It’s that time of year again: The British Book Awards, aka the Nibbies. Usually I manage to get my post published before the winners are called, but this year I missed the delivery of books so had to go to the big post office, which was shut, and then I arranged a redelivery and missed that too, and so it went on for a couple of weeks, until finally last week I received all six nominees for Debut Book of the Year.
I read them over the weekend, and didn’t look at the winner until after I’d made my own judgements. Like every other year, I seem to be out of step with the judges, but never mind. Here’s what I thought of this year’s Debut nominees, from the one I liked least to the one I liked most.
Never Greener by Ruth Jones
Every year, there’s at least one book whose inclusion on the list I cannot comprehend. Last year it was Sirens by Joseph Knox. This year it was Never Greener by Ruth Jones.
The storyline was uninteresting. The characters were wooden and very badly researched. Several were stereotypes, such as the young woman “on the Asperger’s spectrum” who said such! hilarious! things! because she couldn’t understand social rules like the Normal Characters could.
Speaking of superfluous exclamation marks, the first one appeared on page five and then they were peppered throughout the book! It was quite annoying!
There were some Foreign People in the book, too, just to make sure we all knew how accepting the author was of Other Cultures and people who Aren’t Like Her. Except that the foreigners all spoke with very… odd… sentence structures that didn’t linguistically match those of the countries they came from or of the country they were living in.
The English characters spoke conversational English, of course (except the aforementioned person with Asperger’s, who spoke a kind of robot English), but the author insisted on writing in dialect only some of the time, making for confusing reading. There were also several ‘gonna’ and ‘wanna’ instances, but again not every time.
Don’t do this. It’s jarring for the readers and makes the characters sound confused and the author lazy. The only person who’s allowed to write in dialect is John Steinbeck, and he’s dead.
The story of the book centred around a selfish arsehole of a woman, made interesting by a series of mental health problems which naturally were only shown as vague outlines, since depth isn’t exactly this book’s strong point. (Does it have one? The cover’s OK, I suppose.) Kate is an actress. When she was younger, she had an affair with a married man. They haven’t seen each other for seventeen years; he’s still married, with three kids; she’s happily married with a daughter, Tallulah. Naturally they can’t resist each other so they fall into one another’s arms and shag each other’s lights out… but will it ruin their marriages?
I didn’t care. I have a lot of sympathy for this kind of situation, actually, when it’s well written, which this wasn’t. I was desperate for the book to be over from about page four onwards. Unfortunately it’s quite long.
Anyway, I’ve spent 500 words ranting about the worst book on the list now, so on to better things.
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
I would have put this towards the bottom of the pile, which means, of course, that it won. It wasn’t a terrible book, and it was light years ahead of Never Greener, but it left me feeling a bit meh.
It opens with a sentence that tells us the ending of the story:
“The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.”
And then we see all the things that lead up to the death of the baby, who was killed by the worst nanny you could possibly hire. (You know it’s the nanny from the beginning. That’s not a spoiler.)
This was one of those quiet French books that was probably much better in the original language, because it fits in with French literary tradition better than with English, I think. There was nothing wrong with the translation as far as I could see, but it left me feeling a bit bare at the end. We never fully knew why the nanny killed the child; if the book had been twice as long, we might have been able to get into it. I liked this, in one sense – we rarely do know the full motivations behind other people’s actions – but the point of fiction is that you get to see more than you see in real life.
There were some excellent words in it, though:
very evocative. But not quite enough to move it up my personal list.
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
I didn’t love this book, but I didn’t hate it either. It reminded me a bit of The Shape of Water, in that it didn’t quite convince me but I enjoyed the world of the story well enough to keep going with it.
The story focuses around Mr. Hancock, who accidentally acquires a mermaid. She’s not alive, and she looks fearsome, but still people queue up to see her. When he’s made his fortune from the unusual creature he immediately sends a ship out to find another, and they manage to capture a live one and deliver her to him. But superstition suggests that mermaids don’t bring the best of luck, and as Mr. Hancock’s life begins to crumble around him, he forgets to even care about it, so caught up is he in staring into the depths of the mermaid’s pool.
It felt a bit like one long metaphor for the human condition: that in many ways we do better with a bit of adversity, and although we long to be comfortable, once we get there we’re not satisfied either.
“She finds herself at a peculiar impasse, the first perhaps in her life, and it is not caused by obstacles but by the lack of them.”
It dealt well with the power of the mind: how an overwhelming depression can seem to subsume us completely, drown us inside our own psyches with no hope of a way out. And how often, the only way out is through.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
This book ranks so highly for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a mixture of two genres – historical and fantasy fiction – which I don’t like, and yet it kept me engaged all the way through. Secondly, as someone who’s currently writing what I hope will be my debut novel, I cannot for the life of me work out how Turton managed to intertwine all these characters and storylines without tangling himself in knots and creating something unintelligible.
Evelyn Hardcastle dies again and again, on the same day. Aiden Bishop knows this, but he doesn’t know who he is, because he keeps coming back as a different guest at the party. Each time he’s tasked with uncovering the murderer and relaying the solution to a mysterious masked man, who will trade Aiden’s freedom for the knowledge. But how can he work out what’s going on if he doesn’t know who he is? And can his own actions change the end of the story?
Not my usual cup of tea, and yet compelling enough to keep reading. When I first opened it I thought it was going to be like the recent Netflix series Russian Doll, but it turned out to be much more complex than that. I’d be very interested to see what Turton writes next, because if he managed this feat of plot in his first book I’m sure his next will be excellent.
Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce
The only book on the list that nearly made me cry, Dear Mrs. Bird is the story of a young woman living during the Second World War. She dreams of being a war correspondent, but when she lands her dream job at a newspaper she soon realises she’s accidentally applied to be an assistant to Mrs. Bird, a formidable and conservative woman who writes the advice column for a women’s magazine. Nonetheless she manages to find a way to make a difference in her own small part of the world.
It’s a beautiful story of friendship that highlights how the little things in life can be the most important. And it has some good career advice, too:
“Find out what you’re good at… and then get even better.”
The only reason this one didn’t win on my list was because it was superseded by the true story of a survivor of Auschwitz, and let’s be real, there’s little that can compete with that.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Well, this one had to win really, didn’t it? A novel based on the true story of Lale Solokov, who was held in Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps and managed to get out alive, mainly by becoming the guy who tattooed all the other prisoners on the way in. While living there he fell in love with Gita: this is the story of love blossoming in the bleakest of places.
I read this not long after reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, and the resilience and humour with which Solokov faced the day reminded me of Frankl’s outlook as well.
“Lale lived his life by the motto: ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.'”
“When you spend years not knowing if in five minutes’ time you will be dead, there is not much that you can’t deal with.”
It’s everything you’d expect it to be: moving, harrowing, fascinating. It comes in at the top of my list, although not, apparently, the judges’ list. But it’s my blog, so my list matters more here. 😉
Have you read any of these? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!
I received free copies of these books from the British Book Awards promotion team in exchange for a review.