You know a book’s made an impression on more than one person by its conspicuous absence from your bookshelf. The Adoption Papers by Jackie Kay is such a book. It’s a compelling poetic sequence about a black girl’s adoption by a white Scottish couple. The narrative voices – daughter, adoptive mother and birth mother – are skilfully interwoven, creating an emotional depth that is greater than the sum of its parts. The second section, Severe Gale 8, contains some fine poems in the voices of gay men. Rereading them, I’m struck by their painful honesty, formal beauty and serious wit.
Award-winning poet Patience Agbabi retells Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales for the 21st century in her new book Telling Tales. She will talk at Ilkley Literature Festival on 11 Oct and Manchester Literature Festival on 16 Oct
I’ve been writing most of the year, so it’s a treat to be able to go reading for pleasure rather than research. So now the nights are drawing in, there’s nothing better than to curl up with a good chiller and scare oneself witless! I’m a big fan of gothic fiction, so I’ll go back to old favourites such as Daphne du Maurier’s brilliant short stories: chilling, atmospheric, ingenious and twisted by turn, often terrifying. Start with The Doll & Other Stories and The Birds & Other Stories. For classics, try Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 classic The Mysteries of Udolpho. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death are each a ghastly and gripping mixture of horror, revenge and the consequences of a bad conscience. Finally, there are plenty of fantastic new novels due out this autumn, not least Anthony Horowitz’s historical detective story Moriarty and Victoria Hislop’s The Sunrise. Set in Famagusta in the 1970s, during the Greek-Turkish battle for Cyprus, it tells the story of the conflict through the lives, loves and troubles of two families on either side of the divide.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse is out now (Orion, £16.99). She is at Chester Literature Festival on 18 October
The most memorable book I’ve read recently is Sarah Perry’s After the Flood. It’s tender, mysterious, slightly surreal and has some of the most evocative descriptive writing I’ve read in ages. I also really enjoyed Melissa Harrison’s Clay for its attention to the minutiae of the natural world in a city setting, and Ben Myers’ latest novel, Beastings, which is a dark, suspenseful lakeland gothic – a real literary page-turner.
Jenn Ashworth will appear at Lancashire Literature Festival (Litfest) on 20 Oct
Boyden produces a heartfelt and highly cinematic story he seemed destined to write
The Orenda is the magnificent Joseph Boyden’s third novel and is already a cherished and best-selling book in his native Canada. He has some Métis ancestry, so is perfectly placed to write this masterpiece set in the 17th century in Canada about a sometimes terrifying and tragic clash of cultures. Jesuitical fervour meets native Canadian passions, the immemorial wilderness is invoked and Boyden produces a heartfelt and highly cinematic story he seemed destined to write.
Sebastian Barry and Colm Tóibín will discuss the state of the Irish novel at Manchester Literature Festival on 6 Oct
I first read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut as an aspiring (ie unpublished) novelist. It simultaneously inspired and discouraged me: I thought, I’d love to write something this good… but why bother trying when I know I never will? Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five – which Vonnegut regarded as a failure – has become a postmodernist 20th-century classic. It is semi-autobiographical, rooted in his experiences in the Second World War, and recasts the fire-bombing of Dresden through the prism of a darkly comic satire that stretches from 1940s Germany to Vietnam-era America and the planet Tralfamadore, where the inhabitants resemble toilet plungers. In this anti-war novel par excellence, Vonnegut’s imaginative and stylistic brio found their most brilliant, most scintillating expression.
Novelist and lecturer Martyn Bedford will host Stepping into Character, a creative writing workshop, at Ilkley Literature Festival on 6 Oct and Morley Literature Festival on 7 Oct
Where the Sidewalk Ends is a collection of humorous poetry by the American poet Shel Silverstein. His work is largely unknown in this country, though in America he is widely read. His poems are at times funny, wacky, moving and thoughtful, but always (always!) great to read. His poem Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out is a good example of his unique sense of humour. It tells the story of a girl who meets a fate worthy of a character from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. Silverstein is like a wonderful mix of Spike Milligan, Hilaire Belloc and Roald Dahl, and will entertain you endlessly. I’ll leave you with the invitation at the beginning of his collection: “If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar / A hope-er, a prayer-er, a magic bean buyer / […] come, sit by my fire.” It is a fire that will warm the coldest heart.
Children’s storyteller, poet and writer Conrad Burdekin will be at Poetry Mania at Morley Literature Festival on 4 Oct
For any other writer this would be a book in itself, but King was just getting warmed up
Stephen King’s The Stand is my favourite book of all time. In the first section, 99 per cent of the world’s population is killed off by a plague. For any other writer this would be a book in itself, but King was just getting warmed up and there are still another 900 pages to go. What makes this stunning novel all the more remarkable is the fact that it was written at the start of his career, just as he was getting into his stride. It’s the only book I’ve read three times… and I’d happily read it again. With characters that stay with you long after the last page and a story that deserves to be classed as epic, what’s not to love?
Watch Me by James Carol is out now in paperback (Faber & Faber), £7.99
If you are an aspiring writer, this is the book to get you through your most insecure of times – and give you a laugh. Joel Stickley’s 100 Ways to Write Badly Well started life as a series of blog posts and this selection takes the best of his ‘advice’. Chapter one is entitled ‘Begin your novel with the protagonist getting out of bed and seeing that it is raining outside, which perfectly mirrors his life’. Or try chapter two, ‘Use as many adjectives as you can.’ You get the gist. On your worst writing days, you are never as bad as this.
Bea Davenport will be at Morley Literature Festival on 5 Oct
I read a lot of Henning Mankell’s novels. With few exceptions, he always tells a good story, so he engages your emotions. Plus, he goes out of his way to make you think about the world by stitching in themes about racism and migration, or poverty and inequality, or the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of socialism. Finally, he is very intense. He takes you inside his main character’s mind, into every little twitch in his thinking, and so when I’m attacked by insomnia in the small hours of the morning, I find his stories take me over and clear my head of whatever was keeping me awake and so, after a while, I can sleep peacefully.
Nick Davies is a special correspondent at The Guardian and spent more than six years uncovering the phone hacking scandal. He speaks about his book Hack Attack at Ilkley Literature Festival on 18 Oct. Also coming soon: interview with Davies in The Big Issue in the North
I first read The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde’s only novel – in my late teens and I was very impressed with it. It is a story set in rich Victorian London society and features three main characters – a society painter, Basil Hallward, a philosopher of art and life, Lord Henry Wotton, and Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man who, as the story opens, is having his portrait painted by Hallward. Lord Henry’s philosophy corrupts Dorian, who (spoiler alert) wishes the picture would age instead of him. His wish comes true and as he begins to live a life of personal pleasure, with no regard for others or the effects of his actions, the picture becomes disfigured while he remains miraculously young. It is a story of self-destruction with a supernatural twist. When it was first published in a magazine, Wilde was personally attacked for producing such a morally corrupt story and accused of being immoral himself. Wilde defended himself aggressively but could never quite throw off these accusations, and quotations from the book were used when he was prosecuted for being a homosexual in 1895. The novel was published in 1891, with a preface by Wilde that served as a defence of art against such moralistic criticism. It is a really great piece of work on its own and concludes in wonderfully epigrammatic style: “All art is quite useless.” The novel is uneven but it has an engrossing storyline, held together with the golden thread of Lord Henry’s (ie Wilde’s) witty delivery of his philosophy of life.
Geoff Dibb’s latest book Oscar Wilde: A Vagabond with a Mission is the first study of Wilde’s lectures. He will talk at Morley Literature Festival on 7 Oct
When I finished the book I felt so bereft at losing it I held it against my heart
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett tells the story of Marina Singh, a lab researcher from Minnesota, who is sent on a mission to the Brazilian rainforest to search for a colleague who is feared dead. There, she finds the mysterious Dr Swenson, who is working on a secret cure for infertility. If she is successful, women will be able to conceive well into old age. It is a dazzling story, terrifying, funny and utterly compelling. When I finished the book I felt so bereft at losing it I held it against my heart.
Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud is published by Bloomsbury. She is speaking at the Manchester Literature Festival on 10 Oct and Ilkley Literature Festival on 13 Oct
Recently called the ‘Supreme Mediocrity’ by Will Self, Orwell isn’t to everyone’s taste, but Down and Out in Paris and London, his semi-autobiographical debut work, is one of the greatest examples of a book opening people’s eyes to the reality of poverty. The Paris section is great, undercutting the glitzy world of Parisian restaurants with the realities of being a dishwasher on the breadline, though it is the London section that sets the book apart. It is a travelogue – in clear, empathetic prose – from a homeless man’s perspective, as he walks in and around London in the early 1930s. Fascinating, and a million miles from mediocrity.
Matt Haig will headline Bad Language at Manchester Literature Festival on 11 Oct
My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok is a densely written but intriguing story about an ultra-orthodox Jewish boy who is a very gifted painter in a community where art is considered sacrilege. It’s astonishing and original. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is the first in the award-winning Chaos Walking trilogy. I often recommend it when children ask me what books I like. Todd and Viola are on one of the most terrifying journeys ever conceived. The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke is a great book by one of America’s greatest writers at the top of his game. It’s a crime novel set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina; a story that will drench you in the bayou, po’boys and righteous anger. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman is the work of an astonishing imagination. The His Dark Materials trilogy must be one of the finest ever. From the first page, you know you are in the hands of a genius possessed with a brilliant idea. Actually, make that a hundred brilliant ideas.
The third novel in Simon Mayo’s Itch series, Itchcraft, is out now
My recommended read combines my twin passions, the military and psychology, and is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This novel, published in 1929, is set in the First World War and written from the German perspective. It illustrates that the armies on both sides were made up of frightened young men who wanted nothing more than to be home with their loved ones, but who, on returning, felt detached from civilian life because of the horrors they had experienced. I have read this novel more than any other over the years and never fail to feel moved and humbled by it.
KT Medina’s debut thriller, White Crocodile, is set in the land minefields of Cambodia
I wish I could force my kids to read my collection of Kynastons
I’m going to be greedy and pick not one book, but three. I love David Kynaston’s monumental series of books about how we use to live in post-war Britain. The series starts with Austerity Britain, about the privation, rationing and general scarcity of recovery. It then goes on through the happier times of Family Britain to the third volume of Modernity Britain, which take us up to 1962, when “you’ve never had it so good” began to turn sour. Why do I love them? Well, they are about the time when I was growing up, so it’s marvellous to relive those happy days and, even better, to enjoy the broader perspective Kynaston gives. I wish I could force my kids to read my collection of Kynastons. They think of the 1950s as a primitive age inhabited by dinosaurs such as me. What emerges from these books is that they were a happy time with full employment, a welfare state, a big housing programme – particularly of low-rent council housing – and a more equal society as the proportion of GDP going to the workers grew. In fact, the more I read and re-read Kynaston’s compelling chronicles of my lost youth, the more I wonder whether we weren’t really much happier in those simple days. I was.
Former TV presenter and MP Austin Mitchell talks about his memoir Calendar Boy at Ilkley Literature Festival on 17 Oct
Charlie Connelly brings the nautical history surrounding our coasts to brilliant life in Attention All Shipping. Moving from Iceland to Spain, via more familiar ports and seasides, this book reveals hidden histories – from contested rocks to lighthouse builders. But my favourite book of all time is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I never tire of Flora Poste and her gentle manipulation of her rural relatives. Meanwhile, resistance, journalism, medicine and the military all come together in Kathryn J Atwood’s carefully researched Women Heroes of World War I. These women pushed boundaries and worked outside ‘acceptable’ occupations. As a history of the First World War, this book draws your attention to theatres of war that are often overlooked, such as Serbia. A great, informative read.
Historian and writer Lucy Moore is co-author of Great War Britain Leeds. She will explore the local reaction to the outbreak of war at Morley Literature Festival on 12 Oct
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth takes as its starting point life in England during the invasion of 1066. This is no dry historical work, though, but rather an experimental, challenging and utterly invigorating account of one man’s resistance against invading forces, with strong ecological undertones and flashes of violence. It already looks destined to be a classic. This year, The Valley by Richard Benson and Water And Sky by Neil Sentence both explore the authors’ family histories. The former is an epic, century-spanning work that considers the rise and fall of the mining industry (and the working class) in one Yorkshire valley, and the latter offers some poetic and bucolic recollections of the fields and farmlands of rural Lincolnshire. Out this month, Francis Plug – How To Be A Public Author by Paul Ewen is a surreal and highly ridiculous satire of the sordid world of publishing and prize-giving, featuring cameos for countless ‘real’ writers. It’s very funny, odd and memorably unique.
Benjamin Myers is the author of Pig Iron. His new book Beastings is out now
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published in the early 1950s. It’s a thrilling read about a man’s struggle to find a voice and to be accepted by society on his own terms. I love the lively, muscular writing style and the constantly dramatic situations. It’s a story of a black American man that looks ahead to the various black movements and reminds me of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and several other black political figures who fought for the rights of a human to be treated as a human.
British poet Daljit Nagra is at Manchester Literature Festival on 14 Oct
I was presenting prizes at a speech day at Gateways School in Leeds and mentioned in my address the Jewish teacher, psychologist and writer Haim Ginott, a survivor of Auschwitz who said that the most important thing in education was for teachers and parents to help young people to become humane, caring and compassionate. Following my talk, the headmistress asked me to meet one of the children’s grandparents – a remarkable man called Arek Hersh. “I, too, am a survivor of Auschwitz,” he told me. At 11, Arek was sent to a concentration camp where 2,500 men were imprisoned. After 18 months, only 11 were alive. All his family were killed. His experiences are described in his powerful, poignant and beautifully written book A Detail of History, which we should all read.
Children’s author and educator Gervase Phinn is the patron of Morley Literature Festival. He will round off this year’s events on 13 Oct
I loved his intense appreciation of everyday moments: a face caught in the window of a train; the way tea hits a cup
Two books I’ve enjoyed this year are by Japanese writers. The first is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. It’s his account of why and how he started writing novels, and how running was part of this. This resonates with me as I also run to clear my head. It may sound dry, especially if you’re not a runner, but it’s not: he has a great sense of humour. The second is Snow Country, an astoundingly beautiful short novel by Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. I loved his intense appreciation of everyday moments: a face caught in the window of a train; the way tea hits a cup.
Anna Simpson is the author of The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire. She will talk at Ilkley Literature Festival on 11 Oct
More than just a romance, Face the Wind and Fly by Jenny Harper tells the story of Kate, a wind farm engineer in charge of the site for a new wind farm. In a quirk of fate, she is asked to head a project close to her own village. Tempers soon rise at the prospect of the proposed wind farm, making life extremely awkward for Kate. What I liked about this book was that all the issues around renewable energy and conservation were tackled with well-researched data, and that, as a reader, I was able to find sympathy for all the characters’ viewpoints. It is also an intelligent examination of what happens when a marriage fails and how it is possible to start anew.
Deborah Swift will be speaking about researching and writing historical fiction on 5 Oct as part of Morley Literature Festival
Emma Jane Unsworth
In 2013 I spent some time in New York, and while I was there I thought a lot about Marina Keegan, a young writer who’d died the previous year aged 22, five days after her graduation, with a job waiting for her at The New Yorker. The title essay of her posthumous collection The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories had struck a chord with me (as with so many) when it was published online by the Yale Daily News. I thought it was brilliant: intense, defiant and full of glorious raw compassion. Now, Keegan’s work has been brought together as a beautiful hardback (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, £12.99). I’m chairing an event with her parents and friends at Waterstones Piccadilly. It’s wonderful stuff – revealing not just promise, but accomplishment. As Keegan’s tutor Anne Fadiman says in her introduction: “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”
Emma Jane Unsworth is the author of Animals, published by Canongate. Marina Keegan: the Opposite of Loneliness takes place at Waterstones Piccadilly on 21 Oct
It’s a wonderful, moving and uplifting novel about low-paid work and the people who do it
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan tells the story of Manny DeLeon, general manager of the Red Lobster, who sits outside the restaurant on the edge of a neglected New England mall and smokes before his last ever shift. It’s four days before Christmas, head office have called time on the restaurant, a blizzard is on its way and his staff are unhappy and in an unhelpful mood. The book follows Manny through 12 hours of his difficult final day as he deals with myriad problems with heroic calm, dignity, dedication and level-headedness. It’s a wonderful, moving and uplifting novel about low-paid work and the people who do it.
Lancashire author Robert Williams’ fourth novel, Into the Trees, is out now (Faber & Faber), £7.99
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is the ultimate romantic tale. Boy meets girl and eventually instant hatred turns to love, with many vicissitudes along the way. It was published in 1813 but the moral code and the emotions portrayed are still so relevant today. It never fails to cheer me up. Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K Massie is possibly the first royal history book I ever read. It is the definitive story of the last Tsar of Russia and his family. But it isn’t a dry history book full of dates – it gives you the human face of a family engulfed by illness, revolution and death. There isn’t a happy ending but it is absorbing and at the time it was published (1985), it redrew the way royal biographies were written. Look Back in Anger by John Osborne is not a book, but a play: a miserable tale of kitchen sink drama with a lead character you cannot help but dislike, who treats his wife appallingly. This is not a good sell, I know, but said lead, Jimmy Porter, launches into everything he does with passion, looking for meaning and substance in everything. And I have tried to follow his example in that throughout my life, while treating my spouse with a little more respect.
Sue Woolman is co-author of The Assassination of the Archduke and will be talking about her book at Morley Literature Festival on 9 Oct
This summer I really enjoyed Plague and Cholera by Patrick Deville – a French novel that tells the story of Alexandre Yersin, the French scientist who in 1894 discovered the bacterium that causes the bubonic plague. Yersin was a polymath, interested in everything, and for Deville his life story is one of social and technological change in the late 19th and early 20th century. What distinguishes the book is the author’s cool, clever and very French combination of biography and novel forms: unlike anything I’ve read for a long time and something genuinely out of the ordinary.
The Valley: A Hundred Years in the Life of a Family by Richard Benson is out now (Blomsbury, £25). He is speaking at Ilkley Literature Festival at 7.45pm on 7 October
We support these festivals
The Big Issue in the North is proud media partner to both Ilkley Literature Festival and Manchester Literature Festival.
Heading into its 41st year, the prestigious Ilkley Literature Festival continues to be a magnet for leading contemporary writers, attracting authors from a wide range of genres including fiction, journalism and current affairs, poetry, biography and historical and scientific writing. The programme features more than 240 events.
Manchester Literature Festival was established in 2006 and by building on the legacy of its successful predecessor, the Manchester Poetry Festival, it has already established itself as one of the UK’s leading literary festivals, It provides unique and imaginative opportunities for audiences to experience live literature and engage with the best in contemporary writing from across the world.
Look out for The Big Issue in The North’s forthcoming coverage from both festivals, including interviews with Clare Balding, Nick Davies, Jenny Nordberg and Mary Talbot.
We’re also giving away a fabulous Ilkley Literature Festival prize package – see the magazine for details.
Ilkley Literature Festival, 3-19 Oct
Manchester Literature Festival, 6-25 Oct
Also on the literary calendar
Morley Literature Festival, 4-12 Oct
Knutsford Literature Festival, 9-19 Oct
Wirral Bookfest, 4-11 Oct
Beverley Literature Festival, 1-11 Oct
Off the Shelf, Sheffield, 11 Oct-1 Nov
Chester Literature Festival, 10-26 Oct
Lancaster Literature Festival (Litfest), 16-20 Oct
Rochdale Literature & Ideas Festival, 24-26 Oct
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