A Reading Year: 2022

Another reading year draws to a close and looking back I’m amazed to see that I’ve read a few more books than I realised. Does that mean they’re mainly forgettable? Now that I come to list them and offer a little review – certainly not. There’s some good stuff in here, I’d simply lost count.

Fiction

9781938126352-Perfect.inddWays To Spend the Night by Pamela Painter (2016)

Here’s an interesting collection of short stories, very urban and yet very steady, somehow placid in delivery. The stories have a certain tension, but it feels like the same tension in each story. It’s a tension which rarely heightens, it’s a flatline tension, building to an ending which is in itself a small anticlimax. I was left with the feeling of the journey being more interesting than the arrival. Competently written, well described, interesting characters but, for me, no fizz at all.

OnGreenDolphinStreetOn Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks (2001)

Sebastian Faulks is the author of one of my favourite novels – Human Traces – and I started this with great anticipation. His writing certainly has the master’s touch – the quality is never in doubt. We are immediately interested in Mary and her marriage to Charlie. We think we know how it will all end up and in some respects we are right. But somewhere in the middle I began to lose interest and almost put it aside, then the story seemed to spark back into life and I hurried through to the not quite predictable ending. Certainly on the recommended list but not Mr Faulk’s very best.

TheHatboxLettersThe Hatbox Letters by Beth Powning (2005)

The premise is really appealing: Kate, a recent widow receives a box full of ephemera and letters from her grandparents’ old house. These are family treasures that can tell a family’s history and maybe reveal its secrets too. Beth Powning intertwines discovering the hatbox’s contents and Kate’s sad, wounded life. It works well enough and the story does reach an ending, but the journey is long. Apart from Kate and the hatbox there is a third main character: Kate’s garden. It’s important to Kate – and therefore should be to us – but it’s repetitive and never really mattered to me. Don’t take my word for this, many people will, and have, enjoyed this novel.

FinalSpinFinal Spin by Jocko Willink (2021)

Plenty to put me off in Final Spin: the typeface, the annoying layout, the author’s ‘self improvement’ background. But the story is better than all of that. It may not be original – man tries his best to make good and look after his loved ones but the system grinds him down. Oh, and he is very unlucky. Despite all that, and perhaps despite my prejudices, it’s curiously addictive. This gritty tale rattles along and takes the reader with it. This won’t be for everyone, but it’s worth giving it a try, if only to broaden your horizons.

ACertainJUsticeA Certain Justice by PD James (1997)

PD James will need no introduction, nor any plaudits from me, but it’s sometimes good to go back to old favourites and see how well they stand the test of time. This was a worthwhile journey, the story and the writing are all that I remember the author’s work to be. I vaguely recalled the final outcome but it spoiled nothing of the story. PD James wraps you in the world she creates (the Adam Dalgliesh world) and leads you by the nose down her clever dead ends before showing you the truth. Pick up anything she’s written and you’ll likely enjoy it. A Certain Justice is still a very good read.

HowToBuildAGirlHow To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran (2014)

This amazing novel is, apparently, partly autobiographical. The good thing is, as a casual reader you can’t really see the join between fact and fiction. This is another ‘right of passage’ novel, but not quite like anything I’ve read before. It absolutely groans with teenage angst (and groans with many other things too) and as an older white middle-class male I learnt many things about growing up as a 21st century girl on a council estate in the English Midlands. But don’t think it’s all about being ground down in poverty, it’s a great deal more than that. And it’s very funny, probably funnier than I fully appreciated (as that owm-cm). Seek it out and read it, just for the fun of it. You are bound to know more at the end than when you start.

OnceUponARiverOnce Upon A river by Diane Setterfield (2018)

This is a delightful story, regardless of it being set around the Upper Thames in a landscape which is very dear to me. That landscape is at once familiar and strange, being both real and historically imagined to suit the tale. And what a good tale it is! A girl risen from the dead, a girl lost and a girl found, a tale of tales and storytellers, a tale of loss and grief and a tale of joy and redemption. And above all, a tale of the Thames. No wonder it’s so enjoyable. Highly recommended. Find it, buy it, treat yourself to a great read.

Non-Fiction

true-secret-of-writing-9781451641257_lgThe True Secret Of Writing by Natalie Goldberg (2013)

The title alone is bound to attract the attention of a writer, even one too cynical to believe that there could be such a thing. However, this has not changed my writing life. It turns out that the true secret of writing is . . . to write. To write with discipline, to set the right context for writing, to prepare to write, to write when you apparently have nothing to write, to write regularly – but above all to write. There are whole workshops and retreats devoted to doing all these things, all heavily influenced by yoga, and this book is partly an account of such retreats. I did finish it, hoping against hope that among the repetition there would be at least one nugget. As I said to start with, maybe I’m too cynical.

because-internet-book-cover-full-sizeBecause Internet by Robert Macfarlane (2019)

I love language and I spent much of my working life programming computers, so this book was clearly written for me. But it’s more than that. If you have any interest in language you’ll like Because Internet. The speed at which language is evolving to occupy the technological spaces that modern communications provide is really quite astonishing. Language nuances and innovations get taken up, used and then dropped at an amazing rate. Understanding this language, the roots of its being, the direction of travel, is no mean feat. The author has provided an excellent and very readable handbook. Not everyone’s cup of tea but certainly mine.

ISBN9781909009363Looking For Tigers by Caroline Jaine (2022)

This is a wonderful collection of stories, personal memoirs from the author’s fascinating and varied life. Wherever Caroline travels, she is never simply the tourist, she is immersed in all the culture of every place she’s lived or visited. She, and therefore the reader too, is the richer for it. These tales are both thought provoking and immensely enjoyable. Looking For Tigers is highly recommended – and not just because I was privileged to help edit the book, nor because Caroline is my daughter. It’s just a damn good read!

WildWild by Cheryl Strayed (2013)

Another ‘right of passage’ story – which is all that can be said to link Wild to anything else I’ve read in recent times. This is an utterly revealing story of one woman’s journey from damaged childhood to adult wisdom, via promiscuity, drugs and wrenching bereavement. It is also the story of how that personal journey is reflected in physical form by hiking, ill-prepared in every sense, a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. The author pulls no punches. We see her  at her worst, mentally and physically. Nothing is hidden, she doesn’t spare herself or the reader. It must have taken some courage to relate her story. Oh, and it’s really well written. Excellent.

There were also other, less remarkable, books in my year. Best Maritime Short Stories (1988) promised much and delivered little but might appeal to some, while others were either not worth mentioning or too close to home to be included here.

Overall it was another good reading year – how could it not be with so much to choose from? My book of the year is a little harder to choose than usual, there were not the one or two absolutely outstanding contenders that I’ve enjoyed previously. Of course Looking For Tigers was certainly one of the best, but to avoid accusations of bias, Once Upon A River, Wild and How To Build A Girl are my shortlist of three. How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran just takes it by a nose because it is different, sparky and insightful and in ways that were new to me.

Already waiting for 2023 are other delights, including The Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene, River Thieves by Michael Crummey, and Island, Alistair MacLeod’s short story collection. There will be others, as yet unknown, as well as the usual smattering of duds no doubt. Either way there’s much to look forward to.

A Reading Year: 2021

The end of the year is almost upon us and looking back over 2021 I’m surprised to find I’ve read more books this year than for several years. Were they better books, faster reads? Surely not, more likely I was more motivated to read, and found – or made – better reading space in my life. Whatever the reason, I’ve been rewarded by rich and varied reading in the last 12 months, including more non-fiction than I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

Fiction

TheManNextDoorThe Man Next Door by Britt Holmström (1998)

I’m always in awe of an author who can write with such mastery in a language other than the one they were born into. As a first novel written in English, this is outstanding. But it is not only the accomplishment that makes it worth reading: it is a good story well told, full of that particularly dark Scandinavian foreboding. It’s also a study of mental instability, full of that awful tension that comes with watching someone teeter on the edge of the abyss. Find a copy and read it.

PontoonPontoon by Garrison Keillor (2007)

This was a return to the once-familiar. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon world has provided many happy hours of reading, now Pontoon joins that collection. Pontoon is a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town, always with a wry and acutely observed take on small-town America. If the series is new to you, don’t worry, you can pretty well dive in anywhere and lose nothing. Never laugh-out-loud for me, more a continuous smile, which is a very good recommendation. One day I’ll go back to Minnesota for more.

InTheShadowOfAgathaChristieIn The Shadow of Agatha Christie edited by Leslie S Klinger (2018)

This is a collection of crime/mystery short stories by female writers, who for the most part have disappeared from the history of the genre. The stories read today as curiosities, as momentary insights into what might have entertained Victorian readers. These tales have not aged well (as the likes of Sherlock Holmes have) and offer little to the modern reader beyond academic interest. Even without the incomparable Agatha Christie these authors and their work would likely have been long forgotten.

NikolskiNikolski by Nicolas Dickner (2005)

Did this lose something in translation? Is it a particularly French-Canadian take on life? Whatever the reason, this story spluttered like a misfiring engine, now running smoothly only to falter at critical moments, despite having an interesting premise (and so far as can be told, being well translated). Mine must be a minority view since it was well enough received to win a prestigious award. Which only goes to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. It’s tempting to say don’t take my word for it, try it and make up your own mind, it does, after all, come highly recommended.

WarlightWarlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018)

An outstanding story told by a master among writers. It resonates all the more since it describes some of the postwar landscapes of London that were still recognisable to me in my youth. The characters of Warlight are not immediately familiar, and yet in a short time they become so. The reader quickly understands Nathaniel and his family, even though they’re highly unusual, all shaped and disfigured by their experiences of war and each other. The reader suspects that even without the war this family would have had another, similar, fractured history to relate.

TheWildAsssSkinThe Wild Ass’s Skin by Honoré de Balzac

Picked up on a whim motivated by a moment of perceived self-improvement, this proved to be a difficult read, but ultimately worthwhile. It is surely a good thing to stretch your reading limits, and this certainly does. What does ‘well read’ really mean? Many would claim to be so, yet most of us have glaring gaps in our reading, particularly among the classics. This is a moral tale of excess in France of the 1830s, and full of melodrama. For today’s reader the form is too wordy, too laboured in making its points, yet it still manages to evoke sympathy for the main protagonist. Balzac was once ‘one of worlds’ greatest novelists’: of his time, perhaps.

TheBellJarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

An astonishing novel, even half a century after it was written. This is an intense, sometimes excruciatingly raw account of a young woman’s life of pressured excellence. She’s a top student, fêted and acclaimed, yet that very success and expectation constrains her and leads to mental instability. Her breakdowns surely reflect the author’s own struggles, sometimes in agonising detail. This was purchased in order to plug another perceived gap in my ‘well-read’ credentials. It turned out to be so much more.
Superb. Read it.

ThePianoTeacher2The Piano Teacher by Janice Y K Lee (2008)

Prior to reading The Piano Teacher I knew nothing of Hong Kong’s story in World War 2 or in the years immediately following. This may be fiction but it certainly has the cold ring of truth about it. Beautifully written and rich in fully rounded characters, this is a story of unexpected love, deep hate, of quiet heroes and barbaric cruelty. It is also a story of intense loyalties and the inevitable betrayals. Highly recommended.

Non-Fiction

SapiensSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (in English 2014)

‘A Brief History Of Humankind’ is a short description that covers a lot of ground. In fact, it covers everything we’ve done since the dawn of man, which is no mean feat. This is no ordinary history, this is perceptive, incisive and hugely readable. Anyone who takes the trouble to read Sapiens cannot fail to understand more about themselves and the society they live in. The writing is excellent, the teaching is never force-feeding. With history texts like this even I might have gained more from my education. It’s never too late, read Sapiens.

UnderlandUnderland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)

What an extraordinary and unexpected gem! This is the apparently unpromising exploration of the worlds beneath our feet, the hidden and often unknown underworlds of mines and caves, of potholes and nuclear storage, of secret rivers and ancient art. And it is marvelous from beginning to end. The author has such affection and understanding of landscape, both above and below ground, has such a way of writing – of teaching – without once lecturing, that the reader is delightfully transported to unimagined places. Thank you for taking me where I would never dare go.

TheCaseOfTheMurderousDrCreamThe Case Of The Murderous Dr Cream by Dean Jobb (2021)

There are many good things about Dean Jobb’s latest in-depth inquiry. Not least amongst them is the amount of research and investigation he’s clearly done: there can hardly be an aspect of Dr Cream’s life and crimes not covered. And it’s well written, giving the impression of witnessing events without straying into embellishment bordering on fiction. If there’s a criticism it concerns repetition. Too often events are retold as if new to the reader, too often you might wish for better editing. But it’s still a good read.

TheGreatHalifaxExplosion2The Great Halifax Explosion by John U Bacon (2017)

The Halifax explosion of 1917 has become a study on mine recently, partly for my own writing research, which explains the presence of two such titles in my year’s reading. It remains a fascinating subject. In modern times the details have become little known, even among Haligonians but it is an incredible story. Many books have been published on the catastrophe but the source material is finite, so there is little that is original in this, as with other works. But it’s none the worse for that, it’s a good read and far better than some that cover the same subject.

TheHalifaxExplosionThe Halifax Explosion by Ken Cuthbertson (2017)

Published on hundred years on from the disaster that befell Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, this is one of the best books on the subject. Not only does it include some unique source material, but it also adds a very human touch to the events and the main protagonists. It manages to retell the whole story from the most compelling point of view, that of the people directly involved. Here at last is an account which puts flesh on the bare bones of the catastrophe. Well researched, well written – if you read only one book on the subject make it this one.

There were also other, less remarkable, books in my year: One Good Turn, the slightly nerdy history of the screw; And Nothing Remains, a limp collection of short stories; The Art Flogger, a soulless tale of sex and violence.

But overall it was a year of excellent books, which makes choosing the book of my year all the more difficult. In fiction The Man Next Door and Warlight come immediately to mind, even though I read them early in the year. In non-fiction, Sapiens and Underland are both masterpieces, not only of writing, of research and knowledge, but of great readability. By the narrowest of margins the book of my year is Underland which took me to places I’ll never visit and never dreamed of, physically and figuratively.

Already waiting for 2022 are A Certain Justice by PD James, Final Spin by Jocko Willink and Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. There’ll be other delights, as yet unknown, as well a smattering of duds, either way there’s much to look forward to.