A year of books with research, re-reading, new fiction and nonfiction finding its way into this mixed up, muddled up selection. One way or another, these are the books that made a mark for me in 2013.
RUSS LITTEN – Swear Down; ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE – The Hound of the Baskervilles (Pulp! The Classics edition); TED LEWIS – Jack’s Return Home, Plender, Billy Rags; JOHN McVICAR – By Himself.
In Swear Down, Russ Litten’s heartfelt and thoughtful take on the crime story there’s a murder – at least one – an ambitious cop, unsympathetic bosses and an investigation. Litten created and subverted the classic odd-couple partnership in a single sweeping journey. In May, I reviewed the novel for LITRO Magazine and the close reading revealed layers of storytelling and character that placed Swear Down up there with the best of British fiction.
The new collection of classic novels in pulp fiction covers, old style orange-edged paper and tongue in cheek blurb are a great addition for Sherlock Holmes completists, crime fiction fans and lovers of pulp art. The chance to re-read The Hound of the Baskervilles was an absolute pleasure.
The novels that brought Ted Lewis to prominence - notably Jack's Return Home: these were re-reads, close reads, line by line analyses that risk wringing the pleasure from the process. That Lewis's writing holds up is a testament to his storytelling.
The comparative analysis between Billy Rags and McVicar By Himself generated some new and interesting ideas. Linking fictional events to biographical detail and understanding where you as the chronicler of the author’s life place yourself, makes for a unique and sometimes intense reading experience. You have to believe it’s all there to be understood; sharpen the critical faculties and leap.
JOHN BANVILLE – The Untouchable; TONY FLETCHER – Boy About Town
Until this summer the only John Banville novel I’d read was The Sea. In July this year, I took Banville’s stylish spy novel The Untouchable on holiday to Cornwall and was gripped. It is a superbly written book, believable and compelling with a wonderfully sardonic narrator who never quite tells an unembellished truth or an absolute lie.
Interviewing Tony Fletcher for the Head in a Book session at Hull Central Library felt like something of an end and a beginning. Fletcher had given me my first exposure with a couple of poems published in his fanzine Jamming! at the dawn of the 1980s. His memoir Boy About Town tells the thoroughly engaging story of Tony’s life and the love of music that led to him meeting Keith Moon and having the chutzpah that found him invited into the The Jam’s inner circle from 1978 onwards.
STEPHEN KING – Joyland, On Writing, Different Seasons (including Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption); DICK CLEMENT & IAN LA FRENAIS – The Complete Porridge Scripts
Finding Stephen King again was a little like catching up with a band you used to like and wondering why you ever stopped listening in the first place. I bought Joyland as a holiday read, never got around to it and watched it gather a couple of monthsworth of dust. When I got down to it – another novel with a pulpish retro cover – I read it in a weekend. A classic mystery with a strong sense of character and a bittersweet emotional pull.
Reading Joyland coincided with some work I was doing to develop The Story Lab – a series of creative writing workshops. It drew me back to King’s classic treatise on storytelling and his own creative writing process, On Writing. An essential read for any aspiring author. The King trilogy completed with Different Seasons – a collection of four pieces of short fiction fronted by the novella Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption. Still a compelling story in its own right and well worth re-reading alongside Frank Darabont’s hugely successful screen adaptation.
Another pre-read for The Story Lab sessions, The Complete Porridge Scripts was an unadulterated pleasure. It also highlighted the rhythms and patterns of character dialogue and Ronnie Barker, Richard Beckinsale and Fulton Mackay’s masterful interpretation of a script. Telling a story in 28 minutes that we’re still watching and enjoying 40 years later. It’s all there – in the writing.
PETER ACKROYD – London Under; KEVIN SAMPSON – Awaydays; NICK QUANTRILL – The Crooked Beat
I try to read and learn from those non-fiction authors who make any subject as engaging to read as the most visually imagined and powerfully plotted novel. Peter Ackroyd accomplishes this with London Under, an atmospheric introduction to the world under London. Spring and streams, gang hideouts and London Underground stations – Ackroyd looks into the darkness and sees the monsters lurking.
I met Kevin Sampson for the first time in November at a screening of Get Carter for the Humber Mouth festival. I’d read, enjoyed and was inspired by Awaydays some years ago. The story of Carty, a member of Tranmere Rovers ‘Pack’ of travelling hardcases at the fag end of the 1970s, the novel weaves pop culture and fashion references between explosive violence and casual sex. A fast, furious and thoroughly absorbing story.
The Crooked Beat is Nick Quantrill’s third and most accomplished Joe Geraghty novel. I’ll declare an interest here; Nick and I have taken our writing to audiences in libraries, bookshops, reading groups and community centres under the banner The Humber Beat for the last couple of years. I first heard the opening of The Crooked Beat in a library in Hartlepool. As Nick finished, closed his kindle, there was an audible gasp. You know when you’ve hooked an audience and Nick Q just gets better and better.
Thanks for reading. Here's to 2014 . . .