I thought a brilliant way of rounding off the year would be to discuss what I’ve read this year and what I thought of each title. Yes I’m publishing this a little late as 2016 has already set in but it’s never too late for a little reflection, right? I’m more than likely to miss out a fair few of the books I’ve read this year; I have a bad habit of forgetting what I’ve read unless I own a copy – that’s why I find it absolutely impossible to part with books meaning I now a bookcase which is absolutely fit to bursting. I’ll only say a few words about each and aim to write proper reviews soon. So here’s a taste of the past year’s reading:
There But For The – Ali Smith
This novel has one of the strangest plots I think I’ve ever read – and I’m not saying that is a good thing. During a dinner party, specifically between the main and the sweet, one of the guests locks himself in a spare bedroom and refuses to come out, causing a media frenzy. I know this novel has won loads of awards and is highly esteemed but I really don’t see what all of the fuss is about. The idea is intriguing – the fact that such a small action can have such enormous consequences and the unexpectedness of it all – but I also find it totally unbelievable and that’s my problem with this novel. I think I just found the whole idea silly.
‘Hills Like White Elephants’ – Ernest Hemingway
This is one of Hemingway’s short stories and, although I had to read it about three times to truly grasp all of its excellence, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The story is simply a couple discussing the logistics of getting an abortion whilst sipping beer in a Spanish train station. The story revolves entirely around their dialogue and I think it’s just so wonderfully simple you’d be silly not to sit down to its mere 1300 odd pages.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
This was a novel I didn’t have high expectations of and I think that helped. Changez, a Pakistani man, tells a seemingly nervous American stranger in a Lahore café his experience of living and working in London, including the intimate details of his relationship with a heartbroken Erica. The descriptions of these scenes are truly spellbinding. During his time in London the 9/11 bombings happen in New York and he notices a change in attitudes towards him. Eventually he realises there’s nothing left for him in America and he returns to Pakistan. The novel ends with the conclusion of their meeting but obviously it’s not as straightforward as that. Usually cliffhangers really irritate me because you read all those pages and get left with an unsatisfying ending but this one I just loved – it was so totally unexpected!
’55 Miles to the Gas Pump’ – Annie Proulx
This is one of the most powerful short stories I have ever read and it even encouraged me to write a similar tale myself. Set on a ranch in America, it’s the realisation of what’s really going on behind the scenes that’s most shocking. I won’t spoil it for you – go and read it. It’s a must.
The Gathering – Anne Enright
This I wasn’t such a fan of. It was fine. It was alright. It did what it set out to do. Yes the descriptions of death and depression are great, truly deep and harrowing, but other than that it didn’t do a lot for me. It tells the story of an Irish woman from a large Catholic family losing her brother and holding a funeral and wake with the whole family, recounting memories from her childhood along the way. It explores childhood and memories in an interesting way – the kind of way that makes you say ‘oh yeah, I don’t remember whether that memory was me or my brother doing that either’ and ‘was that memory really mine or have I just been told about it?’ Other than these few moments of enlightment however, it’s very average. I’m starting to think there’s something wrong with me. I never like the award-winners.
Remainder – Tom McCarthy
Gotta admit that I skim-read this and don’t remember it in a great deal but perhaps that’s because it was so ridiculously repetitive. The main character is in an accident involving ‘something falling from the sky’, from which he receives eight and a half million pounds compensation. He then uses this money to re-enact vaguely remembered scenes from his past, complete with building sets and employing actors to work around the clock. He’s driven by the need to create a scene with 100% authenticity and they must re-enact almost non-stop. So he’s a bit of a nutter really and all this repetitiveness doesn’t make it a very interesting book.
Never Coming Back – Tim Weaver
Never Coming Back is the forth book in the David Raker series but I somehow didn’t realise this when I bought it and went ahead and read it anyway. Until the last 50 pages or so it’s a really good thriller – and it apart from a few mentions of a previous accident involving a gun and his recently deceased wife it didn’t seem to matter that I hadn’t read the other books. A family suddenly go missing – like really suddenly – ‘dinner’s cooking, the TV’s on’ but the family are nowhere to be seen and David Raker makes it his mission to find out what happened to them. It gets a little silly at the end but overall a very decent thriller.
Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
This is the first Austen novel I’ve actually ever read. I’ve seen the movie adaptation staring Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson so I knew what to expect but reading it is something really quite different. The language is so deliciously rich and proper that you definitely get far more absorbed with reading the novel but film adaptations of Austen’s books are usually very good so if you’re mainly after the plot then the film will probably do.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Up until this moment I had never understood what people meant by saying ‘the Jekyll and Hyde affect’ or ‘a bit Jekyll and Hyde like’ etc. Now I get it! What I like about this is that it’s relatively short and to the point. Plus it’s such an exotic idea that one could use a different persona to commit their evil deeds and just get stuck in the transition. It’s kind of like an adult fairytale.
Dracula – Bram Stoker
I’d wanted to read this for absolutely ages and finally got around to it this summer. I’ve managed to avoid all the movie adaptations so as not to spoil it for myself and I’m definitely glad I did so. It’s spooky and chilling and wonderfully original in feeling. It’s so good to read a book that’s truly at the heart of vampirism. A must read.
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
I think just about every woman under the sun read this this year but I’ll talk about it anyway. To summarise: Amy frames her husband of five years, Nick, for her murder, basically because he doesn’t live up to her expectations, then changes her mind and comes up with a miraculous tale that explains her coming back to life. This does however involve her killing and framing old school chum Desi Collins in the process but he was just necessary collateral damage, right? I saw the film first and I wish I hadn’t (I always prefer to do it the other way around). I feel like it might have spoilt the shock of realising Nick couldn’t possibly be guilty. I absolutely adored the fact it was written as diary entries, allowing Amy to fool the reader totally for a really long time – what with making up her fear of blood, making out that Nick was violent to her, that he didn’t want children and that she made friends he never even knew about. It’s all so clever and expertly organised that I really admired Amy – like REALLY admired her. I couldn’t believe her level of organisational skills! In fact, I found myself so in awe of her that I really wanted her plan to succeed! And that’s aided in the movie by Nick being played by Ben Affleck. It’s impossible to feel any sympathy for Ben Affleck let’s admit it. Gillian Flynn was just so on the ball with this novel – even down to her explanation of cool girl – it’s like she was inside my mind. Amy Elliot – my new heroine.
The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole
For a very short story I found this actually horrendously complicated, but perhaps I was having a slow day. There were just a fair few characters and similar things happened to all of them. However, this is said to be one of the first ever Gothic novels and I’m all for educating myself. What I did like about it was the myth-like style it had, I guess just because it was written so long ago. It’s nice to read something different and this was definitely different.
‘The Purloined Letter’ – Edgar Allan Poe
This was the first ever Edgar Allan Poe I’ve read and I absolutely hated it. The story involves someone stealing some letters and the detective, Dupin, finding them in plain sight. Enough said.
‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ – Edgar Allan Poe
This was even worse than the last Edgar Allan Poe and I don’t think I’ll bother with another unless someone can recommend a good one. SPOILER alert here but the murderer turned out to be an orang-utan in the middle of Paris. Absolutely ridiculous.
Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie
Murder on the Orient Express was my first Christie novel as well and apart from its rigid formula I did really enjoy it. I suppose really I just like mystery, thriller and suspense novels – as you can probably guess from this list – and I love trying to work out the twist ending and always failing. It sounds silly but that’s strangely satisfying. A murder is committed when the train is stuck in a snow drift and therefore stationary between stops, allowing no-one to either get on or off the train. This means the murderer must be one of the twelve travellers already on board but luckily there’s a detective on board to interview everybody and work it all out. It sounds corny when you explain it like that but it was lovely to read a traditional golden age detective story.
The Monk – Matthew Lewis
The Monk tells the story of monk Ambrosio who deteriorates into sin and gets tempted by the devil to commit the most dreadful sins. Set in Spain it’s just something a little different and again part of a category I seem to love: the Gothic. Plus the fact his love interest Matilda dresses up as a male monk for the first part of the novel in order to get close to him is just quite funny when you think about it. Why do so many older texts have dressing up in them?
The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
I did enjoy this novel but it’s the longest wild goose chase you can possibly imagine. It takes approximately 300 pages for Mr Franklin Blake to find out what happened to the diamond that is stolen at the very beginning of the novel. They could have rounded it up a lot quicker but of course it was first published as a serial so of course Wilkie Collins was bound to string it out as long as physically possible just to fill his pockets.
Zofloya – Charlotte Dacre
I’ve got to say I’m a bit on the fence with this one. I disagree that adultery is hereditary but it’s plot is an interesting one. Zofloya is a magical sort of character who appears just when Victoria is in need and seems to grant her every wish. What she doesn’t realise, however, is that every wish granted has its consequences. She is slowly selling herself to the devil.
The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M Cain
This is one of my favourites this year – though of course nothing beats Gone Girl. I love American books like this – they’re so absolutely different to anything British writers seem to churn out. It tells the story of a boy who takes up part time work at a gas station and enters into a relationship with married woman Cora. She’s not only married but she’s the wife of his employer. You know it’s not going to turn out well right from the very beginning. And it doesn’t. In fact, it couldn’t really go worse. Must read.
‘The Sandman’ – ETA Hoffman
‘The Sandman’ was a short story I read for my course, the point being that if the protagonist isn’t aware of what’s reality and what’s not then the reader isn’t going to have a clue either, and it worked well. I’ve learnt to incorporate this technique into my own writing and it’s a real strength to have, to be able to bend and shape your character’s reality and occasionally add an element of madness to spice things up.
In A Lonely Place – Dorothy B Hughes
Another of the best books of the year. This is a new style of crime fiction. We know who the culprit is but we never see him commit the crime, and what’s more, we follow him around with such a close third person narration that we feel for him and totally understand his damaged mental state, namely his anxiety. I think perhaps I’m not very good at foreseeing endings but this was another quite unexpected one for me. It seems some of the characters – by some I mean Sylvia – have more to them than meets the eye.
‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
2015 was a year of a lot of firsts. This was my first Sherlock Holmes and I have to say I was quite unimpressed. I thought the story was lame but perhaps it’s just not a great one – maybe I’ll try The Hound of the Baskervilles.
‘The Meat’ – Janice Galloway
Another wonderfully powerful short story. The thing with this is that we don’t know what the ‘meat’ is until the end my God it’s grim.
‘The Demon Lover’ – Elizabeth Bowen
This is another Gothic story with an interestingly modern setting. It’s a new take on the Gothic.
The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
Having been a fan of the film I was really excited to read this novel and actually felt a little let down by the end – it’s amazing what expectations do to us isn’t it? The book is actually far simpler than the film and felt quite dumbed down in comparison. Also, I remember from the film that Tom Ripley gets himself into a fair amount of close shaves with his impersonation of Dickie Greenleaf (after brutally killing him) as he bumps into people who know Dickie well but there’s no real sense of danger in the book – apart from when Freddie knocks on his door but we all know what happens there – crash – bang – smash. I also felt a definite hole where Cate Blanchett’s character was utterly missing from the book. I had no idea they had just added her to the film but I missed her in the book. In this case, and I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, the film is better. Maybe that’s just because Jude Law and Matt Damon are such excellent actors but I would recommend it over the book any day.
The Killer Inside Me – Jim Thompson
In some ways this was pretty similar to In A Lonely Place, except that Dorothy B Hughes is a far better writer. In The Killer Inside Me we learn quickly just how many mental problems Lou Ford has. He’s really screwed up in just about every way imaginable, from being forced to get a vasectomy at a young age to enjoying abusing a prostitute and thinking nothing of killing her. What I didn’t like so much about it was the politics behind some of the motives. There’s a sub plot running alongside about the suspicious death of Ford’s brother and how Ford wants revenge, which to me just seems like too much, but hey, maybe that’s just me.
The Wicker Man – Robin Hardy
I’m beginning to realise I’m talking about films in this post just as much as I am books but I guess that’s just how this year worked out. The Wicker Man 1973, NOT the awful 2006 re-make, is a really excellent film and this being a film of the book, was equally top notch. There are a few unexpected added details but they do no harm and what I really loved about this novel was the inclusion of the songs. The soundtrack of The Wicker Man is so iconic, what with Oranges and Lemons and The Landlord’s Daughter, that it was just wonderful that the lyrics were included.
Brighton Rock – Graham Greene
I’m not a massive fan of gang novels and this was no exception. It has a childish tone, what with the nicknames Pinkie and Dallow, making it hard to take seriously. It has a very strange opening with the magazine man Fred Hale’s death and an end I didn’t even fully understand – the protagonist manages to kill himself with a bottle of vitriol (sulphuric acid) but I thought for ages that he’d thrown it at someone else and didn’t understand how he was suddenly dead. ANYWAY this isn’t a novel I’d particularly recommend.
Roseanna – Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
After reading the Millennium series last year, written by Stieg Larsson, I was keen to read some more Nordic Noir and this wasn’t a disappointment. It was very different and less complex but just as grisly and dark. What lets this novel down is the awful translation. By the end I got really sick of everybody saying ‘actually’ all the time.
Night Train – Martin Amis
I still don’t know what to make of this one. The police officer in this department is female but named Mike Hoolihan – and don’t get me wrong, I’m all for transgender equality – but it’s just never given any kind of explanation. And I’m afraid I can’t move on from or ignore this point. I just don’t get it. Maybe someone can enlighten me.
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
I’ve wanted to read this for so long and finally got round to it over Christmas. It wasn’t at all what I expected. I was thinking of something along the lines of Jane Eyre since it’s another Brontë novel but it’s completely and utterly different in every way fathomable. It’s so much darker and really quite sad, not because I feel particularly sorry for the fact nobody got a happy ending, because they’re all such horrible people, but because it must have been an awful existence. What surprised me the most was the fact that Cathy was barely in it. I’d always assumed the whole novel was the love story of Cathy and Heathcliff and it’s not like that at all. Really would recommend if you don’t know too much about this one.
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
This is a re-read and I’ve already done a post on it so I won’t go into too much detail but I can’t leave it out when it’s such an excellent collection of adult fairytales. With Carter it’s the language I love the most. She has this ability to phrase sentences that are so articulate and beautiful it’s all I can do not to bow down to her.
And that’s it. That’s my reading list from 2015. Gone Girl has found a special place in my heart but I’ve enjoyed most of them and learnt a lot this year. Happy reading in 2016 everyone!