On the first day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

incarnations

So here we are: my number one book, my favourite read of 2015, the one I’ve picked over all 40 (ish) others. This has been a lot more work than I’d planned and I’ll probably stick to my top five in future, to be honest, but I hope you’ve read about at least one book you might enjoy. Whichever book that might be, they’re all excellent.

But, in my humble opinion, Susan Barker’s The Incarnations is the best. At the very least, it’s the most expansive, ambitious, epic book on my list.

Wang Jun, a troubled Beijing taxi driver with a history of mental illness, is sleep walking through life, convincing himself daily that he is content with his lot – his work, his wife and daughter – against the backdrop of the 2008 Olympics. But his relatively mundane life is turned upside down by a mysterious letter found in his taxi cab, the writer of which purports to be his soul mate. This letter tells a brutal story, set in 632 AD, in which Sorceress Wu castrates her son, Bitter Root, and sells him to the emperor. Bitter Root, the writer insists, is Wang Jun’s first incarnation. Bitter Root’s daughter (conceived before the unfortunate events) is the writer’s first incarnation.

Four further letters follow, each detailing Wang Jun’s supposed previous incarnations during the most savage periods in China’s history – Ghengis Khan and the Mongols; the Ming dynasty; the Opium Wars; and the Cultural Revolution – and each identifying a shifting relationship between Wang Jun and the letters’ author that is always intense, always troubling. Through the ages, they are lovers and rivals, they are saviour and saved, murdered and murderer. They shift gender, sexuality, age and nationality. Their history is bloody and violent. But who is writing the letters? And are they really Wang Jun’s soul mate or are they playing a cruel trick on a vulnerable man?

As I write this plot summary, I’m in awe all over again of Barker’s ambition and the scope and reach of this wonderful but deeply unpleasant novel. The letters are like individual short stories, whole worlds captured and linked by the thread of Wang Jun’s contemporary story and, ultimately, his struggle to come to terms with his recent history.

To read this book is to go on a journey through China’s history and the mind of a haunted man. And yes, at the end of that journey, both Wang Jun and you, as reader, get to find out the identity of the letters’ author. And yes, it is a most satisfying twist.

On the second day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

Fourth of July

Two days ago, I posted my write up of The Ploughmen, a novel set against the bleak, wintry landscape of rural Montana. Book number two on my Christmas countdown – Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek – has the same backdrop, albeit set thirty years earlier. Men brooding in Big Sky Country has been kind of my bag this year. (Related: I enjoyed men brooding in rural Wisconsin too, as evidenced by book number twelve on this list.)

In Fourth of July Creek, set in the late 70s and early 80s, the brooding man is Pete Snow, a children’s social worker with his own chaotic family: an estranged adulterous wife, a teenage daughter going off the rails and a brother who has just broken his parole and is on the run. But Pete is good at his job, compassionate and driven by what must motivate anyone to be a social worker: a desire to help improve others’ lives.

When he comes across Benjamin Pearl – a malnourished, dirty, almost feral 11 year old boy, Pete tries his best to help, only to be violently driven away by the boy’s reclusive survivalist father, Jeremiah. Over the course of the novel, he perseveres, insinuating his way in to the rootless family. A passage in which Pete helps Jeremiah to recover from snow blindness – gently convincing the man that he has not been struck permanently blind by a higher power, slowly winning his trust – is as tense as any thriller. But just as there’s risk in not gaining Jeremiah’s trust, so the risk of becoming embroiled in the man’s paranoia, conspiracy theories and distinctly illegal activities become apparent. Particularly as Pete can’t quite work out where to draw the line.

First things first, Henderson’s prose is excellent. It’s rich and imaginative, whilst never becoming impenetrable. Fourth of July Creek is so readable and so full of language to really savour. It’s mouthwatering. But this book gets its other ‘bits’ right too: the characters are three-dimensional (Pete could easily have been portrayed as a saint, a saviour, but instead he is far from it); and the plot is driven forward by a pervasive sense of threat, an feeling of dread and a skilfully handled pace to a climax that is not predictable but right.

On the third day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

Station Eleven

You’re bound to have heard of Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic tale of survival and Shakespeare is probably the best selling book in my top 12. To be fair, I bought a good few copies myself, keen as I was to share the joy, but there’s no doubt that this was a popular choice for readers in 2015.

In Toronto, Arthur Leander, at the pinnacle of his acting career, is playing Lear on stage when he collapses with a heart attack. Jeevan, an aspiring paramedic, is in the audience and tries but fails to save Leander’s life. These events appear significant but they’re nothing compared to what’s to come: on leaving the theatre, Jeevan receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor, who warns that Georgia Flu has arrived in Canada. In the following weeks, 99% of the world’s population is wiped out.

This premise might seem like a well worn trail; we’ve seen the world wiped out by pandemics, zombies and natural disasters countless times in books, on TV and in films and we know how it plays out. But Station Eleven brings something new to the genre. The plot is almost too complex to summarise here, with multiple strands skilfully woven together by Mandel. It shifts back and forward between the days before Georgia Flu and Year Twenty, when survivors are attempting to rebuild civilisation and are visited by a peripatetic company of actors and musicians, The Traveling Symphony, who perform Shakespeare plays to the communities they come across on the road. Shakespeare, they find, is the playwright of choice in Year Twenty, tapping in to something essential.

Amongst this company is Kirsten. A former child actor, eight years old at the time the flu spread and present at Leander’s death, Kirsten can barely remember life before the pandemic. But she carries with her two comic books given to her by Leander and drawn by his first wife, Miranda, that are almost talismans, proof that a civilisation capable of making and enjoying art once existed. Likewise, in an abandoned airport, Leander’s estranged friend Clark, curates his own Museum of Civilisation, placing defunct credit cards and mobile phones on display as symbols of past human endeavour, now lost to the world.

What I particularly liked about Station Eleven – and what has lingered in my mind – is Mandel’s delicate and beautiful imagery. From the opening scene, fake snow falling gently and silently on to the theatre stage as Jeevan attempts to resuscitate Leander; to the distant twinkling lights of container ships moored off Malaysia, watched by Miranda as she lives out her final days alone in the world; and the forest of grounded and rusting jumbo jets at the airport that is The Traveling Symphony’s final destination. It really is unlike most other post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read.

On the fourth day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

the-ploughmen-978144724778401

Let’s get this out the way: The Ploughman, Kim Zupan’s debut novel, is in my top four because I’ve forgiven it a few sins. Most significantly, I’ve forgiven the fact that it’s a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives, a few too many flourishes. (Hey, we’re all guilty of that sometimes…)

A Montana sheriff’s deputy, Valentine Millimaki, is in a dark place: haunted by the childhood discovery of his mother’s suicide, he now spends his days traipsing the vast, wintry landscape searching for missing persons, only to find, more often than not, their frozen bodies. To make matters worse, his wife moves out and he is assigned a new job: the night shift in the county jail, currently home to calculating and violent serial killer, John Gload. As Millimaki becomes increasingly sleep deprived and isolated, his nighttime heart-to-hearts with Gload grows their relationship until Millimaki finds himself almost trusting his prisoner. But who is manipulating whom?

Despite the sins I described above, I have placed The Ploughmen fourth in my top 12 countdown and there are good reasons why it deserves that place. Firstly, because some of the flourishes I complained about are actually really good. Zupan’s prose in this novel, at its best, is almost cinematic: when Gload shifts from the shadows in his cell to appear before Millimaki, it will make you flinch like you did watching The Silence of the Lambs; when Millimaki walks down the fluorescent-lit jail corridor, you will hear the click of his boots on the lino like you did watching The Green Mile; when the final showdown comes, you will keep turning the pages, breathlessly, like any good thriller.

You also get the sense that this book is an American classic in the making. Zupan’s Montana is really the novel’s third protagonist: boundless and brutal, vast and uncompromising. It’s no wonder Millimaki finds a friend in a murderer.

On the fifth day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

Sightlines.Cover_

Kathleen Jamie’s second collection of nature essays, Sightlines, is also the second book recommended by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights to feature in this list. Although I know of Jamie’s poetry, I’ve never read – nor ever really thought about reading – any nature writing. But my Mr B’s bibliotherapist picked up on the fact that I enjoy writing that is rich and poetic and that I also enjoy non-fiction and suggested I try it.

In Sightlines, Jamie casts her net wide across the natural world and draws in subjects as broad as the Northern Lights; a Shetland gannetry; Palaeolithic paintings in a Spanish cave; whales, both dead and on display in Bergen and very much alive off the coast of a Scottish island; and 1970s archeological digs. Throughout, she shares observations that are original but, on reading, strike you as satisfyingly true and considers the way in which we humans interact with the world, whilst never preaching.

What I enjoyed most about this book was Jamie’s attention to the details she observes along the way. She leans close to walls on Rona, listening out for the call of the Leach’s storm petrels she is surveying. She pays as much attention to the eerie iceberg-littered fjord she travels on to see the Northern Lights as she does the great spectacle itself. And, in one surprising essay, she swoops over the valleys, craters, seascapes and shores of the human stomach, viewed through a microscope in a pathology lab.

“‘The natural evidence of our mortality,’ Professor Fleming called it. Hearts and lungs, a colon that could be a pig’s. That’s the deal: if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain. Not a deal anyone remembers having struck – we just got here – but it’s not as though we don’t negotiate.”

If, like me, you’ve never read any nature writing, I’d urge you to try this. It’s beautifully written but always accessible, eclectic in its subject matter but always engaging. I think I’m hooked.

On the sixth day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

WTF

David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the first of two books featured in this list that were recommended to me during my October book spa at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. Given that I’ve only read three of the recommended books so far and that the third almost snuck in to this top 12 is a testament to just how spot on they were in matching my fairly non-specific literary tastes to some really excellent books.

This book brings together the threads of three main characters – Leila, an NGO worker who stumbles across something in remote Myanmar that she’s not supposed to see; Leo, who loses his childcare job in Portland and descends into substance misuse, paranoia and conspiracy theories; and Leo’s vain and self-interested college friend, Mark, who writes a self-help book that, by sheer fluke rather than quality, becomes an international bestseller – who all come to the attention of a shady cabal. What follows is a sharply written pop thriller that asks big questions, ultimately: who exactly does own your data and what if it’s not you?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is on this list primarily because it is enormous fun. It’s fast paced and global, taking in Myanmar, Hong Kong, London, Dublin and the US, with car chases, mysterious assignations in airport lounges and an IKEA-based underground network along the way. The chapter set on a technology conglomerate’s huge ship anchored off Hong Kong – hundreds of minions head-hunted from Silicon Valley working away in its hull and a super server buried in the seabed below – is so James Bond-inspired, you half expect to turn the page to find a bald man stroking a fluffy white cat.

Sure, it’s completely far-fetched. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll consume it in a weekend.

On the seventh day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

All my puny sorrows

All My Puny Sorrows isn’t what you’d call an easy read but it is the most human novel I read this year and the most imbued with love. It’s the love that makes this novel’s central themes – bereavement, suicide, grief – just about bearable. And, surprisingly, the humour, which catches you out, causing you to laugh out loud during even the darkest events.

Yoli and Elf are sisters. Brought up in a Canadian Mennonite community, they are bereaved by the suicide of their father, an event shared in real life by the author, Miriam Toews. Yoli is a writer of generic romance novels but has higher aspirations (she carries around the manuscript of her heavyweight literary novel in a plastic bag). Her life appears haphazard but she maintains relationships with her children’s fathers, her lover, her best friend, her mother and sister and her sister’s husband; she holds things together. Elf, on the other hand, is a world renowned concert pianist, married to a charming and supportive husband. But she is scared that the glass piano she imagines inside her will break and she wants – and has attempted several times – to die.

What Toews achieves in balancing the humour and grief in the novel – the witty conversations between the sisters as Elf lies in a hospital bed after her latest suicide attempt; the mischief and sense of the absurd they still share; the very matter-of-fact way the family cope with their daily grief – is remarkable. You may be changed by this book.