Finishing things. It’s difficult, isn’t it?
Starting is always easy. Ideas come to you in the bath, in bed, in middle of a conversation with someone you should be listening to. You scrabble for a notepad, and BOOM. A start.
But the finish. The finish is ethereal. Untouchable. Seen only through a forest of struggle and stamina.
I am famously quite rubbish at finishing things. Sometimes I can’t even finish a sentence without starting the next one. My head runs off before my mouth and can catch up, and the same is true of pretty much everything.
Finishing things, then, is quite the effort for me.
Last year, I managed it. I set myself a goal of reading 100 books (well, 95, but I rounded up in the end) and I damn well did it. As a result, my writing improved, my time was better spent and I no longer had to pretend I had struggled through such epic works as Gravity’s Rainbow, because I actually had.
So this year, I did it all over again.
The rules, as ever, were simple. To be counted, a book had to be over 50 pages and had to be something worthwhile. There was no point cheating; as your high school English teacher no doubt told you, you’re only cheating yourself. So short books counted, comics did not, but collections did.
It’s been a busy old year, 2016. When not wringing my hands about the political state of the world, I was travelling, working, meeting my writing idols, finishing a novel draft (finally, finally!), performing at the Edinburgh Book Festival, eating, cooking, reading poetry in the bath and generally making a nuisance of myself. I’d barely done greiving David Bowie when I turned around and it was December, so frankly I think its a miracle that any of us got anything done at all.
One thing I didn’t finish, however, was my plan to read 12 religious books this year. I got a few books in and simply couldn’t find the time to study as was necessary—they’re tomes, those religious books. However, I did manage to read Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health—on a plane, no less, which meant I met some nice Glaswegians and had to explain to them that I was not a follower of L. Ron. I also read the Qur’an, which allowed me to smugly mention that fact every time I could justifiably shoehorn it into any conversation.
Non-fiction was a strong theme of this year, as I ploughed through a good number of books on writing and, in particular, writing graphic novels and screenplays (exciting projects planned and, as ever, half-started). A Book For Her by Bridget Christie and How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee were two favourites, and gave a much-needed oasis of hilarity in the midst of a desert of dry book-learning.
It’s not all been non-fiction, however. I was lucky enough to read some more of my favourite writers; last year, I’d come across the work of Hanya Yanagihara totally by accident, and had fallen in love with her dark, unflinching prose. I’d fallen in love so much, in fact, that in the first half of this year I got a symbol from The People in the Trees tattooed on my thumb. A bit much, I know.
This year, I read her 720-page epic tragedy A Little Life, which caused me to sit on the sofa quietly sobbing while my roommates watched something much less soul-destroying. As a writer, Yanagihara is comfortable in discomfort, and I’m right there with her. While A Little Life is much less succinct than its predecessor, I couldn’t put it down. I’m especially enamoured with female writers who write things that female writers have always been warned away from, so HY is exactly my type of author—even if she did rip my heart out of my chest and stamp it to bits on the floor:
Ah, you tell yourself, it’s arrived. Here it is.
And after that, you have nothing to fear again.
– Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
Another incredible contemporary writer released her second novel this year, and I set upon Eimear McBride‘s The Lesser Bohemians like a hyena at a carcass. I clutched my knees at her Book Festival event, said something wierd to her at the signing tent (sorry, EMcB) and sat in bed reading huge portions of her inimitable style out loud to whoever would listen. The Lesser Bohemians is as life-affirming and hopeful as her debut novel is distressing, and I wish I could erase it from my memory so I could read it for the first time all over again.
That’s not to say that 2016 was all a femme-fest. The effusive Emily Mackie pushed me in the direction of Jeffrey Eugenides, and I fell into him hard. Middlesex was grand and immersive, but The Virgin Suicides was the perfect first novel. Tight, dark, wonderful. Here’s an example of its beautiful, beautiful content:
There had never been a funeral in our town before, at least not during our lifetimes. [. . .] Nobody’s grandfather had died, nobody’s grandmother, nobody’s parents, only a few dogs: Tom Burke’s beagle, Muffin, who choked on Bazooka Joe bubble gum, and then that summer, a creature who in dog years was still a puppy—Cecilia Lisbon.
– Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Invisible Cities) and Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles) continue to court me, as do Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Collected Stories) and Samuel Beckett (Malone Dies). J.G. Ballard, he of the shocking and the perverse and the utterly stark, got his talons into me further with Empire of the Sun and the incredible High-Rise, which I will probably attempt to rewrite in some manner for the entire rest of my life.
It was Martin MacInnes who really stole the show for the boys this year, however, with his much-lauded debut Infinite Ground. Martin is whip smart, lovely and talented as all hell, and his brain has unfolded the sort of genre-defying novel we all want to write. Pick his book up for the cover alone, because it’s damn gorgeous as well.
It would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favourite comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan, who graciously celebrated me finishing the run of the absolutely brilliant Y: The Last Man by bringing out the first two volumes of his new, could-even-be-better-than-Y series Paper Girls. HuffPo described Paper Girls as “The feminist comic series for fans of Stranger Things.” Well, I’ve not seen Stranger Things, but I’d say this is the feminist comic series for everyone with an ounce of fun in them. Giant blob things attack! The art is superb, the writing fantastic, and the colouring is a work of art.
The reason I’m continuing to stick to the idea of reading 100 books a year is this: My writing has improved immeasurably since I started doing so, and this year was a particularly good reminder of this. I was lucky enough to win the 2016 Emerging Writer Award from the Bridge Awards for my work-in-progress novel Paper Faces, and this allowed me to attend two incredible writing retreats at Moniack Mhor; one run by the incomparable Michel Faber and Emily Mackie, and one run by the brilliant Susie Maguire and Julian Gough. I devoured the work of all four tutors, and learned as much from their books and I did from their advice and help. What talented and generous people.
The award also faciliated me being mentored by Jenni Fagan, who has taught me how to think more critically about my work as well as to identify major themes and my own message. Jenni has been gracious and tough in equal measure, and is an absolute riot to boot. If I manage to turn my novel into anything half decent, it will be in no small part due to Jenni. She also brought out two new books this year, the near-future dystopia The Sunlight Pilgrims and a collection of her down-and-dirty, untouchable poetry: The Dead Queen of Bohemia. I read both this year, consuming the latter in the sun of Edinburgh’s shockingly nice summer, and it was glorious:
I am sick—a waterproof swan,
staring into the wombs of horses
I am the still wool,
I am the elevator’s spectacles.
– Jenni Fagan, Poem After Listening to Neruda
Wrapping up such a full year was always going to be tough, and I tend to approach the end of something with all of the trepidation that I fail to feel in the beginning. And so I dragged the most challenging book of the year past the 100, and into the new 100 of 2017. Finnegan’s Wakeis a stream-of-consciousness work of experimental comic fiction by James Joyce, king of the unapproachable, but god damn it I did approach Finnegan’s Wake, and I did throw myself into it, and I did bloody love the thing. Often nonsensical, devoid of plot and character but full of the sheer joy of words and non-words, Finnegan’s Wake will take me past this year and into the next, and so it seems only fitting to end with a quote from it here. Because, really, hasn’t 2016 been just as weird as this?
Bynight as useful as a vomit to a shorn man.
– James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake
The list in full:
1. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
2. A Dustbin of Milligan by Spike Milligan
3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
4. The Qur’an by Anonymous
5. Chess by Stefan Zweig
6. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
7. Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate by Brian McDonald
8. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
9. Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
10. The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting and Selling Your Script by David Trottier
11. Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson
12. High-Rise by J. G. Ballard
13. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
14. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
15. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
16. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health by L. Ron Hubbard
17. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
18. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
19. Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala
20. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
21. Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway
22. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
23. Revolver by Matt Kindt
24. Y: The Last Man—The Deluxe Edition Book Four by Brian K. Vaughn
25. The Trial: A Graphic Novel by David Zane Mairowitz
26. The End of My Addiction: How a Renowned Cardiologist Cured Himself of Alcoholism by Olivier Ameisen
27. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
28. Daft Wee Stories by Limmy
29. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
30. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
31. How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee
32. Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
33. Stan Lee’s How to Write Comics by Stan Lee
34. Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels by Brian Michael Bendis
35. Akira Vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo
36. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
37. Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel by Stephen Weiner
38. Transmetropolitan Vol. 1: Back on the Street by Warren Ellis
39. Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner
40. Y: The Last Man—The Deluxe Edition Book Five by Brian K. Vaughn
41. A Book for Her by Bridget Christie
42. Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell
43. From Hell by Alan Moore
44. And This is True by Emily Mackie
45. In Search of Solace by Emily Mackie
46. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
47. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
48. The Dead Queen of Bohemia: New and Collected Poems by Jenni Fagan
49. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
50. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
51. The Vegetarian: A Novel by Han Kang
52. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
53. Furthermore by Susie Maguire
54. The Short Hello by Susie Maguire
55. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
56. Jellyfish by Janice Galloway
57. Paper Girls Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
58. Boyracers by Alan Bisset
59. Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett
60. Real People by Alison Lurie
61. Changing Places by David Lodge
62. Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes
63. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
64. The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
65. Content Provider: Selected Short Prose Pieces, 2011-2016 by Stewart Lee
66. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jnr
67. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
68. Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
69. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
70. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
71. Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard
72. Hell’s Angels: A Strange of Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson
73. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
74. Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
75. The Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson
76. Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
77. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman
78. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
79. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss
80. If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
81. On The Edges of Vision by Helen McClory
82. Six Memos for the Next Millenium by Italo Calvino
83. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
84. Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl
85. The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings by the Marquis de Sade
86. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
87. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
88. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
89. Venin by Saneh Sangsuk
90. Complete Poems, 1904-1962 by e.e. cummings
91. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
92. We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan
93. The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel
94. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
95. A Vindication on the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
96. Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker
97. Ex Machina Book 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
98. Paper Girls Vol 2 by Brian K. Vaughan
99. Crossed Vol. 4: Badlands by Garth Ennis
100. Flush by Virginia Woolf