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 début 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.”

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