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!

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.