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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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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.

 

2013 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Since 2008 I’ve been compulsively keeping records of every book I read, and this year I’ve read more than any year since 2008. As of the time of this writing, I’m up to 80 books read and I’ll certainly squeeze in a couple more before the year is out. That seems like an awful lot of books, most of them fiction. I know of one person who reads substantially more than I do in an average year (seasons greetings to Tehani Wessely), but no one else. Workmates can’t help but notice that not only do I have my nose in a book at just about any given time, but that the cover changes practically on a daily basis. Wrapped up in books, indeed.

So what did I read? About a third of these books can be classified as crime fiction. This year I continued to be enthralled by the works of Americans Megan Abbott and Daniel Woodrell, but I also read and enjoyed Australian crime writers Peter Temple and David Whish-Wilson for the first time. Probably another third fall under the loose category of literary fiction. This year I read pretty much all of Raymond Carver’s short fiction and I also discovered Zoe Heller.  And the rest are a grab-bag of young adult novels read for school (the best of which were The Hunger Games and Trash), speculative fiction (my recent Farewell to Science Fiction notwithstanding) and some non-fiction. In 2013 I also read literary journals in Meanjin and Overland.

Another focus for 2013 was reading more books by women. When I started recording my reading in 2008, I couldn’t help but notice that only 9 of the 59 books I read that year were by women. This year that figure is 26, about one third of the books I read. I continued to be impressed by the works of Megan Abbott and Pat Barker, both of whom feature in my top ten, but I also read and enjoyed works by JC Burke, Zoe Heller, Kaaron Warren, Felicity Castagna, Meg Mundell, Marianne de Pierres and Katie Stewart.

Onto the top ten, then. This isn’t a ranked list and I limited myself to one book per writer. I can wholeheartedly recommend these books to anyone and everyone. I’ve linked the images to the listing for each book on Goodreads.

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The Completist – Authors I’ve Read Virtually Everything By

September 25, 2013 2 comments

Ah, lists. I love ’em and periodically I feel the urge to produce another one. Here’s a list of the authors I’ve read (and probably own) nearly everything by, with some brief thoughts on each of them.

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Megan Abbott 

She’s written six novels – I own and have read all six. My favourites are Queenpin and The End of Everything, but I like them all. I first encountered this author less than two years ago when I picked up a copy of her The Song Is You on a discount pile. I love discount piles.

J. G. Ballard

He wrote an awful lot, novels and stories, and I own and have read virtually all of it. Ballard had a profound impact on me at a crucial age (19-20), probably second only to Philip K. Dick in this regard. Ballard has definitely seeped his way into my writing subconscious. His essays are also extremely interesting – the man was nearly a genius. I recently read Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 and was duly blown away.

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs published a number of little chapbooks and other ephemera, so I can’t claim to have read everything he wrote, but I have at least 20-25 of his books and I’ve read numerous biographies and both volumes of his letters. I’ve even read Here to Go, his collaboration with Brion Gysin. I must have read Naked Lunch 5-6 times by now.

Pat Barker

I’m fairly new to Barker, only having discovered her in the past 3-4 years. I very much enjoyed her Regeneration Trilogy and was especially enamoured with the recent Toby’s Room. She’s an outstanding writer and there are 2-3 of her books that I’m still yet to read. I tend not to like her contemporary stuff as much as those books set in WWI.

Raymond Carver

In fact I hadn’t read a word of him until earlier this year, so it didn’t take me long to read all his short story collections (except for some posthumous stuff) and a biography to boot. Terrible person, amazing writer.

Raymond Chandler

Without Chandler I might still shy away from crime fiction. I was enraptured by novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, and I’ve read some of his novels multiple times. I never really got into his short stories. I’ve also read numerous biographies and a book of his letters.

J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee only barely makes this list, simply because there are 5-6 of his books that I haven’t read as yet. But I’ve read at least 10 of them and enjoyed them for the most part. I especially liked Disgrace and his trilogy of memoirs. Coetzee can be dry at times, but at his best he has no peer and he is the spiritual successor to Samuel Beckett.

Harry Crews

Most of the writers on this list are pretty famous, but Crews decidedly isn’t, not anymore. Dead and more or less out of print, Crews is nevertheless on a par with the likes of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, in my humble opinion. I’ve never read a fiercer book than his dark masterpiece A Feast of Snakes.

Philip K. Dick

What can I say about him that I haven’t said already? I’ve published a 40,000 word long article on his work in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and I dedicated years to reading everything he wrote and everything wrote about him. That adds up to a hell of a lot and takes up about two shelves in my study. PKD is my number one influence as a writer, by far.

Graham Greene

The best prose stylist of the twentieth century, bar none. There, I’ve said it.

Barry N. Malzberg

Another mostly out-of-print writer, Malzberg was one of my favourite SF writers a decade or so ago. I had a fairly extensive email correspondence with the man a decade ago as well. His best novels include Underlay and Galaxies.

Maureen McHugh

I very much liked her novel Half the Day is Night many years back, and now I’ve managed to assemble her complete ouevre, even if there are a couple of things I haven’t read.

James Tiptree Jr.

In actual fact a woman by the name of Alice Sheldon, Tiptree is famous for some amazing short stories written mostly in the 1970s. I’ve read virtually all of them. “Her Some Rose Up Forever” is among the best.

Jeff Vandermeer

Vandermeer is among beautiful stylist and author of numerous works, none better than his collection thingy City of Saints and Madmen. I’ve been following his career with interest.

Daniel Woodrell

Another writer I’ve only recently discovered, I discovered Woodrell on another discount pile in the form of his novel Winter’s Bone. I liked that plenty so I ordered everything else he’d written. Right now I’m very much enjoying his most recent novel, The Maid’s Version.

That’s fifteen writers I’m very fond of. Eleven of them are men. Eleven of them are Americans, three British and one South African. All of them are contemporary or near-contemporary. Chandler was born earliest, but Greene published earliest. There were a few others who didn’t quite make the list for one reason or another, such as Iain Banks, John Crowley, William Gay (haven’t read his stories), M. John Harrison, Jonathan Lethem (plenty more of his to read), Kim Stanley Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Irvine Welsh and Ma Jian (he’s only written about three books). And then there are Australian writers I like but haven’t read everything by, such as Garry Disher, Andrez Bergen, Simon Haynes, Paul Haines (I have read all of his), Bruce Russell, Kaaron Warren, and plenty of others.

So, which writers would make a similar list if you were to construct one?

What I read in 2012, and some books to start 2013 with

December 31, 2012 2 comments

Books read in 2012

I managed to hit 70 books read in 2012, which I’m very pleased about. This is the highest number I’ve read in a year since I began documenting my reading fully in 2008. This year I discovered a number of authors I hadn’t read before but whom I took an instant liking to: the crime novels of American Megan Abbott, Australian crime novels by Garry Disher, and the works of American Southern writers William Gay and Daniel Woodrell. I read a few more novels by authors I’d already read before: English author Pat Barker’s non-WWI novels, more from the peerless J M Coetzee, Graham Greene, Johnathan Lethem (whom I’m still undecided on), DBC Pierre (whom I’ve decided I don’t like) and more. Two of my favourite novels of the year though were by writers I hadn’t read much of previously: The City and the City by China Mieville and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Overall, my tastes seem to run mainly to crime novels and Southern Gothic, and my interest in speculative fiction is on the wane. Here’s the full list.

Abbott, M – The Song is You, Queenpin, Die a Little, Bury Me Deep

Atwood, M – Oryx & Crake

Auster, P – The Brooklyn Follies

Barker, P – Another World, Border Crossing

Bergen, A – Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat

Block, L – Grifter’s Game

Brown, L – Fay, Joe

Brautigan, R – Trout Fishing in America, In Watermelon Sugar

Broderick/Di Fillipo – Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010

Burroughs, WS – Rub Out the Words: Letters of WSB 1959-74

Byfield, M – Flight

Carter, A – Prime Cut

Coetzee, J M – Foe, Boyhood

Covich, S – When We Remember They Call Us Liars

Chabon, M – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Deane, J – The Norseman’s Song

Dick, Philip K – The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, The Simulacra

Disher, G – Blood Moon, The Dragon Man, Kittyhawk Down

Downham, J – Before I Die

Ellroy, J – The Black Dahlia

Faust, C – Money Shot

Gay, W – The Long Home, Provinces of Night, Twilight, Wittgenstein’s Lolita

Greene, G A Gun for Sale, Stamboul Train, The End of the Affair, Graham Greene: A Life in Letters

Hyde/Wintz – Precious Artifacts: A PKD Bibliography

Krasnostein, A (ed) – 2012

Ishiguro, K – Never Let Me Go

Kurkov, A – The Good Angel of Death

Lethem, J – The Disappointment Artist, Amnesia Moon

Luckhurst, R – The Angle Between Two Walls – J G Ballard

Mieville, C – The City and the City, Embassytown

McCarthy, C – The Crossing

McHugh, M – After the Apocalypse

Mosley, W – Devil in a Blue Dress

Orwell, G – Down and Out in Paris and London 

Pasternak, B – Doctor Zhivago

Pierre, DBC – Ludmilla’s Broken English, Vernon God Little

Palmer, C – PKD: Exhilaration and the Terror of the Postmodern

Priest, C – Boneshaker

Richardson, D – Ultra Soundings

Roth, P – The Plot Against America

Steinbeck, J – The Pearl

Stephenson, N – The Diamond Age

Swofford, A – Jarhead

Warren, K – Through Splintered Walls

Wessely, T (ed) – Epilogue

Weisman, A – The World Without Us (NF)

Woodrell, D – Winter’s Bone, Under the Bright Lights, Tomato Red, Give Us a Kiss, The Death of Sweet Mister

Books to read in 2013

I buy books a lot faster than I read them and thus I seem only to read about half of the books I buy. So I should slow down on the book buying, right? Riiiight 😉 Here’s my ‘immediate to-read’ list of 14, to be distinguished from my extended to-read list of 200+

Barker, P – Double Vision, Toby’s Room

I like Pat Barker quite a lot and I’ve managed to read at least half of her novels now. I complained a little to myself that she wrote too many books about WWI, but then in actual fact I prefer her WWI stuff to the contemporary novels of hers I read in 2012. Thus I’m looking forward to reading her latest novel, Toby’s Room, more than the older Double Vision.

Brown, H – Red Queen, After the Darkness

Russell of Reflexiones Finales put the thought of Australian writer Honey Brown into my head, and I’ve finally gotten around to picking up two of her novels today. I’ve made a brief start on Red Queen this afternoon and I like it plenty so far.

Coetzee, J M – Master of Petersburg

I’m not in a huge hurry to finish ploughing my way through the 7-8 Coetzee novels I’m yet to read, but I’ll get there eventually. I suspect I’ll pick up a couple more throughout the year.

Bergen, A – One Hundred Years of Vicissitude

Andrez Bergen’s second novel is on my immediate list courtesy of his excellent Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat. And he’s nearly finished a third novel. And a fourth, I think…

Disher, G – Wyatt

I’ve read a few Challis & Destry mysteries, but this will be the first I’ve seen of the Wyatt series.

Kempshall, P (ed) – Tales from the Second Storey

I picked this up at the KSP Minicon a few months ago and it has a very impressive Table of Contents…

Kerouac/Ginsberg – Letters

I love William Burroughs – his writing and his life – so much that I’m prepared to branch out into reading the letters of his friends now 🙂

Laidler, J – Pulling Down the Stars

I’ve almost finishing reading this one by the author of The Taste of Apple. Expect a review very soon.

McCullers, C – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Been meaning to read this for a long time, but my mum says it’s awesome so I’ll read it.

Penzler, (ed) – The Lineup

A collection of interviews with famous crime writers on how they came up with their protagonists.

Temple, P – Truth

I hear it’s good.

Xinran – China Witness

Another non-fiction book by the author of The Good Women of China.

2010: 12 days old, 5 books read

January 12, 2010 2 comments

Yes, I’ve done a lot of reading already this decade, so much that I can’t hope to review these books properly. A short paragraph on each is to follow.

Thirst by Ken Kalfus

I’ve been very enthusiastic about Kalfus since reading his book of stories PU239 and Other Russian Fantasies last year. Thirst is his other book of stories, and they’re every bit as good. About half of these stories are short, say less than ten pages, and those shorter pieces are generally flippant in tone or extended joke pieces, but the longer works, most notably “The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivial Quiz”, “Rope Bridge” and “No Grace on the Road” are fabulous. I haven’t said anything illuminating here, only that I enjoyed reading this book very much and would highly recommend it.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

Kalfus’ debut novel is set in two distinct periods of Russian history, the first in 1910 surrounding the death of Leo Tolstoy, and the second in 1924 around the death of V.I. Lenin. For the most part, we are told the story from the viewpoint of a ‘new Soviet man’ called Gribshin who makes a friend of Stalin long before he’s the tyrant he’d later become. In the second part of the novel, Gribshin is calling himself Astapov after the town of Astapovo where Tolstoy died in 1910. While possibly not as alluring as his shorter work (I wonder whether I’d have given this the chance it deserved had I not read Kalfus’ shorter work previously), The Commissariat of Enlightenment proved to be a substanial and even educational read. But I still think Kalfus is a better short story writer.

A Matter of Death and Life by Andrey Kurkov

I hadn’t heard of Kurkov of all. He’s a Ukrainian writing in Russian whose works have been translated in recent years into English. A Matter of Death and Life is a slim but beguiling read about a man in Kiev who decides to hire his own hit man (i.e. to kill him) after a relationship turns sour. But things become complicated when the hit man bungles the murder and our protagonist decides he wants to live after all. Thing work out well in the end though. This was a great little book, and a lot of the enjoyment I got from it was in reading about post-Soviet Russia, which sounds like no laughing matter.

The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker

This is the sequel to Regeneration, which told the story of Seigfreid Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in a mental institution during World War 1. I enjoyed Regeneration, but The Eye in the Door floored me, and is certainly my favourite of the five books I’ve read so far in 2010. This time around Barker focuses on her fictional creation Billy Prior, a deeply traumatised man who has experienced the horrors of the war firsthand. He’s also bisexual in a society where such a thing is more than frowned upon, and a government snitch to boot. His job is to find deserters in the poorer parts of England, a job complicated by the fact that he personally knows several deserters. Oh, and did I mention that Prior suffers from ‘fugue states’ where he loses several hours of his life at a time? This is simply fascinating, gripping writing, and I can’t wait to read the final volume in the trilogy, The Ghost Road.

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

I didn’t see this one coming–my sister brought it around for me to read and I finished it the same day, which isn’t too surprising given that it’s just 174 pages in length. What we have here is an apocalyptic piece or rather a series of several short pieces set in a future gone pear shaped indeed. At first it seemed to me that this would be a fairly routine dystopia, but I was wrong. What I enjoyed most about this was the way it continually surprised me; the book succeeded in unfolding in unexpected ways. You’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean.