Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Favourite Books for 2012

Of the 66 books I've read this year (not including the 10 or so I got nearly halfway through but, due to boredom or annoyance, put aside), these are the ones I found the most satisfying:

Best Novel (Literary):

Howard Jacobsen, Zoo Time. A biting satire of the world of writing and publishing, written with Jacobsen's usual verve and wit. Zingers on every page. Marvellous.

Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding. I loved this first novel. Don't be put off by the college baseball setting. You'll be turned on by the characters and the plot. At once sad and uplifting. A major achievement.

Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo. Many reviewers thought this pretty ordinary. They're wrong. It's brilliant. They've just gone off Amis, one of our most important writers of the last forty years. 

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth. Same for this. Universally misread by reviewers. All the men in this beautiful young woman's life are cowardly, duplicitous weasels, and THAT'S THE POINT, IDIOTS! Besides, it's the 70's, and I was fully alive then, and I recognise the truth in it.

Chloe Hooper, The Engagement. How damn good is this? Subtle, nuanced and tantalising right to the end. Amazingly good.

Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary. Mary considers Jesus a boring little save-the-world dickhead. Wonderful!

Wayne Macauley, The Cook. Extraordinary in every way. So resonant with meaning on multiple levels, and the evil is as exquisite as the food! 

Best Novel (Popular):

Hannah Richel, Secrets of the Tides. Despite a seriously bad cover, this is a seriously good book. Families, eh...who'd belong to one?

Dennis Lehane, Live By Night. Raw, tense and just as brilliant as his earlier The Given Day. Ben Affleck has bought the film rights. Can't wait.

Herman Koch, The Dinner. Two brothers - the arrogant politician has the integrity; the progressive lefty  teacher is a vicious psychopath. Highly original. Read the final two pages very carefully or you'll miss the whammy, like most reviewers have. Turns everything on its head.

Toni Jordan, Nine Days. What a stunningly good writer Toni is. This is a lovely, heart-warming, rich tapestry of a novel.

Best Crime/Thriller:

Adrian McKinty, The Cold, Cold Ground. Belfast 1981 - a really scary place. A superb, pacy drama with great characters. Can't wait for Adrian's new one out early next year.

Ian Rankin, Standing in Another Man's Grave. Rankin's latest is one of his best, mainly because he resurrects a full-blooded Rebus and ditches the anal Malcolm Fox. 

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl. Brilliantly written, exquisitely plotted. Sucks you in as it unfolds its inexorable, horrible logic. The best thriller I've read in ages.

Best Non-Fiction:

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. This extraordinary story about a Mumbai slum puts all your safe, comfortable, healthy, affluent life into sharp relief, you miserable complaining sod!

David Gillespie, Big Fat Lies. Oh I love this guy! The provocative, challenging, amazing Gillespie, who's causing such a stir in the health and nutrition establishment. Just as good as his earlier Sweet Poison.

Laurent Binet, HHhH. You've never read a non-fiction narrative like this. Uses contemporary novelistic conventions to explore an astonishing episode in Nazi history. Playful and charming as buggery, despite its subject matter.

Maxine McKew, Tales from the Political Trenches. Maxine really puts the boot in where it counts. A great political memoir and a thrilling read. 

Guy Pearse, Greenwash. As usual Pearse delivers. A well written, thoroughly researched expose of corporate hypocrisy. Stunning.

Paul Krugman, End This Depression Now. If you haven't read any of Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman's writing, then this will introduce you to easily the most important and influential economic thinker of our times. He's such a lucid, elegant writer too. A pleasure to read. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

J.K.Rowling's A Casual Vacancy

Combine a ludicrously inappropriate marketing campaign (Hachette) - a global embargo a la Harry Potter; no endorsements from respected writers on the cover (that would place it for a reader); a blurb so banal that it misses the whole point - and you get the awful misplaced expectations that have bedevilled the launch of this really excellent, very substantial novel. 

This is a gritty, believable story of modern personal and social relationships - husbands/wives; parents/children; middle/lower classes; conservatives/liberals. If the author was not Rowling, but for example, Paul Murray, who wrote the wonderful Skippy Dies (also a story of teenage/adult/social conflict), then there wouldn't be this quite extraordinary squall of snooty dismissiveness and disappointment that has accompanied this novel's release.

It's not hard to describe why quality popular fiction like this works. It successfully creates a world that is totally absorbing. It is rich in believable characters. It has a plot that is complex and satisfying. The interactions between the characters are frequently intense and conflicting. It is gritty, hard-edged and often violent. People get hurt. There is a lot of pain. There is cowardice and courage. There is a totally satisfying, emotionally resonant denouement and resolution.

This describes A Casual Vacancy. It is very good indeed. I enjoyed it immensely.

(This review by Michiko Katukani of the New York Times is worth reading for the vacuous nonsense it truly is. It's typical of a Harry Potter aficionado expecting Mugglemarch to be far more magical and exciting.)