I don’t formally make resolutions at New Year, but this year I plan to review the books I read, as soon as I read them. I finished the first book of 2020 – that I’ve read cover to cover (there’s a couple of “current reads” which I’ve tried to get into but haven’t found my way with yet – in the week. So close enough.
This novel came to me by way of Netgalley. I love Netgalley, it gives me the chance to read books in advance and prepare reviews that will hopefully help new authors or new books for established authors. However, last year I wasn’t the best at posting reviews in a timely fashion (i.e. before or on the launch date). This year will be different (she says, in January).
As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been trying to get into different novels over the past few weeks but not getting far. If the subject matter doesn’t meet what I’m looking for in that moment, back it goes to the to-read bookcase. But If I Had Your Face was different.
This novel gripped me from the outset. At first, the concept of being “plunge[d] into the mesmerising world of contemporary Seoul” caught my attention and tempted me to request the novel. When it arrived, and I was pulled in, it became so much more than the subcultures of plastic surgery, ‘room salons’, and K-Pop stars.
Told by five women in alternating narratives (a literary trope that I’m a huge fan of since first reading Trumpet by Jackie Kay 15+ years ago), I found myself being both engrossed in their world(s) but also invested in what would happen and finding out what had happened to get them there.
Although the first few chapters felt that they could easily be standalone stories, the links between the women became clearer until the perfect last scene when they are pulled taut as they sit on the stairs of their apartment complex. Despite being worlds away, their stories were familiar and all-encompassing. I could see parts of myself. I could see parts of women I know. And that reflection drove me to read their stories, this novel, as quickly as I could.
So it is no secret I am an admirer of Logan’s writing. I started getting excited about her first collection of short stories, The Rental Heart and Other Stories, back in 2015. I use the title story as an example in workshops – I cannot forget the protagonist in that story. In fact I cannot forget so many of Logan’s stories. I ate up her first novel and her second collection soon after and have been waiting impatiently for more stories.
The Gloaming is packed full of the stories that I had been waiting for. The magic within them, the unsettling dark and light of the island, the weight of myth, legend and the elements.
The Ross family grows and changes with the tide, pulling you in and along with their unfolding. Although Mara leads, the multiple perspective allows you to weave in and out of views to see the full picture. Piece by piece.
The novel is a mesmerising dive into what it is to belong, loss and grief, the turn and tumble of love, how sexuality belies what ‘should be’.
I want to write more about Mara, Islay, Bee, Peter, Signe, Pearl. Having read their story quickly, gulping in words that bring wonder and often don’t fit my sasanach mouth, I want to tell you everything.
A year ago I let my voice be loud enough to tell the ether that my debut short story collection would be published. Deadlines were placed, my work began. Today, my work continues. The deadlines have moved, publishing schedules being as they can be, and there is now more time. Yet to be Determined will be in your hands in 2018. The irony of the title is not lost on me.
At the moment it is in my hands, but I am not alone. Thanks often comes at the end of the process, but in the steps we take for a book to live in other peoples’ lives, it’s not just down to the author. The encouragement from my friends, writing colleagues, and particularly my wife is not forgotten at any stage. Thank you, you know who you are.
I did not foresee this extra time but I am now grateful for it; the space in which to continue the journey, both for the book and myself. I’ll try not to question talking about this now, and last year, before the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. I could try to pass over it, hide. I’m not going to. I will remind myself of the gratitude for the honesty that my writing peers have been kind enough to share; and I can hope that it will helps others as well as myself.
Often the question of ‘right’ comes up – right words, right time, right way. I’m a believer in fate, but don’t always have the patience for it. I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s worth the wait. For example. This. Was. Worth. The. Wait.
My thanks to Cathy Galvin (that blissful woman on the right who founded the Word Factory) is unending. Not least because she gave me the chance to help Neil Gaiman with his signing, and generally hang around with his amazing assistant Clara before the masterclass.
Being on the other side of the desk with this ‘literary rock star’ gave me a new view of being an author that I am yet to experience. So far there has been one person who took note of my name when I was at the Cinnamon Press fest last year and came up to me to congratulate me on my story ‘Once there was a bear’. I was so taken aback that I quickly thanked her but couldn’t think of the next thing to say. Like a normal person. Neil Gaiman, like many authors of course, has his stage presence – the rock star Neil – which slips into place and off again when he then becomes Neil the writer who still gets excited about seeing the work he is most proud of in front of him. I feel very fortunate to have been able to witness that, in someone I am so in awe of.
So this weekend I spent time talking hard things and writing hard things. I allowed myself to crash into innocence (waking up in a bed full of cuddly toys will do that), enjoyed the sunshine on my face, learnt how to make origami stars (my new stress relief), and dipped into Neil Gaiman’s collection of non-fiction The View from the Cheap Seats. A wise woman (Caitlin Moran) said this of it – and I feel it’s the perfect sum up:
“If this book came to you during a despairing night, by dawn you would believe in ideas and hope and humans again. This is a beautiful, beautiful book.”
Another book to add to your list. If you want to read the Once Upon a Time article pictured, its available here.
First tip for giving books on World Book Night…do it when you have a voice!
The conversations I had yesterday whilst fulfilling my book giving duties (see yesterday’s post if you haven’t already) where somewhat limited due to my voice petering out within seconds but I loved the challenge of speaking to complete strangers about reading and it’s importance.
From the women in Harvest Moon with the amazing jumpers who were engaged and wanted to know more (thank you for allowing me to slope of when my voice stopped!), to the man who was fundraising whilst showing off his tractors (only in Hitchin) whose non-reading confession came from his friends rather than himself.
Thank you to the owners of Chilli B and Groundworks who let me talk to their customers and leave books on tables.
And now it’s a case of waiting. I’ve explained a bit more about my relationship with with Reasons to Stay Alive, the book I gave yesterday, on my previous post. Without a voice, and with some nerves, I decided that explaining that personally to each recipient may be a bit much so I wrote a letter and popped it inside each book to explain why I was a book giver, and why this book. You can read it by clicking the image. I’ve invited those who found or were given the book to get in contact to let me know where it ended up…here’s hoping for some news soon!
As I explained yesterday, my giving of this book was well timed with Depression Awareness Week. This book has helped so many people, and although there are a lot of resources out there, I’ve collected together some of the articles I’ve read during DAW this year:
If you have any articles, blogs, quotes, and of course books, you think I should add, please let me know. I’d also really recommend checking out the #WhatYouDontSee campaign on Twitter.
World Book Night is here again! I’m so pleased and proud to be a volunteer book giver for the third year in a row. Two years ago I started bold; talking to strangers on a quiet night at my local pub about reading and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Last year I went even closer to home, reaching out to non readers at my 9-5 with Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit. This year is personal in a different way.
Full of warmth, humour and life-affirming wisdom, this is an incredible little book that offers a lifeline to anyone who has ever suffered, recovered from or encountered depression. Matt Haig recounts his own experiences with delicate precision and tells a compelling story about how reading and writing helped him out of his darkest period.
I did not want to have depression. No-one has ever wanted depression, it is a ridiculous statement to make, but yet this is how simply I thought about it. I was scared of the label. Of the indelible ink tattooed on my face, on my actions, on my very being, once those words were said. I was scared of what it would make me without even realising I was neck deep in being/feeling all the things I didn’t want to face. I was scared of what it had done to people I love. I fought for too long, for too many people I couldn’t help. Including myself.
I was scared of the title. I had heard lots about Reasons to Stay Alive, about how it helped so many people understand or explain an illness that is often inexplicable. The title, the book, doesn’t allow you to run and hide. It confronts the very fears by presenting itself as the ‘pro’ list when the ‘cons’ are reasons not to stay alive. No one wants to hear those words, see those words, and yet by just opening that door to that conversation lives can be saved.
Confession: I hadn’t read the book when I applied to be a book giver and selected it as my choice. However I brought myself a copy earlier this year. I wish I had read it sooner. I wish someone had handed it to me. So far it has opened up conversations with loved ones who have dealt with their own anxiety or depression, and/or support me. I’m sure this blog post and the giving of these books today will open up even more. Timely as it is almost the end of Depression Awareness Week.
Today I’ll be facing strangers and handing them this book. Or I’ll be leaving it in places for people to find in the hope that they will let me know where it ends up. I will try to focus on those who may not read, but I think with this book I can be a little more open and aim to speak to those who could be helped by this book in some way.
To end this on a lighter note, I’d like you to imagine me out there with these books. I have been ill with a cold/flu bug this week which has left me with no voice. I can only whisper. Imagine me walking around a nearby town, wrapped up in a ridiculous number of layers, speaking to strangers in a whisper about depression and reading. I’d laugh already but that might start a coughing fit.
I promise photos, stories, and more World Book Night celebrations on here later…
Seasons, cardinal directions, card suits, limbs… Okay, so I’m scratching around and breaking the rule of three. Normally I happily live by that superstition but you have to celebrate when there’s more good things around. Here are a four great things that I wanted to share with you this week.
This to me is the most wonderful of gifts. My parents purchased this for me for my birthday at the start of February. Having enjoyed the last exhibition on the Gothic Imagination, and the current one on the anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, the prospect of a year of opportunities there does make me extraordinarily happy, along with the chance to make the most of the member’s room when a spare seat in a peaceful place to write is needed. If you want to find out more, visit http://support.bl.uk/.
The Tiniest Literary Magazine
The latest issue (number four) of Matchbox Stories arrived exquisitely packaged up from Book Ex Machina. I will be honest, this was an on a whim purchase but I’m so pleased I did. The four tiny stories by Ali Smith, Etgar Keret, Marti Leimbach and Frances Gapper are brilliant. Full of wit and wonder, these micro-tales left me thinking. Thinking of all the possibility there is in so few words, and the power that can be contained in no more than five sentences. If you’d like your own set then visit their site here.
Word Factory‘s year began on Saturday. Although Marina Warner could not be with us, and we all send our best wishes to her, the evening was a wonderful start to the year. I’ve written about how proud I am to be a part of Word Factory before, and although I have had to step away to concentrate on my collection in the past couple of months it still continues to be a great source of community, understanding, and inspiration. If you haven’t been before do let me know, I’d love to introduce you into the family.
I have been subscribed to Mslexia for a good few years now. I’ve seen them refresh their design before to ensure they stay engaged with their readership and this one is no different; beautiful inside and out. It offers features which cut into what the industry and writers are thinking about, how-to advice from exercises to inspire to ways to reconnect with your writing and reading communities. The showcased stories are always worth reading – this month, Ana Salote’s left me chilled as the layers of meaning sunk in. Their website is also a mine of information so pop along and find out what you’re missing.
I’m not sure what day or year I was given this, but I do remember it.
I remember the librarian saying this is yours.
I remember feeling the weight of the responsibility – I would be responsible for the books I borrowed, it said so on the card.
I remember the day that I realised that I could read the smaller books on the grey metal shelves rather than the bigger books wedged in colourful hand-height wooden boxes.
I remember reading competitions in the summer holidays that encouraged me to lie in the sun and read all day.
I remember late fines because I didn’t want to give certain books back.
I remember reading books on all the things I couldn’t dare to ask about.
I remember the first time I moved from the children’s section into the corridor between there and the adult part of the library. This in between space would now be called young adult. I think I may have read every book on those shelves.
I remember finally looking on shelves I had bypassed for years for another Margaret Atwood book because I had craved more after reading The Handmaid’s Tale at A-level. It was this book which would become the first short story collection I asked for as a present because I had taken it out of the library so many times.
I remember hours lost and so much gained.
All of this in one building. A million worlds. I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries. What I understand about myself, the world, my past and my future, would not be possible without libraries.
I first wanted to write a post about my relationship with libraries since I listened to Ali Smith talk so animatedly about her own relationship with libraries just after new collection of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories, came out in November. In the time that it took her to write and collate these stories, seven years, over a thousand libraries have gone. It is a fact that never ceases to astound me.
I could be called a hypocrite. I don’t visit my library as often as I could. The one in my small town is tiny but serves the community very well. I do however have cards for libraries in three counties now so I have access and I know how important access is to so many of us. I am lucky that I can afford to buy as many books as I do. I am immensely proud of my own shelves at home. But I see libraries in new ways now. It has always been a place to ‘be’ and I do use them for writing as well as reading but now I can see how it will shape new lives in my life. From the sing-alongs on a rainbow of carpet with my best friend and her little one, to the conversations with my 12 year old god-daughter about the books she is exploring whilst we educate each other on the great and good of various canons.
Welcome to the library
no one will tell you what to read
or tell you what to think.
No one will bother you
Or bully you.
No one will require a report;
you don’t have to revise.
You can spy
Draw a picture.
You can write.
ask for help
or nothing at all.
No one will stop you.
No one will even try.
on a shelf
will be glancing at you sideways
getting up the courage to
ask you out
make you laugh
make you cry
make you fall in love.
I’m trying to write a book like that now.
In a library.
First resolution of the new year: to blog more frequently, more immediately. Less thinking about what I should be writing here, more of the ‘here’s what I want to share right now’.
Which leads to the second resolution: review every book I read. It’s only polite, for each author provides me with something which could be returned. Sometimes my reviews are written in full, but more often they are shared briefly on social media or spoken about with fellow readers.
So with that in mind, here is my last review of 2015 and the first of 2016.
The Bees by Laline Paull
This is a beautiful novel that I happily spent a day or so inhabiting Flora 717’s hive world. I know a fair amount about bees from friends and relatives who keep them, but the journey that this novel takes enabled me to explore the facts as well as an imagined world. The deeper parallels with our current society, feminism, balance, understanding the worlds we inhabit made this an incredible read rather than a flight of fantasy.
Slade House by David Mitchell
I read Slade House in one sitting, just over 4 hours, because I couldn’t stop reading. I was gripped. The journey through time held my belief with characteristic detail; the repetitive elements were familiar rather than grating. It held the same magic that the journey into The Secret Garden did for me as a child, but with a deeply gothic and unnerving layer. I am certain the attic in Slade House will stay with me, and many others, just as the one at Thornfield in Jane Eyre and the prison that holds the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper.
Which allows me to conclude with my final book related resolution. Focus on my to-read pile and read for me. This allows me to ignore the current trend for reading challenges that part of me would like to take on but the bigger part wonders what is the point? I understand where it is used to engage new readers, but when you already read widely and often I don’t understand the need to pressurise the reading process. Yesterday I shared a link from Pam Mcllroy. She asks, when did reading become a competitive sport? I reposted the link because I felt that she understood my take on why we read without the how we should read. A more personal resolution is to avoid the negativity of should at all costs. And then of course I went and read a book in 4 hours.
So I’ve recommended my favourite short stories and novels from this year, but what else is out there? I’ve found that I’ve been inundated with book suggestions from websites, magazines and newspapers alike so I thought I’d conclude with a list of lists. These are my favourite sources when looking for some inspiration.
Want to read the books everyone is talking about or will be very shortly? Keep up with all the big book prizes by using Foyles’ very handy Book Awards page. From the Baileys to the Booker (and all the other prizes not beginning with B) they have it all for you within easy reach of a couple of clicks.
Not sure what to read next, or what to recommend? Lovereading is the site for you. Their regular newsletters and easy to use website is a great source of new inspiration. I particularly like their short story section which has recently had a refresh.
The Guardian Books section has always been a Saturday favourite for me, and their website ensures I’m up to date the rest of the week too. Their round ups are infamous, and this year’s part one and part two of the Best Books of 2015 are wonderful. This way you get to find out what your favourite authors are reading, as well as general recommendations in the Guardian’s brilliant article on the best fiction of 2015.
A fan of video over articles? Follow Jen Campbell on YouTube immediately. Her vlogs are humorous at times, always honest and insightful. You are guaranteed to find all the books you need for Christmas gifts with her.
Lastly, but of course by no means least, is Waterstones’ selection of Beautiful Books. If you’d like to gift an ageless gift, then here’s the place to look. There are many publishers now who are doing a grand job of making the book as beautiful on the outside as the inside. I’ll stop there with the book clichés. And the lists, for this year at least.
This time of year brings the need to compile lists out in all of us. I’ll put the blame on the stories we were told by our loved ones in order to have some kind of clue (or just a short list) of what we would like to receive.
Books have always been high on my gift lists. Even before I could read, the greatest gift my family could bestow upon me was a well chosen book. I still have the first books my grandpa brought me – Swallows and Amazons, and a miniature library of the Beatrix Potter stories. They are among my most treasured possessions – a link to a man who I barely knew whose love I still feel through our shared imagination.
So there will be a few of these posts to inspire you to surprise your loved ones, along with the many more that are popping up across the internet, newspapers and magazines. First to start with my greatest interest at the moment – short stories.
This year short story lovers have been spoilt for choice. My currently-reading and to-read shelf is packed with collections from established and new writers, and I would recommend them all but for now here’s my top three female writers whose stories have fuelled my creativity and made me dream big whilst writing my collection.
Any book from And Other Stories comes with an automatic recommendation from me. They continue to publish incredible writers, and if you are unsure of what to get for the book lover in your life then look at their subscriptions which are guaranteed to delight. With Readman’s debut collection, there is real magic in the ordinary – think Angela Carter or Adam Marek if you want literary comparisons. There’s a reason Readman is collecting awards, including the Costa short story award. These stories have taught me to be fearless, to go beyond what you initially see or create, and will be a collection I return to again and again.
Often with short story collections and anthologies, I dip in and out, selecting stories at the “right” time. Every now and then a collection comes along where I cannot help but read them in one go. With these I tried to pace myself, but consumed them all within a day or so. It was a day incredibly well spent. The stories are linked by the search of absolution which at times is captured rather than fulfilled. Most of all it showed that no matter whether in the past or future we continue to be surprised, out-witted and led by the creations of our imagination and our minds as a whole. ‘Some Kind of Safety’ reminded me that carefully chosen words and very little space (less than 3 pages) can create the most honest and intense stories. Greengrass is fearless when using the first person narrative allowing the reader to feel these stories as presented truths rather than tales. I found this collection on a table of selected short story writers at Waterstones Cambridge – well done them for selecting astutely. I had not heard of Greengrass before then but she will certainly be a writer I search out in the future.
Another independent, Salt, who can always be relied upon to present us with wonderful storytellers (buy direct from them too ,- they have a 20% off offer on at the moment). I’m not sure how I had not heard of Kirsty Logan before, but ‘The Rental Heart’ is possibly the most perfect story and that level of perfection and exploration doesn’t stop there. Her retelling of traditional fairytales, are balanced by the creation of new ones. References to Angela Carter can be made again, as can those to Ali Smith and Marina Warner. Logan thrives in this condensed form, but her debut novel is also a fantastic escape; the extended tale of The Gracekeepers story in this collection. Along with her debut collection and novel, she has a second collection A Portable Shelter that came out as a limited run of 1000 beautifully bound books which now seem impossible to find due to 800 of them being pre-ordered! If anyone finds a copy, please remember I would love to receive this as a gift this Christmas! If you fancy seeing her read, and to get a signed copy of one of her books – come along to Word Factory next Saturday (28 November 2015).
I would love to hear about your inspirations – and let’s face it, we can all use a little help when picking out new books to surprise people with. Next on the blog will be the novel list…