January and February are always big reading months for me. Blame the terrible weather and general post-festive blah, but all I want to do is escape into new worlds. For 2016, I decided to branch out and try new genres. So far I’ve read literary fiction, children’s novels, romance, horror, magical realism, nature non-fiction, memoir and essays. Here are my favourites of the year so far:
- The Deep, Nick Cutter – The perfect horror novel for claustrophobics, Event Horizon meets Stephen King’s It.
- The Accident Season, Moïra Fowley-Doyle – This magical realist young adult novel is atmospheric, vivid, poetically-written, and just the right amount of weird.
- Best Laid Plans, Lauren Gallagher – This was my first proper romance novel, and I loved it. It’s romantic and hot (which is what you want in a romance, really), as well as considering serious issues in a thoughtful way (Islamophobia, non-traditional relationships), and presenting sexuality as a spectrum rather than a strict binary.
- Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce – Fantasy meets reality when Tara goes missing for twenty years, then reappears claiming she’s been in fairyland the whole time. I can’t get enough of books that mix realism and magic.
- But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman – Entertaining and thought-provoking. Klosterman asks how we will value and think of today’s arts in the future.
- Coyote, Colin Winnette – A big subject (the loss of a child) handled beautifully in a small book (96 pages of tight, precise prose).
What are the best books you’ve read so far this year?
It’s February, and you know what that means – Valentine’s Day! (I know – ugh.) I’m a rainbow sunshine hippy, and I do believe in love. But I don’t believe that you have to buy anyone tacky overpriced shit on a specific day to show that you love them. So in honour of being anti-Valentine’s Day (though not anti-love), here are my favourite stories about love, in all its complicated, horrible, wonderful, vital glory.
- Fingersmith, Sarah Waters – One of my favourite love stories, and even then the ‘happily ever after’ has a generous dollop of bleakness. Ah, just the way I like it.
- The Blue Girl, Laurie Foos – There are many different types of love here – both functional and dysfunctional – but the one that comes through the most strongly is the powerful and complex love between mothers and daughters.
- In Love With Death, Satish Modi – Brief but punchy philosophical essays on coming to terms with your inevitable death by falling in love with your life. This might seem morbid for Valentine’s Day, but after losing my dad and all my grandparents, I’ve come to see that the only way to truly appreciate life is to accept that it’s brief and utterly unpredictable – but all the more wonderful for that.
- Geek Love, Katherine Dunn – One of my all-time favourites, this novel chronicles a family of freak show performers and shows how love can make us do strange and terrible things.
- Big Ray, Michael Kimball – Although presented as fiction, it’s clear that Kimball’s own love-hate-love relationship with his own father had a huge influence on this book. This is one of the truest and most brutal books about loving and losing a parent that I’ve ever read.
- The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison – As this is a memoir about Harrison’s consensual incestuous relationship with her biological father, clearly this is not a positive portrayal of love. Love is good, love is bad, but love is rarely simple.
- Days of Grace, Catherine Hall – Good lord, how I adore this book. I’ve never read such a beautiful portrayal of unrequited love.
- Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block – This was one of my favourite books as a teenager. I wanted to be just like FLB when I grew up. It’s not to everyone’s taste (and even my jaded eyes now find it cloyingly sweet at times), but underlying the glitter there’s a strong message that you can love whomever you want to love, and family is whatever you want it to be.
- ‘Gold‘, Katherine McMahon (in Treasure in the History of Things) – McMahon’s poetry is so beautiful you can get high from it. She writes so wonderfully and honestly about love, particularly in this ode to an ex-girlfriend.
- Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell – This list has focussed more on the grim side of love (though, genuinely, I do think that only by confronting the bad aspects of life and love do we appreciate the good). Still, I’m ending on an upbeat note with this sweet, addictive novel about two people finding, losing and [SPOILER!] re-finding love.
What’s your favourite love story?
January is nobody’s favourite month. I don’t know about where you are, but here in Scotland it’s cold, it’s dark, and our wallets are now as empty as our Christmas stockings.
So, if you’re as skint as I am, feast your eyes on the riches of this Top 10 (plus bonus #11) list I made, just for you. They’re all brilliant, and they’re all free.
- The library. New books, old books, classic books, cult books, books by authors you follow on Twitter. More books than you could ever read in your lifetime. And they’re all free! Is there anything better? I bloody love the library. Even if your local library doesn’t have a great selection, you can request anything from your district to be delivered to your local library (for free).
- Podcasts. Sometimes podcasts are so good that I can’t believe they’re free. There are dozens and dozens of quality ones to choose from, but my favourites are Lore, Missing, Criminal, Stuff You Should Know, and Pop Culture Happy Hour.
- Clothes swaps. Dig out any clothing that doesn’t fit you or that you don’t like, invite a few friends round, and and get the kettle on. Easy! If you’re not the same clothing size as your friends, you can swap shoes, make-up, jewellery, books, CDs, DVDs, kitchenware – whatever you have that you no longer want. Anything left over can be donated to charity or a shelter.
- Online literary magazines. Some of the finest, most imaginative, most experimental fiction around today can be read online, totally free. There’s an incredible wealth of online lit mags – start with PANK, Five Dials, Little Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Fantasy Magazine (their current issue is Queer Destroy Fantasy!, and it’s ace).
- The library! Again, just to remind you: All of the books. None of the money.
- Channel 4 On Demand. The Channel 4 catch-up service is seriously brilliant, and goes back decades. It’s great for comedy: there’s Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Spaced, Black Books, Father Ted, Brass Eye, and nine (nine!) seasons of Peep Show. Also some excellent dramas: my favourites are Black Mirror and No Offence. Next up I’m watching The Devil’s Whore, The Fear, and Southcliffe.
- Events at the Glasgow Women’s Library. If you haven’t yet visited GWL, you are missing out. Not only can you borrow books (it is a library, after all), but there’s a huge and varied programme of arts and culture events – almost all of them free. Get started by coming to the Spring programme launch on 19 January, and get some fun free stuff in your diary.
- Skill swap. It’s a new year – time for a new skill. I bet you know someone who can cook, swim, knit, do yoga, speak another language, sew, draw, speak well in public, organise finances, do DIY, or a multitude of other useful things. It can be tricky at first to think of what you have to trade, but I promise you have at least three useful skills if you really think about it. And remember that teaching someone else to do something enhances your own ability to do it.
- Listening party. Get together with a group of music-loving friends, and take it in turns to host a listening party. You can either make a Spotify playlist in advance, and use it as a chance to introduce your friends to new music (and hear some new music when it’s their turn to host); or play one classic album all the way through.
- Combine skills. Join forces with a friend who has a complementary skill, and work together on a new project. Do you write, and have a friend who likes to draw? Make an illustrated chapbook. Do you play music, and have a friend who loves poetry? Write a song together. Do you make videos, and have a friend with a band? Make a music video. You get the idea. Nothing gets you through the dark months like making something new.
- THE FREAKING LIBRARY. I will never stop encouraging you to go to the library, because it’s the best free thing you could possibly do.
What are your favourite free things to do in these cold, skint months?
This year I read 197 books. I tried to do a top 5, or even a top 10, but to be honest 197 books is a LOT of books (I did months of solo travelling and overnights in hotels, meaning lots of reading), and it was too hard to choose. So here is a highly personal, not-very-scientifically-chosen list of my 38 favourites.
Books out in 2015:
- Best Twist Ending: Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller
- Best Novel in Second Person: Scorper, Rob Magnuson Smith
- Best Can’t-Stop-Reading-Once-You’ve-Started: The Exit, Helen Fitzgerald
- Best Warms-Yer-Cockles Novel: Vigilante, Shelley Harris
- Best Short Stories About Loneliness: An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, Jessie Greengrass
- Best Non-Fiction About the Internet: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson
- Best Semi-Autobiographical Novel By A Writer I Did an Event With: Girl At War, Sara Novic
- Best Novella: The Lost Art of Sinking, Naomi Booth
- Best Novel About Circuses and the Sea: The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler
- Best Book by a Canadian Author: Etta & Otto & Russell & James, Emma Hooper
- Best Worldbuilding in a Children’s Novel: Lockwood & Co: The Hollow Boy, Jonathan Stroud
- Best Worldbuilding in a YA Novel: Ruin & Rising, Leigh Bardugo
- Best Mystery Novel About Suffragettes: The Hourglass Factory, Lucy Ribchester
- Best Novel About Contemporary Feminist Issues: Fishnet, Kirstin Innes
- Best Finnish-Set Horror That I Really Shouldn’t Have Read While Staying in a Creepy Attic Room in Finland: The Black Tongue, Marko Hautala
- Best Fairytale Parody: Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick deWitt
Books Out Before 2015:
- Best Christmas-Themed Horror: NOS4R2, Joe Hill
- Best Feminist Dystopia: Only Ever Yours, Louise O’Neill
- Best Historical YA About Girls With Their Tongues Cut Out: All the Truth That’s in Me, Julie Berry
- Best Novel in Short Stories: The Spinning Heart, Donal Ryan
- Best Memoir About the Dyatlov Pass Incident: Dead Mountain, Donnie Eichar
- Best Novel That Made Me Do Proper Sobbing Gasping Crying: Days of Grace, Catherine Hall
- Best Modern Point-Horror Style Horror: Say Her Name, James Dawson
- Best Book With No Words: The Arrival, Shaun Tan
- Best Poetry/Nature/Social History Crossover: Holloway, Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood & Dan Richards
- Best Short Stories About Bears: Bears of England, Mick Jackson
- Best Made-Me-Angry Essays: Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
- Best Spec-Fic Short Stories: The Poison Eaters, Holly Black
- Best Essays About the Strange Personal Lives of Children’s Writers: Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups, Alison Lurie
- Best Memoir About Books: How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis
- Best Horror With an Unreliable Narrator: Remainder, Tom McCarthy
- Best Haunted House Novel: Nyctophobia, Christopher Fowler
- Best Sensory-Deprivation Horror: Bird Box, Josh Malerman
- Best Book I Wish I’d Written: The Ice Queen, Alice Hoffman
- Best Comic Book: Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick
- Best Classic Children’s Book: Skellig, David Almond
- Best Book About Selkies: Orkney, Amy Sackville
- Best YA Magical Realism: Imaginary Girls, Nova Ren Suma
What were your favourite reads in 2015?
Winter is my favourite season. Bright snowy days, long dark nights: perfect for a cup of tea and a good book. Here are my favourite books to get you through these chilly months.
- The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken – My all-time favourite Christmas book. I loved it as a child, and as an adult I’ve yet to read anything as sinister as that stalled train in the middle of a snowy English countryside overrun by wolves.
- Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, Margaret Atwood – You might have noticed that I’m a bit obsessed with the north and the sea, and this slim book of essays delivers that in spades.
- If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino – I first read this on a sunny Spanish beach, which was a mistake, as this sort of trippy, playful metafiction is much better suited to winter.
- Through the Woods, Emily Carroll – Possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever read, and the stories are so creepy that I had trouble sleeping afterwards.
- NOS4R2, Joe Hill – I’m not a fan of feel-good Christmas stories – but the horrifying, vivid world of Christmasland? Bring it on.
- The Shining, Stephen King – If Christmas means spending time with family you’d rather avoid, this is the chilly, claustrophobic book for you.
- North Child, Edith Pattou – A version of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, and one of my all-time favourite fairytale retellings.
- Northern Lights (AKA The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman – One of the most vivid fantasy worlds I’ve ever read.
- The Secret History, Donna Tartt – Whenever I think of this book, I remember snow.
- Mysterious Christmas Tales, David Wyatt (editor) – I’ve reread this every Christmas since I was about 12. Is there anything better than a ghost story in December?
What will you be reading this winter?