Thursday, 3 January 2013

Favourite Books of 2012

I’ve read a lot of books this year, not just for my own pleasure but for several book review sites - Book Munch, the Indie E-Book Review site, Awesome Indies and the BookTweeting service.  The books I was given weren’t always the ones I’d have chosen myself, but they were an interesting mixture and I read a wider range of material than normal - books like Stephen Dixon’s dystopian American short stories, paranormal romances like Linda Gillard’s Glass Guardian, fast-paced disaster-movie novels like Joni Rodger's The Hurricane Lovers set in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina.  I read young adult novels and urban fantasy and chicklit romance.  Sometimes I was well out of my comfort zone, but I think it’s done me good.  It’s too easy to become a ‘cozy’ reader.  That’s fatal for a writer - you have to challenge yourself continually.

Among all the books I read, a large proportion of them were Indie published e-books and when I came to make my list of favourites, four of them made it to the short-list, which is quite an achievement given the competition.  There is real quality out there on the self-published cyber-shelves.  Significantly, several of the other books I loved were published by very small independent presses such as Salt, Peirene, or Quercus.

In the literary fiction category I loved Bella Pollen’s 20th century historical novel the Summer of the Bear.  Set in Scotland during the cold war it tells the story of a family trying to come to terms with the sudden death of their father and their mother’s disintegration.  Beautifully written, it is heart-wrenchingly good.  You’ll have to forgive the adverbs! 

Quite a few of the books I’ve read this year seem to have light in the title - two of them with lighthouses at the centre of the plot. Alison Moore’s first novel The Lighthouse, published by a small independent press called Salt, made it to the Booker shortlist.  It’s a very different kind of prose - spare with a very strong sub-text and a tightly controlled plot.  Very impressive.  As was Christopher Burns’ A Division of the Light published by another small press, Quercus.  Chris Burns has several novels under his belt - one of them with a Whitbread award.  He’s a very classy writer.

In the crime and thriller category the outright winners were two independently published books.  Avril Joy’s first thriller, Blood Tide, featuring private investigator Danny Beck, is set in Newcastle.  It manages to be both a sensitive character study and a compelling mystery.  I finished it wondering when I could read the next!   John AA Logan’s The Survival of Thomas Ford was one of the Indie success stories of 2012, reaching the Amazon #1 spot on a number of occasions.  It’s a chilling, dark, psychological thriller written in faultless prose.

After scaring myself witless over Thomas Ford I needed a bit of comfort food and found it in the gentle, feel-good romance The Dress, written by Sophie Nicholls and another Amazon #1 indie best-seller. Sophie is a Salt published poet who chose to go down the indie route for her first novel.  She is now working on a trilogy about the refugee mother and daughter at the heart of the story and I’ll definitely be there waiting when it comes out.   The other romantic novel that made it to the short-list is Catherine Czerkowska’s Curiosity Cabinet, set in Scotland and pitch-perfect for curling up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire.  I read a couple of other books by Catherine, including her Polish epic the Amber Heart and her short stories, A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture, but the Curiosity Cabinet is the one that stayed with me.

2012 was notable for the amount of really good literature in translation that found it’s way onto the internet and into the bookshops.  Probably the best book I read in 2012 was Satantango by Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by poet George Szirtes.  It’s a masterpiece of European literature.  I also discovered Peirene Press - a very small publisher producing novellas translated from a variety of European languages.  They were all good, but my favourite was probably The Brothers by Finnish author Asko Sahlberg.  It’s a breath of fresh air to find writers working within a different story-telling tradition and outside the creative writing factory that’s generating so much work in the UK and America.

Many of the books I read this year were poetry and it was difficult to choose from so much good stuff.   But the collections that moved me most were Whistle by UK poet Martin Figura - an account of his life in care after the murder of his mother by his father - and Here Bullet by American war poet Brian Turner   His beautiful poems, written during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, were among some of the finest I have ever read.   Another American poet, Robert Hass, has a collected volume recording a lifetime in poetry called The Apple Trees at Olema, and that stays on my bedside table to dip into again and again.  Alongside Seamus Heaney, Les Murray and Carol Ann Duffy, he is one of the contemporary greats of the English speaking world.

Non-fiction?  There were three books I really enjoyed - all three of them by writers who are also good poets.  Robert Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning is a series of essays on poetry and literature and mythology and there are some memorable passages.  My copy is dog-eared and underlined all the way through - it was one of the books I read first as an e-book and then realised I had to have the hard copy!  Also compelling was Kapka Kassabova’s Twelve Minutes of Love - a searingly honest memoir about her addiction to Tango and her search for love around the world.  I read it because I’d loved her memoir of childhood in iron-curtain Bulgaria and I wasn’t disappointed.   I bought Julia Blackburn’s Thin Paths because it told the story of the high pathways and abandoned villages of northern Italy, close to where I’m living.  It’s a lovely book, with excerpts from letters and memoirs of the people who once lived on those high, remote terraces and can remember a vanished way of life.

I read many more good and enjoyable books, but these are the ones that have ‘stuck’ in my mind long after I finished reading.    There will be less reading for pleasure in 2013 because I’m working on a new biography and already have a stack of books written by or about my subject waiting for my attention.  Which is a pity, because there are some very, very good books around.  They’ll just have to keep until I’ve finished!

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