Avoiding the obvious
Having a new house to sort out took away much of my free weekend time, and so I've not got through as many books this year as I would like to have done even though all the trips to Warrington gave me plenty of time on trains and in hotel rooms with nothing much else to do.
Hopefully in 2017 I should get a bit more reading done. An upcoming new job is going to mean fewer train journeys, but a shorter commute is going to mean more time at home to while away the hours with a good book.
I've picked six books which I read in 2016(1)
So let's start at the bottom, shall we?(2)
Tales from the Dance Floor
Craig Revel Horwood
Don't be shocked that I read such things. I think it's a mistake to presume that someone who reads a lot must read the highest literature.(3) A lot of time spent on trains - and in a previous job, planes - makes me want something to keep the mind and the pages turning as time passes me by more slowly than normal.
I really rather enjoyed All Balls and Glitter(4), which was Craig Revel Horwood's previous autobiographical volume and so when I saw on Twitter that there was a follow-up I decided to hunt it down and use it to make a train journey disappear.
It was actually harder to find that I thought it would be. I had presumed that a new book by someone associated with the Strictly leviathan would be stacked near the door of every WHSmiths branch, especially at stations where people usually want something light and fluffy to read.(5) I even went to Foyles to try to track it down, and spent quite some time going back and forth between the "Dance" and "Television" sections convinced that I must missed it somewhere on a shelf between the two.
Maybe I should've heard the sound of warning bells given how hard the book was to find but eventually I did the unthinkable and ordered it from Amazon. I do use Amazon for many, many other things - yet I rarely buy books online.
For me, it's nice to meander along the shelves and see the book before buying it. How does it feel in my hand? How does it feel to flick through the pages? I love cold, blue screens for doing research and reading short articles, but there's still nothing quite like a warm, yellow book to tell a story.
After a few pages, the first impression wasn't good. It was obvious that the prose just didn't flow in the way the prose had done in the first volume. The content wasn't bad - it certainly wasn't in the same category of drivel as a Dan Brown book, for instance(6) - but the way it was told felt like disjointed, uninteresting sentences falling one after the other like dominoes. There was no change of pace, no pauses for contemplation and no dizzying whirlwind evenings played out on the page.
All the moves were there, but there was no feeling in the stiff dance through the pages.
Maybe he wrote it in a rush or maybe he was contractually obliged to write a second volume without real motivation to do so. Either way, it was dangerous to have my expectations set so high.
Spectacles. A memoir.
Not all memoirs are bad; some are a joy to read. I actually read this before the Craig Revel Horwood volume took away my trust in expectations and so I didn't really have many before I started reading.
Unlike the previous book, this one was everywhere. Every time I went into WHSmiths at Euston whilst waiting for the train to Warrington its white cover and striking portrait stared out at me. But at twenty quid for the hardback, I wasn't so keen to rush in. Eventually, when it was part of an offer I bought it and took it on the train with me.
Never have I smiled so much throughout a book. I obviously knew of Sue Perkins before reading the book - and not just since Bake Off, although I do also love Bake Off(7) - and this isn't one of those autobiographies where people spill the beans on previous lovers to sell a few extra copies; it's much better than that and all the better for it.
One moment, involving a bucket, made me splutter out loud on the 0930 Euston to Glasgow Central. Read the book, and you'll know when you get there. Sometimes I should trust my gut and buy a book when I first see it rather than waiting an age to pick it up.
I bought this book quite early. Mary Beard is wonderful, and her previous books have been the most engaging and entertaining journeys to Ancient Rome I've ever taken. But they were short. And SPQR is not a short book. I have a stack of books(8) I've not yet read and whenever I finish one I return to the shelf and select a new one to start reading. Although there's no ordering to the books I select; I rarely select the one which has been on the shelf the longest and certainly never select it on those grounds alone. Choosing a new book to read is like selecting a pair of socks. It's a product of mood and feeling. Where will I be going and what will I be doing?
Such a long book on such a weighty subject never quite made it to the top of the pile and so it gathered quite a lot of dust before I finally decided to pick it up and get going.
I saw Mary Beard talking about the book at an event before I started reading it. Whenever she talks, she is so engaging; the fact that her enthusiasm is so obviously real makes it heartwarming and contagious. This wasn't the only time I'd seen Mary Beard talk, but as I sat there listening to her talk about why she started with Cicero and what she really thought of Rome's foundation myth I could feel the book on the shelf at home on the other side of London calling distantly to me. I picked it up to start reading the next day.(9)
Mary Beard has a wonderful knack of presenting Rome as seen through the eyes of people rather than through the telescope of history. The world she conjures up feels real and complete, rendered even more imaginable by her reassuring reluctance to fill gaps in source material with unannounced guesswork.
Just how the best celebrity memoirs avoid the lurid stories of kiss and tell, the Julio-Claudian Emperors' excesses aren't played for thrills here. We all know they were pretty perverted in both senses of the word but this book shows the history of Ancient Rome to be so much more than Eastenders in togas. This book is definitely going to be going into my roster of books I read time and time again and I an sure I'll discover something new each time.
What Belongs To You
On one occassion, I arrived at Euston for my weekly trip up to Warrington and realised I'd forgotten to pick up a book from the pile and so needed to find something in WHSmiths. This cover jumped out at me almost as much as the fact that the book didn't seem that long and so I could probably get into it on a train journey. (10) I wasn't aware of the short story which had been reworked into the first section of the book, and so had no idea what I was going to be reading.
I certainly wasn't expecting the tale of a dysfunctional relationship between an ex-pat American living in Bulgaria and a local prostitute.
It's certainly quite a gritty and grubby tale at times - I wouldn't recommend it as bedtime reading for your kids - but it does manage to draw two characters together and apart many times without any of the twists and turns feeling forced for dramatic purposes. (11)
I did leave it with the lingering question though of whether this was actually a made up tale. Either the author has a very good imagination or there's a little more to this tale than simple fiction. (12)
The Scarlet Gospels
I read a lot, but I don't tend to read many book reviews and so quite often when there's a new book out by one of my favourite authors, the first time I am aware of it is when I am buying it.
I have read The Hellbound Heart a few times and always thought that the Hellraiser films didn't do justice to the book.(13) They took away the subtlety and replaced it with guts, gore and sex to increasing degrees as the film series rumbled on. The decline of the film series into nonsense almost stopped me from buying this book but Clive Barker has never let me down so far (14) and so I decided to pick it up from WHSmiths at Euston and give it a go.
If inhumanity is presented constantly, then it ceases to shock and in their desire to be gorier and bloodier than before each of the films seemed to neglect to portray the backdrop of humanity against which the inhuman story was played out. The story may quickly make its way to Hell but its footsteps always lead back to the real world. (15)
It would've been easy for Clive Barker to sit back and accept the royalties he's no doubt being paid for the continuing roster of films or to simply write something which continued the gore fest in increasingly ridiculous ways but it's nice to seem an author take their creation back with such grace and dexterity. (16)
Some books have to sell themselves to me and some are just obviously one day going to end up sitting on my shelf waiting for me to pick them up and open them for the first time. I walked past this book myriad times in various railway stations before finally buying it and getting around to reading it. It was so obvious to me that I'd end up buying and reading this book that I didn't feel the need to rush into it; one day it would just find its way onto my bookshelf of its own accord. (17)
This book was pretty weighty, but thankfully split into relatively distinct sections so would lend itself quite easily to a chapter or two in bed of a Saturday morning before getting up to face the weekend. I've always have a fascination with railways, as I've written about previously, and I'm often fearful of reading books on subjects I love.
I try to make my life as evidence-based as possible and a necessary part of that is that sometimes my views change when I get new information. But being rational doesn't stop my heart from attaching itself to enjoyable beliefs. I yearn for the days when I believed in Santa. (18)
So it's always risky to open up something you hold dear and allow someone to give you new information. My love of railways felt pretty safe, though. In fact the book was about trains much more than it was about the railways they run on but it's entertaining to imagine yourself rattling along locked in a compartment with strangers who may be about to try to rob you or try to fleece money from you. The Beeching map does get a reprint; and at the time I was yearning for more detail but sometimes the greatest pleasure in life can be achieved by avoiding the temptation of the obvious.
And so there you have it, it seems that I like to read things which avoid the obvious and aren't lurid. Who knew I was so sophisticated in my taste..?
1. Even though my reading time was limited I did read many more than six books. Over sixty in fact.
2. I wrote this as the kind of thing CRH would say as a judge on Strictly but then became concerned it sounded homophobic. Which it's not meant to be. Maybe I should take it out in case people hate me for it?
3. I've read a couple of French novels, a book on advanced number theory and some poetry this year too, you know so it's not all been trashy nonsense. Although there has been quite a lot of trashy nonsense in there, I guess. I'm not ashamed.
4. Best. Title. Ever.
5. I've never understood why it's presumed that those people getting on a train want something light to read, but those people getting on planes want something very thinky and business-oriented given the usual selection at airports. I prefer "light and fluffy" on both.
6. I once started reading a Dan Brown book at an airport and it was _so_ fucking awful that I had to throw it away before getting on the place. Fourteen hours to Tokyo with nothing to do was better than reading that drivel. Sorry about my language by the way, but that's what you get for reading the footnotes.
7. On the BBC obviously. It won't be the same on Channel 4.
8. Anyone who's ready earlier posts will note that my time is now split between London and the countryside so for the pedants (and who else reads footnotes other than pedants?) I actually have two piles of books, one in each place.
9. I am starting to worry that this isn't actually true, but for the purposes of dramatic narrative let's presume it is. It was certainly pretty soon afterwards in any case.
10. I find that shorter books tend to have faster starts - I guess their whole pace tends to be quicker - so they are easier to get into on a train where I need something engaging straight away to take my mind off the journey. It's the same reason I tend to start reading a new book just before a flight, so by the time the flight comes around I'm already invested in the narrative and so can close myself in the book more easily.
11. I am away that - if indeed this story is fiction and not autobiographical - the entire thing is made up for dramatic purposes.
12. I am actually quite glad this question hasn't been answered. There was a great book called "A Million Little Pieces" which was presented as fact, and then exposed as fiction and the whole episode rather ruined the enjoyment of the book for me. A little mystery is not a bad thing.
13. Given how few films I have seen in my life, I realise that it's odd that the Hellraiser films are there on the list. But they are, and I rather enjoyed the first one, although I still preferred the version of the story in print.
14. I'm trying to think of this is actually 100% true. I certainly can't think of a book of his I've been disappointed with at the time of writing. If I do think of one, I'll update this footnote accordingly.
15. I am aware that footsteps made by someone walking forward lead forward rather than backwards, but you know what I mean...
16. I thought it'd be fun to put in a little note at this point about whether Clive Barker is left-handed or right-handed. The internet won't tell me, and although he doesn't appear on the many lists of "famous left-handed people" I read through I don't want to presume that he is therefore right-handed. For some reason, he seems like the kind of person who would be left-handed, doesn't he?
17. I mean here that I would eventually buy the book. This isn't a euphemistic way to say that I stole the book. I most emphatically did not steal it. I bought it from the little shop at Warrington Bank Quay station.
18. A recent conversation with my mother revealed that she doesn't think I ever believed in Santa, and come to think of it I don't remember a time when I believed in Santa either, but maybe I would be too little to remember it. Anyway, my point isn't specifically about Santa so this doesn't really matter. But then again, I guess if it did really matter, I'd have written it up there in the main text and not down here in the footnotes.