A Haunting Tale for Halloween – Matthew Marland on Little Sister Death by William Gay

LITTLE SISTER DEATH COVER 2“It is tempting to say that the discovery of William Gay’s last manuscript is a story as compelling as the novel’s own brilliantly constructed, deeply chilling plot. There are many examples of posthumously published, ‘undiscovered’ books – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal – but Little Sister Death, William Gay’s ‘lost’ horror novel published this month by Faber & Faber is a remarkable addition to the list. Pessoa’s is a sprawling and unfinished work of over five hundred pages, Darger’s book – like the paintings which were also found in his home after his death – raw and immediate, but crucially incomplete. Little Sister Death, though, comes to us fully formed, a book about death and haunting that seems to appear from the land of the dead.

Like Henry Darger, Gay was a self-taught artist who worked in blue-collar jobs and wrote after hours. Gay was a construction worker from rural Tennessee, a man who, as Tom Franklin writes in his wonderful introduction to this edition, cut his own hair and bathed in the creek behind his house, and who found fame as a writer late in life. His first novel, The Long Way, was published when he was 57, and only handful more appeared before his death in 2012. Working as builder, a dry-wall hanger, a carpenter, it wasn’t the thing to talk about writing, especially your own. ‘You don’t come out on Monday morning and then tell these guys you’re working with about this sonnet you wrote over the weekend.’ It is thus not surprising that a manuscript was found among his paper’s after he was discovered dead in his log cabin in Hohenwald, southwest Nashville.

Little Sister Death is a truly frightening book. Inspired by the famous 19th-century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee, it follows the unravelling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to find inspiration for his faltering work. Movingly between the early 1800s and 1982, the two periods conjoined by the ghostly appearance of a girl in a green dress, disembodied laughter cackling in the night, sexual obscenities muttered from behind closed doors, the book is beautifully written and deeply unsettling. Binder, a writer with one published novel to his name and desperate to find his next story, knows the house’s terrible history but chooses nonetheless to bring his family there. As has been noted in The Telegraph, it is ‘scary story but also a study of the writer – his temperament, his torment and his devil’s pact for the price of a good story.’ Or, as Tom Franklin puts it, it is about how ‘the necessary obsessions of writing can cause its practitioners to risk alienating or losing not their loves ones but (perhaps) their sanity as well’. It is a sublime piece of writing, a darkly gripping, terrifying tale, a masterly example of Southern Gothic horror and book that confirms Gay’s place among writers such as William Faulker and Flannery O’Connor. But for all that, let’s not forget – it’s really, really scary.”

For your chance to win a copy of Little Sister Death, simply visit our @CBBookgroup Twitter handle and retweet one of our competitionTweets by midnight on Saturday 23st October.

Little Sister Death is published by Faber & Faber and is available now.

My Five Favourite Historical Crime Novels by S D Sykes

Dark FireDark Fire by C.J Sansom

I could have filled this list with CJ Samson novels, but as I had to pick one, I’ve gone for ‘Dark Fire.’ Set during the reign of Henry VIIIth this novel brilliantly portrays the scheming politics of court, the vacillations of the church between Catholicism and Protestantism after the Reformation, and the grimy, bustling life of Tudor London. Sansom’s protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, employed to defend a young girl who has been wrongly accused of murder. Alongside this case, Shardlake is also engaged by Thomas Cromwell, in Cromwell’s last attempts to impress the King before his downfall. More than anything about these books, I love Shardlake’s character. He is intelligent and honorable in an age when integrity was often a bendable concept.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto EcoThe Name of the Rose

For me, the classic medieval murder mystery. Set in 1327, it follows a young novice Adso and his mentor Friar William, as they try to solve the mystery of a series of deaths at a monastery in the north of Italy. It’s brilliantly written, with a twisting plot and a truly gothic backdrop. The monastery is remote. Secrets abound. There are wizened priests, a beautiful village girl and a vast labyrinthine library. This is also a demanding book. Full of the politics of the time, and also the history of conflict within the Catholic church. A fantastic and absorbing novel.

The Devil in the MarshalseaThe Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

This novel, published last year, is the story of a young man, Tom Hawkins, who is thrown into the notorious debtors prison at the Marshalsea in 1727. His only chance of release comes if he can solve the murder of a previous inmate, and win his pardon. Based on real descriptions of the prison, it is deeply shocking in places. The prison was split into two sides. The ‘masters side’ for debtors who could afford some level of board and keep. And the ‘common side’ where debtors were subject to the most vile and degrading treatment imaginable. Written with emotion, artistry and wit, this novel keeps the reader guessing until the very last pages.

The Little StrangerThe Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The above three novels have been historical crime novels in the classic vein, with a murder, an investigation led by a detective, and then a solution. I’m including The Little Stranger, as it is has a historical setting, in the post-war years of the late forties, and it also has murder. As the old order in society changes, a great house, once staffed with many servants, falls into irreversible decay. The family cling on, but as time goes by, something, or some one wants them to leave the place. This book reeks of the gothic. A decaying mansion, doomed love, shadows, ghosts and a murder. I absolutely love it.

Company of LiarsCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland

Once again, not historical crime, in the murder mystery mould, but still full of history and death. This is the story of a gaggle of misfits who band together to escape the Black Death. As they travel through England, always keeping one step ahead of the Plague, they are picked off, one by one by a force that is more evil than the disease they are fleeing. Brimming with atmosphere and historical detail, this was the novel that convinced me to write about the 14th century.

S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land, the first in the Oswald de Lacey series, will be published by Hodder in paperback on 21st May 2015. Follow S D Sykes on Twitter at @SD_Sykes and find out more about Plague Land and the Oswald de Lacey series at sdsykes.co.uk.

For your chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, visit @CBBookGroup on Twitter between 18th and 22nd May and look out for one of our competition tweets.

Historical Crime Week: Why I Love Historical Crime by S D Sykes

We’re handing over control of our blog to author S D Sykes for the next five days as we celebrate everything we love about historical crime. Look out for more exclusive blogs here throughout the week and don’t forget to follow @cbbookgroup on Twitter for your chance to win one of five signed copies of S D Sykes’s debut novel, Plague Land.

“Why historical crime?” we hear you ask…well, we’ll let our host will explain…

Colour head and shoulders crop“It’s historical crime week at the Curtis Brown reading group so, as host, I’m going to use this opportunity to shamelessly promote my own particular genre. Now, I know there are some among you who remain resistant to its charms. I sometimes meet you at book clubs or library talks, when you saunter over to me with an expression of embarrassment, even guilt, written across your face. You often won’t make eye contact as you then spill out your confession. ‘I don’t usually read historical crime,’ you admit, before leaning over conspiratorially. ‘But I did enjoy your book.’

So, how can I convince more of you to try it out? To become proud readers of historical crime fiction. Because the genre is home to some truly excellent writing. Firstly, if you love the cut and thrust of contemporary crime, then there’s absolutely nothing not to love about historical crime. Our novels bear all the same fundamental characteristics. In short, there’s a murder, an investigation and a resolution.

If there is a difference, then it’s this. The investigator, and I use this word rather than detective, does not have the tools of modern day policing at his or her disposal. Most novels are set before any sort of police force came into being, and there is certainly no forensic science to rely upon – other than perhaps an understanding of poisonous herbs or the characteristics of rigor mortis. Personally, I love this aspect of historical crime. The murder can only be solved by the deduction of clues. The cross-examination of suspects, and the scrutiny of personality. By logic, combined with sudden bursts of insight. It’s all the stuff of great novels… without a lab coat or DNA swab in sight.

There’s also the history to consider. I have a feeling that readers sometimes believe that historical fiction is not for them, as it says nothing about their lives. I tend to feel the opposite. The more I research into my own period of interest, the 14th century, the more I can identify with people from the past. Reading the works of Boccaccio or Chaucer, both written in the 1300s, I endlessly come across the same people I meet in my contemporary life. Humans remain what they have always been, a complex mixture of emotions, desires, neuroses and selflessness. I find this reassuring.

What’s different, of course, is the environment. But once again, this is another aspect of the genre to love. I’m reading a fast-paced, gripping crime novel, but I’m also running through a crowded street in 18th century London, or I’m sitting in the refectory of a monastery, and perhaps I’m discussing the politics of the Catholic church in the middle ages, or I’m just gossiping about the rotten food or the state of the latrines. There is a misconception that historical fiction is either about battles, the royal family, or involves the copious ripping of bodices. I’m not saying that these books don’t exist, but there is so much more. My own favourite novels tell the story of ordinary people, their struggles for survival in the days before medicine, education and democracy. And good historical fiction doesn’t throw the history at you in crude spoonfuls, instead it allows the world to gently envelop you and transport you effortlessly into the past. You learn stuff, without even trying.

So I say. Go on. Don’t be embarrassed. Give it a try.”

S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land, the first in the Oswald De Lacey series, will be published by Hodder in paperback on 21st May 2015. Follow S D Sykes on Twitter at @SD_Sykes and find out more about Plague Land and the Oswald De Lacey series at sdsykes.co.uk.

For your chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, visit @CBBookGroup on Twitter between 18th and 22nd May and look out for one of our competition tweets.

Tammy Cohen on Self Doubt

Author Tammy Cohen’s latest novel, The Broken, is a chilling story of divorce and loyalty (think Girl on the Train meets The Husband’s Secret). Here, she tells us about that universal feeling: self doubt…

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I am a serial killer. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve murdered at various stages of life or gestation. My hard-drive and bottom drawer (let’s draw a veil over the stack of cardboard boxes in the loft) are a graveyard of unfinished novels, their narrative-arcs cruelly truncated, their futures un-played out.

81hqyXHj+DLI wish I could blame perfectionism or a compulsive need to experiment with form, but there’s only one reason behind the Killing Fields that are my writing history: self doubt.

Ian Rankin calls it The Fear – that horrible, bile-inducing conviction that comes to you somewhere between 10,000 words and 30,000 words that what you are writing is the worst thing ever written. By anyone. At any time. What on earth made you think this was a good plot for a book? Which misguided idiot gave you the idea you could write?

It was Iris Murdoch who said ‘every book is the wreck of a good idea’.  How wise she was. Before I start a novel, I’ve usually convinced myself my idea for it is the best I’ve ever had. Scratch that, the best anyone ever had. I can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye – this perfectly conceived and executed gem that will become an instant classic, be showered with prizes and awards and have other writers kicking themselves that they didn’t think of it first.  When people ask what my new book will be about I say, ‘I can’t tell you’, in an infuriatingly smug way, so convinced am I that everyone will want to steal my Precious.

My enthusiasm carries me through the first few thousand words, but then they start to crawl in. The doubts. They’re like ants – every time I block up one hole, they find another to swarm in through. Really? they say. That’s it? Your grand idea? Plot holes I previously glossed over in excitement become fathomless craters. The characters are ridiculous, two dimensional. Rather than leaping off the page, they flatten themselves to it like stickers. There’s a reason no one has written this book before – and that’s because it’s crap.

Author Sadie Jones, whose debut novel The Outcast won the Costa award in 2008, perfectly describes this agonising realisation that the book you’ve ended up writing is a million miles from the masterpiece you’d conceived of. “You imagine, before you start, there’s a cathedral,’ she said in an Observer interview,  “and the moment it starts on the page, it’s a garden shed.”

It’s at this point that Past Me always gave up. What’s the point in investing time in something that not only isn’t perfect, but some mornings you can’t even bear to look at? I’d abandon the work in progress and move on to the next one. And then the next, a pattern that only stopped when, in desperation, I sent the first 10,000 words of a novel to Vivienne Schuster at Curtis Brown.

While she didn’t sign me up on the spot, prompting a 12-way bidding war on the basis of those 10,000 words, she did tell me it had commercial potential. And that was enough. I gritted my teeth, ploughed on through the doubts and finished the book in three months.

So, I’d like to say I never experienced those crippling doubts again. But that would be a lie. Each book I start, there they are again, like unwelcome holiday guests who keep returning year after year, even though the hotelier has banned them. But now I’m on Book Seven, I’ve finally worked out some coping strategies:

Stop aiming for perfection, and just get the words down. You can always change them at second draft stage.

Write for yourself, as if no one else will ever read it.

Read David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay ‘The Nature of the Fun’ where he compares the work in progress to a deformed infant, and concludes the only way to avoid being overcome with revulsion for the hideous creature we’ve created is to get back to seeing work as fun rather than self exposure.

Remember every top writer has doubts – and besides, anything that puts you in the same boat as Ian Rankin can’t be bad. Right?

Tamar Cohen’s fourth novel The Broken comes out in paperback today, published by Black Swan

Clare Conville on The Kindness by Polly Samson

It was with huge pleasure that I started representing Polly Samson just over a year ago and it was with great excitement that I took possession of her second novel The Kindness, published today by Bloomsbury UK. Polly is a very old and dear friend, I had followed her extremely distinguished writing career over many years and had absolutely loved her recent collection of short stories Perfect Lives, but I did not know quite what to expect of  The Kindness.

I knew that it was partly influenced by Paradise Lost so I sensed that betrayal might be at the heart of the story, and I knew it would be extremely good, as Polly is an extraordinary writer, her prose vivid and glittering, her insights darkly funny, her moral compass so finely tuned, framing her work with such great subtlety that it’s almost a sleight of hand.

What I did not know, but was to discover, was that two compelling family stories, that of Polly’s Uncle Heino and his lost child and subsequent suicide, and Polly’s own story as the child of two fathers, travelling between England and Berlin while her mother tried to make her mind up about which partner she would choose and which life she wanted to lead, had been woven into the plot to profound and heart-breaking effect.

I read The Kindness in one sitting and was blown away by it. Fiendishly structured it moves forwards, backwards and sideways in time and tells the story of a passionate love-affair between Julian a student and Julia, an older, already married, woman. Against all advice from friends and family Julian drops his university career and the couple elope; several years later their longed for child Mira is born. It looks as if their happiness is complete when Firdaws, Julian’s much loved and much missed family home, comes up for sale and they move to the country. Julian is ecstatic, Julia a little less so, but she continues to put her heart and soul into her gardening business in London while Julian oversees the re-creation of his childhood idyll.

However when Mira becomes extremely, possibly mortally, ill the fissures in their relationship begin to show, stresses and strains rise to the surface, misunderstandings are left unresolved, hurt feelings left to fester. Julian and Julia battle to save their child but in doing so their relationship begins to unravel. The first half of this un-putdownable book culminates in a devastating scene when Julian finally discovers the nature of the kindness that has been shown to him. A kindness that come to destroy everything he thought he understood and every security he thought he had. There has been a serpent in the Garden of Eden all along.

All that’s left to say is that I urge you to read this book. Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written it combines the moral grandeur of a great nineteenth century novel such as Great Expectations or Therese Raquin with the immediacy and dark impact of writers such as Daphne Du Maurier, Beryl Bainbridge and Tessa Hadleigh.

Simply stunning!


The Kindness is published today by Bloomsbury in hardback and ebook. Clare Conville is Polly Samson‘s agent.


Reality Check – Eve Ainsworth on Seven Days


Why do gritty, realistic books matter?

When I wrote Seven Days, I was immediately proud of my creation. It felt like a very honest and true representation of what I had witnessed in the school I worked for. I hoped it was something that teens would pick up and relate to. I also hoped that by showing both sides of bullying – the reasons why someone might bully – that I was introducing an interesting perspective.

However, when sending the book out to agents, the response I received was unanimous. Most of the messages were positive, but all said similar things; ‘great book, but too gritty, too dark – it just wouldn’t sell’.

This made me sad for two reasons:

  • I desperately wanted to get published and was convinced this would be the book to do it
  • Maybe real-life, contemporary books weren’t as popular as I’d hoped.

As a teenager, I devoured books and they helped me through some tough times. I tended to veer towards books that were reflective of my thoughts and feelings – it made me feel less isolated, less scared of some of the issues I was facing – like early novels by Jacqueline Wilson, Judy Blume and Robert Swindells. There was one book that I checked out of the library again and again. It was a book about bullying. I wish I could remember the title, but what I do remember was how much the gritty, hard message hit home. At the time, I was being bullied. This one book – this hard-hitting – ‘tell-it-as-it-is’ book, made me feel less alone. I read it so many times, wondering just how the author had managed to tap into my own mind. In many ways it helped me feel less of a victim.

Books like these mattered so much to me when I was younger and mattered so much to my friends.

Therefore I felt overjoyed when Curtis Brown contacted me to say that they loved my book. When I discussed the text with Stephanie Thwaites, I knew she completely understood what I was trying to deliver. Then having a publisher, such as Scholastic, decide to publish it has been amazing.

But what is even more amazing is receiving feedback from readers. I’ve been told that it is a ‘powerful read’ that it reflected personal experiences, that it had impact.

And that was all I wanted to do.

Gritty, real-life books matter because they resonate with the reader. They reflect the world that the readers exist in and prevent it from being a lonely, sad place. Books encourage discussion, thought and understanding. They help us to appreciate exactly what another individual is going through.

And surely that can only ever be a good thing?

Featured Book: Paris for One by Jojo Moyes (Quick Read)

If we’re honest, we’re a bit selfish.

We’re not ashamed to say that we decided to start the Curtis Brown Book Group because we love to read (and because we love to talk about the books that we’ve read!)

We’re book devotees, book groupies, book converts – put simply, we’re hooked.

And we’re relieved that we’re not alone – nearly two-thirds of UK adults turn to books for pleasure – and after all getting together to chat about a good story is the best bit!Quick Reads

The charity Quick Reads was set up in 2006 to reach the 35% that don’t read in their free time – in particular the 1 in 6 of adults who aren’t able to read, not because they don’t want to, but because they struggle with literacy, confidence, or access to books.

In the last nine years Quick Reads has distributed a remarkable 4.5million books and, through outreach work, introduced hundreds of thousands of new readers to the joy of reading.

Curtis Brown authors have been proud to support Quick Reads – Jeffrey Archer, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Harriet Evans, and James Caan have all written short works for the charity in recent years – and this year we’re delighted that our own Jojo Moyes’s Paris for One will be one of six new Quick Reads for 2015.

Here’s a bit more about the book below (and for your chance to win a copy just visit our @CBBookGroup on Twitter on Thursday 18th February):

Paris for OneParis for One by Jojo Moyes

Nell is twenty-six and has never been to Paris. She has never even been on a weekend away with her boyfriend. Everyone knows she is just not the adventurous type.

But, when her boyfriend doesn’t turn up for their romantic mini-break, Nell has the chance to prove everyone wrong.

Alone in Paris, Nell meets the mysterious moped-riding Fabien and his group of carefree friends. Could this turn out to be the most adventurous weekend of her life?

Other new titles for Quick Reads in 2015 include Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle, Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen by Sophie Hannah, Red for Revenge by Fanny Blake, Out of the Dark by Adèle Geras, and Street Cat Bob by James Bowen.

For more information about Quick Reads and their work just visit their website or follow on TwitterParis for One by Jojo Moyes was published by Penguin on 5th February 2015.  Follow Jojo on Twitter at @jojomoyes and for more information about her other novels visit www.jojomoyes.com.

Featured Book: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

“These applications are my perpetual torment” – this was Benjamin Franklin, complaining to a friend about the endless requests he received for letters of reference.  Increasingly cynical about the worth of such letters, Franklin disposed of one request very quickly:  “The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name.”

I read (and write) hundreds of letters of recommendation every year during university admissions season, and I’ve become sceptical about their worth as well.  I’ve read letters written by candidates’ family and friends (“Though I am her mother, I can assure you without bias that she is one of the most gifted….”), letters purportedly written by Chaucer and Shakespeare (“Herein ye find the file o’ a man from the North”), and applications accompanied by six­packs of beer or boxes of trophies (“employee of the month”).

But most of the letters I read are dull and formulaic – which, in part, is what inspired Dear Committee Members.  I often force writing exercises on my students, but this time I gave myself an assignment:  Write a piece of fiction in the form of a series of letters of recommendation.  I wasn’t sure this was a good or even a feasible idea, so I told myself (because writing is a mind-game) that it was just a silly low-risk experiment, and if the first ten pages were awful, I would throw them away.

The very best thing about writing this book:  I quickly realized that, in order for the novel to function, my letter-writing professor, Jay Fitger, would need to be wildly inappropriate, including in recommendations written for other people information about his own romantic history, his sense of failure, his frustrations with colleagues at work.

Looking at the pages I was writing in draft, I saw that I’d created a second self, a doppelganger – my evil twin.   I’d never had an imaginary friend to blame things on when I was a child, but here was Professor Jay Fitger, mouthy, obnoxious, funny, and full of rage.  How satisfying!  While I’m on the quiet end of the spectrum, eager for compromise and consensus, Jay (whose name is – curious coincidence – my first initial) was more than willing to push himself forward, aggressive.  I felt a secret thrill of recognition every time he put his cantankerous foot in his mouth.

Some readers have asked if it was difficult to create such an irascible (and male) character.  I want to tell them that I *love* Professor Jay Fitger; he is everything I don’t know how to be.

Some readers have also asked if, after publishing the novel, I still get requests for letters of recommendation.  Yes, of course.  Take a look at this one:


My name is ____ and I am an undergraduate student studying at UMN. I am looking to hire an experienced writing professional to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of a recommender who does not have time to write one out for me and has asked that I somehow put one together for him to sign and mail in.

This letter does not have to be longer than one page and I have a format I would like you to follow. You will be compensated for this job if you are able to do it, money is not an objective as I need this letter within the next 2 weeks.

I was tempted to respond, if only to correct his punctuation, but then I realized I could leave that task to Professor Jay Fitger.  I can be appropriate and polite, and leave the piss and vinegar to my evil twin.

Dear Committee Members is published by The Friday Project and is out now in paperback. You can hear Julie on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb on March 13th. We’re giving away three copies on Twitter. 

Featured Book: My Favourite Teenage Narrators by Matt Greene, author of Ostrich

Matt Greene’s 2014 debut Ostrich tells the story of Alex, an intensely likeable 12 year old on the cusp of turning thirteen.  It’s a heartwarming (and heartbreaking…) debut that reminds us of all of the dramas that adolescence brings.  In today’s featured book blog the author Matt Greene reveals his top five  fictional teenage storytellers – and you can tell us yours by tweeting @arealmattgreene and @CBBookGroup.

Matt Greene, author of Ostrich

Matt Greene-detail“When being chased by a bear you needn’t outrun it; all you need do is outrun the slowest camper. It was with this advice in mind that three years ago I sat down to write my first novel, Ostrich. At the time I was twenty-six years old, just over twice the age of my narrator Alex. Writing a novel was something I had always wanted to do. I had spent much of the past decade trying my hand at various different writing disciplines, from short stories and sketches to plays and film scripts. All of these I (perhaps naively) considered myself qualified to write. The novel, however, was different. One day I imagined I would be ready to write a novel. This day would only come when I’d accrued a sufficient amount of wisdom and experience – probably some time in my thirties.

In many ways, it’s easier to write a book from the perspective of a precocious twelve year old than, say, a Nobel-winning astrophysicist. (As a rule of thumb, I find it helps in writing to be at least ten per cent cleverer than your most intelligent character.) This may have partly guided me in my decision to have a pre-teen narrate my first novel but, crucially, it was not what sustained me. There’s a reason that so many of my favourite novels, films and TV shows concern themselves with adolescence, a time when you understand the world so much better than it understands you. The chasm between knowledge and wisdom is never more pronounced than in your teens. By, say, fifteen, your intellectual faculties are basically fully developed and there’s a tendency to think you’ve outgrown your ignorance. There is no one more worldly than a hormonal adolescent who’s never left the home counties, and yet at the same time, as though your skin still has a few layers left to grow, there’s a vulnerability to your teenage years that matches anything you’ve experienced before and outstrips anything you’ll experience again. I believe at thirteen I had a worldview far more certain than the one I hold now. I also believe that it was no less valid for the falsehoods on which it was based. The chance to recapture the conviction I felt back then was a large part of what sustained me through writing Ostrich and it’s also part of what I look for in my entertainment. Below are five of my favourite fictional teenagers.

1) Hal Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace Lexical genius, tennis prodigy and drug addict, Hal Incandenza may only narrate one chapter of DFW’s plus size masterpiece but it’s the first and, if you ask me, the best. When he tells us that he has opinions, which (for reasons way too complex to summarise here) he’s unable to express, Hal (ironically enough if you’ve read it) gives voice to an entire age range.

2) Frank The Wasp Factory Iain Banks Adolescence is, in many ways, a time to try new things. Or, as sixteen-year-old Frank puts it when he tells us how he’s killed three people: ‘It was a stage I was going through.’ So begins one of the braver coming-of-age stories you’ll ever read. Not so much remorseful as (very) mildly embarrassed, Frank encapsulates the view that the first eighteen years of your life are somehow non-canonical.

3) Berie Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Lorrie Moore Technically I’m cheating (don’t worry, it’s about to get a whole lot worse) since Lorrie Moore’s second novel is actually narrated through Berie’s recollection of her childhood in Horsehearts – in particular her teenage summer job at a theme park called Storyland. Still, it remains my favourite study of teenage friendship, which, like first love, provides the yardstick against which all future relationships must be measured. A sadder, funnier, more beautiful book about the compromise of aging you will struggle to find.

4) Vernon Vernon God Little DBC Pierre Vernon Little is a man beholden (get it?) to no one. Falsely suspected of a high school massacre and on the run to the Mexican border, he might just be the ultimate teenage outcast. Less a study of tragedy than alienation, VGL proves how lonely it can be to live your life at odds with the prevailing paradigms – or as anyone who’s read this deserved Booker winner will doubtless prefer, powerdimes.

5) LyndseyFreaks & Geeks – Paul Feig See, I told you it was going to get worse. Yes, I’m being a traitor to my medium and yes you have to suffer through Seth Rogen learning to be Seth Rogen, but Linda Cardellini’s Lyndsey Weir captures the conflict of adolescence as well as anything I’ve ever read. From the death of her grandmother to discovering The Grateful Dead, Lyndsey’s journey manages the rare trick of being both painfully familiar and endlessly illuminating.”

isbn9781780225159-detailOstrich is now available in paperback and ebook from Weidenfeld & Nicolson. You can follow Matt Greene on Twitter at @arealmattgreene.

Featured Book: Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj

It’s paperback publication day for one of our favourite debuts of 2014, Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj.  Find out more about this beautiful and timely novel in today’s blog from the author.

9781780746098_0Claire Hajaj, author of Ishmael’s Oranges

Claire Hajaj“Of the many extraordinary things happened after this book escaped into the great wide world – the one that haunts me most came through an unexpected letter. It arrived on my computer one evening. And even though it came via email it was still very much a letter – an old woman’s thoughts precisely set down in careful paragraphs, framed with a polite greeting and a sad farewell.

It wasn’t a review. I suppose it was an appeal of sorts, a cry of protest from someone I’d never met or even known existed – but whom I’d hurt nonetheless and who now demanded an explanation.

She wrote from Israel, the home of her girlhood and her old age. There, she told me, decades ago, when she still wore stockings to school and put on lipstick at the weekends, she had known my father. They were classmates in Jaffa in the 1950’s, a few short years after Palestine’s fall and Israel’s birth. A Jew who loved her country, and a Palestinian Arab who’d lost his. She sent a picture of them beaming out from a crowd of friends – the only picture I’ve ever seen of my father in his teens. He’s crouching shyly, she has a beehive hairstyle and arms flung around her girlfriends. At their backs the schoolyard stretches away full of laughing children in sepia tones.

Why was she writing? She said she’d seen an interview with me on the BBC and recognized an image of my father. Thrilled to rediscover an old friend and curious to read a story inspired by his experiences she’d bought my book. And what she read devastated her. Her letter to me was hurt and puzzled. I can’t believe that the character of Salim in your book at the boy I knew are the same person, she protested. I can’t believe this was really how he was feeling all along. We were all friends, us Jews and Arabs here in Jaffa. I can’t believe he grew up with this pain, and to hold these prejudices.

Ah, the difficulties of separating threads of fact from fiction – and when you write fiction woven out of fact, it’s an even more tangled knot to unpick.

When I set out to capture the sweeping story of my two families through a tale about a boy and his orange trees, an author friend asked me why I didn’t simply write a memoir. My answer was instinctive. When we try to pin histories down, we risk twisting and changing them. How can any of us be sure we know exactly what happened and when? Memories change, pictures fade, documents get lost. The history we think we know is part fact, part imagination.

Salim, Jude and the generations of characters in my novel were shaped in part from family memories – from my childhood, from my parents and their stories spun out Russia and Palestine, from the violence of Europe and the intoxication of Beirut. But every new word I wrote gave the Al-Ishmaeli and Gold households a fresh spirit unlike my mother’s and father’s, filling them with colour and purpose of their own. I used to sit at my computer and imagine how it must have felt for writers in the age of the pen – watching ink infuse into the page like blood into a vein, creating life with its own unique alchemy.

Facts matter in historical novels, of course – and I wanted to get mine right. I spent hours, days, months researching how much train tickets cost in turn of the century Russia, or where to buy a handful of sherbets in Jaffa’s forgotten souqs. I needed to know how to drive the dangerous routes to the Shatila refugee camp in the days before civil war turned Beirut’s roads to rubble, and how to get a visa if you wanted to escape to London. I researched so much I had to remove half of what I’d learned in the editing process. It still hurts to remember those tiny pieces of hard-won knowledge pooling oh-so-reluctantly on the cutting-room floor.

But facts are not truth. Truth is a much fiercer crucible for narratives – and Arabs and Jews have not one truth but many. I searched for the truths about my family experience through empathy rather documentary. I wanted to translate the emotions of one side for the other, to allow both to feel each other’s joys and sorrows. And even though only some of events of the book are a “factual” part of my particular family story – I believe the book is true to our experience. And it is true to the broader experience of two peoples locked together in a sorrowful history of war, migration and loss.

I did write back to my father’s old school friend, and gave her the best comfort I could. She wasn’t deluded and she hadn’t been deceived. The shy and openhearted boy she’d cared for was no less or more real than the conflicted man in my novel. They can both occupy the same soul, the same human story, the same place in history. They are both fact and both fiction. We all change in the telling and as we grow older – not just who we are in the present, but who we were in the past. That’s what Ishmael’s Oranges is all about, in the end.

In many ways, this book is above all a confession. I live in Lebanon, a country still at war with Israel, where a woman with a Palestinian surname would never admit to a Jewish heritage. Launching this book during the last Gaza conflict, I felt like I knew what it was like to be gay, coming out to a disapproving society. The world felt more exposed and less certain. I needed courage to face my friends here, with the “truth” about me all over the press. And they were more hesitant, as if they had to get to know me all over again – part as friend, part as foe.

If you’re planning to read my story – and I so hope you are – then please write when you’ve finished and tell me if any of this reminds me of your own. This is the great age of migration and movement, after all. Few of us will end up where we started – geographically or otherwise. Our lives and histories are all connected – and who knows, you may even meet a person like yourself or someone you love along the way. And if you do, I’m waiting to hear. Shalom salaam, Claire”

Ishmael’s Oranges is now available in paperback and ebook from Oneworld. You can follow Claire Hajaj on Twitter at @clairehajaj.