Thursday, 31 December 2009

My best reads of 2009

The following, in no particular order, are the books that I most enjoyed reading during the course of the year. Some were recommendations, gratefully acknowledged, from other book blogs most notably Stuck in a Book and Random Jottings.

Paris in the Fifties by Stanley Karnow was one of those books that just gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling while reading it, so much so that, having borrowed it originally from the library, I went out and bought my own copy so I could keep it. Part biography, part travel book, part period piece, it is a loving and perceptive portrait of French life, culture and attitudes. A strongly nostalgic account of a bohemian, artistic, intellectual and above all affordable Paris which has, alas, long since vanished.

Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome, but I could just as well nominate any of his books, since I have embarked upon reading the whole series, only a few of which I read as a child. Magical stories told from a child's point of view but with adults participating willingly in the whole make-believe process where necessary. Sadly, modern standards make such childhood freedom of action seem even more of a fantasy than ever. Well-deserved classic status.

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler. The first of the Bryant and May mysteries. Impossible to describe, impossible to put down. Fowler is a wonderful writer, with evocative descriptions of a darkly tantalising London through the ages, woven into the story of a long and touching friendship. Start with this one, but read them all.

Richard Aldington and H.D. ed Caroline Zilboorg. Letters chronicling this brilliant but doomed relationship. I have written at length about Aldington already on this blog. Novelist, poet and biographer, he is shamefully neglected. He and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) were widely credited as the creators of Imagist poetry, and much admired by Ezra Pound and Ford Maddox Ford. Excellent commentary and introduction by Zilboorg.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, yes and the second one too. So much has been written about this great trilogy by Stieg Larsson that I have little to add. So rare to find such wonderful writing coupled with such gripping story-telling. I enjoy and admire Mankell, but this is even better. Looking forward to the third one.

Bad Penny Blues by Cathy Unsworth. See my recent post on this. I genuinely believe Unsworth is a major new talent.

Final Edition, by E.F. Benson. The very last thing Benson wrote, delivered personally to his publishers though he was mortally ill with cancer and knew he only had a few weeks left. The last volume of his auto-biography, surprisngly frank about relationships within his family, and written with a jaunty light-heartedness in the face of death.

It's Too Late Now by A.A. Milne. I have always disapproved of Milne's attacks on Wodehouse, which I thought were priggish and narrow-minded. This is a wonderful book, though, a charming auto-biography up to WWII.

Frost at Morning by Richmal Crompton. Justly famous for her William books, Crompton was an amazingly prolific writer and her novels deserve to be (much) better known.

Randall and the River of Time by C.S. Forester. See my separate post in the blog archive. Read this (and others) to show what a great writer he was above and beyond the Hornblower books.

The Last Great Frenchman by Charles Williams. An enthralling biography of de Gaulle.

Man and his Symbols by Carl Jung. Written by Jung himself and various collaborators. A new (i.e. non-Freudian) view of the part symbols play in dreams, and what insights these may offer.

The Egoist by George Meredith. There is a separate post on Meredith in the blog archive.

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, a lady despite the nom de plume, and an architect. Vintage and Harvill Secker have a lot of explaining to do for having translated and issued these wonderful books in totally the wrong order. Be warned: this is actually the first, despite having been published last (so far).

Stranger Than Fiction, by Jim Murdoch. See separate post. Dazzling follow-up to Living With The Truth.

The Leaf by Frank McGillion. See separate post. This Booker-nominated novelist deserves to be much, much better known. I recommend starting with On The Edge Of A Lifetime.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I think this one just sneaked into 2009 and, yes, it really is as good as everyone says it is.

"Death Takes a Wife" by Anthony Gilbert and "The Rasp" by Philip MacDonald

As an exercise, I recently jotted down a list of 28 Golden Age detective writers and ran a search of them on the Camden Libraries database. Of the 28, only 7 featured, and even then in some cases with a solitary book lodged in the basement of a reserve collection. No criticism intended of Camden, who operate a great service, and Swiss Cottage library is surely one of the best in the country, but it seems a little sad that books that have given so much pleasure over the years should be so easily consigned to oblivion. I have taken it upon myself to track down as many books by these authors as I can, by various means, and will report as and when I am successful.

One which Swiss Cottage did kindly retrieve from the basement for me was Death Takes a Wife by Anthony Gilbert. One which they were able to extract from the bowels of another libray was The Rasp by Philip MacDonald. They turned out to be very different books, one of which had stood the test of time much more successfully than the other.

Anthony Gilbert was the nom de plume of the lady writer Lucy Malleson (1899 - 1973), who also wrote fiction as Anne Meredith, and some works for children under her own name. What on earth has happened to all these wonderfully prolific writers who wrote under several different names?

Her style is reminiscent of Ngaio Marsh and I was very impressed by this book. The premise is an interesting one. A young woman marries a man whose first wife she knows (because she nursed her) to have died in mysterious circumstances. Soon we become embroiled in a round of blackmail and murder all revolving around one central question: did he or did he not murder his first wife? A rough diamond is retained to clear both husband and second wife (who comes under suspicion for a later killing).

I have to say that the mystery is not a particularly baffling one. Enough clues are scattered around to enable the reader to guess the truth well before the end. However the book is very well written indeed, especially in so far as it gets inside the head of the young woman, who is most sympathetically portrayed. To me, this did not feel a dated book, any more than, say, Marsh feels dated and I would recommend it to any devotee of murder mysteries. My only surprise is that more "Anthony Gilbert" books are not around - Camden have only one in the whole borough.

The Rasp by Philip McDonald (1899-1980), on the other hand, is dated. It reads like a cross between Buchan and Sapper. If you enjoy these two (and I do) then you will find it a good read, but if you don't then be warned. The story itself is well done, a sort of locked room mystery with an ingenious solution. It is also sweetly romantic; no fewer then three couples get hitched in the course of the closing chapters. Interestingly, MacDonald later moved to California where he became a successful screenwriter, but was during the 1930's one of the best-selling English thriller writers.

More updates on these lesser-known Golden Age writers as and when books become available. In the meantime, readers might like to investigate the post on Edmind Crispin in the blog archive.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Christmas and New Year Quiz

In each case the name of the book and author are required, but in some cases there are bonus marks available too. Answers by midnight London time on 3 January, please.

The first section covers books which have some connection with ships or boats:

1. The 1951 film Captain Horatio Hornblower was an adaptation of not one but three books. Can you name them, the author, and the actor who played Hornblower?
2. An unpopular officer is persuaded by another to fake a duodenal ulcer in order to escape from sea-going duty. Bonus marks for the names of the two characters involved.
3. Edmund Talbot lays a cunning plan to be alone with the woman of his desires, a plan involving an old naval tradition. For a bonus mark, what is it?
4. One of the central characters is put in the pillory in the City of London after innocently but unwisely getting involved in a stock market scam, and then goes to sea in a privateer. For a bonus mark, who is the owner of the privateer?
5. Billy lives in dread of a visit from a one-legged man. When he dies in mysterious circumstances following a visit from a former shipmate, what the young hero finds in Billy's sea chest sparks a rollicking yarn.

Now how about some opening lines?

6. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord - the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.
7. There was absolutely no possibility of taking a walk that day.
8. "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled X, lying on the rug.
9. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...
10. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs ...

Test your knowledge of author's lives. Only the name required here.

11. This writer lived in India but later in Rye, and was the subject of a poisoning attempt. Various books were made into films, including a very famous one starring Deborah Kerr.
12. This writer won the Booker Prize and later ran BBC Radio. Most of his books are currently out of print!
13. Born in America, this writer came to live in England at the age of 2, subsequently returning to America. Originally a poet, he was to gain fame with a number of hard-boiled detective novels. His style is highly individual and has been much admired, copied and parodied.
14. This writer's early experiences as a rent collector and solicitor's clerk would prove hugely influential in the novels he wrote depicting a particular part of England. He lived for some years in Paris, where he was friendly with a young Somerset Maugham.
15. Having attended Eton, which he described as "excellent preparation for vice of any kind", he had a bewildering array of casual jobs, including a lingerie salesman, international art smuggler, and vineyard labourer. In later life he would write a series of hugely under-rated crime novels, all of them very bleak, sometime known collectively as the Factory series. He has been described as the creator of English noir. He wrote under at least two different names, either of which will be accepted.

Finally, a few generalist questions. Again, the name of the book and the author are required.

16. Subtitled An Island Tale, this book tells the story of a man who falls in love with a traveling lady musician. Remarkable for having been written by someone who became a major novelist in their third language.
17. A Booker prize-winner, this rambling but magnificent novel tells the story of an admitted fantasist, and is said to tell the history of the country in question in parallel with that of the central character. The writer would later win the Booker again.
18. The words "you have been in Afghanistan, I perceive" launch a famous partnership on the reading public.
19. This prize-winning novel describes the sad marriage of a police office in Africa. Written by an author who spent a lot of time in Capri.
20. The central character, who is described but not named in the title, achieves success in life, but is hiding a dark secret concerning a drunken episode at a country fair many years previously. When he later dies, disgraced and impoverished, his secret having been revealed, he asks that no sexton toll the bell for his passing.

Results and answers will be announced as soon as possible after 3 January.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

"Major Benjy" is big in Henley

A Google alert tells me that Major Benjy has been elected one of five Books of The Year 2009 in Henley on Thames. Other book shops and book clubs please note ...

Monday, 14 December 2009

"Bad Penny Blues" by Cathi Unsworth

Having spent many years scouring second hand books shops for the works of Derek Raymond, I owe a debt of gratitude and a nod of respect to Serpent's Tail, a fine imprint for noirish crime fiction, for having recently brought him back into print.

I was interested to read one of their latest offerings, Bad Penny Blues, since I have heard its author, Cathi Unsworth, hailed as a new Derek Raymond. Having read the book I can tell you that the comparison is not appropriate. This is not intended in any way as an insult to Unsworth - as you will see I enjoyed her book immensely - but simply a statement that her style is nothing like Raymond's. His is lean and spare, with background colour pared to the bone, and stories of almost desolate bleakness. Unsworth's book, on the other hand, teems with life and vitality.

It deals with what gradually emerges as a series of murders, and is set against a sordid background of Soho clubs, crooked detectives, vicious pimps, and pathetic tarts, some of whom have sunk steadily to the dregs of their trade. Some characters are clearly based on real life people (Freddy Mills the boxer, for example, who was a friend of the Krays, died in mysterious circumstances, and has been linked by some with the murder of a number of prostitutes between 1959 and 1965 ... hmm.)

In fact, all the historical detail (late 50s to early 60s) is quite superb, the separate but converging strands of the story are told convincingly by two main characters (one male and one female), and there is a wide supporting cast of well-crafted individuals, all of whom make you believe not just in them but in what they contribute to the plot.

I have to confess that the identity of the killer does not come as a surprise, though Unsworth very cleverly creates a denouement which makes it clear that, though there may have been one major villain, there have been a whole host of minor ones, and that the apportionment of responsibility for various things is by no means clear (just as in real life). Much has been cleverly fore-shadowed by clairvoyant experiences, and I felt an echo here not of Derek Raymond but of Christopher Fowler.

I felt that the flashback / premonition passages worked well, though they might well have faltered in the hands of a clumsier author. My one minor quibble was with the resolution of the heroine's personal situation, which I thought smacked a little of a Jilly Cooper romance and belonged more in the realm of chick-lit than in a dark and brooding thriller. Again, I'm afraid the identity of the person concerned is heavily signposted long before they eventually get together.

This is a minor quibble indeed, though. I loved this book and could not put it down. Cathi Unsworth is a genuinely unique and talented writer who creates great characters and pens a cracking story. I recommend it unreservedly and look forward to her next offering.

"Bad Penny Blues" is published by Serpent's Tail under ISBN 978-1846686788

"The Invisible City"

There is a fuller (and more sympathetic) review on Jim Murdoch's blog. Click here to go there.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

"Imperial", "The Invisble City", "Something's Wrong" and "The Night Following"

In an effort to cut down my TBR pile, I am going to mention briefly some of the books I have read recently but am not for whatever reason intending fully to review.

Imperial by Willim T. Vollmann is a towering piece of non-fiction from an award-winning writer. Dealing with the largely arid area of South-East California it encompasses migrant labour exploitation and the crucial importance of water, among other things. At well over a thousand pages it is of a length that I normally love in a book, but I must confess that I stalled around page 600 and skimmed the rest. It deals with some important issues but, surprisingly for a writer who has won prizes, it reads in a very disjointed style, almost as though he has simply transcribed his notes each day. I am not normally a fan of re-writing, and do as little of it as possible myself, but I think this book could have benefited from a really determined editor.

The Invisible City by Emili Rosales arrived heralded as the next Shadow of the Wind. It isn't. I have to be careful here, because I have not read any of Rosales's previous novels, but this one just did not work for me. He works in publishing (indeed, I think he may have published Zafon - certainly there is a glowing endorsement from him on the cover of this book) and it as though he has decided to write a certain type of novel and evoke a certain type of atmosphere but does not quite know how to pull it off.

The Invisible City ranges across the centuries and there is a denouement of sorts, as far as at least one love story is concerned, but all in a very predictable way. Perhaps unkindly, I thought this book contained a mish-mash of writing styles from the Eco of Foucault's Pendulum, through the Peres-Reverte of The Dumas Club to, of course, Zafon himself, rather than revealing an individual novelist's voice. Maybe I am just being overly subjective and demanding on this one; I would be interested to hear what other readers thought.

Lack of originality is certainly not a criticism one could level at Something's Wrong by Sam Smith. This is one of the most innovative novels I have read for some time. The form is that of a series of transcripts of tape recordings of someone who, as it becomes rapidly clear, has some serious mental health problems. This is a harrowing work, which raises some disturbing issues about mental health care generally, and care homes in particular. You feel yourself literally getting into the mind of the character, and caring about what happens to him - both rare attributes in novels these days. I am sorry that lack of time prevents me from writing a fuller review.

Similarly with The Night Following by Morag Joss, which I also greatly enjoyed. Without giving away too much of the plot, this is a story of sudden death, infidelity, guilt and attempts at increasingly bizarre redemption. I really enjoyed it.

Joss is a fine writer, though her style is taut rather than flowery. Her characters are credible, finely drawn, and elicit our sympathy. More basic requirements that many modern novelists seem to think they can safely ignore as out-moded and therefore end up writing things which it difficult to classify as "novels" at all, at least if you read Forster. Not Joss, however; this is very good stuff. I was reminded while reading it of P.D. James and Donna Tartt, and was therefore interested to read afterwards in the publisher's blurb that the former is an acquaintance, and encouraged Joss to write.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

"A Yank Back To England" by Denis Lipman

Denis Lipman grew up in Dagenham and this is a sort of reverse travel book, telling the story of him introducing his American family to his English parents and relatives.

Lipman is a professional writer (plays and advertising) and it shows. The chapters read like short stories, each one detailing a different part of the country as he and his wife pass through, often with other family members in tow. Incidentally, the family theme is a fascinating sub-plot to the passing scenery, as various stresses and strains start to emerge.

Lipman is a also a fully paid-up member of the Mapp and Lucia appreciation network, which is how I came across him and this book in the first place. There is a particularly interesting passage on Rye as he, like so many before him, looks for the Benson window in the church and imagines his creations shopping and gossipping their way around the cobbled streets.

I would particularly recommend this book to an American audience, many of whom come to the Benson gathering in Rye every September. Many of the experiences described will be familiar, I am sure, not least the vagaries of English catering ...

"A Yank Back To England" is published by Gemma Media under ISBN 978-1-934848-24-1