I’ve had so many requests for another Read and Recommended list over the last few years, it was starting to feel churlish not to oblige. But what with an intense couple of years moonlighting in the games industry, the sudden impact of fatherhood and delayed book deadlines raging out of all decent control, it felt like I barely had time to read the books, let alone write them up. But it has been a while – since late 2009, in fact – so here, finally, is an extra long list covering that period. Enjoy!
Americanah – Chimamandah Ngozie Adichie
I got into Adichie via my wife’s bookshelf and the collection of short fiction The Thing Around Your Neck, some of whose stories – Jumping Monkey Hill comes to mind – were among the best realist shorts I’ve ever read. I’d always been a bit wary of the novels, though, warned away by my wife’s blunt observation that Adichie is a gifted writer, but what she writes is fundamentally high class romance fiction. But I had really loved some of those shorts, and the subject matter of Americanah was just too tempting to pass up – race in America, seen through African eyes (with a side order of illegal immigrant experience in the UK) – so in I dived. Turns out my wife is right, this is ultimately a slightly soppy romance novel, but the route it takes to get there is scenic and thought-provoking in the extreme. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in more than a few places, and drawn with a sly emotional intelligence masquerading as the simplicity of innocence. The critiques Adichie offers are scrupulously even-handed, with characters coolly dissected and pinned out for us regardless of their origins, and the state of Nigerian society coming in for every bit as much drubbing as anything in the US or the UK. In fact, there’s a twitchy, malcontent eye at work here which sees the human flaws in just about everything and so melds perfectly with the smart, youthful restlessness of Adichie’s female protagonist as she leaves Africa for the promise of the US and ends up trapped in a cultural and emotional no man’s land somewhere between the two. The male protagonist feels like less of a good fit, he seems a bit too Bridget Jones perfect to be true, and his experiences in the UK don’t have the same in-depth ring of truth to them as those of his lost love over in the US – it’s pretty clear that while Adichie has actually lived some close approximation of what her heroine goes through, the UK sections are drawn from secondary research and there’s a sharply noticeable drop in acuity and flare where these sections are concerned. Still, that restless critical eye gives the book a real bite not usually associated with the word romance, and it’s coupled with a deeply humane compassion that eschews easy answers or simplistic condemnation, bringing the whole thing to glimmering, joyful life. I may just have to go back and try the other two novels, high class romance fiction or not.
The Better Angels of Our Nature - Steven Pinker
Massive tome from the author of the very brilliant The Blank Slate, chronicling the overall decline of violence – yes, you read that right – throughout human history. Pinker has pulled an interesting trick here that’s likely to confound a lot of his critics and maybe some of his more pessimistically inclined fans too. Notwithstanding his previous books, which lean hard on issues of genetic hardwiring in human behaviour, Better Angels attempts to track the moderating influence of social and cultural dynamics on violence – albeit then linking those dynamics back to inherent factors in human psychology – and to explain why it really does appear that we are living in the least violent times ever. Despite the book’s size, and a – for me, anyway – rather difficult-to-digest middle section dealing with the statistics of warfare, this is mostly a fast, fascinating read and will probably cheer you up rather more than you’d expect, given the vast catalogue of horrific human behaviour it starts out with. Pinker is on form stylistically as ever, mingling incisive analysis with wry humour and humanity, broad research with personal anecdote and evident revulsion at human savagery with informed optimism about the future. Unlike Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, which was refreshing but smacked rather too much of Ridley having drunk the American libertarian corporate Kool Aid, I came away from this book with my respect for the author’s scholarship wholly intact, and still a sense that cautious but genuine optimism was a reasonable stance to take. And there’s precious little of that shit about in these messianic doom-and-gloom times.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
I read Diaz’s Drown when it first came out back in the nineties, and was a bit ambivalent; on the one hand, I recognised a distinctive and gifted voice from a place I’d never seen, on the other hand none of the stories went anywhere much, they were more like meditations, mood pieces and character snapshots, and in the end I just got impatient with those moods and characters and the way they were all, indeed, drowning in their own muddy little lives. So while the premise of Oscar Wao was intriguing – a fat, graceless Dominican boy hopelessly adrift in a culture that values beauty, machismo and sexual prowess above all else and clinging desperately to the life-raft of SF, Fantasy and Comicbooks for survival – I didn’t hold out much hope for where it would go. More fool me – I burnt through the whole thing in almost a single sitting, and it clobbered me harder than such an unassuming novel has any right to. All the stylistic verve that had been on display in Drown’s short pieces has here been tuned up for long haul, and the fragmentary nature of Diaz’s narrative inclinations harnessed to deliver at novel length. There’s a real story here alright, a tragic one, that truly goes the distance. Along the way, we get a savage indictment of machismo, racism, dictatorship and colonialism and, delicately observed, the very real webbing between all of the above. The engine of this novel is rage – an excoriating rage in which Diaz spares no-one and nothing from the cold eye of truth, and you’ll tremble with that same rage yourself as you read. Oscar Wao is an aching lament for failed humanity at every level, and a thorough-going triumph that fully deserves the Pulitzer it received. Rumour has it that Diaz’s next is going to be an alien invasion SF extravaganza set in the Dominican Republic, and I for one cannot wait.
The Creed of Violence – Boston Teran
I lost track of the fairly transparently pseudonymous Boston Teran after reading his (or her?) stunning debut God is a Bullet some time back in 200o. Not sure why, but I remember I belonged to a crime fiction book club back then and I think I might have OD’d on the form and so taken a sabbatical from it back into SF and Litfic. Anyway, I found myself doing a re-read last year and was forcibly reminded just how savagely intense Teran’s style is, and how refreshingly in-your-face the female characters were. So I went out in search of whatever else Teran might have written since, and I came up with this. Creed is wrapped in hype at the moment, because it apparently sold to Universal Pictures for quote the second highest price ever paid for an unpublished manuscript unquote, and is soon to be a movie starring Leo diCaprio, no, wait, Christian Bale, maybe….. My advice is to get it while it’s hot and before any putative movie sinks its claws in and spoils your own personal impressions of character and setting. We’ve come a long way here since Bullet, the style is far more laconic and stripped down, and rather than being overwhelmed by the force of it, you are given a lot more space to deploy your own feelings and imagination. If I had to guess, I’d say Teran has been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy in the last few years, and seems to want to achieve a similar kind of gaunt poetry to that found in Blood Meridian, The Border Trilogy and The Road. And the narrative is certainly in a similar thematic vein – fathers and sons, horses and guns, poverty and privation along the Tex-Mex border, sudden violence, loss and debts unpaid, desperate journeys and chases across hostile landscapes larger than man; it’s all here. And while Teran never manages to scale the stylistic heights that you see in McCarthy, this is still powerful stuff, with the additional benefits of a far more tightly reined plot than McCarthy usually deigns to provide, and some taut political comment into the bargain. It’s a book you’ll barrel through in a couple of sittings, but it still might just bring a tear or two to your eye by the end.
Freedom(‘s Opening Sequence) – Jonathan Franzen
Bit conflicted about this one. I picked it up in a motorway service station bookshop of all places, which says something about the broad extent of its appeal (or at least of its publisher’s marketing strategy). Given the huge fanfare it had in the critical press, and the enduring good name attached to Franzen’s previous tour de force, The Corrections, which I’d never got round to, I thought I should give it a chance. So that’s what I did – I gave it a chance. More accurately, I gave it a long series of no, really, this is your last chances, all based on the opening fifty odd pages. See, the opening fifty odd pages are among the best contemporary realist fiction I’ve ever read. They form a neat, self-contained and beautifully allegorical long short story about life in the American suburbs, gentrification and the culture wars, all built around the intriguing figure of beautiful, determined and to all appearances perfect stay-at-home wife and mother Patty Berglund. At that point, I was all ready to class Franzen as one of the American greats, up there with guys like Pynchon and Pete Dexter, and race out and buy The Corrections immediately. Unfortunately, Freedom starts to stumble not long after that opening sequence wraps up, then heads steadily downhill and rarely if ever recovers its early brilliance. It bounces around all over the place, takes barely relevant detours into territory that is frankly rather dull and/or not very believable, and – a cardinal sin for me – it constantly mangles its characters’ integrity in order to drag the crippled plot along. Patty in particular suffers rather badly from this treatment, which is a pity because it looked for a while there as if she was going to be the lynchpin of the whole book, and when that structural support fails, as it does rather catastrophically, what’s left is really rather un-intriguing and so-so by comparison. Don’t want to belabour any of this, because this is after all a Read and Recommended list, and somehow I can’t not recommend this book. But please bear in mind the recommendation is purely of the early stages of the book plus the odd burst of belated writing talent later on. You really should read that first section. You probably shouldn’t bother with the rest. But of course if you read the first bit and love it the way I did, then you’ll probably be terminally hooked to the rest, the way I was, desperately trying to rediscover a magic that never really comes back. You Have Been Warned!
Imperial Bedrooms - Bret Easton Ellis
Early in 2012, I faced the not entirely unattractive task of getting my BMW X3 back from southern Spain to central Scotland against the clock. A European car insurance specialist had screwed me royally over premiums and left me in imminent danger of owning an uninsured vehicle two thousand miles from home. Something had to be done about this fast, so I left wife and child with the Spanish side of the family and sped north, veins awash with Red Bull and Spanish coffee. Through a combination of long hours at the wheel and utterly illegal speeds, I covered Spain from end to end on the first day, France from end to end on the second and the UK from end to end on the third (collecting my one and only speeding ticket when I was - shitfuckbollocks! - less than fifty miles from home ). I stayed in nameless little inns and motels en route, stopping only to eat, gas up and sleep, and in the few brief fractions of an hour I had each night between crawling into bed and falling fast asleep, I read Imperial Bedrooms. All this may have enhanced the dreamlike, hallucinatory quality of the book, I suppose, but not by much. I’m not an Ellis fan, I tried Less Than Zero back in the late eighties and thought it was so-so, and I bailed out of American Psycho halfway through because, to be blunt, I couldn’t be arsed with it. But Imperial Bedrooms is a whole other thing – a haunting, moody, atmospheric noir the like of which I’ve never seen before, delivered, like a vicious sucker punch, in under two hundred paperback pages. It’s as if Ian McEwan suddenly moved to LA, rediscovered his late seventies/early eighties psychosexual obsessions there, and decided he wanted to write them out like James Ellroy. And it could give lessons in savagery to Ellroy and just about anybody else working in noir right now. Basically, Ellis takes the protagonists of Less Than Zero twenty five years on, slyly exploits the gaps between book and film versions of that story – you can tell he hated the film with a passion – and takes us on a nightmarish walk through the underbelly of the Hollywood movie machine. I doubt you’ll read a shorter, sharper, more brutal novel this year. Prepare to flinch.
The Lock Artist – Steve Hamilton
This one came right out of left field – it was handed to me by my editor Simon Spanton, not to blurb, because it was already out by then, but simply because he thought it was one of the freshest books he’d read in a long time. And I must concur. Hamilton habitually writes a species of noir featuring a more or less generic reluctant ex-cop PI named Alex McKnight and though they’re well enough written, I never really warmed to the basic conceit. But this is something completely different. It is, I suppose, a crime novel, detailing as it does the rise of an uncannily gifted young lock breaker with an awful secret in his past that has struck him mute, but there’s a quiet, almost allegorical dynamic going on here that reminds me of early Rupert Thomson or maybe Paul Auster if he could just let the fuck go and have some fun. Just as with Thomson’s Five Gates of Hell, the criminal elements in this book feel less realistic than they do emblematic or mythological, and the story unfolds almost like some gritty, latter-day fable for our times. Above all, what holds The Lock Artist up above the norm of crime genre fiction is the writing, which is quietly masterful and creates whole swathes of deeper implication out of very straightforward relationships and circumstance. It is that rare thing, a fresh take in a genre creaking with cliche, and you come away from it refreshed and eager for more. Unfortunately, this is a stand-alone, so there isn’t any more – so savour it while it lasts. Meantime, maybe I’ll go back and have another shot at a couple more of the Alex McKnight stories after all.
Naming the Bones – Louise Welsh
Louise Welsh is, if such a thing is possible, the Dark Echo of Iain Banks – she has the same essentially Scottish flavour to her work, but where Banks’ novels are steeped in the joie de vivre of wine, women and song, Welsh mines a far more sinister take on those same joys. In place of cheery drunkenness and hangover, you have grimly methodical inebriation and lasting damage. In place of innocently intense sexual love, darkly obsessive and destructive sexual need. In place of resolution and emotional triumph, survival – but only just. Naming the Bones has all of these dark qualities, laid down in a prose that’s like being tied up ever tighter with strips of red and black silk. It is undoubtedly Welsh’s best work since her stunning debut The Cutting Room, and may be her best full stop. It starts out the seemingly innocuous tale of a restless young Glasgow academic on the trail of a mysterious vanished poet, and ends up a nightmarish spiral of threat and dread beyond anything purely physical and into the realm of the existential. It could almost be horror fiction, but for the lack of any actual in-your-face horror. It could almost be poetry, but for the brisk, thriller-like pace of the prose. It could almost be a thriller but for the haunting lack of certainty or resolution. In the end, Naming the Bones is more and better than any of these – it’s a ghostly amalgam that not one writer in a thousand is capable of, and a virtuoso performance that left me in awe.
Never Count Out The Dead - Boston Teran
Features here because along with the Creed of Violence, I tracked down Teran’s back catalogue and the writing in these earlier books is so significantly different it could almost be a different author. In fact, among the theories dealing with who exactly Boston Teran is, one claims that it’s an umbrella pseudonym for an entire association of collaborating authors. Not sure that I buy that, but never mind - Never Count out the Dead is the follow up to God is a Bullet and shows a clear maturing of the wild talent Teran unleashed in her (or his?) debut. The novel features a broader, more nuanced cast, a wider spread of settings (though the hostile desertscape of Bullet comes calling once again), and a far more complex plot. But it carries exactly the same levels of intensity throughout, the language is the same outrageous, almost physical force radiating off the page at you the way it did in Bullet, it continues Teran’s liking for uniquely gritty, densely realised female characters, and it ends in one of the most stunning climactic action sequences I have ever read. And where the line between good guys and bad guys was pretty unequivocally drawn in Bullet, Never Count Out the Dead features a pivotal female character, Dee Storey, who never allows you to assign her safely to one camp or the other, and who must count as one of the all time great noir women. Teran is at one and the same time over-the-top emotional and implacably grim here, never dodging the harsh realities but never ducking the human potential for something better either, and you come away from the book simultaneously shaken and enthused, unsure quite what you’ve been through, but wrung out by it all the same. (NB – avoid the follow up The Prince of Deadly Weapons like the plague; it’s a dizzyingly bad car-crash of a book, a terrible waste of a brilliant premise and some fine secondary character work too. It’s far worse than just straight bad, because you can see the bones and nuggets of the outstandingly good thriller that might have been buried underneath. Really, avoid.)
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
This one needs no introduction really, but if you haven’t read it yet, you really should – I’m inclined to think it’s McCarthy’s best work to date. It’s also, after a fashion, a genre novel – a father and son hobble painfully across a post-apocalyptic landscape that makes most apocalyptic landscapes in genre look like so many amusement park rides. It’s cold, it’s grey, pretty much everything is dead and covered in ash. Food is scarce and the only other humans in evidence are marauding bands of cannibals. There are none of those Oregon-trail-style plans for rebuilding a new, simpler, homespun and (it’s always hinted) better world. Here there’s just a gritted determination to head south in hopes that it might be warmer there, and to stay alive one day to the next. McCarthy’s rambling, string-of-barely-related-anecdotes style of narrative, which made the back end of his Border Trilogy, frankly, a bit of a slog, works far better here – the grim, undifferentiated day-by-day rhythm of the story suits the material perfectly; survival, inch by inch, and a stubborn refusal to yield is what this story is about, and needs no orchestrated three act bollocks to function. You stumble from incident to incident exactly the way the characters do, and you end up feeling their weariness and desperation bone deep. On the few occasions that there’s some relief – a storm cellar fully stocked with canned and pickled food, a single can of coke still jammed in a machine, a safe pair of hands to carry a burden onward – you feel the precious value of these things as if you were starving for them yourself. And then there’s the grim elegance and economy of McCarthy’s prose, which has never been better than it is here. The Road is bleak and brutal, and what grudging seeds of hope it sheds are cunningly layered and hidden deep, but for all that, it really is a novel of great beauty and power. If you have yet to experience McCarthy, this would be an excellent place to start.
The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
I owe my Australian (now ex-)publicist Brendan Fredericks for this one – he’d just finished it back in 2009, and was raving about it as he squired me about the various gigs in my Oz tour. I filed the enthusiasm away, but forgot about it in the rush of events once I got home. Fast forward a year and a half and there’s the UK edition just out and staring at me from a shelf in Waterstones, so I grabbed it and – thank you, Brendan! What you’ve got here is an unashamed attempt to write a novel of ideas as TV soap opera. So the narrative deals with sleepy suburban events centring around a slap given to an undeniably obnoxious child by a frustrated adult at a supposedly friendly family barbecue. The consequences of the incident spiral out of control, and as we skip from viewpoint to viewpoint along the way, more and more is revealed about the principal actors and bystanders, to the moral detriment of just about all concerned. And along with the moral issues inherent in the slap incident itself, we also take in a diverse range of the social issues at play in contemporary Australian society – class, race, gender, religion and sexuality, the generation gap, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the struggle to define yourself in the quicksand of it all. Tsiolkas is pretty much even-handed in his treatment of all this, and his reportage from inside his own Greek immigrant Australian identity is garnished with savage critique of old style machismo, in-group/out-group relativism and ethnic rivalry. Perhaps less clear-sighted is the treatment of youth, which Tsiolkas seems to have an overly optimistic view of, and it was here that I felt we strayed a bit into genuine soap opera territory. That aside, this is a fascinating, fast-forward read in which every character, no matter how flawed or wrong-headed, grabs your sympathy for the time you’re with them and leaves you with a sense of loss when their p.o.v. is gone. And when you close the book, you’ll miss them all the way you miss favourite family members after a shared weekend. This is character building that will live in your head long after the story is gone – don’t miss it! ( NB – read the book before you see the TV dramatisation too, because though it is a pretty close fit, the TV version does egregious harm to one of the strong female characters, dragging her down from Tsiolkas’s flawed but tough original into something weepy and emotional that, again, would best suit a genuine day-time soap.)
The Spanish Holocaust – Paul Preston
Spain was a brutally repressive fascist dictatorship until 1975, and didn’t transition to anything you could properly call democracy until 1977. This is something that gets forgotten far too often, mainly because Spanish society back in the seventies put together a form of unwritten social contract called El Pacto de Olvido (the pact of forgetting), in which everybody agreed to write off the horrors of the civil war and the repression that followed without attempting to place blame with any particular faction. Lots of nasty shit went on, went the gist, atrocities were committed on both sides but it’s all over now, so let’s get on with building this democracy and let the past go. It was a kind of Truth and Reconciliation moment, without any actual truth or reconciliation. As a result, the wounds have festered ever since, a grubby bandage of pretence about what happened endures, and the bulk of the Spanish right wing still steadfastly refuses to countenance any more honest assessment of the war and the Franco era that followed. Paul Preston has been on their case for the last thirty years, and this is his masterwork – over five hundred pages of meticulously documented research into the atrocities committed by the Nationalist army and the Franco regime, starting with the deep political, social and cultural soil they were rooted in and following tirelessly through right to the death of the tyrant. Not that the book is not about letting the Republican left off the hook for their share of the savagery either, but it apportions that share with scrupulous attention to the documented facts, and the stark truth is that while atrocities were indeed committed on the Republican watch, these were limited outbreaks of vindictive rage in response to long social repression by an unholy alliance of church and ruling class, and the Republican government worked constantly (though somewhat feebly and inefficiently) to staunch them at every turn. By contrast, Preston finds that Franco’s Nationalists practised a quite conscious process of extermination and political terror throughout the war, and in the long years of brutal repression that followed. Pretty much all the standard tricks were there – extra-judicial executions, “disappearances”, unmarked mass graves, political rape, torture chambers, concentration camps and slave labour, and while the sheer numbers of dead don’t approach the levels achieved by the Nazis in Germany, it doesn’t seem to have been for want of trying. Preston’s general conclusion is that Franco’s forces behaved the way a colonial army of occupation would in a conquered nation, and that, for the duration of the Franco regime, the ruling oligarchy treated the Spanish population not like countrymen to be governed but as the vanquished and despised inhabitants of a separate, colonised land. It’s a powerful accusation, but the book makes the argument beyond any reasonable doubt. And the echoes of that brutal class war reverberate through Spanish political and social life even today. For anybody who wants to understand modern Spain, this is required reading of the utmost importance. And for anyone who wants to understand the dynamics of right wing political hegemony, this is a pretty good worked example to start with. Grim but vital stuff.
Stonemouth – Iain Banks
I re-read The Crow Road this summer, partly to try out my brand new Kindle and partly in honour of Banks’ passing. It’s funny, but I’d forgotten quite how much is packed into that novel – everything from desirable women dancing on Range Rovers at drunken Scottish bashes to pastoral ambling through richly described hills and glens to murderous violent intrigue to sulky teenage rebellion to quietly profound musings on the nature of mortality. It would be a bit unfair to say that Stonemouth treads the same ground again, but you’ll certainly find a lot of the same fun ingredients in the mix – not least the fascination with prestige 4x4s. But where Crow Road was a gratuitously rambling Bildungsroman covering years and generations, Stonemouth is tightly focused on just eight days in the life of its young protagonist, and bears most of the hallmarks of a straightforward thriller. As with Crow Road, sexual allure and bad behaviour is the engine that drives the plot, but there’s a far harder edge on this one; in place of genteel West coast families of teachers, writers and minor nobility, you’ve got East coast clans of drug dealing gangsters and trawlermen, and even the hero has a slightly spivvy London whiff to him when we’re introduced. And there’s less gentle humour, more ironic savagery and social comment – despite Banks’ almost pitch perfect rendering of his young protagonist, this is clearly a book by an older, more impatient man, who sees less reasons to be cheerfully upbeat than the man who wrote Crow Road, and whose victories in the face of the human condition are much harder won. It’s gritty, intriguing stuff, and it grips from page one, the collage of mysteries and references to past events hurrying you onward to a crescendo that’ll have your heart in your mouth right to the end. This is vintage Banks at its finest.
Wolfhound Century – Peter Higgins
Got passed this one as a pre-publication sneak preview courtesy of my editor at Gollancz, Simon Spanton, which is why you’ll find a blurb line from me on the front cover. What hits you about Wolfhound Century right from the opening paragraph is the strength of the writing. A freshly turned metaphor and a deft couple of details and you’re right there, riding on the shoulder of the novel’s protagonist, a world-weary detective in a world you think you recognise – until suddenly you don’t. Higgins has taken thriller influences from writers like Martin Cruz Smith, John Le Carre and Ian Fleming, to name but three of the most obvious, and spliced them to a second world fantasy that’s richer than any I’ve seen since Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. But the whole is much more than the sum of these venerable parts – there’s something genuinely fresh and exciting in this blend of Russian derived folklore and magic, Soviet-style state barbarism and as yet arcane Abrahamic mystical elements. It’s a world we haven’t yet seen, a set of assumptions we can’t yet make, and the launch pad for a fascinating trilogy. Higgins has struck a rich vein here, and I can’t wait to see what he mines from it next.