Late 2014 – early 2015 reading

150-ThePsychopathTest The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Like Them, The Psychopath Test is the sort of addictive book I tend to blaze through in a couple of days, its unchallenging language expressing some deeply disturbing ideas. In this case, the idea that psychopaths live among us, sowing seeds of chaos throughout society, but they can be weeded out by means of a series of questions. And alongside this, the equally disturbing idea that this test can be misused in order to make almost anyone seem like a psychopath. There is a touch of the counter-narrative that inevitably seems to crop up in every book like this – “omigosh, what if I’M the psychopath, trying to find psychopaths everywhere?!” – but Ronson doesn’t dwell on it too much. Look out for: the chapter about lack of empathy in the world of reality TV, which somehow manages to be more disgusting than all the stuff about murderers. Good job, guys.

150-TheBridge The Bridge by Iain Banks

I’m not a particular fan of using metaphor in place of plot, but my main problem is when narratives turn that way only at the end. I don’t mind when novels are open about their metaphorical intentions from the outset, and when they justify it by, for example, setting the metaphorical stuff inside a character’s mind. When a skilled author (and Iain Banks most certainly was that) takes the risk of going far enough down the rabbit hole of weird interlocking symbolism, the result can be quite thrilling and rewarding – a Cloud Atlas style puzzle box to toy with at your leisure. The Bridge is a bit like a cross between Life on Mars and Brazil, a journey into a complicated and unsettling world of steam power and bureaucracy where it’s not always clear what’s a dream – and what’s a dream within a dream. Even if the way it all fits together confuzzles you, there are enough treats along the way – the cleverly confounding world of the bridge, the hilarious barbarian bits, the ever-lively descriptive style – to make this a journey worth taking.

150-GoneGirl Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It all begins, with pleasing swiftness, when a woman goes missing and her husband gets caught up in the ensuing media circus. That’s about all I can say without spoiling Gone Girl. The story takes many twists and turns – the dynamics seem to change almost every chapter – yet it never loses sight of what it’s about: two fascinating, dark, well-drawn characters. It also delves rather intelligently into the ways we pretend, how we try to shape our behaviour to fit with other people’s expectations, and some of the destructive consequences this can have. I found it particularly interesting having just read The Psychopath Test, but it split my book club right down the middle, between those of us who found it a brilliant, addictive page-turner and those who found it so boring they could barely finish it. Never have I been so baffled by people’s reactions to a book, so … be aware that you might hate it, I guess. If you hate awesome things.

150-HowNotToSelfPublish How NOT to Self-Publish by Rosen Trevithick

As I am gearing up to self-publish my novel, I thought I’d better try to learn a bit about the self-publishing world. Despite the fact that this is not the most serious book on the subject – or the second most serious, or, I would imagine, anywhere in the top hundred most serious – I feel as though it’s given me more of a sense of what to expect than any sombre statistic-filled handbook ever could. The absurd scenarios within capture the vivid and often unhealthy emotions that come with exposing your work to the cruel world of readers, critics, obsessive fans and indifferent family members. The fact that Rosen Trevithick is willing to admit some of these emotions and laugh at them makes me breathe a sigh of relief – perhaps worrying about those things does not make me too immature to cope with the business of being a writer. Perhaps I could fit in with all the other indie authors putting a brave face on their seething jealousies and insecurities. Phew.

150-TheHauntingOfHillHouse The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The opening of Hill House is strong – we get to bask in some quite beautiful language, get to know (and in my case like) Eleanor and her flights of fancy, and are introduced to a promisingly crooked house that seems to ooze potential for horror. But I was a little disappointed from there on. It’s not that I expected modern pacing and in-your-face nightmarish horror a la The Conjuring. I expected subtlety, but not subtlety so subtle that towards the end I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations at all, or much care what happened to them. Perhaps I need to read this book again with my subtlety dial turned up, as other people’s reactions to it make me want to get more from it than I did. It’s a shame, but I guess horror is an incurably subjective genre – it scares you or it doesn’t.

150-TheMountainAndTheFlood The Mountain and the Flood by Sheila Perry

Another novel by my mum, published under her real name this time! It’s set in a dystopian future version of Scotland which achieved independence from the UK then went a bit evil and began cracking down on citizens of English birth. (Guess which side my mum was on in the independence debate?) In the midst of this, a half-English, half-Scottish family living in Edinburgh struggles to remain together, fighting first faceless bureaucracy and later actual people with actual faces. Oh, and while all this is going on, an apocalyptic storm is brewing that could flood most of Scotland. To do the indie book pitch thing: it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four meets The Day After Tomorrow meets Cat’s Cradle! It’s also very entertaining, even the bits I disagree with politically – which, in any case, tend to be superficial things rather than core philosophical tenets.

150-WolfInWhiteVan Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Y’know, another one of those stories about a disfigured boy who runs a play-by-mail choose-your-own-adventure type game called Trace Italian. Wolf in White Van is in that very specific subgenre (if you can call it that) of books which tell their stories in a non-linear way, and which dance teasingly around a central event which took place a while ago but which we don’t really understand until quite late on. (The God of Small Things is another example that jumps to mind.) It’s the sort of book whose implied insidious hidden messages you could probably spend weeks trying to decode if the mood took you. Even skimming it a second time greatly enhanced my appreciation for its subtly poetic language and intricate thematic explorations.

Write. Publish. Repeat. Fiction Unboxed Write. Publish. Repeat. and Fiction Unboxed by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant

More insight into the self-publishing world, written by some intimidatingly prolific self-publishing authors. The first of these books gave me the kick I needed to start really taking writing seriously as a career, and think about realistic ways to make money from it, as opposed to the vanishingly faint hope that my first book will instantly catapult me to success. The second details the process of writing a 100,000 word Young Adult book in the space of a month (whaaa), in a most inspiring and instructive way.

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