Late last year I was invited to join the shortlisting panel for the 2022 Best First Novel Award, the UK’s longest-running prize for debut fiction. It has been a delight as well as a significant burden of reading. Over the next few weeks I’m going to highlight some BFNA gems by authors that are, by definition, little known. This won’t be the long-list (pictured below) since in the nature of panel discussions not all the books I thought worthy made the cut. However they resonated with me enough to want to share them.
The Best First Novel Award for debut fiction
First, the award. Inaugurated in 1954, the £2,500 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award is almost the oldest literary prize in Britain. Each publisher may submit two works of debut fiction, so between us the panel had about ninety novels to read. This year’s winner guest adjudicator was Alex Wheatle, who selected the winner from the panel’s shortlist:
Yvonne Bailey-Smith, The Day I Fell off My Island (Myriad Editions)
A.K. Blakemore, The Manningtree Witches (Granta Books)
Catherine Menon, Fragile Monsters (Viking)
Lucy Jago, A Net for Small Fishes (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Melody Razak, Moth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Tish Delaney, Before My Actual Heart Breaks (Hutchinson Heinemann)
And the winner was: Tish Delaney, Before My Actual Heart Breaks
I hadn’t expected to like this one so much; the context made me nervous. It’s a 25 year drama through the eyes of one woman in an intensely Republican, Catholic family near Omagh. It shows I should read outside my comfort zone more.
We follow the woman from her childhood with an emotionally abusive mother through to empty-nester, and it takes place almost entirely within the scattered farming community of one remote valley. It’s a story of love; parental, sibling, and amorous, and it hinges on communication and mis-communication, with heavy doses of Catholic morality, guilt, and hypocrisy.
I truly engaged with this story. The language is straightforward, unflowery, and only lightly sprinkled with Irish vernacular. The mother’s abuse sets the context for much that happens later, including a disastrous adolescence. By then I wanted to stand in the girl’s way shouting ‘don’t do that’. Before she is long into her marriage I was just as keen to slap some sense into her, but then we would not have a story. For a while it is a sharp portrait of a woman so wrapped around her own wounds that she does not realise that silence can cut deeper than words.
There’s a rich cast of characters, all well drawn, and enough humour to lift what could be a depressing tale. The reader ends up laughing, loving, and shouting with them all as if we were part of the ‘craic’. Brilliant.
One that also deserved to win: Lucy Jago, A Net for Small Fishes
More to come
It’s great to discover Draca is being well received by lovers of nautical fiction. It has been reviewed in the December 2020 issue of Yachting Monthly. Rather nicely, I think.
For more information about Draca, including other reviews and extracts, click here.
Draca is available via all good bookshops, or via Amazon here.
I’m delighted to say that the online book club The Pigeonhole has selected Draca for serialisation commencing Sunday 26th July. They will release Draca in ten daily episodes ending on Tuesday 4th August. So if you’re not already enjoying the book, why not read it with a strictly-limited group of bookish people? What’s more, it’s free to join.
So how does The Pigeonhole work?
The Pigeonhole say:
‘We work with publishers to bring their users the best in modern fiction, from bestselling authors like Ken Follett to new voices. Our serialisations enable readers to interact with authors and other readers inside the book as they read and comment in real-time. Launched in September 2014, The Pigeonhole was nominated for the Digital Innovation Awards at the London Book Fair, and Future Book’s Digital Campaign of the Year. The Bookseller magazine named Pigeonhole’s founding editor Anna Jean Hughes as a Rising Star of the publishing industry.’
The Pigeonhole release selected books in daily serialisations called ‘staves’ to strictly limited numbers of readers, free of charge. They do invite you to leave a review at the end. You can read more about The Pigeonhole here.
Want to join in?
In the three days since The Pigeonhole selected Draca, take-up has been strong. Less than half the available slots remain. If you’d like to grab one while you can, you can sign up to Draca on The Pigeonhole here and I look forward to ‘seeing’ you during the serialisation. Remember, it is free of charge.
If you want to know more about Draca, there’s a synopsis and extracts here. If you’d like your own copy to read, you’ll find it on Amazon Kindle here, Amazon paperback here, and through all good bookshops.
The wait is nearly over. Draca, which a former Chief of the General Staff describes as a ‘really cracking read’, will be released on 14th May, and can now be ordered online. Details below.
About the book
Draca pivots around the tensions between three characters;
- a war-damaged veteran who tries to rebuild his life by restoring a vintage sailing boat, but seems to be on a mission to self-destruct,
- his overbearing father, who pushes him ever closer to the edge,
- and a yachtswoman who gives everything she has to pull him back.
And between them all, there’s an old boat, Draca, with a very dark history. So is the veteran haunted by his past, or just haunted? There are more details about the book here, and extracts here.
All author royalties are shared equally with the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.
‘A really cracking read about a soldier who attacks his battlefield demons through his passion for sailing – and sadly still needs help’. (General Sir Peter Wall)
‘Tension release, fear, laughter, fear, lust, so you don’t notice the tightening of the noose … the story sucks you in and won’t let go.’ (Susie Wilde, Author of Sea Paths and Obsidian)
‘A terrific and compelling story which highlights mental and physical challenges that many who have served will recognise.’ (General Sir Nick Parker)
‘A cracking, believable yarn made even more authentic by the wonderfully descriptive sailing scenes – and by falling in love with the true heroine, the Bristol Channel pilot cutter Draca.’ (Ewen Southby-Tailyour OBE, former Yachtsman of the Year)
Draca is available in the UK via all good bookshops with an online ordering facility, incuding Waterstones, Foyles, Apple Books, Kobo, Hive, and, of course, Amazon; click here for a paperback and here for a Kindle edition.
For those who like to support independent bookshops, there are two fine examples near my home:
The Little Bookshop in Cookham will take email orders via this link and Marlow Bookshop will fulfil orders via their parent group Daunt Books.
Outside the UK Draca is only currently available as an ebook through retailers including amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
Over the next few days I shall be posting excerpts from Draca and introducing you to each of the key characters.
Meanwhile, stay safe in these troubled times. Escape to a different world; read a book.
Draca is going to print. A book that has been seven years in the creation is about to be reality, with a release date of 14th May. Many of the conventional aspects of a book launch have necessarily been cancelled during the pandemic, but I could send out review copies. I’ve been stunned by the reactions.
From Combat Stress:
Combat stress is the veterans’ mental health charity. They will receive half the royalties. Their President, General Sir Peter Wall, describes Draca as ‘A really cracking read about a soldier who attacks his battlefield demons through his passion for sailing – and sadly still needs help.’
From a fellow author:
Suzie Wilde, the author of Sea Paths and Obsidian, enthused ‘tension, release, fear, laughter, fear, lust, so you don’t notice the tightening of the noose … the story sucks you in and won’t let go.’
From the Armed Forces:
I served for nearly eleven years in the armed forces, but never saw action, yet the protagonist is a war-damaged veteran of Afghanistan. So it was with some diffidence that I approached General Sir Nick Parker to take a look. Sir Nick was Commander British Forces Afghanistan in 2010, and he says it’s ‘a terrific and compelling story which highlights mental and physical challenges that many who have served will recognise.’
And from a distinguished sailor:
Those who know me also know I am an occasional and inexperienced sailor. I have sailed very enjoyably with a hugely more competent friend, but I was a little nervous about the authenticity of some sailing scenes. The book, after all, pivots around a very idiosyncratic, vintage pilot cutter. It was an area, like combat, where I had to rely on research and imagination rather than personal experience. Then Ewen Southby-Tailyour OBE, a former Yachtsman of the Year, told me he’d lived on a Bristol Channel pilot cutter. He reassured me that Draca is ‘a cracking, believable yarn made even more authentic by the wonderfully descriptive sailing scenes – and by falling in love with the true heroine, the Bristol Channel pilot cutter Draca.’
A ‘book launch’ with no bookshops
Draca is sailing out into a strange world where no physical bookshops are open, and no libraries, so the book launch I was planning can’t happen. All authors with books coming out during these stressful times have had their wings clipped, but with a little help, I think Draca is reaching flying speed.
Draca will be released by Unbound on 14th May 2020, ISBN: 978-1-78965-105-8, and will be available to pre-order shortly. Further details to follow on this site and on my Amazon author page. You’ll find a synopsis of the book, including extracts, here.
It’s easier to write qualitative statements about Bone Lines (‘brilliant’ and ‘beautiful’ come to mind) than it is to define it. Yes, it’s a time-slip, weaving the stories of two strong women; the courageous survivor of an extreme natural disaster, and the scientist who analyses her newly-discovered bones more than 70,000 years later. Yet there are several other labels I could add, such as literary, since it is beautifully written, even lyrical at times. I struggled for a while with the question ‘what’s it all about?’ before I realised that in some ways, that question was the answer. Eloise, the introspective, present-day scientist, has a search for meaning running through her mind like a philosophical playlist, and her self-reflection is an intriguing thread that drew me forwards.
The other protagonist, that the present day calls ‘Sarah’, is a true heroine; resourceful, courageous, indomitable in the face of seemingly impossible situations. The reader wills her to succeed and I for one would like to have read more of her. The way in which Bretherton has imagined and written the mindset of a woman from the archaeological past is stunning. Sarah is at one with nature and respectful of it; a hungry woman who would spare an antelope for the sake of its unweaned faun, yet rip the throat from a human aggressor to protect her own infant.
Eloise is complex, fascinating, and perhaps too given to introspection; the kind of person I’d love to find across the table at a dinner party. Both women yearn for company; Sarah as the sole survivor of disaster in an almost empty world, nurturing the baby that is born on her epic journey, and Eloise who is alone, sometimes by choice, in our crowded modern world.
Bone Lines is a very intelligent book, straying at times into the science of genetics but remaining readable to the layman. It is also thoughtful, perhaps a bit philosophical, yet repaying any effort and earning its five stars for the quality of the writing and the appeal of the main characters. If my bookshelves had labels it would go on one called ‘Undiscovered Gems’. Recommended.
Stephanie Bretherton’s web site is here. You can find Bone Lines on Amazon here, or here on Hive (as of today, the lowest price), or at Waterstones here.
I recently reviewed Obsidian by Suzie Wilde, which is pitched as ‘A gripping Viking tale of one woman’s courage, fighting old and new gods amid the savage beauty of Ice Island’. I love historical fantasy novels and especially books with a strong female protagonist, and was intrigued enough ask Suzie some questions. Here’s what she said.
GG: Suzie, you write very believable characters; they are all flawed, and all have some redeeming aspect. Your protagonist Bera is complex; powerful yet insecure, tender yet sometimes spiteful. What was your inspiration for her?
SW: All characters are a mix of an author’s experience, personality and imagination. You begin with a short acquaintance with the first sketchy drafts, then get to know them better as the plot develops and then in later drafts they make decisions and do stuff. I love the ‘Oh there you are’ moment when, as Kate Mosse puts it, the characters pass from behind to walk in front of you. They can be guided of course but can clearly be seen, like real people, and that’s often when the author gets out of the way so the reader can see them clearly too.
GG: You write beautifully about the landscape of Iceland, or Ice Island as it becomes in Obsidian, and the climactic scenes during a volcanic eruption are masterful. Have you ever seen an eruption, up close and personal?
SW: That’s why we have YouTube! I was a maritime researcher and read many accounts written by people who have experienced these events. There are a few groups I follow on Twitter and Instagram, who post stunning images (#volcano or #iceland will pull up loads).
GG: Bera’s world seems very Viking at first, yet it rapidly diverges from Norse culture, particularly in their belief system; Bera is a seeress rather like a Nordic Völva, yet there is little mention of the Norse pantheon of gods. The dead don’t go to Hel or Niflheim but might lurk as ‘drorghers’ to plague the living. Did you set out to create a whole new world view, or did it evolve as you wrote?
SW: I wanted readers to feel they had fallen through a trapdoor into a world only slightly strange. It’s a carefully researched Norse world, as far as it goes, except I’m not keen on having gods involved. They don’t infest the everyday now, so perhaps they didn’t then. The book is written in English, dialogue included, so I didn’t want sudden Old Norse words. Instead I’ve based these fantasy elements on what we know of their beliefs, so drorgher comes from draugr, the walking dead. By a similar process, as you note, Iceland becomes Ice Island. It’s to suggest to readers a slight ‘otherness’.
Anyone who likes Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis might enjoy spotting a similar ‘Norseness’ with their daemons, the Valar and Eldila, respectively. Tolkien was famously a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford. I studied it at UCL, where I fell in love with Beowulf, as so many others have over the years. I envy W.H. Auden, who wrote, years later, to his former professor, ‘I don’t think that I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.’
GG: You write very evocatively about boatbuilding and the sea. Is that drawn from personal experience?
SW: I grew up beside the sea and my father built boats as a hobby. I love the smell of marine ply. I used to play among the rotting hulks while he worked on converting an old lifeboat. Named the Freya, she went out with the ice after only one summer afloat, when I was nine. Loss is a powerful theme in the trilogy.
GG: Sea Paths and Obsidian are stand-alone books, but they are the first two parts of a trilogy. That’s a huge sweep of a story and an impressive undertaking. Did you have the whole series in your mind when you started?
SE: Bera stormed into my life while I was trying to write a crime thriller. Book 1 was intended to be the whole story – but once I had finished it Bera wouldn’t let go. I was even dreaming about her, and other characters too, even the dog! Luckily, enough readers kept asking me what happens next that I had an excuse to work that out. Each book explores what ‘Home’ means and where do you belong if you always keep moving? I don’t like narrative weighed down with backstory: Sea Paths starts on Day One and always moves forward – why Lee Child loved it – so if you read Obsidian it’s the same, except readers of the first will know more backstory. If you’re someone who wants more detail about a character’s past, then you might like to read them in order. At their most basic, Sea Paths is a revenge thriller and Obsidian a quest, though both have a thriller structure.
GG: Any sneak previews of Book 3?
SW: My editor is the brilliant Liz Garner, whose father Alan has been a hero of mine for years. They both hug a story while it’s forming, as if its magic will vanish if spoken. I’m staying silent about Book 3 until it’s done, except to say that the themes of Home and Belonging are resolved, and that this will be the last in the series. It’s quite a challenge to satisfyingly have new story and characters each time, but not leave anything unresolved across the whole series.
GG: I share your respect for Alan Garner. I learned a lot from ‘The Voice That Thunders’. Suzie, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I’m looking forward to the next, and last instalment of Bera’s adventures.
Obsidian is published by Unbound. Click here for my review on Amazon.
Perhaps it’s something to do with my grey hair, but I don’t often read Young Adult books. I started Bone Jack out of curiosity, intrigued by a tale about ancient, rural traditions that have their roots in a pagan past. Within a page I was reading for pleasure. The opening is masterful; a boy willingly teetering on a cliff edge, held from falling only by the uncertain push of the wind. From that point on you know you’re in the hands of a great storyteller.
Central to the book is an annual ‘stag run’ in wild, mountainous country, a slice of local folklore which pits a young man, the ‘stag’, to outrun the pursuing ‘hounds’. The protagonist, 15-year old Ash, is to be the stag, and Crowe builds the tension steadily so you know he’s going to be running for his life. The setting of a drought- and disease-ravaged countryside is well crafted, and even the supporting characters are finely drawn. Ash has to contend with plausible human relationship issues such as a war-damaged father and a best friend who goes off the rails in the aftermath of tragedy. He also has to face Bone Jack, a shadowy figure who may be a hermit, or perhaps something much more sinister. Such supernatural elements are introduced progressively and subtly, and in a way that tightens the pace towards a climax that is as fulfils the promise of the first pages.
Above all, Bone Jack is extremely well written. Some passages I found myself re-reading purely for the pleasure of the prose. A stunning debut and highly recommended.
I started Deer Island thinking I’d just read for thirty minutes before bed. I put it down in the early hours, when it was nearly finished and all hopes of a full night’s sleep were gone, and I’m still trying to define its appeal. The quality of the writing certainly has something to do with it; the prose is clean and bare, yet wonderfully descriptive, but there is something more than style.
I’m also trying to define the book. It doesn’t fit easily with convenient labels. ‘Memoir’ is probably the closest fit, since it structured as personal recollections. Ansell has lived and worked with the destitute, has himself been a squatter, and has wandered the wild places of the earth. This slim book could also be seen as a series of vignettes; of poverty, of lifestyles, of places, all of which are articulated with sharp clarity.
I think I was hooked by the way he writes with such respect, even love, for the kind of people most of us hurry past in the street; the alcoholics and homeless beggars, Ansell’s friends and companions during his years serving with the Simon Community. There are also descriptive passages of intense beauty; it’s worth buying the book just for the paragraphs where he emerges from a freezing rainstorm in the Kalahari desert to see a scimitar-horned gemsbok standing under an extraordinary, purple sunset. His descriptions of Jura, the ‘Deer Island’ of the title, could inspire me to shoulder a backpack and start walking North.
I’m left with the impression of a man whose life is richer for carrying so little with him, ‘Memories,’ he says, ‘are the only things we truly own, and even they slip from our grasp if we don’t handle them with care’.
Let me share a little happiness; my author copies of Saxon’s Bane have arrived from the wonderful people at Solaris. It is almost exactly six years since I stepped off a corporate ladder and went freelance, specifically to release time to write. Six years from ‘I’m going to do this’ to publication, and I tell you this moment feels better than any business deal I ever landed. My thanks to those who’ve helped along the way, many of whom will find their names inside the cover. It seemed appropriate to record the moment in the arbour, where much of Saxon’s Bane was written.
Saxon’s Bane will be released in the USA on 27th August and in the UK on 12th September.