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
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.
Jacqueline Watts, author, reviewer, and blogger (click here to read her blog) sent me some questions about characters and characterisation, which I’m delighted to post below. By way of introduction, Jacquie read English at Somerville College, Oxford, and has had poetry, short stories and book reviews published in Acumen, Envoi, Hand + Star, Mslexia and Orbis, and broadcast on BBC and independent Radio. Her novel, “A Darker Moon”, a dark literary fantasy, is published by Vagabondage Press.
1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or historical? There’s a guy called Fergus Sheppard in Saxon’s Bane, and as I wrote the book he became so real that I have to remind myself he’s just a figment of my imagination.
2. When and where is the story set? Saxon’s Bane is set in the present day in a remote English village called Allingley, during the excavation of a Saxon grave. There are also flashbacks to Allingley’s Dark Ages origins as Aegl ingas leigh, the clearing of Aegl’s people.
3. What should we know about him? In the first pages of the book Fergus is involved in a car crash near Allingley, when his friend and colleague Kate swerves to avoid a stag. Kate dies, and Fergus hears himself left for dead. Before that life-changing moment, he’d been a high-achieving, flash salesman, but in the book he’s on a journey towards physical and mental healing. He’s stubborn, vulnerable, and emotionally incontinent, but he’s a fighter. He’s had to fight his way back from a place mapped more by faiths than by science.
4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life? Fergus isn’t sure any more about the boundaries between reality and mystery, or past and present, and those boundaries become more blurred as the story progresses. There’s the tramp with the stag tattoo, for example, that appeared by the wreck just as archaeologists were uncovering a peat-preserved, Saxon body nearby with uncannily similar markings.
Fergus is a damaged innocent blundering through a rural community that hides some seriously nasty secrets. Tor.com summed it up as ‘Wicker Man by way of John Fowles’.
5. What is the personal goal of the character? Fergus starts out needing to sort out his own mental turmoil. As can happen with people with Post-Traumatic Stress, his behaviour is not always appealing. His insecurity, for example, shows in a bit of a roving eye, but the young archaeologist who’s the object of his attentions is facing her own challenges; a preternatural understanding of the Saxon graves that she can’t reconcile with her academic discipline. The two of them become drawn into a very old, sinister conflict. Fergus stays to fight not because he’s particularly courageous, but because he’s too bloody-minded to run the other way. Plus, of course, there’s the girl…
6. How’s the book doing? I’m eagerly awaiting the first royalty statement since just after the launch! The feedback is gratifyingly good, though, with an average of 4.4 ex 34 reviews on Amazon. I was over the moon when Ross Warren, reviewing for ‘This is Horror’, described it as ‘A supremely well-written novel… Saxon’s Bane is the book to thrust into the hands of any know-it-all who claims that genre fiction cannot be literary.’
7. Great! So what’s coming next? I’ve just finished another time-slip historical with a supernatural twist and have posted an overview and extracts here. Now I’m sketching out two alternative scenarios for the third book. This summer I’ll finish my (part time) job and focus wholly on writing, which is wonderfully exciting.
…and the tour carries on Watch this space for the next writers to introduce their characters.
In the last week, there have been a lot of threads on Facebook and writers’ sites about genre, and the challenges of classifying books. Back in August, the Hugo Award-winning SF & Fantasy site, SF Signal, asked me to write a guest blog on the subject. Here are my thoughts; click the image for the original article.
Literature, Genre, and Geeks
Tag me with a genre label and I’ll probably wince. They’re like that childhood game of pinning the tail on the donkey, blindfold, except I’m the donkey. Every now and then there’s a pinprick and I find another useless appendage dangling from my ear or nostril. HF, UF, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy…I’ve been stuck with them all.
My irritation with labels began with the slight sneer of superiority about genre; that sense, on my journey to publication, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. I had this bizarre vision of being greeted by a marketing executive at a great but imaginary literary establishment. “Literary Fiction? Over there, sir, the smart chaps in suits and cufflinks. Historical? Down the passage, mate, look for the swords, sandals, and bodices. Fantasy? Downstairs, guv. We don’t let no geeks up ‘ere.”
Literary snobbishness aside, the real problem with genre labels is that this convenient, box-ticking marketing machine has little room for grey areas. It seems to be designed for publishers’, distributors’, and retailers’ convenience. By superimposing structure onto a craft that is inherently qualitative, it primarily benefits the publishing machine, not the author or the reader. It thinks in lists; the SF list, the HF list, the Chic Lit list (and I couldn’t say that after a glass of wine), whereas writers create word pictures that should be art rather than paint-by-numbers. We need the freedom to stray across boundaries.
I like ambiguity, you see. I inhabit the hinterland where history becomes fantasy, and both cross the border into literature. I enjoy ghost stories where a plausible explanation still lingers in the background, or the kind of fantasy where the real world is touched by magic the way sunlight glints on water. Blink and the light may have gone, but the scent of an otherness remains.
I suppose I should blame the world I live in. The real one, that is, not the caverns of half-constructed mental space called ‘Works In Progress’. My real world has history written across its landscape; place names that tell of Saxon settlements, winding lanes that an English drunkard made as he lurched home from the mead hall. The past lives around us in the present, but what if those distant ancestors could speak to us? What stories would come alive?
So much of writing, I find, starts with that question “what if…” Take the village of Allingley, for example, a dreamy place on the banks of the Swanbourne. Allingley would have been Aegl-ingas-leah in Anglo-Saxon, the clearing of the folk of Aegl. What if this was the Aegl of Saxon legend, the mighty archer whose love was Olrun, the Swan Maiden?
I like joining the dots, even if the dots sit in different boxes of the marketing machine. When Saxon’s Bane was still a vague idea, I saw an article about the millennia-old bodies that are occasionally found in peat bogs, with their features sometimes so well preserved that they seem simply to be sleeping. Many of them were ritually slaughtered. Now, what if a peat-preserved Saxon grave was discovered on the outskirts of Allingley? What if an archaeologist developed a preternatural understanding of her project? What if the present day started to mirror the ancient, bloody past?
I’m back with the marketing exec. “Bit historical, are we?” he asks in a tone of voice that suggests ‘historical’ is a nervous condition. “But set in the present day? That won’t do, then…” Much sucking of teeth as he looks down his lists. “And a ghost, you say? That’ll be fantasy, then. Mind the steps; it’s a bit dark down there.”
I know, I know; genre labels help to point readers towards books they might like. Labels become banners under which people of similar interests can congregate, for example in forums like this one. But sticking a genre label on a book is not an indicator of quality. A bad book doesn’t become an Iain M Banks classic just by labeling it ‘SF’. A good publisher, on the other hand, is highly selective, invests in its authors, and won’t touch cr@p. First division authors such as the late and much loved Iain B are sufficiently established to have a brand of their own, but for the rest of us, being associated with a publisher’s brand helps us towards stardom. Maybe there’s a case for publishers to promote their brand values a little more? More branding, less tagging?
And in the mean time, I’m writing fantasy. With more than a dash of history. It’s quite literary, I’m told, but reads like a thriller. Oh, and there’s a dash of romance thrown in.
Hell, it’s a ghost story.
Today is the UK release date for Saxon’s Bane. To mark the occasion, Jonathan Oliver of Solaris sat me in front of a video camera and asked me loads of questions, ranging from my thoughts on genre, to the background to key characters in the book, and my writing journey. We even touched on the healing power of horses! The interview has been posted on YouTube at:
A wonderful crowd of friends and family swelled the shoppers at The Forbidden Planet in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on Wednesday night, for the launch of Saxon’s Bane.
My agent Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates kindly kicked off the proceedings before I was persuaded to read the first chapter. A Q&A followed, in which the questions were mercifully uncontroversial but lively enough to swell the numbers queuing to buy the book.
I’d found a very suitable wine, so perhaps it was inevitable that a little frivolity would creep into the occasion, in which a Saxon replica helmet (gratifyingly close to the book’s cover image) featured heavily!
I was humbled by the number of friends who came along in support, some of whom had traveled a long way to be there. The Forbidden Planet team were stunned that I was still signing books when they were preparing to close the shop, which I gather is almost unknown for a debut launch.
It was great to share a glass with friends and the guys from Solaris afterwards in De Hems. A great evening, with brilliant company.
Saxon’s Bane is now available in print form (Mass Market Paperback) in the United States and Canada, and will be released in Trade Paperback format in the United Kingdom on 12th September. It is also available worldwide in all standard eBook formats.
This fabulous replica helmet was a gift from a friend. Something tells me it is going to spice up many book signing sessions. And for those coming to the launch at Forbidden Planet, London at 6pm on 4th September, there may be a little extra surprise…
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.
My wonderful publishers, Solaris, sent an Advance Review Copy of Saxon’s Bane to Christopher Fowler, the author of thirty published novels including the Bryant and May mysteries. Christopher commented:
‘Once there was a great classical tradition of rural British horror from MR James to The Wicker Man. Now Geoffrey Gudgion has revived the style and modernised it to great effect, proving there’s still nothing as creepy as the countryside.’
Thank you, Christopher! Definitely a quote for the cover.