Last year turned out to be a bit of a surprise in many ways. I managed to read 82 books plus a few short stories. Which sounds good, but was 11 books down from 2012. A more pleasant surprise was that for the first time ever I read more general fiction novels than crime books. Admittedly only by one – 34 to 33. I also managed to increase the number of non-fiction books I read from eight to 15. I am particularly pleased with this surprise. The various books were written by 75 different authors, of whom 37 were new to me. This figure was pretty similar to last year. I almost managed to succeed with my challenge to read at least one book in spanish per month. I only succeeded in 10 of the months, but not bad going. Only four of these were crime novels, which was another surprise. There were a further 19 books read in translations, most of them, 13 in all, were crime novels, and most of these, eight, were from Swedish or Norwegian. The rest were from all over Europe, with the exception of one novel translated from Afrikaans. Once again a high proportion of my reading was of books by Scottish authors. This was not deliberate, so another small surprise. These 22 books were pretty evenly split by genre – eight were crime novels, another eight were general fiction novels, while the other six were non-fiction books.
Virtually all the books were very enjoyable and some were exceptionally good. Too many to mention, so this year I have limited myself to eight books in total, two per genre or category. Starting with crime novels, my two choices were both set in South Africa, though set in different time periods. Malla Nunn’s Let the Dead Die is the second in her series set in the early years of apartheid and again features detective Emmanuel Cooper. Dead Before Dying is the first novel by Afrikaans writer Deon Meyer and is set in the late 1990s South Africa. Another fast paced thriller and together they give a fascinating picture of the changes that have come to the country.
For general fiction I have plumped for two contrasting novels by contemporary writers. Dead Summer in Bordeaux, by Scottish author Allan Massie, is the second in his trilogy of novels set in wartime Bordeaux. Though the novel is woven around a murder, it is a complex tale of the compromises brought on by living under occupation. I reviewed this novel more fully here. The True History of the Kelly Gang by Australian author Peter Carey is another novel that might appear to be a crime novel is anything but. A wonderfully intricate and lyrical tale about life and death in rural Australia in the 1860s and 1870s.
The non-fiction books I want to highlight are also very different in scope and intention. The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark is a wide ranging account of How Europe Went to War in 1914, as the subtitle puts it. Clark offers a different approach to the outbreak of this horrendous war. By focussing on the how more than the why, he comes to the conclusion that the war was more of a tragedy than a crime. Probably the most apt summing up, though I reckon some countries were more culpable than others as I have written here. The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal is also a history book, though of a personal nature. The Hare of the title is an example of a netsuke, a miniature Japanese sculpture, part of a collection in the possession of de Waal’s uncle. De Waal researches the background to this collection and in doing so he recovers the history of the Jewish side of his family – the Ephrussi – a once rich and powerful Jewish family. It is a fascinating and absorbing tale, which I have reviewed more fully here.
Finally a couple of Spanish language novels to whet your appetite for books in other languages. Cinco Moscas Azules by Uruguayan writer Carmen Posadas is also available in English under the title, The Last Resort. Quite appropriate in a way as the novel mainly takes place in an exclusive luxury resort in Morocco. In the novel Posadas wittily uncovers the pretentiousness and darker sides of the would be high society of Madrid in the early 1990s. You can read my fuller review of the book here. My final selection is Caligrafía de los Sueños by Catalan author Juan Marsé. This novel though published in 2011 is set in post civil war Barcelona in the 1940s. Through a series of memories Marsé vividly recreate the people, the circumstances and the precariousness of life in those years, all through the limited perspective of a teenager.