Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Looking back at 2008 (part 3)

Another fall of snow during the night.  From the front of the house, the spread of the distant Pennines looks spectacular, but it still feels like a good time to stay inside and look back.  Particularly back to last summer when the sun was shining (occasionally, at least) and we were all still under the illusion that there was some money left in the world. 

I seem to have read a lot over the last year – and, as ever, all kinds of stuff.  I always have at least one book on the go and often more, and I prefer to vary what I’m reading, moving from fiction to non-fiction , or from crime fiction to non-crime fiction.  I have a friend who, when he finds an author he likes, ploughs rigorously through the complete oeuvre, ideally in chronological sequence, until he’s exhausted the seam.  (This does mean, incidentally, that he spots inconsistencies that aren’t evident to those of us who read, or for that matter write, in a more fragmented manner.  Just ask him some time about John Rebus’s musical tastes.)  I can’t do that.  Even with my favourite authors, I’d rather eke out the pleasure, vary the texture with something different.  

I also like reading stuff – again, fiction or non-fiction – related to where I happen to be or what I happen to be doing.  A minor literary high point of the earlier part of the year was reading Phil Rickman’s The Fabric of Sin while staying in an atmospheric cottage in the centre of Ledbury in Herefordshire.  Ledbury isn’t Rickman’s Ledwardine (which is in several other parts of Herefordshire altogether), but it was close enough to give the book an additional frisson.  I’ve said this before, but if you haven’t yet discovered Rickman’s Merrily Watkins books, do yourself a favour and give them a try.   They’re something quite unique, tottering gently on the border between crime and supernatural fiction, but always staying just the right side of the fantastical, with a range of terrific, fully believable characters.  And, although the notion of a female Anglican vicar sounds as if it might stray into Richard Curtis territory, they’re anything but cosy.   I haven’t got to his new one, To Dream of the Dead, yet so that’s a treat for 2009.  Incidentally, could someone explain to me why the BBC bothered to make the risible Bonekickers (the first episode of which carried some uncanny echoes of The Fabric of Sin) or the dull Apparitions, when they could have done an adaption of the Merrily Watkins books instead?

Rickman happens to be a Quercus stablemate, though my enthusiasm for his books long predates that.  Another Quercus book which I read in situ, as it were, was Martin Walker’s splendid Bruno – Chief of Police, the first in a series about a small-town cop in the Dordogne.   I took it to read while staying  - well, in the Lot region, actually, but that seemed close enough.  (I perhaps at this point ought to point out that, perhaps contrary to the impression I’m giving here, my life isn’t one long holiday – it’s just that I tend to read more on vacation.)  I was a little worried that Bruno – Chief of Police might turn out to be a little too Year in Province with endless descriptions of enviable foodstuffs and irritatingly idyllic lifestyles.   There’s a little of that, of course – and I’d have been disappointed if there wasn’t – but not enough to get in the way of a thoroughly entertaining story and set of characters.  Bruno’s a terrific creation, and I’m a sucker for stories where the streetwise locals get one over on the bigshots from the city, which is a recurrent theme here.   My only minor reservation was whether the darkness of the underlying plot-line sat a little incongruously with the general light-heartedness of the book, but I know others found it a welcome counterpoint.  Thoroughly recommended, anyway.

I’m conscious that this is beginning to sound like a Quercus log-rolling session – though actually I bought both the above books with my own ill-gotten money.  So let’s move on to something else.  One of my other discoveries this year was Matt Rees’s Omar Yussef series, its Palestinian setting now rendered tragically topical again by current events in Gaza.  The first in the series, The Bethlehem Murders, is a terrific depiction of everyday life in the eponymous city.   I suppose some might question whether a crime novel is an appropriate vehicle for writing about life in Palestine, but it works because the crimes in question emerge directly from the tensions, passions and challenges that lie at the heart of the wider conflict.   Yes, it’s a gripping read with an engaging central character, but above all, it provides a clearer insight into life in Palestine – from a purely human perspective – than any amount of political or journalistic analysis.  That, I think, is one of the things that fiction is for. 

I seem to have done it again – written a lot, but covered only three books.  Oh, well – more tomorrow.  In the meantime, the snow seems to have started to thaw and the weather has reverted to the lifeless grey monochrome that one normally associates with January in the north west of England.  Perhaps the natural order is slowly being restored.   


1. Maxine said...

I loved Martin Walker's book, too. It isn't the kind of book I usually read, but Quercus kindly sent me a copy and even more kindly asked me to the launch event, so I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. I, too, felt a bit worried that it might be too romantic and "year in Provence" ex-pat-ish, but in the event I loved it. (I reviewed it for Euro Crime.)

2. Michael+Walters said...

Yes, I was surprised by it...just enough sunshine in there, but plenty of sharpness and wit as well.

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