The most memorable moment of my 2015 reading life was discovering the work of Kazuo Ishiguro.
The Japanese-born English author has been a literary mainstay for two or three decades now, of course, but I’d somehow never got around to reading him.
I had seen the film version of Never Let Me Go but associated it more with Alex Garland, the novelist turned film maker who wrote the screenplay, than I did Ishiguro.
Ishiguro’s latest, The Buried Giant, caught my eye in a bookstore – I loved the cover – so I read some reviews and found them delightfully polarised. I always get a kick out of it when a serious literary author tries their hand at genre, in this case fantasy, and the critics have no idea what to make of it.
That’s certainly what happened here. The literati’s snobbishness was extraordinary; the book was dismissed as a minor work from a major author, a regrettable pop-culture diversion from a normally serious thinker.
Tosh. This is a delightful book, a beautifully written fable about love and ageing and memory that uses fantasy tropes to wonderful allegorical effect.
I promptly bought just about everything else Ishiguro has ever published, and read a few of his earlier works. He now ranks among my favourite authors.
This was also the year I read Australian author Steve Toltz for the first time. I have his Booker shortlisted Fraction of a Whole on my to-read pile but I’ve always been too intimidated by the 700+ pages to pick it up. This year’s follow-up, Quicksand, was a more manageable size so I dived right in.
It’s a tremendous book, with a memorable central character and some of the most virtuosic writing I’ve read in years. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny.
Elsewhere in fiction I read the Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book I admired more than I enjoyed. It’s a masterclass in style and structure but I found it emotionally vacant. And as many people have noted, it’s a pretty hard slog; abrasively violent with long sections of Jamaican patois.
I read a few of the other Booker nominations – Satin Island, The Illuminations and The Chimes – but didn’t really connect to any of them. A weak shortlist, I thought.
Jonathan Franzen’s Purity was good but a big step down from Freedom, which I thought was his best work; Go Set A Watchmen was an interesting curiosity, even as someone who hasn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird (more on this later); and Salman Rushdie’s latest was a complete mess. He’s not even trying.
I read some trash too: Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes was one of his worst, and Joyland and Revival weren’t much better. Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels was fun but it’s clear now that his best work is behind him; and the less said about Matthew Reilley’s painfully stupid The Great Dragon Zoo of China the better.
I enjoyed some classic graphic novels, most notably Saga, Sex Criminals, V for Vendetta and Ex Machina. Also The Sculptor by Scott McCloud – just brilliant.
On the non-fiction side, I enjoyed A Spy Among Friends, the latest book about legendary British double agent Kim Philby. I tried but failed to really connect with Don Watson’s The Bush, even though I normally love his work. And I eventually slogged my way through Henry Kissinger’s messy World Order.
Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? by Edward Behr is a little dated now but was still one of the best accounts of life as a foreign correspondent I’ve ever read.
I dipped a little further into the back catalogues of Shirley Jackson and Evelyn Waugh too, but more on those authors at a later date.
Up next: my first book of 2016.