We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.Continue reading
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I’m joining in this week because I was really taken with the theme. I’ve been reviewing books online since 2004, but this blog started in 2009, and I’m concentrating on the period since then. What follows here is not a definitive list of favourites, nor is it in a strict order – it’s a list of highlights. It’s a snapshot of what I like to read.
1. The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton
This is a tale of pure serendipity. I was visiting Cambridge, and saw the hardback of The Rehearsal in a bookshop. It wasn’t the subject matter that grabbed me, but the blurbs promising something different. I took a chance on it… and really didn’t get along with its mannered prose style at first. But I persevered and, once I realised what Catton was doing – how completely the novel’s different aspects embodied its theme of performance – I got into it, and ended up absolutely loving the book. The Rehearsal is the fondest memory I have of reading a book in the last few years, and it showed me a new way to appreciate fiction.
2. Pocket Notebook – Mike Thomas
A few bloggers enthused about Pocket Notebook in 2010 – and I really liked its Clockwork Orange-inspired cover – but I never got around to reading it. The following year, I started reviewing for Fiction Uncovered; when I saw Pocket Notebook on their review-copy list, I decided to try it. I was utterly blown away by the vividness with which Thomas created his corrupt-copper protagonist. My only regret is that I didn’t read this novel a year earlier.
3. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray
This book has 661 pages. I devoured the whole lot in a weekend. An Irish boarding-school comedy with added quantum physics, Skippy Dies goes from humour to sharp characterisation to social commentary to pathos to the borders of science fiction and back again, without putting a foot wrong. Stunning stuff.
4. Solo – Rana Dasgupta
When I started this blog, I was just beginning to investigate the parts of the contemporary British literary scene that would most interest me. The website Untitled Books was (still is) a great resource, and it’s where I found out about Solo. I love books with wide-ranging sensibilities, and Solo – with its account of a life that feels like a daydream, and a daydream that feels like life – is that sort of book.
5. Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi
One of the great joys of book blogging has been discovering small presses. Peirene Press are one of the fine publishers who’ve emerged in the last couple of years, and Beside the Sea is one of their best books. Ostensibly the story of a mother taking her children on a trip to the seaside, darkness gradually emerges from behind the happy façade to build up a brilliant but tragic portrait.
Yellow Blue Tibia was the very first book I reviewed on this blog. I was wanting to catch up on some of the contemporary sf authors I hadn’t read, and my first Adam Roberts novel just blew me away. My second, New Model Army, did the same the year after – a novel that I can genuinely say did something I hadn’t come across in a book before. I can’t choose one of these books over the other for this list, so here they both are.
7. The Affirmation – Christopher Priest
Being surprised by an unfamiliar author is great; but so is reading an excellent book by a writer you already know. A Christopher Priest novel is a maze of realities and unreliable perceptions, and The Affirmation is up there with his best. Priest’s narrative shifts between realities, and his masterstroke is to make our world seem no more (or less) real than his fictional one.
8. An A-Z of Possible Worlds – A.C. Tillyer
You can’t explore the world of book blogs for too long without coming across books that you’re unlikely to hear of elsewhere. I first heard of An A-Z of Possible Worlds through Scott Pack’s blog, and it really ought to be better known. Lovingly produced by its publisher, Roast Books, this is a collection of stories in a box – twenty-six individual pamphlets, each about its own place. The stories are very fine, too.
9. Coconut Unlimited – Nikesh Shukla
Here’s another way of discovering books in the blog age: finding a writer to be an engaging presence on Twitter; then, a year (or however long) later, reading his or her newly-published book. That’s what happened with Coconut Unlimited, which turned out to be a razor-sharp and hilarious comedy. More interconnectedness: I met Nikesh Shukla last year at a Firestation Book Swap, which Scott Pack usually hosts (although he wasn’t there for that one).
10. The City & the City – China Miéville
The City & the City generated one of my longest reviews, and I can’t remember reading another book that had so many interpretations from so many different people. It’s a novel to argue with, and argue about. At the time, I hadn’t read one of Miéville’s adult books since The Scar; I remember thinking that The City & the City was good enough in itself, but too quiet to catch on as some of his earlier works had. Of course, I was wrong. It was fascinating to see how the novel was received beyond the sf field, and the book blogging community was a big part of that reaction for me.
As the year draws to a close, I’ve been thinking over all the books I’ve read and picking out my favourites. And here they are, my favourite dozen from the year (all published for the first time in 2010, or older books receiving their first UK publication this year) — in alphabetical order of author surname:
Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers
I didn’t know what to expect when I read this book, and it turned out to be a simply stunning debut. Bennett’s fusion of fantasy, horror and historical fiction is a smart book that uses its fantasy to comment on the period.
Shane Jones, Light Boxes
This tale of a balloon-maker’s war on February is constructed from story-fragments that add up to a marvellously strange whole. It works on about three different levels at once, but resists being pinned down to a single interpretation. A beautiful little jewel of a book.
Simon Lelic, Rupture
A perceptive and well-written novel chronicling the investigation into a school shooting committed by an apparently mild-mannered teacher.
Emily Mackie, And This Is True
A sharp study of a boy who has grown uncomfortably close to his father, and the pressures exerted on him when the life he has known begins to change.
Ian McDonald, The Dervish House
A near-future Istanbul is the setting for this sprawling-yet-elegant tale of six interlocking lives, and the wider structures and systems of which they are a part.
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
A vast boarding-school comedy with added theoretical physics. Murray’s novel has huge ambitions, and achieves them brilliantly. It reads like a book half its length, and its sheer range is astonishing.
Véronique Olmi, Beside the Sea
A very strong launch title for Peirene Press, this is an intense study of a mother taking her two children to the seaside — an apparently ordinary surface that hides much darker depths.
Adam Roberts, New Model Army
This tale of armies run of democratic principles is both a cutting examination of warfare, and a novel that left me with a feeling that I genuinely cannot describe.
Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë
The very powerful story of a girl’s abduction and captivity. Exquisite prose, acute characterisation, and masterfully-controlled narrative flow.
Amy Sackville, The Still Point
Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and deservedly so. An intense and beautifully written novel of Arctic exploration and the parallels between two couples living a century apart.
Nikesh Shukla, Coconut Unlimited
One of the funniest books I read all year, this tale of three Asian boys at an otherwise all-white public school is also an acute portrait of adolescence and the ways in which people try to build identities for themselves.
A novel that ably switches states between time-travel metafiction and examination of its protagonist’s relationship with his father, interrogating and blurring genre boundaries as it goes.
And three great reads from previous years…
Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)
The brilliant tale of the mental chess-game between a psychotherapist and her patient who can apparently predict disasters — which proves equally adept at being a thriller in its later stages.
Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)
A man begins to write a fictionalised autobiography… and an account by a version of himself in a different reality vies for space in the same book — which, if either, is ‘real’? Nothing is certain in this novel by the reliably excellent Priest.
Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009)
A beautiful story of survival and endurance set in a near-future Siberia.
One thing’s for sure: there won’t be another book like Skippy Dies all year. Paul Murray’s second novel (his first in seven years) is a 661-page opus (published as a three-volume box-set) set in an Irish boarding school, largely about the trials and tribulations of growing up and falling in love (both as a teenager and an adult), but also touching on the First World War, theoretical physics, and the changing face of education in the modern world. One other thing – it’s excellent.
The book opens with a doughnut-eating contest between Ruprecht Van Doren – a fourteen-year-old maths prodigy with a weight problem – and his diminutive room-mate, Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster. In accordance with the title, Skippy drops dead during this race – though not from choking on a doughnut. The rest of the novel explores events leading up to, and beyond, the fatal moment.
Skippy Dies interleaves the stories of several characters: there’s Ruprecht, obsessed with the physics of higher dimensions and set on building a machine that could enable travel between universes. There’s Skippy, who has a crush on Lori, a pupil at the neighbouring girls’ school, and can’t believe his luck when his love is returned (if only Carl, the school’s hard-man drug-dealer, didn’t also have his eyes on her). There’s Howard Fallon, the history teacher who falls for a lovely substitute teacher, Aurelie MacIntyre, and is determined to win her love, even if doing so wrecks his existing relationship. And there’s Seabrook College itself, a Catholic school not quite at ease with the changing times.
For all its length, Skippy Dies never once feels like a hard slog, never once feels as though it doesn’t deserve all its 661 pages. But what makes Murray’s achievement in this novel so extraordinary is the sheer range of effects he produces. First of all, and particularly at the beginning, this is a very funny book; the banter between the boys is good, with Murray demonstrating well their tendency to bring even the most serious, high-flown ideas crashing back down to earth with a word. As an example, when Ruprecht describes an invention he’s working on that will broadcast classical music into space in the hope of reaching alien life, another boy replies, ‘What’s the point of playing a load of boring music into space? You want them to think that everyone on Earth is like a hundred years old?’ 
Skippy Dies also has much to say that is serious, and does so very eloquently indeed. For example, points are made around the issue of education: the school’s Acting Principal, Greg Costigan (known to all as ‘the Automator’) is the epitome of the target-driven, commercially-minded headteacher, who doesn’t approve of Howard’s teaching the First World War; it’s not in the textbook, it won’t help the boys pass their exams, so (to Costigan’s way of thinking) it has no value. I don’t think there’s much doubt over where the novel stands on that issue.
Murray succeeds on the level of character, too, where he has some subtle and highly effective touches. One of these is the way he reveals the turmoil of Carl’s home life; the boy’s parents row with each other, but it goes on in the background while we’re following Carl’s viewpoint – and it’s all the more chilling because he completely ignores them.
Also striking is the way that some of the concepts from physics described in the book become mirrored in the emotional events of the story, often leaving some incisive observations behind. For instance, there’s the idea that the smallest possible units of matter act randomly and unknowably; then we learn how Howard (who became a teacher pretty much by accident) attended his school reunion recently, and wondered whether everyone went along in the same fashion: ‘Could the dark truth be that the system is composed of individual units none of whom really knows what he is doing, who emerge from school and slide into the templates offered to them by accident of birth…’  But it’s Ruprecht who gets stung the most by this use of physics, when he comes to realise that the physical laws he puts such trust in just aren’t enough to deal with the human universe.
And I’m only scratching the surface, here, of what Skippy Dies has to offer. It’s a rich, immersive read that you shouldn’t miss.