2014 feels like a dismal year of reading, to the extent that it hardly feels worth writing a post about the top five books I read this year. It’s the top five of just sixteen books.
Sixteen fecking books.
No wonder I’m ending the year feeling dull and stupid.
In fact, I can’t even list five in good conscience. I usually select the five from my year’s worth of Goodreads reviews – anything I’ve rated five stars goes in for consideration, and is sifted until I settle on those I most want to highlight. I can’t do that this year. The pool is smaller, and so fewer books got my not-at-all coveted five star approval. Others came close, and I’ll do my ‘everything else I read’ post tomorrow. There are some very good books in there, but only these three really floored me.
Here they are then. If I could put three books into your hand to curl up with this winter, it would be these…
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak – The end of The Book Thief is no surprise at all, for the narrator (a strangely engaging Death) tells you what to expect right at the start. Throughout the novel, he adds detail. As the conclusion hovers into view he makes really, really clear what is about to happen. In theory this should offer some manner of protection as you wander through the destruction and death that descends on a German town in the latter days of World War II, but it does not. The final pages of The Book Thief broke me. I sobbed for half an hour, and for the rest of the day, whenever I let my mind wander back to the book, I welled up all over again.
It’s difficult to say whether this is an intensely cruel book about compassion, or a very compassionate book about cruelty. It’s probably both. While the novel shows the beauty of kindness, I’ve never read so clear an expression of how cruel a thing that same kindness can be. It lives in a hundred details in these pages, and this is one of the reasons the novel succeeds despite robbing itself of the mystery of an ending. The fairytale crispness of the storytelling, intense and charming in the midst of a world in despair, invites you to live in all of those moments and experience them fully. Each one quietly peels back one of your layers, making you smile while it does so, until by the end of the book you realise you’re completely exposed and entirely helpless.
I loved this book. It is not only one of the best I’ve read this year, it is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Absolute Sandman vol. 5, Neil Gaiman – Gaiman’s epic Sandman series of comics has already been drawn together in volumes one – four of this oversized and slipcased series of the seminal comics run, so what’s left for fifth? Well, while the primary narrative may have been told, the worlds of Dream and his siblings are endless. These stories were all published after the final issue of the comic, usually as celebratory anniversary events, and all were new to me on reading. To begin with there’s a superb autobiographical short story about Sandman and living with the story for so long, illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a nice way to do a retrospective and introduction, and a dazzling use of McKean’s signature art.
From there it’s into the first version of ‘The Dream Hunters’, a gloriously toned long prose story presented as a Japanese fable about a monk and a fox falling in love. Dream of the Endless plays a supporting role in this tale of unlikely passions, and there are numerous full page illustrations from Yoshitaka Amano which are in wild contrast with the artwork previously associated with the series, and bring a wonderful visual exoticism to the tale. ‘Endless Nights’ is collected next, originally a short series devoting a single comic issue to each member of Dream’s family. Each is illustrated by a different artist, but all are rich and atmospheric. The stories all stand alone, and for the most part look at the concepts each of the Endless embody. It allows for some mature, disturbing, and moving offerings – among the most sophisticated storytelling I’ve seen since… well, since the original Sandman series. It’s heady stuff, often uncomfortable and moving.
After this comes ‘Sandman: Theatre of Dreams’, in which Morpheus features only briefly. Instead, this is a tale about the ‘Golden Age’ DC hero who took the Sandman’s name and image, and is set in London between two world wars. There are spies, double dealing, strange societies (who might just hold the real King of Dreams in a mystic trap in a cellar), and more. It’s moodily done noir, and beautifully detailed, linking neatly to our first encounter with Morpheus himself way back in Sandman 1.
Finally, there’s a second version of ‘The Dream Hunters’, in full comic layout this time. As neat as this is, it’s actually only a shadow of the more involving prose version that opens this book. Without that version, this would probably have played better with me, but I found it less layered and rich a story in this iteration (what I perceive to be a change to a certain revenge at the end also annoyed me).
To sum up… phew! The book is beautiful, and very expensive. As such, it’s for collector’s and Gaiman obsessives only (you can get all of the separate parts of this book as standalone paperbacks elsewhere). The stories stand outside of the main Sandman narrative, but colour in the universe of that epic story beautifully. Each is connected enough to the main saga to feel like more than a mere addendum. though bound together they do feel like a scrapbook miscellany from the worlds of the Endless. I loved it. An extended stay in a place I miss very much, and in this format a visual treat to get lost in.
Mayhem, Sarah Pinborough – While Jack the Ripper stole the glory, he was not the only serial killer at work in London in the 1880s. Perhaps more gruesome than the Ripper’s modus operandi were the Thames Torso Murders, in which a series of female victims were dismembered, decapitated, and dumped in the river to be found in pieces by members of the public and constabulary. Sarah Pinborough revisits the crimes, and grafts a supernatural element to the terror that adds further unease to the investigation. The principal character is Thomas Bond, the real life police surgeon involved in both the Ripper case and the Thames Torso findings. He’s a fallible, exhausted investigator, who at first rejects the supernatural and is then slowly drawn into its possibilities.
Pinborough’s Victorian London is superbly drawn, with an attention to the detail of society that will please most historical readers. The gulf between social classes and the background tensions of the time are an integral and carefully balanced lever within the story, giving it a grit and realism that sells not only the characters but also their world. With the Ripper investigation running concurrently with the Torso murders, the story is easy to dive into and initially familiar, but develops in a host of directions I haven’t seen before. Rooting so distinctly in real historical events, the story also carries the slow intrusion of supernatural causes with ease.
Pinborough does not shy from the brutality of the history she explores. However for a novel so awash with blood there is little violence on the page itself. Like Bond, the reader is forever mired in its messy aftermath, marking this as more historical mystery than actual horror. That said, the grim progression of the plot, as Bond begins to put evidence together to draw conclusions he would rather not, never lacks for suspense.
Mayhem is a deeply involving thriller, and jumps to the top of my 2014 list of great finds.
Bubbling under – The Reach Of Children, The Enemy, Behind Closed Doors
It makes me indescribably sad that I’ve read so few books for pleasure this year, and I’m not entirely joking when I said that I feel duller and more stupid for it. Things haven’t been quite right in my head for a little while now, and nothing says that more than this dilapidated effort.
Still, it’s a low hurdle to leap for 2015. If I can’t top sixteen books in the next twelve months, then I’m in real trouble.