2018 Book of the Year
The Edge of Innocence
David P Miraldi
David P Miraldi
This is a legal drama based on a trial that took place in early 60s America: when Casper Bennett was accused of murdering his wife by drowning her in a bath full of scalding water, Miraldi’s own father represented him in court. Miraldi has pieced together the story from an archive of documents bequeathed to him by his father, and he creates a convincing and tense drama out of that material. The characterisation is very strong, and he manages to make some fairly complex and detailed legal material accessible and interesting. It becomes something of a page turner, and builds to a gripping climax. There is much to think about here, beyond the immediate interest of the trial. The judges have debated its status as fiction or non-fiction, a dilemma considered by the author himself. He concludes that because he is not quoting directly from most of the characters it must be fiction. We disagree and feel that even with non-fiction there is room for imagination. The facts presented at the end of the book pull such a punch that they have to be considered as part of the book itself.
There is a force of intellect behind it too, which is appealing – it offers an insight into the jury system, and reveals how much of it depends on presentation, persuasion, and spin, regardless of how the legal world strives to privilege objectivity and fact. Miraldi, who is himself an attorney, tells it with an insider’s understanding of that world, and he seems to be a natural storyteller. It also gives an appealing view of America at a certain point in history: the sense of community; the significant contribution of immigration; the inevitable demise of that world when confronted with technology, a loss of innocence and cynicism. It’s a very impressive book.
The 2018 Category WINNERS
Children's & Young Adult Winner
Illustrated Children's Winner
The Thing on Mount Spring
Jenny Morris; Illustrated by Sara Hayat
Non Fiction Winner
The 2018 Category Shortlists
The Bobbling and the Flood Inger Brown
This is a book with a simple text and delightful doodle-like illustrations – suitable for young children. Bobbling Poodle Doodle – with scribbled hair, multicoloured body and rather stylish red boots - carries an umbrella at all times and is forced to leave his home when the rain starts to come through his roof. He floats through a flooded world and encounters various unidentifiable kinds of ducks, worms and a frog. Umbrellas feature prominently, both as a protection from the rain and upside down as little boats. The problem is solved once the plug is pulled and the Bobbling returns home. The strength of this book is the imaginative illustrations and the little details on every page.
Don't Ever Look Behind Door 32 B. C. R. Fegan; Illustrated by Lenny Wen
This book has enormous charm. The text has a repeating refrain and a compelling rhythm and it really should be read out loud for the sheer joy of the rhymes. There is also plenty to entertain in the pictures, which are wonderfully executed, full of intricate details which will reveal something new every time you come back to them. The forbidden door 32 intrigues throughout and builds up a good tension until we find out at the end what is behind it. This would appeal to young children who love repetition and familiarity. A book to be read over and over again.
Crispy Children Libby Lam
This book tells the story of an elf called De, a farmer who lives on carrots until the weather ruins his harvest and he has to find work. He is hired by a restaurant, but then is horrified to discover that his job is to collect children who will be cooked and put on the menu as Crispy Children. He fails on every attempt, saves a lost child and returns for his punishment. But all is well. There has been a misunderstanding. This is a book for very young children. It’s an unusual story with an ethical message, and a pleasing triumph of good over bad. The text is simple and the gloriously detailed and coloured illustrations fill every page, full of fascinating details from a Chinese world.
MacBoo and the Monster of Scab Hill Jean McIntosh; Illustrated by Virginia Phillips
This is a charming book for younger children who can read for themselves or enjoy being read to. MacBoo attends a ghost academy but is temporarily banished because he’s not very good at anything - a nice touch that means the reader is on his side. There is plenty of humour as he encounters grumpy animals on his journey and attempts shape-shifting with varying degrees of success when threatened by a very scary monster. It is pleasing that the development of Mac’s powers seems to be linked to his increasing self-confidence and his way of dealing with the monster is to chase him away rather than kill him at the end. All in all, an entertaining, engaging book.
The Thing on Mount Spring Jenny Morris; Illustrated by Sara Hayat
This is a delightful book with themes and detail that would appeal to all ages. It tells about the arrival of a wind turbine (which can talk) and its relationship with the animals in the area, leading to a dramatic rescue when a bush fire threatens them all. Danger, bravery and friendship are all explored. The verses scan, introducing unusual words to stretch the imagination, and the pictures are imaginatively executed. There’s a wide variety of Australian animals represented, each one decorated with Aboriginal designs. An added bonus is the introduction of modern technology as an unthreatening and benign presence in the world.
Howl of the Lambergoon Anthony Spaeth; Illustrated by Marta Stawska
This is a beautifully illustrated book that would be appreciated by older children or even adults. It is set in the far north of Scotland, among the Scottish islands, and tells how a group of four brave heroes – Hoon the Wizard, Lull the Shetland pony, Aud the King’s daughter and Gad the Zig - take on the monster known as the Lambergoon. Told in verse, sprinkled with words that might be familiar to the Scottish or just invented, it reads like a legend that has been passed down through generations, rhythmic and compelling. The pictures are colourful, imaginative and atmospheric, adding richness to the text. The ending is a triumph of diplomacy over blood-thirsty revenge. Very satisfying.
Children's & Young Adult
Idiot Genius Richard Due
There is plenty to like about this novel. It is full of fun, and clearly the product of a quirky, inventive mind, ideal for children's writing. Willa is a smart, likeable child with no prejudices. She, her genius mother and practical father (no problem with gender stereotypes here) are kidnapped and taken to a world where they experience bizarre encounters with a variety of unlikely entities. The narrative is often very witty and the absurdity of the story is what carries it along. The pace is fast and the plot farcical in places which is what children will like about it. This would appeal to the 10-12 age range, although a certain amount of intelligence is assumed, otherwise too many of the jokes would be missed.
Girl with Cat (Blue) Sam Hawksmoor
This has all the qualities looked for in a YA novel, with two girls in parallel worlds who turn out to have a much greater connection than either of them knew about. There is an alternative, hidden London accessed through portals that don’t remain fixed and a series of tunnels, which is well imagined and believable. Saska’s world is faced with annihilation from forces that seem to originate in Jules’s world, and her inability to escape and join her brother forms the basis of the tension and the action. The confusion of Jules and McReady, her geeky friend, as they try to access the parallel London is well portrayed and the dangers encountered by Saska from the conquering army creates much tension and excitement. The girls are competent, sassy and have a confidence most would envy. McReady works well as a foil, resourceful and loyal – while Saska finds a similar support from her blue lynx. Excellent title!
Daughter of the Sun Zoe Kalo
An imaginative story following its protagonist, Trinity, from the convent/orphanage where she has grown up in ignorance of her background, to a small island off the Turkish coast. Here she not only discovers that she is heir to a fortune, but also to the Cult of the Cat - she is the Goddess Basnet incarnate, which she only gradually becomes aware of. This status gives her magical powers, not to mention responsibilities likely to lead to numerous sequels. The world is visually believable with a strong sense of place and an internally consistent plot. The potential boyfriend is introduced with subtlety, only taking on significance as the novel progresses. The metamorphosis scenes are particularly well done, as is Trinity's developing awareness of her abilities. The mystery unfolds gradually and convincingly, and Trinity's world, together with the mythology underpinning her heritage, is well constructed, leading to a tense action-packed climax.
The Shadow of the Two Princes Wendy Leighton Porter
This is the eighth book in a series that features three children and a talking cat who go back in time and have adventures. In this case they want to rescue the Princes in the Tower, although they realise that they won’t be able to change history. This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story and the tension of the action as they are captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, make the acquaintance of both princes and their uncle and put their own lives in danger. This would be appreciated by children rather than teenagers and it is a good example of how to make history interesting to the young, with some useful factual information included at the end.
Bring me Sunshine Wendy Storer
This is a delightful YA novel about a young girl, Daisy, who wants to be a drummer but is distracted by difficulties at home. When her father - an ex-rock musician suffering from undiagnosed memory problems – starts to behave weirdly, she becomes a target for bullies. It is only when her old friend Dylan returns to Kendal that she begins to make sense of what is going on. She has many challenges to face, including taking responsibility for her five-year-old brother. Dylan offers reliable, caring support throughout, despite her initial inability to trust him. The father is well drawn: his forgetfulness has a slightly comic facet at first, but this darkens as the plot develops. The theme of female drumming is nice too, and there are plenty of convincing details which make the protagonist’s passion for percussion entirely believable. Each carefully chosen chapter-heading gives a song title, band and the name of the drummer. The final scene, a music competition at school, has a compelling sense of tension and resolution. It’s a strong portrait of a teenager faced with almost insurmountable challenges who manages to keep her integrity. Problems are not conveniently solved, but they are addressed realistically and convincingly.
Food Illusions Vol 1 Ben Churchill
A fascinating book by a chef, who states in his introduction that this is not a conventional cookbook. His aim is to make us think, and he achieves this with extraordinary success. As you flick through the pages, full of excellent illustrations, it’s not immediately clear what is happening. Then you look closer. And you find that the carrot that you thought was a carrot, the apple, the cherry, the fried egg, are in fact cakes. There’s a kitchen sponge, beans on toast, a cup of hot chocolate. It’s very clever and the different stages of the cooking are well explained and illustrated with detailed instructions and an awareness of the need for clear language. A superb book which does indeed make you think.
Wealth by Virtue Chad Gordon
A wonderfully attractive book with valuable advice about the financial world. It’s divided into easily digestible sections and offers insights into every aspect of money that we’re likely to encounter. There is much practical information here, and just dipping into a few pages at a time will reward the reader with valuable knowledge and insight. For example, are you an Eeyore or a Pollyanna? Apparently the Pollyannas do better in the long run. It’s written in a brisk, easy style. There’s no jargon here, and any essential technical terms are clearly explained. There are plenty of colourful charts and graphs, easily understood. We’d all benefit from reading this book, or simply turning to the pages that are relevant to us. Chad Gordon has achieved something remarkable here. He’s transformed a subject that has the potential to confuse into a source of fascinating information.
The Edge of Innocence David P Miraldi
This is a legal drama based on a trial that took place in early 60s America: when Caspar Bennett was accused of murdering his wife by drowning her in a bath full of scalding water, Miraldi’s own father represented him in court. Miraldi has pieced together the story from an archive of documents bequeathed to him by his father, and he creates a convincing and tense drama out of that material. The characterisation is very strong, and he manages to make some fairly complex and detailed legal material accessible and interesting. It becomes something of a page turner, and builds to a gripping climax. There is much to think about here, beyond the immediate interest of the trial. The judges have debated its status as fiction or non-fiction, a dilemma considered by the author himself. He concludes that because he is not quoting directly from most of the characters it must be fiction. We disagree and feel that even with non-fiction there is room for imagination. The facts presented at the end of the book pull such a punch that they have to be considered as part of the book itself.
Grief's Compass Patricia McKernon Runkle
This is an imaginative memoir, perhaps taking its lead from Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers. The author combines a variety of forms, poetry prose, criticism and memoir in an effort to come to terms with her brother’s suicide. She writes very sensitively, drawing upon the poems (and, indeed, the letters) of Emily Dickinson and her own poems. This book shows how she made her way through the morass of her emotions to come to understand what was happening in her own life. It’s a mixture of memory, poetry and philosophy and is unusually poignant and delightful at the same time. While no experience is exactly the same, others going through the same process might find this a helpful companion.
Blades of Grass Mark Aylwin Thomas
This is the biography of George Aylwin Hogg, a young man who travelled extensively and eventually ended up in China just before and during the Second World War. He wrote a diary throughout his travels and they provide a portrait of a cataclysmic time in history. His purpose for being in China was to train young men in various vocations. He was only young himself – he died in 1945 at the age of thirty – and he is perhaps remembered better in China than here. The book is written by his nephew who found out about him after being invited to China for a memorial. The early part of the book tells us about George’s life, with photographs and family details, but everything comes alive with long extracts from George’s life. He turns out to have been a accomplished chronicler with the ability to enthral with details and insights into a world that has long gone.
The Price of Profit Jason Wicks
This is a fascinating book, written by an expert in the area, about the difficulties and dilemmas of Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR. It considers the ethical side of businesses once they start to be successful. He examines the delicate path that has to be trod between profitability and philanthropy, using snappy titles – Dolphins and Bananas; Runaway Train – metaphors and plenty of real life examples. Once a company becomes successful and attempts to address ethical issues, another newer company creeps up behind them, hungry for success, willing to exploit its workers and undercut the big firms. The biggest profits come from ruthlessness, but times are changing and consumers are beginning to show more interest in where their goods come from. Wicks writes entertainingly, in easily understandable language, about a complex subject. He’s very up to date with his information, citing the names of companies that are familiar to all of us. There is much to think about in this book.
The Goldsmith's Apprentice Keith Chandler
These poems are rich with texture and close observation, consistently sharp throughout. The book opens with a series about people and their trades - the glassworkers of Amblecote, a gold-plating man, a glass eye fitter, and, not least, the Goldsmith's Apprentice himself, who, in the opening lines, is told to “change into ‘trashers’, canvas shoes/when you lock yourself in at eight.” The craftsmen promise to teach him how to “saw and buff;/to solder, blow pipe dangling from your lip/like a forgotten cheroot”. There is a weight of research behind such poems, and they're rendered in the confident voice of a seasoned poet. His greatest strength is his interest in people whose lives and character he captures with humour, subtlety, and intelligence. Particularly impressive is Chemo Nurse, which opens, “How wonderful you are, bursting late/into this waiting room of politeness and fear”; she is a women who exists in a world of “fake cheerfulness”, but who sustains her own integrity and status as “THE REAL THING”. It doesn't take a poet to notice such things, but it takes one to express them as forcefully and succinctly as Chandler does here. A superb collection.
Flocks of Words Kate Innes
An impressive collection of poems that often exhibit a powerful engagement with the natural world and brim with the joy of it. Many of the other poems are subtle in their execution, with inventive language. These are the kind of poems that you read and agree with, while thinking you wish you’d thought of the sentiment first. Many of the poems work through the accumulation of detail, which is often very effective, and she is an excellent landscape poet, with a wide range of settings: England, France, Canada, Zimbabwe. The title poem is delightful.
Diversifly ed. Nadia Kingsley
This is an eclectic and enjoyable anthology of bird poetry, which juxtaposes words and images. The poems are consistently strong, despite the diversity of styles. There is some outstanding work, such as Andrew McMillan’s piece about a rook “slowly limping like a man//on crutches”, Emma Pursehouse brilliant mirror poem, where the second stanza matches the first stanza in reverse, and Miki Byrne’s poem about Woodpigeons who make “it clear that humans hold no monopoly/on the foibles of too much drink”. The writing is accompanied by some pleasing, and occasionally stunning, artwork, although the reproductions don't always do this justice. It is a great anthology, full of entertaining and enjoyable images.
The Fetch Gregory Leadbetter
A lovely collection of thoughtful, intelligent poems with some old forms - sonnets and a villanelle - while others are more free. They are wide ranging in subject and style with recurring themes of the supernatural and the almost-there. Moving effortlessly from poems about death to poems about baby monitors, he encompasses the full range of life’s spectrum, teasing out meanings with insight, subtlety, and, above all, authenticity. At the heart of the collection is the beautiful elegy for a beloved father, Dendrites and Axons, where the pain of loss is rendered with the power and poignancy that characterises the book as a whole. Here, as elsewhere, he manages and articulates emotion in ways that enable empathy, and, not least, huge admiration.
How to Grow Matches S. A. Leavesley
Leavesley’s poems have clarity and directness, and she writes with a great eye for significant detail. Matchsticks are “pink tipped bullrushes” in the title poem, for instance, and “Blackpool's shops are metal secrets” in another lovely piece, First Thing. In Fashion Chains, mannequins are glimpsed in shop windows at night with “chemo flesh revealed/in the glare of strip lighting”, and the “bald realities” of “moon heads”. This poem becomes a sly metaphor for the fashion industry and the way this exploits women via the spurious notion of “true shape”. Her themes are varied: there are ekphrastic poems, political poems, feminist poems, myth based poems, but all have flair, characterised by a contemporary experience which is always convincing and original.
The Chicken Soup Murder Maria Donovan
A touching story, told with energy and humour. The narrator, Michael, is an eleven-year-old child, and many comic moments are derived from his naive perspective. The main mystery driving the book involves the demise of Irma, Michael’s next-door neighbour, and the significance of what Michael sees through the window before she dies. Michael lives with his nan but eventually reunites with his parents. These tensions are well handled, the timing is effective, and both mysteries in tandem sustain the reader's interest. The characters are delineated with skill, and feel authentic. The book also addresses bullying intelligently, with a reversal of roles between the bully and the bullied which complicates the issues in an interesting way. Above all, the book gives a good account of childhood, and its various anxieties and frustrations. In short this is a great story, told with sensitivity, and a first class eye for comedy. A memorable read.
15 Minutes Erinna Mettler
These stories are all linked by various encounters with celebrity. ‘Sourdough’ is a nice tale about a vagrant in New York the morning after John Lennon’s assassination. Initially he is shunned by New Yorkers as is usual, but they exhibit an uncharacteristic generosity following news of Lennon’s death, implying a sudden reawakening of sixties idealism. Perhaps the title of the story implies that we are meant to see this as transient and hypocritical? In the title story, a commercial artist under pressure to marry his girlfriend finds inspiration in an anecdote he hears about Andy Warhol, leaving small town America for the city in order to follow his dream. The hero becomes inspired, and copies him, bidding farewell to a life of domesticity. There’s perhaps an extra dimension given by the element of sexual ambiguity associated with Warhol, making us wonder about the protagonist’s motives for leaving his girlfriend. Subtle and clever A very strong selection of stories.
The Infinite Library and other stories Victor R Ocampo
Ocampo, a Filipino living in Singapore, is a clever, skilled writer. His short stories are subtle and demanding, hovering in the space between literary fiction, experimental fiction and cyberpunk. Several of the tropes of SF are introduced and built upon. The stories are linked in several respects. An infinite library (with several acknowledgements to Borges and his "The Library of Babel") recurs as a major or minor element in many of the stories. There are also common settings, themes, events and characters, though the stories are more varied than that makes them sound. The book’s title refers to a character in the opening story ‘Mene, Tekel, Upharsin’, a phrase from a biblical tale meaning ‘the future is determined’. The hero dreams he is in an endless library that, on closer inspection, only contains two books, both of which he wrote himself. It seems to confirm the notion suggested in the story’s title, that the future is predetermined. This idea is nicely qualified by the story itself, however, which offers the reader three alternative endings to choose from! Ocampo is an exciting new voice.
Survival House Wendall Mayo
These are ten literary stories, all set in small town America and many of the stories have links either to place names or characters’ names. They are all connected in some way to the US cold war/atomic bomb era. There is some accomplished writing here, with fascinatingly flawed characters and well-observed situations. An enjoyable read (very American, full of slang and US products) because it's so different and often very funny. The best stories are the title story and Doom Town. In Survival House, the strange figure of Mr Quart is a creepy and enigmatic presence, whose Survival House has been built from the plans of a nuclear test explosion site. The symbolism is dark, linked to the narrator's relationship with his new wife and their potential nuclear family. In Mr Quart it seems a victim of American history has returned to take his revenge on the American Dream. A great assortment.
Home is Nearby Magdalena McGuire
This is set in early eighties Poland, and focuses on the life of an art student as she goes to university, trying to establish a career as an artist during a time of government oppression. These are people living in difficult times who are getting on with life as well as they can. It offers an interesting account of the period, and an insight into student/bohemian life behind the iron curtain. The heroine is torn between loyalty to her politics on the one hand, and her career as an artist on the other, complicated still more by her sense of duty to her family, and her romance with a budding political journalist. The central character’s development is well paced and her various moral dilemmas and emotional problems are presented intelligently. It makes for an absorbing coming of age novel, which is also a story about the making of an artist. The inventiveness of Ania’s art and the transient nature of it, parallels what we now know of Polish politics at the time. As the heroine’s understanding of art, both in terms of meaning and integrity, begin to deepen, we see her gain substance as a character, and by the end of the story she has a clear sense of her identity and responsibility as an artist. It is a well-executed, absorbing story.
Somewhere More Simple Marion Molteno
A novel about three people, Anna, Cari, and Hugh, who are drawn to the Isles of Scilly for different reasons, but whose lives become connected. Those connections are revealed slowly, but with enough tension to sustain a beautiful story of love and loss, and the need to find ways of dealing with both. The characterisation is convincing: certainly the central characters have psychological depth, and their various emotional traumas and entanglements are presented with subtlety and sensitivity. The language is lucid, frequently poetic, and there is a strong sense of place. Generally this is a sophisticated work of literary fiction that is thoroughly enjoyable. A lovely novel.
Butterfly Ranch R. K. Salters
An unusual crime novel set in Belize, focusing on the strange relationship between a crime novelist, Tristan, and his partner Hedda. The mystery is established very effectively, with the arrival of Altamont, the local constable, and his daughter at Tristan’s remote ranch. Tristan has apparently attempted suicide and Hedda is missing, but as Tristan slowly recovers, the mystery deepens. There is much subtlety in the development of the characters. The arrival of Hedda’s Norwegian sister nicely augments the emotional impact of Hedda’s absence and what we eventually learn of her fate. Altamont is delineated with skill – he seems to be more obsessed with reading Tristan’s detective stories than solving the mystery - and his slightly bumbling nature is endearing. The contrast between generations is shown by his daughter’s energy and competence against his apparent laziness. The landscape is rendered vividly, and the prose is pleasingly textured, with language that ranges from beautifully descriptive to uncomfortably realistic. Everyone’s lives are dictated by nature, which demands a flexible rhythm in the lives of people who have little in a material sense. A taut, suspenseful, and thoroughly absorbing book. It can be read as a straightforward mystery novel but is concerned with the extent to which environment shapes people’s lives.
The Children of the New World Alexander Weinstein
This is a brilliant, sometimes profound collection of short stories. Saying Goodbye to Yang is a delightful story where a family have to come to terms with the death of their robot. The issues it raises about subjectivity have been addressed extensively by the likes of Philip K Dick, of course, but the family's emotional attachment to Yang is extremely well handled. The references to racism were also interesting, particularly the speaker’s own antipathy toward clones, and how this complicates any simple conception we might have about what it means to be human. The Cartographers is an incisive, imaginative story about the insidious power of simulation, opposite to the times and our increasing immersion in seductive pseudo-realities. The title story is a sad, moving piece about the loss of a couple’s virtual children, again exploring the relationship between reality and simulation, offering a cautionary tale about the emotional pitfalls of mistaking one for the other! This book interrogates the world that our new technologies are creating, and does so with intelligence, sensitivity, and moral acumen.