During 2009, I’ve been keeping notes on the books I’ve read. It’s a pretty big list this year – about forty-two books in total – and after Christmas, I’ll post the whole thing. I’m pleased to say that there’s been a high hit rate in 2009, and I’ve found several books that I loved. As with previous years though, the whole list will probably be next to unreadable, as I ramble on about what I thought of each tome, so here I’ll pluck out my top five for the year. They weren’t necessarily published in 2009, that’s just when I read them.
Your mileage may vary, but if you’re looking for last minute Xmas presents, I’d confidently make a gift of any of these books.
Let the Right One in, John Ajvide Lindqvist – See, vampire authors of the world? Vampires don’t have to be recycled clones of the same old classics! They can be used to tell powerful, fresh new stories! You don’t have to bludgeon the genre over the head with the same tired old tropes we’ve read a thousand times before! Lindqvist’s debut novel, fusing gritty social realism with vampire fiction, is an extraordinary debut, powerful, moving, and engrossing. Set in a declining housing estate in Sweden, it explores the darkness beneath ordinary life, touching on alcoholism, paedophilia, bullying, and much more, through a cast of credible characters stumbling blindly through their own lives. When a vampire starts to walk among them, it’s one more weave in the fabric of Lindqvist’s incredibly convincing world, one which fits perfectly rather than clashing. Like the best horror writers, the author clearly understands that a story about a vampire is doomed to silliness, while a story that includes a vampire, and draws horror from it, has a real potential to be more than the sum of its parts. Highly, highly recommended.
The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins – In which Dawkins eviscerates God (all of them, actually, though being from a Christian society, Christianity is his example of choice, as he is most able to refer to the detail of it in an informed way). The first half, where he relegates God to the realms of extreme probability contains little I hadn’t already understood, although his illustrations and arguments are often witty, frequently disturbing, and more ably expressed than I could ever hope to manage. The second half, examining the harm religion does to individuals and society, where the hell it came from once you’ve demonstrated that it almost certainly isn’t God, and what sits in God’s place if you take Him away (and whether anything is actually needed at all), was mostly knew to me, and mind-broadening. The book has turned me from a half-assed atheist with agnostic tendencies, into a full-fledged atheist, a little embarrassed about his former lack of intellectual rigour. It’s also made me want to read the bible for the first time since I was young, in the interests of both fairness and literature (he makes a wonderful case for the bible being required reading for any student of literature, as it is so often referred to, and a beautifully written text in many places). The saddest thing is that the people who would most benefit from reading this book are the least likely to do so, through simple fear. If you think about religion at all, and what it means to you and the world, you should give this a try. You may still disagree with the arguments Dawkins makes, but you’ll have taken the time to really think about it, and surely that will only make whatever position you hold stronger.
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman –An early contender for my favourite book of the year, this gorgeous coming-of-age tale is bittersweet, witty, dark, and at the end, fantastically touching. For me, it’s Gaiman’s best book, speaking as clearly to adults as children, and leaving me with both a strange, frustrated sense of longing, and a fresh appreciation of possibilities. You can’t really ask for more from a book.
Watchmen, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons – I’ve never read this before. I’ve heard about it, of course, and how good it is, but never actually read it. What do I think? I think it shouldn’t be possible to tell a story this dense and sophisticated, with so many interweaving themes and characters, in a comic book format. I’ve read brilliant graphic novels in the past, but Watchmen is on a completely different level. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, graphic or not. The heights of psychological realism it reaches in its brutal dissection of the characters, superheroes defined by their failings rather than their achievements, are incredible. This book took my breath away, and left me shaking my head in stunned wonder.
The Terror, Dan Simmons – Almost a thousand pages in paperback, this novel is an extraordinary achievement in too many ways for my short review to do justice. Based loosely on the tale of the Franklin expedition, two real vessels that set out to discover the North West Passage in 1845 and went missing, there isn’t a single wasted page in the whole damn thing. It sucks you into an incredibly well researched and realised tale of brutal days of semi-survival, plays with a vast cast of characters, and doesn’t lose its way once. Heart-stopping, suspenseful, often chilling, it’s an exciting journey, never sinking into boys own adventure cliches, never patronising, always moving forward. I don’t even know how a writer keeps a story this big and complex in his head for the time it takes to write it. Just jaw-dropping. I also read Drood this year, by the same author, and it was a tough call which of the two to put in this top five (on principle, I won’t put two by the same author up here, though if any two books merited it, these are they). The Terror pips it by the narrowest of margins.
Bubbling under: In The Midnight Museum, The Lovers, Fallen, Under The Dome, We Fade To Grey, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Red Riding Quartet.