Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Category: Authors D (page 1 of 12)

My Best Reads of 2015

Last year I split my best of list in two – the Shiny edition and the Blog edition. I read just as many books this year as last (127) and awarded 17 of them 9.5 or 10 stars at the time of review, but I’ve decided to have just one list this time with a baker’s dozen choices,  mixing old and new titles, blog and Shiny reviews.  As always, the links will take you back to the original review.

Best evocation of 1960s London

arnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott

This violent story-cycle about a bipolar gay gangster is primarily set in and around Soho of the 1960s and it’s pitch-perfect in its seedy detail. Five episodes from the life of Harry Stark, each told by a different narrator – from the unhappy peer Lord Thursby to the speed-addicted Jack the Hat and Ruby Ryder the tart with a heart, the picture they build up of Harry is of a complicated character.


Best YA novel

grasshopper-jungleGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

I nearly gave this award to Marcus Sedgwick for his masterful linked story cycle The Ghosts of Heaven, but Grasshopper Jungle with its coming of age story set in a world newly invaded by mutant six foot tall praying mantises was just so fresh and immediate. It was thought-provoking too whilst entertaining us in a horror mode that recalls Charlie Higson’s zombie novels. Fantastic stuff for mid-teens upwards.


Best Comic Thriller

hackHack by Kieran Crowley

This thriller by crime journalist Crowley had me laughing all the way through with its hilarious wisecracks while a serial killer was at work in New York.  From the moment a pet-columnist is mistakenly sent to a crime-scene because there’s a dog guarding the body, you know you’re in for an entertaining and suspenseful read. The funniest crime novel I’ve read since I discovered Christopher Brookmyre.


Best Book that Made Me Cry

instrumental james rhodesInstrumental by James Rhodes

Several books I’ve read this year made me cry – including that disappointing doorstop  and some tough lit for teens, but the book that dissolved me into a weeping heap was a memoir. Instrumental is a candid account of horrific child-abuse and its lasting effects in the injuries, shame, anger, breakdown, self-harm, OCD, addiction and more that followed. However, it may sound glib but isn’t, this book is also about the healing power of music and how Rhodes harnessed it to make a life for himself as a classical pianist.  Horrific yet hopeful, it’s a tough read but an important one.


Best Technicolor Cover

hotel arcadiaHotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh

This literary thriller grabbed me from page 1 and didn’t let go until I’d finished.  It’s premise is very simple – a group of terrorists storm the Hotel Arcadia, systematically hunting down the guests and murdering them – we never find out why. We see what happens through the eyes of just two people: Abhi, one of the hotel managers and Sam, a guest who happens to be a war-photographer, both of whom escape the initial purge. Full of authentic detail and perfectly balanced between Abhi and Sam, this is a suspenseful and affecting read.


Best New to Me Crime Series

spring-tideSpring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind

The husband and wife team behind Scandi-TV hits Arne Dahl etc. have diversified into crime novels featuring an odd couple of investigators – Olivia Ronning is a trainee police officer and Tom Stilton a dropped-out one, a former inspector.  Combining solving a cold case alongside current ones that together expose the underbelly of Stockholm in both high and low places, this pair make a rather interesting new team. The follow-up novel Third Voice was also brilliant.


Best Book from the TBR I’ve Owned the Longest

My original first UK paperback edition (Minerva 1994)

The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury

Why this book sat for 21 years in my TBR piles, I’ll never work out, but once a new edition piqued my interest, I read it and was blown away by this tale of small-town America following the lives and loves of the fictional Grouse County, Iowa. The novel is driven by the conversations between the characters, finding its drama there rather than in action. The dialogue, coupled with deadpan observational detail draws you in totally. I now want to read everything Drury has written.


Young God

Best New Voice

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

I have Elle to thank for this recommendation. Brutal, sparse and shocking, this coming of age novel is maybe the darkest I’ve ever read – but I loved it. Teenager Nikki’s story is told in short chapters, sort of vignettes – some only a line or two long, others stretching to a couple of pages. Drugs, underage prostitution, guns, trailer-park living. The author never attempts to make us like or judge Nikki, she just tells it like it is in a triumph of understatement.


Best Science Book

Spirals-in-Time-small-440x704Spirals in Time by Helen Scales

Cedric Villani, the flamboyant French mathematician deserves a mention for making equations sexy in his book Birth of a Theorem, but marine biologist Scales’s volume about molluscs was delightful – combining natural history with folklore and the seashell’s place in culture – a perfect mixture to captivate the reader. She tells her stories with such enthusiasm for the subject, explaining clearly with a great sense of humour,  drawing vivid pictures of these marvelous creatures in her words, making the book accessible to a wider audience.


Best Book About Books

Clive James Latest ReadingsLatest Readings by Clive James

James, bless him, is still alive despite having personally believed he’d be dead of the cancer afflicting him by now. He’s still reading furiously and luckily for us, writing about it. This book of essays about what he’s been reading is inspirational, funny, full of facts and detail about the titles and authors covered, all delivered with deadpan wit and a life’s experience – yet he hasn’t lost the joy of discovery of new books. Lovely.


Best Human Story About the Thrill of Space

Last-Pilot-cover-RGB-667x1024 The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

Anyone who has ever been enthralled by reading or seeing the film of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s seminal story of the USA’s quest to break the sound barrier and the early days of NASA and the space programme, will realise that beyond the technological marvels, the successes, and the failures, is a human story. These pioneering heroes had wives and families, friends and colleagues, who are left behind every flight, every launch, wondering if their man will come home. The Last Pilot is a novel about one such human story, that of a fictional family set amongst the real life test pilots and astronauts, and their story blends seamlessly into that of history. A magnificent debut, and so close to being my book of the year.


BOOK OF THE YEAR

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

fuller
When I reviewed this back in March (Shiny review here,  companion blog piece here), I said this was the best thing I’d read so far this year. It remained my favourite book all year and chose itself as my book of the year.  Fuller’s novel has a dual timeline alternating between her protagonist Peggy being seventeen living with her mother and nine, when her father took her to live in the woods, saying that her mother was dead. It is as dark as any of Grimms’ fairy tales and the suspense of some of the cliffhangers throughout is nearly unbearable. There is lightness too and the whole resonates with the tinkling of bells with Liszt’s La Campanella running through the narrative.  An amazingly debut novel – I can’t wait for Claire’s next one.

The paperback is published today as it happens, and I urge you to go and buy a copy if you’ve not read it already,

Bookish Disappointments…

Welcome back!  As if you’re not fed up already with eating turkey, I’m going to be talking turkey in my first round-up post. Yes – it’s time to discuss the most disappointing books I read this year. I pride myself on being able to pick books that I know I’ll enjoy reading – that’s why the majority of what I read scores fairly highly.  There are times when I’ll abandon a book though, which I hate doing, but does give a rather good feeling when you stop being masochistic and give up on a tome. All links in this post will take you back to my full write-ups.

The DNFs (Did Not Finish)

There were four this year that became ‘DNF’ books for some different reasons …

Lurid and CuteLurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell – Gosh, I hated the slacker protagonist of this novel. I gave up just over 100 pages in during an interminable orgy scene!  It’s also had some rave reviews though – so a real marmite book.

little big pbkLittle Big by John Crowley – A readalong, and a re-read for me. I remember loving this book back in the 1980s, but I struggled so to get into it this time. Its leisurely pace and dense description with loads of parentheses didn’t do it for me this time. I only lasted 75 pages.

calvinoIf On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino – I tried, but couldn’t get on with the literary tricksiness of this book, it just felt smug to me. Another marmite book, for this one is loved by so many. I have promised to give a different Calvino a go though some time.

King of Elfland's DaughterThe King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany – I planned to read this for the 1924 Club, but came to it after reading three YA novels in a row, and Dunsany’s florid prose floored me within a chapter or too. I have kept this one though, as I would like to try it again one day.

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The one where I’m (still) on the fence…

YanagiharaThere was one book this year, which countless folk have raved about and put in their Best of lists. I read it in a readalong this summer – and while I enjoyed it in a way, it didn’t rise above soap opera to me. Ultimately it was too long and it just wasn’t worth the hype – and for that reason was a disappointment. That book is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

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But the award for my turkey of the year goes to a book which I could only bear to skim, a book in which the language was such ‘blissful torment’ to read, yet I’m glad to have experienced it in a way…

The one which was worth every penny!

list of the lostThe List of the Lost by Morrissey.

Just let me quote an extract from that excruciating 72-lines-long sex scene once more:

… Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone. … (p99)

Nuff said!

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Which books have disappointed you most this year?

I’d love to find out…

A little more Shiny Linkiness

There are two books I reviewed for the latest issue of Shiny that I’ve yet to tell you about:

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

house-of-shattered-wingsThis was the first book I’ve read by the Franco-Vietnamese author – but won’t be the last. It’s an urban fantasy set in contemporary Paris during the aftermath of the Great Magician’s War. But you won’t recognise this version of Paris as a modern city – it’s pure Gothic, with a crumbling Paris ruled over by several powerful houses led by magicians. Politics meets a murder mystery with fallen angels, mythology and plenty of magic in a novel that has some brilliant world-building. Imagine a modern version of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell set in Paris with angels and you’d be halfway there… (8.5/10)

Read my full review here: My Shiny Review.

See also:  Sakura’s Q&A with the author and review here.

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Mythology by Christopher Dell

mythology-cover-285x300Subtitled ‘An Illustrated Journey Into Our Imagined Worlds’, this softback edition from art specialists Thames & Hudson is precisely that. It concentrates on images from all over the world grouped by theme. The juxtapositions of pictures, often from different continents, on the same spreads just shows how the central mythologic themes that preoccupy us are the same the whole world over. As you’d expect from a Thames & Hudson art book, the pictures are sublime and the book beautifully produced. They are accompanied by just enough text to put them into context and explain their origins. An ideal Christmas present! (

Read my full review here: My Shiny Review.

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The 1924 Club


I had every intention of joining in with this lovely project hosted by Simon and Karen.

1924-club

There was a book on the Wikipedia Literature list for 1924 I had long been intending to read – The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany. I duly ordered a copy – the Fantasy Masterworks edition which has an introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I have read many of the novels in this series over the years, so hopes were high…

King of Elfland's DaughterBut it’s been a severe case of wrong time for reading this book for me. I only got a couple of short chapters in, but the language is too florid and full of multi-claused sentences which start off passively for me at the moment. Here are a couple of examples:

And there with eyes that saw every minute more dimly, and fingers that grew accustomed to the thunderbolts’ curious surfaces, he found before darkness came down on him seventeen: and these he heaped into a silken kerchief and carried back to the witch. (p4)

To the long chamber, sparsely furnished, high in a tower, in which Alveric slept, there came a ray direct from the rising sun. He awoke, and remembered at once the magical sword, which made all his awaking joyous. It is natural to feel glad at the thought of a recent gift, but there was also a certain joy in the word itself, which perhaps could communicated with Alveric’s thoughts all the more easily just as they came from dreamland, which was pre-eminently the sword’s own country; but, however it be, all those that have come by a magical sword have always felt that joy while it still was new, clearly and unmistakably. (p9)

Compared with Star Trek, a Star Wars fan I am not, and I think this Yoda-speak with added clauses would irritate me intensely at the moment if I continued. So I am putting aside the book for another time!

I have, however, previously read and reviewed two titles published in 1924, so I will give them a plug here instead:

 

Never heard of Tom Drury? Now you have…

The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury

My original first UK paperback edition (Minerva 1994)

My original UK pbk (Minerva 1994)

I reviewed this novel for Shiny New Books’ latest issue (full review here), but I felt it deserved its own post here too, because it is a modern American classic that has taken twenty-one years to be really discovered in the UK.

The End of Vandalism was published in 1994, and I obviously saw something in this book back then, for I bought the paperback – and it has sat on my bookshelves for twenty-one years, one of the longest-standing titles in my TBR piles.

This summer, I began to see a little buzz around Tom Drury … Old Street Publishing has reissued his Grouse County, Iowa trilogy of which this is the first volume. But even then, it took bringing out a mass market paperback instead of the posh one earlier this year for it to really take off.

Drury end of vandalism

The new mass market paperback

This novel captures life in the  small towns of the American mid-west perfectly. Grouse County is home to a handful of widely spaced little towns, each with its own character. No one town seems to have everything needed to be self-sufficient in themselves, so the county’s inhabitants are always going from one to another.

We follow the lives of three of the inhabitants in particular – Sheriff Dan Norman, Louise Darling and her husband Charles ‘Tiny’ Darling. Tiny is a small-time crook and as the book goes on, Louise will divorce him and marry the Sheriff and all three will experience many changes in their lives, good and bad over the years of the novel.

If you’re a fan of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, you’ll find some similarities here, although Drury has a little more edge. Like Keillor’s, Drury’s prose is gentle and humorous, full of touching moments too but, when necessary, Drury’s features darker times. The novel is driven by the conversations between the characters, finding its drama there rather than in action. The dialogue, coupled with deadpan observational detail draws you into this world completely.

I’m now desperate to read the other two Grouse County novels. I hope that with these reprints Drury will gain many new fans. I’m definitely one of them now, although it took me twenty-one years to realise it. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy!
Tom Drury, The End of Vandalism (Old St Publishing, August 2015) paperback, 400 pages.

Non-fic Shiny Linkiness

Yes, there’s more Shiny Linkiness today. One of the things I do love about reviewing for Shiny New Books is that it introduces me to some great non-fiction which I don’t read enough of, and the latest issue is no exception. Please feel free to comment here, or even better – follow the links to the full reviews and comment there.  Thank you!

Birth of a Theorem by Cédric Villani

birth-of-a-theorem-198x300I realise that a memoir about winning the Fields Medal for mathematics will not be to everyone’s taste – especially as it contains pages of equations… BUT – they are just illustrations, treat them sections from a musical score and pass them by whilst appreciating the complexity you’ve just skimmed over and it does make some kind of sense to see them on the page.

Cédric Villani is a flamboyant Frenchman who likes flashy clothes and music and brings his recent career to life so we can understand a bit about what mathematicians really do!

I was rather excited by this book and you can read my full review here.

The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell

the-knowledgeI was able to kill two birds with one stone with this book. We discussed it this month at our book group – I didn’t choose it, but was very glad to have read it, and as the new issue of Shiny New Books coincided with its paperback release, I could review it there and then discuss with the group.

This book is a thought experiment about rebooting civilisation’s lost science and technology following a world-disaster like a flu-pandemic. It’s a primer that’ll give you the basics – or point you in the right direction largely through re-examining how we discovered key processes the first time around in history. You’ll really get to appreciate how important being able to make soap and lime are after the end of the ‘grace period.’

Our book group found this fascinating and dry in equal measure. Although it is a science book written by a scientist, the others would have liked some more social science and comment incorporated – but it ‘does what it says on the tin’ and I enjoyed it a lot.

Read my full review here.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy miller book Lastly, again, to coincide with publication of the paperback, I revised my review of Andy Miller’s book which I originally posted about here. I may have had problems with one tiny section, but I did really enjoy reading this book.

Read my revised Shiny review here.

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Source: Top – publisher – thank you. Middle and bottom – own copies.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure by Cédric Villani (trans Malcolm De Bevoise), Bodley Head, March 2015, hardback, 260 pages.
The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World After An Apocalypse by Lewis Dartnell, Vintage paperback, March 2015, 352 pages.
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller, 4th Estate paperback, April 2015, 253 pages.

 

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