Favourite books of 2010

As the year draws to a close, I’ve been thinking over all the books I’ve read and picking out my favourites. And here they are, my favourite dozen from the year (all published for the first time in 2010, or older books receiving their first UK publication this year) — in alphabetical order of author surname:

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers

I didn’t know what to expect when I read this book, and it turned out to be a simply stunning debut. Bennett’s fusion of fantasy, horror and historical fiction is a smart book that uses its fantasy to comment on the period.

Shane Jones, Light Boxes

This tale of a balloon-maker’s war on February is constructed from story-fragments that add up to a marvellously strange whole. It works on about three different levels at once, but resists being pinned down to a single interpretation. A beautiful little jewel of a book.

Simon Lelic, Rupture

A perceptive and well-written novel chronicling the investigation into a school shooting committed by an apparently mild-mannered teacher.

Emily Mackie, And This Is True

A sharp study of a boy who has grown uncomfortably close to his father, and the pressures exerted on him when the life he has known begins to change.

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

A near-future Istanbul is the setting for this sprawling-yet-elegant tale of six interlocking lives, and the wider structures and systems of which they are a part.

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

A vast boarding-school comedy with added theoretical physics. Murray’s novel has huge ambitions, and achieves them brilliantly. It reads like a book half its length, and its sheer range is astonishing.

Véronique Olmi, Beside the Sea

A very strong launch title for Peirene Press, this is an intense study of a mother taking her two children to the seaside — an apparently ordinary surface that hides much darker depths.

Adam Roberts, New Model Army

This tale of armies run of democratic principles is both a cutting examination of warfare, and a novel that left me with a feeling that I genuinely cannot describe.

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë

The very powerful story of a girl’s abduction and captivity. Exquisite prose, acute characterisation, and masterfully-controlled narrative flow.

Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and deservedly so. An intense and beautifully written novel of Arctic exploration and the parallels between two couples living a century apart.

Nikesh Shukla, Coconut Unlimited

One of the funniest books I read all year, this tale of three Asian boys at an otherwise all-white public school is also an acute portrait of adolescence and the ways in which people try to build identities for themselves.

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

A novel that ably switches states between time-travel metafiction and examination of its protagonist’s relationship with his father, interrogating and blurring genre boundaries as it goes.

And three great reads from previous years…

Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)

The brilliant tale of the mental chess-game between a psychotherapist and her patient who can apparently predict disasters — which proves equally adept at being a thriller in its later stages.

Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)

A man begins to write a fictionalised autobiography… and an account by a version of himself in a different reality vies for space in the same book — which, if either, is ‘real’? Nothing is certain in this novel by the reliably excellent Priest.

Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009)

A beautiful story of survival and endurance set in a near-future Siberia.

A trio of shorts

Mark Valentine, ‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ (2010)
R.B. Russell, ‘The Beautiful Room’ (2010)
Gary McMahon, ‘What They Hear in the Dark’ (2011)

A triple-decker of single-story chapbooks, today: the latest two from Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press, and the launch title from Simon Marshall-Jones’s Spectral Press.

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The first of our new Nightjar titles is ‘A Revelation of Cormorants’ by Mark Valentine. It’s not long since last I read a story one of his stories, and, when I did, I was very impressed with Valentine’s control of voice; the same quality impressed me again on reading this piece. William Utter is a writer who has rented a cottage on the Galloway coast to work on a book about the lore of birds. Today, he heads out intro the bay to see some cormorants, and it’s an open question whether inspiration or the tide will strike first. Valentine builds Utter’s mental world very well, with imagery largely built around birds and books, and a slightly dusty mode of expression. He also creates a strong atmosphere in the story; and yet… I think something about the whole isn’t quite satisfactory. I can appreciate intellectually what the ending is doing, but I find that it doesn’t have the deeper emotional impact which would lift the piece to the next level.

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Birds appear again, though in a rather different context, in Nightjar’s other new chapbook. R.B. Russell‘s ‘The Beautiful Room’ is the tale of Maria and John, a couple looking for a house in a foreign country to where John is moving for work. As we join them, they’re looking around a place in the countryside, with which Maria has fallen in love, thanks to one room in particular; John is much less keen, and would prefer to live in the city. Their initial argument over this reveals deeper tensions in their relationship: Maria has sacrificed her work to make this move possible, and resents John’s not putting her wishes first in the house choice. Russell depicts these rising tensions elegantly, and they carry over into the second half of the story, when the couple investigate a mysterious scrabbling sound coming from behind the walls. The unexpected final moment comes as a beautiful image of release.

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Coincidentally, there’s a couple with a new house and a relationship under strain in Spectral Press’s first title, ‘What They Hear in the Dark’ by Gary McMahon. Rob and Becky are renovating a house whilst still coming to terms with the death of their son Eddie, and find a strange room which, according to the plans, shouldn’t be there. They call it the Quiet Room, because it seems to absorb all sound.

There is, of course, something mysterious about the Quiet Room, but McMahon’s ultimate focus is less that than the characters of Rob  and Becky. What impresses me most about the story is what’s going on beneath the words and imagery, the way that the Quiet Room comes to embody the couple’s different responses to Eddie’s death — for Becky, the silence is comforting, as she feels it brings her closer to Eddie; for Rob, the Quiet Room is a place of fear, caused by his search for a deeper explanation for his son’s death than the one Becky has accepted. These conflicting views come to reflect the wider tensions in the couple’s relationship, making for a nice balance between character and atmosphere. McMahon’s story is a good start for Spectral Press; I’ll be keeping an eye on what they do in the future.

BBC National Short Story Award: Conclusion

So, that’s the entire shortlist blogged. The first thing to say is that the judges put together a very good list; certainly I wouldn’t begrudge any of the five stories their place. David Constantine was the winner, but, for me, it would come down to a choice between the stories by Aminatta Forna and Jon McGregor. And, much as I appreciate the subtlety of McGregor’s psychological portrait, I think the elegance and economy of Forna’s telling gives her story the edge.

Helen Oyeyemi, ‘My Daughter the Racist’ (2010)

At the start of this story, the protagonist’s eight-year-old daughter announces that, from now on, she is going to be racist — against soldiers, that is, their country being occupied by foreign troops. The woman lost her husband in a bombing, and now lives with his mother in her village, where she is the object of unwanted advances from a villager named Bilal. One day, her daughter stands up to a group of soldiers, which so impresses one that he starts to visit. But the woman’s attempts to come to some sort of mutual understanding with the soldier are misinterpreted by the village as lustful intentions.

The sense I gain of Oyeyemi’s protagonist is of a woman feeling the pressure of expectation from many sides — her daughter, her husband’s mother, Bilal, the villagers — and trying her best to steer a course through it all. I like the complexity of the picture that Oyeyemi paints: the villagers have their flaws; the soldier is neither a stereotype of badness nor a stereotype of badness-suddenly-turned-good; the daughter changes her opinion of the soldiers in the fluid way that young children can. The woman is ultimately forced into a situation she doesn’t really want to be in, try though she may to make light of it. All is delineated well by Oyeyemi, and it makes me look forward to her story collection next year with anticipation.

EDIT: I’m not sure where I got the impression that Oyeyemi would be releasing a story collection in 2011, but she won’t be doing so after all.

ANOTHER EDIT, JUNE 2011: Perhaps I wasn’t entirely wrong to begin with; see my review of Mr Fox.

Jon McGregor, ‘If It Keeps On Raining’ (2010)

This is perhaps the most transporting story on the shortlist, in that (I think) it takes us the most thoroughly into the mind of its protagonist, which is quite an unsettling place to be. McGregor’s protagonist is a man who lives on his own in a little riverside house, and does nothing much more than watch the fisherman on the opposite bank and the boats that sometimes go past, and work on his raft and treehouse, the latter being his preparations for the unceasing rain and torrential floods that he believes are coming.

McGregor sketches in the history of this man very subtly. Reading between the lines, we discover that he was a police officer at the Hillsborough  disaster, who subsequently left the force because of the psychological trauma, and no longer lives with his wife and children. He dwells on the disaster still:

If it’s been raining a lot…[debris] gets swept along like small children in a crowd, like what happens in a football match if there are too many people in not enough space and something happens to make everyone rush, if they all start to run and then no one person can stop or avoid it, they all move together…

This almost stream-of-consciousness style of delivery gives a sense of intense preoccupation with whatever the man is thinking about at the time, be it past, present, or future; but there’s also a sense of inertia at times — he thinks about what accidents might befall the people out there on the boats, but can’t really see himself doing anything to help if one occurred.

This sense extends to the coming floods: on the one hand, the protagonist has asked the anonymous narrator to tell us these important things; on the other, he imagines that no one will listen, and he’ll only save himself, and his children if he sees them. The parallel McGregor makes between the rains and Hillsborough is effective (our man couldn’t stop a flood of people, but perhaps he can make up for it with how he handles a flood of water);  and the whole story a superb portrait of a man deeply scarred by the past, holding on to some hope for the future.

Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ (2010)

A nicely observed chronicle of the friendship between two Cumbrian girls: Kathleen, the narrator; and Manda, the tough daughter of the notorious Slessor family I love the way that Hall captures details in this story, such as the almost osmosis-like fashion in which friendships can develop at school. In one lesson, the two girls scribble on each other’s exercise books, then Manda ‘borrows’ a pen from Kathleen, all without a word being spoken. And then:

Something was granted to us afterwards. We were past simply knowing the name of the other and what form we were in. We were allowed to say Hiya in passing, in front of other friends, at the gates of the school, or in Castletown going down to the chippy or the arcade.

The Slessors themselves are portrayed as a family apart from the rest of the community, both physically (with their big house built on the profits of industry, a house  that ‘had no business being built in Cumbria’) and socially (they have the reputation of coming from wilder, harder stock than most — ‘the ones that lit the beacons when other folk hid in cellars and down wells’); an incident involving a horse at the end of the story shows how mysterious the family, and the codes by which they operate, remain to Kathleen.

There’s also a strong sense of place in ‘Butcher’s Perfume'; the Cumbria portrayed here is rather like the Slessors in its harshness. All in all, Hall’s is a very atmospheric piece.

Aminatta Forna, ‘Haywards Heath’ (2010)

Years (at least thirty, at a guess) after graduating, Attila is a successful doctor with an international reputation. During a spell in London as a visiting consultant, he hears the name of Rosie, an old flame he hasn’t seen since his university days. Discovering that she has taken early retirement, Attila decides to look Rosie up; but, on arriving at her old hometown of Haywards Heath, he finds that the woman he knew has been taken by early-onset dementia.

Only two stories into the shortlist, and already I disagree with the judges. Forna leaves the events of her plot to speak for themselves, and I find the clean understatement of her telling more affecting than Constantine’s denser treatment of his theme. In addition to the portrait of Attila’s witnessing what has happened to Rosie, there’s the elegance of having Haywards Heath represent both Attila’s success (the town’s name was always difficult for Rosie’s overseas friends to pronounce, but now Attila says it perfectly) and Rosie’s decline (any success she had in her career has gone with the arrival of her illness, and she has returned home). In all, this is a very nicely realised piece.

David Constantine, ‘Tea at the Midland’ (2010)

The shortest of the Award nominees and not, to be honest, one that says ‘award-winner’ to me on its own terms; it’s good, yes, but it doesn’t knock my socks off. A couple take afternoon tea at a seaside hotel; she has brought him to admire a frieze there; he can’t appreciate it, because he refuses to separate the artwork from the criminal actions of the artist. Simmering beneath this immediate argument is a wider difference in worldview, exemplified in the text by the lengthy, discursive passages associated with the woman (such as the opening, when she admires the graceful movements of surfers out at sea), and the man’s terser dialogue. Constantine’s story is an effective and economical portrait of the central couple’s relationship; but it strikes me as good rather than excellent.

The BBC National Short Story Award 2010

Tomorrow is National Short Story Day; to mark the occasion, I’m blogging the shortlist of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award – namely, these stories:

David Constantine, ‘Tea at the Midland’
Aminatta  Forna, ‘Haywards Heath’
Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’
Jon McGregor, ‘If It Keeps On Raining’
Helen Oyeyemi, ‘My Daughter the Racist’

The above titles will turn into links as I make my way down the list.

What I won’t be doing, however, is trying to predict the winner, because that was announced at the end of last month. David Constantine’s story was declared the winner; as it’s first on the list, I’ll be interested to see what standard it sets for the rest.

EDIT, 21st Dec: I’ve now written a concluding post in which I pick my winner.

Further links
Podcasts of the shortlisted stories
The Award at BBC Radio 4
The Award at Theshortstory.org.uk
Booktrust, which administers the Award
Comma Press, publishers of the anthology

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010)

One of the things for which fantastic fiction is particularly good is dramatising metaphors – and, more than that, creating texts that can be read equally productively at both metaphorical and literal levels (Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett is a good example from earlier this year). Charles Yu’s debut, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, does this, but it also goes further, dramatising science fiction itself as a literary mode.

Yu’s protagonist is himself named Charles Yu (from now on, I’ll refer to the protagonist as ‘Charles’ and the author as ‘Yu’), a time machine repair-man living in, yes, a science fictional universe – which is to say, one built so its inhabitants could enjoy the sorts of adventurous lives one reads about in sf, but which could never be possible in mundane reality. (The thing is, though, the construction of this minor universe was imperfect, and only those who can afford it get to live in the sf-nal part.) Charles has one of the ‘back room’ jobs needed to keep his universe running smoothly, and, when he’s not on a call, spends most of his time (such as the concept applies to someone who lives outside the usual chronological flow) in his phone-booth-sized TM-31 time machine, with no company but a dog that sort of exists, but only on a technicality; his time machine’s gloomy AI; and the occasional call from his boss, who’s virtual but doesn’t know it. He also reflects a lot on his relationship with his father, who invented the time travel technology, and has now gone… somewhere.

One of the golden rules of Charles’s profession is: if you ever see another version of yourself, run. Well, Charles has seen a future version of himself, but he shot him, thereby trapping himself in a time loop. Before he died, that future version handed Charles a book and told him that the key was inside. The title of that book was How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

In Yu’s novel, time travel is linked explicitly with Charles’s issues with his father; as he solves the problem of the time loop, the protagonist is simultaneously working out how to deal with and move forward from those personal issues. But How to Live Safely would be a pretty thin read if that were also there was to it; happily, there is much more. Yu, it seems to me, is examining the value and the limitations of both science fiction and ‘literary’ fiction (quotation marks because I don’t personally see those two as entirely separate, but we’ll go with the difference here, because science-fictionality and ‘reality’ are different in the novel). The time travellers who provide Charles’s bread and butter don’t have as much power as they think, because it’s not possible to change the past in the science fictional universe, however hard they try. The way Charles solves his problem is effectively a fusion of the two modes, as he relives his memories as an outside observer, before a return to science-fictionality slots the pieces together.

The novel’s dialogue between modes is also reflected at the level of prose, as Yu blurs the line between the scientific and emotional aspects of his book by using scientific language in his descriptions. For example:

Our house was a collection of silences, each room a mute, empty frame, each of us three oscillating bodies (Mom, Dad, me) moving around in our own curved functions, from space to space, not making any noise, just waiting, waiting to wait, trying, for some reason, not to disrupt the field of silence, not to perturb the delicate equilibrium of the system. (p. 34)

Yu creates some quite powerful effects in How to Live Safely. One scene that I think works particularly well is when Charles visits his mother, who is currently living in her own repeating hour-long bubble of time, and there are echoes of a parent’s being abandoned in a home (‘I don’t like it in here,’ Charles’s mother tells him. ‘Why did you stick me in here? Can you please take me out? I don’t like it in here’ [p. 81]). And such moments are nicely balanced out by the playfulness elsewhere in the book, the humour in Charles’s situation, and the way Yu handles the self-referentiality of the book in our hands purportedly being one that Charles himself has written. There’s a lot to enjoy in How to Live Safely, and a lot to think about afterwards.

Elsewhere
Radio interview with Charles Yu on KCRW
Adam Roberts reviews How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe in The Guardian