Category: McGregor Jon

My favourite books read in 2021

Here we are again, approaching the end of another year. As usual, I’ve picked out my twelve favourite books that I read in 2021, regardless of when they were first published. I always find that doing this provides me with an interesting snapshot of my reading year as a whole. This year’s snapshot has given me cause to reflect – but more on that in another post. For now, here are my reading highlights of 2021:

12. Angélique Villeneuve, Winter Flowers (2014)
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (2021)

A novel set in the aftermath of World War One, in which a woman tries to rebuild her relationship with her disfigured husband, while the community around comes to terms with its own traumas. Winter Flowers is one of those books that cuts through preconceived notions about its subject matter to capture raw feeling. 

11. Judith Bryan, Bernard and the Cloth Monkey (1998)

If it hadn’t been for the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo, I might never have come across Bernard and the Cloth Monkey. I’m so glad I did. This tale of a young woman returning to her family home constantly shifts in register, creating a kaleidoscope of emotion in a seemingly ordinary setting. 

10. Adam Mars-Jones, Batlava Lake (2021)

I like stories that are shaped by a strong narrative voice, and that’s very much the case with Batlava Lake. Mars-Jones introduces us to Barry, a matey, chatty engineer who’s really not equipped to convey the brutality of war in Kosovo. But that very inadequacy is what makes the book work so well. 

9. Andrew Komarnyckyj, Ezra Slef, the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (2021)

Of all the books I read in 2021, I think this was probably the most fun. It’s a spoof literary biography whose purported author talks more about himself than his subject, and deals with a Twitter troll by (inadvertently) making a deal with the Devil. Just thinking back to reading Ezra Slef makes me smile. 

8. Rebecca Watson, little scratch (2021)

little scratch was the least conventionally written novel that I read all year, with its words scattered in different patterns across the page. Those words are the thoughts of a young woman going about her day while something plays on her mind. It’s a technique that really brought me close to the narrator and the tension that grows throughout the book. 

7. Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue (2009)
Translated from Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood (2019)

This book was probably my biggest surprise of the reading year, in that I wasn’t prepared for the way it turns, so subtly and effectively. Its protagonist takes a summer job working with disabled people, but struggles to cope. Her mental health is affected, which we see entirely through changes in the shape of her narration – which is what makes the effect so powerful. 

6. Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)

More shapeshifting prose here, but in this case the protagonist is finding her voice. A Black British woman working in the banking industry reflects on her situation, and asks herself how she really wants to be. The prose is constantly changing to match her thoughts as she assembles the pieces of her life, building to a crescendo for narrator and reader alike. 

5. Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold (2021)

A worthy winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, this novel strikes me as a carnival – in the sense of both an entertainment and a festival challenging social structures. Sterling and their friends face a nightmarish authoritarian world that works against them in ways they don’t understand. There are matadors, showtrials, time-travelling spaceships – and hope to be found in pushing back. 

4. Federico Falco, A Perfect Cemetery (2016)
Translated from Spanish by Jennifer Croft (2021)

I love story collections that work as a whole, and this one certainly does. Falco’s protagonists are all facing pivotal moments of change in their lives, and his stories are suitably dynamic. There’s a great sense of place and character about these tales, and each one opens out memorably as it ends.

3. Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows (2007)
Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena has Parkinsons, and this novel is structured around the ebb and flow of her energy levels. She’s forced to confront the limits of her knowledge about her daughter, which reflects the limits of what she can do during the day. With so many of the books on my list, the language brought me right into the protagonist’s world – perhaps none more so than Elena Knows.

2. Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand (2021)

I was intrigued at the prospect of a Jon McGregor novel set partly in the Antarctic. In the end, I experienced Lean Fall Stand as viscerally as any of his others. A polar guide tries to rebuild his life and self after a stroke. McGregor explores how language breaks down and re-forms around this event, in a dizzying rush of a novel. 

1. Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians (2021)

The single most powerful reading experience I had in 2021 was this slim novel interweaving conversations between the guardians of Christ’s tomb and a present-day lecturer examining 16th-century depictions of them. The book hovers on the knife-edge of uncertainty, and rivals Convenience Store Woman for the sudden power of its ending. This is why I’m reading fiction in the first place.


There we go. I hope you’ve found some books in 2021 that you enjoyed as much as I did these. If you’d like to see my selections from previous years, you can find them here: 2020, 20192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. As ever, thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year – you can also catch me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

In the past, I’ve described Jon McGregor as a writer who brings out the strangeness in the everyday. Thinking about it, he also writes powerfully about trauma. Both of these aspects come together in his new novel – though at first glance, Lean Fall Stand may seem something of a departure for him, not least because part of it is set in the Antarctic.

In the first third, three men are on a research expedition: newcomers Thomas Myers and Luke Adebayo, and veteran field technician Robert ‘Doc’ Wright. When we meet them, they’re in trouble, separated and disoriented. Caught in a snowstorm, Thomas observes that what he’s heard from other people couldn’t prepare him for the reality:

He had heard this described as like being inside a jet engine. As though people knew what being inside a jet engine was like. People said these things, but the words didn’t always fit. 

This is the first example of a key theme in Lean Fall Stand: the difficulty of capturing experience in language. Nevertheless, McGregor’s prose often evokes a visceral reaction in me. Towards the end of the Antarctic section, Doc’s viewpoint breaks apart, and it’s harrowing stuff:

He was the assistant. General. The technical general assistant. He was required to assist. He was required to take action. He had the experience required. He moved towards the radio. He went over on his weak right foot and hit the floor hard. He floored the numb faceness of his raw. No. Rawed the rub. The rum. The nub. 

What’s happened here is that Doc has had a stroke. The second part of the novel is told mainly from the viewpoint of Doc’s wife Anna, who finds herself forced to adapt to a new way of living. This is reflected in the prose: at first, pieces of calm language from the hospital lodge themselves in the narration (“It’s Robert. It’s your husband. A bit of a stroke. We need you to.”) Later, the repetitive routines of care start to take over:

She had to get some food into him before his blood sugar dropped too low. She had to leave him in the armchair while she went down to the kitchen, and she had to make him promise not to move. She had to listen out for any crashes or noises whilst she sliced an apple, and spread toast, and made tea. She had to ignore the phone while she ran the breakfast tray upstairs. She had to cut the toast into small pieces so he could eat it.

We also see the laborious process of Doc’s recovery. The stroke has taken away both of the couple’s old lives: Anna, an academic, is ostensibly being “kept in the loop” of her old job, but it’s not hard to see that she’s being pushed outside of it. Doc is now Robert full-time, gone from being the person who tells others how to handle the Antarctic, to someone who’s no longer in control of even the basics. 

Robert’s attempts to regain speech are particularly significant, because he’s the only person who could explain what happened out there. Thomas didn’t make it back from the Antarctic, so there has to be an inquest, which needs Robert’s testimony. 

In the final part of Lean Fall Stand, Robert attends a speech therapy group (much of this is seen from the group leader’s viewpoint, to whom Robert can only be the person in front of her, not the person he was). At this group, Robert is able to rebuild his experiences into a story and an identity that he can assert for himself. 

Lean Fall Stand is an appropriately jagged novel, in terms of its language and its structure. Not every thread gets a full ending, but then this book is all about imperfect recollections and lives made patchwork. It’s another fine piece of work by one of my essential writers. 

Published by Fourth Estate.

Read more of my reviews of Jon McGregor’s work here.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 20-11

Welcome to the fourth part of my countdown of reading memories from the 2010s. You can read the previous instalments here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21.

Something I’ve found interesting about this instalment in particular is that a couple of the books here (The Wake and Lightning Rods) just missed out on a place in my yearly list of favourites when I first read them. But they have stayed with me over the years, and their placing on my list reflects that.

This is one of my reasons for making this list: to see how my feelings about different books have (or haven’t) changed.

On to this week’s memories…

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Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor: a Shiny New Books review 

Jon McGregor is a key contemporary writer for me, so it was a great pleasure to review his latest novel for Shiny New Books. Reservoir 13 examines a rural community in the aftermath of a disappearance – both immediately and in the longer term.
So much of the novel lies in experiencing its language that my novel revolves around a couple of extended quotations. I hope you find it interesting to read; and, of course, that you’ll go on to read Reservoir 13, which is typically excellent stuff from McGregor.

Click here to read my review in full.

Book details

Reservoir 13 (2017) by Jon McGregor, Fourth Estate, 336 pages, hardback (proof copy, provided for review).

Reflections: 'more than real'

When I love a book, I love it strongly: my favourite books have all, in their own ways, made the experience of living that bit more intense. One thing I’ve been trying to do through the blog this year is to come up with a way of encapsulating just what it is in books that makes me respond that way. This hasn’t been an easy task, because it needs to encompass some ostensibly very different types of books: I started off as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, but increasingly find myself drifting away from them; most of my favourites these days come from the ‘General Fiction’ shelves, yet I still tend to find straightforward realism lacking. I perceive a continuum across the books I love, and I’ve long had an idea in the back of my mind as to what unites them; but any description I tried – ‘postmodern’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘speculative fiction’ – would always seem to leave out something important.

The other day, however, the phrase ‘more than real’ popped into my head. What I mean by this is a sense that the conventional frame or form of a given book can’t contain the reality of what’s being written, so it has to push or twist. This feels right to me in terms of describing my favourite books. It covers some obviously fantastical material: Christopher Priest’s equivocal realities; Helen Oyeyemi’s collisions of story; Adam Roberts’s laboratories for testing sf. It takes in writers who take a non-realist approach to ‘the real world’: Eleanor Catton’s living sculptures; Jon McGregor’s unearthing of the strangeness in everyday experience; the mirage of coherence in Hawthorn & Child (‘more than real’ might be another way of saying ‘not real at all’). But there’s also room under that umbrella for writers like Ray Robinson and Evie Wyld, apparently realist writers who, to my mind, are shaping their work in subtler ways. One thing I’ve learned over time is that even the most mundane subject matter can be ‘more than real’.

It’s interesting to me that, though my taste in fiction hasn’t suddenly changed, just having that phrase ‘more than real’ has enabled me to think about these things in a different way. because I can see what I mean more clearly. I have a better idea of what I’m really looking for in fiction, so I should be better placed to find it and explore the experience. I’m excited to begin searching once again.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.

Jon McGregor, ‘Wires’ (2011)

This is the second year running in which Jon McGregor has been shortlisted for the Award, which would be notable in itself; but, more than that, it’s also the second time in a row that has been runner-up. I very much liked McGregor’s nominated story last year; and he’s written another superb piece in this time around. ‘Wires’ is the story of a student named Emily Wilkinson who has an accident on the motorway when a sugar-beet smashes through her windscreen. Whilst waiting for the police to arrive, she dwells on her life, particularly her relationship with doctoral candidate Marcus, over which she has her doubts.

As with last year’s story, I’m struck by how completely McGregor evokes his protagonist’s mindset through his prose. The title of ‘Wires’ seemingly refers to neural pathways; and the rambling, jagged passages of narration evoke the feeling of a mind working than one can comprehend. Here, for example, is the opening of the story:

It was a sugar-beet, presumably, since that was a sugar-beet lorry in front of her and this thing turning in the air at something like sixty miles an hour had just fallen off it. It looked sort of like a giant turnip, and was covered in mud, and basically looked more or less like whatever she would have imagined a sugar-beet to look like if she’d given it any thought before now. Which she didn’t think she had. It was totally filthy. They didn’t make sugar out of that, did they? What did they do, grind it? Cook it?

All this and more goes through Emily’s mind before the sugar-beet even hits her car. Her thoughts flit from subject to subject in this way, with these lengthier passages punctuated by terser dialogue from the two men who saw Emily’s accident and have come to help; when they speak, the effect is of reality intruding in on the world of thought, in order to reassert itself.

McGregor also uses his narrative style to subtly suggest that maybe Emily hasn’t been left as unscathed by the incident as she had assumed. I’d say ‘Wires’ was a worthy runner-up, and will be interested to see how the winning story compares.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.

Jon McGregor, Even the Dogs (2010)

At the tail end of last year, I read Jon McGregor’s piece in the BBC National Short Story Award anthology, and liked it very much. After that, I was bound to read one of his novels at some point; Even the Dogs is on the current TV Book Club list, so now seems as good a time as any. The distinctive style and facility with language that I found in the story are here again in this novel, yet I don’t find myself quite as enthusiastic this time around.

In the final week of the year, the body of an alcoholic named Robert Radcliffe is found in his flat; he has slipped through the cracks in society, and the authorities try to piece together who he was. However, the book’s narrators (an unspecified chorus of ‘we’, possibly dead, but in any case unseen and anonymous, like Robert) know who he is, and offer us glimpses into both Robert’s life and those of his friends, who struggle with their own issues of homelessness and addiction.

Even the Dogs is a relatively short novel (little over 200 pages), and that is its ideal length; McGregor’s dense and fragmented prose is most effective in such small, intense bursts. It’s a style that enables the novel to reflect at a structural level the lives of its characters. A very striking example is the second chapter, which focuses on Danny, the friend who first found Robert’s body but didn’t go to the police about it. Danny wanders the city trying to find Robert’s daughter, Laura – trying to find anyone he can tell. There are sentence-fragments throughout the novel, but it’s even more noticeable in this chapter, because each section ends in an unfinished sentence. The sense one gains (through this technique, the constant changes of scene, and simply through the events of Danny’s search) is of a life that never settles – that never can settle.

Elsewhere in the novel, McGregor uses juxtaposition to great effect, as in the fourth and fifth chapters, which deal respectively with the autopsy and inquest. The dry formalities of these official procedures are intercut with scenes from other viewpoints, and this creates some powerful contrasts. For example, the narrators note how methodical and in-depth is the autopsy examination of Robert’s body, and reflect ruefully that it’s more attention than Robert and his friends have ever received in life. Then there are the phrases from group therapy sessions (‘Who’s got something they feel they can share’) studded through the narrative, which serve as emblems of the distance between the realities of the characters’ lives and the standard official responses to them (‘You want to start paying more attention pal this stuff’s everywhere’, p. 67).

And yet, for all that I think Even the Dogs is an effective piece of work, I find it easier to admire than to like. There’s something about its very focus that makes it difficult to view the novel truly from the inside, as it were. Still, I’m glad to have read the book, and will be reading McGregor’s work again in the future.

Jon McGregor’s website
Extract from Even the Dogs
Interview with McGregor at
Even the Dogs blogged elsewhere: Dovegreyreader; Asylum; KevinfromCanada; Bookmunch.

BBC National Short Story Award: Conclusion

So, that’s the entire shortlist blogged. The first thing to say is that the judges put together a very good list; certainly I wouldn’t begrudge any of the five stories their place. David Constantine was the winner, but, for me, it would come down to a choice between the stories by Aminatta Forna and Jon McGregor. And, much as I appreciate the subtlety of McGregor’s psychological portrait, I think the elegance and economy of Forna’s telling gives her story the edge.

Jon McGregor, ‘If It Keeps On Raining’ (2010)

This is perhaps the most transporting story on the shortlist, in that (I think) it takes us the most thoroughly into the mind of its protagonist, which is quite an unsettling place to be. McGregor’s protagonist is a man who lives on his own in a little riverside house, and does nothing much more than watch the fisherman on the opposite bank and the boats that sometimes go past, and work on his raft and treehouse, the latter being his preparations for the unceasing rain and torrential floods that he believes are coming.

McGregor sketches in the history of this man very subtly. Reading between the lines, we discover that he was a police officer at the Hillsborough  disaster, who subsequently left the force because of the psychological trauma, and no longer lives with his wife and children. He dwells on the disaster still:

If it’s been raining a lot…[debris] gets swept along like small children in a crowd, like what happens in a football match if there are too many people in not enough space and something happens to make everyone rush, if they all start to run and then no one person can stop or avoid it, they all move together…

This almost stream-of-consciousness style of delivery gives a sense of intense preoccupation with whatever the man is thinking about at the time, be it past, present, or future; but there’s also a sense of inertia at times — he thinks about what accidents might befall the people out there on the boats, but can’t really see himself doing anything to help if one occurred.

This sense extends to the coming floods: on the one hand, the protagonist has asked the anonymous narrator to tell us these important things; on the other, he imagines that no one will listen, and he’ll only save himself, and his children if he sees them. The parallel McGregor makes between the rains and Hillsborough is effective (our man couldn’t stop a flood of people, but perhaps he can make up for it with how he handles a flood of water);  and the whole story a superb portrait of a man deeply scarred by the past, holding on to some hope for the future.

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