I’m never able to do these things at the expected time. There’s the whole ‘being busy’ thing (working, writing my own fiction and fitting that around living etc) and the fact that I like to think about these lists a bit. That and whittling it down this year was tough.
I read a lot in 2015. Old, new, fiction and non, printed and, upon occasion, kindle. I bought a lot of books and I was fortunate enough to be sent some wonderful, eye-opening fiction (and non) to review as well.
As such the list includes two non-new titles as they were still among the best books I read last year, they were new to me and, well, it’s my blog.
So, in no particular order; my 10 Best Reads of 2015.
It’s always a good year for literature when Louis de Bernières drops a ‘big’ novel. The The Dust That Falls From Dreams is set in a locale all the more local than his previous such tomes yet contains so much warmth, humour, emotion and dazzling prose as to render its authorship and excellence unquestioned. That this is the start of another trilogy from Louis de Bernières can only be great news.
Not the start of a trilogy but the start of a series, Snowblind is the first Dark Iceland novel to be translated into English and published by Orenda Books. With Nordic-Noir fast becoming a genre of choice for me, this gripping thriller delivered on every page and, as mentioned in my review, is remarkably confident and powerful for a début. A genuine hook of a plot, superbly evoked setting and a real shake-up of the ‘locked-room’ approach.
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes may well have been picked up out of amusement at the “He’s back, and he’s Fuhrious” tagline but once I picked it up and glanced over the blurb I was already hooked. Yes, it’s never going to be as 100% funny as it could have been thanks to the ever-lasting horror that the central-figure’s real-life counterpart committed but it does have a lot of genuinely funny moments, realises that the initial joke could become old fast and develops into a biting and dark satire that does leave you wondering just how far-fetched the “it wasn’t all bad” belief actually is. Having met some people since and heard them use just that line in relation to the likes of Mussolini, perhaps not that far after all.
Another book with some well-timed questions this year was The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto. The second novel to feature police investigator Anna Fekete (I still need to read the first), this is a great novel with a real slow-burning plot that builds momentum as its many sub-plots weave together in a masterful manner. Everything about The Defenceless – from its characters and narration and its brilliant reveal – is top-tier stuff but it’s the central story of Sammi, the Pakistani refugee who resorts to increasingly desperate measures to avoid deportation that will linger long after the final page has been turned.
It’s known that I’m a sucker for historical fiction (and even non-fiction) that deals with World War 2. The first of two on this list that deals with such an era is James Ellroy’s Perfidia. Again, lifted off the bookshop table out of curiosity at the cover and promptly taken to the till following the blurb, this was my introduction to Ellroy (I was unaware of his authorship of LA Confidential and the Black Dahlia) and it’s one hell of a place to start. A huge novel in terms of both scope and intricacy and detail. It’s an intense and all-consuming read and I genuinely felt immersed Ellroy’s 1940’s Los Angeles. In theory this is the start of a trilogy, that will link to his previous novels to form a sort of ‘history of America’ and I can’t wait for the next, though I may jump forward and read them in published, rather than intended chronological, order.
I suppose, technically, there’s three books that deal with this era of history…. Part of How To Be Brave by Louise Beech is the story of Colin – lost at sea after his merchant navy ship was sunk by a torpedo. The other ‘part’ deals with the diagnosis of nine-year-old Rose with Type 1 diabetes and how her and her mother come to terms with the changes this will have on their lives while – as Colin fights to stay alive – they fight to save their relationship as mother and daughter. The story lines intertwine in a wonderful and poetic manner, the characters are all genuine and warm and – I’ve said it before and I’ve said it to others since; Louise Beech vividly evokes the sensations of panic and dread that accompany being a parent when a child falls ill and perfectly captures the feeling of isolation from the rest of the world that occurs at such times, wrapped in an all-consuming love for your child. As a parent of a young child with a voracious appetite for books that already rivals mine, so much of this book stayed with me that it had to round out the new fiction element of the list.
I still cannot believe I took so long to get to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (the third WW2 book of the year’s list). Annoyed that I’d missed out on this undeniable classic yet at the same time so glad that I’m now familiar with the hilarity of Yossarian (the moaning epidemic at the briefing before the Avignon mission cost me a mouthful of coffee) and this bitingly funny satirical swipe at the futility and ridiculous bureaucracy of a bloated army-at-war.
Strangely enough the other non-new book that sits in this list ticks the same boxes as above but is set in the First World War. An extremely important and well-regarded (though tragically unfinished) book, The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek is an immense read in terms of both size, scope and enjoyment. Again, mixing both slapstick and satire to deliver both a swipe at the pointless futility of conflict and war, the discipline of the Austrian army and the Austro-Hungarian empire itself. With Josef Švejk, Hašek created an iconic character and I can only wonder – were the book to have reached completion before illness took its author – whether the imbicility of Švejk would’ve reached ever-new heights or be denounced as feigned (though where’s the fun in that). A quick glance at the already cracked and well-read spine of my copy (an inspired birthdaygift from my wife) will show just how devoured The Good Soldier Švejk was at the tail of last year.
Given that I touched on it plenty in fiction, I don’t think I touched the Second World War in non-fiction during 2015.
I’ve long been fascinated by Russia. That mysterious country that’s had such an impact on my life via the Cold War (I won’t go into that here) and has delivered some of my favourite writers (nobody can touch The Master and Margarita). I’ve been looking for a way in to understanding more of the country and this year found just that with A Journey Into Russia by Jens Mühling. A compelling account of Mühling’s journey from Moscow into the depths of Siberia in search of the last Old Believer living in reclusion, this book delivers many fascinating explorations of stories that are almost too strange to be true (from the new Jesus preaching to his believers in their private paradise to the priest who still preaches in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone and via the surreal supremacists-as-Slavs encounter) in its attempt to discover and understand the soul of Russia.
There’s no way that, as a Sonic Youth fan, my list wouldn’t include Kim Gordan’s Girl In A Band. Yes; there are times when the full-disclosure element of the break down of indie’s golden couple makes for unpleasant reading (perhaps even more so as a fan as it makes you start to question the substance of recent songs) but the telling of Kim’s journey from art student to alt-rock pioneer and back to art (not that she ever left) makes for a revealing and fascinating read and the insights into Sonic Youth songs make for essential reading.
As for 2016… there’s already a few contenders and definite entries (keep an eye out for my entry on the Jihadi; A Love Story blogtour) and when you throw in the fact that Bruce Springsteen has revealed his auto-biography is to be published at the tail-end of the year… it’s been a great start to what’s undoubtedly going to be a good year of reading ahead for sure.