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2015 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In 2015, for the second consecutive year, I read more than 100 books. A few of these were in conjunction with my work as an English teacher (indeed I read a couple of these books aloud to students), but the vast majority were for my own personal reading. Around a third of these were crime fiction, with the rest being literary fiction, non-fiction and the odd SF novel. This year I revisited the works of J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, all of whom are authors who were important to me in my twenties. I completed my reading of the works of Pat Barker, Mikhail Bulgakov and Derek Raymond, and I’m one book short of completing everything by Peter Temple, too. I read multiple titles by the likes of James Lee Burke, J. M. Coetzee, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vicki Hendricks, Cormac McCarthy and Larry Watson. Authors that I read for the first time in 2015 include Julian Barnes, James Darnielle, Candice Fox, Christopher Isherwood, Henning Mankell and Ron Rash. I didn’t enjoy all of these books and authors equally, but all have something to recommend them. My author of 2015, however, was definitely Jim Thompson. I ended up reading twelve of his books. What follows is my top ten reads for 2015 with brief description and links to Goodreads.

Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop

It’s a sequel to Frankenstein, set in the US in the first half of the twentieth century. Oh, and the monster plays baseball. He can really hit them out of the park.

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of what happened in this slim volume. I do remember, however, than the writing was exceptional.

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Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

I’ve read about ten of Coetzee’s novels now; this is yet another outstanding piece of work from the Nobel Prize winner.

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Liza’s England by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is an exceptional writer but in general I prefer her WWI books to the rest. This one, however, a bildungsroman set in England in the early twentieth century, is very powerful and far superior to the recently-released Noon Day.

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Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

This is a fascinating portrait of life in late-Weimar Germany told through the ‘camera’ of ‘Christopher Isherwood’. I’ve read four Isherwood titles recently, but this was my favourite of them.

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A State of Denmark by Derek Raymond

Probably the best of Raymond’s non-Factory novels, this is part Orwellian dystopian England, part rural Italy. Fascinating.

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The Hidden Files by Derek Raymond

Raymond’s memoir is part autobiography and part thesis on what he calls the ‘black novel’. Rambling but ultimately rewarding for authors of crime fiction.

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Savage Night by Jim Thompson

The first Thompson novel I read happened to be one of his very best, and it precipitated a book-buying-bender on my part. This is a slim and savage little crime novel that I greatly admire.

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A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson

I especially liked this Oedipal (and partly autobiographical) tale of Dusty Rhodes, hotel porter. It’s another Thompson stunner.

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Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson

I’m saving the best for last. This is by far my favourite book of 2015; it’s a caustic, outrageous comedy noir set in Hicktown, USA at the turn of the twentieth century. This has to be the very best of Jim Thompson and that’s really saying something. Go read this book immediately!

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The Red Fog Rises: On Derek Raymond

November 18, 2015 Leave a comment

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I hadn’t heard of UK crime writer Derek Raymond until I was given a copy of his novel The Devil’s Home on Leave about two years ago. I enjoyed that well enough, finding it to be exceedingly gritty and bleak (and thus to my tastes) and in time I got my hands on the other novels in the Factory series, He Died With His Eyes Open, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright. The first of these I liked best, the last the least, and I didn’t enjoy the much hyped Suarez as much as I thought I might, although perhaps that was the point. Raymond can be artless at times and there’s a certain repetitiveness to his work, but it’s genuine, powerful and oh so very sordid. Ideally I’d obtain the entire Factory series in either the UK Serpent’s Tail editions or the US Melville House, but as usual (as you can see from the above photo), I’ve ended up with a bit of both.

There’s more to Derek Raymond than the Factory novels; quite a bit more, in fact. Next cab off the rank for me was the excellent A State of Denmark, a remarkable mix of 1984 and some really vivid writing about country life in Italy. This would be close to the best of Raymond’s earlier work, originally published under his real name of Robin Cook (he chose the pseudonym in the 80s due to the popularity of the other Robin Cook). The other early novel published by Serpent’s Tail is The Crust on its Uppers, the author’s first. I didn’t enjoy this very much, and nor did I like the late, weak Nightmare in the Street. Raymond did have one more good shot in him, as it turned out, the posthumously-released Not Till the Red Fog Rises, which I’ve just finished reading today. This reads very much like the Factory novels except that here we see things from the criminal mind of Gust, a dangerous man to cross. Finally there’s Raymond’s memoir The Hidden Files, a combination of personal history, treatise on the ‘black novel’ and a lot of other oddities thrown in for good measure. Out of print, expensive and obscure, this is nonetheless an important and very interesting book.

So that’s the end of my Derek Raymond adventure, or is it? As Robin Cook, the author published four other early novels that are yet to be reprinted and may forever remain so, given that the author died more than twenty years ago. They are named Bombe Surprise, The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip, Public Parts and Private Places and The Tenants of Dirt Street. All are obtainable secondhand, but all are expensive. After finding The Crust on its Uppers a chore to get through, I’m disinclined to blow my money on these obscurities, but perhaps I’m making a mistake? If you know, let me know.

In summary, Derek Raymond is for lovers of British noir. He’s not for the squeamish, and perhaps it’s best not to read too many of his books in one go. His best work, in my view, can be found in novels like He Died With His Eyes Open, A State of Denmark and Not Till the Red Fog Rises. If you like your novels served black, then you’ll very much enjoy these titles.

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.

forever wrapped up in books – a new reading list

July 26, 2014 2 comments

I’m up to 51 books read so far in 2014, so I’m on track to match or better the 82 books I read in 2013. I always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but in fact the volume of books I read has actually increased in recent years. Since I started keeping records of every book I read in 2007 (because, you know, wrapped up in books) I seem to read a little more each year than the one previous. 47 books in 2009, 55 in 2010, 66 in 2011, 71 in 2012 and 82 in 2013 – where will it end? At the current rate, I’ll better 2013’s figure by a handful of books, and then onward toward cracking the ton in 2015, I guess.

Books are pretty damn expensive in this country, which is my poor excuse for not really supporting the ailing Australian bookselling industry. If I paid retail price (like, at least $20) for every book I read, I’d be looking at $1600 just for this year, and that’s if I could buy the books I wanted in the stores, which invariably I can’t. Oh yes, I could order them in. What a quaint concept! I remember this from the pre-internet days. But why on Earth should I do the research on a particular book I want, trundle into the bookshop (100 kilometre drive away), ask them to order said book, drive home, wait several weeks or months for them to get the book in, drive 100 km, just to pay retail price, i.e. including the bookseller’s 40% markup? I just don’t do it anymore. On occasion I will buy a book from Dymocks, the only half-decent Aussie bookshop chain left in this country, but invariably it will be from the $5 or $10 discount pile at the front. The other week I scored a copy of Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever from Big W in trade paperback for $19. I had a look in Dymocks afterwards to see if they had it. Nup. And if they had, it would have been $30-33. Sorry, Dymocks will be next to die, following Angus and Robertson and Borders.

Back to a cheerier subject, as in the books on my current reading list. About two weeks ago I ordered 14 books from Better World Books, which I strongly suggest you check out if you aren’t aware of it. Those 14 books cost me $96 in total. Yes, they are secondhand and no, the author won’t receive any royalties. Guess what–I’m an author too (of three novels and several short stories) and I haven’t made a brass razoo out of my writing. And the other day, after picking up a copy of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for $3 in a charity shop, I’ve ordered two more of his for under $20 in total from Book Depository. That’s 16 books for $114 at $7.12 per book. Yes, most of them are secondhand. But therein lies the problem facing the bookselling industry today. If someone like me won’t support the domestic industry here in Australia, then who will? Answer: no one. If books were substantially cheaper here, let’s say $12 per book instead of $20-23, then I’d buy a heap more locally. But I see absolutely no sign of that happening.  And the market wins.

So, let’s have 16:

Auster, Paul – The Invention of Solitude: A Memoir

Barker, Pat –The Man Who Wasn’t There,  Blow Your House Down, Liza’s England

Brown, Larry – On Fire, Dirty Work

Chabon, Michael – Manhood for Amateurs, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

Cross, Helen – Secrets She Keeps, Spilt Milk, Black Coffee

Murakami, Haruki – Kafka on the Shore, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Raymond, Derek – He Died with His Eyes Open, Dead Man Upright

Whorton, James – Angela Sloan

 

I haven’t read a lot of Auster but I’m trying to persevere with his often dry prose and I have an inkling that I will like his nonfiction. Pat Barker, on the other hand, is a favourite of mine and these three early novels are the only ones I don’t yet own. I’m a bit ambivalent about Larry Brown but again I’m keen to read his nonfiction (On Fire) as well as his first novel. Chabon is another of my favourites and these are the only books of his I don’t own aside from his YA novel Summerland. Helen Cross is an author new to me. I very much enjoyed her My Summer of Love earlier this year. These are her other two novels. Murakami I mentioned above. Derek Raymond’s Factory novels are very grim and harrowing. This is the first and last in the series; I’ve previously read the middle three. And lastly, I’ve previously read James Whorton’s first two novels, so now for the third.

 

Finally, here’s the song that this blog is named after. Happy listening. Feel free to post your own reading lists in the comments, recommendations etc.