Firstly, I hope your pan-denominational celebrations are splendid this year. Have a beautiful day with people you love, and I’ll see you in the hungover aftermath.
Secondly, as the enormous tome I’m currently reading will take me into 2012, I can safely roll out my list of what I thought were the best five books I read in 2011. They weren’t necessarily published for the first time during the year, but that’s when I read them. As with all such lists, this is entirely subjective. If you want to fight about it then that’s fine. Let’s take it outside with knives. Flame wars are passe.
In no particular order (because it’s hard enough boiling down to five, let alone ranking them).
Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury – You know when you’re reading a book and an unexpected turn of phrase, something resonant and powerful that lifts your imagination, jumps out at you? You might often remember such a phrase, and recount it while trying to get your friends to pick up the book. Unfortunately, you have no hope of being able to do this with Bradbury’s masterpiece, because every paragraph has one. Almost every sentence is one. The greatest, most disturbing, most uplifting novel ever to wheel out the freakshow for your entertainment (and never has the carnival been more poetically sinister than here) is also the most lyrical and haunting thing I’ve read in years. Initially, this very lyricism, lying so thick across the page, makes the book slow going when you’re used to the modern idiom, but after a few chapters it makes your pulse race a little faster and sweeter. There might be better, more beautiful stories out there of boys coming of age, running headlong into the challenges of adulthood, but I’ve yet to find them.
Absolute Death, Neil Gaiman – You don’t need this book. It’s absolutely unnecessary. That said, unnecessary things can often be extraordinary. The book collects together the various standalone stories of Death, older sister of Dream and frequent player in Gaiman’s classic Sandman series. The physical book, as with the four volumes of Absolute Sandman, is a glorious thing – hardcovered in a slipcase, oversized, stunningly designed. Unlike the Sandman books though, the contents are on the slender side. The first two stories about Death already appear in the Absolute Sandman books, and what’s left are a couple of slender graphic novels, and single strips. To bulk the book out, there’s a massive collection of art, and other miscellany. It’s a completist’s piece. If you stumped up for the Absolute Sandman, this is a fine way to bookend that collection. The stories themselves are lovely things, quite different from Sandman. It’s in the name. Dream is a massive, extraordinary concept, around which anything can happen. Death is a more private, lonely thing, and these tales reflect that. They’re personal, intimate vignettes, crafted together with Gaiman’s flair for blending language, storytelling, humour, and the macabre. I loved them, and thankfully most are available in cheaper editions elsewhere for those who don’t have shelves sturdy enough for this behemoth. Personally, I like beautiful unnecessary things, and this edition makes me very happy.
Dead Bad Things, Gary McMahon – The sequel to Pretty Little Dead Things, which I also read in 2011. I found that novel to be beautifully written, but unrelentingly grim. The worldview was captivating, but the main character (Thomas Usher) was too self-piteous to sympathise with. Without creating spoilers, I also questioned the worth of the grim ending, in which Usher literally loses everything, leaving the reader almost as hollow as the character. Dead Bad Things suddenly gives sense to all that. Where the first book has flaws as a standalone, it all irons out when these two books are viewed as a duology. For much of this novel Usher is a shattered man, still traumatised by previous events, hiding out far to the south of his native Leeds. He’s less a character than he is a shell, but his journey is almost a subplot to that of a policewoman called Sarah. Having recently lost her abusive father, she begins to discover that his depravity ran to more twisted, horrific outlets than she could ever have imagined. McMahon doesn’t hold back from demonstrating the sick, vicious horrors his characters live amongst, and the book is filled with images you’ll want to forget. These aren’t there to titillate or thrill, and his descriptions are unflinching. They horrify, in a fundamental way, and are neither for the casual horror reader, or the faint of heart. That said, their very value is in their honesty. Dead things are not the monsters in these books. People are. If all this sounds like a continuation of the first book, you’d be right. What elevates both from their one-note bleakness is the final act, in which Sarah and Usher are brought together. It’s really the conclusion of a duology, and for the first time introduces both redemption and hope as bright , crystalline colours in a grey landscape. Finally, there is a flicker of light in the gloom, all the more powerful for the long despair.
Snuff, Terry Pratchett – It’s a popular enough trick with a series – take your popular leading character, pluck them from their natural environment, drop them somewhere totally alien, and see how they get on. That’s exactly what Pratchett does here with Sam Vimes, Commander-in-Chief of the Ankh-Morpork Watch and arguably the second most powerful man in the city (ahhh… I remember when he was a lowly, mostly rat-arsed, bobby on the beat). Forced to take a holiday by the Patrician, he grudgingly retires to a country estate he appears accidentally to own through marriage, and immediately stumbles into a local mystery. Out of his jurisdiction he might be, but there’s no bloody way he’ll admit it… A splendid entry in the Guards series of novels. Vimes is at his cynical best, the situational comedy is smooth and effective. As usual from Pratchett, the book holds a mirror up to our own little world. This time the theme is dark – touching on slavery and human trafficking, and is all the better for it. Pratchett’s comedy works best when the peril of the plot has a real resonance, and in Snuff he has a perfect balance.
11/22/63, Stephen King – Ostensibly a time travel story (man goes back in time to save JFK, and change the future), and an interesting and well staged one, the premise is nevertheless a complete macguffin. This is a love story, and the most magnificent I’ve read in for a long time. Yes, it takes a while to get to the real heart of the book, but I never mind that with King. As he scene sets, establishing the rules and dangers of the JFK quest, he takes you into the heart of his narrator (not a crying man, but a practical one), and this pays off enormously later on. The story morphs from whether one man should take it upon himself to change the world, to whether or not he even can when it means giving up a life with the woman he loves. I welled up three times. First (and most unlikely) at a performance in a school play, second at a death, and third at a reunion. I also felt the most joyous surge of nostalgia at being reintroduced, albeit briefly, with characters I first read in my teens. They flit by, but it was a fierce pleasure to see them again, which is testament to how real King’s characters are. This is a remarkable, beautiful story – part romance, part race against time thriller – and it’s going to sit with me for a long time. This might not be the horror King made his name with, but it’s storytelling of exceptional calibre.
Bubbling Under – The Burning Soul, Six Days, A Gathering of Crows
Merry Crimbo all!