Tag Archives: best of year

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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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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2010–A Year in Books

It’s not easy picking just a few books to mention at the end of the year. I have a list of all those read (107) and with any luck, I’ll get another couple finished before the end of the year. On the down side, I meant to read more crime fiction but was Shanghaied. On the positive side, I finished reading Zola’s 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series this year. I started back in 2007 and took it slowly reading a novel every couple of months.

Looking back over all the 2010 titles read, I can see that I’ve re-read quite a few old favourites including:

A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov –one of my favourite novels.

The Black Sheep by Balzac. A reminder, once again of exactly how nasty, cruel and petty people can be. This is one of my all-time favourite Balzac novels, and this year I was driven back to it.

The Merry-Go-Round by Maugham. One of my favourite Maugham novels.

Anyway, here are the new-to-me-favourite-2010 books :

Three Crimes by Simenon. Ok so I’m crazy about Simenon. Before reading this book, ask yourself this question: How many people do you know who are murderers? I’m hoping that you say NONE. Simenon knew two. Three Crimes is not selected for this year’s list due to its artistry (it’s certainly not the best thing ever written by Simenon), but for its insight into the author’s experiences, his psychological make-up and his fascination with crime. It’s autobiographical but doesn’t read that way, and I still argue that the THREE crimes includes the mysterious death of Simenon’s acquaintance (and not the four murders committed by the two murderers Simenon knew). If you want to understand Simenon and his work, this book is a must. It’ll blow you out of your socks.

 Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter. This is the post WWII tale of the hard-luck Jack Levitt, an unwanted teenager who grifts his way through life until he ends up, inevitably, in a reform school. Powerless, friendless and mired in relentless poverty, this is just the beginning of Jack’s slide downwards through the ‘justice system’.  Yet in spite of all the bad things that happen to Jack, this hard-boiled novel somehow escapes the throes of depression and maintains a hint of optimism. A stunning book.

Money by Zola. I had to include at least one Zola for the year. I chewed over the question of whether or not Debacle is the superior novel, and came to the conclusion that I have no idea. I preferred the character-driven Money, however, of the two, and that explains my selection. Money is the eighteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, and it’s the story of how Aristide Saccard sets out to swindle the country. Great stuff here–Saccard’s insanely obsessive drive to control the financial markets of Paris, and the greed of the herd willing to follow Saccard over the precipice into catastrophe.

Alien Hearts by Maupassant. Maupassant takes his cynical view of relationships to another level in Alien Hearts. This psychologically complex story explores the relationship between a man and a woman as they pass through all the stages of love–or at least the sort of love that they are capable of. 

A Funny Old Year by Alan Brownjohn. This British novel is the story of a retired professor who has had a long-standing affair with the wife of a colleague. The colleague dies, and then the professor is in the embarrassing position of having to marry his mistress. Sensing his reluctance, she sets up a pact. They will live separately for a year and see whether or not they can do without each other or whether they want to commit to marriage. Not a lot happens here, but it’s an excellent tale.

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore. The Doctor’s Wife is the story of a woman who ends up going on what is ostensibly her second honeymoon without her husband. This triggers a chain of events and brings on some long-overdue analysis of a stifling marriage. I’m still pondering why this book is so powerful. Moore is highly recommended by John Self at Asylum. I meant to read another Moore novel in 2010 and didn’t. I’ll have to correct that in 2011.

Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean. Another novel by Dean was reviewed and recommended by Tom at A Common Reader. Becoming Strangers is the story of man who’s dying of cancer and his appallingly selfish wife who are given tickets for a Caribbean holiday. Funny, poignant, bittersweet,and all too human. 

Post Office by Charles Bukowski. Do you ever have fantasies of saying exactly what you think at work? If so, then Post Office is for you. Bring your work frustrations but leave your tired old PC notions behind when you pick up Bukowski’s book and read about Henry Chinaski and his ‘shackjob.’ Hilarious. Thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal for this one. Sometimes you just need a laugh.

Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. A hilariously funny ramble by a nutcase. Yes, it’s that “dialectic of isolated consciousness” again. It’s pathetic, sad, nasty and mean.

On another note: I’m a contributor for Mostly Fiction where I review new books (or reprints) that are provided by publishers for review. Here’s a mention of a few wonderful titles I read for Mostly Fiction:

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth. A great first novel about a nutcase who moves into the neighbourhood.

The Alternative Hero by Tim Thornton–a first novel about a man who tracks down the reclusive rock star he worshipped in his misspent youth. Lots of 80s nostalgia.

Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan–a novel that spans about 40 years in the life of a rock star manager. Loads of nostalgia for rock fans and those with a weakness for books about the music biz.

In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut–A hard one to classify, but Kevin loved it too. This is a three-part novella which tells the story of three journeys. I’ve yet to review this one, but it’s really incredible in its seemingly simple take on travel, relationships, avoidance and commitments.

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard–reminded me a great deal of Dostoevsky’s rambling narrator in Notes from Underground.

Anyway, a lot of good books and it wasn’t easy to narrow it down to a handful. New York Review Classics appeared on my list twice, so I’ll be scrutinizing their titles in 2011 (and buying the Manchette).

On a final note, one of the best things about blogging is exchanging ideas with like-minded readers who can nudge me towards books I may not have discovered on my own, so thanks to all the readers & commentors for the past year. And Book Around the Corner, I have Novel with Cocaine right here in front of me….

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2009–It’s a Wrap.

2009–an interesting year…bookwise well I read some good, some bad.

I made some significant progress in my goal to read all twenty volumes of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. I dreamed up this goal in mid-2007 when it dawned on me (with considerable horror), that I’d never read the Rougon-Macquart series. I started thinking: ‘what if I died and I hadn’t read them?’–a silly question, but you get the idea. In 2009, I read seven more of the twenty novels:

Nana

Pot Luck

The Ladies Paradise

The Joy of Life

Germinal

The Masterpiece

The Earth.

Of the lot, Pot Luck, Nana, and The Earth were the most enjoyable.

With any luck, I should manage to finish the last five titles in the series some time in 2010. Then I’ll make some other long-term substantial reading goal–but not until I’ve finished the Rougon-Macquart.

As for other 2010 reading goals–more classics and more New York Review Books. I read a few of their titles in 2009 and was so impressed, I plan on watching their new releases via the electronic e-mail updates (as well as perusing some of their older titles). And on a final note, I read 106 books in 2009. Obviously I can’t mention them all, so I’ve selected a few titles as the highlights of my reading year:

What Happened to Anna K by Irina Reyn. This is an updating of Anna Karenina to modern New York . I was a bit skeptical at first  as I get a bit annoyed when writers pinch the ideas of other writers (especially when the ‘other writers’ are phenomenally successful). But here months later I find myself still thinking about this novel. This is the tale of a woman who realises that she’s aging and who marries a wealthy man for security. A few years later, facing the bleakness of a loveless marriage, she plunges into a reckless affair….

Mucho Mojo by Joe Lansdale. If you haven’t read any of The Hap & Leonard novels and if you like a character-based crime novel, then give these East Texas noir novels a spin. Rude, crude, and lewd–these books are just my sort of thing. 

The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy & William Hobbler. If you are interested in the crime scene of 19th Paris, then this non fiction book is a must-read. The authors are obviously well-versed in the period and the subject matter. With an emphasis on personalities, the book concentrates on some of the most infamous crimes of the period (including the theft of the Mona Lisa) and the development of crime detection techniques. I didn’t read much non fiction in 2009, and I hope to remedy that in 2010.

Bel-Ami by Guy De Maupassant. I’m leaning towards calling this his best novel. I still think of Bel Ami’s duel against a rival newspaper man. The duel was a farce but after many embellishments it becomes a narrow brush with death. Anyway, a splendid characterisation of a mediocre man who climbs the social ladder over the bodies of his female conquests.

  

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond–a discovery thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal. I have a soft spot for noir–the darker the better. This was my first Raymond novel and it certainly won’t be my last. He Died With His Eyes Open is a bitter tale of a murder investigation that reveals an abyss of lost illusions, cruelty, and destructive, poisonous relationships. It was really wonderful to discover Max’s blog in 2009 as we seem to have some reading tastes in common, so I plan on raiding his blog (and avoid a reading rut) for more ideas in 2010.

 

Colony by Hugo Wilcken thanks to John Self over at the Asylum. I doubt I would have discovered this author on my own and that’s depressing. The novel is set in the French penal colony in French Guiana. Another illustration of the handy-dandy uses of colonies. It’s a superb novel that explores issues such as identity and freedom.

 

 

The Duel by Alexander Kuprin. Kuprin isn’t much read any more outside of Russia, and that’s a shame. This gem of the Silver Age is set in Southern Russia. The story of Second Lieutenant Romashov examines the horrible, constricted lives of the army officers who amuse themselves by dueling, boozing and engaging in petty affairs with the wives of their fellow officers. Read this and you’ll understand why there was a revolution.

 

The Charmer by Patrick Hamilton. I watched the television series and finally got to the book. Hamilton doesn’t spare his characters one bit as he explores their vanities and nastiness and then introduces a canny villain who’s ready to exploit those weaknesses. I still think of the snotty Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce and laugh. The Charmer is the second part of The Gorse Trilogy. I need to read the other two volumes soon.

 

This was a great year for funny books. Augustus Carp esq. by Henry Howarth Bashford–one of the marvellous Prion Humour Classics, this is the story of an insufferable, sanctimonious prig brought up by a father who’s made of the same material. This is the story of how one individual can sail through life with no clue about how pathetically nasty he is. Very, very funny. Get a copy and give yourself a laugh.

 

A Melon for Ecstasy by John Fortune and John Wells–This is the story of a man who has love affairs with trees. I bought a few copies for friends for Xmas and got funny looks in return. No it’s not porn. It’s the story of  middle-aged, sexually repressed Humphrey Mackevoy, a man who runs a bookshop and lives with his insufferable mother. This is so very well done that Humphrey comes off as the best, most balanced person in the book.

 

 Ladies From St Petersburg by Nina Berberova. This is a collection of three novellas which effectively place characters in three stages of the Russian Revolution: before, during and after. The language is subtle; the drama downplayed, but a sense of chaos, loss and displacement echo long after the book’s conclusion. Excellent. Berberova has to be one of the greatest Russian emigre writers.

 

Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin. This book ends up as one of the most intriguing of the year. It’s short, simple, plagued by coincidence, but at the same time it’s elegant and tragic in its exploration of the materialistic vs love and romance. The book smacks of 19th century but was written in 1951. Good thing I didn’t know that when I bought it as I usually avoid historical novels. I’ve yet to see the film version of this….

 

 Any excuse to show this cover again:

How The Light gets In by M.J Hyland. This book gives me faith in modern fiction. It’s the story of an Aussie exchange student who leaves the slums of Sydney for an upscale Chicago suburb. The teenage girl is well… a bit wild, and she’s living with a family run by an uptight class perfectionist. Do you sense trouble ahead? Well you’d be right, but this is so well done. Very low-key with unspoken tempests right under the surface. Great stuff.

 

Dr Haggard’s Disease by Patrick McGrath. I’m a sucker for the unreliable narrator. Just point one out to me and I’m likely to trot off and buy the book. That said, I think you’d have to go a long way to find a writer who is quite so skilled with the unreliable narrator as McGrath. Don’t take my word for it! Read it! Thanks to John Self from The Asylum  for pushing me on this one. 

 

Wish Her Safe At Homeby Stephen Benatar–a middle-aged spinster decides to ‘reinvent’ herself after she inherits a run-down house in Bristol. With shades of Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, the heroine Rachel Waring leaves London, moves to Bristol and starts ogling all the men, including the vicar. Left to her own devices and without the structure of employment, her imagination runs wild…..A very surprising, refreshing and delightfully funny read.

  

Always The Sun by Neil Cross was probably the unexpected read of the year. I thought I was getting some sort of family drama but this novel is much darker, much bleaker. In many ways. Always The Sun reminded me of Sean Doolittle’s Safer through its exploration of the horrors of suburbia.  Always The Sun is another Booker Prize loser which just goes to show I always seem to have better luck with the prize losers.

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