Tag Archives: best of year

Providence: Max Barry

“You don’t want a world of absent gods. You want meaning and purpose.”

It’s rare for me to follow an author’s career, but I make an exception with Max Barry. There are two reasons for this:

  • his books are excellent
  • he’s evolved as a writer (more of that later)

Barry’s first novel was Syrup (1999), the tale of a young man who dreams up a new soft drink–only to find that his friend, Sneaky Pete, has trademarked the formula.

Then came the brilliantly imaginative Jennifer Government (2003)–sci-fi territory here. The novel is set in a dystopian future with the world ruled by corporations.

Company (2006) followed next. In some ways, this was a return of Syrup–lots of humour and lots more corporate malfeasance–and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Machine Man (2011)–again a trip into the misty, harsh future. This is the story of a mechanical engineer who loses a leg in a work-related accident. One thing leads to another, and soon the engineer replaces all of this body parts with more efficient prostheses.

Lexicon (2013) delves into data collection and the annihilation of privacy with trained ‘persuaders’ who can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type.

And now Providence. I had this feeling that Barry was moving towards full-blown science fiction novel, and this is it. Makes my Best-of-Year list.

Providence

I’m going to say: think Alien on steroids. The novel begins with a team of four people preparing to head out into space in a three-mile long Providence battleship: their  four-year long mission is to encounter and destroy an alien race called Salamanders. As the newly formed crew prep for the mission–which is a huge social media event–the team members watch footage of the hair raising encounter between humans and aliens that started the war. …

You knew what you’d be watching today but you weren’t prepared for it to feel like this, like it’s wrong to be here. And wrong not only because you know what’s going to happen, and not even because there are four people who need your help and you can’t give it, but wrong like you’re intruding. They’re about the experience the worst moment of their lives, and you’ve come to watch it.

It’s an incredible beginning to an incredible book. The plot concerns the journey into space of the battleship and its hunt for Salamanders, and while there’s a lot of down time between alien encounters, the heart-pounding, nail-biting tension never lets up. We know that this ship is headed into something big and gradually it becomes apparent that not all the crew members are privy to certain information.

In some ways the crew members may appear to be cliches, but it all makes sense as the plot continues. Captain Jackson survived a notorious Salamander attack and was broken by the experience. Unable to adjust to civilian life, she’s hostile to AI and much more willing to put her faith in decisions made by humans. Then there’s Life Officer, Talia Beanfield, the most popular member of the crew with 311 million people “following the clips, and quips of Life Officer Talia Beanfield as transmitted from her Providence-class battleship in an undisclosed but, trust me, incredibly dangerous part of space.”

Anders, the Weapons Officer who appears to be a brainless jock, is a man whose transgressive behavior would seem to have negated his position on the crew, and this raises the question as to why AI selected him for the mission. Finally there’s the Intel specialist, civilian, Gilly who is perfectly comfortable with AI, and yet he’s still ambushed by the ship’s abilities. When it comes to destinations and encounters, the ship makes the decisions, and after one hard skip, they are in the fighting zone. Two years into the mission, with kills mounting, the ship takes another hard skip into the Violet Zone “an area devoid of beacons and relays.” There will be no contact with earth. It’s a “long time to go dark.

The realities and stresses of living on a space ship become evident over time. Life Officer Beanfield, who is privy to intelligence withheld from Gilly and Anders, is perhaps the best equipped emotionally to deal with the various emergencies and disasters that arise. Her intense training at Camp Zero, designed to motivate and manipulate the other crew members, involved playing various scenarios and role playing situations 

They’d told her back at Camp Zero: You will be the most important person on the ship and no one will know it. It was true. It was so true. 

Anders, the most volatile and unpredictable crew member, “couldn’t be left to his own devices. All his devices had built-in self-destructs.” Bored and frustrated by confinement and lack of relevance, seeking revenge for his brothers killed in the war, Anders goes into complete meltdown, wants to grab the guns and revert to destruction the only way he knows how. His actions have devastating consequences for the mission.

Gilly spends hours working on his theory that the aliens are learning from each encounter with the humans, only to realize that the ship’s AI system is way ahead of him. Gilly, who continues to hold firm to the idea that AI is superior to human intelligence, realizes that the ship will defend itself in unimagined ways. At one point in the novel, Beanfield and Gilly debate about the ship as an alternate life form. The Ship said “hello” when the crew boarded, and Gilly insists it’s a pre-programmed message, but as the mission continues, it becomes clear that the ship’s abilities are beyond human comprehension and therefore unpredictable.

Providence on one level is a story of man vs alien, but there’s a lot more at play here. The book examines the reliability and fallacies of both AI and human intelligence, while showing a war in which social media grants the crew members celebrity status which is pumped by edited transmissions back to home. It’s part reality TV for those at home and almost like a video game for those who think they operate the ship. Providence illustrates the place of human ingenuity in the world of AI; humans and AI share a fragile partnership.

One of the most marvelous things about this book is the way the crew members–all damaged in various ways–somehow manage to find what they are looking for, a sort of redemption. But as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for. This is both a gripping and a haunting read.

Absolutely brilliant. Providence is a spectacular, absorbing, relevant achievement.

Providence makes my Best-of-Year List

Review copy

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Filed under Barry, Max, Fiction

It’s a Wrap: 2019

Three novels

Time for my best-of-year round up. For some reason, this year the choices seemed easier.

Three Novels: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, Astashev in Paris: Nina Berberova. 

Berberova never disappoints. 3 novellas here–all quite different from each other, yet they each weave in the theme of  Russian displacement. Berberova deserves far more recognition than she gets.

A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

My first Murdoch novel and I hit a winner. This is the nastily funny tale of bored privileged people who create drama in their lives by unpleasant, selfish self-focused behaviour. I love reading books about nasty people, so it’s no surprise that I loved this.

Olive Kitteridge: Elizabeth Strout

Ahh… Olive Kitteridge. What a woman. Of course, we wouldn’t want her as a mother or a wife but she’s great to read about. Olive seems the epitome of a person possessing good and bad characteristics. Someone may make a great teacher or neighbour but a lousy relative. It’s no wonder that Olive elicts strong reactions from people. Olive Again is also highly recommended.

The Children: Edith Wharton

It’s been too long since I read Edith Wharton. The Children isn’t considered one of her greats, but it’s wonderful–a study in subconscious human behaviour and how we get what we want without quite confronting our own negative drives.

The Travels Of Maudie Tipstaff: Margaret Forster

Narrow-minded, inflexible, pious Maudie finally leaves Glasgow to visit each of her three children. Her first visit is awful but it goes downhill from there–until finally Maudie finds herself in a surreal situation, living in a primitive hut (without plumbing) on an isolated island.

A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins

A married man decides to ditch his wife and family in Glasgow and run off to Barcelona with his mistress. The book focuses not so much on his escape but the fallout of his actions.

Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

I’m glad that a short story collection makes my list this year. The range, the wit, the understanding of human nature–all these things make for marvellous reading.

The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen

My first Elizabeth Bowen wasn’t that great but The Hotel is a treasure. I like books set in hotels anyway but this story is subtle, rich and entertaining.  Post WWI, a hodge-podge of guests, mainly British, socialise with varying results.

Three Obscurities from the Borderlands: Werner Bergengruen, Adalbert Stifter, Maria von Eschenbach.

A fluke find for German Literature month. One story is outstanding, another is excellent and the third has redeeming characteristics. In spite of the fact that I liked these three stories to varying degrees, it still makes my best of year list.

So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It’s not my typical read but this gaslight noir is very well done indeed. The main character is a missionary’s widow. She’s always led a pious religious life but it was never a choice. When the widow gets choices, her real nature emerges.

Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis

Certainly not an exciting book, but nonetheless still relevant 90 years later… This is an American Abroad book. It addresses American materialism and subsequent lack of quality of life. Get off the hamster wheel in retirement and boom… what are you left with?….

 

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Filed under Berberova, Nina, Bergengruen Werner, Daudet Alphonse, Fiction, Forster Margaret, Jenkins, Robin, Lewis Sinclair, Murdoch Iris, Shearing Joseph, Stifter Adalbert, Strout Elizabeth, von Eschenbach Marie, Wharton, Edith

2018: It’s a Wrap

Towards the end of 2018, I started thinking about which books would make my best-of-year-list. Several of the titles I’d read this past year came to mind, and I began to think that I would, perhaps, have a difficult time narrowing down just a few titles to the list.

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

A husband returns home to find his wife battered to death. The investigating detectives tell the husband, Leonard Henderson, to write down his statement, so we get his version of events which is contrasted to his memories of growing up with a cold, critical mother, and his marriage to the murder victim, Enid. Yes this is the story of a murder, but it’s also the story of a marriage (always impenetrable to outsiders). This is the first book I’ve read by Celia Dale, and it was on my shelf far too long before I finally picked it up. The tale is an insightful look at a claustrophobic marriage and I’ll be reading more from this author who now seems to have faded from view.

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

A middle-aged, married antique seller gets a new lease on life when an attractive female customer walks into his shop. Narrated by 39-year-old Sam, this tale of a man who feels hampered by family life, ‘could’ be very 70s in its portrayal of a man who springs free of his commitments. Instead, in the capable hands of author Stephen Benatar, we see a selfish twerp with illusions of an acting career who proceeds to blow up his very comfortable life. While Sam may think his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us,” in reality, even though Sam is in control of the narration, we begin to wonder just who puts up with who in Sam’s marriage.

A Little Love, a Little Learning: Nina Bawden

Told in retrospect, this is the story of short, but significant period in the life of 12-year-old Kate who lives with her mother and stepfather, a doctor. It’s 1953, and a friend of Kate’s mother comes to live with the family. The guest is a rather gossipy but supposedly good-hearted woman, and her arrival sparks a series of events. Through these event, Kate learns that life is not black and white. I usually dislike books written from the child’s perspective but this tale, told with an adult’s view, is simply marvellous. This was the second novel I’d read by Bawden. I wasn’t that keen on the first so I’m happy I tried again.

The Good House: Ann Leary

If forced to pick ONE book as the best-of-the-year, then The Good House would be the choice. I read this early in the year so it set a high standard for comparison. This is the story of a high-functioning alcoholic, a divorced real-estate agent who thinks her drinking is no one else’s business. The unreliable narration here is tart, funny, and entertaining. I laughed out loud several times and was sorry to see this one end. Brilliant.

The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

One lazy summer, Matthew stays at the vacation home of his much wealthier cousin, Charlie. Matthew’s grateful for a place to stay while he mulls over the next phase of his life, but does Charlie really want Matthew there?  Matthew has a thing for Charlie’s second wife, Chloe, and when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, he finds himself in a moral dilemma. Should he tell Charlie? Nothing is quite what it seems in this novel.

A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

Amy Witting is a great favourite. and I knew I’d love this novel. A Change in the Lighting is the story of a middle-aged woman who is floored when her professor husband casually announces that he wants a divorce.  Ella whose whole life for the past 30 years has been raising three children and taking care of the household, doesn’t know what to do. She teeters on the edge of madness but sinks into elaborate rug making. Her children take sides in the divorce war, and yet .. in spite of everything that goes wrong, Ella finds that her life expands into new territory. Witty and wise.

A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor

Two childhood friends, Liz and Camilla, spend the summer at the home of Liz’s former governess, Frances. The novels examines the choices made by these women and how taking chances opens up the possibilities of hurt and even danger. In life, we make our choices and then wonder if they were the right ones. Elizabeth Taylor takes that central idea and runs with it. This is a very dark novel. When I picked it up, I wondered why the title was A Wreath of Roses and not a vase or a bunch etc. The word wreath reminded me of death…

Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

A middle-aged woman who married decades earlier on the rebound finds passion, but will this end happily? No of course not. This is narrated by a woman who seems in control of her passions, but is she? She functions well as an employee and a wife, but like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is only a fraction of what’s there. She may seem in control, but once unleashed, there’s no telling what may happen.

Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

A middle-aged woman goes off the rails when she becomes infatuated with a self-absorbed, married academic. A deranged narrator who is also unreliable. How can you go wrong? This was close to being my best read of the year….

Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

A man dies in a car accident and a police detective investigates. In one sense this is a police procedural (my least favourite crime novel),  but has a crime even been committed? As the investigation continues, the detective finds that the inhabitants of this small French town are less than cooperative. But the crime/investigation is not the main story here: surely it’s the view of small town life, frustrated ambitions and a disintegrating marriage.

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

A wealthy young man persuades an older woman, the mistress of another man, to become his mistress. The young man cannot live without this woman–or so he thinks, and then he gets her… this rather cynical (realistic) look at love and passion peels back the human psyche and it’s not pretty. But that’s why it’s such a great book.

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Filed under Bawden Nina, Benatar Stephen, Burnet Graeme Macrae, Constant Benjamin, Dale Celia, Fiction, Lasdun James, Leary Ann, Noll Ingrid, Schmitter Elke, Taylor, Elizabeth, Witting Amy

2017: It’s a Wrap

One station awayCatalina

Before I sat down to write this post, I briefly thought about the past year in reading. I had a feeling that it had been, to quote Frank Sinatra, “a very good year,” and I also thought that it was probably going to be harder to pick my favourite books.

I was right.

Catalina by Liska Jacobs

This is the story of a self-destructive young woman who flees New York and returns home to California. Connecting with old friends, Elsa pops pills, drinks too much and generally wrecks everything around her.

One Station Away: Olaf Olafsson

A neurologist whose research focuses on MRI studies of patients in vegetative states wrestles with questions of subconscious, the conscious, denial and avoidance.

The Done Thing: Tracy Manaster

A novel that explores our darkest behaviours. After her sister is murdered by her husband, Lida adopts her niece, Pamela. Now decades later, as the day of the scheduled execution nears, Lida assumes an internet identity to connect with her brother-in-law who’s on Death Row.

The Arrangement: Sarah Dunn

A young married couple, feeling trapped (and bored) by life and with middle age on the horizon decide to try an experiment and give each other carte blanche when it comes to extra marital relationships. What could possibly go wrong???? I enjoyed this one very much indeed, so special thanks to author Sarah Dunn for making me laugh out loud.

The Confusion of Languages: Siobhan Fallon

This novel has a very unusual setting–the US ex-pat community in Jordan. The novel examines the relationships between two very different cultures through two married couples who are forced, by proximity, into a pseudo friendship. While we are expected to modify our behaviour in a different country, do we also modify our morality?

A Lovely Way to Burn: Louise Welsh

Ok, so an Apocalypse novel–not normally a genre I care much for, but I LOVED this novel.

The House of Paper: Carlos María Dominguez

A cautionary tale for any book lover.  This a short, playful tale which tells the story of the ultimate book lover, a man who bought so many books, they destroyed his life.

The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

This one has to be the most unusual premise I read this year. The novel concerns an experimental witness protection programme out in the middle of nowhere. The residents, who’ve been accused and convicted of the most heinous crimes, agree to have their memories wiped and live out their days in this ad-hoc, miserable, primitive western-style town. Oh but wait … someone is murdering residents.

The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Elizabeth Jolley

I love Elizabeth Jolley’s dark sense of humour. This is the story of a hard-working charwoman who plans to retire to the country. And nothing is going to get in the way of her plans.

The Executioner Weeps: Frédéric Dard

Dard has been a relatively new find for me. In this short novel, a man finds a woman, in mysterious circumstances, who is suffering for anemia. Morally, he becomes obligated to help her and discover her identity.

The Locals: Jonathan Dee

A post 9-11 state-of-the-nation novel which explores the unity and then the divisions within North America. A big, bold novel.

But A Short to Time to Live: James Hadley Chase

A short noir novel with a femme fatale and more than one desperate character

Hotel du Lac

I could call 2017 the year of Anita Brookner. I read 9 of her novels this year, and stopped myself from going any further in order to save some titles for the future.

This year, I didn’t use categories. I just picked the books that have stayed with me–the ones that I remember the most. As I look over the list, one thing strikes me: I prefer books about people behaving badly, but this isn’t news.

Disclaimer: These are the best books that I read this year. I’m sure I missed many other great books, but such is life.

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Filed under Brookner Anita, Chase James Hadley, Dard Frédéric, Dee Jonathan, Dunn Sarah, Fallon Siobhan, Fiction, Jacobs Liska, Manaster Tracy, Olafsson Olaf, Sternbergh Adam, Welsh Louise

It’s a Wrap: 2016

Back once more to my best-of year list in no particular order.

War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen. Irreverent, darkly funny, a tale of poisonous sibling rivalry during WWII.

The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb. So you’ve retired and want to move to a quiet life in the country? Think again.

The Flight: Gaito Gazdanov. Trying to escape fate never works.

The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon. What can I say? Fay Weldon is a GODDESS.

All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage. Who says crime fiction can’t be literary? A haunting novel of crimes, decades apart, that take place in the same house.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea: Teffi. I can’t say that I wish I’d lived through the Russian Revolution, but Teffi’s memories bring some powerful experiences to life.

Siracusa: Delia Ephron. Two unhappily married couples and one precocious child on holiday in Italy. What can go wrong?

The Wicked Go to Hell: Frédéric Dard. Three Dard books from Pushkin Vertigo this year, and this was my favourite.

Bye-Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes. Who can resist a Kamikaze woman?

The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin. Funny and fast moving, the best of all the Golden Age mysteries I read this year.

Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge. William could give Casanova a run for his money.

Willful Disregard:Lena Andersson. Obsession and delusion in a relationship break-up.

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Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Brundage Elizabeth, Crispin Edmund, Dard Frédéric, Ephron Delia, Fiction, Gazdanov Gaito, Jensen Liz, Nothomb Amélie, Teffi, Weldon, Fay

The Winshaw Legacy by Jonathan Coe

“Let me give you a warning about my family,” he said eventually, “in case you hadn’t worked it out already. They’re the meanest. greediest, cruelest bunch of back-stabbing bastards who ever crawled across the face of the earth. And I include my own offspring in that statement.”

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Jonathan Coe novels: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and Expo 58. While I liked both books, neither of them hit me as ‘best-of-year’ reads, but that all changes with the novel The Winshaw Legacy which has to be one of the cleverest, most unusual books I’ve read in some time. The Winshaw Legacy was a group read suggested by Séamus (Vapour Trails) with fellow participants Jacqui (Jacquiwine’s Journal),  and Kim (Reading Matters), and just in  case you are wondering if we read the same book, the UK title is What a Carve Up. How on earth do these two titles connect? What a Carve Up is a very real film watched as a child by Coe’s central character and sometime narrator, Michael Owen. It’s a film which has a profound impact on Michael’s life, and if you’ve seen it (I have a copy) you know that it’s a weak version of the Carry-On films and features those ever-popular Carry On team actors and characters who appear, briefly, in the book: Sid James and Kenneth Connor.

The premise of the film What a Carve Up concerns the reading of a will in ghastly, remote country mansion, and as the relatives gather and stay overnight, they are gradually murdered. What a Carve Up haunts Michael for inexplicable reasons and his obsession with the hints of sex in the film don’t seem to adequately explain his profoundly disturbing inability to move on from a scene involving Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor.

winshaw legacyThe Winshaw Legacy is a complex novel and a great deal of the central mystery of the book focuses on the revolting Winshaw family–a horrible lot of grasping self-styled aristos whose sycophantic links to the rise and reign of Margaret Thatcher reflect the worst of British society of the 70s and 80s, and it’s here we get into the novel’s complexities. The title What a Carve Up could refer to the carve up of the British socialist state: the demise of the Labour Party and the rise of Conservatives. Or perhaps it refers to our hapless hero, Michael’s obsession with the film he saw as a child. But then again What a Carve up could refer to some of the strange life-mirrors-art antics that occurred inside Winshaw Towers in 1961–a night that ended in the death of one man and the re-institution of Tabitha Winshaw, declared insane, but who may very well be the only sane member of the Winshaw family.

There are three essential mysteries at the heart of this novel:

  • Is there any truth in Tabitha (known as Mad Tab) Winshaw’s accusation that her brother Lawrence is to blame for the death of Godfrey Winshaw, a pilot shot down over Germany during WWII?
  • What really happened in 1961 when a burglar broke into Winshaw Towers and was killed by Lawrence?
  • What is Michael Owen’s role in all this? And why has he been paid a ridiculous amount of money by a vanity press to write a history of the Winshaw family?

The Winshaws have their dirty fingers in every pie during the sprawling period covered by the Great Carve Up: banking, arms dealing, privatization of the NHS, politics, pension plundering and even factory farming; they leave no avenue of possible wealth and asset stripping unmined:

When the Conservative government announced that they were abolishing free eye tests on the NHS in April 1988, Thomas phoned his brother Henry to tell him that they were making a big mistake: there would be a public outcry. Henry told him that he was over-reacting. There would be a whimper of protest from the usual quarters, he said, and then it would all quietly die down.

‘And I was right, wasn’t I?’

‘I should have bowed down to you political judgement, as always.’

‘Well, it’s quite simple really.’ Henry leaned forward and threw another log on the fire. It was a cold, dark afternoon in early October 1989, and they were enjoying tea and muffins in one of the Heartland Club’s private rooms. ‘The trick is to keep doing outrageous things. There’s no point in passing some scandalous piece of legislation and then giving everyone time to get worked up about it. You have to get right in there and top it with something even worse, before the public have had a chance to work out what’s hit them. The thing about the British conscience, you see, is that it really has no more capacity than … a primitive home computer, if you like. It can only hold two or three things in its memory at a time.

So while What a Carve Up is an appropriate title for the book, The Winshaw Legacy is equally appropriate. This is a book that is impossible to narrow down to just a few sentences. On one hand it’s the story of a writer who struggles with unknown and unrecognized demons and whose life is influenced by factors he’s unaware of, but it’s also about the Carve Up of Britain, the rise of Thatcher, the links between bankers (which Coe reminds us rhymes with wankers), politicians, financiers, arms dealers, chemical weapons manufacturers and the Saddam Husseins of this world. This is an intense complex book which even manages to weave in the  execution of Farzad Bazoft. Here’s a private discussion between Henry and Thomas Winshaw:

‘I know Major hasn’t been in the job for long and we’re all a bit worried that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s playing at. But take it from me–he’s a good boy. He does what he’s told. He took a sip of tea. ‘And besides he might be moving again soon.’

‘What, already?’

‘It looks that way. Margaret and Nigel seem to be heading for a final bust-up. We suspect there’ll be a vacancy at number Eleven pretty soon.’

Thomas tucked this information away at the back of his mind for future reference. It had considerable implications, which he would need to contemplate and examine at his leisure.

‘Do you think they’ll hang him?” he asked suddenly.

Henry shrugged. ‘Well he was a rotten chancellor, it has to be said, but that would be a bit drastic.’

‘No, no not Lawson. I mean this journo character. Bazoft.’

‘Oh, him. I dare say they will, yes. That’s what happens if you’re silly enough to get caught snooping around Saddam’s arms factories, I suppose.’

‘Making trouble.’

‘Exactly.’ Henry stared into space for a moment. ‘I must say, there are one or two snoopers over here that I wouldn’t mind seeing strung up on Ludgate Hill, if it came to that.’

‘Nosey parkers.’

While the book is the history of one of Britain’s most horrible, most powerful families, it would be wrong to say that this is only a political novel; it’s not. It’s an extremely witty social satire with multiple story threads (which all connect by the novel’s conclusion) that include voyeurism, the nepotism of the art world, and the vagaries of vanity publishing. These threads unfold from the 40s through the 90s through various voices–including author Michael Owen, and the diaries of Henry Winshaw. But also mention must be made of the fantastic cast of characters: chocolate addicted, Shirley Eaton fixated, reclusive author Michael Owen who’d “gone a bit strange,” his childhood friend, the uncomplicated yet board-game aficionado Joan, sweet Fiona–yet another victim of the long grasping fingers of the Winshaws, artist/nurse Phoebe who learned the hard, humiliating way just how unscrupulous the Winshaws could be, and dapper, geriatric sex-obsessed detective Findlay Onyx.  Author Jonathan Coe also manages to bring in, repeatedly, the idea that fiction mirrors life. At a few salient points, Michael’s life takes on a surreal quality as he imagines himself in a film or on the other end of a screen.

It was as if cracks had started to appear in the screen and this awful reality was leaking out: or as if the glass barrier itself had magically turned to liquid and without knowing it I had slipped across the divide, like a dreaming Orpheus.

All my life I’d been trying to find my way to the other side of the screen: ever since my visit to the cinema in Weston-super-Mare. Did this mean that I’d made it at last?

Since Michael’s conscious life as a child awoke with a film which included the reading of a will at an old manor house, Coe’s metafictional story comes full circle when Michael finds himself reliving scenes from the film What a Carve Up. The scenes of the loathsome, exploitive Winshaws are shockingly brilliant, savagely funny and yet also sadly reflect a secret fictional history in which the Winshaws assume the identify of the monstrous powerbrokers who carved up the nation. Michael Owen is the stunned Everyman who must emerge from his reclusive state and confront a new corrupt reality.

For Jacqui’s review 

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Filed under Coe Jonathan, Fiction

It’s a Wrap: Best of 2104

It’s been a strange year.

I reread many novels, burned my way through Garnier, abandoned Proust because he gave me sleepless nights, and didn’t read as much Balzac as I’d intended. Anyway here’s the best books I read this year; I make these categories up as I go along.

Best Russian novel:

Anna Karenina. I loved this novel the first time I read it but for this rereading I appreciated its cinematic qualities.

Best South American Novel:

Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. Someone… please make a film out of this.

Best British fiction:

Incredible, brilliant–a state of the declining nation book: Jonathan Coe’s The Winshaw Legacy.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. Incredible. Thanks to New York Review Books for republishing this.

Pascal Garnier (he gets a category all of his own).

Moon in a Dead Eye . A look at the hellish life of a bunch of retirees in a ‘safe’ gated community

Most Surprising novel:

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson. A horrible title but the book was wonderful–this is a tale of a nomadic life of extreme poverty seen through a child born to a woman who makes terrible taste in men.

Best Short Story Collection:

Funny Once by Antonya Nelson. Not a loser in the bunch

Best American fiction:

During the Reign of the Queen of Sheba by Joan Chase. This is one of those books you read and marvel that you never heard of before. An American classic of mythic proportions. Don’t miss this.

Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara. A quintessential American novel of small town life: hypocrisy, power, money and the ruling class as seen through the staidly predictable life of a man who never did anything wrong but neither did he do anything right.

Best Crime Novel:

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette. No contest.

Best Irish Fiction:

Time Past and Present by Deirdre Madden. Time and memory in the lives of Irish siblings.

Best Non Fiction:

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik. I always wondered why on earth Zweig killed himself after successfully escaping the Nazis. Now I understand.

Best WWI Novel:

Fear by Gabriel Chevallier. Always tough to read about WWI, but I loved the anger in this.

Best Psychological Study:

The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster. I’ve passed over this author numerous times as I had the impression that I wasn’t the right reader for her books. This is the story of a strange little girl, shaped by childhood events, who grows up to be a strange woman. The sort of book to gather many interpretations of its main character.

Funniest book:

Writing is Easy by Gert Loveday. Through a colourful cast of characters, Gert Loveday shows that writing isn’t easy, and while it’s hard to keep a novel consistently funny, Gert Loveday creates a laugh on every page.

Best Australian novel:

This was the hardest category as I read so many great Australian books this year. While there are several titles I won’t forget, two stick out:

Amy’s Children by Olga Masters. This is the story of a young woman who abandons her children and seeks employment in the city. The reader may forgive Amy, but her eldest daughter doesn’t.

Julia Paradise by Rod Jones. Initially hard to read due to the subject matter of incest, I ended up loving this morally complex book which is not at all what it first appears to be.

Roll on 2015….

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2013: It’s a Wrap

2013 draws to an end. This post, featuring my best of 2013, has existed in draft form for a couple of months now while I chewed over my choices. And here’s the final list–the best of the books I read:

Best non-fiction:

Diary of a Man in Despair  by Friedrich Reck. This German book is an extraordinary document. The author, a member of the German elite, a conservative Prussian landowner, was appalled by the Nazis, and he says it all here, writing in a diary which he kept hidden by burying it. He was in the same room with Hitler on a few occasions and regretted not killing him when he had a chance. Reck also made some uncanny predictions, but even he, in spite of the fact he seemed to understand the Nazis, was ultimately blindsided by their venom. He died in Dachau in 1945. This was my non-fiction read of 2013

Best German fiction:

Transit by Anna Seghers. Another German book on the subject of WWII. This is a fictional story of a POW who first escapes from a concentration camp, and then escapes from a work camp and finally makes it to Marseille where he assumes the identity of a dead writer, hoping to get the necessary funds and papers to leave Marseille. Transit is a marvel of intense pacing and desperation.

Best French Fiction:

Climates by André Maurois. A wonderful book that charts two very different relationships. Maurois is another great find for 2013. I loved this book and its descriptions of two very different relationships. Climates says a great deal about what we need in relationships and sometimes what we need just isn’t good for us….

Best 19th Century Fiction:

The Odd Women by George Gissing. My respect for this author increases with every Gissing book I read. This is a story of feminists, a couple of women who run a school to train genteel young women for adequate employment. The feminist ideals of both of the women who run the school, Rhoda and Miss Barfoot, are tested in different ways. Also woven into the story is the fate of the Madden girls, sisters who struggle to survive in a world in which women hope to keep afloat through marriage. Gissing has made my Best-of lists now for 2 years straight. Will he make it for a third?

Best re-read:

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. This was re-read for me, and I loved this novel just as much this time around. Maugham is, and always will be, a great favourite. This is the story of a husband, father and office worker, who tosses his life aside and in middle age, decides to pursue an artist’s life. Inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin.

I wanted to stick with categories, but these are all British:

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. Hoban is another discovery of 2013, and he wrote a good number of novels, so I’ve some catching up to do. Turtle Diary is a wonderful novel–the story of animal and human liberation, and guess what, as it turns out the two are tied together. As a “turtle freak,” I wallowed in the images of the turtles endlessly swimming in their small tanks and two people becoming some concerned, so morally involved with these giant sea turtles, that they decide to do something about it.

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes. A classic tale of Hollywood. This is the story of a married screenwriter who becomes involved with an unstable actress. Some people you just can’t step away from fast enough…

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam. Looking over my choices for the year, this one stands out as quite different. I’m a long-time Gardam fan and have read most, not all, of her books. I tend to steer away from child/adolescent narrators so it’s telling for me to say that I loved this book, and that Gardam’s narrator, a 13 year old girl was witty, refreshing, and so non-conformist, I hope she never changes.

Great Granny Webster a largely autobiographical book by Caroline Blackwood. This is a wicked little book, recommended by commenter, Leroy (eternally grateful). This is essentially a search for identity through rifling through the stories of one’s immediate family. The young narrator is sent to live with her dour Great Granny Webster, and gradually the narrator pieces together family history, including a ramshackle Anglo-Irish estate, and all the pieces come together to make sense.

Best Debut Fiction:

A is for Angelica by Iain Broome. With its clever structure and unusual narrator, this debut novel swerved in an unexpected direction and took me by surprise

Now to crime….

Best American Noir:

River Girl by Charles Williams. I’ve read a number of novels by Charles Williams now, loved ’em all, but this one, River Girl, is going to be hard to top. This is the story of a corrupt small town deputy who falls in love with a mystery woman and then comes up with a plan to dump his old life and run off into the sunset….Sheer brilliance here.

Best British Noir:

Kiss The Blood Off My Hands by Gerald Butler. This is the story of a rather unpleasant character who finds redemption through love. No, it’s not soppy; it’s dark, desperate and harsh. OOP.

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas (Eric Knight). Who would have thought that the mind that wrote Lassie could have written this dark story….

Well there you have it. Most of my choices are very dark. No surprise there I suppose. But one thing I noted as I looked over my choices: there are no less than 5 books from NYRB.

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2012: It’s a Wrap

Another year over, and there’s been some great books along the way, and this brings me to the Annual Wrap-up. The categories are purely arbitrary, and since I haven’t read every book on the planet, these books are not the best of everything, but simply the best I read in 2012.

Best Classic Noir:

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze.

runner up: The Burglar by David Goodis

Best 19th Century Novel:

There was a lot of tough competition for this title. On one hand, George Gissing’s New Grub Street showed me how far money went in the 19th century, and just how much you needed to live like a gentleman. On the other hand, I loved The Claverings largely in part thanks to the hilarious character of Sophie Gourdeloup.

Best Australian Novel:

First place: Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

Runner up: Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley

Best New American Fiction of 2012:

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

Runner up: Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman

Best New British Fiction:

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

Best New Crime Novel of 2012:

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Best Book Made Into Film:

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh

and

Man of Straw by Heinrich Mann (plus this is the best German book I read this year)

Biggest Reading Surprise:

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Two Wonderful Books in Translation:

Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval

The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabata

Non-Fiction:

J.Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War by John Scardellati.

Thanks to all my readers and subscribers. Here’s to some great books in 2013!

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2011–It’s a Wrap

It’s never easy to whittle a year of some truly great books down to just a few personal preferences, but here goes my completely arbitrary categories anyway (in no particular order):

Novels that continue to haunt me: Little Monsters by Charles Lambert and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Perhaps the best Simenon I’ve read to date: Dirty Snow

Best of the seven Jim Thompson novels read for my noirfest: Pop 1280. The Killer Inside Me came a very close second, but the nasty sense of humour in Pop 1280 ultimately won the day.

Speaking of nasty sense of humour, the award has to go to Henry Sutton’s FABULOUS Get Me Out of Here and The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

For crime, it doesn’t get better than Drive by James Sallis.

Best classic noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes and Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (both made into films, btw).

Best 20th C American: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

Best Classics, French: Gobseck  by Balzac. Russian: The Duel by Chekhov and The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky. British: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

Best new American release: Calling Mr King by Ronald de Feo

Best new British Fiction: The Old Romantic by Louise Dean, King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher–both of these were the second books I’d read by these authors and the reading enjoyment firmly sealed me as a fan of both.

Best non-fiction: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

So thanks to all my readers and all those who left comments, and also thanks to the authors who sweated blood and tears over the novels that enriched my life beyond measure in 2011.  With a good book, life is never boring.

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