Top Ten Books of 2016

I wasn’t going to do one of these lists – for the first time in ten years of blogging – because I have read so little this year. But then it occurred to me that whilst I may not have read many physical books, I’ve listened to a large number. And looking back over the year, I see that Shiny ensured that when I was reading, I still read as much as I possibly could. And I adore Best-Of lists; it was reading Annabel’s (which inspired me to order three actual books in the spirit of cautious optimism motivating my idea of reading in 2017) that decided me finally to do one.

So, in no particular order, the best books of the year have been:

commonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett

Mr Litlove read this one to me and we both enjoyed it tremendously. The story of a dysfunctional family, grafted in awkward ways due to divorce and remarriage, is viscous with dread in its early stages, but strong on reconciliation and renewal by its conclusion. Patchett’s wonderful writing brings every scene dazzlingly alive.

Black Water by Louise Doughty

The unglamourous side of espionage and its complex ethical issues are brought to the fore in this stunner of a novel. John Harper has ‘looked after the interests’ of multinational companies, doing the legwork that not many people ever get to know about, mostly in Indonesia (where he was born to mixed race parents) in two period of turmoil: the anti-Communist purges in 1965 and the riots of 1998. What would you do if your survival was at stake, the novel asks? And then how would you live with yourself afterwards? Exquisite writing gives this tale terrific emotional and moral heft.

The Good Guy by Susan Bealethe-good-guy

Suburban America in the 1960s is the setting for this story of adultery and its consequences. You might think it’s a tale that’s been often told, but the Hopper-ish scene setting and the delicate characterisation of all the parties involved makes this a standout.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

Critics mistook this for a novel when it was first published, but it’s actually a genuine investigation undertaken by Modiano into a petit annonce in a 1941 newspaper seeking the whereabouts of teenage runaway, Dora Bruder. Modiano found out that she had run into the arms of the Gestapo and had been deported with her father to Auschwitz in 1942. But what else could he discover about her? Could he piece her biography together? Who was she? What follows is one of the most moving and insightful accounts of an imaginative attempt to enter the life of another that you’ll ever read.

conclaveConclave by Robert Harris

Mr Litlove and I have only just finished listening to this one on audio book, but it’s kept us enthralled over the festive period. The story, set in the near future, begins with the death of the current pope and the meeting of cardinals in the Vatican to elect his successor. It’s told from the perspective of Jacapo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the man whose unhappy task it is to preside over the conclave. Full of details you never knew about the process of papal election, yet dominated by a powerful, gripping storyline as secrets and scandals rise inexorably to the surface, this is one fun and fulfilling read.

Americanah by Chimamande Ngozi Adiochie

I listened to this way back at the start of the year and absolutely loved it. It’s fundamentally a love story, concerning teenage sweethearts in Nigeria who are separated by their life choices. Ifemelu has the opportunity to study in America and she takes it with both hands, believing it is her route to a better future. Obinze, who had hoped to follow her, is stymied in his choices and finally ends up in the UK. The story is a long, slow appreciation of their different routes, taken as the two make it back to one another, though of course both are now in separate relationships and carrying a great deal of baggage. Essentially, it’s a book about race, and about being a black person in a white world. It’s brilliant on race. Really excellent. And I have to give a special shout-out to the narrator of the audio book, Adjoa Andoh, whose range of Nigerian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, American and British accents had to be heard to be believed. I could have listened to her all day (and sometimes did).

The Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamiltondeadly-touch-of-tigress

My sister-in-law got me started on this crime fiction series featuring Ava Lee, a forensic accountant. Yup, a petite, gay, Chinese-Canadian woman who can do maths and kick butt – what’s not to like? Ava goes on the track of funds (enormous funds) that are missing or have been criminally appropriated, and she gets her clients their money back. You get to find out what a lot of airports across the world are like, as Ava has to do a lot of travelling to follow the money trail, and you learn interesting stuff about Chinese martial arts, financial accounting and top-end hotels, too.  I’ve been wonderfully entertained by them.

The Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child

If I’m honestly doing my best of the year, then I have to include another shout-out to Reacher. Having listened to a LOT of audiobooks this year, I’m here to tell you that being read out loud is a stringent test for any work of fiction. You get to hear every single word chosen by the author, and you get to hear every single sentence, all read at a constant, steady pace. Not many styles, plots or characters can survive it. However, Lee Child’s novels really do work under these severe conditions. I can’t speak for the last five or six he’s published, as they are showing all the signs of series fatigue and just don’t match up to the early ones. I listened to Killing Floor and The Hard Way, and both were excellent – and brilliantly read by their narrators, too.

a-spool-of-blue-threadA Spool of Blue Thread and Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler

The other author who works magnificently on audio is Anne Tyler. I’ve long loved her work and read most of what she’s written (you remember they re-issued her early novels? I haven’t read all of those – she hit her stride with Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant and I’ve read them all since then). The two I mention above were real highlights of the listening year. Her characters are so real and her dialogue so wonderful and – the later you go in her back list – she is so funny and amusing that her novels were just instant cheerfulness for me.

The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick

This is an unusually fiction-heavy list this  year, and I should add honorable mentions here for Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Hicks and Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marcal. But I have to award the prize to Vivian Gornick for her set of splendid interconnected literary essays on the way love in novels has changed since the 19th century. She writes about Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley and many others. But it doesn’t matter who she writes about, the point is the clarity, the insight and the lack of pretension she brings to whichever author falls into her sphere. Mr Litlove read these to me, and he – an engineer by training – enjoyed them as much as I did. Now that’s what I call literary criticism.

 

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And Finally, Some Reviews

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been (though I expect you have much better things to think about), then a partial answer is: writing for Shiny.

SNB-logoYes! Shiny New Books, issue 10, is live today. It’s full of the usual stock of bookish goodies, lots of reviews, features and interviews, and these are the books I’ve personally recommended:

A clever and compelling novel about a troubled marriage.

A classic novel that I doubt anyone has read.

A non-fiction account of a profession that’s had a lot of bad press.

A brilliant piece of shrink-lit.

A literary novel that won me over, even though it wasn’t the sort of thing I like best.

And please do check out the BookBuzz section, which includes special features by our friends, Elle and Arti Ripples.

Enjoy!

The American – Better Than Donna Leon?

the americanAs I mentioned, I’ve got a couple of reviews outstanding, and this is the first one for which I’m part of a blog tour. The American by Nadia Dalbuono comes with a sticker on the front promising you your money back if you don’t love it as much as a Donna Leon novel – perhaps the most famous crime writer currently working from Italy. Given that the novel is based in Italy, I guess Donna Leon becomes the most obvious point of reference, but stylistically, Dalbuono is so very different that other comparisons came to my mind. If you like John le Carre, or Charles Cumming or Sara Paretsky, then I think you’d like this. It’s a very sophisticated, intelligent piece of fiction writing, and one that functions on the intersection of crime and politics.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is a good guy in a bad world. He’s a cop with the flying squad in Rome, but his background is with the Mob – his late father used to be a prominent member (if that’s the right term). Scamarcio is trying to do everything by the book, but that isn’t easy in an Italy that’s fundamentally corrupt, and where the police are under pressure from both politicians and the church to keep secrets and turn a blind eye. In this, the second novel in the series, Scamarcio also has the added complication of a girlfriend he isn’t sure he wants, Aurelia, who works in the pathology department. You kind of fear for her from the start, and goodness knows she’s in for more trouble in the course of this novel than just a commitment-phobe for a boyfriend.

The catalyst for Scamarcio’s inquiry is an apparent suicide, hanging off the Ponte Sant’Angelo, close to the Vatican City. This John Doe seems to be a banker suffering from the economic hardships blighting much of southern Italy, but there’s something about the way the body has been presented that makes Scamarcio think of an older case, the 1982 murder of a man called Robert Calvi who was called ‘God’s Banker’ because of his dodgy links with the Vatican Bank. And then, when a senior priest is found stabbed in the Vatican City, it seems obvious that some sort of link must be forged between the bodies. But how that can happen, when the local police have no jurisdiction over the Vatican (which is steadfastly not seeking their help), and the original body is nicked from the mortuary by two American secret service agents who don’t seem quite the full ticket, is anybody’s guess. Scamarcio is asked, none too politely, by the Americans to let it go – it’s a simple suicide, nothing for the police in Rome to be bothered about. But his instincts tell him the case is far more complex and far more dangerous, and he keeps digging.

He will eventually embroil himself in a long-standing and deep-rooted conspiracy that stretches between America and Italy and involves the shocking manipulation of political power by both church and government. I don’t want to give too much away as the gradual uncovering of the extent of the situation is one of the best features of the novel. Suffice to say, my regular complaints that too much contemporary fiction boils down to a storm in a teacup are not about to be aired here. This is a novel that really goes for the jugular, and had me looking up bits and pieces of international history on the internet (Mr Litlove didn’t believe some of the events described in the novel had actually happened, and was forced to eat his words). I learned a lot, whilst admiring the way that Nadia Dalbuono handles the intricacies of her plot, and the way that she muddies the water before the conclusion. Trust me, she is one smart writer.

If I had a niggle, it would be with the paragraphs in italics which open some of the chapters and describe scenes that occurred way back in the past. They are meant to be enigmatic, but initially I was quite confused. I could have done with a better grounding in world politics too, in all honesty, but that didn’t matter so much; the novel will tell you all you need to know to understand it. On the plus side this is extremely well-written and very cleverly conceived. Scamarcio is a strong character, torn between his desires to act ethically, and his old contacts who could actually achieve some beyond-the-pale justice for him, the sort of justice it’s almost impossible to mete out legally in current day Italy. There’s violence in the novel, viewed unflinchingly, but nothing gratuitous. All in all, this is a properly first-rate, literary, fiercely contemporary and proudly intelligent thriller. I must say I’m really intrigued now to see how Dalbuono manages to save Scamarcio from the situation he’s in by the finale – I’m not sure he could survive a long series. We may have to savour his few cases while he holds out.

 

Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

cellars of the majesticWhen I was first growing serious about learning French, I was advised repeatedly to read Simenon’s Maigret stories. The French was so simple! I was assured, and they were good stories, too. I have no idea why I resisted, sheer perversity, I expect. When I was teaching French, I was often asked if Simenon was one of the 20th century authors I taught – being, I think, one of the few French authors with whom most people were familiar. I did not teach Simenon. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I finally read a Simenon novel for the first time. And now it’s taken me an absolute age to get around to reviewing it, though not because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. In fact, I whipped through it in no time, loved it, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

Inevitably, having finally read Simenon, I became curious to know something about the man. What a life! He published almost 500 novels and hundreds of stories, using many pseudonyms. Born in Belgium, he moved to Paris as a young man where he worked as a journalist, always with a taste for frequenting the seamier side of the city. His love life was particularly energetic. He married and then began a decades long affair with his housekeeper. The second world war intervened and Simenon got himself into hot water over collaboration. I imagine he behaved much like Colette did – with a sort of hard-headed peasant pragmatism. Colette wanted very much to eat, which meant she had to sell her work, and so her basic view was that she would sell it to whoever was buying. Simenon would eventually be sentenced to a five year prohibition on publishing, but it wasn’t observed. Not least because, once the war was over, Simenon took his family to America for a decade. His wife had found out about his affair by now and the marriage was struggling. Simenon promptly began a new affair with the woman he hired as his secretary and they married and had three children during a stormy relationship. In 1955 they all returned to France, and ten years later, Simenon divorced and married again – yet another of his housekeepers. He claimed by the end of his life to have had 10,000 lovers, and that he wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. Judging by his output, the writing claim is probably true.

Inspector Maigret was his greatest creation, his first novel featuring him published in 1931. He would go on to write 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The thing about these novels is that they are very short – 120 pages or so – but they manage to have the same depth as a book of much greater length. I’ve thought for a while that the tendency in publishing lately is to allow books an extra 100 pages more than they need, and there isn’t a better case for concision than Maigret.

In The Cellars of the Majestic, Maigret is called to the discovery of one of the hotel’s guests, strangled and unceremoniously dumped in a locker in the staff changing rooms. The victim is the French wife of a rich American businessman, and certain pressures are brought to bear on Maigret to go easy on the guests. Maigret has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he finds that the husband’s affair with the governess to his children gives him an alibi, Maigret is happy to leave the bourgeois to their own devices. He is, in any case, far more intrigued by the complex workings of the servant underworld in the hotel, and in the sad circumstances of the main suspect for the murder, the hotel’s coffee-maker, Prosper Donge. Prosper is a sad soul, an ugly red-head who lives in a platonic sort of relationship with Charlotte, a lavatory attendant at a nightclub. It turns out that they both knew the murdered woman when they were all working in the South of France. From there, Maigret is hot on the lead of a complicated story of prostitution, blackmail and unrequited love.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what makes this book tick along so satisfyingly. There’s a wonderful evocation of place and landscape, vivid yet brief; the characters are drawn so sympathetically – at least they are sympathetic in Maigret’s understanding gaze – and the puzzle is convoluted in its unravelling but simple in its solution. The narrative chugs along swiftly, free from padding and all those scenes in contemporary crime novels in which no one learns anything of any note. In a book this size, every scene counts, every encounter progresses the story. And Maigret is a great understated, unshowy performer. Getting older, getting tireder, saddened sometimes by what he has to witness of human lives, but his sharp eye and rapid insight are never in doubt. Yes, perhaps that’s what ultimately makes these stories so comforting – you are never in doubt that Maigret is in control of the investigation and that he will succeed. Much like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason and Jack Reacher – the foundation stone of the story is Maigret’s unshakeable competence.

Without doubt, I’ll be catching up on more of Maigret’s cases, thanks to the lovely new Penguin reissues. A steadfast hero in a short, vivid, well-plotted story; no wonder they remain classics.