Friday, August 16, 2019

Read All About It!

By Abir

Out of all the books available to read and limited time, what influences your choices? What books have you read this summer and which would you rate as your top recommendation?

This year, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been asked to be a judge for a couple of literary prizes: The McKitterick Prize, awarded by the UK Society of Authors for the best debut novel by a writer over the age of forty (the winner gets £3,000); and the Wilbur Smith Award for best adventure novel (which comes with a big money cash prize of £15,000). It means that for most of the time from January through to the end of July, I was wading through a stack of books taller than me, many of which were great. 

Nevertheless, there are certain authors, such as Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Martin Cruz Smith, Denise Mina and Robert Harris, for whose latest release I’ll drop everything to read, and the judging was put on hold so that I could devour Denise Mina’s new book, Conviction.

Mina is, in my opinion, one of the finest writers in the UK. Her last book, The Long Drop won a whole host of awards and is one of the my favourite books of the last few years, so I was thrilled to receive a preview copy of this, her latest novel.

Conviction revolves around a woman who is obsessed by true-crime podcasts and decides, one day, to investigate one of the unsolved crimes herself. While The Long Drop was based on a real-life crime from the 1950s, Conviction is a bang up-to-date thriller taking us from the Highlands of Scotland, via the coast of France, to Venice and Paris. As usual, Mina's writing is an absolute joy and her insight and commentary into human nature, second to none. For me, The Long Drop still shades it, but this is still a fantastic book.

Earlier in the spring, there was a similar hiatus for Metropolis, the final Bernie Gunther novel from the late, great Philip Kerr. Kerr was one of the authors I most admired, and I consider Bernie Gunther to be one of the finest creations in detective fiction. It was a terrible day for fans of his work when he passed away from cancer last year, yet that blow was tempered by the knowledge that Mr Kerr had left us one final gem to look forward to. Metropolis is a wonderful finale to the series, and sees Bernie, not at the end of his career, but at the beginning: as he becomes a detective in the Murder Commission section of the Berlin police force in 1928. For fans of Philip Kerr, this book will be bitter-sweet. A fine addition to the canon of Bernie Gunther, but the last we'll ever get.

I doubt there’s an author who has influenced my writing more than Kerr, and it was therefore an honour to be asked by The Sunday Times of London to take part in a podcast, alongside Kerr’s wife the author, Jane Thyne, to celebrate Kerr’s life and work and the launch of Metropolis.

 The reading for the prizes also uncovered some jewels, opening my eyes to the sort of novels  such as Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott: a wonderful recreation of Truman Capote and his social circle; or Meet Me at the Museum, by Anne Youngson: a beautifully written and heart-warming tale of a burgeoning friendship between an elderly woman in England and a museum curator in Denmark. I didn’t expect to like this book, but in the end, I loved it.

 From the Wilbur Smith Award side, I can’t tell you my favourite as the winner is yet to be chosen, but I can tell you that the shortlist is fantastic. I believe that the best fiction can educate while entertaining us, and the Wilbur Smith shortlist is testament to this. Three of the books, Firefly by Henry Porter, The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Joukhadar, and To the Lions by Holly Watt, all deal with urgent and tragic plight of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, seeking sanctuary in Europe. Each book tackled the subject in a different way, and each brought home the terrible suffering of these unfortunate souls and our own shameful indifference to their circumstances.

Now though, it is August, and I'm finally able to read whatever I want to. So what do I choose? My tastes are eclectic. Of course I obviously read a lot of crime, thrillers and mystery novels, especially those set in a place or period setting which interests me, or which I'd like to learn more about. 

One such example is the Harry Virdee series by AA Hand, set in the north English city of Bradford, once one of the richest cities in the world, now, if Dhand is to be believed, a hollowed out, post-industrial town riven by drugs, violence and ethnic tensions. DCI Virdee is a Sikh of Indian origin, who is fiercely proud of his British identity but caught between love  for his muslim wife and his family who have ostracised both her and him. The books are pacy and gritty and packed full of tension, but also shed light on what it means to be a British-Asian in this day and age. 

His latest novel, One Way Out, is a ticking time bomb of a novel, with a bomb planted in one of Bradford's hundred and fifty mosques, with Harry having only 24 hours to find it and save his family and his city.

I'll also read quite a bit of non-fiction, especially history, and certain biographies. I also like to read modern classics, the most recent of which was London Fields, by Martin Amis.

London Fields is Amis's murder story with a difference. Set in London in 1999 during some unspecified world crisis, the novel deals with the efforts of a young woman, Nicola Six, to orchestrate her own murder. Nicola is a "black hole" of sex and self-loathing intent on orchestrating her own extinction. All that’s in doubt is the identity of the killer: will it be yobbish Keith Talent, petty criminal, 'cheat' and darts fanatic, or Guy Clinch, rich, good-looking and hopelessly ineffectual? 

It’s narrated by fictional American author, Samson Young, who himself is dying of cancer, and indeed, death, universal death – of the protagonist, the narrator, the millennium and even the planet – is the underlying theme. The opening scenes establish the scenario (she knows where and when but not who); the rest of the book plots the trajectory of Nicola's - and the century's - journey towards annihilation.

It’s a special book, in parts brilliant, in others frustrating but mainly, it keeps you off balance. The main characters are almost all dislikeable and you never know who to root for. What's more, the writing is sublime. No matter what you end up think of the book, you won’t forget it in a hurry.

You might think that my reading is very British-centric, full of British authors writing with British sensibilities, but one of the authors who've really wowed me be recently is an American, Steph Cha. 

Cha is of Korean descent and her books are infused with the sort of insights into US life that most Americans take for granted, but which are poignant to those who are the children of recent immigrants. 

Her latest novel, Your House Will Pay looks at the real life LA riots of the late 1980s and their impacts on two families almost thirty years later. If you haven't read Cha's books, now's the time to start.

My final recommendation

And now the one you've all been waiting for, my top recommendation. I have read some excellent books this year, but if there's one that deserves special mention, it's This Green & Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik. 

Malik is a hijab-wearing British muslim woman, and one of the most witty and intelligent authors writing in the UK today. Her first novel, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, was described as the muslim Bridgette Jones, and was hilarious.

In her latest novel, Malik turns her attention to the question of identity, what it means to be British, and who has the right to call themselves British. This Green and Pleasant Land tells the tale of mild mannered Bilal, family man and accountant, and his wife, Mariam.  For years they have lived contented, quiet lives in the sleepy rural village of Babbel's End. Then everything changes. On her deathbed, Bilal's mother reaches for his hand. Instead of whispering her final prayers, she gives him a task: build a mosque in his country village. Of course many of the locals are outraged. What unfolds is a tale of differences and acceptance, told with real love and a dry, sly turn of phrase.

I must admit, I didn't think I would like this book. My parents were Hindus from India, with a vivid recollection of the Hindu-Muslim violence that went hand in hand with partition of the Indian subcontinent. My father always viewed muslims en masse with a certain suspicion (which was odd, because on an individual basis he had some really close muslim friends), and while I consider myself more enlightened than my old man, I confess, the idea of a mosque in an English village unsettled me. Nevertheless, the book is a wonderful testament to tolerance and too Britishness. It's a book that helps bring people together - to show that we are not all that different - and that to me is a most worthwhile endeavour.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Abir, You've given me some interesting titles of authors I haven't read to add to my own list of books to read.

Susan C Shea said...

What a glorious mix of books and genres to tempt us with!

jfnvnisunfd said...
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Abir said...

Cheers Dietrich - I'm always amazed by how many great authors there are out there that I haven't heard of either!

Abir said...

Thanks Susan! I hope you get a chance to read one or two of them!