I have an annual summer holiday reading project – which is to read through the year’s Carnegie medal shortlist.
To be exact, it’s only been annual since 2014! so it’s not exactly a long established tradition, but I’m intending to make it one. My own writing takes a back seat anyway during the summer (school holidays, and time away with the family disrupts the usual routine so I don’t manage much, apart from the odd snatched hour here and there).
But I do find that the summer is a perfect time for absorbing myself in reading: long journeys, lazy days, holiday apartments with no wifi – all provide a great space for a long plunge into books. And the Carnegie finalists make a great ready-made reading list. I enjoy the variety of genres and stories. I enjoy reading books that otherwise I probably wouldn’t choose. I enjoy (and am humbled and breathtaken by) the encounter with extraordinary, original, inventive concepts, and language that is lyrical, beautiful, penetrating, heartfelt… So that, I hope, I come back to my own writing with at once, a broader sense of what’s possible, and an increased determination to push the conceptual and linguistic boundaries of my work.
And of course, I enjoy deciding which book would have won if it had been up to me.
This year, that was a very hard decision; so hard, that I was glad I didn’t have to make it. In fact, I couldn’t have made it: I’d have ended up trying to split it three – or four – or maybe five ways…
So: my highlights. I loved this year’s winner – Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier – and also hugely enjoyed Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Middle of Nowhere, and Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that all three are historically located (though Hardinge’s book brilliantly straddles the boundary between history and fantasy). I studied history, and I have in my head the plot for a historical novel that I would love to write – but I’m not sure that I dare. I’m so hyperaware of the possibility of getting things wrong: and one of the things that massively impressed me about these three novels was the sure-footedness of their depiction of, respectively, the south and west of the United States in the years after the Civil War, the Australian outback in the late nineteenth century, and small town England in the aftermath of the first world war. All three times and places felt profoundly authentic, in layered ways (the physical details of everyday life, inflections of speech, habits of thought and belief…).
They were great stories too: each of them with depth and wider resonance. Landman’s story of a freed slave woman in the years after the Civil War raised questions about power, race and freedom through an absorbing personal narrative (told in a voice that was pretty much immaculately maintained throughout the novel). McCaughrean raises similar questions of race in her portrait of a lonely and determined child’s grief and friendship. The range of moods here was particularly striking: to me, the narrative seemed to sweep from the domestic to real horror to burlesque, but without any sense of disjunction. Hardinge’s historical fantasy has huge emotional depth: its study of the tensions and difficulties of living (and growing up) in a bereaved family is poignant and acute, and it includes some of the most beautiful and moving metaphorical writing I’ve ever read.
Those three were my favourites I think – but I was also hugely impressed by Patrick Ness’s speculations on the nature of reality in More Than This (virtuoso writing and outrageous leaps of plotting), and by the lyrical simple telling of Elizabeth Laird’s The Fastest Boy in the World.
It was a lovely summer.