I won a couple of awards for my own books this year and, even though I jumped at the chance to exploit that, I acknowledged that I was uneasy about the whole business of ‘competitive literature’. Nonetheless, that’s what I’m forced to apply here. So I flicked back through the books I’ve read in 2011 which I thought worth reviewing and came up with a short list, every one of which could have ‘won’. There was The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes), Empty Chairs (Stacey Danson) and Absolute Zero Cool (Declan Burke) – all very different but each one totally absorbing, moving and/or entertaining. In the end, though, I had to go for Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The title’s provocative and, predictably, has the religious right fulminating and wanting it burned without even opening it. And that’s a huge pity because, in a way, it emphasises the rightness and absolute values of the teachings of Jesus as wonderful social(ist) insights into how people can live together in harmony and mutual respect. (And I write that as an atheist.) On the other hand, it exposes how organised religion has deliberately subverted and distorted those values in the interests of a ruling elite. All of which makes it sound heavy going. But it’s not. It’s funny, immensely readable, and creates powerful, credible characters - good and less good - in familiar set pieces such as the Sermon on the Mount, Gethsemane, the money-lenders in the temple and the several miracles. It makes the New Testament make sense.
"Free Fall" by Nicolai Lilin - Non-Fiction. Throw your old hat Vietnam memoir books out, this is dirty guerilla war 21st Century style. A Russian sniper in a plain clothers "Sabotage" brigade gives you the experience of war like no other, from the effects of temporary blast deafness, through to the precise nature of destruction wrought upon the human body by the latest infantry armaments. The outrages committed on both sides in a war most people know nothing about are written about matter of factly. Demanding you the reader to come to the same conclusion about their inevitability. Vertiginous reading.
2011 was one of those years where I was forced to schedule in down time, which tends to make relaxing just another chore. I didn’t read nearly as much as I normally do, but even if I had, my choice for best book would have very likely been the same because it was simply an outstanding read. What’s more, the work in question, Jane Borodale’s The Book of Fires, is not my normal fare. I tend to stick to genre fiction, but this is a literary novel of exceptional quality. I devoured it back in January, but when it came time to pick my favorite, it immediately came to mind. For the full rave, click on the title above to see my Booksquawk review (be warned, there are spoilers).
My Squawk of the Year goes out to Ed Siegle's Invisibles - an offbeat hero's journey that takes us from Brighton to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as a man seeks out his father. This book manages the difficult trick of creating magic without resorting to the mystical.
Hereward L.M. Proops:
It's really hard to pick a single book to crown as my read of the year. I could go for Fred Limberg's superlative thriller "Ferris' Bluff" or Glen Duncan's literary horror "The Last Werewolf". However, I'm going to have to opt for Axel Taiari's jaw-droppingly good vampire novellette "A Light to Starve By". A haunting story, beautifully written and brutally violent, Taiari manages to accomplish more in 30 pages than many novelists do in 30 years of writing. Now available for free on Amazon's Kindle store, "A Light to Starve By" is so good that it almost makes one forget the terrible crimes against vampires committed by Stephenie Meyer and her cronies. Taiari puts vampires back in the shadows where they belong. I can't wait to read more by him.
It's been a light squawk year for me. I have been lax, and heavily distracted by tedious life matters, but Horns by Joe Hill has managed to poke a hole through my brick-like procrastination barrier. Ignatius Perrish wakes one morning with a set of devilish horns protruding from his temple, and the story which follows is as much about who he is and how he arrived at such an awkward state of horniness (not the fun kind), as it is about what he does next. His family and friends all think he murdered his girlfriend, and his new head gear makes people want to divulge their deepest, ugliest secrets; and that's where the true horror of the story sits. Well, most of it.
Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors by Livia Llewellyn, 214 pages, Lethe Press.Batten down the hatches. At least two of the stories in this collection will scare the hell out of you. A few will hurt your feelings. I was inconsolable after reading “Horses.” Then I read the rest of the book, and my only question is: Why do I have to write the way I do, instead of the way Llewellyn does? Muscular, precise, violent, and agonizingly truthful, her fiction takes no prisoners and makes you wonder why you bothered reading all those other writers, the ones who ramble and whine about life while she delivers it, bloody and screaming, into your arms.
I’ve been given the task of picking my favorite book of the year. I say “task” because this is a difficult choice. While I’ve read many great novels this year, the three that jump out at me are: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Being Dead by Jim Crace, and Florence and Giles by John Harding.
Just at this moment, I’ve chosen The Road as my Squawk of the Year, only because the main characters in Being Dead were not that likeable. I would have to give you a spoiler alert if I explained why I didn’t choose Florence and Giles. The writing in both, however, was superb.
The Road did not disappoint on any level. The writing was original and marvelously executed, the characters and plot compelling. There was not one point in the book where I questioned why a character acted or reacted the way they did. And the ending, while not unexpected, was satisfying. It wins my unputdownable book of the year. I hope to have more them in 2012.
Happy New Year to all.