Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2015

For this, my final post of the year, I present the ten best books I read in 2015. As has been the case with every one of my year-end books top tens since I started assembling such things six years ago, barely any of the books in this year's top ten were actually published this year – in fact just one, by an author who in 2013's top ten was the sole representative of that year's new publishing too – and so this post will as usual be of absolutely no use to anyone in discerning the prevailing trends in publishing over the past twelve months. But it may be of some use in discerning the prospective trends on Existential Ennui over the coming months, in as much as I've yet to get round to reviewing just under half of the books in this top ten – nor a good number of the books in my big long list of the books I read in 2015, from whence this top ten is drawn – and so whatever prolix piffle I eventually manage to cobble together about them may well form the substance of at least some of Existential Ennui in 2016.

Unless of course I decide not to blog about any of them. Or indeed blog at all. Merry Christmas, and a happy new year!

10. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1958)

Informed by Graham Greene's experiences working for the Secret Service during the war, Our Man in Havana may be a fairly frothy confection (the fate of poor Dr. Hasselbacher aside) but it still effectively skewers what Greene perceived as the credulity of British Intelligence. "It seemed to me that either the Foreign Office or the Intelligence Service had amply merited a little ridicule," he wrote of the novel in Ways of Escape. Speaking of which...

9. Ways of Escape by Graham Greene (Bodley Head, 1980)

Part autobiography, part travelogue, Greene's book-by-book saunter down memory lane is not only illuminating as to the origins of many of his novels, short stories and plays (the background to, and inspiration for, The Quiet American, for example, is extensive, incorporating diary entries) but frequently arresting and eye-opening too, not least when he discusses his fondness for opium, marijuana and cocaine.

8. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador, 2014)

I noted in my top ten of the best graphic novels I read in 2015 that I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic dystopias, and Station Eleven is a fine example of the sub-genre – elegantly written, strangely uplifting and with a fascinating and compelling internal mythology (as evidenced by the one-page Dr. Eleven comic book insert in my copy of the first edition).

7. The Holm Oaks by P. M. Hubbard (Joseph, 1965)

In my review of The Holm Oaks I ventured that it "might be the quintessential Hubbard novel", and further suggested that "the novel could almost be seen as a prototypical eco thriller". True to form I neglected to say whether it's any good or not, but its appearance in this top ten should offer some guidance there.

6. Eleven by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1970)

Graham Greene – who, as is becoming clear, features heavily in this top ten (to paraphrase New Order, everything went Greene for me this year) – wrote in his foreword to Eleven that Highsmith in her short stories "is after the quick kill rather than the slow encirclement of the reader, and how admirably and with what field-craft she hunts us down". Quite so.

= 5. private i / Foreign Exchange by Jimmy Sangster (Triton, 1967 / 1968)

I think Hammer Horror-meister Jimmy Sangster's two spy/crime thrillers starring ex-British Intelligence operative turned private investigator John Smith might have been the most purely enjoyable novels I read in 2015 – "kind of early le Carré crossed with Len Deighton's unnamed working class secret agent and with a dash of Adam Hall's Quiller mixed in for good measure", as I put it in my review.

4. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2015)

A companion novel to Life After Life, A God in Ruins is as evocative in its own way of life during wartime as Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (about which more shortly); but it's also a beautiful – and beautifully written – meditation on the big stuff of existence: love, death, family, chance, choice.

3. Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 1990)

"If [Todd] Haynes's film brings [Carol] and Highsmith to a new audience, so much the better, because Carol deserves to be widely read, especially by those who might otherwise dismiss Highsmith as a crime writer," I wrote in my review, adding that "it's recognisably the work of the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), This Sweet Sickness (1960) and The Cry of the Owl (1962), and as good in its own way as any of those novels". Still haven't seen the blummin' film yet though.

2. Touch by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1988)

I was surprised by how great Touch was; it's such an overlooked novel in Leonard's backlist that I wasn't expecting it to be up there with the likes of The Big Bounce (1969), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), Split Images (1981), Stick (1983) or LaBrava (1983). But it really is that good, boasting among its scenes "a climactic, brilliant, farcical TV interview conducted by a rictus grinning hairpiece-bedecked towering shit of a host which is about the best sequence I've read in a Leonard novel", as I put it in my review.

1. The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1946/1960)

When I reviewed The Ministry of Fear in July I praised the novel's "unexpected depth" and Greene's "vivid evocation of London during the Blitz, penned while the bombs were falling"; I highlighted the "undercurrent of pain and suffering which weaves through the story" and the themes of "the spirit of adventure and the loss of innocence" that inform the narrative; and I stated in closing "that The Ministry of Fear is the best of Greene's novels that I've read... and by far the best book that I've read this year". Couldn't have put it better myself.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Ten Best Graphic Novels and Comics I Read in 2015

Around this time of year, for the past six years, I've posted a top ten of the best books I read that calendar year. Given that the vast majority of the books I read in any given year were first published decades prior to that year – I am, after all, a collector of old books – it's a supremely pointless and arbitrary exercise, of no use to anyone in discerning which books actually published that year were any cop; but it's become something of a tradition, and so I persist with it even in the face of widespread indifference. (2015's iteration will be along shortly, as if anyone gives two hoots.) However, this year I wound up reading more graphic novels than is usually the case; and since a lot of those graphic novels were published in the last year or two, and I continue to read a reasonable number of comic book series as well, it struck me that this year I was in a position to proffer an additional top ten, one with slightly more relevance to at least one sector of contemporary publishing.

Hence this top ten of the best graphic novels and comics I read in 2015 (drawn from these big long lists of everything I read in 2015). I make no great claims for it being representative of the general thrust of comics and graphic novels in 2015; apart from anything else, half of the graphic novels I've picked were published in 2014. But it is at least in touch with prevailing trends and tastes in comics (unlike my best books top tens, which tend to be in touch with little other than my whims), and so might prove diverting for anyone with an interest in such things.

10. Ruins by Peter Kuper (SelfMadeHero, 2015)

Laced with autobiographical elements, Kuper's handsome travelogue is revealing on the subject of Mexico – its recent past and history, its culture, cuisine and, yes, invertebrates – and wise on the joys, revelations and tragedies that can either strengthen a relationship or rend it asunder.

9. Black River by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics, 2015)

I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic dystopias, but Jesus this was bleak, even by the standards of the sub-genre. A band of women and a lone man roam the eviscerated wastelands of North America, their destination hazy, their only certainty that violence and death awaits them. "I'm scared all the time," mutters the lone bloke at one point. Reading this, I knew exactly how he felt.

8. Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics, 2014)

I wondered back in February whether Megahex was perhaps one of the best graphic novels of 2014 – but since I didn't get round to reading it until this year, it's now one of my best graphic novels of 2015.

7. Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet (D&Q, 2014)

Another one from 2014, and another one that for many folk – including J. Caleb Mozzocco and Brian K. Vaughan – was among the very best graphic novels of last year. I liked it a lot too when I read it earlier this year. As gorgeous and unsettling as its title suggests.

6. Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Image, 2015)

What was that about being a sucker for dystopias...? Rucka and Lark's vision of a world suffering under the tyrannical yoke of untrammelled capitalism remains to my mind the sharpest – and most terrifyingly plausible – vision of the future currently being published in comics form.

5. East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (Image, 2015)

Mind you, Lazarus has stiff competition in the serialised dystopia stakes in the shape of East of West. Month by month it's a toss-up as to which is my favourite of the two, but on balance Hickman and Dragotta's machiavellian, ravishing, deeply depressing take on the end times just about edges it. I think.

4. Sky in Stereo by Mardou (Revival House, 2015)

I wrote about Sky in Stereo, Mardou's quietly magnificent fictionalised memoir, in 2012 and 2014 when bits of it were published as minicomix, but its publication this year as a graphic novel – in expanded form – affords me the opportunity to include it in my ten best of 2015 too. Hurrah.

3. Avengers / New Avengers / Secret Wars by Jonathan Hickman, Stefano Caselli, Mike Deodato, Kev Walker and Esad Ribic (Marvel, 2015)

Hickman and co.'s sprawling, enthralling, befuddling Avengers/New Avengers epic culminated in nothing less than the demise of the entire Marvel multiverse, with Secret Wars acting as a by-turns brilliant and maddening extended coda. The perfect jumping off point for weary Marvel fanboys.

2. It Never Happened Again / HaunterNew Construction by Sam Alden (Uncivilized / Study Group, 2014–2015)

A bit of a cheat, I suppose, picking three books by Sam Alden instead of one; but I bought and read all three of these this year and they're all, in their own idiosyncratic ways, superb, especially the extraordinary and troubling pair of stories in Alden's latest offering, New Construction.

1. Beauty by Kerascoet and Hubert​ (NBM, 2014)

Rich, rewarding, arresting: those were the kinds of words I used to describe Beauty when I wrote about it back in April, and my opinion hasn't altered since. In fact fuck it: I might as well go the whole hog and quote myself: "The story of a peasant girl who gets more than she bargained for when she's granted exceptional beauty, and set against a backdrop of grandeur, squalor and the changing seasons, [Beauty] shows how man's basest desires cause wars to be fought and kingdoms to fall. So it goes."

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Books, Graphic Novels and Comics I Read in 2015: Big Long List(s)

With Christmas fast approaching and the end of 2015 not far behind (as is traditionally the case), I know there'll be one question on the collective lips of Existential Ennui's ever-dwindling readership: Will we have to endure another one of Nick's tedious essays detailing the dubious and likely spurious achievements of this 'ere blog over the previous twelve months? To which the answer is, thank Christ, no. The odd decent post aside (a handful of Patricia Highsmith missives; a well-received guide to the Heinemann Library Edition of Graham Greene; and, latterly, reasonably thorough posts on Jimmy Sangster, Brian CleeveDonald MacKenzie and Elmore Leonard) it's not exactly been a banner year for blogging chez Existential Ennui, even compared to 2014 – fewer posts and with markedly less substance to many of those posts – and since I didn't inflict a year-end round-up on my meagre readership last year, it seems perverse to do so this year. Plus, y'know, I really can't be arsed anyway. (Remind me: Why do I bother blogging again...?)

However, I am inclined to assemble a big long list of the books I read this year, as I've done every year since 2010 – except in a change of programming from previous years, this time I've elected to also include the various comics serials I read in 2015 (but not the children's picture books I read – and reread, and reread – with Edie this year – of which there must have been over a hundred – nor the various books and graphic novels I read for work purposes), and to break the big long list up into three not quite so big long lists – comprising books, graphic novels and those aforementioned comics – both for ease of reference and in order to better reflect the breadth, if not the depth, of my reading.

The books and graphic novels I've arranged in roughly the order in which I read them – but not the comics; since those are for the most part ongoing monthly series it would be a nonsense to try and arrange them in that manner – and there are links to whatever I've written about each book/graphic novel/comic, which, in many cases, is fuck all. Analysis – such as it is, and emphasis on the 'anal' – follows the lists.

Books: Fiction and Non-Fiction
The Striker Portfolio by Adam Hall (Heinemann, 1969)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador, 2014)
The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head and Other Stories by Patricia Highsmith (Eurographica, 1986)
War Game by Anthony Price (Gollancz, 1976)
The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall (Hodder, 1982)
Hong Kong Kill by Bryan Peters (Boardman, 1958)
Intrigue by Desmond Cory (Muller/Shakespeare Head, 1954)
Feramontov by Desmond Cory (Muller, 1966)
The Holm Oaks by P. M. Hubbard (Joseph, 1965)
The Tower by P. M. Hubbard (Bles, 1967)
A Time to Kill by Geoffrey Household​ (Joseph, 1952)
A Dog's Ransom by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1972)
The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1946/1960)
Eleven by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1970)
Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 1990)
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1958)
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe (Harper, 2012)
Vote X for Treason by Brian Cleeve (Collins, 1964)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2015)
Pity Him Afterwards by Donald Westlake (Boardman, 1965)
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (Hodder, 1950/Blackwood, 1915)
private i by Jimmy Sangster (Triton, 1967)
The Kyle Contract by Donald MacKenzie (Hodder, 1971)
Pilgrim at the Gate by Desmond Cory (Muller/Shakespeare Head, 1957)
Foreign Exchange by Jimmy Sangster (Triton, 1968)
Touch by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1988)
Right as Rain by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown, 2001)
Glitz by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1985)
Bandits by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1987)
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (Panther, 1958/Cassell, 1950)
The Crocus List by Gavin Lyall (Hodder, 1985)
Ways of Escape by Graham Greene (Bodley Head, 1980)

Graphic Novels
Copra: Round One by Michel Fiffe (Bergen Street, 2014)
How to be Happy by Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics, 2014)
Poor Sailor by Sammy Harkham (Ginko, 2005) (reread)
The Clouds Above by Jordan Crane (Fantagraphics, 2005) (reread)
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (Faber, 2014)
Benson's Cuckoos by Anouk Ricard (D&Q, 2014)
It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden (Uncivilized, 2014)
One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry​ (Sasquatch, 2002)
Girl Stories by Lauren R. Weinstein (Holt, 2006)
Scenes from an Impending Marriage by Adrian Tomine (D&Q, 2011)
Houdini: The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi (Hyperion, 2007)
Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet (D&Q, 2014)
Garage Band by Gipi (First Second, 2007)
Notes for a War Story by Gipi (First Second, 2007)
Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics, 2014)
Here by Richard McGuire (Hamilton, 2014)
Fran by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics, 2013)
The Black Diamond Detective Agency by Eddie Campbell (First Second, 2007)
Avengers: Endless Wartime by Warren Ellis and Mike McKone (Marvel, 2013)
Judge Dredd: Origins by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (Rebellion/Hachette Partworks, 2015)
The Chimera Brigade vols 1–​3​ by Lehman, Colin and Gess (Titan, 2015)
Silverfin: The Graphic Novel by Charlie Higson and Kev Walker (Puffin, 2008)
Beauty by Kerascoet and Hubert​ (NBM, 2014)
White Cube by Brecht Vandenbroucke (D&Q, 2014)
Grendel: Devil by the Deed by Matt Wagner (Comico, 1988) (reread)​
Big Questions by Anders Nilsen (D&Q, 2011) (part reread)
Copra: Round Two by Michel Fiffe (Bergen Street, 2015)
Black River by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics, 2015)
Infinite Bowman by Pat Aulisio (Hic & Hoc, 2015)
Killing Time by John Smith and Chris Weston (Mandarin, 1992) (reread)
Haunter by Sam Alden (Study Group, 2014)
​Another Blue World by Jon Chandler​ (Breakdown, 2015)
​Terror Assaulter (O.M.W.O.T.) by Benjamin Marra​ (Fantagraphics, 2015)
Star Slammers by Walt Simonson (Marvel, 1983)
The Oven by Sophie Goldstein (Adhouse, 2015)
Sky in Stereo by Mardou (Revival House, 2015) (part reread)
The Spectators by Victor Hussenot (Nobrow, 2015)
Asterix and the Missing Scroll by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad (Orion, 2015)
Ruins by Peter Kuper (SelfMadeHero, 2015)
New Construction by Sam Alden (Uncivilized, 2015)

Serial Comics
Thors by Jason Aaron and Chris Sprouse (Marvel, 2015)
Velvet by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (Image, 2015)
Sex by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski (Image, 2015)
Doctor Who: Four Doctors by Paul Cornell and Neil Edwards (Titan, 2015)
Injection by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey (Image, 2015)
Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard (Image, 2015)
Squadron Sinister by Marc Guggenheim and Carlos Pacheco (Marvel, 2015)
Invisible Republic by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko (Image, 2015)
Avengers/New Avengers by Jonathan Hickman and various (Marvel, 2015)
The Dying and the Dead by Jonathan Hickman and Ryan Bodenheim (Image, 2015)
East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (Image, 2015)
Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra (Image, 2015)
Secret Wars by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic (Marvel, 2015)
The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (Image, 2015)
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses by David Lapham (Image, 2015)
Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse, 2015)
Jupiter's Circle by Mark Millar and Wilfredo Torres (Image, 2015)
Marvel Boy by Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones (Marvel, 2000) (reread)
Nameless by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham (Image, 2015)
Airboy by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle (Image, 2015)
Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Image, 2015)
Captain America by Roger Stern and John Byrne (Marvel, 1980)
Dark Circle by Rich Tomasso (Image, 2015)
Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang (Image, 2015)
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image, 2015)
We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce (Image, 2015)
Mage: The Hero Discovered by Matt Wagner (Comico, 1984)

Combining the novels (twenty-eight), short story collections (two), works of non-fiction (two) and graphic novels (forty) I make that a grand total of seventy-two books, which is more books than I've managed to get through in any single year since I started keeping a record of my reading; although as I read many more graphic novels this year than in previous years, and graphic novels tend to be quicker reads than novels, that total perhaps isn't as grand as it might at first appear. As for my comic book consumption, that's probably about the same as it has been – both in volume and the kinds of titles I read (predominantly Image-published ones) – for the past few years.

Of the novels that I read, around half were classic spy fiction of one type or another, and most of the rest were classic crime fiction, with the exceptions of Carol, Station Eleven and A God in Ruins, the latter two of which were the only newish novels I read this year – as opposed to the graphic novels that I read, where well over half were published in the last year or two. (The remainder were largely ones I'd had sitting in my loft unread for some time.) There were also four books, not listed, that I started but didn't finish (for various reasons): Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils and ​Collected Poems 1944–1979, Geoffrey Rose's Nobody on the Road and Mike Ripley's Just Another Angel.

Now, what I've tended to do in previous years is to choose my ten favourites of all of the books that I read, whether it be novels or graphic novels or whatever, and put together a top-ten-of-the-year post. However, seeing as I read so many graphic novels this year, for a change I thought I'd test my by-now virtually non-existent readership even further by picking my ten favourite books and my ten favourite comics/graphic novels and doing two posts instead of one. Will there be anyone still reading Existential Ennui by the time I'm done? Let's find out.