BEST BOOKS: Rachael Smart’s Best Books Read in 2018

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The following books piled up on my desk this year and bought me atomic moments of reading pleasure. Books that have thoroughly immersed me, so much so that sometimes life has gone off the grid. One collection saw me miss all my stops on the tram and then my final connection home.  Me and that book: isolated on a platform in winter mizzle with one bar left on my phone. Another made me briefly mislay a child in a country park. Then there were all the baths I ran brim-full and not one of them climbed in to, the water still and turning cold. These books have a lot to answer for…

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Attrib by Eley Williams

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‘Attrib’ by Eley Williams is a linguistic saturation where readers emerge with words in their swimmers and etymology on the tongue. This fiery-smart collection showcases the minutiae of the everyday and shunts predictable plot offside. A bee is trapped under a glass in the drifty moments of waking. There’s the monumental question of a kiss on the tube. A telephone call gets terminated. Swimmy and edge-sharp, these characters are single-handedly distracted by words and the unpredictable nature of synaesthesia. Williams snaps structure by its spine and lays it out to her own shapes and sounds.

Dazzling the Gods by Tom Vowler

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Tom Vowler’s ‘Dazzling the Gods’ is a remarkable collection exploring loss and the intricacies of relationships with intelligence and precision. Blood ties, kinship, loyalty, love, addiction and vengeance are darkly at work in these sensual stories with a wry humour where it counts. Vowler gets right inside the skin of the short story with an emotional incision that makes the heart hurt and his forensic dexterity with language is simply blazing. This, coupled with a taut narrative control, makes for stories which disturb and intoxicate.

Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo

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Margarita Garcia Robayo’s ‘Fish Soup’, translated by Charlotte Coombe, combines two novellas and a collection of short stories titled Worse Things. The female body as the site for violence and revulsion is explored through rape, disease and patriarchy with a sense of social dislocation and the uncomfortable inevitability of male dominance. This is a book for intolerable female times. Surrealism might trickle through its pages but Robayo always has one foot firmly placed on terra firma and a devastating power to her visceral voice.

The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood

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Lucy Wood’s ‘The Sing of the Shore’ takes readers to the Cornish coast out-of-season. Her shadowy seascape is rinsed with the uncanny, a place where teenagers roam in deserted holiday homes and people go missing with each pull of the tide. Beach debris, ghosts and relinquishment are key themes in a landscape exquisitely rendered by Wood’s rare eye on all things marine. These stories startle and unnerve with a quiet stealth that catches readers when they feel most vulnerable.

There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry

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Kevin Barry’s ‘There Are Little Kingdoms’ is as thrillingly beguiling as it is melancholy and the Irish vernacular transports readers to small town and dale with the most commanding voice. There are thirteen vignettes with characters so familiar and fully-drawn that readers would be forgiven for thinking they come with a pulse. Two girls make trouble on a dead-end night on the tiles. A troubled man searches for himself out in the sticks. A farmer’s infidelity gets found out. Amidst gloomy claustrophobia and the sense of lives only half-lived, there’s also satirical humour to be had and a ripe splendour to the language.

Homesick For Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

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Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Homesick for Another World’ is another collection with its lens on social decay. Socially unacceptable behaviour and toxicity are written to perfection in these stories where characters act cunningly on the edges. Ugliness is on exhibit. Beauty gets redefined by liars and voyeurs, by thoroughly unlikable characters who are still lost all the same. Stories peppered with perverse humour and the unpalatable, Moshfegh pushes reader’s boundaries with masterful prose that brings a recoil and some violent shudders.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

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For every year I’ve been without Claire Louise Bennett’s ‘Pond’, I feel a wicked sense of mourning. These soliloquy-style stories are narrated by a woman who lives a solitary lifestyle in the sticks and she treats readers to wild, dreamlike streams of consciousness where objects and rituals are subject to intense scrutiny at the expense of human relationships.  Things, signs, memories, sequences of behaviour are given superior mind-space to relationships and this brings new light to ways of seeing. A book that celebrates our ability to function alone and determines what holds weight. The prose quality is poetic and shattering with a waspish humour that folds.

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

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Sweet Home’ by Wendy Erskine is set in contemporary Belfast with stories that celebrate the extraordinariness of the ordinary. Themes of loss and survival thrash against each other in situations where wit and tragedy are delivered ever so quietly. One couple lose their child and relocate to another hell entirely. A solitary woman has an unhealthy interest in her neighbours.  The beauty salon owner is hit up for money by a local heavy. Domesticity and the dynamics of relationships are drawn with colour and lyricism, and the sparest of details impeccably placed so that when the fallout comes it staggers.

What Is Not Yours, Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

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Helen Oyeyemi’s ‘What is Not Yours is Not Yours’ does exquisite things with locks and keys. These stories are alive and shot through with poetically imagined admittances and non-entries, of keys to gateways, to gardens and, of course, to hearts. Myth and the surreal enmesh in narratives that eschew traditional structures and don’t always achieve any resolution. Reality merges with fantasy or sometimes it’s the other way round and none of that really matters because it’s such an illuminating world to inhabit.

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

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The Doll’s Alphabet‘ by Camilla Grudova has an eccentricity and otherness rarely come by in the literary world. Sewing machines, dolls, tinned foods and sea monkeys are recurring; all the antiquated, quirky icons of an eighties childhood form the furniture in Grudova’s imagined world that revolts against women. A mermaid is abducted as a pet. Women unstitch themselves. Reality is collapsed and re-darned in Grudova’s inimitable dream-like style and she takes readers to the borders of some inexplicable nightmare with all the ingredients of the uncanny.

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