Saturday, 31 December 2011

Books of the Year (not published by Five Leaves) - #2

This time from second Five Leaves worker, Pippa Hennessy:
These are the best books I've read in 2011. I tried to keep it to a 'top 10', I really did, but I've read so many good books this year...
Forcing myself to leave Five Leaves books out of the mix helped. We publish so many fantastic books (I am proud to be able to say 'we'), it would be impossible to select a top 10 from those I've read this year. I will mention though one book that's due out in the New Year – This Bed Thy Centre by Pamela Hansford Johnson. First published in 1935 and out of print for years, it's a biting social commentary, an acutely observed depiction of normal people dealing with a rapidly-changing world, and above all, a rip-roaring yarn. When it comes out, buy it and read it!
So. Here is my top 16 (which includes two trilogies and one book I've read before, so it's really a top 11).
I read The Planiverse by AK Dewdney decades ago. It's inspired by Edwin Abbott's Flatland, published in 1884, and tells the story of A Square. Square lives in Flatland, a two-dimensional universe, and is blind to the social repression and discrimination of his land until he discovers Lineland, Spaceland and Pointland. I've been meaning to read Flatland for ages, and I'm so glad I finally got round to it this year – it's social satire at its best. The Planiverse takes a geeky angle on the story, examining the implications of life in two dimensions in exhaustive detail while describing Yendred's great journey across the Planiverse. Both are brilliant, and should be read one after the other.
Letter Fountain by Joep Pohlen is a beautiful book, and speaks to the typography geek in me. Originally published in Dutch (in several editions), Taschen published an English language edition this year, and although it's quite expensive I couldn't resist. Its design is exactly what a book should be – clear and restful – and the attention to detail makes it a joy to behold and hold. The contents are a geek's delight, divided into three sections which tell you all you need to know about how type works, display specimen types in exhaustive detail, and tell the history of typography. I want to make books like this.
Another book which is a beautiful object in itself is Nox by Anne Carson. This is a printed version of an elegy she created for her brother. Originally put together in a notebook, the book is printed on one long strip of paper which is concertinaed into folds and presented in a sturdy and gorgeous box. Nox takes Catullus's "poem 101" (an elegy for his brother) as its starting point, and gradually translates it through the document. At the same time she remembers her brother, questions why she needs to memorialise him, and tries to work out how to do it. The words, the pictures, the presentation, everything about this book is stunning.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is yet another desirable object. This book caught my attention because of the associated online game ( – a great publicity stunt. I wouldn't have noticed or bought the book if I hadn't been following Alison Hennessey from Random House on twitter (@vintagebooks)... just goes to show, this social networking thingy does work sometimes. The story is told out of chronological order, and to my mind that's the only downside. It's fantastical and strange and gripping and uplifting all at the same time, and the book itself is an example of how innovative design can lift a story from the very good to the extraordinary.
Conversely, the 1Q84 trilogy by Haruki Murakami shows how design is totally irrelevant when the words are extraordinary in themselves. I read it on a Kindle and was completely drawn in right from the start. This is a perfect example of speculative fiction – what would happen if there were a parallel universe where past events had happened slightly differently, and two people were somehow transferred there, after which everything becomes gradually more complex and surreal. The main characters are totally engaging and it's a beautiful story beautifully told. I've ordered the real books, as I will definitely be reading these again and I want to do it properly next time.
I'll read anything Neal Stephenson writes – he's so clever, and his novels are BIG in size and scope. Reamde is a departure from his usual speculative fiction in that it's a thriller, but it is still satisfyingly BIG. It's based on the possibilities for fraud and extortion presented by online gaming, rapidly descending from geek-talk into seemingly endless violence and mayhem. Somehow Stephenson manages to maintain an element of fun amongst all the destruction, and although it's over 900 pages it rattles along right to the end.
Adam Roberts is another speculative fiction author I read obsessively. He's not as well-known as Stephenson, which I think is unfair. Both have BIG ideas... Anyway, Yellow Blue Tibia is delightfully bonkers. In 1945 Stalin corrals a group of science fiction writers and orders them to develop an alien invasion scenario which will provide him with a 'common enemy' to replace the weakening USA and unite the USSR. He changes his mind after a while and orders the writers to forget about the project on pain of death. Things aren't that simple though...
The Night of the Mi'raj by Zoe Ferraris was recommended to me by a friend as an interesting study of women's life in Saudi Arabia. I knew the Saudi society is repressive but I find it hard to understand how women can accept living that way. It's also a well-written mystery thriller with fascinating characters and a twisting plot that kept me guessing.
I've been meaning to read The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan for a while (Niki is the course leader for the degree I'm doing, and occasional Five Leaves' author). As well as being a shocking yet strangely endearing story, it too describes a life I find it difficult to comprehend – this time that of a girl growing up on one of Nottingham's roughest estates.
Peter F Hamilton's Void trilogy (The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void and The Evolutionary Void) is grand space opera at its very best. Hamilton is one of the best SF authors around; he's capable of building entire universes in his head and putting them down on paper in a completely believable way. The scope of this trilogy is not just BIG, it's ENORMOUS. I listened to it as an audiobook (in the car and while cooking) at the same time as reading Reamde then 1Q84, which almost resulted in a mental implosion as I tried to keep two bundles of storylines straight in my head. I'm not even going to try and summarise the stories of the Void – just go and read the books.
Finally, one of my fondest memories of 2011 is the Nottingham Stanza reading of TS Eliot's Four Quartets from start to finish in one go at Southwell Poetry Festival. I hadn't read the Quartets before this, which was a shocking omission on my part... but taking part in that reading was an almost spiritual experience, and in a way I'm glad that was my first real experience of the whole group of poems. I have read the book since, and will do again many times, I'm sure.

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