Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10: 2013 Reads

I may as well give up pretending that this blog exists for any real writing purpose at the moment, so in the spirit of year end here's a list, lists are the easiest posts of all.

In 2013 I've read 122 books, not quite half of what I read last year but priorities change, so my Top 10 Reads of 2013 accounts for just under ten percent of the total. Noir has taken precedence over everything in my reading as well as my viewing but this list isn't all blacker than black. I promise.

10. Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres (2013)
Jedidiah Ayres' prose is sparse and his tale is bleak as fuck, mirroring the carefully constructed locale and the unforgiving sun baked desert that surrounds it. This appears to be his first novella but its written with the skill and voice of a much more experienced man to the point that I wouldn't be surprised if this was Jim Thompson still writing after faking his death back in '77. Most impressive is his use of the second person narration, a device that can horribly backfire in the wrong hands but in this case was so perfectly done that I hardly noticed it until the chapter was over.

9. London Under by Peter Ackroyd (2011)
Example chapter titles include Holy Water, Forgotten Streams, Buried Secrets and The Heart of Darkness and every page contains at least one moment of wonder to those uneducated yet enthusiastic readers (which is exactly the target audience for this work) like myself. For a chapter or two I thought it was going to take me weeks to read due the sheer quantity of google and wiki searches I was performing to acquire further knowledge of a proffered fact whilst reading before readjusting my mindset to just let the author entertain me with his seemingly endless supply of poetic historical tales.

8. The Pirates! In an Adventure With The Romantics by Gideon Defoe (2012)
If you were to take a poll of people reading you might find a lot of votes for great use of ham in a nautical setting, there may even be several readers who enjoy the excellent names created for the motley crew of pirates but guaranteed that majority will tell you that the best bit about reading a book about The Pirates! is all the running through that happens. Just ask Jeffrey Keeten about the time he ran a man through for daring not to wear a fencing cup in school colours if you are unsure of the unique pleasures a good running through can provide.

7. Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (1964)
This tale of small town America is littered with pimps, whores, crooked lawmen, private detectives, women no better than they ought to be, incestuous men, wife beaters, murderers, corrupt politicians, vindictive women, peeping toms, mentally challenged cuckolds, religious zealots and plenty of sex. Of course on top of that there's Sheriff Nick Corey, a noir protagonist the likes of which you may never have seen.

6. Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block (1982)
The fifth Matt Scudder takes a further dark turn in to a city plagued by demons and lawlessness, taking a pessimistic cue from the classic movie/TV show The Naked City this is the story of a dead call girl, of 2000 murders per year, of a private investigator, of an alcoholic on a path of self-destruction. During his investigation Scudder comes in to contact with all kinds of filth and degenerates, he makes acquaintances with a good cop, a good pimp, five hookers and a black albino informant. There's violence and paranoia, sobriety and alcohol related blackouts, it's a rocky ride and I shan't spoil it for you. Soon to be a Liam Neeson movie it could easily have been directed by Harmony Korine.

5. Bit of a Blur: The Autobiography by Alex James (2007)
From the opening lines I was impressed with his ability to write, weaving together a series of interesting and entertaining anecdotes with an infectious enthusiasm, granted if you can't have enthusiasm for your subject when you're writing about yourself you may as well give up writing altogether, but James is erudite and witty and incredibly frank about his occasionally abhorrent behaviour. I was enamoured from the start and James (and obviously a great editor) didn't let me down, becoming, by quite some margin, my favourite autobiography/biography that I've ever picked up.

4. The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno (2006)
A deep melancholy permeates the pages of The Boy Detective Fails, a magical little book that asks questions about growing up and growing old, the death of innocence and imagination, loss and grief via the story of an adult boy detective. People reference something called Encyclopedia Brown plus the usual suspects of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, popular characters from an American childhood that seemed too Other to me as a young man in small town England. I preferred the much more English series, The Mystery Kids, myself. But anyway take those kids who had magical crime busting adventures and crush their spirit and enthusiasm and send them out to solve the mystery of death and you've got the essence of The Boy Detective Fails. And in his straight-faced magical realist style of writing he crafted something of a Lemony Snicket for adults, something smart and haunting, laced with real pain and sorrow and wit and heart and situational humour. It's a truly surprising piece of work that deserves to be lauded and paid homage to with countless imitators who just don't have the skill to get past the original surface gimmick and imbue their novel with actual life.

3. Wake In Fright by Kenneth Cook (1961)
You know, from the opening paragraphs, that this book is going to stay with you as only the most powerful books do. Cook captures the essence of the vast emptiness of the desert, the punishing effect of constant heat from sun up to sun down and the isolation of man in a place he doesn't belong, and wraps it up in a tight little novel that suffocates the reader. I felt almost claustrophobic whilst reading, the pressure and closeness of the heat described transferring itself to me on my nice air conditioned bus. 

2. The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins (1972)
It's all fly on the way stuff with dialogue feeling so authentic you have to retune your brain to the sounds of criminal class Boston, the kind of stuff Elmore Leonard is widely praised for but better. When not in conversation TFOEC is narrated with the kind of matter of fact attention to detail you might find in a Martin Beck or 87th Precinct novel for example, it's dry in itself but the subject matter isn't. The action might largely appear to be happening in between these chapters of conversation but the combination of dialogue and narration create a portrait of the life of these people, their criminal actions, the lifestyle choice, that will certainly serve as an anthropological study and an entertaining crime read for future generations.

1. The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (1978)
Crumley writes this stuff better than just about anyone I've experienced to date, the way he took hold of the genre, seemingly educated himself on Chandler, Hammett, Willeford, Thompson et al and crafted this masterpiece is a remarkable thing to have witnessed, it is a true shame that he isn't more widely known and respected. Having said that it is only through the praise lavished on his work from the fourth generation of hard-boiled and noir writers who claim to be in his debt that I stumbled across this work. People like George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane have described this book as one of the best pieces of fiction written in the past fifty years. Very high praise indeed and in my experience fully justified.

How about you guys, any favourites from amongst these? How about your favourite discovery of the year? Tweet me, comment, send me a letter, whatever.

1 comment:

  1. 900+ films and 100+ books in one year?! Well done, man. The best thing I read was easily The Great Gatsby.