Wherein we squawk about our favorite books from 2010.
Everyone who’s asked to choose a single text from many favourites finds the task difficult or even impossible, but that’s the remit here, so the winner is … Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. I couldn’t do it justice in a full review, so a single paragraph is a travesty. David Mitchell is apparently a very nice man; he’s also, in my opinion, the most accomplished novelist in the UK by a very long way. His novels are labelled ‘experimental’, which may well deter readers but is a legitimate assessment of his approach. His linking and layering of many-facetted, overlapping, intertextually-relating stories is far more adventurous than the ponderous compilations of Amis, Rushdie and others. He also has a precious gift that is less obvious in them. Even while he’s expanding your perceptions and surprising you with sly parallels, recurring images, meanings opening within meanings, he keeps you reading with his old-fashioned gift of telling great stories. There’s no point in beginning to offer a synopsis of Ghostwritten; other writers might have made it into several novels. Don’t let the labels put you off. Read Mitchell for the joy of reading a literary master who dazzles with his manipulation of the form and yet simultaneously entertains in the best story-telling tradition. He should have won the Man Booker at least twice.
I'll give my award to Roberto Saviano's Beauty and the Inferno - a clarion call to fairness, decency, fearlessness and the truth.
Special mention must go to the Book I Wished I'd Reviewed - one that I discovered through Paul Fenton's terrific review right here on Booksquawk: Red Claw, by Philip Palmer. Ray guns, spaceships, alien planets, monsters, robots, you name it, it's all there. Carnage with tongue placed very firmly in its cheek, I loved every page of it.
Hereward L.M. Proops:
Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, my book of the year has to be Robert Jackson Bennett's "Mr Shivers". The Depression-era setting has echoes of John Steinbeck and Bennett's brooding tale has such a strong sense of menace from the outset that it is impossible not to be gripped. The story follows Marcus Connelly, a grief-stricken father, on his journey to find the killer of his child. His encounters with others whose loved ones have fallen prey to the killer leads him to believe they might be facing a supernatural force of evil. Connelly's insatiable desire leads him to kill and once his hands are tainted with blood, the reader begins to question who the monster of the book really is. With a conclusion that hits you like and five-kilo bag of hammers, Robert Jackson Bennett's brutal and haunting debut is likely to stay with you for a long time. A must-read for fans of horror.
'Gone With the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell.
I haven't finished it yet, it's been reviewed here before and I'm hardly the first person to enjoy it. Nor is something published in 1936 going to get me edgy-literature points. But it's a fun read, full of surprisingly good writing and I'm proud of myself for finally giving in and having a go at it. I hate half the characters, the impossible to ignore social and historical paradigms that I will lump under the single heading 'racial stuff' makes my teeth itch and I'm amazed by one characters apparent ability to remain pregnant for approximately two years... Yet I'm immersed in the read like I have been in only a handful of other books this year. However, rather than be intellectually honest, or do anything involving using my memory or hard work to rank those other books and get a true 'best read of 2010' I'm going with the thing that's by my bed, right at this moment, as my book of the year.
My book of the year shout goes to Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (Vintage Originals, 2010). It’s a story of post-apocalyptic redemption seen through the eyes of a zombie, ambitious and risky but superbly carried off. The lead Zombie, R, is a messianic moaner who wants to fix the world, get the girl, and stay off the brains for as long as he can stand to. I started reading the book knowing nothing of the story or the author, and immediately upon finishing it I started Googling for evidence of his next book. Nothing yet, damn it.
"Motherless Brooklyn" by Jonathan Lethem.
A tour de force of language and character in what is essential a crime thriller book, but is lifted to greater heights by the author's dazzling aplomb. The lead character is a Tourettes' sufferer, but not a lame portrayal of someone who curses a lot. Rather Lethem gets inside the complexity of the human mind to show the forge of human language, as words are burst from the character's mouth linked together by association and by sound, rather than plodding linearity of meaning. It is vertiginous and exciting and a tantalising glimpse of a new literature. The emotional depth of the character himself is fully developed around the shape of these tics, a fascinating portrayal. Although the plot plays out rather tamely towards the end in thriller chase style, the book as a whole remains head and shoulders the best red of my year.
The best new book I read in 2010 was Flawed Dogs: The Shocking Raid on Westminster by Berkeley Breathed. Illustrated in the author’s unique comic style, with both black and white pictures and full-page color inserts, Flawed Dogs was written for middle-grade readers, but this adult was entirely taken by it. There are scenes of violence towards the main character that will be too much for younger children, and even some sensitive middle-graders might find them too heart-rending, so beware. Flawed Dogs is about survival and overcoming the harshest of obstacles for love. There’s a delicate balance between tragedy and humor, but it’s Breathed’s mastery of characterization that makes this story shine. I laughed, I cried and months after reading it, the story is with me still.
When tapped to pick a book for my favorite squawk of the year, immediately Zoe Heller’s The Believers came to mind. How could I not love the book with the most unlovable characters? Especially at Christmas time. It’s just how my mind works. But seriously, I really enjoyed this book about a New York family falling apart after the heart attack of their famous leftist lawyer father and now trying to be held together by their at most times caustic, but always spot-on funny mother, Audrey Litvinoff. Heller writes about this family of siblings with tons of rivalry in an unapologetic but sympathetic way that we can all relate to, so I’m easily recommending The Believers to anyone looking for a satisfying read that will stick with them for a long while.
My Squawk of the Year is torn hot off the presses of 1959, Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. The basic conceit is simple enough: a seamstress in late-Revolutionary-War Charleston, pretty, "sassy" (you will hear that word a lot, thank you 1950s), thinks she has an inheritance coming, doesn't (mini-spoiler!), times are rough (war, y'all!), finds love anyway. What differentiates this from a million other romances that follow this formula quite competently (and I'll admit I like pretty much all of them) is a singularly unflinching eye shared by the author Bristow and protagonist Celia. Celia is cheerful, optimistic, and practical, exactly the sort of person one would expect to be desperately naive. And Celia is naive, a bit, at first, but ultimately she is too acutely observant of her own and others' emotional responses for that. There is a fundamental underlying honesty to h er, an innocence, that lets her see the good in the bad and the bad in the good. Perhaps needless to say, one worries a bit about the innocence of someone who looks too closely at people. And while Bristow does not dwell upon gruesome details, she offers us (accurately -- the late Southern campaign in particular was deeply ugly) not a war of danger and inconvenience -- it is a war that includes genuine abominations and one notable atrocity. Celia's naivete does not survive, but her innocence does, and in a credible fashion. She becomes increasingly sophisticated in her observations and enters into even some rather scary territory, but she remains honest and determined that whatever happens, in the world or in the hearts of herself and others, she never back down from handling it as best she can, with an underlying belief in goodness. If we did not have the wide-open window into Celia's thoughts, she might come across as simple -- but we do have that window, and we see how that simplicity is a hard-wrung choice. A remarkable achievement, and an example well worth remembering.
Occultation is Laird Barron's second book of stories. Sometimes while reading Barron's fiction I become so immersed in the densely detailed, highly descriptive prose that I have to take a break because I feel like I might be going insane. Afterward, for a short time, I am able to see real objects and people but I have an eerie sense that nothing is what it seems. So why don't I just stop reading Barron? If I stopped, I would miss some of the most original, thrilling and fully realized horror fiction in print today. Of course I would also stop waking up and staring at pieces of furniture, wondering: "Did that thing say something?"