The Writing Comeback (Week III)

It’s Not All About The Numbers

Ahh, the blog post you’ve all been waiting for.

Here goes – week three of my writing comeback. Not everything can be measured in numbers.

Not for me anyway. Pleasure should not be quantified, happiness isn’t counted. Not in our house.

There’s a great interview with Zac Smith on this week’s Other PPL Podcast where Zac and host Brad Listi talk about how the pleasure of writing comes in the writing! It sounds obvious but, again forgive my analogy, it is just like running – one step at a time, one word at a time – it clears my mind.

Thinking very much counts as writing

What about progress? Surely I’ve always measured my running – longest distances, fastest times, PBs – and I’m guilty as charges I’m afraid. But it is till mainly about the feeling.

This reboot of mine (read this if you fancy) is all about BEING a writer and just as soon as my foot is healed, it will be about BEING a runner too

Of course I’ll be using numbers to measure my progress! Hopefully writing my estimated 90,000 words of the first draft of the novel, tentatively titled Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners (DTDLLTO) by the end of the year. But a good stint of writing will still be successful, if it FEELS successful, regardless of how many words I get down on the page.

SO, for your (and my) pleasure, here’s week three’s progress (and yes there are some numbers!)

Monday: I finalised and posted two, count ’em, TWO blog posts – Click here to read all about the two months since Nicky and myself became vegans or here to catch up with last week’s writing update.

Making people on paper, much like making them in your uterus, takes a long time, is physically and mentally exhausting, and makes you wee a lot. So brace yourself, we’re going in.

Writers HQ offering a reality check for the writer!

Tuesday: Busy McBusyface didn’t get chance to add words today.

Wednesday: On the timer, I managed 1100 words of the first draft of DTDLLTO. I also pre-ordered David Keenan’s latest offering today. It is a prequel to the extraordinary This Is Memorial Device (which I reviewed here).

Thursday: Busy trying to keep fit and then grandadding, so little time for words. The wonderful non-fiction journal, Hinterland dropped through the letter box today – I managed to read some of the excellent articles in there while little Charlie (the grandson, not the dog – I know it does make for some confusion having a pet and a 10 month old sharing a name) had a sleep.

Friday: Not feeling great. Ran out of time. Bit of noodling with Writers HQ working out how to join the virtual writers’ retreat.

Saturday: We had a bloomin lovely day out I’ll have you know. You can read about it just as soon as I’ve written the next blog post!

Sunday: Writers HQ Online Retreat. If you’re fancying doing a bit of writing and find yourself struggling for time (& money) have a rummage around their website. This was the first time I’ve done one of their writing retreats – which became online when that there pandemic arrived – and what a marvellous success it has been.

It just shows that prioritising writing, sitting at a desk which faces the wall, rather than having the laptop on my actual lap and sitting downstairs by a window, works a treat. For me, writing in chunks of time works so well. I did 5 sets of 30 mins of my novel today and wrote 2990 words of this first drafting. I’m just getting the story out and trying not to edit as I go!

Using my desk to lean on, you’ll be shocked to learn, is more productive than my lap!

A big chunk of wordsmithery time today paid dividends in more ways the number of words. I also started to get a richer understanding of the relationship between my two main characters, I found I could tap into a wider range of emotions, hopefully gradually changing between scenes. When I write in very small time windows, I find I force a feeling into a scene without the context of the scenes either side of it.

As the wonderful AL Kennedy says, once characters start developing through the act writing their lives, they will start to live in the writer’s head more. Thus revealing themselves in greater detail. I’m just letting these two show themselves to me as I go. They haven’t been created from nothing, in many ways they’ve been created from everything. And what a privilege it is to be their narrator.

A Certain Thought To Finish

Now here’s thing. A proper thing.

There’s a certain something about a certain writer. Or a certain podcaster. A certain friend, a certain relative or even a certain random character on Twitter. There is a certain something about these certain people which instantly inspires me to write. There certainly is.

You people know who you are 🙏

THE WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION

My beautiful wife Nicky is always surprising me with new challenges. Let’s learn to swim – and then tackle a 2.5 challenge across Weymouth Bay. We run marathons – let’s try and run 100. Let’s cycle the length of France (she’s already a Lands End to John O’Groats veteran) So it’s hardly surprising that these challenges have now extended to books!

Let’s read the shortlist for the Women’s Prize and pick our own winners.

And so a cardboard box duly arrived and we treasured that ‘new books’ aroma as we teased this gorgeous collection out into the light.

The Women’s Prize originated as The Orange Prize, after the male dominance of book awards reached the ridiculous stage of there being no women on The Booker Prize shortlist in 1991. Please check out the story of the Women’s Prize and the great work they do year round beyond the headline prize.

This year’s judges include Bernadine Evaristo and Elizabeth Day, have a listen to what they are looking for in a winning novel.

Here’s the thing, I briefly started reviewing books I’d been given – kindly passed to me by authors or publicists. I find that so, so hard; so I have stopped signing up for ‘free’ books. I couldn’t stand the guilt or the pressure to ‘enjoy’ a book before I wrote about it. With the Women’s Prize challenge that Nicky and I have taken on, we have ordered and paid for the books which feels much more comfortable when it comes to appraising them. Which is handy, because I sadly haven’t loved all six of these.

I created a score card for the books – marking them out of ten for things like originality, emotional impact and whether I would hunt out other work by that author.

So. In reverse order……

NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS by Patricia Lockwood. (DNF!) If I don’t enjoy a book, or worse, I abandon reading it, I am in no doubt that says as much about me as it does the book. I suppose I still see reading as an escape from the random scroll of doom of social media. This book is told via a social media ‘timeline’. The random nature of the posts show a narrative unfolding amongst the chaos. I’m afraid I read the first 20 or so pages a couple of times and then had a nosey at the prize’s reading guide. By this point I was confused and frustrated and moved on. I know I should embrace challenging themes and forms, but I really was struggling!

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyashi. (42/90) A poignant and dark study of immigrant reality in America. A very sad story in many ways – a tale of family and loyalty as well as addiction and the frailty of friendships. I found it a restless read as I squirmed at the exposure of an addicts deterioration and the depression of our protagonist’s mother. Gifty, the story’s main character is obsessively working on mice in her laboratory, hoping to explain the brain process of her own brother’s addiction. All the time her mother is cocooned at home sinking deeper into her gloom. The book tackles many issues, including the racism and rejection of ‘other’ in small American communities, and I can see how it has found it’s place amongst the potential winners of this fine literary prize.

HOW THE ONE ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE by Cherie Jones. (54/90) It never ceases to amaze me when I look up an author after reading their book and see the words ‘debut novel’. This is a powerhouse of a book – far beyond ordinary achievements of the average debutant. The main character, Lala, is trapped in a violent and controlling marriage and the book doesn’t flinch from the painful reality of such a life. Set in the ironically titled Paradise on the Caribbean island, Barbados, we get a full exposure of life below the glossy images in the holiday brochures. The book starts with a horrific murder and carries on from there. Cherie Jones holds the reader just out of reach and I couldn’t help but turn the pages despite slightly dreading what might come next. There’s no doubt the author is an extraordinary talent; the book may not have quite impressed me the way the following three have, but it is a masterclass in characterisation and controlling a wild narrative.

PIRENESI by Susanna Clarke. (59/90) Here we go. A fantasy novel. A flippin’ fantasy novel. Obviously I would just skim read this and cast it aside as slightly bonkers. Except I absolutely loved it. Sure the setting takes some getting used to for those who like their novels set on the streets of Sheffield or in the grimy apartments of hidden New York. Once I got my head around the endless halls and gothic statues which dominate the story. The main character, known as Piranesi after being given the name by the ‘Other’, methodically maps the statues and the waters which ebb and flo around them. These, at least to start with, are the only characters. They meet weekly and quite early on I found myself suspicious of the ‘other’ and willing Piranesi to be less trusting and more questioning. The writing is exquisite and I couldn’t help but feel myself entering this strange world of legend, an underground complex with its tidal flooding and bones of previous lives. I can’t say too much, the whole book is a slow reveal. The main character is a fabulous study of an innocent mind living in isolation followed by a slow drip of realisation as the truth of his surroundings become apparent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this won.

UNSETTLED GROUND by Claire Fuller. (72/90) What a beautiful book this is. The cover is simply gorgeous. I nervously turned to page one hoping not to find the contents an anti climax. Far from it, this is a belting story. So many of the characters in all of this short list are living tough and almost unthinkable lives. Here, middle aged twins, brother and sister, suddenly find themselves marooned in a life they barely understand. They had lived with their mother until she passed away at home (an episode not without its dark humour in the telling) and left them ill equipped to sustain their existence. A whole barrage of history related to the land on which their cottage sits and the land owner himself reveals itself as the twins’ world starts to implode. Julius, who is more wild and adventurous and his twin sister, Jeanie, are as frustrating as they are endearing to watch. Their inability, or in some cases, refusal, to accept or engage with the help that is available had been pleading with them! Claire Fuller writes this so elegantly and her portrayal of the existential crisis endured in the twins’ simple country life is mesmerising. There’s a cracking, slowly revealed story here, don’t think for one minute it is all contemplative puddle gazing. An impressive tale of country life, family and the secrets they hold. Should it win? Well, for me it is this or:

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennet. (75/90) Using my highly scientific scoring method, Brit Bennet just pips Claire Fuller to be my pick for the Women’s Prize. This book too features twins and they are also from a strange and remote town. There the similarity ends. The twins in Bennet’s epic novel are from the (fictitious) town of Mallard in Louisiana. Mallard is populated by ‘light’ but black folk. The town’s population would “never be white” but are also determined “to never be treated like Negroes”. Two teenage twins, girls, Desiree and Stella, find themselves hemmed in by the oppressive way of living in the town and run away to find a new life. The are quite different in their outlook and they find themselves forging different paths. Stella almost accidently discovers that she can pass as ‘white’ and is soon pushing this lie to forge a new identity and existence. It covers intense friendships, appalling relationships, loss, the deep history of racism and the pull and push of racism. The supporting cast are a colourful bunch and they each had me along for the ride; performing queens, a bounty hunter, a spoiled teenager rebelling against her privilege as well as the ever present townsfolk back in Mallard. The writing is pitch perfect, the ambitious writer in me was drooling over relentlessly beautiful sentences. Should it win? Yup (although my heart can’t let go of Unsettled Ground!)

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

The last book review I posted was of Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, a densely plotted, artfully crafted and challengingly narrated tome. After such a hefty read, Coetzee’s 1999 Man Booker Prize winning Disgrace was a much more straight forward tale in comparison. Not in any sort of simplistic way, far from it, but J.M. Coetzee delivers his depth in a more naturally chronological order. As I keep saying, as a writer myself I enjoy reading far and wide to try and absorb some of the language and style used by these extraordinary authors.

Skim reading Disgrace would do this gorgeous book a disservice. Peel off the top layer and you’ll find subtle explorations of contrasting themes running through the story.

David Lurie, a twice divorced teacher at the Technical University of Cape Town has a compulsive affair with a student. The affair itself is awkward and clumsy. Coetzee’s direct and pointed narrative exposes the main character’s weaknesses and his traits as the whole episode unravels. From a position of respect and comfort, Lurie’s life is dismantled and he finds himself seeking refuge with his daughter, Lucy. Lucy lives on a countryside smallholding and her lifestyle, as well as the company she keeps, is a startling departure for David.

What Coetzee does so well with this book is blend the personal, intricate details of lives being lived with the deeper issues of class, race and gender as South Africa attempted to prepare for the 21st century. I found myself opening up to the realisation that so much in life is just accepted. The casual disregard for women, which feels almost institutional in the early stages of the novel, for example. Also the assumptions of how the colour of skin determines our status. Not only that, the horrific crime which occurs at Lucy’s farm (as well as the later crime David suffers) is almost expected. David struggles to understand Lucy’s acceptance of what happens (without giving anything away) and he has an undercurrent of shame which just adds to the disgrace of the book’s title.

There is a brutal honesty about a middle aged white man believing that he “…has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” He hasn’t of course, as becomes apparent early on. He believes that it is alright to have women slot into his life, purely to fulfil his desires. As I have said, this is both awkward and shameful in its telling. Coetzee, as I’m sure a more scholarly reviewer would better explain, seems to parallel South Africa’s attempts at truth and reconciliation with David’s lived experience. I find myself humbled by writing as eloquent as this. The narration prods and embarrasses the reader into glancing at the mirror to check for signs of the flaws being portrayed.

I don’t think I’m going overboard when I describe this as a ‘masterpiece’. I’d previously read just one of Coetzee’s works, his thinly disguised memoir of adolescence, Boyhood, and in some ways the themes there are taken into later adulthood with Disgrace. I have no doubt there are autobiographical elements to Disgrace too, and I know he speaks directly to those of us similarly aged and privileged as David appears to be in the book.

I wonder how women readers feel about David? I found him frustrating and at times downright offensive. And yet, somehow, I was still rooting for him as the book drew to a close. Lurking behind the decisions made (often as a result of nothing more than his sex drive), there is a man who cares deeply about his daughter, one of his ex wives and the other women he encounters in the book. He also develops as a man (in my opinion) as his empathy for the dogs, which feature prominently, grows. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he still felt that women should accept their standing and make life choices accordingly.

In a relatively small number of pages, Coetzee has managed to have me nodding in agreement, lowering the book from my face in embarrassment and pausing to imagine myself in David’s situation. Oh, and he also had me walking around the house with the book in my hands as I simply couldn’t put it down.

I heartily recommend.

RECORD PLAY PAUSE by Stephen Morris

Stephen Morris never really got on with formal education. You’ll discover the extend of his aversion to the classroom through the early part of this excellent memoir. That he writes with a wit, with a passion and with aplomb is down to his passion for reading I reckon. He spent many an hour in his youth in libraries, book shops and, of course, record stores. But not so much in school! His love of music is maybe predictable but the extent of his passion for literature came as a pleasant surprise.

I ordered Record Play Pause after hearing Morris on Radio 4’s A Good Read. He impressed me with his enthusiasm and critical commentary on the books being discussed. Through this BBC podcast, he introduced me to the (very) leftfield world of author David Keenan (read my review of Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device here).

All of which meant I was very much looking forward to creasing the spine of Record Play Pause.

Well, what a joy this book is. There is always a level of trepidation when turning the first page of a memoir (or autobiography). How many are launched in hardback and given as Christmas presents – selling in large numbers simply because of the name on the front? Too many I reckon, and a large proportion will be dry, bland, descriptive affairs destined to gather dust and never be read.

I needn’t have worried. The attention to detail which we all enjoy so much in his musicianship is on display here in his words too.

There is a humble self awareness about Stephen Morris, which is comes through wonderfully on the page. Here we follow his childhood, teenage years and the all too short career of Joy Division (Morris is promising a Part II which will take in the New Order era), the book combines his determination to follow his dreams with a darkly humorous catalogue of mistakes and mishaps.

It would have been easy (and lazy) for him to let the narrative follow the life of Joy Division’s lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, leaving Morris playing a secondary role – the mass media only ever mention Curtis and one particular Joy Division song (Love Will Tear Us Apart) – so he could have ‘cashed in’ on that angle of the story. Not a bit of it, this is the world of Stephen Morris through the words of Stephen Morris. Given the beautiful way with language the man has, my library of musical memoirs is so much richer because of this book.

The sad suicide of Ian Curtis is dealt with tenderly but without gushing romance. Morris’ fondness of his friend and bandmate comes through in the passages around the time of Curtis’ death. It is dramatic and a turning point in all the band member’s lives, but I like the way the author shows us that moment in time without melodrama nor voyeurism. He pulls no punches but also doesn’t add any unnecessary band-standing to the story.

I could claim that the book will appeal to everyone, whatever your musical tastes, age, or your record buying history, but that may not be completely true. It would more than stand up alongside any other autobiography of a musician trying to find his way in the world, but I found myself nodding along as Morris reminded me of bands and venues as well as music press and radio which have also featured in my life when I was a young man. Without these reference points, the reader might possibly become lost in the chronology. That said, because of the popularity of New Order, and the legendary status of Joy Division, I’m sure nearly everyone will enjoy the story.

Anyone with even a passing interest in music (and a love of the written word) will finish this book enriched. The very northern, very ‘real’ nature of Joy Division and their association with the emerging Factory Records and the legendary Hacienda night club is told in eloquent and honest detail.

Stephen Morris writes in a coy, subtly humorous and thoughtful voice which is a delight to read.

I heartily recommend this book and eagerly await Part II!

FRANCIS PLUG: HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR by Paul Ewan

Regular readers (for there are a few!) might remember that I made a few pledges in my manifesto for 2021. One of those pledges was to keep buying books from independent publishers. I chose this beauty from Gallery Beggar in January. Like a full roast dinner I wasn’t put off by it’s size and woofed down all 300 pages in a couple of days.

Paul Ewan has created the fictitious Francis Plug and tells the tale of learning about how authors behave in public through Plug’s eyes. On the front cover The New Statesman declare it “a comic masterpiece”, and I’m not going to argue. From quite early on I found myself irritating my wife as I burst out laughing. Francis Plug isn’t so much a car crash waiting to happen, as constantly in the middle of one. On more than one occasion I found myself looking away from the page cringing as it became apparent what inappropriate questions Plug was about to ask.

Ewan pulls off a neat trick – quite early into the book I was living the story, I’d forgotten that Plug was a creation. He attends literary events, armed with a copy of each author’s Booker Prize winning novel and attempts to get them signed whilst observing the writers’ behaviour, attire and manner. All of this is research for the book he’s writing, How To Be A Public Author. Which, of course, is the book you are reading. Even though it is fictitious. For me, Paul Ewan has been fiendishly clever in making Plug believable – there are pictures of dedications to Francis Plug at the start of each chapter and Plug’s behaviour plays little tricks with the narrative in relation to each author. Or rather Ewan does.

He attends some events as a genuine ticket holder, others he simply waits outside for the signing and others still he enters through devious and dubious means. The same goes for the books themselves, although I won’t spoil this brilliant little twist for you.

For sure it is a literary tale, there are anecdotes about 25 or more Booker Prize Winning authors, but the joke never tires because it is different every time. Parallel to Plug’s literary journey is the disintegration of the rest of his life. There are moments of poignant beauty alongside the humorous carnage. Plug is a lost and lonely soul and I couldn’t help but feel sad for him as his work and meagre domestic life start unravelling. The drink is never far away as he battles his own self-destruction. The ultimate goal is to culminate his research at the actual Booker Prize ceremony leaving him both able to complete the book and also prepare himself for when he is awarded the prize himself. He is happily deluding himself that this is a given.

Written in a such a way that I couldn’t help but march forward from chapter to chapter. Plug notices some charmingly obscure details in each of the surroundings he finds himself. He takes these little details and creates new behaviours for himself. Peeling stickers off the books on supermarket shelves to decorate the trolley handle, whilst adorning the books with labels he’s taken off the fruit. Maybe it’s just my humour, but those quirky anecdotes kept me smiling throughout the book.

My lovely wife Nicky has just started reading Wolf Hall and so I had to share with her Plug’s challenge that maybe Hilary Mantel had made up the name of the town where she lived, Budleigh Salterton, in order to throw people off the scent. A quite lovely scene.

Now that I’m working harder at my own writing I can only imagine the years which have gone into creating such a richly detailed tome, whilst retaining the light hearted romp through the literary world.

There is a sequel. It will soon be joining my ‘to be read’ pile.

If you’re interested in what else I’ve been reading have a gander here. Or for more reviews, why not feast your eyes here.

The Human Son by Adrian J Walker

After reading the hundred year old dystopian classic, We, I thought I’d bring myself right up to date with the genre. I have previously devoured two of Adrian J Walker’s futuristic tales (The Last Dog On Earth and The End Of The World Running Club). Both were excellent page turners, emotionally charged and set against desolate, post apocalyptic landscapes. Was I hoping for more of the same? Another dystopian journey while our actual lives during the last year has at times felt like they are being lived in a bleak work of fiction, is that what I wanted?

I needn’t have worried. Walker’s latest opus (it was published during 2020) is not only quite different from other futuristic tales, but also a beautiful read.

At first glance there appears to be all the ingredients for a dystopia – 500 or so years in the future, the earth no longer inhabited by humans, but with this book we are almost immediately treated to some hope. The race (The Erta) who now sparsely inhabit the planet were originally one of the last human projects. A last ditch attempt to reverse human damage. Well over those few hundred years that is exactly what The Erta have achieved. So, unlike a typical dystopian, or science fiction tale, the earth is in fine fettle.

Why The Human Son? Well, The Erta decide that their work is done and an experiment should be carried out in trying to create Homo Sapien again in the form of one child, to see how he (for it is a boy, eventually named Reed) will respond and adapt.

Walker has an eye for the soul in his characters, and so Ima (chosen to be the boy’s ‘mother’) immediately had my backing in the project. The writing is almost poetic at times. The book became part of me for the whole read. I always know I’m enjoying a book when my phone goes untouched during my break at work. Or if I read a few pages while I cook.

With reference to some of the literature, journals and podcasts about literary fiction I’ve been consuming lately, The Human Son felt almost refreshingly light in its delivery. Not that it is lacking in any depth at all, just not trying to go beyond giving the reader the actual story. Despite this, there is nothing formulaic. Walker has created Ima to be ‘imperfect’ and the idea that the science of The Erta will trump the emotion of humanity is challenged throughout.

The Human Son is imaginative, but so much more too. The deeper I went in, the more I was getting out. I found myself using the book as a mirror too. The human behaviour which led to the earth reaching its tipping point in the book is going on all around us right now. This isn’t force fed by Walker, it is crumb fed. And that feels right. 

Sure it’s a climate emergency book, but it is also a study of how society can fall apart, how even a supposedly scientifically created race can lapse into factions and quarrels. Not only that, it is a wonderful study of parenthood, of childhood and coming of age. 

Boasting almost 500 pages, the book soon had me turning the pages and there is nothing daunting about the story. I’m finding myself tired of book labels – who decides what is genre fiction, or literary fiction? What I like about Adrian J Walker’s books is that he seems happy to be classed however the world of books decides. For me, his books are thrilling, exciting, dramatic and pacy, like any thriller. And yet, the levels of poignancy and moments of stillness lend his books an atmosphere of contemplation at times too. That particularly goes for The Human Son. Emotions are gently exposed and discovered as the truth of Reed becomes apparent to both him and Ima.

Walker also pulls off the trick of narrating in the first and second person – Ima is telling the story for Reed to find at a later date. This produces a little bit of clumsiness for me towards the end of the book, but not enough to put me off my reading pace. 

A fine read which had me asking myself plenty of questions about existence and truth.

I heartily recommend.

Please check out my previous book reviews, and my reading list for 2021. And if you’re really down with kids, why not have a gander at my Instagram Page too. 

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I posted a picture of this book on social media recently prompting a good friend to remark that he read it 50 (fifty!) years ago. And it was already nearly 50 years old by then. Written originally in Zamyatin’s native Russian in the 1920’s, it wouldn’t appear in print in his homeland until the 1980’s. There have been various translations over the lifetime of the book. My copy is the 1996 Clarence Brown translation, which seems to be universally acknowledged as faithful to the original.

Often, probably too often, We is referred to as the book which inspired George Orwell’s 1984. I don’t dispute the comparison, and the timing is certainly right, I’m looking forward to re-reading the Orwell classic to make my own mind up about this. As an aside, Aldus Huxley is rumoured to have been unlikely to have had a chance to read We before publishing Brave New World.

None of that mattered once I’d sat down with the book, it is a fine piece of stand alone literature. I’m a sucker for a good dystopia, but this is so much more than that. It’s more of an anti-utopia I reckon.

Set in One State, a world where nature and the ancient ways are excluded by a green wall. One State is ruled by The Benefactor, to whom all humans now both worship and service. It is narrated in the first person, by way of a series of written records to be carried to other worlds, by our protagonist, D-503 (people all have code numbers instead of names).

It is an intense read, it doesn’t have the grand gestures or jingoism of other dystopian fiction. The narrator gives us the story of rebellion and glimpses of past worlds (as well as the life still happening outside the wall) with a very personal, intimate and increasingly emotional delivery.

Like 1984’s Winston, D-503 is drawn into becoming involved with anti-One State thoughts by a woman. I-330, as she is known, is a corrupter, seducer but more, she is a leader, capable of influencing even the most loyal minds to follow her rebellion.

Often the prose is, to use modern slang, quite ‘naval gazing’ and, like I say, very personal to D-503. His mental health deteriorates and improves in waves as his loyalties are drawn from side to side. I sometimes found the abstract telling of his thoughts quite challenging and there was a bit of re-reading as I tried to uncover his motives.

I imagine generations of people have read We and used the story to hold a mirror to the fears of whichever time it was being read in. That the masses actually felt that One State was utopia, perhaps echoes the fears of what is sometimes imagined to be socialism, certainly communism. But, conversely, the tables could be turned and fears of a fascist state with a leader who can’t be removed are also here.

It would be churlish of me to expand further and spoil the plot. We is a powerful and deeply thought provoking book which does require the reader to get involved in order to enjoy its full impact. Don’t expect a racy, pacey, hard hitting dystopia, but do expect to be challenged and maybe need to look away occasionally as the text provokes your own reactions.

If I’m going to be ever able to say “I read We fifty years ago” I will need to live to an unlikely age…….

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Matt Haig has cemented his place firmly in the nation’s hearts. Last year’s The Midnight Library was a huge best seller and a quite glorious read. I heard him recently on Radio 4’s Open Book talking passionately and eloquently about libraries which have featured in great literature. As I have discovered with Reasons To Stay Alive, Haig’s journey to revered author has been rocky to say the least.

I stepped back to 2015 and soaked up this clever, poignant and quite frankly, important book. Part memoir, part pocket guide, Reasons To Stay Alive is oozing honesty and charm. So much of what we read holds a mirror to our minds or guides us to a view through the open window. This does both.

. That’s a mirror I mostly avoid. As he points out repeatedly, it is good to remind yourself where you’ve been.

But I also found myself nodding and smiling, sharing with the author a passion for those great medicines for our minds – the outdoors, exercise, loving, reading and, of course, writing.

As Matt Haig himself explains, often authors explore their relationships with themselves, the world around them and their own mental through works of fiction. He cites his own novel, The Humans, as an example of this. But with Reasons To Stay Alive, the story is ruthlessly personal. That Haig can achieve this without any sense of ‘woe’ or self pity is testament to the quality of his writing.

The book is written in easily digested passages, switching between his own story, pointers to surviving our times and a series of checklists. The shifts in focus feel effortless as you move through the book. In fact, the brief snippets are clever antidotes to the tougher memoir passages. My favourite has to be the list entitled “Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression”

Reasons To Stay Alive is readable and relatable without ever being bossy. Yet it is full of great advice and nudges us towards accepting our own minds and their workings.

It should be a lazy cliche to describe it as ‘important’, but as an open and gentle guide to living life alongside our mental health, I reckon it really is.

It is a quick read and a ‘pocket sized’ book, but one that’s worth keeping to hand as one of our tools for navigating our way through life.

DOMINICANA by Angie Cruz

The sticker on the front of Angie Cruz’s 3rd novel informs me that it was shortlisted for The Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2020. Have a look, it is in fine company. I’m proud to have matured enough as a reader to no longer naively believe these female author’s books are aimed solely at women readers. Sometimes publishers can mislead with the colour schemes or cover art but, for me, a book is a book.

So what did I find when I turned back the cover to start Dominicana. Nicky (my gorgeous lady) had already had a great time getting lost in this book, so she was looking forward to seeing how I enjoyed it.

From the outset the story feels personal. Cruz drew on the experiences of her own Mother and other families to inform and inspire the tale. A fifteen year old girl in the Dominican Republic is found she is left with no choice but to say yes to a marriage proposal and head to New York. Ana, the main character, is hardly taken with Juan (her now husband), nor indeed with the prospect of life in New York, but she is fulfilling her whole family’s dream of immigration.

From the off, Angie Cruz shows Ana’s voice as tender and innocent to the greater world. The writing is crisp, direct and has a marvellous dark humour bubbling underneath it. Ana sees her sister fall in love and has her heart (and body) set on a tender local boy who seems set on loving her. These moments are dealt with brevity but also left me with a deep understanding of Ana’s heart as she prepares to leave.

The story of Ana’s life in New York, her marriage and her encounters as she finds her way is riveting. For a reader like me who enjoys a modern New York story it is a revealing insight into how the racial make up of the city evolved. it is set to the back drop of a civil war back home in the Dominican Republic and the aftermath of the killing of Malcom X which happened in the very street where Ana ends up living.

The story is intimate and at times torturous, a marriage of agreement played out in a city coming to terms with its changing demographic. The pains and betrayals are so cleverly portrayed through Ana’s eyes. I kept having to remind myself that those eyes were a mere 15 years old.

Beyond the small victories and defeats of Ana’s day to day existence in the 6th floor apartment lie the greater issues of family, of loyalty and of the lengths people will go to at the expense of others’ feelings. The story is set some 56 years ago but feels vibrant, fresh and important.

That Cruz has delved so deep into her own family’s history comes through in the narration, and the dialogue. Every word, every thought and emotion, are all so delicately paced in the text. I don’t doubt, as absorbed as I was in the book, I wore a slightly furrowed brow as Ana’s world became occasionally unbearable.

A fine book made even better for me (as an aspiring novelist) by the thorough list of acknowledgements and the history offered in the back. These give a great insight into the amount of work which goes into producing such a belting piece of fiction.

Honestly, have a read.

If you’ve enjoyed my review of Dominicana, why not spread the word?

See all my other book reviews and lists of what I read in 2020 and so far in 2021.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR

OOO, we do love a good book – not all of these books were published in 2018, they’re my favourites that I’ve read during the year.

My top 3 Non-Fiction reads of the year were…..

THE SALT PATH by Raynor Winn, THE PRISON LETTERS OF NELSON MANDELA & RUNNING FOR MY LIFE BY Rachel Ann Cullen

My top 3 Fiction reads of the year were…..

WHITE TEARS by Hari Kunzru, THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ by Heather Morris and THE CHALK MAN by C. J. Tudor

In no particular order, the 32 books I’ve read this year are:-

NON-FICTION

Adults In The Room by Yanis Varoufakis

Running For My Life by Rachel Ann Cullen

Corbyn by Richard Seymore

On Writing by Stephen King

Chavs by Owen Jones

The People by Selina Todd

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People (About Race) by Renni Eddo-Lodge

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

The Wrong Way Home by Peter Moore

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

FICTION

Conclave by Robert Harris

Fool Me Once by Harlen Coben

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Magpie Murders by Anthony Harowitz

Two Sketches Of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch

Don’t Let Go by Michel Bussi

Man And Boy by Tony Parsons

A Natural by Ross Raisin

Waterline by Ross Raisin

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy

White Crocodile by K.T. Medina

Exit West by Mosin Hamid

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

The Tattooist Of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Librarian by Sally Vickers

Never Coming Back by Tim Weaver

God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

No Safe House by Linwood Barclay

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Anatomy Of A Scandal by Sarah Vaughan