Books of the Year 2009

Tuesday December 8, 2009 in books read 2009 |

A quick tour through my reading of 2009.

The year was dominated by several mammoth works of fiction. It began with A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, which was long, slightly flawed, but generally breezy and enjoyable. Then followed Roberto Bolano’s 2666, a very difficult and ultimately impenetrable work:

2666 is a difficult book. Its length, its voice and its intention. At times I am unclear, at others there’s a breakthrough and I begin to understand. Bolano’s view of the world is so unique that it’s often very difficult to keep in step with him. Reading 2666 is often like examining the world, as we all do, up close. Like Bolano, we need to take a step or two back in order to take in the whole view. And sometimes it’s hard to remove the blinkers.

David Peace’s Red Riding quartet also kept me very busy but it was Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones which really became the marathon of all reading challenges:

The Kindly Ones was rewarded with the attention that it ruthlessly demanded from me. But it wasn’t easy. It’s an absorbing book, but also an infuriating one. At times depressing, and rarely uplifting, but one revealing talent in the author, and one stretching the reader. In my case, almost to the limit – the most demanding book I’ve ever read. But I’ve never said that good literature shouldn’t be difficult. If you are a real reader – and I think you are – there’s no option but to try this.

It was certainly a challenge I am pleased to have faced. Less demanding than The Kindly Ones but still requiring total attention from the reader was the much discussed Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Her study of Thomas Cromwell was a fascinating and well written, albeit often infuriatingly slow, read. Less demanding still, Stephen King’s thoughtful Duma Key has kept me occupied during December.

Strangely, this heavier fiction has proved the best reading this year. Where I’ve tried to balance it with lighter reading, the less demanding books haven’t stayed in the memory; so much so that the absence of reviews for these novels from these pages becomes quite telling. One exception is One Day by David Nicholls, a light novel that is nevertheless very engaging and moving:

The stir this novel is causing is well deserved; it’s one of the best British novels I’ve read for years. Certainly there with Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby on top form, and a book I was expecting to be a lightweight read has proved to be one of extraordinary depth and quality.

Other highlights of 2009 include eventually getting round to Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Breath by Tim Winton was perfect reading whilst on an Australian holiday, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas was depressing but brilliantly written, and there’s my obligatory Neil Gaiman choice Startdust. And although I only managed to pick up two non fiction books this year, Gig by Simon Armitage and The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin are both highly recommended.

Hilary Mantel won this year’s Booker Prize. Well deserved, although I would have given the honour to Sarah Waters. The gong for my book of the year goes to The Little Stranger:

The Little Stranger was my introduction to Sarah Waters, and I have come away very impressed. Her latest novel is a brilliantly written study of the shifting changes in the English post-war class system. It is beautifully paced, full of subtle observations and quite simply a pleasure to read. It is also one of the most effective, chilling and original ghost stories I have read for some time. I finished The Little Stranger a few days ago but, still thinking it through, I have been unable to start a new book.

Some critics were lukewarm in their reaction to The Little Stranger, thinking it wasn’t on par with her previous fiction. This inspired me to read some of her other novels atlhough strangely, following two attempts, I was unable to get through The Night Watch.

I’d like to finish with a word about David Peace’s Red Riding, another difficult writer who managed to engage me in 2009:

After finishing the Red Riding series I was still confused, but rather that Peace not giving all of the answers I do think they are there; it’s just that he makes the conclusion and his smattering of clues hard for the reader. This is a difficult and exhausting body of work to take on but ultimately a very satisfying one. It’s bold and challenging crime fiction. You’ll really read nothing else like it.

David Peace was much heralded in the early part of 2009, although the publication of Tokyo: Year Zero saw the beginning of the Peace backlash. I have to agree that the second part of the Tokyo Trilogy was a shocking disappointment, and the reviewers who called him Britain’s greatest writer now no longer mention him at all. A shame but, like them, I’ll be looking for new authors to rave about in 2010.

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