Friday, 27 January 2012

Friday Five: Favourite books of 2011

Earlier this week I did a piece on Radio New Zealand National about my favourite books of 2011. Slightly misleadingly, it was introduced as the books I have read over the summer, which isn't exactly true and has led many people to believe that I read incredibly fast - I don't; I just spend a lot of time reading! Furthermore, among the books I read over summer was Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, which was actually written in 1967 and so not exactly admissible.

As I pointed out, I usually read fiction over and above non-fiction, so five of my favourites are fiction. I also included an autobiography, however, which was The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry, the second part of his autobiography, in which he regales us with his progress through university and his first forays into university, acting and comedy. He has a lot to say on all fronts (the book is 425 pages long) and there is a further instalment to come. This may seem slightly excessive, but he writes as he speaks; with screaming intelligence and an evident love of language, never saying in ten words, what he could in a hundred.

The others are as follows (in no particular order):
  1. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris - Harriet Baxter is an elderly spinster writing her memoir about events in Glasgow in 1888 when she arrived in town for the International Exhibition, and stayed due to her friendship with the Gillespie family. This culminated in a criminal trial which she dissects here with ever-increasing ambiguity. Memoirs are always unreliable by definition; referring to contemporary known facts does not make them any less so. Trust is a tenuous commodity and its nature makes this an intriguing novel, and Jane Harris a beguiling author. More please!
  2. The German Boy by Patricia Wastvedt - This is a novel of endless love and terrible war, but it is nowhere near as trite as that makes it sound. Peopled with many characters, the story revolves around sisters Karen and Elisabeth, their friend, Rachel, and her brother, Michael. Elisabeth and Michael experience a connection - "the arrow through the heart that stops it beating" - in a London kitchen in 1927, and it takes us 356 pages to discover whetther they ever act upon it. Full of miscommunication, passionate relationships and spontaneous decisions that return with haunting consequences, there is a touch of Atonement about the novel.
  3. Snowdrops by A D Miller -  A D Miller's debut novel is a high-class, up-market mystery thriller with short, punchy descriptions and a gathering sense of intrigue. Set against the ferociously challenging backdrop of a financially progressive Russia, it was a surprise but deserved inclusion on the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Nick decides to make a career and lifestyle move to Moscow to prevent himself from succumbing to the "thiry-something zone of disappointment". He is soon revelling in a glitzy social whirl of parties and nightclubs, meeting the enigmatically beautiful Masha, with whom he becomes infatuated. Suspicions begin to knock at Nick's subconscious, but he refuses to let them in. Snowdrops are "the bodies that come to light with the thaw. Drunks mostly, and homeless people who give up and lie down in the snow, and the odd vanished murder victim." But snowdrops are also fragile harbingers of the promise of spring and new beginnings. The sentences are short, and the pace is fast, but the apparent simplicity belies poetry and humanity that will melt your defences.
  4. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett - It seems impossible to review this novel without mentioning Heart of Darkness as there are obvious similarities: a nervous acolyte (Marina Singh) travels through jungle and up river (the Rio Negro) to meet an old mentor (Dr Annick Swenson), who has gone native, and try and return her to 'society'. She is forced out of her comfortable surroundings to face tribal civilizations and to question her accepted Western ethics. Patchett conveys the sense of place and discomfort brilliantly as the Western world collides brutally with the law of the jungle. Medical and environmental ethics are questioned as Marina finds herself among an Amazonian tribe called the Lakashi; a fascinating, if slightly stereotypical, case study. There are many relationships in the novel: husbands and wives; lovers; parents and children; community and colleagues, but the central one is that between Marina and Dr Swenson - erstwhile student and teacher.
  5. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman - The eponymous imperfectionists are those who work together, or more often apart, to publish an English-language newspaper in Rome. Individual chapters are devoted to different characters so the novel is told from a variety of viewpoints and the separate stories come together to make a comprehensive novel, just as feature sections should complement each other in a good publication. People used to be informed by publications comprised of real people meeting each day to discuss and communicate; now there are silos of information delivered from isolated consoles. The novel yearns for human contact, with all its imperfections. This was Tom Rachman's debut novel - I will be eagerly awaiting the next one.

You can listen to my interview here:

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