Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Black and white and read all over

It's been another year of groaning bookshelves. I recall wittering on last year about the number of unread tomes piled high in my spare room. 2015 saw me add to them. Not that I'm complaining. I love the idea of having so many to browse.

I'm a few pages away from finishing my festive read, Somerset Maugham's Christmas Holiday. Admittedly, I knew nothing about the book and it soon transpired that the story had little to do with Christmas. There's a bit of murder, a bit of finger-wagging at fascism and a gentle snigger at art snobs. Maugham wrote this in 1939 and it seems apt that I end the year with a book from that decade, given that I began it with Geoffrey Houeshold's Rogue Male. This was a tale of escape told at quite a gallop and despite the title, this bunch of rogues were often gentlemen.

The joy of any year is coming across something that has been in print for years but which you've never got around to reading. Or not as the case may be. I eagerly got stuck into Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye only to be left somewhat deflated. I didn't connect with the story at all, or with the oddly-named characters. Each chapter read like some theatrical performance and felt dated. Another which failed to hit the mark was Mike Pannett's musing on life in Yorkshire, Now Then Lad. Admittedly I grabbed this as an emergency read on Pickering railway station. Like the train I caught, the narrative ambled along without any sense of purpose. It was all bucolic mishaps and eccentric Yorkshire farmers. The only thing that resonated was the fact that I was travelling through many of the places Pannett wrote about.

The award for Bleakest Read of the Year, by a narrow margin, goes to Hubert Mingerelli's A Meal in Winter. This is a very simple tale about a group of German soldiers preparing a rudimentary meal in the depths of a Polish winter. Mingarelli manages to shock the reader in a quiet and efficient manner. The other Bleak Book was Nic Pizzolato's Galveston. Like Mingarelli, Pizzicato conjure up some wonderfully vivid landscapes. It's a collage of washed-out backdrops, cheap hotel rooms and heat-hazed beaches. This is one disturbing read.

Bobbing around in the Caribbean, I needed something much more light-hearted and so got stuck into Christopher Stephens' Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams. I didn't imagine that there would  be anything new under this particular sun. How wrong I was. Using correspondence between Williams and his friends plus reactions from those mentioned in the infamous diaries, Stephens managed to add flash to the bones of the familiar Kenneth Williams saga.

I also decided to tackle Hilary Mantel this year. Not physically, obviously. Hurling her to the ground during a literary awards dinner might have seemed a little drastic. No, a chunk of the year was spent getting to know Thomas Cromwell (or should that be Cremuel?) in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both books managed to be absorbing and in places, truly shocking. The execution of Anne Boleyn was horrific. Mantel managed to make Tudor England an accessible place for the twenty first century reader.

There were a couple of excellent reads provided by Anne Tyler. She excels at the ordinary, family narrative and in particular, this was to the fore in A Spool of Blue Thread. Tyler pivots between wry humour and abject sadness but always manages not to be mawkish. As ever, I didn't want the story to end. Tyler always leaves you wanting to know what happened next.

In no particular order, other novels I trawled through in 2015 included:

Jiri Weil - Life With a Star - the grind of everyday life in Nazi-controlled Prague.
Ben Aaronovitch - Rivers of London - the occult meets the London Met!
Linda Grant - Upstairs at the Party - 1970s students and their subsequent life stories
Joseph O' Connor - The Thrill of It All - rites of passage again, this time for 80s teenagers
Patrick Gale - A Place Called Winter - Edwardian mental illness and stark Canadian landscapes
E.F. Benson - Mapp & Lucia - sweet naughtiness amongst market town snobs

Plus many, many more. As ever, I begin another year with George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier glaring at me, unread, from the bookcase. The war of attrition continues.