2019 Retrospective – top books

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This year I read around fifty books – not enough to complete my New Year’s resolution and clear my bookshelf, but a good effort I think. Here’s a list of the top 5 books I’ve read this year:

  1. China Mieville – Railsea
  2. Anthony Doerr – All The Light We Cannot See
  3. China Mieville – The Last Days of New Paris
  4. James Frey – Bright Shiny Morning
  5. Stephen Fry – Mythos

CAUTION: Spoilers ahoy!

Railsea reads like a cross between Moby Dick and the 1990 Kevin Bacon classic Tremors. Set in a post-apocalyptic future Earth, the seas have been replaced the railsea – soft areas of earth where giant moles and other oversized creatures dig under the remains of lost civilisations and a vast carpet of interconnected railway systems.

Told mostly from the point of view of adventurous boy Sham Yes ap Soorap, Railsea is a story for readers of all ages and carries the same imaginative flair and eye for a well-crafted sentence as Mieville’s adult fiction. The book, perhaps by virtue of its broad intended audience, is more accessible than most of Mieville’s more baroque work, but no less layered and captivating.

It is also a book which delivers on the promise of something meaningful at the end of the characters’ quest. If Railsea was a film I’d be describing the great visuals at the end of the film and the brilliant choice of shots and scene composition.

Here is China Mieville talking with James Bradley at the Perth Writers Festival, in 2013:

All The Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It had been brooding on my bookshelf for at least a year if not longer. The story is set in occupied France during WWII, the and centres on a young German soldier and a blind French girl whose paths eventually cross.

It is everything you would expect from a Pulitzer-winning novel – full of atmospheric scenes, interesting historic information and emotion. Both main characters prompt huge empathy and I was willing them to get over the numerous obstacles they are presented with and reach the end of the book intact. I am very surprised that it hasn’t yet been adapted into a movie as it has huge potential in that respect.

Here is author Anthony Doerr talking with Marcia Franklin about the novel:

China Mieville’s novella The Last Days of New Paris is by no means less imaginative than Railsea but is steeped in Surrealist references and is therefore less accessible. It is written from two years within an extended alternate history of WWII in which the Allies and the Nazis have dabbled in dark arts.

The 1941 storyline tells the story of Jack Parsons an American who has an occult box which can change the course of the war. He intends to use it’s power to enervate the famous golem of Prague, but when he crosses paths with an enclave of Surrealists in Marseille, his plans go awry.

The 1950 storyline centres on Thibaut, a freedom fighter, who roams the streets of Paris where Surrealist manifestations and demons stalk. He meets an American photographer called Sam and they work to uncover a Nazi plot which could turn the war for control of the streets of the French capital and perhaps the whole war in Hitler’s favour.

The book was an amazingly enjoyable experience since I am an art fan in need of further education. I found a great reference for all the artworks and artists mentioned in this useful community post: Graphic Annotations of China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris. It also inspired me to go and see a Dorothea Tanning exhibition at the Tate Modern, London.

Bright Shiny Morning follows the lives of a number of interesting characters living in Los Angeles. A young couple, Maddie and Dylan, run away from their abusive family homes to be together in the city of angels. Amberton and Cassie are hugely successful actors in a luxurious marriage of convenience. Old Man Joe is a Venice beach bum who likes his bottles of wine and lives in the toilet of a restaurant. Esperanza is a Mexican-American girl who works as a maid but wants to go to college.

I had great hopes that these four stories would eventually meet each other in an epic climax, but that wasn’t the case. It was still a brilliant book. Interspersed with fascinating facts and thought-provoking lists about LA, Bright Shiny Morning is a mixture of gritty storytelling and mind-opening information about the development of the city and the sheer size of the place. It’s obvious to the reader that Frey is just scratching the surface of LA and the millions of tales that are ongoing every day.

Here’s author James Frey talking about the book:

I was initially taken aback by the lack of punctuation in the book but it actually helps create a sense of the city – ostensibly laid-back but also rough and chaotic. Actor Amberton’s homosexual cravings for someone who works at his agency are balanced against the biker gang violence Dylan has to experience. While Dylan’s uncompromising love for Maddie is as strong as Old Man Joe’s good heart and struggle to do the right thing when he sees a young girl trapped in an abusive situation. If you have any interest at all in Los Angeles then this book is essential reading in my opinion.

I broke my New Year’s resolution by buying Stephen Fry’s duo Mythos and Heroes. In Mythos, Fry does for Greek mythology what Neil Gaiman did for Norse mythology in his book. Having watched a lot of films like Clash of the Titans and read some stuff before it was great to revisit the myths again delivered with Fry’s famous wit and knowledge. There is humour to be had in great dollops from many of these myths and much learning to be had. For someone who holidays in Greece pretty much every summer it seemed like a no-brainer as a book to take on my summer holiday in Crete.

Here’s author Stephen Fry talking about Mythos:

Honourable mention should also go out to Matt Haig, Raymond Chandler, Bernard Cornwell and Lee Child who all kept me busy trying to clear the decks this year.

Photo by 2Photo Pots on Unsplash

 

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