Category: Berry Jedediah

2009 favourites

It’s been a good year for reading, watching and listening, I think; so here’s a look at my favourite books, movies and music of 2009.

BOOKS

Here are my favourite books whose first publication was in 2009, with links to my reviews. (NB. The order isn’t meant to be too strict; all these books are warmly recommended.)

1. Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

My favourite book of 2009 is an extraordinary work of literature which examines the masks people wear and the shows people put on in life, against the background of a school scandal. Catton doesn’t put a foot wrong, and the result is a novel that’s both highly experimental and compulsively readable.

2. Keith Brooke, The Accord

Brooke is, in my opinion, a vastly under-appreciated writer; this story of a virtual afterlife is the best of his works that I’ve read. The Accord works on so many levels: as a novel of ideas, as a novel of character, as a thriller, as an experiment in style… It’s a heady concoction that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

3. Rana Dasgupta, Solo

An elderly Bulgarian man looks back on his life in the first half of this novel, then dreams of a new life for an old friend in the second. A beautifully written, richly rewarding book.

4. Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

At the behest of Stalin, a group of science fiction writers dream up an outlandish enemy for communism, and discover that the truth is uncomfortably close. Enormous fun, and a feast for the imagination.

5. Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

A powerful fairytale about the difficulty of looking life in the eye, and the possible consequences of not doing so. A deserved co-winner of the World Fantasy Award.

6. Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

A deeply atmospheric detective story whose heart beats with a unique strangeness.

7. David Vann, Legend of a Suicide

A mosaic portrait of a father’s suicide, with a strong sense of place and a sharp eye for character. A unique work of literature.

8. Conrad Williams, One

Williams evokes the profound horror of apocalypse whilst maintaining an intensely personal focus. Harrowing, but powerful.

9. A.C. Tillyer, An A-Z of Possible Worlds

Twenty-six individually bound portraits of what-if. The most beautifully made book of the year, with stories to match.

10. Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice

A quiet, insightful tale of silence between fathers and sons, and the consequences of leaving things unspoken.

11. China Miéville, The City & the City

A murder mystery set in overlapping cities, and a fascinating fusion of fantasy and crime fiction.

12. Trevor Byrne, Ghosts and Lightning

A young man returns to Dublin after the death of his mother, and struggles to anchor his life. Well written and nicely observed.

And the best from previous years…

Ken Grimwood, Replay (1986)

A perfectly constructed and beautifully observed tale of a life lived over and over again in different ways. This is an absolute jewel of a book which I am enormously glad to have read this year.

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)

A marvellous coming-of-age (or beginnings thereof) story told in a brilliantly realised voice. A page-turner of depth and richness.

FILMS

Though I didn’t intend it to happen, I got somewhat out of the habit of watching films in the latter half of 2009, so my view of the cinematic year is a bit skewed. But my favourite film from 2009 was a brilliant British fantasy called Franklyn; and, from previous years, I was most impressed by Once and Hard Candy — both excellent films, though very different in mood.

MUSIC

Instead of picking out albums, I’ll present a list of some of the best songs that sountracked my year (though not all originate from 2009); but, if it’s on here, you can (in most cases) consider it a recommendation for the relevant album:

Bat for Lashes, ‘Daniel’ [review]
Doves, ‘Kingdom of Rust’
The Duckworth Lewis Method, ‘Jiggery Pokery’ [review]
Florence and the Machine, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ [review]
Franz Ferdinand, ‘Ulysses’ [review]
Friendly Fires, ‘Paris’ [review]
Glasvegas, ‘Flowers and Football Tops’ [review]
Lisa Hannigan, ‘I Don’t Know’ [review]
Charlotte Hatherley, ‘White’
The Invisible, ‘London Girl’ [review]
La Roux, ‘Bulletproof’ [review]
The Leisure Society, ‘The Last of the Melting Snow’ [review]
Little Boots, ‘New in Town’ [review]
The Phantom Band, ‘The Howling’
Snow Patrol, ‘Just Say Yes’ [review]
Stornoway, ‘Zorbing’
Super Furry Animals, ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ [review]
Sweet Billy Pilgrim, ‘Kalypso’ [review]
The Temper Trap, ‘Sweet Disposition’
White Lies, ‘Death’ [review]
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Zero’

So, that was 2009. I hope that 2010 holds as much to look forward to.

The Manual of Detection (2009) by Jedediah Berry

I wouldn’t normally dwell on the book-as-object, but I have to say that The Manual of Detection is one of the most attractive volumes that I’ve seen in quite some time. You can’t see from the picture, but it has a laminate cover (i.e. the image is printed directly on to the cover, with no dust-jacket); and the whole package gives the impression of a book that has been designed with great care and attention. Furthermore,  it has been made to resemble the fictional Manual of Detection described in the novel; opening the book is an invitation to step into its own unique world.

And the text itself makes good on that invitation; what strikes me most about The Manual of Detection is the way that Jedediah Berry has woven his fictional world together. The setting is an unnamed city in which a thousand noir stories have taken place, crimes solved by the behatted, cigar-chomping detectives of the Agency, the greatest of whom is Travis T. Sivart. Now Sivart has gone missing, and his clerk, Charles Unwin, has been promoted in his stead. Convinced that this is an error, Unwin goes upstairs to the office of Edward Lamech, Sivart’s ‘watcher’ and the author of the memo apparently granting this promotion — only to find Lamech’s dead body sitting behind the desk. Unwin sets out to find Sivart; and, of course, it all gets more complicated from there…

Berry’s creation is fascinating, and his novel transporting in the truest sense, in that it takes one out of the real world, and into a sideways reality that convinces as a functioning world within the covers of the book, even as one acknowledges that it couldn’t function if it actually existed. The Agency itself is a huge, sprawling organisation whose absurd bureaucracy is a delight to imagine: the different categories of staff are so segregated that there are underclerks in the archive  who don’t even know what a detective is. And consider the thoughts it engenders in Unwin as he makes his way to Lamech’s office:

Imagine the report he would have to write to explain his actions: the addenda and codicils, the footnotes, the footnotes to footnotes. The more Unwin fed that report, the greater would grow its demands, until stacks of paper massed into walls, corridors: a devouring labyrinth with Unwin at its center, spools of exhausted typewriter ribbon piled all around.

(Incidentally — or perhaps not — I think that quotation also demonstrates Berry’s considerable  flair for writing prose.)

The Manual of Detection is set in a world where detectives’ cases get pulpish nicknames like ‘The Oldest Murdered Man’ or ‘The Man Who Stole November Twelfth’, and sound equally outlandish in synopsis; where bizarre things happen, such as Charles Unwin encountering a man who is apparently relaying Unwin’s every move down the telephone, before the following exchange takes place:

“Were you speaking about me just then?” Unwin asked.

The man said into the receiver, “He wants to know if I was speaking about him just then.” He listened and nodded some more, then said to Unwin, “No, I wasn’t speaking about you.”

Yet all has a perfectly rational explanation — rational within the terms of the novel, anyway. There’s less fantastication than that comment might suggest, but a little goes a long way in this case. I’m being deliberately vague about the details, because so much of the joy of reading The Manual of Detection lies in the discovery of what happens. But I will say that the final third takes a different tack as the threads of story come together; and I feel it sits quite awkwardly with the rest (then again, I did struggle to follow the plot a bit at this point, so it could just be that).

Criticisms aside, though, what I’ll take away from The Manual of Detection is the singular experience of reading it, its distinctive feel and atmosphere — and I’ll be mightily intrigued to see what Jedediah Berry does next.

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