2011: Brief Suggestions for Books of the Year

You know, I’m sure I could have read much more this year, which must sound strange when one of my jobs is to read books, but one has to keep in mind that the book reviewer doesn’t always get to read only what they like. And nor should they. I reviewed a lot of books in the past twelve months, but the vast majority of them haven’t stuck with me. That’s just the nature of the game: Different things interest different people of course, and this is intended as a short list of the books from this year which I’m still excited about.

Caveats as ever… I’m not going to pretend that this is any way a definitive list. Eclectic, naturally, but hardly definitive. Outside of a handful of authors doing interesting things, I have little enough time for the genre of Literary Fiction anymore. Neither am I trying to be pretentious or elitist here (unlike the list which appeared recently in a certain national newspaper). No, this is simply a grab-bag of things which entertained me in 2011 or, possibly, some suggestions for your very last-minute Christmas shopping.

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  • REAMDE by Neal Stephenson 

REAMDE

Without a doubt, this was the most fun I had reading any book this year. I literally couldn’t put it down for ten days. Stephenson’s latest is, like the separate ‘books’ in each volume of his Baroque Cycle, akin to a novel and its sequel rolled into one; an intricate story of the computer games industry, the War on Terror, and the level to which everyone and everything is connected in our twenty-first century world. It’s smart, it’s exciting, and what’s more Stephenson succeeds in that most difficult of undertakings: he convincingly integrates the contemporary condition of digitality into a work of fiction. It never feels labored or faddish and it never feels tacked on.

In REAMDE, things are always exploding. Gunfights last for a hundred pages at a time, and his cool, resourceful protagonists always have a sarcastic comment for the bad guys. Yet for all its techno-thriller trappings, the novel runs like a Swiss watch. Every character has their role to play and everything comes together in the end. Frankly, anyone who still thinks that books with computers and guns aren’t literature ought to be smacked around the head with this thousand-page delight (I’m only kidding! Kind of).
You can read my Irish Examiner review of REAMDE here.
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  • Supergods by Grant Morrison

Supergods

A popular history of Comic Books by one of the leading creative figures in the industry? Yes please. Supergods is one of those books which begins strong and then just gets better and better as it goes on. It also changes as it progresses, Morrison’s history of the superhero genre evolving into autobiography as he begins to discuss his own contributions to comics. Sure it’s not 100% perfect, there’s a scattering of small factual errors here and there, but nothing which can’t be fixed for the paperback edition.

One of the most fascinating parts of Supergods is the chapter discussing the author’s experience of ‘alien abduction’ in Kathmandu. It’s a bonkers, impossible account of an event which surely couldn’t have happened the way he claims, and yet so much of his later writing (the ‘Electrokind’ of his magnificent All-Star Superman, for instance) has been inspired by it. As such, the second half of the book offers an intriguing look into the creative process of one of the great writers on these islands, a Rosetta Stone of sorts for those of us with the inclination to investigate.

You can read my Irish Examiner review of Supergods here. Though try if you can to pick up the US edition (pictured) with three panels of Frank Quietly’s gorgeous art on the cover (the cover on this side of the Atlantic is very poor by comparison).

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  • Mistaken by Neil Jordan

MistakenOn first glance, this probably looks like a Just Another Literary Fiction Novel (I think Waterstones have a sticker for that), but Mistaken succumbs to few if any of that genre’s self-important characteristics. It is a brilliant book regardless of genre (which, naturally, ought to be the definition of ‘Brilliant Book’). Winner of Novel of the Year at the recent Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards, Neil Jordan’s sixth novel is not a book he could have written any at earlier point in his thirty-five year writing career. An ambitious elegiac study of a life not lived, twice over in fact, and of a Dublin which is gone for good.

Mistaken is the tautly plotted story of two identical boys, one from Dublin’s Northside, one from the Southside, who gradually become aware of each other’s existence through repeated incidents of mistaken identity. In the process, the novel harnesses the symbolic divide between Jordan the Novelist and Jordan the Filmmaker to a plot which is part Gothic tragedy and part thriller, deepening the author’s long-established fascination with doppelgangers and the city of Dublin. It is his best work of fiction to date.

The seminal nature of Mistaken saw Jordan hailed as a ‘great Irish novelist’ by the Irish Times, (‘the performance of a lifetime, the culmination of a long, intense engagement with language, storytelling and the erotic darkness of the imagination […] a plot as precise and as crafted as that of the finest thriller, filtered through an insistent narrative voice that holds the stricken reader as if at gunpoint’). As reviews went, it was an overblown piece, but Jordan deserves the greater part of the praise it delivered. This is a wonderful piece of work.

I have a lot more to say about the novel; look forward to that in the final chapter of my monograph Neil Jordan: Fiction’s Loss!

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  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84

Another favorite thousand page novel from this year is Murakami’s expansive tale of a world not quite the one we live in (the ‘Q’ stands for ‘Question’, as well as being a pun on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; the number ‘9’ in Japanese is pronounced like the letter ‘Q’). At its most basic, this is the story of two people searching for one another: the gym-instructor/assassin Aomame and the aspiring novelist Tengo. Particularly in Tengo’s dealings with the literary world, though I suppose also in Aomame’s growing realization that things are amiss in her world, it’s perhaps possible to read 1Q84 as an extended comment on fiction and on storytelling. I touched on this a little in my previous post on Murakami, however don’t press me on it for now; I need to think about it more!

Featuring a religious cult, supernatural ‘Little People’, and a second moon on the sky, 1Q84 might not be the best place to start with Murakami (‘If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation’). However if you have read some of his books before and fancy a more substantial trip through his imagination, then this is the way to go.

The novel (three ‘books’ in two volumes) is overlong, sure, but almost any Murakami – with the exception of Kafka on the Shore; that didn’t grab me – is better than the work of most other ‘name’ writers. Go grab a copy, curl up with it like one of the author’s beloved cats, and disappear into Aomame and Tengo’s world for a while.  Heavy going on occasion, but I can’t imagine you not enjoying it.

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  • Secret Avengers by Warren Ellis.

Secret Avengers

‘This one is a cheat,’ I hear you say! ‘That’s not a book!’ Um, yeah, comic books are by definition, books. Anyway, so far we’ve had four installments of Ellis’s six issue run of done-in-one stories on Secret Avengers and, in the year of the great DC comics New 52 line-wide reboot, this Marvel offering is my favorite monthly title. It’s just so much fun! Big, crazy science-fiction ideas deployed with aplomb by Ellis and a rotating team of artists. It feels, weirdly perhaps, like a throwback to the television SF I grew up on: every story stands on its own, but there are hints of larger forces at work in the background. I love it!

On the comic book shelf, a close second to this might be Jason Aaron’s recently launched Wolverine and the X-Men, though I’ve only read one issue of this so far so. Again though, it’s fun! Has dark and brooding had its day? Hopefully, for a while at least…

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  • Finally, two honorable mentions in the Irish Interest department go to Adrian Frazier’s Hollywood Irish (review here) and Gerald Hanberry’s More Live than One (review here). Great Christmas presents both.
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