Saturday, January 28, 2006

Best Reads of 2005

In many ways, 2005 was a difficult year for me, grappling the illness and death of those close to me, dismissal from my job and tensions at home. It was also a year of reassessment, reflection and (I hope) growth: I started a new business, had my first short story collection published and got my first contract for a novel.

Through all of this, books kept me company and helped me to channel my thoughts and emotions. Sometimes they helped me to escape from the here and now and sometimes to understand it better. I’ve picked out the ones that meant the most to me. I commend them to you and hope that some of them might make your 2006 better.

The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elizabeth Robinson

This was my favourite book of the year. It made me laugh and cry in equal measure, it gave me insight into the world of movie script writing, and it did interesting things with the form of the novel that made me finger itch with the need to type.

The opening lines are a classic:

“I was sitting at home yesterday (where else?) working on the fourth draft of my suicide note when I got the call. I resented the interruption and nearly didn’t answer the phone. I was having a hard time getting the tone right and, as we’ve discussed, tone is everything in correspondence.”

This mixture of immediacy, intimacy, humour and underlying sadness, wrapped up in an understanding of language and form is what makes this book special.

The novel is told in a series of emails and letters. This is not an easy thing to pull off without the machinery of the novel starting to creek in a distracting way but Elizabeth Robinson has the talent needed to turn her device into something fresh and vital that taps into how we really communicate with others (and ourselves) today.

The novel is written from the point of view of Claire Hunt, a film producer who has just been fired from her studio job but is still determined to make a movie based on “Don Quixote”. Then she hears that her sister is ill and she has to return from life on the margins of the Hollywood machine to a family home that she has outgrown but never really left and which is besieged by the illness and the spectre of death.

The strength of this book comes from its truthfulness and honesty. Reading it takes you inside Hollywood and inside a family filled with love and fear and hope and loss.

I felt as if I had found a friend that I’d always want to have a place in my life.

I know I’ve found an author who has the technical skill and emotional honesty to be ranked up there with the best of them.

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

It is rare to find a book that crosses so many boundaries that it can be classified on with reference to itself but this is one of them. The plot premise would place it as science fiction (a man with an illness that transports him randomly back and forth along the timeline of his life). The relationships would make it a romance novel (true love that extends beyond the constraints of time and place). The twists and turns of the plot would place it as a thriller.

It is all of these things and none of them. This is a first novel that is illuminated by an original imagination and crafted with enormous skill. The writing is beautiful, especially the dialogue which is real and vibrant.

It is also a brave book. Who but the brave would write about a relationship between a grown man and little girl who subsequently becomes his wife and yet be certain that there is no whiff of exploitation or prurience?

Audrey Niffenegger has conceived of a world in which the only constant is the love between two people. She makes us believe in that world so that the reader sees the passionate commitment between Claire and Henry as not only right but necessary.

For me, the most breathtaking thing about this novel is its apparently effortless fusion between the time line flexibility we see in modern movies and the strong, sequential, narrative thrust we expect from a novel.

In my view, this book has a complex but convincing message; we are all, to some extent time travellers. Relationships are tested, strengthened and weakened by our ability to find moments in time when we can travel together in the same direction and at the same speed. Our memories of the past and our expectations of the future shape our experience of the present in such a way that nothing is fixed. We anchor ourselves to reality through our love of another and the pressure that love creates for us to be true to ourselves.

This book is an easy and enjoyable read. It bursts upon the tongue with a rich set of flavours, but the true pleasure comes from the lingering aftertaste as the ideas and characters settle in your mind and create a new and different understanding.

This is being made into a movie with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Just the thought of what they might do to this is enough to make me shudder. Read the book before you see the movie.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

Alice Munro is a long time favourite of mine. She writes short stories that have the impact of novels. She reconnects you to what it is to be human without any sentimentality but with a lot of truth and a dash of love and hope. I reread this collection this year and none of the nine stories have lost their savour.

The last story in the collection “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is probably one of the best short stories ever written. It looks at love, lust, betrayal, loyalty, memory and forgiveness and leaves you feeling understood and hopeful.

Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo

My wife introduced me to Richard Russo’s work a while back when she bought “Empire Falls”. He has the gift of writing about ordinary people in a way that helps you to understand how extraordinary we all are.

He understands that, in a small town, each of us is a bit player in another person’s drama and that each day is to some extent, an act of ensemble improvisation.

In “Nobody’s Fool” Richard Russo works through the relationships between fathers and sons and friends and enemies. Along the way he creates a main character who is a flawed as he is believable, a stubborn man, swept along by his own legend, but finding ways to reassess himself in a changing world.

Richard Russo pulls no punches when it comes to understanding people’s ability to hurt each other and themselves but he also helps us to see that each day is full of choices that help us to close the gap between who we are and who we want to be.

This one has also been made into a movie, with Paul Newman as the main character. The film is faithful to the book and the acting is first rate but the film-craft doesn’t match the richness of Russo’s language.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Kay Joy Fowler

This is a book for bibliophiles. The structure is ingenious: each chapter focuses on a character in an informal book club that has been assembled only to read Jane Austen and each chapter reflects the content of the Austen book being read. The touch is light and the tone optimistic. If you love Austen this book is a joy. If you’ve never read Austen, it will be an education. This book made me smile and whetted my appetite for reading other things. Its only flaw is that it is a little light on emotional content but only in the same way that “Emma” leaves a gap with “Wuthering Heights” so perhaps this is deliberate.

Again this has a wonderful opening sentence:

“Each of us has a private Austen.”

If that resonates with you then you’ll certainly have fun reading the rest.

The Black Magician Trilogy (The Magician’s Guild, The Novice, The High Lord) by Trudi Canavan

This trilogy was my top find of 2005. I’m a long time fantasy and science fiction fan and I’m always on the look out for new writers. Trudi Canvan just went to the top of my list. These were her first books and they have the freshness and energy of something long imagined but newly realised.

Trudi Canvan write prose and dialogue that are easy to read so that even in books as long as these you don’t feel that the same stock phrases are being repeated or that the book has thinned out to the level of a film script outline.

Each book stands on its own. Each book expands our knowledge of the world and changes our perspective on the characters in it. All three books hang together into a consistent piece that stands up to re-reading from end to end.

Oh, and the story rocks. This is a page turner about a young girl from the slums with latent magical powers that she accidentally unleashes on a member of the Magician’s Guild as they are doing their annual expulsion of the poor from the streets of the city.

What happens to the girl, the people who befriend her and those who try to harm her would be enough to satisfy most authors, but Trudi Canvan has gone beyond that to look at the nature of magic and the societies it shapes. In the end this story is about the Guild itself and the line that must be walked between strength and weakness, good and evil, what can be done against what should be done.

Add Trudi Canvan to your author list and settle down for hours of quality time stretching your imagination, cheering for the good guys, booing the bad ones and trying to puzzle out who is which.

Past Mortem by Ben Elton

Ben Elton made his name as a stand up comic and then as the script writer for TV comedies like “Black Adder”. In his novels he picks up on some social trend and puts it under the microscope. The result is closely plotted, witty, gritty, that invite you to look again at the taken for granted.

Past Mortem looks at the “Friends Reunited” phenomenon and instead of seeing sugar-coated reunions of long-lost friends, imagines the consequences of reuniting adults with the people who made their childhoods miserable. The main character is a Scotland Yard detective on the trail of a serial killer. Ben Elton pulls no punches with this one: the murders are gruesome, the sex scenes are graphic and extreme, the consequences of remember humiliation are real enough to make you cry. There is still humour and wit in this book but it is the kind that humour that helps you survive in the world you live in.

I think this is his best book so far. If you like this, try “Dead Famous” which looks at the “Big Brother” phenomenon or “Popcorn” which looks at the impact of Tarantino style violence in movies.

Petrified by Barbara Nadel

“Petrified” is one of series of crime books by Barbara Nadel set in Istanbul. I’ve been hooked since I read the first one, “Balthazar’s Daughter”. The compelling thing about the books is the credibility of the characters that Nadel draws. The Turkish detectives in her novels progress from book to book, they change and develop. Bad things happen to them and how they respond is a measure of their humanity. The sense of place is very strong in each book – Istanbul itself is a central character in the novels.

Each of Barbara Nadel’s books stands alone. Each has a theme and each theme displays new things about the characters and the nature of Turkish society. Petrified takes art, death and obsession as its themes. The results are memorable and rich.

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen is a crime reporter in Miami. His novels are larger than life romps into the messes created by greed and arrogance. His books have a formula to them: nasty men doing bad things, usually to nice women, run up against tough loners with a sense of honour who just have to intervene. What keeps the formula fresh are Hiaasen’s wit and his ability to summon up believable villains and enjoyable heroes.

Skinny Dip is the latest offering. A man throws his wife off a cruise ship, meaning to kill her but forgetting that she was in the school swimming team. She washes up on the beach of our capable, grumpy-but-likeable hero with a soft spot for damsels in distress and the two begin to plot revenge.

This is the American version of pantomime and is thoroughly enjoyable from the first page to the last.

Market Forces by Richard Morgan

A Scottish academic who teaches politics and writes science fiction, Richard Morgan has been hailed as the leader of the new wave of cyberpunk and the success to William Gibson. His first book, “Altered Carbon”, redefined hard-boiled science fiction with its mixture of innovative technology, mercenary attitudes, noir-crime ethos, and scorching no-holds-barred sex.

“Market Forces” is Richard Morgan’s third book and it is in a class of its own. Here he leaves behind the far-future space-opera setting and looks at Britain in the very near future. And a depressing, nasty and all too possible Britain it is: enclaves for the rich, institutionalised road rage contests to win consulting contracts, lawless slums for the poor and a political machine that has become indistinguishable from the economic market it should be regulating. Following the domino recessions of the early 21st century, the Brits now make their money by financing and arming small wars around the world. “Conflict Investment” is managed by consultancies that compete literally to the death.

Our hero is good at conflict investment. He has everything needed to become a partner except a regrettable lack of willingness to kill the competition. The book shows what happens to moral scruples when native ability meets profitable opportunity.

The story is hardcore action, with graphic violence and sex and yet the main thrust is still and intellectual and moral one.

The world Morgan describes is only a slight exaggeration on the testosterone driven consultancy partnerships that I’ve worked for. The relationship between those having the small wars and those funding them is an extension of the current practices of the World Bank and the IMF. Morgan has a wicked ability to imagine the worst and help you to taste it.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz has never quite achieved the recognition given to Stephen King (King has been published in the New Yorker a number of times and has written a (very good) book on writing. Koontz covers similar territory to King and is even more prolific. Perhaps it is the sheer number of books that has given him that never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width, airport-paperback reputation. Or perhaps it is that, while he is a talented storyteller, his themes are straightforward and he does nothing new with form.

I’ve enjoyed many of Koontz’ novels, but in a disposable, pleasant-afternoon-in-front-of-the-television sort of way. Odd Thomas is different – mould breaking different. This is the kind of mystery thriller John Irving might write. The structure of the book is clever, the writing is crisp, the characters are engaging and the plot will keep you guessing. Settle down for a good read that will stay in your mind long after you’ve closed the book

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