Happy new year! This one has to be easier, right? I know it doesn’t work like that but I’m feeling optimistic. Last year showed me that positive things do happen against all odds and expectations. I doubt many of us got through the holidays completely unscathed but I hope they did you some good. I got Covid just before Christmas but had recovered before the isolation ended. It was down to the wire but we managed our planned trip to the Dorset coast which turned everything around after a pretty bleak month. Family time is more precious than ever now my sons have grown up and left home: they’re the best company and what with that, some time spent properly relaxing and unplugging away from social media and the news and some beautiful bracing coastal walks to stir my West Country soul (mostly in awful weather, but not on the day you see here) it was a surprisingly lovely start to 2022.
Next week I’ll be bringing you my Non-Fiction Best of 2021 which includes some outstanding, eye- and mind-opening books. I’ve found it easier to concentrate on non-fiction and these 8 aren’t just my favourites of the many I read last year, some of them helped me through it. You can find my favourite novels of 2021 here.
As I write this, it’s 13 years to the day since I walked into my first beginners’ creative writing class at City Lit and despite the endless obstacles to getting stuck into a first draft, I can’t wait to get back to work on my third (actually fourth) novel. Someone I met recently inspired a lightbulb revelation while I’ve been away from it which feels like huge progress without doing any actual work – I like it! I’m also really looking forward to the paperback of my second novel Scent being released in April and am pinning my hopes on finally throwing that real life launch party.
The rest of this post is dedicated to some of the best screen offerings I’ve enjoyed over the Christmas break – and I’d love to hear your recommendations!
As many of you know, I am a nerdy linguist and lover of foreign film and TV. It’s not often that you get to notch up an ‘achievement’ from your sick bed but having devoured every series of violent but compelling cartel drama Queen of the South and the funny, steamy Madrid-based Sex and the City equivalent Valeria over the autumn, I finally smashed my goal of being able to watch Hispanic stuff – of which there is tons on Netflix – with Spanish subtitles instead of English. So that was the brilliant but extremely dark film Sunday’s Illness – not the most obvious choice if feeling wobbly – and I’m about to finish timeslip break-up series The Time It Takes. Intense, short episodes but great if you’re fascinated with relationships. Speaking of which, we really enjoyed Swedish series Bonus Family, about two separated couples, two of the exes having reconfigured as a blended family with three children between them and another on the way. The arguing and therapy sessions get a bit stressful but it’s extremely funny and the writing is so snappy. For light relief, scenery and entertaining bad behaviour, Below Decks Mediterranean is just the ticket, though it ignited terrible wanderlust in this frustrated traveller.
I’ve watched loads of good films but my clear favourite was The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, starring Toni Servillo as a 65 year-old looking back on his life from a new perspective. Set in Rome, the optics are glorious, the music is fantastic and it’s a really beautiful, moving story. I’d been meaning to watch Ammonite starring Kate Winslet as the (now) renowned 19th century fossil hunter Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as a fragile younger woman for a while and wandering round Lyme Regis where it’s set provided the impetus. I enjoyed it despite the uneven, initially very slow, pacing; there are a couple of brief but scorching scenes portraying sex between women away from the male gaze (apparently Winslet and Ronan choreographed the explicit one themselves). It says something about representation that I wasn’t expecting these, and the debate over whether Mary Anning was queer in the absence of any documented evidence (with the subtext that it’s some kind of slur to portray her as such) says something about the enduring grip of heteronormativity on mainstream culture.
I did of course read a few novels over the break too: The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom, Young Mungo by Booker winner Douglas Stuart and 7½ by Christos Tsiolkas – all great reads out this spring.
As with the last two years of chaos, I will endeavour to keep the Sofa going in 2022 although the reality is that I have far less time to devote to it these days – like everyone else I have to prioritise paid work. I’m excited to have a superb line-up of debut guest authors taking shape, including Sophie Haydock (The Flames), Julie Owen Moylan (That Green-eyed Girl), Jon Ransom, mentioned above, and Melissa Fu (Peach Blossom Spring), and will be doing monthly round-ups as a minimum. It may be grey, wet and winter but I’ll be pleased to see you and talk books here on the Literary Sofa any time.
Books *and* Box Sets – not either/or – a related piece I wrote a few years ago