Books of the year 2017

THE criteria are simply that I have read and reviewed these books in the last year. You might like a head’s up list for your Christmas stocking. There are some powerful contenders, although flicking through the bestseller lists of W.H. Smith and Amazon only a couple get a mention, which is sort of the point of this blog. I make no apology for the fact that they are not so well known nor that I did not review another Harry Potter book or another Lee Child. Any of these I feel would hold their own in any company.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, political biography of Shostakovitch

Homo Deus by Yoav Noah Harari, towering examination of the future

The Third Plate by Dan Barber, the foodie and farmers book

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet, the intellectual’s Dan Brown

Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre, the masterful return to etch in a sequel to the Spy Who Came In From the Cold

Winter by Ali Smith, slicker and faster than her bestselling Autumn

Of a different persuasion, I also have a recipe book out, in case you are feeling the cold of winter and might like a different take in the kitchen  – Broth to Bowl. And this is one I scouted for Modern Books if you fancy making your own bread – Sourdough

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Winter by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

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“God was dead, to begin with. Romance was dead. Chivalry was dead.”

WHEN, finally, we get everyone into the same room, the intimacy starts to crackle. Ali Smith is at her best when she has people talking to each other. Each one here is carefully drawn, and then turned around a little for another perspective, usually a flash into their past.

The opening – as above – is really a poem, even a rant, which then flows into a lot of small carriages of consciousness on a railway line of Smith’s imagination wandering through the years with visits to the Greenham Common protests, to watching Elvis Presley movies.

As in the first book Autumn, much is drawn from popular culture, the charming floating head recalls the Mekon in the comic Eagle or even ET. And there is a sub theme of things literary – from starting out in the opticians to the kind of poetry you might find in the New Yorker disguised as text to Shakespeare’s ambiguous Cymbeline. The plot moves by way of small explosions.

Charlotte is both a nightmare and in another lyrical flashback adored for her “detritus of necklaces and bangles” and her “endless hurt and fury at the world” and ”taking everything personally”. Charlotte is having a major paddy. Arthur is getting it full on.

We open with a less than believable fairy story of the man who pays a girl he meets at a bus stop to come down to Cornwall for Christmas to meet his mother and pretend to be his girlfriend – the said girlfriend, Charlotte, is being difficult, but then mum is also being difficult, and the difficult, older, estranged sister has to be called in to help…we are shaping up not so much for winter but the Christmas from hell…Arthur, named for and often called, Art, is being overwhelmed.

I was worried we were not going to go anywhere, but unlike Autumn this is a fully rounded proper novel. The connection between the two books does not seem to go much deeper than topical references from news events and a style of approach. This is the better book.

Fast paced, easy reading, sometimes funny but most of all full of memorable, rather likeable, extreme women…

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Autumn by Ali Smith (Penguin)

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“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”

FROM the getgo this tale is populated with popular images like the variation on Charles Dickens opening to a Tale of Two Cities above, although here is the tale of two people. Themes of duality persist, of couples, of brixiteers and remainers, of life and death, of present and past, of real and remembered, of women and girls, mostly revolving around Elisabeth – with an s not a z – who has grown up to be an art history teacher.

Everyone flits past Elisabeth like so many falling autumn leaves of the title. They are not real but reflections. Her mum wakes up a bit when she appears on a TV antiques show. Daniel is lively enough, but he is dead. The reality is a sit down and watch TV familiarity. The scenes in the post office are all Monty Python, the hospital could be upstairs at Holby City, there is a middle passage that reads like Exupery’s Little Prince, her mum’s pal is from AbFab. These pastiches could hold their own against the originals albeit these are fictions which then mix up factions of real people – Christine Keeler and the forgotten pop artist Pauline Boty who provide another interesting, challenging duality.

In a novel, of which this only a part because it is often a poem, of which this only the first of presumably four parts, of which the point is not the truth, but the lie…it is going to be quite a feat to get all these guys back on to the same train for the sequel (which I have not read as yet). Or is memory playing tricks? Maybe the referendum was a TV show? It should have been. In that sense Smith is Sir Gawain on a quest and strays perilously close to fantasy. Her characters cannot be real. She is writing about a consciousness.

In essence Daniel, deceased, is trying to come back to life to tell Elisabeth…something…

He might want to warn her about the lavish, scary praise on the front cover. The great Behemoth of modern Publishing has called its minions to sound the clarion: We want a great new writer and Ali is going to be it. Ali will be our Donna Tart.  All this pisses me off. The BP lets her down.  The cover for example is a latter day Hockney, yes it says autumn but the book seems far more rooted in his earlier works by the swiming pool and the real, relevant, cover is anyway on the inside back by Pauline Boty. And then we have the most pompous of copyright credits in which Ovid gets a mention – well the Penguin translation of Ovid on page 87, should you care to look it up. Page 87 here is blank. No connection. Just a bit of literary snobbism. As if Ovid is going to sue. Or Penguin sue itself.

I like what she is trying to do. It is still so many carriages linked up into a train. I am a football fan at half time willing her to win. We are 1-O down. I have an idea this could emerge as… I hope so. Roll on Winter.

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The disappearance of Adele Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband)

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“It was an evening like any other at the Restaurant de la Cloche.”

YOU are on page 88 of 244 before the character cards you hold start to reveal themselves as a full house of a plot. Here the main character Manfred is older than the protagonists in Burnet’s other books Project and Accident although he has the same disconcerting awkwardness with his own actions and a tendency to predict the worst. He is the kind of man who has the same suit hand made for himself each year. He drinks wine by the glass, a snobbish affectation although he knows it would be cheaper to buy the bottle.

My book jacket calls this a psychological thriller – as opposed to the usual and much cliche’d psychopathic one – and there a touch of the psychotic even hysterical lurking under the surfaces. Any one of the villagers in sleepy old St Louis feels like they might suddenly stand up after lunch and run screaming out of the door, so fraught are they with real, small-town tensions like tightly knotted string dolls. And drunk, of course. The only reason they don’t one suspects is that Burnet has not yet get round to picking the skeletons out of their closets and lining them up on his mantlepiece. As yet, there is time.

Inspector Gorski, we learn, was inspired to become a detective by policemen visiting his father’s pawnshop looking for stolen goods. “I have been a policeman for 23 years. In my experience people say they wish they could be of more help, they very often can be.” The only drink he ever refuses is a cup of coffee.

The French provincial cafe society lures Burnet in, the public intersections of life lived smoking cigarettes – but not in the dress shop –  and drinking carafes of wine, the daily set meals by which you can set your diary for pot au feu. The public life of an unremarkable Alsace town that still needs dressmakers and bank managers to make them presentable and settle their affairs.

And an inspector to keep them in order should things get out of hand, which most of the time they don’t, but 20 years ago…Burnet moves his plot like chess pieces, flashbacks to childhood and adolescence fill out his characters – there is a fair bit of fumbling in the bushes – which gives his main people an arc of a life, a memory, motivation, concerns, history…and paranoia.

As with his other works he top and tails everything with a literary conceit. He is not the author but the translator of a forgotten French novelist whose biography appears at the end and allows him to blurr lines, shift the plot box, like a dolls’ house moved one position to the right…

 

 

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Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham (Hodder)

roguelawyer“My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages.”

THERE is a library near me, beside a rather tasty estate, where the only fiction books in stock are crime novels. I am wondering in the same way if John Grisham might not also be popular with prison librarians looking for It Weren’t Me Guv stories or It Was A Fit Up, Yr Honour. Wikipedia assures me he has sold 275 million copies worldwide of this kind of pondlife despondency. I am taken aback. If some people actually think this is ‘reading’ we may need to redefine the word. This is to mainline on useless violent nonsense.

Firstly I have some difficulty in envisaging this town where everyone seems to hate each other, be on the take or down and out, if not all three at the same time. Maybe Mississippi is like that, maybe more like Minsk.

Secondly Seb Rudd is a pretty nasty piece of work. He does not like to talk much. His wife only lets him see his only son for 36 hours a month. What he likes to do is fight – there is a whole macho sub culture going on here about when it is reasonable to hit anyone at all. Seb tries to channel it into the courtroom where he can beat you up in cross examination. It is not even tough stuff, just a bit nasty.

Our Seb, we are continually being told, by him, is on the side of right – it is just everyone else – police, judges, prosecutors, special agents, you name it have all got it sooo wrong. It is called ambulance chasing. He gets the cases no other lawyer wants.

He is not so much the Tom Cruise from the movie The Firm but more a pugilistic, mumbling Sylvester Stallone…

You want to take him to one side, carefully because he might detonate at any moment, and ask him why? What is an intelligent capable attorney like you doing this for?

He would answer for sure: because no one else will. He is the lone vigilante.

Yeah sure, Seb, but how come you present your own backyard in these dystopian, disfunctional, disfigured terms? (Grisham in fact served 10 years as a Mississipi attorney).

Everything here, aspiring writers please note, is reduced to a sort of plot. Seb tells you that his client hasn’t got a hope. Seb tells you that his client hasn’t got a hope. Seb tells you that his client hasn’t got a hope etc, as often as necessary to rub the point home. Then, blow me, maybe…You get my drift, it is hardly even story telling, it is certainly not character building, it is not scene setting, it is not even cause and effect, it is just a pendulum swinging from one set of circumstances to another. A circus trick, a wave from the high wire.

There is an arguement about American right wing politics that it is many fractured different elements who are bound together by a rabid paranoia as to the others…and what those others might do to them. Grisham puts it like this:

“This is what happens when the cops act on one of their smart hunches, and march off in the wrong direction, controlling the rumours and taking the press off with them. The prosecutor joins the parade early on, and before long  it becomes  an organised and semi-legitimate lynching”.

I would call it financial fascism. In this form of noxious nazism just read affluence for ayran. It is not my kind of reading, in part because I don’t believe it, and in part because I dislike books that promote it.

 

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The accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband)

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“There did not appear to be anything remarkable about the accident on the A35”

THE pleasing aspect of Graham Macrae Burnet’s writing is that he is an old school story teller. From the first you know you are going to be spun a yarn. He is a Ronnie Corbett of fiction. And as with His Bloody Project he sets himself slightly aside. In Project it inferred that it was family story. Here he declares himself the translator rather than the author of a long overlooked manuscript by an obscure French novelist.

It is something of a relief to find something in the tradition of Simenon rather than today’s usual compulsive obsessions with serial psychopathy.

He paints his characters carefully, the head, the hair, the clothes, a defining feature. His detective Gorski is a fundamentalist, somewhat in awe of his late predecessor Ribery who hovers like a ghost over the investigation. For Gorski “procedures…had to be followed without prejudice”. His debt to the community.

And he drinks. Quite a lot. A pichet of red at lunch, a sherry at his first interview, a beer at the bar, a whisky at his next appointment and it is not six o’clock as yet. Then another glass of wine. A return to the bar. When he gets home he opens a half bottle of wine. And for a nightcap he has another beer. This is a town where the barber slips out or a drink between customers.

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As in Project, St Louis is a real place, north of Basel on the French side, an obscure backwater, a town of strict social codes. When the precocious, young, Sartre-reading Raymond heads north to Mulhouse, he is intoxicated with the anonymity of the city. Everyone is on the cusp, in their own way. Raymond with his adolescence, Gorski with his marriage. Things are about to change. The sub theme is coming of ages, different ages. He makes St Louis feel like a Peyton Place. His characters are ready to walk into your living room. Or rather you might like to walk into their dull but well-restauranted town.

The tale is sandwiched between another literary fiction surrounding its publication which also lets Burnet review himself. “Agreeably old fashioned” is his version.

Where to read this ideally? On a train to Basel perhaps with the prospect a glass of cold, sweet Riesling at the other end.

 

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A legacy of spies by John Le Carre (Viking)

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“What follows is a truthful account, as best as I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation codenamed Windfall..

 THIS sequel to the Spy Who Came in from the Cold is probably best read when you have some time alone. To let the paranoia set in, as it were. We are in the now. There are skeletons in the Circus closet. A youthful and more abrasive team are in charge. New rules apply. Peter Guillam is summoned to explain. Explain covert events decades back.

There has been quite some heft behind this new Le Carre in our local Waterstones. Queues for a signing. Screening of the original film of the Spy movie starring a suitably pre-occupied Richard Burton. Invitations to a come-dressed-as-a-spy drinks party. The Smiley generation has been out in force.

Some of the rich descriptions of other books have been held back for the moment. We are in business-like mode. And the business is interrogation. The interrogator interrogated, held to account by the new generation. Given the backdrop of Stasi era operations, it is not without its disquieting irony.

The prose is spare, fast and tight, punctuation scaled down:

“We have an ouzo, then another. Straight, no ice, her idea. So she is a lush, is she on the make – me at my age, for Christ’s sake – or does she think alcohol is going to loosen the old fart’s tongue?”

It is worth (re-)- reading the Spy Who came in from the Cold first – or grab a look at the movie – to pick up all the Carre (or Smiley) subtleties, intrigues, bluffs, counter bluffs that swirl like so many storm clouds. The books are a pair or in fact a trilogy if you also include his first book Call for the Dead, which is also, albeit slightly less, relevant, written in 1960.

This is brave book that goes beyond the usual story telling and overlays the question of how we might react today to the derring-do adventures, the no-questions-asked, secret, so secret, Machiavellian machinations just so long as we get the result. Would we applaud and approve or be concerned about civil liberties. Looking back are we proud or appalled?

Smiley’s Marylebone labyrinth has been dismantled and moved south of the river – the monstrosity blown up in Skyfall in a parallel Jameds Bond fable.

It asks, which is what great novels do and lifts this out of the genre, accomplished as all the detail and story telling is. The narrative is broadened with testimony, with old records, with reports of the time to create a series of stepping stones, one realization follows another.

The characters bristle; Scottish Mollie who runs the safe house, the new kids Lara and Bunny are scary. The love (is that love?) interest Catherine speaks of an ideal of today not then. And then we have the jargon and diction. Smiley’s “velvet arguments, the crash telegram, exfiltration, scalphunters section…” He always chooses good names for his characters, so we have a new bureaucrat in Pepsi, a new lawyer in Tabitha.

Did all this really happen? We open with the statement that this is a “truthful account”. In the acknowledgements there is a thank you to one Jurgen Schammle for “finding the escape route”. John is now Sir John. You wonder how much all this hokus pokus is based on real events…real paranoia for sure, real subterfuge, real mistrust, real terror, real bumbling Britishness too…the theme being in the grander scale of things an examination of treason.

Le Carre will be 86 next month. He has carried this fiction with him for 57 years. He is as sharp as ever, the author of his generation.

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