Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Books of the Year

I find it hard to have a books of the year, given that I don't always get time to read that much. However, one or two gems have come across my path and it might be a late present prompt for somebody.

All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

Hollis's biography of Edward Thomas is justly acclaimed. Beautifully written and paced, despite one knowing the inevitable sadness of the ending; though for a poet, death is not the end, and being forgotten is perhaps the ultimate tragedy - yet Hollis brings us a sense of Thomas the man, an exhaustive and exhausted literary critic, who, at a relative late stage, finds his poetic voice fully formed. As "romantic" of the myth of the poet dying is, we get a feeling that this tragedy is a shared one: his friends (including Robert Frost) and family; for English letters. An exemplary work, and excellent read.

Salt Modern Voices Pamphlet series

I was published in this series myself late last year, but there's been a flurry of others since. It would be unfair, having read with some of the poets to single any one out in particular, and I'm not entirely sure which were this year and last. Thanks to Angela Topping, JT Welsch, Clare Trevien, Lee Smith, Emily Hasler and Shaun Belcher for reading with me this year, and I'm only sorry I haven't yet managed it with Robert Graham, Mark Burnhope and the new writers in the series. As they say on the BBC, "other pamphlet series are available," but this one has plenty to show for it.

Best British Short Stories 2011 ed. by Nicholas Royle

The first in a series, it attempts to bring together the best short stories from the last 12 months. Like all anthologies it has its ups and downs - but there's something to please everyone. Particularly liked stories by David Rose and Leone Ross. I'm still dipping into it so not read them all, and if some are decidedly pedestrian, most zip along with the brio you hope to find from the form. Felt the bigger names or staider magazines were the least interesting in many ways. It will be interesting next year to see if Royle's choice for the Manchester Fiction Prize make the cut when there's another editor - as he didn't find prize stories to particularly appeal this one.

11.22.63. by Stephen King

I'm half way through and thoroughly gripped - the first King novel I've read for about 20 years. He takes on the biggest story here - JFK's assassination and his contemporary hero goes "down the rabbit hole" to 1958 to prepare to change history. King's great skills, in talking about smalltown America, the country's mythos, and a sense of impending dread are all here in plentiful supply. Not finished it yet, but think it will be one of the books of the year, regardless.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Having not read much fiction recently, this prizewinning novel impressed me with its brilliance. In amongst all the spats about this years Booker, it seems to get forgotten how the best American novels seem light years ahead of most things the commonwealth is producing. Egan's is a contemporary masterpiece that even tries McSweeney's style trickery (a Powerpoint presentation in one chapter) and pulls it off admirably.

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