A couple of days ago I wrote about the books I'd reviewed this year on Shiny New Books. Of course SNB is devoted to newly published books, even though some may be reprints. Here on the blog I can write about anything else I may fancy, so here's my pick of those reviews. One of the great pleasures of 2014 was exploring the backlists of some distinguished living novelists, so they are featuring here, plus whatever else took my fancy.
I'd read a few novels by Hilary Mantel -- Wolf Hall, of course, plus her great autobiography, and a couple of others. But I'd never even heard of these, which I treated as a pair in my review because they are, though written some years apart. Here's how I began the review:
This pair of books, published ten years apart, must be among the blackest of black comedies ever written. In fact, whether or not you find them comic must depend on your sense of humour. If mental illness, damaged adults, depressed adulterers, and appalling children make you laugh, fine. But even if they don't, these are two incredibly powerful and brilliant novels.
This superb novel, first published in 2007 and set in the 19th century Canadian wilderness, completely blew me away. Although billed as a crime story, it is so much more than that. Basically it is the story of Mary Bolton ('the widow') who is on the run and being pursued by her dead husband's brothers. It's a story of physical survival, then, but also of mental and emotional survival, a love story, and a real page-turner. Wonderful.
I've read three of Peter Carey's novels this year and enjoyed them all enormously. But this one was the front runner. Like the other two, this had a pair of narrators: the big, angry, heavy-drinking, hugely talented artist Michael Boone and his mentally challenged brother Hugh. Hugh, described by his brother as an idiot savant, is one of the most brilliantly conceived narrators I've ever read. It's a love story, a thriller, a story about art and its creation. I called it a glorious, mad novel, and I was really sorry when it came to an end
I've read several novels this year which purported to revive the work of long-dead writers, with varying degrees of success. I was thinking I'd really had enough of them when I heard someone say they'd enjoyed Benjamin Black's recreation of Raymond Chandler. and curiosity got the better of me. I'm very glad indeed that it did, as this is totally brilliant. It was almost impossible to believe that I wasn't reading a newly discovered Chandler manuscript, as the novel follows an aging, lonely, introspective Philip Marlowe round the seedy bars and streets of 1950s San Francisco. A great plot, a wealth of wonderful one-liners, altogether a highly enjoyable read.
I treated myself to Perspehone's new classic edition of Fisher's The Homemaker, and really enjoyed it. She was a writer new to me, and I was curious to see if that had been a one-off, so I managed to get a copy of this one thanks to ABE Books. And in fact I thought it was an even better novel. It's the story of the relationship between a middle-aged woman and her daughter-in-law -- often painful, sometimes sad, always thought-provoking, and ultimately (possibly) uplifting. A great writer who I'm delighted to have discovered.
I genuinely believed that I had read this novel some years ago when I was having a splurge on Tremain, but it turned out that I hadn't. Written in 1989 and shortlisted for the Booker prize, this is a real tour-de-force -- a fantastic recreation of England in the 1660s, but also the sometimes hilarious, often touching story of a deeply flawed but extremely likeable man, the physician Robert Merivel, who blunders his way through life and finally managed to grow up in the process. I loved every minute of it.
So -- what a great year's reading it's been. What will 2015 hold? I can hardly wait.