Turnaround’s 2020 Staff Picks – Fiction

It’s that time of year again, when we look back at the many brilliant books that have been released into the world, and choose just a few of our favourites. But let’s be real first, this has been a difficult year for everyone, and the book trade has experienced its fair share of suffering, with bookshops now shuttered over what is usually one of the biggest trading periods of the year. We encourage you then to shop local, shop early, and most of all #choosebookshops — here’s how.

But what on Earth should you be buying? Well, from modern American Psychos to Gormenghastic fantasies, here are our fiction recommendations.

Liam recommends…

Necessary People by Anna Pitoniak
(Text Publishing Company, 9781922268860, £10.99)

In our blog post looking forward to 2020 back in January (oh, you sweet summer children…), I named Anna Pitoniak’s Necessary People as one of my top picks.  Now, eleven months later, I am here to tell you again; it bangs. Necessary People follows a co-dependent, toxic friendship that just gets darker, and it’s one of the only books I’ve read where I really wanted someone to get away with something terrible. I read it compulsively, and every moment that I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it. When I finished, I almost went back to the beginning and started again, but by that point I figured I’d better go and deal with all the life things I’d ignored while I was reading. Adulthood can be so difficult.  

Boy Parts by Eliza Clark
(Influx Press, 9781910312636, £8.99)

Boy Parts is universally beloved here at Turnaround. Eliza Clark’s debut novel is deliciously vile, vicious, and absolutely hilarious. The narrator, Irina, is despicable. I mean really, utterly horrible. It’s brilliant. Ostensibly about a photographer put on leave from her bar job, Boy Parts is dark and compelling and twisted, and so, so well written. Honestly, I can’t overstate how much I recommend it. It’s the second book on my list that I’d have read all over again by now if only I had any idea what I did with my copy before this whole ‘pandemic’ situation happened.

Inconvenient Daughter by Lauren J. Sharkey
(Akashic Books, 9781617757099, £13.99)

Lauren J. Sharkey’s vibrant debut novel aims to dispel some of the myths around transracial adoption. It is also about recovering from abuse, sleeping with the wrong guys, and figuring out your identity. Sharkey has a quick wit as a writer, as well as a deft handling of all the moments in the novel that bruise. This is really a great debut.

Anouk recommends…

Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi, translated by Jonathan Reeder
(World Editions, 9781912987023, £11.99)

Two Blankets, Three Sheets is a tragicomic look at the failures of the Dutch immigration system. Samir, an Iraqi refugee, is randomly assigned a birthday upon arrival by an immigration officer, only to later be branded a liar by a different official. Quickly caught in the incompetent bureaucracy of the system, Samir ends up waiting nine years for his immigration letter. Two Blankets masterfully lays bare the often-horrifying Kafka-esque reality of the new ‘Fortress Europe’. To Dutch readers like myself, it is a damning and entirely deserved exposé of the systemic racism and xenophobia permeating white Dutch society. To non-Dutch readers, it is a poignant case study of just one of many intentionally cruel and dysfunctional European immigration systems.

Mordew by Alex Pheby
(Galley Beggar Press, 9781913111021, £14.99)

This book is a delight. It opens on a map, lists the dramatis personae, and includes a note to the reader with the line ‘There is a glossary at the back. Be careful. Some entries contain information unknown to the protagonist’. With most of the boxes already ticked on my list of ‘Good Fantasy Stuff’, it wasn’t going to disappoint. In fact, it is difficult to overstate just how inventive this book is. The basic premise alone is incredible: young Nathan Treeves is sold to the horrible Master of Mordew, who draws his magical powers from feeding on the corpse of God. Slowly realising the true extent of his powers, Nathan fights his way through the city where God was murdered and darkness reigns. It’s Pratchett mixed with Ghibli mixed with Gormenghast and something darker and far, far stranger.  

The length of the glossary you ask? 104 pages. Like I said: a delight.

Four By Four by Sara Mesa, translated by Katie Whittemore
(Open Letter, 9781948830140, £14.50)

Please forgive me for mentioning this book again. It’s likely the last time I’ll have an excuse to do so on this blog, and there are still people out there who haven’t read it, so… Four by Four is set at the isolated boarding school of Wybrany College. Privileged people enrol their children to keep them safe from the apocalypse outside, but something deeply sinister is going on in the school itself, too. Children disappear, and there’s talk of a special ‘programme’. Through chapters never longer than a few hundred words, we meet the students at the school. Their perspectives are disjointed, confused, but the full horror only unfolds when a substitute teacher infiltrates the school in part two. Their diary replaces the students’ perspectives, and gets deep into the unsettling reality of a place isolated from society.

Probing at some of the most fundamental questions about our own humanity, Four by Four is a formidable investigation into personal freedom, power, and monsters of our own making.

Eleanor recommends…

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya
(ECW Press, 9781770415256, £14.99)

In 2019 (which, if you’ll believe me, was only about a year ago) I read Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men — an incredible slim sharp shock of a book. This year she followed it (and Death Threat, also incredible) up with The Subtweet, a gorgeous novel that centres female friendship and explores what it means to live now, just as much on the internet as on planet Earth. When Neela’s song is covered by the internet-famous musician RUK-MINI, the two start a transformative, tumultuous friendship that comes to a head with a single (sub)tweet. Called ‘biting and beautiful’ by Jonny Sun, I haven’t read anything that comes this close to fully illustrating the reality of social media in the modern day. Rukmini and Neela are deftly drawn characters among many whose relationship feels real, the descriptions of the music were beautiful, and that cover! This novel will stick with me for a while, I know it.

Harrow the Boys by Paul Whyte
(Maverick House, 9781908518668, £8.99)

A dystopian tale set in Ireland’s midwest, in a near future with much of the country underwater. Depressing though that may sound, this is an enthralling thriller that gripped me from the start, as we follow a group of scavengers who find and sell scrap from the ruins. But when raiding an untouched flooded estate, secrets are uncovered that lead to a thrilling conclusion. Vividly atmospheric and incredibly immersive (pun intended), I read it in about two sittings. I loved it.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
(World Editions, 9781912987191, £9.99)

This part of World Edition’s series of re-issued and eye-catchingly repackaged works by Carol Shields follows one seemingly ordinary woman’s life in Canada in the early 20th century. At once sensitive, funny, and affecting, this portrait of a life is paired with an excellent foreword by Margaret Atwood and has spurred me to further explore the work of this award-winning author.

“Carol Shields has explored the mysteries of life with abandon, taking unusual risks along the way. The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.”New York Times Book Review

Jenn recommends…

Large Animals by Jess Arndt
(Cipher Press, 9781916355309, £9.99)

To be completely transparent, I love this book so much that I published it earlier this year with Cipher Press, the publisher I co-run. You’re probably not meant to pick your own things for these roundups, but it would be remiss of me not to mention Jess Arndt and their weird, glorious fiction. Large Animals is a collection that confronts the concept of living in a body. It’s an exploration of how to experience a gendered body when you sit outside the gender binary. I’ve never read anything like it before – Arndt’s writing is as messy, complicated, smart, brilliant, and funny as the experience of having a body itself. I think a lot of readers will feel a familiarity with both the language and the narrator of each story, even if it’s an uncomfortable familiarity. The collection has been lauded by Maggie Nelson, Isabel Waidner, Michelle Tea, Dorthe Nors – loads of my personal writing heroes. It was a real honour to be able to publish it here, and I hope you all read it!

Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman
(Influx Press, 9781913512002, £12.99)

Men & Apparitions is a quiet masterpiece and I’m so glad Peninsula Press have published it here. Lynne Tillman is an incredible writer; her prose asks big questions and answers them so originally and wholly that you find yourself thinking about the book often and intently. The novel follows Ezekiel Hooper Stark, a ‘cultural anthropologist and bemused commentator on the contemporary world’ who studies family photos and gender. He ends up tail-spinning as a result of his chaotic emotional life, and so decides to switch focus and start studying himself and men like him instead, meaning men living in a world where the old models of gender are breaking. The result is a brilliant examination of gender politics, masculinity, feminism, and belonging, told through a kaleidoscopic narrative that is both tragic and very funny.

The Earth Wire by Joel Lane
(Influx Press, 9781910312575, £9.99)

Influx Press reissued two of Joel Lane’s story collections in October and I’m grateful, because I might not otherwise have read his weird and uncomfortable fiction. I took The Earth Wire and some wine into the bath during the middle of a particularly anxious and gloomy pandemic week, and it completely sorted me out. Not just because the first story in the collection features ectoplasm, which is one of my favourite weird, gross, and spooky things, but because it’s a really cool feeling when an indie press brings you something new and brilliant that completely passed you by before. Originally published in 1994, this collection is all horror, human nature, sexuality, and creepiness. Set mostly in the Black Country, it’s unsettling and strange and I loved it.

Ben recommends…

Boy Parts by Eliza Clark
(Influx Press, 9781910312636, £8.99)

I’ll be honest, I read this between the gaps in my fingers. But what I was able to stomach was extremely good. A horribly twisted, darkly comedic novel, Boy Parts is written from the lacerating perspective of twenty-something Irina, who takes explicit photographs of ‘average’ looking men. Tracking her downward spiral into increasingly transgressive shoots and a collapsing mental state, it blends everything from extreme cinema and cocaine parties, to obscure references to Japanese hentai. In other words, there is something here for everyone. This is an intoxicating read with a fantastic voice, but word of warning, this novel will drag you, it’s not a question of if, only when.

Mordew by Alex Pheby
(Galley Beggar Press, 9781913111021, £14.99)

Every now and then a fantasy book comes along that remind you of why you fell in love with the genre in the first place. Alex’s Pheby’s Mordew is such a book. With its mannered prose and grim Victorian setting, Mordew resembles something out of the pages of Dickens. Only the mud is alive. The dogs can talk. And the child ruffians are made from twigs and spit. Making full use of the human imagination and stretching the apparatuses of world building to their limits, Pheby has crafted a compelling adventure rich with gothic magic, and is not to be missed.

A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf
(Myriad Editions, 9781912408894, £12.99)

It’s not every day that the story of how your great-great grandparents met makes for such good reading. But that is the case for Tammye Huf, whose riveting historical romance A More Perfect Union is based on just that. Here we are introduced to Henry O’Toole, an Irish immigrant who flees the Great Famine to make a life in America, and Sarah, a Black slave, torn from her family and made to toil on a Virginia plantation. A BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick, Tammye’s simple but elegant prose spins a heartfelt tale of love and desperation, and what it means to lose your freedom.

As booksellers across the UK face renewed restrictions, they need your help to stay afloat.

If anything you’ve read about on our blog catches your eye, consider ordering from your local bookshop. Find yours here. Alternatively, you can browse your favourite indies on Bookshop.org.

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