Books of the year

My favourite books of 2011

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again, when I assess what I’ve read and decide my best reads of the past 12 months.

At the time of writing I am on target to read just under 100 books, which comprised a mix of narrative non-fiction, translated fiction, crime fiction, latest literary releases and older books pulled off the TBR pile. The ratio of men to women writers was roughly 6:4. And, for the first time ever, I did not read one American novel.

For the purposes of this list, I’ve only included novels (and one novella), although I would highly recommend ‘Antarctica’ by Claire Keegan for those who enjoy short story collections and ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner for those who like narrative non-fiction.

The following list has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the titles to read my review in full.

Mercy‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2011)

It’s no secret that I love a bit of Scandinavian crime and this one, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, is one of the best I’ve ever read and certainly the best I’ve read in 2011. I was so enamoured of it that I cleared my whole weekend to eagerly eat it up and even before I’d reached the half-way point I tweeted that it “beats the pants off Steig Larsson”. Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English), a division within the Danish police force that looks at cases that have run cold and remain unsolved. In this story, homicide detective Carl Mørk investigates the mysterious disappearance of a young and beautiful politician, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier. Could she still be alive? What Mørk discovers is chilling to the core…

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates (1944)

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely my favourite read of the year and is one of those books that I know I will read again at some point, if only to wallow in its beauty once again. It tells the story of a young British pilot whose plane is downed over France and the lengths he and his crew must go to in order to survive. Because it is set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Afterparty‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus (2011)

The Afterparty arrived unannounced at Chez Reading Matters and I wasn’t sure that it would be my cup of tea — or my sort of whisky — going by the cover image alone. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading… In the end I found it to be an inventive, darkly funny, postmodern novel set in a world where British celebrities rule the roost and lowly tabloid journalists will stoop to almost anything in the quest for a big story — and there’s not a hacked phone in sight!

Sunday-at-pool‘A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche (2009)

I have a penchant for harrowing novels and this one is probably the most harrowing I’ve ever read. It’s set during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which more than 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered. It was an event that I was aware of in only the vaguest terms — probably because, as Courtemanche writes in this novel, “the media don’t show dead bodies cut up by men and shredded by vultures and wild dogs”. The story is told in the third person, but we see it mainly through the world-weary eyes of Bernard Valcourt, a widower and highly experienced journalist from Canada, who is bored with his job as a Radio-Canada producer and goes to Rwanda to try something new. What he experiences on the ground is so shocking and horrifying I felt dirty reading about it. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but this is an important book that explores what happens when hate is left to reign unchecked.

Devotion-of-suspect-x‘The Devotion Of Suspect’ X by Keigo Higashino (2011)

I love a good crime thriller and this one by Japanese writer Keigo Higashino is as close to perfection as a crime thriller can be. It works because even though you know from the outset who committed the crime — the murder of an abusive husband — you’re not quite sure how the body was moved to the position in which it is found by the police the next day, with its face and fingerprints destroyed. In perfectly restrained style, Higashino offers a slow drip feed of information, as clues are revealed by  the police detective investigating the murder, along with two academics, one a physicist and the other a mathematician, who were rivals in a former life. But even when you think you have solved the riddle, Higashino offers a brilliantly unexpected ending that could only be plotted by a genius! No wonder the book has sold more than two million copies in Japan alone.

Five-Bells‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

I was convinced this novel by Australian writer Gail Jones was going to make the Booker longlist, if not the shortlist. It’s probably the most literary novel I’ve read in 2011, but it seems to have slipped under the radar. This is a great shame, because the novel — Jones’ fifth — deserves a wide audience. It’s not a particularly plot-driven story; instead it focuses on four individual characters and reveals their inner lives as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day. Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic back story and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface.

Ulysses-small‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce (1922)

I didn’t review this  — how do you review something that’s so infamous? Who would have thought the book I was too scared to read would turn out to be such an enjoyable romp, not only through Dublin on one fine June day, but through a wide variety of literary styles and genres. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life — that’s because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. And while there were bits that went totally over my head, I was constantly amazed and surprised by how widely it has influenced so many writers that have followed. I can honestly say that Ulysses changes the way you look at literature after you’ve read it.

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King Leaving-Ardglass(2008)

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King’s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers — MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom. Much of the story is set in London during the 1960s, where Tom, who narrates the story, earns his living on building sites and witnesses some horrendous scenes, including the death of a fellow worker. The story is shocking in places and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish. Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”. It’s an eye-opening book, but beautifully written, with fine plotting and great characterisation.

Get-me-out-of-here‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

I do love a nasty character in a novel and Matt, the narrator of Get Me Out of Here, is the funniest — and sickest — character I’ve come across in modern fiction for a long time. He is filled with an over-inflated sense of self-importance and thinks the world revolves around him. He is shallow and manipulative. But as you get further and further into the novel, which is set in London circa 2008, you begin to realise that Matt is not all he seems to be. In fact, he may well be a danger to society. I loved this book and laughed out loud a lot. It’s enormous fun and yet, outside of Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kingali, it’s the most disturbing novel I’ve read all year.

Down-the-rabbit-hole ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2011)

Technically, at just 77 pages in length, this is really a novella, but for the purposes of this list it is one of the most powerful — and enjoyable — reads of the year. The charming seven-year-old narrator, Tochtli, lives in a secure compound with his drug baron father. He is obsessed with guns, violence, death — and acquiring a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. Most of his narration treads a fine line between comedy and heartbreak. And because he is far too young to comprehend all the illegal activities happening around him, as you read his tale you want to step in to protect him— you understand the danger he is in, even if he doesn’t. Down the Rabbit Hole is an ultra-quick read — you can easily consume it in a couple of hours — but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read.

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

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Leo Benedictus

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is author and journalist Leo Benedictus, whose debut novel The Afterparty, has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and shortlisted for the London Book Award. I gave it a five-star review earlier this year.

Leo, who was born in London in 1975, studied English at Oxford University. His career has included copywriting, reporting, sub-editing and feature writing. He currently writes for the Guardian, where his work has garnered several awards, including feature writer of the year in 2007/08 (WorldWork Media Awards).

You can follow him on Twitter @leobenedictus

Without further ado, here’s Leo’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:

Couples A favourite book: Couples by John Updike

I am grateful for that “A”. There are just so many favourites, not all of them remotely highbrow. (Steven Pile’s Return of Heroic Failures had me crying with laughter more or less throughout my teens.) I’ve gone for Couples, though, because by jingo there’s a book! It absolutely hums with what may well be, if anybody ever ranks them, the greatest of all literary virtues: bravery. Fifty years later, I still would never dare to write something so toweringly graphic, sexually. And the style, being Updike’s, is remorselessly Baroque. “Over-the-top,” many would say. The hero is also, or at least he felt to me, misogynistic. In part, this is surely a result of the book’s age, and it is certainly not appealing. But if we love novels for their capacity to show us the insides of other people’s minds, then it is the minds that disgust us – surely – that merit most attention. I want to read about misogynists.

New-york-trilogy A book that changed my life: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

This book won a coin-toss against Earthly Powers — Burgess’s novel is probably the one, more than any other, which made me want to write a few myself. But reading Auster’s stories showed me where I wanted to go. There is a moment early in the first title in the trilogy, City of Glass, when the hero picks up a ringing phone in the middle of the night and says, “Hello?” At which, a voice says back to him, “Is this Paul Auster?” I still remember the instant that I read that line, and the drug-like exhilaration which came with it. I was an English graduate in my early twenties, I had read quite a few novels by then, but it had never occurred to me that this – the real author suddenly appearing in their own fiction – was possible. It was frightening and wonderful. Suddenly, all bets were off.

One-Day A book that deserves a wider audience: One Day by Ardashir Vakil

On the whole, I do believe that those books which most conspicuously deserve a wide audience get one. (And I intend to keep believing this until my own writing career begins its unjust descent.) That said, there certainly are some obscure books I’ve loved. Dubravka Ugresic is well worth looking up, for instance. Lend Me Your Character is a brilliantly funny and inventive collection of stories.

I’ve picked Ardashir Vakil’s One Day, however, because it is about this exact problem. It is Vakil’s second novel, following a successful first, which tells the story of a married couple struggling with unspoken differences while they prepare for their young son’s birthday party. The husband Ben is a blocked writer; two of their friends are successful Anglo-Indian authors. It epitomises, in short, the reviled “Hampstead novel” – a book written by, concerned with, and sold to, the same minuscule demographic. Yet, brilliantly, the whole thing is also a satire on itself.

I read it when it came out, eight years ago, as an act of comic seppuku by a novelist who could not bear the literary world he had just triumphed in. In an incompetent review, I got carried away and called the book “an ironic masterpiece”. Aptly, Vakil has published no more since. Another One Day, even more apt, is now one of the most successful novels of the decade.

Thanks, Leo, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I read Couples last year (review here) and loved it. I had assumed the book would not be to my tastes, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It certainly made me more interested in exploring the rest of Updike’s back catalogue. New York Trilogy is one of my favourite books of all time (it was the first book up for discussion in Reading Matters’ now defunct online book group) and I very clearly remember that phone call that Leo refers to here: it made me think, WTF? Not read One Day but will need to hunt it out…

What do you think of Leo’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, Leo Benedictus, literary fiction, London, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus


Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 384 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“This book is different. You’ve really never read a book like this before.”

So says the blurb on Leo Benedictus’ debut novel, The Afterparty, which has just been published by Jonathan Cape.

Oh god, I thought, this is going to be another one of those newfangled, patronising marketing ploys, aka Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand.  But I was wrong. Without wishing to give away any punchlines, the blurb is a bit of an in-joke — you need to read the book to get it, but once you do, it’s pretty hilarious.

Indeed, much of this book is laugh out loud funny, but not quite in the way you might expect.

The Afterparty is one of those clever postmodern novels — featuring the trademark stories within stories and the author giving himself a starring role — but there’s a lightness of touch, a playfulness, that makes it a real delight to read. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading…

The story is set in the space of a single evening. A reclusive movie star, Hugo Marks, is celebrating his 31st birthday in a London nightclub. The event, organised by his glamorous American wife Mellody, is attended by A-list celebrities and hangers-on. But there’s one attendee who really shouldn’t be there — and he’s kind of the hero of the piece and the one with whom we most identify.

His name is Michael and he’s a lowly sub-editor at a national newspaper. Despite his bad fashion sense and low self-esteem, Michael harbours ambitions to be a writer — and if he can pick up a few gossipy crumbs from Hugo’s party table he might just crack the big time.

When he finally overcomes his nerves to strike up a conversation with Calvin Vance, a teenage singer riding a wave of success from his appearance on TV entertainment contest The X-Factor, he finds a way in. What he doesn’t realise is that this one little chat will draw him into a whirlwind of events, including an after party at Hugo’s house, that will all go terribly wrong…

Of course, I can’t really tell you much more than that, other than the story is a totally addictive one, written in such an engaging, realistic style it feels as if it’s based on characters from real life. Indeed, some appear as their real selves — Elton John, for instance, makes a star-studded appearance tinkling the ivories for a cheesy performance of Happy Birthday, and chef Gordon Ramsay makes a wisecrack about the inedible food. There are hints and essences of other personalities, mainly British, that we know or think we know, and half the fun is trying to identify them.

The story is told from multiple points of view, but is easy to follow, because each character’s perspective is printed in a different font.

But the real twist of The Afterparty is the email exchanges which come at the beginning of each chapter. At first I thought the emails were a cheap trick — emails are, in fact, one of my pet hates in modern fiction. But the further you get into this book, the more you realise they are what make it truly work.

The exchanges are between a writer, calling himself William Mendez, and a literary agent, Valerie Morrell. William pitches his new novel, Publicity, to Valerie, who eventually agrees to submit it to various publishers, but not before a long, protracted and very funny correspondence occurs between the pair.

Because it is a work in progress, William submits his novel to her chapter by chapter — and these chapters are the story of Hugo Marks’ birthday party. So what you get when reading The Afterparty is this: an email exchange between a writer and his agent, then the latest chapter he has written, then another email exchange, then the next chapter and so on.

It probably sounds like this would make for a disjointed read, but it doesn’t. Aside from being very humorous, the emails inform what happens next and add a new, ironic dimension to the story. And they bring a light-hearted touch to what is essentially a rather dark tale about a party that goes slightly off the rails.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, one of the smartest and most contemporary I’ve read in a long while. It feels fresh and new, and the satire, which is incredibly biting about our current obsession with fame, fortune, celebrity and the media, is spot-on. It never feels fake though. It never feels as if the writer is trying too hard to be clever and knowing. It just feels very natural and slips down as smoothly and deliciously as the dram of whisky on the front cover.