What I Read In 2011

nedstarkjpgI realise this probably should have been posted on New Year’s Eve or something but it’s taken a metric age to write. It’s also been a pain trying to decide which books to include because I read a lot and this post would be enormous if I listed everything. Thankfully, Amazon allow you to list everything you bought by year and… oh giddy Christ, did I really buy 60 books on my Kindle in 2011?

Swords, revenge and meat

The latter part of the year was dominated by George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. Having missed this on TV the first time around when everyone was raving about it, I watched the repeat and after the first episode went straight off and bought the first book. Epic is probably the word which comes most to mind when talking about Game of Thrones. It’s simply gigantic. For anyone unfamiliar with the books, some of them are so gargantuan that they’re split into two separate books. This is one of my dreams come true – an amazing book which never ends! I kind of grew out of fantasy novels after Dragonlance when I was about 14, but Game of Thromes is fabulously well-written, utterly gripping and intricately-plotted.

Last year also saw my introduction to Jonathan Franzen with Freedom and The Corrections. All the hype about Freedom when it first came out put me off a bit. I thought it was going to be one of those worthy but ultimately tedious books about self-discovery or whatever but a work colleague kept telling me how great it was until the day came when I was choosing holiday reading for two weeks in Thailand. When I got around to reading it, let me tell you, I have never spent so much time in a hammock. The only time I stopped reading it was when the Kindle battery ran out or I had to go and eat.

In this and The Corrections, Franzen has a wonderful knack of creating utterly dislikeable characters which the reader actually sympathises with. In The Corrections, I thought Chip was the biggest twat alive but somehow I wanted his dreadful book to be published and him to get back from exploiting Lithuanians in time for Christmas.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver remains one of my favourite ghost stories ever. Written from the point of view of the rather downtrodden and nihilistic Jack, it unravels a sparely-written tale of an unlucky expedition to the Arctic in the 1930s. It’s short, but it manages to be creepy, intriguing and psychologically unsettling. It’s beautifully atmospheric but my lasting impression is the ‘wet round head’ silhouetted against the moon.

Political correctness

For those of you who thought this was going to be a post consisting entirely of me rhapsodising about booked I liked, here’s one I didn’t like. Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell. I have kept buying Rendell’s books over the years because I knew pretty much what I’d be getting and out of a sense of trust that I probably wouldn’t be let down. I think the time may have come to stop. Rendell’s books for the last few years seem to be fixated on political correctness and highlighting examples of it. The dialogue has been old-fashioned and clunky and there’s a sense of trying too hard to make younger characters trendy. In Tigerlily’s Orchids, the main character Stuart is vapid and idiotic, his paramour Claudia is a cliche on legs and the exaggerated characterisation of the hippies and the alcoholic just make it a difficult reading experience and not even a particularly rewarding one.

More film-inspired reading came in the shape of Red Queen: The Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle by Anne Perkins about the Labour MP of the same name. The film that inspired this was Made In Dagenham, for the uninitiated, MID was a film about the female workers at the Dagenham Ford car factory who went on strike in 1968 over equal pay and Barbara Castle pops up in this film when she intervened in the strike which led to the Equal Pay Act 1970. I had only been vaguely aware of her existence before this film and it made me want to find out more. It’s a fascinating read about an outspoken female MP in an arena where few women worked.

Having previously read Michel Faber’s dark Under the Skin, the very gothic TV adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White obviously appealed. Narrated by the well-read and articulate Victorian prostitute, Sugar, the book is by turns mesmerising, grubby, unpleasant yet irresistably voyeuristic as the reader follows the twists and turns of Sugar’s life. Class divides and sexual politics are at the forefront of the story, but never in a way that overtakes the story itself.

Financial meltdown hasn’t been far from our consciousness for the last few years and Robert Harris’s The Fear Index goes behind the scenes at a hedge fund who have developed an algorithmic trading system. For those whose job isn’t to know what that means, it’s a computer which identifies where profits can be made from trades rather than relying on coked-up City boys. The book’s title refers to a financial index, VIX, which represents market expectation of volatility which basically means it relies on human reaction to price-affecting events in the markets. Some bits of this book are great and it’s a gripping read, though it occasionally dips into the ridiculous but then it’s supposed to be entertainment so one can’t be too hard on it. Without giving too much away, an alternative title could have been ‘When Computers Go Bad’.

Charlie Parker returns

John Connolly’s tortured private detective Charlie Parker saw his eleventh tour of duty in The Burning Soul this year. I am a huge fan of Connolly, especially the Charlie Parker series, which I discovered by way of an Observer book review of The Unquiet a few years ago. One of my literary weaknesses is detective novels but Connolly has added a dimension of the supernatural into his books. In the hands of a less sympathetic author this might turn out badly – supernatural is hard to do convincingly – but in his hands it’s chilling and done in a way which merely hints at what is hidden from our view. Dark, violent and frequently terrifying, I can’t think of anything else out there that’s similar.

I’m also a bit of a sucker for stories where someone runs away and gets a new identity. That probably says something psychologically-analysable about me, but whatever, I like that sort of thing. In Monica Ali’s Untold Story, the new identity belongs to none other than the late Princess Diana who somehow managed to fake her own death and start a new life in smalltown America after the pre-requisite plastic surgery etc. To be honest, I bought this less because it was about Diana but because of the premise. It had quite a few negative reviews and I can see why. The characters are two-dimensional and it just doesn’t live up to what it should have been. That said, it’s an intriguing story and surprisingly made me want to read that Diana biography, which I haven’t got around to yet but there’s a whole 11 and a half months of 2012 ahead of me so there’s still time.

Honourable mentions

Serena Mackesy’s Hold My Hand, another running-away story, this time a battered wife and her daughter escaping the violent husband to a spooky Cornish manor house. Again, I am a big fan of Mackesy, who also wrote The Temp (one of my all-time favourites). Hold My Hand is eerie and beautifully gothic. Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch draws inevitable comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s excellent Neverwhere, but manages to combine a police procedural genre with magic, history and murder in a way that’s always engrossing. This was another holiday read and I think I read it pretty much in one day.

Finally, having read Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall and Beyond Black, I’d left A Place Of Greater Safety mainly because I wasn’t sure how interesting I’d find it but I’m pleased to say I was utterly wrong. Set during the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton are linked by Camille Desmoulins and their story shows the Revolution in the out-of-control way it must have felt like to those living through it. Mantel’s skill at combining history and fiction makes for fantastic readability.

Aaaanyway, these were just a few of the books I read in 2011. Having received some Amazon gift vouchers for my birthday (thanks Dad!) I’m currently devising my next list of purchases though the way Game Of Thrones is going, I’ll be reading that for… oooh, at least the next eight months. Possibly nine.

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