1991: My Best Remembered Reads

Now that I’m in my sixties, time seems like an elastic band. Sometimes it stretches on and on and sometimes it snaps past too quickly to grab hold of. I’ve become bad at judging how long ago things happened. I had the Beatles’ lyric, ‘It was thirty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper told the band to play’ going through my head and I thought, vaguely, ‘It’s probably been that long since they released that album.’ I was wrong of course. Twice. They released the album in 1967 which, I was shocked to find, was fifty-four years ago and the line was ‘It was twenty years ago today’

I decided to go with the line I remembered rather than the one the Beatles wrote and I took look at what really happened thirty years ago. A little bit of arithmetic got me to 1991, a quick prayer to the Goddess Of Google helped me target the right memories and a picture of the year started to form.

I remember the start of the Gulf War (which we didn’t then call The First Gulf War). An IRA mortar blowing out the windows of the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street. The disgraceful inquest that ruled that the death of ninety-five people at the Hillsborough disaster was an accident. The fight against the Poll Tax. The death of Freddy Mercury. Bryan Adams sitting at the top of the charts for what felt like forever with ‘Everything I Do I Do It For You’, the theme song from Kevin Costner’s ‘Robin Hood – Prince Of Thieves’. I remember that it was a good year for going to the cinema. We saw ‘Thelma and Louise’, ‘Flirting’, ‘Mermaids’, ‘The Commitments’ and ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’.

And then there were the books. Back then, I kept a hand-written list of the books I read. I still have it and it tells me that I read thirty nine books that year.

As time passes, books fade in my memory until they become ghosts of themselves. Some are faint shadows, passive and rarely seen. Some rest as a set of impressions, easy to recall but too insubstantial to come back to life in my imagination. The best actively call to me, reminding me of the relationship we once had and tempting me to strengthen them by reading them again or getting other people to read them.

I’ve picked out nine book ghosts from 1991 to practice a little necromancy on. I hope at least some of them make you want to breathe life into a book you’ve never read or have mostly forgotten.

The first two books on the list are by authors that I ended up reading a lot of. The final one is the only book I’ve read by the author (and the only full-length novel he produced) but it shines bright in my memory as something startlingly original.

‘Cry To Heaven’ by Anne Rice (1982)

‘Cry To Heaven’ was my introduction to Anne Rice. I still think it’s one of her best books. There are no vampires here but there are monsters.

‘Cry To Heaven’ is a standalone historical nove, set in eighteenth-century Italy, that tells story of two castrati, men who have been castrated as to preserve their faultless soprano voices for performing in the opera. Guido Maffeo, is a Calabrian peasant, castrated at the age of six, whose career as an opera star ends when he loses his voice at the age of eighteen. Tonio Treschi, is a Venetian nobleman, castrated in his teens on his father’s orders as part of a complicated family conflict. Guido becomes a music teacher for castrati. Tonio becomes his star pupil. Tonio has great talent as a performer but he is obsessed with revenging himself on his father. What follows is a vivid, gripping tale of music and violence, beauty and decadence, art and venality, set in Venice, Naples, Rome and Florence.

I’d never read anything like it. It worked as revenge thriller, a love story and an insight into a period of history that I knew nothing about. The whole thing was made more chilling because Rice didn’t have to make up the castrati. Part of her achievement as a writer was to present this, to me, insane idea, as something normal and taken for granted. Beneath the passionate action of the plot, Rice explored what gender roles in a way that was well ahead of her time and managed to do so without preaching and while keeping her focus on the humanity of her main characters.

Late in 1991, I read ‘Interview With The Vampire’, unaware that it was her debut novel and written eight years before ‘Cry To Heaven’ and was very disappointed at how heavy the prose was. Still, ‘Cry To Heaven’ had shown me what Rice could do so I persisted and was rewarded with ‘The Witching Hour’ the first book in the Mayfair witches series, which I strongly recommend.

‘Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant’ by Anne Tyler (1982)

‘Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant’ was my first Anne Tyler book. Thirty years later, she’s still writing books that I love like ‘Redhead By The Side Of The Road’ and ‘Noah’s Compass’.

In 1991, she took me completely by surprise with her ability to wrap me up in the emotions, problems, loves and histories of people without providing anything much by way of a plot. Anne Tyler feeds you real life but in a way that sharpens insight and amplifies empathy.

I had to look up the plot of ‘Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant’ on Wikipedia . It had faded away over time.

What had stuck with me was the feeling of family that the book captures. Not a perfect, picture book family, but one where people struggle with one another and themselves.

I remembered that the three children in the book each had very different recollections of their childhood experiences, each saw current events differently and all of them were incapable of being together without fighting.The book was immersive. I felt as if I’d joined the family as a neutral observer. I’d never read anything that felt so raw and so real and which managed completely to avoid melodrama and cliché.

This and ‘The Accidental Tourist’ are two of her books that I keep meaning to go back and re-read. I suspect that my reading would be different now because I’m different now and Anne Tyler’s writing is rich enough for me always to find new things in it.

‘The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All’ by Alan Gurganus (1989)

The main thing I remember about ‘The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.’ was how much it took me by surprise. It was a 786-page riot of energy and emotion that I read rapidly and eagerly, carried along by the torrent of candid recollections from ninety-nine-year-old Lucy Marsden who, in 1900, at the age of fifteen, married fifty-year-old Captain William Marsden, a veteran of ‘The War for Southern Independence‘. Lucy, now in a nursing home, dictates the story of her life to a visitor and, in doing so, gives a very personal account of the history of the South in the twentieth century.

Lucy’s loquacious narrative style is packed with energy and passion and buoyed up with a humour that has helped her survive the many traumas of her life. Lucy doesn’t sugar-coat anything. She confronts her husband’s brutal spitefulness, the misogyny, racism and poverty of the society she grew up in and the violence it produced. She also captures some wonderful moments of friendship and bravery and even joy.

It reads like the outpouring of someone with something to say who has finally found a way to say it. I found it breathtaking. All of it is vividly told and a lot of it is distressing but it helps that we know that Lucy survived it all unbowed and is still able to tell her tale with passion and humour.

This was Allan Ourganus’ first and only novel. It spent eight months on the bestseller list and was made into an Emmy-winning TV series in 1994. I’ve held onto it as a unique example of powerful storytelling that made the past real by keeping it personal and unflinchingly honest.

These three books cover the range of Science Fiction and Fantasy as it was at the start of the Nineties. The first book is a hard science space opera, the second is the first book inba quest-based fantasy series and the third was the first time I’d met the witches of Discworld.

‘Cyteen’ by C.J. Cherryh (1988)

I read my first C.J. Cherryh, book, ‘Downbelow Station’ in 1987 and spent the rest of the Eighties and Nineties vorcciously consuming her books. She produced complex, galaxy-spanning Science Fiction that contained interesting science, truly alien Aliens, and intrigues of Byzantine intricacy.

‘Downbelow Station’, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1982, set the bar high. It introduced me to a nasty war between the Earth-based Company that controlled human space and The Union planets that wanted indepence. It was first-grade Military SF but what won me over was that it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

I read three C.J. Cherryh books in 1991. I’ve picked ‘Cyteen‘ because it won the Hugo and Locus awards for Best Novel in 1989 and because it took another look at Union space, this time with an intrigue on the home planet, Cyteen. The plot involves a deep dive into Cyteen’s use of womb-tanks and tape conditioning and biofeedback training to produce and control the Azi, a subset of the population that are not seen as human. It was the first time I’d seen such an idea treated in such depth and it fascinated me.

Both ‘Downbelow Station’ and ‘Cyteen’ are on my ‘I really must go back and read them again list’.

‘Pawn Of Prophecy’ by David Eddings (1982)

I rarely read Sword and Sorcery Fantasy any more but there was a time when I was deep into Raymond E Feist’s Riftwar Cycle, along side Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books (sword and sorcery with dragons). The records I kept at the time tell me that I spent the whole of August 1991 reading all five books in David Eddings ‘Belgariad’ series, some 1,100 pages, starting with ‘Pawn Of Prophecy’.

I was obsessed at the time but I remember very little of it other than my hunger for it. I looked up the details on Wikipedia and a lot of it came back to me.

Reading the summary now I go, ‘Yeah, it’s your basic fantasy quest with a hero and his companions seeking a jewel and then using it to fight an enemy. So what?’ The so what is, it pretty much set out the territory that later sword and sorcery fantasy fiction inhabited by default and it was written with great exuberance.

I can’t say I’ll be going back to these books but they certainly kept me entertained throughout August 1991.

‘Equal Rites” by Terry Pratchett (2019)

For me, ‘Equal Rites’ was the book where Discworld became a Must-Read series. The first two books were amusing and original. They gently satirised British academia, had some funny lines and some interesting ideas about magic but they didn’t really have anything to say. ‘Equal Rites’ had something to say… in a loud voice… backed up by an intimidating stare and just a hint of the possibility of steel bootcaps impacting soft flesh.

This was the book where I first met the Discworld Witches, who are the antithesis of the dangerously bumbling, cloistered, obsessed and disconnected from the real world Wizards of the Unseen University. Witches get things done, whether the things want to be done or not. Witches use headology and try to make common sense live up to its name. Witches are a force to be reckoned with.

The Witches sub-series and the Guards sub-series are my favourite Discworld books They’re the ones where Terry Pratchett uses humour and strong but very human characters to invite the reader to look more closely at the world and themselves and sometimes squirm in embarrassment and sometimes feel themselves filling with hope.

It’s a book full of great lines. Here’s one of my favourites:

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not half so bad as a lot of ignorance.

The witches kept me company right up to last year, when I finally let myself read ‘The Shepherd’s Crown.’ All the witches books are good but my favourite is ‘I Shall Wear Midnight‘.

I only started to read crime books in the late Eighties and I was pleased to find that there was a lot of good stuff out there. The three books I’ve selected from 1991 are great examples of major trends in crime fiction back then. The first is a courtroom drama that took the remarkable view that lawyers might be heroes. The second introduced the novel concept of a woman PI holding her own in the tough Chicago crimescape. The third gave us our first look at an iconic serial killer.

‘The Burden Of Proof’ by Scott Turow (1990)

I’d read Scott Turow’s debut novel, ‘Presumed Innocent’ in 1989 and it struck me as something new, something that put the lawyer at the heart of the story. It was made into a movie a year later but I skipped it at the time as I couldn’t imagine Harrison Ford as the lead. I saw the video later and although the movie worked, I think it would have worked better with a different lead actor.

‘The Burden Of Proof’ was set in the same town as ‘Presumed Innocent’ and had a similar dark and twisty feel but I thought the plot, about a lawyer seeking the truth behind the suicide of his wife, was more interesting than its predecessor. I liked that it started with the death of his wife and worked back from there. I felt it ran a little long and that wasn’t helped by my lack of sympathy for the main character.

Still, I enjoyed ‘The Burden Of Proof’ but it turned out to be my last Scott Turow book. He was pushed off the lawyers-can-be-heroes throne by John Grisham who brought out ‘The Firm’ in 1991, although I didn’t get to it until 1992.

‘Indemnity Only’ by Sara Paretsky (1982)

The thing I remember most about ‘Indemnity Only’ was that V I Warshawski broke the mould for women detectives. She wasn’t anyone’s sidekick. She didn’t find her answers by sitting quietly and letting people tell her things in civilised settings. She knocked on, and sometimes kicked in, doors. She got in people’s faces and she never gave up. In this book, she’s lied to by almost everybody, including her client; she takes a beating to warn her off, she goes toe to toe with the Chicago movers and shakers from Finance guys through Union bosses to organised crime and in the end, she physically takes on the crooks and her fighting skills win the day.

I’d never read anything like it and I thought it was wonderful. I particularly liked how twisty the plot was and how gritty the corruption was.

I was a bit surprised at how much time was spent telling me what V.I. was wearing. This never happened when I was reading about male PIs. I think part of it was meant to confirm the reality of a woman doing this job and some of it was related to US dress codes that had a social class meaning that slipped right by me.

Sue Grafton’s ‘A Is For Alibi’, the first Kinsey Millhone book was published in the same year as ‘Indemnity Only’. I’d read it and enjoyed it so V.I wasn’t my first woman P.I. but Paretsky’s Chicago seemed a darker and more dangerous place than Grafton’s Santa Theresa and V.I. moved through it like a predator in her natural habitat.

Sara Paretsky was and still is a go-to author for me. Her books are gritty and well informed and take on American history and politics without flinching or proselytising.

‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris (1981)

I had the good fortune to read this before I’d seen any of the movies and decades before it made its way to TV. The impact was intense. it was one of the darkest, scariest, most compelling things I’d read. It made me want to take a shower after reading a few chapters but it was also impossible to set aside.

Everything in it was new to me: FBI profiling, being inside the head of a serial killer, and the visceral reactions to the violence and the threats. This was all amplified by the fact that the writing was good and Thomas Harris wasn’t afraid to place the art of William Blake at the centre of his tale.

It’s hard to clear my head of the movies that have over-written my memory of the novel but I remember being horrified by the Toothfairy’s ritualistic killings and by the biting. I remember desperately turning the pages to know what would happen next and I remember how disturbingly real the sense of the killer becoming the dragon was.

I’m no longer a fan of serial killer stories. Things like ‘Criminal Minds’ have turned them into formulaic voyeurism. I’m also aware of how far FBI profiling has been discredited and how damaged the reputation of the Behavioural Science unit became.

I make an exception for ‘Red Dragon’ though. This isn’t formulaic. This is a confrontation with evil and it scared the hell out of me.

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