Cultural Review

The Best Books I Read in 2016

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I’ve read some brilliant books this year, although one of the few downsides of travelling less for work means I get less time on trains for reading! Here are five favourites from 2016’s reading list.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

After I finished A Little Life back in the Spring, I found it very difficult for a long time to pick up another novel. I read the last 100 or so pages in one intense evening, barely noticing the dusk falling around me, and by the end I felt so entwined in the lives of the characters that the idea of moving on and no longer having them in my life felt almost unbearable.

Such was the press attention on this novel when it was nominated for, and ultimately missed out on, the 2015 Booker Prize, that it is probably unnecessary for me to go into too much detail about its plot, its characters, and its themes. At its heart, the novel is the story of a life: that of Jude, who has survived extreme childhood abuse. More broadly, it is the story of the lives of those close to him, who experience their own ups and downs, but who are in a way bound together by his survival. What I love most about this novel is the sheer amount of feelings it inspires: from peace to sadness, from joy to devastation, from love to disgust.  It really is like reading an entire and incredible life, lived out on its pages.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

I read this very quickly in October whilst travelling a lot, so I got deeply engrossed in its eerie gothic atmosphere. The novel tells the story of two young brothers, taken on an Easter retreat by their deeply religious parents to The Loney, a dismal stretch of northern English coastline.

Younger brother Hanny is mute, communicating with his older brother by showing objects he carries in his pockets: a rabbit’s tooth, a toy dinosaur, a gorilla mask. Their parents don’t share this language, and even their names, ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’ add to their sense of distance from the brother’s world.

The family make a religious retreat to the Loney accompanied by an assortment of pious friends and their new vicar, who is struggling to fill the boots of his recently deceased predecessor. Their aim is to lose themselves in Easter prayer, but most importantly to visit a shrine so that Hanny may drink from the holy water. It is believed by all that this will cure his lack of speech.

The landscape at The Loney is desperately bleak, reflecting the mood of the visitors. Despite being spring it is constantly damp: the rain sweeps in from the sea in “huge vaporous curtains”, the beach is “brown sludge”. The locals are a mysterious and threatening presence. Moorings, the oppressive house in which they are forced by the weather to spend most of their time, is damp and full of creepy relics of its former occupants. Even the local church leaks. It is the perfect backdrop for the characters to simmer gently over the heat of religious fervour and repressed emotional turmoil until the book’s feverish and macabre conclusion is reached.

There are occasional hints at the supernatural in the novel. At one point, a hawthorn is found in bloom, well ahead of the season. Only a matter of a few words are given over to this occurrence, and so you could almost blink and miss it, but it’s a hint at another layer in this already richly layered novel. One of the most atmospheric, unnerving and exciting novels I have read in a long time.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

I love Tessa Hadley’s writing, so as soon as I saw this had come out in paperback I picked it up.

I’ve seen a few comments on Goodreads which had described this novel as being one in which nothing happens. OK, so it’s not an action packed war epic or anything like that, but saying ‘nothing happens’ could not be further from the truth. The whole novel simmers with subtle tension, as four siblings, their families and hangers-on gather at the large ramshackle house in the countryside that belonged to their now deceased parents. Ostensibly, they are gathered to spend time together and consider what should be done with the house, but it is not long before their decision-making process becomes muddled and relationships are tested by both the inescapable echoes of the past and the pressures and compulsions of the present.

The Past is a beautiful study of familial relationships, different personalities and the impulses that drive us, and reading it made me feel both reflective and happy to be alive.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Oh how I love Ali Smith. I unwrapped her latest novel Autumn on Christmas Day and it is now at the very top of my reading list for 2017 (just as soon as I have finished Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent).

How to be Both was a joyful crash landing into the lives of two wonderfully strong characters, one a modern day teenager (George) dealing with the death of her mother, one a fresco painter (Francesco) living in renaissance Italy, whose worlds cross in unexpected ways despite living centuries apart. The novel is in two separate parts, one for each character, and it is fantastically vibrant. Even though I finished it months ago, some of the images, particularly the descriptions of the colours and details in the frescoes, remain completely clear in my mind.  George’s frequent moments of grief are also incredibly real and moving, especially her struggle to get to grips with how her mother could exist, and then not exist, simply through the passing of time.

My version of the novel had George’s story first, then Francesco’s. Some versions were the other way round (most critics seem to have had Francesco’s first). I wonder how different my experience would have been the other way round. The links between the two parts of the novel become clear in the second part, and its true depth and intelligence become apparent quite suddenly, but I imagine that is the case whichever way round you read them. It’s a supremely clever and original novel, and ultimately just a joy to read.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I picked this up just after the Booker Prize for 2016 was announced (I know, it didn’t win!) and finished it a couple of weeks ago. I absolutely loved this novel, and found it completely and utterly engrossing. It is also very innovative, the story being revealed through in an almost piecemeal fashion, presented as a collection of ‘found’ documents, including a diary account, witness statements, and newspaper reports.

The subject of these documents is the brutal murder of a man and two children in a remote Highlands community, by the son of a crofter whose family have found themselves marginalised from their neighbours through various events. Although the reader knows from the outset what has happened and who is responsible, the detail of the events is revealed slowly and from a number of different perspectives, meaning that your understanding of the characters and your sympathies shift backwards and forwards throughout the novel.

Don’t dismiss this as simply a crime novel. Whilst it is a truly enjoyable story of a crime, it is also much more than that: it is a fantastic literary novel.

Suede in Leeds

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Took a little trip to Leeds the other weekend to see Suede on the last night of their tour. My third Suede gig, the first being way back in 1999 and the second after a gap of some 15 years in 2014, on my 30th birthday when they played one of the Forestry Commission gigs in Thetford Forest.

Suede are absolutely one of my favourite bands to see live. They just seem to love playing live and are such crowd pleasers. They had no support act on this tour and were playing two sets, the first being their new album, Night Thoughts, in full. I hadn’t quite realised before the gig that the album is actually the soundtrack to a short film, which makes sense as it is stylistically quite cinematic. The film was shown on a semi-opaque screen across the front of the stage, whilst the band played behind, lit up  at various times so they could be just seen through the screen. The film is bookended by scenes showing a man ending his life by walking into the ocean, the middle a series of scenes depicting the events that led to that moment, each set to a song. It was dark and intense and captivating and hugely moving.

The second set was a total fan set, as they rolled out hit after hit. The highlight was definitely the first song of the encore, standing just a few feet from Brett, who sat in front of the stage and sang Everything Will Flow with no accompaniment and no microphone.

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Otherwise, we had a nice little jaunt around Leeds itself. We returned to an old favourite, the Reliance, for an amazing veggie Sunday roast, and just before the gig spent a fun couple of hours checking out the craft beer and delicious Indian street food in Bundobust. On Monday morning before travelling home, we had a little walk around in the deceptively freezing sun before lunch and coffees at another old favourite, Laynes Espresso. I need to find another excuse to go back to Leeds soon!

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Something, like nothing, happens anywhere

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A bit of Larkin for a cold January night.

I went to see the new film of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol over Christmas. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and more moving than I had anticipated. I loved how personal it felt: like so much of Bennett’s work, it felt as though I’d spent a couple of hours in his own company, rather than in a cinema watching a projection on a screen.

So I came home and felt like I wanted to spend a bit more time with Alan (I hope he won’t mind if I call him Alan), and the first thing I managed to put my hands on was my audiobook CD of Alan’s Six Poets anthology, which is worth getting in audiobook format simply to listen to his voice.

One of the six poets is Philip Larkin, and Alan expresses his delight (or at least, a quiet note of admiration) at Larkin’s ability to turn the most mundane non-experiences into poetry, and talks about how this inspired and encouraged his own work.

So actually I have ended up reading Larkin, and enjoying the meticulously detailed, beautifully described mundanity of everyday life. I think one of my favourites is Dockery and Son, in which Larkin reflects quite profoundly on life and death during the course of a train journey. And so part way through you get the lines ‘...Yawning, I suppose / I fell asleep, waking at the fumes / And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed, / And ate an awful pie, and walked along / The platform to its end to see the ranged / Joining and parting lines reflect a strong / Unhindered moon.’

Something, be it life, death, or simply an awful pie in Sheffield, happens anywhere.