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.

Some Books I Read This Year

So as I sit here with my news years eve lunch of cheese and crackers (a mild goats cheese with some delicious red onion chutney) I’m going to scroll back through the 2016 shelf of my goodreads account and remember some of the books that I enjoyed the most this year.

I hope you don’t mind me just listing the books that I thought were great without going into too much detail about them. I feel like I could try and explain what it was about them that worked for me but I think too much would get lost in the attempt. That personal connection to a book that comes as much from inside the reader, their mood, the place, the time, is hard to pin down. But great books are great books, and these were the ones that meant a little something extra to me.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes was excellent. A story of a conductor in 1936 Russia, trying to balance art and expression with the dangerous politics of the time. I also really enjoyed The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan. This was about a young sheriff who is tasked with looking after an elderly criminal with a violent past and the unsettled relationship that forms between them. I also read No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (the first Cormac McCarthy I have read, but there’s certain to be a lot more). Both those books now occupy the same little bit of my memory, since they have very similar settings and tones.

So what else? Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama was a random purchase and ended up being the perfect accompaniment to a two week break from work that I took in March. This gigantic Japanese crime novel is about a detective who has been moved to the media department and ends up embroiled in an unsolved case that has been dredged back up. Reminded me a little of The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

My Mr Bs Reading Year turned up some really fascinating books. My personal bibliotherapist selected Martin John by Anakana Schofield for me, which was one of the most unsettling reads I have had a for a long time. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt were both excellent as well. In fact, The Sisters Brothers now lives in that same bit of my brain as The Ploughmen and No Country For Old Men. While I think of it, The Ploughmen was a Mr Bs Book too.

Two of my favourite writers had new books out this year. Dave Eggers Heroes of the Frontier was wonderful and I loved every word of it. It’s the story of a woman and her two kids travelling across Alaska in a camper van, trying to leave the past behind and figure out a future for themselves. It was sort of chaotic and calm all at the same time and the ending was perfect. I adore the ending. Also Alison Moore’s new book Death and the Seaside took a look at unethical social science experiments, which is a subject I have been fascinated by ever since I first heard about stuff like the Stanford prison experiment and Stanley Milgrim. I love Alison Moore. All her books have this haunting, whispery quality. Very quietly spoken books. I also read her second book He Wants and am currently reading her collection of short stories.

So there you go, a bunch of cool books that I read this year. I have a massive to-read pile on the go so 2017 should get started with some decent momentum. I think hidden in books seems like a sensible place to be.

Happy new year.