December in Books: The Outrun; Anna Karenina; No Normal

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The Outrun, Amy Liptrot

img_2931-2At the age of thirty, Amy Liptrot finds herself washed up back home on Orkney. Standing unstable on the island, she spends her mornings swimming in the sea, her days tracking Orkney’s wildlife, and her nights searching the starry skies, as she tries to come to terms with the addiction that has swallowed the last decade of her life.

It’s hard to write about memoirs without resorting to stock phrases like “brave” or “unflinching”, but if any book truly deserves to be described in these terms it’s The Outrun. Being an account of a life dominated by alcohol addiction and mental illness, it’s naturally fraught with episodes that are hard enough to read, let alone write and send out into the wider world; yet Liptrot tackles each one with a characteristic steadiness, marking things out as they need to be like one describing a flood from the safety of higher ground. Her tone is confessional without asking for pity, detached without ever being cold – for a debut memoir, the balance to which Liptrot’s writing holds throughout is remarkable.

But as well as a stark self-portrait of addiction, The Outrun is also a great window on life amongst the far-flung shores of the British Isles. Liptrot’s nature writing (compared favourably by many to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk) is often as good as, if not better than, her memoir writing – of particular note is her time spent tracking corncrakes at night for the RSPB, which includes a striking image of the nightlights of Kirkwall and sunrise over the north Orkney coast. She also writes in the details of lambing season, elements of local history and geography, the quirks of ultra-rural life – at any one time, The Outrun can be not only a memoir, but also a guide book, a farming manual and a storm survival guide, whilst maintaining at all times its own cohesive identity.

If you’re looking for any book to start 2017 on the right foot, make it this one.


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

anna-kareninaYou might think that after reading War and Peace back in January, I’d have already had enough of Leo Tolstoy for one year. But as his infamous opus immediately became one of my favourite novels (if not top of the list), when I started looking around for a meaty classic to get my teeth into over Christmas, I couldn’t really look anywhere other than Anna Karenina.

I must admit, I didn’t come away from Anna Karenina quite as enamoured as with its famous shelf-sibling. But that’s not to say it’s not a good book – far from it. Just like with War and Peace, Tolstoy uses the great length of this novel to really immerse you in his world, perhaps more fully than any fantasy author, not stopping simply at bringing his characters to life but drawing out every their every facet in turn until by the end you know them as well as if you had written them yourself. It’s just a shame Tolstoy is mostly remembered now for being “the Big Book Guy”, rather than for his talent in building truly human relationships between reader and character.


No Normal (Ms Marvel, Vol. I), G. Willow Wilson

img_2940When it comes to mainstream female superheroes, it’s pretty damn hard to find one outside of the big-busted/ blonde/ hot pants Venn diagram. Which is why I was ecstatic when I heard Marvel Comics had finally bet against the norm, rebooting the historically white blonde Ms Marvel character as Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American from Jersey City.

That alone would have been good enough for me – so much the better that the comic itself is brilliant too. The script is arguably Kamala’s biggest co-star, as snappy as any Gilmore Girls episode and deftly calling out the kinds of casual racism still floating around our modern world unnoticed: “Your headscarf is so pretty. But, I mean…nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right?” I also love how Kamala trying to get a handle on her new shapeshifting powers draws such a parallel with the way young LGBT teenagers often try to understand themselves at first – especially in one scene in issue three, when shortly after discovering her powers Kamala searches the Internet for anyone else who’s experienced the same transformation as her (“‘Super-powers.’ ‘Shape-shifting powers.’ ‘Woke up as a polymorph.’… I can’t be the first person this has happened to.”).

Although it can sometimes be a little heavy-handed with its messages, No Normal and the Kamala Khan series is an excellent example of a comic book doing what it’s best at – bringing a fringe character out into the spotlight. Marvel has done the “misunderstood teen loner” thing so many times before with Spider-man and the X-Men and so on, but with the new Ms Marvel they’ve dragged that angle up to date, taking a swipe at the post-9/11 ignorance and showing that life as a Muslim and life as a “normal” American teenager are in no way mutually exclusive.

The Unwanted Christmas Guest

December’s got off to a weird start this year. It’s usually my favourite month of the year – not just because it starts with my birthday and ends with Christmas, but also because of that feeling of carefree finality that comes with the end of the year. Because it’s a time to recharge, take stock, and, however briefly and shamelessly, be merry for merriment’s sake.

But for some reason, I’m just not feeling that this time. Traditionally for me, December starts with a sudden lurch into festivity. The tinsel comes down from the loft and is draped over every surface, the kitchen gets snowed under with stollen and biscotti, every cup of tea is festooned with cinnamon sticks. Love Actually and a festive Scotch is a staple of the first night of the month. But whilst none of that has been forgotten this year, I’m feeling a bit like it’s all being done on autopilot, like I’m feeling Christmassy because I should rather than because I actually am.

Part of me isn’t really that surprised, given the year we’ve had. I mean, personally 2016 has been a terrific year, full of momentum and huge forward gains, but externally all that just looks like a silver lining to an increasingly bleak bigger picture. The foul aftermath of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the resurgence of the far right across the world: coming into December has really brought home that New Year’s Eve is not the big reset button we like to pretend it is, and the thought of all that continuing on the other side of the calendar does rather push Christmas spirit down the list of priorities.

And of course another part of me is concerned that all this is actually much more internal than an anxious reaction to the state of the world. In the past, this kind of lethargy and disinterest has usually been the herald of a period of depression, so naturally I can’t help worrying if this isn’t just a common funk but a warning I should take note of.

Still, these days I am nothing if not positive; and the fact that I am actually able to hear the warning now is proof that I am far more able than I was twelve months ago to deal with whatever comes next. And in a way, there’s actually some relief to be had from seeing the Big D again. However great my progress has been over the last year, I’ve always accepted that someday I would inevitably have to face down another “episode”. That’s unfortunately just the nature of mental illness – you can move to a dry country, but you’re still going to have to dodge the rain from time to time. But now that time is here, I can focus on how to deal with it rather than keep looking over my shoulder for it to come.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I’ve read things right and the Big D is planning on a Christmas visit, that’s OK. It’s not the end of the world anymore. Because as much as I’d rather it stay the fuck away, I know better now than to ignore it. The lows are just an inevitable part of life, and just as depression isn’t simply an illness that makes you sad all the time, overcoming it doesn’t mean you have to always be happy. The trick for me has always been in practicing control rather than abstinence; in learning how to go down without going under, and being able to watch the sun set knowing it will rise again.

November in Books: Dracula; The Hobbit; Eileen

draculaDracula and Other Horror Classics, Bram Stoker (reread)

There’s no better time for reading Gothic classics than in these cold, wet nights before Christmas – and when those Gothic classics also happen to be among your favourite novels, then that just sweetens the deal.

As a writer, I’ve always looked to Dracula as an example of great craftsmanship. The pacing throughout is expert – especially the final act, running like a mad scramble downhill to the finale – and the way it’s told through scraps of diary entries and letters is a really ingenious way of turning several parallel storylines into an intriguing mystery. I also loved reconvening with one of my favourite literary characters, Mina Murray: what with all the historic sexism running throughout the story, I’ve always relished the moments when Mina stands up as the dependable pillar of the novel whilst the brave menfolk weep and fall to bits around her.

I must say, the other Bram Stoker novels and stories collected in this edition weren’t much to write home about – to keep it brief, I’ll just say there’s a reason everyone’s heard of Bram Stoker’s Dracula but not Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars. But hey, they were worth reading while I had them, even if I do just pretend this collection ends with Dracula in future.


The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)the-hobbit

Considering I only reread The Lord of the Rings just last year, I wasn’t planning on returning to Middle-Earth for a little while yet. But then the universe hit a software glitch and put a frat party bigot into the White House, and I needed a little carefree comfort to see me through.

Unfortunately, not even J.R.R. Tolkien is enough to keep at bay the waves of nauseating horror I feel each time I see The Orange One in the news. But nevertheless, there is still something to be said for returning to old childhood favourites in times of crisis, and especially for renewing the unexpected wisdom of Bilbo Baggins: “Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”

Now, to move onto The Lord of the Rings and read up on how one goes about defeating a dark lord with an ostentatious tower and a love of gold…


Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegheileen

A noir thriller? Set at Christmas? Told by a darkly comic narrator riddled with social anxieties? It’s almost like I had this book written to order.

In all seriousness, Eileen was one of those rare novels that made a deep connection with me right from the start. Although the plot is billed as a classic noir – involving a murder, a redhead and a loaded gun, no less – the novel is really more a character study of Eileen Dunlop, a young misfit whose life revolves around caring for her alcoholic father, stalking her fantasy lover, and hiding from the world any sign that she might be anything other than normal.

I’ve read a few reviews since that say Eileen’s internal monologue actually makes this book difficult to digest. I can see why: Eileen’s habits range from the unusual – keeping a dead mouse in the glove box of her car – to the downright unsettling – like daydreaming about her own sexual assault. Add in Moshfegh’s tendency to linger on grim descriptions (Eileen’s “torrential, oceanic” laxative-induced bowel movements come to mind) and that can certainly make for a tough read at times.

But whilst Eileen’s head can be a difficult one to inhabit, I feel that’s what made her so resonant for me. She’s strange, yes, but she’s not a weirdo, and there’s an honesty about that in even the darkest bits of Moshfegh’s writing; and as someone who’s spent most of their life on the other side of normal, meeting a character so honest about and eager to be accepted for their oddities could hardly be more disturbing than it is familiar. Easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year (or any year, for that matter) and to make up for it being pipped to the Man Booker prize by Paul Beatty’s The Sellout I think you should all go out and buy a copy. It is a Christmas novel, after all.

(If you’re interested, here also is a great Guardian interview with Moshfegh about how the novel came about.)

Booktrotting in Brazil: Crow Blue

After leaving Evelio Rosero’s war-torn Colombia, my Booktrotting tour takes a rather loopy road through South America to Brazil-via-Colorado, with Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue.


As soon as I left the well-behaved density of downtown Denver, along came that enormous solitude to crush everything in existence. A solitude imposed by the space. A solitude of disperse atoms, of things out of stock on supermarket shelves.

Reading Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa was something of an odd experience. The story is one of two halves: on the surface it’s about the thirteen-year-old Vanja, who leaves Brazil after her mother’s death and embarks on a road trip across Colorado and New Mexico in search of her biological father. But running parallel to that, weaving in and out of each chapter, is the story of Vanja’s stepfather Fernando and his involvement in Brazil’s communist guerrilla uprising in the 1960s and ’70s.

As such, Crow Blue was a good choice of book with which to get to know Brazil, even if most of the “present” narrative takes place in the US south-west. For starters, before reading this novel I didn’t even know Brazil had a communist guerrilla past, or that the country had any claim to a chapter in the Cold War – barring the Bay of Pigs, most of my Cold War conceptions come from the gloomy Eastern Europe of John le Carré novels.

Of course, I can hardly claim to be an expert on the Araguaia Guerrilla War after reading just one book – especially one that only dedicates half of its 228 pages to the topic – but Lisboa covers enough to give even a complete novice a decent grounding. Not only does she follow Fernando through his guerrilla training in Maoist China to his desertion of the cause in the wake of the Brazilian government’s brutal crackdown on the insurgents, but she also adds in the particulars that Vanja finds out later in life – generals’ names, key dates, the government’s favoured tortures, etc – thus adding scope and detail to Fernando’s personal focus.

Image via Al Jazeera
Image via Al Jazeera

The second strand of the novel, Vanja’s search for her birth father, doesn’t focus on any particular episode of history like Fernando’s does, but Lisboa still uses it to say a lot about her home country, and especially about the ideas of national identity and “Brazilianness”.

Migration is a big theme in Crow Blue. Vanja is a migrant herself, of course, and the irony of a girl born in Albuquerque, raised in Rio de Janeiro, and looking for a place to belong in Denver, Colorado is never quite lost on her story. Nor is she the only case of her kind: her neighbour Carlos is an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who considers himself a Coloradan native, and her stepfather Fernando has obviously settled in Colorado only after passing through Brazil, China and the UK first.

With such tangled roots for everyone involved, it’s natural that Lisboa would work into her story the questionable idea of nationality. Most of Vanja’s memories of her native Brazil are tinged with feelings of pride: her mother’s insistence that Portuguese is the world’s most beautiful language, for example, or Vanja’s rapture over Pelé and Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win. She also constantly compares Brazil favourably to Colorado – where Colorado’s vast, mountainous plains are to her oppressive in their openness, she remembers Rio de Janeiro as close, intimate, a place where “people are always bumping into one another” and hugs, not handshakes, are the greeting of choice.

And yet, as proud as Vanja is of her Brazilian heritage, she freely admits throughout the novel that it is not a place she feels she can call her home. To Vanja, home is where she makes it, not where she was born or where her passport was issued, and as such she is free to admire Brazil without being blind about it. After taking Crow Blue as a taster, I’d certainly love to delve further into Brazilian literature and see if this question of national identity is a common theme or unique to Lisboa – it certainly wouldn’t surprise me at any rate to meet this theme again, given Latin America’s patchy history of conquest and conflict.copacabana_-_rio_de_janeiro_brasil


The next book on my list is the last of my Latin American leg – Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, by Argentina’s Manuel Puig.

The Next Step

Adventures can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re quick journeys to somewhere new; sometimes, they can take us back to places we’ve already been or thought we’d left behind, and often by the most circuitous routes. And sometimes, like they did yesterday, they can begin in the bleary predawn murk, with a return to Bristol Parkway and a timetable for the University of the West of England open day.In many ways, visiting UWE yesterday was something both familiar and strange: familiar, because it’s hardly my first time on a university campus; and yet strange because, although it’s been a long time coming, I’m still struggling a little to believe I’ve actually come this far.

It’s now coming up for three years since I decided to cut short my time at Plymouth University, leaving at the end of my first year under a barrage of mental health problems I was in no way close to understanding. It was one of those decisions that was incredibly difficult to make, and yet at the same time made easy by the simple logic that I was too ill at the time to do anything else. But although I had no idea then of the scale of the battle I was about to enter, I did promise myself that when I was well enough I would one day return and finish my degree.

The plan was to make good on that promise this September gone. After going back to college to pick up an A level in English Literature and Language, it just seemed the natural way to go – from college straight back into uni, normal service resumed. And so this time last year, I did the rounds at open days, I worked away at the perfect application, I even had a calendar made to count down to my triumphant return to back-on-trackness.

But when the January application deadline came, I let it go by without me: not only did I not submit my application, but I didn’t even finish it. When my friends, family and college tutors asked me why, I told them simply and vaguely that, after thinking about it, I just wasn’t sure university was for me after all.

So how did I come to be at UWE yesterday? Well, I’m sorry if any of those friends, family and tutors are reading this, because the truth is I lied to you all.

In my defence, I wasn’t lying through any malicious intent, it was simply easier than admitting the truth – that despite spending two years working towards this goal, I still hadn’t recovered enough to take such a massive step. Although this was after I had started seeking help with my depression, mental health problems aren’t something that can be sorted out in just a few months. I knew then, even if I didn’t know how to explain it to others, that if I went back to university before I was ready, it would only end up undoing all the progress I’d made so far.

But one year on, more or less, I finally feel confident and honest in saying that I am ready to do this. In light of all the progress I’ve made since last summer, returning to university not only feels like a real possibility, it feels like the next step forward in my path to recovery. That’s not to say it’s not still a really bloody scary idea, but nor does that mean it can’t be done. The thing with having depression and anxiety disorder is that literally everything looks like a really bloody scary idea until you do it, and having been forced twice before to put university aside for my mental health, I’m not going to let it happen again. I can do this, and I bloody will do this, and if Depression has anything to say to the contrary, well…tumblr_mdjxtxhzru1r9wybv

October in Books: Dead Souls; The Final Empire; The Norman Conquest

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol

dead-soulsSeedy Russian businessman exploits state corruption in a get-rich-quick scheme, by buying up the souls of dead peasants for use as collateral against a massive loan.

According to the blurb, Dead Souls is “the funniest book in the Russian language before the twentieth century”, but unfortunately this joke just wasn’t for me. The novel is really a series of caricatures: the plot itself is just a vehicle for Gogol to satirise the various forms of legal, financial and moral corruption in 19th century Russia. Which is fine, if you know enough about said corruption to get the satire – but as I don’t, I couldn’t really find any purchase in what is essentially the story of a man trying to find the best deal on a mortgage.

I do very much like the cover, though, even if that is where my inclinations end. Being incredibly cheap, Wordsworth Classics’ covers do have a tendency to be the naffest of naff, but I quite like Dead Souls’ “Dementors in a poppy field” vibe. That said, it’s probably not enough to stop me passing this one on to the next second-hand shop I visit.

The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson

the-final-empireA band of thieves and street urchins attempts to overthrow a god.

It’s always great finding a fantasy book that not only does something different with the genre, but doesn’t just lean on that difference as its only selling point. Sure, on the surface The Final Empire looks like yet another story about an uprising against an evil imperial oppressor; but instead of the usual saga of knights in faux-Europe, the first Mistborn novel is more like a Hunger Games reboot led by Victorian alchemists. I imagine this would be a great fantasy novel for people who say they don’t like traditional fantasy novels, or for existing fantasy fans who want something that takes them somewhere new.

The Norman Conquest, Marc Morris

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The full story of the 1066 Norman invasion, from its origins in the twilight of Anglo-Saxon England, through to King William’s death and legacy.

I don’t know about you, but for all the emphasis put on it at school I never felt I really learnt much about William the Bastard’s conquest of England. So, with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings this month, I figured it was time to put that right.

I must admit, this did take a bit to get into. The story of William the Conqueror starts a long, long way before 1066, and Marc Morris spends almost the entire first half of this book focusing on the messy socio-political context of tenth century England that made the Norman Conquest possible. What with all the Danish invasions, failed Godwinson power plays and tenuous succession claims, it took about 150 pages for William to start making any invasionary noises.

But as with any episode in history, you can’t ignore the preamble if you want to make sense of the event itself, and as the Battle of Hastings is arguably “the most important date in English history”, it takes a lot of background reading to really understand why the Norman Conquest was so important. I still think Morris could have pared things down a little further, but compared with the simplistic “he came, he saw, he conquered” Key Stage 3 approach, I’ll happily take The Norman Conquest‘s level of depth any day.

Booktrotting in Colombia: The Armies

Leaving behind Laura Esquivel’s Mexico, my Booktrotting journey now crosses the continental border into South America – starting with the war-torn rural Colombia of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies.

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In a small town in the mountains of Colombia, Ismael, a retired teacher, discovers one morning that his wife has disappeared, and not-so-distant gunfire signals the approach of war.

This is, without any exaggeration, one of the most astonishing novels I’ve ever read. I wish I could just upload human emotions to this blog, because even after two days of digesting The Armies I’m still struggling to find any rational way of talking about it. In terms of my Booktrotting agenda, it was perfect: it’s an absolutely harrowing insight into life amidst the Colombian civil war that’s stark and relentless in its brutality yet tellingly fleeting in detail. But The Armies is so much more than just a war novel – it’s a simple human story of grief, of what it is to lose not only your loved ones and your home, but your very sense of self.

Living as I do in the comfort of the English West Country, I couldn’t even begin to imagine a life spent under the shadow of Colombia’s half-century of violence, but for Evelio Rosero’s characters that life seems to be one of denial. The war barely warrants a mention in the early chapters of the book, which instead opens with a picturesque scene of Ismael Pasos picking oranges in his garden and listening to his neighbour play guitar next door:

And this is how it was: at the Brazilian’s house the macaws laughed all the time; I heard them from the top of my garden wall, when I was up the ladder, picking my oranges; now and again I sensed the three cats behind me watching from high up in the almond trees. Further back, my wife fed the fish in the pond: this is how we grew old, she and I, the fish and the cats.

His neighbour’s wife sunbathes naked on the patio, her children play by the pool, and Rosero’s writing focuses sensually on the taste of a fresh orange or the sound of laughter “like a flock of doves exploding at the edge of the wall”. The first real mention of any violence comes with a little exposition regarding Gracielita, a child orphaned by an attack on the town church, but even then Rosero – via Ismael – moves on as soon as possible to talk about her future rather than her past.

Part of this c’est la vie denial stems from the narrator’s age: it’s unclear when The Armies is set, but in his seventies Ismael is old enough to know Colombia before the conflict, and is clearly unable to reconcile that past with the new, violent present. He clings with everything he can to his rapidly deserting youth, refusing to use a walking stick or have someone younger help pick his oranges; he even lusts vainly after every young woman he meets, as if by tapping into the thoughts and feelings of his younger self he can return to that simpler, golden past.

In that way, it’s hardly a stretch to say Ismael is a metaphor for Colombia itself: as the novel progresses, his loss of his youth, his wife, his memory and eventually his identity sounds very much like the deterioration of a country at war with itself. But at the same time, The Armies seems to hold more power if left as it appears to be, as a simple tale of a man fighting the passage of time. It’s the sort of theme you’d find Virginia Woolf at home with, and though Rosero doesn’t go so far as to use her favoured stream-of-consciousness technique, Ismael’s first-person present tense narrative is immersive to the point of heartbreaking. It’s a painful novel, it’s a wearying novel, and in its own way that makes it a beautiful novel; never before have I read something that felt so true to my own personal experience of grief.

As far as I am aware, The Armies is the only one of Evelio Rosero’s works to be translated into English; but if the rest of his novels are as good as this, I would gladly learn Spanish just to read them.


Continuing on through South America, my next stop takes me to Brazil as soon through the lens of Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue.