Category

Books

Category

My Top Five Books of 2020

It’s become an annual tradition of mine to write up my five favourite books of each year. Not books that have been published that year, you understand, or even any attempt to summarise the annual highlights (let’s face it, given the sheer volume, that’s ludicrous), but simply what’s crossed my path and impressed. Reading is a big part of my life – I’d esimate I average several hours a week on books alone – and we;ve slowly edged it more and more into family life, too.

We now celebrate ‘book day’, for example, a kind of bastardisation of an Icelandic tradition, on Christmas Eve, which involves buying new books and chocolate and spending an evening in bed consuming both. This year has seen our son’s reading come on from struggling to do more than a page to reading books in a couple of sittings, too, which has been great to watch.

Anyway, rambling narrative aside, here are the books – this time, it turns out, exclusively not released in 2020 – that have lit up this weirdest of years for me. I got through 56 books in total, so this is a kind of top 10%-ish. The common themes seem to be travel and escapism, which I guess makes sense. Want some more? Here’s what I wrote for this very same post in 2019, 20182017, and 2016)

Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood on the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu

Yang Erche Namu is a folk singer from a fairly obscure mountain-based minority group in China, and this is her biography, though that slightly dull introduction disguises the surreal genius of this book. Namu comes from a society that’s utterly alien to our day-to-day lives, and seemingly untouched by modernity (though the book does date back to 2003). In a culture very much female-led and rejecting traditional marriage, the book’s early narrative about family life and the steadier women owning and keeping the home while the flitting men respond to symbolic sexual rituals is not as titillating as that might suggest, but so utterly away from my own experience it’s like uncovering a totally different concept for society. Which I guess it is.

As the book progresses, Namu moves on to describing her slow forays into the rest of China, including, eventually, places you’ll have heard of, away from her homeland of Himalayan Moso County, and her first encounters with things like paid performance, hotel rooms, modern transport and business-style exploitation. Namu is a rebel, someone who departed her own society against its implicit rules, leaving behind its conventions, and in doing so she uncovers for us in text an entirely new but distinctly engaging view on humanity itself. One of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

My Top Five Books of 2019

Because of the nature of my writing work, this website ends up being a whole lot about music. In fact, I’m every bit as obsessive about reading, too. It’s become an annual tradition to post my favourite books of the year, in part for others, in part because I have a bad memory, and dropping back into the old posts to remember what I really loved it quite a pleasant experience (here’s what I wrote in 2018, 2017, and 2016).

This year was a little bit special, of course, because back in April I also launched my debut book, about a relatively obscure international football tournament for unrecognised nations. It’s called ‘CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten‘. Its launch was definitely my favourite booky moment of the year, obviously, but I’m not the kind of egomaniac to include it below (please do check it out – you’ll have to scroll down on the linked post for order details).

I think in part because I was so book focused through the year, my read count is a little up on most years (I’ll have read 55, my own not included, by the end of the year), so this year’s post is a true ‘elite’. As usual, it’s quite an eclectic selection. Here’s what I really loved…

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian (view)

This is a novel based on the Tiananmen Square student uprising, written (originally) in Chinese by a Chinese emigrant. It’s given a real sense of being close to reality by being written by someone who was actually there. It’s based around two parallel stories about a core character: one set at the time of the uprising, and a second over the following years, as he exists in his mother’s house, poorly cared for, in a coma, but able to hear everything going on around him.

It’s a fairly full-on, heady read, absolutely packed with fascinating cultural references, and I found the ‘locked-in’ aspect of it to be quite affecting. A history lesson in novel form, essentially, with lots of alien (to us) politics and colourful relationships. Fascinating.

My Top Five Books of 2018

I remember being told back when I started writing for publication that almost everyone who writes to a high standard reads a lot, too. I’m not sure I quite believed it at the time, but I’ve found myself more and more drawn to well-written tomes over the years, so much so that this particular blog post has just about become an annual tradition (here’s 2017, and 2016). Who knows if any of it’s actually rubbed off!

In keeping with ‘tradition’, this is nothing to do with books that were released in 2018 (they are just ones I read this year), and doesn’t pretend, obviously, to have any learned/ broad perspective (how could it have). I read roughly 50 books in 2018, which has become an oddly consistent number since I started doing this. Of everything I picked up, these are the ones that grabbed me the most…

Marching Powder by Rusty Young (link)

Thomas McFadden was a long-time and seemingly quite effective drug smuggler who ultimately got tracked down and arrested in Bolivia, where he was sent to the notorious San Pedro jail. In this book, a young journalist who was able to buy his way in and out of the jail to talk to McFadden, uncovers the surreal side of his life.

McFadden became a tour guide, showing travelers around the jail. He learned that the prison was the primary source of the drugs he was once famous for buying, with production taking place in areas that the guards couldn’t get near. He bought prison ‘property’, and his own safety, and even found a way to get out of the jail for the night, meet a new girlfriend, and then have her move in with him in San Pedro. Obviously, I have no idea if San Pedro is still like this (the book was published in 2011), but the insight here is breathtaking. The kind of book I had to stop reading to tell people about what was going on: brilliant.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (view)

On finding love in a hopeless place. This is the story of a multilingual Slovak Jew who ended up in the notorious Second World War prison camp, where his language skills and a bit of good luck landed him the job of Tätowierer, the man who tattoos those famous and dehumanizing numbers on new arrivals. There’s an element of mild Nazi-collaboration to Lale Sokolov’s story, but a greater sense that in amongst the sickening world he’s come to occupy, he’s just doing what he has to in order to survive.

For all it’s hard-hitting glances at the prison camp itself, though, it’s the delicate love story that’s what this book is really about. It’s wonderfully delivered, to the point that the grim surroundings almost seem to fade into the background for a while. The ending is powerful, too.

CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten – An Update

Karpatalya v Northern Cyprus, CONIFA Final at Enfield Town FC

Hi everyone,

So I’ve had a couple of people get in touch about my forthcoming book, CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten. A few things have changed over the last few months, perhaps inevitably, so I just want to fill in anyone who might be interested on the detail, especially those of you who have kindly pre-ordered the book (which you can still do here, if you’d like, though as circumstances change – see below – I might have to stop taking those orders – I will make it clear on the page if I do so).

Thank you to all those that have helped out in any way so far, from the dozens I’ve interviewed to those who’ve financially supported this – you’ve really made it a whole, whole lot easier.

First of all, I recognize some of you might not want a big long-winded update, so here it is all summed up in a couple of paragraphs…

In short: My plan was always to self-publish this book. However, I’ve been approached by a very reputable literary agent about working with me to get hold of a publisher. Her previous work includes Rio Ferdinand’s autobiography and a couple of books by Lee Price which explore similar areas of football to CONIFA. The submission process to publishers will inevitably slow down production, so while I’m all but done with my end, I’m going to hold off on publication for now.

The agent and I have agreed that if there are no takers on the book by late November, I will go ahead with self-publishing, ideally in time for Christmas. I appreciate that I had planned to publish in late September, and some of you might have considered that a factor when you bought a copy. This is too good an opportunity to pass up for me, so while I’m sorry for the delay, I have decided to go with it regardless. With that in mind, if you pre-ordered, and would prefer a refund to waiting for a later publication date, I completely respect that. Just get in touch, and it will have your money back with you within a couple of working days. You should also have received an update email from me.

In a little more detail: To be honest, I always anticipated this being an indie book. CONIFA might be growing, and articles are now appearing around tournaments in mainstream publications, but I wasn’t convinced the market was there to go to publishers, and I’m still not, entirely. People have been incredibly open with me, though, both from within CONIFA, and in terms of producing stories around the teams for the book. I think what I have is a genuinely fascinating insight into the organization. It might be a little sports-nerdy and quite political at times, but it also has some unbelievable stories behind it all.

The latest draft is about 65,000 words in length, and has some details that have really surprised me: I’ve learned a huge, huge amount as I’ve gone along. I’m not going to spill it all here, for obvious reasons, but I thought there’s no harm in telling you a bit about what I’m covering.

Imagined Futures: Eight Modern Texts That Gaze Over Time’s Horizons

Ask the deepest philosopher or the cheesiest pop star: we all agree that the future’s yet unwritten. Or, at least, we all accept that we can’t know which of the countless possible futures will come to pass. That said, some fantastic books – whether based in fact, or entirely fictional – try their very best to do just that.

Whether these turn out to be the work of a modern-day Nostradamus or have more in common with an author betting on sport, each of these books offer brain-tickling insight, and in that alone we find our value. Some attempt to academically ask “what happens if we all die tomorrow?” Others fictionally examine the role of virtual reality in our lives. With each insightful in different ways, here are my top books examining future’s blank pages…

China’s Future
By David Shambaugh

The future, we’re often told, is Chinese. With the country still formally under a communist structure with distinctly capitalist overtones, however, Beijing’s cultural present can be difficult to decipher for outsiders, let alone its likely futures. David Shambaugh is a leading scholar on the politics of the Eastern powerhouse, and looks mainly at economy and society in this 2016 book, briefly exploring a series of possible outcomes based on the state’s political behaviour.

Debt, the elderly, the environment, banking transparency and regions like Tibet and Hong Kong are just some of the Chinese ‘bottlenecks’ addressed here, and while Shambaugh’s brief text might not come up with particularly conclusive predictions for any of them, it does examine how China could sit in a decade or two, from problems with the development of a less-factory and more service-based economy to the likely consequences of differing support for relatively hardline leader Xi. Written simply but from a place of transparently in-depth knowledge, we’re given a glance at the diverse potential “roundabout exits” – be they trade or conflict – of a country that’s only getting more important.

Homo Deus
By Yuval Noah Harari
Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari is best-known for his beguiling, condensed history of humankind Sapiens, in which he takes us through a ‘greatest hits’ of our years on Earth. In Homo Deus, he allows his mind to break free on a philosophical journey exploring human’s continued direction, however, and that makes for a far darker offering. It’s fair to say Harari is not positive about our path right now: he examines in-depth how our search for perfection – combined with developing technology – might slowly shred the very heart of what makes us human.In Harari’s future, we’re subservient to the technology we’ve created in almost every way. He questions whether the point of no return for human’s posited battle with technology has already passed. This leads to ethical questions surrounding such a concept, be they “what happens when we can no longer delude ourselves” (or, will Google negate the existence of arguments based on falsehoods), or where is the line between human and… well, not. It’s frightening, and feels starkly and shockingly close to reality.

A Review of Bandi’s The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

A collection of fictional short stories about life in North Korea, the content of Bandi’s The Accusation is presented anonymously (Bandi is a pseudonym) after being smuggled over the border to the South. Despite being presented as fiction, the stories seem to contain a large kernel of truth.

Passed from a defector to a member of the Citizens Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees in Seoul, these stories deal largely with the dynamics of everyday life in the North. In one, a large group struggles for sustenance and direction as a gruelling train journey is held up by the safety requirements of Kim Jong Il on the move.

Another portrays a tiny moment that changes lives, as a young child grows to fear the symbolic portraits that occupy Pyongyang, and the entire family suffer the consequences. In a third, a man’s efforts to spend time with his dying mother take a tragic turn as he battles red tape.

The characters are at mixed levels of society, but largely not on the bottom rung of the North Korean social scale; while there are references to prison camps, no story is set in one. Instead, they portray everyday types in cities and villages, often non-specific in their location, and take in family life, political interference and the practical difficulties of survival. Whether about food or family, there’s an underlying desire to escape Pyongyang’s more obvious suppressions of freedom.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2f4e4c8944 cdc7 4497 bacb 512242d3b205 inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Mosaic depicting Kim Il Sung;s homecoming, Pyongyang, North Korea

Dated in the late-80s and early-90s, these tales – simply for portraying the Kim regime in an oblique but obvious bad light – would constitute an act of severe rebellion in North Korea. The best-case scenario for the author, were he to be caught, might be an extended spell in a prison camp, yet at first glance, these passages portray such simple aspects of life in the Hermit Kingdom.

The simple nature of the stories lends itself to a suppressing, overbearing view of horrors and hardships. The presence of fear is like a constant background hum crawling from and between the lines of every page. The ‘citizen’s perspective’ lacks the horrifyingly grandiose nature and exaggerated ridicule of books closer to the leadership, but aligns with the ‘don’t draw attention to yourself’ life of the average person portrayed in many escapees’ memoirs.

Insider Knowledge: 10 Insights I Got from Speaking to Writers

In recent months, I’ve developed a passion for writers’ events – small gatherings where novelists and potential novelists gather to compare notes and talk about their approach to the written word. The events tend to have dual themes: dealing with the nuance of putting pen to paper successfully (be it in marketing, editing, structure, or dialogue), and the presence of talented and acclaimed authors. Those authors who are present tell you their thoughts, processes, and struggles, including the harsh realities of their experience writing, and what they’ve learned on the way to selling a whole lot of books.

I’ve found that listening to writers has impacted heavily on how I read. Certainly, it’s impacted how I read these particular authors’ books, as I have a small sense of where they’re coming from, but it’s also influenced how I see fictional texts in general, from what to read between the lines, to how I shop for books.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. For the writer, characters often run far deeper than a story might suggest.

For a long time, I was confused why J.K. Rowling kept adding little details to the Harry Potter books over the years. From confirming or denying fan theories to assigning sexualities and exploring motivations, Rowling’s clarifications of what was originally written in her award-winning novels have been regular and varied. Recently it clicked for me, when a series of authors told me they’ve already thought about all these unwritten characteristics of their own characters.

They’ve connected with their characters in a way that runs far deeper than the words that actually make it in the final version of book. They’ve envisaged sitting down for a coffee together, they’ve played out scenes in their heads, examined the hidden reasons the characters behave in certain ways, and thought about their belief systems. This works wonderfully when it is passed on subtly to the reader. Whether it’s in surmising a nationality that’s never actually been given, placing a character in a social class, or relating a fictional being to someone you know, the tenuous mental links that come into play because of character development can be what elevates a book. It’s scarcely surprising, then, that authors insist in defining their characters so carefully.

2. A lot of authors don’t like their first books.

In fact, it seems to be a firmly established theme. No doubt we’d all like to think we get progressively better at what we do, but equally, there’s certainly an argument to be made for the very best stories being written by people who’ve been storing them up for a lifetime before putting pen to paper (I can see a logical case for a bookish equivalent to ‘second album syndrome’).

For self-published authors, this dislike of first books seems to come down in a large part to editing. The ability to spot something you’ve written that doesn’t quite deliver your precise meaning in the way you intended is an acquired one, and it takes a great editor to interpret words that never left the mind in inky form. For others, it’s about clarity of point: getting across what you intended, only what you intended, and doing so unambiguously and eloquently. It’s not universal, of course, but there is a definite theme: most writers believe they’re at their best second, third, or fourth time around.