This year I read around 40 books – same as last year – here’s a post about my Top 5 books this year with some spoilers and links to longer reviews in the list below:
- Alan Moore – From Hell
- Haruki Murakami – Killing Commendatore
- Stephen Fry – Troy
- David Mitchell – Utopia Avenue
- Matt Haig – The Midnight Library
And just like the year before I will give an honourable mention to Bernard Cornwell because I read eleven of his books this year and while they varied in quality they never failed to entertain me in one way or another, and to Robert Fagles for his translation of Homer’s The Odyssey which was a lot more fun to read that The Iliad.
From Hell tells the story of the Jack the Ripper in a Victorian London on the brink of the Twentieth century. For me this is Moore’s best work. Yes Watchmen is brilliant within the costumed hero / superhero genre, but From Hell has a depth of historical research underpinning the story testing the limits of one of the theories of who Jack the Ripper was.
In the hard bound ‘Master Edition’ Eddie Campbell’s art has been revised by the artist to include colour and so the bloody scenes are rendered in glaring red. There’s also extensive appendices which include some really interesting and often amusing page-by-page notes explaining the choices Moore made in the writing process and giving some fascinating insights into Victorian London. the appendix ‘Dance of the Gull Catchers’ is I assume an addition for this edition since it includes a panel containing the movie poster of 2001’s disappointing movie adaptation.
The closing sequences of the story are so very well done, linking the events of 1888 to the past and the future, that I was smiling at every page despite the dark subject matter – this was a masterclass in storytelling – both in words and pictures.
Killing Commendatore is a lengthy novel (around 700 pages) tells the story of a portrait painter who has split up from his wife and after a brief period of travel and soul-searching ends up living at the mountain home of a friend’s father. The father is well-renowned Japanese artist, Tomohiko Amada, who is now seeing out his final years in a hospital. The house stands in relative solitude atop a mountain with its nearest neighbour across the valley, a car journey away around a twisting road.
The painter discovers a painting hidden in the attic. Bringing it down into the light, he discovers that it is a very peculiar painting by Amada entitled Killing Commendatore showing the assassination of a man witnessed by a woman and a long-faced man coming out of a hole in the ground. As the story slowly gets increasingly surreal, The Commendatore manifests himself to the artist as a two-foot man straight out of the painting and claims that he is an ‘Idea’.
The final stages of the book feature a rather enthrallingly surreal journey through an imaginary underworld where the artist’s claustrophobia and mettle is tested to the limits. The pacing of Killing Commendatore is typically slow, there is a lot of repetition (perhaps because it was published originally in two volumes) and Murakami’s obsession with cooking, music and ears is still in evidence, but there is certainly a sense of mystery that stays with you way beyond the final page.
Troy is everything I had been hoping for after reading Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes. It tells the story of the face that launched a thousand ships, the siege and fall of Troy, how Achilles met his fate, about why you should be wary of Greeks bearing unexpected gifts and made sense of Homer’s The Iliad which only seems to tell half the story.
Fry begins his story before The Iliad with a lot of ‘back story’ to the main players in the drama and sets some rules in terms of for example the naming of the two Ajaxs. As he did in his previous Greek mythology books, Fry makes good use of footnotes often with a dash of humour to help the reader along. He clarifies why it was that Aphrodite, Ares and Apollo were on one side of the war and Hera and Artemis were on the other, and also why Zeus seemed to flip-flip between the two depending on who was clutching his knee pleading for favour.
Fry also clearly demarks the point at which Homer falls silent – ‘this is where the story of The Iliad ends’ – he says in a footnote – this had me excited because up to that point I had been enjoying the book a lot, but was surprised about how much I had remembered since reading Robert Fagles translation. Sure, I knew Achilles was going to get shot with an arrow in his heel, that the Greeks would leave a huge wooden horse for the Trojans to find and that would be their downfall, but I didn’t know all the detail behind the myth, or indeed that the Amazons got involved in the battle after Hector’s funeral, or how Ajax (the big one) died, or how bad the sacking of Troy turned out to be.
Utopia Avenue is the story of the creation, the rise and the inevitable fall of the fictional and titular British rock band between 1967 and 1968. Utopia Avenue is formed of four disparate looking musicians – Dean Moss on bass guitar, Peter Griffin on drums, Elf Holloway on vocals and keyboards, and Jasper de Zoet on lead guitar. Dean, Elf and Jasper all write songs for the band and share vocal duties.
The book is arranged into three acts representing the band’s albums (Paradise Is the Road to Paradise, The Stuff of Life and The Third Planet) with each chapter, or track on ‘Side 1’ or ‘Side 2’ to continue the LP premise, written from the perspective of a different character. Mitchell traces Utopia Avenue’s rise from playing shitty gigs at working men’s clubs and university students’ unions to a U.S. tour and a party at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. The song writers get their inspiration from the various trials and tribulations that a struggle for fame and fortune brings upon them, and the songs they write are cohesively connected to the structure of the chapters.
While tracking the fortunes and misfortunes of the band and its members, the book also acts as a commentary on the changing times at the transition between the decades in which the world was experiencing so much social and political upheaval. What is a fun rags to riches tale, with some fantastical elements linking to his previous books like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, also documents the change in attitudes toward counter-cultures, homosexuality, anti-war sentiment and drug use. It’s not Mitchell’s best work, but it’s still miles better than a lot of the stuff I have read this year.
The Midnight Library
The Midnight Library is the deceptively deft story of depressed Nora who decides to end it all after the death of her beloved cat and reflecting that her life has amounted to a big fat zero. She has so many regrets you could make a book of them, and this is in fact the case – she reads her ‘Book of Regrets’ in the titular Midnight Library at the behest of the librarian Mrs Elm. The library is Nora’s own private limbo – a metaphysical bubble where the clocks are stopped at 00:00 – where Nora is given the chance to examine her regrets by living lives she could have had across the multiverse of possibilities that branch from every decision point like a nebulous tree of life. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Nora’s surname is Seed and Mrs Elm refers to a tree.
Nora’s journey appears to be set out by Matt Haig to walk us through the ideas that you should not live to fulfil other people’s goals, you should not try too hard to achieve unrealistic goals, that the universe doesn’t give two hoots about what you want from life, that your life story doesn’t necessarily reflect what happened and why, and that happiness must coexist with pain to hold any value etc. etc.
It seems rather diminishing to describe The Midnight Library as a ‘feel good book’ but essentially that’s what it is. I hope that if some filmmakers get their hands on the rights to turn it into a movie that they don’t lose the nuanced and thought-provoking messages that are baked into seemingly rather over-played premise which dates back to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and beyond.