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.

The Vague Days of 2017

This is my favourite time of year, the vague days after Christmas where all the urgency has gone out of everything, all the pressures of the festive period are lifted. There’s still chocolates and biscuits and cake, but I don’t want to eat them. Every year, by about the 27th what I really want is abstinence and sleep. And it is hard not to reflect on the year, and look forward to the next, while I look out of the window at the inexplicably snowy landscape, sipping my mint tea.

2016 was the year I gave up self-publishing. 2017 was the year I saw some of my stories in print. 2018 is the year where I keep trying. It’s a pretty simple resolution. Just keep trying.

Normally for my last blog post of the year I look back at what I read and talk about some of my favourites, and scrolling through my goodreads 2017 folder I keep seeing Tom Drury’s name whiz past. After reading his first novel, The End of Vandalism, a while ago I decided to read the other two books in the series, and then his other two novels as well, and then, having enjoyed them all so much, I am reading The End of Vandalism again. His writing is so delicate and carefully assembled; all the humour is sad, all the sadness is funny. It’s hard to really describe what it is about these ambling novels that is so good. But they are perfect.

I also read Ali Smith for the first time this year, reading Autumn and Winter, and now very much looking forward to Spring and Summer, whenever they come out. I think as a writer sometimes it is hard to just read for pleasure, there is always a sense of mining other peoples brilliance for little clues to how it is done, and the way she has written about contemporary political issues in novels that you would struggle to describe as political is brilliant. It is like incidental commentary, rather than overt criticism, and still none of it gets in the way of the smaller, more personal, stories that the novel focuses on.

Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my long-time favourites, had a book of short stories come out, spanning the length of his career. He is one of the most discouragingly brilliant writers I have ever read, but I have thought that about him since I read The Virgin Suicides back in 2000. These short stories have lots of allusions to the novels that would come later, including one with a lot of medical detail on gender conditions that made me nostalgic for Middlesex.

I think my reading resolutions for 2018 are going to feature more re-reading. I don’t re-read very many books at all, and there are a number that I feel like I should. And I plan to spend more time having long browses of bookshops for novels I have never heard of. I used to do that a lot, but not so much recently. I made an enormous effort this year to up my writing and be more productive, and I want to keep that going, but sometimes writing can be like a second job, and as expansive as a second life. It could fill every minute you have if you let it. One of the best things I did this year (with my wife’s help) was structure my writing time. I wrote a blog post about it a while back. An average day doesn’t give you much time, and an average year breezes by in no time at all. For a long time I didn’t re-read because I had a feeling of urgency about reading as much as possible in the little time I have. It’s amazing how little of the average novel you actually remember.

Maybe I’ll make a goodreads shelf for the books I re-read, so that I’ll have a metric to feel good about. 😉

Happy new year.

Salt Publishing

Last week on Twitter I saw that Salt Publishing were doing a call for people to buy a book directly from them using the hashtag #justonebook. I like Salt publishing a lot. They have published some fantastic books, they do an annual anthology called Best British Short Stories – which is one of my more ambitious writerly aspirations – and they are based in Cromer, which is a lovely little seaside town in Norfolk of which I have some very happy memories. A set of happy memories that includes eating Jack Daniels flavoured ice cream down by the seafront, which was either the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted, or is simply another childhood memory that nostalgia has bent out of shape.

So wanting to support a small publisher that I admire a great deal I went over to their site and started looking for something to buy. I have to be honest, it never occurred to me before to buy books directly from the publisher. Normally I would just make a point of keeping an eye out for books I want when I am in bookshops. I think it would have been pretty easy to find most of the books on Salt’s catalogue that I liked the look of in one the bookshops near where I live, but I wanted to answer their call. I had a dig through their website and found quite a few books that I fancied but in the end I went for The Book Collector by Alice Thompson

BookCollector

It is about a young woman who marries a man and have a child together and settle into a comfortable, idyllic life. She loves to read, he likes to collect books, but one day she finds a secret book of fairy tales in a safe in his study and that seems to precipitate the gradual unravelling of her mind. Seeds of doubt are thrown in and so she (and we) are unable to tell what is really going on, what is real, what is delusion. And when her husband hires a nanny to look after the child everything seems to slip further and further out of her grasp.

It is brilliantly written and completely compelling. It has a creeping darkness that constantly wrong foots you as you read. There are some clever little references to gaslights through the first half of the book that made me feel like I had figured out what was going on, but then chapters later it had me doubting myself, making me think I had read to much into an incidental detail. Is the book collector gaslighting his delicate wife, or is Alice Thompson gaslighting me? Or neither? Or both?

I had intended to finish reading it before writing this post but I still have about fifty pages to go. I was going to try to fit it in through the day but life conspired to keep me from it. Some days are like that. But I will finish it soon and then there are a number of other books that I want to read from Salt. There is The Other Word, It Whispers by Stephanie Victoire, Two Sketches of Happiness by Simon Kinch, and The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks. I actually can’t type all of the names of the ones that caught my eye because it would take too long. Just go over to Salt’s page and take a look for yourself.

January’s Reading

I read a little less than normal this January. Only three books. When I read I want to be as attentive to it as I can be, and when I have other stuff going on that is taking up a lot of my brain capacity my reading can really slow to a crawl. I’m sure it’s familiar to everyone but that sudden realisation that I have been reading for thirty minutes but have no idea what any of it said has been happening to me a lot recently.

But I did manage three books. The Pre-War House and Other Stories by Alison Moore, Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino and Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

I read Alison Moore’s collection of short stories after reading her three novels, The Lighthouse, He Wants and Death and the Seaside. I love Alison Moore’s writing.  I read The Lighthouse years ago when it was short-listed for the Booker prize and it really made an impact on me. I couldn’t get it out of my head for ages after. All her writing has this quiet, whispery, haunting quality and the stories kind of get away from you as you are reading them. The writing is so delicate and so understated in places that it is only once you have finished reading that you realise what you just read. It is only once it has all gone that you realise it was unraveling. It’s an amazing feat. The pattern I adopted while reading her shorts was to read the story to its conclusion, and then read the last two pages again, just to take it all in. Highly recommended and a writer whose books will be must-reads for me from now on.

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino was supposed to be my light-hearted crime novel for the month. When I have a lot going on and I am finding it hard to relax I like a good crime novel so that I have something fun and easy to read. This didn’t turn out to be as light as I was looking for but it was still compelling and fascinating. On the surface it’s a story about two prostitutes who get murdered and the past they shared.  Under the surface it is a story about deceit (of others and oneself), the slow untangling of our own lives and the lies we tell ourselves along the way. It takes unreliable narrators to a new level, with three separate narrators in different sections of the book, none of whom come off as especially credible. So really good, but next time I want something junky to wile away an evening with I may not pick another of Kirino’s books. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be back to read more of her work in the future.

Lastly was Widow Basquiat. I found this in Waterstone’s purely by chance and bought it instantly. A long time ago I saw the movie Basquiat and loved it. I watched the movie more times than I can count. Basquiat was an artist living in New York in the eighties who died of a drug overdose. He was a black artist fighting for his place in a white world. This book was Basquiat’s story from the perspective of his girlfriend, Suzanne. It’s written in a chaotic jumble of scenes, thoughts and images all tossed together. But the picture of Basquiat and the world he lived in that emerges is fascinating. I started reading it on Friday evening and finished it on Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t put it down.

So that was my January reading. I hope yours was as rewarding as mine was.