Another year in reading. In 2019 my list was heavily influenced by attending the Left Coast Crime conference in Vancouver, BC where delegates were showered with books – some better than others.
If, like me, you are a Paul Auster fan you will need no encouragement to read 4321. If you’re not a fan, this very lengthy novel is probably not going to convert you. It is more like four novels, as the title suggests, but each one is a different life of the same man – Archie Ferguson. This is surely the ultimate ‘what if’ novel – how would life have been different if this or if that? It’s a masterpiece, bringing alive Auster’s beloved New York of the second half of the twentieth century and exploring all the angst of childhood and adolescence. Can’t recommend this highly enough.
A thriller with what seems like a ‘ho-hum here we go again’ set-up but this is far more original than that. It’s probably helped by a different setting with different threats from the standard ‘airport bookstall’ fare. This is Australia and the threat of crocodiles is ever present. Hardly likable, falsely accused ex-cop Ted Conkaffey leads the charge against the baddies, more than ably assisted by the anti-heroine and all round weirdo Amanda Pharrell. The story could be a little tighter and some clues are heavy handed, but it still gets my recommendation.
Who knows anything about Newfoundland? Certainly not me, although I know a lot more now having thoroughly enjoyed this novel of family, of loss and of the emptiness of not knowing how or why catastrophe has struck. Ned Vatcher is the luckless boy who loses his parents in 1936, First Snow, Last Light tells us his story, how the loss shapes him, how memories haunt him, and most well done of all, how others see him. Strongly recommended.
Another thriller, this one featuring a lawyer with a hidden past and an unwinnable case. There’s not really much to it despite a wealth of detail and the inevitable stretching out provided by the court processes. The major twists seem too well signposted to be classed as such, some of the violence seems to be there only for effect, likewise the sex. The writing comes across as formulaic rather than felt, but it’s competent in the way that formula fiction so often is. There are plenty worse you could pick up for a quick read, but plenty better too.
This whodunnit seemed so full of promise: the setting struck a cord – Canada and the UK; the timing was good – 1947; the set-up perfect – a wartime incident come back to haunt the Canadian hero. But It Begins In Betrayal never quite works, partly because for a reader brought up in that post-war Britain there are simply too many mistakes. If you don’t know such things as where the Spurs played, or what towns are served by what London stations, you won’t get jerked out of the story by the inaccuracies. If you know nothing of post-war Britain and like improbable melodrama this might be for you.
Confession 1: I know nothing of the music of the Go-Go’s. Confession 2: I’ve read most, but not all, of the stories in this collection. Perhaps I’d like the music more than the stories, which are based on the titles of the band’s songs. Perhaps the music is as dark and repetitive as the writing. Perhaps I’d like it, but having read what I’ve read, I’m not tempted to try it. Teenage agonies, sex, violence, more sex, more violence, more agonies. If that’s your thing this collection of crime stories is right up your street.
It’s an old cliché, that one about judging a book by its cover, but never truer than with The Midnight Plan Of The Repo Man. The cover’s poor, the format says cheap and trashy, the set-up (man with voice in his head) says don’t bother. Wrong. This is a great read, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s original and well written, the plot twists and turns, the expected doesn’t happen, the impossible becomes possible. And it’s laced with humour too. Put this on your list – in whatever cover it comes in.
Despite initial hesitation over the form of the narrative, which alternates between the two protagonists, this turned out to be an enjoyable read. Some elements are a little predictable, the characters are mainly believable, but the writing is crisp and the plot bowls along at a good pace. I hope there’ll be more from Catherine Riggs.
This was my first encounter with Rick Cahill, the private eye with a past (show me one who isn’t broke/has a past/bad at relationships/etc) and a penchant for spending time sitting in cars waiting for something to happen. Or following another car to see where it goes. Or begging favours in return for past generosity. This story runs very fast getting nowhere, it’s all empty action with little substance. That being said, if you like these fast-read, grubby private detective stories laced with a kind of dark romance you’ll like Wrong Light.
Which might be subtitled ‘How To Meet Life’s Challenges Without Fear’. Yes, it’s another personal improvement volume, of which there are thousands begging for our attention. I read Eyes Wide Open because the author tells his own story of starting to go blind at the age of 13, which has a personal resonance within my own family. It was worth the read, even if all that Isaac Lidsky has to say could have been said in half the words. Repeating the point goes with this particular genre. For those with normal sight, blindness after having had sight seems a crushing blow: if nothing else Mr Lidsky demonstrates that it need not be.
Part memoir, part travel book, part food guide, part thriller: brilliant. So much of this wonderful book reads like a novel it’s hard to remember to put this under non-fiction. The author provides mouth-watering descriptions of food of every kind and the places in which he eats it, yet he makes the mouth dry with the everyday violence he recounts. All around him sumptuous art and lifestyles are undermined by entrenched corruption. He recounts an incredible time in Sicily, and not just Sicily, but the whole of Italy. Midnight in Sicily is the most digestible history lesson ever, more, it is an education in itself.
Here’s a really interesting book, all about the way we as individuals and as groups relate to other people or other groups, people who have a different culture, a different idea of the big things in life right down to the very smallest – like how you greet another person. These differences, these nuances of meaning are critical to how we behave in relationship to others. The book is full of examples from history, some ancient, some contemporary, where misinterpretation of another’s meaning can lead to catastrophic. There’s a few too many instances of sexual encounters and police action when other examples might broaden the view, but the message is one for everyone.
If you like books and quirky stories you’ll like this. The author is a seller of second-hand books in Wigtown, a small town in south-west Scotland. His daily diary is by turns funny and sad. He brings his customers to life on the pages and gives us a wonderful insight into his world of books. Such a diary is by its nature bound to encompass a complete year and one cannot fault it for that. My only criticism is that the year was too long, some editing of entries would have left me smiling rather than wishing for the end.
So, when it’s all done for another year, which is the book of my year? My three contenders are 4321, The Midnight Plan Of The Repo Man and Midnight In Sicily. Of these, Peter Robb’s Midnight In Sicily stands out as unique. Superb writing and an engrossing tale.
What’s waiting for me in 2020? All I know so far is The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, second in the Book Of Dust trilogy, Trail Of The Griffon by Richard J Thomas – historical setting in Ontario for a fictional thriller and No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod – more Canadiana from one of the country’s finest. What of Cloud Atlas, my permanently ‘to be read’ book? It’s put back at least a year probably more, in case it crosses paths with a story of my own that has begun to take shape but which may never be written. In which case it may be the perfect mirror to Cloud Atlas, one never read, the other never written.