My 5 Best of 2012 (plus 3 spares)

It’s that time of year, I guess; when as an occasional reviewer of books I should recount my faves of the year. 5 seems to be the magic number this time around, rather than 10, so I’ll give you mine (with three ‘spares’ thrown in – because the difference between all these books is for the most part so bloody tight). Of course that doesn’t mean they were written and released this year; just that I read them in 2012. They are listed in order of preference except for the spares:

5) City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance
I simply had to have something of Heath’s in this list, because I’ve enjoyed his work so much. I polished off Dig Ten Graves and The Bastard Hand in record time, and both were on the longlist of my faves of the year, with the final decision about which I liked the most being a tricky one. However, thankfully, the appearance of City of Heretics took the decision out of my hands by being so damn good. It’s the tale of an ageing con who’s looking to get some payback on the people who betrayed him, only to get sidetracked by a search for a serial killer, which leads him to a shadowy organisation that uses killers to further its warped ideology. It’s as tight and tuned as a drum skin and the lead character Crowe is one of the finest I’ve come across this year. If you haven’t read it yet you should – it’s a damn fine read.

4) Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I’ve read some excellent short story collections this year, but this one took the prize. Alternating between ugly and beautiful, with an eye for spare prose and dark finales that would make Gordon Lish scream and shout with joy, Knockemstiff is a stunning performance with the kind of writing that makes most writers green with envy (I know I am!). The story Honolulu is probably the most perfect short I’ve read this year. Brilliant.

3) Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks
Bank’s thriller about two friends searching for some missing money (and a cool leather jacket) was one of the treats of the year, and certainly the most entertaining. I loved the pace, the story, and most of all I loved the voices of the two lead characters (Banks gives them alternating chapters to tell the tale). It’s a storming read by one of the finest British crime writers around. I polished it off in a day and was sad when it was done.

2) Capture by Roger Smith
Roger Smith’s Dust Devils was probably the best thing I read last year (and its villain Inja Mazibuko was easily the finest bad guy I’d come across in years), so I was eagerly looking forward to the follow-up. Obviously I wondered whether Smith could create another book quite as good as that noir masterwork – but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s pitch-black follow-up, Capture, a tale of murder, obsession, voyeurism, and psychological cruelty, is a stonking noir that starts low-key but gradually works towards as tense a climax as its possible to get. I’m still amazed at how Smith manages to make us care about characters as dark and practically irredeemable as these but somehow he does; and in Vernon Saul he has created easily the best villain I’ve read in recent memory (somehow even better than Mazibuko). If you’ve not read it yet, download it today. You won’t be sorry – it’s masterful.

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This really is the surprise of the year, for me. It’s not that I don’t read modern literary fiction, it’s just that I don’t read it that often (and by modern, I mean the last 20 years). Half the time the hype just leads to disappointment – the discovery that behind all the pretty prose is a story that probably could have been told faster, more economically and truthfully by ‘lesser’ genre writers. However, Barnes’ tale of friendship, memory, and the secrets that we keep really was a superb performance – the kind of tale that only a literary writer could do justice. The prose was economical but dense, the storytelling masterful, and the ending in its own quiet, unflashy way was one of the most powerful I’ve come across in quite some time. As you might be able to tell, I loved it.

THE SPARES:

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
A fine thriller from a writer who seems to improve with every book. This really was in the the top 5 until Julian Barnes sneaked in at the very last moment. I have a feeling that if Smith’s next Billy Lafitte book is an improvement on this one then I might need to keep the top spot free for that!

Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings
To be honest, I’ve read so much good stuff this year that choosing a top 5 has been a major bloody pain. And this excellent detective thriller by Josh Stallings is, like Warriors, really only out of the top 5 by a tiny, tiny margin. Superb stuff, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel Out There Bad.

Bullets and Fire by Joe R Lansdale
Lansdale’s novelette (and even novelette might be pushing it in terms of length), is a revenge thriller with the kind of jet propelled storytelling that few writers possess. Ultra-violent but with a heart (even if it happens to be so twisted and diseased it’s gone black). In terms of pure narrative entertainment this is second only to Wolf Tickets.

Adios, this is probably the last you’ll hear from my blog till after Christmas, so have a happy and safe holiday season!

Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I read Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winner in part to escape the crime fiction reading ghetto I’ve happily trapped myself in over the past few months (with only a few Philip K Dick’s to break the mould; and his stuff melds crime into the mix anyway). As my three regular readers will now know, I love crime fiction, but it’s nice to step away from a constant diet of it every once in a while.

Tony Webster is an average retired gentleman with a pleasantly average life. He’s been happy to accept a quiet existence for a long time as a quiet marriage, family and eventual divorce can testify. He reminisces about school, his mates and their friendship with Adrian, a ridiculously intelligent young man who definitely isn’t destined for an average life.

They all go their separate ways to University but vow to keep in touch. Tony falls for another student Veronica who is haughty, opinionated, and somewhat more determined than him. They date for a while, which includes an awkward weekend with her family, of whom the mother seems to be the only one who shows any real warmth towards Tony. He also takes her to meet his friends. She takes a shine to Adrian, but not in any pronounced way. Though when Tony and Veronica’s differences inevitably split them up she ends up with Adrian, who in an old-fashioned gesture asks Tony to understand their intentions. Tony replies with two letters. The first he sends almost as a joke. A fine, whatever, type of letter, but second he sends when he is drunk. A go to hell letter, as it were. They lose contact with each other after that.

A few months later Adrian commits suicide and eventually Tony and the rest of his school friends drift apart. Tony marries and lives out his ordinary life. So when he receives a letter telling him that Veronica’s mother has left him a letter, £500, and Adrian’s diary in her will he is intrigued. He becomes even more intrigued when he realises that Veronica won’t hand over the diary. He slowly gets back in contact with her and finds that his memory of events all those years ago is not what it seemed.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel, as I’d never read any of Barnes’ previous work, but I’m damn glad I read it. In its own economical and laidback manner this beautiful short novel works as a kind of detective fiction. The only difference is that the narrator is looking into his own past, finding out things about his friend and himself that might be better left dimmed by the passage of time. The language is concise and clean and the narrative is beautifully weighted. There’s a point where you wonder when the narrator is going to get on with telling the story until you realise he’s been telling it all along, we’ve just been too slow to recognise it, kind of like the narrator himself; told at one point that, “You just don’t get it…” TSOAE is so good, in my humble opinion at least, that it’s knocked Roger Smith’s Capture off its perch as the finest novel I have read this year. Beautifully written, well plotted, and with real emotional weight, this is work of the highest quality. Highly recommended.