Sunday, 23 December 2012

Books of the Year 2012

Yuletide be here again, and with it the inevitable lists. I'm not going to do separate ones this year: here they all are, in time for any last minute Christmas shopping that you may be doing. Of course I've already done mine. Naturally. I won't be wandering the shops on Monday. At all.

Here goes:

Alan Garner: matter of Britain
Fiction of the year 2012

Boneland by Alan Garner is a very strange book, but also a very compelling one. It rounds off the story begun by The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in an intelligent and insightful manner. Highly recommended. Another literary offspring is Andrew Motion's Silver, which takes up the tale of Jim Hawkin's son as he returns to Treasure Island. It's a beautiful, glossy creature, and enthralling. Back in Tudorland we find Hilary Mantel on tingly form in Bring up the Bodies: I may be the only person in the world not to love it as much as I loved Wolf Hall, but it's still head and ruff above the rest. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs is an elegant novella about imprisonment; and Deborah Levy's Swimming Home is a spookily brilliant middle-class holiday novel with a twist. Finally, Ali Smith's Artful is a dazzlingly engrossing semi-fictional meta-fiction, if there can be such a thing: her quicksilver mind and lightning connections will leave you gasping for more.

Non-fiction of the year

I've read no new non-fiction this year at all. A Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers came out a while ago, but it's worth a mention - a charming, lively and enchanting account of the things that make up our conception of the unicorn. I was intrigued to learn that certain herdsmen induce their animals to grow one horn, and make them the leaders of their herds - this gives them greater power. Our horsey, gentle, mystical creature arises from a fascinating mishmash of real animals and legends. City of the Sharpnosed Fish by Peter Parsons also came out a while ago, but is a very enjoyable study of the papyrus fragments that came out of Oxyrhyncus and which don't, on the whole, contain new poems by Sappho, but do show a rich and detailed picture of ordinary life in a Hellenistic Egyptian city. Oxyrhyncus had such a hold on the imagination that the novelist Ronald Firbank wrote a scene in which Professor Inglepin reads a new Sapphic fragment: "In plain English," the professor said with some reluctance, "It means: Could not [he wagged a finger] Could not, for the fury of her feet."

Antigone at the National
Orpheus: The Song of Life by Anne Wroe is as beautiful to read and magical as its subject, whilst The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deustcher is an account of how language is how it is which will leave your brain fizzing with delight and joy.

Poetry of the year

Antigonick by Anne Carson is my overall book of the year. It's absolutely marvellous: spooky, finely-tuned and compulsive, a version of Sophocles' Antigone which powers on like a lit fuse. Sidereal by Rachel Boast  is an extraordinary debut: considered, careful, rich and multilayered, with many striking images: "Behind the house the dark rooms / in a shape called forest." Almost Invisible by Mark Strand is a series of haunting, witty and wise prose poems.

Classics of the year

Loving, Living and Party Going by Henry Green is a new source of celebration for me. These three novels are so rich, and with a sideways approach to language which compels and grips.  Party going in particular is almost indescribably good: dense yet vivid, it takes place in the confines of a railway station whilst all around the fog whirls. Green should be up there with Evelyn Waugh in the pantheon: but he's also one of those writers that I will now keep as a secret favourite, to be savoured often. The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice is an obscure radio play which is an adaptation of the line "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." A strange, dreamy experience. Another obscurer couple of classics which I have rediscovered are Craven House by Patrick Hamilton, a gas-lit study of hypocrisy in a boarding house, and The Violins of Saint Jacques, Patrick Leigh-Fermor's only novel, which tells the splendid tale of a Caribbean island ripped apart. I was reading Edmund Gosse's Father and Son in a crowded pub when someone said it must be a terribly gloomy book because of the grim photograph on the cover: how wrong could he have been. This is a seminal memoir of a youthful spirit breaking out. A special mention should also go to Robert Aickman's banjaxed ghost stories in The Unsettled Dust.

I've been re-indulging in a lot of drama this year: The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, which I didn't get to see at the Donmar, so read instead - boisterous fun. There are some lines in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi which still have the power to make me stand and stare; and of course, every time I read William Shakespeare's Macbeth it's like being doused in flame and blood.

Children's Books of the Year

The Changeling by Philippa Gregory is a perfect young adult confection, featuring a devilishly handsome young monk and a beautiful, disinherited aristocrat. Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass is as zany and inventive as any of her books, whilst Eva Ibbotson's The Abominables is a swan song for a fine talent. Black Arts by Prentice and Weil is an intelligent thriller set in an Elizabethan London throbbing with spirits, whilst Philip Reeve's Goblins! is a delightful take on the orc-and-sword fantasy.

Caroline Lawrence's The Poisoned Honey Cake is a joy, instructive and witty about ancient Rome; and no boy worth his salt will be able to put down Atomic! by Guy Bass, a comic book mash up throbbing with kinetic energy. More eerie and strange is Fright Forest by Marcus Sedgwick; Kate Saunders' The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop is a hilarious and clever fantasy featuring a giant talking cat - and talking wallpaper.
My book of the year, though, is threefold - I can't choose between them.  Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher is a blackly brilliant fantasy containing Dr Dee, fairies, time travel and a genie; Maggot Moon by Sall Gardner is a striking and bold young adult novel; and The Diviners by Libba Bray is simply marvellous, featuring quite the best heroine to be found in young adult fiction and beyond, a gin-swilling flapper with psychic powers.

Bummer of the year

The time I spent reading Karl Ove Knausgaard's godawful memoir A Death in the Family is time I would dearly like back. How a book like this can be hailed as a masterpiece across so many countries and yet read like such a draining nightmare is beyond me. It's about as much fun as sticking red hot needles into your eyes whilst somebody drags their nails down a blackboard.

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