl is injured. There are of course disastrous consequences for everyone. It’s a very tough read for dog lovers, but the incident helps to kick off the unsettling things that happen in the house.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
An old man remembers when, as a child, one of his neighbours was murdered and how afterwards he did something which he has been ashamed of ever since. In the middle section of the novel, the man imagines how the murder happened, moving between the minds of the main characters including the family’s dog. Unlike Fluke, the mind of the dog in So Long, See You Tomorrow remains very dog-like, but I still felt huge sympathy for his predicament.

Isabel Costello’s review of Unsettled Ground

UK Cover of Unsettled Ground

In her fourth novel, Claire Fuller unearths lives rarely seen in contemporary fiction through middle-aged twins Jeanie and Julius, whose experience of rural poverty is all they have ever known. The novel is set in my home county of Wiltshire (which doesn’t happen very often either); we knew of people who lived ‘off-grid’ near the village where I grew up, long before it became a lifestyle choice for some. The gap between them and mainstream society was huge but not as wide as it would be now, when those without access to technology find themselves further marginalised from the infrastructure of everyday life.  This happens to Jeanie and Julius when the death of their mother jeopardises an already precarious domestic set-up.

In less sensitive hands this could have backfired, but there is nothing patronising or romanticised about Claire Fuller’s vision of the protagonists’ rapidly deteriorating circumstances.  In fact, she achieves an effective juxtaposition of hardship and, at times, squalor, with the simple joys of a life lived close to nature and as far as can be from materialism – few could read this novel without reflecting on their own situation. Both siblings have musical talent and the author’s characteristic sensory prose and artist’s eye make the story spring up around the reader in every dimension, including the emotional. The dark tone gives Unsettled Ground more in common with her debut Our Endless Numbered Days than her two most recent novels and if it was sometimes almost unbearably distressing, this is a testament to the empathy Fuller has and creates for the characters, despite heaping one terrible loss or setback after another on them – Jeanie’s vulnerability is especially poignant.  A motif shared by all four novels is that of complex and unusual parent-child bonds, mostly extending into adulthood, and on that score this one is as fascinating as its predecessors. A literary highlight of 2021 which merits the recognition it received even before publication.

Buy Unsettled Ground

Unsettled Ground is longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and is available to buy in the UK as a hardback, ebook or audio book. Click here to buy in the UK. Click here to pre-order in the US. Click here to pre-order in Canada.

Portraits of a Marriage in Good Housekeeping

For the past six years my husband and I have been taking a picture a day and at the end of each year making them into printed books. I wrote an article about it for Good Housekeeping which has just been published in their February 2021 issue. We started the project because we ended up without any decent photos of the two of us from our wedding, so now we take a picture every day of mostly everyday things. When not in lockdown this has included lots of book events, holidays and meeting up with friends and family. For the past year though there have been a lot of pictures of the two of us doing silly things or pictures of Alan the cat. The article isn’t online, so if you do want to read the whole thing I’m afraid you’ll have to go out and buy a copy of the magazine…or you could just start a project of your own.

My fourth novel, Unsettled Ground will be published in the UK on 25th March, and in the US and Canada on 18th May. Find out more about it here.

10 Favourite Movies 2020

I watched 75 films this year. Unfortunately, I only got to watch two at the cinema before the UK lockdown. Here are my top ten in no particular order, and the places in the UK you can watch them. I prefer to give my viewing money to organisations other than Amazon, but I’d still rather watch films than boycott the company altogether, nevertheless as well as summaries of each film, I have listed the places you can currently see them in the UK. Read to the bottom and you’ll find a few bonus movies that I also recommend.

A few facts and figures about my 10 movies:

  • Five female directors, five male (which I’m pretty pleased about)
  • Four American-made movies, the rest from different countries
  • Three subtitled films
  • One from 1992, one from 2013, the rest from 2019 and 2020

Vivarium
2019
Dir: Lorcan Finnegan
Ireland, Denmark & Belgium

Speculative / science fiction. Gemma and Tom go with a peculiar estate agent to visit a house on an estate of identical houses. When Gemma and Tom try to leave they can’t. It gets more and more odd, and ends with a clever circular twist. Available on Curzon Home Cinema and bfi.org

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
2019
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
USA

Action drama. It’s the 1960s and Rick is an actor in LA. His stunt man and friend, Cliff lives in a nearby caravan with his dog. The pair go to Italy to film some spaghetti westerns, and when they return they get to know Rick’s heavily pregnant neighbour, Sharon Tate. A reworking of the Charles Manson murders, this doesn’t end as expected. Violent, yes. Brilliant, yes. Available on Amazon.

The Assistant
2020
Dir: Kitty Green
USA

Drama. Jane is an assistant in a film company in New York. She starts early and performs mundane tasks: clearing her boss’s office, fetching sandwiches, photocopying, as well as lying to his wife about where her boss is. When another assistant arrives in the office, Jane is concerned about her welfare but when she tries to report her suspicions things don’t go as planned. Quiet, reflective, excellent.

System Crasher
2019
Dir: Nora Fingscheidt
Germany

Drama. Nine year old Benni, angry and out of control, is in the German care system. She runs away, back to her mother who is unable to provide the love and care Benni needs. She makes a connection with Micha and his family, and goes with him to the woods for three weeks to learn to take care of herself and although this at first seems to help, the system is unable to cope with her. Eye-opening, emotional, tough. Available on Curzon Home Cinema

The Last Days of Chez Nous
1992
Dir: Gillian Armstrong
Australia

Family drama. Beth lives with her partner, JP, daughter Annie, and lodger Tim, in a house in an Australian city, when her younger sister, Vicky comes to stay. The house is wild with laughter and arguments between Beth and JP. Beth goes on a road trip with her father and when she returns much has changed in the house. Real, touching, memorable. Available on Google Play.

Parasite
2019
Dir: Bong Joon-ho
South Korea

Black comedy thriller. Ki-woo, a poor young man living in a semi-basement with his parents and sister gets a job tutoring a rich family’s daughter. Over time he gets his sister, mother and father jobs for the family, ousting the existing staff. When the rich family are away, Ki-woo and the rest of them discover something unexpected in the basement of the house. Tense, thrilling, eye-opening. Available on Curzon Home Cinema and bfi.org

Ordinary Love
2019
Dir: Lisa Barros D’sa
Britain

Family drama. At Christmas Joan discovers a lump in her breast. She begins treatment and her husband, Tom supports her through chemo and a mastectomy. At the hospital Joan recognises a fellow patient, who is her daughter’s former teacher, and a friendship develops. Quiet, emotional, beautiful. Available on Google Play.

Only the Animals
2019
Dir: Dominik Moll
France

Mystery Thriller. Using a complex but satisfying narrative, this film weaves five different stories and perspectives together. A woman disappears in a snow storm and her car is found. Five people know something about what has happened and as the film visits each perspective we learn something new about the previous section. Clever, absorbing, satisfying. Available on Curzon Home Cinema

Blue Ruin
2013
Dir: Jeremy Saulnier
USA

Action drama. Dwight, apparently a down-and-out, goes after Wade, the killer of his parents, after he is released from prison. But Dwight is neither a killer nor a homeless man, but he quickly gets tangled up in looking for and running from revenge for various murders. It’s complicated and violent, but very satisfying. Available on Netflix.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
2020
Dir: Eliza Hittman
USA

Drama. Autumn is 17 when she discovers she is pregnant. Not finding support from her family or her local clinic, and living in Pennsylvania where she needs parental consent to have an abortion, Autumn and her cousin, Skylar travel to New York. Female friendship, quiet, emotional.

Bonus Movies

There were a few more films that almost made my top ten which you might be interested in looking up. They are:

  • Good Posture
  • Paddleton
  • The Lunchbox
  • It Follows
  • Nancy
  • Calibre

Which of my top ten have you seen and loved? Which have you seen and hated? And do you have any recommendations for me?

Claire’s and Tim’s Best Books of 2020

2020 didn’t turn out to be the year anyone was expecting. Many people found it difficult to concentrate on reading, others, like me and Tim, found reading to be a solace and a distraction. (Not so much with the writing though.) My free little library outside my house got more use than ever over our lockdown periods and continues to do so now. I received some lovely notes from my neighbours, saying how much it helped them especially when the libraries were closed.

This is the sixth year that Tim and I have been tracking the books we’ve read over the previous year and trying to work out which ten we’ve liked the best. We rate all the books we read out of five as we read them, and of course always end up with more than ten 5-star books each. Then the discussions begin!
You can see previous year’s lists here: 2019, 2018201720162015.

I read 96 books this year. Here are some facts and figures about my top ten books I read in 2020:

  • Two books published this year (Writers & Lovers, and The Weekend)
  • The oldest published in 1976 (Bear)
  • One book in translation (Youth)
  • Nine books by women, and one man (The Innocents)
  • Two books set in England (The world Before Us and Expectation), one in Denmark (Youth), four in America (Severance, The Hare, Writers & Lovers, A Crime in the Neighborhood), two in Canada (The Innocents, and Bear), one in Australia (The Weekend)
  • One about a pandemic (Severance)
  • One not published yet (The Hare)
  • One winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (A Crime in the Neighborhood)
  • Three of my books are also in Tim’s list (A Crime in the Neighborhood, Writers & Lovers, and Youth)

All but one of my books are available in the UK. (The Hare is yet to find a UK publisher.) I have created a list on Bookshop.org to make it easy to buy books from my list online in the UK, here. The Hare is available here (currently pre-orders). But please also consider ordering from you local independent – they need our business more than ever. Please try not to buy your books from that other place which really doesn’t need your business – you know the place I mean.

My Best Reads of 2020

Top three (in no order)

Bear by Marian Engel

Controversial and prize-winning, and a masterpiece. Is what I’m going to say now a spoiler? Maybe. This short novel is about a woman who has sex with a bear. There, it’s said. Avoid it, or read it, now you know. But it’s so much more than that – although these scenes are handled expertly. It’s about nature, a woman working out who she is and what she wants, falling in love (yes), feminism, loneliness, connection. Engel writes beautifully, plainly, elegantly. There is nothing lurid or salacious here; it is all part of the whole.

The Hare by Melanie Finn

With The Hare, Melanie Finn has written a powerful story of female perseverance, strength, and resilience. This book has rare qualities: beautiful writing while being absolutely unputdownable, and I will be pressing it into the hands of every reader I know. Teenager, Rosie meets the much older Bennett and for a while is in thrall to him, but when he leaves Rosie and their daughter in a run-down cabin to fend for themselves, Rosie toughens up and fights for her freedom and her daughter.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King

Don’t be put off by the cover – I thought that it was going to be whimsical, a bit too cute for my tastes, but it was almost my perfect read. (I still don’t like that jacket.) It is funny in a downbeat way, brilliantly written, and with such an engaging main character and story. Casey is grieving the death of her mother, juggling debts and gruelling shifts in an upmarket restaurant in Boston (the waitress scenes were so good). And she’s been writing a novel for six years. (All the parts about writing books were spot on.) Writers & Lovers covers the few months where she has relationships with three men and finishes her novel. It’s about creativity and commitment, work and love.

Best of the Rest

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

In The Weekend three female friends in their seventies gather at the holiday home of a fourth friend who has recently died, in order to clear it out. Bitchy, grumpy, private, candid, supportive, loving, these three women are so real, so full of life, I absolutely loved them and the book.

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

This book starts with the death of Ada’s and Evered’s parents and baby sister, leaving the siblings aged 9 and 11 completely alone on a cold and inhospitable New Foundland shore. Ada and Evered – see what Crummey has done there – labour through the seasons only with very occasional visits from The Hope to deliver supplies and take their catch of cod. Ada and Evered know just about enough to survive (and the book is full of the work they do, and the landscape they have to submit to), but like Eve and Adam before the time of the apple, they know next to nothing about the world beyond their cove and even less about their bodies. A brilliant, visceral, evocative coming of age novel.

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

Marsha is looking back to a couple of months in the summer of 1972 when as a child her father leaves her mother for her aunt, and a boy she knows a little, and doesn’t really like, is molested and murdered in her neighbourhood. Hot days and boiling nights make everyone in the claustrophobic suburbs suspicious of strangers until the undercurrent of hysteria bubbles up into a terrible accusation. This book positively simmers. But don’t expect a crime novel; it’s more about asking why we do the things we do, and not always knowing the answer.

Severance by Ling Ma

This was pure enjoyment, even though it’s mostly a book about a world after a virus has killed most people off. I love a good apocalit. But it’s much more than that, and has a lot to say about immigration, consumerism, capitalism, millennial ennui, and office work. It is also an elegy to New York, or cities in general. Candace is an office worker when a deadly pandemic kills people, but not before they repeat the same routine again and again. She escapes New York and finds the scary Bob and a small team of people heading to The Facility in Chicago. The story flips backwards and forwards in time looking at how Candace ended up in New York, and her brief time in China, as well as the immigration of her parents to the US. The more I’ve been thinking about this book in the months since I read it, the more I’ve found to love.

Youth by Tove Ditlevsen (translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Second in Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen trilogy and from the start it was definitely going to be in my top ten reads of the year. Tove is a teenager moving from job to job, longing for love and to have her poems published. The writing is so fresh despite it being first published in 1967 and being set in 1930s. I’m not sure I’m ready to say goodbye to 20 (or so) year old Tove.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

How had I never heard of this book until this year? How have I never read it before? when it is exactly my kind of book. Layered, ambiguous, thoughtful, beautifully written, but with a strong narrative. When Jane was 15, Lily the child she was minding, vanished on a walk. The disappearance has haunted her into adulthood, shaped her decisions about work, relationships and study. Jane is obsessed with two things: a girl known only as N who disappears from the pages of history in a similar location, and William Eliot, Lily’s father. When Jane meets William again after more than fifteen years it doesn’t go as she has always imagined, and forces her into action. Following Jane around is a group of ghosts who talk about themselves in the first person plural and are trying to work out who they are and why they are here. If that sounds ridiculous, it isn’t – I found the ghosts very moving.

Expectation by Anna Hope

While the story might not be particularly new, something about the way Hope writes just pulled me in and I ended up reading this in any spare moment, even standing up cooking the dinner. The author doesn’t show herself in even the tiniest way and so it was as though I wasn’t reading at all, but walking along the London streets with these women, lying in the park in the dusk, smoking in their flat with them. Hannah, Cate and Lissa are in their mid 20s and are best friends living together in London. They have the rest of their lives ahead of them: they can be anything, go anywhere, do anything. The book skips ten years on (and back again) to see how their lives have unexpectedly turned out. For fans of Ann Tyler, Maggie O’Farrell, and Esther Freud.

Tim’s Top Ten Reads of the Year

Tim’s Top Three (in no order)

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

Tim says: Originally published back in 1998, this is amazing. As close as it comes to time travel by reading a novel as you can get. I read it and it was 1972. I read it and the sun pounded down. I read it and I was in the Boston suburbs. Great characters and so much wonderful detail. If you like your books vivid and bright, try this one.

Burning Bright by Ron Rash

Tim says: Raw and honest. Sometimes brutal, sometimes intimate, always just right. I’ve read tons of incredible short stories this year (see Emma Cline and Jeffrey Eugenides in my top 10), but this is something else. Brilliant. Ron Rash is new to me. Claire and I give each other books all the time. She always gets it spot on, or at least that’s what I thought. Then I found out that she asks her Twitter and Instagram friends for suggestions after briefing them on my tastes. I don’t care if that’s cheating, but if it was you who pushed her in the direction of Ron Rash, I thank you. Pushing it back.

Love by Hanne Orstavik (translated by Martin Aitken)

Tim says: Tense, Nordic, and beautiful in equal measure, with a bit of eerie thrown in too. Love takes place over the course of a single night. Jon is locked out of his house. He and his mother have very different journeys. I couldn’t put it down. Makes me want to go back to Scandinavia right now. How do books do that?

Tim’s Best of the Rest

  • Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
  • Daddy by Emma Cline
  • Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese
  • Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
  • Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Youth by Tove Ditlevsen
  • Writers and Lovers by Lily King

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My fourth novel, Unsettled Ground will be published in March in the UK, and in May in the USA and Canada. Find out more here.

Backlisted Podcast: Journal of a Disappointed Man

A short while ago I was invited onto the award-winning podcast, Backlisted to discuss with the two presenters, Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, together with fellow guest William Atkins, The Journal of a Disappointed Man, and the episode has now gone live.

If you haven’t come across Backlisted before, it’s a discussion podcast about a book which deserves greater attention – often a book which has been forgotten from an author’s back-catalogue. It’s friendly, and chatty, and funny, and I have come across so many gems.

In fact, I discovered The Journal of a Disappointed Man through Backlisted a few years ago, and then here I am, on the podcast extolling the wonders of this journal.

The podcast will explain more about the book, and hopefully persuade you to find a copy and read it, but it is the journal of Bruce Cummings, starting at age 13, and continuing until his early death from MS. It’s sad, of course, but also incredibly funny and clever, and just very very readable.

So, have a listen, in fact have a listen to some of the other Backlisted episodes, and you might discover some new favourite books.

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

usbooks

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

UPDATE: Please buy books from independent bookshops. 
During the coronavirus outbreak independent bookshops need you to buy books from them, rather than that large online store that everyone knows. Most independents have an online presence, or if not will take orders over the phone or by email. If we don’t buy from them now (or at least shops with physical stores), then they won’t be able to reopen when all this is over.

If you don’t know any independents, I’m listing one per country below, or you can use bookshop.org in the US, or hive.co.uk in the UK to find / buy from independents. Although it is still best to go to the shop directly. If you can recommend an independent bookshop which will deliver in your country, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

US: Literati Bookstore
UK: The Aldeburgh Bookshop

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!

*

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 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!