My 2016 in books so far…

Updated. I think that’s probably it for 2016 with the books I’ve just ordered or bought…

A sixth form student asked me which books I’d read so far this year and could I list them  for her – so here you go. Hope I’ve not forgotten anything. The list comprises fiction and non fiction I have read since new year and doesn’t include things that I have needed to read or re-read for English teaching, such as novels, poems, short stories, non-fiction texts, web texts, articles, essays and reviews – or blog posts, poems, magazines, journals and papers that I have read outside of this. And the list doesn’t include my own novel, published on 3rd March this year or the series of features I have written this year – or the poems or the bits of research I’ve been doing for the next book or the books I’ve read to or shared with the kids! Actually, all that adds up to a lot, now I think about it! But here’s the list you asked for, Sasha. And it’s fun to see what people read: you’ll see there are a couple of Horrible Histories in there. I love Horrible Histories. x

No reviews here: haven’t quite had time, what with writing the second book, the day job, the litter of boys, the MH stuff, the PTA…anyway, I think this is it, so far…

The Loney: Andrew Michael Hurley

Galaxy: Explore the Universe, Planets and Stars (Collins). I pinched this from one of the kids and plan to read a great deal more on the subject now that I’m clear what a neutron star is…

1.2 Billion: Mahesh Rao (short stories)

It’s All in Your Head: Suzanne O’ Sullivan.  I thought this was fascinating and compassionate and I also trawled through many reviews, which were fascinating in themselves: she has had many detractors for her observations on ME, in particular.

Reasons to Stay Alive: Matt Haig. It was nice to meet him at an event in Toppings Bookshop, too. I thought he spoke with humour and compassion; I was also aware that some members of his audience were acutely anxious about situations in their own lives or in those of their loved ones. Conversations were had; questions were asked. I have struggled with mental health problems since I was a child. I wondered if, in writing the book, he had subsequently felt burdened by others’ concerns and by their sadness.

The Seven Storey Mountain: Thomas Merton

The Death of the Heart: Elizabeth Bowen

Playthings: Alex Pheby

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing: Eimear McBride

Horrible HistoriesHenry VIII and his Wicked Wives and Cut-throat Celts

The Outsider: Colin Wilson

Orlando: Virginia Woolf

Duff: Suzy Norman

A Country Road. A Tree: Jo Barker

In Her Wake: Amanda Jennings

Armadillos: P.K. Lynch.

Local Girl Missing: Claire Douglas.

Middlemarch: George Eliot. (This was a re-read. I hadn’t looked at it  properly for years and, of course, I was glad I did.)

The Last Act of Love: Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cloud Nine: Alex Campbell

Depression: The Way Out Of Your Prison: Dorothy Rowe (read for the third time!)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: Karen Joy Fowler

Our Mutual Friend: Charles Dickens (second reading) and Great Expectations (a third)

The Story of Blanche and Marie: Per Olov Enquist

This Book is Gay and Mind Your Head: Juno Dawson. I do think these are excellent books on sexuality and identity and on mental health for young people. Juno is a YA novelist too and used to be a PSHE teacher.

The Bell Jar: Sylvia Plath (second reading)

Crap Towns. The 50 Worst Places to Live In The UK (ed. Sam Jordison and Dan Kieran).

The Beckoning Silence: Joe Simpson

Very British Problems. Rob Temple.

How Novels Work: John Mullan

Lost at Sea. The Jon Ronson Mysteries: Jon Ronson

Talking About It Only Makes It Worse: David Mitchell

The Buried Giant: Kazuo Ishiguro

Dear Stranger: Various (Penguin/Mind – and this was a re-read).

I tend to dip into recipes and food writing a lot and my two favourite cookbooks so far this year are Mamushka: Recipes From Ukraine and Beyond: Olia Hercules; My Kitchen Year: Ruth Reichl.

Sometimes a River Song: Avril Joy (read twice). This is a haunting book. It is quiet, but in capturing the voice – of the river; of the White River Arkansas  communities in the 1930s – Avril has done something ambitious.

Great Expectations (read multiple times before; it is still, probably, my favourite book).

Bleak House: Charles Dickens. This is my husband’s favourite Dickens and so it’s a sort of shared project, this.

More Dickens: I had never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood or Master Humphrey’s Clock. Have now. Genius.

Solar Bones: Mike McCormack. Boy does this deserve the plaudits it has been getting.

As I Lay Dying: William Faulkner. Again, a re-read. I love Faulkner and he is my husband’s favourite author. So, again, things to talk about here.

Feeding Time: Adam BilesNow, I am reading my way through the Galley Beggar catalogue, as I am for a number of smaller presses, and this was a signed copy sent to me as a friend of Galley Beggar

Also, because of this,  I have the proof of Paul Stanbridge: Forbidden Line. Yes, it is brilliant. Currently reading this.

Just pre-ordered Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land (which is out in February) and Kate Armstrong’s The Storyteller is at the ready. Because it was in The Guardian’s Book Club, I have just bought Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and also – I do love it when this happens – a student I am currently supporting told me it was one of his favourite films and so we agreed that we would both read it and compare notes. That’s a new buy, as is Jessie Greengrass’s  short story collection, An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It, which would get my prize for favourite title of the year and I do love a short story

I also…read through the draft of Patrician Press Anthology of Peacekeepers and Refugees (out January, 2017) and my poem ‘Emigre’ is in this; ditto The Emma Press Anthology of The Sea, where you would find my funny little poem, ‘Cast Out My Broken Comrades’ – set in Pembrokeshire and inspired partly by Homer’s Odyssey (from which its title comes). This is one beautiful anthology from an innovative and hard working press.

Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of A Lion for a book group.

And, ALWAYS, I am dipping into all my poetry books and short stories (John Donne and Isaac Azimov got a lot of time this year and I read a few of last year’s listed short stories in the Galley Beggar story competition). I spent an evening reading Donne’s Collected Sermons too, as one does.

And back to what I was saying about texts I haven’t included, now that would be a quick re-read of ‘An Inspector Calls’, ‘Macbeth’ – you know – GCSE texts, plus things for IGCSE, A level English Literature and the anthologies for A Level Language and Literature. And, for example, a romp through The Great Gatsby, in which I always find new things.


I have been learning Welsh (which feels right with my heritage) and beginning, in such faltering terms, to attempt poems in it. Thus I turned to Gwynn Williams’s Welsh Poems, which has long been on my shelf and  I have also been reading The Mabinogion.

Oh – and a side project: reading Thomas Wolfe at bedtime with my Georgia-born husband. We began with Look Homeward Angel – note the gorgeous paradox of this review on Goodreads – This book is a masterpiece that I wouldn’t recommended to my worst enemy. It is dense, repetitive, overly descriptive to the nth degree, filled with page after page of infuriating, hard-to-like characters, and more or less moves like molasses. It also is possibly the most beautifully written, poetic and longing book I’ve read. And I have been reading The Web and The Rock. Or rather he has been reading it to me. That’s how we met, you know. He asked me for directions, did Georgia Boy, on a street in Kolkata, then read to me in a hammock on a roof. He says he thinks my writing is like Faulkner or Wolfe, which probably means I should keep the day job. But oh.

A Life of Almost and Living with Ally

If you were to look at the  frontispiece to Killing Hapless Ally, you’d see the disclaimer: it’s a work of fiction; no-one real in it and so on. However, there is also a statement that the book is based on episodes in my own life. More is true than a reader might suppose, because you never can tell what occurs in the interior life of another person or within the hidden confines of home. The key thing, though, is that ‘Ally’, Alison, the protagonist’s alter ego, was pretty much real for me. I heard her as a voice, glimpsed her as a shade beside me, as part of myself; I watched myself become her in order to feel more accepted, and I saw her both as myself and as yet another person to hate and pour scorn. It was complicated, the notion of my allegory coming to life.

I have had people write to me and ask whether I thought I was schizophrenic or had a personality disorder and I suppose I can see why the question might be asked, but it was more that, for me, the person I tried to be didn’t work, because it wasn’t me. She was the voice in my head; alternative me. Lots of people weld on what they think is a socially acceptable self; perhaps I just did it in a more complex way – and of course, I also had a gallery of imaginative friends and of course I had a lot of mental health problems and extremely poor coping strategies in the face of stress. But I had The Books: their authors, stories and characters to help me build and re-build. I wasn’t alone.

So, Ally, or someone like her, had been living with me for over thirty years until….well, you’ll have to see what happens in the book! When I wrote it, I gave her a more detailed life and a more delineated character and so she got to hang around, larger than life, while I drafted and re-wrote and finished the book.

Oh – she and I had been together a long time. And I realised that this was why such a creature was a good subject for my book. I breathed life into her and wrote her more fully into being, didn’t I? I lived with her for the longest time. Now, I am doing it with someone else. He’s called ‘Almost’ and he is a lad from the sea and the estuary and the islands of Pembrokeshire. An ‘Almost, down there, kind of kid’. Except he’s not. If you have read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, you will have a little inkling of what my fluid, adventuring soul might get up to; he isn’t constrained by mind, or time, or identity or even gender; he goes to some extraordinary places and ends up, Forrest Gump-like, in fabulous and terrible and curious places. You don’t know about mermaids called Nerys and Dilys and Elleri? You will. I’d watch out, because these girls can get out of the sea and up the Cleddau estuary and wreak havoc and the truest of love and adventure. And they are hungry for sex and blood. I want to tell you who Muffled Mfanwy (of Killing Hapless Ally) was before she was constrained, by grief, never to speak again. To show you how ‘Almost’ ends up involved in the Melanesian Cargo Cults, where they revere Prince Philip (they do) and what on earth that has to do with Pembrokeshire (okay, I might have made that bit that up). It is certainly a strange story: I am not sure I would know how to write anything that wasn’t. And did I say the book’s biggest influence is Dickens’s Great Expectations, which is probably my favourite book?

So Almost is hanging out with me. Telling me how he got his name, what he planned to do with it, what he’s seen, what he’s missed and -oh!- how he’s loved. I want to ask him if he transcended his name; if he wanted time to stop. Who was the lady from Lawrenny Quay that he could never leave – and where, Almost, did the mermaids go, and why was the sea part of you, Almost, and why did you cross each one, but always come back to the night-world of the quay and the mud and the winking yachts and the lady in the stained raggedy dress who watched from the window of the big old house and she who you loved and loved best?

Almost reassures me that he will tell me all that, but only after I have made him a second breakfast because he’s famished after his global sojourns. And when I have done just that and he has begun to speak, I can start writing his story again.