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.
Ways 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.
On 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.
The 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.
Final 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.
A 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.
How 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.
Once 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.
The 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 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.
Looking 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!
Wild 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.