Friday, 7 January 2011

My Top Ten Books of 2010

Over the year I have managed to read a lot of books and unsurprisingly I have enjoyed some more than others for a variety of reasons. So here are my top ten books of last year with a little bit about each book and why I enjoyed them so much. These are not books that were necessarily published in 2010, just books that I read during the course of the year.

10. The Story of Forgetting - Stefan Block

This is a beautiful story about a two women both suffering from early onset Alzheimer's disease which told from the stand point of close family members. Both stories are well crafted and compliment each other effectively whilst drawing the reader into their worlds to experience the pain of watching a relative succumb to this disease. There are several other strong stories laced carefully into these tales of Alzheimer's and I think that this is where the true beauty and heart of the book lies.

9. Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

I am a long-time fan of Nick Hornby but even I have had to admit that many of his recent books haven't quite managed to match the appeal of his earlier works such as High Fidelity and About a Boy. But with Juliet, Naked it felt as if he had got his spark back. Perhaps it was his return to writing about a man obsessed with music, something very close to his heart, which has brought the magic back to his story telling. There were occasional elements of Juliet, Naked which seemed slightly unbelievable, but they were necessary for the story so I felt I could forgive them. I still wouldn't say that Nick Hornby has quite returned to the full form of his earlier books but I was pleasantly surprised with this new book which allowed me to return to his writing with a feeling of enjoyment rather than strange obligation.

8. Lunar Park – Bret Easton Ellis

In the middle of the year I read three of Bret Easton Ellis' books back to back – American Psycho, Lunar Park and The Rules of Attraction. Although I found American Psycho compelling it is not really my sort of thing, but it was enough (along with Ellis' reputation) for me to be intrigued to read further. I next read Lunar Park and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am aware that in a lot of ways Lunar Park is not really typical of much of Ellis' work both in style and content, so maybe I will be a one book only fan. It starts out telling a semi-fictional account of his own rise to fame including a fictional family. It then charts his descent into paranoia (possibly drug induced) through the haunting of his family home by a terrifying toy bird. I think that this book was reminiscent of American Psycho in the way Ellis mixes horror and humour and I was once again pleasantly surprised with Lunar Park as I had certainly had my reservations. Lastly, I read The Rules of Attraction which I found boring and nothing-y. Perhaps it's genius was lost on me, but overall these three books gave me fairly mixed feelings about Bret Easton Ellis.

7. Millennium Trilogy - Stieg Larsson

I know that this is a bit of a cheat as technically this is three books but they cannot really be ignored as books of the year and I am not sure I could chose one of the books as a stand alone favourite anyway. I am sure everything that could be said about these books has been said due their far-reaching success this year and although many have been critical about their success it cannot be denied that with this trilogy Larsson has created an addictive story with compelling characters. Perhaps he doesn't have the best literary style (although this is harder to tell when being read in translation), and perhaps he isn't particularly original, but I think that any book which is so widely read and enjoyed is always important and it is books like this that push forward the book industry and I don't think I will ever be able to fully criticise a book which encourages so many people to read more.

6. The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester

During this year I also had a passing idea that I would read all the books that had ever won the Hugo Award, an idea that was quickly ended due to the fact that many of the older winning books have fallen out of print (and it would probably take a year to read them all). However, The Demolished Man which won the first Hugo Award way back in 1953 is still available (thank you to SF Masterworks for the reprint). I will admit I was sceptical at first knowing that science fiction can age badly, however I found this not to be the case at all for The Demolished Man. The story of a police investigation into a murder using telepathic as well as normal police methods, still seems fresh and unusual, and although I cannot claim to have read extensively in the science fiction genre, The Demolished Man seemed to be ahead of it's time in it's approach and ideas. I already have another book by Bester, The Stars My Destination (also published as Tiger! Tiger!), in my waiting to be read pile.

5. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is another book which I am sure needs no introduction to most people. It has been sitting on my shelf for five, or maybe more, years and for some reason I have always been quite intimidated by reading it. For some reason classics like this scare me a bit with a feeling that they are going to be over complicated and I might not understand them, but now (as with all the classics I have braved), I don't know what I was worried about! Like The Demolished Man, Brave New World has mostly stood the test of time well, a lot of the differences can be easily attributed to the fact that the world of Brave New World is so different to our own, even if these differences are perhaps caused by the fact that the novel was written so long ago. The only glaring discrepancy to me was the use of sleep-teaching, which since this novel was written has been disproved, but something like this was easy to overlook within the context of the rest of the story. I won't get into the details of Brave New World, there is too much to say, but it gave me plenty to think about; always a good thing in my opinion.

4. Sovereign – C.J. Sansom

This year I also read three books by C.J. Sansom; the first three in his Shardlake series. Sovereign was my favourite of the three, but obviously I recommend that if you are interested you read the other two (Dissolution and Dark Fire) first. Sovereign is the third of five (although there might be more to come) in this series of crime novels set in England under the reign of Henry VIII which follow Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, as he is enlisted by various powerful members of society to help solve mysterious murders and crimes. Although these books are full of history, a lot of which I wasn't familiar with, I found that any learning I did was secondary to my enjoyment of the story. The intrigue is high and the characterisation strong, and this carries the novels making them enjoyable and addictive. The setting in the time period is well used as it is an exciting time in English history, and not just due to Henry's many wives. I think the reason the third was my favourite was due to it being set in York, where I used to live, so I loved reading about all these things that had happened in places I could easily picture. I've taken a bit of a break from the series but can't wait to return to it to read Revelation and Heartstone.

3. So Many Ways to Begin – Jon McGregor

As with The Story of Forgetting I think one of the most seductive things about So Many Ways to Begin is McGregor's beautiful use of language. This is a well crafted book that although could be described as slow, is in no way boring. A large amount of this book focuses on the largely normal life of a middle aged man, yet in the hands of McGregor it is poetic and authentic. There isn't too much else I can say about this novel, I am not sure it will be for everyone but I enjoyed every second of it. So much did I not want it to end that I borrowed his new book from the library, Even the Dogs, unfortunately I hated every second of this book and eventually gave up on it (which I hate doing). I can only hope with any further books he returns to whatever it was in So Many Ways To Begin that I loved.

2. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

This is another book to make it to my top ten which has received a fair amount of attention this year, particularly due to the release of the film version very soon which I am looking forward to. It tells a moving and thoughtful story which although is set in a world different to our own is very realistic and easy to slip into. Although many reviews for the book (and film) reveal a fair amount about the plot I will not say any more as I enjoyed the way the plot unravelled allowing you to at guess things that many of the reviews include. I only hope the film can live up to the honesty and emotion the book provides.

1. The Passage – Justin Cronin

The first thing to say about this book is that it is a brick. I read it in hardback so carrying it around with all 784 pages was in itself a challenge. But it was worth it. When I started reading The Passage I had no idea what to expect. I had picked it up on a whim, intrigued by the push given to it by bookshops which is so unusual for a book of an unknown author. Apparently this book made waves very early on – Ridley Scott bought the film rights before Cronin has even finished writing it. Essentially this is a modern-day vampire story but I feel it is hindered by this label, especially due to the current state of vampire fiction; The Passage is nothing like Twilight and is not particularly supernatural either. The story is split into two parts, the first is set in a time near to our own, and the second half one hundred years in the future. This split was the only part at which I felt the story was weak as for a time I was lost as to where the book was headed but I think this can be my only criticism. Obviously a lot happens in this book as it is so long, but I don't want to reveal too much, as I enjoyed going into it not knowing anything. I was totally engrossed by this book from the off and even when I reached the last page I wanted there to be more. And luckily, as I found out soon after, it is due to be part of a trilogy with the second and third books to be released in 2012 and 2014. I can't wait.

I also want to mention these books which narrowly missed a spot in the top ten; The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall and The Girl with Glass Feet which I reviewed earlier this year.

What were your top books of 2010? What are you looking forward to reading in 2011?

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Raising Jake by Charles Carillo

Raising Jake begins when Samuel, a fifty-something, burned out tabloid newspaper reporter receives a call in the middle of the day from his son's elite private school. The headmaster would usually call his ex-wife about matters regarding their seventeen year old son, Jake. She is out of town, however, so the fact that the headmaster is calling Samuel must mean it's bad news.

Samuel is shocked to learn the reason for the call is an essay his son wrote that the school did not like. An essay? He had expected something more serious. But Jake won't apologize for what he wrote, he is expelled.

Samuel - who had been fired just an hour before for leaving in the middle of the day before a deadline - takes Jake home for the weekend, since his mother is out of town. The two realize they know nothing about each other, and Jake longs to know about his roots.

The next day, Samuel takes Jake to see where his dad grew up, and the story of Samuel's childhood slowly comes out, as do Jake's dreams, and the mature-beyond-his-years personality and outlook on life Samuel never imagined his son possessed.

The majority of the book takes place over two days, and is very well written with good pacing. Chapters ended in just the right places to keep me reading more, and flashbacks from Samuel's childhood were inserted in a flowing, non-jarring manner. Father and son both gain understanding of each other, themselves, and life, and seem to take on the role of both father and son at various places in the story.

I got this as a free Kindle download from many months ago, but having read it, I believe it is worth buying. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

This review was contributed by Jen, who can be found here. Unfortunately Jen is no longer able to contribute to The Last Page full time, however managed to find the time for one last review. Good Luck with everything in the future Jen!