Friday, 14 December 2012

Topnotch Reads of 2012: Part One

As we all know, it's now that time of year when we all gather together to "enjoy" each others' company, get a bit drunk and reflect on the past year... Yep, that's right, it's awards season once more! And what with all these shortlists emerging, detailing the best flicks, TV shows, comedians, etc of the past year, I thought I'd take the time to talk about my best books of the year. These won't necessarily be new publications from 2012 - rather, just ones I myself have read for the first time this year. Some I might have already reviewed in detail, in which case I'll link 'em so you can have a look if it piques your interest. I'll be counting down my top ten, starting with ten through to six today, and finishing with a proper review for number 1. So, let's get on with it, shall we?

10. The Damned Busters, by Matthew Hughes
I stumbled across this little number during a brief moment of weakness in the summer, when I almost - horror of horrors - caved in and bought a copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Luckily, however, I couldn't find a copy, and that little episode was done and dusted. Problem was, though, I'd walked into a bookshop and I am practically incapable of leaving a bookshop without buying something, so I had a bit of a browse and I found... this. As far as impulse purchases go, this turned out pretty well; the story follows a pretty unremarkable man accidentally summoning a demon from hell, refusing to use said demon as he didn't mean to summon him, thus causing hell to go on strike, meaning no bad things happen in the world - which actually turns out to be a pretty bad thing itself. Without greed, the stock markets plummet; without envy, no one is trying to outdo neighbours, meaning everyone becomes lazy - in short, the world stops working. So in order to get everything back to normal, our unremarkable hero strikes a deal with the unionists-from-hell and becomes a superhero - obviously. What I enjoyed about it was that it was a fun piece of escapism, pure and simple; a bit of a silly story which didn't require a lot of concentration, just something entertaining to read when you've got a spare fifteen minutes.

9. The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
This one I discovered because it was nominated for the Man Booker prize this year, and wanted to read because I liked the title. It follows Harold Fry - a retired man who lives a comfortable but uninteresting life in a comfortable but uninteresting village - who is trundling along quite nicely until he hears word that a former colleague of his from years ago is terminally ill with cancer. Despite their tentative acquaintance, Harold is greatly affected by the news, to the extent that when he pops out to post a letter one day, he doesn't stop walking. Instead, he embarks on a cross-country journey to visit his old acquaintance, firm in the belief that if he gets to her, he can stop her from dying. It's a beautiful story, covering some of the best aspects of human nature - determination, faith, devotion, friendship, and I'd be fibbing if I said it didn't bring a bit of a tear to my eye from time to time. It's also surprisingly realistic; Joyce has clearly thought about this, covering all aspects of the pains of long-distance walking and sleeping rough. It does drag in parts - a sub-plot involving some 'followers' of Harold does clunk along a bit - but if you focus on the main story of Harold's quest, you'll find that it's one of those books that stays with you after you've finished the last page.

8. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
I think I've mentioned this book probably far too many times now, but it's one of the best I've read this year, so there. Nevertheless, I'll keep it short, lest I isolate my regular readers: a literary detective by the name of Thursday Next is roped into investigating the sudden disappearance of Jane Eyre from the classic novel of the same name. Obviously, without Jane, there's not much of a story, resulting in widespread horror and panic in the alternate-universe that Thursday lives in, where the real celebrities are book characters and the real heroes are authors. Thursday's task is to find Jane, and her kidnapper, before she meets the same fate as a poor, unlucky sub-character from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. Fforde weaves a fast-paced, clever plot with loads of witty observations, a few literary in-jokes and some very likeable characters. It's unfortunate that the next few in the series aren't nearly as good, but I'd still recommend this one as a stand-alone novel; it's funny, it's clever and it's well-written, and that's all you need to know.

7. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
I stress, by the way, that this refers specifically to the first book in the trilogy; whilst I quite liked the others, I wasn't nearly as impressed by them. Anyway, as I've already reviewed this one, I'll keep it brief: The Hunger Games follows a young heroine, Katniss, who is forced to enter a life-or-death tournament in place of her younger sister, where she will have to kill other children and teenagers, or be killed. Many comparisons have been drawn to Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, which does essentially have the same plot, but there's enough differences to The Hunger Games to make it a really good novel. There's several comparisons to be made with the modern 'talent' shows that still seem to dominate the airwaves, and there's also several scenes that may surprise you with the emotion of them. I also - being a Classics nerd - particularly enjoyed the fact that many of the characters are named after Classical figures, such as Cato, Caesar and Coriolanus. As a young adult book, aimed at the Twilight market, it's not particularly taxing to read, but is gripping; you may find it surprisingly difficult to put down.

6. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
I read this purely because I ran out of books to read on holiday, and The Boyfriend had already finished it. I knew it was considered as one of the most important books in American literature, and I had a basic idea of the plot from discussions about it with The Boyfriend whilst he was reading it, but nothing could have prepared me for it. The novel follows the Joad family during the Great Depression, as they embark on an epic journey west in order to build a new life for themselves. It's a pretty bleak novel; most of the time that I was reading it, I was almost crying out for something positive to occur - the few bright spots shone pretty dimly. Yet this was the point of Steinbeck's novel; as he summed up in a powerful, emotional chapter near the end of the story, the brunt of the Great Depression was borne by the poorest, who suffered more than any without sign of respite and little to hope for. Given the current state of affairs, especially with the UK's coalition government making a hash of things, it's a telling sign that a novel written about events eighty years ago can still be relatable now. If you decide to read it, persevere with it; you won't regret the decision. Like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, it'll stay with you long after you've turned the last page.

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