A selection of 2011 favourites

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.

Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking

Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.

Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country

The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation

A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared.  Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.

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And now half a dozen from previous years:

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History

A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance

Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical

The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook

I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.

***

So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?

Book and story notes: Miéville, Brown, Hyslop

China Miéville, Embassytown (2011)

The rumour before publication was that Embassytown would be China Miéville’s first proper oray into science fiction; and, technically, it is – but Miéville is a fantasy writer at heart, and setting a novel on a planet in deep space with aliens hasn’t changed the essential feel of his work. Our narrator is Avice Benner Cho, a human native of Embassytown, which lies on a world whose indigenous species are known as Hosts. The Hosts can only understand their own language, and even then only if it’s spoken by a sentient being; as the Hosts have two mouths which they use simultaneously, humans communicate with Hosts through specially-bred clone pairs called Ambassadors. The start of the novel sees the arrival in Embassytown of a new Ambassador named EzRa who are, uniquely and impossibly, not clones – and when they address the Hosts, they start a change of events that will lead to all-out war.

Embassytown may not represent a dramatic shift in genre for Miéville, but it is his first novel in quite some time not to be set at least partly on present-day Earth, and here things do feel different. I’m thinking in particular back to Perdido Street Station; granted, it’s a good ten years since I read that book, but I remember it glorying in its own strangeness. Embassytown is more subdued and remote: partly this is a function of its narrator, who admits that she’s not naturally one for the limelight; and Avice’s voice remains correspondingly cool and measured throughout. But it’s also appropriate to the story Miéville is telling, as it concerns a species and mode of communication which are so very inscrutable.

Yet, even though I recongnise its importance, that distancing effect still stops me from really engaging with the novel. There’s certainly some interesting fantasy in there: for example, the Hosts cannot lie, even to make metaphors; they can use similes, but have to enact the object of comparison first – and they can involve humans, including Avice herself. However, mostly, I find the issues around Hosts and their language too abstract to really work as the key emotional anchor for the story; and that is what puts Embassytown in the lower tier of Miéville’s works for me.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Kat Brown, ‘A Marvellous Party’ (2011)

This new story from Shortfire Press concerns Adie, whose boyfriend Simon breaks up with her on a railway-station platform just as they were about to go on holiday for Christmas. He boards the train, and she returns dejectedly to her flat – where her friend Becca invites Adie to a party that might just turn her life around. There’s some neat writing here, as Kat Brown creates an atmosphere very efficiently, with a few choice details; whether it’s life in Adie’s flat (‘John [her flatmate] dropped four Nurofen into a carton of orange juice’), or the party itself:

Glazed middle managers buzzed around a beige buffet, and Becca was absorbed almost immediately by a cloud of sequins and novelty jumpers. Adie took a glass of festively disgusting red wine and was swept into conversation by a group who spoke only in buzzwords.

Brown won this month’s Literary Death Match in London with ‘A Marvellous Party’; it’s not hard to see why, and I imagine that the story works just as well read aloud as it does on the page.

Jess Hyslop, ‘Augury’ (2011)

Another new Shortfire Press piece, in this case one that won its author Cambridge University’s Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing – again, it’s clear why. Jess Hyslop takes us to Nazi-occupied Guernsey, where Peter Davies gets by after a German soldier shot him in the leg; he only survived because his neighbour, Anne Brehaut, found him and took him in – not that Anne’s blind husband Louis was keen on having a man in the house who could see her when he himself couldn’t. Now, Peter fixates on the Brehauts’ shed, where he’s sure they’re keeping a bird; or perhaps he’s really fixating on Anne.

Peter Davies comes to life as an ambiguous, not-quite-sympathetic character, who has been scarred (emotionally as well as physically) by his injury, and left world-weary and cautious:

What currently worries him most is Talk. There is a lot of Talk about. This Talk is surreptitious, taking place at odd hours in odd corners amongst what he considers, frankly, odd people. And it is idealistic, which means that it is dangerous. It is exactly the kind of Talk he tries not to get involved with, the kind that he will hurry past with his head down, if he catches so much as a whisper.

The tension which builds throughout this story comes from never being quite sure what the characters might do, or what their true motivations are – right up to the sharply effective ending.

Book notes: Smith, Finch, Lipska

Helen Smith, Alison Wonderland (1999)

Now this, I think it’s fair to say, is a bit of an oddity. Alison Temple first came across the all-female-staffed Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation when she hired them to find out whether her husband was cheating on her (which he was); now divorced, Alison works for Fitzgerald’s, her latest assignment being to investigate a sinister pharmaceutical company. Alongside this, her friend Taron is requesting information that will help her steal an abandoned baby; and Jeff, Alison’s neighbour and sort-of lover, writes poems for her and works on inventions like the formula for a single advertisement that could advertise any product.

I won’t pretend to have puzzled out everything that Alison Wonderland was trying to achieve, with all its digressions, and hints at extraordinary phenomena that might or might not be real; but I do appreciate the way that Helen Smith juxtaposes the bizarre and the mundane: however strange events become, the emotional issues that Alison deals with remain grounded in everyday reality; and some of the best-written passages deal with the more ordinary subjects.

Alison Wonderland might also be seen as an unusual take on the conspiracy story, in that the main conspiracies which the characters imagine to exist actually don’t; whilst the real secrets go unsuspected. Smith’s novel brought to mind the work of Sarah Salway and Aliya Whiteley in its sideways approach to everyday life – but it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever read.

Reviews elsewhere: For Books’ Sake; Lucy Popescu.

Paul Finch, King Death (2011)

After three contemporary tales, the fourth chapbook from Spectral Press takes us back to 1348. In an England ravaged by the Black Death, a mercenary named Rodric is strangely immune to the plague; styling himself ‘King Death’, he travels the land, making the most of his fortunate circumstances. A chance meeting with a page from a fallen manor-house apparently presents a new opportunity for Rodric – or it could be his downfall instead.

This is one story I’d love to hear read aloud; there’s something about Paul Finch’s prose which suggests to me the rhythms of oral storytelling. There are points where King Death gets a little too clotted with detail (such as the description of Rodric’s costume, which feels as though it’s trying to namecheck as many pieces of armour as possible); but there are also striking moments like the opening scene of a parade of coaches, their occupants all dead. For the most part, the story rumbles on inexorably towards its wry conclusion.

Reviews elsewhere: The Eloquent Page; Bookhound’s Den.

Anya Lipska, Where the Devil Can’t Go (2011)

Anya Lipska’s debut novel is set amongst the Polish diaspora of East London, where fixer-for-hire Janusz Kiszka is engaged to find a missing young woman. Meanwhile, the body another woman is found washed up out of the Thames – and DC Natalie Kershaw’s investigations soon lead her to Janusz, who will find himself travelling back to Poland in a bid to unravel what is going on.

Where the Devil Can’t Go is a fine crime story, but it’s also strong thematically. The main theme could be described as pragmatism in the face of reality: Janusz was once on track to become a physicist, but gave up his studies to join the protests against the Communist regime; now, he has a wife and son back in Poland, but circumstances brought him to London, where he does what he can to make a living. Janusz has a deep-rooted sense of dignity and propriety, but will not hesitate to use violence to get a job done; a similar sense of doing what one feels must be done in the situation goes right to the heart of the mystery. And it’s not just the Polish characters who have to make such choices: Natalie Kershaw also has to decide how far she wants to fit into the man’s world of the Metropolitan Police.

The novel’s main weakness, I think, is a technical one: the tendency to switch between character viewpoints without a scene break. This is annoying but tolerable when the characters are in different places; but, when Janusz and Kershaw are together, the dramatic irony of how they view each other loses some of its impact from how the shifts are handled. But, otherwise, Where the Devil Can’t Go is a solid piece of work which is well worth reading.

Although the novel is being published in Germany by Random House next year, it hasn’t been picked up by a UK publisher; so the English-language version is a self-published ebook. I’d love to see Lipska’s book get a full UK publication, though, as it really does deserve one.

Reviews elsewhere: Winstonsdad’s Blog; It’s a Crime!

Today’s little diversion

This meme comes from the Cornflower Books blog — complete the sentences with the titles of books you have read this year. I was quite surprised at how well my year’s reading list matched with some of these.

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I began the day with The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

On my way to work I saw The Tiny Wife

and walked by Rivers of London

to avoid A Visit from the Goon Squad

but I made sure to stop at The Night Circus

In the office, my boss said, Where Would I Be Without You?  

and sent me to research Pub Walks in Underhill Country

At lunch with Mr Fox

I noticed The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland

under The Silver Wind

then went back to my desk Down the Rabbit Hole

Later, on the journey home, I bought Everything I Found on the Beach

because I have Generosity

then settling down for the evening, I picked up The Sense of an Ending

and studied Tree Surgery for Beginners

before saying goodnight to The Islanders

Sarah Winman, When God Was a Rabbit (2011)

Sarah Winman’s first novel is a story of family, friendship, love, and what can hold together lives that threaten to disintegrate. Our narrator is Elly Portman, who chronicles her life from early childhood in the 1970s; there is darkness from the start, but it’s intertwined with fortune and levity. A pools win, for example, allows Alfie and Kate Portman to fulfil a dream of moving the family from Essex to Cornwall to open a B&B; but it means Elly must say goodbye to her best friend, Jenny Penny – and this not long after Elly’s older brother Joe had to bid his own farewell to Charlie, the rugby friend who was becoming so much more than a friend, but then moved away to Dubai.

The way that Winman mixes light and shade in her novel is quite something; one is never far away from the other. The scene set at Elly’s nativity play is hilarious, even as it tips over into tragedy. When Alfie leaves his job as a lawyer in preparation for the move to Cornwall, he ends up sitting in his car, distraught; I found the passage describing why to be one of the most powerful in the book. There’s also an effective subtlety to how Winman reveals (or hints at) her characters’ secrets and situations, especially in the novel’s first half.

In its second half, When God Was a Rabbit jumps forward to the mid-1990s, when Elly has become a journalist, Joe has gone to live in New York, and Jenny Penny is in prison. The prose in this section loses some of its subtlety, as a consequence of Elly’s more perceptive adult viewpoint; but that greater directness reflects the theme, running through this half, of life’s brightness receding. Time catches up with some of the colourful secondary characters; and, whereas Elly’s childhood naivety could deflect the impact of tragedy to an extent, the adult Elly has no such means of defence. She finds herself wishing she could go back to the old days (the novel’s title, referring to Elly’s pet rabbit, represents her childhood, a golden age even though it had its share of calamity) – but, of course, she can’t.

In the world of When God Was a Rabbit, though, there is hope even when life is at its bleakest. There’s a slightly heightened sense of reality about the novel – in the sheer number of bad things that come into the Portmans’ lives, or Elly’s imagining that her rabbit can speak – which allows Winman to stretch her plot and characters that bit further than they might otherwise go. There’s also a rolling rhythm to the author’s prose which makes it very engaging to read. All in all, When God Was a Rabbit is a work of considerable charm.

(This review also appears in the Huffington Post.)

Elsewhere
Richard & Judy Book Club interview with Sarah Winman.
Some other reviews of When God Was a Rabbit: Savidge Reads; Katie’s Book Blog; For Books’ Sake.

Bacon, West and Williams, Ill at Ease (2011)

Ill at Ease is a chapbook anthology of three horror stories, and the first title from Penman Press. The volume opens with ‘Waiting for Josh’ by Stephen Bacon, whose journalist narrator travels from London back to his home town of Scarborough when he hears that his childhood friend Dale is dying – and he wonders how the bright boy he knew became the burnt-out alcoholic that Dale is now. Though he’s increasingly frail, Dale has enough energy to point his friend in the direction of the old Landsmoor house; there, the protagonist finds that, though the building has gone to ruin, the father of the house still waits for his missing son Josh, and has done for 33 years – and so secrets start to be uncovered, and questions answered.

This is a very quiet piece, as befits a story about lives in stasis (not just those of Dale and Mr Landsmoor – seeing what has happened to them makes the narrator question whether he’s done the best for himself in life); perhaps it’s a little too quiet at times, as the atmosphere doesn’t always come through from Bacon’s prose as strongly as it might. But, the more I think about ‘Waiting for Josh’, the more I find to appreciate in it – such as the neat inversion of the haunted house motif, which sees Mr Landsmoor as the living ‘ghost’ haunting his own home (and, of course, haunted himself by the missing Josh).

Mark West’s ‘Come See My House in the Pretty Town’ also begins with its protagonist travelling from London to visit an old friend, but there the similarities end. The setting is not the rugged Yorkshire coast, but a picturesque hamlet in the south-west of England; David Willis has travelled there at the invitation of Simon Roberts, whom he hasn’t seen for eight years. Along with Simon’s wife and son, Kim and Billy, they visit a fair in the village; it gradually becomes clear, though, that not all is rosy, and that David and Kim may have had more of a past than Simon realises.

There’s a nicely unsettling feeling about this story, which comes from the contrast between the beauty of the village and the sinister aspects of the fair (such as its threatening clowns made up to look as though they have Chelsea smiles). Much of the weight of the story seems placed on the twist-in-the-tale ending, but West handles it well, and it’s amusing in a drily macabre way.

All three stories in Ill at Ease weave horror into the fabric of contemporary British life, but it’s perhaps the third – ‘Closer Than You Think’ by Neil Williams – which deals with the most everyday of circumstances. It starts at a rubbish tip, where Dave takes the opportunity to bring home the bright pink child’s car seat which the woman in the next vehicle was about to throw away – but Dave’s partner Debs is not impressed, and their daughter Katie is none too keen on the seat, either. It’s Dave, though, who starts to feel that there’s something menacing about the object.

Where Mark West’s story drew on the contrast between village and fair, Williams’ piece uses the ordinariness of its details – visiting the supermarket; rummaging around in the loft – as a counterpoint to its horror. Dave’s experiences start off as unsettling but small, easily explicable as tricks of the light or whatever; but become less easy to explain away as they escalate. That progression of the story is effectively built, and leads to an ending that has the cold sting of inevitability.