2019: books of the year

In 2019, I read 66 books, but a lot were poetry chapbooks or graphic novels. You can see most of the list on my GoodReads page if you want.

Heres some of my personal highlights:

Fiction

Probably because of everything in the world right now, I read a lot of books about escaping into strange dreamlike worlds. I sped through the Annihilation trilogy by Jeff Vandeermeer and Roadsise Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, both of which share a common DNA. They feel less like science fiction and more like moving into a weird world where the rules are never clear.

The book I’d most like to recommened is nominally science fiction but wears those elements lightly. Kindred by Octavia Butler is a furious novel about a modern black woman transported back to the south at the height of slavery. It should be essential reading for everyone as it highlights how injust and obscene slavery was in a visceral, emotional way.

Non Fiction

The main nonfiction book I loved was Maria Popova’s Figuring. Popova runs the enormously interesting blog Brain Pickings and this book feels like a digestion and development of that blog. Focusing on a few gifted scientists and artists, mostly queer, mostly women, it asks why they have been unfairly excluded from history. Through its beautiful, elegant prose it also shows the connections between these figures. We often view history a single story, so it was enlightening to see the connections between everyone. It was also fascinating to read about the people who were supremely gifted but we have forgotten about, because of prejudice. Its a long book, but it zips along and is really worth your time.

Poetry

Liz Berry’s Black Country was a highlight. With some poems written in black country dialect, it is unique in its use of language and imagery.

Ada Límon’s The Carrying is a book by a poet at the height of their powers. Dealing with climate change and having
children, it feels universal and specific in the best way.

To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus is incredible but you don’t need me to tell you that.

I also really enjoyed Ross McCleary’s Endorse Me, You Cowards! , which is both hillarious and then deeply troubling in the way nightmares are. He really nails an uneasiness about modern office work. He also helps run the podcast Lies, dreaming, and the episode on Hump Day was really… something else.

Also Stuart Buck’s Become Something Frail, which is full of incredible imagery. Stuart has a unique way with language and the whole collection shines.

So yeah, I got really into reading poetry last year.

Graphic Novels

I finally got all the way through Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, which is sadly getting more and more relevant each passing year. Only the idea of the media having strong power to fight injustice feels dated, but the politics and the characters are oddly prophetic considering it was written at the turn of the millenium.

On the other end of the spectrum, Joff Winterhart’s Driving Short Distances was perfectly observed. Nothing really happens but it feels so tragic. Its a book about masculinty and depression which is funny and heartbreaking without ever being didactic or preachy.

2020

Phew, that was more than I thought. Anyway, this year I want to read more widely, especially more books by women to expand my perspective. I might start doing little reviews on this blog as I go, I might not. We shall see.

Jerusalem, Ambition and the Power of Ideas

It’s taken me three and a half months, but I finally finished Alan Moore’s magnum opus Jerusalem.  Made of a number of interlinked short stories set in Northampton, it tells the history of the town as well as the nature of life, death and time itself. It is ridiculously broad in its scope while remaining funny and down to earth, with a serious message about the abuse of the working class. The entire second book occurs whilst a child is choking on a sweet. Each chapter, especially in the last book, uses its own style. There’s an epic poem, a play, a Joycean wordplay chapter. In short, it is a hugely ambitious work that in my opinion succeeds wholeheartedly.

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‘Hope in the Dark’ is more relevant than ever

If you are a woolly liberal like me, someone who believes in compassion for all and the importance of civil liberties, then these are dark times. The prevalent mood, both in the UK and the USA appears to be an inward turning nationalism, a conservative rhetoric that is looking backwards to some imagined age rather than forward to the future. There’s an emphasis on military spending and reducing the state. The hard-won luxuries we enjoy, such as the NHS, are continually being eroded, while at the same time the super rich refuse to pay any more tax. The gap between the rich and poor is growing. Trump is in the White House, whereas in the UK we have the authoritarian Theresa May hell bent on sending the country over a cliff. It’s easy to despair and hard to see any hope.

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George Saunders and Normalisation

In these days of increasing insanity in the world of politics, I find myself thinking more and more about the fiction of George Saunders. He understands that humans will adapt to any situation, however bizarre and will build their identities around it, even if that situation is horrifying. Many of his characters rebel against the situations, or come to the realisation that, like Brexit or Trump, this is not normal. Since I read Tenth of December last year, the beautifully crafted short stories have become more and more relevant to the modern age. We seem to be living the surreal sci-fi world that Saunders created.

Spoilers ahead
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Enduring art (Same as it ever was)

I was listening to the rather excellent Book Shambles podcast the other day. It is a rambling discussion about books and literature, usually with a guest to guide the discussion. One of the hosts, Robin Ince, mentioned The Great Gatsby, saying that every time he reads it he finds new insight in its pages. It’s my experience that despite being a relatively slim novella, the complex characters and removed perspective provides a wealth of wisdom and observations. It got me thinking about art that endures throughout your life, that helps to shape you at different moments. I think this is one of the qualities of the best art, that each time you go back to it it is richer and more in-depth than before. Re-readings and re-watchings allow for greater emotional impact, instead of diminishing returns. The art endures throughout your life.
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Best of 2016

2016 was a curious year. Politics ate itself and the internet took over all discourse. But personally, it was pretty good. I published two books, one a collection of short stories and one playscript. I wrote this blog every week, made a website and got in the habit of producing things regularly. I went to Skye for a long week and went to loads of gigs. It’s odd having this dichotomy between the terrible news of politics and the quite good personal life.

The year end is a natural time to reflect, so following the lead of everyone else with a blog, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on some of my personal cultural highlights.
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Optimism, empathy and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Science fiction is an escape from our mundane reality to another shinier, brighter alternate world. There’s a whole universe of unusual aliens to discover. It reflects the times it was written and what the hopes were, or extrapolates based on available data. As well as providing an escape, it can also show us a way forward at the moment.. We go halfway around the universe only to discover ourselves.
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Free speech, Twitter and ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

Free speech is hard, especially on the internet. You should have the ability to say almost anything without fear of legal repercussion. Other than words that actively harm people, like shouting fire in a crowded room, or death threats, you should be able to say any stupid stuff you like. The beauty of free speech is that if you say something objectionable or offensive, people can argue with you and say you were out of line.

Just to pick an example from the last few days, there was a controversy on twitter when a former MP called a man a ‘Scumbag’ and a ‘loathsome tit’ for having a different opinion to her. What makes it worse was he was waiting on an operation for his disabled son. Continue reading

Always more to learn: Thoughts on ‘Wonderbook’

I’ve finished reading Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. It’s a great read, full of useful information and exercises. Mostly, it is a nuts and bolts guide to stories and their various elements, characters, plotting, but the way it presented and the advice it gives about the imagination make it truly unique.

There’s a whole industry of books that tell you how to write. This one isn’t aimed at the absolute beginner, but at those who are already writing fiction. The best advice for a beginner is to write often and write lots, whereas this focuses more on the structure and building blocks of stories. Generally, I find this construction work to be more useful in the second or third draft, when you are polishing the writing. The book is filled with extensive ideas help optimise drafts, from varying character’s perspectives to the role of settings. These are really useful as references when you need to change a story that isn’t working. Although you can read the book straight through, I found these lists to be more useful as guides to refer to later. The wealth of resources in this guide is staggering. In addition, there are pieces from well established fantasy writers throughout that offer different perspectives, as well as a whole host of online articles.
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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I’ve been a fan of David Mitchell since reading Cloud Atlas in my early twenties. Since then, I have enjoyed almost everything he has written, so I was excited to finally get round to The Bone Clocks. I’ve somehow never tackled it, possibly because at 500 pages it’s quite a time investment.

One of the strengths of his fiction is the unexpected, which The Bone Clocks has in spades. It’s similar in structure to Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten, where every chapter has a new character and new perspective. What he does incredibly well within this framework is disrupt the standard narrative. The first chapter, dealing with Holly Sykes, has a sudden interruption from a strange character, from a different realm entirely. Suddenly the story is dangerous and we have lurched in a weird new place. The effect is one of disorientation as we think we know where the story is going, but then it is terrifyingly derailed. The character speaks in an information dump, which becomes overwhelming as there are too many unknown terms that we do not understand. Of course, everything is becomes clearer later, but the reader does not expect the interruption.

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The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan- Book Review

I picked this short novella up recently and devoured it in about a day. Having previously read some of Ian McEwan’s later novels such as Saturday & On Chesil Beach, I wasn’t expecting such a violent and horrible little story. It deals with four children left abandoned in their house when both their parents die, and the unpleasantness that follows their isolation.
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