Books of the year

My favourite books of 2010

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when everyone shares their best reads of 2010.

I’ve read so many wonderful books this year that I’ve narrowed it down by only including novels, as opposed to novellas or non-fiction titles.

Here’s my list (in alphabetical order by book title — click on the book’s title to see my review in full:

 

 

Beijing Coma

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.

The-Canal

‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke (2010)

The Canal might be a book about boredom, but there’s little or no risk of evoking that emotional state in the reader. This is a novel pulsing with ideas and theories (and lots of facts about London, if you’re that way inclined), and one that’s likely to tell you more about the human condition than any textbook possibly could.

Of-a-Boy

‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett (2003)

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence.

Room

‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue (2010)

The novel, which is Donoghue’s seventh, is an extraordinarily atmospheric read. I use the term ‘atmospheric’ to describe the feelings it evokes in the reader and the ways in which those feelings linger for days afterwards. I found myself not so much reeling in its wake but feeling as if something had shifted inside of me, so that I could no longer perceive the world in the same way.

A-Short-Gentleman

‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter (2009)

I think the funniest thing about the book (and admittedly the first half is more hilarious than the second half) is the way in which it pokes fun at Britain’s upper-classes. Their eccentricities, the ways in which they run their households and conduct their lives all come in for more than their fair share of ribbing.

Skin-lane

‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett (2008)

I have not read anything quite as haunting as this strangely beautiful book. It’s a novel that is full of contradictions: it brims with sexual tension, and yet contains no sex; it is filled with death, and yet no one is murdered; it’s repetitious to the point of being dull, and yet features some of the most exciting and heart-hammering scenes you will ever read.

The Slap

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

The Slap is by no means a perfect novel — sometimes the writing feels forced, especially when sketching in the back story for individual characters, and I suspect the numerous music references are going to date it quickly — but its ambition, its scope and the sheer force of the story-telling more than makes up for this. It’s a very bold book, full of sex, drugs, middle-aged angst and a lot of crude language.

So-much-for-that

‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver (2010)

I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend (the book arrived on a Saturday morning and by the Sunday night I had finished it) and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.

This-human-season

‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean (2006)

What I admire most about this book is Dean’s clear-eyed ability to reveal the human angle of The Troubles rather than concentrate on the politics of the situation. She never glorifies the violence or takes sides. Perhaps her own background — she is English, middle-class and lives in France — has helped her look at events with an outsider’s cool objectivity.

This-is-how

‘This is How’ by MJ Hyland (2010)

This Is How is far from a cheery read. Despite the loathsome character at its heart, it’s strangely compelling. It’s dark, disturbing and filled with pathos, but it is exactly this kind of exploration of a fragile mind that everyone should read, not because it offers condemnation, but because it does the opposite: illuminates and educates.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?

10 books, Book lists

10 books to make you laugh

10-booksFor this list of 10 Books I’m looking at those that tickle the funny bone. Admittedly, I generally prefer my fiction a little on the darker side, but every now and then it’s refreshing to read something a bit more light-hearted, and if it gives me a belly laugh or two, then all the better.

Plus, readers constantly ask me to recommend books that will make them laugh — and these are the humorous novels that immediately spring to mind.

Here’s my top 10 funny novels (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

EnglishPassengers ‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale

This isn’t your typical funny novel. In fact, it’s probably best classed as historical fiction. But there are aspects of it that are incredibly witty. Told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters, it plunges the reader into a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing half way around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew, headed by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, carry on board a small expedition team, comprising a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist, intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania. It’s a wonderful romp and, in my opinion, is one of the best books published in the past 10 years.

AFarCryFromKensington ‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark

I suspect I could have chosen any of the late Muriel Spark’s novels to be included in this list, but I’ve gone for this one purely because I remember enjoying it so much when I read it last year. It’s set in 1954 and tells the story of Mrs Hawkins, who works in publishing, and finds herself in deep water when she’s just a little too frank with a client. There’s a dual narrative involving a death threat against a lodger with whom Mrs Hawkins resides, which adds a rather sinister twist to the story.

GingerMan‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy

Ask me to name the funniest story I’d ever read and I would not hesitate to name this one. First published in Paris in 1955, the book was banned in Ireland — where it is set — and the USA for obscenity. It follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. And while the book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, it’s the comic elements which really makes this story a great one to chortle along with.

MaintenanceOfHeadway‘Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills is one of my all-time favourite authors, but he is an acquired taste. I’ve read his entire back catalogue and enjoyed them all. This is his latest book, but I could have easily named one of his others, as they’re all hugely funny stories. Maintenance of Headway is pretty much devoid of plot; it’s basically a series of vignettes about the running of the London bus network. Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny, particularly if you have a dry sense of humour. The wit comes chiefly through the conversations held between drivers on their tea-breaks. It’s the perfect read if you are looking for something that little bit different…

Scoop‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh

First published in 1938, Scoop is billed as one of the funniest novel ever written about journalism. It follows the escapades of William Boot, who is mistaken for an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast. With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. One word: hilarious.

AShortGentleman‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter

This novel pokes fun at the British upper classes. The story is narrated by Robert Purcell, a distinguished barrister who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The book is essentially a confession of his downfall told in a very long-winded but brilliantly witty way. We don’t know what crime it is that Robert committed, and part of the joy of reading this book is trying to figure it out as you go along.

Snuff‘Snuff’ by Chuck Palahniuk

A novel about the pornographic industry might not sound like a barrel of laughs, but in the very capable hands of Chuck Palahniuk it takes on a rather surreal, laugh-out-loud dimension. Instead of glorifying pornography, he pokes fun at it, and, in doing so, he highlights the absurdity, warped mentality and crudity of it all. But if I can offer a caveat, it would be this: don’t bother reading if you are easily offended. There’s plenty of bad language and crude scenes to last a life time in this one!

SomethingFresh‘Something Fresh’ by P.G. Wodehouse

I couldn’t put together a list of funny novels without including some Wodehouse. In this book, the first in the Blandings series, a retired American millionaire, Mr Peters, tries to get back his incredibly rare and valuable scarab which has been absent-mindedly pocketed by Lord Emsworth. What follows is a complete farce in which two rivals — Ashe Marson, a poorly paid writer of detective stories, and Joan Valentine, a magazine correspondent — try to get the scarab back in exchange for a rather generous reward from Mr Peters. Throw in an overweight private detective, a rich “idiot child”, a fussy butler and an efficient private secretary, among others, and the comic world of P.G. Wodehouse comes truly alive.

TimeAfterTime_small‘Time After Time’ by Molly Keane

This is a delicious black comedy that seems frothy and lighthearted on the surface, but has a very dark heart beating at its centre. It’s not immediately obvious but this is a story about the nasty things people do to each other. It’s set in a beautiful but crumbling mansion in Southern Ireland where four elderly siblings reside. Each of them is eccentric, fiercely independent and set in their own ways. When their cousin Leda arrives unannounced for a short stay little do they know the ructions she is about to cause… More please.

TowardsTheEnd‘Towards the End of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn

Novels about journalism and newspapers are particular favourites of mine (see Scoop above), and this one, written in 1967, harks back to the days when Fleet Street began to experience terminal decline. While it’s set in an unspecified newspaper and focuses on print journalists fearing for their futures, it’s essentially a comedy of manners. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this one.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books or authors you’d recommend as a funny read? What is missing from my list?

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Jon Canter, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter

AShortGentleman

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 384 pages; 2009.

Jon Canter is a comedy writer* for a slew of British comedians, including Lenny Henry, Dawn French and Griff Rhys Jones — and it shows. This is possibly the funniest novel I’ve read since I first discovered the joys of Wodehouse back in the summer of 2007. It’s also possibly the most English.

The story is narrated by Robert Purcell, a distinguished barrister who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The book is essentially a confession of his downfall told in a very long-winded but brilliantly witty way. We don’t know what crime it is that Robert committed, and part of the joy of reading this book is trying to figure it out as you go along. Mind you, Robert details his entire life story, from his privileged childhood growing up in Notting Hill (“giving me splendid access to all the museums and concert halls London has to offer”), all the way through to his fifties when he’s set to inherit the family’s country house on the Suffolk coast. This means it takes almost 300 pages to figure out how he got himself in such a dire pickle.

From the very start it is clear that Robert is quite a strange man, although he, of course, thinks he’s completely normal, albeit part of an educated (and downright snobby) elite. He’s very analytical and does everything by the book: he is careful never to put a foot wrong and, like all good lawyers, could argue his way out of a paper bag.

There is nothing remotely frivolous or spur-of-the-moment about him. He seems emotionally distant from everyone around him, and while his story-telling comes across as aloof and arrogant, reading between the lines you get the feeling that everyone he meets, including his friends and colleagues, thinks he’s a bit of a dweeb, someone they can laugh at and treat badly because he simply won’t pick up on the nuances of certain situations.

For instance, when he decides to lose his virginity he does it all with the precision of planning a military campaign. When, at age 33, he decides he should settle down and get married (six years after his last girlfriend), he chooses his bride not on the basis of love but on the basis of “something more precious, more durable, and, above all, more rational. I was in the throes of marriage at first sight”. Two children, a house in the country and a promotion to QC follow. Later, without wishing to reveal any plot spoilers, things begin to fall apart…

I think the funniest thing about the book (and admittedly the first half, particularly Robert’s hapless relationship with his first girlfriend, Judy Page, is more hilarious than the second half) is the way in which it pokes fun at Britain’s upper-classes. Their eccentricities, the ways in which they run their households and conduct their lives all come in for more than their fair share of ribbing. How they raise their children, for instance, is summed up pretty well in this little vignette, when Robert is corralled into the bathroom by his ageing parents to discuss the unsuitability of his relationship to Judy Page:

This was extraordinary. I’d never been in a bathroom with my parents. When I was a boy, there was no ‘parenting’. There were parents but it was not their job to hang around the bathroom having a ‘relationship’ with you, by spending ‘quality’ (or quantity) time. Why would they want to spend time with you? You were a child. You mother would enquire from a different floor, whether you had had a bath and brushed your teeth. Your father wouldn’t ask. He was reading the paper. He took it on trust that you were having, or would be having, or had had a bath. For more than half the year, of course, you were at boarding school. He was reading the paper a hundred and fifty miles from your bath.

The book is also littered with footnotes, all very funny, which add to the enjoyment of the text. Indeed, even before the story begins we are presented with Acknowledgements, a Foreword, a Preface, an Author’s Note and an Author’s Further Note, and at the end there’s a Dog Index (noting all the references to dogs — Britain’s favourite pet — in the text) and a postscript by one of Robert’s so-called friends. You get the idea.

All in all, this might not be everyone’s idea of a great book, but I found A Short Gentleman completely in tune with my own dry sense of humour, the perfect light-hearted read for whenever you need a good laugh.
* He’s also a Jeremy Clarkson lookalike.