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!

Hubris

One of the joys of modern life is that someone somewhere has probably started a podcast on your favourite topic.  Literature is no exception, and I’ve found recently than one of my favourites is The Moment, hosted by Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the TV series Billions.

The reason I like it is because it endeavours to get under the skin of the guest and find out how and why they do what they do.  It’s not just committed to writers, there have been actors, even politicians, but I find the author based episodes the most revealing, and the latest, with Don Winslow, author of The Force and The Cartel (one of my books of 2016), to be one of the best so far.

Writers talking about their creative routines are an endless fascination for me, despite everyone doing it differently and there being no magic bullet. Winslow started on yellow manuscript paper with nothing more than a title for his first book, no outline, nothing. Now he writes for ten hours a day starting at 5.30am, which makes me feel positively lazy.  And a phrase he used really hit me between the eyes – write like you’re afraid of getting caught.  Exactly how it is.

What really interested me is when the discussion moved on to hubris.  Because wanting to be a writer is very much a tale of opposites.  You need the ego to say with confidence that your writing is worthy of the readers money, and more importantly, their time.  When you are struggling, as I am now with my latest novel, it’s difficult to approach your work with this confidence, almost arrogance that your work is worth it. Once you have success under your belt, which Winslow does (and well deserved it is too), it is easier to come to the page with less fear, and he talks really well about this.  The danger of course is when this slips into hubris. Hubris is interesting because it doesn’t necessarily stem from high self-esteem, it’s more an inflated sense of self-importance compared to a perhaps more modest reality.  The conflict between these two extreme states is a pitfall many writers experience and is one I can really relate to.

There are tons more titbits to chew over from this episode and all I want to do really is give the podcast my whole-hearted recommendation.  Two writers talking candidly about the craft is a joy to listen to. The back catalogue of episodes has some great archive material too – Salman Rushdie and Lawrence Block are two that stand out in my mind.  It’s a podcast that makes you think, and best of all for any budding writer, helps you realises that a) you aren’t alone and b) the bad times and the rejection letters are something every writer goes through. Which is nice to hear when you really need it.