Christmas Book Ideas

Many of you may be panicking that there’s only a few shopping days left, but you can always head into your local bookshop and buy everyone you know a perfect present in the form of reading material. At least that’s my philosophy. I have done a few of these gift guides before in 2012, and 2010, and 2009.  You may find ideas there but here are some new ones just in case.

For the little ones

I’ve become an aunt in the last few years and so I have been discovering children’s books all over again. I love Andrea Beaty’s Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist, both of which provide a nice antidote to the princessy ‘happily ever after’ nonsense. I also loved The Fox and the Star, a magical book by Coralie Bickford-Smith. And if you want something Irish, A Dublin Fairytale by Nicola Colton features well-known landmarks in gorgeous illustration.

For the teenager

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill has received a huge amount of press since it was published in 2015. It even generated a documentary on sexual consent presented by Louise herself and broadcast this year on RTE. It’s a book that teenagers of all sexes need to read.

For the bookworm

I wholeheartedly recommend Sinead Gleeson’s The Glass Shore which I reviewed on the blog a while ago. I also love The Winter Papers, a beautifully produced anthology of the arts in Ireland, volume two of which was published in October this year. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones has won the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize and the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year 2016 and has been lauded by everyone I know who has read it (unfortunately I have yet to get to it, but it’s on my list).

For the music lover

Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run gives a real insight into the icon including his bouts with depression and the catharsis he finds in his legendary live performances. Leonard Cohen’s volumes of poetry are amazing reading (I have this one) and a great gift for a grieving fan. And Sylvia Patterson’s I’m Not With The Band is a bawdy no-holds-barred memoir from a music journalist who started her career with Smash Hits.

For the oenophile

Hugh Johnson’s On Wine: Good Bits from 55 Years of Scribbling is a compilation from the foremost writer on the subject, and A Hedonist in the Cellar by Jay McInerney is another great read from one of America’s most well-known novelists.

For the creative person

Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech in 2012 for The University of the Arts in Philadelphia was published in 2014 as a cute collectible hardback entitled Make Good Art. I was given a copy of it by my sister for my birthday a few years ago and I’d recommend it as a stocking-filler for any artist who needs a little affirmation.

And finally…

If you need any other recommendations, please feel free to ask in the comments. (I offered a recommendation service before and many people emailed me so if you’d rather do that my email address is here.)  For any subject other than sport, I am at your service!

The Glass Shore – Sinéad Gleeson

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Sinead Gleeson. Photo by Paul McVeigh

A few weeks ago I attended the launch of The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, a new anthology edited by Sinéad Gleeson. This anthology is a follow-up to Sinéad’s last collection, The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of short stories from women writers in the Republic of Ireland, published last year. It featured well known names such as Maeve Brennan and Elizabeth Bowen and more recently published writers including Anne Enright, Eimear McBride and Lisa McInerney.

I’ve been dipping into The Glass Shore, reading a few stories a week and becoming familiar with writers I had never heard of. Sinéad has unearthed some gems from contemporary writers and resurrected some older ones, one of my favourites being the first story in the book, ‘The Mystery of Ora’ by Rosa Mulholland, a classic gothic tale with supernatural overtones. I also loved the Lucy Caldwell story, ‘Mayday’, a sparely written and affecting story about unwanted pregnancy that seems particularly relevant in the light of the Repeal the 8th campaign.

Sinéad is an incredibly accomplished woman: a broadcaster and journalist, a writer and editor. The Glass Shore is another feather in her cap and if you’re looking for present inspiration for the book lover in your life this is definitely a great purchase.

Mourir Auprès De Toi – Spike Jonze

Although Mourir Auprès De Toi (To Die By Your Side) was made in 2012 I only discovered it in a recent article on Open Culture. It’s a stop motion film directed by Spike Jonze in collaboration with Olympia Le-Tan (she of the much coveted and beautiful handbags), a fairytale about characters in books that come alive when the lights go out.

The setting is Shakespeare & Company, the iconic Parisian bookshop, and the characters are Mina Harker and the skeletal Macbeth. They fall madly in lust from afar but tragically Macbeth loses his head and then falls into the sea only to be chased by Moby Dick. Mina heroically saves Macbeth, the film ends and the credits show the couple hilariously in flagrante.

It’s a perfect marriage of Le-Tan’s craft, Jonze’ imagination, and Shakespeare & Co.’s inspiration, and just on the right side of literary macabre to be suitable for All Hallow’s Eve.

The Girls – Emma Cline

Emma Cline is just twenty-seven and already the recipient of a three book deal worth $2 million after a bidding war between twelve publishers. That’s the kind of thing that rarely happens these days, and even when it does it’s no guarantee of quality or originality (I’m looking at you Garth Risk Hallberg, AKA the stark naked emperor). Thankfully in Cline’s case, both the advance and the accompanying hype surrounding her debut novel The Girls are very much deserved.

Evie Boyd is a middle-aged woman in between jobs who is taking a break and staying in her friend’s house. She seems as if she is on the periphery of life, working as a carer, ‘cultivating a genteel invisibility in sexless clothes, my face blurred with the pleasant ambiguous expression of a lawn ornament.’ Her friend’s teenage son Julian shows up unexpectedly one night together with his girlfriend Sasha, disrupting Evie’s solitude. Julian knows about Evie’s past, her time in a cult in the late 1960s in California, and over the next few days prompted by Julian’s lurid interest, Evie begins to reflect on what happened.

In 1969 Evie is fourteen, alienated and lonely, blossoming sexually, and scarily impressionable. She is captivated by Suzanne, a glamorously cool older girl who lives in a commune with a guru and his band of followers. The commune is a fictionalised version of the Manson Family, and the charismatic leader Russell, with his long hair, buckskin shirt and failed music career, is based on Charles Manson. Evie is gradually drawn deeper into the cult, taking drugs and partying, sleeping with Russell, until she lives full-time at the ranch and is embroiled in increasingly dangerous behaviour, rolling towards the inevitable conclusion (a murder based on the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings).

A cold cynic might say that basing the novel on the Manson murders is a smart commercial move. Manson still holds a certain level of fascination and this handy reference point may have proved irresistible to publishers. However Cline’s writing is what makes this a memorable book. Her ability to conjure up the emotional turmoil and insecurity of a fourteen year old girl is masterful, and at times the perfectly observed detail in her writing creates an intensely visual experience. No wonder the film rights were snapped up before publication.

The Girls is an accomplished debut novel, all the more so given Cline’s young age. In a business where most published writers under the age of thirty are viewed with deep suspicion, she has set herself up for an already lauded and interesting career.

My Writing Day

I’m always fascinated by other writers’ creative processes, whether they are early birds or night owls, whether they write every day (some don’t) and the kind of word count they expect at the end of a day’s work. I suppose because writing is such a solitary occupation it’s interesting to see how other people approach it.

I have the four volumes of The Paris Review Interviews and regularly dip into them for inspiration, but I’m always on the lookout for similar resources. Over the last couple of months The Guardian has been publishing a series in the Saturday Review entitled ‘My Writing Day’, and Rose Tremain, William Boyd, Ian Rankin, Hilary Mantel and Anne Enright are some of the writers featured thus far.

Anne Enright’s day starts at 9am, finishes at 11pm and is filled with the kind of faffing that every writer is familiar with. ‘I never manage to write fiction in the morning. This is why I think mornings are wasted, and panic every afternoon.’

Hilary Mantel describes a long day filled with intense concentration, focussed work and a huge output. On a good day she can produce ‘thousands of words across half a dozen projects – and perhaps new projects.’

Ian Rankin was working on a new book when he was interviewed, and he had written the first draft in twenty-seven days. My heart sank when I read this (my first draft took me a year!) but thankfully he says, ‘It’s rough – really just me checking the plot works. The second draft sees me polish the prose, fix faults in chronology and geography, and add meat to the bones of my characters.’

It’s an interesting series for anyone interested in how the writing process works. I have also done some writer interviews on The Multiverse and you can take a look at how Peter Murphy, Kevin Barry and Declan Burke approach their writing day.

Slade House – David Mitchell

Back in 2014 David Mitchell used Twitter to tell a short story, and in 280 tweets over the course of a week he showed the right way for an author to engage with social media. The story that emerged from this process was called The Right Sort and it’s the first chapter of Mitchell’s seventh novel, Slade House, published last year.

Slade House is Mitchell’s take on the classic haunted house story. Every nine years a tiny door appears on Slade Alley, behind which is a huge house surrounded by a beautiful garden. The house is only accessible for a day, and when it vanishes it takes someone with it, leading to unexplained disappearances. The novel is told in five chapters by five different narrators, from 1979 to 2015, and through their eyes we come to understand that Slade House is an illusion, set up as bait to lure in victims for the house’s owners.

In true Mitchell style, characters and references from his other novels appear throughout, and the book is widely seen to be a companion piece to 2014’s The Bone Clocks, featuring the Anchorites and Horologists from that fantasy world.

A very dear friend of mine bought me the most gorgeous hardback US first edition and I raced through the 238 pages in a couple of hours. It’s a creepy little book which reminded me at times of The Turn of the Screw and Les Enfants Terribles, but with a lot more humour.

 

Narratively

My version of reading the Sunday papers is browsing through the latest posts on both Longreads and Longform, sites which feature long-form journalism or creative writing from around the web. I’ve often discovered writers that I now follow and publications I’ve never heard of before.

Over the weekend I discovered Narratively. In their own words: ‘Created in September 2012, Narratively is a digital publication and storytelling studio that prides itself on looking beyond the news headlines and clickbait, focusing instead on ordinary people with extraordinary stories.’ The site features video, photography, comics, and writing, and has received numerous awards and accolades.

I spent an hour browsing and found some gems:

‘Keeping New York Weird’ by Grace Bello – A profile of New York ‘comedic punks’, performance artists Tobly and Bob McSmith, which also explores the gentrification of Manhattan and what it means for artists.

‘My Acerbic Aerobics Class with O.J. Simpson’ by Robert Kerbeck – An account of being an extra in O.J. Simpson’s workout video which was filmed one week before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

‘Secret Life of a Fashion Week Peon’ by Lacy Warner – A look inside a buyer’s showroom, where the real business of New York fashion week is done.

‘A Super Strange True Love Story: My Disappearing Fiancé’ by AnnaLisa Merelli – A first-person account of love gone wrong.

and

‘A Second Super Strange Love Story: I was the other woman’ by Riol Dankó – The follow-up to the above, where love goes horribly terribly wrong.

The best place to start on Narratively are the collections which group together different stories with similar themes, but be warned, once you start browsing you may lose an hour or so!