Five Favourite Reads: 2016

International New YearWe do this every year for the Unthank School of Writing Blog. The idea is not to choose books published in the last year, but to simply pick five favourites read in the last year. These are mine…

Writing this list is beginning to feel like a Christmas tradition, alongside the good single malt and the seasonal ghost story. As ever, reading for pleasure has been mediated and muddled by research and editorial work, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how many books I’ve read in the last year. I reckon I spend at least four hours a day reading, so you figure it out. Our house looks as if it’s built out of books and I think I might have a problem; a storage problem, obviously. Like Desert Island Disks, I think these lists have to mean something to you personally, so rather than selecting based on originality, literary quality or immediacy, I’m just going to tell you briefly and honestly about five books that have really put a hook in me this year.

Comrade of SteelSuperman: Red Son written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett. As noted this time last year, I read a lot of graphic novels; they’re my default when I need to get lost but can’t focus on a page of text anymore. I treated myself to Red Son after finishing a huge editorial job, though a little late as it was released in 2014. It’s not necessarily the best graphic novel I’ve read this year, but it’s the one that’s stayed with me, probably because it’s so fantastically high concept, and also because I love Millar’s writing. This is the guy that wrote the Kick-Ass! tetralogy, a Watchmen for the Facebook generation that I expect to come true anytime soon. Red Son is a DC ‘Elseworlds’ story, an irregular series of alternative interpretations of iconic characters, in which instead of crash-landing in Kansas in 1938, baby Kal-EL (the future Superman) falls to earth on a collective farm in the Ukraine. He is raised a good communist, becoming Stalin’s equivalent of the nuclear deterrent when he goes public, the ‘Comrade of Steel and the Worker’s Utopia.’ It’s such a brilliant idea that it doesn’t really matter where Millar takes it, but one of the reasons it’s lodged so firmly in my mind is that Lex Luthor becomes US president. Otherwise, Red Son is worth the cover price for the wonderfully over-the-top Russian version of Batman, a dissident anarchist Cossack in a blood-stained costume and a Ushanka fur hat fighting the global revolution with Rorschach-like fervour. Soviet Wonder Woman is pretty cool, too: ‘There is only one Superpower now…’

Susan HampshireNeither the Sea nor the Sand by Gordon Honeycomb. This one’s a relic from my childhood, originally published in 1969. Honeycomb was probably best known as an ITV news anchor, but he was also an actor (RSC), playwright and prolific novelist; he died last year, aged 79. Neither the Sea nor the Sand was His first novel; I had not previously read it, but it was nonetheless responsible for some major nightmares when I was a kid, because my best friend’s mum read it, and insisted on telling us the story late one night on one of my first sleepovers. (I don’t know what it was about our mothers! Mine did the same to me after going to see The Exorcist when I was nine, and let me read her copy of Jaws the following year. I’ve never felt right swimming since.) The premise is somewhere between Hammer and Mills and Boon, and not a million miles from an EC horror comic, although terribly English and played completely straight. It is a love story, in which one of the lovers dies but refuses to leave, an ambivalent level of consciousness remaining inside his now silent and decaying corpse. (There was also a movie adaptation starring Susan Hampshire, which wasn’t very good.) Since Mick’s mum vividly described this state of lumbering undeadness all those years ago, I have been haunted by the image, though never able to lay my hands on a copy of the book, which became an out-of-print collector’s item I could ill-afford. The title had been sitting in my Amazon wish list for years, peaking at about fifty quid, when I noticed quite accidently that someone was selling an ex-library copy for a fiver so I snapped it up. Like most cultural artefacts remembered from childhood, it had not aged well. The rather passive, diegetic style did not do the premise justice, and the protagonist is called ‘Hugh,’ but I nonetheless read with a morbid fascination, and still rate it as a bit of a gothic gem: not as well-known as it should be because it was ahead of the pulp horror boom and occult craze of the early-seventies by three or four years. ‘Neither the sea nor the sand will kill their love/Nor the wind take it in envy from them…’

Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden. My wife is a gothic girl and a Theda Bara nut. We even have her autograph, on a fading sepia portrait from which those famous ‘hungry eyes’ stare you down from a century ago. She was the first modern sex symbol, her image crafted by silent-era Hollywood publicists learning their trade as the industry grew around them. They called her the ‘Vamp,’ and the legend was that the exotic star was the daughter of a French actress and an Italian artist – or possibly an Arab sheik – born in a Bedouin tent in the shadow of the Sphinx. Press conferences were held in sealed and darkened rooms full of roses and lilies. In fact, Bara was born in a Cincinnati suburb and had never been to Egypt or France. But despite her salacious image and her famously revealing costumes, Bara’s private life was as wholesome as her screen roles were profligate and wicked. Tired of being typecast, she married director Charles Brabin in 1921 and effectively retired. As Golden, notes, she did not live long enough to be rediscovered, like Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet and Gloria Swanson, and most of her films were lost in a fire at the Fox archive in 1937. Oddly, there are only three biographies of the reclusive star, of which this is the first. Although annoyingly bereft of citation, it remains a wonderful piece of cultural retrieval, with Bara’s life story told in parallel with the early history of cinema, and some fabulous Sunset Boulevard-style anecdotes. We also have the monograph by Ronald Genini, which looks more academic, and the memoir by Bara’s friend Joan Craig, but I haven’t read these yet.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. This accessible little indie meditation from the early-90s, somewhere between aesthetics and a self-help book, was marketed as ‘An Artist’s Survival Guide.’ It’s one of those books you stumble across, read a couple of pages and then think: Where have you been all my life? (An Unthank student put me onto it.) Bayles and Orland are practising artists and teachers, and like most of us bang away unremarked and miles away from the critical and celebrity pantheon. The book is predominantly concerned with the plastic arts, but it’s equally applicable to writers, actors and musicians, and the authors draw analogies across media. This is thus a book for all creatives who are not in the realm of acknowledged genius, but who must nonetheless continue to produce original work, most of which won’t sell or receive much critical attention. Art & Fear, the authors explain, ‘explores the way art gets made, the reasons it often doesn’t get made, and the nature of the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way. This is a book about what it feels like when artists sit down at their easel or keyboard, in their studio or performance space, trying to do the work they need to do.’ I find this book incredibly motivational. It’s not a guide to production (although there are similarities with the seminal Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande), rather it offers a way of seeing your life as an artist freed of the concerns of sales and reviews. It’s about finding your own style, and understanding that the work comes first, regardless of outcomes. What it requires you to do instead is make more art. Unpretentious and beautifully written; if you every wonder why you’re bothering, immediately read this book.

Night Shivers: The Ghost Stories of J.H. Riddell. I’m still reading Victorian ghost stories, and have just finished this wonderful collection from the Wordsworth ‘Tales of Mystery and The Supernatural’ series, which is marred only by a stupid title and a cover painting that would have been poor for a video nasty. (The original Victorian title of the collection was Weird Stories, which sounds much better.) Charlotte ‘Mrs. J.H.’ Riddell (1832 – 1906) was a prolific nineteenth century author, originally from County Antrim. She married a rather useless Englishman, and was compelled to write to live. She therefore wrote in a variety of genres, publishing thirty-nine books and novels and seventeen short stories. She was particularly known for her ghost stories, and was compared by contemporary critics to her fellow-countryman J.S. Le Fanu. No doubt because of her own circumstances – she kept the wolves from the door but never made any real money – characters are often beset by financial worries, and are either unable to afford to leave haunted properties or rent them knowingly because they are cheap. In several stories, protagonists agree to solve apparent hauntings to receive a reward which they hope will improve their station in life, and class divisions also feature prominently throughout her work. Riddell was popular in her own day, becoming first pensioner of the Society of Authors, but is sadly neglected by literary historians. Her stories feel quite modern, and anticipate M.R. James as much as they follow Le Fanu. She was a master of atmosphere, character and dialogue, having more than a touch of the Blarney about her, although the stories sometimes end rather abruptly, at which point one senses the scythe of a magazine deadline. There is nary a bad story in this collection, although the concluding novella, The Uninhabited House particularly stood out for me as an unacknowledged classic of the genre, with a genuinely new twist on the problems of owning a haunted house and the legal ramifications of withholding the evidence from prospective tenants. Next, I’m after reading the collected ghost stories of Oliver Onions…

Happy New Year…

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