Top 10 Books of 2019

Finally, finally, I’ve completed a book challenge on Goodreads. Went for a steady 60 books for the year and only just made it. A few 200 page books in December saw me over the line. So here’s the top 10 for the year:

Ryan Gattis – Safe: A gritty, raw novel about the Los Angeles drug gangs. Gattis has an extraordinary ability to evoke empathy from characters mired in petty crime and the vagaries of the drug trade. Knockout ending, too.

Don Winslow: The Force: Not much I can say about Winslow. If you are into crime fiction in any way, he’s your man. A stunner.

Nathan Hill: The Nix. An amazing accomplishment for a first novel. The Great American novel in all its glory.

Raynor Winn: The Salt Path. A beautiful tale of heartbreak and redemption on the UK’s most beautiful walking trail.

Barney Norris: Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain. Five people impacted by a car accident. A lyrical, dreamy novel that stays with you long after completion.

Stephen King: Misery. A King book I’ve inexplicably missed. Great fun and brutal as hell.

Un-so Kim. The Plotters. You won’t look at assassins in the same way again. Which is cool, right?

Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ve never seen the film. The novel is stunning. A stick it to the man euphoria tinged with melancholy. The fishing trip scene is the funniest thing I’ve read all year. A bona fide classic.

Chris Petit: The Psalm Killer. Violent, sexual, brutal thriller about a serial killer in Ireland during the Troubles. Perfectly executed.

Graham Greene: The End of the Affair. My first ever Greene. And what a book to start on. Yearning, heartbreaking, unmissable.

I had a feeling that this years reads had been something of a disappointment, but some real gems have shone through. Kudos also to Ken Bruen and Lawrence Block (as always) for strengthening my belief that these guys are the best in the business.

I haven’t done a best of the decade mostly because to trawl through 500+ books seems a chore but if you’ve never read Remains of the Day, Any Human Heart or any Willy Vlautin novel than you need to rectify that immediately.

Happy New Year!

Where the Crawdads Sing

Looking at the Goodreads page for the novel Where the Crawdads Sing, this month’s choice in my occasional visit to the Germany book club, I was struck by how highly rated the book is. 4 and a half stars out of five from nearly 50,000 reviews is a stonkingly high commendation, definitely the highest I’ve ever seen on that website.  So the big question is, does it live up to the hype?

Happily, on the whole, yes it does. I only gave the novel 4 stars as it happens, but then I’m a hard taskmaster and something of a curmudgeon.  And it is easy to say that the book is beautifully written, especially for a first novel. The author Delia Owens has a lovely, almost poetic prose as she tells the story of the ‘Marsh Girl’ Kya Clark, an abandoned girl who lives in the marshes on the edge of town and leads a solitary life among the plants and animals.  Some reviews have criticised the slow pace of the early part of the book, focusing too much on descriptive passages instead of story, but I enjoyed the scene setting and the rich evocation of the landscape.

The book develops into a back-and-forth narrative between a coming-of age tale as Kya grows up and falls in love, and a murder mystery surrounding the unexplained death of a local white student, Chase Andrews.  Both strands are dealt with convincingly.  The latter was reminiscent to me of two other classic examples of courtroom drama surrounding racial injustice, A Time to Kill and the great To Kill a Mockingbird. For this book to be mentioned in the same vein is its testament. It has all the great hallmarks of the genre, genuine suspense, evidence that swings you one way then the other, and a verdict that is difficult to predict. I’m not going to give away the ending here but the twists on the final pages don’t feel deceitful and raise many questions about the validity of what has come before. A book that will have you discussing and arguing its outcome long past completion can only be a great one.

It’s not all judges and juries though. The coming-of age tale is one that could easily slip into cliche, so well worn are its tropes. But Owens manages to pull it off with instantly believable characters who, whilst not necessarily the nicest, are always honest and hard to dismiss. Kya walks the tightrope of doubt and loneliness and whether to give in to her desires with a balance that is eminently relatable to anyone who had a powerful yearning for someone as a teenager (which we all did, let’s face it).  Even when she makes poor decisions you can see the reasoning behind them, and her relationships, especially with the odious Chase, are very well drawn.

If there are gripes, I would comment that some of the developments that raise Kya out of poverty seem easy to come by.  If it was that straightforward to become a published author I would be shouting it from the rooftops of my penthouse suite in the Caribbean.  Kya does also seem to adapt remarkably well (and quickly, it must be said) to the loss of both her mother and brother when they walk out on her. But it all hangs together enough not to completely smash the suspension of disbelief.

As I said at the top, the strengths of the novel are enough to warrant its remarkable rating. I finished it a week or so ago and find myself thinking about it at random moments. Such is its power, and its quiet beauty.

Abandoned

Over the course of my writing life, I can think of very few occasions when I’ve given up on a piece of work and gone on to something else. I’ve seen the mantra repeated in tons of writing advice online – if it’s not working put it down, you can always go back to it later, ete etc. But I’ve never really heeded this advice (or been able to!)

I wouldn’t consider myself a stubborn person at all, but when it comes to fiction, once I start something I’m by damn going to see it through. My current novel (and it will end up a novel, a short one but a novel nenetheless) is proving extremely difficult to get done. I’m not even sure it makes sense anymore to be honest. My output is horrendous (about 6000 words a month, which is scandalous), and most days, I drag myself to the computer with a sense of dread, knock off a torturous 2 or 300 words, realise I’ve dug a few plotholes for myself, and repeat the cycle the next day.

So why not just quit and work on something else? This isn’t enjoyment, it’s tough. And you may be right. I guess I don’t get ideas that often, and the initial idea for this novel I still think is a good one.  It’s got lost in the morass along the way, but a re-write can help to bring out the main themes, so hopefully it’s still buried in there somewhere.  My time, of course. Countless hours have gone into this, and I’m loathe to let them be wasted. I know any writing time is valuable, but if I gave it up, I’d feel terrible about it. And lastly, if I get it done, that’s another one. My 4th novel. It will no doubt gather dust and be read by no-one like the others, but I’ll have a true and real body of work. Me. And I should be proud of that fact.

So on we go.  Given myself a loose target of completion by Christmas. Never going to happen but yeah, I’m carrying on. There’s a little stubborn streak after all.

Nearing the Fifth

So my 40th birthday is fast approaching, and its seen as one of the most momentous of a lifetime.  ‘Life begins at 40’ is a well-worn cliche that crops up every time this milestone is reached, and personally I think it’s a load of crap.  At least I hope it is, otherwise the preceding years have been a bit of a waste of time! But it does offer opportunity to reflect, and I’ve been mulling over my reading and writing life to date, and trying to get a handle on what I think about it all.

I believe that the greatest gift I got from childhood was a love of reading, and as I went through college and university, of literature. Everyone knows someone who says they don’t have time to read, and I’m grateful that I’m not one of them.  When I think of all the thousands of life-changing books that people are missing out on it makes me shudder. I appreciate I probably do have more time as I am single and childless, but there’s always time if you try.  I carry a book with me everywhere I go, and read whenever I have a spare moment. It’s a constant source of pleasure and I get great satisfaction from it.

Say I’ve been reading since the age of 10, that’s 30 years, probably a book a week on average since the age of 15, well, it’s got to be close to 1500 books so far in my lifetime.  Millions and millions of words, and I feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface.  There’s genres I rarely read, great classics to get through, and all the brilliant books that haven’t even been thought up yet.  Hopefully I’m not halfway through my life yet, so I figure I’ve got at least the same amount of books left to read, if I can.  What an amazing thing to look forward to.

On writing, I’ve said before that creating fiction is when I’m at my happiest, and I believe it’s pretty much saved my life on occasion.  It’s where I’m most expressive, more thoughtful, and hopefully dynamic and challenging as well. It’s also one of the few things I’m really proud of, being a novelist. I knew from an early age I wanted to write a novel, and probably made my first naive attempts at around 16. Many get to that stage and give up, through fear or lack of time or real life getting in the way. I did too, to start with. But I didn’t let it beat me.  I forget how old I was when I finally got a novel written.  I think 23 or so. That seems impossible to me now, that I had the drive and focus to do it.  I was such a young man in so many ways.  There’s still aspects of that novel I like, too.

But you can always be accused of being a one-hit wonder, so I set out to see if it was a fluke.  And it wasn’t. The genesis of Playing with Fire and the effort it took are well-documented on this blog, and that feeling when the last word was written is one I’ve never forgotten. Almost like tapping into another world and being privy to something so extraordinary it makes the process seem like it was enchanted.  If nothing else, I’ll always have that moment.

And since the words have stagnated at times but on the whole kept flowing. Another novel is under my belt, some short stories and a novella, which is not a bad output of work. I’ve got content available for purchase in various places, and I’ve been published.  Whilst I’m proud of that achievement, I’ve come to realise that it’s not the be all and end all. It’s the craft that matters, the response from the people closest.  Having my novella Momentum discussed at my old book club was one of the kindest appreciations of my work, and that’s what keeps me going, not being published necessarily. Learning to appreciate that has given me a nice sense of calm, and has made me more immune to the midlife crisis, I hope. Besides, I write because I can’t not.  It’s a fundamental part of who I am. So I’m going into my fifth decade with less trepidation than I might. For there is so much more left to read, and many more words to write. I can’t wait to get started.

Sharing the Love

There is a brillant bit in Nick Hornby’s classic novel High Fidelity where our hero Rob has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura, and the first album he listens to at home after is Yellow Submarine by The Beatles.  The reason? Because it’s the only album he owns that doesn’t remind him of anything. Not of his lost love, of any good or bad times, nada. Just a piece of music that he can listen to, enjoy on its own merits, wallow in the nostalgia, and package up for the next time, untainted by the vagaries of the human heart.

Now Rob is more than a music aficionado, he is something of a snob.  Which is fine, if you’re passionate about something, it’s almost inevitable.  And I have definitely become the same about books, that’s for certain.  But the reason I haven’t gone full snob is for the same reason as Rob above. I’m terrified of having my favourite books remind me of anything other than my love for them. So I tend to keep my all-time favourites to myself, to wax lyrical about them but encourage others to seek them out themselves if they so wish (which doesn’t tend to happen very often as no-one is a more avid reader than me in my social group) and move the discussion on to other books. Be protective, secretive and precious about them, basically.  To avoid an all-time great being tarnished by a bad memory.

High Fidelity is a good case in point, as it happens. I have currently lent that to somebody (who already loved the film so it wasn’t too much of a punt), and if I’m honest, there is a small part of me that regrets it.  Because I’m running the risk that the book will always remind me of her, and if something bad happens between us, I won’t be able to read the book without thinking about her.  And I would be genuinely upset if that happened.  I think it will probably be OK, mostly because we have a shared appreciation for the novel which has actually enhanced the book for me a bit.  Also I have a long history with the novel and it has infuenced my life in countless ways which are deeply entrenched and for which I will remain forever grateful. I don’t think the biggest emotional heartache could completely rid me of that feeling.

But you have to be so careful, with music or literature, anything creative that is special to you, really.  It’s the great balancing act; spreading your love of something that changed your life, in the hope that it inspires others too, against the great worry that that action will fundamentally effect your appreciation of the work.

Stalling

Me and my big mouth.  I wrote in a post last month about a new novella that I was writing, and whilst I’m paraphrasing, wrote something along the lines that I was certain I would finish it.

Well, famous last words.  It’s not complete despair, as I’m still struggling along, but any momentum I had has virtually stalled. I wrote how I was working with a new narrative voice and the troubles that arose from that, and trying to keep that voice consistent is certainly part of the problem. But mostly it’s the same old affliction as always – getting the character’s actions to mirror their motivations.

When the story came to me it was in its essence very simple. A young girl falls for an older man, stakes her life on him, and is in the end let down.  A pretty well-worn furrow, but I had some nice detail in my head and the overall tone felt melancholic and yearning, which I wanted to bring out. But as other characters were introduced this straightforward plot has turned into something a lot more complicated, and all the usual worries about convolution and unrealistic plot development have reared their ugly head.

Of course some of this goes back to my lifelong aversion to making any kind of notes before starting, even anything as basic as character profiles. I’ve written tons on here about that so don’t need to repeat myself, but maybe I do need to be more organised before starting. I just worry that the natural flow of my prose will be stunted by too much forward planning.

It doesn’t help that I’m fucking tired all the time, either. I’m up at 6 every morning for work and the days of a good 8 hours sleep are pretty much over. And I’m a man who suffers with less than that.  So in the evenings I’m weary, my productivity is less, and cutting through the tangles seems a lot harder.

Fuck it. I’ll finish it eventually. Maybe.

Unreliable Memoirs

On the whole I find memoir a tricky genre to read and interpret. Any memoir seems to be at the mercy of two elements it seems to me – the memory of the author and how they select, reflect and analyse said memories. Whether the event’s of one’s past can be looked at with honesty and self-reflection, without falling into pity or an unwillingness to admit to mistakes.

Clive James wrote the first volume of his memoirs, which shares the title of this post, when he was coming up for his 40th birthday. Which was interesting for me as I am at a similar age, and I can safely say my memory is shocking. I have very little recollection of my early childhood and some of the memories beyond that are almost seen through smoke, so hazy are they.  And non-linear, too.  I would find it impossible to piece together everything into a coherent and threaded narrative.  So writing memoir is fraught with danger from the start – how reliable is the memory? And what does it reveal about the person in question?

James concentrates on his early childhood in Sydney, up to leaving for England in his early 20s. He plays with the idea of honesty throughout – one of the book’s much quoted lines is ‘Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.’ So you may ask, well what’s the point? If you don’t know what to believe in the book, is it all a waste of time? And the nagging point that lies underneath is whether you feel vaguely manipulated by it.  All worthy questions, and this formed the basis of the discussion during my latest visit to my sister’s book club in Germany. I didn’t feel as strongly about this as others, but I did think that the embellishment of some scenes did render the tone of the book as somewhat uneven. There was an awful lot of stuff about sex that proved a little grating (there are only so many masturbation stories you can hear before it gets wearing) but I can’t deny it didn’t make me laugh out loud on occasion, so if the impact is profound I can’t say it mattered to me too much whether the set-up was true, partly true or a figment of James’s imagination.

James became somewhat of a TV treasure in this country during the 80s and 90s, and I remember his droll sense of humour when discussing the weeks TV or in his travelogue programmes. So it was interesting to see where his love of literature came from (mostly self-read, he eschewed traditional education by never attending classes) and some of the university magazine stuff was great fun. I would have liked on his relationship with his mother, which lacked detail, (other than his attitude towards her was selfish and cavalier), but this stuff may be explored in further volumes, which I have yet to read. I may go ahead and do so, as I figure the later years will be of more interest.

So there was a bit more meat to dig our teeth into than I thought after reading the book. But despite the belly laughs,  I felt a bit exasperated by its slipperiness, and frustrated that I could never quite get a handle on the boy presented within its pages.