This year has been a big one for me and books. Part of my New Year’s Resolutions included seeking out the best possible sources for filling up the upcoming reading list, and, as a secondary directive, to try to keep a good flow of material coming through from authors whom I might want to be like, should all those theories about osmosis hold true.
As a result, coming up with a 2012 Top 5 has proven a little more tricky than in previous years, as apart from a few obvious disappointments (eg. Room by Emma Donoghue seemed like a great premise, but damn if she killed it in the execution) I’ve walked away from most books this year with at least a rating of “meh”, with a good 80% landing squarely in the category “would recommend to a friend”. Of those, a good ten or so were outstanding, this list then becoming more culled down based on the sorts of characters I tend to fall in love with in a book: highly-intelligent and focussed yet intensely flawed in some (largely) uncontrollable or irrational/erratic kind of way. A good story with an ending that stuck with me long after I’d put it down never goes astray either.
Here’s the cream off top of the pile which went through my iPad this year:
A Fraction Of The Whole (Steve Toltz)
This was by far my favourite read this year, and almost, I dare say it, a contender for “current all-time favourite”. A rambling series of tall-tales based around the lives of a father, a son, and an extraordinary set of circumstances. It’s like a cross between the best bits Forrest Gump, Ned Kelly, Underbelly, and anything great that’s ever been written about Australian suburbia, the madness of crowds, and the complexities of how you end up loving the people the way you do.
What I loved about it the most was how much of the internal monologue – the voice of the author himself – matched my own thought processes. Especially the secret, maddened stuff, and the random mocking observations about people, especially Australians. This book felt like home in a way I can’t easily describe.
It’s a hard book to sum up, so I won’t try any further. Just read it.
Captal: A Novel (John Lanchester)
This one I enjoyed the way I love a good Robert Altman film : a huge swag of characters and lives, entangled in unpredictable ways (or perhaps not even entangled much at all) and playing out multiple, occasionally-overlapping stories from several different angles. That, and it felt like London. The language, the snobbery, the filth, the racism, the unfathomable love of football, and the occasional terror plot.
The characters and stories, while essentially linked geographically by the one street they all live (or work) on, manage to cover an awful lot of ground, make a lot of good commentary, and make for a cracker of a good read. Couldn’t put it down.
The Sisters Brothers (Patrick DeWitt)
A classic journey tale set in the wild west, but do leave your preconceptions at the door. I’ll be honest, I was dubious that I’d enjoy this as much as I did – the premise of a couple of gunslingers on their horse-bound way to hunt down a man for cash – didn’t have much appeal to me. Very glad I went there. You fall in love with the main character. Sharp, obligated (often brutal) actions keep the story moving forward at an enjoyable pace, while underneath, so many moments of regret, sadness and the sort of quiet three-dimensionality you don’t expect from such a simple tale. Reminded me very much of how a Coen Brothers novel would go if they ever decided to stop directing and start writing books.
The Teleportation Accident (Ned Beauman)
This book is crazy. So much of what kept me ploughing through the pages at an epic pace I can’t really speak of here without giving away what’s great about it, but suffice to say, it ticked all the right boxes for me regarding nuttily brilliant central characters marred by one central immovable flaw. With a curious story quickly hopping between decades and centuries, time and time again repeating the same themes, jokes and coincidences, I loved that it wasn’t pretending to be anything other than tongue-in-cheek and ridiculous, setting up for several pages something which firmly resorts to the impossible for the sake of slipping in a good one-liner. I didn’t think I liked it at first, but once I got a few chapters in (then definitely confirmed by the very last paragraph of the book), I was completely hooked by the cyclic madness of this odd, 2012-Man-Booker-longlisted tale.
A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)
Hardly a new book (written in the late-60s, author committed suicide in 1969, his mother posthumously getting the manuscript published in 1981) this easily slips into my top 5, primarily for the belching/flatulence. Centred around a wholly unlikeable, overweight, gassy, smelly, arrogant and decidedly delusional main character, this picaresque tale hooked me early and never let up. The world revolves around Ignatius J. Reilly, and no matter how much distain or disgust he treats it, somehow everyone’s life he encounters is irreparably changed, while he largely stays the same. I kept waiting for massive u-turn character development, but it never comes, and I love that : sometimes being an asshole is ok, cause sometimes the assholes win…
There were plenty of others that nearly made the list this year, both new and old: The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch), Union Atlantic (Adam Haslett), Gone Girl (Jillian Flynn – actually really good, even with all the hype!), The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett), Solar (Ian McEwan), Great North Road (Peter F. Hamilton – still reading it now, but loving the living shit out of it as epic holiday sci-fi..) and definitely, definitely Reamde (Neal Stephenson). (Additionally, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami would’ve made the list for sure except as I finished reading it on December 31 last year, so can’t be permitted!). So much good stuff, especially once I began trawling the Man Booker long-list for ideas – there were a few not to my taste in there, but hitting up the award-nominations are always a great place to start if you’re stuck.
The only other significant thing I have to say regarding books this year is that this is the first year I’ve not read a single novel in paper form. That’s right : 100% ebook, baby. While I agree there’s something nice about holding a book in your hand (and all that usual stuff about “smell” and “feel” I keep hearing), I don’t think I’ll be turning back now. The benefits of digital far outweigh the nostalgic stuff (or the visual/spacial clutter), and things like tap-to-define-tricky-vocab and the automatically-collated database of colour-coded highlighted passages waiting for me at the end of each book are things I can’t imagine reading without anymore.
Whatever your poison, I just hope you’re all reading your hearts out. Flipped through anything awesome? Let me know – always on the look out for anything new, unique and interesting….