Goodbye, summer! I managed to wear my sunglasses and sandals at least twenty times, which for Scotland isn’t bad going. I also spent a glorious ten days in the south of England with my wife and our dog, swimming and eating and generally forgetting about the rest of the world – and reading, of course.
After that I spent six weeks on a residency at Cove Park, a beautiful place with a loch and Highland cows and all the reading and writing time you could ever want. I was working on my new book, a collection of horror stories, so I was reading a lot of horror and strange short fiction, and – let’s be honest – going a bit odd. I always do that on residencies, and I like to believe that I can’t really produce good writing unless I’ve gone a bit odd. Though perhaps my family and friends would prefer that not to be the case.
Hopefully this explains this mix of favourites from the last few months, which I have conveniently put into two categories…
Summery Things I Read by the Pool with my Wife and Dog
A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr – A subtle, beautiful joy. I didn’t realise a novella about a lonely man restoring a church mural would be so relevant to my life, but that’s the power of great writing.
A Pocketful of Crows, Joanne M. Harris – I love this book so much I want to eat it, so I can carry it around inside myself. I just chaired Joanne Harris’s event at the book festival in Edinburgh, and she mentioned that she’s working on another book in this series – and it’s about selkies! Honestly, it’s like she’s writing specifically for me.
Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh – It’s an old one, but I felt it still had a lot of relevance to my life. Even if it doesn’t speak to something inside you, it’s beautifully written.
The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate, Rachel McCrum – An absolute glory from beginning to end, and hard to believe it’s a debut. It’s joint-best poetry book I read this year (see below), which is really no surprise as I’ve been a fan of McCrum’s for years. I’ll quote from her poem about manspreading on trains, and I defy you not to want to buy the book immediately: “I will spread my knees on subway trains / Show ‘em how wide and dark the tunnel is.”
All the Prayers in the House, Miriam Nash – I adored this. It’s worth the cover price just for ‘The Wife’s Apology’, which is the best selkie poem I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot).
Little Black Book, Otegha Uwagba – A tiny book that packs a serious punch. I want to buy this for every woman I know (and most of the men).
Horror and Weird Things I Read Alone While Losing My Mind a Bit
Oh Honey, Emily M. Austin – I don’t usually like realism, and I definitely don’t like books about call centres (I worked in a call centre, selling PPI – I apologise if I ever sold you PPI, which is unlikely as I was rubbish at that job). But there’s something about this book. The narrator’s voice, the repetition, the wry pop-culture jokes in how she cold-calls (Hello my name is Hilda, Hello my name is Zelda, Hello my name is Sabrina). It’s hard to say I love it because by its nature it’s such a cold and harsh book. But I thought about it for a long time, and I’m still thinking about it.
Gutshot, Amelia Gray – While I was reading these tiny, brutal stories I didn’t think I liked them. But the deeper I got into the book, the more they got under my skin. ‘House Heart’ is absolutely horrifying, and ‘Thank You’ is tiny and perfect and I wish I’d written it.
The Doll’s Alphabet, Camilla Grudova – I felt genuinely sick while reading this. Not because it’s gory or violent, but because everything is so grimy and hopeless – and yet there is love, and there is trying. It has to be read in short bursts, as the stories are so intense and so unpleasant. The incredible world-building and command of language gave me serious writer envy.
After the People Lights Have Gone Off, Stephen Graham Jones – The slow-creep power of these stories is incredible. It’s like there’s always something shadowed and shifting at the corner of your eye.
You Should Have Left, Daniel Kehlmann – This packs so much creep into such a small space, and does clever things with language too. It’s read-in-one-sitting horror at its finest.
The Silent Companions, Laura Purcell – This isn’t out until October (sorry!), but it’s worth the wait because it’s creepy as hell.
Past Mortem, Carla Valentine – I’ve always been interested in death and funeral customs, but this has made me want to learn more. It’s enlightening, honest, and funnier than you might expect.
The Hair Wreath and Other Stories, Halli Villegas – Strange and beautiful. I have so many favourites: ‘Rites’, ‘Winter’, ‘Picnic’, ‘The Family’ and ‘Salvage’ were all wonderful. I want to read more from Villegas.
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What are the best books you’ve read recently?