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Speaking of historical references… I’ve fancied reading Maus for longer than I can remember not wanting to.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.

 

Page turning, 2018 Part 1

I read a lot last year. I cleared 41 books in total, surpassing my target by 1. So, did I extend my target for this year? No, I’m going for 40 again – it seems like a good target and I don’t think I’d necessarily find more reading time in my days to get another 10 in.

That being said, I’m already off to a strong start to the year with 7 down and 2 on the go at the moment.

Oddly enough, there’s a bit of a theme that ties three of these four – and at least another four on the TBR for the next couple of months – together that wasn’t necessarily intended but Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park was the first of the year and probably set the ball rolling.

Gorky Park was one of those books I’d often see in bookshops and ponder its contents before moving on but, this time, I read the back and took it home. An absolute 5 Star book – well deserving of the attention and praised it received. A crime thriller set in Soviet Union during the Cold War, Gorky Park reads more like literary fiction than your standard thriller and is so thoroughly engrossing and, in Arkady, powered by a great character – I’m genuinely glad that this one evolved into a series of novels and will  be adding the following instalments (along with everything Ellroy’s) to my longer term reading list.

Trying to vary my reading I thought I’d take a stab at a ‘classic’ early on this year and ended up continuing a theme. One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is set in a Soviet labour camp in the early 1950s and follows the single day of one of the prisoners – Ivan Denisovich. Ivan’s deep into a 10 year sentence for ‘spying’ – he’d escaped his German captors during the war, made it back to his lines and was arrested as a spy. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the Gulag system and it adds a sense of weight and truth to this novel (if you’re up for a heavier read his Gulag Archipelago is a game-changer). It’s a short but intense read and noteable as it was one of the first accounts of Stalinist repression to have been published (less than 10 years after Old Whiskers’ death).

Of course, there’s always a need for something lighter and, as my Discworld collection slowly grows toward completion, I’ve usually got a Terry Pratchett novel ready to reread for the first time in at least a decade. I had – again – forgotten just how painfully funny The Last Continent is. First published in 1998, that means it had been two decades since I’d last read it and, as I had the briefest of memories of it and remembered nothing of its plot it was akin to reading it for the first time. Pratchett’s parody of Australian culture and media touch-points – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee all get a warm roasting – easily sits as one of his funniest and most accessible reads. The invention of Vegemite and Australian slang, in particular, had me chuckling into the night.

Back in 2016 I read Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin. It’s a great novel, a cold-war thriller set in Berlin as the divide was going up. Another book-shop spotting, this year’s Defectors again finds Mr Kanon setting his work in the cold war, this time – spotting that them yet? – in Moscow. As the title suggests, Defectors tackles the theme of the defections in the 1950s / 60s and, specifically, what came next. A former CIA agent, Frank Weeks slipped the net and escaped to Moscow and, over a decade later, sends word to his brother, Simon, that he – and the Soviet State – wish to publish his memoirs and wants to use Simon’s publishing house to do so.

Leaving aside the twists of the plot for fear of giving anything away, where Defectors excels is in the depiction of life for those former ‘field agents without a field’ – living in a strange suspended state, a  sort of prison within the larger prison of the Soviet Empire. Technically ‘free’ to be yet only allowed to travel to enclosed dacha complexes, use certain stores and continually monitored. Kanon manages to fill his story with sufficiently realistic and historically accurate details to make it ring true without overdoing it and slowing down the momentum – this is a thriller after all. Kanon clearly an author whose back catalogue now warrants investigation.

Up next: more Russian classics, some World War Two diaries and some new novels from Nordic Noir’s godfathers…