If you are fans of this blog (and by fans I mean you must be staunch acolytes as I only seem to be capable of posting every six months) you’ll know that I’ve been spending most of my spare time this year trying to write a novel. Along the way I’ve completed an online creative writing course, joined an actual real-life writer’s group (with actual real-life people) and produced more than ten thousand words of absolute dribble. Now, because that’s significantly better than previous years (prose poetry anyone?) I thought I’d celebrate by sharing with you some of my top reads have kept me sane throughout this whole writing process. Whilst most end of year roundups are super informative – this one is completely self-indulgent and of no practical use whatsoever. So, make of it what you will – even if that’s only a somewhat curious and unsolicited literary review of my brain.
To all writers out there: I salute you.
Geraldine McCaughrean – Where The World Ends/Fires’ Astonishment
McCaughrean is my 2018 literary ‘bae’ – as it were. I’m extremely thankful to Philip Reeve who recommended ‘Where The World Ends’ on the Tea and Jeopardy podcast a while ago. I might not know St.Kilda where the book is set, but I’ve spent enough time around the Kyles of Bute to recognise the landscape she depicts so well. Reading this, I realised that there must be thousands of fantastic stories out there marketed to kids and entirely ignored by adults. What a waste. Probably, my fav book of the year…
…until I read Fires’ Astonishment. McCaughrean does something really very interesting in this novel – you’re never entirely sure if something magical is actually happening, or if it’s people wanting to believe what’s happening is magic. It’s such a brilliant tension, our assumptions as readers are constantly challenged. If nothing else, it’s a beautiful depiction of a time when myths and magic were woven into our understanding of the world. Does a dragon really have to exist for us to believe in one? Insert thinking emoji here.
Neil Gaiman – American Gods/Neverwhere
What? I haven’t read these classics before – outrageous!
I know, I know. Like I mentioned above, American Gods is a superb study in how to slip between the real and the fantastical (often in the same sentence) effortlessly. One thing you learn from Gaiman – you really don’t need to offer much by the way of explanation to your readers before making the fantastical thing happen – you just make it happen. I loved the way the main character Shadow starts off as an outsider but is really complicit in the alternative universe he ‘discovers’. Plus, all those nods to classic comic book scenes are just genius.
Neverwhere: a central character finds his world view rocked by a series of unfortunate events. This particular execution is very reminiscent of Douglas Adams and I tore through it in 4 days. A fantastic read. You’ll never look at a London Underground map in the same way again.
Andrew Crumey – The Secret Knowledge
At one point in the year I was writing a time travelling story set in Paris during the Fin de Siècle era. Someone recommended this to me and I was hooked. The hook: imagine a secret power hidden in a musical composition that can only be unlocked by the right kind of musician in the right frame of mind. Interesting concept…
The 7th Function of Language – Laurent Binet
…and a bit like this one. Imagine a secret power (in this case the power to influence people) hidden in the rhetorical use of language. Now, imagine only being able to unlock this power once you’ve understood the whole mind-boggling post-structuralist debate circa Paris, 1970. Jeepers. Sounds extremely dull and literary, but it’s actually a really fun whistle-stop tour through some otherwise dense philosophy. A Derridean whodunnit. Now that’s meta!
Ken Grimwood – Replay
More time-travelling antics. Man becomes god (being able to predict the future ‘cos you’ve already seen it) and wishes he were a man again.
Philip Reeve – Mortal Engines/Predator’s Device/Infernal Devices/A Darkling Plain
I found a copy of Mortal Engines in a local second hand bookshop and bought it for my son for about 50p. He was so impressed with it I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. Wasn’t disappointed. Imagine taking a story and throwing everything you’ve got at it, including killing off some of your key characters. Then imagine your publisher asking you if you could write a second or third book. Doh! Chapter One of Mortal Engines is like an acorn, containing within it the unfolding logic for all subsequent chapters – it’s perfect. If you’re writing your first speculative fiction book, this would be a good place to start. Hint. Hint.
James Baldwin – Another Country
If you’ve listening to a podcast and a writer tells you about a brilliant scene from a novel – then go read that novel. The first hundred pages or so concerning the jazz drummer Rufus Scott are exceptional. This is all about writing what’s right in front of you and that’s actually quite a hard thing to do.
Stewart & Riddle – The Edge Chronicle: Beyond the Deepwoods
We listened to this audiobook on a long drive up to Scotland and loved it. What, pirates flying tall-ships? Lots of nasty creatures trying to stop a boy who just wants to find his place in the world? What’s not to like? Ace.
Kurt Vonnegut – The Sirens of Titan
When I wasn’t writing I used to think writing was easy – just look at Vonnegut, I bet he knocked them stories out in a few days, right? And then you realise it’s a relentless process, chipping away until you’ve deleted most of the page. And that’s if you’ve got a decent story to tell in the first place. Oh well, at least Vonnegut seemed to have a lot of fun along the way and that’s something I try to remember when tossing balls of paper into the wastepaper basket. Must. Have. Fun.
Michael Moorcock – The Elric novels/The War Hound at the World’s Pain
When I was nine I went to this school in the middle of nowhere. Once a month we were visited by a mobile library and we had about five minutes to choose a book before it whizzed off. Before it did the aforementioned whizzing, I spotted the artwork gracing the cover of an Elric novel and was hooked. Whoever said you can’t judge a book by its cover? Nonsense! This year I re-read the whole series again and thought it was pretty bad, with a few brilliant moments. By far the best book in the series is ‘Elric of Melnibone’ which I think was the last to be written.
‘The War Hound’ was another Moorcock novel I discovered at school. It’s such a curious oddity – a mercenary captain is trying to survive Europe’s thirty years war and gets enlisted by satan to find the holy grail. Bonkers. This book blew my mind at nine and it blew my mind times ten reading it again this year.
James Blish – Vor
Loved this classic B-movie fodder. An alien lands in 1950s America. America attempts to communicate with it before losing patience and tries to blow it up. Nothing too deep here, but then you realise it’s all about ‘communication’ in general and how poor we humans are at it. Boom! Mic drop. Walks away.
Happy Holidays everyone!