Saturday, 29 December 2007

Books of the Year - first batch!

OK, here we go with my best books of 2007. I have an atrocious memory and don’t keep any kind of reading diary because I’m not that organised (nor, sadly, do I seem to want to be) so this list relies on books really standing out in my mind or on the bookshelves when I went back to look at them.

The novels listed are in no kind of order, either of merit or chronology. Not all of them were published in 2007, I just happen to have read them this year. So, with no further ado here are the first batch – the rest will follow tomorrow and on New Year’s Eve.

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. Normally, when I read the words ‘tour de force’ I run a mile because it means somebody’s being clever and probably using a lot of literary devices or writing the whole of his/her novel in some hard-to-grasp demotic. But Matthew Kneale did neither of these things and yet his novel was a tour de force that I loved. The impressive thing was his use of multiple narrators to tell his story. I lost count of how many people contributed to the narrative as we moved from England to Tasmania but it was a large number. From the Manx ship’s captain to the barmy cleric who believed that Eden would be found in Australasia and on yet further to one of the most engaging voices of all – that of Peevay the Tasmanian aborigine – Matthew Kneale made you believe in his people and their voices. No two narrative voices sounded remotely alike. He really did make you believe that these were different people speaking with different life experiences, different outlooks on life, different cultures. I loved this book, though I felt that whoever had designed the jacket had done it no favours at all…

The First Casualty by Ben Elton. I’ve blogged about this before, so I won’t do another long spiel but suffice it to say that I loved it a great deal more than the war book I’m reading at the minute which is Michael Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl. TWG is beautiful and well-researched but, frankly, so is The First Casualty which also has a much better story (I’m half way through the Welsh Girl and not very much has happened, though it has failed to happen very beautifully) and a narrative drive which carries you along. Elton makes you care about his characters, so far Mr Davies has not. So why will The Welsh Girl win prizes whilst The First Casualty will not? Why is it assumed that if tens – or hundreds – of thousands of people want to read a book it must be less than worthy literature? I refer the reader to Dickens, Austen, Mrs Gaskell… When did we lose the ability to see that novels need well-drawn characters and a good story, to be told in flawless prose but also to move swiftly to the end of each chapter leaving the reader wanting more?

Atonement by Ian McEwan. See everything I said above. Why Ian McEwan would write books like The Child in Time when he can write the way he did in Atonement defeats me. Even then, I felt that it was a book of two halves. The first half, with its claustrophobic and beautifully realised setting was infinitely more successful – for me – than the second half when he plucked Rob out of prison and took him to war. It was beautifully realised and his research was clearly impeccable but – for me – this part of the story had none of the feverish, brittle, brilliant tension of the first half. Bryony atoning wasn’t half as good as Bryony childishly and wilfully misinterpreting what she saw…

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. People seem to either love or hate this book but I definitely fell into the love category. Well, it’s got a story, innit? Add to that the fact that it’s a wonderfully well-done period piece, it has characters you could cut yourself on, so sharply are they drawn and the fact that Susanna Clarke writes about the use of magic without the smallest suggestion of twee-ness and you’ve got a winner. There was only one thing wrong with this novel, in fact – it was really fat and hard to hold up in bed when reading far longer into the night than I should have been doing…

More best books of 2007 tomorrow.

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