I always love it when people you know are on a wave length with the books they love that you have read, it means they might know lots of books you haven’t read but really should. You might remember that I mentioned how a short review Evie Wyld did on Open Book led me to reading ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan, which has become one of my favourite reads of the year. Well after I tweeted about it Evie and I were then emailing about other bookish bits and bobs, as she works in an independent bookshop which I am most envious of, at the same time I was also emailing Ed about Derbyshire (as we are both from there and I had just finished his wonderful second novel and wanted to say wow) and we started discussing books of the year and then I thought why not get both of them to tell me their top five books that I could share with all of you? I think they are two of the literary worlds Bright Young Things and, though it makes me feel slightly sick and hate them just a little that they are only two years older than me and such creative geniuses, I thought it would be interesting to see what two authors of the future (and present, but you know what I mean) have read and loved this year. So that is what I am going to do today…
So, ladies first and Evie’s five books of 2011…
The Devil all the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
It’s not often you read a book in which the author has successfully balanced darkness and comedy so cleverly. There’s something compelling about an author who can write about the worst things imaginable, with such an extraordinarily poor and bleak landscape as their backdrop and still manage to get out of it a bouncy and colourful voice which is utterly compelling. Its set in rural Ohio and West Virginia, and it’s drunken and violent and unsettling – a dream.
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block
There are sentences so beautiful in A Storm at the Door that you reread them over and over wondering how Block’s brain works. It’s a kind of imagined memoir of his American grandparents. His grandfather spent much of his life in an asylum in Boston. It’s tough and manic and extraordinary, dotted with occasional photographs of the couple, which is a touch I love. You could say it’s an interesting examination of truth in memoir, and the thin line between fact and fiction, but more than that it is a beautifully written book.
A Taste of Chlorine by Bastien Vivès
A graphic novel that takes place almost entirely in a swimming pool. There are pages with practically no words but just the acutely observed sensation of being in a public swimming pool – the light and the movement, the strange isolation. It’s a love story about a man who starts swimming to treat his bad back, and who meets a woman in the pool. Not a lot that you can see really happens, but a lot is sensed. I reread this about once a month.
Waterline by Ross Raisin
I’m baffled as to why Waterline hasn’t been on heaps of prize lists. In the book shop when I recommend it to customers, sometimes they’ll say it sounds too sad, but sad things happen in novels, because they’re about life. Rant over, this is a fabulous book and it’s a devastatingly good book to follow God’s Own Country. Waterline is a journey between Glaswegian shipyards, Australia and London, and it’s about death and guilt and sadness, but it’s also written by Ross Raisin, which means the writing is exceptional and darkly funny even in its most crippling sad bits.
The Vintage and the Gleaning by Jeremy Chambers
The story is of an old sheep shearer who has spent his life filled to the gills with alcohol, and who has just been told that if he drinks again, his stomach will rupture and he will kill himself. He works on a vineyard in South Australia now, and the drinking culture there is just as heavy as that of the shearers, the suspicion of non-drinkers just as tough. The dialogue in this book is the thing that stunned me. Chambers gives the voice enough space that seemingly banal conversations become beautifully funny and meaningful. There’s a story repeated over and over about a dog stealing an ice cream that made me happier than any other storyline this year, possibly ever.
So now to the lovely Edward and his five books of 2011…
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
My book of the year. It’s about a 19-year-old girl growing up in a Mennonite community in Mexico. Irma is a brilliant character; she’s funny and forgiving and has a huge capacity for love. Her hard life is invigorated by the arrival of a Mexican film crew. Toews herself starred in a film about Mennonites, and she warmly satirises the process here. She’s great at writing about kindness (which is rare), and Irma Voth is funny in that way which makes you laugh, then keel over, then weep with sadness.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd)
A shockingly original and powerful monster story about a boy, Conor, dealing with the impending death of his mother. It has the ancient power of a parable, but contains all the subtleties and complications of Conor’s grief. I’ve no idea how Patrick Ness managed it. The hardback is beautifully illustrated by Jim Kay.
Waterline by Ross Raisin
With the dominant political party and half of the media demonising everyone without a job, the country needs this book! It charts the fall of Mick Little, a former worker at the Glasgow shipyards, into poverty and homelessness. Raisin isn’t sentimental about the underworld of the homeless, he shows you how it works in well-researched detail, and presents Mick – with compassion – in all his humanity.
The Virago Book of Ghost Stories
Ghost stories are usually very political, so it’s fascinating to read these tales written by women over the last 150 years or so. Of course, there are the masters of the craft, like May Sinclair, but the contemporary writers hold their own, too. A.S. Byatt’s story is very moving, and Penelope Lively has a subversive story about a middle class woman who is held hostage in her home by a spectral black dog prowling in the garden.
Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard
I’m only halfway through this sort of fictionalised biography of Jesus’ bezzie mate, but already it’s a remarkable book. Without being patronising or arrogant, Beard shows you how fiction can not only ‘fill in the gaps’ of history, but also revise it, take issue with it. It’s so confident, and also funny. ‘What was Jesus really like?’ one admirer asks Lazarus. ‘Slow at climbing,’ he replies.
So there we have it! What do you think of the selection of books that they have chosen? I haven’t read any of these so in all likelihood the ones I haven’t will now be on my radar. I think I am going to have to read the Ross Raisin book after seeing them both recommending ‘Waterline’, I was told by lots of people I should read that but the boats on the cover put me off. Have you read any of them, or the authors who have made the suggestions novels (my grammar and waffle killer seem to have vanished today sorry)? I would love to hear your thoughts. My top books of 2011 will be appearing on Saturday (when I will be asking to hear what yours are), though if you are gasping for a taster listen to the latest episode of The Readers here.