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(Book Reviews and Bookish Adventures…)

Notable Books of 2012: Contemporary Fiction


In 2012 I read all the Booker longlisted titles, books from 17 nations (ignoring Britain and the US) and happily explored many new-to-me authors. I read far more contemporary novels this year than I have done in recent years so it was a fun learning curve. When I started making my list of notable fiction books I realised it was long enough to split into contemporary and older works, here’s the first part of the list focusing on books first published in 2009-2012, links will take you to my full reviews:

Umbrella by Will Self

Umbrella by Will Self. After I made the slightly impulsive decision to read all the Booker longlisted novels this year I was horrified to read the premise of Umbrella and realise I had committed to reading it. I left it till almost last and then, much to my chagrin, was blown away by it. Apart from being beautiful, absorbing writing it made me realise that actually, I can enjoy stream of consciousness as a technique and what’s more, it’s still relevant. A rare 10/10 for me and the best newly published novel I read in 2012.

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

Staying with the 2012 books for a moment, Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt was definitely the most bizarre book I read this year and the blackest in its humour. The rather sleazy lead character uses his own very specific sexual fantasy as a business idea and tells corporate America they should adopt his scheme of sexual ‘lightning rods’ to alleviate the threat of harassment in the workplace – and the office managers buy it. It won’t appeal to everyone but if you like satire this is worth checking out.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola di Grado

70% Acrylic 30% Wool by young Italian authoress Viola Di Grado tells the story of Camelia – a young woman whose life has been derailed by grief and anger – in a Leeds where it is permanently winter. As I said in my review:

‘Watch out for Viola Di Grado, she appears to be as comfortable in the role of cobra as she is in the role of snake charmer.’

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Very different in style, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was pitched at geeks who delight in 1980s references, gaming culture and fantasies where the guy gets the girl and the golden key at the end. I didn’t know whether I’d get all the references when I picked it up but I found myself sucked in and charmed from start to finish.

We're Flying by Peter Stamm

We’re Flying by Peter Stamm was my favourite short story collection this year and has ensured I will be seeking out more of Stamm’s work in 2013. As a Swiss author Stamm’s work is grounded in villages and towns rather than cities and it gives the stories a more intimate and slightly claustrophobic edge. In this collection Stamm sets you up for certain endings and then repeatedly twists the tale to surprise you.

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul is a Danish murder mystery with a difference – it focuses on what happens after the murder and leaves the reader guessing whether the narrator, Bess, is dealing with grief or guilt. Whether she had anything to do with her lover’s murder is as important a question as what she will do with her rather messy life next.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I also read and loved Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel – one of the few books I’ve ever bought on the day it came out. Her vision of Tudor politics is sharp and dangerous, gossipy and intriguing and what’s more she frequently reminds me that the events I *know* happened were not, until the last minute, inevitable. She also reminds me that historical fiction is as much about making the reader believe the truth as it is about spinning a story.

Mantel’s style is worlds away from the two other historical novels and one historically based graphic novel I enjoyed this year:

Traveller of the Century by Andres Neuman

Traveller of the Century by Andres Neuman was so very, very beautifully written I enjoyed every word and read way past bedtime every time I picked it up. It’s so fluid in style that it is hard to remember that it was written in Spanish, translated into English and set in historical Germany. Focusing on a traveller who falls in love with a woman and a place this is a book about travel, books, love, politics and history that I found very hard to leave when I closed the final page.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie & I by Jane Harris is a book I should have read last year but adored when I finally read it this summer. Set in 1930s London and 1880s Glasgow and looking back at shocking events the elderly female narrator may or may not be telling the truth about, this is a wonderfully creepy book that keeps the reader guessing throughout.

Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel

Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel was the only graphic novel I read this year but it was so good I have to point it out. Mixing together mermaids, turn of the century New York and the crew of a steamer that takes the cream of society up and down the Hudson river it has a great black and white style and a sly sense of humour.

Sum by David Eagleman

Finally, Sum by David Eagleman deserves a mention for being one of the most thought-provoking pieces of fiction I read this year. Sum imagines forty different possibilities of what comes after death – including one very odd scenario which includes Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – and could just as easily be filed under philosophy as fiction.

List of All Fiction Reviews

Author: Alex in a Library

Reader, book blogger and adventuress. My home appears to be morphing into a library... I can be found on Twitter as @AlexInALibrary.

25 thoughts on “Notable Books of 2012: Contemporary Fiction

  1. I too read all six Booker shortlisted books. I liked Umbrella more than I expected to, but it wasn’t a top read for me. Bring up the Bodies was great. I like the sound of Traveler of the Century.

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Books Read In 2012 | lasesana

  3. I have only read The Murder of Halland. I liked the ambiguity, but it didn’t exactly blow me away. :) I started Umbrella, but it felt as though Self was channelling Beckett and I would just rather read Beckett. I expected Murphy to pop up at any moment and got bored with it. I don’t have the taste for most contemporary fiction, it seems. Oh well.

    You’re brave to tackle the Booker long list. I tried to read the short list last year, but didn’t get very far. :)

    • I don’t think I’ll be reading the Booker longlist this year, I was thinking of tackling the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist instead. I am actually quite surprised by how much contemporary fiction I read this year and there were some real duds in there along with the hits, definitely need more classics in my reading diet next year!

  4. Fabulous and varied collection and who’d have imaginedUmbrella would take pole position!

  5. The only one of these I’ve read is Ready Player One, great fun, it’s firmly up there with my best of 2012 too. I quite fancy Gillespie & I too. Good effort reading all of the Booker longlist! There were a few titles on there that I was really excited about, but then that excitement fizzled out and I didn’t end up reading any of them! Oh well…

    • Haha, reading all the Booker titles was a bit of a snap decision and there were only really four titles I enjoyed but it was fun to jabber about it with other bloggers and on Twitter. :)

  6. I haven’t read many contemporary novels this year – I seem to have been reading a lot of older books and classics instead. The only one on your list that I’ve read is Gillespie and I, which I read last year and loved. I’m planning to read Bring up the Bodies in 2013 and am hoping I’ll enjoy it as much as Wolf Hall!

  7. Alex – you do live up to your tagline of reading ‘voraciously’ ! Some great titles in there – many of which I have yet to read but are in the TBR lurking. Best wishes for 2013.

  8. This is a fantastically diverse list – the books I have read from it I loved too, and the ones I haven’t sound fascinating. I’m in the process of compiling my ‘Best of 2012′ book shopping list and I think ‘Ready Player One’, ‘Umbrella’, ‘70% Acrylic 30% Wool’ and ‘Sailor Twain’ have got to be on there.

    If you’re up for reading the long-list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I’m in too. I’ve only ever completed the whole longlist once (2010), but have read the shortlist every year since 2006 and am eager to compare the new prize with years past.

    • Hi Victoria, it’d be lovely to have company for the WPF longlist readalong! I like the sound a ‘Best of 2012′ shopping list, I’m looking forward to buying a few titles that have caught my eye this week when my favourite indie bookshop opens again. :)

  9. Loved ‘The Murder of Halland’, and having read a couple of Stamm’s books, I’m keen to try some short stories too. Some great choices here :)

    • Thanks Tony, I have a Stamm novel on order with my local indie shop right now so hopefully I’ll get to try that in February after I’ve spent a few weeks splashing about in the Japanese end of the reading pool. ;)

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  11. I haven’t read any of the books you’ve chosen, but I remember your review of Gillespie and I and how cross you were at it being left off the Orange short list! I’ve read my first Peirene book this year and will certainly read some more – the two you’ve suggested seem to be popular. HNY!

    • Hehehe, I was rather tetchy about it being overlooked! I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what ends up on the list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year as they’ve got some good books that are eligible so far. :)

  12. Lightening Rods keeps cropping up on lists like this. I’m going to have to try it soon. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool sounds like an interesting book. I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else, but I’ve added it to my wishlist. Thanks for drawing it to my attention!

  13. Hi Alex–what an interesting list. I have firmly (cough) resolved not to buy any new books this year as I’ve got at least 75 at home that I haven’t read yet, but some of these are really calling me. Anything described as fluidly and beautifully written I absolutely must check out, so Traveller of the Century is going to get a look. And Gillespie and I sounds just the kind of atmospheric-period-told-in-flashback-by-unreliable-narrator thing that I love.

  14. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: December 29, 2012 | Semicolon


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