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. 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.
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 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.’
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 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 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.
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 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 & 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 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.
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.