Lorrie Moore – A Gate At The Stairs
The latest novel by Lorrie Moore only occasionally hits the great heights of the short stories for which she is so widely (and so rightly) acclaimed. It contains much of the same traits – a dark edge, slightly quirky characters, flashes of humour, a great eye for detail. The narrative drifts but then is brought back sharply by a few key events and revelations. There are sections which are beautifully written with wonderful dialogue. It is worth reading for those highs but at over 300 pages it feels too long and Moore’s style wears a little thin.
David Aaranovitch – Voodoo Histories
Journalist Aaranovitch tackles our obsession with conspiracy theories. He examines why people are so willing to accept them when the “facts” are so credible. He systematically pulls apart many of the classic theories (the moon landings, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 9/11, Princess Diana’s death, the Kennedy assassination). Much of the book is interesting but some chapters are hard work (especially the Russian one). I enjoyed the cultural and psychological reasons why people believe and would have welcomed more on this.
Colum McCann – Let The Great World Spin
I have already written about Let The Great World Spin. The novel has been widely praised and rightly featured on many “Best of 2009” list. It is a clever, ambitious and incredibly evocative piece of work. Lovely.
Barbara Demick – Nothing To Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Winner of the 2010 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction this outstanding book gives one of the most detailed accounts of life in modern North Korea based on the testaments of many North Korean refugees. Demick takes these testimonies and blends them into a deeply engrossing and readable text. It is this human angle which is key to the success of the book. The reader witnesses the characters undergoing many emotions which are familiar – falling in love, worry about family and money, fear of failure – but in an environment which few of us could ever imagine. As the situation in the North deteriorates the characters begin to question much of what is around them until eventually they feel the need to flee. The book is moving and harrowing – many of the stories are hard to forget. But it is also essential in trying to understand the most closed country on the planet. Highly recommended.
Andrew Salmon – To The Last Round The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951
I lived and worked in Korea for more than three years and was fortunate enough to meet many veterans of the Korean War. Their accounts of experiences of the war were both humbling and inspiring. Andrew Salmon has captured these testimonies – bringing out the horrors, the heroism and the terrible conditions of life on the front line – and merged them into a narrative which is gripping, deeply moving and frighteningly evocative. He manages the difficult task of juggling many accounts of different, but often simultaneous, battles on different fronts without ever confusing the reader.
Margaret Atwood – Year of the Flood
I commented earlier in the year that I went through a period of reading everything Margaret Atwood wrote and then for the last ten years didn’t read her again until I picked up Oryx and Crake. Year of the Flood is the [sort of] sequel. It covers the same period and same apocalyptic event as Oryx but from different character’s perspectives (primarily told from a female perspective whereas Oryx was male) with some overlap between the characters, especially at the conclusion. Like Oryx it jumps around between time and characters and takes a while for all the pieces to start falling into place. Atwood has created a detailed and vivid world.
William Boyd – Ordinary Thunderstorms
William Boyd puzzles me slightly. I enjoy his books but always feel that something is missing. His latest is a literary thriller and like all of his work is very readable – he is, above all, a good storyteller. There are moments in this book which are implausible but once he gets going the book is a genuine page turner. However, I feel he is striving for something more. Sections of the book are overwritten and he is sometimes trying to be too clever.
Wells Tower – Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
A collection of short stories much praised by many critics and rightly so. This is one of the freshest and most accomplished collections I have read for sometime. There are echoes of David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide but it also reminds me a little of early Ian Banks and Ian McEwan. The characters are, in the main, working class, lonely, self doubting – stuck in a rut and looking for a way out but without the energy or ability to really do anything about it. Each story is well crafted and there are passages of great descriptive power and crisp dialogue. Many linger long in the memory. Highly recommended.
Christopher Potter – You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe
A popular science book which attempts, and partly succeeds, in just 300 pages to explain the universe to a layman. A couple of the early chapters which give the reader a sense of the size and distance of objects are brilliantly executed. It is, however, a challenging book and I have to admit to finding myself increasingly confused. This is my fault rather than the book; it is a book that requires time and re-reading.
David Grann – The Lost City of Z
David Grann recounts the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s attempts to discover a lost city deep in the Amazon. It is part biography, part history and part travelogue. Grann merges Fawcett’s own story with those of other explorers who sought to find Fawcett, local legends of the white man in the jungle, and Grann’s own voyage to retrace Fawcett’s steps. What Grann does very well is capture the dangers and horrors of the jungle – some of the accounts of wounds and insect bites are ghastly. But I felt that it could have been so much better.
Ben McIntyre – Operation Mincemeat
McIntyre is very talented at creating gripping page turners that read like novels but are true stories. His latest is the story of how the British deceived the Germans during the Second World War by placing fake papers on a body and releasing it into the sea. When it washed up the Germans gained access to the papers and were led to believe that the Allies were planning to attack Greece rather than Sicily. The deception is widely credited with changing the course of the war. The level of detail in the deception was remarkable. A fascinating story expertly told.
John Lanchester – Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay
Journalist and writer John Lanchester explains the current financial crisis in just 250 pages of clear, readable text using humour and simple analogies to help. The reader is left incredulous at the mistakes made. The complexity of the banking system and the amount of debt involved is staggering. It is impossible to not share Lancaster’s own despair at the failure of governments and the banking sector to learn from the mistakes and put in place the systems needed to stop it happening again. An important book.
Geoff Dyer – Working The Room: Essays
Latest collection of essays by one of the UK’s best writers. The range of material here is huge – photography and photographers, art, writers (F Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Sontag, Kapuściński, Sebald), jazz, sport, and a number of personal pieces. But the subject matter of each essay is merely the starting point as Dyer goes off at tangents drawing on his passions, his personal experience and his extensive reading all sprinkled with humour and humility. Many of these pieces I had read before but there is something special about having them together in one place.
Andrew Crumey – Sputnik Caledonia
A novel in three parts: the first part tells the story of a boy growing up in a Scottish town in the 1970s and obsessed with space and his dreams of being a Cosmonaut (his father’s politics have persuaded him of a utopian communist Britain). In the second part we meet him as a 19 year old “volunteer” in a military experiment in a republican Britain. The book concludes with his now elderly parents in the same town. After a slightly slow start the book quickly becomes engaging, drawing on quantum physics (Crumey has a PhD is theoretical physics), philosophy, politics and The Wizard of Oz. It leaves more questions than answers (was part 2 a parallel universe or a coma?) but this is part of the appeal.
Andrew Ward and John Williams – Football Nation: Sixty Years of the Beautiful Game
A look at football in the UK (primarily in England) over the past sixty years. The writers capture the major events that have shaped football in this time (Munich, Brian Clough, Hillsborough, Heysel, Bradford, Sky) but what makes the book stand out are the stories of non-league clubs, passionate supporters who support their clubs through difficult times, the first women players, the first black team, and the early visionaries. Although I love football I find most books on it quite dull (exceptions: A Season With Verona, Fever Pitch, The Far Corner). I’ll add this to that list.
Christopher Reid – A Scattering
I’ve read more poetry this year than for a while and this is one of the best. A beautiful, deeply moving tribute to Reid’s late wife written both during her illness and after her death. The poems are mostly simple and sensitive as Reid shares his loss. The book won the overall 2009 Costa Prize.