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2014 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2014 2 comments

2014 has been a watershed year for me in terms of the quantity of books I’ve read: for the first time since I started recording these things in 2008, I’ve hit 100 books completed for the year. Most people are fairly astounded when I tell them I read this many books in a year, but I do favour shorter novels and it probably only averages out to about one hour of reading per day across the whole year. That’s an hour that many other people would spend watching television, say. It’s not that I don’t waste time on trivial pursuits — I certainly do — but my commitment to hunting, buying and reading books is such that I always have an immediate to-read list of 10-15 titles.

I tend to be an ‘author reader’, by which I mean that once I decide that I particularly like the work of a certain author, I will hunt down every book by this author and hopefully read every word. It doesn’t always work out this way; at times I decide that I’m not so interested in a certain writer after all, and end up with a pile of their books that I no longer want to read. In 2014, I read three or more books by the likes of Pat Barker, Larry Brown, Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Chabon, M John Harrison, Haruki Murakami, Peter Temple and Alan Warner. Most of these writers would normally be classified as authors of literary fiction or crime, and that’s a fair representation of where my reading interests now lie. I read a number of young adult novels as part of my job as an English teacher, some of them multiple times, which rather pads out my overall figures. My author of the year would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov. Until this year, I hadn’t read a word of him and now I’ve read his entire published prose output.

2014 may have been a watershed year in terms of quantity, but what about the quality? According to my Goodreads star ratings (which I have completed very assiduously this year), 21 books gained a five star rating. Of these, I have chosen my top ten reads for the year, limiting myself to just one book per author. Here are the ten in no particular order. All come highly recommended from me. Clicking on the covers will take you to the listing for the book on Goodreads.

Union Street by Pat Barker

I’ve now read almost all of Barker, with the exception of her novel Double Vision which I can’t seem to get into. This novel, her first, is the very best of her non-WWI output. Grim, dark and extraordinary powerful.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

In truth I possibly enjoyed A Country Doctor’s Notebook even more than this, but this is the magnum opus and the place where pretty much everyone starts with Bulgakov. I don’t regret giving this devilish satire of Stalin’s Russia my attention.

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross

A friend recommended this and I’m glad she did. I thought this was far superior to Cross’ second novel, The Secrets She Keeps. I loved the writing in this one and the plot had a couple of real kickers to it, too.

An Iron Rose by Peter Temple

Peter Temple is the Australian master of crime fiction and this is one of his very best, maybe the best of them all.

The Dark Road by Ma Jian

Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer and I’ve been waiting patiently for some years for a follow-up to Beijing Coma. Well, it was worth the wait. Not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish, or those inclined to depression. It’s that dark.

The Sopranos by Alan Warner

I’ve read a lot of Warner this year, probably two-thirds of his opus, but this one had me laughing the hardest and it’s not often that happens when I read. The sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, is a pale imitation.

Dirty Work by Larry Brown

I have mixed feelings about Brown but I have nothing but praise for this, his first novel. The book consists of two profoundly injured Vietnam War veterans chewing the fat, but it’s fat well worth chewing. Here’s a book with heart.


I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay

I love country noir fiction: Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Larry Brown, Larry Watson and Cormac McCarthy all write it and write it well, but in my opinion none of them does it better than Gay does in this exquisite volume of short fiction. I’d go so far as to say this is my number one book for the year.

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee

I like Coetzee: he’s an enormously skillful writer but at times I find him overly dry and that put me off him for a couple of years. The Master of Petersburg isn’t dry and I think it’s even better than his most famous novel, Disgrace. The Russian setting helps, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Coetzee is the greatest living writer in the English language.

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

In general I’ve liked but not loved the Factory novels, but this one, the first, is very good indeed. I happened to read this after books 2, 3 and 4 and in a way I’m glad that I did, because it was all downhill (admittedly at a gentle slope) from here.

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

Now this was a surprise. I loved Harrison in my younger years, especially his sumptuous Climbers, but he’s started writing SF again and in general I haven’t warmed to it. I despised Light when it first came out and thus this has sat unloved on my bookshelf for close to ten years, which is a pity as I enjoyed it immensely when I finally got around to it. The same couldn’t be said for the final volume in the Kefahuchi Tract series, Empty Space, which I found close to unreadable.

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Book Review – Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

November 4, 2009 1 comment

Morvern Callar is Alan Warner’s first novel. The sequel is These Demented Lands. Of course, I read them in the wrong order, but never mind. Morvern Callar the character is a young woman living in the Scottish port town of Oban, and on the first page of the book she discovers her boyfriend’s corpse in their flat. He’s killed himself. This is where this novel diverges from traditional expectations, as instead of reporting her grisly find to the police, Morvern listens to some music, gets ready to go out, goes to a few pubs and clubs, and generally has a good time. Is she is shock and soon to come to her senses? Apparently not. And that is one of the great strengths of Morvern Callar the novel: it shatters audience expectations.

I like Warner’s writing on a number of levels, but there are some annoying aspects that I can’t seem to get over at the moment, so I’ll get them out of the way here and get on with the positive side of my review. Firstly, there’s no apostrophes in the book, which I find really grating. So ‘didn’t’ is ‘didnt’ and suchlike. Cormac McCarthy seems to do this too. Secondly, there’s no quotation marks for speech. None! Doubly annoying. This is an aspect of so-called ‘postmodern’ writing I can do without – the deliberate omission of functional punctuation. Quotations aren’t there to look cool, they’re there to do a job. This leads me to think of Warner as a bit on the self-consciously pretentious side. It could be argued that these omissions are due to the fact that Morvern herself has a low level of literacy, and given that she is the narrator, this might seem warranted. But I don’t think this is justified, as Warner explains that his character could never have written the words in this novel anyway. So the point is lost. If this was the point, then Warner would have had to have done away with punctuation altogether. That reminds me of some of the essays I have to read in my job, only 240 pages long. The horror.

I’m not done with the things that annoyed me about Morvern Callar. This next one is a biggie. The phrase ‘I used the goldish lighter on a Silk Cut’ (which is presumably a brand of cigarette) is repeated at least fifty and perhaps one hundred times throughout the book. Yes, there are subtle variations, but essentially this phrase crops up on something like one in every two pages. Had Warner written ‘I lit a cigarette’, the phrase would have been perfectly anonymous, but the author’s insistence on itemising trivial details and brands prevents him from doing this. Yes, yes, it’s all about the character and how she is caught up in a world of brands and material possessions. I get the point. But it annoyed me all the same. My fourth complaint is that the book is littered with specific artist/album/track information about what Morvern is listening to at any given time. I think it’s fair to say that such information takes up five percent of the book.

All right. That’s enough complaining. Despite these annoyances, I did enjoy reading Morvern Callar. What we have here is a modern existential drama that owes more than a little to the French (Sartre and Camus). Interestingly, even though this novel is told in the first person, there’s almost nothing in the way of interior monologue. Think about that for a minute. How can you have a novel in this mode without information about what the character is thinking at any given time? Warner proves that it can be done but, as a consequence, the narrative becomes detached and impersonal. Thus we read of Morvern’s amoral debauchery (and there is plenty of that) without any sense that she is repentent, remorseful, or otherwise sorry.

About half way through the narrative, Morvern chops her boyfriend’s body up and buries the pieces in the mountains. Worse, she steals the novel he’d completed before his death, and publishes it to great acclaim under her own name. Here my blood was boiling and I began to hate this character. With the advance from the publisher, Morvern goes on a drinking/drugging/partying spree in Spain, and when she returns, she discovers that her dead boyfriend has left her his inheritance as well. Cue more partying, a lot more. Finally the money is gone and Morvern is forced to return to Oban again. This is hedonism to the nth degree, and Warner offers no apology. Morvern doesn’t get her comeuppance and the police don’t discover her boyfriend’s body. And so the reader, depending on his/her perspective, might be left floundering.

There are a number of other positive elements I haven’t really discussed here. Warner writes very vividly of Oban and surrounds, and many passages are quite beautiful. Many of the shenanigans described herein are very amusingly told. There’s a lot of local slang that I enjoyed trying to translate. So ‘oxters’ must be underarms, to ‘boak’ is to vomit, to be ‘rampant’ is to be aroused and ‘Strathclyde’s Finest’ are the police.  In summary, Warner is a wily fox of a writer who sets traps for the unwitting reader. It would be easy to become outraged by Morvern Callar, and in a different time and place this is exactly the kind of book that would be denounced and even banned. But I will feel no outrage. I will get over it and read The Man Who Walks next.

Wrapped Up in Books, Or Two Writers Newly Known to Me: Harry Crews and Alan Warner

October 13, 2009 Leave a comment

I was listening to one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite albums on the drive home from work today, Belle & Sebastian’s ‘Wrapped Up in Books’ from their Dear Catastrophe Waitress album. The central line of the song is “Our aspirations/are wrapped up in books” and I was thinking that it might be true for them, but it must be doubly true for me. The feeling I get when reading a new author I especially like, as has been the case so far with Harry Crews and Alan Warner, is ecstatic. Reading A Feast of Snakes the other day, I had to read several pages or passages a second time, not because I had lost the thread of the narrative, but because the writing was so good that I wanted to relive the experience of reading it. I don’t think I get that sense of exhilaration for any other activity, which I suppose is a strange thing to say about reading, but it’s true for me. I love reading even more than I love writing, and although I do read in part to learn from other writers, my major reason for reading is in the pleasure of it. But I’m such a picky reader that I rarely get that feeling now. I get it from Harry Crews and Alan Warner, which is why I did a stupid thing today: I ordered a few books by these authors from fishpond.com.au on my credit card, even though I’m basically broke at the moment. You know you’re addicted to something when you have to have it, even when you can’t afford it. I’m addicted to reading.

And I’m especially addicted to finding new authors. Not necessarily new new authors, but authors that are new to me. Harry Crews’ first novel was first published in 1968, but I hadn’t heard of him until a few days ago. Alan Warner is more contemporary, but he still started publishing his novels in the mid-nineties. Take a look at these suckers:

Harry Crews:

Alan Warner:

Warner looks fairly normal to me, but Crews? My God, look at that man’s face. I mean this respectfully: he’s a fearsome sight. The books I’ve ordered are Classic Crews (a compilation of two novels and one autobiography), Morvern Callar (prequel to These Demented Lands, already reviewed) and The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven. I can’t wait to read them.

Book Review – These Demented Lands by Alan Warner

September 8, 2009 3 comments

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I hadn’t heard of Scottish writer Alan Warner, much less read one of his books, and to make matters worse, These Demented Lands is apparently a sequel to a book called Molvern Callar. With a title like that though, I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

These Demented Lands is a strange kind of hybrid between something approximating realistic fiction, some kind of lite-apocalyptic fare, and there’s a fair bit of drug culture thrown in for good measure. There’s more than a few references to modern British bands too. The opening sees our nameless protagonist (her name is the ‘Molvern Callar’ of the first book) washing up on an island off Scotland with a young girl in tow. I can’t really be bothered trying to explain how this bizarre slipstream fiction works, but suffice to say it reads like what I might imagine someone on drugs to experience. (Notice I didn’t say ‘write’ – the prose is excellent, though difficult in places.) The book’s title is an accurate one, as what we basically have here is a rural Scottish setting seen through ‘weird’ goggles. That’s These Demented Lands in a nutshell.

Characters have outlandish names like The Aircrash Investigator, The Argonaut, and the chief antagonist, John Brotherhood. Brotherhood runs some kind of run down hotel (The Drome Hotel) for newlyweds, and our protagonist wants to go there for some reason. Here’s an area where These Demented Lands isn’t so flash: in terms of plot and character motivation. Okay, maybe these things seem passe to some, but I still expect them to exist in prose fiction. What plot this novel has is fairly weak, and characters seem to do things simply because it’d be cool. Okay. That was my main reservation about Warner’s novel, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying it.

The book is split into several sections, and the narration is split between Molvern Callar and The Aircrash Investigator. There are a lot of flyers and various other miscellania scattered through the book too, just to break things up (and, presumably, to look cool – there’s a fair bit of looking cool in this book). There’s also a fair bit of bad feeling between the Investigator and Brotherhood, and it turns out that neither are really who they claim to be. The Aircrash Investigator is looking into a crash that killed a couple of people on the island ten years ago. He’s also after a propellor (later he is forced to carry it on his back, much like Jesus Christ). Trying to explain the plot really does me no good here. There’s a memorable scene in which hot chilli con carne is thrown around everywhere. I think what I am trying to say here is that These Demented Lands is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, that it doesn’t really add up to anything.

But what amazing parts this book has! I liked one passages so much that I thought I’d quote it here:

“Gibbon had been delighted to find an economical way to get a lick of something waterproof to douse the boards. He’d been too mean to buy paint: when the biscuit bakery at Far Places had gone bust, Gibbon had taken away gallons of raspberry food-colouring from the auction. To his amazement, the stuff was completely waterproof; the lower sections of the outhouse were soon crucially pink: raspberry pink. As a paint it proved strudy enough but the outhouse’s downfall came when Gibbon’s cattle strayed from the fields into the yard and began licking the walls. Not only did they remove all the colouring up to five feet round the structure, the constant licking and pushing of the cattle wrecked sections of the walls and Gibbon had to fence off the outhouse to keep it from destruction.” (p 94-5)

The book was worth me reading for that passage alone, which had me laughing out loud. That doesn’t happen very often. This book manages to be literary, challenging, humorous and engaging. But ultimately, like a drug experience, it’s ephemeral. I’ll be looking out for other books by Alan Warner all the same.