I made two major discoveries as a reader this year. The first was Kent Haruf. My editor at Faber has been telling me for ages that I needed to read his books, and I finally got round to it. Wow. I read Plainsong, then immediately bought the next two books in that trilogy, then I read his latest and last book, Our Souls at Night (Picador), which is just astonishing. It’s hard to describe the emotional power Haruf manages to create from such simple prose and story. The book is about two elderly neighbours in a small American town, a widow and a widower, who get together at night to sleep together, not for sex but just for companionship, someone to talk to, friendship, simple human contact. They tell each other about their lives, they build a tentative relationship with all the usual complications that entails, and the whole thing is utterly beautiful, truthful and sometimes heartbreaking. An absolute revelation.
My second discovery this year was the work of Adrian Tomine. I knew him as an illustrator, and I had his book of New York Drawings, but his graphic novel Killing and Dying (Faber & Faber) completely blew me away. It’s like a collection of the finest short stories, like Raymond Carver or Alice Munroe, illustrated in deadpan, stripped-back style, detailing the little heartbreaks and tiny victories of Gen X strugglers. Just a stunning piece of work. I went straight out and bought his backlist, and loved it all.
Not a new discovery as such, but I was delighted to see one of my favourite writers get some well-deserved recognition. Jernigan (Serpent’s Tail) by David Gates is a classic novel, and got a much-welcome reissue, while his new collection of stories, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, demonstrated a slightly more reflective nature, but was equally assured and bleakly funny.
Another real eye-opener for me was Women Crime Writers of the 40s & 50s (Library of America), edited by Sarah Weinman. To my shame, I had only previously read one of the eight authors, but I was glad I put that right, because the writing here is razor-sharp, psychologically insightful and utterly gripping. Cracking stuff.
This year I was one of the judges for the Gordon Burn Prize which involved reading a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction, that reflected Gordon’s attitude to writing. There was some great stuff in there, but two stood out for me. The eventual winner was In Plain Sight (Quercus) by Dan Davies, his extraordinary biography of Jimmy Savile. The amount of work Davies put into it, the amount of research, interviews, and his own personal experience, was mindboggling. A terrifying read, a genuinely important book, and a deserved winner. The book that ran it a close second for me was Peter Pomerantsev‘s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (Faber & Faber). A startling and shocking piece of reportage from Putin’s Russia, it revealed the unbelievable levels of corruption, manipulation and general fucked-upness. Again, the author threw himself into it, and the end result is a coruscating read.
Back to fiction, with Don Winslow‘s remarkable The Cartel (William Heinemann). It was a sequel to The Power of the Dog, which I hadn’t read, but everyone told me to read it first and I did, back to back with the new one, which amounted to 1,000 pages of violent madness surrounding the Mexican drug cartels. A monumental achievement, the equal of James Ellroy’s writing on Los Angeles, and definitely not a tourist advert for visiting Mexico anytime soon. Brilliant writing.
And finally, two cracking psychological thrillers. First, The Kind Worth Killing (Faber & Faber) by Peter Swanson. A smart, sassy thriller influenced by Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, it was deliciously evil, perfectly plotted and super-sharp. Equally as impressive was The Exit (Faber & Faber) by Helen FitzGerald, a typically brilliant tale of dementia, abuse and grief set in a care home for the elderly. Unusual and difficult subject matter, but absolutely gripping all the same.