(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?