Wednesday 2 January 2019

Top Books of the Year (pt1) 2018

I really enjoyed my books this year and have probably read more than any year since I was a child. Due to the free book shelf, plentifully stocked charity shops and a willingness to explore, I’ve also read quite a variety of books. Anyone wanting to see the full list, check out my list-challenge here.

I will count down the top ten, split into two groups of five. 

With no ado…

The Little World of Don Camillo

I picked this book up for free and instead of carrying on with the book I was planning to read, I sat on the train and started to read the first chapters. 

They were a strange mix of whimsical and violent, telling stories of his father’s forcing a priest to pray for his sick son at gunpoint and flooding a field with sewage to impede government planners. Then there was a little story about a ghost woman. It was peculiar but enticing and strangely, nothing to do with the bulk of the book.

The main story is about a small Italian town just after the second world war, where the priest, Don Camillo and the communist mayor, Peponne constantly try to one-up each other.  The book proceeds in small, mostly self-contained chapters, each detailing some area in which the two characters plot and scheme to either put themselves on top or undermine the other. However, they respect each other as opponents (and have a background together as guerrillas against the nazis) and come together when things have gone to far or something from the outside threatens their town. 

In many ways the set up is like a sitcom. Although the story doesn’t exactly reset each chapter, events are carried through, most chapters begin with something for the two characters to tussle over and end with a form of equilibrium. Often this is reached by the characters coming to their senses or the outside world forcing them to.

Peponne is aided by his communist friends, a ragtag band of ex-guerillas who serve as his functionaries though sometimes go too far. Don Camillio is aided by the Jesus on his crucifix, who speaks to him and gives him advice. The book leans in favour of the church and had a huge impact on getting the Christian Democrats into power in 1948 but the character of Christ in the books focusses on forgiveness and tolerance (as a Christ should) often tempering the fiery Don Camillo.

The book is a masterpiece of tone. The writing is simple, with an almost childlike and sweet nature, such as when a gymnasium is described ‘as full as an egg’ but the actions are often very violent. The mayor has an almost unlimited supply of tommy-guns, which are frequently stolen (and carried) by the priest. The priest also has a revolver and a German SS mortar. People are frequently beaten, the priest has the best punch but the mayor has the second. There’s a strange sort of fairness to the violence summed up as, “If we are to beat up anybody we should do it with justice and democratically.” The love between the antagonists is at least as strong as the hatred, if not more.

Things grow to have more consequences as the book progresses and sometimes trip into nasty but the last challenges pull it back again. There are more of these books around and I would love to read them.

The African Queen

I love the film of ‘The African Queen’ and was keen to read the book and see what it was like - and it’s fascinating because the two are very alike, even slavishly alike but for two huge changes.

First the similarities. Rose, an uptight missionary’s sister with a dull life in German Imperial Africa looks at the devastation of her village brought about by the German army coming to conscript all the villagers for army or other duties. She watches her brother die of a disease and is unsure what to do when Charlie Allnutt comes along in his boat The African Queen.

Deciding to strike a blow for the British Empire, she concocts a plan to get the boat down unknown rapids and ram it into the Königin Luise, which controls the lake from which the British are most likely to enter the region. Allnutt is not keen on the idea but with a combination of sulking and pouring his gin in the river (why’s the gin gone?) he goes along with the plan. As the two shoot the rapids, avoid gunfire at a local fort and wrestle the boat through narrow reeds, they fall in love and catch malaria. Then they make torpedoes, mount them onto The African Queen and drive out into the lake in a storm where it sinks.

Here comes our first change. In the film, they are captured by the Germans and almost hanged. They beg to be wed first and just as the ceremony ends the Königin Luise runs into the submerged African Queen and sinks, leaving our heroes to successfully swim to safety and off to a new life, their goal accomplished.

In the book, they are captured by Germans, who exchange them with the British. The British keep them under close confinement while they easily destroy the Königin Luise with the boats they brought with them. Our heroes are shipped away to be married and live a new life, their goal accomplished by other people and their efforts rendered pointless.

I can see why the film-makers changed the ending, it’s a complete downer, a rapid descent into bathos that lived with me strongly as a reader but not in any triumphant way.

The other big change was Charlie Allnutt. They cast Humphrey Bogart. Allnutt, besides being short, scrawny and painfully cockney is defined best by his weakness. He is weak in soul, spirit, mind and body - he is liberated by doing as Rose tells him. Humphrey Bogart does not portray weak. This changes the dynamic utterly. In the film, they are equals who gradually become as one mind, in the book Allnutt is dominated by Rose and likes it. Both interpretations I like for their different reasons.

I learnt a lot reading this. I feel I could drive a rickety old steamboat down some rapids, rig up my own torpedoes and I even know that malaria comes in regular attacks - all useful stuff.

Forrester writes with a mixture of exciting, fast-paced description and an eye for the nitty-gritty involved in the terrific feats in the book. He does have a habit of adding clunky details that show off his research, however.

For those of a sensitive disposition, this is a book from 1935 with decidedly out-of-date views and values. Forrester’s assumptions on what consists manliness and womanliness are interesting and flexible (the woman is the action hero in this after all) but are expressed in some decidedly ‘creaky’ ways. The ’N’ word pops up a few times and it is assumed that we all know that Germans are hateful, rigid types who deserve exploding.

One assumption of Forrester’s also makes the biggest flaw in the book. Why bother risking their life on an almost impossible suicide mission against a small German warship? Patriotic fervour is regarded as enough of an explanation and I am not convinced it would be any more.

These flaws notwithstanding, it is an engaging, thrilling book that grips the reader, pulls them into the sweltering heat and traps them there.  

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

I’ve talked elsewhere about this collaboration between Dickens and Garfield. I very much enjoyed it for what it was but enjoyed it all the more for the questions it raises.

The War of the Worlds

I bought and read ‘The War of the Worlds’ because I wanted to discuss parts of it with an in-depth reading group at the school I work in. The book took later to arrive than I expected so I read two sections of ‘Pandaemonium’ (a book about the industrial revolution) before reading it. What then struck me was the similarity of true accounts of the coming of the steam/mechanical age to the fictional end of it in the novel. It increased the alien-ness of the machines when I went back to ‘Pandaemonium’ but also made the alien threat more rational and real.

The tone of ‘The War of the Worlds’ is masterfully controlled. Using an educated, assumedly enlightenment author (who may be Wells himself) as the narrator meant that the book could wade around the chaos and panic of the experience on the ground but also at moments pull back and see a bigger picture. These moments of thought, reflection and a wider, less Earthbound view contrasted beautifully with the grim mess that the narrator frequently must wade through. 

This control of text also allowed for a wonderfully subversive view of humanity (and the British Empire in particular). Humanity is constantly compared to animals; bees, ants, rats, cows and frogs. Compared to the Martians, we are simply pests to be exterminated - and later a food source, and possibly even pets. It was not a titanic battle of the forces of Earth against Mars like it is in ‘Independence Day’ or films like it. The human race was simply there to be crushed. The Sun may never set on the British Empire, but a handful of Martians can crush it’s chief city in less than a month. On the other hand, the cold rationality of the Martians, their simple and unemotional need for food and resources and their attitude to the people they have to kill to do it are explicitly compared to the human builders of that same empire.

I love how weak and vulnerable the Martians are in themselves. Like us, they are physically useless, especially with their slurping around in Earth’s heavier gravity but their use of technology makes them near unbeatable. It’s strange to me that subsequent alien invasions have used something of the heat ray but never use the black smoke - a far more successful element of pest control.

It is a masterful stroke to have the aliens land in Woking and to have most of the action deal with the commuter towns and suburbs at the edge of London. It’s far more effective to have a strange and deadly force smash through the quiet streets of Putney then any grandstanding smashing of national monuments and icons.

There is also a wonderful control of light. The first alien actions are glimpsed in the dark, the second in a lightning storm and others in fogs and mists and or at rising and setting of the Sun. Large action scenes are confused, chiaroscuro affairs, written almost as a modern action film would be filmed.

It is a grim book though. The destruction seems remarkably real. The selfish hurry of the exodus from London is deeply unpleasant with the people being crushed and run over by the people behind them. Most people the narrator meets are mad with grief and anxiety. He lodges in a dark hole with a curate who proceeds to lose his mind in unpleasant proximity. Then he spends time with an artilleryman who sets out the darkest vision of humanity’s future I have read in some time, where people have to accept their place as vermin and live accordingly.

The twist ending is seeded a number of times throughout the novel and the scene where the narrator realises how things have played out plays out with emotion.

My only criticism, is that the narrator has to get close enough to the deadly Martians to create shenanigans but has to survive to write the book. This means that he has a few too many lucky escapes, though these escapes leave enough marks on him to not fully strain the reality.


‘Titus Groan’ was a book I admired more than enjoyed. The world of Gormenghast was a full and exciting one, far more real and realised than Middle Earth. Although the characters seemed merely puppets for the story to play out, that fit with the over-arching themes of being strangled by tradition and they were interesting, eccentric and large enough to stand out in their oversized backdrop. It took me a few years to be ready to take on the sequel, ’Gormenghast’.

This is a far shaggier beast than ‘Titus Groan’ but maybe a more majestic one. What most stood out to me was that this is not a novel as would ever be written by a novelist. This is a book by a visual artist and where a picture may paint a thousand words, it frequently uses a thousand words to paint a picture. The description even threads into the parts of the book where the characters do things, making much of the book seem like it was progressing in slow motion.

At first my reaction to ‘Gormenghast’ was much as I remembered from the first book, an appreciation without much emotional engagement but as the book went on I began to realise that I had really grown to enjoy myself and was happy to follow the book through whatever twisted highways and byways it wanted to show me.

Essentially both books are about entropy. The castle of Gormenghast is a closed system, locked in constricting ritual and unaffected by influences of evolution from inside or outside. In the first book Steerpike arises as an agent of chaos and his actions to fulfil personal goals rather than being a cog in the castle’s clockwork upset the balance. The second book carries on this story of Steerpike but adds to it the greater chaos represented by Titus and his pursuit of freedom and a life outside the castle.

A ‘proper’ novel would have cut out most of the teacher stuff. The characters were amusing but didn’t really have much to do with the actual story. Titus’s itch to be his own person and not the lynchpin of castle ritual were more driven by his pursuit of ‘the Thing’, a wild girl, then boredom with his school. Most of the first part of the novel involves politics in the staffroom, a teacher who doesn’t believe in pain having his beard burnt off and the accidental death of Headmaster Deadyawn. The next quarter of the book follows Irma Prunesquallor’s wish for a husband, the teachers’ awkward preparation for her party and the party itself. We don’t even see Steerpike for much of this first half. But it didn’t matter because I was having fun.

Was Mervyn Peake ever a teacher? He certainly gets what it’s like. His description of the lightness of the teachers once school is over was exactly right, as he depicted each teacher going back to their little apartments with a spring in their step. All this teacher stuff also had me grow to love Bellgrove. The small scene where Titus has been locked up for running away and he goes to play marbles with him was so touching that it made all the seemingly pointless flim-flam of the teacher stuff worth it.

The scenes at Irma’s party where both she and the teachers try their best to be romantic leads was also a great deal of fun, like a mutated Austen. If anything, they were worth it for this description of Irma Prunesquallor’s best smile;
   “Every muscle in her face was pulling its weight. Not all of them knew which direction to pull, but their common enthusiasm was formidable.”
As well of all this non-essential stuff about teachers and parties, we are also treated to short chapters that simply describe a room in the castle, usually an abandoned one, just so we can get a flash of ‘the Thing’ moving through it. Although she is important to the story, representing the freedom the castle’s dead weight denies, they are more visual moments transposed into words than actual noveling. (My favourite room being the forgotten ball-room full of estuary birds).

That’s not to say the writing is bad, it’s frequently very good but its not writing the way a ‘writer’ would do it. The frequent similes are over-the-top in a way no one but Dickens could get away with, such as this description of Doctor Prunesquallor’s mouth and teeth;
    “It was a brand-new graveyard. But oh! how anonymous it was. Not a headstone chiselled with the owners name.” - a description that goes on for another four sentences. In many ways the character description reminded me of Dickens in all its effulgence, the description of Barquentine was as good as Dickens’s description of Scrooge. Peake is also a dab hand at alliteration, sprinkling it liberally through the book.

As for the plot itself, Steerpike’s descent from controlled planner to cackling evil monster was both interesting and plausible, as was the desire for Titus to break free from his life whilst feeling a pull to his heritage and responsibilities. The extended set-piece of the flooding castle, with the Countess finding her own mental abilities, the huge anonymous work of saving the castle's stuff, the Bright Carvers segueing into the shipbuilding industry and everyone on the hunt for Steerpike- was engrossing, engaging and wonderful. The fight in the ivy between Steerpike and Titus used that slow-motion quality of Peake’s writing to dizzying effect and the climax was worth the buildup.

Most of all I loved the world of Gormenghast. I am not a fan of fantasy lands and you can throw as many songs and con-langs as you want into the mix, it doesn’t make it real to me. Gormenghast does feel real, it is mired in its own history and tradition, has a general worldview shaped by that history and yet still has room for individual expressions of it. Prunesquallor, for all his wit and flippancy is as rooted in the Gormenghast worldview as Flay, rather than cookie cutter Elves and such. What’s more, I loved the glimpses of the rituals. There was one that involved pouring wine over a tower, another that involved throwing a necklace into a particular window that was reflected in the moat. The rituals are baffling but they suggest a history and stories that came before in subtle and interesting ways.

I only hope nobody decides to ride a Gormenghast bandwagon (if there is one) and write prequels a la ‘The Song of Ice and Fire’, as much as the rituals suggest a history, the point in Gormenghast is that they have always been there… and may always be.

As much as this was not a conventional novel, barely even a ‘proper’ one, I love it for the commitment to the ideas, the (surprisingly) human characters and the beautifully realised world.

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