2013 in books

9 January 2014

 It was a pretty busy year. It didn’t feel like there was a lot of spare time. I keep fretting to myself that I don’t have enough time to read books, and having seen a slew of ‘Best of…’ blogs for 2013, I thought I’d do a rough count and see how good 2013 was as a reading year.

I surprised myself by how many books I did manage to read, mostly on coaches, trains and aeroplanes, although a few were frantically devoured in every spare moment. Yes, there were some that were that good.

I’m the publisher’s nightmare, the reader who likes new stuff. Given the choice of good but predictable or an unknown quantity, I’ll generally go for the surprise. But looking back over the year’s reading, there are a bunch of the stalwarts I keep returning to; the crime originals Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Simenon. Then there’s Hardy, Kipling and Maugham, the indispensable shots in the arm that Waugh and Wodehouse provide, plus a scattering of Anthony Burgess. Enderby the ruined poet, you make me cringe, but I still come back to you. Oh, and The Ipcress File’s somewhere in there as well, written fifty years ago and still as fresh as new paint.

It was a surprise how much of this last year’s reading has been on Kindle, around half, I’d guess. Reading habits change and these days I’ll pick up the Kindle for an odd ten minutes instead of a newspaper or a magazine, while I read a couple of magazines on my phone. Confusing? Just a bit.

2013 was also yet another year I didn’t get round to reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, decided two episodes of Borgen was more than enough, took part in organising a crime fiction festival in Reykjavík, caught whooping cough, and flirted briefly with the notion of acting my age at last but decided it’s a lousy idea.

So, here’s my review of the reading year. I’m not even going to try and take in everything, just the stuff that was new to me that really smacked me between the eyes.

1. I heard William McIlvanney speaking at CrimeFest last year and out of curiosity, I bought the first of his three Laidlaw books. He hasn’t exactly pumped them out. The first was published in 1977, the third in 1991. This is grit and dirt, supposedly the forerunner of Tartan Noir. It’s the language the grabs you by the throat; Every so often a Glaswegian voice would come over the tannoy  dressed in Pukka English like a Moss Bros suit delivered to the wrong person. That's poetry.

2. Mr Westlake, where have you been all these years? I’ve heard people rave about Donald Westlake a few times and finally picked up one of his books while I was sitting in an airport. This is spare, stripped back and waxed prose that’s straight to the point. I almost missed my flight and now I’m hooked on both Dortmunder and the Parker stories that he wrote as Richard Stark.

3. Another one from CrimeFest. Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel Alex has been a deserved bestseller. It breaks plenty of rules in the process as a young woman is kidnapped on the streets of Paris, leaving diminutive police officer Camille Verhoeven with little to go on. It’s thoroughly brutal, but it’s essential to the story and nowhere is the violence gratuitous, as it leads to a surprise and almost satisfying finish.

4. Forget 50 Shades. Richard Pierce’s The Failed Assassin is loaded with lust. It’s not for everyone and not for the faint of heart. It made me sit up and take notice, and I’m not normally shockable in that department. At the same time it’s poetic. The quality of the writing and the sense of place in deftly drawn strokes all work and it’s one of those stories that stays with you long after the last page has been read.

5. A friend of mine in the Faroe Islands has been researching the activities of a Faroese missionary in the Congo a century ago. Daniel Jacob Danielson accompanied Roger Casement on his exploration of the Congo river in 1903 and played a part in opening the eyes of the world to the horrors that were taking place in the Belgian Congo at that time. Danielson has been almost entirely forgotten and there are only a few tantalising clues to his life – he died in 1916, a relatively young man. But Joseph Conrad must have drawn on Casement’s and Danielson’s work in writing Heart of Darkness. All right, I’ve read Heart of Darkness before but it was so long ago that I’d forgotten everything about it. It’s not an easy read and it’s downright uncomfortable in places, but worth every minute.

6. For some reason I’ve never read John le Carré before. I’d seen Smiley played by Alec Guinness on the box years ago and wasn’t gripped. But this year I read a couple of the man’s books, and was captivated right from the start. I’m saving a few more up for when I have a day or two spare to be immersed in his world again.

7. Edward Wilson’s The Darkling Spy has been in the to-be-read pile for a long time; too long. As it reached the top, there was no option but to tank through it in more or less one sitting. Great story, entirely credible characters and plot, and a thoroughly authentic evocation of place and era. Once I’d finished The Darkling Spy, whole minutes elapsed before starting on A River in May. Edward Wilson was born in the US and became a naturalised Brit, after having travelled widely and after serving in Vietnam. A River in May is his Vietnam story and it’s easily one of the finest and most nuanced war books I’ve read.

8. Another one that’s not for the faint of heart. A Fucked Up Life in Books charts milestones in the life of an anonymous blogger with a serious book obsession against the books she was reading at the time. Bookcunt – yes, that’s her moniker – has come up with a funny and gut-wrenching memoir that’s raw and tender by turns. It’s a brutally honest piece of writing that includes why reading Asimov in the pub or Lolita on a long-distance coach journey aren’t necessarily great ideas. Oh, and she swears freely and refreshingly, like a bargee having a bad day.

That’ll do. There was plenty more in the 2013 reading; Gunnar Staalesen, Barbara Nadel, Martin Saban-Smith, Richard Godwin, Paul D Brazill, Dominique Manotti (why the hell are there only four of her magnificent books available in English?) William Sutton, Aliefka Bijlsma, Nick Quantrill, Ed Hancox, Caroline Smailes, Alain Mabanckou, Jean-Claude Izzo and Jakob Arjouni, all of whom I’d recommend. Then there were a few less good ones as well, including one that looked like a decent tale but which had been thoroughly wrecked by the author’s own over-ambitious translation into English, a few that I couldn’t get past page five of, and one or two that I persevered with and ultimately wished I hadn’t made the effort. Life’s too short to read books that don’t click in your mind. But those are the minority, I’m happy to say.

2013 was a good reading year, bring on 2014.

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