16th December 2011
Since we started our blog back in March, our team of bloggers has written about everything from graphic novels to Guinness cake, pseudonyms to superheroes, Sir Humpry Davy to Johnny Depp. Now they share their favourite books of 2011 and it's just as diverse a range.
Benjamin Lovegrove (Charing Cross Road): The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
I've never before experienced a writer so in command of character and it's function. This deftly crafted treatise upon memory distortion and denial is the antithesis of a vanity piece, wherein not a single paragraph is wasted. The Sense of An Ending is tragic and oppressive in tone yet everything has it's own space.
Laura Crosby (Bristol Cabot Circus): The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
I was given a proof copy of The Language of Flowers, and along with it came a recommendation. Now, I get given many proof copies of novels, but I've never felt this good about one before. Before Id even opened it, I knew I was in for a treat; it exudes greatness in the most peculiar way, before Id even set eyes on a chapter. But what I found when I did open it, was something of a marvel. Diffenbaugh not only brought to us the astoundingly perfectly formed idea of using the language of flowers as a definitive substance for the plot, but she does it in such a way, using such incredible characters, that I felt like I was in the book, a bystander yet involved heavily in their lives. Victoria, the struggling protagonist, will create a mixing bowl of emotions within you, persuading you to dislike her and what she does, but forcing you to love her in spite of it. I can't say too much, for fear of giving it away. But I can say this: I have been kicking myself since finishing the book, for a) not having written it myself, and b) for finishing it at all. I wanted it to go on and on, to continue pulling me in and blowing me over. I shall give this to every woman I know, recommend it to every woman I meet and make sure I read it again and again. I only hope that through this novel, flowers will again become something other than a quick apology, or a new home gesture. I hope the language makes a welcome comeback.
Rachael Lloyd (St Pancras International): The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
This book is full of grace. The prose is extraordinary: poetic, moving but at no point overbearing or heavy, as de Waal traces the journey through time and place of some little Japanese netsuke, which have been in his family for generations. Part family memoir, part social and art history, his evocation of wartime Prussia is particularly poignant and tugs at the heartstrings in a surprising and non-manipulative way. I have been recommending this to everyone. The hardback edition makes a beautiful gift.
Ben Sweeny (Charing Cross Road): Snuff by Terry Pratchett
I think it is a beautiful book, which is something special for an author who's books have always had striking and idiosyncratic covers. For a Pratchett novel it has a style that wanders from his standard style and humour. As a long term fan, I found this a pleasant and unusual surprise. That's not to say that it is lacking in his trade-mark brand of humour. It contains some of his funniest jokes to date. I also believe that for a novel which is likely one of the last in the series it is curiously also one of the most accessible.
Steve Newman (Westfield Stratford City): I'm Not Really Here by Paul Lake
Paul Lake was the former Manchester City captain who was tipped for big things in an england shirt until injury ended his career at the age of 28. This is the story what happends when the dream isn't fulfilled and you have to rebuild your life. It's quite a journey and well told.
Rhian Jones (Buying): The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and American Weather by Charles McLeod
The Rules of Civility is a wittier, proletarian and second-generation immigrant version of Sex and the City, set in the Great Depression, with better dresses, more jazz, and the most memorable heroine since Holly Golightly.
American Weather is a book for readers who want an absorbing and compellingly shocking story written in incongruously lyrical language. It's also a book for those who appreciated American Psycho's dissection of the pathological nature of late consumer capitalism but felt slightly embarrassed about reading it on the bus.
Emily Best (Commercial Accounts): The Instructions by Adam Levin
The Instructions chronicles four days in the life of Gurion Maccabee, an outstandingly erudite, scholarly and passionate ten-year-old. Expelled from three Jewish day-schools for violence and messianic tendencies, Gurion is now an inmate of the Cage programme at Aptakisic High School and preparing to lead a rebellion.
At just over 1000 pages this is an intimidating read and with Adam Levin's maximalist style, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, it's not one to skim. Rather the consistently witty, panoptic narrative makes for compulsive reading. Levin's highly inventive lexicon for Gurion and is classmates (think "gooze" for facial fluids and "hyperscoot" for highly organized class disruption) renders the precocious dialogue entirely believable. Epic, sprawling yet utterly followable and devastatingly intense, this is worth a month of anyone's life.
Chris Doyle (Charing Cross Road): Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Despite the oversaturation of popular culture with zombies lately, there are still some gems emerging (fingers crossed for the World War Z movie next year), and Zone One is pretty high up that list of gems. It's a somewhat traditional post zombie apocalypse tale with a literary sensibility, though that is less pronounced than the promotional fluff would have you believe, nevertheless it's successfully both playful and elegiac. Whitehead also does a great job of fashioning a plausible trajectory of uneasy reconstruction.
Gary Perry (Charing Cross Road): Isle of the Dead by Gerhard Meier
Originally published in 1979 but kindly brought to these shores by Dalkey Archive in November, Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead is the finest book I've read this year and one that I have been constantly waxing lyrical about. Two elderly gentlemen wander the streets of a Swiss town and talk about times past. A simple premise, a slight volume, a work of considerable greatness. This is an ode to the city, to walking, to memory and time. Meier more than deserves to find an appreciative readership in the UK. I will most certainly be doing my bit for the cause.
Gayle Lazda (Charing Cross Road): How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
I don't know anyone, male or female, who's read this book and hasn't loved it. It feels like a genuinely important book, while at the same time being hilariously funny and a little bit silly. I'm certain I will be recommending this to anyone who'll listen for years to come.
Jonathan Ruppin (Web Editor): The Man Who Sold the World by Peter Doggett
There's been so much good fiction this year - see my Top 10 Fiction of 2011 blog - that I can't pick just one. But I've managed to pick a non-fiction one. As a (relatively harmlessly) obsessive fan, I'm always tempted by new books on David Bowie. Doggett's is one of the very few I'd count as essential, not just for Bowie fans, but for anyone interested in the musical culture of the 1970s. Doggett puts every song and every album into the context of the times, tracking the influences incorporated and the legacy left behind. He's also unafraid to be critical and while I find myself disagreeing with some of his assessments, it's given me some very insightful new perspectives and lots of new music to explore.
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