Saturday, 22 December 2012

Best Books of 2012 Part 1

So far on this blog I've posted one positive article and three negatives - which they deserved - so I thought I'd try to balance things out by writing an article on the best reads of this year that aren't comics.

"The House of Rumour" is my choice for best novel of the year. It was published this year and was easily the most engrossing, well written, clever, and fascinating novel I'd come across.


“The House of Rumour” is Jake Arnott’s tour of 20th century curios taking in some of its most defining moments and including some of its most interesting and notorious individuals. Reality and fiction blur as created characters mix with real people, and events have a habit of connecting to other events with tenuous links – “jonbar points”, to use sci-fi vernacular. 

A classified paper detailing a secret government operation in World War 2 to use black magic and astrology to lure Hitler’s second in command, Rudolf Hess, to leave Germany for Scotland is stolen by a transvestite prostitute in late 80s England from a retired spymaster. From there Arnott sends the reader back to the dark year of 1941 where the war was firmly in favour of the Nazis and a young Ian Fleming, commander in Naval Intelligence, utilised his contacts to arrange a meeting with Aleister Crowley, once known as “the wickedest man in the world”. 

Crowley agrees to Fleming’s bizarre plan (or is this disinformation?) to hold magical gatherings to lure Hess to Britain, sending word to his cult centre in California to do the same. And so on to California where we meet a young (fictional) author, Larry Zagorski, who is introduced to Robert Heinlein and his Manana Society where he meets L Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons. I won’t go into the various strands of the story because there are too many to list but they include the Nuremberg Trials, the Cold War, the Cuban Revolution, Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple, UFO conspiracies, and culminating in space with the Voyager 1 probe. 

Jake Arnott has written some tremendous books so far in his career but “The House of Rumour” is his best yet and definitely his most ambitious. It is structured in the style of tarot cards with 21 chapters each named after a face card (“The Hanged Man”, “The Hierophant”, “The Female Pope”, etc.) with each chapter told from the perspective of the rich and varied cast of characters. 

It’s a beautifully written novel full of fascinating people and events. I loved the parts in the 40s highlighting the Golden Age of science fiction and reading about the exploits of Jack Parsons (a rocket scientist who would die in mysterious circumstances) and L Ron Hubbard (who would go on to found the controversial religion Scientology), Arnott captures the spirit of the age showing the naivety and excitement of the times. The communes and free love read like the 60s but this was the 40s, a time that wasn’t as innocent as some would make out. 

Across the pond, the Ian Fleming chapters were my favourite. You get a great sense of the man he was and how frustrated he was that he wasn’t the suave, manly character he wanted to be. In a particularly funny section he saves a Moneypenny-like colleague from an assassin in a bungling way before sitting awkwardly with her afterward, cursing that he hadn’t the courage to take her to bed immediately after killing the assassin. He thinks that one day, with words, he will make this right. 

Years later after his Bond novels have made him rich and famous, he gives a clue as to the meaning of this novel. “The House of Rumour?” “At the centre of the world where everything can be seen is a tower of sounding bronze that hums and echoes, repeating all it hears, mixing truth with fiction.” (p.244). The House of Rumour is deception and counter-intelligence - disinformation fed to the enemy. And that’s what this book is full of: deception. A transvetite who looks like a woman but is a man; a troubled female David Bowie groupie becomes a man; a writer whose life influenced his fiction (Fleming) and a writer whose fiction influenced his life (Hubbard); a prescient novel called “Swastika Night” allegedly written by a man is revealed to have been written by a woman (this is real novel); and a fictional writer, Zagorski, writes a novel with each chapter named after a face card in the tarot... 

The novel talks about utopias and dystopias and is full of examples: the Cuban Revolution which tried to create a socialist paradise before becoming a bankrupt third world country; Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple which promised paradise on earth but ended in mass suicide. Each character is looking for truth in their own way - but what is true in this twisting hall of mirrors story?

There is so much about this novel I enjoyed but this review is already too long to talk about them. I will say that a number of reviews have said this novel has no plot as if this is a critique against it; I agree that the book has no plot but disagree that this is a bad thing. When a novel is this entertaining, where each chapter takes you into another fascinating life, bringing colour to episodes in history previously unexplored (where else will you get such a description of what Hess must have felt inside the cockpit of the plane as he prepared to parachute out over the Scottish Highlands?), who cares that there’s no plot? Does a novel always have to have a plot to be considered “good”? I think “The House of Rumour” proves resoundingly that it doesn’t. 

“The House of Rumour” is a wildly ambitious, perfectly executed novel full of secrets, conspiracies, anecdotes featuring the occult, and a veritable cast of anti-heroes and oddballs that spans both space and time, layering the novel in meaning and dead-ends. It’s a novel that’s thrilling to read but also contains so much that it invites repeated readings and no guarantees that there are answers to it at the end. Jake Arnott has created in “The House of Rumour” a mesmerising, meditative, and vexing story whose secrets always seem within reach to the reader - but always just out of reach too. It’s an amazing accomplishment and a masterpiece - “The House of Rumour” is definitely my favourite novel of 2012. Bravo, Mr Arnott!

The House of Rumour


*

A close runner-up is Elmore Leonard's "Raylan", also published this year. It's a novel made up of three novellas featuring Leonard's character Raylan Givens, protagonist of the TV show "Justified". Leonard's gift of dialogue once again takes centre stage as Raylan solves some bizarre cases and meets some brilliant characters. It is tremendous fun and well worth your time. 



Raylan Givens, US Marshal, looks up a weed dealer in a hotel room only to find him sat in a tub with ice and his kidneys missing. From there a twisting trail of murder, blackmail, land dispute, and cards unfolds taking in everyone from an elderly drug baron operating out of a food stamps store to a disgruntled nurse who decides to strike out on her own, to a band of bank robbing gals, and a poker playing girl called Jackie Nevada with her ace in the hole. Elmore Leonard's back and he's packing heat.

I loved this book. I thought he was going to spin out the organ trafficking storyline for the full 260 pages but he finished it at page 100, without introducing any new characters, making me wonder where he was going to take the story next. From there he goes into a murder story concerning a coal mining exec and an old man who happened to live nearby whose house was flattened by the coal company. Then from there Leonard introduces a new story of a trio of bank robbing girls and then another story of a poker playing 23 year old student on the lam.

Elmore Leonard does some amazing storytelling weaving these fascinating individuals into a single storyline. It's masterful and incredible to see these disparate elements prove to be part of a larger whole. More amazing still is the way he creates characters. Each one had its own voice and seemed completely real. Leonard writes femme fatales like no other, making them sexy and deadly and smart and witty too, from the organ harvesting nurse to the ice queen coal mining exec to the smart and resourceful poker player to the drugged out bank robbing gals.

The dialogue is the star, something Leonard is famous for and what everybody says about his books, but it's so true. Honestly, I was blown away by some of the scenes, particularly when the poker girl and the horse breeder rich guy have that exchange about playing cards - the dialogue is fast, musical, hits the ear perfectly, and is unlike dialogue in any other novel. Are you a first time reader of Elmore Leonard? Pick up this book and see why people praise his characters' speech like no other.

Putting aside the technical majestic on display throughout the book, Leonard knows why people read and particularly why people read his books - to have fun. To relax, unwind, and be entertained. And for no other reason than entertainment, this book excels. Murders, kidnappings, shootouts, high stakes poker games, this book has it all and no-one reading this novel will come away feeling short-changed of entertainment value. Even the characters seem to be having a good time, Raylan moving from crime scene to shootout to bars and finally to bed with a good looking girl, I got the feeling his eyes were wide, his heart was beating, and a smile lay beneath his face the entire time.

This is my favourite novel of 2012 so far. It's got everything from fine storytelling, superb writing, one of a kind dialogue from the man who sets the gold standard for dialogue, an array of excellent characters and some utterly brilliant setups, this is a novel that readers will rocket through with a big grin on their faces. You're looking for a good read? Stop reading this and pick up "Raylan" - he'll sort you out.

Raylan
 
*

That's it for Part 1. In Part 2, I'll look into other great novels I read in 2012 but weren't published this year. Some excellent reads nonetheless. 

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