2017 reads

The Luminaries by [Catton, Eleanor]1. The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton. (Review

2. Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft - Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. (IDW) I'm not a huge reader of graphic novels but I will always make an exception for Joe Hill. Welcome to Lovecraft is the first instalment in the Locke & Key series, telling the story of a family who move into a strange old house after the murder of their father. Mysterious things start happening, but the real world danger isn't over yet either. I enjoyed this immensely, particularly the way the supernatural elements were rendered on the page. I sometimes have a problem with the grammar of graphic novels - a difficulty that simply comes from not being a big reader of the genre - but I found the story easy to follow, compelling and surprising. It's quite gruesome in places, too, which is no bad thing. Definitely a story for adults.

3. The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan. (Amazon) An inconsistent read about the life of an Australian officer who becomes a POW, forced to work on building an impossible railway for the Japanese Emperor. The story is incredible but the style is all over the place. The bit about the romance made me wonder if Flanagan has ever actually met a woman, while the parts about the Japanese POW camp are vivid and emotional, particularly as the tales of the survivors play out in the final pages. At its best, it hits on some of the truths of life and death, digging into those things that can motivate a person to be their very best or the complete opposite; at its worst, The Narrow Road... feels contrived and emotionally artificial. The second half is much stronger than the first, if you can stomach it, but I'm surprised by how revered this book has become.

4. Fellside - M.R. Carey. (Amazon) It took me a while to finish Fellside. Having loved The Girl With All The Gifts so much, I just assumed that this would be a pleasure from start to finish; unfortunately, for all the things that I did enjoy about it, there were plenty of issues that stopped the book from being fully immersive. The flawed heroine approach is interesting, although Jess transcends her failings a bit too easily. The way that events build towards the grand finale is also quite exciting, but few readers will find any real surprises in the second half of the book. Overall, it's got some heartpounding action and reasonable emotional chops while still feeling contrived in a way that TGWATG never did. Good enough; it's just a disappointing way to follow up such a classic.


On Writing by [King, Stephen]5. On Writing - Stephen King. (Amazon) Not my first time reading this book and probably not my last. As an introduction to the how-to of writing and publishing, it manages to be both useful and engaging. Some of the recommendations feel a little outdated - the genre magazines of the 60s and 70s are covered in great detail; the myriad opportunities offered by the Internet, obviously less so - but the insights into routine, good style, and perseverance are all worth due consideration. For non-writers, the stories of King's early career and the accident that almost cost him his life are fascinating, making it still worth the read. Not many writing manuals are this entertaining.

6. Ayoade on Ayoade - Richard Ayoade. (Amazon) I found this disappointing. I'm a big Ayoade fan, from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace to his Travel Man exploits, but found this Tristram Shandy-esque pondering on film, selfhood, and Ron Howard just too much to get through. The funny bits are really funny, thankfully; there was just too much filling for my liking. The way footnotes and appendices are used is clever, but it made it hard to settle into the reading of any of the sections. On an e-reader, it'll probably be completely unworkable. I like to be able to immerse myself in a book and that's not possible with Ayoade on Ayoade. It's not meant to be, though. It's meant to keep pulling the reader in opposite directions, to baffle and confuse, all for greater comic effect. It just wasn't for me. Still, we'll always have this:




7. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe - Thomas Ligotti. (Amazon) Two story collections from a contemporary horror writer that I hadn't heard of before. The first set has a lot of Lovecraft in it, whereas the second is built around the idea of the 'real world' simply being a facade for something much darker. The stories feel very old-school - they could easily be from Lovecraft's time - and I'm not sure that they do much to further the genre. However, the prose is engaging and there are enough creepy bits to make it worth a look.

8. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender - Leslye Walton. (Review)

9. Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson. (Review)

10. Weight - Jeanette Winterson. (Amazon) A not-entirely-successful retelling of the Atlas myth, drawing parallels with the worlds of our own creating that we all carry. It's very readable with some lovely prose, but the analogy is a little on-the-nose and the move between myth and autobiography is not particularly well-handled. The whimsical ending takes the story away from its classical roots and asks some interesting questions about fate and choice. A pleasant enough (and short) read, but one that is perhaps not as profound as the author imagines.


11. Champagne and Wax Crayons - Ben Tallon. (Website) My creativity has taken a hit since I started my new job. There's just so much to learn and so much to do that there isn't much of me left at the end of the working day. This book has been a really useful antidote to that, reminding me of the great highs that come with creative work and the lessons that come out of the crushing lows. It's also about a person who loves football, music and wrestling, so it covers so many of my personal bases. It might be more autobiography than career guide but it makes for a better read and a more inspiring tale. The boost that I need to get writing again? I'm thinking so.

12. The Best in the World - Chris Jericho. Ongoing. I love wrestling and I love Chris Jericho, but the guy's ego is so big it blocks the words in this third instalment of his autobiography. There are still some good stories in there, especially for Santino fans, but there's an awful lot of name-dropping and self-aggrandisement. I read 100 pages and then just had to put it down. For hardcore fans only. That said, it's nowhere near as masturbatory as Pirlo's book...

12. Slade House - David Mitchell. (Amazon) Considering how complex Cloud Atlas is, and how deep the detail is in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Slade House feels like a very slight book in comparison. Not just because it's short, but because each section is effectively the same story told from different viewpoints, short vignettes that tell a wider story. It's well done and Mitchell is very good at building up the characters in a short time, but it is still quite a traditional ghost story dressed in slightly more literary trappings. Enjoyable enough, just lacking the depth of Mitchell's other works.

'Salem's Lot by [King, Stephen]13. 'Salem's Lot - Stephen King. (Amazon) One of King's most famous works, telling the story of the vampire blight that hits the small town of 'Salem's Lot in the 1970s. Like all of his best stories, the characters are vivid and interesting, the horror pointed, and the dark comedy cutting. It's not my favourite, though, with the climax coming a little too easily for my tastes. The appendices are interesting, but they also seem to dissipate some of the tension from the piece. I like it; there are just other vampire stories, and King stories, that I like more.

14. Zuckerman Unbound - Philip Roth. (Amazon) A novel about a writer struggling with sudden fame and notoriety, there is obviously a lot of Roth himself within this novel. Zuckerman has to deal with the farcical nature of success as he meets loopy fans and encounters fabricated details of his life in the tabloids, but he also has to cope with the very real troubles that his book causes for his family and friends. The book is laugh-out-loud funny until it becomes truly tragic, yet Roth handles the shifting tone with such confidence that it never feels jarring. For all writers who dream of greater success, this is a reminder that renown does not come without a price. And for all other readers, it is a reminder that we do not live in isolation, and our actions affect more than just ourselves. Roth's writing is often more controversial than this, but it's rarely more human.

15. Delta of Venus - Anaïs Nin. (Review)

16. The Sellout - Paul Beatty. (Amazon) I didn't have the best experience reading this book, as I got about a third of the way through before leaving it in a pastry shop in Strasbourg. I later broke an automatic door with my head, which may or may not have contributed to me never remembering where the pastry shop was. When I finally picked up a copy to read the end, I still found it a tricky read. A satire on post-racial America, there are certainly references that go straight over my head, but it's witty and engaging enough to carry through even the uninitiated reader.

17. No One Gets Out Alive - Adam Nevill. (Review)

Locke & Key Vol. 2: Head Games (Locke & Key Volume) by [Hill, Joe]18. Locke & Key: Head Games - Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. (Amazon) Could have done with a recap at the start of this, as I'd forgotten some of the salient points from Welcome to Lovecraft (I'm super old when it comes to this kind of thing). However, the story quickly drew me back in. A key that can unlock a person's mind has fallen into very much the wrong hands, and the hints of back story from Book One are also built upon here. Not quite as gory as before, the characterisation is perhaps a stronger focus this time round. However, as with the first instalment, the illustrations are vivid and worth closer exploration. Still not my favourite medium but I look forward to seeing where this story goes next.

19. Pet Sematary - Stephen King. (Amazon) Somehow I've never read this before. King classes it as his scariest book, but the chills are more subtle than in some of his other works. The tension is in the slow build and the inevitability of how the story is going to play out. We know where events are going - hell, the characters know where events are going - but no one has the ability to stop the tragedy in play. The characters maybe aren't drawn as sharply as in some other King novels, but the simple horror of the precise makes it an effectively uncomfortable read. Has temporarily put me off cats.

20. The Man Who Loved Children - Christina Stead. Ongoing. Another abandoned book. This novel, a large domestic tragedy, is known to be divisive, and I just couldn't get into it. Unpleasant characters, a large cast of children, and some bizarre dialogue: I didn't even have the heart to read more than a few pages at a time. I gave it about 100 pages and then had to admit defeat. With admirers like Jonathan Franzen, this book must have something going for it; perhaps it's just the wrong book at the wrong time.

How to Be a Writer20. How to be a Writer - David Quantick. (Goodreads) A collection of interviews with writers and others in the creative professions, nominally built around the idea of what a day in the life of a writer is like. Some are more interesting and informative than others, but there are certainly helpful practical tips and a useful reminder that there is no set way to be a writer. In fairness, though, the best recurring advice is just to write. The kind of book that can feel like a necessary read for those trying to get into writing, but it is probably more of a distraction from the task at hand.

21. Brailling for Wile - James Zerndt. A book that ended up on my Kindle solely because it was free; thankfully, it turned out to be worth more than that! A sweet if unusual story of a family trying to get itself together after the father's suicide, the book brings in smaller narratives about people from the community to give a sense of the woes and joys of the whole town. The main story holds it all together when there seems to be too much going on, or too many tonally-mismatched stories, and there are some lovely phrases and beautiful images that elevate the whole. Some of the stories are more effective than others (I particularly enjoyed learning about Norwood and his fears about parenthood), but Zerndt writes confidently enough to make the interweaving plots work. A reminder that it's worth taking a punt on free novels and limited offers: you never know what you might find.

22. The King's English - Kingsley Amis. (Review)

23. How Not to Be Wrong - Jordan Ellenberg. (Amazon) After becoming quite a good statistician while doing Further Maths at A-Level, I then proceeded to do no maths for ten years, forgetting much of what I had learnt. This book does a great job of pointing out the inconsistencies in the way maths is reported and how we tend to think about it, and how this can lead us to misunderstand the numbers relating to medicine, politics, and so on. For a novice, there is some maths that might be a little daunting, but much of it is sketched out simply and logically. Indeed, some of the issues seem so clear and obvious that you'll feel your worldview shifting under your feet. If you have ever wondered why a set of statistics has led to vastly differing interpretations, this might be a good place to start.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by [Murakami, Haruki]24. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami. (Amazon) A pleasant meditation on running, writing, and life in general. As a bad runner, it was interesting to hear about Murakami's experiences with ultramarathons and triathlons, and the weirdly meditative state they bring out in him. It's not quite a memoir and not quite a running manual, but it does give an insight into the mind of someone who would spend much of their day in solitude, either pounding the pavements or writing novels. I liked the book and I liked Murakami as I was reading it, but it's unlikely to change anyone's world.

25. Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel - Paul Scheerbart. (Review)

26. The Leftovers - Tom Perrotta. (Amazon) A book I read because I'm OBSESSED with the TV show. They nailed the ending BTW, which is not an easy thing for a show of that nature to manage. Anyhow, the book is a very different proposition. For a start, it's much more limited in scope than the series (inevitably, perhaps) and some of the characters are very different. However, the bones are there: Kevin and his family (although Kevin is mayor rather than police captain), the GR, Nora and her grief, etc. It's just that the reduced scale makes it feel a bit scant after the all-encompassing world of the show. There is none of the additional supernatural stuff (if, indeed, that's how you chose to understand the messianic overtones in the later episodes) and the relationships are always more hinted at than seen. However, you can see the seeds of the show here and, with Perrotta as one of the main writers, you can feel how the ideas evolved. A great concept, and a clear example of where the show beats the original novel.

27. Purity - Jonathan Franzen. (Guardian) I really wanted to love this book. I thought The Corrections and Freedom were both funny and true, a world seen perhaps through the eyes of a privileged white guy but one with an ear for dialogue and a good grasp of family dynamics. Purity, unfortunately, never manages to reach that level. The characters each get a long section to themselves, but the cross-connections aren't strong enough to bring it together as a whole. They are all horrible, too, and the structure prevented me from being able to overcome this by enjoying their interactions. It felt like a slog, even with Franzen's smooth prose.

28. Leaving the Atocha Station - Ben Lerner. (Review)

29. Persuasion - Jane Austen. (Review)

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North30. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark - Anna North. (Amazon) I'm not sure how this book ended up on my shelf but I'm so glad it did. It tells the story of awkward but brilliant film director Sophie Stark through the eyes of the people who loved her the most. In some ways, it's painfully conventional, such as the connection built between creativity and mental health issues or the way all the characters can't help but fall in love with Sophie, despite her ways; however, each section has a strong voice and provides glimpses into the more human side of Sophie, giving the story a depth and honesty that it very much needs. I liked the way the meaning and value of her life are built up so that we see how the people she touched are grateful for her existence even if she could never feel that way. A sad story but one that shows how we can touch other people more than we know.

31. The Boy on the Bridge - MR Carey. (Review)

32. We Do Things Differently - Mark Stevenson. (Amazon) With so much bad news right now, and there really is SO MUCH of it, it can be nice to read about the people making a real effort to make things better. This book tells the stories of smart people from all across the world (and with wildly varied educational backgrounds) who have made a dent in both local and global issues, from tackling poverty to turning around failing schools. By thinking outside the box, they've found technologies and social theories that challenge our normal approaches for attacking these problems, perhaps showing us a way out of the holes we've dug for ourselves as a species. If you're finding your stock of optimism has gone down a lot recently, this book might be the perfect antidote.

33. The Naming of the Dead - Ian Rankin. (Amazon) I've enjoyed Rebus stories on TV but never written down before this. I've been missing out! Rankin's detective is a likeably cranky bastard and the story has plenty of twists and turns without losing its thread or resorting to deus ex machina for the solve. The evocation of the grimy side of Edinburgh is also great, as is the grounding of the novel within the true story of the G8 and London Bombings. It's a time I remember well, allowing me to be more fully immersed in the fiction. I can see this being a series I need to get into from the very start.

34. Medusa - Torkil Damhaug. (Amazon) This was a bit too hardboiled for my tastes. Monologues from the killer, extramarital sex, a predictable twist ending: meh. After being taken on a proper journey with Rebus, Medusa felt far more functional and bland. Not much more to say, sadly.

They Can't Kill Us All: The Story of Black Lives Matter by [Lowery, Wesley]35. They Can't Kill Us All - Wesley Lowery. (Amazon) A history of the #blacklivesmatter movement told by a reporter who himself was arrested during the Ferguson protests. Lowery brings his personal account into this but also does a good job of reconciling the different protests that have been lumped together as part of this larger movement. He gives strong snapshots of the people involved and chooses not to get involved in the "did they deserve it?" arguments (whilst recognising that these arguments detract from the matter at hand and fail to acknowledge the historical contexts involved). The book doesn't feel like it goes far enough, though - there are no solutions, no clear ideas about what should happen next - and it feels like a Trump-era sequel is already necessary, but this is a good primer for the roots of this movement and those involved in making it international news.

36. At the Existentialist Cafe - Sarah Bakewell. (Review)

37. Constance - Franny Moyle. (Amazon) A biography of the woman who married Oscar Wilde. Thankfully, there was much more to Constance than that. She was interested in dress reform, art, politics and much more, becoming famous in her own right as well as for her marriage. Obviously, there is not a happy ending to this story, but Moyle does a wonderful job of showing that the marriage was more than just a sham and that Constance wasn't just some patsy. Even at the end, the wife's sympathy and love for her errant husband comes through, regardless of how successfully Bosie had turned him against her. Beautifully written and hugely evocative of the era, this book resurrects a lost figure and gives her the memorial she deserves.

38. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution - Sara Marcus. (Amazon) Ongoing.

39. Mrs Oscar Wilde: A Woman of Some Importance - Anne Clark Amor. (Amazon) An earlier biography of Constance Wilde than Franny Moyle's but one that still (unsurprisingly) covers much of the same ground. It focuses closer on Oscar than it perhaps should, sometimes forgetting to pay attention to Constance's life or where she would have been during her husband's exploits. She also skips over some aspects of Constance's story, such as the gynaecological nature of her medical complaints, which seems to be an issue of delicacy but obviously leaves gaps in the narrative. Moyle might lean heavily on this book for her version, but she has pulled everything together far more comprehensively and satisfyingly than Clark Amor could manage.

My 2016 list is still available here.

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