Wednesday, 23 December 2015

My favourite books of 2015, part 1: January to June

This year I've decided to split my list of favourites in two - one post for the first half of the year, one post for the second - so I don't miss out on including anything amazing I read in what remains of December. And because there are too many books to fit in one post. Here are the best books I read between January and June 2015.

Books from this year

I have very happy memories of reading this on a beach, on an uninhabited island, in Portugal - no, wait, that isn't the recommendation. And it would have been brilliant no matter where and when I read it. The Ghost Network is about: a missing pop star named Molly Metropolis; her fans; situationism; psychogeography; and Chicago's public transport system. Part faux-academic text, part conspiracy thriller, part postmodern, ultra-meta reflection on fan culture, it was SO much fun to read, kept doing unexpected things, and had me on the edge of my seat all the way through.

Yasmin is fifteen years old, desperately unhappy and the target of school bullies; the one bit of sunshine in her life is her obsession with Alice, a popular classmate. When Yasmin spots a man staring at Alice, she quickly latches on to him and pursues a very odd sort of friendship. Yasmin's voice - thoroughly believable but insidiously sinister - is wonderfully realised, and the story, which turns out to be something of a twisted coming-of-age tale, takes some thrilling turns. I read Things We Have in Common in April (all in one day) but I can still remember Yasmin, and the story's general atmosphere, very vividly.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year. Subtitled Ways of Being in the Digital World, it's basically a study of how 'networked life', ie 24/7 connection to the internet and social media and the ability to constantly communicate across almost all physical borders, has transformed the human experience, and what that means for us. But it's a sprawling sort of book that goes in loads of different directions, rather than presenting a single argument. It's an academic thesis written like a novel; pop culture references are woven in very naturally and (unlike many books about the internet) nothing about it feels gimmicky.

Continuing the theme: my favourite short story collection of the year. One of them - 'The November Story', about a warring couple and a reality TV show - is PERFECT, many of the others are brilliant, and it's almost impossible to sum any of them up in a single sentence. Rebecca Makkai is amazing at creating worlds with just a few sentences, and her characters are equally deep and nuanced. With scenarios ranging from the believable but heartbreaking (after 'freezing' on stage, an actor loses the ability to act, along with his confidence), to the utterly bizarre (a woman finds Johann Sebastian Bach living in her piano), the stories cross into so many genres that the collection is constantly surprising and fresh.

Shifting between 1976 and 1996, The Curator follows two generations of a white South African family, represented by father and son Hendrik and Werner Deyer. Both as manipulative and obsessive as each other, Hendrik and Werner make for awful but fascinating anti-heroes. This is a book with dark themes - murder, racism and child abuse among them - yet it keeps a surprisingly light tone by centring on naive, delusional Werner, and part of what makes the story work so well is its ambivalence towards him. It's harrowing in places, but fascinatingly layered and rewarding.

Like Harriet Lane's books, Alex Hourston's debut is an elegant, thoughtful character study dressed up in the costume of a psychological thriller. It starts off as a story about a fiftysomething woman, Maggie, who is asked for help by a girl in an airport; unwittingly, she ends up saving the girl, Anja, from a trafficking operation. Then Anja insinuates herself into Maggie's life. If you think you know where this is going, you're probably wrong - it's a study of love and family and selfhood, with a mere undercurrent of tension. It's similar to many of my favourites from this year in that its main triumph is in shaping a unique, memorable protagonist.

Books from before this year

When a young and idealistic new doctor arrives at a near-deserted hospital in rural South Africa, the long-established deputy director is disconcerted. Then they're forced to share a room, and Frank (the director) finds himself more and more distrustful of the newcomer, who turns out to have a sinister streak. That old-fashioned-thriller setup combined with Galgut's spare, elegant style would be enough to make it an excellent read, but there's so much more bubbling away under the surface. If you like books with lots of subtlety and tension, this is one to note. It's gripping in a quiet way.

Another South African book - I've ended up with quite a few of them on this year's list. I actually bought this after reading that Jacobson's work inspired The Good Doctor, and it turns out that Galgut and Jacobson both use a similar style: simple and graceful yet complex and full of meaning, telling a hundred small stories in one. Set in the sun-bleached semi-wilderness of the veld, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun - the former a short story, the latter a spellbinding novella - weave intricate tales of entrenched racism, latent violence and family tension. Published 60 years ago, they feel timeless, and could easily have been written today.

A dramatised version of real events, an obvious simulacrum of Stalinist Russia, in which Rubashov, formerly a senior member of the Party, is suddenly arrested and imprisoned for invented crimes. Driven not by character or plot but by ideas, Darkness at Noon depicts Rubashov's state of mind and thought process as his incarceration forces him to contemplate the part he has played in building a dictatorship, and his disillusionment with the political philosophy he has imposed on others. It's perhaps an odd thing to say about a book with such sombre themes, but it felt like a relief to read something like this - it's such a powerful and intelligent novel, and it reminded me why 'classics' are worth reading.

A brief description of this novel inevitably makes it sound seriously weird: set during a scorching summer, it's a novella about a pregnant woman who begins to experience uncontrollably strong cravings for cheese, which then trigger a series of erotic dreams. It's a bit of an oddity, but it's also a mesmerising and dreamlike tale in which the setting (an unnamed, stagnant French city) comes alive and the atmosphere is palpable. Out of print, but worth finding.

I had a complete love-hate relationship with this book - and that's what made it so memorable. This year, no fictional character has stuck in my memory in quite the way Nora did. The Woman Upstairs is not so much a story as a chronicle of quiet rage and repressed anger, all revolving around Nora's increasingly dominant, all-consuming obsession with a glamorous, successful, intellectual family, the Shahids. I saw myself in Nora, and at the same time I was repulsed by her. Parts of the book seemed to have looked straight into my soul, and I couldn't stop noting down quotes. It's visceral and absolutely unflinching in its examination of Nora's psyche.

Something I read a lot (creepy/spooky/uncanny short stories) in a format I hardly read at all (a graphic novel). Turns out, this is an extremely successful combination - think Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber as a comic book. There are five stories, each using slightly different storytelling methods and styles of illustration, and each is better than the last. The last two in particular are just fantastic, with all the power and magic of established classics.

Honourable mentions

The Loney (2013) by Andrew Michael Hurley A deeply creepy and atmospheric folk-horror story that makes its bleak, rain-washed setting so real, it's stuck in my memory like a childhood nightmare.
A Reunion of Ghosts (2015) by Judith Claire Mitchell Three sisters gather in their inherited New York apartment to commit suicide, but only after they've written a book containing all the secrets of their ancestors' history. Heartbreaking but also often hilarious.
Idiopathy (2013) by Sam Byers A very underrated novel that's a sort of acerbic social satire/dark relationship comedy, with one of my favourite characters of the year in the unforgettable, misanthropic antiheroine Katherine.
The Tango Singer (2004) by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Anne McLean A scholar visits Buenos Aires and finds himself on the trail of a near-mythical singer whose ethereal voice has never been recorded. So vividly evokes the city that you'll feel like you've been there.
Don't Kiss Me (2013) by Lindsay Hunter Amazing short stories full of cheap glamour and weird darkness, varying from small-town Floridian drama to bizarro visions of the future.

That's it for part 1 - I'll try my best to post part 2 before the year's actually out...

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1 comment:

  1. An awesome list! You have caused my TBR lists to lengthen. Darkness at Noon changed my life when I read it. And having read and loved Makkai's The Hundred Year House this year, I want to read all of her novels.