(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?
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.
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.