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?

10 books, Book lists

10 books about journalists

10-booksIn response to yesterday’s tragic events in Paris, where two terrorists stormed the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, shooting dead 12 people — eight of them journalists — and injuring 11 others, I thought I would republish this list, which first appeared on my old Reading Matters blog in 2011.

I am a trained journalist and have spent my career working in news rooms and magazine offices, so freedom of speech is a value I hold very dear. Perhaps it’s no surprise that some of my favourite novels are about journalists working on newspapers and magazines. I call these “newspaper novels” but they could equally be called “journalism novels”, “print media novels” or “novels about journalists”.

Because the newspaper game is a funny old lark, these novels lend themselves very well to humour and satire. And typically they’re peopled with rich and intriguing characters, because the business seems to attract oddballs and eccentrics, the likes of which you don’t see anywhere else.

Here’s my top 10 novels about journalists (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name) — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

KeepersofTruth The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins (2000)

This is an interesting look at what it is like to be a journalist on a small town newspaper. Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, Collins’ novel is part thriller, part crime mystery. Set in midwest America in the late 1970s, the novel charts the social disintegration of an industrial town in decline — and examines the difficulties that confront reporters when they must write about the people they know. The narrator, Bill, is a young misfit journalist working at The Daily Truth who finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed by a local murder. The story takes a dark turn when Bill becomes a suspect. This is a dark, brooding story, written with passion and fury.

MyTurnToMakeTheTea ‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens (1951)

Set during an era in which journalists carried out all their reporting in person — not by telephone or email — and then typed up their stories on clunky typewriters, this is a revealing insight in to life on a provincial newspaper. It’s also a fascinating account of the petty dramas that occur when working in a newsroom. There isn’t much of a plot, instead it reads very much like the diary of a young reporter, called Poppy, learning the ropes on the Downingham Post. The book largely works by showing how Poppy’s misconceptions about journalism fall by the wayside as the practicalities of producing a weekly newspaper fall into place. It’s a terrific read and peopled by a cast of wonderful characters, including a sexist editor who poo-poohs Poppy’s idea to introduce a woman’s column and publish letters to the editor that would be of interest to a female readership.

TowardsTheEnd Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn (1967)

This is a hilarious account of what it was like to work on an unspecified newspaper during the declining years of Fleet Street. At the heart of the story are two journalists — the older, more uptight and ambitious John Dyson, who is anxious to find an easy route out of his mundane job, and the younger, more laid back and directionless Bob Bell, who doesn’t have the courage to dump his girlfriend. The two of them work in the crossword and nature notes department but spend most of their time in the local drinking establishments complaining about their jobs and their workloads. While it’s a story about journalism and its struggle with changing work practises and the emerging “glitterati” of television broadcasting, it’s essentially a comedy of manners. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this one!

Slab-rat ‘Slab Rat’ by Ted Heller (2001)

I read this long before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review, but this is a wickedly funny — and very realistic — look at what it’s like for a cynic to work on a glitzy magazine filled with fake, career-climbing people. Zac Post is so desperate to be promoted that he’ll resort to pretty much anything to be noticed by his bosses. If that means doing underhand, morally dubious things, then so be it. This is a story as much about office politics as it is about journalism. And it’s a scathing satire on what people will do to get ahead in life, love and business. Highly recommended.

Russell-wiley-is-out-to-lunch ‘Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch’ by Richard Hine (2010)

This is a newspaper novel with a twist: instead of focusing on the editorial side it looks at the advertising and publishing side. The story is told in the first person by Russell Wiley, the sales development director on the Daily Business Chronicle, whose objective is to sell more advertising pages. But it is an uphill battle. The industry is in terminal decline. There’s not enough new readers to replace the ones that are dying off. While the book is essentially an insightful look at what happens when traditional media fails to adapt to the digital age, you don’t need to know anything about the way in which newspapers are run to enjoy it. Anyone who has worked in any kind of corporate environment will find much that is familiar here.

Bilton‘Bilton’ by Andrew Martin (1997)

This is a deliciously funny read about Bilton, a grumpy journalist, who inadvertently becomes a media sensation when he throws a cup of coffee in the face of the British Prime Minister. Bilton’s action is billed as heroic, but what no one quite realises is that it wasn’t preplanned or motivated by politics — Bilton was simply drunk and “threw” the coffee when he slipped on the floor. As his stardom increases, and the prime minister’s popularity continues to slide, Bilton begins to lose his integrity — and the shocking truth threatens to come out. The strength of the book is the clever way in which it pokes fun at the relationship between the press and politicians, showing how one feeds the other in a weird interdependent but cannibalistic fashion.

The-Spoiler ‘The Spoiler’ by Annalena McAfee (2011)

This highly accomplished debut novel, set in 1997, tells the story of two female journalists who are poles apart in age, experience and outlook. Honor Tait is a highly regarded veteran war correspondent whose career in journalism has drawn to a close. Tamara Sim is young and tenacious, struggling to make a name for herself in an industry that is on the verge of drastic change. When the younger has to interview the older, a culture clash ensue — not only are they worlds apart in age and experience, the way in which they ply their journalistic trade is radically different. By pitting the two women against each other, McAfee is able to demonstrate the changing face of newspaper journalism in an original, adroit and hugely humorous way.

Shipping_news ‘The Shipping News’ by Annie Proulx (1993)

Following the untimely death of his wife, Quoyle moves from New York to Newfoundland. He takes his two young daughters with him and tries to start afresh in the town of his forebears. He finds work on the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, where he’s employed to write the shipping news — hence the book’s title — and report on local car accidents. While this isn’t a strictly newspaper novel — it’s more of a heartwarming story about rebuilding your life after a tragedy and finding friendship in unexpected places — it does include many journalistic insights, such as Quoyle’s penchant for viewing his life in headlines and the paper’s tendency towards plagiarism and typographical howlers. I read it not long after it won the Pulitzer Prize (hence no review — this was a decade before I began the blog) and still have fond memories of it.

The-Imperfectionists ‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman (2010)

A fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, this hugely popular debut “novel” is actually 11 interlinked short stories focusing on the employees of an English-language newspaper in Rome. In between each chapter, Rachman charts the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 through to its peak in the early 1980s — when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high — and then describes its slow decline as circulations and revenues decrease and closure looks imminent. And while much of the content is a tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism, there’s an undercurrent of despair running through it, too: the highly experienced Paris correspondent, who has been replaced by “freelancers selling jaw-dropping stuff”, is so desperate to earn a commission he fabricates a lead story; while the obituary writer, who has been sidelined in his career, doesn’t recover his motivation until someone close to him dies. This is an entertaining read, one that provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business.

Scoop ‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Scoop is billed as the funniest novel ever written about journalism — in fact, it’s safe to say it is the standard bearer for newspaper novels. It follows the escapades of William Boot, who is mistaken for an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast. With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. One word: hilarious.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular novels about journalists that you’d recommend? What is missing from my list?

10 books, Book lists

10 books to make you laugh

10-booksFor this list of 10 Books I’m looking at those that tickle the funny bone. Admittedly, I generally prefer my fiction a little on the darker side, but every now and then it’s refreshing to read something a bit more light-hearted, and if it gives me a belly laugh or two, then all the better.

Plus, readers constantly ask me to recommend books that will make them laugh — and these are the humorous novels that immediately spring to mind.

Here’s my top 10 funny novels (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

EnglishPassengers ‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale

This isn’t your typical funny novel. In fact, it’s probably best classed as historical fiction. But there are aspects of it that are incredibly witty. Told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters, it plunges the reader into a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing half way around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew, headed by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, carry on board a small expedition team, comprising a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist, intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania. It’s a wonderful romp and, in my opinion, is one of the best books published in the past 10 years.

AFarCryFromKensington ‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark

I suspect I could have chosen any of the late Muriel Spark’s novels to be included in this list, but I’ve gone for this one purely because I remember enjoying it so much when I read it last year. It’s set in 1954 and tells the story of Mrs Hawkins, who works in publishing, and finds herself in deep water when she’s just a little too frank with a client. There’s a dual narrative involving a death threat against a lodger with whom Mrs Hawkins resides, which adds a rather sinister twist to the story.

GingerMan‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy

Ask me to name the funniest story I’d ever read and I would not hesitate to name this one. First published in Paris in 1955, the book was banned in Ireland — where it is set — and the USA for obscenity. It follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. And while the book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, it’s the comic elements which really makes this story a great one to chortle along with.

MaintenanceOfHeadway‘Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills is one of my all-time favourite authors, but he is an acquired taste. I’ve read his entire back catalogue and enjoyed them all. This is his latest book, but I could have easily named one of his others, as they’re all hugely funny stories. Maintenance of Headway is pretty much devoid of plot; it’s basically a series of vignettes about the running of the London bus network. Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny, particularly if you have a dry sense of humour. The wit comes chiefly through the conversations held between drivers on their tea-breaks. It’s the perfect read if you are looking for something that little bit different…

Scoop‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh

First published in 1938, Scoop is billed as one of the funniest novel ever written about journalism. It follows the escapades of William Boot, who is mistaken for an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast. With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. One word: hilarious.

AShortGentleman‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter

This novel pokes fun at the British upper classes. The story is narrated by Robert Purcell, a distinguished barrister who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The book is essentially a confession of his downfall told in a very long-winded but brilliantly witty way. We don’t know what crime it is that Robert committed, and part of the joy of reading this book is trying to figure it out as you go along.

Snuff‘Snuff’ by Chuck Palahniuk

A novel about the pornographic industry might not sound like a barrel of laughs, but in the very capable hands of Chuck Palahniuk it takes on a rather surreal, laugh-out-loud dimension. Instead of glorifying pornography, he pokes fun at it, and, in doing so, he highlights the absurdity, warped mentality and crudity of it all. But if I can offer a caveat, it would be this: don’t bother reading if you are easily offended. There’s plenty of bad language and crude scenes to last a life time in this one!

SomethingFresh‘Something Fresh’ by P.G. Wodehouse

I couldn’t put together a list of funny novels without including some Wodehouse. In this book, the first in the Blandings series, a retired American millionaire, Mr Peters, tries to get back his incredibly rare and valuable scarab which has been absent-mindedly pocketed by Lord Emsworth. What follows is a complete farce in which two rivals — Ashe Marson, a poorly paid writer of detective stories, and Joan Valentine, a magazine correspondent — try to get the scarab back in exchange for a rather generous reward from Mr Peters. Throw in an overweight private detective, a rich “idiot child”, a fussy butler and an efficient private secretary, among others, and the comic world of P.G. Wodehouse comes truly alive.

TimeAfterTime_small‘Time After Time’ by Molly Keane

This is a delicious black comedy that seems frothy and lighthearted on the surface, but has a very dark heart beating at its centre. It’s not immediately obvious but this is a story about the nasty things people do to each other. It’s set in a beautiful but crumbling mansion in Southern Ireland where four elderly siblings reside. Each of them is eccentric, fiercely independent and set in their own ways. When their cousin Leda arrives unannounced for a short stay little do they know the ructions she is about to cause… More please.

TowardsTheEnd‘Towards the End of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn

Novels about journalism and newspapers are particular favourites of mine (see Scoop above), and this one, written in 1967, harks back to the days when Fleet Street began to experience terminal decline. While it’s set in an unspecified newspaper and focuses on print journalists fearing for their futures, it’s essentially a comedy of manners. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this one.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books or authors you’d recommend as a funny read? What is missing from my list?

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michael Frayn, Publisher, Setting

‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn

TowardsTheEnd

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 221 pages; 2000.

Michael Frayn’s  Towards the end of the Morning should come with a warning: don’t read in public. Honestly, I have not read such a humorous book in a long time. It is laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s set in London at an unspecified newspaper during the declining years of Fleet Street. While it’s a story about journalism and its struggle with changing work practises and the emerging “glitterati” of television broadcasting, it’s essentially a comedy of manners.

At the heart of the story are two journalists – the older, more uptight and ambitious John Dyson, who is anxious to find an easy route out of his mundane job, and the younger, more laid back and directionless Bob Bell, who doesn’t have the courage to dump his girlfriend. The two of them work in the crossword and nature notes department but spend most of their time in the local drinking establishments complaining about their jobs and their workloads.

Through their day to day struggles, Frayne is able to tackle some big themes – old school journalists coming to grips with an emerging tide of bright, young and worryingly efficient graduate trainees; newspaper journos trying to break into the much better paid field of broadcast journalism; the class system; how to get on the property ladder; and race relations – but he does it very deftly and with great humour.

Towards the end of the Morning was written in 1967, but it holds up well as a modern classic. And Frayn’s use of dialogue is spot on. He captures the art of conversation very well, often with more than three or four people speaking at once, very tricky if you’ve ever tried to do it yourself. It is perhaps Frayn’s ear for dialogue that has made him such a gifted and much-praised playwright (Copenhagen and Noises Off are two of his more well known ones, although he has written 11 others).

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It would appeal to anyone looking for a fast-paced funny read.