New books are always a popular gift at Christmas, and with reports suggesting that lockdown has prompted a resurgence in reading, the University of Derby’s Creative Writing and Publishing academics once again discuss some of the stand-out books they have enjoyed this year.
David Barker, Senior Lecturer in Publishing
A novel that I will happily recommend to anybody is Leonard and Hungry Paul – the debut book by the Irish author Rónán Hession.
It was published with little fanfare in 2019 by the small indie publisher Bluemoose. It has a stark yellow cover with a fish on it, which isn’t (to me) very inviting. But one of our students on the MA Publishing programme at Derby (Paul Handley, who has now set up his own indie press, Bearded Badger) kept banging on about how much he loved the book and I trusted his judgment.
From the first sentence, I was hooked: ‘Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.’
The novel is a calm and gentle story about the two friends mentioned in its title. These are not the kind of people who normally get written about in fiction. They are somewhat lacking in social skills. They’re not flashy. They don’t get involved in any capers, crimes or other shenanigans. They like board games and trivia. They have never really left home, despite being in their thirties. When the prospect of romance arises for one of them, it is seen as a puzzle to be solved, and slightly terrifying.
It is a book about kindness and compassion, and about those lives that art very rarely celebrates. Normal people, if you like. (But not the Sally Rooney kind.) It will put a smile on your face and, like many of the thousands of people who’ve discovered this novel so far, you will quite possibly start reading it again the moment you finish it for the first time.
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, 2019.
Adrian Buckner, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned was published three years before The Great Gatsby – the book perhaps often awarded the prize known as ‘The Great American Novel’. Anyone who has admired the elegant style and perfect structure of ‘Gatsby’ will find much to love in this earlier work – baggier, less well organised and structured perhaps, but in this reader’s view at least – even denser with the poetry of beautiful prose.
My other recommendation is Coventry, a collection of essays by the British novelist, Rachel Cusk. The collection contains reflections on the meaning of personal experiences and meditations on art and literature. Complex ideas are not buried in academic jargon here – they are held up to the light in prose of crystalline clarity.
I first heard one of these essays – ‘Driving as Metaphor’ – as I was about to leave for University, on Radio 4’s Book of the Week last year. Twenty minutes later, I’d ordered it from Blackwell’s and was informed that it was to be published the following week. I could barely wait. That’s the excitement a newly discovered voice can bring.
Dr Matthew Cheeseman, Associate Professor of Creative Writing
All this year I’ve been trying to read fifty pages a day. When work is busy, this has been pretty tough to achieve: despite what people may think, academics don’t, unfortunately, get paid to read. So whatever time I have ‘left over’ in the day, has been spent reading, anything from closely argued prose to quick and thrilling comics. I’ve got a lot of ambition when it comes to books, a lot of things I want to read because I want to grow as a writer and thinker.
I’m not so good at choosing books for pleasure or indulgence, but The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Casper Henderson strikes a balance between the two.
It is a bestiary of real animals, moving from A (the axolotl) to Z (the zebra fish) by way of eels, humans and pufferfish. Each chapter reflects on nature, evolution and ecology; one develops solidarity in being an animal on this planet, through learning about, for example, the lengths and depths that leatherback turtles travel to lay their eggs.
Reading the book exemplifies the kind of knowledge that you can get from the immersion of writing; something that it is very hard, perhaps impossible, to pick up from television, the radio or the internet.
The hardback is a beautiful object, well designed and illustrated. Sometimes though, it’s too much for me to get through at night, so I am alternating it with quicker, but no less enthralling, reads.
I’ve recently finished another beautiful book, Epileptic by David B, an autobiographical graphic novel about alternative medicine and epilepsy. A recent novel was The Crazy Kill by Chester Himes, who wrote many detective novels set in Harlem, New York City, all recommended!
Finally, I’ve also been reading a collection of ‘asemic poems’ by SJ Fowler. These are ‘hand-drawn, instinctive visual poems from beyond the ragged edge of language’. Hopefully that might pique your curiosity.
Matt Keefe, Associate Lecturer
I have been reading the second Discworld novel, The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett.
Pratchett was one of the bestselling authors in the UK through the 1990s and 2000s, so it’s interesting to read a much earlier book and see how gauche it is.
It’s very clever but the writing isn’t always particularly stylish. It’s the kind of book you can enjoy immensely while also recognising that there’s quite a lot wrong with it. The book is a parody of a type of sword-and-sorcery fantasy that was very common in the 1980s, but less so now.
Later Discworld books moved away from the parody of fantasy to satire of the modern world, so probably suffer somewhat less from the problem of becoming dated.
One of the things that really stands out for me is Pratchett’s awareness of textuality. The novel features Death, the Grim Reaper, as an occasional character, and his speech is marked by the use of all caps, without speech marks. In stylistics (the linguistic study of literature), different forms of speech presentation are often suggested to have a significant impact on a text’s reception by the reader, with a distinction drawn between ‘direct speech’ (using speech marks and a reporting clause) and ‘free or free-est direct speech’ (which forgoes one or both of these).
The use of the two forms in the same passage of dialogue, along with the use of caps, poses a few complex questions about the effect. Pratchett seems to be aware of this on some level – later on, he describes the gods’ voices as:
…eldritch voices, the sort of voices that mere typography will remain totally unable to convey until someone can make a linotype machine with echo-reverb and, possibly, a typeface that looks like something said by a slug.
I think there’s a tendency to want to judge – or appreciate – an author based on their ‘best’ work.
Reading The Light Fantastic reminded me how much there can be to examine in earlier or less polished work. I recommend it.
Dr Moy McCrory, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing
I am recommending two plays. In a time when theatres have gone dark and their future is uncertain, these remind us of how a good play lives on, like the characters from a book who walk around with you long after the book is finished, we keep these experiences deep inside, to rise like memories, touching our present and our past.
So I want to recommend National Theatre at Home, the archive which the National maintains and from which I viewed two remarkable plays this summer which take on extra resonance through BLM.
Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles takes place in African barber shops from six cities, five in Africa and one in Peckham, offering London as touchstone. Groups of men talk stories of their lives, of black resistance and ideas about race and nationality – major concerns revealed through bursts of music, singing, movement and humour, in a play which was both heart breaking and funny.
Difficult ideas and sharp lessons for me as a white woman were conveyed with grace and I felt gifted with a window onto the challenging world for black men coming of age.
When a young mixed-race man begs for an after-hours’ hair-cut from his barber, because he has an audition for the role of ‘young black male’, but states he mightn’t get the part because he ‘is not black enough’, I felt the universal appeal of this play, beyond the male world of the barber shop as it reached out to those of us who have never been ‘enough’. Through whichever lens we view ourselves, be it class, background, sex or orientation, as well as race, this remarkable play expands ideas of identity and belonging.
My second is Andrea Levy’s Small Island, adapted by Helen Edmundson for the stage. To convey this picaresque novel inside a play length version is nothing short of a miracle, and here the essence of the book remained brilliantly rendered.
One scene, as the hopeful passengers boarded the Windrush to journey to a new life, moved me to tears, recalling other journeys, not least our present government’s treatment of refugees, while the relevance of the date is never lost on me as my own father arrived from Ireland into the hostility of the host nation, in the same year, 1948.
An essential part of black history, Small Island offers us all a story about hope, despair, difficulties encountered, and is a timely reminder of the dignity of all who travel onwards to make their homes among strangers.
 For example, Gibbons, A. & S. Whiteley (2018) Contemporary stylistics: language, cognition interpretation, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh; Ch. 8, if you’re interested…
Picture: Andreea Radu on Unsplash