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2017’s Yearly Challenge: Round Up

I decided to put together four lists this year – one of authors I wanted to read, another of books which had caught my eye, and projects made up of French and Scottish-set books.  I have not done anywhere near as well with my yearly challenges as I had anticipated.  I overstretched myself rather; although I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year, I have neglected these lists over the last few months, and have been reading at whim instead.  I thought that I would just write a relatively concise post about how I did with my challenges in terms of numbers, and which books were particular highlights for me.  You can see my full list, with all of the titles, here.  On a brighter note, I did manage to complete my Reading the World challenge, where I scheduled a review of a piece of translated literature every Saturday.  My full list can be found here.

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George Sand

With regard to the authors, I actually did rather well.  Out of nineteen pinpointed, there were only four which I did not get to (Amelie Nothomb, Lydia Millet, Leena Krohn, and Gunter Grass).  Wonderful discoveries for me from this list were George Sand, John Wyndham, Ira Levin, and Anita Desai.  It was lovely to revisit some favourite authors too – Rebecca West and Agatha Christie, to name but two.

With regard to my book list, I fared worse.  Out of quite an extensive list of titles (thirty-four in all), I only managed to read seventeen.  There were a few books which I was disappointed with (The Shining by Stephen King, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn), but I found some new favourites too.  Amongst those which I rated the most highly are the beautiful, quiet Welsh novel The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (review here), the gorgeous and immersive This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell, the perfectly paced The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, the haunting and strange Fell by Jenn Ashworth, the hilariously funny Where Am I Now? 9780143128229by Mara Wilson (review here), the profound and beautifully poetic The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (review here), and the downright creepy The Dumb House by John Burnside.

My efforts for my French reading project were paltry; I only read nine books out of a list of thirty.  Particular standouts for me were the lovely non-fiction account by Peter Mayle of his move to France, entitled A Year in Provence, Julia Stuart‘s terribly charming The Matchmaker of Perigord, the wonderfully bookish A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and the beautiful Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide.  Of my rereads, I very much enjoyed revisiting Irene Nemirovsky, whose books I adore, as well 9781933372822as Elizabeth McCracken‘s searingly touching An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination.

My Scottish reading project was a little better.  Out of twenty-nine books, I read eight, and gave up on four.  I was particularly charmed by Anne Donovan‘s Buddha Da, my reread of Maggie O’Farrell‘s wonderful The VanishingAct of Esme Lennox, and Jenni Fagan‘s engrossing, and awfully human, The Sunlight Pilgrims.

I have set my sights a little lower for my 2018 reading challenge, choosing only to participate in the Around the World in 80 Books group on Goodreads.  I will be reading books from, or set within, eighty different countries around the world, and could not be more excited about what I will discover.

How did you get on with your 2018 challenges?  Do you always set reading challenges, or do you prefer to read without any restrictions?

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Reading Glasgow

I am currently living in Glasgow for my postgraduate studies, and have been trying to read as many books set here as I possibly can.  Glancing at ‘top ten books set in…’ lists, however, has made me feel as though I’m not actually doing too well with this particular quest.  With that in mind, I have made a list of eight Glaswegian books, both fiction and non-fiction, which will be on my radar for the remainder of my time here.

1. Lanark by Alasdair Gray 973598
This work, originally published in 1981, has been hailed as the most influential Scottish novel of the second half of the 20th century. Its playful narrative techniques convey a profound message, personal and political, about humankind’s inability to love and yet our compulsion to go on trying.

 

2. No Mean City by Alexander MacArthur
First published in 1935, it is the story of Johnnie Stark, son of a violent father and a downtrodden mother, the ‘Razor King’ of Glasgow’s pre-war slum underworld, the Gorbals. The savage, near-truth descriptions, the raw character portrayals, bring to life a story that is fascinating, authentic and convincing.

 

17608013. Night Song of the Last Tram by Robert Douglas
A wonderfully colourful and deeply poignant memoir of growing up in a ‘single end’ – one room in a Glasgow tenement – during and immediately after the Second World War. Although young Robert Douglas’s life was blighted by the cruel if sporadic presence of his father, it was equally blessed by the love of his mother, Janet. While the story of their life together is in some ways very sad, it is also filled with humorous and happy memories.

 

4. Garnethill by Denise Mina
Maureen O’Donnell wakes up one morning to find her therapist boyfriend murdered in the middle of her living room and herself a prime suspect in a murder case. Determined to clear her name, Maureen undertakes her own investigation and learns of a similar murder at a local psychiatric hospital.  She soon uncovers a trail of deception and repressed scandal that could clear her name – or make her the next victim.

 

5. The Crow Road by Iain Banks 12021
Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied: mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances…

 

6. Head for the Edge, Keep Walking by Kate Tough
Head for the Edge, Keep Walking absorbs you into the eccentric world of Jill Beech, whose friends are finally getting their lives together while hers is falling apart. Adrift at thirty-four, no-one does ‘lost’ quite like Jill. Wry, witty, resilient but bewildered, she’s left asking, ‘What does it take to stay sane in this life? And why does it look easier for everyone else?’  Her nine-year relationship is over. She swaps one so-so job for another. She gets drunk with off-beat friends and internet dates with mixed results… Then life is flipped on its head by some shocking news. But average ‘chic fiction’ this ain’t!   There’s nothing average about Jill and her distinctive, savagely honest voice; with sentences you’ll want to read and re-read for their lyrical, original language and ringing clarity. An exploration of modern friendships and relationships, Jill’s voice will penetrate and have you analysing your own life choices through her lens!  When events take Jill to the edge – will tip herself over or turn things around and keep walking?

 

110761987. Waterline by Ross Raisin
Mick Little used to be a shipbuilder in the Glasgow docks. He returned from Australia 30 years ago with his beloved wife Cathy, who longed to be back home. But now Cathy’s dead and it’s probably his fault. Soon Mick will have to find a new way to live – get a new job, get away, start again, forget everything.

 

8. The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman
Living in a no-bedroomed tenement flat, coping with the cold and boredom of busconducting and the bloody-mindedness of Head Office, knowing that emigrating to Australia is only an impossible dream, Robert Hines finds life to be ‘a very perplexing kettle of coconuts’. The compensations are a wife and child, and a gloriously anarchic imagination. The Busconductor Hines is a brilliantly executed, uncompromising slice of the Glasgow scene, a portrait of working-class life which is unheroic but humane.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which tomes set in Glasgow would you recommend?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot ****

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was my choice for the June edition of the Chai and Sheep Book Club.  I first found out about it after seeing a wonderful review, complete with sublime photographs of Orkney, on dovegreyreader’s blog.  Olivia Laing, whose own work I am incidentally desperate to get to, calls it ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’.

The Outrun is a memoir of Amy Liptrot’s struggles with alcohol when she moves, first to Edinburgh as a student, and then to London: ‘At eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave…  I wanted comfort, glamour and to be at the centre of things’.  In The Outrun, Liptrot writes that essentially, relocating back to her home island rescues her.  She ‘is drawn back to the Outrun on the sheep farm where she grew up.  Approaching the land that was once home, memories of her childhood merge with the recent events that have set her on this journey’.  She groups herself together with others she grew up with: ‘It’s a push and pull factor to many young people from the islands.  We ended up back here again and again, washed back, like the inevitable tide’.
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Geographically, Orkney is the collective name for a group of seventy islands, many of them uninhabited, to the north of Scotland.  The whole area is ‘sea-scarred and wind-battered’.  As one would expect, The Outrun is filled with fascinating details regarding the history of the islands; these have been wonderfully interspersed with Liptrot’s own memories.  She details how paramount the weather is on such an exposed island group: ‘Sometimes the light picks out in fine detail the hills of Hoy, another island to the south beyond the headland, and on other days they disappear completely in the haar’.  The Outrun itself is wonderfully evoked: ‘The Outrun is tucked away behind a low hill and beside the coast, and in the right spot you can’t see any houses or be seen from the road.  Dad told me that when he was high, in a manic phase, he had slept out here.’

The prologue details Liptrot’s birth, and her father’s simultaneous relapse: ‘As I arrive into this island world, my father is taken outside of it.  My birth, three weeks early, has brought on a manic episode’.  As well as speaking about her present, Liptrot is, understandably, focused upon the past: ‘The rumblings of mental illness under my life were amplified by the presence of my mother’s extreme religion and by the landscape I was born into, the continual, perceptible crashing of the sea at the edges’.  This memoir is an incredibly honest one; I felt as though Liptrot had a no-holds-barred approach to her past.  She writes with such clarity, which really shows the hopelessness of her previous situation: ‘The alcohol I’d been pouring into myself for years was like the repeated action of the waves on the cliffs and it was beginning to cause physical damage.  Something was crumbling deep within my nervous system and shook my body in powerful pulses to the extent that I was frozen and drooling, until they eased off enough for me to pour another drink or rejoin the party’.

The disparities between city and island life have been so well evoked: ‘Another Sunday muffled and hungover in bed, makeup oily in my eyes, doors slamming somewhere, while up north the waves still curled dark and endless, and the aurora lit up the sky’.  Liptrot weaves this in with the panic mode which her drinking sends her into.  Alcohol becomes a constant in her life rather quickly, and she begins to suffer from memory lapses and mood swings.  She wakes with mysterious bruises all over her body; she is the victim of a crime.  In London, she describes some rather scary episodes: ‘I was dumbfounded and unable to make decisions about where to go, whom to see or what opinion to hold, filling the void with alcohol and anxiety’.  The London period is a gritty one for Liptrot, fraught with drugs, dependency and danger.

Aesthetically, this book is stunning, from its beautiful cover to its lovely illustrated maps.  A glossary has been included too, which is incredibly beneficial for non-Orcadian speakers such as myself; it details spellbinding words and terms, such as ‘clapshot’ (mixed neeps and tatties), ‘haar’ (sea fog), and ‘grimlins’ (a midsummer night’s sky).  Liptrot’s story has been so wonderfully – and often harrowingly – evoked that it will linger with the reader long after the final page has been read.  The Outrun is a very honest and very well written memoir, which has made me want to travel to Orkney as soon as I possibly can – perhaps an inevitable consequence of reading it.

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‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd ****

I picked this up at the GoMA library simply because I remembered that it is one of Ali Smith’s favourites.  It is hailed as ‘one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century nature writing’, a genre which I definitely want to read more of.  In The Living Mountain, written during the Second World War and first published three decades later, ‘Shepherd describes her journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  There, she encounters a world that can be breathtakingly beautiful at times and shockingly harsh at others’.

9780857861832Shepherd worked as an English lecturer, and lived three miles away from Aberdeen for the majority of her life.  She spent most of her free time searching for the “essential nature” of the Cairngorms; the result was this ‘classic meditation on the magnificence of mountains, and on our imaginative relationship with the wild world around us’.  Of writing her account during the war, Shepherd says, ‘In that disturbed and uncertain world it was my secret place of ease’.

The edition which I borrowed began with an introduction by celebrated nature writer Robert Macfarlane; a lovely touch, I felt.  It is clear from the outset that he greatly respects Nan Shepherd and her account.  He wonderfully sets both the scene and the tone of the piece.  He writes, ‘The Cairngorms were once higher than today’s Alps, but over millions of years they have been eroded into a low-slung wilderness of whale-backed hills and shattered cliffs.  Born of fire, carved by ice, finessed with wind, water and snow, the massif is a terrain shaped by what Nan Shepherd in this slender masterpiece about the region calls “the elementals”‘.

Shepherd’s writing is beautifully poetic, and feels almost contemporary in places.  She writes such carefully crafted sentences as follows: ‘… one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it.  However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me.  There is no getting accustomed to them’, which demonstrate just how much of an effect the landscape had upon her.  It is clear as to just how in awe of nature she is.  Her descriptions are just breathtaking: ‘Once, on Lochnager, we had watched the dawn light strike the Cairngorms, like the blue bloom on plums’.  Such emphasis is placed upon colour and light in this consequently visibly strong memoir.

The Living Mountain is a rich and lovely account, which has made me eager to explore.  Shepherd’s book is a careful and caring rumination about the Scottish landscape; a perfect book to read whilst tucked inside during a day of Glasgow drizzle.

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Reviews: ‘All We Shall Know’ and ‘The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales’

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan *** 9780857524379
‘Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. Her husband doesn’t take her news too well. She doesn’t want to tell her father yet because he’s a good man and this could break him. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming – larger by the day – while the past won’t let her go. What she did to Breedie Flynn all those years ago still haunts her. It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life. Donal Ryan’s new novel is breathtaking, vivid, moving and redemptive.’

All We Shall Know is another title which I requested from Netgalley, from an author I’ve heard a little about but have never read.  I tend not to read much Irish fiction, especially that which is encompassed by the broad title ‘contemporary’, but the premise intrigued me, and I thought I’d give it a go.  I started it just by chance to see what it was like, and found it immediately engrossing.  The whole is gritty, and the prose is startling at times.  The narrative voice was realistic in a refreshing way; you’ll know what I mean if you read this.  I had no real idea throughout about the direction which the story would take, and was quite surprised at the sheer scale of the emotional depth in such a slim novel.

The drawback for me was that the Irish dialect used throughout was rather overdone.  I see its necessity, sure, but phrasing was repeated rather a lot, and such inclusion put me off reading at points.  The sections of conversation which lasted past two or three exchanges felt a little jarring to read.  I did not feel as though the novel was quite sustained throughout; its beginning was compelling, but the rest of the book just didn’t quite match it.  An odd story, but an interesting one.

 

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan *** 9781907773754
I borrowed this from the Mitchell Library (which is, frankly, the most incredible bookish place I’ve ever visited).  Having read both The Gracekeepers and A Portable Shelter, I already knew that I really enjoy Logan’s writing; she is creative and inventive, qualities which are often difficult to achieve, particularly in the field of contemporary fiction.

As with a lot of the strong short story collections which I have come across, I did not adore every tale here, but I did admire them all, both in the strength of their writing, and the use of literary techniques.  Sadly, some of the stories felt a little rushed or unfinished, and several ended a little too abruptly for my liking.  A couple of the tales had so much scope, but I do not feel as though their potential was fully realised.

As far as ideas go, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales is fresh, but it is not quite what I was expecting, I must admit.  A lot of mystery is embedded into the stories, and much of the time, it was nowhere near as well wrought as it could have been.  The whole was rather intriguing, but it does not quite match up to my favourite short story collections, as I thought it may have done when I began to read.

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