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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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Mikhail Bulgakov, for whom “manuscripts don’t burn”

June 21, 2014 1 comment

I read a lot of books and I’m always searching for ‘new’ authors to become obsessed by. Once or twice a year I find an author especially to my liking. Preferably they’ve written a fair few books (at least 5) but not as many as 20-30 or it’ll take me forever to read everything they’ve written (see Elmore Leonard). They can be living but it’s all the same to me if they’re dead. At least that way you’re likely to get a biography or two. ‘New’ authors have to follow my ‘1918 Rule’ which simply states that they must have published their books since the end of the First World War (the birth of the modern era). I am especially partial to American authors, but I’ve read writers from all over the (mostly Western) world. In recent years I’ve been especially enamoured with the works of Raymond Carver, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott, to name but three. 2014’s best ‘new’ author for me is Mikhail Bulgakov, who died in Stalin’s Russia in 1940.

I’ve read a bit of Russian literature over the years but it has tended to be single books by famous authors such as Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. I haven’t really bonded with a Russian author before. At one point I thought I was going to like Andrey Kurkov (okay, so he’s Ukranian) but 3-4 books later my ardour for his work has cooled. I hadn’t heard of Bulgakov until I read an essay on him in Overland magazine, and that inspired me to buy a copy of his best known work, The Master and Margarita.

This novel is like nothing else I’ve read in Russian literature, which normally seems to exclusively consist of bleak realism, not that I have anything against that. Fresh from that novel, I ordered a copy of a volume of Bulgakov’s letters and diaries, which also serves as a quasi-biography. I highly recommend it.

By now I was hooked and determined to read the rest of Bulgakov’s work. Luckily for me, Vintage has six volumes of his novels and stories (but not his plays), meaning that I could get uniform editions which look nice on the shelf with their red spines. A Heart of a Dog (also known, in a different translation, as A Dog’s Heart) was an amusing read, too.

Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel (confusingly, also known as A Dead Man’s Memoir) is an interesting, albeit unfinished and not altogether satisfying satire about the Moscow theatre of the 20s. It was worth a read.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook (or A Young Doctor’s Notebook) is my favourite Bulgakov behind The Master and Margarita. I thought this was some kind of diary from the author’s time as a rural doctor duing WWI, but it turns out that the stories were written in the 20s and are highly polished. This is very good and very accessible, probably a great place to start with Bulgakov. Apparently it’s been made into a TV series, too.

Bulgakov’s only volume of short stories, Diaboliad, was suppressed during the author’s lifetime along with most of the rest of his work. Confusingly, some editions (thankfully not the Vintage) DON’T contain the novella length ‘The Fatal Eggs’ which is also available as a standalone title. Seeing as ‘The Fatal Eggs’ represents about 2/3 of the pages in the Vintage edition, that would really suck. I didn’t much like the three later stories in Diaboliad, but I liked ‘The Fatal Eggs’ (a SF story reminiscent of H. G. Wells) and especially the title story, which is something of a prototype for The Master and Margarita.

The sixth and final book in Vintage (all translated by Michael Glenny) is Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, which is based on the author’s wartime experiences. Bulgakov’s most famous and successful play during his lifetime, “The Day of the Turbins”, is based on this. I haven’t got around to purchasing this sixth Vintage volume yet, but I will.

In addition to these six Vintage volumes, there are a handful of other obscure titles not available in Vintage. There’s something called Notes from the Cuff which I believe to be more short stories, there are collections of Bulgakov’s surviving plays and even a biography of Moliere which seems to be out of print. Hopefully I’ll get to these one day. Let me know if you’ve read any of these more obscure titles (or indeed any Bulgakov). I’m finding it hard to pin down exactly what I like about Bulgakov so much. He certainly seems atypical for a Russian writer, more Continental in character. His work is very dark and very funny, and the story of his life is one of perseverance in the face of the harshest of adversity. There are only a few photos of Bulgakov floating around on the internet. This one of he and his third wife, taken shortly before his premature death in 1940, I find especially haunting.