2017: The Reading Year

After my attempt in 2016 to read a century of books, I decided this year to reduce the target to a more manageable 80. Still over a book a week, but with a little more breathing space to wade into some longer books. And I failed, coming in at 71 for the year.  Not sure how this happened really – I had a couple of unintentional breaks during the year when I got a bit burnt out, but I finished the year strongly and have regained that enthusiasm for reading again. Still, it’s a decent enough haul. So, without further ado, here’s the Top 10 books I read in 2017…

Norman Mailer – The Executioner’s Song.  An extraordinary, 1000 page ‘non-fiction’ novel (as Truman Capote put it) detailing the crimes and execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah in the 1970s. Mailer gets into the skin of Gilmore, and the detailing of the loneliness and desolation of small-town America surely makes this a Great American Novel.  He writes such compact, brutal, yet beautiful prose that takes your breath away.

William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury.  I’ve tried to read more classics this year and this is the best of those. The stream of consciousness prose will not be for same but I found this novel amazingly powerful and very brave in its subject matter for a book written in the 1930s. Worth persevering with.

Patrick Dewitt – Undermajordomo Minor. Sisters Brothers is one of my all-time favourite novels and this follow up is also exceptional. It has that strange, hypnotic fantastical element that marks a Dewitt novel, plus the brilliant, sometimes hilarious, other times poignant prose that is his trademark.  Just a superb writer who always does something unusual and captivating with every new work.

Herman Koch – Summer House with Swimming Pool.  I got into Herman Koch through his brilliant novel The Dinner. He has a great knack of making controversial, almost repulsive characters both believable and compelling. This book is perfectly paced and keeps the tension at fever pitch throughout. A sense of dread runs through his novels which is unsettling but brilliantly addictive and this novel is no exception.

Daphne Du Maurier – Rebecca. Another classic to tick off the list and one that lived up to all the positive reviews I’d seen and read beforehand. A masterpiece of Gothic literature with all elements expertly woven – mystery, drama, psychological suspense, and some knockout twists and turns.  A stunner.

John Williams – Stoner. This book’s pitch is that it is a novel about nothing at all, and that is it’s great strength, bizarrely. The Everyman quality of its hero draws you in and suddenly you are feeling every emotion of this simple man’s journey through life. A very clever piece of writing and one that deserves to be more widely read and acclaimed than it currently is.

Jane Harper – The Dry. I don’t read much contemporary crime fiction, but this one I did pick up on a whim, and it’s great. A proper page turner set in the Australian outback, which gathers pace from page one and never lets up. And for a debut novel, really a masterful achievement.

Graham Swift – Waterland.  I wouldn’t read this type of book ordinarily, but my sister raved about it and I thought I’d give it a go. Very glad I did. Part of history lesson, part family saga, Swift tells a tale of eels and incest (and a lot of other things too!) that is both enchanting and thrilling. A great book.

Ray Bradbury – Dandelion Wine.  Bradbury writes about childhood and the power of nostalgia in a magical, dreamlike way which no toher writer can match. This novel is almost a series of interlinked vignettes, which some readers may find lack a coherent plot, but the poetic prose sweeps you along and some of the sentences really do break your heart with their pure power.

Lawrence Block – A Long Line of Dead Men.  Read a lot of Block again this year, he’s my go-to when I’ve nothing else in the pipeline. Got through a number of the Matt Scudder series and this is one of the best. It’s theme of coming to terms with  mortality lingers in the memory long after completion. Add in all of Block’s usual compelling prose and pitch-perfect dialogue and you’re onto a winner.

Before writing my Top 10 I had the feeling that the books of 2017 hadn’t hit the heights of last year, but looking at this year’s list, I’ve read some exceptional books. For 2018 I’m looking to read more contemporary stuff, continue to fill in some more crime gaps (I read a number of 87th Precinct novels this year and I’m going to try and boost my McBain collection), and branch out into some neglected genres. I think my reading target will come down again, and I hope I can finally complete one! But as long as I’m reading, I’ll be happy.

 

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Dinner with Dorrigo

I approached this month’s Book Club with a slight feeling of trepidation as our first choice was one that I had put forward. I’d actually forgotten as it was over 6 months ago that I had done so, so it was quite a surprise when I heard that it was on the list. The reason I did so was due to a conversation I had with my sister many moons ago, who recommended it with the disclaimer that it would be ‘perfect for a book club’ because of the ambiguous ending. As a veteran of 2 book clubs I heeded her advice and so we sat down to The Dinner by Herman Koch. I have to admit I had never heard of the novel before, but having delved into its background it had something of a controversial reputation. And on reading I can see why. There is a sense of underlying dread throughout the novel that is quite unsettling, but the real storm comes from the sudden and explicable passages of violence that punctuate the story. I don’t have much of a problem with violence in any form of media but the supreme quality of Koch’s writing and his perfect judge of pace means that when the violence comes it is genuinely shocking. The conversation starter of the novel is the ending – it is very much a ‘What would you do in that situation?’ discussion that did get a lot of traction around of the table. A big part of the contrasting viewpoints is that the novel is a classic example of the unreliable narrator. Reading between the lines of Paul’s narrative was a great source of discussion and a couple of points put forward forced me to reconsider some of the conclusions I had drawn. So a highly recommended read, and proved to me that my dear sister was absolutely spot on in her judgement. Our second choice was something of an Australian heavyweight, Richard Flanagan’s recent Booker winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This is primarily a novel about the building of the Burma Railway in WW2, but it is also a poignant love story and a discourse on the power of memory. I read the novel whilst on holiday, where I spent a couple of days in bed with a sickness bug. This was unfortunate as the long section of the book describing the fate of the Diggers in Burma is one of the most graphic and visceral I’ve read, which didn’t help in my recovery. This is not to say that the writing is gratuitous. The descriptions of the injuries the men suffered and the constant rain are superbly drawn and harrowing to read. The horror of life for the soldiers comes across page by page in a relentless manner that is close to overwhelming. These scenes are juxtaposed by a haunting affair that takes place between the main character Dorrigo Evans and his uncle’s wife. There is a sadness in their coupling and in some way their frenzied desire is illuminated by the war. Dorrigo is forever trying to remember and re-discover the moments of eternity that he felt in that relationship and the inevitable knowledge that this is a failed dream envelopes the novel. It’s a beautiful sadness and leads to a heartbreaking decision at the novel’s conclusion. But somehow, it feels like an affirmation of life, how beauty survives in the most extraordinary of circumstances.