Pages Turned

It occurs to me that, as we head into the final quarter of the year, I haven’t really talked much about what I’ve been reading this year outside of the larger reviews.

While I set myself a target of 40 books again this year (currently reading number 31), I really wanted to get a specific couple of books off of the ‘to read’ list and absorbed, I think I’ve done that.

First such book on the wish list was finishing James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. White Jazz differs somewhat from its predecessors as it’s very much a single-thread narrative in the style of Black Dahlia. Massively rewarding and full of Ellroy guts and power as Lieutenant David Klein unravels the biggest of puzzles – some real heavy stuff even for Ellroy. I loved every fucking page of this book and the entirety of the LA Quartet. I find it strange to think it came out in 1992 – Ellroy’s take on late 50’s LA is so vital. It also introduced Pete Bondurant who is one of main narratives in American Tabloid – which was another tick on the list as I wanted to go from the LA Quartet to Ellroy’s Underwold USA Trilogy. American Tabloid makes a smooth transition from the LA focus to a fuller, corrupt take on American History (with a fair few artistic licenses) right up to the gun shots in Texas. I’d like to get to The Cold Six Thousand but there’s a few more on the list first..

Another tick on my reading goals for the year was to catch up with Arkady Renko – the Russian detective from Gorky Park, one of my favourite historical fiction / thrillers. Took a while to find – not often kept in stock new and I went the ebay route for a used copy – but worth it; Polar Star takes place pretty much completely at sea. Renko is basically in exile and hiding from the state and finds himself thrust into solving a murder  on board a fish processing ship in the Bering Sea. I really have a thing for this cold war stuff and Martin Cruz Smith does a faultless job of making a thriller a literary work and combining a genuine mystery with enough genuine historical and political framing to tick all my boxes.

Speaking of historical references… I’ve fancied reading Maus for longer than I can remember not wanting to.  My wife has a copy of it but my reading of French isn’t up to it so I was happy to pick up an English version at a good price not too long ago. I don’t usually get on with the graphic novel thing but this one is staggering in both its power and its honesty. Well worthy of the acclaim it still receives and an important read.

I also picked up with that bloke called Reacher again but The Midnight Line didn’t really do it for me. Much like Personal it almost feels like Child is treading water here, the formula isn’t anything new and there’s no real stakes here – just ticking the boxes: Reacher gets intrigued about something, follows a trial, cracks a few skulls, things still make no sense, cracks a few more, solves a minor riddle, goes on his way.  A couple of years ago I enthused about All The Light You Cannot See by Anthoy Doerr… I still do; it’s a great book. I’d had his About Grace on the shelf for a while and finally go to it at the tail end of summer. It’s… not bad. There’s a couple of really good chunks in there but it’s not on the same level.

A few years further back I similarly enthused about Louis De Bernieres’ The Dust That Falls From Dreams,  the first in a planned trilogy. I read the second this year: So Much Life Left OverA little more focused in terms of characters, predominantly following the arc of Rosie and Daniel’s life, this slightly slimmer book is no less grand in terms of its reach or impact. De Bernieres one of those few writers with the ability to genuinely hit every emotion in the space of a few chapters. It takes a little adjusting each time as De Bernieres’ previous trilogy and novels took place in more exotic and poetic locations than this series but I really look forward to the final novel which will probably be no earlier than late 2020 at my guess.

Non-fiction wise there’s only been two hits on the list, one of which – Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd – has already been touched on. The other was a reread of one of my favourite non-fiction books: Herbert A. Werner’s Iron Coffins: A U-Boart Commander’s War, 1939-1945 which I’d first read some ten years ago, lent out and never got back. I managed to find a copy at a recent air show and it’s always worth reading and will no doubt feature in an upcoming Top Ten Non-Fiction post.

This seems like a good place to leave it for now… back to that Springsteen series.

 

Pages turned

I seem to have become a lapsed blogger again. It’s what happens when life gets busy and spare time either shrinks or becomes more important. In this instance a new role has kept me busier and lunchtimes have not lent themselves to composing updates.

However – I’m now done for the year so let’s catch up, shall we?

I’m pretty much on-track to hit my self-imposed target of 40 books this year with the last one well underway with a week and change left of 2017. I managed quite a bit of progress this last month or two though with a book like The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy there’s no way to read it quickly.

Ellroy’s writing has been praised by many before and better than I’m sure I could. I will say that his is a unique and powerful voice that envelops a reader and sucks you into the seedy underbelly of 1950’s LA with a knack for the ‘big’ storylines that cross and weave into something huge. If I’m forced to I’d rate The Big Nowhere over The Black Dahlia – a much wider ranging story – and am anxious to move on to LA Confidential in the New Year.

I’ve yet to write that post I keep meaning to on Terry Pratchett. In the meantime my rebuilding of my Pratchett collection is going well. I’d say that of the 41 Discworld novels there’s what I consider a ‘golden’ period where Sir Terry hit his stride and get his style on the nose. For my money it’s from 1989’s Pyramids through to Monstrous Regiment in 2003. That’s a hell of a time frame for quality output  that recent re-reads Reaper Man and Feet of Clay both fall within. It had easily been 15 years since I’d read Reaper Man and I’d remembered nothing of it aside from ‘Death takes a holiday’ so I loved every page. The same could also be said of Feet of Clay though my memory of that one was clearer so I knew almost exactly where it was going – that being said it was still a pleasure to re-read. The Dark Side of the Sun, that being said, is pre-Discworld Pratchett and his voice was not yet found. It’s a very heavy-sci-fi book and feels, for the most part, as though Pratchett is trying too hard to force himself into a style that’s not his. There’s a brief section where the humour and narrative that would make him one of the UK’s biggest-selling authors makes an appearance but, for the most part, the 158 pages of The Dark Side of the Sun felt like a slog through three times as many.

Thinking of my need to clear a few more books by the end of the year I played a ‘cheat’ card and read 61 Hours by Lee Child – because reading a Reacher book never takes more than a couple of sittings. After being disappointed by the recent Night School I was very surprised by 61 Hours and would say it ranks up the top of those ten or so Reacher novels I’ve read to date. A great concept and plot setup and the countdown really pushes you on. The fact that Lee Child took Reacher out of his comfort zone and stuck him in an inhospitable location that often handicapped him really helped and I get the feeling Child himself was trying to shake the format up too – especially as he left Reacher’s fate unknown at the end.

Page Turning – Another Three

Crikey, here we are already with September under way and autumn barrelling down on us with the onset of cold mornings and the tug of breezes forgotten.

I’m currently 26 books down on my 40 Books challenge for 2017 and the 27th underway. As has become the norm, here’s a few of those that have been read of late – a couple of which took a little longer than the usual week / week and a half that I can usually pace for reasons that will be discussed.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

There is no way of reading Ellroy without fully immersing yourself in his rich, enveloping and truly unique prose. I finally discovered the wonder of Ellroy’s writing in 2015 with Perfidia and it formed part of the first of these Turning Pages posts. Knowing that Perfidia was a prequel of sorts to Ellroy’s ‘LA Quartet’ I was keen to read more but read them in order and The Black Dahlia did not disappoint. As CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead points out; Ellroy “nails the whole under belly L.A. thing” and there’s nothing like wallowing in his world. My habit of sticking my nose in charity bookshops has borne fruit and I now have a copy of The Big Nowhere sat on the TBR list so I can continue walking those mean LA streets.

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo

A Christmas or two ago my wife gave me Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman to feed my growing appetite for Nordic Noir. I found it insanely addictive and chilling (I have zero faith the upcoming film will do it any justice) and have sought out other Harry Hole (pronounced: HOO-LEH so not quite one letter away from a real cultural hiccup) novels since though – as I was going back in the timeline and Nesbø’s career I didn’t find them quite as rewarding.

So I was happy to grab a copy of The Leopard at good second-hand price as it’s the next instalment in the series. I get the impression that it’s around this time in his writing career that Nesbø perfected his style. The earlier novels are bloody good, mind, but all the elements really seem to have come together; the writing is tight and focused, the plot is intricate and well weaved and the suspense and mystery are genuinely gripping.

The back-story of police corruption that was found in novels leading up to Nemesis has faded more into the background and the focus – aside from the murders – is firmly on Harry as he tries to overcome his own scars and wounds from the events of both a long and hard career and those of The Snowman – in this instance I’d say that readers would be at a loss if they hadn’t read that novel first. With both Phantom and Police sitting on my TBR pile I very much look forward to reading more of Harry Hole’s adventures.

A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

For all the hype that surrounds it I found, in my first year of membership, Amazon’s PrimeDay to be something of a disappointment. While my son occasionally (as is the whim of toddlers) takes delight in his LED flashing shoes, precious little else interested me. With the exception, that is, of the cover of A Gentleman in Moscow. I mean, I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by such things but… it’s a hell of a great looking book jacket. Not only that but the description:

“On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely.

While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.”

It was practically begging me to read it! Well, turns out it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year. Ridiculously well written, every single page was a delight to read and a lesson in craft and style. Rostov is a character for real literature lovers and the level of storytelling and sub plots are surprisingly complex given the initial premise and form a deliciously rich and vital background, giving real weight, humanity and warmth to a novel that could so easily have been the slightest of things.

A Gentleman in Moscow works as both a fantastic novel full of humour, charm and heart as well as a deviously funny allegorical take on Russia’s not too distant past. Reading this novel I had to keep reminding myself that it was published just this year – with its classic style, insightful observations and supporting cast of characters and the impact of historical occurrence, it genuinely felt at times as though discovering a well-loved classic and the ending…. is just sublime. Much in the same vein as Antony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (another novel I picked up based on the cover and hook of the blurb), A Gentleman in Moscow is easily one of the best novels published in recent years and much deserving of a place on a discerning bookshelf.