Thursday, 20 December 2012

My Top Ten Fiction Books Of 2012

In reverse order, my favourite books of the year - not all published this year but all them enjoyed in 2012.

10. Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis

Amis's gothic Only Fools and Horses makes the list out of loyalty. This is a heavy-handed satire on our Land of Hope and Chaviness, a country Amis clearly despises: the high-rise hell-holes, snarling dogs, racist relations, cheating friends, ugly cities, miserable weather, rich man's football and all-consuming smartphones.

Highlighted Kindle Quote: "The champagne arrived in its steel bucket... 'Got a bigger glass? You know, like a beer mug.' Lionel grimly monitored the waiter's movements. '...Yeah, that'll do. Fill her up, boy.'"

9. Capital, by John Lanchester

An Instagram photo of modern, miasmic London. Anyone who lives here will recognise the characters who gravitate around a single street in the newly fashionable east end: the bored banker about to get the boot, the wide-eyed African teenager signed by Chelsea, the Banksy street artist visiting his dying grandma, the Asian family running the corner shop, the exploited Zimbabwean traffic warden, the Polish builder dreaming of going home, the east European child minder who feels the pain of losing a fully-loaded Oyster card. A half-hearted plot about major and minor terrorism almost gels them all but the thing that really does that is the greatest city in the world.

HKQ: "Humans make their own history, but not under circumstances of their choosing."

8. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I finally got round to reading this after the sequel won a second Booker. Wish I'd read it earlier. Brilliantly brings to vibrant life King Henry's VIII's entourage from 500 years ago as seen by Thomas Cromwell, the poor boy outsider from Putney (every great novel needs an outsider) who becomes the formidable court insider . We all vaguely remember the cardinals, dukes, royal wives and mistresses from school history lessons; Mantel puts fictional flesh on the mouldy old bones and makes you ponder with fresh eyes - not just on them, but on ourselves and our own lives.

HKQ: "You don't get on by being original. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook."

7. Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Gabon

Rich nostalgia in a dense, present-day narrative about two guys whose San Francisco record shop is at risk from a bigger rival moving into their neighbourhood: vinyl records, blaxploitation movies, jazz music, Tarantino films, kung fu, a blimp, Six Million Dollar Man action figures, classic American cars and eight-track cartridges. Filled with the imaginary voices of Samuel L Jackson, Marsellus Wallace and Hong Kong Phooey. A blokeish novel about the forever-shifting relationships of fathers, sons, wives, brothers and friends.

HKQ:  "Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars."

6. A Possible Life, by Sebastian Faulks

A montage of unconnected lives beautifully written in a downbeat style that underplays the cataclysmic ephiphanies that assault all the varied characters; a war-damaged English school teacher, a child of a Victorian workhouse, an adopted Italian child devastated by a discovery, a love-shattered musician, a God-fearing French household servant. It's true that most of them end up thwarted, defeated and beaten by the life events that engulf them. But amidst the gloom, betrayals and loneliness beats the heart of all our possible lives.

HKQ: "I don't think you ever understand your life - not till it's finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand."

5. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

My favourite kind of novel: time-shifting, full of different styles and points of views, all of them challenging our views of the world. Not just one book but six mini-masterpieces in one linked together through centuries by birthmarks, diaries and the burning human desire for justice and freedom. My longer babble about it is here. Looking forward to seeing the Tom Hanks film.

HKQ: "I woke up in the darkness with a mouth like Superglue. The Mighty Gibbon's assessment of history - little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind - ticker-taped by for no apparent reason."

4. Life Of Pi, by Yann Martel

The striking posters for Ang Lee's film version reminded me that this was another modern classic I'd never got round to reading. It's magnificent. A beguiling fantasy about religions, allegories and an Indian boy on a lifeboat with a tiger, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutang and rat. It opens with that famous fictional author's note saying this is "a story that will make you believe in God".

Give it a try, Dawkins.

HKQ: "I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful."

3. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

A serious-minded, warm-hearted read centred around US college baseball written in a style like Jonathan Franzen's with hints of John Irving and a homage to Herman Melville. More Friday Night Lights than Moneyball. Longer ramblings on it here.

HKQ: "You told me once that a soul isn't something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love. And you did that with more dedication than most."

2. A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

I recommended this Great American Novel to a lot of people this year. It's a book that polarises opinion. Some thought it was a collection of short stories that didn't work as a novel; others just couldn't make any sense of it as it jumps around through time. I thought it was fabulous. The dazzling, interwoven range of forms and authentic voices gravitate around a teenage band called The Flaming Dildos. If Goon Squad was a song it would be the sublime Do You Realize? by The Flaming Lips. My longer review is here.

HKQ: "One key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out."

1. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

The best book of this or any other year. A whimsical, uplifting and very funny Swedish yarn whose summary is in the title. Explosives expert Allan Karlsson, the most philosophical centenarian in fiction, walks out of his old people's home and almost immediately finds himself on the run from a drugs gang. But it's the unfolding tale of his one hundred years that delights: his accidental, history-changing encounters with Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, President Truman and General Franco. A full life lived with two simple, admirable aims: do the right thing and enjoy a decent drink.

HKQ and Allan's inspiring summary of life: "Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be."

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