I read some books this year. Fifty to be exact.
I’m not normally one for new year’s resolutions as I feel if a change needs to be made you can do that whenever the hell you like not at some arbitrary line in the sand drawn by a fairly loose abstract calendar based on changing weather conditions. Anyway. Last year I read 2 books that weren’t comics or poetry collections which, for someone trying to be a writer, is utterly pathetic and shameful. Therefore I decided to do a challenge frequently undertaken by users of Goodreads but was inspired by internet hilarity generator and all-round loveable creature Ophelia Dagger. I set my target as fifty books to be read in 2013 which equates to about one a week. My rules were: no non-fiction (because I don’t enjoy it), no poetry, I can’t have read the book before, no comics/graphic novels and out of necessity must be short enough to be read in a week.
After various pauses and crashes of will I actually managed it! Hoorah! And I am sure you are all dying to know what books they were. Yeah, course you are. Well I’m going to tell you anyway. In the order I read them starting January 1st to today:
- Dracula – Bram Stoker
- The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford
- The End of Mr. Y – Scarlett Thomas
- Women in Love – DH Lawrence
- Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love – Dan Rhodes
- Turn of the Screw – Henry James
- Hemlock & After – Angus Wilson
- The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
- Hard Times – Charles Dickens
- Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
- Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
- Lord of the Flies – William Golding
- The Road – Cormac McCarthy
- The Ask and The Answer – Patrick Ness
- Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
- The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
- Tale of a Tub – Jonathan Swift
- Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness
- Diary of a Nobody – George and Weedon Grossmith
- Moon of Gomrath – Alan Garner
- Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K Jerome
- The Flame Alphabet – Ben Marcus
- Red Moon – Benjamin Percy
- The Old Man & The Sea – Ernest Hemmingway
- The Invisible Man – HG Wells
- A Country Doctor – Franz Kafka
- A Song of Stone – Iain Banks
- I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
- Boneland – Alan Garner
- Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
- Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
- Franny & Zooey – JD Salinger
- The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
- The Dead – James Joyce
- King Solomon’s Mines – H Rider Haggard
- The Tenth Man – Graham Greene
- The Pearl – John Steinbeck
- Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote
- Beau Geste – PC Wren
- Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
- The Duel – Joseph Conrad
- Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
- Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
- Amsterdam – Ian McEwan
- Lost Art of Keeping Secrets –
- Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
- Dark Matter – Michelle Paver
- The Woman in Black – Susan Hill
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
Fifty doesn’t sound a lot when you say it but in a list its a lot more than you realise. Some people were reading 100 this year!
As you can see I did my best to vary the type of book I was reading, be that by genre, sex of the author and its period. This revealed something interesting. For all the talk of “LITERARY FICTION” a title I hate and I believe is utterly false and misrepresentative, it uses the same tools, syntax and language every other genre of novel does it just normally uses more of it. As ever, it was the self-acknowledged or those forcibly titled ‘Literary’ that I liked least. The title (chiefly British) of ‘Literary Fiction’ seemed to only ever to actually mean ‘social realist’ and rather dull. Having said that there were a few confessedly ‘Literary’ novels I did really enjoy this year but it still makes me more aware of what a pompous and pointless moniker it is.
Anyway, rant over. Lets start at the bottom, shall we? Far and away my least favourite book all year was ‘The End of Mr. Y’ – a self-consciously edgy novel that tried waaaaaaay too hard to be clever than it actually was by name dropping various theorists but investigating none of their theories to any depth and almost entirely forgetting about a plot. It was a sore disappointment as it is set in Canterbury where I was brought up and the writer lectures at UKC so finding out it sucked was a bit sad. Sense of an Ending and Amsterdam were my two forays into the painfully dull world of Booker prize winners and proved what over-written, paper thin and largely vacant twaddle the much lauded ‘Literary Fiction’ is. Amsterdam actually irritated me with its word vomit prose and wholly self-involved and unlikeable characters which may have been McEwans purpose but frankly it worked too well then Ian. Sense of an Ending just bored me however, it ‘meditated’ on the idea of memory but made no point and seemed to forget its own story, rather ironically. Hard Times and Tale of a Tub, whilst in no way BAD, were the other couple of my least favourites. Dickens has never really been that enjoyable to me and relies to heavily on coincidence for my liking. Swift was just DULL in the extreme, I realise the Tale of a Tub is by definition a story that wanders around and makes no point and is an early investigation into ‘Wit’ but christ, wit is something that dates quite severely it seems. I confess to skim reading a lot of that one. As I say neither were badly written just utterly contrary to enjoyment to me.
There were a lot of books that I didn’t dislike but had no real impact on me. If I don’t mention them these are probably the ones.
A surprise discovery was my enjoyment of ‘dated’ fiction, i.e. Writing that was done pre-WWII as this seems to be when the more modern tropes of writing we come to accept as ‘standard’ today come into common use. Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, Invisible Man, The Duel, 39 Steps were all cracking good reads that I enjoyed start to finish and would highly recommend. I do understand that some adjustment to the style of prose must be made but if you persist I can safely say the Victorians knew how to write a ripping yarn.
Many a good laugh was had, 3 Men in a Boat and Lucky Jim being my particular favourites for this but Diary of a Nobody, Don’t Tell me The Truth About Love and Breakfast at Tiffany’s all had good giggles in them too.
Whilst not included on the list Freud’s ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ had a profound effect on me and made quite an impression on my thinking and the book I was writing at the time. Slaughterhouse 5 also gave me definite pause for thought.
It turned out the ladies had some of the strongest stuff for me this year too. The Bloody Chamber was excellent and wonderfully weird, The Pursuit of Love had the best dialogue and some of the best fun of all the books I read this year and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was a charming little romp through the 50s I smiled the whole way through.
A year of dead authors was also a through line. Along with James Herbert, Ian Banks and Richard Matheson passed away in the summer so I took great pleasure in reading some of their work. I Am Legend was fantastic and had one of the most moving chapters of any book I’ve ever read in the middle. I’ve been a fan of Banks for years but this seemed an excuse to indulge a bit more. Wasp Factory is an astonishing debut and made me think twice about my own writing but Song of Stone was incredible, if there was any book that deserved the title of ‘Literary’ this was great literature. Beautifully written with a central mystery that was truly affecting. Highly recommended.
Okay so what were my favourites is what you really want to know, right? Well other than the ones I have actively slandered above, I enjoyed all of them and got something out of each book but there were some clear winners that had a massive impact on me.
I mentioned in a previous post what a cracking read Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy was and Knife of Never Letting Go was by far my favourite. Exceptional writing in any genre, a wonderfully told story with a fascinating cast of characters in a peculiar situation with genuinely painful moments of emotional climax, a wonder and quickly made Ness (along with A Monster Calls) a firm favourite. Dark Matter was creepy and eerie and didn’t oversell its scares but invested in atmosphere to its unending credit making it a horror classic. So good. The Dead started drearily but its finale had a startling effect of love and romance I wasn’t expecting and made me realise why he is so well regarded. Not quite up for Ulysses yet though…
I read Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a kid and it basically informed almost all of my reading/writing thereafter so I returned to that series as an adult and was not disappointed. Moon of Gomrath is SO strange and wonderful and magical and brilliant it was like I was a kid again returning to the children’s adventures. Boneland is a wholly different animal however. Almost a modernist tome, a la Ulysses with its dreamlike segments and wandering prose, lack of punctuation and psychological explorations it was a successor to Gomrath and Brisingamen in name only, feeling a lot like Cormac McCarthy in many ways. An incredible achievement and proof if it were needed that age does not diminish talent. Would never be considered ‘Literary’ as it is ‘Fantasy’ but does more for literature and language than some of the other purported ‘Award Winners’ did.
Lord of the Flies was not a set text for me at school but I had seen the various film incarnations so knew the story. I was not expecting it to be one of the best written, most challenging, dark, mysterious, profound and out and out wonderful novels I have ever read. Its hard line cynicism and misanthropy is obviously appealing to me but the prose is so subtle yet beautiful in its imagery I devoured the book and was utterly satisfied with its crashing finale. This is a book that is still relevant today and I see why it is taught at schools now, if you read it as a kid read it again now, it is stunning literature and is justification for Golding’s nobel prize. What amazed me most was the much talked of ‘fit’ Simon has halfway through. This is omitted from every film/television adaptation despite it being where the title of the book comes from and its central message. The common line is that Simon is hallucinating that the impaled pig’s head is talking to him while he has an epileptic fit. Personally this excuse does not wash, fit or not Golding is pointing out the rather hellish tendencies of humanity throughout the book and this is the mouthpiece for the novel. The devil is of our own making “close, close, close!” and is our “essential illness”. A hard fact to admit and one we still struggle with but those two pages for me are some of the most insightful, harrowing, profound, intelligent and brilliant in all of literature. Please, please, please, re-read or just read this book. It is amazing.
Kings Solomon’s Mines was flat out fantastic and a true Romance with a capital R. I loved this book not just because it was so much fun and exciting but also of what it represents and is largely ignored. It is very much the flip-side of the same coin as Heart of Darkness (another great book) and I am flummoxed as to why this book is not used as a core text. Whilst Conrad’s effort is painting the ‘Darkness’ in many ways including at the heart of a colonial empire Haggard is very much part of the old guard and on-side with colonialism. And yet… It paints the “savages” in far more finer detail than Conrad. The war of the tribes is far more akin to some sort of Shakespearean battle and all the native characters are invested with similar characteristics as the White characters. The whole book feels like it is doing its best to incorporate colonialism into the modern way of thinking which is still ultimately wrong but does (in my opinion) more for personifying what were just seen as mere commodities, i.e. slaves and savages, at the time. Also, for me KSM is the height of Romantic fiction, coming 10 years before Heart of Darkness it is (again, to my mind) the last great Romantic novel. The prose is quite literally ‘sumptuous’ and evocative, a scene near the beginning on the deck of their boat being a particular moment of “Holy Shit, I’m there!” as well as the magnificent descriptions of the mines themselves. It seems to be a lost treasure, ironically, and one that is worth investigating. The racism and sexism do take some stomaching but there is a definite diamond under that dirt.
My final two favourites are, I realise, subjective but I insist on their merits as they had a massive impact on my writing and on me personally.
Women in Love was a curve ball thrown by my best pal Dr. Smith. His offerings followed a pattern: either being a core text from critical analyst FR Leavis or being about/set around academia. WIL is one of the former and was utterly eye opening to me. It was a weighty book and I should probably have left it as it set me behind early in the year but I persevered and was rewarded with a book so singular and resonant I was amazed. I still can’t put my finger on where my utter love for this book comes from: the poetic prose and imagery, the dense metaphors and symbolism, the fascinating social commentary, the contrary ideology, the brilliant and finely drawn quartet of lead characters or simply its period style and setting. I’m inclined to think it is to do with its inherent scepticism. Lawrence is clearly trying to un-think standards and norms of the time which with hindsight is truly astonishing. He seems to sense that history is about to repeat itself, i.e. another world war, and is trying to break apart what is largely understood and accepted to varying degrees of success. The one thing he does succeed in is creating a sense of doubt in the reader, the last words of the book seem to summon this idea to the forefront of the reader’s mind: “I don’t believe it.” This is a negative book and I mean that in the best possible way. It is the negative of what should be written or what is understood. Lawrence’s view on Love is complicated in this book and his desire to see it reset is somewhat naive and a little tricky but again he certainly makes you question its validity or what you accept about it. There is a difference between Skepticism and Cynicism, the latter being healthy and that which this book breeds in spades. Question everything and take nothing for granted. Plus I think this book is a pretty good counter argument to cries of sexism levelled at Lawrence. They may be valid criticisms but this book certainly does not make me think of him as a sexist. The reverse in fact. Its not an easy read and is very much of its time but made me utterly rethink my own life, love and my writing and very very very few things can make that claim. A wonderful book and an essential experience.
Finally, Suzanne Collins is flavour of the month with the Hunger Games trilogy riding high on bestsellers lists and cinema box offices worldwide and I have already discussed my love for this franchise on this blog but it deserves reiterating: The Hunger Games are books that should be popular – well written, enjoyable books with a genuine positive message. In a male dominated world Collins and Katniss are a breath of fresh air and testament to the fact that, well, fuck gender, a person is a person and we’re all in this shitty world together and its our choices that make the difference. Its ‘liberal rhetoric’ as the Yanks have it is such a wonderful and noble thing to have put so obviously in such a popular book I will sing these book’s praises till the end of my days. If only more writers had the balls to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Collins and Malorie Blackman who make mass produced, hugely popular and widely consumed ART with a real and pertinent message. Aside from its social importance and necessity in this day and age the series is just a wonderful read. Fun, exciting and heartfelt each book is blast to read and perhaps heavy handed but never unwieldy. Mockingjay is undoubtedly my favourite and is some fucking BOLD writing for a Young Adult novel too but they are all brilliant pieces of literature which I firmly believe will stand the test of time and be hailed as classics alongside the equally brilliant Harry Potter series in future generations as the books that not only got us reading again but got us thinking long and hard about the bigger questions in life but without the pomp, pretention, obfuscating language, cliquey elitism and snobbery of modern ‘Literature’. I implore you to at least give them a try.
And that’s all I got. I realise that was quite long so thank you for reading the whole thing and I hope you got something out of it. Now I have the internet again you will hopefully be getting a little more out of me on here so please do keep checking in. In the meantime, happy new year and all the best for 2014!