Reading List

One of the positives in going back to work is time to read on the train - relative bliss. Though I find it difficult to read standing up - a sign of middle age?
This year, I thought I'd keep a list or tally of the books I have enjoyed - both poetry and fiction. I will give each book no more than a two-line, honest review.

This list is for my own interest, really. Reading is one of the essential delights of my life. I remember the Roger the Red hat books with their boring, repetitive prose and funny old Edwardian buses with sticking-out bonnets. There was a hill involved and someone with a yellow hat and they never did very much. Later, sitting under the stairs, knowing I was too young to understand 1984 and terrified at Winston's humanity as a gin-soaked tear trickled down his cheek. Knowing I was Winston and so was every other human. A book called Playing Beattie Bow terrified me to my bones. I used to spin around in the bath and imagine opening my eyes into a life of Victorian servitude. Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose is still one of my favourite shorter novels. I spent time at university reading books that were not on my reading list and i am glad for that. I am sorry for all the books I shall never read because life is not long enough and living has to be done.
There is so much extraordinary work in the world, and more being produced every year. I am guilty of not reading beyond Britain, or America. I can only read in one language. The slightest of books can contain multitudes of truths and views.
Here's my list anyway of books read so far in 2017 and I shall add to it as the months come and go.


Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter.
Feasts on entrails of loss (and love) playing with Hughes' archetypal crow. Mischievous hybrid mash-up pushes at edges and under things. deserves all the hype and award-chatter.

Jackself by Jacob Polley (poetry)
Mire and dark mirth and mud and something of PJ Harvey's blood ploughed into the English soil. Deep and rich and (un)even. Visceral and chewy, language sticking on the teeth like flesh. Ribald and odd.

Sea Journal by Lisa Woollett
Raids the myth/folklore kitty with justification  - less mermaids and more grit thankfully. Tempered with biological realism and sumptuous photographs - author scavenges the coastline for stories, species. Part travelogue, part diary part natural history notebook.

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Blowsy and exquisite  - more than an "issue' novel (climate change)  - she writes with acuity and subtlety of marriage and class. Genuinely sad to finish it

Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest  (poetry)-  I just found this a bit sixth-fomery and un-nuanced. Probably incredibly powerful off the page, being spoken. Book is not the best format for this work. Admire the boldness and conviction.  The characters' back stories were a bit two dimensional.


Cove by Cynan Jones. Admirably/bravely taut, lyrical. I was captivated but left faintly disappointed with the 'ending' - I think this says more about me than the book. At times sublime.

Void Studies by Rachel Boast (poetry)
Maddeningly elusive, ethereal and profound. Best poems for me are anchored with some quiddity (at risk of sounding pretentious). Not sure any have *stayed* with me but I think when I read again the book will offer up new notes and states. The poems are washes of colour or tone.

Salar the Salmon by Henry Williamson
Utterly beautiful, clean, ecstatic descriptions of fish life. For me the master of anthropomorphism - he    Transcends its limits so we inhabit the salmon mind and the river in new dimensions of understanding. In parts shamanic! Moving and profound.


Solar Bones by Mick McCormack

Written ostensibly in one sentence which means it travels down a single thread of thought to often profound finality - if a thought can ever end itself - innovative, poetic, utterly-in-the-human, a clever book of fractals and scale, gridded and layered from the neuronal to the world's pulsing grids of infrastructure. An heir to Beckett etc but I dont have enough knowledge to draw comparisons. Plenty of devices used to make the one sentence thing extraneous. These could become tics like..
mother of Jesus
but this book is too special and reflexive to its own meanderings. it stands alone in its aims and if, sometimes, overlong, is a fine use of time. I want more!

Field Work by Seamus Heaney
Rooted, tender, questioning, some of the most profound poetry about long marriage I have read.

Dear Boy by Emily Berry.
I came to this late  - it was published four years ago - and now realise in hindsight Berry has spawned imitators in style and tone and content. I really enjoyed this collection - it has a deceptively 'affectless' almost flat tone that means emotion is magnified and vivid. Also packed with almost-non-sequiturs that provide humour, sometimes kitsch; fresh and provocative philosphical inquiry. And it doesnt take itself too seriously or wear its intellect at all. It has all the confidence and none that is 21st century rich humanity.


Movern Callar by Alan Warner
Enraptured with itself and its language - like the narrator - Movern, 21, who burns like a cold, brilliant star. only downside was slightly annoying plot implausibility but can be fairly easily put aside. Didnt like the end but it didnt tarnish the book for me.
Warner writes with grace and wit; the prose is limber and alive - sometimes so good it almost hurts. I dont know which Alan Warner book to read next. I wish I had read this when it was published in the 1990s and I was 21. I think I would have fallen in love with it in a different way. Perhaps reading it now with the distance of experience gives it a deeper, grainier beauty.
As a Scottish first novel, using some dialect and sited in the rave culture, it is easy to draw comparisons with Irvine Welsh, in terms of the culture it came from, but I found it far wilder and fresher. Not many books successfully inhabit the mind of a young woman. This book gives no answers and is all the stronger for it.

The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

Draws on Snyder's experiences with Buddhism and native American peoples and has a kind of big-heartedness and slight out-of-date feeling (27 years old). "If we are here for any good purpose at all ... I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A gang of sexy primate clowns."
This book did slightly change the way I think about nature and all that is laid on for us. Trees, for example, these self-fertilising super-structures that burn and float, and can be carved and carried. How could we possibly invent a more useful working raw material to live with? I also found myself paying more attention to what I eat and giving a quiet thank you to the little side of silvery mackerel before I ate it. Slightly changed my footprint in the world.


Every Single Minute  by Hugo Hamilton

At its best there is a limpid beauty to the prose and observations. Occasionally convinced of its own importance. An homage to a famous Irish writer - works without knowledge of her but I am sure it is enhanced if the reader brings this extra cultural dimension to it (which I did not.) the best chapters read like self-contained stories. Sometimes overly concerned with the profound-in-the-quotidian which made me want to break the sentences and dialogue open to let some actual light and weather inside.

And She Was by Sarah Corbett

This is sold as a 'verse-novel' and there is a reason this genre is not a best-seller  - perhaps exemplified in this slim yet intense book which is sometimes mystifying, often compelling and always beautifully written (apart from the first poem which didn't do much for me). The reader has to work hard (ish) but i like that. There is a skeleton of a plot that perhaps should be seen as a framing device for some assured, powerful poetry, particularly about fucking. I enjoyed digressions into the nature of memory within the constraints of linear time. I loved its reach and ambition and its fearlessness. I will definitely savour it again, more slowly.

My Dark Horses by Jodie Hollander

Wry, tender poems with a simplicity in their language and tone that belies the depth of their feeling. Hollander communicates the complicated flux between mother and child  - often with great sadness. There is much to admire in here, not least the sense of renewal.


Woman and Nature by Susan Griffin

A slightly bonkers, intense heartfelt feminist manifesto which gathers quotes from deep thinkers and also mashes up the biblical register with 1970s american feminism - exciting and powerful and to be read in small doses. Empowering.

100 Prized Poems: 25 years of the Forward Prize

The Editor of this book William Sieghart says in the foreword: "It is commonplace to speak of anthologies as bunches of flowers: this one is a bag of seeds." Quite so. There were discoveries of some wonderful poems in here and only a couple which I found to be duds. My favourites included John Burnside's History, Anne Carson's God's Justice, Thom Gunn's Lament and Derek Mahon's exquisite Death in Bangor. I felt that the poems were chosen not by the calibre of their author but by quality - the mark of a good anthology. Plus I loved reading poems from the 1990s that were written before I was reading and writing myself. There was something heartening about the fact they were already out there, waiting to be read, if that makes sense.


Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Rich, generous company about imperilled words (thought) and landscape and how if one loses one, the other is threatened or invisible. ie. the delicate connections between place and words. As much beauty in the words themselves as their precise, rooted descriptions, and what it means to lose them.  Deeply humane. A lovely guide to the books that have shaped the author, and the act of writing, and curating.

Pearl - translation by Simon Armitage.

A hearty yet delicate re-working of the exquisite Middle English poem. I like the way he is not beholden to rhyme but maintains the distinctive 12x12 structure of the original and its oral tradition. Love the mash-up of Christianity and Middle English, the comprehensibility of grief for a daughter tangible. Respek to the Armitage

Translating Mountains by Yvonne Reddick
These are powerful poems drawing on the Scottish mountains in particular, with a strong sense of place and self and a wiry emotional pull.

Brood by Rhian Edwards
Honest, sparky - playful and bold. I think I expected more originality.

Fourth Person Singular  by Nuar Alsadir
This is extraordinary - I wanted to read it all over again as soon as I had finished. Draws on tracts of psychoanalytical theory, philosophy and other poets' attempts to understand our working minds; riffs on and incorporates their ideas to produce startling, original questions. Less poetry, more 'thought', cerebral yet also operating within the poetic mind, and the deeper responses. One of those books that is wonderful company because despite all that it doesn't take itself seriously or weigh itself down with pomposity .  Love the illustrations and redactions. Also incredibly readable. Is it poetry? who cares..


Dart by Alice Oswald

Probably the third time I have read this and not the last: an often exquisite merging of thought, feeling and language - in that sense emotive, observational and real -
for example, eels "strong as a bike chain" or "bright whips of flow/like stopper waves the river curve slides through"
or "tiny spasms of time cross-fixed into water"

Bird Sisters by Julia Webb

Again there is something real and genuine in this book but it is less about the agility of language and more about the sense of lived integrity and feeling. A book that works around families and sisters. The strongest poems for me were the sequence of prose poems, written in a faux naif child voice that is convincing and often tender and most refreshingly, funny. Often prose poems become too prosy but these vignettes are pure poetry - knowing and condensed.

Autumn by Ali Smith

This was a quick, delightful, spry read. It had the sense, in part, of being thrown together and landing in a sort of eccentric, jumbled heap of sense but is no less the worse for that - free of pretension but wears its erudition and sensitivity lightly..
"I imagine that whatever it is I've forgotten is folded close to me, like a sleeping bird".
I love its hidden subtlety which streaks through it but never weighs the pace down. It might have benefitted from fermenting a bit longer,  I wonder. I loved its company though and witty readability.

The Living Mountain By Nan Shepherd

The blurb describes this special book as nature writing, but it is so much more than that - a meditative form of attention in which "there is seen to be a near and a far"  - Shepherd focuses on the particular - saxifrage, the sensation of walking on dried mud - but also on the whole and the self within it and the multiplicity of seeing - that our way of seeing is just one relational part of the world.
"Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself."
This all sounds a bit Zen-like and I am writing a very clumpy review - there is a strong sense of earned experience  - she has spent decades going not just up but into the Cairngorm mountains  - swimming in the lochs, poking a finger into snow, and this sense of lived-ness is passed through to the reader. I also liked the occasional school-marmish quality of address: "I do not like glamourie ... so let us have done with spells" and blazes of sensuality: "I ... walk through long heather to feel its wetness on my naked legs."
There is nothing blowsy or overblown in her prose but it has all the concentration and power of the strongest poetry.


Social Class in the 21st Century by Mike Savage

Crisp, sociological, overly reliant on the Great British class survey which took place in 2011 and also pre-Brexit therefore somewhat out of date BUT fascinating dissection of class in terms of social, economic and cultural capital, location, and reflexivity of the educated. Irony is that the readership of this book could be cleanly dissected using this book's methodology.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Admirable and breath-taking in parts, occasionally overblown - but so laden with talent - the word and image spill, the soaring lines

The Remedies by Katherine Towers
Delicate and exquisite. A certain knowing restraint. Conceit is worn lightly but truly in the titular sequence.

Angel Hill by Michael Longley
What did I love most about this discovery? The brevity, the knowing when to stop, the poise and plangent language which made me think of soft water, the lack of swagger, the sensuous place names.  No shouting. No irony or tricks. Look forward to reading more of his work


Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore

Some very plangent and tender poems about being on the edge of living and dying. I loved her collection Glad of these Times about a decade ago when I first started getting into reading poetry. I think there is something still very accessible and delicate about her poetry. I only know her children's novels. I do feel like poetry isn't the form she slips into as easily as prose. There is something about her capped-up lines perhaps that suggests she is shifting into poetry. Not a criticism, just a note from a reader.

Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

Didn't get on with this at all  - couldn't get drawn into the fantasy world

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
What makes this so compelling is she presents an interesting enough thought and then turns it again to another angle or question or even turns the premise inside out and back to front. and this is repeated hundreds of times. So it makes slow, even painstaking, but rewarding reading. Im not sure a lot stayed with me but I loved the crisply curious and wry tone and the worked-over quality. Most of the paragraphs-aphorisms -poems - call them what you will - are polished and glint and can hurt with their many angled-perception.  Definitely one to read again and again.


Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry

Tonal consistency and imaginative liberty with precision of thought and texture. Exciting

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A great big generous hug of a book. I found the Gothic element the least convincing, the characters rich and warmly observed. Really lovely book to spend time with.

The Immigration Handbook by Caroline Smith

The most moving of these poems are the ones that use their form to highlight the sense of being an 'alien' in a bureaucratic system - either as prose poems or 'found' work. Interesting and illuminating way of trying to understand the 'third space' - that public/private area where individuals are at the mercy of the wider system. A chastening book that broadens the outlook and encourages empathy. Some of the poems read like chopped up prose but the most successful lifted into their own unique register.


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