Bookmunch Reviewers’ Books of the Year

Lucy Chatburn: The Convent by Panos Karnezis is a kind of mystery novel set in a Spanish convent. It’s funny, clever and subtle, in spite of the somewhat simplistic plot. Irene Némirovsky’s The Dogs and the Wolves is a  story of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in pre-war Paris, and has only just made it into English, despite having being published in France over sixty years ago. Némirovsky’s caustic and observant descriptions make for an entertaining read.

Rob Chilver: Rebecca Hunt’s wonderful debut novel Mr Chartwell stands out above all the rest this year.  Featuring a witty yet disgusting “mammoth, muscular dog about six foot seven high” which represents depression in a physical form, it remains touchingly funny, never belittling the serious topic of depression.  With a thought provoking blend of light and dark touches, humour and loss, Mr Chartwell was a delightful read and ensures that Rebecca Hunt is certainly a new talent to watch.

Annie Clarkson: As far as novels go, I loved the wonderful, heart-breaking and strange Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball – a series of letters written to anybody and everybody by a man who commits suicide. His brother finds the letters and works them into a narrative with interviews with his family and extracts from his mum’s diary. Amazing. This year, has been a great year for reading short fiction, from Nik Perring’s little gem of a book Not So Perfect, published by Indie publisher Roast Books, which has delicious flash fictions; the publication in English of Travelling Light by Tove Jansson, a beautiful collection of fiction about journeys and being alone; Lori Ostlund’s The Bigness of the World is a beautiful read; but my favourite was Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry, a beautiful, aching, life-changing collection of short fiction that I could read over and over again and still be blown away.

Steve Finbow: Good year for British fiction – Tom McCarthy’s C, Lee Rourke’s The Canal, Ben Myer’s Richard. Anything by Glen Duncan. China Miéville’s Kraken is worth spending a few squid on – tentacularly intelligent. Others: Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad, Mark SaFranko’s God Bless America. If you want ambition – Joshua Cohen’s Witz aims for Pynchon, Vollmann, and DFW. Non-fiction: Christopher Hitchen’s Hitch-22, Nikolai Lilin’s Siberian Education, and Bill Morgan’s Beats-in-a-nutshell The Typewriter is Holy. If I had to stump for a favourite, it would be Brian Evenson’s Last Days – religio-apotemnophilia noir at its best.

Cedar J Forrest: Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate took me back to a more innocent and idealistic time in my life (we’d just dumped the Tories out of government for a start), as well as providing a good four smiles and one genuine laugh in every page. A fantastically (and typically) anal deconstruction of Lee’s stand-up career, as well as his first three shows after returning to the stand-up fold following his foray into musical theatre, this is more than essential reading for fans of both Lee and comedy itself. Boris Akunin’s The Coronation was the best ‘latest in a series’ book. Akunin seems to be more daring, and possibly less concerned about genuine facts of history (he basically re-writes the Romanov family tree, but leaves a few genuine details in, as if to purposefully annoy the History Boys) with each passing adventure. Fandorin attempts to save a young Prince from his kidnappers whilst keeping the coronation of the new Tsar undisturbed. Naturally, there are twist, turns, and a few more twists until you are left breathless at the bottom of the last page, with a wry smile on your face and another tip of the cap to Akunin. And last but not least, the ‘I’m not sure whether this is tedious or a classic’ award goes to Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. The Nobel prize winning author’s latest effort dropped onto the doormat for review in the chilling January of this year, and in this equally as chilling December, I still cannot decide whether it is a work of genius or just a bit annoying. My mind wonders back to the evocative descriptions of Istanbul and the beautifully woven love-story, but equally, Pamuk’s insistence on being so ridiculously detailed slightly blurs my rose-tinted lenses, much in the way that your glasses steam up when you walk into a bar and it’s minus five degrees outside.  As such, it’s something that’s likely to appeal to a broad selection of people in some way or another, and so it’s well worth a look.

Clare Hey: My favourite books of the year included Amy Sackville’s The Still Point for its intense atmosphere and beautiful writing, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies for making me laugh, Emma Donoghue’s Room for making me think, and Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea for being short but powerful. I also enjoyed cooking from Nigel Slater’s Tender I and II – his writing can be as rich and enjoyable as any novel, especially when you’re hungry and the garden is full of vegetables you have grown yourself. Next year I am looking forward to Elizabeth Day’s Scissors, Paper, Stone and to the paperback of Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs.

Carola Huttmann: Ever since I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna shortly after it won this year’s Orange Prize I have been waxing lyrically about it to anyone who will listen. It’s no exaggeration to say I found it a life-changing read. The achingly beautiful language, characters so vibrant they practically stand out from the page and the stunning plot combing real historical figures with fiction are outstanding. I also loved and highly recommend Clare Dudman’s A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, another novel brilliantly blending historical fact and creative imagination.

Max Liu: Jonathan Raban’s Driving Home provided the affirming experience of reading somebody who says better than me everything I think (and more) about modern America. It also inspired me to take up expensive cigars. The very literal reactions which David Shields’ Reality Hunger provoked from writers and critics alike were typical of a literary culture where having something to say is unforgivable. Shields manifesto is a compelling meditation on what writing is and I loved it. My novel of 2010 was Richard Powers’ Generosity while in poetry Tom Leonard’s Outside The Narrative has everything. 

Valerie O’Riordan: My 2010 Best Of List would have to include Emily Mackie’s ridiculously memorable debut novel And This Is True: a coming-of-age tale about a boy in love with his own father. You can’t beat a bit of adolescent incest in your fiction. Or is that just me? Moving on – Jon McGregor’s Even The Dogs was a really sad, harrowing story about friendship and addiction. Beautifully written and well worth the misery. And I’ve always got to throw a bone to my old favourite, Alan Warner, whose Booker long-listed The Stars In The Bright Sky brought us up to speed on the antics of the girls from The Sopranos; who’d have thought a sojourn in an airport would be so entertaining?  But my overall Bestest Read of this year has to go to a book that came out in paperback this year: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I haven’t read a book I loved this much in a very long time, and I’m neither a huge reader of historical fiction nor a Tudor aficionado. It could well be my book of the decade.

Joe Phelan: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick charts the lives of six citizens of North Korea. Through a series of interviews Demick presents the tribulations of ordinary people and how they cope with life in one of the worlds’ most secretive societies. All the interviewees live in the city of Chongjin. This has the advantage of not diluting the focus and allowing the reader to observe up close the humiliations the citizens of the city are forced to endure.

Alex Preston: Whilst all the noise was about Franzen’s Freedom, for me the most exciting book of the year was Philip Roth’s Nemesis. Short – like all his recent work – Nemesis is a taut, moving evocation of war-time life in urban New Jersey that is also a meditation on the violence of a remorseless Jewish God and, I believe, a metaphor for the Jewish American experience during the Holocaust years. I was also blown away by Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons and Ned Beauman’s excellent first novel, Boxer, Beetle. In non-fiction, Sebastian Mallaby’s More Money than God was the best of a good bunch of books unpicking the financial mess and Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land a posthumous polemical masterpiece.

Peter Wild: I’ve always been a sucker for great American novels and I think this has been a good year. You have the big guns, obviously –Don DeLillo’s Point Omega,  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Philip Roth’s Nemesis, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death were all good in my book. But there were a handful of terrific books from the likes of Adam Haslett (Union City), Jess Walters (The Financial Lives of the Poets), Brady Udall (The Lonely Polygamist), Willy Vlautin (Lean on Pete) and Joshua Ferris (The Unnamed). I’d heartily recommend all of these. Elsewhere I loved Emma Donoghue’s Room.

Jon Wright: In the non-fiction stakes I enjoyed Capital Affairs. London and the Making of the Permissive Society by Frank Mort: a truly ingenious and insightful book even if there’s a little too much wacky theorising in the background. Hats off, also, to Wendy Doniger for The Hindus. An Alternative History: a bold book if ever there was one. Other highlights were the groundbreaking Becoming Venetian: Immigrants and the Arts in Early Modern Venice by Blake de Maria and The Butterfly Isles. A Summer in Search of our Emperors and Admirals by Patrick Barkham which was self-indulgent, doused in whimsy, but utterly wonderful.

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