Books

if you want eternity you must be fearless: my favourite reads of 2016

Let's get something out in the open straight away - 2016 was a sucky old year in many, many respects and I for one was not sorry to see the back of it. This year, 2017, already feels lighter, like the heavy energy of the last twelve months has lifted. That said, there are still a few loose ends to be tied up and one of them was deciding on my favourite reads of the year and sharing them on the old blog, as has become a Phil Tradition.

I thought it would be hard to narrow down, as always, but for a change there was a clear winner....the book I was most excited about in 2016 and most enjoyed reading, in fact I enjoyed it so much I read it twice in two months, was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (Allen and Unwin, 2016).  It hasn't been released in physical form in the UK, so last September when one of my best friends was visiting, she brought me a copy over, mere weeks after release! 

The Museum of Modern Love  by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Heather is one of my heroes. She has been publishing wonderful, exquisitely written fiction, for adults and children, for the best part of two decades now. Whenever someone has asked me in the past to name my favourite writers, and I listed Heather among them, nine times out of ten they wouldn't have heard of her. But this novel is getting her some much deserved and long overdue attention in Australian literary circles - in fact, it's been shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize.  (UPDATE: it won!!)

"I think art saves people all the time."

The Museum of Modern Love seems like such a simple story on the surface, but Heather Rose is in fact threading together many, multi-layered, complex themes and ideas, highlighting that simplicity is often a guise for the most complicated things, art most of all.

Intertwined with a unique exploration of art - what it is, what it isn't, how do you get it to mean something, how does the public's reaction to it influence its meaning and power - is a story about love, loss, grief, heartbreak, betrayal and, most of all, courage. 

The novel takes place against the backdrop of a real life event - the three-month performance of 'The Artist is Present' by Marina Abramovic in New York City in 2010. For those who don't know, the piece involved the artist sitting still for 7 hours a day and inviting members of the public to sit opposite her. There was no interaction in the traditional sense - no touching, no speaking - but artist and audience member sat opposite each other and held eye contact, for however short or long a time as the audience member wanted, or could bear. Many found it a very moving experience and came back again, to sit opposite the artist, and to be seen by her. 

"She watched as the final hours of The Artist is Present passed by, sitter after sitter in a gaze with the woman across the table. Jane felt she had witnessed a thing of inexplicable beauty among humans who had been drawn to this art and had found the reflection of a great mystery. What are we? How should we live?"

In The Museum of Modern Love, a fictional tale unravels about several people who find themselves witnessing, or participating, in Abramovic's performance and how it affects their lives. The central character is Arky Levin, a celebrated composer of film scores, who is grieving for his terminally-ill wife who hasn't physically died yet but, out of supposedly wanting to spare him grief, moved herself into a care facility and cut off all contact with him.  His 22 year old daughter also seems to want little to do with him. Unsurprisingly, Arky finds inspiration is eluding him. Arky somehow ends up at "The Artist is Present" and, over the course of the next three months, watches the performance unfold and various aspects of his life untangle in response. 

I loved the insight into the creative process from perspectives other than writing and acting - the visual arts, architecture, music composition. For a novel, it is a remarkable manual for artists. It even opens with Marina Abramovic's "Seven Steps" (which I now have pinned on the wall above my writing desk).

Therefore, for me, The Museum of Modern Love is almost a manifesto. Heather Rose is asking us, as we read, to think about art and how we connect with it. Connection, after all, as shown through the interweaving stories of all the novel's characters, is what matters, and art is one of the most powerful ways we can connect with each other. But it takes courage to connect, because in reaching out, in asking to be seen, we make ourselves vulnerable. That is art too. Making art is an act of courage. Therefore, live (and create art) with courage. That is the key ingredient.

This is an original, beautiful and utterly compelling novel. I never tire of Heather's writing - to me, her words are like fine wine, only improving with time.

"Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity you must be fearless."

But wait, there's more

There were so many other books I read in 2016 that I loved, that gave me great comfort, that made me laugh and think, that have been consigned to shelves all within easy reach so I can refer to them again. Here are a few of them!

A Notable Woman  by Jean Lucey Pratt

A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

 

I did a lot of research for my current work in progress, which involved reading a lot of war diaries, biographies and history texts about 1940s London. The best of these were A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt (Canongate, 2015) and Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson (Penguin, 2012). 

Jean Lucey Pratt was a lifelong diarist who also contributed to the Mass Observation project. Her collected diaries - A Notable Woman - cover nearly her whole life, from her first diary as a child in the 1920s to her old age in the 1980s. She was my age during the second world war and her diaries of course focus on those events but also her daily life and concerns, her dreams, anxieties and longings which for the most part remained unchanged by the war and all its dramas and hardships. She was still a woman who was figuring out who she was and what she wanted, and often pondered about all the what ifs, missed chances and the might-have-beens. It made me realise that the only thing that distinguishes each decade in history is technology - the human heart, with all its wants and needs, remains the same. I enjoyed her later years as much as I did the war years. She was funny, brave and inspiring. This book was a joy to read.

Millions Like Us is also a fascinating read, following the lives of a dozen women of various ages and backgrounds and the changes inn their lives over the course of the second world war.....and, most interestingly for me, what happened once peace came. The seeds of the feminist revolution that came a few decades later were sown, but many were keen for life to resume as it was, which made things very complicated. It was absolutely enthralling to read and an impressive piece of work, I highly recommend it.

Nobody Told Me  by Hollie McNish

Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish

Another of my favourite reads of last year was Nobody Told Me (Blackfriars, 2016), a poetry collection by Hollie McNish, which has since won the 2016 Ted Hughes Award. It is a collection of stories, taken from diaries the poet kept during her pregnancy and the early days and years of her daughter's life, of being a young parent in modern Britain. To put it simply - everyone should read Nobody Told Me. Parents, people who want to be parents, and people who don't want to be parents. Those who are and do will feel some solidarity and understanding, those who don't will have their ignorance smashed to smithereens. After reading this book you'll never think 'why would you bring a child on a train at peak hour?' ever again. Hollie's voice is mesmerising, raw, vulnerable, honest, and full of joy. I applaud her and her bravery.

The Course of Love  by Alain de Botton

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

I was also blown away by The Course of Love by Alain de Botton (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Known for his wonderful works of non-fiction, this time de Botton has written a novel that follows the relationship of Rabih and Kirsten over, as the title suggests, the course of their love.

This isn't your typical novel, that's for sure. It reads like a case history in parts, like philosophy in others, and there are other sections where  the writing is very lyrical indeed. Whichever genre you think it might fit best, it is a stunning exploration of what it takes to have a successful long term relationship. I think we all know that falling in love is easy. It is the maintaining of that love over the long term, over the course of our lives, that is the real challenge. 

Basically, the Romantic notion of love is what sets so many of us up for a fall. Romance is only part of the story. We are ready for marriage, de Botton writes, when we are prepared to love rather than be loved and compatibility, he explains, is an achievement of love - it shouldn't be a precondition. 

The exploration of this particular marriage between Rabih and Kirsten covers pretty much everything - disillusionment, loss of desire, adultery, "immature rages, late-night threats of divorce, sullen silences, slammed doors and everyday acts of thoughtlessness and cruelty", as well as the loneliness and fear of being vulnerable that can be felt in long term relationships. Alain de Botton has a voyeur's eye as he zooms in on Rabih and Kirsten, going beyond their physical bodies and into their hearts and minds, where he can see everything and how their past experiences, childhood traumas, their earliest experiences of love and what it meant and how you were supposed to show it, are now playing out in their marriage.  

There are many truths in The Course of Love, some of which (having been through a divorce and now having been repartnered for nearly a decade) I knew very intimately. Some of de Botton's observations were so accurate they made me squirm a little. I highlighted a lot of passages on my Kindle version!

Ultimately, I came away from reading this wonderful, wise book feeling reassured and comforted. Human beings are complicated and no relationship is perfect. Love can be quite messy, entailing a lot of compromise, and de Botton's stance is that you can only ever really love and make a success out of a long term relationship if you are prepared to accept that your partner isn't perfect and inevitably they will disappoint you. So much of our disillusionment in life comes from expecting people (not just our lovers, our friends and families too) to be mind readers and meet our needs without our ever having to articulate them, so we need to take a bit more responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness, rather than pour all our hopes into one person.  Also, the occasional blips that you might worry about are actually far more common than you think (well, that, or Alain de Botton must have had my house bugged at some point!).

I think this book should be compulsory reading for anyone thinking about getting married. Having got divorced at 26, when I remarried at 29 I think I definitely went into it with my eyes wide open and with realistic expectations - spare yourself what I went through in my first marriage to get to that point, however, and read The Course of Love instead! 

I could go on about all the books I read and enjoyed last year - if you want to see them, and what I'm reading on a more regular basis than once a year, I am on Goodreads and you are welcome to add me as a friend! 

The best book of 2017 so far? For me, it would have to be Between A Wolf and A Dog by Georgia Blain. I read it in the first few days of January and the poetic and moving experience of reading it I hope bodes well for the rest of my reading year (it has so far). 

What was the best book you read in 2016? 

 

 

 

The Latte Years is on sale this weekend!

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It's April 25 on Monday and it will be TEN years since I reached my goal and began living a completely different life.  A sweet friend from my blogging days in Melbourne dubbed it "Phil's Revolution Day" and I thought was a most apt description!

To celebrate, The Latte Years e-book is discounted on Kindle, iBooks and Kobo all weekend

And make sure you pop back on Monday because there will be an extra surprise for you!

Happy Phil's Revolution weekend to you all xx

 

where two roads diverged: the latte years hobart launch

The Hobart launch of The Latte Years a few months ago was not unlike a wedding - gathering in great excitement with my parents and siblings at the family home beforehand, with sparkling wine and hair and makeup preparations; a fancy car to take us right to the door; getting my photo snapped the minute I alighted outside Fullers Bookshop; speeches; even a CAKE (!); but most of all, seeing the faces of so many people I love and knowing they were all there to celebrate something very special.

Also like a wedding, it's amazing how suddenly you get so incredibly nervous, knowing that everyone's there because of you! 

But it was wonderful, utterly wonderful, in every way. Like my wedding day, I'd do it all again tomorrow and wouldn't change a thing.

An aside: towards the end of 2004, as it began occurring to me that I needed to start at least trying to extricate the shit out of the blades of the fan that was my life, I joined a T.S Eliot appreciation group that met once a week at Fullers Bookshop in Collins Street, Hobart. I was the youngest person in the group, by about a quarter of a century, but I loved it. Our leader was passionate and inspiring, and it was rocket fuel for my brain that had been lying dormant since graduating from uni two years before. The discussions always ended in the Afterword Cafe, where we were given coffees and slivers of fudge. So to say it was surreal, just over 11 years later, to be back there launching my own book, is something of an understatement! 

If you've ever been to Fullers, you'll know what an oasis it is. It's one of the world's loveliest bookshops, warm and comforting like a favourite relative's house, and smells like two of my most favourite things in the world - books and coffee.  It was amazing to be there, and to see my book everywhere I looked!

My friend and one of my most favourite writers of all time (if you haven't read Mothers Grimm, go and get it now, it's amazing!), Danielle Wood, officially launched The Latte Years. She began by reading a poem very dear to my heart, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", and these are a few of the very kind words that followed:

Phil’s story is not really so much about health, fitness and body issues, but about a journey every single one of us will understand - the journey to being the very best version of ourselves that we can possibly be.
...we are, every single day of our lives, every single moment, confronted by diverging paths. The choice of what to do, what to say, what to think....with each tiny choice, we are forging our character. And that’s what The Latte Years is really all about.

..it’s not a matter of choosing the steep, difficult and challenging path once. As Phil tells us in The Latte Years, you have to keep choosing it. Every single time two roads diverge in a yellow wood. And that will make all the difference.

And then it was my turn to say a few words and, to be honest, I was quite overcome. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and love, for everyone in the room. A friend had flown over from New Zealand to be there, another from New South Wales, and another still had flown down from Melbourne that day as a surprise, and casually strolled into Fullers with her baby strapped to her back and into my gobsmacked, overjoyed and utterly overwhelmed arms. There were old friends there, some I've known for 30 years or more; family; former classmates, their partners and children; women who taught me in primary and secondary school; and even a handful of readers I had never met but who wanted to come and say hello (and I'm so glad they did!). It felt strange but unbelievably wonderful that this little book I had drafted and redrafted, smiled and cried over, alone in my study on the other side of the world was now out and being read. It was all now real. It had gone beyond a Word file on my Macbook and was now a real book. I was a real author. And I got to celebrate it by returning to where I'd come from, where the story began.  

Many of you would know that The Latte Years started life as a novel. Fiction is a wonderful vehicle for so many things but in this case, it was a shield. It was a way to distance myself from everything that had happened. I told myself I was trying to make it more universal but in truth it was a way of trying to rewrite the past, to bring everything to more satisfying conclusions than had been reached in real life.

But The Latte Years became the book it was destined to be, and that it needed to be. I had to write this book exactly as it is. Our stories choose us, we don’t choose them.

And the thing about being brave that we’re never told is that it’s not about feeling righteous and invincible, all swords and shields. Being brave is about putting the shield down.

I wrote this book because I knew I couldn’t possibly be the only person in the world who lost their way in their youth and life didn’t turn out as planned. I couldn’t be the only person who went through a divorce in their twenties and had to learn how to heal, trust and love again after heartbreak. I couldn’t be the only one who found out success has a dark side. I couldn’t be the only one who’s had ‘friends’ screw them over. I couldn’t be the only one who has reached a goal, that was once upon a time so out of reach, and then wondered ‘what’s next?’

And it turns out, I’m not. Far from it. The response to The Latte Years has been beyond anything I could have hoped for. I’m so happy that it’s helped so many people, because it’s also helped me. It turns out it was a book even I needed! I needed to remember the strength and power we all have to turn our lives around when we’ve lost our way. I needed to remember how empowering it is to take responsibility for your life and your choices.

Most of all, I needed reminding that the past is the past. I can’t change any of it. And now, I don’t know if I would, even if I could. Because it got me to right here, right now. And I wouldn’t change that for anything.

And then it was time to drink wine and sign some books. By the time we reached the end of the line, my hand hadn't been that sore since university exams in 2001, but it was totally worth it. I was told I had attracted a bigger crowd than Molly Meldrum! Ha ha.

One of the things I didn't anticipate writing a memoir is how INSANELY FUN it is when so many of your 'characters' show up to your book launch...including Sarah and Dave from Canada!! 

How often do you get a  world famous author  show up to your book launch?! I was a squealing fan-girl on the inside!

How often do you get a world famous author show up to your book launch?! I was a squealing fan-girl on the inside!

Fullers were amazing - they even did this gorgeous window display which I couldn't get enough pictures of. Occasionally I stood on the pavement and just stared at it (and got curious stares in return!). 

I know it sounds silly but I'm still having moments of OH MY GOD I WROTE A BOOK IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING? and I have occasional moments of overwhelming pride and disbelief, when I see a picture of it being read somewhere, or my own copy on my shelf in my study, that I wrote that. It's still all sinking in, like I wrote in my last post.

Thank you again Fullers Bookshop and if you were there that night in Hobart, thank you for being a part of it. It was one of the happiest nights of my life. 

Now how about a (virtual) piece of that amazing cake? 

the latte years: the first week

This past week has been one of the most surreal weeks of my life, in the best possible way.  On Monday, The Latte Years came out and I felt like I did when I was a little girl and it was my birthday - absolutely beside myself with excitement and like the world was just a little bit magical. 

It has been amazing and frankly mind-blowing to see pictures of The Latte Years on shelves, on Kindles, in hands.

State Theatre bookshop, Hobart. Thank you  Isabel  for the photo!

State Theatre bookshop, Hobart. Thank you Isabel for the photo!

As crazy as this sounds, it’s still sinking in that this is real. It’s a REAL book. Even seeing these pictures I have to pinch myself a little. Possibly because the book isn’t out in bookstores here in London yet (you can get it online though), all the excitement has been happening 17,000 kilometres away. But it’s still been incredible. 

Fullers Bookshop, Hobart. Thank you  Rae  for the photo!

Fullers Bookshop, Hobart. Thank you Rae for the photo!

On Kindle! Thanks  Mezz  for the photo! 

On Kindle! Thanks Mezz for the photo! 

Readings Malvern, Melbourne. Thank you to my friend Leanne for the photo!  You can see a whole album of where  The Latte Years  has been spotted all over Australia and the world on my  Facebook page . 

Readings Malvern, Melbourne. Thank you to my friend Leanne for the photo!

You can see a whole album of where The Latte Years has been spotted all over Australia and the world on my Facebook page

As I sat alone in my study - almost this time last year - on the other side of the world, forcing myself back into Hobart of 2005 and Melbourne of 2006, and beyond, I wondered whether this was actually going to end up being anything worth reading, whether it would help anyone, whether I was doing the right thing. 

Writing The Latte Years took everything I had. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. 100 marathons would have been easier and I'd have had a more toned backside to show for it! But already, after just one week, I feel I have been repaid a thousand times over. I know it was all worth it. I’ve just been blown away by how people have reacted to this book so far - it’s beyond anything I dared to hope for. 

This book goes very well with coffee. Thank you to my friend  Phillippa  for the photo!

This book goes very well with coffee. Thank you to my friend Phillippa for the photo!

Every day I’ve been waking up to messages from people who have read it. People who stayed up until 1, 2 or 3am to finish it because they couldn’t put it down. People who have gone out and bought more copies for their friends. People who now feel less alone. People who are now inspired and fired up to do something outrageous and brave with their lives.

Which is exactly why I wrote it. 

The enthusiastic and loving reception my book has had so far is so incredibly humbling. I don’t think I’ve ever said the words ‘thank you’ so much in my life but it’s something I feel with every fibre of my being right now - thankful. So very, very thankful.

Have a lovely week, friends! And if you've bought a copy of The Latte Years, thank you! 

Much love, Phil xx

the third, wherein I discuss best books of 2015

Goodness, another blog post from me already? Could this be what they refer to as being on a roll? 

Today I’m going to do something I’ve never done. 

I’m doing my best books of last year post…in JANUARY. I know! This is a first!

If I’m not writing or running or eating something, I tend to be reading. And yet I read a surprisingly little amount, compared to previous years, in 2015. A big reason for that was that the writing of my own book took over my entire life. When I did have free time, I wanted to spend it with my husband and friends, preferring to go for long walks or out to see live music, away from a screen or a page.

But what I did manage to read was magnificent.

Two of my top reads of the year I’ve actually not yet finished but I want to mention them in my 2015 reads regardless. 

The first is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is embarrassing for someone who did honours in English at university to admit, but I’d never finished reading it. The length was enough to put me off for a start. Austen was always a little more manageable, and her satire and wit so sharp, she was my preference for a long while.

But in 2015 I found myself being drawn back to George Eliot. Her satire and observations of society of the day are just as sharp as Austen’s, but there is a real wisdom there, an appeal to our sense of humanity to take pity on people like Fred Vincy, Featherstone, even that complete knob Casaubon. Eliot is very witty, for sure, but she is never cruel. She paints these people as flawed human beings as opposed to caricatures, doing their best with what they know, and in many cases, they are merely products of their society, their environment, the norms of the day. I am finding reading Middlemarch fascinating and hugely enjoyable, and Eliot's writing is exquisite in places. There was even a quote about marriage that rang so true for me I ended up using it in The Latte Years. For those reasons I am savouring it and didn’t manage to finish it before New Year’s Eve. But I shall continue. 

The second is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. This title was familiar to me, I’d heard many women I know and admire sing its praises for years, but when I first tried to read it myself, I think around 2012, I just couldn’t get into it. But sometimes books appear again in our lives when we’re ready for them. Over the summer of 2015, my friend Holly announced she was off to Colorado to attend a conference about this book. An entire conference?! I was intrigued. There had to be something in this book after all. 

Well, it’s safe to say I’m now hooked. It’s like reading about my own life. I never really appreciated how many of us, as women, silence our true selves and compromise our true natures. The book examines traditional folktales and myths to illustrate how repression of feminine power has been the norm for centuries, and how we can overcome it. But in a culture where a woman being brave with her life and being unapologetic about getting her needs met still makes some people uncomfortable as hell (something I’ve written about in The Latte Years too), it’s not easy and we’ve still got a long way to go. 

And now for the books I managed to completely finish reading, and loved. 

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (five books in total, this is the first)
This series was one of my most joyful reading discoveries of the year. I started seeing these appear on several Instagram feeds I follow, being read in cosy English cottages, hand-knitted blankets and mugs of hot chocolate alongside. They looked like wonderful cold weather reading. I snapped up the first in the series at the local charity bookshop, and the next day I bought all the rest!  The series follows the fortunes of an upper middle-class family, the Cazalets, before and after the Second World War, with five books in all. It’s utterly enthralling, like ‘Enid Blyton for grownups’ as one of my friends put it. If you want a series to get lost in, I highly recommend them. 

One More Thing…stories and other stories by B.J Novak
This book caught my eye while I was waiting at JFK airport after our wonderful trip to NYC in May and I'm so glad I got it. It’s a collection of such surreal, clever and funny writing, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and vice versa. Not only very funny, but every story makes you think. As Oscar Wilde said, "if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh" and BJ Novak does this brilliantly. I liked the playfulness of the writing too, something you don't see nearly enough of. Some stories are only a few lines long. It's a book full of surprises.

Something Special, Something Rare: Outstanding Stories by Australian Women
A wonderful friend bought me this as a present, as it was a collection put out at the start of the year by my own publisher! It’s a simply magnificent collection of fiction from Australian women writers, with the themes, settings and characters as diverse as they are engaging. Many well known names in here, as well as some new to me. Contemporary and compelling, I had many favourites in this collection and couldn’t pick just one - but I always enjoy Karen Hitchcock’s writing (her book of short stories was one of my favourite reads of the year a few years back). 

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Oh wow, where do I begin with this book. I don’t know if anything I write can do it justice, only that if you are a creative type, please read it. Amanda shares her journey through music, creativity, expression and connection - and the vulnerability that comes with it -  with so much honesty and heart. I identified with so much of her story and her experiences. I think every creative person has experienced 'Imposter Syndrome' or a raid from the 'Fraud Police' at some point. We've all thought 'who am I to want this, to ask for this?'. Amanda shows that you can indeed ask for it. There will also be seasons where it will be you being asked, as that is the cycle, of giving and receiving. But life has a way of rewarding you for having the courage to ask, to reach out.  I tried to explore this a little in The Latte Years too.

Springtime by Michelle de Kretser
This novella showed up in my local bookstore quite unexpectedly. Whenever I see a book by an Australian author in this part of London, I snap it up! This is a beautiful little book, with finely tuned observations - less a ghost story in the obvious sense and more about the other ghosts in life - an ex partner, a parent we didn't get on with, a beloved pet, places we've loved living in but had to leave. Quite exquisite. 

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Another ‘oh wow, I have so little to say that would do this book justice, just read it’ kind of sum up, really! This book was a god-send and a game changer for me. It came along at exactly the right time for me, exactly when I needed to hear its messages.  

My biggest takeaway was about how you have to let your creative work be what it is, whatever it needs to be. Because, after all, you are just the messenger. If the work feels safe and supported, with no pressure to be a bestseller, to make you heaps of money, or give you any kind of external validation, then it will show up and do its thing. It made me think about my own process - how I fought and fought for so long for The Latte Years to be the book I wanted it to be, the book I thought would reflect best on me, or protect me. In the end I had to let it be what it is. Fascinating stuff. 

The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss
Part memoir, part social commentary but 100 per cent compelling, this book opened my eyes so much.  You only have to glance at the book’s cover to see how many ‘fictional’ labels are put on women, labels that have nothing to do with who we are, labels that are stereotypical and dismissive at best, and downright dangerous at their worst.

Tara Moss, working as a model as well as being a highly accomplished writer, has had to take a polygraph test to prove she writes her own books. This mind-boggling story opens the book and the rest barely pulls any punches. There are experiences Tara relates here, with so much honesty and courage, that reminded me of things I and other women I know have been through and my eyes pricked with tears as I read it. It makes you notice the sexism and prejudice still so prevalent in our society, especially in the media. This message was hammered home one morning on the train when I noticed the reading material of the man next to me:

I think The Fictional Woman is essential reading for everyone - men and women. It is a brave, intelligent and beautifully written book.

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester
I was already a fan of Alison’s excellent short fiction - and was lucky enough to meet her when I visited Singapore many years ago - so when I heard she had published her first novel, I was all over it. Lillian on Life is the story of a woman reflecting on her choices, taking stock on the cusp of turning 60, wondering what else she might have to look forward to.

Each chapter is a little vignette from her past, or in some cases her present, flitting from the 1930s through to 1990s, where the glamorous, energetic yet thoughtful Lillian ponders the road she took, and the roads she didn’t. As she recalls the stories, lessons and memories, she speaks a lot about how vital it is to be the author of your own life, rather than standing by “like a teenager next to her mother at a cocktail party.” In fact, Lillian advises, if you really want to get to know someone, don’t ask them what they’ve done with their lives, ask them what they wanted to do. “What they want to do is who they are.”

It’s a thoughtful, elegant, quirky and very wise book, and very funny. But equally, in places, heartbreaking. You forget it’s a novel, as the voice is so strong and some of the experiences so painfully real. I loved it.

Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith
A recommendation from Brain Pickings, I found myself reading this over the summer.  Every chapter is a letter from Deavere Smith, an actor and writer, to an imaginary young artist she calls BZ, sharing insight and wisdom about the creative life - everything from confidence and discipline, to the fear of failure, to paying it forward. Every letter has some kind of gem in it and I found myself reading with a pencil in hand, underlining many things I wanted to take in and remember.

One part particularly spoke to me - the need to be heard is not enough. To develop a voice, you need to develop an ear. To develop a vision, you need to develop an eye. To develop your mark as an artist, you need to see the marks of others - especially the marks of those who are unrecognised.” Over the past two years, my own creative practice has shifted to what Deavere Smith describes - developing an eye, a voice, a vision. Before then, it was all about trying to “find” something. These days I’m trying to use my art to start conversations and be of service. I’m trying to be more fearless and less apologetic about who I am and what I want to say, to dig a bit deeper and notice what others are doing as well. 

Having spent the past ten years testing my physical limits with triathlons and marathons, I have realised that creative endeavours require just as much fortitude, discipline and pushing yourself. Books like this are a real tonic to pep you up when you’re flagging. 

Bossypants by Tina Fey
The great Tina Fey needs no introduction. 2015 was also the year I discovered 30 Rock (I know, I must have been living under one) and so reading her memoir, which was as funny, observant and well-crafted as her television show, was a real treat.

Tina Fey and this book inspired me a great deal in the writing of my own. Early on in the drafting process, I was trying to write that all-important but ultimately laborious second chapter, the one that sets the scene, and getting nowhere fast. Everything I wrote didn’t work, or felt too heavy. Eventually, after a whole weekend of writing nothing I was happy with, I took a break and sat with a cup of tea and turned to where I was up to in Bossypants. I had a revelation as I read. I thought, why not try to make it funny instead? Tina even manages to write about a physical attack on her as a child with a detached kind of humour. So, feeling fresh and inspired, I rewrote my second chapter from scratch, trying to tease the funny side out of it instead, and I think it worked.

Bossypants also has some wonderful wisdom about dealing with internet trolls (Tina’s responses are hilarious), sexism in the workplace, and about the creative process. I learned a lot about letting go in 2015, particularly in regard to my work. Letting The Latte Years go was a sticky and involved process but, as Tina writes, “you can’t be that kid standing at the top of the water slide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.” 

Bossypants is as brilliant as the woman who wrote it and telling you about it has made me want to read it again. 

And so there you have it, friends, my 2015 in books. What gems they were, how much they taught me, how they made me laugh and think and see the world in a new way - as all good books do. 

What were your favourite books in 2015? 

PS: Full disclosure and all that, most of the links in this post are Amazon Affiliate, you know the score! xx