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The 2020 Young Writer Of The Year Shortlist

The book covers of the 2020 shortlist

The time of what I consider a big highlight of the literary year has begun, albeit quite different this time as is everything else. The shortlist for the 2020 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award was announced on Sunday, and it looks pretty stellar. Here is the announcement by Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of The Sunday Times (email subscribers, you’ll likely have to open this post in your browser using the link at the bottom of this email in order to view the video):

Most years there are 4 shortlisted authors; like the judges in 2017, the judges this year have chosen 5 authors they believe to be the best contenders, spanning the realms of poetry, non-fiction, and novel. Of the five, two are poetry collections, which is unusual (and pretty awesome). So, the writers are:

Jay Bernard for the poetry collection Surge (Chatto & Windus)
Catherine Cho for the memoir Inferno (Bloomsbury)
Naoise Dolan for the novel Exciting Times (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Seán Hewitt for the poetry collection Tongues Of Fire (Jonathan Cape)
Marina Kemp for the novel Nightingale (4th Estate)

This year’s judges are Sebastian Faulks, Tessa Hadley, Kit de Waal, and Houman Barekat. Tessa Hadley said that “The books stand out because they’re so well written, with important things to say – and the wonderful thing is that they have nothing in common apart from that.” Kit de Waal points to the authors “demonstrating a range of technical ability, outlook and style”, and Sebastian Faulks notes that “They have absorbed the lessons of those who have gone before them; but their own books all seem urgent and modern”.

The winner will receive £5,000 and offered a ten week residency by the University of Warwick. The London Library, in normal times the host of the winner’s ceremony, has added a year’s membership to these offerings.

As mentioned by Andrew Holgate in the video, extracts from the books will be in Granta magazine over this week. The first, comprised of two poems from Surge, is now online.

A digital winners ceremony will be held on Thursday 10th December.

 
September 2020 Reading Round Up + Podcast

September has been an all systems go month. During the latter half in particular, I was reading a lot, enough that I’m taking a break from it for a few days. As well as the list below I read all but a few percent of two more so there was officially more reading done but those books will be on October’s list.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Christina Courtney: Echoes Of The Runes – Mia would never have expected to see an exact copy of her own ring in the display cabinet of a Viking museum exhibit, but it happens and sets off a chain of events that see her co-leading an archaeology team with a handsome expert, digging up her grandmother’s lands… and being called to echoes of a story of early medieval romance in Viking Sweden. A fun time slip with a good back story and an interesting use of the concept of coincidence.

Intisar Khanani: Thorn – When Princess Alyrra is betrothed to Prince Kestrin, she’s not comfortable with the idea of travelling to his kingdom with Valka, who dislikes her, and the sudden appearance of a mage followed by a fae-like lady the night before has her more so; as Valka betrays her and the two womens’ bodies are switched Alyrra starts a different journey, one that will involve learning all manner of things about herself in order to turn back the changes, and all manner of things about her new kingdom that royalty are never privvy to. A superb fairytale retelling and adaptation, Khanani expanding on the ideas in the original Goose Girl to incredible effect.

Joanna Hickson: First Of The Tudors – A fictionised story of Jasper Tudor, son of Catherine de Valois and her second husband Owen Tudor, as well as Jane, mother of his illegitimate children, taking us from Jasper’s early years to the initial first campaigns to bring Jasper’s nephew, the future Henry VII, to the throne. A fantastic story, immersive, detailed, and just simply a very good book in general.

Joanna Hickson: The Tudor Crown – Centering this time on Henry and his mother Margaret Beaufort, the story takes us to the early days of Henry VII’s reign. As good as the previous book.

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Joanna Hickson: The Lady Of The Ravens – A fictionalised story of Joan Vaux, lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York, taking us from Elizabeth’s early days as queen (before her coronation) to beyond Joan’s marriage. With a change in over all focus to court life in the context of the experience of women, this book is both a sequel to the previous and its own story entirely; it’s also very good.

Nicholas Royle: An English Guide To Birdwatching – Silas and Ethel have handed their undertaking business to their son in exchange for a relaxing retirement by the sea, and meanwhile an unrelated Stephen Osmer is hammering out diatribes on his computer keyboard, but both stories are woven together in the form of their unfortunate connection to a literary critic called Nicholas Royle who has unwittingly upset them all. A brilliant piece of meta fiction by one of the two writers called Nicholas Royle.

Nicholas Royle: Quilt – His parents both having passed away, his father’s death very new, our main character moves into the house and starts to wonder about rays, the marine kind, eventually deciding to build a massive tank in the dining room and importing a few for his own. Difficult to say more than that, and it’s already giving a fair amount away – this book is a highly literary, meta, story about particular struggles and, in particular, death.

This has been an absolutely stellar month; I have a favourite, Thorn, but everything else was up there. There was a lot of immersive fiction too, with Hickson and Khanani being particularly excellent in this regard.

So moving (further) into October, I have some more podcast reads lined up as well as a couple of review copies I’m looking forward to.

What are you reading at the moment?


This week’s podcast episode is with Nicholas Royle (Quilt; An English Guide To Birdwatching; Mother: A Memoir). Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Nicholas Royle (Quilt; An English Guide To Birdwatching; Mother: A Memoir) discuss killing yourself – your avatar – off in your fiction, using ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’, and sharing a name with another British writer who also writes fiction… that is also about birds…

Please note that the first reading is set in a public toilet and discusses explicitly concepts around discomfort in this regard, ‘size’, and so forth.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
On Chipped Mugs

A photograph of a mug, one of the 'literary transport' mugs that has a list of locations used in The Great Gatsby. Admittedly, this mug has no chips in it

I reckon eighty to ninety percent of the times in the last several years of my reading, I’ve found a contemporary book’s reference to a (any) mug to be ‘chipped’. It’s a bit like the present obsession with the verb ‘to reveal’ where so many of the things being revealed are, in fact, not actually being revealed. (Soapbox moment. To paraphrase, ‘She arrived at the coffee shop and took off her coat to reveal a nice green t-shirt with some branding on it’ – do we not take our coats off because we’re now inside rather than to reveal what we’re wearing underneath? And isn’t the usage of the term – not always male – too focused on attractiveness and a deliberation to entice that simply isn’t there? If it were ‘revealing’ that was used it would work much better.)

I digress. Chipped mug – doubtless it is to infer some amount of wear, age, or issue. A reference to the state of a place, or life, or someone’s thoughts. The mug has most likely been around a long time. It could be that it’s too loved, holds too much nostalgia, to be thrown away, but the use of the adjective and noun together is never (in my experience) surrounded by context. It’s merely an over-used convention.

I always see these mugs as a cup with a massive chip on (in?) the lip, rather like Chip from the cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast. This is probably wrong – it’s likely imagined by the authors as more like the slight chip on the thick handle (thus effectively superficial) of a mug from a number my dad gave me when he was having a chuck out. I took them because I’d loved using them. One did get broken – Dad didn’t have any bubble wrap so they were brought home in a plastic bag and one got smashed against the front door as the door was opened. But I wouldn’t throw the one with the superficial chip away. I even kept the smashed one – not smashed enough to be in pieces. It’s on the top shelf with the rest of my broken keepsake mugs.

I expect lots of characters have similar tales of keepsakes. This is surely more what the authors of fictional chipped mugs are thinking. Surely.

And I say ‘surely’ twice because to cycle back to the beginning, it’s just so prevalent, like ‘to reveal’, and wrought iron gates and gun-metal gray. There are few simple ‘mugs’ in contemporary literature; I get excited when there is one. And other mugs that aren’t ‘just’ mugs tend to have context – tin mugs in a scene set outdoors, designs and colours.

Oft-used sentence: as often happens, I’ve no conclusion. These are just musings. But there are enough chips that I felt the need to fill them in somehow.

 
August 2020 Reading Round Up

August got the better of me; I didn’t read as much. I spent a lot more time gaming than reading but I did get back to books I started a few months ago, namely James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life, which I borrowed from my dad a year or two ago…

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Midge Raymond: Forgetting English – A collection of stories based around the themes of travel, and women trying to live with the career versus family issue. Rather awesome; there’s lots going on here away from the obvious things that an inevitable number of characters and storylines brings, and the attention to the details Raymond has chosen is wonderful.

Midge Raymond: My Last Continent – A cruise ship is heading a little too much towards Antarctica and Deb knows that lover Keller may be on board. A good book about a titanic-like shipwreck with lots of information about Antarctica and what we need to do to save it.

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes – Four stories connected by Chinese American history, racism, passing, and that rubbish idea that all Asians look the same: we follow 1800s Ling as he works for a Chinese American laundryman and white American railway construction company owner; Hollywood star Anna May Wong discusses her career progression which is marred by racism; a fictionised friend of Vincent Chin discusses the night of his death and what followed; and John travels to China with his wife to adopt a baby, already having lots to think about on the subject of being Asian American now and throughout history, and finding even more now as he goes through the last stages of the handover. An utterly fantastic book – the handling of the subjects, and the writing and language in general is superb.

Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl – A German man, Jewish by Nazi standards, becomes an investigator for the Allies and works on getting information from Rudolph Hess; meanwhile, Esther deals with a short relationship that goes very wrong and the introduction of a German POW into her life; said POW, Karsten, tries to make sense of everything including his surrender on the behalf of those with him. A difficult one to summarise without spoilers, this is an interesting book that looks at aspects of WWII we don’t often hear about, and deals with them in a unique way.

I’ll pick a favourite from both the authors, because that’s a lot easier than picking a favourite over all – Raymond’s My Last Continent, Ho Davies’ The Fortunes.

For September I’m continuing Christina Courtney’s Echoes Of The Runes, Roselle Lim’s Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop and I need to get to Orlando Ortega-Medina’s Savior Of Sixth Street; I’m late on that.

What do you plan to read in these next few weeks?

 
Favourite Book Covers

It struck me last week as I was writing out the first lines post that I’ve never really looked at favourite book covers.

I have always been enticed by nice covers, though perhaps more so since I started reading ebooks and particularly now during isolation where I’m reading them almost entirely.

Most often I will be struck by the combination of a nice cover and a hardback book. Hardbacks tend to have more than their fair share of nice covers; when publishers switch covers for the paperback I find the new one is often not as appealing. Hardback jackets also seem to lend themselves better to embossing, gold paint, and better colour pigmentation. The bigger size of the book also gives it more grandeur.

This is to say that I’m not entirely sure I could make a decision on favourites without that context. Even looking at the covers online, without the physical nature of the hardback, it’s difficult to get away from the way they look in person. So I won’t try – the covers below are sometimes going to be influenced by the fact of the hardback.

I’m leaving out all books that are in the public domain where the ideas of the author and original designers are long gone, and I’m keeping it to one book per author. I’m also keeping it to books I’ve read. I’ve put title tags on all these as the covers are small – hover over them if you’d like the details.

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Due to there being so many – and this is inevitably the shortened list – I’ll leave out any navel-gazing. I think it’s safe to say I love bright colours, multicolours, and images where one person stands in front of something, a future or situation being the subtext. (I’ve always though the latter is probably the reason for those covers – they make you want to find out more.) I like YA fantasy/magical realism/paranormal covers. And I rather love both covers that were created for One Night, Markovitch enough that whilst the reason I wanted to buy the book was the cover I’d seen, I still bought it when I found a copy with the new cover. Likewise The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake – I loved the title and the hardback cover but I guess the title drew me more as I read the paperback version seen above.

Which covers of books you’ve read are your favourites?

 

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