Tag Archives: best of year

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.


Filed under Balzac, Blogging, Chekhov, De Feo Ronald, Dean Louise, Dostoevsky, du Maurier Daphne, Fiction, Hardy, Thomas, Hensher Philip, Homes Geoffrey, Lambert Charles, Olafsson Bragi, Sallis James, Simenon, Sutton Henry, Thompson Jim, Williams Charles, Williams Tennessee

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….


Filed under Blogging

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:


Pot Luck

The Ladies Paradise

The Joy of Life


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.


Filed under Blogging