I probably read 40 books in 2012, about 20% trash, some of which I didn’t finish and others which I will disavow if asked. I read very little nonfiction and only one biography (which I generally enjoy), a good book on Mary Queen of Scots. Given our trips to Berlin and Istanbul, I overly rotated toward books set in the two, not necessarily a bad thing … Some, like the Yashim detective series by Jason Goodwin set in late Ottoman Istanbul were not bad, but probably more interesting because of our vacation plans. Same goes for the non-fiction Berlin 1961 about the building (or is it raising?) of the Berlin Wall.
Speaking of Berlin, I loved the Berlin Noir trilogy by Phillip Kerr, which as the title suggests, consists of noir thrillers set in Berlin in the 1930s and 1940s. As grim as you would expect, with the story told from the perspective of a Berlin homicide detective trying to do his job amidst one of the most homicidal regimes in history. Book one in particular ends with a sadistic twist (although G didn’t find it as amusing …) Suitably dark and yet an interesting glimpse into “ordinary” life in Berlin during that time. I went on to read the novels about Bernie Gunther in post-war and pre-war Europe and South America. Talk about grim. The one set in Argentina – which we’ve been to a few times – was incredibly disturbing and made me think about the country in an entirely different light. The new one, due out sometime next year, is definitely on my list.
Sticking to homicidal regimes, one of my favorites of the year, HHhH, is an English translation of a French novel about an author who becomes obsessed with and writes a book about Reinhardt Heydrich, the architect of the Final Solution and the “protector” of Czechoslovakia during WWII who was assassinated by partisans. A gripping tale. It left me as drained and overwrought as the author portrayed in the novel. A story of obsession – in more than one way.
Continuing in the vein of dark and twisted, I loved the Milo Weaver books by Olen Steinhauer. I had started his Eastern European spy series a few years ago, but hadn’t progressed beyond the first one. The Tourist trilogy was terrific, with particularly quirky and well-drawn supporting characters. Supposedly, George Clooney has optioned the first one – although I don’t see Clooney as Milo … Sometimes, the books would seem to wander and you would think, where is this going and why are we focused on the random shop keeper in Hamburg who is vaguely obsessed with one of his regular customers, an obese German woman who buys snickers bars and riesling every evening … but then you find out.
Switching gears, I also really enjoyed The Song of Achilles. You think you know the story of the Iliad, or at least I did, but this is a different telling from an unlikely perspective. A story of love, friendship and devotion, in a competely new way.
Put Bring Up The Bodies on your list. It’s not as good as Wolf Hall, but as I read it, I found myself once again drawn into the world of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. The entire book takes place over a few months – the fall of Anne Boleyn is amazingly swift and surreal – and a foreshadowing of Cromwell’s fate? I’ll be reading the final of the trilogy as well. In fact, I’m curious about Hillary Mantel’s other books …
A lot of people raved about Gone Girl, and I enjoyed the first half, but after a while, I stopped caring about either main character. In fact, I wished a house would fall on them, a la the Wicked Witch of the East (although the story is set in Missouri, not Kansas). I guess that’s a major failing of mine, I only like books where I can find something likeable, appealing or engaging – however small – about the protagonist. It can be twisted, dark, disturbed, but there needs to be some spark. In this case, I couldn’t stand either. I guess that’s the point.
What I didn’t read – and wrestled with – The Fifty Shades of Grey books. In the end, If I only have time for 40 or so books, I’m glad I didn’t waste three on Fifty Shades.
Of course, I still have a number of others on the list. With a week left in the new year, I can still get to these, right? I’m blazing through – and really enjoy – Man Hunt by Peter Bergen, feeding my obsession with Osama bin Laden, particularly in advance of seeing Zero Dark Thirty …
Maybe that will set up early 2013 for a switch to nonfiction …