1. King Rat, James Clavell
Pulp fiction at its best. Despite some very dodgy “geezer” dialogue and a heavy-handed metaphorical ending, I couldn’t put it down. It tells the life of The King, a black marketeer, ruthless entrepreneur and prisoner, in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore.
2. A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor:
PLF sets off from rainy Tower Bridge at the age of 18 to walk to Constantinople (okay, so he cheats and gets a boat to Rotterdam). The time is 1932, the inter-war years. I should have loved this book, but I didn’t. There are some excellent anecdotes about some of the people he meets on his travels – both fabulously rich and poverty-stricken – especially through Germany as the Nazi presence grows, but his pontifications on art, although erudite and eloquent in parts, bored me rigid. I don’t want a description of painting. More people, less art, I say! Let’s see if I can face volume two from Hungary to Turkey.
3. Dog Songs, Mary Oliver:
I know I’ll be tied to a lamppost for days for giving this four stars, but I make no apology. I’m a dog obsessive. Charming, beautifully illustrated book of poetry about dogs. Goes right to my beating heart and paws.
1. Lost for Words, John Humphreys:
Self confessed grumpy old man bemoans the use and misuse of English. At times he sounds like a frump, but most of the time he has a point. I’m fond of Humphreys but I would never want to work with the man. And I know who would win in an argument. He’s at his best when he’s knocking politicians to the ground.
2. Stoner, John Williams:
A slow, careful, melancholic look at the life of one man: William Stoner. Stoner’s life is not remarkable and yet Williams walks us through it with such gentleness and precision that you can’t help but feel moved by it. Born of farming stock, he rises above his station and becomes a lecturer at a midwest university. There are the usual university politics and manoeuverings. But always at the heart of it lies Stoner, solid, stubborn, unrepentant and inscrutable. An unexpected joy.
1. The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology, P.G. Wodehouse:
I say, I’m so frightfully thrilled to make Wodehouse’s acquaintance at last. Prose so light, so funny, so irreverent that I snorted my way through this anthology as happy as the Empress of Blandings (a fat, beloved old sow), and promised myself his autobiography as a Christmas treat to myself. Jeeves and Wooster I knew about but I wasn’t familiar with his short stories. Honeysuckle Cottage ticked every single box: about writing, about bad writing with a dog that stole the show. My brother thinks I’m really predictable. Do you?
2. How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall:
Not a fan. Four interlocking stories, with four different characters: grieving twin, hippy father, painter of bottles and a blind girl. Some voices weaker than others. Hall wrote this during a writing stint in Italy and one critic made the sharp comment: “The author’s attitude toward her Italian characters reminded me of a friend who recently visited Jamaica and talked at length — based on a week at the beach — about how cheerful everyone seemed. In “How to Paint a Dead Man,” the viewpoint is unmistakably that of a tourist looking in with sentimental nostalgia, not that of a native looking out with a story to tell.” Well put.
3. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy:
Read this years ago and forgot just about everything in the story apart from the disturbing scene in the cinema foyer. Surprised really because it is an excellent story, intricately told in the main. Just a bit too many prosaic similes for my terse taste. I hadn’t read so much literature from India back then. Another story about two-egg twins, Estha and Rahel, their cousin Sophie Mol and their tragic mother Ammu, set in Kerala during the political and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s. It won the Booker Prize back in 1997. Think Roy deserved it.
1. Collected Stories, Grace Paley:
Feminist, activist, pacifist, mother, lover, Paley wears lots of hats. These are her collected stories from 3 different books. Some of the characters that appear in her first book also surface in later collections. I get the sense of a life lived but I feel I should have enjoyed this more than I did. Maybe you need to be a mother to appreciate it. Or maybe it’s like when I stuff my face with chocolate. That final strawberry cream was just one too many.
1. The Seige, Helen Dunmore:
Set during the siege of Leningrad in the 1940s. Poignant because I was in St Petersburg for the first time this summer and visited the excellent Museum of the Blockade and Defense of Leningrad. Dunmore talks of the snipers ‘cold and hunger’ that kill thousands of people in that grisly year. A good line but the rest of the prose is a bit pedestrian for such a story.
2. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Brad Gooch:
It gets 4 stars because it’s about my favourite short story writer. It gets 4 stars because when Gooch quotes O’Connor the page comes alive. Here’s one example: O’Connor was a bad speller her whole life. As a child she defends her school scores in her Georgian drawl, “Mother, I made an 82 in Geography but I woulda’ made a hundred, if it hadn’t been for Spellin’; I made a 85 in English, but I woulda’ made a hundred it if hadn’t been for Spellin’; and I made a 65 in Spellin’ and I woulda’ made a hundred, if it hadn’t been for Spellin’.”
1. The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
Call me cynical, but I get the sense that more and more writers write with the idea of a screenplay in mind rather than a novel. Two brothers with the surname Sisters. Yeah, it caught me out for about three seconds. It’ll probably make quite a good film if it bothered to do a half decent ending, but not a patch on the series Deadwood.
2. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris:
I have all the time in the world for this man. It is more of the same – funny anecdotes about his life – but then I never get bored of olives either and I eat them most days. In the final diary entry he goes to Japan to give up smoking. It’s probably the weakest section, but he still manages some lovely cultural observations and gives him the title of the book. Getting Hugh to lance his boil was a bit grim, too. The things you do for love.
1. The Lady in the Van, Alan Bennett
A teeny tiny book about Miss Shepherd, bag lady and yellow van owner, who lived on Alan Bennett’s doorstep for about 20 years. I saw Maggie Smith play the part of Miss Shepherd at a London theatre. Much more entertaining than her Downton Abbey role. But don’t think this mawkish sentimentality. It isn’t. And if Miss Shepherd thought you thought that she might wallop you in one of her elaborate van-manoeuvring gestures.
2. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy:
When I began this short novel, I thought to myself: screenplay. Not just because of the Coen brothers’ adaptation but because of the style. Sure enough, one of the bits of trivia on IMDB said that it started its life as a screenplay. Ed Tom Bell, the redneck sheriff, has the strongest voice and Anton Chirugh is a disturbing character but Javier Bardem’s hairdo in the film version is the most terrifying.
3. Daughters of the House, Michèle Roberts:
Author is half French, half English. The story is set with one ‘daughter’ based in England, the other in France. They come together years later and a secret is revealed. One fat and happy. One less fat and less happy. Being fat or not fat is not the secret, mind. Poetic with her prose but the story itself is fairly unforgettable. Spoiler: the priest is no good. Who would have guessed, eh? Good job I made notes. If I’d looked back on this in 6 months, I would have remembered nothing.
1. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris:
More glorious anecdotes on Sedaris’ batty family and his struggles with learning the French language. Plus ca change plus c’est une bonne chose.
2. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming:
* (and that’s begrudgingly)
Fleming’s first James Bond book and my World Book Night 2013 giveaway. Had I read it beforehand, I’d have chosen another title. Any writer who refers to the ‘sweet tang of rape’ should have his balls mashed the way Le Chiffre battered Bond’s nether regions. And the ugliest final line ever.
3. The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, Andy Worthington:
Published in 2007, it describes in shocking detail how men came to end up in this illegal and torturous hellhole. Obama called for its closure on his victorious election back in 2008. We’re now in 2013 and it’s still open. 166 detainees still in there, and only 6 of them on active charges. 103 of them are on hunger strike. When will it end?
1. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula LeGuin:
I know it won a stack of awards back in the day. I know all sci fi fans will hate my guts for only giving it two stars, but I AM NOT A FAN OF SCI FI. The chapter, ‘A Question of Sex’ is good. And not for smutty reasons but it takes an anthropological appoach to the androgynous people of Karhide. But I won’t be picking up another sci fi read for some years now. I’ve had my fill, thanks.
2. Sum: Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman
A small book full of big ideas. Forty very short stories from the afterlives. Playful and imaginative, this could be arguably classed as sci fi. If that’s the case, I could become a convert. Sum, the opening story and title of the book, is my favourite, but others are genius as well. Take your time over this one. It’s brilliant.
3. Barrel Fever, David Sedaris
I was introduced to David Sedaris last year (thanks, Mark!), so something of a latecomer to the party. Having munched through a stack of his books now I feel tales of his odd family are among the best and while Barrel Fever has some of those, the rest are stories of the American zeitgeist. Still entertaining but not nearly as compelling as his own family life.
1. The Golden Ass, Apuleius (translated by Robert Graves):
Lucius gets transformed into an ass for his curiosity and louche ways, facing many trials with cruel masters, witches and all round bad eggs. Humans don’t come out well in these morality tales. Saw a production at The Globe with Mark Rylance as the ass. He played a very good donkey.
2. Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill:
Saw this years ago at the National Theatre with Helen Mirren as Christine, Paul McGann as Brant and Eve Best as Lavinia. 4.5 hours of utter joy. Re-reading it made me remember it all over again. Terrific stuff on a Greek tragedy scale.
3. The House of the Dead, Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
Semi-autobiographical account of life in a penal colony. Didn’t know FD was up against a firing squad and was saved at the last minute, only to spend 4 years of his own life in a Siberian prison. Disappointing prose but that might be the fault of the translation.
1. The Death of Bunny Munro, Nick Cave:
0 stars (I am a big fan of Nick Cave’s music)
A terrible book. If he weren’t famous, no-one would have touched this. Some geezer in Brighton loses the plot and then his life. Felt sorry for his kid, mind.
2. Independence Day, Richard Ford:
Frank “Mr Nice Guy” Bascombe returns as a realtor. In 4 days he shows people some homes, sees his girlfriend and takes his son on a trip. Not sure it needed 450 pages for all this inner dialogue. Should add more comedy moments.
1. Londoners, Craig Taylor:
If you love London as much as me, indulge yourself on this ode to the city. PS the entry on cycling was rubbish. I could have done a better job.
2. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley:
Really enjoyed this. So much I didn’t know about his early life: drugs, armed robbery, prison. Quite a cat back in the day.
3. The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson:
Easy read. Funny in parts but his misunderstanding of autism made me wonder how good he is at actual research.
4. East of Eden, John Steinbeck:
The story of Cain and Abel told over again – twice. First half excellent, but it is too long. Cathy, creepy Cathy, gives me the shivers but then loses her edge at the end. How the film only covered the second story of Cal and Aron is beyond me.