38, 39, 40…. 41! Pages Turned

I thought it was going to come down to the wire but I managed to hit my, strictly self-imposed, challenge of reading 40 books in 2017 and even managed to squeeze in an extra for added bonus points.

Oddly, aware of the looming ‘deadline’ I still pulled the hefty Phantom by Jo Nesbo from the the TBR pile to kick off the final stretch. Continuing the Harry Hole saga in chronological progression from The Snowman  I’m enjoying every instalment more than the last and Phantom was a real gripper for every one of its 550 or so pages, taking every element of the Hole saga to date and turning them up to 11. As he develops as a writer, Nesbo manages to take an almost literary-fiction style approach to the thriller genre, layering in so many different sub-plots and factors as to really mark his work out as a leader in the field.

Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Girl Who Wasn’t There is very much a book of two halves, so very distinctly different in terms of narrative style that I had to double check it was still the same story. It had been on the shelves for a year or so after my wife read it with my occasionally eyeballing it and I’m very much glad I decided to read it, if only based on the thinking that it’s slightness would enable me to reach my goal. Instead I discovered that it’s one of those deceptive short-novels, with so much packed in as to feel like a larger read. A beguiling an beautiful slow-burn of a first half coupled to a completely bat-shit crazy, what the fuck is going on, fast paced thriller of a conclusion.

With two weeks remaining in the year I thought I’d round out the 40 with the only non-fiction of the year (something of a rarity in itself) – Robert Leckie’s Helmet for my Pillow. As a big fan of HBO’s Band of Brothers and having read the material that informed that show too, I thought I’d do the same with 2010’s The Pacific. While not as absorbing, to me at least, as Band of Brothers there was an intensity about The Pacific which meant I quickly bought the books that had informed it…. and let them sit on my shelf as I never got round to them. Having been left aghast at the perception of his war by South Pacific – Robert Leckie put pen to paper to give an unflinchingly honest and occasionally harrowing description of his experience as a Marine during the Second World War. What I look for in such a book isn’t the “guts and glory” – that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to my near-pacifist mentality – it’s the accounts of normal people who find themselves in an extraordinary situations unimaginable to those of us who live in a sheltered, comfortable world (due, thinking about it, to their actions).

Helmet For My Pillow, clearly the work of a literary man, makes for a shocking read at times but I found it compelling throughout and deeply human. It certainly ranks up high in the list of those memoirs of this era I’ve read*. Leckie manages to find the humanity in what were deeply dehumanising circumstances. Particularly striking for me was this passage:

But, with the festive break from work affording more reading time I managed to clear Leckie’s book with time to spare and got started on book 41 of 2017, a gift from my wife, The Book of Mirrors by EO Chirovici, a Romanian author. Turns out this one was something of a big deal in the publishing world back in 2015 – this is Chirovici’s first novel in English and was snapped up by publishers in 23 countries, landing him a likely seven-figure sum just in publishing deals ahead of its actual publication in 2017. After all that hype is it any good? Yes, in short. I thoroughly enjoyed it even if, for the first session or two with it I was still feverish and ended up with it going round in circles in my head. It’s a simple enough whodunit that explores the reliability of memory but Chirovici delivers it with a lot of narrative play, a lot of psychological twisting and turning and a nice leaning on good old mystery and thrill.

I’ve hedged my bets for 2018 and not extended my aim beyond trying for 40 again.

 

*Iron Coffins by Herbert A. Werner ranks as my favourite and Alan Deere’s Nine Lives probably rubs shoulders with the U-Boat commander’s account.

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.