Thievery: Scissors, Paper, Stone
This month I’m doing a mentoring special to celebrate all the talented and diverse writers I’ve been lucky enough to work with through WoMentoring. Today we have Emma Zetterstrom.
Annie watched her glove rollercoaster over the dunes and cursed as it disappeared into the bruised sea. From thirty feet up the wind had snatched it, and she had no chance of catching it. She’d taken it off to make the final, fiddly repairs and already her fingers were white as bone. The office had reassured her the gale would not return to land before nightfall, but from the top of the telegraph pole Annie could see the sea heaping up and spindrift forming at the peaks of the crests. They were under pressure to restore the line before another weekend passed. Trying to spot the glove she noticed a man by the waters-edge, leaning into the wind. Another daft storm-chaser, she thought.
Her first day on the job had been at the height of a scorching summer and she’d gone home with the sticky spill of creosote on her fingers and a skitter in her heart. She called it reverse altitude sickness because with each step up the pain faded. Three winters on the islands and that feeling still sustained her.
This month I’m doing a mentoring special to celebrate all the talented and diverse writers I’ve been lucky enough to work with through WoMentoring. First up is Heather Parry – and trust me, you’ll be seeing her name much more in the future.
It was a blessing when my blood came. At school they said it would be spots and strings but to my surprise it was a steady stream, dark red, pouring out from the corners of my eyes and puddling on the tops of my battered brogues. I held back a retch and when the urge to faint passed, I shouted for Daddy, excited, from the top of the stairs. Squinting into the light from the landing, he said: God bless us, Joyce, it’s a miracle. My mother, hunched over like she’d been screwed up and thrown away, strained to look up at me and screamed. As she fled back to her overcooked potatoes, Daddy took the crusty hanky from his back pocket and wiped the blood across my nose and cheeks, making more of a mess than there was before. He shoved the hanky into my hand. Grinning, grateful, I took in the acrid smell and pocketed the soaked cotton. As Daddy strode into the kitchen, I heard his giddy voice rise:
Hospital? She needs an agent, not a hospital.
There were to be no doctors. Daddy’s word was always final, not because he was the stronger of the two, but the weaker. My mother’s twisted spine—she’d been that way all my life—brought disability benefit into the house and gave her a quiet dignity; Daddy’s consistent inability to find work, despite trying, only made him more pathetic. Yet he ruled with a ceaseless sense of enthusiasm that nobody could bear to wrench from him. My first thought when I looked into the mirror and saw two trickles of scarlet running from my eyes had been Daddy is going to love this.
That night, he watched me over dinner, wads of old tea towels taped to my cheeks so the blood wouldn’t drip onto my eggs. My mother fretted over the creeping red cracks in the whites of my eyes but Daddy just stared. Sometimes he smiled, and sometimes I smiled back.
This year I read 250 books. 250! No idea how that happened. I did travel a lot for book events and festivals, which meant many hours on trains and evenings in hotel rooms. I get sent a lot of books for review and blurbs. I volunteer in an Oxfam Books and usually buy at least one book per shift. I love the library – I’m a member of four, and my local library now refers to me as a “heavy user”. Also, my job is reading and writing books, and I really fucking like books.
Here is a highly personal, not-very-scientifically-chosen list of my 50 favourites of 2016.
Books out in 2016:
- Best Apocalyptic Magical Realism: The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan
- Best Addictive, Beautifully-Written Thriller: The Trespasser, Tana French
- Best Science-Inspired Novel: The Comet Seekers, Helen Sedgwick
- Best Literary Horror: We Eat Our Own, Kea Wilson
- Best Unputdownable Novel: The Last One, Alexandra Oliva
- Best Feminist, Murderous Retelling of a Classic: Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye
- Best Atmospheric, Sinister Wartime Mystery: The Amber Shadows, Lucy Ribchester
- Best Romance About a Writer: Tell Me a Story, Tamara Lush
- Best Funny Feminism: The Trouble With Women, Jacky Fleming
- Best Book About Pop Culture: But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman
- Best Book to Read While Travelling Alone: The Lonely City, Olivia Laing
- Best One-Sitting Read That Made Me Cry: Avalanche, Julia Leigh
- Best Novella About Hydropathy & Feminism: Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie
- Best Hard-To-Describe Book Written as Tiny Vignettes About Love: Trysting, Emmanuelle Pagano
- Best Best Poetry Collection To Read Aloud to Someone You Care About: Dirt, William Letford
- Best Debut Poetry Collection That Made Me Do a Mini Fist-Pump: This Changes Things, Claire Askew
- Best Poetry Pamphlet That I Can’t Stop Telling People About: Still, Nadine Aisha
- Best Ongoing Children’s Horror Series: Lockwood & Co – The Creeping Shadow, Jonathan Stroud
Books Out Before 2016:
- Best Dark, Magical Book I’d Never Heard Of Before: Cobwebwalking, Sara Banerji
- Best Book Under 100 Pages: Coyote, Colin Winnette
- Best Book to Read By the Pool: The Lemon Grove, Helen Walsh
- Best Magical Realism About Mothers and Daughters: The Blue Girl, Laurie Foos
- Best Deep-Sea Horror: The Deep, Nick Cutter
- Best Novella About Death: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter
- Best Queer Gothic: Grab Bag, Derek McCormack
- Best YA Magical Realism: The Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle
- Best Bizarre, Dreamy Horror Novella: The Paradise Motel, Eric McCormack
- Best Beautifully-Illustrated Fairytale Retellings: A Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham
- Best Creepy Novel About a Stranger Coming into Your House: A Pleasure and a Calling, Phil Hogan
- Best Fiction By an Author Who I Previously Only Knew as a Non-Fiction Writer: Fly Away Home, Marina Warner
- Best Changeling Story: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce
- Best Halloween Read: The Night Country, Stewart O’Nan
- Best Retelling of Welsh Folktales: Dark Tales From the Woods, Daniel Morden
- Best Fairytale-esque Quest Featuring Bees: The Beekeeper, Maxence Fermine
- Best Multiple-Parallel-Narrative-Strand Novel: The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett
- Best Horror Anthology: Skin Of The Soul – New Horror Stories By Women, Lisa Tuttle (ed.)
- Best Surreal and Beautiful Children’s Horror Stories: A Whisper in the Night, Joan Aiken
- Best Cute and Weird Graphic Novel: Nimona, Noelle Stevenson
- Best Graphic Novel Re-Read: Saga, Brian K. Vaughan
- Best Graphic Novel About Antarctic Exploration: Shackleton’s Journey, William Grill
- Best Merging of Fiction and Non-Fiction: The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
- Best Change-Your-Life Book That Actually My Life: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, Sarah Knight
- Best Tender, Thoughtful, Intelligent True Crime: Lost Girls, Robert Kolker
- Best Non-Fiction Book About a Misunderstood Holiday: Trick or Treat – A History of Halloween, Lisa Morton
- Best Book About a Topic I Didn’t Realise I Was Interested In: The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, Zac Bissonnette
- Best Surprisingly Readable Academic Book About Horror Films: Gender and the Nuclear Family in Twenty-First-Century Horror, Kimberly Jackson
- Best Beautifully-Written, Rambling Book About Ghosts: A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke
- Best Book About Writing: Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
- Best Book About the Complicated Love of Pro-Wrestling: Wrestlecrap – The Very Worst of Professional Wrestling, R.D. Reynolds & Randy Baer
- Best Book About the History of Food: Consuming Passions, Philippa Pullar
Want to read something water-themed on your summer holiday but still stick to your creepy, fabulist, witchy-dark bones? You’ve come to the right place.
- Orkney, Amy Sackville – An ageing literature professor honeymoons on Orkney with his much younger wife. He’s studying enchantment narratives about strange girls and women, and soon his research bleeds into his obsession with his mysterious new wife.
- Becoming Bone, Annie Boutelle – A biography-in-poems about Celia Thaxter, from her childhood on the stark islands off the New Hampshire coast to her adulthood as one of America’s most popular poets, now mostly forgotten.
- Blue Girl, Laurie Foos – This short magical realist novel set in a small lakeside town is weird and sad and beautiful. One of my favourites.
- Harbour, John Ajvide Lindqvist – Swedish horror/thriller about a missing girl and her haunted father. It’s bonkers, bizarre and rambling, but oddly compelling with some genuinely scary scenes that still stay with me. Also provided the epigram for my next novel: “We no longer give people to the sea, but it takes them anyway.”
- Lost Paradise, Kathy Marks – In 2004, charges of sexual assault were made against 13 men from Pitcairn, a remote volcanic island in the southern Pacific, so sparsely populated that these men made up a third of the male population. This non-fiction book is a little trashy, but it’s a dark and fascinating story.
- The Sea Egg, L.M. Boston – One of my favourite things about pre-1980s children’s books is how dreamy and weird they can be. As well as being deceptively creepy, this has such luscious prose: “Then all was quiet, except for that murmurous half telling, half withholding of tremendous secrets that the sea would keep up all night.”
- Daylight Saving, Edward Hogan – An awkward teenage boy becomes obsessed with a girl he sees swimming in the lake at a depressing holiday camp. It’s all underwater shadows and ticking clocks and dark shapes flickering through the trees.
- The Black Tongue, Marko Hautala – Finnish horror where something horrible lurks in the depths of an abandoned lighthouse. I read this in Finland just before swimming in a huge, freezing, pitch-black lake, and spent the whole time convinced that a witch was going to bite off my feet.
- Imaginary Girls, Nova Ren Suma – Drowned girls who then appear alive again in a mysterious lakeside town. I can never get enough beautifully-written magical realist YA.
- The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan – Eh, you know. Pretty fond of this book.
What are your favourite alternative beach reads?
I’ve somehow managed to read 133 books so far this year (how did that happen? I don’t even know). Luckily for me, some of them have been seriously amazing. Here are the best ones of April and May:
- Cobwebwalking, Sara Banerjee – A strange, lovely little book that I devoured in a day. Geek Love meets Cold Comfort Farm.
- A Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham – Gorgeous retellings of classic fairytales. The prose is so lush I could bathe in it.
- The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan – You can read my full review in the Guardian, but in short: I loved it.
- Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye – What if Jane Eyre was a serial killer? The prose is luscious, the setting is vivid, the plot kept me guessing.
- The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston – This beautiful blending of memoir and fiction is like nothing else I’ve ever read, and I absolutely adored it.
- The Lonely City, Olivia Laing – I read this on a (rather lonely) trip to Germany. Beautifully written, revealing, and great company for a solo traveller.
- Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Max Porter – I read this in an hour, then spent the next hour doing happy-sad sobbing. An incredible book.
- Consuming Passions: A History of English Food and Appetite, Philippa Pullar – I got about fifty story ideas from this gloriously-written book (and learned several new words).
- True Crime Addict, James Renner – I’ve been reading lots of quality true crime lately, the sort that’s less a police procedural or gory description of the murderer, and more a focus on the victim’s life. This is an intense, atmospheric read.
- The Amber Shadows, Lucy Ribchester – A dreamy, grimy mystery set at Bletchley Park.
- Nimona, Noelle Stevenson – Adorable and strange. The best graphic novel I’ve read in ages.
As a bonus, I want to tell you about a few books I’ve read and loved that aren’t out for a while – get them on your radar now, as they’re going to be big:
- The Last One, Alexandra Oliva – This book is crazy-addictive, and a fabulous lesson for authors on how to tell a tight, gripping story without the dreaded info-dumping. (out July)
- The Comet Seekers, Helen Sedgwick – A brave and tender debut from one of the brightest new stars of the literary world. It’s one of the most vivid, original and magical books I’ve read in years. (out August)
- We Eat Our Own, Kea Wilson – Cannibal Holocaust meets [meats?] Heart of Darkness. It’s creepy, enlightening, thoughtful and beautifully written. I can never get enough literary horror, and this is a fantastic example. (out September)
What are the best books you’ve read recently? What books are you looking forward to?