Evelina's Garden Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Seconds Bryan Lee O'Malley
A Canticle for Leibowitz Walter M. Miller Jr
Don't Suck. Don't Die. Vic Chesnutt. Kristin Hersh
Lost at Sea Bryan Lee O'Malley
Gold Pollen and Other Stories Seiichi Hayashi
The Sioux Irene Handl
The Gold Tip Pfitzer Irene Handl
The Room Jonas Karlsson
The Outer Limits of Reason Noson S. Yanofsky
When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow Dan Rhodes
The Go-Betweens: Anthology Volume 1 1978-1984 Robert Forster
The Girl on the Train Paula Hawkins
All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque
Our Souls at Night Kent Haruf
Contempt Alberto Moravia
Strange Weather in Tokyo Hiromi Kawakami
The Man Who Would Be King Rudyard Kipling
Out of the Dark Adele Geras
The Great Boffo Frank Dickens
Looks Who's Back Timur Vermes
Reading the World Ann Morgan
A Devil Under the Skin Anya Lipska
The Bacchae Euripides (translated by William Arrowsmith)
Weapons of Mass Diplomacy Abel Lanzac & Christophe Blain
What She Left T.R. Richmond
Akira: Volume 1 Katsuhiro Otomo
The Almost Nearly Perfect People Michael Booth
Beautiful Darkness Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
The Miniaturist Jessie Burton
Just So Happens Fumio Obata
The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg
Beowulf Seamus Heaney
After Me Comes the Flood Sarah Perry
Frank Jon Ronson
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Simon Armitage
You Have Been Publicly Shamed Jon Ronson
There's Something I Want You to Do Charles Baxter
The Weaver Fish Robert Edeson
Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth Isabel Greenberg
Knots and Crosses Ian Rankin
Blankets Craig Thomspon
First House Ida Procter
The Sunlit Night Rebecca Dinerstein
Dusty Death Clifton Robbins
The Man Without a Face Clifton Robbins
The Children's Home Charles Lambert
Max Gate Damien Wilkins
Death on the Highway Clifton Robbins
Nothing to Envy Barbara Demick
Arctic Summer Damon Galgut
E.M. Forster: A New Life Wendy Moffat
The Hill of Devi E.M. Forster
The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain
George's Grand Tour Caroline Vermalle
Daytripper Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá
The Torchlight List: Around the World in 200 Books Jim Flynn
In Love and War: Nursing Heroes Liz Byrski
You are the Music Victoria Williamson
The President's Hat Antoine Laurain
The New Cockaigne Catherine Smith
Duke: The Life of Duke Ellington Terry Teachout
Navidad & Matanza Carlos Labbé
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even Chris F Westbury
Worlds Apart Richard Cowper
Our Souls at Night Kent Haruf
The Splendid Spur Arthur Quiller-Couch
Into the Trees Robert Williams
Reunion Fred Uhlman
Never Goodnight Coco Moodysson
Talk of the Devil Riccardo Orizio
Stranger Than We Can Imagine John Higgs
All Involved Ryan Gattis
Uptalk Kimmy Walters
Smash and Grab Clifton Robbins
The Table of Less Valued Knights Marie Phillips
The Last Pilot Ben Johncock
Assassin's Apprentice Robin Hobb
Putting the Boot In Dan Kavanagh
Fishbowl Bradley Somer
At the Close of Play Ricky Ponting
Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer
Hell's Gate Richard Crompton
The Third Policeman Flann O'Brien
A Storm of Swords: Steel & Snow George R.R. Martin
The Iron King Maurice Druon
The Aeneid Virgil
On Writing Charles Bukowski
C Tom McCarthy
The Silence and the Roar Nihad Sirees
Duncton Quest William Horwood
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin David Nobbs
Asunder Chloe Aridjis
The Genius and the Goddess Aldous Huxley
Diary of the Fall Michel Laub
The Fourth Mad Declassified Papers on Spy vs Spy Antonio Prohias
A Little Life Hanya Yanagihara
The Vegetarian Han Kang
Real World Natsuo Kirino
Wilful Disregard Lena Andersson
Butter Side Up! or The Delights of Science Magnus Pyke
Long Grey Beard and Glittering Eye Various
Savage Grace Natalie Robins & Steven M.L. Aronson
The Grownup Gillian Flynn
Dan and Sam Mark Watson & Oliver Harud
The Martian Andy Weir
The Hundred-Year House Rebecca Makkai
Pure Rose Bretécher
At Least Say Hello Daryl Bramley
Signs Preceding the End of the World Yuri Herrera
The Purple Hitchhiker John Lenahan
Erotic Nightmares Richard Blandford
The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
Second-Hand Stories Josh Spero
Dazzling the Gods Tom Vowler
Village School Miss Read
Akira: Volume 2 Katsuhiro Otomo
Hear the Wind Sing Haruki Murakami
Pinball, 1973 Haruki Murakami
Ed the Happy Clown Chester Brown
Rise of the Gigantes W.P. Boyce
Slade House David Mitchell
Swimming Home Deborah Levy
Terrible Old Games You've Probably Never Heard Of Stuart Ashen
Call Me Dave Michael Ashcroft & Isabel Oakeshott
Shortcomings Adrian Tomine
Our Musseque Jose Luandino Vieira
On Cats Charles Bukowski
Katherine Carlyle Rupert Thomson
Gates of Heaven Pamita Rao
The Driver's Seat Muriel Spark
How it Works: The Wife Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris
How it Works: The Husband Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris
Letters Kurt Vonnegut
Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess Andrew Lownie
Ourika Claire de Duras
Rats' Nest C.R. Simms
Shady Characters Keith Houston
A quick catch up on the books I read this month before I swamp you tomorrow with my traditional list of everything I have read this year. But make the most of them, as these are likely to be my last book reviews for a while. The blog will be going into hibernation. I am working on a few new writing projects so need to save all my words for them. I hope to be back at some point.
Adrian Tomine - Shortcomings
A rather unsatisfactory graphic novel. Ben, a Japanese-American chap in his 30s, is basically a bit of a dick: annoying, needy, opinionated and with a fixation on white girls. When his girlfriend, Miko, leaves for an internship in New York, they take an enforced break and Ben is able to chase a few white girls and try his luck. No one in this book is very nice and the main story thread is left fairly open-ended. Shortcomings never really gets into its stride and feels half-baked as a result.
José Luandino Vieira - Our Musseque
Earlier this year I joined the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club. We meet once a month at the Free Word Centre in London to discuss a work in translation. December's choice was this novel from Angola. And while it is certainly the best Angolan book I have ever read, and I did enjoy its collection of tales set in a small shanty town, I never really warmed to it enough to fall in love with it.
Charles Bukowski - On Cats
This is the second 'Charles Bukowski On...' book of the year for me, the previous volume being a collection of his letters loosely themed around the subject of writing. It is an interesting approach that his latest publisher, Canongate, has taken: mining his archives for subjects to turn into books. The results are both intriguing and slight. The books are fun while they last but don't really linger. Nothing wrong with that, and I suspect Bukowski, a writer not shy when it came to writing about taking a shit, would have liked the idea that he is now the author of toilet books.
Rupert Thomson - Katherine Carlyle
I reviewed this in more detail earlier in the month. A dark and troubling existential novel about a young woman who decides to follow whim and coincidence following the death of her mother and ends up in a variety of peculiar, and often unpleasant, situations. This is the second of Thomson's novels I have read and I have greatly enjoyed them both, so I reckon I need to get cracking on the rest.
Muriel Spark - The Driver's Seat
Goodness, this is bleak. And not a massive leap from Katherine Carlyle, either. A troubled woman in her 30s takes a much-needed holiday but, as the book unfolds, we discover she has more disturbing plans for her vacation. I can't say much more without chucking in spoilers so suffice to say I thought it was very good and that I owe a debt of gratitude to Tracy Chevalier who recommended it on a recent episode of A Good Read.
Two titles in the Ladybird Books for Grown-ups series that has been taking bookshops by storm this Christmas. The authors have appended new, and very funny, text to classic Ladybird illustrations of the past. They are very silly, but that is sort of the point. I enjoyed them a great deal.
Kurt Vonnegut - Letters
I tend to have a large tome by my bedside throughout the year. Something with a bit of heft that I can dip into as and when: during sleepless nights, accidental early mornings and whenever else I happen to be horizontal and in need of some literary stimulus. For much of this year it has been this collection of letters, written by Kurt Vonnegut and curated and edited by his friend, Dan Wakefield. The first letter dates from 1947, the last from sixty years later. They are funny, wise, cantankerous, mundane, apologetic and thoughtful and offer an insight into this great writer's life. Having spent so long in his company, I am going to miss him.
Andrew Lownie - Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess
Remarkably, this is the first full biography of the notorious Cambridge spy and, unless new information comes to light, there probably doesn't need to be another one as Lownie, a literary agent who spent the best part of three decades researching this book, has produced as close to the definitive work as we are likely to get. Unsurprisingly, it reads like a thriller in places and I was able to devour it in just a couple of days over Christmas. One thing that struck me while reading it was that all of the spies in Burgess's circle had the same three things in common: they all went to Cambridge, they were all gay and they all left the Communist party the moment they were recruited. If MI5 or MI6 had managed to make that connection at any point during the 1940 or 50s then they may have saved themselves a great deal of bother.
Claire de Duras - Ourika
I first heard of this book, a 19th century French novella, while reading a biography of John Fowles in which it mentioned that he had translated it during the 1970s. It is a remarkable book in many ways, not least as it is one of the first examples of a European novel with a black protagonist. Ourika is taken from a slave trader as an infant and raised in an aristocratic French family as one of their own, very happily in fact until she overhears her adoptive mother chatting about her future and she realises for the first time that the colour of her skin will be a barrier to future happiness. That, and the impending revolution. An historically important book that is also highly readable. Well worth seeking out.
C.R. Simms - Rats' Nest
Crime novelist Chris Simms occasionally turns his hand to dark horror stories and this is one such side project. Somehow he manages to weave a convincing, and very spooky tale, around haunted hair extensions. I kid you not. The fact that the premise made perfect sense while I was reading it suggests that he should try a bit more of this horror lark. Something a bit different to read on these long winter nights. Just make sure you keep the light on, and some scissors handy.
Keith Houston - Shady Characters
It always works out this way. I publish my books of the year list in mid-December and then, in late December, I read a book that I should really have included. Bugger. This year it is this wonderfully knowledgeable and frequently irreverent history of some of the more curious punctuation marks, both in regular use and consigned to history. Interrobangs, manicules, asterisks, daggers, ampersands and a whole plethora of dashes are discussed with great wit. I loved it.
So that's it from me for a while. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who has read this blog over the past decade or so. Nearly one million of you, according to the stats. I am truly grateful to those of you who have visited on a daily basis or just once in a while, to those of you who have taken the time to comment or to link to one of my posts on social media and those who just like to lurk in the background and not say anything. I hope to be back at some point in the future. Don't go forgetting me, now.
May 2016 brings you lots of splendid things.
He underestimated the porcupine.
He thought it would be easy, this particular entertainment, but he overlooked its intelligence, its sharp embraces and the way it creates an intricate and elaborate doodle around the table.
Wresting from his grip, it leaves a mark: a teasing footnote to the history of the porcupine and Mr Barnes.
All words in this short story are taken from quotes on the covers of books by Julian Barnes. For a word to be used more than once it must appear more than once in the quotes.
They had been snowed in for three weeks when they decided to start burning the books. Most of the furniture had gone by this point, as had some of their clothes and bedding. They were OK for food, the cupboards well stocked with cans and packets, but they were getting cold.
They needed more fuel.
Books were piled up against the wall, the shelves themselves having been sacrificed to the fireplace some days previously, and they began sorting through them, deciding which to burn first.
How about Fahrenheit 451? said the man with a chuckle, the closest either of them had got to laughter in days.
No, she replied, not yet, reaching for a Bible. This has more pages and they are thin, they should work a treat.
You cannot burn the Bible, he said, angering quickly, something which was becoming more common of late. How could you even suggest such a thing?
Well we have to choose something, what about your detective novels?
He waited a few moments before answering. What about your Georgette Heyers?
You get your hands off those. We’ll burn the Roths.
No we bloody well won’t, the Rushdies should go first.
When the snow plough finally reached the remote cabin they had been dead for some time, their bodies entwined, their hands frozen to a copy of The Shining.
She would walk past his window at the same time each day. On her way home from work, presumably. His kitchen window looked out onto the street and he would often be preparing his evening meal when the familiar clack of her heels would echo up to alert him of her arrival.
They never spoke. They never nodded an acknowledgement. There was no communication between them. But they both knew the other was there and, slowly, each became part of the grammar of the other’s day. So much so that, on the few occasions when one of them was absent it left them both feeling slightly off balance, as if they’d missed the final step on the staircase.
One night he had his mother to visit. Over cups of tea and custard creams she quizzed him about his lack of girlfriend, told him it was time to settle down, that she’d like some grandchildren before she was too old to play with them, how it was such a terrible shame that his father didn’t live to see his son married.
They got to talking about how his parents had met. They had worked in the same office for months before she plucked up the courage to ask him round for dinner, quite forward for a young woman at that time.
- I made him soup. He told me later that he decided to marry me after the first spoonful.
The next day he cooked his mother’s soup recipe. It was bubbling on the hob, the steam curling like a cartoon scent luring a greedy Tom or Sylvester or Yosemite Sam to a sticky end, when he heard her footsteps coming down the road.
He reached up and opened the window.
Emma Elliot appears to have everything. She is a successful businesswoman, beautiful, clever, rich – and resolutely single. She sees no need for either love or marriage and has ditched any romantic prospects in favour of her career.
But when old school friend Elizabeth and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, everything changes. Emma’s steely resolve crumbles as she rekindles her schoolgirl crush on Henry, only for a careless remark at a dinner party to drive him into the arms of another.
Faced with the prospect of the loss of Henry’s affection to the flirtatious Isabella, our irrepressible heroine puts her good looks and lively mind to use and begins toying with the affections of several men in an attempt to make Henry jealous. It is a risky ploy but looks like paying off…
…until tragedy strikes.
A Truth Acknowledged is a witty portrayal of the friendship, gossip and snobberies of middle-class life. It is also a love story tinged with heartache.
All words and phrases in bold taken from the back cover blurbs of Jane Austen novels.
So this year's top movies include some I saw at the London Film Festival, a fair few I watched on Mubi and other streaming media services and just one that was on general release in the cinema, which probably says something about how my viewing habits are changing.
10. Going Clear
Lawrence Wright's book about Scientology, the vindictive money-grabbing cult founded by a paranoid nutjob which seems to attractive lots of Hollywood actors with secrets to hide, was one of my top reads of last year so it is no great surprise that the documentary based upon it has made my top ten this year. What struck me, having watched the film, is how easy it seems to be for people to fall into their clutches but also how the beliefs and practices of Scientology, although totally bonkers, are no more far-fetched than most other religions and in as much this can be seen as an allegory for any organised religion. It just so happens that this one has Tom Cruise, a sort of tiny action man Jesus, as its figurehead.
This Spanish movie is a few years old now but I came across it on Mubi (a curated streaming movie service) and got completely wrapped up in its clever time-travel plot. I am a sucker for that sort of thing and this is a great example. A bloke spots a woman getting undressed in the woods across from his house and goes to investigate. For reasons too complicated to go into right now, he ends up in a bizarre time-travel loop that gets more and more enjoyable each time it comes round on itself.
8. Rare Exports
If you are looking for an alternative to the usual cheesy Christmas fare then Rare Exports is a dark gem. The trailer above doesn't quite capture the weird charm of this Finnish movie but it does nail its weirdness. And you may not believe me but I think it makes for great family viewing as it is not really any more scary than an episode of Doctor Who.
7. Our Little Sister
Any year that Hirokazu Koreeda releases a new film it is likely to end up in my top ten, and this is no exception. His ability to convey the light and darkness of family life through seemingly mundane everyday scenes is remarkable. He is surely one of the best directors of child actors in the history of cinema.
I only saw this recently, again on Mubi, but it has lingered in my mind for a good deal longer than most films. I can't find a trailer with English subtitles so you'll have just to make do with the above. A woman, recently blind, confines herself to her flat in Oslo and starts to imagine lives for the people around her. After a while, it is hard for the viewer to tell what is real and what she has made up.
Sean Baker has shown in his last two movies that he is one of the most interesting indie directors in the US right now and Tangerine is an incredible feat of film-making. Shot on iPhones with a largely amateur cast, it follows a day in the lives of two transgender sex-workers in LA. Strong central performances and a desire to show LA how it really is make this a revelation on many levels.
4. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The animators working for director Isao Takahata on this movie had to forget all the usual rules as he wanted the images to look unfinished, like sketches. The result is, if anything, more beautiful than the more polished work we are used to seeing from Japan's Studio Ghibli. Based on an old folk tale, this is a charming story with a bit of edge to it. Great soundtrack too.
3. Men & Chicken
This was the film that made me laugh the most this year. Inappropriate, bizarre, brilliant. As if David Lynch had directed The League of Gentlemen.
2. The Lunchbox
Apparently, in India there is this complicated, but usually very efficient, lunchbox service by which wives can cook fresh hot food for their husbands which gets delivered to them via a network of couriers. This film is about what happens when a middle-aged man receives the wrong lunchbox and starts a correspondence with the unhappy wife who made its contents. It has all the elements of a great rom-com without, I am delighted to say, any of the cliches. Genuinely surprising with a fantastic ending.
1. The Fall
And the best film I saw this year was an unsung masterpiece that, as far as I can tell, sank without a trace when it was first released in 2006. A truly spectacular epic which explores the art of storytelling. A paralysed patient tells tall tales to a young girl in his hospital and these tales come to life on screen, with fiction and real-life blending in surprising ways. I urge you to seek it out.
Any films you have seen this year that you reckon I should add to my festive viewing?
This year's Books of the Year list is a top five, rather than a top ten, because there were just five books that really stood out for me. Five books that I could easily hold up above all the others. Five books that pretty much selected themselves. Then there were a whole bunch of great books that just couldn't fight it out and resolve into some sort of order. So I stopped trying.
5. The Room by Jonas Karlsson
Björn works for The Authority. He files reports. We don't really know what they are reporting on, these reports. I am not sure Björn does either. One day, he discovers a room near the watercooler. Inside is an empty office. After he spends time in there, Björn feels more confident. He returns refreshed and better at his job. The problem is, none of his workmates can see the room. What they see is Björn standing near the watercooler for minutes on end seemingly doing nothing. They begin to hate him.
As if Kafka had re-written Bartleby the Scrivener and the subsequent manuscript was remixed by Magnus Mills.
4. Uptalk by Kimmy Walters
A debut poetry collection that is odd, clever, funny, touching, wise and avoids the wanky pretentious stuff that tends to put me off most poetry these days.
It contains poems like this one.
I like that. A lot.
3. Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut
A fictionalised account of several years in the life of E.M. Forster covering the period in which he was coming to terms with being a gay man in Edwardian England. But although it is fiction it sticks close to the events and chronology of Forster's actual life. I found it to be profoundly sad and moving to watch this great novelist have to protect himself from experiencing true joy and Galgut masterfully works his way into Forster's mind and emotions. Brilliantly done.
As soon as I finished this I polished off a biography of Forster and some of the great man's non-fiction, written during the time this book is set. Any book that sets you off into the path of further reading is a book to recommend, I reckon.
2. The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us by Noson S. Yanofsky
This really stretched me, I had to pace myself, but I found it hugely rewarding to put the work in. Yanofsky looks at concepts, equations, ideas, theories, computer programs, and so on, that work right at the edge of what we can comprehend, understand or reason. And then he takes things one stage further. A completely fascinating, and occasionally very funny, look at the limits of mathematics, science, logic and our puny brains. I'll be honest, I only really understood about 70% of this but I will re-read it in a couple of years to see if I can get my head round the rest.
1. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Addie Moore and Louis Waters live opposite each other. They are both elderly. They both lost their spouses some years before. Addie has a proposal to make.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.
What? How do you mean?
I mean we are both alone. We've been by ourselves for too long. For years. I'm lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.
He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious.
You don't say anything. Have I taken your breath away? she said.
I guess you have.
I'm not talking about sex.
And so it begins. Louis turns up at night, with his toothbrush and pajamas, and the two of them lie in bed, talk and hold hands, and eventually fall asleep. They talk of their children, their marriages, their mistakes and, once the neighbours begin to notice, how to handle the gossip of a small town. A friendship, somewhat romantic, starts to grow.
But then Addie's grandson comes to stay while his parents attempt to repair their faulty marriage and this new thing, this fragile and beautiful new thing they have been building, is tested for strength.
Kent Haruf died in November of last year, just two days after the final edit of his book was complete. He had been diagnosed with a terminal illness some time before. A writer who normally liked to spend several years working on a novel was so driven to deliver this final story that it became the last thing he ever did. It is a masterpiece of restraint. A novel with space and absence within its very prose. It is also a most beautiful love story. A short novel that is as close to perfect as you are likely to get.
So there you have it. My books of the year. If you have the time, I would love to know yours.
As the red carpet is laid out, the drumroll begins and the excitement reaches fever pitch in anticipation of my Books of the Year being revealed later this week I thought I'd whet your collective appetite with some words of wisdom about a bunch of books that, for various reasons, won't be making the list in 2015.
Out of principle, I don't mention any books I have published in my pick of the year. Nor do I include books by my friends. I will mention a few in this preamble post, though, as it just so happens that some of my friends wrote cracking books during 2015.
Marie Phillips managed to write a funny feminist historical novel with The Table of Less Valued Knights, although I am still wondering if there is a missing hyphen between Less and Valued. It has been bugging me since the book came out. Just reading that back to myself it sounds as if I am surprised that she managed to do it. I am not. She is always very funny. She just doesn't write enough books for my liking.
I think it is fair to say that most people haven't heard of Vic Chesnutt and that is a shame. He was a challenging, and challenged, singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia who rose to prominence in the early 90s with a series of bitter, and bittersweet, albums of alt/folk/rock. He happened to be in a wheelchair with limited use of his hands following a car accident in the 1980s, something which was both intrinsic to his music and his sound but also incidental, depending on how you listened. He took his own life on Christmas Day 2005.
Don't Suck, Don't Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt by Kristin Hersh is an account of a friendship. A rocky and frustrating but surprisingly rewarding friendship. Kristin Hersh, she of Throwing Muses, played many gigs with Vic and toured with him across the US and beyond and this book is an account of their time together. Their jokes, their music, their arguments, their complicated love lives, their fragile bond. It is fucking beautiful and fucking heartbreaking. Hersh writes like no one else on earth.
Ben Johncock appeared, to me at least, to have been writing his debut novel for about twenty years. I doubted it would ever actually get finished. Or published. I just thought it was one of these projects that would remain in a permanently incomplete state. I was glad to be proved wrong and delighted to find that, in The Last Pilot, he had crafted the best American debut novel of the year, even though he is from Norwich or somewhere near there. His fictional account of the early days of the space race impressed me with its assured tone and impeccable research. I am more than a little surprised that it hasn't appeared on any prize shortlists.
My blog post now turns into a bit of a shit sandwich as I segue into a few paragraphs about some of the books that critics have been raving about this year, and that have appeared on many a Best of 2015 list but won't be getting anywhere near mine.
I think I annoyed a few people by banging on about how bad A Little Life was earlier in the year but I offer a three-pronged defence. 1. I was reading the book as part of an online reading group, the point of which was to share our thoughts online during the reading process, so going on about it was sort of par for the course. 2. The author, Hanya Yanagihara, wrote a lengthy book about child abuse, self-harm and mental illness without, it would appear, researching the subjects. 3. Even her US editor wanted her to make a bunch of changes, something she resolutely refused to do. So my take on it as an unrealistic book badly in need of an edit doesn't strike me as overly harsh.
Interestingly, I have received lots, and I mean lots, of messages from people, mostly other authors, who share my views on the book but who didn't want to say as much in public. What I will say about the whole 'is it shit or is it genius?' debate is that I find it genuinely fascinating that a book can have such generated such polarised views.
Early in 2015 people were still raving about The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton so I gave it a try and could not see what all the fuss was about. Generic historical fiction by numbers without any real tension or oomph or anything much to shout about. It was fine, just a bit dull.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro was a bold experiment that failed. Tom McCarthy's Satin Island was a pointless experiment that never got started. The first in the Southern Reach series by Jeff VandeerMeer was a confused and boring mess.
Those were all the books that annoyed me this year.
Here are some more that delighted me.
Into the Trees was an intelligent literary thriller with a real sense of dread to it. A Canticle for Liebowitz was an old (sort of) SF classic that I saw a few writers discussing on Twitter so checked it out and it proved to be really rather mindbending. In a good way. As a fan of most things Scandinavian I enjoyed Michael Booth's thoughtful and humorous take on them in The Almost Nearly Perfect People. After Me Comes the Flood was weird and intense and brooding and dark and quite delightful with it. The LA riots were brought to vibrant life in All Involved. Fishbowl offered a modern twist on Life, A User's Manual. Savage Grace managed to be a cracking read despite being populated by the most unpleasant real-life characters I have ever come across. The Martian was silly but lots of fun. And I enjoyed Call Me Dave far more than I had any right to expect.
Which just leaves my picks for the very best books of 2015 which will follow in a couple of days.
I bet you can't wait.
I haven't shared much music on the blog this year so here is a rundown of the best things I have been listening to during 2015.
10. Before We Forgot How to Dream by SOAK
A bittersweet, fragile collection of songs but with a bit of bite to them. I know nothing about SOAK but I did notice this album on the Mercury Prize shortlist, a rare case of my taste coinciding with that of the critics.
9. Ela by Dom Le Nena
I am just catching up with this 2013 debut album from a Brazilian cellist and singer. I heard a track on Radio 3's Late Junction. There is a wonderful cover version of The National's Start a War on here but most of the songs are in Portuguese. This has been my album of choice for my commute in recent months.
8. The Weighing of the Heart by Colleen
Weird atmospheric soundscapes full of repetition that build over time to become something quite mesmerising.
7. Hello I Feel the Same by The Innocence Mission
I didn't think these guys were still around so discovering this new album, their first in five years, was a pleasant surprise. Quiet folk rock that sounds great as the sun is rising and equally good while reading in my armchair as the winter nights draw in.
6. The Blow by The Blow
From what I can gather, The Blow are a performance art duo for whom this electro-pop album is just one of many projects. Whenever I listen to this I can't get the image of Miranda July out of my head. It could so easily be the soundtrack to one of her movies.
5. Cheap Demo Bad Science by Serafina Steer
No, I didn't expect a harpist to be in my top ten either. I think this album is a few years old but I have only just stumbled across it. Check out the track, Uncomfortable, on my Spotify playlist, which is a work of genius.
4. Bashed Out by This is the Kit
Silver John, from this album, is my song of the year. I love it. Can't get enough of it. I ordered a t-shirt from This is the Kit earlier in the year but they had sold out so Kate, who basically is This is the Kit, emailed me full of apologies with pics of alternative shirts she had available. I picked out a nice green one. But then, when my original choice was back in stock, she sent me a free one. Now that, my friends, is customer service but I can assure you it has not influenced my decision to select this as one of the best albums of the year.
3. While We Still Have Light by Hanne Kolstø
A fairly recent discovery but the new album from this Norwegian singer-songwriter has hardly been off my headphones in the past few weeks and this song is my favourite.
2. Sleep by Max Richter
German-born British composer Max Richter created an 8-hour piece intended to be listened to while sleeping. It is beautiful. I listen to it when I read, when I travel and, indeed, when I sleep. I have the highlights version on vinyl and the full version on my iPhone. It is an epic of quiet proportions.
1. Jackrabbit by San Fermin
In the history of this blog I don't think anyone has had my album of the year more than once so this is a first. San Fermin's second album built on the promise of the first and is a masterful collection of songs that take a few listens to really get into but once they are in your skull they just don't leave. They are also one of the best live bands I have ever seen. And I have seen a lot.
I have pulled together a Best of 2015 playlist on Spotify which collects tracks from these ten albums and also some other highlights of my musical year.
Do please leave comments with your own recommendations.
Anyone up for some mutual gift-giving this Christmas?
Here are some referral and discount codes I have floating around. With each of them we both get some sort of benefit so if any appeal then do feel free to use them.
BACON THROUGH YOUR LETTERBOX
Cure & Simple offer a range of cured bacon (bacons?) that they will deliver to your door. You can schedule deliveries once a week, one a fortnight or once a month and choose between Thai, Olde English, Original, Bourbon and Pancetta flavours. I have a mixed subscription which means I get a different flavour every fortnight. It costs £5.95 a pack but you get £2 off your first order if you use my code (and I get my next delivery free):
I know a few people have already used my code and more than one (technically two) have said it is the best bacon they've had. Anyway, feel free to use, share and abuse the code as much as you want.
CHEAPER MOBILE DEAL
I found myself thoroughly fucked off with Vodafone earlier in the year. Their customer service was shit, especially when you consider I was paying them around £50 a month for three phone contracts for the family. They were making a lot of money out of me every year and doing bugger all to assist me in return. So I have been leaving, albeit gradually. Every time one of my contracts ends I cancel it and get a new SIM card from GiffGaff.
GiffGaff is actually part of O2 but operates on a different model. They don't have high street shops, they don't have contracts, they don't have call centres in foreign climes that make you wait on hold listening to Simply Red for hours. As a result they are able to offer cheap deals and data packages.
I pay £10 a month and get 500 minutes of calls, unlimited texts and 1GB of data, all on 4G, which is a bit more than I need so I never go over. They have cheaper packages, you can get one for £5 a month, and their most expensive is £20 a month and offers pretty much unlimited everything. Calls to other GiffGaff users are completely free and don't count towards any limits. You pay for a monthly 'goodybag' (their name for a data package) and can cancel at any time.
If you want to sign up you order a SIM and then register it. It is easy to keep your old number. And if you order it from here:
then you get a £5 credit once activated. And so do I.
When it comes to customer service, there is loads of support on their site and if you have a specific issue you can post a question at the forum and an answer usually pops up within a few minutes. I have had more joy from their forums than from Vodafone's customer service, that's for sure.
CURATED MOVIE SERVICE
Like most people these days, I watch stuff on Netflix and Amazon, but I also have a subscription to Mubi. Mubi is a bit more arty, a bit more eclectic and is a bit different in terms of how it works.
They add a new movie to the site every day. That movie stays up for a month and then it comes down. So any time you log in there are 30 or so films to choose from, the oldest of which will only be available for one more day. You get the idea.
The list is curated by the film enthusiasts who run the site and will always feature a mix of world cinema, arthouse movies, cult classics and more commercial fare. At the time of writing they have L'Avventura, Tokyo Fist, Mysterious Skin and Anatomy of a Murder, just to offer a few examples.
If you want to try it out, use my link:
which will get you a 30-day free trial and I'll get a month free if you end up subscribing.
20% OFF AT MY WIFE'S SHOP
My wife, the ceramicist Rhian Winslade, has set up a discount code, just for my mates, at her online shop. Enter the code:
at checkout and you will get 20% off your entire order.
Don't feel obliged when it comes to this stuff, but if any of it takes your fancy then we'll both get something out of it and spread the Christmas cheer.
Ho ho ho!
The last thing the internet needs is another blog post recommending books for Christmas so here is mine and fuck you, internet.
For the grown-up who not-so-secretly loves Horrible Histories...
The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips
Marie Phillips' long-awaited follow-up to Gods Behaving Badly is a homage to/piss take of Arthurian legend which is both historically accurate when it needs to be, hugely inappropriate whenever it can get away with it and seriously funny throughout. It was longlisted for the Baileys Prize, so it comes with the recommendation of actual people of literary importance rather than just me as one of her mates.
For the person who has run out of Scandi-crime to read...
Hell's Gate by Richard Crompton
I like Scandi-crime, don't get me wrong, but there is rather a lot of it about and if you have to buy a Christmas gift for someone who reads a fair deal of it then you are probably wary of getting them something they've already got on their shelves. Why not move to a different continent altogether? One without snow, or nights that last for months, or ridiculously expensive alcohol, but still with plenty of murders to solve?
How about Africa?
Hell's Gate is the second in the Detective Mollel series of books. Mollel is a Masai warrior turned policeman and his attempts to stay on the right side of the law he is supposed to uphold are not always entirely successful. Crompton, who is only a couple of consonants away from having written the Just William books, presents what feels like a very honest picture of contemporary Kenya while at the same time spinning a cracking crime yarn.
For the railway enthusiast...
Making Tracks: A Whistle-stop Tour of Railway History by Peter Saxton
I have avoided using the word trainspotter, apart from just then, because that seems like a pejorative term and there is nothing wrong with being fond of and interested in these fine feats of engineering. Peter Saxton used to work for British Rail but in more recent years has been a champion of small and independent publishers at Waterstones and is one of that company's great unsung heroes. His first book is what would have happened if Bill Bryson had taken on subject of trains rather than, say, the entire history of science or gone for a walk around Australia. It is witty, warm, charming and fascinating and I refuse to believe there isn't someone on your Christmas list who wouldn't be delighted by finding it in their stocking.
For the fucking know-it-all...
The Outer Limits of Reason by Noson S. Yanofsky
What Yanofsky does with this book, and it is something that fried my brain at regular intervals, is explore the mathematical, scientific and logical concepts that are at the absolute edge of what our human brains can comprehend and he somehow manages to do it without making me feel completely stupid.
With each concept he tees things up with a general introduction which is pretty easy to follow. He then extends this with an example that even my feeble brain could keep up with. But then he hits me with the stuff that makes my brain hurt.
An early example is his exploration of sets, in the mathematical sense. A set, he tells me, is any collection of distinct objects, in this case numbers, and can be considered a distinct entity in its own right. No problem, Noson, I remember sets from school. I am with you, my son.
Then he gets me to imagine a set containing every number. Every single number. All of them. It is, and I am with him on this, considered an infinite set because it carries on to infinity. No problem.
But then he gets me to imagine a set that only contains even numbers. How big is that set? Half the size of the other one, says I. Wrong! It is the same size as the other one because it too is an infinite set. What the actual fuck, etc. It both makes perfect sense and sounds completely wrong at the same time.
And that is just one of the simpler examples. He moves on to logic problems, quantum physics and that weird science thing that says that particles can be in several places at once until you try to observe them and then they are only in one place (still don't get that one, to be honest). Anyway, my point is that even if the know-it-all on your Christmas list has a bigger brain than I do, and I accept that they probably do, they'll still find it stretched and enlightened by this impressive tome.
For the TV junkie...
A History of Television in 100 Programmes by Phil Norman
Norman, one of the founders of the TV Cream website and co-author of previous books on retro sweets, has put the fun nostalgia to one side and turned serious broadcast historian for his latest book which charts the history of television through 100 programmes, many of which I'll wager you are not familiar with. His mission is to show how the medium has evolved since the 1930s by focusing on series, shows and one-off broadcasts that played an important part in that evolution, whether they be groundbreaking programmes in their own right or lesser-known and forgotten examples that somehow paved the way for something important to come. So for every Columbo there is an Artemis 81, for every Six-Five Special there is a Kingsley Amis Goes Pop, and for every Louie CK there is an Ernie Kovacs.
And this is a good time to review the history of the televisual form. Norman ends his list with the Netflix series, House of Cards, but that is a rare venture into the world of streaming media, a tentative toe dipped into the future. This is a look back at how television got where it is today, for better or worse, and it deserves to be taken seriously as a work of history.
For the David Lynch fan...
Beautiful Darkness by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann
This dark and sinister graphic novel tells the story of a peculiar collection of characters—some human-like, some woodland creatures and a fair few insects—who emerge from the corpse of a dead girl in a forest and begin a Lord of the Flies battle for domination of their territory. This is the stuff of nightmares, and brilliantly so.
For anyone who thinks a urinal can be art...
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even by Chris F. Westbury
A road trip novel with a difference. Two germ-phobic obsessives, neither of whom can drive, persuade a vague acquaintance to act as their chauffeur on a pilgrimage from Boston to the Philadelphia Art Museum where the world's largest collection of Marcel Duchamp's artwork is kept. They are Duchamp nuts and particularly want to see his damaged-in-transit masterpiece, 'The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even'. Westbury's novel manages to be funny without taking the piss out of the OCD nature of its characters, touching without being mawkish, and genuinely uplifting. It is also full of Duchamp trivia.
This has yet to be published in the UK, which is a travesty if you ask me, but I hope some enterprising indie publisher picks it up soon. It is easy enough to get hold of online though if you want to check it out or give it to a modern art fan and impress them with your ability to seek out gifts that no one else has heard of.
For the failed rock star...
Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson
Coco Moodysson's graphic novel was the inspiration behind her husband Lukas' movie, We are the Best!, and both of them are a joy. The story of three teenage girls from Sweden who try to form a punk band will resonate with anyone of either gender who has ever harboured dreams of a life in rock and roll.
For those who come at life from a tangent...
This alternative history of the 20th century approaches its subject matter from a variety of unusual angles, and throws in a curious coterie of madcap characters, in order to open up a period you may think has been studied to death and genuinely make the reader look at it afresh. Science, art, maths, music, all manner of things are explored and explained in a tone both jocular and wise.
This, my friends, is a book that has been woefully and criminally absent from the best of the year round ups as it is without question one of the finest history books of 2015.
For anyone who has ever experienced unrequited love...
Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson
Another book from Sweden, but this time a novel without pictures that manages to capture what it is like to be in love, especially unrequited love, with heartbreaking accuracy. Seriously, some of the passages in Wilful Disregard are up there with the best writing on the subject I have ever read.
Ester is an academic who is invited to give a lecture about a famous artist. The artist likes her lecture very much. They become close. But this seems to be a one-sided affair.
Short, bittersweet, dark, hypnotic.
For the person who spends hours in secondhand bookshops...
Second-Hand Stories by Josh Spero
Josh Spero decided to track down the previous owners of his secondhand books. Specifically, the secondhand Classics books he used while studying at Oxford University. This being Oxford, the previous owners were an interesting bunch of people and include a Second World War hero and a Jesuit priest who gave up the cloth for love and travel. Short biographies of each are offered, along with a brief history of each book and the part it played in the author's university life.
If you are buying a gift for someone whose shelves are full of secondhand books bearing inscriptions from previous owners then this one should slot in nicely alongside them.
For the person who has read everything...
Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan
And finally, what do you buy the person who has seemingly read every book under the sun? You buy them a book written by someone who has read more widely than them, of course.
A few years ago, Ann Morgan decided to read a book from every country in the world and she gave herself 12 months in which to do it. Her quest, what she discovered while venturing upon it and what this taught her about the state of literature across the globe makes for truly fascinating reading and, perhaps more importantly, will provide any bookworm with a new reading list as long as their arm. Even if they have very long arms.
So there you have it, the ultimate Christmas gift guide. I defy you not to find something on there that will shut someone up this Christmas. All of these are books I have read this year that I think would make for excellent presents and I hope one or two of them make it into the stockings of your loved ones, or maybe even your own stocking if one of your loved ones is reading this.
Have a good one.
What about 27?
Katherine Carlyle, the titular narrator of the new novel from Rupert Thomson, considers herself to be both ages at once, having spent eight years as a frozen embryo before being implanted into her mother's womb, a last stab at IVF by her parents.
19 years on and Katherine's mother has succumbed to a cancer caused by the fertility treatment and her father is wandering the globe as a foreign correspondent. Katherine is alone and looking for something. She is not sure what but she sees signs in all manner of objects she finds in Rome, the city her mother came to to die and where Katherine has remained.
On a trip to the cinema Katherine overhears two strangers chatting about their friend Klaus in Berlin. He has just split up with his girlfriend. They mention the street on which he lives. Katherine sees this as another sign and quickly detaches herself from her currently life—computer wiped, phone thrown into the river—and heads for Berlin.
There she successfully manages to insinuate herself in Klaus' life and from then on she follows whatever route coincidence throws at her, moving from person to person, potential lover to potential lover, country to country, depending on what sight or phrase or idea resonates with her at any given moment. It is simultaneously bonkers, infuriating and intoxicating.
Bonkers, for obvious reasons. Infuriating as I found myself constantly wanting to give Katherine a shake and I was never quite sure quite why she was doing all this. Intoxicating because there is something very attractive about fucking off to the middle of nowhere just for the sake of it and the simple, direct prose that Thomson uses makes that seem so close, so attainable.
This is not all whimsy, though. At its heart, and for much of its length, Katherine Carlyle is a dark and disturbing book. The narrator often gets herself into trouble and her emotional and mental state are cause for great concern. What would make a young woman do this stuff?
If the question is never quite answered the journey Katherine takes is utterly compelling and Rupert Thomson spins a ripping yarn so, for me, that didn't really matter. Katherine Carlyle is a curious book for the curious-minded. Thomson is a mighty fine novelist.
Some of you will be aware that I have written a few books under the pen name of Steve Stack. They are all what are euphemistically called 'toilet books', small volumes of non-fiction suitable for reading in short chunks. They are a few years old now and I suspect you would struggle to find them in bookshops these days. In fact, I probably have more copies tucked away at the back of my bookshelves than could be found in every branch of Waterstones and WH Smith combined.
It is probably time I got rid of some of them. So I am having a bit of a festive sale.
Below are details of the books and some very special bundles. Just click on a button to purchase. Postage is free.
And if you want me to sign or dedicate any of them just leave instructions when you check out your purchase, there's a little box that allows you to do that.
It is Just You, Everything's Not Shit was my first book, published back in 2007. It was written in answer to the hugely successful Is It Just Me, Or Is Everything Shit? which was an A-Z of really annoying, frustrating and shitty things. My book was an A-Z of nice things such as birthday cards with cash in them, the first page of a new book, honesty boxes, licking the bowl or the Northern Lights. An Optimist's Encyclopedia, if you will. It also includes interviews with Oliver Postgate, Gavin Pretor-Pinney of the Cloud Appreciation Society and others. It didn't sell as many copies as that other one, but it did OK.
David Attenborough said of it, and I am not making this up: 'I am very flattered to be mentioned in it.'
I seem to have accumulated dozens of these for some reason so you can order a hardback from me for £4, which is better than half price by clicking on the button below. Or you can get the ebook here.
My follow-up, of sorts, came four years later and is a collection of eulogies, tributes and fond farewells to over 100 inanimate objects that are on the verge of extinction. I labelled such things, and the book itself, 21st Century Dodos. Entries include the obvious contenders such as blank cassettes, rotary dial telephones and typewriters, but also some lesser-known oddities like Humphrey the Milk Snatcher and Look-In magazine.
The Guardian called it 'Chummy 1970s and 80s nostalgia' which is just about right, I reckon.
I have a few hardbacks and some paperbacks, both at £7. If you have a preference then say so at checkout, otherwise I will pick one at random for you. Oh, and if you prefer an ebook then you can get one over here.
And then in 2013 I wrote a dinky little festive version called Christmas Dodos which includes lots of reader suggestions alongside my own. These include bottles of Blue Nun, wassailing, Ronco records, Pocketeers and Pages from Ceefax.
This is actually ideal stocking size and you can get one from me for £4 via that button below. The ebook is over here.
If you want to buy both the Dodo books then I can put them in a bundle for a tenner but there is, surprise surprise, also an ebook omnibus if you prefer digital.
Finally, if you are mad enough to want all three books then I can do you a nice deal on The Super Deluxe Steve Stack Pack for £13.
That's your lot. Thanks for bearing with me while I try to offload some overstocks splendid works of non-fiction.
Merry Christmas etc.
In what is almost becoming a festive tradition, I have once again downloaded samples of all the big celebrity autobiographies that are currently piled high in bookshops in readiness for the Christmas rush. Some of these have cost their publishers a lot of money, others have been picked up for a song, but which ones are fit to grace the shelves of your home library? Which are just cynical attempts to drain your Yuletide cash? And can I tell the difference just by reading the Kindle samples?
Let's find out, shall we?
I didn't really know much about Caroline Flack before she appeared in Strictly sequins last year, apart from the fact that Simon Cowell had dumped her as presenter of an X-Factor backstage show, or something like that. I don't watch X-Factor, but I often watch Strictly Come Dancing with my daughter, who is a big fan, and we both agreed that Caroline was the most improved dancer and came across as quite genuine and, well, nice.
Of course, no sooner did she win Strictly than Simon Cowell waded in to sign her back to X-Factor. He spends half his time poaching people from BBC One shows, or re-hiring people he has sacked, as far as I can tell. And that is where this memoir kicks off, with Caroline enduring/enjoying a photoshoot when the news breaks of the new X-Factor judges who will be joining her on the show.
There is some good writing here, I assume a ghostwriter has been at work but am happy to be proved wrong, and some enjoyably revealing snippets.
On Simon Cowell: 'with Simon you're never safe even if you've got a contract.'
On Love Island, the ITV2 reality show she hosts: 'even the producers are telling their mums not to watch.'
On Louis Walsh, sacked as an X-Factor judge: 'he was the one to have a drink in the bar with afterwards.'
I liked the tone of Storm in A C Cup, the writing is a cut above the normal TV celebrity memoir fodder and Flack isn't afraid to tackle some of the more seedy and less pleasant aspects of fame. Clearly this isn't the sort of book I am going to read from cover to cover for pleasure but if you watch her shows or want an insight into how that sort of TV is put together then I reckon this would make an excellent stocking filler for you.
Nick Frost adopts a rapid-fire approach to his memoir, Truths, Half Truths and Little White Lies. It's as if he is racing to get the memories down before he forgets them. This isn't overly polished but is all the better for it He captures life as a kid in 1970s Dagenham with a collection of fantastic anecdotes:
'Once we woke up to find a bus stop in our front garden they'd cemented in overnight.'
'It was a hell of a thing to watch. It ended after Mum kicked her opponent deep in the vagina.'
'That's the kind of place Dagenham was. You'd be playing cricket in the street and a big man on a child's bike would run you over.'
There is a dark tone here, though. Frost has lost close members of his family, and went off the rails a bit in his 20s, and these factors cast a shadow over the narrative. Again, this isn't a bad thing, it makes for a more honest book. I was impressed by this and am of a mind to read on.
If Nick Frost's authorial voice is rough and ready, then Steve Coogan's is polite and restrained and, as a result, comes across as rather dull. To be fair, he does try to give us an honest account of his career, his excesses and his need for acclaim and recognition, but the disjointed narrative and cautious tone of Easily Distracted makes it hard to engage with. It probably doesn't help that we have already been treated to a rather funny memoir from his alter-ego, Alan Partridge, and this really doesn't come close to matching it.
Full marks to the designer behind the cover of Sue Perkins' book, Spectacles, which manages to be stylish, funny, clever and instantly recognisable. It is a fine piece of work. Well done, whoever you are.
And the book inside is also funny and clever, fortunately not in an annoying way. I enjoyed the false start, during which Perkins attempts to tell her story the way her family would have liked (dad taller, brother a sex god, sister omitted etc.) before getting started proper.
Unlike some of the celebrity memoirs I am reviewing today, this one does actually feel authentic. It is clearly written by the author, I doubt a ghost went anywhere near it, and that is precisely what readers will want. If you like Sue Perkins on the telly then you'll like this.
I had no idea who Charlotte Crosby was before reading the sample of her book, Me Me Me, but here is what I managed to learn:
She is on a television show called Geordie Shore. She likes swearing (plenty of fucks, shites and even one cunt in the opening salvo). She won Celebrity Big Brother. She has a fitness DVD. Her arse has been projected onto the Houses of Parliament. She scratches her bumhole quite a bit. She has both shat herself and pissed the bed on national television. She likes going to the toilet with the door open. She laughs when people fall over. She has never read anyone else's autobiography all the way through. She tends to get 'proper mortal' quite a lot. Her memory book contains the pubes of her fellow Celebrity Big Brother contestants.
I offer a one-man standing ovation to whoever pulled this book together because it borders on comedy genius. The highlight being when Crosby retells the moment of her birth in the style of a romantic movie, then the Bible, followed by a shampoo advert. I would happily read the whole thing. It is a ridiculous, swear-fueled romp. I am tempted to start watching Geordie Shore to see the author in action. Seriously. This is a very funny book. I am not shitting you.
Having read the sample I then googled the author and found this video. Do try to watch it all the way to the pubes.
Drew Barrymore probably lived a more eventful life by the time she was 13 then all of us have managed to achieve with our entire lifetimes put together and she offers some snapshots from her past in Wildflower, something she hesitates to call a memoir but which clearly is. It is also very clearly all her own work, the clumsy wording and amateur writing style are testament to that, but this actually makes the book more endearing, more honest. The prose is basic and straightforward and it feels as if Barrymore is in the room telling you her story over a cup of coffee, or perhaps something stronger. Although I assume she doesn't touch the stuff these days.
Of all the celebrity autobiographies announced for this Christmas, the one that appealed the most was I'll Never Write My Memoirs by Grace Jones. The statuesque, Russell Harty-slapping, singing Bond villain with a penchant for parallel parking, has always been a bit of an enigma and I was fascinated to see how she came across in the book. The Kindle sample is mainly taken up with her family history, the story of her preacher father and her mother, married at 16 with six kids by the time she was 22, so I had to rely on the introduction to get any real glimpse of Jones herself. In it, she talks about rolling up at Chris Blackwell's (of Island Records fame) house four and a half hours late for lunch, surprisingly punctual for her, and gloriously outstaying her welcome. Her self-awareness is impressive, she knows she can be a diva, and she seems prepared to reveal more about herself than ever before but, importantly, not quite everything.
Most celebrity books are, let's be honest, temporary things, published to appeal to the Christmas market. Most of us can find one to suit someone on our gift list. They can be easy presents to buy, often available at half price. And giving a book as a gift suggests a bit of thought has gone into the purchase. But they have a limited life span, a little over a year or so. Some will hang around for a bit longer but only a select handful will still be on the shelves five or ten years later, and those tend to be ones where the writing supersedes the celebrity.
One that I suspect will have some staying power is Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello. It is a well-written memoir that works even if you are not a fan of his music. It is an evocative and interesting account of his life. I enjoyed the opening chapter which was all about going to watch his dad sing as part of the Joe Loss Orchestra. Costello captures that hero worship that children often have of their parents, offspring of performers in particular. I don't think I have heard any of his albums from the past decade or so but I am confident I will read on with this.
A couple of chapters into Over the Top and Back by Tom Jones, I came across this line:
My grandmother could neither read nor write, but she knew what to do with dead bodies.
There is an honest, no nonsense approach to this memoir from the Welsh crooner. It opens with him performing on the chicken-in-a-basket circuit during the 1980s, a low-point in his career, and he doesn't shy away from the downs, although his is a life with plenty of ups as well. And a fair few ins and outs, come to think of it.
I assume this has been ghosted as it lacks a bit of the warmth of the man himself but it is a commendable attempt to capture the story of this enduring pop icon.
I reckon I would have found Mindy Kaling's book, Why Not Me?, a tad more interesting if I knew who she was or recognised any of the cultural references in her jokes. I think this is potentially quite funny but it is very American and you need to be a fan of her TV shows or the bunch of people she works with to get something out of this. A bit wasted on me, to be honest.
The slightly rambling prose of Reckless would suggest that Chrissie Hynde wrote it herself, which certainly adds authenticity to what is an interesting story. She opts for a very traditional, chronological method of storytelling, which surprised me a bit. It's how most autobiographies work, I guess, but it does mean you need to wade through a few grandmas before you get to any rock and roll.
Hynde created a bit of a furore with some ill-judged (if quoted correctly) comments on rape during her publicity blitz for this book and I wonder if that harmed sales in any way. She has always been an outspoken individual, so I can deal with that, and her career had been long and eventful so there is plenty to be said.
If you like exclamation marks, or stories about taking shits on Mount Everest, then you are going to love Absolute Pandemonium by Brian Blessed. I counted four !s and five turd references on the opening page or so. Splendid stuff.
Old Shouty Crackers himself blusters through his life story in a fairly haphazard style, he admits to pretty much winging it and writing spontaneously, but would you want it any other way? I know I wouldn't.
It is tempting to write off the autobiographies of reality TV stars as shameless money-grabbing exercises by people, or the representatives of people, who are famous for doing fuck-all and are just looking for a way to line their pockets or fund their next spray tanning session.
So very tempting.
But Charlotte Crosby, bless her incontinent heart, has proved me wrong on that score. It is possible for a reality TV star to actually produce something that is worthy of reading, even if it is rather silly.
100% Me really is a bunch of vacuous nothingness. Pointless ramblings about how she is still the same old Amy from Essex but with a bit more money now, gets stopped in the street more often and is lucky enough to be able to follow her dream in the beauty industry. All pout and piffle.
Someone forgot to tell Gregor Fisher's ghostwriter that The Boy From Nowhere was being published as an autobiography as the entire sample I read was written in the third person. As biographies of television stars go, it was a pretty good read, but I was thrown by the whole 'the boy' saw this and 'Gregor' did that stuff that was going on. Most odd. It may revert to first person after a while but the third person was all over this sample.
And finally, I have saved the oldest till last. Bruce Forsyth is 134 years old and, at the time of writing, is still going strong. For a recent birthday, his wife gave him a photo album full of pictures from across his life and career and he has used that as the inspiration for Strictly Bruce: Stories of My Life.
This is essentially a collection of anecdotes prompted by an array of different photographs. It's not a bad idea, really, and makes for a nice change to the traditional memoir format, but the prose is a bit antiseptic and bland. I can't really imagine who would put this on their wishlist but I suspect a fair few grannies will be receiving copies whether they want them or not.
And there you have it. Many, if not quite all, of the big Christmas celebrity autobiographies read, in part, and reviewed, in a way, by me. Did any of these Kindle samples make me want to read the full book?
The Nick Frost is worth returning to, I think. I did enjoy what I read of that. And the Elvis Costello is something I am pretty sure I'll read properly at some point. I reckon they are both in my local library so will pick them up there. I might give the Tom Jones a go as well.
But, if I am being completely honest, the only one I am actively itching to complete straight away is Me Me Me by Charlotte Crosby. I haven't laughed so much at a book in quite a while. I think I'll add it to my Christmas list.
Regular readers may recall that The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr reached the dizzy heights of #2 in my Books of the Year list for 2014. This was a novel I first heard about while listening to New Zealand radio (the internet is a wonderful thing) and here's what I said about it at the time:
Lena Gaunt, now in her 80s, looks back on her life as a pioneer of electronic music. One of the first exponents of the theremin, she was a star in the 1920s, her story includes love affairs with men and women, heroin addiction, world travel and the most painful of tragedies. An incredible debut and a novel so believable that I wish it were true.
I am delighted to say that a little more than one year on and Lena is about to make her debut in the UK.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt is published by Aardvark Bureau next month, although copies have arrived from the printer already, and that means I have a spare.
Would you like one?
I am passionate about this novel. Evangelical, you might say. It reminded me of Tipping the Velvet in the way it transported me in place and time and allowed me to watch as a young woman grew into an adult. It is evocative, moving and quite wonderful.
I have one copy that I will send to one lucky reader. Just leave a comment beneath this post to say you are interested and I will select someone at random by the end of the week.
UPDATE: Just to say that the book went to Sarah Miles who I hope will enjoy it immensely and then rave about it in January.
Once again, most of the books I read in the past month were manuscripts for Unbound, so I can't really review them here. I did manage to read some books that were actually published and here's what I thought of them.
Kazuo Ishiguro - The Buried Giant
While I found this a pleasant enough read I didn't really think it quite delivered, either as a historical novel or useful allegory. It was a bit vague and I don't think the author quite had the courage of his convictions. More of a mood piece than a story, for me.
Josh Spero - Second-Hand Stories
I love the concept of this: the author attempts to track down the original owners of the second-hand Classics books he used for study at Oxford University. In his quest, Spero unearths some remarkable characters and their stories are the most interesting parts of the book. As an amateur classicist myself (I love the stories and history but cannot manage the original languages) I was a tad jealous of the people to be found in these pages, and slightly in awe of their ability to get closer to the texts. A book for anyone who loves second-hand books and has wondered about the people who owned them before.
Miss Read - Village School
I turned 45 in November and I spent my birthday weekend ensconced with some comfort reading, namely this 1955 novel about life in a small rural school. Longtime readers of my blog will recall that I read all of Miss Reads books, more than forty of the blighters, during 2013, so you may think I'd had my fill but I couldn't resist going back to this first in the series to revisit old friends. It was a delight.
Katsuhiro Otomo - Akira: Volume 2
I read volume one earlier in the year and it did take me a while to remember where I'd left off, but once I had found my bearings I enjoyed this tale of kids with special powers in a post-apocalyptic Japan. Manga can be read very quickly but this comes with the side-effect that the story has to work harder to stick. This is a good romp but I am not sure if I will carry on with the series.
Haruki Murakami - Hear the Wind Sing & Pinball, 1973
Murakami's first two novels have finally been published outside of Japan, which will be good news for his fans who have, till now, had to shell out big bucks for obscure English-language copies that were printed in his home country some years back. Although not his best work, something he freely admits, they do feature key characters from his later novels, A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance, as well as showcasing themes he would explore throughout his career. This is a handsome one-volume omnibus and I appreciated the fresh translation by Ted Goosen. A treat for fans but I wouldn't advise them for first-time readers of Murakami's work.
Chester Brown - Ed the Happy Clown
I spent summer of 1986 in Vancouver. While there I picked up some copies of an underground comic called Yummy Fur. They told the story of Ed the Happy Clown, interspersed with other tales. At the time I thought they bordered on genius and every few years I would come across them on my shelves or in a shoebox or wherever I had put them and re-read them. Each time their genius was confirmed to me. This month I came across the complete collection in hardback at Foyles Charing Cross. Two-thirds of it was new to me. Those two-thirds are also genius. A dark and inappropriate comic that features masturbating squid, flesh-eating pygmies, a clown with brittle bones and a portal to another dimension that happens to be located in a gentleman's anus.
David Mitchell - Slade House
I was quite enjoying this ghost/soul-sucking vampire story until it got to the final chapter when, a bit like The Bone Clocks, it all went a bit straight-to-video on me.
Deborah Levy - Swimming Home
This Booker-shortlisted novel basically involves a bunch of literary-fiction-by-numbers characters lounging around a pool in the south of France being beastly to one another. I wanted them all to die horribly. Unfortunately, only one of them did.
Stuart Ashen - Terrible Old Games You've Probably Never Heard Of
Stuart Ashen takes nostalgia to a whole new level by getting us all misty eyed about computer games from the 1980s and 90s that were utter shite. And the thing is, it works. Anyone who between the ages of, say, 40 and 55, will have spent some of their hard-earned pocket money on a cassette for their ZX Spectrum or Vic-20 or Amiga, lured in by a swanky cover or a screenshot showcasing amazing graphics, only to have taken it home, spent 20 minutes loading it up and discovered that it was about as much fun to play as Songs of Praise was to watch. And it is kind of enjoyable to relive that with Ashen's amusing commentary. Whether it is Star Wars rip-off Trench, the totally unplayable SQIJ (seriously, none of the control buttons did anything), or Licence to Kill, a shoot-em-up that only used 17% of the screen, there is lots of shite here to get nostalgic about.
Michael Ashcroft & Isabel Oakeshott - Call Me Dave
I'll be honest, it was the porky sex revelations that encouraged me to read this book but the tabloid-style gossip is tiny part of what is a pretty thorough and genuinely fascinating biography. Cameron is portrayed as a child of privilege who coasted through the first half of his life until he was brought up short by events both political and personal: his rejection as a candidate by a local Tory election panel, failing to win a seat in the 1997 general election and the troubled life and tragic death of this firstborn child. Here is a man who, according to those close to him, has hardly ever expressed a strongly-held personal political view and for whom becoming Prime Minister was vastly more important than serving the nation or, indeed, changing it in any significant way. But he is also someone who has defied grass roots Tories by supporting equal marriage and who spoke out in favour of legalising drugs in one of his first parliamentary speeches. I am not a fan of his but I do think there is more to him than a champagne-swilling toff and this biography actually does a decent job of trying to be balanced, which surprised me. Well worth a read if you want to find out more about the bloke notionally running the country.
So onward into December. I'll be revealing my Books of the Year in a couple of weeks, so do watch out for that.
So my week of open submissions on the blog is over. From Monday to Friday authors could pitch their unpublished books to me in an attempt to convince me to publish them at Unbound. And it was quite a week.
How about some stats?
And how about some observations?
I offer these observations not to single out or embarrass anyone, but as advice to the pitchers, and other unpublished authors.
So, was it worth it? Absolutely. With one book already lined up for Unbound, and several more looking highly likely, I am thrilled with the results. I reckon we'll see 10 or more of these pitched turned into real actual books in 2016, and that has to be worth it.
I plan to do this again sometime next year, so watch this space.