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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Sisters Brothers in Arms

So, following on from having a book accepted last time out, one of this month’s choices was a book I had been bugging the organiser to pick for months. Thinking about it now I didn’t have the best of reasons for it other than my profound love for the novel – good enough reason you might think, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a decent discussion. Particularly in this case as my choice is almost a series of set-pieces that make up a picaresque tale.

Anyhow, the book was Patrick Dewitt’s The Sisters Brothers. It is one of the few books I’ve read in the last years that I picked up purely on a whim. I loved it on first read and I love it even more now. I was invited to open the discussion on it and fell into vacuous platitudes of greatness about its brilliance but I can’t help it. Its just an utter joy from start to finish. Dewitt’s writing is pared to the bone and almost reads like a film script – every word is punchy, alive, exciting. There are moments of flat-out hilarity that break up the tension as our anti-heroes travel the American West in search of their target, the elusive Kermit Warm. A scene where the brothers rob a dentist of his numbing injection is laugh out loud funny and the book is full of these sharp, hilarious passages.

Coupled with this is a genuine poignancy as the brothers run into troubles. There is a nihilistic thread that runs through both the brothers, particularly Charlie, who is the more violent and comfortable expressing that violence. As the book progresses our narrator Eli tries to come to terms with the constant struggle of being a bounty hunter and wants out; This contrast is expertly drawn by Dewitt, and events conspire to leave Charlie with one arm and spiritually broken – the cockiness all but extinguished, and Eli becoming the leader of the two. This change is woven into their meeting with Warm and the events that follow, which end up with a moving deathbed scene that can’t fail to bring a lump to your throat.

I have to admit that I thought some of the novel’s rather graphic passages of violence would be too much for some, but only one group member commented on it. Most gave it the thumbs up and were pleased with my choice, which was good to hear. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, its a beauty.

Violence was also an integral part of our second choice, and in some ways was all the more gruesome as it is based on historical fact. The story of William Buckley, an early convict who was transported to Australia as a young boy, is one I hadn’t heard of before. But it is utterly fascinating; The book, ‘The Life And Adventures of Wiliam Buckley’, edited by Tim Flannery, tells the story of Buckley, who escaped into the bush shortly after arriving in Sydney, and living with the indigenous population for the next 32 years.

His account is utterly extraordinary, detailing life with various Aboriginal tribes. As I said, the main thread that runs through the narrative is that of killing. There are constant battles between the various tribes, mostly disputes over women who had been promised to a certain man. These battles are horrifically bloody and its a wonder how Buckley survived them. His height (he was 6 foot 8) probably helped, but his white skin was his saviour, as the tribes believed he was a reincarnation of a dead comrade. This belief was also the reason behind some ghastly acts of cannibalism that Buckley witnessed; the tribes believed eating the flesh of a fallen man would absorb his soul into their bodies.

There is more to the book than just blood and guts mind – the descriptions of Aboriginal culture, dancing, weaponry and customs is fascinating. I found the nomadic nature of the tribes amazing too, they were quite happy to move from areas of plentiful food and water for little reason than restlessness. The descriptions of local flora and fauna also must have been of great interest to the botanists among the early settlers.

There is some dispute over how much of Buckley’s story is apocryphal – after he regained touch with the outside world he spoke only in monosyllabic tones and told his tale to only two men. The original manuscript was taken down by a Hobart journalist, so there must be some acceptance that changes and embellishments would have been made to the narrative. That said, I believe the book’s words are in the main authentic, and scholars of Aboriginal culture have found the book highly informative. A tale I’m very glad to have read, which captures a part of Australian history very few will have read about.