Iain Banks & BanksRead


I am officially very poorly.

Following the very sad news of Iain’s cancer (you can read the full statement hereI thought it would be a nice idea to get together to read and discuss the many novels and stories he has produced. As it turns out Annabel Gaskell already had her own Banks Fest planned and so we decided to merge the two. Annabel plans to read, review, and discusswasp factory Iain’s mainstream work on her blog and I’m aiming to move between the both the more literary and science fiction streams: Iain and Iain. M. I’ll be starting with The Wasp Factory, Iain’s first novel and for many still his best.

I’ll set up a permanent page here and think Annabel will be doing the same, but we also have a BanksRead discussion forum where you can discuss any and all aspects of Iain Banks’ work, be it his influence on your reading and writing, your favourite novels, how the two streams of his work relate.

Please try and share the forum as widely as possible. The more people who get involved the better it will be.

BanksRead Discussion Forum

Waterstones Book Club


The next batch of Waterstones Book Club titles will be launched on 28th March. Each book is highlighted for a week in Waterstones stores. It’s a pretty diverse collection, although I have already heard some justifiable murmurings about the lack of a short story collection on the list. I can’t help but feel that this reflects the current state of public interest in short fiction rather more than it does any lack of high quality writing in the area. I’m very pleased to see the fractured and utterly compelling Hawthorn and Child on the list. Hopefully it’s week on the feature table will make up for its poor publicity (and stocking) last Summer. I enjoyed Michael Frayn’s farce Skios when I read it as part of my ill-fated attempt to read the Booker Long/Shortlist last year. Ancient Light has some wonderful passages of writing, although ultimately  I found it disappointing. I received The President’s Hat in the post this morning, which I’m keen to read after it was Skios_381highlighted by Nick Lezard on Tuesday. As for the rest, I’ve had Simon Armitage’s Walking Home and the Mortimer’s Dear Lupin on my list as interesting looking nonfiction reads for a while. I’ve heard the full gamut of responses to A.M. Home’s May We Be Forgiven, so I’m in two minds about whether I want to read that. The swirling epic House of Rumour appeals to me, but goodness knows if I’ll ever get around to it. I haven’t read any Jake Arnott, but I know a few people who think a lot of him. 

The full list is below. As ever, I have linked to any reviews I’ve written and books on the shelf are in bold. Any thoughts on the list?

  • Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber)
  • The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger (Penguin)
  • Dear Lupin by Roger and Charlie Mortimer (Constable & Robinson)
  • Ancient Light by John Banville (Penguin)
  • The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books)
  • Walking Home by Simon Armitage (Faber)
  • May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes (Granta)
  • The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes (Cornerstone)
  • Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta)
  • Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham (Vintage)
  • Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan (Pan Macmillan)
  • Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham (Orion)
  • Heft by Liz Moore (Cornerstone)

New Directions – 2013

Copious notesThis was meant to be a New Year post but book reviews, essay marking, and PhD work pushed it back. Which is rather the point. Just as I feel the blog is really getting going and my plans for the range of books I read and review develop I find that this is the year I should be – need to be – writing up my thesis. What with teaching and researching the time I have to write the kind of review I find the most rewarding – about 1,000 words – of a standard I’m comfortable with – someone might not think I’m an idiot – is simply unavailable. Unavailable, that is, if this thesis is ever going to be written. I’d also quite like to write some short stories this year. My grand total of 500 words last year hasn’t really satisfied that particular urge.

‘What does this all mean?’ I hear you cry. Well, never fear, I know many of you would feel utterly bereft were this small blog to disappear. My conscience would never allow such a disturbance in so many lives. I have a heart. Not incidentally, I also rather enjoy this reviewing business. I will keep reading and reviewing, I’m just going to be very strict with a 500/600 word limit and the amount of time give each one. I have been known to spend days on a single review; although that hasn’t happened recently, because I haven’t had time. Which brings us back to the beginning.

So, what are my aims for this year? Well, I’m going to be reading more translated literature (from the likes of Pushkin Press, Peirene, And Other Stories, NYRB Classics), American fiction, and older works like Henry James, Graham Greene, and so on. I absolutely  intend to keep reading new fiction as well; so I hope people are still willing to send it to me despite the new format. I have quite a few exciting books waiting on my shelf and my new regime should let me read and talk about them without derailing the PhD. These include, but are definitely not limited to:

WOOL – Hugh Howey (Century) Currently reading.

The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont (Corsair) Read and awaiting review.

The Forbidden Kingdom – Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (Pushkin Press) Read and awaiting review.

First Novel – Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape) Read and awaiting review.

Clay – Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury)

Five Star Billionaire – Tash Aw (4th Estate)

The Taste of Ashes – Marci Shore (William Heinemann)

Idiopathy – Sam Byers (4th Estate)

The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness (Canongate)

All That Is – James Salter (Picador)

The Book of My Lives – Aleksandar Hemon (Picador)

Journey By Moonlight – Antal Szerb (Pushkin Press.)

In Search of Venice – Box set from Pushkin Press.

Amity & Sorrow – Peggy Riley (Tinder Press)

The First Book of Calamity Leek – Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis (Hutchinson)

The Children’s Hospital – Chris Adrian (Granta)

Traveller of the Century – Andrés Neuman (Pushkin Press)

Quite a lot of the Penguin English Library.

And so on…

My Elvis Blackout – Simon Crump


Anyway, so I twisted Chris’s weedy arm up behind his back and marched him round the side of the trailer. I jammed the muzzle of my .38 in his much and blammo! that little fucker wouldn’t be dancing with the lady in Red any more.

The problem that My Elvis Blackout causes the aspiring book reviewer is that it tends to render one entirely speechless. It is for neither the squeamish nor the unadventurous. In the first two pages Elvis kills Barbara Cartland and commits suicide. Quite. These stories were originally released in 2000 and have been reissued by Galley Beggar Press with an introduction by Jon McGregor in which he analyses them as a kind of luxuriation in the absurd development of the Elvis Presley cult of personality. I think that this is about right; and the sheer delirium that powers one on through each story is remarkable. I read it in one sitting.

“Keep your fucking canoe,” said Elvis, “I want to eat men.”

My Elvis Blackout is funny, macabre, funny and macabre. How profound it is I’m not sure. There is a certain extension of the representation of thought and behaviour beyond which profundity becomes difficult to attain. Of course, that may be a failure on my part to move beyond the extreme violence; and my complete lack of interest in Elvis probably doesn’t help. The writing is punchy, the stories are inventive, Chris De Burgh is shot in the head. If it sounds like your sort of thing, you should give it a go. It’s one of those books you have to experience for yourself; I can only wave my hands oddly in its general direction. At the very least, it’s an experience you will probably remember. (For an excellent and much fuller review, read John Self’s post at Asylum).

‘When he was a foetus, Elvis used to wait till his Mom was asleep, carefully remove his umbilical cord, sneak out of her insides and head off into town. He usually wore the little tartan coat which Alfredo, their disgusting toy poodle, wore for his walks with Momsy on cold winter mornings. Elvis looked a complete tosser in this outfit, what with the blood and the dog hairs, but what the fuck did he care? He was the unborn King of Rock’n’Roll and if he wanted to go out naked except for a ridiculous coat, he bastard well would.’

My Elvis Blackout is available as an ebook here.

My thanks to Galley Beggar Press for this review copy.

Is there wine? Reader Appreciation Awards


Well, my goodness, would you look at that? The estimable Eve Proofreads has been kind enough to send me a Reader Appreciation Award.

I don’t expect the people I nominate to do the following, but I should be working, so I’m going to do this instead.

The Rules:

1. Provide a link and thank the blogger who nominated you for this award.

2. Answer 10 questions.

3. Choose 10-12 blogs that you find a joy to read.

4. Provide links to these blogs and kindly let the recipients know that they have been chosen.

5. Include the award logo within your blog post.

The Questions

 Your favourite colour? International Klein Blue.


© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Your favourite animal? I’m afraid that I’m a cat person. I suspect that, much like myself, they are really quite fond of you, but simply refuse to be quite so gauche as to show it unless there is food involved.

Your favourite non-alcoholic drink? Coffee. Always coffee.

Facebook® or Twitter®? Twitter is what lured me into book reviewing and helped me ‘meet’ lots of other writers of various stripes; so despite its terrible effect on my productivity at times, I should say I owe Twitter rather a lot.

Your favourite pattern? I really like blind arcading. It’s odd, I know.

Getting or giving presents? I like giving a good book. I also like receiving one, so, you know…

Your favourite number? Really?

Your favourite day of the week? Saturday. I got married on a Saturday. I really have no other criteria.

Your favourite flower? Oh blimey, you had to highlight my lamentable ignorance of horticulture, didn’t you? What with that and trees I haven’t got a hope of being a nature writer. Those pinky-purples ones are nice. Yes, I’ll go with those.

What is your passion? For a philosopher this is a very loaded question. (See this, for example). I’m afraid it’s as dull as my really enjoying reading — and writing when I give myself the space to do it. I do really, really enjoy the tracing of ideas and images through artworks, architecture, language, and literature as I think my reviews probably make clear.

My Favourites

This list is in no particular order at all. (In fact, ignore the numbers completely). I’ve only been reading blogs for about six months, so  this is a shorter list than it might be in a year or so. In general, these are blogs I feel I always learn from. A lot of them have made me realise how much more translated literature I should read.

1. On the Literary Sofa ranges across book reviews, literary discussion, and writing tips from novelist Isabel Costello.

2. Tony’s Reading List covers a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, but is particularly and refreshingly strong on translated works. Join him for January in Japan.

3. The Mookse and Gripes is a great blog increasingly focusing on modernism and literature in translation.

4. Asylum never fails to capture something I’d missed — or would have missed — in a novel and makes me think again. I’ve learnt a lot about how to review from this blog. (John also pushed me — and many others — towards the excellent Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway).

5. Just William’s Luck and I have crossed over on a few books this year and, like Asylum, he always brings something new to my reading.

6. Reading Matters is the site of the only blogger whom I have actually met. The site contains reviews of literary fiction and bookish events, as well as previews and suggestions for bookish presents.

7. Pechorin’s Journal is a sophisticated literary review blog with a slipped disc. I enjoy these reviews immensely.

8. Winstonsdad’s Blog is another committed and voracious reviewer of translated fiction. The range is astonishing. Another blog where I feel I am always learning something new.

9. Follow the Thread covers a lot of speculative and science fiction as well as literary fare and short stories. Always an interesting read.

Do comment if you have any other suggestions or just to say hello.

And Other Stories Short Story Competition

Publisher And Other Stories (Reviews: Swimming Home, Lightning Rods) ran a 500-word short story competition with the theme of ‘walking’ last month inspired by their release Zbinden’s Progress. I’m lucky to have been selected as one of two runners-up. The winner was Rishi Dastidar and my fellow runner-up was Nikesh Shukla. And Other Stories will post all three stories on their blog this week. I’m looking forward to reading the others. My story was the first thing I’ve written in a long time that wasn’t either philosophy or a review of some sort. I’m rather pleased.

Man Booker Shortlist


The Shortlist has been announced and of my predictions four were correct. I’ll read and review all of them by 16th October when the winner is announced. The official Man Booker Prize announcement is here.

I’m really pleased with this list. Of the books that I’ve read all the ones I really wanted on the list have made it. It’s great to see all three indies make it through. I really enjoyed Swimming Home and The Lighthouse in their very different ways. Bring Up the Bodies was  as good as I expect of Mantel and Umbrella is extraordinary. Onward to Narcopolis and The Garden of Evening Mists!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

One to Look Out For… The Explorer by James Smythe

OK, so this is a bit unfair because this isn’t out for a few months, but I’ve just read The Explorer and really enjoyed it. I’ll get a full review up nearer the publication dates (split across December and January). For now it will suffice to say that, as well as having a gorgeous cover, which is obviously what makes a book worth reading, The Explorer is SF for people who don’t like SF and probably should: so maybe they will stop being silly. It’s a taut, claustrophobic, frankly unnerving exploration of grief, memory, self-knowledge, and what it really means to go where no one has gone before both physically and psychologically. Oh, and it’s set on a space ship heading for deep space. I should mention that.