My annual tradition of listing my favourites of the books I read this year.
Observant readers will have noticed there haven’t been as many book reviews recently. With the wedding and honeymoon in the Autumn I was reading less and I had decided to go back and reread The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. I’ve been loving reading them all over again, and am almost done so new reviews should start again early in the New Year.
Anyway, this is about books I read for the first time in 2017, and we’re gonna kick off with the fiction books.
5. The Princess and the Queen by George R. R. Martin
Part of the reason I went back to the ASOIAF series was that I read and loved this novella by Martin. While it lacks the depth of his other works, it still manages to create a realistic, layered world and the story of treachery and war is gripping. Review here.
4. Conclave by Robert Harris
Harris seizes on the interesting idea of what happens behind closed doors as the Vatican chooses a new pope to weave a web of scandal and schemeing. It includes one too many scandals, stretching credulity at places, but it’s a quick, gripping read. Full review.
3. The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz
Lagercrantz takes over the story of Lisbeth Salander and crafts a gritty, involving thriller. Review.
2. 87th Precinct by Ed McBain
I continue to work my way through McBain’s series and I read three this year. The standout was See Them Die, where he creates a tense sunny day as gang members plot murder and the police engage in a stand off. Other entries Lady, Lady, I Did It! And The Empty Hours are solid thrillers too.
1. Adrian’s Undead Diary by Chris Philbrook
I continued to read this series and as it progresses, it goes from strength to strength. The diary story telling device works very well, and Adrian’s narration is involving. Philbrook also uses other side stories to develop a wider world picture of the zombie apocalypse and provides background to why it’s happening which takes the story in a new, interesting direction. Eager to read more. Check out my reviews of parts two, three and four.
Alright, onto nonfiction books.
5. Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson
BBC journalist Simpson recounts his eventful career. It documents some of the major events of the late twentieth century and makes a fascinating read. In places he can be rather pompous, but for the most part he is an entertaining and likeable narrator. Review.
4. Books vs Cigarettes/Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell.
Two collections of essays by George Orwell, am becoming a fan of his clever, insightful writing and will keep my eye out for more of his nonfiction stuff. The review of Books… is here while you can find my thoughts on English Murder here.
3. Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson collects writings on various topics which serves up an entertaining read. He brings his usual warmth and keen observation to a mix of criminals, conspiracy theorists and oddballs. My review
2. Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays by Gay Talese
Picked up after an offhand mention in another book this turned out to be a gem. Talese writes with a vivid style and keen eye for nuance and subtle tells in his subjects. The Sinatra piece is great but the essay about broken former boxing champ Floyd Patterson is just as impressive and painfully moving. Review.
1. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
An autobiography of a rock legend which proves to be just as well written as his music. The insight, warmth and openness that make the Boss’ songs so involving is on show here and it is cracking read pleasingly light on ego. Here I am gushing about it.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.
Subtitled The Jon Ronson Mysteries this book is a collection of articles by the writer which sees him focus on a wide range of topics.
There are criminals, missing persons, mad scientists and superheroes. All are tackled with wit and insight, with Ronson showing a keen eye for detail and ear for the offhand remarks which reveal more than intended.
Due to the breadth of people and ideas, the tone shifts repeatedly. There are some which are just entertaining, such as when he spends times behind the scenes of Deal or No Deal which seems almost cult like. Or disconcerting conversations with robots which suggest that the rise of the machines is still some way off. There’s also a surreal entry about Ronson going to a UFO convention with the pop star Robbie Williams.
Others are more sinister, with Ronson investigating the seeming cover up of a missing person from a cruise ship, or the case of Jonathan King. King, a pop music producer and B-list celebrity convicted of child sex offences. This section makes for an interesting, if troubling read.
Ronson follows the case, interviewing King several times, and it throws up many different issues. Central to it all is King himself, who seems unrepentant, viewing the accusers as overplaying the lasting effects of his actions. He is loud, cracking gags and rather unpleasant, and yet Ronson states that he rather likes King, despite knowing he’s guilty. It’s a brave admission to make, an acceptance of the fact that people who do terrible things can have likeable qualities. It’s also an indicator of King’s humour and flamboyance, which were part of how he lured in his victims.
Conversely the trial of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire cheats is less grave, but does contain a smaller human tragedy, the vilification and mockery of Charles Ingram. Ronson shows the man’s frailty and given his fear of appearing stupid the whole scandal appears more damaging.
All the different pieces are worth reading and there are some nice ideas throughout, such as Ronson meeting different Americans on different rungs of the economic ladder. Starting with a dishwasher he goes up by talking to someone on 5 times as much, eventually interviewing a billionaire. It raises questions about tax and the attitudes towards it, and how much money you need to be happy.
I’ve loved Ronson’s writing for a while and here he is in sensational form, producing a series of pieces which are all fascinating reads which range from the bizarre to the creepy.
Verdict: Ronson shows his skill as a writer in tackling a range of subjects, all with insight, humour and intelligence. A cracking read filled with interesting stories and memorable people. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.
Finally the US Presidential election is drawing to a close. The process is so long and convoluted that by now everyone just wants it over with. I’m hoping that Hilary Clinton emerges as the victor because despite her flaws the alternative is terrifying.
Donald Trump is an irresponsible narcissist who would be too much if he was a fictitious character. Nobody would buy it. But sadly truth is stranger than fiction and The Donald (contender for lamest nickname ever) is a walking, talking embodiment of some of the worst personality traits out there. That he has made it to the final two is depressing.
As with the Brexit result in the UK, Trump’s success has emboldened bigots and racists. They see the popularity as a sign that the tide is turning and more people are agreeing with them. After the election, regardless of result, the hornet’s nest of hate, fear and anger which has been stirred up will not disappear overnight.
Trump has found favour with the far right and the “alt-right”, which is the focus of this short book by Jon Ronson. It focuses on an old acquaintance of Ronson’s, Alex Jones who he met while investigating conspiracy theories for Them and who some may know for his intense rants online on topics like government cover ups, Satanism and Justin Bieber.
It’s an interesting and well done read, with Ronson amiable and honest in his writing. He admits that, despite Jones’ more out there theories, he likes the man. He talks about attending Trump’s rallies and of the almost cult like atmosphere, of how the fringe appears to have taken over the centre.
It’s hardly new ground, although I did learn some more about the background of Trump’s associates and it’s interesting to have a snapshot into the supporters. It’s almpst sad that Jones is shown to have fallen for Trump’s platitudes and attempts to win his support in a way a more experienced media figures saw through.
Ronson also touches on how polarised politics have become and how entrenched positions have become, it’s an interesting look at the current political landscape in the US as they prepare for their election.
Verdict: A short, well written piece by Ronson which gives a quick look at the fringe players in the Trump story and his rallies. It’s not comprehensive but it’s still a decent and insightful read. 7/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.
Okay, so these are my favourites of the books I’ve read this year, and as I normally do I’ve split it into two separate top 5s, one fiction and one non-fiction, however this year there’s a special consideration for a book which fits across both categories.
This book is Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, which while based on real events is written with the style and flair of a novel, to gripping effect. Keneally uses his skill as a writer to investigate the motivations behind the key players in a fascinating and inspiring true story. He doesn’t shy away from Oskar Schindler’s flaws, portraying him as a realistic human and hero.
The book is intensely moving in places and could easily have topped both categories, but as I said, it blurs the lines and I feel warrants it’s own special mention.
Anyway, on with the rest.
5. Tarzan of the Apes/The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The first two parts of the Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs are fun, fast paced and pulpy yarns which while a little dated in places still manage to work as entertaining adventures and I’ll probably check out a couple more of the ape-man’s escapades. Reviews here and here.
4. Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
Superheroes vs zombies in a fun, exciting zombie apocalypse story. Clines still has room to improve as a writer, but does show some skill for character and inventiveness. The first part in a series, I will be checking out more to see where Clines takes the story. Review.
3. The Mugger by Ed McBain
McBain writes a tough, hard bitten pulp thriller revolving around the cops of the 87th precinct as they investigate a mugger with a unique MO who may have graduated to killing. A fantastic page-turner. Review.
2. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
A little predictable in places, and nowhere near as good as The Fault In Our Stars, but Green’s writing is still sharp, clever and witty. The story of an unlucky in love nerd trying to find meaning in his failures is filled with bizarre tangents and teenage awkwardness. Proof that Green is one of the best writers working in the young adult genre. Review.
1. Hannibal by Thomas Harris
The ending disappoints but until then this is a masterpiece of thriller writing, with Harris putting his charming, cultured cannibal at the centre and unfolding a grim, dark story of revenge and obsession. The tension builds beautifully and there are genuine chills along the way. Utterly gripping and the kind of book you blaze through in a few obsessive sessions. Review.
5. Hitman by Bret Hart
The wrestler’s autobiography is a fantastic, compelling read that lifts the lid on the backstage politics of the business and the backstabbing and jealousy that engulfs his family. Hart tells his life story in an open, heartfelt way, and is honest about his own failings. For wrestling fans it’s a must, and for non-fans it would still make a damn interesting read. Review.
4. Them by Jon Ronson
Ronson investigates various conspiracy theorists and nutjobs as he examines why the idea of a powerful “them” pulling the strings is so appealing to some, and who exactly these shadowy figures may be. Ronson’s writing is funny and clever, especially as he finds himself actually being sucked into the paranoia of those he meets. Review.
3. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Proving that economics is more than just money, this fascinating book tackles different subjects like cheating sumo wrestlers, the crack cocaine market and why crime in the 90s was so much lower than experts predicted. Written in easy, sardonic language it shows how motivation drives humans and the weird way things can be connected. Marvelous and manages to make economics fun and interesting. Review.
2. Stiff by Mary Roach
In a gleefully gory and captivating read, Roach examines what happens to human bodies after death. Taking in organ harvesting, scientific learning and even cannibalism this is an utterly engrossing book which benefits from Roach’s informal, relaxed approach and is the kind of book that has you sharing bizarre, grim facts with everyone you know. Review.
1. Generation Kill by Evan Wright
Wright accompanies a group of Marines during the Iraq war, capturing the chaos of war and the way it effects the young men who fight. Having spent lots of time with the unit Wright gets to know his subjects, they share their thoughts and he captures their quirks. What’s interesting is the way the men view combat and their enemies, in a decidedly less gung-ho way than you’d expect. Also captures the way the higher ups can make disastrous and inexplicable decisions, and how it’s the men on the grounds who have to adapt to these new strategies and do their best to survive. Review.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.
One of my favourite books that I read last year was The Psychopath Test, and so I was keen to check out more of Jon Ronson’s stuff so I snapped this up eagerly when I saw it in HMV especially as it dealt with conspiracy theories, which is something that interests me despite the fact they mainly baffle me.
Ronson spends times with Islamic fundamentalists, separatists, the KKK and others who are convinced that the world is ruled by a group of shadowy figures who meet in secret to decide the future of the world. Ronson writes in a wonderful manner which recognizes and relishes the absurdity of some of the theories he encounters, but at the same time he finds himself getting sucked into it.
He worries he’s being followed while on the trail of the Bilderberg group in Portugal and goes to investigate the mysterious “owl ceremony” held annually by the great and good believed to be at the centre of the conspiracy.
Ronson’s writing zips along with wit and energy, and while he clearly despairs and loses patience with some of his subjects he’s never overly harsh on them and it’s often their own flaws that prove their undoing. In fact he even deals with some of them with an odd affection, they may hold ridiculous beliefs, some even offensive ones, but Ronson warms to them, there’s sympathy for these outsiders throughout, with the barbs only reserved for the truly odious.
As expected some of the characters he meets along the way are oddballs, from the temperamental and insensitive Ian Paisley who he finds preaching in self-imposed exile in Cameroon to David Icke and his theories of reptilian overlords.
All may agree that someone is pulling the strings behind the scenes, but they argue over who- space lizards, the Catholics, the Jews, big business. The Anti-Defamation League contends that most are blaming the Jews through the use of code words and while the “international bankers” as code kinda works I get the impression that Icke genuinely believes it’s space lizards.
Ronson sketches the players well, showing great insight into those he meets and little moments that show their flaws, failings and real feelings. It’s an interesting insight into prejudice, paranoia and conspiracy theroies which kept me entertained throughout.
Verdict: An entertaining and engaging look into the different theories of who rules the world. Ronson’s writing is light and easy, but gifted with wit and insight. Definitely worth a read even if it can’t quite match The Psychopath Test in the fascinating stakes. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.
So, it’s the end of the year so I’m looking back, here are my top 10 books of the year, divided into fiction and non-fiction.
5. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
A wonderfully evocative tale of lost love and obsession, written with real lyrical beauty and a pleasantly quick read. Full review.
4. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Collins’ sci-fi trilogy kicks off with an exciting, taught high concept idea of young people forced into a vicious arena of death for the enjoyment of the rich elite, and then builds on it fantastically in two superior sequels. Touches on the uncertainty of youth, the psychological impact of violence and the compromises and savagery of war. A superior example of books for young adults. Full reviews.
3. A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
Martin’s fantasy epic goes from strength to strength. His knack for combining high fantasy with down and dirty grit and believable, complex characters make these a complete treat. Handles the sprawling, epic world he’s created with real skill and imagination, crafting captivating reads. Now have to sit and suffer until he releases volume 6. Reviews here.
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The author’s most famous work is a true joy, with Austen’s trademark skill in picking up the little quirks in personalities and a wonderful heroine. Gloriously written and a fantastic love story that stands the test of time. Review.
1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
A wonderfully beautiful novel that is by turns funny and heartbreaking, Green avoids the “brave cancer kids” stereotypes and makes a book that really stayed with me. A triumph. Review here.
5. One Night in Turin by Pete Davies
A fascinating insight of life behind the scenes at the 1990 World Cup, with Davies granted great access to the England team. Looks at it from a variety of different angles, the organizers, the fans, the players and the press, and captures football just before it would undergo a massive change and grow even bigger and global. A treat for footy fans. Full review.
4. Bossypants by Tina Fey
Fey’s hilarious book is a mix of memoir and advice, highlighting the writer’s intelligence and wit. Laugh out loud funny. Review.
3. How To Get Away With Murder in America by Evan Wright
Wright crafts an engaging book about corruption and the drugs trade, including the theory that the CIA may have sponsored a vicious drug runner. Exposes the corruption that goes on in the halls of power, and is a gripping read. Full review here.
2. Goodfellas by Nicholas Pileggi.
Pileggi’s book examines the life of low level gangster Henry Hill, in a book which manages to capture the excitement and allure of the mob without glorifying or judging. Busts some of the myths about the Mafia and is a great look at life in the criminal class. Full review.
1. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
Ronson’s book is hugely entertaining and interesting, an insight into mental health and how it’s treated. Full of quirky anecdotes and shocking facts, it’s one of the most enthralling non-fiction books I’ve ever read and Ronson is a superb writer who I’ll definitely read more of. Review.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.
This is hands down one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, the book living up to it’s subtitle “A journey through the madness industry”.
Initially recruited to investigate a mysterious puzzle of a book sent to academics across the world, Ronson soon changes his focus to the “mad” people in society. From this jumping off point he examines psychopathy and how it is dealt with in society.
He meets Scientologists focused on discrediting psychiatry, which sets him up to meet “Tony” a young man held in Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital who claims that he faked madness to avoid prison, only to be diagnosed as a psychopath and who may spend his entire life in Broadmoor.
Ronson then discovers the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a 20 point test administered to determine whether someone is a psychopath or not. He meets Bob Hare, who invented the checklist and who seems to show a jaded, cynical view of psychopathy. Ronson learns how the test work and begins to use it to analyze everyone he meets, going slightly power mad.
He attempts to ascertain whether a Haitian death squad leader is a psychopath and whether a ruthless businessman also exhibits the signs.
But Ronson also looks at the problems arising from the HPC and also the worrying trend of medicating young children for childhood bipolar, including a tragic death due to over medication. Several issues also come into play- the media’s treatment and exploitation of people with mental health problems, whether a certain level of madness can be useful and where exactly is the line between genuine madness and eccentricity.
I was blown away by this book, it’s chock full of great anecdotes and startling facts, especially a section where Ronson looks at the treatment of mental health problems in the 1960s, when less was known and there seemed to be very little regulation, allowing psychiatrists to try out supremely unconventional approaches with mixed results.
Throughout, even during it’s darker and more disturbing moments, Ronson manages to write with verve and wit. There’s a kind of sardonic tone that he adopts at times, and he is cutting at times, but on the whole there’s a warmth to his writing, and he allows his own weaknesses and fears to creep into his writing.
He owns up to becoming slightly mad with power when he learns the HPC, viewing himself as special and gifted, and acknowledges a sense that perhaps something within him is not normal, and that is why as a journalist he is drawn to outsiders and oddballs.
The people he meets along the way are an interesting bunch, with stories that range from tragic to surreal, and all open up to Ronson in their own ways. Like Louis Theroux, Ronson seems to have a knack for engaging with people many would shy away from and while he pokes fun at them and highlights their absurdities and flaws, but it never feels unfairly savage.
The topic of psychopaths might seem heavy or depressing, but the execution is so well done that it never bums you out, and I read this book with complete absorption, and it was the kind of book which has you recounting little factoids and stories from to the people around you. An utter gem an well worth checking out.
Verdict: Engagingly written and a fascinating read, Ronson is a talented writer with an eye for human behaviour and a great sense of humour. It’s an intriguing insight not only into mental health, but how it is treated in our society and the way it permeates society to a deeper extent than I’d previously given thought to. 9/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.