2018: The Reading Year

Another year, another failed reading challenge. After missing last year’s target I took 2018’s challenge down to 70 books, one I was sure I would make. Not a bit of it, only coming in at 63. Barely a book a week. Why? I have read a few doorsteps this year, but I’ve found my pace has slowed dramatically.  One book took me a fortnight to finish, which is unheard of. I know it’s only a yardstick and I shouldn’t let it get to me, but yeah, I’m disappointed to fail two years in succession. Sitting down to do this, I thought I might struggle to find 10 books to choose for this year. I haven’t felt that magic too much in 2018. However looking back there have been a few pearls among the oysters so let’s go, my top 10 books read in 2018.

Don Carpenter – Hard Rain Falling. I’ve had this book on my TBR for ages, and by chance, a friend lent it to me. It’s a stark and uncompromising novel of a down and out pool hustler on the streets of Portland, Oregon, and his friendship with a black runaway through a life of prison, hardship and bitterness. For a first novel it’s extraordinary, and along with the bleakness there are moments of quiet beauty that take the breath away.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Heavenly Table. If you like Southern Gothic grit, Pollock is your man. This tale of the three Jewett brother, cowboys cutting a swathe across the frontier, is lewd, crude, funny and jet-black dark. What’s not to love?

James Lee Burke – The Lost Get-Back Boogie. For some reason I’ve never read a Burke novel until this year, which was a terrible oversight considering I’m a crime fiend and Burke is one of the most popular out there. I was glad to rectify this in 2018, and this novel set in Montana was the best of them, a stunning tale of a man trying to fly right with beautiful descriptive passages and real heart.

Willy Vlautin – Don’t Skip Out On Me. A running theme on this blog is my love for Vlautin’s books. The greatest living writer in America, for me. If anything this book is his most heartbreaking (quite a feat if you’ve read any of his others!), just so painful and beautiful. Another masterpiece.

Michelle McNamara – I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. This book on the Golden State killer caused a sensation on its release, particularly as the suspect has now been arrested. It’s very sad that the author died before this moment, as her painstaking research and quiet desperation to find the killer did so much to keep the crimes in the spotlight, and she passed away before the arrest was made. This book is her legacy, and it’s a must for any true crime fan.

Christopher Hitchins – Hitch 22: A Memoir. Come on, it’s Hitch, all right? As ferocious and funny as you would expect from the great man.

Stephen King – IT. Unbelievably, I’d never read this or seen the films until this year. Obviously the clown stuff is iconic, but the novel takes you to deeper and darker places. I actually found a couple of plot strands very problematic, but the sheer invention and quality of the prose means I had to include it. Bloke’s a genius, let’s be honest.

Donald E. Westlake – Dancing Aztecs. No-one does screwball comedy better than Westlake, and this crime caper about a South American statue is brilliantly written and flat-out hilarious.

Kenneth Cook – Wake In Fright. I’m a huge fan of the film (as is Scorsese, if you need a better recommendation than me) and the book it is based on is equally as good. As disturbing, surreal, horrifying and hypnotic on the page as it is on screen.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Remains of the Day. Saving the best for last. My book of the year by a country mile. So haunting and beautiful. Ishiguro’s writing is perfection, as Stevens’s tale of life as a country butler unfolds in bittersweet tragedy. A worthy Booker winner and a reminder of how brilliant fiction can be. So glad to have read it.

So, a nice way to cap off 2018, with my best book of the year coming in its final stages. Hopes for 2019? To complete a reading challenge would be nice. I want to try to read some more voices from outside the Western world, too. My radar feels like it’s been a bit off this year, so hopefully I can sniff out the good stuff better as well. I turn 40 in 2019 so I’m about halfway through my reading life. So much read, but so much still out there. It’s that thought that drives me on.

 

 

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2016: The Reading Year

When I joined Goodreads earlier on this year, I decided to set myself a reading challenge.   For no reason other than it’s a nice round number I went for 100 books for the year.  And though I didn’t quite get there, I’m still pretty pleased with 94.  I did it more to gain a yardstick for how much I do actually read, but undertaking the challenge did have an effect on my reading habits.  100 books equates to nearly two a week, so unless you’re both voracious and very quick, anything of length is out of the equation.  So I found it a bit limiting, and the reason I probably did fail is because I got caught up in a couple of 700+ page books which slowed me down considerably.

I did enjoy doing it, as it is nice to have something to focus on, it sharpens the mind.  But I don’t think I will be attempting to read as many books in 2017.  I already have a couple of hefty tomes in the queue for January and it will be pleasant to be able to immerse myself in them without worrying about falling behind.

So, of those 94 read, here are my ten favourites of the year, in no particular order:

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings.  A bit of a cheat this one as I started it in December 2015, but what a book for my first completed novel of 2016.  A sprawling epic of Jamaican society set against the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   Multiple characters drawn expertly by James, stunning dialogue and patois, and some intense scenes of violence that take your breath away. A masterpiece.

Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses.  I had the pleasure of reading the entire Border Trilogy this year and for me the opening novel of the three is the best.  McCarthy’s descriptions of landscape in the American West are breathtaking and break your heart at the same time.  The love story at this book’s core is beautifully written and tinged with a sadness that left a lump in my throat.  Take a couple of weeks and read all three, you won’t regret it.

Willy Vlautin – The Free.  I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about this bloke since I read his first novel The Motel Life many moons ago.  Why? His books talk of the American underclass with a kindness and compassion that is incredibly uplifting.  Which is something we can all use at the best of times.  His band Richmond Fontaine are great, too.

Michel Houllebecq – Submission.  This novel about an Islamic takeover of the French political system is everything you want this type of fiction to be – controversial, amazingly prescient, thought-provoking and angry.  Best of all for me is amongst all this is some of the darkest, funniest prose I’ve read in many a year.  A stunner.

Raymond Carver – Elephant and other stories.  He’s not the best short story writer there’s ever been for a laugh, you know.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Devil All The Time.  Discovering a new writer when they are as good as this is always a joy.  This dark, ultra-violent slice of American Gothic hit me like a sledgehammer when I read it, such is it’s visceral force.  Pollock worked in a paper mill for over 30 years before being published which gives me hope, too!

James Crumley – The Last Good Kiss.  Resdiscovering Crumley has been a highlight of the year. I read some of his books years ago and filled in a couple of gaps in 2016.  This, the first of the C.W Sughrue novels, is a bona-fide classic which contains possibly the finest opening paragraph in crime fiction history.  Read it with alcohol.

Ross Macdonald – The Galton Case.  I thought long and hard before including this but it deserves a spot.  Macdonald’s books are briliantly plotted and run so perfectly you can’t see the joins.  Couple this with stark, lovely description and brilliant dialogue and you have some of the finest detective fiction ever written.

Ryan Gattis – All Involved.  The Los Angeles riots of 1992 provide the backdrop for this multi-dimensional novel.  The narrative voice is exceptional, and the sixteen characters never become repetitive or blur into each other.  A great, great book.

William Boyd – Any Human Heart.  The novel as journal can provide an intimacy that can hook the reader immediately.  This does that and more, and the life of Logan Mountstuart draws you in and chops away at your heart bit by bit.  I think about this book a lot –  a really tremendous read which I would recommend to anybody.

It was also good to tick off a couple of classics in Anna Karenina and The Three Musketeers, and I also delved into Lawrence Block’s back catalogue and had an enjoyable few weeks with his unique style of noir.  Hhhh by Laurent Binet was a highlight that just missed out, and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was also close.  All in all reading has been the same comfort this year as it always has, and I continue to be very grateful for the unadulterated joy it gives me.