All the books I read in 2016…

My top ten favourites are listed first…

We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

A supremely creepy and unsettling bit of New England Gothic from the 1960s. It’s written in the first person, from the point of view of Merricat, an 18 year old girl who lives reclusively in the big house with her agoraphobic older sister Constance and her disabled and obsessive uncle Julian. Twice a week she ventures into town to go shopping, and encounters the extreme hostility, bullying, harassment, name-calling and chanting of the villagers. But we gradually learn that the villagers have reasons to be suspicious: The rest of Merricat’s family were wiped out six years ago by arsenic in the sugar bowl. Then their boorishly awful gold-digging cousin Charles moves in and tries to get them to join the real world, and that’s when it really all kicks off. This book is brilliantly written: Jackson is a master stylist. It’s also fabulously weird. There’s nothing at all supernatural about it, yet the goings-on don’t seem quite natural either. Merricat is deeply disturbed, and the world as viewed from inside her childish, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, ritual-bound world is a very strange place. But it’s hard not to sympathise. She’s at once totally twisted, and the only person who can see what’s really going on.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

There are books that are desperately trying to be cool, shocking and subversive, and then there are books that actually are cool, shocking and subversive – this is one of the latter. It’s about a family of travelling carney folk who decide to create their very own freak show. The mother – Crystal Lil – dutifully plys herself with cocktails of drugs and radioactive substances throughout pregnancy to produce suitably disabled offspring. There’s a boy with no limbs, a pair of Siamese twins, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and one who appears perfectly normal but actually has telekinesis. The plot meanders around, but it’s beautifully written, with a strong flavour of Tom Waits about its descriptions of lonely, desperate stretches of the USA abandoned by normal people. There’s incest, rape, drugs, madness, bodily fluids galore and a pretty high body count. The limbless Arturo is truly a monster and he sets up his own cult, persuading people to gradually have their own limbs cut off so that they ultimately resemble him. The ‘freaks’ pity the normals and revel in their own weirdness. I wouldn’t say the book has any particular moral message, other than to cherish your own weirdness, but then perhaps that is a powerful message. An interesting cult read.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This brilliant comic novel was written in 1932 but is just as funny today. It’s a jeu d’espirit – a bit of silliness – about a penniless but well-brought-up young woman who decides to impose herself on her relatives instead of getting a job, and then sets about boldly, and successfully, interfering in everyone’s lives, in the interests of common-sense and improvement. It’s a pastiche of all those Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence-style doom and gloom in the countryside novels, which takes their sensibilities to dizzying heights of absurdity and then brings them crashing back down when they meet the brisk busybodying of the metropolitan Miss. There are an array of catchphrases like ‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed!’, ludicrously exaggerated characters, and comic set-pieces. My favourite line is the crazed family preacher yelling ‘There won’t be any butter in hell!’ I now say that every time I have a bit of toast. It’s a good excuse to eat more butter. There’s something so joyously, gleefully anarchic and life-affirming about this. Don’t we all wish we could take on irritating relatives, crumbling farms and the whole muddy countryside in general, and win?  How can you not love Flora, who arrives at Cold Comfort Farm and immediately telegraphs to her London friend ‘worst fears realised darling, send gumboots’? Plus, the author takes things one step further by helpfully putting little stars next to the really good literary bits (e.g. the worst bits) to save us time. Bizzarely, there are also some pointless science fiction bits in it. A total treat.

Black Sea, Neal Ashershon

This is about 90% history book, 10% travel writing, and it describes the history of the black sea and its peoples. It’s quite rambling and free-form. Rather than having a linear structure through time or even a circular route around the sea, it wanders around thematically. It’s pretty intellectual, and I felt a bit out of my depth at times, as I really know nothing at all about this area. But it is wonderfully engaging and beautifully written. I have learnt all about the Cossacks, about the Pontic Greeks, Ghengis Khan’s golden horde, the birth of the tiny state of Abkhazia, and about trade routes, religion, languages, archaeology, grave-robbing and what Herodotus got right. There’s lot of interesting speculation about the nature of nationalism, the good points of Empires, and about the nature of history writing itself. It’s challenging but really fascinating stuff, and it feels peculiarly relevant in the light of Brexit. I loved it, and wished all history books were like this.

Gut by Giulia Enders

This is a very jolly and readable account of the body’s most underrated organ – the gut! In fact, it takes in the whole digestive system, and lots of other bodily functions as well. It’s really fun and features great illustrations – not medically accurate, but little cartoons that just make it obvious what Enders is talking about. I now know what the appendix does (same as the tonsils – it’s part of the immune system), how salivary glands work, what the lymphatic system is, and how and why people develop allergies and food intolerances. I’ve also learnt useful stuff to incorporate into my diet: olive oil is really good for you, unless it’s heated, when it becomes really bad for you; sugar is turned quickly into fat, whereas fat isn’t turned into fat for a long time; and most people can’t digest a lot of fructose, so fruit juice, smoothies, and anything with ‘fructose syrup’ in it is best avoided, unless you want stomach ache and lots of farts, in which case juice away!

On Writing, by Margaret Atwood

This is a short book based on a series of lectures Atwood gave on the subject of writing and writers. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, it starts off with her childhood and decision to become a writer as a teenager, but there the similarity ends. Atwood doesn’t tell us how to write, she just asks questions: why write? What is the relationship between the reader and writer? What is the relationship between writers and the marketplace? Should writers write art for art’s sake, or should they strive for social relevance? And, where do writers go when they enter that imaginative ‘other place’ from which they bring back fiction? Do all writers have a secret double – the one who writes and has their names on a book, and the one who lives their life? She illustrates all these questions with copious examples from all kinds of literature, from ancient myths to literary classics and sci fi. She doesn’t come to any conclusions of course, but the journey is interesting and gave me lots and lots of food for thought, as well as a long bibliography of things I’d now like to read. The style is very Atwood. At one point she comments that if you write for social relevance you may end up on a panel discussion in hell, but if you write for art’s sake you could end up making verbal doilies for the gilded armchairs in the palace of art. No easy answers then.

Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton

A fantastically well-written memoir by a New York chef. I’d never heard of her before, but she’s had a really interesting life, being abandoned, more or less, by her parents aged 13. She lies about her age so she can get a job, travels the world, takes lots of drugs, gets charged with grand larcency, and graduates from university and gets an MA in creative writing. There’s lots of great foodie descriptions of learning to cook and to taste, and lots of wonderful food-related moments. She describes using all five senses, but is also amazing at describing emotions and bulding tension, and also intellectually analysing incidents. Reading this is a bit like reading Nabokov: you’re bound to feel bad about yourself for not writing a great memoir in your spare time, when you’re not bringing up your two children and also working eighteen hours a day managing your own restaurant. I wouldn’t want to have her life, as I couldn’t cope with the ‘I didn’t sleep for more than two hours a day for five years’ thing, but it is really admirable. And an interesting read.

Just Kids, Patti Smith    

Rock’n’roll icon Patti Smith’s memoir of her youthful days and her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is a great read. Patti isn’t a great writer and in places the book was a bit repetitive and could have done with an editor. But it’s an incredible story. Patti has an ordinary working class childhood in the 1950s, gets pregnant aged 19, gives her baby up for adoption and moves to New York. She’s homeless and has literally nothing at all, but then it’s the summer of love, and the city is full of homeless hippie kids. She eats food from bins and eventually gets a job in a bookstore. Then she meets Robert, they fall in love, and move in together. They never have any money and are always hungry, but they create art! Art!! Eventually Robert realises he’s gay, but the two of them make a vow to always stay together, and their friendship continues to be pretty much the most significant one in their lives until Robert dies of AIDS in the 1980s. Patti’s tales of the New York scene in the 70s are amazing. They knew everyone: William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix. They lived for a while at the Chelsea Hotel, where the owner accepted art in lieu of payment, and it was populated entirely by writers, musicians, actors, models, experimental film makers, etc. In a way I feel envious: imagine having met all those people and actually lived through all this! But I don’t envy them the starvation, lice, filth and absence of bathrooms. Their relationship was incredible: mutual emotional and practical support through thick and thin, no matter what. It’s a great insight into a period of history and a way of life that’s probably gone forever now.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Teenage girls suddenly develop the ability to create electricity in their bodies. They mainly use this power to electrocute men, obviously. Soon the power has spread all over the world to women of all ages. The inevitable follows: porn, drugs, gangsters, revenge, new religions, terrorism, war, and women taking over the world and enslaving men. This is a terrific, easy, pulp-fiction read. Alderman is a protégé of Margaret Atwood, and  there’s a definite handmaid’s tale thing going on here. Mostly the narrative is straightforward, but there are snippets of internet forums and emails, and a framing device – a humble male writer, thousands of years into the future, writes to Naomi with this book, imagining how the power may have begun. The most interesting thing is that of course none of this is fantasy at all – Alderman just writes about the world we live in right now, and simply reverses the genders. I guess it’s an easy trick, but it is amazing that what is totally normal for women to feel and experience is weird, unimaginable and sort of hilarious or upsetting when it happens to men. It really shows what a crazy world we live in, and how massively sexist everything still is. Not that we need reminding, really.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I haven’t read for about ten years so I thought it was time to give it another look. It’s amazing that Carter’s re-fashioning of classic fairy tales was published in 1979, and still has the power to surprise and shock. Each story is a beautifully crafted, highly polished, artificial gem. There’s something of nineteenth century France about the style of most of them. It’s interesting that this came out the year before I was born, so I suppose my whole life has been lived in the era of Carter, an era in which people have unpicked classic fairy tales to show the sexual violence that lay at the heart of them, and also the possibilities for re-appropriation and transformation. Although the tales were often labelled feminist, they’re darker and stranger than that, and I love them even more for it.

And the rest…

Slouching towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

Didion is a legendary figure in non-fiction writing and ‘new journalism’ – reporting that reads like a story. This is a collection of her journalism from the 1960s. I enjoyed the opening story, about a murder trial in California, but after that I went off the whole thing. Didion writes beautifully and her pieces are carefully constructed. There is much to admire and find instructive here, but I don’t like her point of view. Didion was an uber-privileged arch-WASP, and her feelings about things don’t resonate with me. Or rather, they seem baffling and completely irrelevant now.

At Home, Bill Bryson

Bill is a genial, avuncular companion of this random wander about, allegedly, the history of the home. Everything that he writes is full of enthusiasm and gentle mockery of history’s most eccentric characters, wackiest anecdotes, and most interesting little factoids. But Bill obviously has no interest at all in the history of domestic life. He doesn’t consider, ever, who lived in homes, how they lived in them, what they did there, how they felt about it. He’s much more interested in things like how the Eiffel tower was built, the history of canals and concrete, international exploration and plagues of locusts on American farms. These aren’t even digressions, really: they’re just the contents of the book. Some things, such as architecture, furniture design and a history of lighting, are interesting and relevant, but most of feels totally irrelevant. It’s still a jolly read, but if you really want to know about the history of the home, as opposed to a totally random bunch of stuff, read Lucy Worsely’s book on the topic instead.

The life and loves of a she-devil, Fay Weldon

It’s kind of depressing that Weldon’s comic novel is 33 years old yet still feels relevant and gleefully transgressive. Women don’t seem to have moved forward very much. It concerns Ruth, a downtrodden, 6 foot 3, ugly woman, whose husband leaves her for a petite, attractive romantic novelist. Ruth puts aside all notions of femininity, responsibility and morality to become a she-devil, in her quest for revenge. This involves her tackling, one at a time, all the factors that keep women from the things they want. Caring duties for children and elderly parents must be palmed off on someone else. Homemaking must be abandoned. The patriarchal church, state and law must be bent to her will. Money must be made. Faithfulness, love and romance must be exchanged for promiscuity. But whilst it’s blindingly clear that all these factors are just as bad ever, this isn’t a totally feminist novel. Ruth moves in with a muesli-munching feminist commune at one point, and they are a joyless and ridiculous bunch. She seeks revenge on other women as much as her husband. She certainly doesn’t attempt to level the playing field or improve the lot of women, but rather to manipulate things to her advantage. The tools she uses are sex, housekeeping, embezzlement and blackmail. And also plastic surgery, as she finally remakes herself to resemble her rival. This is an enormously entertaining, page-turning novel. But it also presents an uncomfortably bleak view of the power relations between the sexes.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Can you believe I’ve never read this classic Victorian horror story? In fact though, it’s easy to see why – it’s not very good! The concept, of a sensible, do-gooding Dr who transforms into his evil alter ego after consuming a potion, is everything. There’s little more to it than that. The story is told from the point of view of Dr Jekyll’s friend, a lawyer, who thinks mysterious things might be going on. He doesn’t really uncover these until he gets a series of letters explaining the situation though. Victorian sensibilities being what they were, we get a great deal of build-up, and a lot of talk about evil deeds! Horror! Sin! Temptation! But we never find out what Mr Hyde really gets up to, which is very disappointing. Top marks for the amazingly steam-punk description of the potion though, which goes through fizzing, frothing, steaming and multiple colour changes before being drunk.

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

This book is a compendium of social history, telling you everything you could ever need to know about how real people, mostly the working and middle classes, lived their daily lives in the nineteenth century. It is structured around the daily routine and features washing, dressing, housework, work, school, childcare, leisure, sickness, food and sex. Each section talks about the different social classes and about the products available, the processes used, and a bit of historical context. What’s really interesting is that Goodman has done a lot of re-enactment work, so she can shed a lot of light on what things actually felt like. Wearing a corset while hand scything a field, the process of doing laundry, cooking on a Victorian stove, etc. are all covered in detail. One of the most interesting parts is the clothing. Ruth knows exactly how to make a set of clothes for a toddler, how long it took, how long it took to get the child dressed (at least 15 minutes), and how difficult it was to wash the stuff. The practicalities – or impracticalities – of daily life explain a lot about how the Victorians lived. I’ve always been baffled by boiled puddings, for example. But whilst it was fairly easy to boil a pan of water, you had to be upper middle class at least, or possibly a wealthy farmers wife to have access to an actual oven. So those who could afford a bit of fat and flour could boil up a savoury or sweet pudding, but a cake was out of the question for most until the twentieth century. Interesting stuff, and a very engaging, easy read.

Death by Chocolate: the serial poisoning of Victorian Brighton by Sophie Jackson

I picked this up because it concerns Christiana Edmunds, a serial poisoner who ended up in Broadmoor. I researched her and wrote a chapter about her when I did my (unpublished!) book on Broadmoor. I was never able to find any trial reports for her, which was odd, and so I wondered whether this author would have tracked them down, so that I could learn something new. It’s a bit a mystery, what’s happened to them. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of the reports here. It’s hard to imagine how something that’s therefore pretty thin on fact could be spun out to the length of a short book. Jackson does it by giving endless background information on poisoning and poisoners in general in the nineteenth century, food adulteration, forensics, the invention of chemical tests for poisoning, and background details on Christiana’s family and the families of those she poisoned and the police who investigated. In other words it all circles around the subject. It’s pretty poorly written though, low on general accuracy (e.g. ‘this is an echo of today’s health and safety culture’ – no! Today’s health and safety culture might be an echo of the Victorians, but not the other way around, because an echo never comes first, does it?) and low on historical nuance. Still, Jackson manages to spin things out into a narrative with a sense of mystery, which is more than I ever did. So, pretty poor but still better than I can do. A useful lesson.

Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale

This book relates the history of the Kremlin, used as a focus through which to tell the whole of Russian history. There’s an awful lot of Russian history, and as I don’t really know anything about Russia, it was a lot to take it. I sometimes felt there was either too much information or not quite enough. Ivan the terrible turned out to be genuinely terrible. He was pretty much insane and had some kind of proto-Nazi death cult of mercenaries and they just rampaged about the countryside slaughtering everyone and burning everything indiscriminately for no real reason. Like something out of Mad Max. Peter the Great was also interesting, as were the more contemporary bits. But I think I would have got more out of this if I’d already known a bit about Russian history.

Wolf Borders by Sarah Hall

I’ve read a couple of her books before and enjoyed them, and was very disappointed by this. It concerns a women who is some kind of poorly defined wolf expert who helps a wealthy aristocrat reintroduce wolves on his Cumbrian estate. The wolves are terribly metaphorical of course, and there’s plenty of cringeworthily A-level discussion of social class and politics. But mainly the book is about a string of curiously boring and pointless family dramas, with very stereotyped characters, and at least 50% of it is descriptions of landscapes. Apparently there’s a lot of landscape in Cumbria. I wouldn’t know that of course, as I’m an elitist metropolitan Londoner, and we’re all idiots, according to Sarah Hall. Another thing I didn’t know was that there are seasons in Cumbria. Luckily Hall is on hand to tell me what seasons are, very thoroughly, for about 45 million pages. We don’t have seasons in London, so I had no idea. One of the boringly humdrum events of the plot is that the main character has a baby. Before she has a baby, like all childless women, her life is worthless and she’s a despicable person. Afterwards, she becomes a holy saint, and suddenly the world is meaningful. Honestly, as a childless Londoner I’m such a piece of worthless scum I should just be put down, for my own good. I can’t believe I actually finished this.

The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey

This is a zombie book with an interesting twist – it’s from the point of view of a sentient zombie. It’s a very readable, exciting thriller. Some of the characterisation is a bit clichéd, and the plot features all the elements you’d expect, but somehow that doesn’t matter. The plot feels driven naturally by the characters and the decisions they make so that it never feels contrived. The world building is beautifully done without straying too far into flowery descriptions, there are some good twists, and it adds to zombie mythology in some fantastic new ways. There are even a few moral conumdrums to ponder over.

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

In a nutshell this is a posh British version of Forest Gump. It starts in the 1920s with Logan Mountstuart’s childhood, and follows him through success and failure, his accidental involvement with many of the important historical events of the day, and meetings with many of the most famous people. It feels a bit pastiche and cliché, but Boyd is an extremely readable writer, and he just about pulls it off. Strangely, I later learnt that Roald Dahl’s life was actually remarkably similar to this, so perhaps it’s not so far-fetched after all.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This book won numerous prizes for both science fiction and fantasy writing, and yet it’s rubbish. Obviously I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I really can’t see why it’s considered such a classic. For a story about a battle between the old gods (Odin, leprechauns, etc, brought to America by successive immigrants and then forgotten about) and the new (technology, the media), it’s incredibly dull. The central character, Shadow, is indeed a shadow: voiceless, characterless, totally passive. This is dull and removes all emotional investment. Everyone who dies is immediately resurrected anyway, so there’s little tension. The structure is weird too. It’s rambling and plodding, and there’s a lot of pointless padding. There are little mini-stories about how different gods came to America shoe-horned in, but few of them relate to the gods who actually feature, so unless you know a lot about mythology, you’ll be pretty baffled most of the time. The story and the world-building also make no sense, and get stupider the longer you keep reading. Sometimes gods can sense you are in danger and will magically appear to rescue you, but other times you need to telephone them and they have to drive over from Florida. Plus, any interesting elements of the plot – and there are few – are totally wasted, by being so heavily signalled in advance that you’d have to be retarded not to see them coming. Then, when finally things happen in exactly the way we’re know they’re going to, Gaiman explains how they’ve happened, about 15 more times, just in case we’re really stupid. Plus, the whole thing is coated with a terrible tweeness that just makes me cringe.

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

This thriller from 1939 was awesome. Fast-paced, action packed, dripping with irony and black humour, and with some magnificent characters. I wasn’t surprised to find that it’s been really influential on thrillers from Graham Greene to John le Carre. Anyone who’s seen The Third Man won’t be too surprised by the plot. The story involves a rather wet and naïve academic turned writer of classic country house detective fiction. His stories are cosy and Midsummer-murders-ish. When he becomes intrigued with a real-life murder, he finds that the truth is nothing like fiction. The action takes place all over Europe, from Istanbul to Paris, Switzerland to Greece. It depicts a Europe flooded with refugees, recovering from the aftermath of ‘The Armenian Holocaust’, where a lazy, ignorant populace is controlled by media lies, funded by shadowy corporations, collusive governments, and banks that lie beyond the reach of any law. Drug dealers, people-traffickers and pimps are the main criminals, but it turns out that there’s not much difference between them and legitimate businessmen. In fact, they’re the same people. Sounds oddly familiar, huh? But this isn’t some right-on left-wing rant. There’s no justice to be found, and little interest in it either. Also, there are wonderfully sly digs at blissfully ignorant Britain, and Mr Peters – one of the most gloriously odious villains ever written. Great stuff.

Indignez-Vous by Stephane Hessel

This actually is a little left-wing rant, or rallying cry, by a Jewish French diplomat and resistance fighter. After escaping from Hitler’s concentration camps he became one of the key figures in the creation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. He deplores the state of Palestine and urges young people to get outraged and fight for their rights. It’s very French, in that there’s a lot of abstract philosophy in here, but it’s only a tiny little essay really, less than 40 pages, and Hessel is certainly an inspirational figure.

The Southern Reach by Jeff VanderMeer

This is a truly bizarre bit of sci-fi horror. I definitely had wild dreams and felt very anxious about going for a wee in the night after reading it, and I haven’t felt like that since reading The Shining.  It starts with four women – known only as the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and psychologist – crossing the border into Area X, on a mission to investigate. The area was abandoned by humans following some kind of environmental catastrophe, and now there are weird phenomena there. It very quickly becomes obvious that all is not what it seems – not Area X, the mission, or the women. There are some seriously weird and horrific events, and it’s compounded by the total disorientation brought on by mistrust, lies and misinformation. What on earth is going on? Really, this book is about nature fighting back against humans in baffling and deeply unsettling ways. It’s also the second book I’ve read this year in which fungi play a significant part. It’s scary and unnerving, and like all the best sci-fi it forces you to re-examine the world from a completely new angle.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemmingway

Can you believe it, I’ve never read any Hemmingway before. And now I know why! I didn’t think a lot of it really. Apparently it concerns a man named Jake who was ‘injured in the war’ (the first one) in some unspecified way and as a result he’s now impotent so can’t marry the woman he really loves. Though I never would have guessed that if I hadn’t read the introduction, as it’s all hinted at so vaguely and bafflingly. Also, I don’t see why it would be a problem. There must be lots of couples for whom conventional sex is a problem because of disability of chronic health problems, but that doesn’t have to stop you from being together does it? All very odd. Really, all that happens is that Jake and his pals drink a lot in Paris, and then they go on holiday and drink a lot in Spain and do some fishing and watch some bullfighting, all while very drunk. The woman Jake loves has sex with everyone except Jake. I can kind of see the virtue in Hemmingway as a stylist: short sentences, incredibly simple, limited vocabulary, hardly any adverbs or adjectives. He uses almost no subordinate clauses at all. He focuses completely on the action, and leaves us to infer from those actions – drinking, arguing, fighting – the interior life of the characters. He called this the ‘iceberg theory’ – show the readers the tip of the iceberg and they’ll infer the rest. But like most modernist novels it’s formless, and very dated now. It’s like one of those 1940s war movies where people had such stiff upper lips they spoke almost entirely without vowels, but with extra booze.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

This is a very, very short book on how to write. It includes a section on grammar and punctuation, which is useful but pretty dry; a section on commonly misused words and expressions; a section on composition and a section on the nature of style. It’s brilliant. It’s incredibly useful as a reference, but it’s also fun to read. No, really! Each useful piece of advice backed up with entertaining good and bad examples. It’s not too prescriptive: White doesn’t mind if you split infinitives, etc, as long as the meaning remains clear and it serves a stylistic purpose. The rules are made to be broken with intent. On the other hand he’s also a cantankerous man with many personal hobby horses, which he gets wonderfully outraged about. It’s not ‘the student body! Just say ‘the students!’ This is useful advice for any kind of writing, from novels to student essays and catalogues. If I’d read this age 18 it would have saved me a lot of trouble. It’s Stephen King’s favourite book and it’s not hard to see why, for includes so many gems: use definite, specific, concrete language; omit needless words; do not explain too much; do not construct awkward adverbs; and my personal favourite, do not affect a breezy style. I don’t think there’s anything else I need to know about writing.

Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 3, various authors

This is an anthology of short stories, and whatever people say about weird fiction, in this case it just means ‘horror that’s a bit vague’. As with all anthologies I enjoyed some stories more than others. Julie was terrific – in 18th century Paris a prostitute takes a supernatural revenge on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I liked Orange Dogs, even though the ending was irritatingly non-committal. It was set in a post-apocalyptic Oxford, plagued by global warming, social breakdown and mysterious giant butterflies. I liked the surreal metaphor of The Guests as well. It’s written in the 2nd person, which should be an experimental disaster, but it works. Some of the stories I liked less. There’s a tendency to build up a great atmosphere, suspense, an interestingly twisted world and then… nothing. It’s always hard to make the build-up pay off in horror, but honestly, just leaving things hanging is really annoying and unsatisfying. Some stories were also too derivative of classics by Lovecraft, MR James or even Roald Dahl. Another problem for me was that most of the male characters were feeble and helpless, which gets tiresome after you’ve read a lot of them. The female characters at least are usually complicit in their own demise, which makes them slightly more interesting.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I’m afraid I read all of the ‘childhood’ section and then gave up at chapter 28 of ‘adolescence’. Everyone’s been raving about Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it either, I just couldn’t be bothered to carry on. This book is a faux-memoir of a childhood in working class Naples in the 1950s. The language is simple, there’s nothing tricksy about the style, yet Ferrante manages to make everything stunningly vivid. She really conjures up a sense of place. The problem is, I didn’t really enjoy spending time in 1950s Naples. The dads beat the wives and the kids, and the ‘brilliant friend’ gets chucked out of the window by her dad, breaking her arm, when she wants to stay at school past age 11. The wives spend most of the time screaming abuse at the kids, the husbands, and each other, and throwing things at each other or out of windows. The kids throw rocks at each other. When the girls hit age 11, suddenly they are horribly sexually harassed at every waking moment by adult men, but they have to hide this from their brothers, or the brothers will be obliged to beat someone up, and there will be an endless blood-feud. Several people murder each other. At one point some boys started shooting at another group of boys because their firework display was better. In the end I was exhausted by all the pointless melodrama and the ridiculous, steotypical Italian-ness of it all. If they could have just sat down for a nice cup of tea, none of it need have happened.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martell

I got this because it had the word ‘Portugal’ in the title. It was divided into three parts, set in three different eras with a tenuously linked story. In the first part, a grief-stricken man protests at death by some odd behaviours, then sets out on an anti-religious quest. The tone veers between tragedy and farce. It was surreal and implausible, and was mostly about him battling to drive one of the world’s earliest cars. Honestly, listening to descriptions of how a car works for a hundred pages gets a bit much. There was also too much period description relating to objects, and the protagonist had surprisingly liberal, politically correct views on everything for 1904. Plus all symbolism has to be pointed out and explained, which is patronising and robs it of its power. In the second part a grief-stricken pathologist is subjected to a lengthy discourse from his wife about how Agatha Christie is an allegory for the Bible. This goes on forever and is boring, silly and psychologically implausible. Then he performs an autopsy on an old man and pulls various magical objects from his body, and at the end we realise that several of the characters may have been ghosts. It’s horribly twee and infuriating. The final section, strangely, is lovely. It concerns a grief-stricken Canadian senator who randomly adopts a chimpanzee, and takes it to start a new life in Portugal. The relationship between human and animal is beautifully explored, and all the implausibilities here are completely forgivable.  If I were you I’d just read the final section, and not bother with the other two.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer

This is pretty much the world’s largest ever anthology – Kindle tells me it takes an average of 46 hours to read. I’m cheating a bit including it here because I haven’t finished it yet. It contains short stories from the nineteenth century up to the present, arranged in chronological order. They are mostly Anglo-Saxon, but plenty of the stories are from other countries including Japan, India and Nigeria. Lots of the stories are by women too. Some of them are by well-known authors like Kafka, Borges and Shirley Jackson, but lots are by people I’ve never heard of. I had to keep having a break from this, because after a while I’d have enough of surreal blips in time, a creeping sense of dread appearing out of ordinary things, strange shadows, menacing trees, etc. But it’s really nice to read things in chronological order and see how this genre has developed, and I enjoyed most of the stories, ranging from pure pulp to very literary.

The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White

The autobiography of a man who was fine dining’s enfant terrible and rock-star chef in the 1980s. It’s ghostwritten, and it has that very ghostwritten style, of someone taking another person’s oral testimony and shaping into something workable, but inelegant. I learnt a lot about how professional kitchens work, and there were some interesting bits of gossip of other celebrity chefs, like Michel Roux (a great chef but too slow to cope with being a chef de partie) and Raymond Blanc (lovely, but too nice to keep his chefs under control). But other than that it’s pretty dull. MPW is obviously a man of action, without an introspective bone in his body – useful for working 18 hours a day in a kitchen, hopeless for writing. He comes across as a really unpleasant man, who perhaps has had some therapy for his issues and parrots back platitudes about how all his problems stem from the early death of his mother, his difficult childhood etc, but who is still totally lacking self-awareness.

Collected Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson

I haven’t read these for many years either. Although Anderson’s tales are moralistic and macabre, with people (female children, mostly) subjected to all sorts of bizarre punishments for committing terrible sins such as wearing nice shoes, they’re also really, really funny. I’d forgotten, or maybe not noticed before, how dryly funny many of his stories are.

Reflections on three months of English language teaching

I’ve now been an English teacher for three months. Nice use of the present perfect tense there eh? Notice how you can’t say ‘I have been being a teacher for three months’ because ‘to be’ is a state verb and cannot be used in the continuous (+ing) form. I’ve started to notice these things!!!

Anyway, in my last post I was very enthusiastic about my new teaching career, but thought the shine might wear off if I had to do it full-time. And that’s exactly what’s happened! I’ve been teaching for 25 hours a week and it’s very tiring. 25 hours of teaching also means at least another 12 hours of planning, so it’s really a full time job. I haven’t had much time to do any writing.

I’m aiming for 100% Dead Poets Society….

Another reason the shine has started to wear off is that my main class is pre-intermediate. Intermediate really is the best level – anything below that and it’s quite hard work. The intermediates generally understand your instructions, and can speak enough that a speaking activity can go on for quite a long time, with plenty of error correction afterwards. Pre-intermediates can’t say very much, so none of the activities last that long. Plus, the reading and listening texts they can manage are necessarily simple and therefore a bit boring.

I’ve also found that at intermediate level or above, almost all students are good students. You need to be reasonably intelligent and to put quite a bit of effort in to get to intermediate level. Anyone who’s really slow or not capable of the effort and commitment needed either gives up or simply remains in pre-intermediate. In other words, in my class.

Teaching 15 students aged 16-65, from all over the world and with very different cultures and different language problems presents all sorts of issues. There are definitely some nationalities that are harder to teach than others. That’s not to say that 100% of people from those countries are bad students, just that a lot of them are. I wonder if people in some countries just have wildly different expectations and experiences of education, which plays out in their behaviour?

St Trianians on the rampage = my class on a Friday…

On the other hand, I don’t want to be too negative. I’ve had some pretty hair-tearing moments, but I’ve had some moments of triumph too. I had a shy Latin American student (yes! there are shy people in that continent too!) who was initially terrified of speaking English. He became quite a confident speaker after a few weeks, and when he left he exclaimed ‘never did I think I would enjoy the learning so much!’ I was so proud! I also taught a Japanese student to correctly pronounce /r/ and /l/. Never again will anyone laugh at him for failing to distinguish between ‘rice’ and ‘lice’. I’ve received a few odd presents and one student even said that they felt inspired!

I’ve learnt a lot about myself as well. I really enjoy getting my students talking and communicating. I enjoy teaching creative speaking activities, or even everyday communication skills. I don’t mind teaching grammar. It’s actually pretty interesting, as I’m learning a lot about my own language too, and it’s not nearly as scary as people seem to think. I enjoy teaching vocabulary, especially some of the slightly more advanced stuff, and I find I’m quite good at it. I also enjoy pronunciation work. There’s lots of interest in pronunciation: not just phonemes (individual sounds) but word stress, sentence stress, intonation patterns and connected speech. It’s also pretty fun and can be incorporated into all kinds of lessons. For example, in a lesson on ‘news’ I’ve had students practice reading the news in the style of a newsreader, with their voice falling at the end of end of every sentence to show how serious they are. It’s all quite difficult for my students, but I do try to teach them not to sound like robots. This has mixed results. I sometimes find my class has learnt absolutely nothing except how to say something silly like ‘oh really???’ in a very exaggerated way. The next time I say ‘that is not the correct answer,’ or ‘we’re going to study some new grammar now’, they all cry ‘oh reeeeaaaaalllyyyyyy teacher?’

The stuff I don’t like doing is teaching the exam class. I’ve only covered this a few times, but my word it was boring. The students were very motivated because they want to pass the exam, but it’s just really dull and has no room for creativity. I’ve found that many of the other teachers love the exam class because of the high motivation of the students, and because it’s very structured and has a definite aim. But I just don’t find it rewarding at all. Give me a good role play or a class debate any day! In fact, I’d rather have them messing about and shouting ‘oh reeeaaalllly’ than endlessly writing boring essays about global warming. At least it’s fun.

It could easily all descend into School of Rock to be honest…

The main thing I still find difficult is giving instructions for activities. You need to be incredibly detailed and precise, and to go through everything step-by-step, no matter how simple. You then need to get them to repeat the instructions back to you, to show they understand. You need to use very simple language and talk slowly. Frequently they still don’t understand. I guess I’m just not very good at it yet! I’m also not very patient. I often think ‘well, how difficult can it be to play dominoes where you match the start of the sentence with the end of the sentence?’ The answer is, very, very difficult indeed. I think part of the problem is many students have probably never played dominoes, or a board game, or charades before. The logic of these things escapes them if it’s not something they do in their country. Sometimes explaining the concept of a grammar game is much harder than actually teaching the grammar. But I’ve learnt that and am now very careful with games.

I’m looking forward to teaching in Portugal, where the groups will probably be monolingual and more monocultural, and hopefully with less of an age range. That should make things a lot easier: at least most of them will have similar problems. Then again, I might be surprised! I’ve been surprised by so many aspects of teaching that perhaps it’s best not to make any assumptions.

Latest book reviews 2016

What with doing teacher training and starting my brand new teaching career, I’ve been pretty busy and not read as much as I would’ve liked this year. But still, I’ve managed a few good books so far. Here they are, in the order I’ve read them in. I’ve starred the most interesting ones. I now realise that so far this year I’ve mainly read non-fiction and fairly low-brow trash. Must try harder to get some proper literature in there! Let me know if you have any suggestions…

*Slouching towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

Didion is a legendary figure in non-fiction writing and ‘new journalism’ – reporting that reads like a story. This is a collection of her journalism from the 1960s. I enjoyed the opening story, about a murder trial in California, but after that I went off the whole thing. Didion writes beautifully and her pieces are carefully constructed. There is much to admire and find instructive here, but I don’t like her point of view. Didion was an uber-privileged arch-WASP, and her feelings about things don’t resonate with me. Or rather, they seem baffling and completely irrelevant now. Still an essential read for anyone interested in writing though.

At home, Bill Bailey

Bill is a genial, avuncular companion of this random wander about, allegedly, the history of the home. Everything that he writes is full of enthusiasm and gentle mockery of history’s most eccentric characters, wackiest anecdotes, and most interesting little factoids. But Bill obviously has no interest at all in the history of domestic life. He doesn’t consider, ever, who lived in homes, how they lived in them, what they did there, how they felt about it. He’s much more interested in things like how the Eiffel tower was built, the history of canals and concrete, international exploration and plagues of locusts on American farms. These aren’t even digressions, really: they’re just the contents of the book. Some things, such as architecture, furniture design and a history of lighting are relevant to the topic, but most of feels totally irrelevant. It’s still a jolly read, but if you really want to know about the history of the home, as opposed to a totally random bunch of stuff, read Lucy Worsely’s book on the topic instead.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Fay Weldon

It’s kind of depressing that Weldon’s comic novel is 33 years old yet still feels relevant and gleefully transgressive today. Women don’t seem to have moved forward very much. The book concerns Ruth, a downtrodden, 6 foot 3, ugly woman, whose husband leaves her for a petite, attractive romantic novelist. Ruth puts aside all notions of femininity, responsibility and morality to become a she-devil in her quest for revenge. This involves her tackling, one at a time, all the factors that keep women from the things they want. Caring duties for children and elderly parents must be palmed off on someone else. Homemaking must be abandoned. The patriarchal church, state and law must be bent to her will. Money must be made. Faithfulness, love and romance must be exchanged for promiscuity. But whilst it’s blindingly clear that all these factors stifle women as much as ever, this isn’t a totally feminist novel. Ruth moves in with a muesli-munching feminist commune at one point, and they are painted as a joyless and ridiculous bunch. She seeks revenge on other women as much as her husband. She certainly doesn’t attempt to level the playing field or improve the lot of women, but rather to manipulate things to her advantage. The tools she uses are sex, housekeeping, embezzlement and blackmail. And also plastic surgery, as she finally remakes herself to resemble her rival. This is an enormously entertaining, page-turning novel. But it also presents an uncomfortably bleak view of the power relations between the sexes.

 *Black Sea, Neal Ashershon

This book is about 90% history, 10% travel writing, and it describes the history of the black sea and its peoples. It’s quite rambling and free-form. Rather than having a linear structure through time or even a circular route around the sea, it wanders around thematically. It’s pretty intellectual, and I felt a bit out of my depth at times, as I really know nothing at all about this area. But it is wonderfully engaging and beautifully written. I have learnt all about the Cossacks, about the Pontic Greeks, Ghengis Khan’s golden horde, the birth of the tiny state Abkhazia, and about trade routes, religion, languages, archaeology, grave-robbing and what Herodotus got right and wrong. There’s lot of interesting speculation about the nature of nationalism, the good points of Empires, and about the nature of history writing itself. It’s challenging but really fascinating stuff, and it feels peculiarly relevant in the light of the whole EU debacle.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Can you believe I’ve never read this classic Victorian horror story? In fact though, it’s easy to see why – it’s not very good! The concept, of a sensible, do-gooding Dr who transforms into his evil alter ego after consuming a potion, is everything. There’s little more to it than that. The story is told from the point of view of Dr Jekyll’s friend, a lawyer, who thinks mysterious things might be going on. He doesn’t really uncover these until he gets a series of letters explaining the situation though. Victorian sensibilities being what they were, we get a great deal of build-up, and a lot of talk about evil deeds! Horror! Sin! Temptation! But we never find out what Mr Hyde really gets up to, which is very disappointing. Top marks for the amazingly steam-punk description of the potion though, which goes through fizzing, frothing, steaming and multiple colour changes before being drunk.

 *Gut by Giulia Enders

This is a very jolly and readable account of the body’s most underrated organ – the gut! In fact, it takes in the whole digestive system, and lots of other bodily functions as well. It’s really fun and features great illustrations – not medically accurate, but little cartoons that just make it obvious what Enders is talking about. I now know what the appendix does (same as the tonsils – it’s part of the immune system), how salivary glands work, what the lymphatic system is, and how and why people develop allergies and food intolerances. I’ve also learnt useful stuff to incorporate into my diet: olive oil is really good for you, unless it’s heated, when it becomes really bad for you; sugar is turned quickly into fat, whereas fat isn’t turned into fat for a long time; cooked cold starched like potato salad are really good for your guts; and most people can’t digest a lot of fructose, so fruit juice, smoothies, and anything with ‘fructose syrup’ in it is best avoided, unless you want stomach ache and lots of farts, in which case juice away!

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

This book is a compendium of social history, telling you everything you could ever need to know about how real people, mostly the working and middle classes, lived their daily lives in the nineteenth century. It is structured around the daily routine and features washing, dressing, housework, work, school, childcare, leisure, sickness, food and sex. Each section talks about the different social classes and about the products available, the processes used, and a bit of historical context. What’s really interesting is that Goodman has done a lot of re-enactment work, so she can shed a lot of light on what things actually felt like. Wearing a corset while hand scything a field, the process of doing laundry, cooking on a Victorian stove, etc. are all covered in detail. One of the most interesting parts is the clothing. Ruth knows exactly how to make a set of clothes for a toddler, how long it took, how long it took to get the child dressed (at least 15 minutes), and how difficult it was to wash the stuff. The practicalities – or impracticalities – of daily life explain a lot about how the Victorians lives. I’ve always been baffled by boiled puddings, for example. But whilst it was fairly easy to boil a pan of water, you had to be upper middle class at least, or possibly a wealthy farmers wife to have access to an actual oven. So those who could afford a bit of fat and flour could boil up a savoury or sweet pudding, but a cake was out of the question for most until the twentieth century. Interesting stuff, and a very engaging, easy read.

Death by Chocolate: the serial poisoning of Victorian Brighton by Sophie Jackson

I picked this up because it concerns Christiana Edmunds, a serial poisoner who ended up in Broadmoor. I researched her and wrote a chapter about her when I did my (unpublished!) book on Broadmoor. I was never able to find any trial reports for her, which was odd, and so I wondered whether this author would have tracked them down, so that I could learn something new. It’s a bit a mystery, what’s happened to them. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of the reports here. It’s hard to imagine how something that’s therefore pretty thin on fact could be spun out to the length of a short book. Jackson does it by giving endless background information on poisoning and poisoners in general in the nineteenth century, food adulteration, forensics, the invention of chemical tests for poisoning, and background details on Christiana’s family and the families of those she poisoned and the police who investigated. In other words it all circles around the subject. It’s pretty poorly written though, low on general accuracy (e.g. ‘this is an echo of today’s health and safety culture’ – no! Today’s health and safety culture might be an echo of the Victorians, but not the other way around, because an echo never comes first, does it?) and low on historical nuance. Still, Jackson manages to spin things out into a narrative with a sense of mystery, which is more than I ever did. So, pretty poor but still better than I can do. A useful lesson.

Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale 

This book relates the history of the Kremlin, used as a focus through which to tell the whole of Russian history. There’s an awful lot of Russian history, and as I don’t really know anything about Russia, it was a lot to take in. I sometimes felt there was either too much information or not quite enough. Ivan the terrible turned out to be genuinely terrible. He was pretty much insane and had some kind of proto-Nazi death cult of mercenaries and they just rampaged about the countryside slaughtering everyone and burning everything indiscriminately for no real reason. Like something out of Mad Max. Peter the Great was also interesting, as were the more contemporary bits. But I think I would have got more out of this if I’d already known a bit about Russian history. So interesting, byt probably not a good read for total beginners in Russian history.

Wolf Borders by Sarah Hall

I’ve read a couple of her books before and enjoyed them, and was very disappointed by this. It concerns a women who is some kind of poorly defined wolf expert who helps a wealthy aristocrat reintroduce wolves on his Cumbrian estate. The wolves are terribly metaphorical of course, and there’s plenty of cringeworthily A-level discussion of social class and politics. But mainly the book is about a string of curiously boring and pointless family dramas, with very stereotyped characters, and at least 50% of it is descriptions of landscapes. Apparently there’s a lot of landscape in Cumbria. I wouldn’t know that of course, as I’m an elitist metropolitan Londoner, and we’re all idiots, according to Sarah Hall. Another thing I didn’t know was that there are seasons in Cumbria. Luckily Hall is on hand to tell me what seasons are, very thoroughly, for about 45 million pages. We don’t have seasons in London, so I had no idea. One of the boringly humdrum events of the plot is that the main character has a baby. Before she has a baby, like all childless women, her life is worthless and she’s a despicable person. Afterwards, she becomes a holy saint, and suddenly the world is meaningful. Honestly, as a childless Londoner I’m such a piece of worthless scum I should just be put down, for my own good. I can’t believe I actually finished this.

 *The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey

This is a zombie book with an interesting twist – it’s from the point of view of a sentient zombie. It’s a very readable, exciting thriller. Some of the characterisation is a bit clichéd, and the plot features all the elements you’d expect, but somehow that doesn’t matter. The plot feels driven naturally by the characters and the decisions they make so that it never feels contrived. The world building is beautifully done without straying too far into flowery descriptions, there are some good twists, and it adds to zombie mythology in some fantastic new ways. There are even a few moral conumdrums to ponder over. This would be a great holiday read.

 *Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

There are books that are desperately trying to cool, shocking and subversive, and then there are books that actually are cool, shocking and subversive – this is one of the latter. It’s about a family of travelling carney folk who decide to create their very freak show. The mother – Crystal Lil – dutifully plys herself with cocktails of drugs and radioactive substances throughout pregnancy to produce suitably disabled offspring. There’s a boy with no limbs, a pair of Siamese twins, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and one who appears perfectly normal but actually has telekinesis. The plot meanders around, but it’s beautifully written, with a strong flavour of Tom Waits about its descriptions of lonely, desperate stretches of the USA abandoned by normal people. There’s incest, rape, drugs, madness, bodily fluids galore and a pretty high body count. The limbless Arturo is truly a monster and he sets up his own cult, persuading people to gradually have their own limbs cut off so that they ultimately resemble him. The ‘freaks’ pity the normals and revel in their own weirdness. I wouldn’t say the book has any particular moral message, other than to cherish your own weirdness, but then perhaps that is a powerful message.

My top ten favourite vampires…

I’ve started watching True Blood. A bit behind the times I know. One of my friends said it was shameful, but honestly I’m enjoying the series. It’s extremely entertaining low-brow nonsense.

One of the main complaints people make about vampires, fantasy, or any genre writing really, is that it’s always the same old tropes, over and over again. That seems pretty silly and reductive. After all, highbrow literature is just the same old stuff over and over again, and you don’t even get a plot with that. And with vampires, there’s endless possibilities to play with: plot, setting, characterisation and tone provide so much variety. Here are my top ten Vampire themed things. Just don’t mention Tw*l*ght.

Only Lovers Left Alive

This movie was directed by Jim Jarmusch and stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, two tall, thin pale people who look pretty vampiric in real life. They’re Adam and Eve and they’ve been alive for hundreds, or possibly thousands of years, and have spent most of that time noodling about reading, playing music and generally behaving like intellectual teenage goths, until they’re interrupted by Eve’s much more normal vampire sister. They prefer discreet arrangements with blood banks to actually killing people. It’s arch and fey, but humorous and self aware. If you’re going to have a triumph of style over substance, you might as well make it a proper triumph, like this.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The original(ish) and still the best! I’ve written about my love for Dracula before, but it’s well worth revisiting. Dracula has a complex, epistolary style, and has great characters and some incredible scenes. Dracula’s enchantment of asylum inmate Renfield, who feeds on insects, is deeply unsettling. His dramatic arrival in Whitby during a storm, on a ghost ship, is amazing: only the dead captain is left strapped to the helm. Plus, in an unusual gender twist, it is Jonathan Harker, a man, who is trapped in a Transylvanian castle and menaced by sexually predatory female vampires. It doesn’t get any more goth than that.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I watched this series – all 144 episodes – endlessly while I was at university. It was one of those cult things, that spread more slowly before the internet proper. We watched it on VHS! It was a cool postmodern mash-up of American High School drama, romance and horror, at a time when that still felt new. It was also pretty feminist. Cute little Buffy was super strong and beat up endless vampires and saved the world from destruction, with her crew of misfits and their English, tweed-clad librarian ‘watcher,’ more times than I can remember.

Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

The ultimate in Southern Gothic. This is amazing writing, with complex characters, a strong plot and an eerie eye for detail. It’s not exactly scary, but properly macabre and twisted, with plenty of horrifying elements: the misery of eternal life, the perils of never growing up or old, existential suffering. Vampires have heightened senses and Rice really suggests what that might be like: one long, erotic, psychedelic trip to the dark side.

The Lost Boys

A teenage cult classic from the 80s, The Lost Boys is a comedy horror with an amazing soundtrack – it was probably the first time I ever heard The Doors. It also has some very cool 80s rocker teenage vampires, who live a hedonistic life hiding in a fun fair. Shades of Ray Bradbury, but then I probably hadn’t read anything by him when I first watched this. Definitely one for a nostalgia trip with a bucket of popcorn and a few drinks.

Let the Right One in

A Swedish horror film that’s properly nasty in a creepy, understated Scandinavian way, complete with some real shocks. It features a bullied, isolated young boy who is befriended and protected by a ‘teenage’ vampire girl. So much of what’s horrible about this is the tone and the implications, never spelt out. Our vampire girl is cared for by an adult man, who assists her with her extremely bloody kills – is he a paedophile, or was he once a lonely young boy as well? Who exactly is preying on whom? The Scandinavians just seem better at making things properly grim than other people.

Thirst

Then again, you could do vampires the Korean way. This film is just mad and disturbing. It features a Korean Catholic priest who becomes a vampire after volunteering for a medical experiment somewhere in Africa that gets a bit voodoo. He then begins a tempestuous affair with his friend’s wife, moving into his house and then killing him. The mother in law remains in the house, but is paralysed with shock. As you would be. He soon makes his girlfriend into a vampire too, and the two of them go on some crazy killing sprees and abuse the mother in law for fun. Meanwhile the police are catching up with them, and they have a terrifying love-hate relationship. Everything about this is bonkers and baffling and bloody.

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

This book is a much more sedate affair. It’s a cerebral quest for the real Dracula that riffs on Bram Stoker but manages to add much more to vampire lore and the history of Vlad the Impaler. It’s a properly pseudo-Victorian style novel: long, slow-burning, and written in epistolary style. It’s eerie rather than horrifying. It has a lot to say about the nature of history and evil, the conflict between Christianity and Islam, and is as much about the joys of academic research as anything else.

Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)

King’s second novel is very King and very 70’s Americana. A writer returns home to the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine, only to find that the residents are becoming vampires. The writer and a group of locals, including a priest and a doctor, do battle against the forces of evil. The themes are of social disintegration and the death of the small town, and the carefully-drawn setting, social realism and perfect character development all blend seamlessly with the taut, exciting, scary plot. Nobody does this kind of thing better than King. It’s perfect.

Anno Dracula (Kim Newman)

I’ve reviewed this before, in my 2014 reading list, but I really enjoyed it so here it is again. It’s an alternative steampunk history, in which Queen Victoria has married Dracula and the Jack the Ripper killings are actually vampire slayings. It’s an amazing bit of intertextual postmodernism, or decent fanfiction, with references crammed in to pretty much every other vampire that’s ever been written about or filmed. In style it’s horror-action-thriller, and it would make a really good movie.

On my first month as an English language teacher

About three weeks ago I started my new job as an English teacher at a lovely language school in central London. It’s part time, and although I need more more hours because life in London is expensive, it’s been a lovely way to start off. A bit like gradually paddling into the water instead of simply jumping in the deep end.

When I finished the CELTA teachers course I had 6 hours of teaching experience, but I’ve got more than five times as much as that already.

I’ve discovered that really teaching is in fact much more enjoyable, easier, and less stressful than teaching practice lessons. The practice lessons were 40-60 minutes long, and during that time you had to create a lead-in or warming up exercise, then do a series of exercises of gradually increasing difficulty leading up to ‘freer’ practice at the end. For example, if the purpose of the lesson was grammar, you had to set a context for the grammar, so that the ‘target language’ would appear in a memorable sentence. Then you had to do the actual teaching bit, or ‘MFP’ – meaning, form and pronunciation. This is where you go through the sentence and draw out from what the grammar actually is, what it means, how to use it, what the rules are, and how to say it. Students then had to complete at least two related exercises, which you had to give feedback on, which might require going back to the teaching again if they hadn’t understood it. Then you might set up a speaking activity using the target language. Some lessons might have even more steps than this – maybe up to 12 different things to be gone through, in 60 minutes. In other words, it was a frantic rush. Plus, of course, the other trainee teachers were dutifully watching you to find out what not to do, and an experienced teacher was watching you and noting down all the things you’d done wrong.

My current lessons are either 2 hours (communication, speaking and vocabulary work) or four hours (traditional lessons featuring reading, listening and speaking, and always with a main grammar point). This doesn’t seem to mean that you need to prepare lots more – just that you can take your time over it. For example, my communication class is really chatty. You can give them a few questions to discuss and they’ll happily talk and talk, sometimes for half an hour. It’s incredible. While they do this, I listen in, help them out, and make notes of all the things they’ve said wrong and all the vocabulary they don’t know but that would really help them to answer the question. The we go over that together. All that can easily take an hour. It’s very relaxing compared to the teacher training. The morning classes are much more like the CELTA training classes, but again it’s just so nice to have enough time to explain things properly without rushing.

Not feeling quite so much like this anymore…

My students are a very diverse bunch, which makes things really interesting. I’ve learnt about drug busts in Saudi Arabia from a customs official, shopping in China, and the mysterious blunders of Korean politicians. I actually feel like I’m really teaching them something, and it’s nice to see people improve, even if only really slowly. I felt enormous pride after I taught my class that ‘the worsetest’ is not a word. The day after every single one of them had remembered that it’s bad, worse than, the worst. It’s a small victory, but very satisfying to feel that you’re helping to facilitate people to reach their goals.

The things I need to work on are taking my time even more – I still feel the need to rush through some things in a slightly frenzied way sometimes, even though there’s usually no need. I also need to work on my grammar and my grammar teaching. I observed a more experienced teacher this week, and although I was happy that I’m on the right lines, her grammar teaching was just so much better than mine. I’m hoping that once I’ve been teaching for a year or so I will have covered all the main parts of grammar in at least one lesson, and that it’s just going to get easier, but in the mean time I’ll be reading up on the grammar points before each class. As long as I’m always one step ahead of the class it’ll be fine!

I never expected to be a teacher, but it’s definitely the most fun (not the funnest!) I’ve ever had while working. I imagine that the more hours I teach the more it’ll tip over from fun to tiring, but right now it’s brilliant, and I’m really glad I decided to do it.

Goodbye to a glorious work-free month

We live in interesting times my friends, and since my last post a month ago I’ve simultaneously done loads of different things, and a whole lot of nothing.

I applied for 6 different teaching jobs, five of which were on TEFL.com and one of which I applied for on spec. I heard back from three of them, but decided not to pursue one as the application process was very complicated. I had interviews for the two other jobs and got offered both of them. I turned one down and will be sticking with a job at a really great language school near Victoria, which offers a lot of training and pays you for it. It starts… tomorrow! I’ve prepared for my first class. More or less. Gulp. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere and it’s preparation for going to Portugal.

On that front, we’ve done some painting and decorating in preparation for letting out our flat, and systematically sorting through our things and taking stuff to charity shop, chucking things out, giving things away. One of my concerns is the sheer amount of weird experimental foodstuffs we have in the cupboards and the freezer. I know everyone ends up eating some weird meals before moving house, but ours are going to be much, much weirder than most, and probably consist of seaweed, sauerkraut and a bizarre assortment of pickle and spices.

I’ve also been learning Portuguese, using a book and recordings and an amazing online app that accompanies the book called ‘memrise’. This ‘gamifies’ the memorisation of vocabulary and phrases. Essentially it’s the same thing as using flashcards and repeating it over and over, but way more fun, as you get awarded points and can climb up a leaderboard according to which learner has done the best this week. Not that I’m competitive or anything, but I love it! Memrise is kind of like wasting your time playing a game, only it’s actually useful.

I’ve also been doing some writing. I’ve finished the first draft of a sort of gothic horror story, which is about 9,000 words long. Many of those words are pretty silly and will have to be removed or chopped and changed a lot, but I think it has shape and potential. I’ve joined a meetup group for writers, so I may get them to critique it once I’ve redrafted it. The meetup was wonderfully weird. Writers are interesting, erudite, imaginative, intellectual, passionate people, who are also socially awkward and obsessive over bizarre things. It was lovely to hang out with odd people I didn’t know, talking about books, plot structure, characterization, the devaluation of currency in Zimbabwe and the history of glue and eastern European television towers. I’m definitely going to go next month, and I’ll try to go to a couple of their weekend meetups as well, where everyone goes to a café and sits in silence for 2 hours doing their own writing before having a critiquing session. I never did these kinds of things before my Arvon week, but it’s very motivational to work with other people and to have something to aim for.

I’ve sent some pitches to several history magazines, suggesting articles I could for them on various subjects, but I haven’t heard back yet. I’ll chase them up and then I’ll bombard them with a new round of ideas of try different magazines. I think that getting articles published is a numbers game and you need to be persistent. Just like applying for a job, really!

I’ve also sort of drafted an essay on Aldous Huxley, which I intend to finish, polish and send to a literary magazine that I’ve recently discovered and really liked. I fear it may be setting my sights too high, but if they don’t want it someone else might, or perhaps it will just end up on this blog and have been at least at good writing exercise. But my sister has a cookery motto ‘If you’re not in, you can’t win!’, so I might as well give it my best shot. I’m not sure if ‘if you’re not in, you can’t win’ is in fact a great cookery motto – sometimes less is more. It probably depends on what you have in the cupboard, because putting Japanese fish flakes in your ratatouille does not, in fact, improve it. You can have that lifestyle tip from me for free.

I also went on a wonderful holiday to Northern Ireland with friends. It rained the whole time, but we had a very relaxing time, did some wonderful cooking and added some more odd ingredients to the store cupboard (are you sensing a theme here?). I also enjoyed a wonderful spa day with my sister, to celebrate our birthdays.

And now my glorious month of unemployment is drawing to an end. I think it’s going to be a terrible shock getting back to work! But I’m looking forward to it, and as it’s part-time, I should have time to continue with the writing and the Portuguese as well.

All change! Learning to teach English the CELTA way

My blog has been hibernating since Christmas because I’ve been far too busy to write anything, or to do anything much interesting enough to blog about. That’s because in the the first week of January I started an English language teaching course, and am now the proud owner of the Cambridge Certificate in English Teaching to Adults (CELTA).

For the last three months I’ve been going to classes for three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and four hours on Saturday mornings. The Saturday mornings were the worst. I’m not a morning person and I felt cruelly deprived of my customary Saturday snooze. It really was painful dragging myself off to class for 9.30 on a Saturday morning, every morning for 12 weeks. The course was very practical, and involved us observing experienced teachers, and teaching eight lessons ourselves, observed by an experienced teacher who then, along with all the students, pitched in to tell us where we went wrong.

A fresh crop of newly qualified teachers!

On top of this, there was a lot of homework. I completed four assignments, which I found relatively easy. They were only 1,000 words each, so once I’d done the research it took me no time at all to bash out the words. But the lesson planning was a different matter. I can’t imagine anyone ever actually plans a lesson in as much depth as we had to for the course, but it took me an average of 4 hours to plan for a 40 or 60 minute lesson. This seems crazy, but I think it really helped us rookie teachers to do such elaborate preparation before the classes. It’s all been a bit of a hard slog, and fairly stressful too, as you feel you stand or fall by the strength of each lesson. You really, really don’t want to spend 40 minutes or an hour each week humiliating yourself in front of a class of students, an experienced teacher, and your peers. So you’ve got to be prepared.

I found the course incredibly interesting. I’ve learnt a lot about about teaching methods but the key point for me is that you need to engage people’s attention and get them to do something active with what they’re learning. No one’s really sure what the best way to learn or teach a language is, so CELTA uses a mix and match of different techniques and ideas. But one thing is sure, standing in front of people and lecturing them for ages doesn’t teach them anything, or test what they know or don’t know, or help them remember anything. They’ve got to actually DO something, an exercise or activity that uses the language.

This is one of those things that is entirely obvious once it’s been pointed out to you, and that suddenly seems relevant to many areas of life. The idea was a revelation though, and I immediately applied it in my day job as an archivist and records manager. I redesigned our training session for new starters to begin with a competition to see who could build a flat-pack records box the fastest. Ice-breakers and competitions get people motivated. You’d be surprised how excited people got when promised a small prize for making a cardboard box. Then we did an exercise of getting the group to assess the contents of a box against a retention schedule, to decide what to keep and what to chuck out. Most people found this surprisingly difficult. This taught them something, but also taught us something too. Not only were these sessions far more effective for learning, they were also much more fun to teach.

Another surprising thing I learnt on the course was the theory of reading. We were taught to structure a reading lesson by giving students a short period of time to read a piece and answer a couple of quick general questions about it, to get the ‘gist’ of it. This is called ‘skimming’. Then they would have much longer to read and answer more specific questions, which is called ‘scanning’, in other words searching for specific information. At no point did they need to read every single word in the piece, read it out loud, or go through it with a dictionary. In other words, students learnt how to read a foreign language in a functional way, the way native speakers do when reading a newspaper or checking listings. They don’t learn to read in the way you might read a novel, because they’re not going to need to do that, at least not until they’re quite advanced. I found it very interesting to think about the different ways in which we read. It’s a much more complex activity than simply looking at one word at a time and understanding each of them. This will definitely change the way I attempt to read in a foreign language in the future. I’ll worry much less about understanding every single word, and just feel pleased if I can extract the information I really need.

So, why have I spent 120 hours of my free time, plus about 60 hours of homework (when I put it like that, I’m not surprised I’ve been tired), learning to be a teacher? Well, I’ve decided it’s time for a change. I’ve been working in archives for about 14 years now and I want to do something different for a while. My partner and I had talked about moving abroad before, but the problem always was, what would I do in another country? Teaching English was the obvious answer, and once we’d hit on the idea of moving to Lisbon for a while, it seemed like a good opportunity. Why Lisbon? Well, it’s hot, sunny, cheap, the food is good, there are nice beaches nearby, and I found the town impossibly romantic. It has a slightly Tom-Waits-esque air of decaying grandeur, melancholy beauty and cultural melting pot. What more could you want?

Lisbon – not bad, eh?

We plan to move to Lisbon in September, so I can get a job there at the start of the teaching year. In the meantime, I’ve actually quit my job, so I’m going to get a teaching job here in London as soon as I can. I’ll keep you updated on how it all goes!