A Year in Books

At the end of last year, my wife and I swapped roles. It was an easy decision, as I was the only one of us able to drive our sons to their new schools. My wife joined a publishing company and thrived, while I joined the world of stay-at-home fathers, and withered.

However, although this has been a challenging year, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to read more books than ever.

I began the year by resolving to abandon my Kindle and enjoyed some serendipitous discoveries in charity shops. However, almost a year on, my teetering piles of books have reminded me why I bought a Kindle in the first place.

Here are a few of the titles that made a particular impression on me:

1. SURPRISINGLY TOPICAL READ OF THE YEAR

Philip Roth’s novel ‘The Plot Against America’, published 12 years ago, takes place in an alternate timeline in which Roosevelt lost the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindbergh. At the time, a story about an experienced politician losing to a celebrity with fascist sympathies and no experience of government seemed rather far fetched.

Of course, Hillary Clinton is no Roosevelt and Donald Trump is no Lindbergh, but the essential message of this book is worth heeding: democracy can become quickly debased if we allow it.

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2. BETTER THAN EXPECTED READ OF THE YEAR

I’d always assumed that Norman Collins’ novel ‘London Belongs to Me’ was a dreadful old potboiler, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that for all its faults, it was a compelling and vivid evocation of London on the eve of the Second World War. Set in a boarding house that has seen better days, the novel eavesdrops on the lives of its occupants with insight and humour.

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The perfect comfort read, ‘London Belongs To Me’ has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with a glowing recommendation on the cover from Sarah Walters.

3. RANDOM CHARITY SHOP DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR

The name VS Prichett meant little to me apart from his occasional appearance in short story collections, so I was intrigued to find a novel by him in the Lewes branch of Oxfam. Largely set in the Amazon jungle, ‘Dead Man Leading’ reads like a Conradian tale as written by Evelyn Waugh, with a finely-tuned sense of the absurd. But although it is faintly reminiscent of the last part of Waugh’s own ‘A Handful of Dust’, Pritchett has a clear, confident voice and the result is a book that is odd and unsettling, but strangely compelling.

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4. DYSTOPIAN NOVEL OF THE YEAR

‘The Life & Times of Michael K’ by JM Coetzee was published in 1983, winning the author his first Booker Prize. There is an awful lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre fiction being published at the moment and some of it is very enjoyable, but Coetzee’s brilliantly stark vision has yet to be matched.

5. BEST NEW THRILLER

I enjoy a good thriller and with a Kindle I can read any old trash without anyone knowing, but I’ve no patience with books that suffer from lumpen prose, implausible characters and cliche-ridden dialogue, no matter how good the plot is.

Fortunately, Sabine Durrant’s ‘Lie With Me’ is a cut above the average thriller and a worthy successor to Patricia Highsmith, intelligently written and well plotted. I thought it was much better than the overrated ‘The Girl on the Train’.

Durrant does a very convincing job of narrating the story from the perspective of a man in his early 40s and her depiction of an affluent South London family rings horribly true. I also enjoyed her evocative descriptions of a Greek island, written in a clear prose style that avoids the overwritten cliches of many genre novels.

6. NON FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR

The subject of John Preston’s ‘A Very English Scandal’ will mean little to anyone under the age of 45 and absolutely nothing to anyone outside the UK, but it is a story that will appeal to many. Jeremy Thorpe was the charismatic leader of Britain’s Liberal Party, with a lust for power that was only exceeded by his penchant for young men. When the latter threatened the former, in the guise of a troubled individual called Norman Scott, Thorpe asked a friend to have him killed.

Beyond some smutty 1970s playground jokes (“What do Jeremy Thorpe and Captain Kirk have in common? They both ask Scotty for more thrust towards Uranus”), my only memory of Thorpe was a sympathetic one – a good man defeated by the bigotry of a different age.

How wrong I was. The Thorpe that emerges in these pages is a charming psychopath, callously exploiting the extraordinary loyalty of his friends and family to further his political career.

jeremy-thorpe

‘A Very English Scandal’ reads like a thriller and is utterly gripping from start to finish.

7. OBSCURE CLASSIC OF THE YEAR

‘The Serious Game’ is an extraordinary 1912 novel by Hjalmar Söderberg, who in his native Sweden is regarded as the equal of Strindberg. On the face of it it’s a simple enough tale of a young couple who fall in love, but end up being unhappily married to other people. What’s remarkable about the book is its modernity and insight, containing a candour that no English novelist would have dared to attempt in Edwardian Britain.

8. FORGOTTEN MASTERPIECE OF THE YEAR

‘The Deadly Percheron’ by John Franklin Bardin is one of those rare novels that transcends its genre. What begins as a rather eccentric mystery novel set in New York quickly changes gear, taking the reader on a strange journey into the darker recesses of the human pyche, where nothing is what it seems. Written in 1946, this novel has been largely forgotten since it was republished by Penguin during the 1960s, but has enjoyed a cult following.

9. MOST HARROWING READ OF THE YEAR

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‘Chernobyl Prayer’ by Svetlana Alexievich is a brilliant piece of reportage, collecting eye-witness accounts of people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

One of the most shocking stories relates how some robotic devices – sent in to move irradiated graphite rods – kept breaking down after a bried period of exposure to radiation. In the end, men were dispatctched to pick the rods up by hand, wearing only the flimsiest of protective suits. Told that they couldn’t have more than 40 seconds’ exposure to the graphite, the men soon discovered that it was impossible to do anything in under two minutes and went ahead regardless.

For me, the most harrowing part of the book was reading a wife’s account of how she nursed her husband during a long, debilitating and painful illness, following his exposure to a massive dose of radiation. When he finally died, his body treated as radioactive waste, buried in a lead-lined coffin.

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But if this all sounds too upsetting, I should also add that ‘Chernobyl Prayer’ also contains some remarkable stories of heroism, compassion and survival. It is a gripping read that reveals the best and worst of humanity.

10. SILLIEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

I really enjoyed Dorothy Hughes’s 1940s noir thriller ‘In a Lonely Place’ and was keen to explore her backlist. Sadly, ‘The So Blue Marble’ is one of the most ridiculous books I’ve ever read, with an implausible plot and a selection of unbelievable characters.

Thinking that Hughes must have had an off day, I tried another novel by her and was equally nonplussed.

11. LIGHTEST HEAVY BOOK OF THE YEAR

Adam Roberts’ ‘The Thing Itself’ is a high concept novel that bandies ideas about Kantian philosophy, quantum physics and artificial intelliegence around with the ease of someone talking about the weather. A description of the plot would be no help at all. All I can say is that it’s a playful, witty, knockabout tale that wears its cleverness lightly and is consistently funny.

thing-itself

12. BEST NOVEL BY A BALD, SOUTH AFRICAN EMIGRE

I’m a big fan of Justin Cartwright and really enjoyed reading his 2002 novel ‘White Lightning’. With a narrative that alternates between South Africa and England, this is a poignant tale of grief and loneliness that is redeemed by the author’s wit and humanity. I was particularly amused by Cartwright’s description of a ‘saucy film’ shoot, only to later discover that in the 1970s, he wrote the screenplay for ‘Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse’.

These were the books that made a big impression on me, but I should mention that I also really enjoyed Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, Trollope’s ‘Doctor Throne’, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel ‘Purity’, Andrew Hurley’s superb ‘The Loney’, Lionel Shriver’s latest book ‘The Mandibles’ and Derek Raymond’s grim but brilliant ‘Factory’ novels.

I also read three books by Dutch people.

Next year I intend to not read any DH Lawrence or Commonwealth novels with lengthy descriptions of marketplaces, fruit and wise old men, but other than that, I am open to almost anything.

28 comments

  1. Steerforth

    When I worked for Ottakar’s and Waterstones, market stalls were the places where a lot of our stolen stock ended up. In one town, there was a Fagin-like character who sent boys into our branches to steal titles to order. When a woman asked him for a particular novel, he replied “I haven’t got one now, but if you come back after lunchtime, I’ll have a copy”. I think that prejudiced me against market stalls. But if they’re selling genuine secondhand stock, that’s a different matter.

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  2. Allen

    In the 1960s or 70s Penguin published the John Franklin Bardin Omnibus, which also has The Last of Philip Banter, and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly, Bardin’s other two memorable books, according to Julian Symons in the introduction.

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  3. George

    I once overheard a local bookseller, since retired from the business, giving a customer the run-down of the local used bookstores. All I remember from this was “And x says he has review copies, but they’re actually stolen.” I don’t know whether I heard or recognized the name; but it about thirty years ago, and the book fence is probably out of business, too. I have to say that I’ve always wondered about the guys who lay out blankets on New York sidewals to display books for sale,

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    • Steerforth

      I don’t think book theft is as lucrative as it was, now that Amazon Marketplace and eBay offers so many cheap alternatives. I remember reading about the economic model for ‘professional’ book thieves and to make a decent living, they had to steal at least £100,000 worth of stock per annum. We had one thief who stole whole shelves to order – possibly supplying another bookseller.

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  4. Dale

    Genuine review copies are easy to spot as nowadays they usually carry a stamp or a sticker inside that identifies them as such.
    As a regular reviewer I sell my unwanted copies to a very honest and reliable second hand book trader. She usually requests any publisher’s guffsheet that comes with them, I think so she can bone up on the book and guide customers to it.

    Also, more publishers have taken to sending out uncorrrected proof copies instead of review copies: this is to get early publicity around launch time. These are a pain in the neck, as I review non fiction and many proof copies do not have any of their illustrations (plain stupid to send out unillustrated copies of a non-fiction book!), and of course noone wants to sell them, so I am stuck with disposing of them via the recycling bin, which seems wasteful.

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    • Steerforth

      I dutifully kept my proofs, imagining that their relatively small print runs gave them some cache. How wrong I was (with the exception of an Ian Fleming). In the end, most of them were given away.

      I suppose it’s only a matter of time before publishers start dishing out e-proofs that disappear into the ether by a certain date. The days of free books and being wined and dined are sadly becoming a thing of the past.

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  5. George

    Auberon Waugh wrote a book about the Thorpe case, The Last Word. What I read of it tended to demonstrate more conclusively that Waugh was a crank than that Thorpe was a felon. Does A Very English Scandal have anything to say about The Right Word.

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    • Steerforth

      Waugh’s hatred of Thorpe is briefly mentioned: “Although Waugh had never met Thorpe, he had always detested him from afar – partly because he felt there was something deeply suspect about the double-breasted waistcoats he wore, and partly because of Thorpe’s ‘general air of a public school show-off’.

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    • Steerforth

      Yes, really good characters. I particularly felt for the older woman who’d fallen on hard times and was reduced to being a cloak attendant in a nightclub. My least favourite character was the uncle who was into politics.

      I really enjoyed immersing myself in the world of 1930s London and after reading it, talked to my late mother about her memories of it. The book may not be a literary masterpiece, but it has a heart to it that some better books lack.

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      • Resolute Reader

        Late to this party, but one of the stand out parts of London Belongs to Me when I read it was the wonderful introduction, describing 1000s of people descending on central London every morning, then vanishing in the evening. It made 1940s London seem so very real.

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  6. Zoe Higgie

    Poor DH Lawrence. Isn’t that Russian woman brilliant – I’ve only read one thing by her, but it was astounding. The translator must be immensely good as well. Re Thorpe, I am always forgetting the wise advice someone or other gave me, which was, “Always, always beware of charm”.

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    • Steerforth

      That sounds like a quote from Brideshead – I think I remember Antoine warning Charles about the “terrible ch-charm” of the English. I know that I’ve been seduced (metaphorically, I should add) by the charms of several people who, in hindsight, were totally amoral but hugely entertaining. I can now spot the warning signs, but in my 20s I was like a lamb to the slaughter.

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  7. writerreaAmy

    Chernobyl Prayer especially appeals to me. Not sure why, but I’ve always been interested in Russia/USSR and visited there once, many years ago. I haven’t done up my “best of 2016” list yet, but pretty sure it will include Ann Patchett’s novel Commonwealth, if you don’t mind considering an American version of a Commonwealth. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steerforth

      I think Russia is endlessly fascinating in so many ways, ostensibly European, but in reality something quite different and unique. I wish that I’d managed to visit during the days of the Soviet Union. I visited Prague before and after the collapse of communism and the contrast was striking.

      I shall look out for the Ann Patchett!

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    • Steerforth

      I shall make sure I read Doktor Glas. It’s a pity that Söderberg isn’t better known in the English speaking world, but perhaps that will change. There is clearly a huge appetite for Swedish and other Scandinavian fiction here, so I hope that it will achieve the recognotion it deserves. In addition to the book’s psychological insight, I also enjoyed the sense of place – Stockholm is my favourite city and the novel gave me a feel of how it was a century ago.

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      • Allen

        There’s an interesting novel inspired by DR Glas by the poet Dannie Abse: The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas – it was there I first heard of Dr Glas, which may be the wrong way round, but it’s well worth reading.

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  8. mikepetty

    I published the Derek Raymond Factory novels in paperback at Abacus. He was a slightly alarming character in many ways – tall, thin and be-bereted (is that a word?), as louche and charming as you might expect, but I used to wonder what on earth went on inside his head.

    Excellent list, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steerforth

      Yes, he certainly had a dark imagination. I thought I’d seen the worst of it until I read ‘I Was Dora Suarez’ which, as I’m sure you know, is reputed to have made Dan Franklin throw up. I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. But at least nobody could accuse Raymond of peddling cliches.

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