It'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.
'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...
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.
'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!
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.
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' 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.
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. I suspect I will read it again at some point, if only to finish those reading notes I started but didn't complete!
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.
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.
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?