End of Year Life Round-Up

Life in General

It’s been an extremely busy year. I’ve taken on two additional projects at work and my job has had me travelling around to London, Liverpool and all over Wales. We moved house in the summer, which was worthwhile, but stressful. We didn’t get time for a proper holiday and that’s left us both feeling rather burned out at the end of the year.

Highlights were moving to a nicer flat in a more convenient area, and spending time developing new hobbies like fossil-hunting and bird-watching. I saw kingfishers and green woodpeckers for the first time, which was magical.

Lowlights were the mouse infestation at our old flat (horrific!), and my tooth breaking. That was very painful and cost me a small fortune in dentistry.

I’ve been doing quite well in relation to mental and physical health. I’ve taken up yoga and have worked regular, moderate exercise into my routine. I find this very helpful, especially for my mental health. My eating disorder has been a lot better this year, so that’s great too. The bouts of difficult emotions and negative thoughts, that have plagued me since 2017, have also visited less often this year, although I’m still struggling with a sense of meaninglessness and lack of purpose.

Books & Music

I read 48 books in 2019. I suppose I could push myself to finish a couple more before New Year and make it a nice round 50, but I don’t think I can be bothered. I read a lot more poetry, which was one of my main reading goals for this year, but I’m embarrassed by the lack of diversity in the authors I read and want to do better on that in 2020.

I didn’t listen to as much music as usual, mainly due to moving and everything being in boxes. My top albums were By the Way I Forgive You, by Brandi Carlisle, Possible Dust Clouds by Kristin Hersh, Negative Capability by Marianne Faithful and Small World Turning by Thea Gilmore.

We went to a few good gigs. A local folk festival turned out better than we expected and introduced us to some great bands. We saw Kristin Hersh (electric trio) in March – we take every opportunity to catch her live – and Thea Gilmore, which was fantastic because I’ve been wanting to see her live for years.

Stage

The cultural highlight of the year has to be seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre. It was just a wonderful, innovative, joyous production and I’m so glad we made the effort to go. I also saw a production of Romeo and Juliet which was okay, but didn’t quite take off.

I went to a couple of musicals, Avenue Q which is fun and Les Miserables, which I’d never seen before and wanted to experience.

Film

I didn’t see many films this year and feel pretty out of loop. I disliked The Favourite. Everyone else seemed to love it, but I found it a horrible film on almost every level, though I concede that the performances were amazing and it’s worth seeing just for that.

I enjoyed Captain Marvel, despite not being much of a Marvel fan.  I also loved seeing Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor again in Terminator: Dark Fate. It really was so empowering to see a woman in her sixties who actually looks her age being a total baddass. However, I didn’t think the film overall was up to the standard of Terminators 1 and 2, which was a shame.

Television

The most memorable thing was binge-watching the entirely of the BBC Great British Bake Off on Netflix, which tells you a lot about what this year has been like. As an added bonus, I can now engage with my colleagues in debates about ‘bin gate’.

Next Year

I definitely need to improve the old work/life balance. I enjoy my job, for the most part, but I’m getting exhausted too often and very resentful about the lack of energy I have for other things that I want to do.  I really need to make more space for creativity outside my job.

Mental health will be an ongoing focus. The last two years have given me quite a bad scare honestly; I had no idea how fragile my mental health was until it really came under fire in 2017, but if there’s anything positive to be taken from this, I feel that I have a far more realistic assessment of my situation and therefore a place to at least work from.

I also want to do some longer-term planning in terms of my career, housing and financial situation. We’ve spent so long veering from crisis- to crisis that we haven’t had much of a chance to focus on the longer-term. Now that things are reasonably stable (fingers crossed), we may be able to think longer-term.

I’m going to re-vamp my blog and social media presence in January to see if I can get it all working better for me – and more reflective of where I’m at now – so there will be some changes.

My Top Ten Books of the Year

The ten best books I read in 2019.

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

Book cover shows a human figure in silhouette sitting on the ground looking up at a starry night sky.

The third book in Becky Chambers’s beloved Wayfarers series immerses us in the world of the Exodan fleet. Told from the perspectives of several characters, Record is a heartbreaking, but optimistic, story about the nature of ‘home’ and the search for meaning and purpose in our lives.

Recommended if you like cosy, character-based science fiction and Star Trek.

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home (2017)

Book cover shows a portrait of Jane Austen in silhouette surrounded by a stylised flower design.

Lucy Worsley tells the story of Jane Austen’s life through the places where she lived and stayed. The result is a fascinating, fresh and feminist perspective on the novelist, which roots her writing in her domestic life.

Recommended if you’re interested in women’s history and writing.

Jane Hirshfield, After (2006)

Book cover is a painting of a wooden door opened onto a landscape.

Beautiful, life-enriching poems in a wide-ranging collection that delves deeply into the human condition.

Recommended if you’re grappling with life.

Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016)

Book cover is a black and white photograph of people in a 1950s diner.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Earl and Bette, a black gay actor and a white secretary. Schulman takes a small number of characters, living in restricted circumstances, and creates a novel of intense depth and meaning. This is the best novel that I’ve read in some time and one that will stay with me.

Recommended if you’re looking for a challenging, thought-provoking read.

Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (2019)

Book cover is a photograph of a woman in Victorian dress standing in a street at night

The Five is a meticulously researched work which recreates the lives of the five women who were identified as victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’. It’s an absolutely fascinating book about the lives of ordinary women in Victorian London and a brave intervention into ‘Ripperology’ that finally gives these women the respect and care denied to them by history.

Recommended if you’re interested in works that challenge male-dominated interpretations of history.

Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener (2000)

Book cover is an image of a water tank with a Christmas star on it

The Night Listener wins the prize for most gripping page-turner this year. A lonely gay writer enters into a telephone friendship with a young boy who is dying of AIDS. Or does he? This is a clever, twisty thriller that explores the darker side of our need to be loved. A couple of things in this book made me uncomfortable, but it’s one heck of a read.

Recomended if you want something gripping to read on a plane or train

Amy Bloom, White Houses (2018)

Book cover is an image of two glasses of martini and an ash tray with two cigarettes

Another work of gay historical fiction, White Houses re-imagines the love affair between First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and reporter, Lorena ‘Hick’ Hickcock. Spanning a lifetime, the tenderness in the relationship between Eleanor and Hick as old women is particularly moving. There were a couple of things that I found problematic (CN: child rape), but it’s a beautifully written book that just carries you along.

Recommended if you’re interested in lesbian history and enjoy novels by people like Michael Cunningham.

Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008)

Book cover is a painting of a red sun reflecting on water

Red Bird is the poetry collection that most got under my skin this year. A fragile speaker faces up to death and loss, and the various birds that appear in the poems represent emotional and psychological states. The red bird is a flash of hope in a wintery ‘landscape’. It may also have appealed because I’ve been getting into bird watching.

Recommended if you need some comfort through a hard time, or just like poems about birds.

James Tiptree Junior (Alice Sheldon) , Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990)

Book cover is a stylised design featuring a woman holding a book

This collection makes the list because so many of the stories really are masterpieces of science fiction, but it’s the ‘best’ book that I least enjoyed. It took me ages to get through it because I found the stories so disturbing, if also brilliant.

Recommended if you want to experience a powerful imagination that has been hugely influential on science fiction, but be aware that it comes with a content note for pretty much EVERYTHING.

Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

Book cover is an image of a woman's face surrounded by a snake-like design.

I’ll finish with one of my favourite books of the year. Dreamsnake is a wonderful story, and far more optimistic than I anticipated. A young healer, called Snake, must try and find a new dreamsnake after hers is accidentally killed. An engaging heroine, interesting characters and a beautifully realised world, I loved it.

Recommended if you enjoy feminist science fiction and works by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin.

Books that almost made the list …

James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare (2005), is a really interesting book that puts Shakespeare firmly back in his historical and material context and, provides a fresh perspective on his work and life.

The Crime Writer (2016) by Jill Dawson is a gripping homage to Patricia Highsmith in which the author finds herself embroiled in something very like one of her own fictions.

Jane Harper’s The Dry (2016) didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, but was still a good atmospheric page-turner and one of the better crime novels I read this year.

Theodora Goss’s European Travel for Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) is delightful fun, but I found it a bit overlong.

Help the Witch (2018) by Tom Cox is a rather eerie but kind-hearted collection of short stories and a nice winter read.

20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge

A pile of 20 books stacked on top of one another, a mixture of novels and poetry collections (list below)

I never take part in reading challenges, but I’ve decided to have a go at 20 Books of Summer this year, mainly because I really need to make a dent in my book pile before we move house in August. This seems like a good opportunity to make myself do it, so I’ve also set myself the rule of hard copy books only.

I’ve grabbed a random pile off my book shelf (apologies for the terrible photograph). Here we go:

  1. Mary Dorcey, Kindling
  2. Mary Oliver, Red Bird
  3. Ruth Ware, The Woman in Cabin 10
  4. Amy Bloom, White Houses 
  5. Jo Shapcott, Her Book 
  6. Daphne Marlett, The Gift 
  7. Amistead Maupin, The Night Listener
  8. Christopher Isherwood, Mr Norris Changes Trains 
  9. Alice Munro, The Moons of Jupiter
  10. Sarah Schulman, Maggie Terry 
  11. Emma Donoghue, Frog Music
  12. Neil Gaimen, Fragile Things
  13. Jackie Kay, Fiere 
  14. Neil McKenna, Fanny & Stella 
  15. Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake 
  16. Adrienne Rich, Dark Fields of the Republic
  17. Elizabeth Lynn, Watchtower
  18. Alastair Reynolds, Aurora Rising 
  19. Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans 
  20. Theodora Goss, European Travel for Monstrous Gentlewomen 

EDIT: I’m too old and cranky to force myself through books I’m not enjoying, so if I “nope” out of a book, I’ll replace it with another one of similar length.

The “Nope!” List  

Roger Levy, The Rig  (replaced with no. 20)

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40 Years of Gay’s the Word

Great article from Dazed about the 40th birthday of London’s fabulous LGBT bookshop Gay’s the Word

It’s a special place and we always pay a visit whenever we’re in London.

14/03/2019 – Updated the picture after a trip at the weekend!

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third novel in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series. It follows The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. I absolutely loved the first two books and was very much looking forward to reading this one.

What I most appreciate about the entire series is Chambers’s love for ordinary people and her determination to put their stories at the centre of a space opera. Sometimes I think I would sum the Wayfarers books up as, “Ordinary, average people – like you and me – but in space”.  This is refreshing because, as much as I love science fiction, it does have a tendency to focus on the high achievers! Chambers is more interested in the people in the background who keep everything going: the cooks, the techs, the shopkeepers and miners. In this sense, her world seems more influenced by Firefly (and to an extent Bablyon 5), than Star Trek, although the optimism probably owes a debt to Trek.

Record of a Spaceborn Few takes us “home” to the Exodan fleet mentioned  in the earlier novels. These vast generation ships left a dying Earth centuries ago and wandered through space until they met some helpful aliens, slowly joined the wider galactic community, and settled into orbit around a star, developing into a ship-based civilisation.

“We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the miners and foragers in the open. We are the ships that ferry between. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.”

Set on the Asteria, the story is told from the point of view of five characters. There’s Tessa, elder sister of Captain Ashby from The Long Way, who is fleet born and bred, but starting to wonder if it’s the right place to stay and raise a family. Then there’s Isabel, an older woman, and the ship’s record keeper, who must deal with a visit from a distinguished alien researcher. Sawyer is a young man from a rough colony world who wants to try to make a life for himself in the fleet. Kip is a bored teenage boy who just wants to get out and go anywhere else. Then there’s Eyas, one of the fleet’s caretakers whose job it is to look after the dead. We receive a sixth perspective from the reports of the Harmagian scientist, Ghuh’loloan, on her impressions of life in the fleet.

The story begins with an appalling disaster, the accidental destruction of one of the other generation ships, an event that results in over 40,000 deaths and causes an existential crisis in the fleet. The tragedy reverberates throughout the novel and touches the lives of each character in different ways, causing them to question their understanding of the fleet as home.

Chambers’s ability to deal with painful, even heartbreaking subjects without ever losing a sense of hope and optimism is what has made her novels so beloved. They’ve helped me a lot over the last couple of years when I’ve been struggling with feelings of meaninglessness and despair. In this respect, Record did not disappoint. I cried several times (in a good way) and finished the book feeling like I’d received a warm hug.

Record is a slower burn and even less plot-driven than the others. Initially I felt that five or six points of view was too many. I struggled a bit to keep up with them all, which may have been partly down to having a cold when I read the book. I still think it might be slightly too many, but I can’t imagine the story without any of them, so I think that’s just the way it has to be. There were less aliens and I did miss them a bit.

If you didn’t like her other novels, you certainly won’t be converted by this one! Personally, I hope there will be many more books in this series.

Glasgow’s LGBT book success

What a lovely story.

Glasgow’s LGBT book shop a ‘wonderful success’

The owners of an LGBT book shop in Glasgow say they could not have imagined how successful it has been.

Category Is Books, on the city’s Allison Street, opened three months ago and is Scotland’s first LGBT bookshop in more than 20 years