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My Outstanding Reads of 2012

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I read 87 books in 2012 and started 2 more that I didn’t bother to finish. Although it probably is apparent from my blog, perhaps I should explain that I only review books that excite and impress me. My life is far too crowded to expend energy I don’t have on reading and writing about books I don’t like. So the books that make this list are the best of the best – those that have lodged in my shockingly bad memory, providing me with a slice of escapist magic. Or an extra insight into this higgledy-piggledy mess that has ended up being my life.

The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe
devilintheforestThe huge forest rustles with hidden food and threats, the river offers fish and the risk of drowning – and threading through all this is the scalding knowledge that life is precarious and cheap. And Mark has been caught between overwhelming forces.

The writing is pin-sharp and exquisite, with wonderful dialogue, superb scene setting and an interesting cast of characters, who are initially offered up as ciphers – and then, refuse to behave as you’d expect. As the violence escalates and events spin out of control, this tale gripped me and would not let go. And by the end, I had a clearer understanding of what it meant to be a peasant in a small village during the Dark Ages – despite the fact that I have a teaching Degree in History and regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable about that period.

The Last Family in England by Matt Haig
Prince is an earnest young dog, striving hard to live up to the tenets of the Labrador Pact (Remain Loyal to Your Human Masters, lastfamilyinenglandServe and Protect Your Family at Any Cost). Other dogs, led by the Springer Spaniels, have revolted. Their slogans are ‘Dogs for Dogs, not for Humans’ and ‘Pleasure not Duty’. Mentored by an elderly Labrador called Henry, Prince takes his responsibilities seriously, and as things in the Hunter family begin to go badly awry – marital breakdown, rowdy teenage parties, attempted suicide – his responsibilities threaten to overwhelm him. And down in the park it’s even worse. Henry has disappeared: Falstaff the Springer Spaniel wants to lead Prince astray… What will he do next?

I got sucked in by the comedic cover and Jeanette Winterson’s description that the book is fabulous and moving and funny and strange. And – yes – she’s absolutely right, it’s all of those things. It’s also poignantly sad. The simple writing style is deceptive – Haig is dealing with some hefty issues in this slight book. Because, of course, this book is actually nothing at all to do with dogs – it is about choosing how to live your life. Are you going to bounce through like a Springer Spaniel, carefully avoiding any commitment? Or shoulder responsibilities even if they buckle you in the process? It behoves everyone to sometimes take the time to reconsider their choices – and this small book should be required reading for everyone.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
zoocityZinzi December is an ex-journalist trying to rebuild her life after having been involved in the death of her brother. But in this alternate world, those who feel particularly guilty find themselves paired with an animal who may or may not contain the soul of the person they wronged. Beukes doesn’t spend a great deal of time on exposition, but the first person narrative is at times interspersed with other documents – and the academic treatise on the prejudice against ‘zoos’ is examined, along with its causes. Zinzi is bonded with Sloth, who she has to have reasonably close, or die a painful, terrifying death – but in addition, zoos have a gift. Zinzi’s is an ability to find lost things that she visualises floating above people.

And the Zoo City? A slum area in Johannesburg, inhabited by criminals – mostly accompanied by their animals. This is a vivid and richly different world, where the African slang words and rhythms rang with authenticity, along with the slick, wonderfully worded metaphorical language.  But don’t take my word for it – if you are remotely interested in speculative fiction and haven’t already got hold of this book, then do so. It is one of those books that will still be discussed ten years from now as a benchmark read of 2010/11.

The Hare With the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
This winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award was fervently recommended by my sister-in-law, so I decided to give it a try – harewiththeambereyesalthough to be honest, the blurb didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

264 Japanese wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the netsuke, they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined. From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siècle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century. For de Waal, a noted potter in his own right, just happens to belong to one of the major Jewish banking families who operated out of Vienna, Paris and London at the height of their powers.

Using a collection of objects as the nucleus of the narrative was inspired and probably made it possible to consider recounting the trauma caused by the Nazi’s aggression and the vicious anti-Sematic comments and open prejudice that winds a dark thread through this account. This book is a testament to the sheer resilience and toughness of a family who have managed to not only endure being ripped apart, stripped of all their property and evicted from their country of birth – but thrive. Along with their collection of Japanese figures.

Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
lightbornLightborn is a revolutionary new technology that has transformed the modern world. Better known as ‘shine’, it is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment – beamed directly into the mind of anyone who can meet the asking price. But what do you do if the shine in question has a mind of its own…?

We follow the fortunes of two youngsters, Roksana and Xavia as they struggle to cope when life in the Arizona town of La Sombre falls apart as the adults all go mad. This being Sullivan, don’t expect classic dystopian, ‘Oh my God, the world is falling apart, isn’t this awful?’ What marks her out as such a joy to read, is that she is an author who assumes her readers are intelligent enough to keep up without having everything spelt out. So as we watch both Roksana and Xavia’s characters mature throughout the catastrophe and follow their personal griefs and coping strategies, their personal stories steadily unfold. Her writing, as ever, is wonderful. Dialogue is pitch perfect and the passages describing the sentient lightborn as it interacts with the human brain is brutal and beautiful. As you may have gathered, I highly rate this book. But don’t take my word for it – go find a copy and read it yourself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is an autobiography about Jeanette Winterson’s unusual and destructive childhood that was partly covered in her fictional whybehappyversion, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She was adopted by the Winterson’s, who were Pentecostalists. That could still have worked out just fine – except that Mrs Winterson was very disappointed with Jeanette almost from the start when she proved to be baby that cried a lot…. And from there it slid away into disaster. Mostly because you wouldn’t want to let Mrs Winterson near any breathing being – and the thought of having the small child depicted on the cover of the book at her mercy makes me feel queasy.

What this book isn’t, though, is one of the misery memoirs that hit the shelves a few years back. Jeanette Winterson would rather rip her tongue out by the roots than have her readers pity her. She was far too busy questing for books and finding ways to survive Mrs Winterson’s depressive and self-destructive attitude to Life. Indeed, she appeared to not only survive, but outright thrive once she fought free of Accrington. This book deserves to be read at least once by anyone who’s had a bumpy childhood. You’ll come away feeling empowered and admiring.

Age of Aztec – Book 4 in the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove
ageofaztecThe date is 4 Jaguar 1 Monday 1 House; November 25th 2012 by the old reckoning. The Aztec Empire rules the world, in the name of Quetzalcoatl – the Feathered Serpent – and her brother gods. The Aztec reign is one of cruel and ruthless oppression, fuelled by regular human sacrifice. In the jungle-infested city of London, one man defies them: the masked vigilante known as the Conquistador.

We follow the exploits of the Conquistador as he rebels against the might of the Aztec Empire for his own reasons – a personal tragedy that sums up, for him, all that is wrong with the current regime. Britain had been one of the last countries on the planet to fall under Aztec domination and as a patriot, the Conquistador – or Stuart Reston, to use his everyday identity – yearns for the country’s lost freedom. But as the chase between Stuart and Mal intensifies, the unique twists that Lovegrove has made his own in this series transform this book into something far cleverer and more memorable. This page-turner has its own share of dark humour as well as well-rounded protagonists that we care about. Lovegrove’s smart intellect shines through his prose and shows in the pin-sharp perfection of his pacing and plot structure.

The startling backdrop – London simmers in equatorial heat as monkeys and creepers infest the streets with ziggurats littering the landscape – is well described without holding up the action. Which is just as well, because this book starts with a bang and doesn’t let up till the final, shocking climax.

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
This classic Fantasy tale – knocking around long before Harry Potter was a twinkle in Rowling’s eye – was always a firm favourite with littlebroomstickall my classes when I taught. I dug out my copy and read it to my granddaughter. Despite the unfashionably long descriptive passages, the narrative was sufficiently engrossing that it held her rapt right through to the end.

Quite right, too. I’d forgotten what a little gem it is, with beautifully flowing and evocative prose the whips the story along at a fair clip. Mary Smith is ten years old and due to an unfortunate illness and bad timing, finds herself parked with Great-Aunt Charlotte in her large house, Red Manor, in the heart of Shropshire right at the end of the summer holidays. There is nothing much to do. Until she encounters a beautiful black cat called Tib with glowing green eyes, who leads her to a rare flower in the middle of the woods…. And from that beginning, the adventure whisks up its young readers and doesn’t let up until the final page. Plain Mary Smith is an enjoyable, appealing protagonist who is just the right mix of innocence and quick wittedness. But there are also a strong cast of supporting characters – particularly the wonderfully creepy Madam Mumblechook and her sidekick, Doctor Dee.

Endor College, educational establishment of witches and black magic, is vividly described and until I read this again to Frankie, I’d forgotten just how disturbing it is. Under the cosy touches – ‘Badness me’ as an exclamation, for instance – there is real menace. Stewart’s wonderful description of Tib does more than mark her out as a cat lover – it also highlights the contrast between the lithe, independent creature who befriends Mary and the twisted toadlike thing he becomes thanks to Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. And the reason why they expend all this magical energy and effort to transform Tib and a host of other creatures? Because they can.  Stewart gives youngsters a powerful insight into the nature of evil – all too often it isn’t about world domination with overblown, pantomime-type characters that slide into the ridiculous. It is about people in everyday situations who abuse the power they have to twist and torment those powerless to prevent them.

The Broken Kingdoms – Book 2 of The Inheritance trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
thebrokenkingdomsLike all really good writers – and Jemisin is certainly that – she assumes that her readers are bright enough to join up the dots without spelling out every last nuance and allusion. So it becomes interesting to see characters we’ve already got to know well from an entirely different viewpoint.

However, what has this book humming is the vibrant story of Oree and her injured refugee. I’d intended to read a couple of chapters – but Jemisin’s magical prose drew me in and before I knew it, I was nearly at the end of the book. In addition to a cracking plot with various twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, there is Oree’s spiky character. She is an endearing protagonist – a great mix of gritted stubbornness and vulnerability. The supporting cast are a wonderful mix of godlings, gods and driven individuals, whose power and capacity to hold a grudge produce a deadly cocktail of vengeful anger. We are given a ringside seat at an immortal family tragedy from a mortal’s viewpoint, with Oree stuck right in middle of the immortal scrap – a very neat trick to pull off. As an additional treat, following the genre convention, Jemisin isn’t afraid to give us flights of descriptive prose that verses on the poetic.
I was completely drawn into the action – and found the ending moving and appropriate. Not only does The Broken Kingdom manage to live up to the promise shown in A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, it surpassed my expectations. If this excellent series has somehow slipped past your radar, I highly recommend it.

Stray Souls – Book 1 of the Magicals Anonymous series by Kate Griffin
This is set in the same world – and the same backdrop – as Griffin’s highly successful Midnight Mayor series, featuring Matthew Swift straysoulsas her conflicted and very powerful protagonist. I expected an action-packed plot wound full of tension and vivid descriptions of some of the less wholesome parts of London, which I certainly got – but what was a delightful surprise were the laugh-aloud moments. And this book is full of them. Griffin’s humour is pitch-perfect and a wonderful counterpoint to the full-on action and pathos. A book that leaves me with a lump in my throat while making me laugh always has a special place in my heart – it doesn’t happen all that often. And if Griffin’s descriptions leap off the page, then her dialogue is a joy – pin-sharp, funny and perceptive.

As for the ending, it was beautifully handled – both satisfying and poignant. All in all, while Griffin’s books have always been excellent, Stray Souls is outstanding and the best urban fantasy book I’ve read this year.