A Reading Year: 2021

The end of the year is almost upon us and looking back over 2021 I’m surprised to find I’ve read more books this year than for several years. Were they better books, faster reads? Surely not, more likely I was more motivated to read, and found – or made – better reading space in my life. Whatever the reason, I’ve been rewarded by rich and varied reading in the last 12 months, including more non-fiction than I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

Fiction

TheManNextDoorThe Man Next Door by Britt Holmström (1998)

I’m always in awe of an author who can write with such mastery in a language other than the one they were born into. As a first novel written in English, this is outstanding. But it is not only the accomplishment that makes it worth reading: it is a good story well told, full of that particularly dark Scandinavian foreboding. It’s also a study of mental instability, full of that awful tension that comes with watching someone teeter on the edge of the abyss. Find a copy and read it.

PontoonPontoon by Garrison Keillor (2007)

This was a return to the once-familiar. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon world has provided many happy hours of reading, now Pontoon joins that collection. Pontoon is a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town, always with a wry and acutely observed take on small-town America. If the series is new to you, don’t worry, you can pretty well dive in anywhere and lose nothing. Never laugh-out-loud for me, more a continuous smile, which is a very good recommendation. One day I’ll go back to Minnesota for more.

InTheShadowOfAgathaChristieIn The Shadow of Agatha Christie edited by Leslie S Klinger (2018)

This is a collection of crime/mystery short stories by female writers, who for the most part have disappeared from the history of the genre. The stories read today as curiosities, as momentary insights into what might have entertained Victorian readers. These tales have not aged well (as the likes of Sherlock Holmes have) and offer little to the modern reader beyond academic interest. Even without the incomparable Agatha Christie these authors and their work would likely have been long forgotten.

NikolskiNikolski by Nicolas Dickner (2005)

Did this lose something in translation? Is it a particularly French-Canadian take on life? Whatever the reason, this story spluttered like a misfiring engine, now running smoothly only to falter at critical moments, despite having an interesting premise (and so far as can be told, being well translated). Mine must be a minority view since it was well enough received to win a prestigious award. Which only goes to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. It’s tempting to say don’t take my word for it, try it and make up your own mind, it does, after all, come highly recommended.

WarlightWarlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018)

An outstanding story told by a master among writers. It resonates all the more since it describes some of the postwar landscapes of London that were still recognisable to me in my youth. The characters of Warlight are not immediately familiar, and yet in a short time they become so. The reader quickly understands Nathaniel and his family, even though they’re highly unusual, all shaped and disfigured by their experiences of war and each other. The reader suspects that even without the war this family would have had another, similar, fractured history to relate.

TheWildAsssSkinThe Wild Ass’s Skin by Honoré de Balzac

Picked up on a whim motivated by a moment of perceived self-improvement, this proved to be a difficult read, but ultimately worthwhile. It is surely a good thing to stretch your reading limits, and this certainly does. What does ‘well read’ really mean? Many would claim to be so, yet most of us have glaring gaps in our reading, particularly among the classics. This is a moral tale of excess in France of the 1830s, and full of melodrama. For today’s reader the form is too wordy, too laboured in making its points, yet it still manages to evoke sympathy for the main protagonist. Balzac was once ‘one of worlds’ greatest novelists’: of his time, perhaps.

TheBellJarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

An astonishing novel, even half a century after it was written. This is an intense, sometimes excruciatingly raw account of a young woman’s life of pressured excellence. She’s a top student, fêted and acclaimed, yet that very success and expectation constrains her and leads to mental instability. Her breakdowns surely reflect the author’s own struggles, sometimes in agonising detail. This was purchased in order to plug another perceived gap in my ‘well-read’ credentials. It turned out to be so much more.
Superb. Read it.

ThePianoTeacher2The Piano Teacher by Janice Y K Lee (2008)

Prior to reading The Piano Teacher I knew nothing of Hong Kong’s story in World War 2 or in the years immediately following. This may be fiction but it certainly has the cold ring of truth about it. Beautifully written and rich in fully rounded characters, this is a story of unexpected love, deep hate, of quiet heroes and barbaric cruelty. It is also a story of intense loyalties and the inevitable betrayals. Highly recommended.

Non-Fiction

SapiensSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (in English 2014)

‘A Brief History Of Humankind’ is a short description that covers a lot of ground. In fact, it covers everything we’ve done since the dawn of man, which is no mean feat. This is no ordinary history, this is perceptive, incisive and hugely readable. Anyone who takes the trouble to read Sapiens cannot fail to understand more about themselves and the society they live in. The writing is excellent, the teaching is never force-feeding. With history texts like this even I might have gained more from my education. It’s never too late, read Sapiens.

UnderlandUnderland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)

What an extraordinary and unexpected gem! This is the apparently unpromising exploration of the worlds beneath our feet, the hidden and often unknown underworlds of mines and caves, of potholes and nuclear storage, of secret rivers and ancient art. And it is marvelous from beginning to end. The author has such affection and understanding of landscape, both above and below ground, has such a way of writing – of teaching – without once lecturing, that the reader is delightfully transported to unimagined places. Thank you for taking me where I would never dare go.

TheCaseOfTheMurderousDrCreamThe Case Of The Murderous Dr Cream by Dean Jobb (2021)

There are many good things about Dean Jobb’s latest in-depth inquiry. Not least amongst them is the amount of research and investigation he’s clearly done: there can hardly be an aspect of Dr Cream’s life and crimes not covered. And it’s well written, giving the impression of witnessing events without straying into embellishment bordering on fiction. If there’s a criticism it concerns repetition. Too often events are retold as if new to the reader, too often you might wish for better editing. But it’s still a good read.

TheGreatHalifaxExplosion2The Great Halifax Explosion by John U Bacon (2017)

The Halifax explosion of 1917 has become a study on mine recently, partly for my own writing research, which explains the presence of two such titles in my year’s reading. It remains a fascinating subject. In modern times the details have become little known, even among Haligonians but it is an incredible story. Many books have been published on the catastrophe but the source material is finite, so there is little that is original in this, as with other works. But it’s none the worse for that, it’s a good read and far better than some that cover the same subject.

TheHalifaxExplosionThe Halifax Explosion by Ken Cuthbertson (2017)

Published on hundred years on from the disaster that befell Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, this is one of the best books on the subject. Not only does it include some unique source material, but it also adds a very human touch to the events and the main protagonists. It manages to retell the whole story from the most compelling point of view, that of the people directly involved. Here at last is an account which puts flesh on the bare bones of the catastrophe. Well researched, well written – if you read only one book on the subject make it this one.

There were also other, less remarkable, books in my year: One Good Turn, the slightly nerdy history of the screw; And Nothing Remains, a limp collection of short stories; The Art Flogger, a soulless tale of sex and violence.

But overall it was a year of excellent books, which makes choosing the book of my year all the more difficult. In fiction The Man Next Door and Warlight come immediately to mind, even though I read them early in the year. In non-fiction, Sapiens and Underland are both masterpieces, not only of writing, of research and knowledge, but of great readability. By the narrowest of margins the book of my year is Underland which took me to places I’ll never visit and never dreamed of, physically and figuratively.

Already waiting for 2022 are A Certain Justice by PD James, Final Spin by Jocko Willink and Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. There’ll be other delights, as yet unknown, as well a smattering of duds, either way there’s much to look forward to.

My 2020 and 2019 Reading

(First posted at InkOnDemand Jan 1st 2021)

Reading in 2020 has had some unique challenges. Finding the time hasn’t been one of them, most of us have had plenty of time on our hands one way or another, but it’s not always been quality time. Hopelessly distracted time, yes, quality time, no. Even so I’ve read more than a dozen books again this year, despite moving across a continent, changing many aspects of life, and of course, still writing. The reading has had some unplanned parallels to last year, some real duffers (not included in this list) and some surprising hits. As usual the list includes both recent and less recent work.

Fiction

Design For Dying by Renee Patrick (2016)

An off-beat detective story featuring, fictionally, the real life costume designer Edith Head. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, this rolls along at a good pace and avoids clichés. Design For Dying has an obvious appeal for anyone with an interest or connections to the world of film, but it’s an enjoyable, untaxing read. Good for beach holidays, long flights, trains across the continent – but who does those things any more?

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod (1999)

Here’s the first parallel to 2019. No Great Mischief is deeply rooted  in Atlantic Canada, as is First Snow, Last Light. This is Cape Breton, Nova Scotia rather than Newfoundland but the lives charted are similar in so many ways. Alistair Macleod needs no introduction for many: he is a supreme story teller although this is his only novel. A brilliantly told family saga, No Great Mischief gives us the lives of the MacDonalds from 1779 to the present day. Intimate details, tragedies and joys illuminate every character and it also says much about Canada’s journey from then to now. One of the great Canadian novels – if not the great Canadian novel.

Così Fan Tutti by Michael Dibden (1996)

And here is the second, unexpected, parallel – Midnight In Sicily was the book of my year in 2019. Così Fan Tutti uses that same intensely Italian backdrop with all its flavours and scents, all its contradictions and crime from a particular era. There the similarities end, for Così Fan Tutti is closer to the opera than to Midnight In Sicily. In many ways it’s closer to farce with all its layers of lies and impersonations. Sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who, but none the worse for that. A very enjoyable read.

Turn of Mind by Alice La Plante (2011)

Is there any other work of fiction that so well captures the personal catastrophe that is dementia? Hardly promising ground for a whodunnit either, but Turn of Mind is compelling on several levels, not least the exploration of that tragic illness. Beautifully written, it takes us closer than we might like to the nightmare of memory loss with great sensitivity that suggests more than good research by the author, it suggests personal experience. Highly recommended.

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson (2020)

A real delight of a crime mystery novel, cleverly and plausibly constructed around eight other classic murder-mysteries. Eight Perfect Murders delights in pointing the reader in the wrong direction and does so with some crisp writing. The story moves quickly from crisis to crisis as the murders accumulate. The protagonist’s list of murder stories appears to be the template for a new serial killer, and yet . . .
A thoroughly enjoyable read, the more so if you are even vaguely familiar with any of the classic stories that make up the list.

Lost & Found Stories of Morley Callaghan (1985)

I’m attracted to short story collections, especially those from writers I don’t know (even if I should). That’s how this collection came to be in my reading list this year. Although the collection was published in 1985, many of the stories go back decades before that, so some feel understandably dated. As stories, setting aside the context, they stand the test of time: intriguing and insightful, teasing and winking at the reader to share the joke. There is a uniformity to the collection, Morley Callaghan didn’t change his style much, and plenty of humour shines through. A well enjoyed curiosity rather than a track-this-down-at-all-costs.

The Book of Dust Vol II – The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (2019)

Volume I, La Belle Sauvage, was a mild disappointment, all set-up and helter-skelter chase. In The Secret Commonwealth the chase continues. Lyra has grown into a moody twenty-something who seems more like a moody teen, so the reader’s sympathies don’t always lie with her. The shadowy Magisterium remain her deadly adversary, we follow her and Pantalaimon (her dæmon) separately across a half-familiar Europe via one scrape after another, but in the end we are seemingly no nearer to a conclusion for all the miles covered. At this point it feels as if The Book Of Dust would have been better as a single, albeit fat, volume rather than billed as a trilogy. Fans of His Dark Materials will enjoy this but it’s not on a par with that masterpiece – but then, what is?

Swann by Carol Shields (1987)

Swann is an unusual book, far from the typical crime/mystery format, perhaps all the more engaging because of that. Carol Shields gives us four people who become closely connected to the deceased Mary Swann – or rather to Swann’s slim legacy of poetry. Even the crime at the centre of the story – Mary’s violent death in a remote farming community – becomes secondary to other, lesser, crimes surrounding her poems. A good read and an insight into the world of rare books and academic pronouncement on little-known artists.

Non-fiction

Flying the Red Duster by Morris Beckman (2011)

The single non-fiction title in this year’s list (but not the only one read) and a good read too, despite a few awkward passages that could have done with a better edit. Flying The Red Duster has a special resonance for me, the son of a merchant seaman who served in the Battle Of The Atlantic among other WWII theatres of war.
Morris Beckman gives us the gritty details of life on an ageing merchant ship struggling across the Atlantic in 1940. If enemy bombs and torpedoes didn’t sink them then the food and the cockroaches might. I already knew the bones of my father’s war service, Flying The Red Duster put some flesh on those bones. Altogether a good read and an invaluable historical insight.

That was 2020. The hawk-eyed will notice Cloud Atlas is not among the reviews, nor is Trail of the Griffon. Cloud Atlas remains unread, maybe next year. And the book of my year? No Great Mischief, Turn of Mind and Swann are my three to choose from. Alistair MacLeod and Carol Shields have more than enough accolades and awards, so my vote is for Turn of Mind by Alice La Plante.

For 2021, The Man Next Door by Britt Holmstrom, Pontoon by Garrison Keillor, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Underland by Robert Macfarlane are all on my bookshelf. What other delights might be uncovered?

The 2019 Reading review
(First published at Ink On Demand Jan 1st 2020)

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.

Fiction

4321 by Paul Auster

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.

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

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.

First Snow, Last Light by Wayne Johnston

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.

Full Disclosure by Beverly McLachlin

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.

It Begins In Betrayal by Iona Wishaw

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.

Murder-A-Go-Go’s by Various Authors

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.

The Midnight Plan Of The Repo Man by W Bruce Cameron

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.

What She Gave Away by Catherine Riggs

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.

Wrong Light by Matt Coyle

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.

Non-fiction

Eyes Wide Open by Isaac Lidsky

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.

Midnight In Sicily by Peter Robb

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.

Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

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.

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

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.