Here’s my complete list. Reading has unfortunately taken a backseat in this Singstar heavy seasonal period, although I have an ever growing list to tackle in January…
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
- Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
- The Girl at the Lion d’Or by Sebastian Faulks
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
- Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
- Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
- Skin Lane by Nigel Bartlett
- The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas
- Day by A.L. Kennedy
- The Book of Dave by Will Self
- The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
- Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
- The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel
- A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis de Bernières
- Remainder by Tom McCarthy
- Slam by Nick Hornby
- The Dream Lover by William Boyd
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Gold by Dan Rhodes
- Then we Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
- What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn
- Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks
- The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
- Born Yesterday by Gordon Burn
- One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
- The Quiet American by Graham Greene
- Youth and the End of the Tether by Joseph Conrad
- The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
- If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
- Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
- Tell No One by Harlan Coben
- Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft
- The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday
- The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
- Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee
- Just After Sunset by Stephen King
- The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
- The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
- Casting the Runes and other Ghost Stories by M.R. James
- Miracles of Life by J.G.Ballard
- Essays in Love by Alain de Botton
- Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
- Paul Weller: The Changing Man by Paulo Hewitt
- Bit of a Blur by Alex James
- When you are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
- The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
- John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman
- Have You Seen…? by David Thomson
David Thomson’s Have you Seen…? could easily be passed over as an old fashioned, frankly unnecessary brick of a book. At 1000 pages, this is a film guide that recalls the era when Halliwell’s, and then later perhaps Time Out, provided your unputdownable film reference. Do we need such a heavy manual in this age of gadgetry? Can’t we just look for reviews on our iPhones? Well we can, although Thomson provides a very refreshing collection of film writing that’s worth investigating if you have the muscle.
Have you Seen...? Have you the strength to lift it?
How do you read a heavy film guide? Do you simply plough in from the start? Do you do what I did and look up all of your favourite films from memory until you are exhausted? Thomson lists his reviews alphabetically, beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and ending with Zabriskie Point. He also provides a chronology, listing the films he’s covered from 1895 (L’Arrosseur Arrossé) through to 2007 (You, the Living). He doesn’t provide an index, however, so if – like me on my second interrogation of the book – you want to look up specific actors or directors, you’ll find this harder to do.
Like every film reviewer, Thomson is opinionated, and, like every film book, you’ll find opinions you’ll agree with more than others. You’ll find opinions that will make you cross. The films left out can also annoy, so while he includes Kind Hearts and Coronets, he doesn’t include The Ladykillers. Where’s Get Carter? Where’s Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving? Why does he include some tv such as The Sopranos? And so on. It’s also very easy to tell who his favourites are; he’s obviously a fan of Ridley Scott (next time you’re in the bookshop have a sneaky read of the excellent Alien review) but not so much of Spielberg. And he’ dismissive of Star Wars to the point that it’s hardly worth him including it at all. Of all the film genres out there, he’s most baffled by horror, and repeats himself several times by stating that the genre dates badly. But when he does tackle it, for example Rosemary’s Baby and The Silence of the Lambs, he writes well.
Of all the geniuses of film, Thomson writes best on Hitchcock. On Psycho:
After one of the great night drives in American film, with torment in the rearview mirror, Marion comes to a shabby motel bypassed by the new highway – in the fifties, America’s rural character was erased by freeways. Yet something remained in the bypassed spots – rancor, regret, revenge, as mothers and sons huddled together in the same lamplight.
Elsewhere in the book there’s excellent musings on Hitchcock’s other major films, as well as interesting insight into the careers of Welles, Polanski and Kubrick. But this is a film guide beyond review, mostly because I’m still reading it, and I’ll be reading it for years to come. Now I’ve got to know Thomson, agreed to disagree in several areas, I’m moving on to the discovery phase – reading about the cinema I’ve missed, avoided or simply don’t know. Because this guy has seen an awful lot of films…
As usual the papers are full of Christmas Books articles, where authors and critics list their favourite titles from the last year. Do we care? Possibly the only enjoyment to be had from this sort of thing is in writing your own lists. Let’s have a go.
Very early in 2008 I enjoyed Skin Lane by Nigel Bartlett. Feels like I read this one in the dim and distant past, just like the 60s era that he so expertly recreates. A great read, but only if you’re into disturbia.
I also managed to complete my first ever Will Self novel, The Book of Dave. Having congratulated myself on this epic task I have no further urge to read anything else by him. Good while it lasted though.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy was possibly my read of the year. This is a book that’s had a lot of attention from reviewers telling you to read it. So do. I’ve nothing more to add really.
Both Slam by Nick Hornby and Gold by Dan Rhodes were enjoyable light reading. Hornby explores teenage pregnancy with wit and originality, and Rhodes is a real comic talent to watch out for. Okay, teenage pregnancy isn’t a light subject but … Hornby .. light .. good writer … sigh, see what you think. What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn is a much darker novel exploring the disappearance of a child. It’s a real sleeper of a book, with great reports still coming long after its original publication.
Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks was an enjoyable addition to the James Bond canon, although my thriller of the year was Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. This is the book that caused aghast cries from some quarters (including blogs) when it was placed on the Booker longlist. I can only put this down to snobbery – I found it a very well written and original novel.
As far as ghost stories are concerned, I liked The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill, although Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book was my favourite supernatural tale of the year. It joins Remainder as this year’s best read, alongside Just After Sunset by Stephen King.
Before I turn to non fiction it’s worth mentioning a book that defies any category. Born Yesterday by Gordon Burn. This examines real life events in 2007 but wraps them in a fictional premise that forces you to look at the news afresh. Highly original.
Miracles of Life by J.G.Ballard is an excellent autobiography that brightened up the early part of the year.
I also enjoyed Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, a light read that’s set me up for some of the other bard biographies around.
Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was a book I didn’t expect to enjoy, but it’s a very engaging look at a real Victorian murder mystery and its far reaching consequences.
For a weightier read, there’s John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman which took me three posts to review and is my non-fiction favourite of 2008.
She was at the end of a long ward, which had any number of cots and beds along the walls. In the cots were – monsters. While she strode rapidly through the ward to the door at the other end, she was able to see that every bed or cot held an infant or small child in whom the human template has been wrenched out of pattern, sometimes horribly, sometimes slightly.
Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child is sometimes described as a horror story. It’s not one written at all in the traditional sense, and for this reason it’s one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read for some time.
The problem I have, and perhaps the reason I’ve found this book so shocking, is that I can’t quite work out Lessing’s point of view. Take the quotation above, which is from a section about halfway through the novel. Harriet, the focal point of the story, has four healthy and what she (and perhaps Lessing) would call normal children. Her fifth child, Ben, is withdrawn, strange and potentially dangerous. Following a decision that may appear wild and unreasonable to today’s moral climate, Ben is placed in an “institution” – only rescued by Harriet in a moment of motherly guilt. It’s a situation (thankfully) difficult to picture now, although perhaps this was a feasible solution for nightmare children some thirty odd years ago (when the novel is set).
The Fifth Child is very effective in how Ben’s presence harms all around him, the bad seed of the family that causes his siblings to cower in fear. Lessing achieves this by her sparse and distanced writing style; and in this respect the novel is far superior to the leaden We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book that tackles much the same theme. However, the book continues to appear anachronistic; once Ben is rescued from the horrific institution he is handed to the part time care of a gang of unemployed youths who appear to have some calming influence on him. As a pre-school toddler he is allowed to roam freely with a group of young men and women. His parents simply want rid of him. How can we sympathise with their plight?
So Lessing impressed on one hand and let down on the other. Her writing style is chosen with great care, although the story goes in unbelievable directions. This novel affected me, although I didn’t find it the masterpiece I was expecting. I pitied Ben, as maybe I was supposed to do, but – influenced again by today’s moral climate where the media will seize upon stories of terribly abused children – the horror story is much more about a mother’s inability to deal with a misfit child.
At this time of year it’s refreshing to find good quality writing high on the bestseller lists. Stephen King’s Just After Sunset is his return to the short story form, and these thirteen stories go far beyond the boundaries of simple horror fiction; the jacket blurb promises twist-in-the-tale stories of suspense, terror and dark comedy and whilst there is a fair degree of this, King is a writer who has easily outgrown any easy classification.
The stories in Just After Sunset are all very different but share a common ground in considering themes important to King. Willa, the opening tale, finds ghostly travellers stranded at a railway station. It’s an archetypal tale of a group of lost and disjointed people who eventually turn out to be ghosts. There’s nothing startlingly original about this story – it’s just a good Twilight Zone – but it’s very well written and stands to ease the reader into the mood of the collection. And that’s the best thing about this book – like listening to a favourite album, you’ll fall into a comfortable and refreshing groove.
King goes on to offer his own post-twin towers meditation in The Things They Left Behind, one of the best things I’ve read about the after affects of 9/11. Here, a man who survived the disaster because he called in sick to work that day, finds objects belonging to his dead colleagues mysteriously turning up in his apartment.
Other tales tackle the significance of dreams; Harvey’s Dream is a well executed story, as is Rest Stop, which looks at crime and justice, where a writer stops at a motorway convenience to overhear an act of aggression and has to make an important decision. Mute, a confessional story, looks at the same subject from a different perpective. King also includes a story that dates back thirty years. The Cat From Hell is worthy of inclusion, but illustrates just how much he’s matured over the years as a writer.
But the longer and more complex stories are the best. The devil is really in the detail here. The Gingerbread Girl begins slowly, where a woman takes up running as a pastime whilst also deciding to leave her husband and move away. It’s beautifully composed but also decidedly non-horror, which makes it all the more compelling when the lady is question ends up chased along a beach by a scissor wielding maniac. Although this is more than just a slasher movie put to paper; King documents the whole uncomfortable episode with detail and precision. A Very Tight Space, about what happens to a man when he is locked inside a stinking and stiflingly hot portaloo by an insane and vengeful neighbour, revels equally in the details of the plight of a man literally … knee deep.
Best of all is N. It’s a superb short story, which contains all the right macabre elements to make it brilliantly scary. It’s also extremely clever, reminding just what a craftsman Stephen King is. It concerns a psychiatrist and his patient, a man fully immersed in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His OCD stems from a discovery of a weird stone circle, and the belief that something awful will be unleashed if he doesn’t continue with his pattern of counting and rearranging. The compulsions, the precise mathematics and the latent horror, becomes addictive to all who chance across his sorry tale. In his end notes, King reveals that this story was inpired by Arthur Machen. There’s also echoes of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. He’s carrying on the tradition: it’s easily the best thing I’ve read this year.
Just After Sunset proves it’s possible to be both successful and extremely good. King also makes it look all too easy. The struggling writer in us all can only bow in deference. God, I’d hate the man if I didn’t respect him so much.
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