Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Best Books of 2012 Part 2

I read my first Agatha Christie (just looking at that name surprises me) in 2012, “And Then There Were None…” which, in the ancient paperback I read, was titled something else…

But I was really surprised. It’s a whodunit that works really well, it reads very freshly and I was genuinely invested in the story of this isolated house and people getting knocked off one at a time. It had this inevitability that drove the story forward relentlessly. Anyway, I loved it and found that going back to the 40s or 50s when it was written was an exhilarating experience.

“The setup is delicious: ten strangers are lured to an island on the promise of various things, employment, fun, etc. only to find that the hosts are not there and that the large, empty house only contains the guests and a couple of servants. After dinner on the first night, a recorded voice on a record player proclaims each one of them a murderer who has escaped their crimes - but no more! And then people start dying, one by one...

I've never read an Agatha Christie novel before, thinking that they would be corny or somehow like another popular writer whose work I disliked, Ellis Peters, but I was very, very wrong. This book was published in 1939 and is labelled "thriller" and yet 80+ years later I can attest to it remaining a thrilling read.

The elements of the story: that the guests have no way of leaving the island; that they slowly realise that one of them is the deranged killer with a warped sense of justice; the nursery rhyme which tells them how they're going to die but not the order - it's all so masterfully plotted by Christie, I was barrelling through the book, devouring the chapters eager to see who would survive, who was the killer, and why.

What's also surprising is the overarching sense of dread you have when reading. I read it at night, alone, with the rain pounding the windows and I found myself more terrified reading this than I'd been in years. This isn't just an amazing thriller, it's a truly scary horror novel too. As the number of guests dwindle, the claustrophobic atmosphere is palpable and the paranoia ramped up to such an extent that you can't help but keep reading at a ever-increasing pace until the final page.

The only real critique I have is the way the final guest snuffs it, before the big reveal. It seemed a bit contrived. But I suppose it was possible for it to happen that way... a long shot, but possible.

This is one of the finest mystery thrillers I've ever read which still manages to have an enormous pull on the reader decades after being published, an astonishing feat in itself. I wish I hadn't waited so long to read a Christie novel, this one was so good. I'll definitely read more and highly recommend this to all fans of great fiction.”

And Then There Were None


Jumping forward a few decades and I read my second Muriel Spark novel (after “Jean Brodie”, the one everyone reads) after reading a glowing review from Nick Hornby in his third “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column for “The Believer” (post about that book to follow shortly). Spark’s book had this dark energy to it that felt very much like the 70s but crossed over quickly into this murky netherworld where the increasingly mysterious protagonist wanders about an unnamed country, her intentions becoming more and more interesting as I read. It turned out she was looking for someone to kill her and, well, that’s a story I have to read. And it turned out to be amazing! “The Driver’s Seat” is literary horror for those who enjoyed Shirley Jackson’s brand of unsettling macabre.

“I read my only Muriel Spark book a few years ago, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", and while I enjoyed it, it didn't make me want to read more Spark. Then before reading this I read Nick Hornby's latest collection of "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns from The Believer magazine where he highly recommends Spark's "The Driver's Seat" and it was his one-line summation of the book that made me excited to read it - which I did in a sitting. It may be considered a spoiler but I think if more people knew what this book was about, they'd seek it out because it's such a strange and creepy novel. Here it is: an office worker called Lise loses her mind and goes on holiday abroad to be murdered. WHAT?!?!

I can honestly say I've never read a book where that was the main story. I mean, just imagine the state of mind someone must be in where they set up their own death, will it into existence and choose such a horrific way to die. Why? is the question that drives the reader's motivation through this book but it's not a book that willingly gives you answers. You have to try and understand a deeply troubled person through their erratic actions and try to come up with a solution yourself.

The tone of the book is immediately unnerving with Lise arguing with a shop assistant in a clothes store about a stainless fabric to her holiday dress; she doesn't want to hide the stains! Then you see her spotless flat and her mundane work life - 16 years in an accountant's office - and you begin to see why she desperately wants to be messy, both physically and spiritually.

From there, every encounter with a character is tinged with an aura of desperation, sadness and despair as the reader finds out Lise's fate and wonders if each character she meets - and she meets a series of odd men - is the one who kills her. The mounting unease of the novel is matched by Lise's increasingly bizarre behaviour as she wanders about the foreign city in a daze speaking in four different languages.

This novel is as unsettling as Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" which has all the elements of an ordinary life until the horrific finale which completely forces you to re-examine everything that went before it. There are so many great artists which I felt this book had elements of - Hitchcock, Kafka, Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith. "The Driver's Seat" could be classified as horror because it's such a weird, unpleasant yet compulsively readable book that I couldn't put down - I had to know who kills her in the end and why. And having read the novel now I only have more questions rather than answers.

Most people, myself included, tend to read a writer's best known book and move on to the next great writer and their best work, and so on. I did this with Spark and "Jean Brodie" but this writer has far more to offer than a girl's grammar school, complex relationships and secrets - "The Driver's Seat" proves that Spark is a formidable talent whose nightmarish novel is a must-read for people looking for a thrilling book that still has the power to shock more than 40 years since it was published. I was disturbed by this book and I can't remember the last book that genuinely made me feel this way. "The Driver's Seat" shows a fearless writer journeying deep into the darkness of the human psyche and showing the rest of us the mysterious horror that lurks beneath. Highly recommended.”

The Driver's Seat


Continuing the theme of death and women novelists leads me to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”, specifically the first book in the trilogy. Set in a dystopian future where children fight to death for survival in an annual televised death match, Katniss Everdeen is one of these contestants and we see her overcome the barbaric futuristic society’s sick rules to become victor of her games… and perhaps something more.

The first book is definitely the best of the three books. The second is slow with some good points and the third is a rushed mess, so if you’re embarking on this series, I’d strongly suggest leaving it at book one as the story never regains the momentum it starts with. It is a surprisingly good read though, I was expecting a novel written simplistically as it was labelled “Young Adult” but it overcomes its condescending label to prove itself the equal of any adult thrillers available. I wonder if “Lord of the Flies” or “Catcher in the Rye” were published today whether it would have been marketed to the “YA” audience.

“In a dystopian future world, a plentiful society exists in a place called the Capitol which oversees 12 poverty-stricken Districts to produce specific products to maintain their charmed lives. As a way of re-affirming their dominance over the Districts (as well as provide a sadistic entertainment to the twisted rulers), they demand 2 "tributes" in the form of one boy and one girl between the ages of 12-18 to travel to the Capitol and be placed in a vast arena to survive and fight to the death. These televised trials are called "The Hunger Games". This is the story of a 16 year old girl called Katniss Everdeen from District 12 who is one of the chosen.

I heard about this book a few years ago in Stephen King's Entertainment Weekly column but I decided not to read it as it was labelled "Young Adult" (YA) (I'm not a teenager) and because it seemed like a knockoff "Battle Royale", a superb Japanese film I'd seen in 2000 which has a very similar premise. Having read the book, in hindsight both of these reasons were ridiculous. The YA label is arbitrary at best and, reading it, I couldn't understand why this book is considered to be a teen book and not one for adults. Maybe the lack of swearing, sex, and overly descriptive violent scenes?

And the "Battle Royale" argument (which seems to bother a number of reviewers), well was that the first book to feature kids on an island killing each other? Has no-one read "Lord of the Flies"? Shirley Jackson wrote maybe the best haunted house novel with "The Haunting of Hill House" - does that mean Richard Matheson's "Hell House" or Stephen King's "The Shining" are invalid because they followed in her wake? Or Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We" preceded both Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four", so do we discount Huxley and Orwell entirely? Just because a concept has been done before, doesn't mean it can't be done again - and done better at that.

"The Hunger Games" is an exceptionally thrilling read. Suzanne Collins has crafted a compelling portrait of a world unrecognisable to our own, both futuristic and historic at varying times, but the best part of the book is, as it should be, the Games itself. Once Katniss enters the arena with the 23 other teens, I couldn't stop reading and finished the book on my second sitting, it was that exhilarating to read. Her battle to survive both on the basic level of eating and drinking what she could find, while escaping her would-be murderers, was a unique reading experience that I've never come across before and Collins does a fantastic writing job throughout. The survival part of the book echoed another excellent series of YA books I read when I was a teenager, Gary Paulsen's "Hatchet" books (highly recommended by the way), while the many Roman references made it seem like an extended teen "Gladiator".

I won't give away anything about the story here but suffice it to say that there are betrayals and killings that you don't see coming, and constant suspense throughout (even though you know Katniss makes it). Like I say, I don't know why this isn't considered an adult book but any adults reading this review should give this novel a go, ignore the YA label, it's very well written, very well-conceived, and an amazing action-thriller with elements of sci-fi thrown in. Excellent fun, I bought the other two books immediately after finishing this and can't wait to find out how this series continues.”

The Hunger Games


The third and final part of my books of the year is to follow. It’ll focus on the best non-fiction of 2012.

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