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.

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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.

On the eighth 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.

Meatspace-web-ready

I really enjoyed Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace but, if you’d asked me about my top 12 whilst I was in the middle of reading it, it might not have quite made the cut. It’s a very ‘current’ novel, preoccupied as it is with the way we increasingly live our lives online and the dangers of doing so, and admittedly it does this successfully.

Kitab is a writer: ostensibly working on his second novel but, most of the time, working on his online presence instead. His more carefree brother, Aziz, is similarly obsessed with social media and, early in the novel, both brothers uncover their doppelgänger online. But whilst Aziz’s discovery takes him on an adventure across the Atlantic (documented on his trendy blog, naturally), Kitab’s experience is far more sinister, as his only online namesake turns up on his London doorstep from Bangalore, steals his identity and generally behaves in a way that makes you want to immediately delete every social media account you have.

Meatspace is a great read. It is often entertaining and sometimes, when Shukla is at his most incisive, a little too close to the bone to be entirely comfortable. But what eventually elevated this novel from enjoyable and current to one of my top 12 reads this year is an emotional punch in the gut in the last few chapters, a twist that creeps up and then quickly pulls the rug from under you and left me thinking about the story long after the last page.

On the ninth 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.

Everything is Teeth

Last year, Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing was one of my favourite reads of 2014, possibly my favourite. This year, I read her wonderful first graphic novel, illustrated by her friend, Joe Sumner.

Everything is Teeth is a memoir, telling the story of Wyld’s childhood between Australia and South London and her obsession (fear? fascination?) with sharks. These sharks appear throughout the book – sharply and accurately drawn amongst the more cartoon-like cast of wide-eyed Wyld’s family – ominously floating over her shoulder, darting in and out of the corner of her eye. In places, the reader turns the page to be suddenly confronted by splashes of blood (sometimes human, sometimes shark) or grisly images of jaw-shaped wounds across a man’s torso. It is the stuff of childhood nightmares.

The sharks are a menacing presence in the book, but – without giving away the truly moving ending – the real menace is much more mundane than any creatures of the sea. And it’s all the more uncomfortable for it.

Once again, I really enjoyed the deceptively powerful simplicity of Wyld’s prose but, in Everything is Teeth, found Sumner’s beautiful illustrations added further depth to the story. It’s a successful partnership and I hope there are more joint projects on the way.

On the tenth 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.

HotelIris

I’m not sure I’d recommend Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris. I’m not even sure I enjoyed it. But it has found its way in to this top 12 because I was so (horribly) transfixed by its fleeting, dreamlike story of a sadomasochistic affair in a Japanese tourist town.

Mari lives and works in the hotel run by her tyrannical mother. One evening, two guests – a prostitute and a middle-aged man – cause a scene and are thrown out of the hotel, but not before Mari hears and becomes fascinated with the man’s authoritative voice. She tracks down the man, follows him around the seaside town, eventually summoning the courage to speak to him, and is invited to his home on a nearby island. And so begins their affair.

I’m dwelling on the early pages of the novel because what follows is pretty unpleasant. Even when Ogawa isn’t describing the sexual relationship – which is violent and humiliating – the story is disturbing: in one scene, Mari is invited to lunch with her lover and his nephew, only to find the whole meal has been liquidised because the nephew has no tongue.

Hotel Iris is a short novel and it ends fairly abruptly, adding to the sense that the events in the story are a dream: it is brief, transitory and we wake from it suddenly, at the peak of its horror. It’s not really for the faint-hearted…

(Tomorrow’s book is a nicer one, I promise!)