My best (and worst) books of 2015

I’ve decided that 2016 is going to be the year when I review books I read – on Amazon and on my blog! Too late to do it retrospectively, so here, a little belatedly, are my stand-out reads, both good and bad, in 2015.

I tend to read one book I like by an author and then starting reading the whole oeuvre – this year it’s been the Irish writers Brian Moore and John McGahern. I started Brian Moore with his fantastically terse and gripping Lies of Silence, and other stand-out books of his were The Colour of Blood and Cold Heaven. Moore’s writing is masterly in its economy. A friend gave me McGahern’s debut, The Barracks, and I’ve also been reading his amazing short stories,  as well as The Dark, The Pornographer, and The Leavetaking. I’m about to start That They May Face the Rising Sun. And on my Irish theme I’ve also finally been reading George Moore’s 1905 classic The Lake, which is remarkably fresh today.

On reading a review by Jonathan Frantzen of the “greatest realist novel of the postwar era”, I read Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. I found this hard to get into, and very far from meeting Frantzen’s claim, but ultimately rewarding. At least I think it was rewarding. There’s a stand-out scene where the couple catch a cat and take it to the vet. It’s utterly mundane and yet utterly gripping. It  may sound weird but I’m really glad to have read it just for that one scene!

On summer holiday I was completely spellbound by a debut thriller by Paul Hardisty with the intriguing title The Abrupt Physics of Dying. The book is an environmental thriller set in Yemen in the 1980s and deals with the oil business. The author works in the field and knows what he’s talking about and it really shows. I love intelligent, well-written thrillers and there aren’t enough of them around – I really couldn’t put this one down, and it’s thought-provoking too, staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page. It was short-listed for the CWA John Creasey (new blood) Dagger and in my opinion should have won.

I also read Ali Smith’s startlingly original How To Be Both. I had made a false start earlier in the year because the version I bought ( the book was printed with the two different sections in random order) started with the Eye section – which I couldn’t get into. But then someone told me that if I started with the Camera section first it would all make sense – and it did. I’m not sure that the random printing of two versions worked, but I’m glad I read this delightfully clever and sometimes affecting work.

The books I didn’t enjoy? Well, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant just plodded on and on  most unrewardingly. I can’t help feeling that it was a mistake for an author whose main strength is his handling of memory and internal narrative to make his main characters lose their memories, and to use a detached omniscient voice throughout. He’s such a brilliant writer but this was a complete dud for me. And Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch! I had read wildly opposing reviews, so I saved it up for an uninterrupted week away to give it my full attention.  I was seriously disappointed. There were flashes of brilliance and some scenes really held my attention, but other parts simply dragged. The book seemed to lurch wildly from one genre to another. The narrative relied too much on coincidence and the central metaphor of the goldfinch was never adequately revealed. I knew before I began reading that in medieval and renaissance art the goldfinch, usually seen in paintings of the Madonna and child, symbolises the foreknowledge of Christ’s passion, so I expected this motif to underpin the narrative, but it didn’t seem to. I sensed that Tartt wanted to avoid any suggestion of spirituality anywhere in the story – she has written in an essay that: ‘the novel in its history and genesis is an emphatically secular art form: the product of a secular society, addressing primarily secular concerns’. If this is her point, then why use a religious metaphor for the title and subject of the work? I have to say that, despite enjoying some of the sections, especially the Las Vegas one, I was left frustrated and puzzled.



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