Day #12323 – The Very Best Things I Read In 2017

In 2017, I read some fantastic books.  I tried to look for some similarities between them, to make this piece of writing flow more easily, and was mostly unsuccessful.  But I have grouped them a bit and this first group is all ‘novels where the nature of something keeps changing’.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne (2017) has a post-apocalypse physicality, an inventive weirdness and a lot of heart.  At its centre is the titular character, a being the nature of which is as elusive as the truth of the situation is unclear.  The landscape – and the narrative – is at the mercy of numerous overpowered entities wrestling for control, such that it feels like being picked up by a wave and tossed around.

On similar unstable foundations is Ursula K Le Guin’s Lathe Of Heaven (1971), a novel about a man who can change the world through his dreams.  What makes this such an unnerving and discombobulating read is the way his dreams shift not only reality but the way reality used to be, meaning nothing can be relied on for long.  The previous pages are being constantly rewritten as the reader presses further in to the redreamt future.

Here (2014), a graphic novel by Richard McGuire never fully explains itself.  Fragmented across time, each page is drawn from a static position, the corner of a living room.  We jump backwards in time to primordial swamps and forwards to utopian futures and sometimes several time periods are scattered across a single page.  It functions as a biography of a specific plot of land and forces the reader to think about everything that has happened in the space they currently occupy.

Then there was brevity.

An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter (2000) was just one of the works I read by the puckish and prolific Argentinian author Cesar Aira, but definitely the best.  Compact in its 100 pages, its scope is still vast, drinking in the wide open Pampas and filtering the landscape through the perspective of Johann Rugendas, a 19th Century German painter of whom this is a biography-but-not-really.  This is a short novel that never really gives the reader an idea of what to expect next and steals your breath as it completes its journey.

Comparatively long-winded at 150 pages, We Have Always Lived In The Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson was something I had been meaning to read for a while and once I did I wanted to make everyone else I know read it as well.  An unstoppable piece of American gothic, it is relentless in its energy and predictability.  Just as the passage of time goes unnoticed during a good film, you will get to page 150 without realising your progress.  There’s a film due next year apparently (wince).

In the world of short stories, I enjoyed collections by JG Ballard, Stephanie Vaughn, Stuart Evers and Mirja Unge, but there were two that really stood out.

Shortly before Denis Johnson passed away in May this year, I was recommended his collection Jesus’ Son (1992).  These are stories populated by characters on the edge, propelled by addled logic through desparate situations, yet lit up by moments of beauty and clarity.

Less freewheeling, more carefully curated was The Doll’s Alphabet (2017), the debut collection by Camilla Grudova, published this year by the fantastic Fitzcarraldo Editions.  This collection of inventive, atmospheric tales reminded me of Eraserhead – the same ubiquitous dissonance, the sense of characters trying to proceed in a world that is unpredictable and unexplainable.

And finally…

There was of course Reservoir 13 (2017), a new novel by Jon McGregor, his first since 2010.  This one follows the life of a village – its people, its wildlife, its landscapes – following the disappearance of a teenage girl.  Again McGregor delivered a piece of work which is beautiful and unique, written to a completely different beat.


Day #12039

May will see the next instalment of the Guernsey Literary Festival, with visits from everyone from Simon Singh to Jonathan Wilson to Clare Balding!  (Well, not everyone between each of those people, though maybe everyone between those people if they are all stood in one room sometime around the 11th-14th May, in Guernsey).  Anyway, a list of events can be found on the Litfest website.

I’ll be writing some pieces for the Litfest blog  and have already posted a review of Simon Singh’s ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem.’  There will surely be more writing about writing to be had, so keep your eyes peeled like potatoes.

Day #12038 – Goodreads Updates: Short Story Collections

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, FineFine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams

Shortly after I read this and recommended it to a writer friend, I wrote in an email:

“Some of Diane Williams’ sentences make my head spin – it’s like someone deconstructing their thoughts on to the page, I found I could feel my brain putting things back together.”

I probably can’t add anything more insightful now. Some of Williams’ thoughts and trains of thought are just weird and exhilirating. These are stories you have to commit too fully and enjoy.

It Was Just YesterdayIt Was Just Yesterday by Mirja Unge

This is a wonderful set of short stories which I raced through because I was enjoying them so much. The narrator of each could be the same character – they share a sense of wonder, maybe a little naivety, a raw morality. Unge presents us with a constant stream of reality, events are presented to us, simply described, one after another, as if we are not to judge but merely observe.

The Doll's AlphabetThe Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This is a wunderkammer that thrums with life – the kind of life that is a bit deathy. If it is reminiscent of anything it is of Eraserhead, the 1978 debut film from David Lynch – it’s there in the sense of displacement, sense of terror in everyday living. These are stories that somehow make a noise – the steady churn of a bleak dystopian industrial landscape – but which are illuminated with chimes of luminescent gothic ornamentation.

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Day #11983 – The Penguin Book Of The British Short Story, Volume 2 (Review, Part 1 of 2)

Last year I made a journey from around about nowish back to the 1920s, travelling through the medium of the short story (I also read Volume 2 of the Penguin Book Of The British Short Story, but this is surely a coincidence).

I’ve picked out four stories that really stuck with me and written a bit about them, the first two of which are below.

Please do note that to properly ‘discuss’ these, this might get a bit spoilerific (so SPOILER ALERT – though these stories have been in print for well over 50 years).

Roald Dahl, Someone Like You (1945)

I’m not a big fan of war stories, but this one is so simple and effective, it just punches you in the heart.

We open with two former fighter pilots meeting in a pub – they haven’t seen each other in years and conversation is slow, but as they start to drink the dialogue loosens.  We get less detail, less description and fewer long utterances as the story progresses – by the end, the whole thing is held together by short lines in which the two men seem to reveal their innermost thoughts.

The drink, delivered steadily throughout the piece, is key to the rhythm of the story and it becomes apparent that the setting is important too as they start to speculate on the fact that during the war they must have dropped bombs on places similar to the establishment they are drinking in… on people similar to those surrounding them.

He leaned back and waved his hand around the room.  “See all the people in this room?” he said.


“Wouldn’t there be a bloody row if they were all so suddenly dead, if they all suddenly fell off their chairs on to the floor dead?”

The skill in this story, I think, is in the way that Roald Dahl reveals the characters’ troubles – it is not new information to us that men involved in dropping bombs from planes during a war would feel guilty afterwards, but he finds a new way to present this reality to us.

Rhys Davies, A Human Condition (1949)

From the beginning of this brilliant short story, Rhys Davies skilfully dripfeeds us little bits of information without spelling out exactly the occasion and the problem in which the main character finds himself.  Here is the first paragraph:

Having done the errand at the Post Office, which he had timed with a beautiful precision that he imagined completely hoodwinked those left at home, Mr Arnold crossed the Market Square just as the doors of the Spreadeagle Inn were opened.

Over the next few pages we follow Mr Arnold in to various pubs, slowly learning that he must be back home by a certain time and that something is weighing heavy on him, “deep inside him was a curious dead sensation of which he was frightened.”  We are given insight in to his character as he is greeted at each pub – and yet somehow the bar staff at each establishment know that he must not be allowed more than one drink, not today.  On each occasion, they take pity on him and allow him a second, yet refuse a third.  It is only after he returns home that it is made fully clear that this is the day of his wife’s funeral.

We are offered, via their words and actions, a perspective from Mr Arnold’s family, for whom the embarrassment of his appearing drunk at his wife’s funeral takes precedence.  As such, there is an effective twist at the end of the tale when we are offered a third viewpoint – that of the nurses at the hospital who exclaim:

“He must have been a devoted husband to throw himself in to his wife’s grave like that!  I’ve never known a man grieve so much.”

Day# 11964 – Self Assessment (2016)

I had a lot of fun writing in 2016.  I completed six stories which I will try to find a home for elsewhere (once they are absolutely ready to go) but I also really enjoyed trying things out and putting one word after another.

Reviewing the work I posted to Digestive Press in the last twelve months, some themes crop up – absurd notions, simple ideas with anticlimactic endings, pieces in which I tried to use vagueness as a tool not an obstacle.  I have also been making a conscious effort to use simple language and as few words as possible.  These intentions are, I think, demonstrated in the pieces I have picked out below  – these are my favourite things I put up last year:

Firstly, this poem from January, in which I had some fun resenting having to get up in the mornings: Smash The Snooze Button

Then in April I wrote this piece on the same day I demolished the shed.  It was an attempt to write a conversation in which something fantastic could be happening, but isn’t: But Not Which One

A couple of pieces from June.  Firstly, this classroom drama:  Notes On The Texture Of

And then this poem, written in Summer but thinking of Winter: Enter Your Email For A Chance To Win

In July, when the football was on, I imagined a bizarre – yet plausible – scenario: Numerous Zeros

And this one from the same month – only 52 words, but I was pleased with the effect achieved: Seems

Finally, from September, a thing that I suppose is about exactly what it says in the title : How Badly I Wanted The Hat



Day #11944

As someone who writes pretty much in isolation, sometimes it feels like the me that writes stories is an alter ego of the day-to-day ‘real life’ me.  (Hi, if you’re reading – hope your day is going well.  Remember to get some milk while you’re out there please).


I felt this disconnection even more after disappearing from my normal life for a week in October to attend, for the first time, a week-long Arvon course.  The course was entitled Short Stories: Towards A Collection and involved me being one of sixteen students spending five days with two tutors – the writer Michele Roberts and Jim Hinks, an editor at Comma Press (who publish Adam Marek and Hasin Blasim and lots of other great stuff).  This all took place at The Hurst, a lovely old house in the Shropshire Hills which was previously owned by the playwright John Osborne.

Without rambling on too much about it, I can tell you that it was an excellent week spent with a group of lovely and talented people.

It is difficult to explain or describe being there because it was a bubble we inhabited for a short time, and a kind of infectious mania slowly took hold – which skews my memories of the week somewhat.  Parts of each day were spent writing in workshops, then there was time to write alone and some time spent reading work aloud.  There were a lot of conversations about writing and more specifically about writing short stories – conversations I don’t usually have.  Plus, the house had a fantastic kitchen and a fantastic library, both of which we were free to enjoy.


My instinct was, of course, to take some pictures of The Hurst before I left, but then I decided against it, to keep it just in my memory.  Hopefully I will have chance to return in the not too distant future.  I did take one picture however:

This strange ceramic bird stands in the entrance hall – a kind of totemic welcoming party.  I identified it as a cassowary, but have no idea if this is correct or not.  Nevertheless, one of my course-mates issued a challenge in response to my picture – a 500 word story about the cassowary.

Another of my course-mates, Valerie, responded with a beautifully realised little piece of work about John Osborne’s relationship with the cassowary.  Encouraged by other members of the group, she forwarded the piece to one of the coordinators of the centre.


In this blogpost, Natasha Carlish, who had welcomed us to The Hurst on the first day of our visit, published Valerie’s cassowary piece, and reflected on the challenges she had encountered in her first three years of working at Arvon.

What I liked about this blog post was Natasha’s reaction to Valerie’s sharing of her piece – it took me back to the final night of our time at the centre, in which each of us read some of our own work to the group.  There were – of course – some nerves, but slowly an event that had been approached with trepidation revealed itself to be a vital and victorious ending to our little week-old community.

In short, it reminded me about why we share stories – to try and make connections between our own separate realities.

Day #11929 – Goodreads Updates: Short Story Collections

PondPond by Claire-Louise Bennett

Are these short stories or a novel? Nobody seems quite sure what it is, so I think it would be best to just categorise under bloody good writing. Reflecting the rhythm of idle thoughts, these tales – or tale – of a young woman living alone in a house in Ireland is a peaceful read, not a difficult read, but all the more thought-provoking for it. Strange, new, beautiful.

My DocumentsMy Documents by Alejandro Zambra

The title of this collection refers, of course, to the name of the file on a personal computer and, fittingly, this is a selection of what feel like quite autobiographical stories. Computers play a part in a number of these stories too – for example one tells the story of the human protagonist but only over the lifespan of a certain computer he owned. Zambra writes with a confident, unshowy style which leaves you wondering quite why you are enjoying reading him, though it is clear you are enjoying reading him – maybe because of his honesty and his insight, little poetic touches.

For Esme—With Love and Squalor, and Other StoriesFor Esme—With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories by J.D. Salinger

I read a lot of Salinger this summer – pretty much everything that isn’t ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ – and found that pretty much all of it is pretty great. My favourite of his short novels about the fictional Glass family was ‘Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters’, in which Buddy Glass finds himself in an awkward situation at a wedding gone wrong.

The first story in this collection is ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’, which features Seymour Glass – subject of much hero worship in the other Glass stories. This seems to be Salinger’s most famous short piece, but the two I want to concentrate on are the titular piece and one called ‘Just Before The War With The Eskimos.’

The appeal of that second story is difficult to explain – it revolves around some chance encounters which Salinger shows us, and whilst not a lot happens, so much is hinted at. It feels like we are seeing just a small portion of these characters’ lives and that the references they make and the things that seem important to them are intriguing.

The story ‘For Esme – With Love And Squalor’ is a miniature masterpiece in two parts. In the first, an American soldier stationed in England during the war is engaged in conversation by a teenage girl, for whom he promises to write a story. As they part, she tells him: “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”

Inevitably, when we catch up with the narrator again, the war is over but his faculties are not intact. This, he explains, is the squalid part of the story. Between the two halves, it encapsulates so much of Salingers work – gentle encounters, with a sense that crisis always awaits around the corner.

The Not-Dead and The Saved and Other StoriesThe Not-Dead and The Saved and Other Stories by Kate Clanchy

For reasons that must only be commercial, novels are expected to last around 250-300 pages and so short story collections seem to have to be about the same size, which is ridiculous and a shame because they should just be as long as they need to be. And if this had been about 150 pages long it would have been perfect because there are that many fantastic pieces of writing here, but then there’s some that just aren’t as good and it distracts from the great stuff. The titular piece, which won the BBC National Short Story Award, is a poetic, intense, funny tale of life, illness and death, and stands out as a highlight.

What We Talk About When We Talk About LoveWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

I kept getting told to read Carver and eventually I gave in and got a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This is a set of spare, terse little encounters which nevertheless do not have the air of careful cultivation you might expect from something so minimal. These moments feel very real – none of the characters are happy, quite, they are just trying to get by, none of the endings are happy either, but then they don’t feel like endings. Clearly life will continue once the story ends.

No One Belongs Here More Than YouNo One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

These stories are bright, funny, weird – like tales told by a high school friend when you catch up with her years later and she is just as odd as she ever was. E.g. ‘Majesty’, in which the protagonist’s dream of an encounter with Prince William has a profound effect on her. She describes, “that day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it.” She imagines that the best way to meet him would be through her role as an earthquake safety expert. “Last year a little boy asked me what made me the expert, and I was honest with him. I told him I was more afraid of earthquakes than any person I know.”

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Day #11888 – Music To Write Along to

There are only certain types of music I can listen to whilst I work.  Nothing too intrusive – i.e. nothing energetic or with distracting words.  Preferably something creative that acts as a constant reminder that the world is an interesting place.  Here are some words about five favourites…

Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack to the 1990 television show Twin Peaks unfolds slowly and is rich in mystery – though, as with its parent television program – it does not offer up these mysteries easily.  It never gives you a straightforward answer – moments of peace are haunted by a spooky unease, fear-drenched sequences break down in to moments of beauty.

Consisting of three pieces of music based on the latter part of David Bowie’s Low album, Philip GlassThe Low Symphony  is just a very beautiful and calming piece of work – it somehow manages the trick of being simultaneously enjoyable to concentrate on listening to, yet also something that it is possible to let fade in to the background.

Moving to something more recent… Haiku Salut’s first two albums, Tricolore and Etch And Etch Deep are two of my favourite records released in the last few years.  All of their music is instrumental and inventive, everything feels handcrafted.  They are the kind of band whose track titles – e.g. Sounds Like There’s A Pacman Crunching Away At Your Heart or Things Were Happening And They Were Strange – say a lot about them, and even sound a bit like the titles of interesting short stories.

I came across Leave Now For Adventure by Feedle in about 2007 and I don’t remember how or why.  It has a great title, a kind of faux-naïve picture of a train on the cover, and an odd little piece of writing in the inside cover that ends:

when you close the front door behind you on a weekend morning the garden is only the beginning, the shops beyond, the town further still, the city and then the ocean.  if you leave now, you’ve got all weekend, if you call in sick, you’ve got all week, if you don’t call at all, you don’t ever have to go back

Beyond that, the music itself is something I just don’t understand.  It is electronic and a lot of it has the rhythm of a train, but I have no ability to describe music, so it is not possible to give you more detail.

Finally, on the slower, lower, more spacious end of the scale is The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull on which Earth manage to make every moment sound momentous, portentous.  Its best track, Hung From The Moon, ambles along for minutes before beautiful shafts of light break through.

Day #11793 – Goodreads Updates, Fiction Update

PatiencePatience by Daniel Clowes

On the back cover, Patience is given the subtitle, “a cosmic timewarp deahttop to the primordial of infinite love”.

To which, I might expand: an anxious, obsessive suicide mission splattered across time, vivid with elemental injustice, powered by gloriously unexplainable impossible-improbable technology and revenge, populated by fatally-flawed heroes, illustrated with raw conviction, oddly unputdownable trip towards a Hollywood happy ending that remains characteristically unsettling.

Mort (Discworld, #4; Death, #1)Mort by Terry Pratchett

Revisiting books you read as a child / teenager is always strange. Mort is the fourth book in the Discworld series and I was probably about twelve when I read this for the first time. The idea of Death looking to employ an apprentice is a trademark Pratchett conceit and he sets it up and then sets off on an adventure. The ensuing story is not as rich as later Discworld novels – Pratchett definitely became a more ambitious and complex storyteller as time went on. But the playful tone, the patter of dialogue, the jokes and wry observations are all as artfully realised as ever, and throughout this surprisingly short book (surely it’s lost a hundred pages in the last 20 years – I remember it being longer) it is clear that the author is enjoying writing.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other DogsBret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Lina Wolff

At times, I wasn’t sure whether this book was supposed to be a novel or a collection of short stories strung together by an ongoing narrative. But I think part of the point of it is that it doesn’t have to decide one way or the other.

The late-teen narrator Araceli and her neighbour, a writer named Alba Cambo, are the twin drivers of the narrative and perhaps the books flighty nature can be ascribed to the teenage protaganist. We hear stories told by various characters connected to these two, stories that would seem to function as standalone pieces. There is also a short story by Alba Cambo, and some tales from Araceli’s time attending a college for translators. These various stories are interconnected, but they certainly do not come together towards a cohesive ending. They also all share a sense of unease, a smidgen of macabre and comic despair.

Wolff delivers all this with enough charm and wit to carry it off, and it ends up being a great advert for work not being mangled in to a more acceptable shape, and just being allowed to be what it is supposed to be.

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Day #11775 – Goodreads Updates, Non-Fiction Round Up

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine

I came to this book not because I was a particularly huge fan of Viv Albertine’s band The Slits (though I do like their album Cut) but because I had read some glowing reviews for this autobiography. It covers the guitarist’s childhood, time in and around the punk scene, motherhood, and is written with candour and energy.

For me, the most interesting part was following the disbanding of The Slits, i.e. the end of everything Viv had worked towards and dreamt of for a number of years. As a reader you suddenly realise that the main thing for which the autobiographer is known is over, and yet we are only halfway through the autobiography. Even just reading about it, there is a profound sense of emptiness, a worry that there is nothing that can happen next.

In the All-Night Café: A Memoir of Belle and Sebastian's Formative YearIn the All-Night Café: A Memoir of Belle and Sebastian’s Formative Year by Stuart David

As a novelist and founding member of Belle & Sebastian, Stuart David is well placed to write the story of the band’s formation. It should be noted that this book only covers the very early years of the band – if you are looking for an account of their progression towards being the band they are now, try Paul Whitelaw’s Just A Modern Rock Story, though I found this to be far less personable, fun and evocative than In The All Night Café.

The basic plot is as follows: Stuart D moves to Glasgow to try and start a band, where he meets Stuart Murdoch (who you might recognise as the de-facto leader of B&S) who is also trying to start a band. Stuart D moves in to a shared flat and meets various characters, and they both enroll on a ramshackle government-sponsored course in music and nervously frequent open mic nights.

The only other book I have read by Stuart David is the fantastically sweary The Peacock Manifesto, and in comparison this has such a relaxed, easy reading tone.

Of course, the book ends with a triumphant B&S, Stuart M’s band, well on the road to international success times. As such, this is a memoir written by a man who did not get his band up and running, but did help another man get his band going. The victory is bittersweet, but Stuart D takes it all in his stride – he’s along for the adventure. He comes across as a man resolutely not cut out for fame, and partially explains why he left the band after their fourth album.

(I also commend it for it’s cheeky title, though I won’t give anything away about that).

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious CharacterSurely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman

I don’t know if there is a patron saint of curiosity (or possibly, for the curious?) but if there isn’t, Richard Feynman would make a good one. This book of anecdotes by the renowned Noble prize-winning physicist does feature some physics, but mainly it just features Feynman being curious about things and then finding ways to find things out about them. He is intelligent, mischevious, frequently funny. If Richard Feynman were writing this review he would probably have to go and find out more about patron saints, just to make sure that first line is correct. His approach is pretty inspirational, and I did try to find out if there was one, but I couldn’t find any relevant information, so maybe there isn’t one.

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital UnderworldThe Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett

This is a decent introduction to various corners of the internet which are either completely hidden or ensconced in communities. I say ‘decent introduction’ because Bartlett does not offer in-depth technical explanations of things like TOR and Bitcoin, though he does do a good job of giving the reader sufficient information to be able to understand the difference they make to the world.

His real strength is in exploring the human stories behind the various online personas he encounters – trolls, camgirls, libertarians. He is an entertaining and personable writer capable of both getting his interviewees to open up, and then giving fair assessment and by the end of this book I felt I had slightly increased my understanding of why people do the things they do online.

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