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 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/02/holding-graham-norton-review-debut-novel
[ii] John Boyne Irish Times 30 Sept 2016 https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/graham-norton-wasted-on-tv-john-boyne-reviews-his-new-novel-1.2794026
[iii] Times Saturday Review 10 Sept 2016