Here is my selection of recent interesting reading and listening:-

The sixth novel by Alan Hollinghurst is perhaps his best to date; he is certainly the foremost contemporary gay writer in the English language. The Sparsholt Affair is a dense, acutely observed and detailed narrative of personal relations and human development spanning more that 70 years from 1940 to 2012. Each of the five segments focuses on just a few weeks in one particular year from the narrative; that year is rarely defined precisely and the reader is left to determine the timing from the external events that are referenced in the test - the Battle of Britain, the 3-day week, etc. Characters loom large in one segment and then have died by the next, and again the reader is left to work out what has happened in the intervening years from hints in the text. Often the narrative is told from the perspective of a more peripheral figure in the story. Yet through it all, the lives of the central characters - their identities, politics, sexual struggles, relationships and loyalties - are brilliantly illustrated against the historical mores of each time segment. The nature of the "affair" remains enigmatic throughout, leaving the reader as always to draw conclusions. This is a wonderful read and a most impressive book.

I've read many of Patrick Gale's excellent stories, many of which draw upon aspects of his own life as a gay man growing up in England, but his latest book, A Place Called Winter, is in an altogether different category. It's an epic tale stretching across thirty years at the start of the twentieth century, or a privileged man growing up in England before his comfortable married life is utterly decimated by financial losses and social ostracism. On a whim, he moves to the Canadian Prairies to start a homestead. The slow-burn story holds attention as it moves from stability, loyalty, love and self-questioning to disgrace, emigration, hardship, self-discovery, self-realisation, tragedy ... and ultimately love again. The characters are beautifully realised from the emotionally starved yet sympathetic Harry Cane, through the recurring brutal figure of Troels Munck, to Petra, Grace and Paul. As the Guardian review so aptly describes, "this fascinating novel is their elergy."

During recent spiritual study and practice, I was recommended The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom by Angeles Arrien. It's a beautifully designed and produced book (which always pleases me) and offers inspirational reading and reflection. The Eight Gates offer and an opportunity to engage in a deep review and contemplation of the trajectory of life, particularly in the later decades, and exploring such issues as identity, intimacy, relationships, creativity, generativity authenticity, wisdom, grace, and surrender. Each gate provides a series of helpful prompts and suggested practices. It's a book to engage with over an extended period.

I came across Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex only recently although the book won the Pullitzer Prize more than ten years ago. It's an epic story covering three generations of a Greek/American family from the time they were forced out of rural occupied Turkey in 1922 until the narrator's completion of his family's story - and his own self-acceptance - around the start of this millenium. Whilst at one level, this is a typical american family drama, it is unusual on several other levels and with some very specific themes. The author integrates ancient Greek myth into the modern narrative; there are several 'growing-up' stories; there is tragedy and survival. But what sets this novel apart and makes it a great read for me, is its sensitive handling of taboo themes: incestuous relationships (not abuse) in rural families and its consequences; chromosomal rarities in family lineages; and hermaphroditism - its recognition, treatment and acceptance. This is a big book - more than 500 pages - yet rich and deeply rewarding on many levels.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I was amazed when I saw the recent film of this book a few weeks ago and wanted to immediately re-see it in order to unpick more of beautiful, inter-locking narratives. Instead, I read the original book - which is both more complex in its depth and yet paradoxically easier to follow. Here are six entirely different stories presented one within another like a Russian doll. Each has its own characters, style, location (in diverse worlds), age (historic past to distant future), and genre. Yet each tale is completely satisfying in itself. And, as you read deeper into this labyrinth of a book, the essence of each is woven into the fabric of the others. The first connection you find is just an unusual comet-shaped birthmark. As you look deeper, the woven threads ask big questions about evolving societies, individual or collective living, sustainability, the continuance of souls, human ethics and morality, and the nature of our universe. It's all there in the Cloud Atlas Sextet which itself features in one of the stories. As each story closes in the second half of this epic book, you are thrown with wonder back through time into the next conclusion. A brilliant read.

The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman is another first novel, written with such assurance and skill that you become completely absorbed in the narrative. Set in the immediate aftermath of WW1, this story is located on a remote off-shore lighthouse beyond the Australian coast. Here lonely, emotionally traumatised Tom, an ex-soldier, marries Isabel who has herself lost her two brothers to the war, and is to lose more children during pregnancy in her remote location. The is the story of two good people who do one wrong thing and live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. The writer confidently handles huge themes of love, loyalty, deception, loss, parenthood, loneliness, guilt and redemption.

The Song of Achilles by Maleleine Miller is a remarkable first novel, being a re-writing and updating of Homer's Illiad as a contemporary story of war, loyalty and (same-sex) love. It's compelling reading, with a strong plot and fascinating characters. Yes, there are half-mermaids, Greek gods, and other interesting characters making an appearance, yet you soon feed immersed in this story. Probably my best read of 2012.

A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland is an amazingly engaging read exploring the nature of silence and the author's search to deepen her own experience of living more closely in and with silence.  Over an eight-year period, Sara Maitland has explored the meaning of silence ("space without noise" or "space without words"?), and how others have lived - or survived - with silence, including ocean sailors, artic explorers, hermits, writers, reclusives, meditators and others.  She spends significant periods of time seeking to live in silence - in Skye, in the desert, in Weardale, and finally in an isolated cottage in Galloway.  She compares her insights with those of many poets, mystics, teachers and writers to seek to deepen her own understanding of this search for personal silence.  She reflects on western intolerance of silence and the lengths we go to avoid it, whilst also commenting on Thoreau's economic theory that "we should not calculate our wealth by how much we have or own ... but by how much free time we have [when our essential needs have been met]".  I have found the book highly relevant to my our journey, and a great encouragement to devote more time to silence. 

Now comes Khaled Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns which is also set largely in Afghanistan.  Whilst his first book dealt with issues of guilt, honour and redemption, this new novel tackles an even broader canvas - despair, violence, war, inhumanity, loss and - above all - the enduring love that can help us survive, sometimes. This is a deeply harrowing story, full of anguish and pity.  It is a harsh condemnation of the way our human life can be devalued and destroyed.  To say that it helps the reader to understand just the smallest aspect of life in Afghanistan would be an over-statement: nothing could prepare you for what Mariam and Laila experience in this book.  Hosseini's writing is breath-taking.  It grips in a vice that is both painful and unbearable, yet you can't put it down.  You see the landscapes, weather, buildings, rooms and streets as if they were outside your own window.  He paints unimaginable horrors and yet shows how the human will survives.  Just reading it, I am reduced to tears again on several occaions.  And yet, through all this suffering, the 'thousand spendid suns' that is Hafez's poetic reference to Kabul, rises again.

Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner is the most powerful fiction that I've read in many years.  The story of two boys growing up in Kabul in the 1970s, connected together yet unaware of the nature of that connection, until a single incident happens that has profound implications on both their lives.  This is a book about redemption.  The story-telling absolutely grabs you; the descriptions and word paintings that capture both the changing atmosphere of the country and the complex nature of human emotions.  The sharpest moments are the least expected, when Hosseini's writing is like a knife being twisted in the reader's body.  My own emotional reaction led to tears and sobs on several occasions when I just had to put the book down.  As one reviewer comments: "It is so powerful that for a long time after everything I read seemed bland."

Eckhart Tolle's new book, A New Earth: awakening to your life's purpose is both deeply profound and wonderfully liberating.  Tolle is particularly well known for The Power of Now and Stillness Speaks, yet this new book takes his spiritual teaching to an altogether different level.  In a simple and profound way he is able to illuminate several of the deepest truths revealed by teachers over the past 2,500 years.  His characterisation of the ego mind, its obsession with form and content, the accumulation of the individual pain-body, and the way in which humans have become so identified with the incessant mental chatter - "lost in thought" - is brilliant.  Tolle acknowledges that words can never be adequate to describe the liberation that arises from awakening into consciousness, and our connection to both the space within and the universe of space, yet his ability to convey our ever-present access to Source and the joy of just Being is wonderful.  There is nothing to do in this book - no activities, no exercises, no checklists - just a shift in consciousness that let's you come alive.  I'm not sure any of this would have made much sense to me ten, or even five years ago.  Today is absolutely mind-blowing for this stage of my spiritual journey.

Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World is an engrossing and emotion-challenging read that explores how we allow ourselves to be constrained and conditioned by powerful events in our earlier past and limit the possible future that we could choose.  The four main characters each tell their own stories always focusing on the core themes of loss and love and lack of fulfillment.  The last few pages - the arrival at 'home' - are deeply moving.  This is a complex and satisfying book which addresses our core purposes in life.

The latest book by Oriah Mountain Dreamer is perhaps her most thoughtful and inspirational writing to date.  In What We Ache For: creativity and the unfolding of your soul she explores her own process of creative writing.  The opening paragraph sets the tone by linking spirituality, sexuality and creativity as the three essential expressions of the human soul.  By being willing to engage in creative work, and not separating it from our spirituality or our sexuality "we add a life-sustaining breath to the world".  This book differs from the three earlier prose poems by including practical contemplations, questions and creative exercises at the end of each chapter.  The book offers one route to exploring and fulfilling some of the deeper human aches that lie close to the inner souls of many of us.

Saturday is the latest book by Ian McEwan, and surely destined to become a classic.  The story of one day in the life of a 48-year old hospital consultant has overtones in its format of other authors, but both the setting and the style are uniquely McEwan's.  The way in which he gets inside the thought processes, reactions and behaviours of his male character make the book remarkable.  And the events recorded in the fourth part of the book at both traumatic and compelling at the same time; they make the text impossible to put down at this point.  It's a truly satisfying read.

Alan Hollinghurst's fourth novel is, perhaps, his best yet.  The Line of Beauty succeeds in capturing the decadence, the corruption, and the greed of Britain's Thatcherite 80's in a way which reminds the reader of the social divisions created by that decade.  The main character, Nick Guest, lives up to his (ironic) surname by moving into a world which is not his whilst never really being accepted into it.  Moving in social circles that include parliamentary London, holiday homes in France, and lavish country house dances, he pursues his chase for men and his fascination with the 'line of beauty' seeing Hogarth's form in architecture, paintings and the male body.  His final fall is inevitable but unpredictable in its nature.  As usual, Hollinghurst's prose is exemplary, capturing the fine detail of situations through wonderful word pictures.  His description and analysis of gay relationships - and the unavoidable subject of AIDS - is as good as ever.

Coming Out Spiritually by Christian de la Huerta offers an engaging and informative guide to gay men wanting to explore and reclaim their sense of spirituality.  Written in four parts, the opening section present an excellent analysis of the contribution gay men have made to society by "walking between the worlds" as counsellors, shamans, transformers, bridge-builders, consciousness scouts, and mediators.  Subsequent sections explore different routes into developing awareness of our spirituality with a whole chapter devoted to sex and sexuality as an expression of spiritual consciousness.  An extensive appendix provides an informed summary of the attitudes of most faiths towards queer practices, including western and eastern religions, pagans, fairies, and many alternative faiths.

Patrick Gale's fiction deserves its growing audience.  He is great story-teller who begins each work with several apparently disconnected strands which are then increasingly woven together until a final and often surprising conclusion is reached.  Two of his books have entertained me in recent months.  Little Bits of Baby shows how the unexpected return of a long-lost friend can have surprisingly consequences on friends and family alike as all must make adjustments to their apparently contented lives in response; it touches on love, death, abandonment and loyalty.  Rough Music weaves an intriguing story between two time frames to explore the nature of childhood, innocence and loss.  Relationships, love and sexuality are a recurring motif in Gale's work and both books are recommended.

The trilogy of books by Neale Donald Walsch have been mentioned previously on this page.  Conversations with God presents an accessible, engaging and challenging view of spirituality.  Written in the form of a dialogue between the author and God, Book Three took four times as long as the previous two volumes to complete, but it engages in far deeper themes.  This is an exploration of cosmology, truth, the universe, our inter-connectedness with each other (and all other things), the constancy of change, the illusion of time (and space), the existence of nothing, and human life as 'being physical'.  The conversation discloses the location of our spirit and its relation to past and present lives - both physical and ethereal, and offers a deep insight into our true relationship with God as revealed by so many different teachers over past millennia.  This third book is undoubtedly more profound than the previous two volumes but is perhaps not the best place to start this journey.

The trilogy of books comprising His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is a remarkable fictional achievement.  Ostensibly written for children, these books provide a depth of creativity, imagination and story-telling which is rarely encountered.  Each book holds increasing interest and challenge.  Pullman draws upon a vast range of inspiration to address some fundamental issues: the nature of life and of death, human consciousness, parallel worlds, our spirits and souls, the use and abuse of religion, power and corruption, innocence and adolescence, loyalty and love.  These are books to savour and enjoy, to read and re-visit.  Alongside the many other books I've been reading recently, His Dark Materials is a perfect complement.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks: This acclaimed novel is an epic story of love, loss, and the nature of the human spirit set against the backdrop of trench warfare in the First World War.  Faulks' powerful writing conjures up a highly emotive description of life in appalling situation, or man's inhumanity, and of courage and obsession in the face of impossible odds.  The time changes within the story (1910, 1916 and 1976) create a structure which is at first confusing, but adds particular poignancy as the tale evolves.  Powerful, compelling writing.

The Dance by Oriah Mountain Dreamer (2002):  This sequel to the highly popular 'The Invitation' offers some very personal insights into engaging with life, experiencing and expressing who we really are.  Oriah's style is to use stories from her own life, mixed with a poetic presentation to convey her teachings and insights in a personal and direct manner.  In some ways, this is even more accessible than her earlier book.

Stillness Speaks by Eckhart Tolle (2003):  A brilliant new book by Tolle which follows up The Power of Now (see below) with 200 wonderfully insightful short pieces of writing, arranged in twelve reflective themes, and exploring stillness, the mind/ego, nature, relationships, suffering, forgiveness, healing and death.  Tolle is so accessible and relevant.  He provides an approach to living in the present which is direct, relevant and powerful.

Dating the Greek Gods by Brad Gooch (Simon and Schuster, 2003):  This book follows in the same vein as Finding the Boyfriend Within, although it does not quite live up to the same promise. Sub-titled 'Empowering spiritual messages on sex and love, creativity and wisdom' Gooch engages an exploration of the classical Greek gods and their relevance to the personal growth of gay men today.  Each chapter focuses on one of seven gods to explore the wider meaning of his lifestyle and teaching; a series of short activities encourages the reader to introduce aspects of the god's behaviour and attitudes into their lives. The final section in each chapter illustrates a 'date with the god'.

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer (Thorsens, 2000):  This extended exploration of an original poem, The Invitation, is a remarkably insightful piece of writing looking at our human spirit and the extent to which we present our true selves.  It begins: "It doesn't interest me what you do for a living.  I want to know wht you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing ....".  Profoundly moving and deeply passionate, this book is an essential read for anyone with an interest in their own spirituality and self-fulfilment.

Things my Mother never Told Me by Blake Morrison (Chatto and Windus, 2002): Morrison's writing is always prosaic and descriptive; he catches moods and emotions - often the impact of events on himself as the observer or participant.  Following the success and critical acclaim of the memoir of his father And When Did You Last See Your Father, Morrison's latest book is a detailed and personal exploration of his mother's history and courtship of his father.  His mother was clearly a very private person, avoiding the limelight, who gave up many aspects of herself in order to be with the man she loved.  It seemed an unlikely match - two people who could never quite get it together - and yet they did.  The outcome seems always in doubt, and yet both author and reader know that it never is - as the author himself is the son of the couple, born five years after the period he's writing about.  As always with Morrison, it's a good, slow read, which asks questions of the reader as you follow the emotional story

Wrong Rooms by Mark Sanderson (Scribener, 2003): This is a moving, poignant memoir of Mark's love for Drew, the sudden, unexpected loss of that relationship to cancer, and his dark period of deep mourning.  What elevates this autobiography above many similar tales of love and loss, are two things.  First, there is the nature of the short relationship between the two men and the difficulty that some of their families have in recognising the strength of that partnership.  Second is the promise made by Mark that he would help Drew to end his life when Drew felt it was no longer bearable.  How that promise was made - and the aftermath of keeping it - is a challenging theme throughout the book.  Probably the best read of 2003 so far.

The Scold's Bridle by Minette Walters (Pan, 1995): One of the more difficult Walters books to find in the shops today, but also one of her best.  A seemingly innocent beginning leads into a slowly unravelling mystery plot that involves power, corruption and abuse.  Walters is a fantastic story-teller and this crime novel has to be of her greatest.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Bloomsbury 1996): A wonderful first novel, slow paced, full of atmosphere, tension and surprise.  The very last paragraph almost sums it up: "Ishmael gave himself to the writing of [the story], and as he did so he understood this, too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart."

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (Penguin, 1992):  This epic historical novel, winner of the Booker Prize in 1992, explores several important themes - slavery, obligation, man's freedom, rivalry, compassion, greed.  Set in the context of a Liverpool slave ship trading in the mid-eighteenth century, the two main characters provide a wonderful contrast throughout the fifteen years of the book.

The Joy of Burnout by Dina Glouberman (Hodder Mobius, 2002): Subtitled 'How the end of the world can be a new beginning', this excellent book has been the saving of me over the three months I've been reading it since December. I quickly identified with all the main burnout processes and symptoms which it describes.  The concepts which the book develops - From wholeheartedness to wholeness, The big No, Giving up Hope, Living with truth, and others - are all very powerful and relevant.  Insightful and inspirational at a very difficult time.

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth (Penguin, 1995): Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995, this compact, elegant novel works on many levels.  Set in medieval northern England, it is a simple story of the birth of 'reality' theatre; it is also a clever mystery tale, and a detective 'thriller'.  At the heart of the story are questions about the nature of power and our role as 'players' in our world.

Finding the Boyfriend Within by Brad Gooch (Fireside, 2002): An excellent and thought-provoking practical read, with helpful activities, to discover insights and awareness about all aspects of personal relationships and inner satisfaction.  Strongly recommended.  A real help in self-focusing and personal growth for gay men.

Conversations with God Book One by Neale Donald Walsch (1995): A fascinating book - literally a 'conversation' - challenging many conventional views of spirituality, religion and enlightenment.  Focuses particularly on discovering Who You Are.

At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill (Scribner, 2001): A deeply satisfying read.  This long first novel by Jamie O'Neill tells the story of two boys growing up in Dublin in the year to Easter 1916 and the fateful uprising.  It portrays the growing intimacy between them, set within the wider social, political and cultural context around them.  Written in a style influenced by Joyce, this is a book to absorb and re-read.  Probably the best read of 2002.

Atonement by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape, 2001): A deeply satisfying read.  Long, crafted exploration of relationships over nearly fifty years, showing how simple childhood events can return to haunt and torture our adult lives.

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten (1945): A truly remarkable opera, full of ideas about love, guilt, innocence, fear, hatred, and sexuality.  Revisited in a languorous week exploring Britten's music.

An Atlas of the English Lakes by John Wilson Parker (Cicerone, 2002): This large format book presents a series of pictorial charts to the 17 main lakes compiled from an exploration of their shorelines on foot and by canoe.  Hand-written and drawn (in a style influenced by A Wainwright), this is a joy to handle and browse through.  For anyone else fascinated by maps and by the Lakes, this presents a completely new view.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (Hodder & Stoughton, 1999): Subtitled 'A guide to spiritual enlightenment', this is a great book which has been immensely useful to me over the past year.  Speaking to the spiritual dimension which exists within each of us, Tolle is concerned with how we can live out lives in the present - not the memory of the past, nor the fear of the future.  It's a book which needs to be read slowly in small sections, but it provides an immense insight into who we really are.

The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin (Black Swan, 2001): I was apprehensive about this book when I got it.  I knew Maupin from his Tales of the City stories, but these had started to bore me.  The Night Listener is utterly different.  It's a single long story which leaves you wondering and thoughtful throughout; it touches on some basic themes about human mystery and behaviour.

The Ice House by Minette Walters (Pan, 1993): Minette Walters creates crime stories which intrigue and surprise.  She leads the reader to a series of conclusions and then demolishes them each in turn.  This is the first of her books I read.  All the others differ in plot but provide the same satisfaction.  By the end, you've been on grand tour, but the unravelling is always deeply satisfying.  Try also The Shape of Snakes.

The Scottish Islands by Hamish Hamilton-Smith (Canongate, 1997): Subtitled 'A comprehensive guide to every Scottish island', that's exactly what this is.  An amazing reference work which catalogues, describes and maps every island, providing a myriad of information about history, ownership, access, landing points, place-names and much, much more.  The maps are works of art.  Instead of using photographs to illustrate the text, the author has used line drawings to make this a very personal book.