Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Books of 2018

As people agonise over what gifts to buy for family and friends at Christmas, the opportunity arises to suggest some tips.  And what better topic is there to discuss than the wonderful world of books.

The national broadsheets whet their readers’ appetites beginning in the final weekend of November as writers and other luminaries recommend their selections.  I admit to being open to suggestion, depending on the topic, author and with repeated citing by respected reviewers.

The end of November also coincides with Book Week at least in the UK where the Reading Agency has published a report by the think tank Demos extolling the benefits of reading.  It argues that “reading can transform British society[i]” and that it combats loneliness.
To celebrate this year's Book Week, BBC Northern Ireland produced a live Sunday afternoon concert featuring books read by two well known broadcasters - everything from Roald Dahl to Miss Marple - and music themes played by the Ulster Orchestra.

So, by your leave, let me pick the best of this year’s personal reading endeavours. 

·        The first books I read in 2018 followed pre-Christmas recommendations of expert contributors to The Times and Observer newspapers.   For example, having read Robert Harris’s novel “Conclave” last year, I was intrigued by the prospect of his latest “Munich.” This novel is set in the German city and recounts the events of four seminal days in September 1938.  The story centres on the key roles of two former best friends, one on Chamberlain’s side the other on Hitler’s.  This is a proper thriller which casts a spotlight on a critical episode in twentieth century history.

·         My next book is a total contrast both in content and in presentation.  It arose from an end of year review[ii] which listed it with loving praise (literally) as graphic novel of the year.  Driving short distances” by Joff Winterhart is an everyday story about a failed university student being given a begrudging start in his work-life by a somewhat surly more senior man.  The tale of mundane ordinariness includes much seemingly aimless driving about in his car and meeting his friends.

·         The first book I read that was published in 2018 was “Anatomy of a Scandal written by Sarah Vaughan.  Courtroom dramas well-depicted as is this one grab my attention – possibly the result of years spent as an advocate-cum witness in tribunals and Public Inquiries.  This impact applies especially when, as is this book’s theme, the story addresses a topical theme, in this case it being about rape.  The issue has been newsworthy in both parts of Ireland recently with courtroom rules and procedures being scrutinised for fairness. 

·         Books can also be topical because their subject resonates with current events, sometimes in more ways than one.  When the world has been marking the centenary of the armistice at the end of World War I, a pair on novels relating to the 1939-45 conflict impressed me enormously.  One was The German Girl written by Armando Lucas Correa.  Set both in Europe and in the Americas, this superb book tells a poignant story based on fact about the flight of German Jews who eventually find some kind of sanctuary in Cuba after being refused entry elsewhere.  What gives it added relevance is its parallels with the trials of migrants in today’s world.

·         So in a month when people repeat mantras like “we will always remember them,” this second and more recent book about World War II is also a timely read.  It is one means of giving effect to the mantra.  Like The German Girl, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is based on a true story.  In spite of what people might presume as difficult subject matter that they have heard about before, Morris recounts a life-affirming love story set against a pernicious backdrop of bellicose race hatred.  It’s no wonder that the fine novel remains at or near the top of the best sellers lists. 

·         Next is a very different novel written by an Irish author and set in New York City.  Published about eight years ago, Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann is an intricate story with a cast of complex characters from different backgrounds getting on with complicated lives in the melting pot of America.  Even the metropolitan location is a central character.  The author’s scarily realistic description of a car accident and a clever courtroom drama stood out in their descriptive power.  In 2009 this well-crafted story won the US National Book Award (established in 1936).  The prize has an impressive roll-call of previous winners.  I would describe McCann’s book as a paean to NYC.

·         Another novel set in America and which grabbed my attention is History of Wolves written by Emily Fridlund.  Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year, this book has some of the atmosphere of Scandinavian noir.  That may be due to the apparent isolation of its setting in a beautiful landscape of lakes and woods of northern Minnesota. The central character is a 14 year old girl whose carefree parents let her fend for herself as she befriends a new family of seemingly perfect neighbours.

·         As a pleasant contrast to stories which break hearts with sadness or injustice, the most amusing book I read this year was The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.  Although it was published over twenty years ago, here is an entertaining tale about an American travel writer who also happens to be a wordsmith and who is experiencing his own marital difficulties.

·         A novel which contains elements of humour as well as some heartbreak and which resonated with my youth growing up over a shop that sold items including records, televisions, and bikes was the endearingly eccentric “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce.  Set in the early to mid 1980’s when compact discs appeared, this is a story about a record seller who is wedded to vinyl and refuses to stock the new technology.  A man ahead of his time, given today’s trend to big records and great artwork.  All of that, however, is incidental since the story proper is about an almost doomed love affair between him and an unexpected visitor.

·         One of last year’s most anticipated books following her runaway d├ębut success “The Girl on the Train” was Into the Water by Paula Hawkins.   Stylistically this is one of those books with chapters devoted to individual characters rather than annotated by numbers or a date.  In the first part, their chapters are told in the first person, but in part two and in some later chapters narration changes to the third person.  That aside, this book is a chilling whodunit, a dark story with plenty of twists and suspense. 

·         On the issue of style, could one of America’s top selling novelists be sending out a message to readers’ subconscious?  The reason I mention this is that a central character in Camino Island by John Grisham tackles this very issue, almost as an aside.   A lawyer/book-seller who specializes in investing in valuable first edition works gives advice to an aspirant young author, essentially his rules for writing fiction.  These include, as he puts it, having no prologue when chapters one and probably two usually have nothing to do with it, and because eventually the reader gets slammed back to prologue action.  Sounds like the author’s alter ego perhaps.  

·         The best non-fiction book I read this year was The Italians by John Hooper.  Having bought the original on release in hardback as a present for my daughter based on emphatic reviews both in two papers, I had to get my own copy.  For instance,
this book is fuelled by scores of cracking yarns.  A country which millions of middle class Brits think they know well emerges as a place in which people behave so bizarrely that you wonder if we are living on the same planet...[iii] The other review stated that Hooper “provides context for the question that perplexes visitors: how come that a country that has produced Berlusconi, bunga bunga parties, the mafia and extraordinary bureaucracy is still so attractive?”[iv]

·         With a month still to go before this year ends (at the time of writing), the current novel that is engrossing me is Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.  As with some of my other picks, what makes this book important is its focus on contemporary social issues.  In this case, the main concern is racism, as in black lives matter. The narrative is convincing, characterisation is strong and the plot unfolds in many unexpected ways – a proper page turner.  I know that “Small Great Things” will compete with “The German Girl,” “History of Wolves,” and “The Music Shop” for my overall picks of the year.

Other works of fiction read this year and worth recommending include a couple by Irish authors Lying in Wait” by Liz Nugent and All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan. To those, I should add Caught by Harlan Coben and Snap by Belinda Bauer.  
The latter was long listed for the 2018 Man Booker prize which was won for the first time by a Northern Ireland author, Anna Burns’s “Milkman.”

©Michael McSorley 2018

[ii][ii] Observer Rachel Cooke December 2017
[iii] Richard Morrison chief culture writer The Times 24 January 2015 “The truth about the Italians.”
[iv] John Kampfner The Observer New Review 25 January 2015 “Sex, gnocci shops and suspicious minds.”

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Books of the year 2017

Having considered a selection of last year’s films in the most recent issue, it’s time to look back at some of 2017’s reading.  Most but not all are fiction.   
This selection represents the best of those that have kept me going during the last twelve months.

·         “Holding” is a novel which, if set in Scandinavia, would come with the adjective noir attached.  It is a thriller set in one of Europe’s most scenic and least violent places, West Cork, where its author Graham Norton was raised.  His debut belies any pre-conceptions of the character who hosts the UK’s most popular TV chat show and the Eurovision Song Contest for the BBC.  This is an enjoyable read which captures the atmosphere and topical concerns of modern rural Ireland.  So much so, that its reviews from expert book critics (e.g. The Observer[i] and the Irish Times[ii]) have been positive and favourable.

·         Having previously read Robert Harris’s “The Fear Index” set in the context of the 2007/8 financial crash and having just finished his most recent novel “Munich” and the lead-in to World War 2, I confess to being a fan of this author, his style and range of subjects.  This time last year I was pleased with his trip into the inner sanctum of the Vatican and the election of a new Pope. This event and its arcane process always grabs the public imagination whatever one’s faith or lack of.  “Conclave” reveals a story based on considerable research, so convincing and with so many twists that it is difficult to put down.  I was going to say - divinely inspired.

·         Much crime fiction both on the screen and in novels is set in the United States.  I must admit that one of its exponents there had eluded me until last year.  Then I read a review of Carl Hiasson’s latest and fourteenth such book called “Razor Girl.”  The critic Marcel Berlins[iii] began by reminding us that Hiasson specialises in writing crime thrillers which are funny - adding, tellingly, that this new book reaches the summit.  His stories all seem to be set in Florida and contain fraudsters, conmen, sexy women, corrupt cops, liars and adulterers.  While it may jolt the senses to deal with crime and farce together, it’s stimulating to discover even belatedly a respected author who is at the top of his game.

·         Having made a major impact with her debut novel “The Miniaturist” set in a Puritanical late seventeenth century Amsterdam, Jessie Burton’s follow-up “The Muse” was one I read with great expectation.  I was happy to discover that it delivered.  Essentially a book about twentieth century art and covering a time span of over thirty years with the Spanish civil war in the background, this is also a story about love, deception, and many other things including attitudes to immigrants in 1960’s Britain.  
·         One of the most poignant if harrowing novels I have read in recent years is the Man Booker 2016 nominated “His Bloody Project” written by Graeme Macrae Burnet.  From the opening lines on page one, we know that this tale is about a triple murder.  But the manner of telling the story through a mid-Victorian journal, old medical reports and the subsequent trial feels authentic and unique.  The tale of desperation suffered by small tenants trying to eke an existence from tiny crofts owned by uncaring landlords is absorbing.  Our attention to this book because of its setting in Rosshire in the beautiful Scottish Highlands where one of our daughters is lucky enough to live. 

·         I confess to having read almost every legal thriller written by John Grisham, not least because they are good holiday fare.  The main attraction of Grisham for me is the courtroom drama, the ability of lawyers to think quickly and extemporise with the perfect retort.  Most of his stories are set in the southern states and many of his best novels have been turned into movies.  Last year’s offering, “The Whistler” is all about judicial corruption centring on organised crime and the building of a casino on an Indian reservation.  This is one of his best novels, another page-turner. This from the man who manages to write and publish like clockwork – a hardback in the late autumn and then issued on paperback in time for the summer holidays, every year.

·         A couple of other compelling crime fiction authors to mention.  No year would be complete without discovering a new crime fiction author from Scandinavia.  Last year’s such novel was “The Ice Beneath Her” written by Camilla Grebe, Sweden’s leading female crime writer.  And not omitting Northern Ireland’s contribution to the genre, Brian McGilloway weighed in with Detective Sergeant Lucy Black’s latest adventure with “Preserve the Dead.”  What gives his work added interest is that we know the locations quite well.

·         And two authors, new to me, who write thriller novels as well as anybody.  The creator of the TV series Fargo, Noah Hawley has written the superbly addictive “Before the Fall” which is well worth recommending.  And Donal Ryan’s “The Thing about December” introduced me to one of Ireland’s new authors who are garnering superlative praise for style of writing.  


·         Before I reveal the best novel I read in 2017, I have to include two superb non-fiction books.  Having long being interested in linguistic connections between the Celtic languages as well as between them and Latin languages, “Through the Looking Glass” by Guy Deutscher came as a complete revelation.  It offers a whole new approach based on international research, by analysing the impact of different languages on how people think.  Brilliant is almost an understatement of this book.

·         The other non-fiction work is similarly monumental. “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” (in less than 500 pages) written by Yuval Noah Harari has had such an impact in the UK that it has been placed at or near the top of the best-sellers list for many months, still residing there (along now with his new book).  Its reach is enormous as well as authoritative, many preconceptions and shibboleths being demolished en route.  Like Deutcher, it manages to be a compulsive read despite the weight of the subject – the origins and history of our species going back into pre-history – by avoiding the danger of becoming an academic treatise.

·         The best book I read last year is a novel set in the United States.  I have been a fan of Sebastian Barry having read his “The Secret Scripture (2008),” a story of heart-break set in rural Ireland, subsequently made into a film starring Vanessa Redgrave as the lead, a long-term patient in a decrepit mental hospital; and “The Temporary Gentleman” (2014) about the same family and on the topic of war.  At all times the reader can only admire Barry’s lyrical way with words.  But even by those high standards of poignant story-telling and his rich use of English, his latest offering “Days Without End” is exceptional.  His depiction of the awfulness of violence by the army against the Indians and the subsequent outrages of the Civil War feel alarmingly real.  All of this is seen through the eyes of two young immigrant Irish conscripts whose vernacular, accents and personalities are portrayed with poetic and sometimes tragic beauty. Just as the saddest music aches the heartstrings with sonorous beauty, so too the mellifluous use of language by Sebastian Barry expresses horrors and loving beauty without parallel.

So now it’s time to crack on with discovering a comparably good list for the current year.

©Michael McSorley 2018

[i] Alex Clark Observer 2 Oct 2016
[ii] John Boyne Irish Times 30 Sept 2016
[iii] Times Saturday Review 10 Sept 2016