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.
Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.
Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:
Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.
Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking
Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.
Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox
Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.
Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country
The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.
Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation
A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared. Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.
Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys
A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.
And now half a dozen from previous years:
Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine
A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.
Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History
A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.
Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance
Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.
Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical
The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.
Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.
Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook
I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.
So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?
Rebecca Connell, Told in Silence (2010)
Rebecca Connell’s second novel, Told in Silence, is a portrait of a family with secrets; no one is all that they appear to be to others. Violet Mason was eighteen, working as a legal secretary and just about to start university, when she fell in love with – and married – a thirty-year-old lawyer named Jonathan Blackwood. Now twenty-one, Violet is a widow, living with Jonathan’s parents, Harvey and Laura, and making tentative steps towards regaining a normal life. Then, at Harvey’s birthday party, an old friend of Jonathan’s, the darkly attractive Max Croft, arrives on the scene; Violet finds herself drawn to Croft, but he brings with him a suggestion that Jonathan’s death may not have been accidental, as Violet believes – and that someone close to home may be responsible.
Told in Silence turns on the gradual revelation of new sides to characters and their relationships, first in Violet’s narration of the present day (and flashbacks to her life with Jonathan), then in Harvey’s written account addressed to his son. It begins with Violet herself, who presents a determinedly ordinary face to the world, one that masks all she has been through. The Blackwoods are not quite the happy couple that Violet sees. Jonathan may be the character of whom we see the most sides, even though (or perhaps because) we always encounter him at one remove. Connell’s unfurling of her characters’ secrets keeps the pages turning and builds up her novel’s momentum, which then leads with a certain amount of inevitability towards an ending that’s both open and quite apposite. Told in Silence is a tense read that asks how sure we can be that we truly know someone.
This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.
Cynan Jones, Everything I Found on the Beach (2011)
Hold is a Welsh fisherman, trying his best to help out Cara and Jake, the widow and son of his late friend Danny. The chance discovery of a body on the shore presents him with a risky opportunity, for the dead man was carrying packages of drugs; Hold decides to go ahead and deliver them, so he can use the money for Jake’s and Cara’s benefit. Alongside Hold’s story, we read of Grzegorz, a Polish man who came to Britain hoping to improve his lot, but now stuck working in a slaughterhouse and picking cockles to make ends meet for his young family; and we follow the criminals heading for Hold, who have doubts and worries of their own.
Everything I Found on the Beach is a quiet book, muted of palette and careful in its use of detail. The depictions of place seem to have had the specificity wrung out of them, which contrasts effectively with the very precise depictions of process – and appropriately so, because what the characters are doing is more significant to them than where they are. Cynan Jones establishes some interesting points of comparison between the lives of his characters: the methodical nature of Hold’s work as a fisherman finds echoes in both Grzegorz’s job at the slaughterhouse and life in his shared home, though the two men’s attitudes towards their situations are subtly different. Likewise, while Hold is questioning whether he really wants to go through with delivering the drugs, the criminals themselves are examining their place in the world.
All in all, Everything I Found on the Beach is a quietly evocative study of lives changed by some drastic choices.
Link: Parthian Books
Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook (2010)
Jacob Smith is a police firearms officer with a foundering marriage, a steroid addiction, and aggressive tendencies. Unable to save the victim of a car crash, Jake takes his frustrations out on a drunk he’s arrested for a public order offence, which is what first brings him to the attention of his senior officers. As time goes on, Jake faces growing pressure; he’s being investigated for his behaviour at work, his dealer wants paying, and Jake’s erratic personal life sees him lusting after at least three women other than his wife. Something has to give… and indeed it does.
Pocket Notebook is a simply stunning debut from Mike Thomas, himself a serving police officer. The rapid-fire narrative style captures superbly the whirlwind of thoughts inside Jake’s mind, painting the officer as a man constantly on edge. Thomas intersperses Jake’s narration with extracts from the regulation notebook in which he records his activities; this device creates an effective contrast between the chaotic energy of Jake’s thoughts and the more formal structure of the notebook – a structure occasionally (and increasingly) interrupted by reminders that Jake is not the fine upstanding copper he appears (or did at first) to the outside world.
Yet, for all that he may be an antihero, Jake is not an entirely unsympathetic character. We see that he does have admirable qualities, such as concern that some of the people he encounters don’t mess up their lives; it’s just that Jake is so far gone down the road he has taken that those qualities can’t hope to balance the darker aspects of his nature. And it is the latter that Thomas portrays so well as Jake loses his grip on reality, convinced all the while that what he does makes sense. Thomas draws the reader so fully into his protagonist’s mindset that it takes a while to adjust after leaving Jake’s side. Pocket Notebook marks Mike Thomas out as a major new voice whose work deserves our attention.
This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.