2016 YWOYA

And the shadow panel winner of the The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016 is…

Shadow panel winner … Jessie Greengrass for her short story collection An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It.

Congratulations, Jessie. This is a hugely ambitious piece of work that demonstrates great talent and much promise for the future.

In my review, which I published last night, I described this book as “a tantalising collection of odd, often quirky, tales”.

There’s a deeply philosophical bent to them, perhaps no surprise given the author studied philosophy, and richly humane, filled with ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They’re also hugely imaginative and quite unlike anything I’ve read before.

Of course, coming to this decision was not easy. This year’s shortlist was full of exciting, often experimental work, written by fresh, new voices. I loved reading all four (my reviews are gathered together here) and must admit that it was difficult to pick a favourite — although I championed Jessie’s work right from the start.

But as much fun as it was reading the books, it was almost more fun discussing them with my fellow shadow panel judges — Charlie, Eric, Naomi and Simon, pictured below with our chair Dan Dalton (third from left) — last Saturday afternoon. We had a brilliant and lively discussion, and even though we didn’t always agree, no one threw any punches and those ice packs I kept saying we might need never had to come out of the freezer! How very civilised of us.

Shadow panel for The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016

It will be interesting to see if  the real judges agree with our decision when they name their winner at the official ceremony on 8 December. Watch this space…

Thanks to marketing and publicity guru Maddy Pickard for organising the shadow panel — it’s been a blast!

2016 YWOYA, Author, Book review, Fiction, Jessie Greengrass, John Murray, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It’ by Jessie Greengrass

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It

Fiction – paperback; John Murray Originals; 192 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Solitude and loneliness are common threads that run throughout the 12 short stories in this collection, by debut author Jessie Greengrass, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.

The self-titled story, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, sets the scene for all that follows, for each tale is written in the same precise, almost cold, but always elegant style with nary an adjective to be seen. There’s a certain kind of melancholia at work here — and a clarity that defies the often convoluted sentence structure.

Yet the subject matter varies wildly from story to story and even the time periods swing between past, present and future. Nothing feels predictable and starting each new story feels like going on an unexpected adventure into unexplored territory: you’re never sure where it’s going to take you.

And yet, despite the characters being (mainly) nameless (sometimes we don’t even know their gender, nor their age), it’s easy to identify with them, to empathise with their circumstances, their predicaments, their successes and their failures. Everything feels deeply personal, if somewhat quirky.

Some personal favourites

A handful of stories stand out. The lead one, of a hunter who reveals his role in the demise of the Great Auk, is a haunting tale of loss, greed and cruelty, but it’s tinged with unexpected comic moments, too, such as this description of the birds:

… they were clumsy, they waddled, their walk was ungainly; they swayed and rolled as they struggled to put one flat foot upon the rock in front of the other and often they fell over. We caught them up and pulled the feathers that we needed and then let them go half-plucked and even then they would not run but only stand bemused and blinking and naked where we put them. And then later they would die of their own accord.

Humour is well used in the story All the Other Jobs, too. In this short tale a discontented narrator, paralysed by indecision, dreams of running away and leading a new, more productive life. Who doesn’t recognise this kind of thoroughly modern 21st century behaviour?

I spent a lot of time on the internet, cycling through a set series of websites, letting my eyes drift down one page and then another without any effort to read or absorb, past even passive consumption. I found this so comforting. Hours would recede in the clicking of links without me retaining any clear impression of what I had been looking at. It was a kind of abnegation, a loss of self in the expectation of each loading page, the small reward of its arrival after the brief wait so much more satisfying than any of the information it might contain.

My favourite story has to be Winter, 2058, a strangely haunting tale set in the future that reads like something John Wyndham might have dreamed up. Here, on the edge of the North York Moors, the narrator must guard watch over an “intrusion” site, an area where mysterious phenomena occur — odd lights and sounds, changes in temperature — that cause people to disappear or befuddles their brains:

We were told that when an intrusion was entering the active phase of its cycle the first thing we would notice would be that things would feel colder. Not just the temperature but the world itself: we would feel that the world had become colder, that something had been stripped away from it, some quality of receptiveness or responsiveness which had previously made it home. The feeling would bloom slowly from unease into fear.

This eerie story of displacement, of the unknowable power of nature, of a bid to make sense of something unexplained  is wholly mesmirising from start to finish. You become immersed in a kind of supernatural fairytale in which nothing quite makes sense and it leaves you with a deep sense of dread. I suspect it’s a metaphor for learning that no matter how many friends and family we might have we’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. How deep is that?

As you might have guessed, I was very much impressed by this tantalising collection of odd, often quirky, tales. There’s a deeply philosophical bent to them, perhaps no surprise given the author studied philosophy, and richly humane, filled with ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They’re also hugely imaginative and quite unlike anything I’ve read before. More please.

This is my 4th and final book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward

2016 YWOYA, Author, Benjamin Wood, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Scotland, Scribner, Setting, Turkey, UK

‘The Ecliptic’ by Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 465 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.

I’m quite partial to books about art and the creative process, so Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic had instant appeal: a story set on a private island for beleaguered artists all struggling to recapture the muse that has deserted them. Think a motley crew of painters, writers, musicians and architects, all living together under the watchful eye of a provost and each working on an individual project that will restore them in the eyes of the artistic communities in which they once belonged.

It’s part mystery, part historical novel, the kind of story that is ambitious in scope and structure, a wonderful blend of art, madness and creativity.

A painter’s life

This four-part novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, is narrated by a Scottish painter, who introduces herself as follows:

I was born Elspeth Conroy in Clydebank, Scotland, on the 17th March 1937. I had always thought my family name quite unremarkable, and my Christian name so formal and girl-pretty. Elspeth Conroy, I felt, was the name of a debutante or a local politician’s wife, not a serious painter with vital things to say about the world, but it was my fate and I had to accept it. My parents believed a refined Scottish name like Elspeth would enable me to marry a man of higher class (that is to say, a rich man) and, eventually, I managed to prove their theory wrong in every respect.

Elspeth, you soon learn, is a talented artist, who achieved great success in the 1960s London art scene — against the odds — but then she lost her muse, and now she’s living on Portmantle, an island off the coast of Turkey, with other artistic “has-beens” trying to draw on new wells of inspiration.

Thrown into this mix is a troubled young man whose arrival on the island disturbs the equilibrium of all who live there. Who is he? Why is his behaviour so odd? And what is he hiding?

But before we get to figure that out, the novel takes a dramatic shift in direction, and we are taken right back to Elspeth’s early days as a fledgling artist, first in Scotland, then in London. We follow her as she (unexpectedly) finds fame and then witness her struggles to come to terms with it while remaining true to her artistic values. We learn of  the unrequited love she feels for her mentor and the terrible tragedy that befalls her onboard an ocean liner bound for the US.

It is this second part, entitled Rooms from Memory, that forms the remarkable backbone to an unconventionally structured novel, which, it could be argued, follows the ecliptic of the title. (The ecliptic is “a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year”, one that is entirely imaginary.)

A novel with a twist

It’s difficult to say much more about this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers. There’s a delicious twist at the end — one I did not see coming — and it’s of the kind that seems to divide opinion: you either think it’s genius or you feel slightly cheated by it. But whatever you think, there’s no doubting that the author went out on a limb, took a risk and did something that was far from predictable.

This lack of predictability is apparent throughout the entire novel. It could have been easy to have Elspeth and her mentor develop a sexual relationship; instead Wood writes the best depiction of unrequited love I’ve ever read in modern fiction.

Similarly, he could have made Elspeth a weak-willed woman; instead he gives her true grit. She’s a tough, determined and intriguing character, one who is true to her self and prepared to furrow her own plough, without fear or favour. The female voice also feels authentic and it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with her.

But it’s the detail of the painter’s work — the technical aspects of grinding pigments, how they prepare canvases, the brush techniques they use — which makes the novel feel so vividly real. (In this respect it reminded me of Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, which I read earlier this year and loved for the same reasons.)

If you like art, mysteries and historical fiction, there’s plenty to admire in The Ecliptic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, one that is intelligent, cleverly plotted and full of rich, intimate language. Its slow build up of suspense, despite its length, is also a feat that demonstrates much skill. But for me, the ending was slightly disappointing, although I loved the strange, almost hallucinogenic nature of it.

This is my 3rd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.

2016 YWOYA, Andrew McMillan, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, Poetry, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Physical’ by Andrew McMillan


Poetry – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 65 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.

Andrew McMillan’s debut poetry collection, Physical, has already won two prestigious literary prizes — the 2015 Guardian First Book Award and the 2015 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize — and been shortlisted for several more. I came to it thanks to its inclusion on the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, otherwise it would have passed me by: I don’t read much poetry, which would explain the shocking lack of poetry reviews on this blog (I’ve only ever reviewed one collection — the sublime Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara). This means I feel slightly out of my depth writing about it here.

So, bearing in mind that I’m no poetry expert, I can really only share my honest opinion of how I felt, and what I thought, when I read Physical.

I think it helped that I heard McMillan read one of his poems at a recent event (which Annabel wrote about on her blog last week). Reading poetry out loud helps bring it alive: you hear the rhythm, you understand where the pauses fall and how they lend weight to the words. So, as I worked my way slowly through this collection, I had McMillan’s lovely Yorkshire accent in my head, helping to bring the lines to life in a way that might not have been the case had I not heard his recital.

Of course, reading poems in the “right” way is helped by punctuation: the commas let you know when to pause, the full stops when to stop. But there’s no punctuation in any of these poems. Many articles and reviews in the mainstream press have made a bit of a thing about this, but I don’t think it matters (and I say that as someone who until quite recently made her living from being a sub-editor). White space and the way the poems are laid out, line by line, on the page do exactly the same job: they assist the reader in knowing where the pauses lie, if not exactly how long to pause.

It’s all about the language anyway. And what language McMillan uses. In just a few short words he can paint a vivid picture or capture a particular emotion that really brings his work to life. A woman “coughs and sighs like a slowpunctured football”, the smell of ageing is “really the smell of unclean teeth” and a “room is exhausted as an empty city”. My favourite lines come from the poem If it Wasn’t for the Nights:

        a precious bird doesn’t comprehend
the language of its wings

As a collection, McMillan draws everything together by concentrating on three key themes: men, masculinity and gay love. One entire section (part ii protest of the physical) is about his home town of Barnsley, a Yorkshire mining town on its knees following the closure of its pits:

town that sunk from its centre
like a man winded by a punch
town that bent double     carried

young men    and women   and younger men and women
as long as it could but    spinebroken
had to let them go

And everything is written with a refreshing candour and raw emotion. It’s almost as though McMillan ripped his heart out and pinned it dripping to the pages of this short book. Yet it’s not without a sense of humour, as the title alone of The Fact we Almost Killed a Badger is Incidental may suggest.

All up, I very much enjoyed this collection of poems — it took me right out of my comfort zone but I was in good hands. Yes, some of it is confronting and occasionally shocking, but the honesty here — about passion, obsession, sex and relationships, of what it is to navigate the human heart — lends an exquisite beauty to McMillan’s work. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

This is my 2nd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.

2016 YWOYA

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016 shortlist

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist

Following on from last week’s announcement that I am on the shadow panel for the The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, I can now reveal some more exciting news: the shortlist has been unveiled.

There are just four titles in contention for the £5,000 prize — and each one is deliciously different from each other. The shortlist comprises a chunky novel, a poetry collection, a short story collection and a novella — which is going to prove a rather interesting judging challenge, I must say, for how can you compare apples with oranges?

The list is as follows:

I read and reviewed Grief is the Thing with Feathers for my book group earlier this year; I will be reading and reviewing the remaining three over the next few weeks prior to the prize announcement in early December.

For more information, please do visit the official prize website.

2016 YWOYA

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel 2016


Shadow panels are like buses… none for ages, then two come along at once.

No sooner do I begin winding up my reading for the 2016 Shadow Giller (which has been rather fab this year, I must say) than I get asked to take part in shadowing another prize — this time the rather cumbersomely (is that a word?) named The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.

Writers under the age of 35 are eligible (dang, there goes my entry!) for the prize, which is for a full-length work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that has been published or self-published in book or ebook format. The winner gets £5,000; the three runners-up get £500 each.

There is no longlist as such, but a shortlist of four titles will be announced next Sunday, 6 November.

The shadow panel, which has been officially set up by Peters Fraser & Dunlop, will read all the shortlisted books and name our winner in advance of the real winner being announced on 9 December.

There are four other bloggers on the shadow panel — you’ll probably know most of them — so I’m in very good company. They are:

To find out more about us, visit the official prize website and keep coming back here for news about the prize and reviews of everything on the shortlist. November’s shaping up to be quite an interesting reading month…

2016 YWOYA, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Max Porter, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ by Max Porter

Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 128 pages; 2015.

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers recently won the 2016 Dylan Thomas Prize. This prestigious award  is granted annually to the best published literary work (in the English language) written by an author aged 39 or under.

I read it for my book group (which explains why this is the first book by a non-Australian I’ve reviewed all year; I haven’t abandoned #ReadingAustralia2016, in case you were wondering), but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the meeting. Which is a shame, because I suspect this is the kind of book that would really benefit from discussion it’s so brimful of (sometimes puzzling) ideas and evocative descriptions of love and death and marriage and parenthood. And its literary “tricks” —passages that read like poetry, bits that evoke the atmosphere of a forbidding fable, the fragmentary nature of the narrative and prose littered with metaphors and idioms  — are discussion worthy too.

A curious tale

At just 128 pages in length, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a curious little novella, which tells the story of a young widower left to raise two young boys. Four or five days after the unexpected death of his wife, the doorbell rings. When “Dad” answers it, there is no-one there, but he is assailed by a terrible stench.

There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep. […] I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling.

[…] Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.

The crow says to Dad: “I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.” And therein the bird, an obvious metaphor for grief, moves in to the family home and makes a nuisance of himself. He’s scary, untamable, rather forbidding. His very presence is startling and deeply unsettling, and that’s reflected in the mood of the book, which feels like part meditation on grief, part Gothic fairy tale.

But there’s slightly more going on here, because Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, and Ted Hughes, the British poet and husband of Sylvia Plath, once wrote a rather famous poetry collection called Crow, published in 1972, that is said to be ripe with mythology and history. I’ve not read Crow, so I’m inclined to think that  most of the references — I suspect they’re dotted throughout this novella, much like moulting feathers on an aviary floor (see what I did there?) — went over my head.

Wholly original

While it initially starts off full of clichés (the seven phases of grief, the hot food coming from neighbours and all the usual things that happen to the family left behind when someone dies), it then morphs into something wholly original, full of rich vivid imagery and rhetorical effects.

Having taken it on face value and seen it as a story about unexpected loss, I thought it was an interesting, hypnotic read (it feels very much like poetry in places). It was occasionally dark and terrifying but also grimly funny. But I felt I might have understood it slightly better if I was familiar with Ted Hughes’ poetry.

So, as much as I enjoyed this short foray into a fable-like world, I didn’t love it. But if you’re up for something a little different, or have experienced loss in your own life, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is sure to resonate.


This is my 1st book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward