Friday 20 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: the 10 Best Books I Read in 2013

And so we reach the not-especially-grand finale not only of the Existential Ennui Review of the Year, but of Existential Ennui for the year. And on both counts, all I can say is, thank fuck for that. On reflection, five end-of-year posts (five! What on earth was I thinking?) was at least two posts too many (if not five posts too many), and as for the year in general, while it's been wonderfully life-changing in at least one respect, it's also been bloody long and in places bloody hard, and I'm kind of glad it's almost over.

But let that not deter us from finishing the year chez Louis XIV in traditional fashion with my ten best books of the year, as picked from the big long list of the books I read in 2013. As usual, and unlike with my newly-instituted-and-unlikely-to-be-repeated ten best comics (linked by The Comics Reporter, no less) and ten best albums posts, few of these books actually date from 2013 – just one, in fact, although another one was published into paperback in 2013 having been published in hardback in 2012, so it's still reasonably 'new'. The rest date from much earlier than 2013 – decades earlier, making the top ten as comically arbitrary – and thus of no use to anyone – as previous years' efforts. (Equally arbitrarily, I've once again discounted any novels I'd read before, of which there were four this year – see the aforementioned big long list.)

Since I've already reviewed all of these books – you can click through to each review via the titles – I'll be keeping additional commentary to a minimum. Let the countdown... commence!

10. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2013)

I'm still not sure if the denouement of Atkinson's device of having a character live their life over and over again in order to avoid a succession of untimely deaths quite, um, lived up to the journey there, but in any case the journey there was well worth taking.

9. Deep Water Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1958)

Highsmith preferred to tell a story from the perspectives of two protagonists (usually opponents, usually men), but Ripley's Game aside, arguably her most powerful novels adhere to a singular viewpoint, Deep Water being an early example.

8. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (Gollancz, 1963)

Widely recognised as a classic not only of the spy fiction genre but of twentieth century fiction in general. And yet... while I admired it, and it is evidently a great novel, for me it's not up there with Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, or indeed that novel's two sequels. Perversely, perhaps, I also preferred the two less-acclaimed novels which preceded The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, namely:

7. Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) in The le Carré Omnibus by John le Carré (Gollancz, 1964)

Obviously I'm cheating here... or am I? After all, these are the ten best books I read in 2013, not the ten best novels, and I read le Carré's first and second novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, together in The le Carré Omnibus. Ergo I'm not so much cheating as... not being completely honest. Ahem.

6. Alys, Always by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)

A The Talented Mr. Ripley for the 21st century? Not quite – for one thing, Frances Thorpe, the star of this novel, isn't as murderous as Tom Ripley – but Lane shares Highsmith's cool detachment, steady pace and sly psychological depth. Advance word on Lane's second novel, Her, is very good.

5. The Sandbaggers by Ian Mackintosh (Corgi, 1978)

What's this? A novelisation? Ah, but what a novelisation. Mackintosh's take on his own espionage TV show packs more in, and in a more convincing manner, than many more celebrated spy novels manage.

4. Swag (1976) and The Hunted (1977) in Elmore Leonard's Dutch Treat by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1987)

Yes, yes, I'm sort of cheating again – see The le Carré Omnibus above – but I did genuinely read Swag and The Hunted in the Dutch Treat omnibus (later securing a scarce first hardback edition of The Hunted). And anyway, who'll begrudge me a minor con in the year that Elmore Leonard died? Incidentally, the third novel in this collection, Mr. Majestyk, is almost as good as the two I've highlighted, but I read it last year (as a paperback original).

3. LaBrava by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1984)

In previous years I've limited myself to one appearance per author in my top tens, but under the circumstances, this year I think I'm justified (arf) in dispensing with that rule. Besides, Leonard's novels were some of the best things I read in 2013 – were this a top twenty rather than a top ten, he'd be filling most of the positions from 11 to 20 – and LaBrava was one of the best of that best.

2. A Magnum for Schneider by James Mitchell (Herbert Jenkins, 1969)

Is this, like The Sandbaggers, a novelisation? After all, Mitchell adapted it from his own own screenplay – for an Armchair Theatre production which acted as the pilot to the subsequent Callan TV series – so I suppose in that sense it is. But then really, who cares? What matters is that it's a brilliantly grubby spy story, economically and unfussily told, and all the better for it.

1. Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard (Secker & Warburg, 1977)

It couldn't really be anyone else at number one, could it? But even if Leonard hadn't passed away in August, this novel would have still nabbed the top spot. Follow the link in the title to find out why.

And with that, my work here is done for the year. A very merry Christmas to you all, and see you in 2014.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: a Big Long List of the Books I Read in 2013

Well, thus far the Existential Ennui Review of the Year has turned into a wander rather further down memory lane than I'd intended – witness the preambulatory contextual rambles at the start of my posts on the ten best comics I read and the ten best albums I heard in 2013, which ventured far beyond 2013 to detail in tiresome fashion my personal histories with both comics and music. Rest assured, however, that there'll be none of that nonsense in this post, because we're back on more recognisable terrain here in the shape of the traditional – as in, including this post, I've rolled something similar out four years running now (twice in 2010, ridiculously) – big long list of the books I read this year.

As in previous years, the list is ordered roughly in the, er, order in which I read the books, and the title of each book links to whatever I wrote about it. Analysis (oh dear God) follows underneath the list.

Comeback (1997) by Richard Stark
Backflash (1998) by Richard Stark
Flashfire (2000) by Richard Stark
Unknown Man No. 89 (1977) by Elmore Leonard
Dominion (2012) by C. J. Sansom
Alys, Always (2012) by Harriet Lane
One Fat Englishman (1963) by Kingsley Amis
Call for the Dead (1961) by John le Carré
A Murder of Quality (1962) by John le Carré
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John le Carré
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) by Patricia Highsmith (reread)
Ripley Under Water (1991) by Patricia Highsmith (reread)
Ghostman (2013) by Roger Hobbs
My Enemy's Enemy (1962) by Kingsley Amis
Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson
Dr. Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks (1964) by David Whitaker
A Delicate Truth (2013) by John le Carré
Flush as May (1963) by P. M. Hubbard
From Here to Maternity (1955) by Peter Rabe
Out of Sight (1996) by Elmore Leonard
Cuba Libre (1998) by Elmore Leonard
Get Shorty (1990) by Elmore Leonard (reread)
The Hunted (1977) by Elmore Leonard
Swag (1976) by Elmore Leonard
Stick (1983) by Elmore Leonard (reread)
LaBrava (1983) by Elmore Leonard
Road Dogs (2009) by Elmore Leonard
Valdez is Coming (1970) by Elmore Leonard
Gold Coast (1980) by Elmore Leonard
Fifty-Two Pickup (1974) by Elmore Leonard
Be Shot for Sixpence (1956) by Michael Gilbert
Out on the Rim (1987) by Ross Thomas
Deep Water (1957) by Patricia Highsmith
The Switch (1978) by Elmore Leonard
Count Not the Cost (1967) by Ian Mackintosh
A Magnum for Schneider (1969) by James Mitchell
The Man Who Sold Death (1964) by James Munro
A Slaying in September (1967) by Ian Mackintosh
The Sandbaggers (1978) by Ian Mackintosh
Our Man in Camelot (1975) by Anthony Price

I make that forty books in total, which is twenty-four fewer than I managed in 2012 and twenty-nine fewer than I managed in 2010, although only eight fewer than 2011. There is, of course, a very good reason for this – one which I trust and fervently hope will continue to have an impact on my reading for many years to come – and we should also bear in mind that I read quite a lot of comics too, so all things considered, it's really not a bad total. Obviously it's not quite the end of the year yet, and I do have a further four(!) books on the go, but I'd be surprised if I finish any of them before 2013 breathes its last. And even if I do, who's to know apart from me? It'll just give me a headstart on next year's total (which I suspect I'll need).

So, what can we determine from the 2013 list? Well, almost all of the books I read were novels, and even the two that weren't – Kingsley Amis's My Enemy's Enemy and Peter Rabe's From Here to Maternity – are still essentially fiction, the former a short story collection and the latter a fictionalised illustrated account of Rabe's wife's pregnancy. Just three were published this year – Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, Roger Hobbs's Ghostman and John le Carré's A Delicate Truth – and a further two – Harriet Lane's Alys, Always and C. J. Sansom's Dominion – were published into paperback this year (having been published in hardback last year) and so could still be considered 'new'. The rest were published across the preceding six decades – two in the 2000s; six in the 1990s; five in the 1980s; eight in the 1970s; eleven in the 1960s; and three in the 1950s. Almost all, however, were 'new' to me, with the exceptions of Patricia Highsmith's The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water and Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty and Stick, which I'd read before.

If we were to divide the books into categories, twenty are what you could loosely term crime fiction; eleven are to a greater or lesser degree spy fiction; five are I suppose what you'd call literary and/or historical fiction; two are westerns; one is science fiction; and one would be categorised as humour. The author I read the most in 2013, appositely given that he passed away this year, is Elmore Leonard, by a wide margin: thirteen novels in total (including the two rereads). His nearest rival isn't, in terms of raw numbers, any kind of rival at all really – John le Carré, of whose novels I read four this year – while I read three books apiece by Richard Stark (alias Donald E. Westlake, who was my most-read author in 2012 and 2010), Patricia Highsmith (again including two rereads), James Mitchell (including one written under the pen name James Munro) and Ian Mackintosh, and two by Kingsley Amis.

Fascinating stuff, I'm sure you'll agree, but as the more attentive souls among you may have noticed, it tells us little to nothing about the books themselves. For that I'd suggest following the links to read whatever piffle I posted about each of them. And if you're curious as to which books I'd pick as my ten best of the year, all will be revealed in the final post not only in the Existential Ennui Review of the Year, but of the year.