This is a New Year tradition at the Unthank School of Writing…
Slightly later than usual, I return to the school tradition of tutors listing five of their favourite reads of the previous year. This is not, you’ll recall, your standard list of the ‘best books’ of 2017, but rather simply what we’ve been reading for the first time, regardless of publication date, that we particularly liked. Let’s face it, does the world need another review of Lincoln in the Bardo, wonderful though it is, even if it is just Dostoyevsky’s ‘Bobok’ by other means, but then nothing’s new, is it?
When I compile a list like this, I always worry that I come across as someone who doesn’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. This is far from the truth. But if I said the books I enjoyed the most last year came off the Booker shortlist or were Amazon bestsellers I would be lying in an attempt to look hip and contemporary, and one of the luxuries of my job is that I don’t need to do this. Contemporary fiction is also work for me, because I appraise, edit, and even occasionally ghost-write twenty or so manuscripts a year. To be honest, when it comes to reading for pleasure I invariably reach for a graphic novel because my eyes and my brain can’t handle anything else of an evening although perversely I can’t stop reading. (My 2017 favourites were The Dark Knight: Master Race by Frank Miller, Bob Kirkman’s Here’s Negan, and Old Man Logan by Mark Millar.)
Last year, for me, was all about a big Victorian history project and, in common with the rest of the world, a sense of impending doom. And this is really what frames my Top Five. I started blogging for Wordsworth, once more returning to my academic roots with pieces on literature and history, and I was under contract to write a book called The 19th Century Underworld for Pen & Sword. The research for these gigs has been tremendous fun, with old friends revisited alongside new discoveries in specialised libraries and archives. The 19th Century Underworld is now with my editors, and I’m busily at work on the follow-up, which concerns the Newgate Controversy of 1839 and is sexily entitled The Man Who Outsold Dickens. So, this year I’ll be reading a lot of penny dreadfuls.
Anyway, in no particular order, here are my favourite reads of 2017…
The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969).
I got into this after my wife decreed we must work through Coppola’s epic trilogy on DVD, which she’d never seen. I enjoyed revisiting these movies so much that I didn’t want to leave the characters, so I pulled the novel off the shelf, a battered copy that belonged to my late-mother. I love the bestsellers of this era, and The Godfather belongs to a group that I remember as a kid that also included Jaws and The Exorcist, record-breakers accompanied by iconic movies, all written by journalists and all inspired by true stories. The Exorcist, for example, grew out of a real exorcism in Maryland in 1949, Jaws has its origins in the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, and in The Godfather the singer-turned-actor Johnny Fontane is based on Frank Sinatra, Moe Greene is essentially Bugsy Siegel, and Vito Corleone is a composite of Mafia kingpins Frank Costello and Carlo Gambino. Half-a-century on, these novels are still page-turners and any aspiring writer can do worse than study how they’re put together, and how history can be creatively adapted to form an original plot. The Godfather is a family saga and a tragedy. The novel pretty much covers the first two movies, while there is also a long story arc involving Johnny Fontane that didn’t make it into the screenplays but is nonetheless a compelling parallel to the rise and fall of Michael Corleone. The inter-linking stories are authentic and visceral, documenting the immigrant experience, the importance of family, the politics of violence, and the impossibility of escaping one’s own destiny. Every book, movie and TV series on organised crime in America released since owes something to this novel. Puzo didn’t just define the genre, he created it.
The Ups and Downs of Life by Edward Sellon (1867).
Of all the primary material I read for the ‘Underworld’ project that I’d not encountered before, this one really stood out, being by turns tragic, disturbing and extremely funny. Edward Sellon was a scholar, a soldier and a libertine of the old school who ended up writing and illustrating pornography for the notorious Victorian publisher William Dugdale. In his youth, Sellon was a subaltern in the East India Company Madras Infantry until they threw him out for conduct unbecoming. He authored a number of scholarly monographs on Indian culture, as well as some significant translations, but after a failed marriage and several unsuccessful business ventures he drifted into penny-a-lining. The Ups and Downs of Life is his final work; a rare, incomplete and filthy autobiographical fragment, ending mid-sentence, which Dugdale published anyway. The early sections in India are hilarious, as the Flashman-like hero dallies with the wives of officers and diplomats, escaping jealous husbands by disguising himself as female servants, and fighting a duel with a rival lover. Fast and funny, Sellon makes no apology for his wicked ways, although the story takes a darker tone once he’s married, largely, I suspect, because of his increasing sense of failure. His reputation finally collapsed completely when, while acting as a gentleman’s travelling companion, he seduced the mistress of his employer on the boat-train to Vienna while the affluent cuckold was asleep in the same carriage. ‘I made a desperate effort to throw her on the opposite seat,’ he wrote to Dugdale, ‘but it was no go, he had seen us.’ He returned to London destitute, took a room at Webb’s in Piccadilly, and shot himself with his service revolver. His suicide note concluded ‘Vivat Lingam/Non Resurgam’ – ‘Long live cock. I shall not rise again.’ Although outwardly ebullient, Sellon was a disappointed man who had reached the end of his tether. For all his faults, I can’t help feeling a certain affinity for the crazy bastard.
To read the rest of my Top Five please click here – Cheers!