Forensic Songs by Mike McCormack – nominated by Joe Phelan
Imagine JG Ballard stories set in the West of Ireland each one depicting scenarios in which the main characters are placed in situations totally beyond their control. A small child asks his father to beat him setting in motion a chain of events enabling him to become a serial killer; two men call on a slacker, they inform him of his death then proceed to recruit him for a covert surveillance operation; two policeman consider questioning the only man in the country yet to write his autobiography; a young man meets a battery operated woman in a Prague pub. Each story in the collection is unsettling as people find themselves battling defiantly to hold onto what they consider truth. Mike McCormack depicts an Ireland rather reluctantly confronting its fears. Both his voice and vision are utterly unique as he looks beyond the real toward what really matters.
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms – nominated by Jim Dempsey
I’m going to cheat a little with my choice for the year since Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was first published in 1929. The novel has been in my personal top ten list since I first read it as a teenager (a few years ago now), so anything else published in 2012 would have to be pretty spectacular to beat the recently released ‘Special Edition’. This edition is special because it includes many of Hemingway’s early drafts showing lots of crossed-out adjectives, handwritten notes, false starts and all 39 discarded endings. The extra material, previously only available from the archives of the Kennedy Library in Boston, gives a fascinating insight into the development of one of the best known and loved novels of the last century, and shows how Hemingway practised his signature style that has since been mimicked by so many, but mastered by so few.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel – nominated by Valerie O’Riordan
I know: this year’s Man Booker winner is an obvious choice, and, you might think, an unadventurous one. For the record, I did briefly debate between this and two others – Kevin Barry’s excellent story collection, Dark Lies The Island, and Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child, a brilliant repudiation of generic constraints. But Mantel won out, simply because I’ve never read a prose stylist that can write with such visceral energy whilst keeping me entranced in the plot – and a plot about the Tudors, in fairness, isn’t something that would otherwise appeal to me. Mantel’s Cromwell is Iago born again, but with a heart, and his own terrors, and her recreation of Anne Boleyn’s final hours is amongst the most powerful fiction (or factual) scenes I’ve ever witnessed. But it’s all in the language! Here’s the opening line: ‘His children are falling from the sky.’ And it never lets up. I waited almost three years for the sequel to Wolf Hall, and I can be a sceptical, easily disappointed reader, rarely wearying of bursting a bubble of hype – but this was worth the wait. I have a signed first edition and I love it.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – nominated by Julie Fisher
My choice is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. This is a deceptively simple story of a man in his retirement, burdened by an unbearable grief, taking stock of his life as he makes the unlikely decision to walk from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed to save his dying friend. Harold is an unusual protagonist: retired, male, middle class and married, not an obvious choice and that’s why I like this book. It’s quirky and fun, but poignant too. There are some beautiful descriptions of the England Harold walks through, plus a cast of sharply observed characters that will linger in the mind. As with all great stories the hidden narrative is the one that moves and Joyce’s skill and mastery over her craft will have you in tears.
Artful by Ali Smith – nominated by Fran Slater
Artful stands out as the best book of 2012 because it is unique. Nowhere else will you find a book that so effortlessly mixes fiction, criticism, and general appreciation of the wonderful effect art has on its admirer’s lives. Artful presents incisive and original discussions of literature, film, theatre, painting, and sculpture, and it does all of this in the wonderfully readable prose of one of the UK’s best stylists. What really takes Artful to another level, though, is the fictional tale that Smith builds all these other discussions around. It is a tale of loss, grief, and recovery. It is a story that highlights the way we miss the things that often annoyed us about our loved ones, and a fantastic portrayal of the way that art forms an integral part of our most important relationships. The fiction in Artful would rival anything else I’ve read this year on its own. Artful really seems like a one-off. It’s difficult to imagine even Ali Smith being able to repeat a similar feat. In a year when the Man Booker Prize once again went to the most obvious candidate, we at Bookmunch should award our accolade to something unique and groundbreaking. Artful seems the perfect choice.
Hawthorn & Child – nominated by David Hebblethwaite
The title characters may be police officers, but Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child is pretty much an anti-detective novel. Its mysteries evaporate; its narratives refuse to cohere; the detectives advance and recede as presences by turns. Any characters who attempt to impose order on the world of the novel are frustrated. Hawthorn & Child is as fully realised a work as I have read all year, in its examination of disjointed lives and a fragmented world. It’s also excellently written, as Ridgway moves dextrously between multiple registers. This is the kind of book that gives you new appreciation for the possibilities of great fiction – and makes you want to read everything else its author has written.
Imagine by Jonah Lehrer – nominated by Lucy Chatburn
My vote for the book of 2012 goes to a non-fiction entry: Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. A pop science book that gets exactly the right balance between catchy anecdotes and hot-off-the-research-press science, Imagine dissects the phenomenon of creativity to explain what happens and how to create the ideal conditions for it at each point in the process. Imagine flows well, keeps the attention and makes every chapter matter (no excess padding here). Lehrer has an astonishing ability to transmit complex ideas in a readable way and to make them relevant to a wide range of people. If you’re involved in any kind of creative activity Imagine will surely give you some new ideas, and if you don’t consider yourself creative in any way you might just change your mind after reading it.
The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy – nominated by James Doyle
When it comes to exploring the state of society, the economic and political influences that shape the individual, most novelists (from Dickens to John Lanchester) make everything bigger, from the plot, the range of characters to the number of pages. Claire Kilroy opted instead to simply make use of the imaginative possibilities of the novel and an allusive, witty, language worthy of James Joyce. Following Tristram St Lawrence’s deals with various devils, from property speculators and, perhaps, Satan himself, The Devil I Know rambles along with an invention and comic energy that is a joy to read (as well as dissecting the greed and blinkered optimism of an unsustainable property boom). The dialogue is quotable, the characters are grotesquely realistic while the plot twists recent history to comic effect; this is a defining novel that could have been a great sitcom, and it is all the better for that.
The Mara Crossing – nominated by Maia Nikitina
Ruth Padel’s The Mara Crossing is the most memorable book of 2012 for me. I am not usually a great reader of poetry, preferring to get my teeth into a good story, but this collection of poems and essays on migration hooked me both with its beautiful, intricate language and its fascinating concepts. The dark meaning of Mara, a word associated with death in many cultures, is personal to Padel, who witnessed a crossing of wildebeest at the Mara River in Kenia. Hundreds of them die each year during the crossing, and yet the species continue to migrate twice a year, there and back, pushed by a need we all share of keeping on moving. An exploration of our pull towards the unknown, towards change no matter what dangers await,is one of those books that would stay relevant for many years to come.
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson – nominated by Claire Snook
Be prepared to suspend beliefs and reality for a gorgeously simple book filled with old men, gangsters, murderers, strong red-headed women, suitcases filled with money and random coincidences for this fun story. This book is great as It’s a farce; sometimes you can hear the Benny Hill music tinkling in the background as the hundred-year-old man goes on the run with a variety of people he meets along the way. They don’t have anywhere in particular to go, but life throws a number of things at them as they travel to get there, closely followed by a weary policeman. Jonasson is a good storyteller who throws twists and corpses at the reader, but in a delightful way. It’s absurd, ridiculous and at once entirely plausible.
It may seem somewhat perverse to have that my ‘new book of the year’ is old material from an author four years dead – and that isn’t even a book of his writing. But these interviews are jagged gems, the fascinating fruits of a truly unique and individual mind which are every bit as engrossing and unique as Ballard’s stories – sometimes more so. This genial gent was as at home discussing Salvador Dali, the architecture of concrete underpasses or the videos of Grace Jones, and just as intriguing on each. The book is a great testament to an often misunderstood writer – not a sci-fi satirist but a perverse evangelist for the modern age, or as he puts it, a chronicler of “the real England – the M25, the world of business parks and industrial estates and executive housing, sports clubs and marinas, cineplexes, CCTV, car rental forecourts.”
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – nominated by Naomi Frisby
The Garden of Evening Mists has no gimmicks or tricks, it’s simply great storytelling. Great storytelling transports you to another world and we’re taken to Malaya during WWII and the Japanese occupation. Our guide is Teoh Yun Ling, a survivor of the prisoner of war camps who went on to become a lawyer, prosecuting war criminals. Now Teoh is retiring and she returns to the garden she created with Japanese exile Nakamura Aritomo. Teoh is a complex character out of step with her time – she is feisty, intelligent, happy to do manual work, chooses to live alone during the occupation and never marries. This book is not just a beautifully written tale that slowly reveals its fascinating secrets, it’s also a celebration of a strong woman. It should have won the Booker.
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore – nominated by Ebba Brooks
I was prepared to hate this book – it’s about a middle aged man taking a walking holiday in Germany, for goodness sake – but from the first page, it wooed me with its pinpoint accurate prose, and the growing sense of a compelling story lurking just beneath the surface. Who knew that the adventures of a wimpy character named Futh could be so gripping or arouse such pity? The Lighthouse deservedly made the shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize: it’s so well written. I loved the way that objects – lighthouse-shaped perfume bottles in particular – occur and reoccur throughout the book, gathering meaning. Out of discarded pieces of everyday life, Moore subtly constructs a sense of foreboding, and enormous pathos. The whole thing is quiet, understated, and it grows on you. I read this book, loved it and wept – then enjoyed the echoes that stayed with me long after I’d finished it. For originality, and sheer fine writing, this book is my pick.
Building Stories by Chris Ware – nominated by Peter Wild
Although there were maybe half a dozen novels I really enjoyed this year – Canada by Richard Ford, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam, Silver by Andrew Motion, Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes – and maybe the same number again of graphic novels – Jerusalem by Guy Delisle, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2009 by Alan Moore, The Hive by Charles Burns, Journalism by Joe Sacco and Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by Bryan and Mary Talbot – there was one book that for stood head and shoulders above all of these and that book was Building Stories by Chris Ware. When you start reading, when you are first gripped by the bug, it is because someone somewhere in the world has produced something that touches you and resonates with you and impresses you and moves you and makes you laugh and makes you cry and makes you think all at the same time. As you get older, reading gets more complicated and the books that restore your faith, like a bolt of lightning, are so few and far between as to occasionally leave you wondering if you’ll ever have that feeling again. Reading Building Stories is like reading the first book that ever blew your socks off. It’s a solid feat of craftsmanship and invention, a beautiful object and a wistful wake-up call to make you look at your life and appreciate every moment.