Lockdown reading

Inspired by author Simon Kinch (Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness) I put together a tiny little book of two short stories and am giving them away to anyone that would like a little something extra to read during these weird lockdown times.

I have about ten left and am giving them away to anyone that would like one. If you would like one, drop me a note (contact info on the contact page) with an address and I’ll put one in the post. (Non-UK might take more time for me to be able to mail, but I’ll do it as and when I can.)

One of the stories has been published before, one has not. But it’s a nice little thing. I found doing the typesetting pretty therapeutic.

100 Words of Solitude

100 Words of Solitude is a project that aims to publish 100 different 100 word short stories in response to the global coronavirus issue and the effects of isolation and social distancing. Writers from across the world have contributed and readers from many countries have visited to read these short, personal responses.

I have contributed a piece to this timely, fascinating project but they are still looking for more.

https://100wordsofsolitude.wordpress.com/

Spring and Feathers

A few weeks ago it was Cambridge Literary Festival again and I ended up spending most of the weekend there. Usually I buy one or two tickets for whichever events I am most interested in, but this time around I saw seven different events. I had been most interested in seeing James O’Brien on Saturday evening, and Ali Smith on Sunday evening, and filled out the afternoons with whatever else was on that seemed like it might be interesting.

I was really excited to see Ali Smith. I had been hearing about her for years, then when she started her seasons series I took that as a chance to give her a read and really loved them. I had bought a copy of the latest, Spring, before I saw her speak but hadn’t got to reading it yet. I saw her twice on the Sunday actually, once in the afternoon where she presents three debut novelists that she has selected to feature, and then again in the evening where she spoke about the new book.

img_0137.jpg

There is something magical about Ali Smith. She wandered up onto the stage in a t-shirt that was a little too big for her, her floppy fringe hanging over her glasses and stood there looking a little awkward and out of place. And then she started talking. She speaks about reading and writing with such love, such gushing enthusiasm, it’s hard not to get swept up by her. And when she read from Spring in the evening it was one of the most captivating readings I have ever heard. The whole audience were just sat forward in their seats, hanging on every word she said. I got the feeling of being in the presence of someone really special, and I have a feeling her writing is really going to endure, even the specifically time-sensitive series she is currently writing. They are magnificent.

I had bought a ticket to see Max Porter just so that I would have something to do while waiting for the Ali Smith event to start. Max Porter wrote Grief is the Thing with Feathers and had just had a new book out called Lanny. I had been seeing Grief is the Thing with Feathers in the bookshops for months. It seemed appear out of a storm of critical acclaim and take over the tables by the front of the shops for ages. I remember seeing it and thinking cool title but never once picking it up and taking much of a closer look than that. Not sure why. But I needed something to do for an hour before Ali Smith so that I wouldn’t just be standing in the rain waiting, but then it turned out that Max Porter was amazing. He read from Lanny theatrically and was so interesting to listen to I decided I would read both his books. I had considered stopping and buying them both at the event and getting him to sign them but I didn’t have a lot of time to get across the city to the Ali Smith event, so I didn’t bother. I don’t usually stop for a signed book, even though I know I should, but this time I just didn’t have time.

So I bought both Porter’s books a couple of weeks later and have read them both now and let me tell you, they are brilliant. He writes with a kind of poetic, experimental, free-form prose style but the stories are grounded and honest and simple. Grief is about a family dealing with the death of the mother. In Lanny a small village is rocked by the disappearance of a local boy. Both books are kind of quiet and energetic at the same time, with some beautiful observations and turns of pace. They both have a sinister shadow cast over them, the crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Dead Papa Toothwort in Lanny. Porter is spectacular and I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

Grief and Lanny

So it was a shame not to meet him and get a signed copy. He seemed like a really nice guy, but once I had made it over to the Ali Smith event and taken my seat I was glad I made it in time. I’m not going to lie, I fell a little bit in love with Ali Smith in that hour. I think everyone did. At the end, when we were all clapping and she was hiding her face with embarrassment I turned to look behind me and there was Max Porter, stood on the stairs. He must have rushed over after his signing was finished and crept in quietly while she was reading. He was clapping as enthusiastically as the rest of us, the same misty eyed admiration on his face as I had on mine while she shuffled off the stage in her big glasses and that baggy t-shirt.

It’s Been a While

I took a year off blogging. This wasn’t like other breaks I’ve taken from it, where I just forget to do it for two months. This was deliberate. I wanted to focus the time I had on working on my novel, and given the way life tends to squeeze writing time, I wanted to make sure I used what I had the best I could.

Given that I haven’t written anything on here for so long it means I have a years worth of reading that I can write about. So I thought I’d do a 2018 retrospective. These are some of the best books I read last year.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

I had been meaning to read this one for a long time. I kept hearing good things about it after it was nominated for the Booker prize. It has a beautifully earthy tone, but that manages to feel elevated and almost mystical in places. A gripping, nuanced story of an outside family. Probably the best book I read last year.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One of the things I love most in my reading (and that I am constantly aspiring to in my writing) is a grounded subtlety that is quiet and personal with emotional honesty and confidence in the reader. This book is all of that. In fact, this writer is all of that. I read another of her books, Anything is Possible last year as well, and it was just as good as this one. This is a writer I will read more of.

Becoming Myself by Irvin Yalom

I have read a couple of Irvin Yalom’s psychology books before. They are made up of anecdotes taken from his life as a therapist, which tell these complex little stories of the struggles and triumphs of his clients. This book is a memoir which stood out to me for a chapter in which Yalom meets another writer, Viktor Frankl., a holocaust survivor who wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. I have had Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom side by side on my bookcase for years, and suddenly they were together on the page. Yalom’s writing is gentle and generous and insightful, and this biography was fascinating. Not sure how good it would be if you have never read any of his others books, so if you’re interested, maybe read Love’s Executioner or Creatures of a Day first.

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American, who decides to start a coffee company reintroducing coffee from Yemen to the world. He travels there to collect samples, and ends up stranded in the middle of the middle-east crisis, trying to get home with a suitcase of coffee samples under his arm. I love Dave Eggers, and I loved reading this book.

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill

I feel like what Ryan O’Neill has done here is invent a new genre. A collection of short stories, masquerading as short biographies that are actually an interwoven, ensemble novel. Each chapter tells the story of a single Australian writer and slowly builds a cast of crack-pot, morally-ambiguous characters who criss-cross in and out of each others stories, building a rich, textured landscape, of a completely made up history of Australian literature.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

This book was a gift. Before I left my last job one of the people I worked with gave me a copy of this, saying she wanted to share a book with me that had meant a lot to her. (I had recommended The End of Vandalism to her a few months before). I haven’t read a book like this one for a long time. I read a lot of Neil Gaiman when I was younger and this reminded of him in places. Elements of speculative fiction are layered over the story of a young boy coping with the terminal illness of his mother. It has that honesty that I love in good fiction, and is raw and unyielding with it. Truly excellent.

So there you are, a handful of great books I read last year. There were others, but scrolling through my goodreads 2018 shelf, these ones stood out a little.

Incidentally, it has now been ten years since I started using goodreads, and shelving every book I read by year. I thought about stopping using it, since there is something round and satisfying about ten years worth of anything. But scrolling through my goodreads shelves is just a really pleasant way of remembering my reading. I have added a link to my goodreads on the contact page. If you use it, feel free to add me as a friend.