Back again with my one annual post; not New Year’s resolutions, or more music interviews, or anything like that, but an aside into the best books I’ve read all year. I’ve actually read less this year than normal. In fact, I’ve only recently found myself able to read at ‘book length’ again when I’m not required to by my work after our daughter arrived: I was so tired I read almost nothing of note for three months.
Nonetheless, I got through 45 or so books, so the top five is still a fairly high bar, and I found this a little difficult to whittle down. There’s been a lot of sport and music, a couple of dozens novels, and some books that I only read at all as I was reviewing them (none made the list – make of that what you will).
Here are the top five…
Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd by Jonas Jonasson
Jonas Jonasson is one of those authors who I borderline ‘follow’ – at least to the point where if I see a title I haven’t read, I will grab it. He’s a surrealist, and a brilliant storyteller with it, taking these quirky characters through tales usually set in Sweden that are, underneath it all, ridiculous, but compelling nonetheless.
In this one, Jonasson creates a ‘son’ character who is ‘disposed of’ by his unloving father in the middle of African Savannah, but returns to haunt him, combining with other characters from the dad’s pretty aggressively miserable life to ruin his business years later. Alongside this, the group come up with a planned business to take revenge on behalf of others, a popular if controversial model which takes them in all kinds of ridiculous directions. It’s silly, but I absolutely love it.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
This is a dark, somewhat torrid book about alcohol abuse and difficult upbringings in the really nasty side of Glasgow and its early-80s tenements, and despite its toxic subject matter, a really well-written, memorable read. There’s something bordering on witty about the recounting of the struggles of a split, derelict family and their collective life experience.
The main character is Shuggie, who for much of the book is a young, malnourished and cheeky kid who just about muddles through a life dominated by his difficult and addicted mother, Agnes. Agnes is a dreamer, but she really is looking from the gutter to the stars, and Shuggie is caught in the crossfire, surviving on hits wits in what is ultimately a story of the darker side of poverty, life on credit, and those, like children, who are simply surviving and can hope for little more.
The Pact by Sharon Bolton
I do like a fairly easy-reading novel every so often, and The Pact is just that, but a beautifully constructed one. Before heading to university, a group of school friends spend a summer messing around. That summer, mostly alcohol-fuelled pool parties and having a bit of a laugh, descends into dangerous drunken chaos, and people end up dead.
That’s all in the opening few chapters, and cornered, with someone having to take the blame, the group agree that one of them will confess to the police and accept the consequences on behalf of them all. But there’s one flip side to the deal: when she asks for a favour in return, it must be granted. Years alter, the other friends have moved on with their lives, and the girl who took the blame is released from prison. The book is about what she will demand next, and the consequences. Rapid, easy to take in, and great fun.
The Great Cave Rescue by James Massola
Unusually, this is the only non-fiction book to make my list year, and what a book it is. In it, James Massola tells the full, detailed story of the rescue of the Thai football team from a flooded cave in the north of the country, which made an international news story a few years back.
With the monsoon closing in, oxygen levels dropping and no obvious method of getting the 12 boys and their coach out of the cave, the world watched expecting the worst. Finding the boys tooks about a week, and some very dangerous cave diving (one rescuer died in the process). Once they were found, it took the same time again to work out an even slightly sensible method of getting them out, a cross-contintental effort that most involved expected to fail, or at least not to fully succeed. Amazingly, it did, with all 13 surviving, and Massola’s telling is full of the kind of detail and fear that explains both why, and the sheer emotion of being there.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
This is an interesting one for me, as I’ve been recommended Matt Haig so many times and this is the only one of his books I’ve made it past the first few pages of, most of them just aren’t for me at all. This one, though has that ‘Sliding Doors’ thing going on that I find fascinating.
In it, someone spends time in a library that contains every possible version of their life, containing books that you can ‘slip into’ experiencing the versions of life in which you die young, in which you become filthy rich, or really famous, and so on. It’s beautifully presented, the kind of life-affirming text that leaves you thinking for weeks afterwards and in the right state of mind, could kick your life into gear. It’s incredibly easy-reading but a great concept.