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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The Mysterious

 

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Even the sign looks cool…

As everyone knows, there are few greater things in life than spending time in a good bookshop. And whilst I’m a huge fan of Waterstones, and very happy that they are showing a profit, for me there is no greater pleasure than spending time and some hard-earned than in an independent bookshop.  Readers of this blog will know that I am something of a crime fiction fiend.  I try to pick up crime novels whenever I can (especially older, rare tomes) and have spent many an hour rummaging through bookshelves looking for yellowed copies of the books of my pulp heroes. I’m on the constant lookout for independent bookshops to go to, and thanks to following a number of American crime writers on Twitter, my attention was drawn to The Mysterious Bookshop, a crime hangout in New York and the oldest crime and mystery-specific bookstore on the planet.  Luckily I recently had a family occasion in that very city, so what better way to wile away an afternoon than with a visit…

A fantasy of mine, whenever I get my own house, is to indulge in some decent bookshelves.  Something like the ones in the Mysterious, if dreams could come true. Floor-to-ceiling shelves covering three walls of the shop. Man oh man.  And to navigate them, those ladders that run on wheels that scooted across the carpet as I spotted a high-up section of Jim Thompson paperbacks.  I think I probably died and went to heaven within seconds of stepping through the door. The breadth of their inventory was better than anything I’ve ever seen. The complete Travis McGee novels of John D. Macdonald.  Extensive copies of his namesake Ross’s Lew Archer novels.  The aforementioned Thompson.   A massive section devoted to Sherlock Holmes. Reams of used and vintage titles, too.  Plus plenty of rare editions and signed copies, including a signed copy of Elmore Leonard’s Freaky Deaky (probably my favourite of the great man’s works) for $35. I debated buying it for ages, picking the book off the shelf and putting it back again more than once.  In the end I decided not to. It’s a decision I’m still not sure was the right one.

So what did I purchase in the end? Even after turning down the Leonard, I’m still really happy with my choices. I’m on a mission to purchase all the Matt Scudder novels of Lawrence Block, and I picked up a signed copy of A Long Line Of Dead Men for the scarcely believable price of $5. I didn’t actually know it was signed until I left the shop either so that was a nice surprise! I also filled a gap in my James Crumley collection with Bordersnakes, which brings his two protagonists Sughrue and Milodragovitch together for one wild ride. Lastly I bought a biography of Raymond Chandler which I am halfway through and very much enjoying.

Now I could probably have bought all these books on Amazon or eBay.  But the experience of spending time in a great bookshop, with knowledgeable staff and no pressure to leave, is one of the great joys in life.  Its these important touches that make the Mysterious so good.  You feel amongst like-minded friends as soon as you walk in the door.  And they are a big player in the scene, too. Tons of authors do readings and book launches there (including Block, the day after I flew home…sob!) and some writers produce exclusive material directly for the store.  Indeed, they give a free short story away to customers every Christmas, with the store having to feature in the story somehow.  A bit of extra publicity, and a unique tale to read on the subway home. This years story was by Laura Lippman and it’s great. Seriously, what more could you want?

I know this sounds like I’ve been paid by them to say all this, so I’ll just say that if you’re a book lover and find yourself in Manhattan, go there and experience it for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

A Homage to Libraries

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At the rear of this buiding, Fitzroy Library – a gem

I never feel that I have truly settled in a new place until I’ve found myself a library that I can call home. A local pub and a good library are the two most important things to sort out when you move, for stimulation of mind and body!

The library where I grew up in the UK is nothing special to look at – a nondescript shell wedged beside a busy doctors surgery and overlooking Sainsbury’s car park. But I probably spent more of my formative years in there than I did at school.

This undoubtedly sounds sad but every time I walk into a library I have a little flutter of excitement in my stomach. For me its anticipation that I could stumble across a book that changes my life. OK, maybe that’s a bit strong, but in the past I’ve walked out of a library with a book that, once read, I don’t know how I ever survived without.

My strongest feeling of this was when I was first getting into reading crime in my late teens. I had grown tired of horror novels and wanted a change of scenery. I was browsing one of the paperback carousels (you know, the ones that have that annoying but strangely comforting squeak when you turn them) and for no apparent reason I was drawn to a book called Sins of the Fathers. I had a look at the blurb, thought the book sounded reasonable and got it out. By chance, it happened to be the first in a series.

Within 24 hours I had devoured the book and a whole new world had opened up in front of me. If you don’t know, the author of the book is Lawrence Block, and Sins of the Fathers was the first in the Matt Scudder series of private detective novels. So there was the rest of the series to get through, which I did in about a year (15 books in total then, with 3 more published since). And it was an absolute joy from start to finish. I lived and breathed Matt Scudder for that whole time, walking the New York streets, hitting the bars, confronting the bad guys, all that. I realise now that the underlying sadness and pathos is what gives the series such strength and such a powerful narrative voice. Pure beauty.

Anyway, that pleasure all came from that random moment in the library all those years ago. And I liked the fact that sometimes the next book in the series was out on loan or had to be ordered from another library – it wasn’t frustrating, it was fun being on tenterhooks for a few days, wondering where Scudder was going to go next. Now you could just buy the book cheaply on Amazon but there was something about having to wait, like it was worth something extra by being patient.

So, once I moved here I hunted down the local library straightaway. And Fitzroy Library is a joy, housed at the rear of the beautiful Town Hall building. When I first joined up (always free of course, all that knowledge and excitement and it costs nothing) I struck up a conversation with the library assistant, who asked me about the state of libraries in the UK.
‘Good,’ I said,’but unfortunately whenever councils want to cut services to save money they always go after libraries.’
She nodded. ‘Yes, it’s similar here. But the local people won’t stand for it, so whenever we’re threatened with cutbacks, in the end nothing happens.’

Quite right too. Libraries are one of the great gifts of life and should be treasured. And I’m proud that I live somewhere that respects that. So hopefully others can experience those joyful moments that helped to shape my life.