Last lap: here’s the final ten books in my list of reading material for the previous 12 months. Bon appetit!
Pierre Lemaitre, Camille – Last book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, and for my taste the least successful of the three books. Having said that, Lemaitre is always worth reading, and the twists when they come are dramatic, forcing the reader to entirely re-assess what has gone before. Not an easy thing to pull off in so crowded a genre.
James Sallis, The Long Legged Fly – The first book in Sallis’s twisty Lew Griffin series has much to recommend it, taking it well beyond what you’d normally expect from a PI novel. I certainly don’t recall many others quoting medieval French poet Francois Villon’s words on his imminent execution: ‘I am Francois to my great dismay/Born in Paris, up Pontoise way;/By a fathom of hempen cord I’ll sway/While my neck discovers what my buttocks weigh.’ That’s some epitaph.
John Sutherland, How to read a novel: a user’s guide – I always enjoy Sutherland’s writing in The Guardian, and came to this book expecting to be thoroughly entertained. I was, although some chapters felt more like padded-out articles, and after reading them I was still trying to figure out Sutherland’s point. But as a dissection of modern-day book culture it was pretty good, and I also learnt why novels are called – well, novels. Worth knowing.
Andy Green, These Notes are Out of Order – I was really pleased to receive this slim volume of poems written by a former colleague of mine, not only because they are glittering in their own right (they are), but also because they remind me of so many successes working in the same team. I’ve since moved professions, and am starting to find my feet in something new; but I’ll always look back on my time working in libraries with great affection and pride, emotions beautifully captured by Green.
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings – second Booker Prize winner on my list, but there the similarities with The Narrow Road to the Deep North end. This is a singular exploration of the attempt in 1976 to assassinate reggae superstar Bob Marley, an act which James suggests was part of a wider CIA-backed battle to prevent Jamaica from becoming another Cuba. From this starting point James weaves an epic story that takes in the Cold War, gang culture and the drugs epidemic that hit New York in the 1980s. James uses a wide range of narrators to tell his story, each with their own singular voice, and this creates a cacophonous effect that suits the chaos and Darwinian struggle of his narrative very nicely indeed.
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men – I read this again because I was teaching it. But what particularly surprised me was reading it again after having come across James M. Cain. There seemed to me to be some striking parallels between the two authors. But who influenced who? There’s definitely more thinking and research to be done here
Ed McBain, King’s Ransom – tenth book of the 87th Precinct and the third I’ve read this year. At this rate, I’ll finish the series around 2030, when I’ll be 56. I probably need to pick up the pace a wee bit.
James Shapiro, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear – I’ve spent the last 8 weeks teaching 13-year olds ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In a rare Dead Poets Society moment I quoted them a great chunk of Shapiro’s remarkable book about Shakespeare. 1606 was the year in which ‘King Lear’ was first performed; he also wrote ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Macbeth’, the latter a direct response to the previous year’s failed Gunpowder Plot. Learning so much about the Bard is a pleasure in itself; even more so is being reminded how relevant he is to the modern world, 400 years after his death. Shapiro’s prose is a model of clarity and accessibility, and a great place to start for anyone interested in the Jacobean world through which Shakespeare moved.
Simon Armitage, Homer’s Odyssey – this was bought for me by a school colleague for Secret Santa (along with some quality coffee – ideal teacher presents both), mainly because he knew I was a former Classics student. Whilst I was all over the Odyssey some 20 years ago I’ve barely looked at it since. And what’s surprised me in coming back to it after such a gap is how differently the story resonates with me as an older man. It’s not the adventure that I notice but rather Odysseus’ determination to reach his goal, no matter what obstacles are thrown in his way. Right now that speaks to me very deeply.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian – okay, I haven’t actually finished this yet (it’s somewhat more dense than I was expecting), but I will. I enjoyed No Country for Old Men, but this is on another level entirely: a dark, brooding Western where the apocalypse seems to be crouching just over the next ridge. Perfect reading for a cold, dark winter.