Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why it Just Might by Pat Walsh. This shows the ins and outs of the publishing industry by an editor at a publishing house that seeks out undiscovered talent—that gives him a particular insight into what aspiring authors do wrong and what will trip up even the most gifted writers. I want to buy a stack of this and give it to every self-published writer out there. As well as anyone else who may be considering taking on writing as a career. Funny and straightforward—just what writers need.


About Grace by Anthony Doerr.
This book started out being quite tedious, but by the end it had got under my skin. The protagonist has premonitory dreams all his life and when he begins dreaming that he’s going to accidentally kill his daughter he runs away to St Vincent—an island in the Caribbean—where he lives for twenty-five years before curiosity gets the better of him and he returns to Alaska to find his wife and daughter. The book feels lonely to me—it highlights how completely alone every human is, really, and after a few pages I found myself growing pensive.
[Focus on the Coast review]
His entire life, David Winkler is blessed (cursed?) with premonitions and when he has recurring visions of accidentally drowning his daughter he flees, hoping that will stop the accident happening. He winds up on a small island in the Caribbean, where he works at a resort for tourists for twenty-five years before finally deciding to find his wife and daughter. After struggling to return to the States (he didn’t leave the country in an exactly ‘legal’ way) he discovers his estranged wife no longer lives where he left her. He doesn’t find that surprising, but he is determined to find out what happened and if his vision came to pass or if his choice to leave was for nothing.
His journey takes him across several states and eventually back to Alaska, where he spends time photographing snowflakes in order to capture the fleeting beauty and perfection of what nature can produce. By profession he’s a hydrologist—a person who studies the nature of water and all the forms it takes, and it’s almost a secondary character. Between temperate seas to raging storms to the not-as-barren-as-you’d-think beauty of the last outpost in the Alaskan tundra water shapes the lives of the characters in myriad ways.
Doerr weaves a convincing and affecting story of what a man will do to protect the ones he loves—even if it means abandoning them—and how he redeems himself the best way he is able. In addition to being well-written, this book has the advantage of taking place largely in Alaska and Doerr’s decriptions of snow and the cold are sure to help you forget the weather outside. The other half is on an island in the Caribbean, but somehow it doesn’t seem as uncomfortable there as it is here—those scenes feel like stepping into a travel brochure for a tropical getaway.

Abraham by Bruce Feiler. The journalistic bits are much better than when Feiler begins philosophising as he seems as lost as the rest of us and we tend to want philosophers to guide us, give us answers rather than just leave us with more questions. Overall, the boring evened out against the interesting, the section with the Muslims were the most enlightening (and frightening) by far.

Acid Row by Minette Walters. Ms Walters is one of my favourite English writers. One of my favourite any kind of writers actually. Once again she has crafted a mystery involving people who are not what they at first seem, with many facets, some not so appealing. This is one of her darker stories, but very good.

Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
This time Nabokov’s pet theme of true, lasting, first, yet socially-unacceptable love comes in the form of an incestuous relationship that lasts from the character’s adolescence until their nineties. The characters repeatedly reference Proust, which is fitting, as the book is obviously a paean to that author. It’s written in the form of a manuscript that has been edited by the two main characters—they have conversations in the margins about what should stay or go. This is the first time that I noticed the similarities between Nabokov and Gunter Grass in the way they handle the earthier aspects of their characters’ lives.

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by Ruth Rendell
Per usual, Rendell does not disappoint–her insight into human psychology is always finely wrought. It was interesting to see the world through the eyes of a very disturbed young woman, who was obviously suffering from OCD. Captivating.

The Addams Family Screenplay . Review .

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor. Originally published in 1939, this tiny book 64 pages in a 6”x5” format, carries the weight and impact of a novel five times its size. A fictional correspondence between an American Jew and a German follower of Hitler with a gasp-worthy ending.

An Advancement of Learning by Reginald Hill. This is the first book by Hill that I’ve read and I’ll definitely be reading more. When a statue is moved and the body of a woman who was supposed to have died in Austria five years before appears Dalziel and Pascoe are called to the scene. I’ve always liked books set in college or similarly cloistered settings and this one has the usual array of oddball academics. Quite excellent!

Affinity by Sarah Waters
Atmospheric and, at times, quite creepy, this novel explores the charlatans of Victorian England who pretended to be able to contact the spirit realm. Waters has a talent for creating characters who are likeable even when they do distasteful things.

After Delores by Sarah Schulman. Okay. The ending was very good, though I do not think I was paying close enough attention to the characters as they kept running together.

Agnes Gray by Anne Bronte. The story of a governess in England in the late 1800s with a happy ending and colourful characters. A social commentary on the roles of women in Victorian society, as well as the class boundaries. The language alone is worth the read.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. New age twattle about the Soul of the World and every person’s Personal Legend and how one must be tested before attaining one’s Personal Legend. Many people who read this book say it changed their lives. I should become a self help guru and make those sorts of people my cult—it wouldn’t be very difficult. I enjoyed Coehlo’s Veronika Decides to Die but this book makes me lose respect for the man.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  by Lewis Carroll. Review .

The Alienist by Caleb Carr. A serial killer in Victorian New York City is doing away with people in gruesome ways—excellent atmosphere. This book was one of the reasons I began seeking out Victorian fiction.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. My first existentialist fiction and I can’t say it helped my outlook much. An incredibly self-centred French actress makes the acquaintance of an immortal man and convinces him to tell his story. We see that humans are cattle that repeat the same mistakes and never learn. One story is every story. This is the first book I’ve read that I want to keep to read in ten years to see if it will effect me the same way. The overall theme seemed to be: We are all alone, we are all different in the same way. My favourite phrase was near the end: ‘life was burning’. Life does burn for some, but those people always seem so naïve. Do they not care that everything is for nothing and nothing is eternal? At the very least, this book made me think more than most books.

Alma Mater by Rita Mae Brown. Fairly atrocious. Brown’s usual infuriating stereotypes.

‘The Altar of the Dead’ by Henry James. Review .

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. This is the type of book that I would not have read if it had not been assigned for a book club I belong to, but once I picked it up I became so involved with the characters and plot that I read all six hundred and something pages in two days. There are two or three plotlines happening simultaneously, all of which are totally engaging, I couldn’t put it down because I wanted to find out what was happening with each of them. I also love it when you learn how things work in novels and there is quite a bit of information on how escape artists do what they do and the very beginning of the comic book industry. Fascinating and captivating. Oh, and it also won a little award called the Pulitzer.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Extremely graphic, at times so much so that it is hard to stomach. I did not particularly see why there was such a fuss made about it being misogynistic—in my opinion the lead guy held everyone around him in contempt.

American Virgin by Steven Seagle. Review here .

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strouf. I read this because I was going to audition for the television adaptation. It was okay, very Oprah Bookclub Selection even though it was not one. The author realistically captures the nuances of human relationships. Lolita-esque. The scene in the car resembled one from my life it made me nauseated.

Another Planet by Elinor Burkett. Fascinating. This in-depth and perceptive account of the goings on at a mid-western suburban high school reminded me very much of my high school. Makes me grateful I am not still there.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
Based on the true story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle taking up the wrongful imprisonment of George Edalji, this well-researched historical novel piqued my interest in Doyle. Some of the internal dialogue of the Sir Arthur could be tedious, but overall it was an engaging read.
[Focus on the Coast review]
At the turn of the century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) set out to help prove the innocence of a man he felt had been wrongly imprisoned. Barnes did his homework—interweaving actual letters and documents throughout the novel, he tells the story of a shy English solicitor, George Edalji (pronounced AY-dlji), who is convicted and sentenced to several years in prison for a series of horrible crimes. Nevermind that Mr Edalji was as blind as the proverbial bat nor that he was in a locked room with his father when the outrages occurred—the local constulabulary is set on putting him away and besmirching his name. Sir Arthur receives a panoply of requests for Holmes to solve real life crimes, most of which he ignores out of hand, but the letter sent by George’s mother gets Doyle’s attention—the evidence doesn’t add up—and he whole-heartedly takes up the case.
The novel tells the life stories of Doyle—of whom I had only the merest knowledge—and Edalji, of whom, I was wholly ignorant. The case played a significant role in the creation of the Court of Appeal as well as highlighted some of the bigger flaws in the judicial system—some of which are still present. I read this book largely in airports and on planes and would often look up and be surprised by my surroundings—Barnes creates atmosphere just that well.

As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. Very good. Steinberg has a way of making ancient Palestine and Greece seem vibrant and alive. That alone is praise-worthy.

Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Claire Morrall. The world through the eyes of a woman having a nervous breakdown in the wake of losing her child. I read it because women obsessed with having children fascinate me since it seems like a completely ludicrous idea to my mind. After reading it I’m no closer to understanding what those women are thinking. The only thing I learned was pregnancy was the way to madness and I already KNEW that.

The Asylum by Patrick McGrath. Okay. Not as good as what I thought it would be, but I got more in to it as it went along. It is an examination of blinding sexual obsession and its inevitable (horrible) outcome. It begins with a psychiatrist’s wife falling for one of the patients in the institution, and demonstrates how one person’s selfish actions irreversibly affect everyone they love. Pretty compelling.

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls by Emilie Autumn. Review

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances by Alexander McCall Smith. The final book in the von Igelfeld trilogy and the most ridiculous (in a good way). Only von Igelfeld could actually get himself elected President of Colombia by firing one shot from a rifle he didn’t even want. Oh, what we do to procure awards.

Atonement by Ian McEwan. McEwan is an author who usually does not receive too very much attention from American audiences. That is why I am thrilled his new book is garnering such glowing reviews. Told from alternating points of view over the length of time in which England participates in the First World War, this novel is a fascinating exploration of the way different people interpret the same experience and how the momentum of a simple lie told by a child can forever alter an entire family’s existence.

Autumn of the Phantoms by Yasmina Khadra. The fourth in a series about the violence in Algiers as seen from a retiring (as in leaving his career) superintendent. Coming into the series so late I can only say the book is gritty and paints a picture of Algiers of everyday violence and strife. It was sobering and enlightening to see the world from the point of view of a person who lives in a place terrorised by fundamentalists. [I do wonder how much the translator had to do with the clichés on nearly every page.]


Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. Review .

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Alison
Usually not a particular fan of southern fiction, this semi-autobiographical novel kept me up until the small hours, as I had to finish it once I started. Harrowing and captivating, Allison’s portrait of white trash southerners is accurate without being over-the-top.

Baudelaire on Poe: Critical Papers translated and edited by Lois and Frances Hyslop Jr. Review .

Before the Frost by Henning Mankell. Mankell writes a series starring Kurt Wallander—this book is the introduction of Linda Wallander, Kurt’s daughter, into the police force. When a string of animal sacrifices looks like the deliberate work of a sadist Linda wonders how long it will be before the killer turns to humans. Mankell is a master of atmosphere—his writing is sharp and incisive. Not quite like anything I’ve read before—I look forward to the next in the series.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. Review here .

Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov
A dream novel along the lines of Invitation to a Beheading, in that a man is being persecuted for no good reason. The country where the novel takes place is under a new totalitarian regime, the leader of which was a schoolmate of the narrator, Kurt. Kurt is now a highly-regarded intellectual and he is asked to speak on behalf of the government, saying that he, an intellectual, fully supports the new regime. He refuses, as he’s completely uninterested in politics and simply wants to be left to his books and thoughts. He makes an attempt to escape the country with his son but the plan falls through. His child is kidnapped in an effort to get Kurt to cooperate, and he says he will, but then it is revealed that the government has accidentally given the boy to criminals, something done occasionally so they might work out their aggressions and eventually become productive citizens.  [The scene where that’s described reminded me of the scene in Handmaid’s Tale where a convicted rapist is given to a bunch of handmaids to brutalize.] The author feels so bad for his narrator, he reveals himself, thereby making Kurt lose his mind. This is similar to the end of Invitation to a Beheading in that the narrator realises he’s not real.

Best European Fiction 2015 edited by West Camel. Review .

Bill Bryson’s African Diary by Bill Bryson. As usual, Bryson is erudite and amusing, this time lending his pen to the worthy cause of CARE an organisation that helps over 60 third world countries.

A Bit on the Side by William Trevor. Trevor is a master of English—he writes sparely in a way that reminds me of Muriel Spark. This collection of short stories is wistful and sometimes yearning, about love, loss and loneliness. As usual a pleasure to read.

Black Chalk  by Christopher J. Yates. Review .

Black Fairy Tale by Otsuichi. Review .

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Excellent! Set in Thatcher’s England, as a family slowly comes apart, our protagonist just tries to deal with bullies at school and hormones. Nuanced and hysterical, Mitchell perfectly captures what it is to be thirteen.
[Focus on the Coast Review:] This is what I call a two-dayer, because it only took me two days to finish—once I had the protagonists voice in my head I couldn’t wait to hear what he was going to say. Black Swan Green is the story of Jason Taylor, a thirteen year old growing up in Thatcher’s England, in a mudhole of a village in Worcestershire. One chapter per month, Mitchell takes us through one year of bullies, parental issues and the awakening of hormones in a world before everyone learned about sex from music videos. Mitchell has a talent for capturing the small dramas, the boredom of school and the underlying stress of living in a home with a couple of parents so believably passive-aggressive they had me nodding while cringing in recognition.

I was in the mood for a complex Victorian novel and Dickens’ Bleak House fit the bill. As with any Dicken’s novel there’s a cast of thousands and several plots going on, but what motivates the action is a Chancery case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce that’s been going on for so long the people involved don’t even know what it’s about anymore. Memorable characters from all social classes in England, vivid descriptions and clever plot twists make it worth the read. Most people associate Dickens with painful reading assignments in school, but this one is as compelling as anything on the bestseller lists—it’s 900 pages and once I started I read it in a week. Within the first hundred pages it made it onto my all-time favourite books list.

Bless Your Heart, Tramp! by Celia Rivenbark Very Funny. A cross between Steel Magnolias and Evelyn Couch. It is obvious these essays were originally written as a humour column in a newspaper.

The Bluffer’s Guide to Etiquette by William Hansen. Review .

The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson. Odd, but interesting how the author captures feelings of detachment within a person who has been abused.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler. Review .

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Death sees a lot and he tries to keep an emotional distance—in his line of work one would have to. But occasionally Death crosses paths with someone he can’t quite forget. He tells us the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl living with foster parents in Munich in Nazi Germany before and during WWII. Reminiscent of The Tin Drum, this novel is about friendship and hope and the power of words. She steals her first book on the day of her younger brother’s death (when our narrator meets young Liesel for the first time). It’s the Gravedigger’s Handbook. She doesn’t know that, though, as she hasn’t learned to read. Once settled with her foster family, the unforgettable Hans and Rosa Hubermann, she painstaking comes to love words and reading. She also grows to love stealing and she and her friend, Rudy Steiner, take to nicking fruits and vegetables—addicted to the thrill of getting away as much as getting enough to eat. When a Jew appears from Papa Hubermann’s past, they take him in and he befriends Liesel. To keep from going crazy while hiding in the basement, Max begins making a book as a present for the girl by painting over the pages of Mein Kampf and using it as a notebook. When the bombs begin to fall, Liesel and her love of books come to the rescue—her reading keeps everyone calm in the cramped basement. Her love of the written word saves her life in more ways than one, actually, but I wouldn’t dream of ruining the end for you. Atmospheric, Zusak creates and breathes life into an entire neighbourhood full of people. Located in the young adult section, but not out of place with the ‘grown up’ books, I’d recommend this one for sixteen and up due to language.

Booked to Die by John Dunning is the first in the Cliff Janeway series. Since I read the second book in the series first I can say that the books only improve and that’s saying something because the first book is great fun. The dialogue is tight and amusing (‘Are you buyin’ books? ‘Does a cat have an ass?’) and the characters are believable. Fast-paced and informative in the way of rare books.

I spent the weekend in D.C. and The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning was the perfect book for the flight. It’s the second in a series about, Cliff Janeway, a Denver cop who leaves the force to become a dealer in rare and valuable books. Just as he’s getting settled in his new life an old (and not well-liked acquaintance) appears and offers Janeway a substantial amount to help track down a book that may or may not exist through a fugitive named Eleanor Rigby. It’s fast-paced, well-researched and the characters are realistic and human. I’m excited to have found a new writer and I’ll definitely be picking up the other books in the series.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve found a new favourite author in Fitzgerald. There’s always more than meets the eye in quiet English villages—a point well-illustrated in this novel about a woman who decides to open a small bookshop. Her plans are met with every obstacle imaginable from scheming social-climbers to ‘helpful’ pre-teens to a poltergeist.

The Box by Gunter Grass. Autobiography re-imagined as a conversation between siblings, this is a fascinating and inventive account of Gunter Grass’ life and his writing. Fictionalized versions of his children sit down and recall memories of their father–his string of wives and the effect his art had on all their lives. These memories are intertwined with the story of a dear family friend and her (magically captured) camera that could see the truth behind the photos it took. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Grass’ or even familiar with his work to enjoy this captivating blending of fiction and memoir.

Break Up Girl to the Rescue by Lynn Harris. Okay advice guide to relationships. Mostly how to smoothly get shot of them.

The Breaker by Minette Walters. Walters is my favourite mystery writer and I have read all of her previous novels. The Breaker holds its own amongst such riveting gems as The Ice House, The Sculptress, The Scold’s Bridle, The Dark Room and The Echo. In her most recent outing the body of a woman is found washed ashore on a beach in Southern England. At the time of her demise her husband (who is fairly weighted down with motives) was too far away to logically facilitate topping her, however there is the actor/possible boyfriend (with a rather dodgy alibi) to suspect. And no one can fathom why her three-year-old daughter was found several miles away, tacit and wandering around alone. As in usual Walters’ fashion she keeps the reader guessing right up until the end. A brilliant summer read.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.
When you die you go to the other world. When the last person who knew you dies you go into whatever comes next. The other world is very much like this one—you get a job and an apartment and get on with things. You have no contact with or knowledge of the ‘real’ world. This novel is set in the other world and on earth in alternating chapters. One day the other world starts losing people at a rapid rate—everyone is disappearing and at first they don’t know why. Then they discover there’s a potent and fast-acting virus wiping people out left, right and centre. They also discover that they all know one person—the one person left on the planet. The book is about how the virus started and was spread (through Coke, by a person protesting commercial globalisation) and the last person, Linda Byrd, is doing a study at the North Pole. Brockmeier has a gift for metaphor, which I appreciate, but the final two chapters were a little disappointing. The penultimate chapter was a sort of LSD dream of what happens between death and arriving at the other world and the final chapter was what happened when Linda finally died, which felt anti-climactic. Overall, imaginative and well-done.

British Gothic Cinema by Barry Forshaw. Review .

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown.
Told between alternating first person Tante and third person James Jack, the boy she raised, this novel is intricate and beautifully melancholy. At the start, James Jack finds Tante outside, dead, and as he figures out how to honour her wishes we hear abut Tante’s long life and how a hermit came to love and raise a young boy. From a cold, remote island to 1920s New Orleans, Inness-Brown brings us two entire lives.

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