Stories are important for a number of reasons. They allow you to look inside yourself by living the lives of others, while helping you to empathise with those you once failed to understand. They educate without lecturing, lend a voice to the voiceless, and make thoughts fertile—even rampant—when previously there were none. A good story shrinks an hour commute—or extends it, if it makes you miss your stop! They fill gaps and minds and mouths. Carve smiles, wet cheeks, flame hope. While you remain still, they move you. Sometimes irreversibly. You can travel through time, space and dimensions. You can live and die a thousand times.
Reading relaxes—and restores—my mind. I try to sit down with a book for at least a couple of hours every day. I not only enjoy the experience of escaping between the covers into other worlds, but reading—rather, reading regularly—is vital for my progression as a writer. As my literary idol said:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Stephen King, On Writing
I’m often asked how many books I read in a year. To save me guessing, I decided to keep a log of the books I read during 2018:
1. The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson (724 pages) Fantasy
2. Artemis by Andy Weir (303 pages) Science Fiction
3. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (327 pages) Historical Fiction
4. Room by Emma Donoghue (401 pages) Fiction
5. Wizard and Glass by Stephen King (840 pages) Fantasy
6. Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (570 pages) Fantasy
7. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (398 pages) Science Fiction/Thriller
8. The Good Father by Noah Hawley (384 pages) Fiction, Mystery/Thriller
9. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (333 pages) Science Fiction
10. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick (352 pages) Fiction
11. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (315 pages) Fiction, Realism
12. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (295 pages) Science Fiction
13. Cujo by Stephen King (418 pages) Horror
14. A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin (776 pages) Fantasy
15. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin (391) Fantasy
16. Echo Burning by Lee Child (571 pages) Thriller
17. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (424 pages) Historical Fiction/Mystery
18. The Way of Kings, Part One by Brandon Sanderson (592 pages) Fantasy
19. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (530 pages, re-read via audiobook) Fantasy
20. The Way of Kings, Part Two by Brandon Sanderson (524 pages) Fantasy
21. The Folio Science Fiction Anthology edited and introduced by Brian W. Aldiss (258 pages) Science Fiction
22. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon (454 pages) Fiction
23. The Name of the Wind by by Patrick Rothfuss (729 pages, re-read) Fantasy
24. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (341 pages, re-read) Fantasy
25. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski (280 pages) Fantasy
26. The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett (544 pages) Fantasy
27. Under the Dome by Stephen King (877 pages, re-read via audiobook) Science Fiction
28. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames (494 pages) Fantasy
29. The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore (12 pages, including 6 changing pictures) Timeless Classic
Since fantasy is the genre in which I would like to become published in, that is where the bulk of my haul has come from. While it is important to remain up-to-date with the market and to understand what makes (and what doesn’t make) a successful contemporary fantasy novel, it’s also important not to read too narrowly.
Writers attempt different things within each genre, but that doesn’t mean their toolbox is exclusive to that genre. Far from it. A good story transcends genre*. Reading a fantasy novel might not teach me as well about pace as a thriller might, while a romance could help me to better understand and write characters who share strong, believable and meaningful relationships. Just as with a diet, you can’t expect to gain all the health benefits from one food source; it has to be varied and balanced.
*Many of the books could have been classed under multiple genres, so I referred to Goodreads for the most popular choice.
I read seven [OK, six, which now doesn’t sound that varied….] different genres. This is how they break down:
6 Science Fiction
2 Historical Fiction
1 Timeless Classic
That equates to a total of 13,457 pages between twenty-six* different authors, twelve of whom were new to me.
*ish, due to the anthology, but I won’t split hairs. Or books.
I couldn’t tell you the hours I spent reading (I’m a pitifully slow reader—the great curse of the aspiring author—and not dedicated enough to find out just how pitifully slow), but they were all* hours well spent.
*again, ish, though when it comes to books I keep to the philosophy of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. Just because I don’t enjoy a book as much as I would like to, it doesn’t mean I can’t still learn from it, which is equally as important.
I discovered, slowly and in long-intervaled parts, Audible at the start of 2018. When I finally achieved auditory traction I found it an excellent way to pass long, lonesome drives and to re-read some of my most favourite and influential books. There’s a reason I re-read them, so I won’t talk about them here, but I will mention a few new standout books.
I enjoyed The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell a lot more than I expected (purely on the unfair basis that my previous scant trysts with historical fiction have been with novels that aren’t that well written) and I was left hungry to devour more of the series.
The same can be said for Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie, who as a British debut author was discovered on the Gollancz slush pile and, aside from going on to become a huge success, has also become a bit (truth: a lot) of an idol of mine. Both he and Cornwell have inspired me to plough further ahead with the numerous series that I’ve not yet finished.
Emily St. John Mandel’s apocalypse in Station Eleven was laced with delicious prose, while Echo Burning by Lee Child was another taut thriller (and, to my great surprise, the only thriller I read this year) that took me to Texas five months before I boarded the plane.
The Way of Kings by the unparalleled Brandon Sanderon was every bit of awesome as I anticipated. For me, that’s saying something. I rarely find my expectations are matched. In Sanderson’s case, he’s a victim of his own success: The Finale Empire, which I read last year, is firmly among my favourite and most influential books.
One of the most confidently written, humorous and fun books I read was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, a debut author who replenished my inspiration and raised my expectations for the sequel, Bloody Rose.
As for The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore, well, there’s a reason I re-read it every Christmas Eve. (And, yes, I included it as a joke, but I did read it and Father Christmas isn’t the only mince pie-lover with a list….)
It would be a close contest if I were to pick a favourite from the list. While I’d be tempted to crown [pun-intended; you may groan] The Way of Kings as the champion of 2018, and while it would be well-deserved, I think I would have to pick an author, one who I hadn’t previously read before but who still managed to beat those lofty, cloud-cuddled expectations of mine.
Admittedly, I was hurried into buying a copy of The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski when it was announced Netflix were creating a show based on the series, but I’m glad I was. I was equally glad to not be influenced by the games which are based on the series, though I’m now eager to change that.
To paraphrase SFX’s endorsement on the back cover, The Last Wish is a refreshing take on familiar elements, one that bumps the series to the top of the list of those I want to quickly complete (or, at least, create a comfortable distance between me and the show, which I will inevitably watch).
[I’m going to need a bigger bookcase. Make that cases!]