Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel that bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

UK Blog Awards

Please vote for me in the 2017 Annual Bloggers Bash Awards

Book review bloggers bashWell, this is a nice surprise.

Apparently some kind soul has nominated me for the “Best Book Review Blogger” in the 2017 Annual Bloggers Bash.

This is where I confess, I’ve never heard of this “bash”, but it’s lovely to be included, and thanks to the kind-hearted person who put my name forward.

As far as I can tell, the prize is by popular vote. I know most of us are sick to death of voting and electioneering (especially here in the UK with a General Election imminent), but I’d really appreciate it if you could vote for me in this award. I’m certainly up against some stiff competition!

All you have to do is visit this link, scrawl down to the book review blogger section and click the button near Reading Matters. Thanks so much 🙂

Voting closes on 2 June.

Blogging milestones

Reading Matters turns 13

Happy 13th birthdayDear Blog,

Happy belated 13th birthday. Now that you’re a grumpy teenager I wanted to share some of the highlights (and lowlights) of your life.

You had a long gestation. It was about four years. You were a kind of half-blog, half-website to begin, but then I discovered a blogging platform called Typepad in 2004 and you were born!

I don’t want to demean you in any way, but you weren’t really my priority back then. You were just a place I dumped my book thoughts and where I posted the odd (woefully written) “review”. But within a year I had decided to refocus my efforts on you: to create a place where I could keep track of all the books I read (back then it was around 12 a year; more than a decade on and it’s 70 or more), as well as celebrate the books I bought, the book shops I loved, the literary articles I discovered online.

By mid-2005 I realised that I wasn’t the only person in the world doing this. I had discovered there were other people in the UK and the US writing book blogs a bit like you. Connecting with them — leaving comments and having great conversations on their blogs — was a newfound joy! None of my friends or work colleagues were readers: now here was a whole community of like-minded people I could converse with about the thing I liked best in the world — books!

The arrival of review copies

Interestingly, the first publicist to take notice of you was an American. (British publishers took years to cotton on.) I still remember the thrill of being approached by email: would I like to review a book if it was sent to me for free? Well, yes, please. And so, in the post, all the way from New York, came a self-published book that really wasn’t my thing but I read it regardless because I’d made a commitment to do so. (Later I learned to be much more choosy about what I agreed to review.)

More books followed; not great avalanches, but a couple here or there and always from the US. One author kindly agreed to be interviewed by email and I remember being delighted at her carefully considered responses. With all due respect, to both you and her, I don’t think anyone read it. The sum total of your readership back then was probably 20 or 30 hardcore bloggers.

Dare I say you were in a very select group — Dovegrey Reader, A Work in Progress and Magnifcent Octopus are the three blogs that stick in my mind the most from back then and I’m delighted to see that all are still going to this day — and it felt good to be part of a new emerging community.

We certainly rattled both the mainstream media and the literary critics, which dismissed our efforts as a threat to the standards of journalism and professional reviewing. I’m sad to say that you came in for real drubbing in a Guardian article dated 26 November 2006:

Finally, to Reading Matters by ‘kimbofo’, an Australian in London. Do we really need to know that Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has been on her TBR (To Be Read) pile for a year, or that she bought it as part of a discounted set of Booker novels? Pooter lives!

Looking back, I see Ms Cooke’s article as a badge of honour. No, it wasn’t nice being called “Pooter” and having your efforts dismissed in such an offhand manner, but it did thrust book bloggers into the spotlight. We — or should I say YOU — were beginning to make y/our mark.

Ethical issues

Of course, when any new “industry” — and let’s face it, more than a decade on, that’s what blogging has become — comes into being it takes awhile for the ground rules to be established. By late 2006 the blogging world was facing its first real challenge: the ethics of receiving free books without being transparent about it.

It seems naive now, right? Every book blog today has a review policy as standard and most bloggers flag up the source of all the books they review.

But in 2006 when I happened to mention the need for one in a blog post written while I was ill in bed with pneumonia the wrath of the internet rained down on you. This was your first post that went viral. (This was in the days before Twitter or Facebook.) The comments came thick and fast. People agreed, people disagreed, one person even called me a “slattern” and then wondered why I took offence. The “shitstorm” rumbled on for weeks, but I like to think it had a lasting legacy: being transparent in blog reviews is pretty much the normal state of play these days (though interestingly many other ethical dilemmas have since arisen, such as when do you disclose you are friends with the author? Should you ever accept payment for reviews? Are you obliged to review everything you receive?)

Being “discovered”

In the years that followed you went from strength to strength. British publishers finally discovered you. Faber & Faber, which just so happened to be my favourite publisher, were the first to get in touch. It was a generous offer: look at our brochure and let us know what you’d like. In typically tentative style I chose one book —Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark — simply because I was overwhelmed by the choice and didn’t want to appear greedy.

Then, somewhere around 2008 or 2009 (I can’t be sure), you received your first invite to an official book bloggers event. I won’t name the publisher, but I came away from it feeling disappointed — the types of books being promoted weren’t a good fit for you — and patronised (we had to play a childish quiz). But I did meet some great people: the faces behind other blogs I’d been following. And it taught me a valuable lesson: it’s nice to be invited but be selective about what invitations you accept.

By 2010 your heyday had arrived. I was feeding you up to five times a week. Dozens of books were arriving unsolicited for potential review. You had a loyal following — up to 7,000 hits a week and your site metre hit ONE MILLION page views. There were lots of comments on a daily basis.

Through you I even got asked to host a literary event: I was “in conversation with” German author Friedrich Christian Delius (and his translator Jamie Bulloch) about his book Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman in front of a small audience at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. It was exciting and scary and nerve-wracking all at the same time. But I was beginning to feel like you (and me) might have “arrived”.

Social media impact

A month later I was made redundant from my day job. It was a blessing in disguise. I spent three months travelling and then devoted most of my time to you.

I set up a Facebook page to support you and I spent a lot of time on Twitter promoting you. The efforts paid off, but there was a downside to the arrival of social media: the conversations that would normally be held in your comment section now switched to Twitter. You still attracted a lot of traffic, but the lifeblood seemed to be draining away. I firmly believe that comments make the blog world go round: when they dry up it can feel isolating. But once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no going back.

If I was to choose a date where you reached your pinnacle it would be 17 March 2011. Through you I was invited on a press trip to Dublin. Some clever soul had seen all the Irish literature reviews I fed you. What resulted was three days of blissful courting by the Irish Tourism Board, the highlight of which was sailing down O’Connell Street in an open-deck bus leading the official St Patrick’s Day parade, which had a literary theme that year. The next day I was in the audience at Dublinswell, still the best literary event I’ve ever attended (could someone bring it back, please?)

A few months later you were invited back to Dublin to attend Bloomsday festivities and I, as your representative, had a magnificently authentic Bloomsday breakfast, went on a James Joyce literary walk and later attended a “how to read Ulysses” seminar. It was such a terrific experience.

In fact, through you I was presented with lots of terrific literary opportunities*  over the next few years:

  • I had face-to-face interviews with Joseph O’Connor (in Dublin) and Tim Winton (in London);
  • The late KevinfromCanada invited me to participate in the Shadow Giller (and I had dinner with his lovely wife Sheila in Toronto), something I’ve done every year between 2011 and 2016;
  • I chaired a Q&A session with Australian author Fiona MacFarlane on the occasion of her book launch in the UK, an event staged by the Australian Women’s Club and the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Art; and
  • I received a rare invite to Sebastian Barry’s in-house book launch (and swooned when I realised he knew who I was).

Taking a step back

But by 2014 I was feeling burned out. I was making my living as a freelance sub-editor for specialist publications, which meant I was spending my days intensely focused on complicated copy trying to make it “reader friendly”. I no longer had the energy to come home and write copy to feed you.

It didn’t help that too many books were coming through the door. Too many self-published authors were sending me PDFs of their books uninvited (and then getting stroppy when I replied to say I didn’t review self-published books). Too many publishers were starting to demand reviews to which I just couldn’t commit or asking me to take part in blog tours I had no interest in. Too much of my time and energy was being wasted on feeding you posts that nobody was reading.

I decided to take a step back.

I had a massive clear out of all my books and donated more than 500 to my local Oxfam, which sent a taxi around to collect them. I emailed all the publishers who were sending me books unsolicited and asked them to stop.

Starting afresh

I then transferred you from Typepad to WordPress, purchased a new URL and stripped you back to the bare minimum: book reviews and book lists only. I even took out my star rating system when I realised people thought books I’d awarded three stars weren’t worth reading. This process took three months, done in between freelance editing shifts, and then I launched you back into the world in September 2014.

Cue tumble weeds.

Your traffic fell off a cliff. The 1,000+ followers I had on Typepad dropped to 200 or so. My long-suffering postman no longer turned up at the door burdened by parcels of books.

Now just a couple of books a week came through the door, but they were books I wanted. I created a new blogging regime: I would feed you just once a week and I wouldn’t bother with trying to compete with everyone else. I would plough my own furrow and rediscover the joy of reading and reviewing to my own schedule rather than someone else’s. I no longer wanted to be an “influencer”. I wanted to be someone who loved books and liked sharing that love with others.

I took that to extreme in 2016 when I devoted an entire year to reading nothing but Australian literature. It was one of the best reading years of my life. I loved it.

And thanks to you, wonderful you, some great opportunities came my way last year, too:

Now, here we are in 2017. We’ve had our ups and downs, you and me, but I love you. I love the opportunities you’ve presented me with and I love the people — authors, publishers, fellow bloggers and literary lovers — you’ve introduced me to. I think we’ve both matured into something that is confident (if contrary), likes to do our own thing and knows our own mind. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve tried to raise you to be individual, original, respectful, mindful of others and with integrity as your guiding force.

I can’t wait to see what your teenage years hold in store!

Happy birthday.

Love, kimbofo x

* Despite all that, no one in the mainstream media has ever asked me to review a book in an official capacity, nor asked me to judge a literary prize — there’s hope yet!