Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Fiction Books I Read in 2010

I decided to keep track of all the books I read in 2010. I wondered what I would learn from doing this? To make it easier for me to publish and (hopefully) for you to digest, I've broken it into fiction and non. So, here are the 20 fiction books, in the order I read them in 2010. (You can also read my 2010 non fiction list).

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Set after an unspecified apocalypse, this book follows an unnamed father and son trudging along a road through a grey wasteland of death and destruction. If this sounds grim, well, it is.
Thanks to osiantynska for this image of piles of books
Although I like horror films, I don't read many (any?) horror books; this one was a gift. I often regretted reading it right before going to sleep. And, after reading the book, I really didn't want to watch the film version. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the book - grim, yet gripping.

2. A Star Called Henry (The Last Roundup) by Roddy Doyle.
Henry, the son of a one-legged hitman, grows up on the streets of Dublin in the early 20th century. He gets mixed up in the Easter Rising of 1916 and becomes a hitman for the IRA.

Roddy Doyle's convincing portrait of Irish street life is by turns comic and tragic. It cleverly makes you see why someone would want to become a terrorist; but also how Henry is inevitably betrayed by his own cause.

3. Loving Frank: A Novel by Nancy Horan
Just like A Star Called Henry, Loving Frank is a novel based on true events. This one follows Mamah Bothwick Cheney, who had an affair with Frank Lloyd Wright.

There was nothing wrong with this book but it just didn't grip me. I never did finish it... but I'm going to count it anyway, partly because I made it most of the way through. And partly because my total number of books read would be even worse otherwise.

4. The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
This science fiction novel portrays a world that is being reshaped by nanotechnology and being carved up amongst competing tribes, such as the neoconfucians and neovictorians. Several interlocking plot threads follow nicely-drawn characters and weave the details of the fully-imagined future cultures.

I read - and loved - Stephenson's SF classic Snow Crash and his hugely ambitious Baroque Cycle historical fiction books. Diamond Age is quite different again from these in style and subject matter. But, just as with his other books, Stephenson crafted a novel that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

5. A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre
Le Carre's post-9/11 spy thriller is set in Hamburg and centres on Issa, who may be a Muslim medical student, or a Chechnyan terrorist, or the son of a Russian spy, or all of the above.

Another fictional book that make me feel smarter and better-informed about the real world and its moral complexities.

6. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley
Each of the perfectly crafted short stories about Socrates Fortlow, an ex-convict now scraping out an existence in a Watts shack, stands on its own. And yet the whole collection hangs together like a novel.

Brilliant stuff.

7. The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
Portraying the alienation and action in the life of a post Cold War spy is now a well-trodden path. But Steinhauer's tale of a CIA "Tourist" (a spy of no-fixed-abode) is well-executed, with convincing characters and a multi-layered plot, played out against backdrops that combine glamour and squalor in equal measure.

8. Making History by Stephen Fry
This is polymath and over-achiever Stephen Fry's third novel. It is an alternative history (what if Hitler won WWII?) although it is cleverly framed as an alternative reality (what if we could go back and change history to prevent Hitler's rise to power?). As you might guess, there's a be-careful-what-you-wish-for twist and Fry uses the what-if's to illustrate how things are better than they might have been.

Not the best novel I've ever read, but entertaining enough and I particularly liked the details of the London and Princeton settings.

9. American Gods: A Novel by Neil Gaiman
I rarely re-read a book, but American Gods was selected for One Book One Twitter, an experimental online bookclub and I decided to join in the fun (a little bit). AG follows the journey of Shadow as he learns about the gods that followed people to America and wound up as shadows of their former godselves, as people forgot their old gods in the New World.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this book, partly because of the added Twittery dimension, but also because I noticed a lot more the second time through this dense and cleverly written imaginative work.

10. Neverwhere: A Novel by Neil Gaiman
Next, I decided to read a new-to-me Gaiman novel. Neverwhere takes you beneath London into a fantasy informed by punning on the Tube stop names (you meet black friars, an Earl holds court and there's a central character who is an angel called Islington).

Lighter-weight than American Gods, but fun none-the-less.

11. Fleshmarket Alley: An Inspector Rebus Novel by Ian Rankin
As our big holiday this summer revolved around Edinburgh, I followed my tradition and read a book set in that city. I was happy that Fleshmarket Alley is a real location off Cockburn Street - and only slightly disappointed that it is really called Fleshmarket Close (as are the books outside of the USA). We saw Ian Rankin in the flesh (and Alisa spoke to him), as the Edinburgh Book Festival was in full swing when we visited.

Fleshmarket Alley / Close is a solid entry in the seemingly neverending series of well-written Rebus murder mysteries.

12. Best of Philip K Dick by Philip K Dick
I was inspired to read this collection of sci-fi short stories by the World Cup. Remember Paul? Well, Philip K Dick wrote Martian Time-Slip which I hear involves an octopus that can predict the future (or maybe is controlling the future). Sadly, that book wasn't available in the library. But this collection was - and it contained several of his short stories that were later reworked into films (Minority Report, Total Recall and so on).

13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
I was flying somewhere when I ran out of books to read. I think I had a 45 minute layover in Chicago? So, I ran into a bookshop and bought this book. It turned out to be a great choice.

The mid-twentieth century Cambrian explosion of comic books is the backdrop for and inspires the style of this novel about two Jewish cousins and their families in New York City. Although the action roams far and wide, including Prague (with several magical appearances by the Golem) and frozen mad battles in Antartica.

14. Valley of Bones: A Novel by Michael Gruber
Cuban-American detective Jimmy Paz investigates a mysterious, mystic nun implicated in the murder of an Arab arms dealer. This turned out to be a very original entry in the mystery/thriller genre, as it roams back and forth in time and between continents.

15. Murder on the Leviathan: A Novel by Boris Akunin
Translated from the Russian, this is a period murder mystery set onboard a cruise ship. I particularly liked how each chapter was told from the view point of a different character.

16. The Echelon Vendetta by David Stone
At the local library fundraiser, I bought a bag of books for a dollar. This was one of them. But this CIA spy thriller wasn't half bad.

17. Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski
There were several things I liked about this thriller by former Philadelphia City Paper editor Swiercynski. It is simultaneously set in Philadelphia and Edinburgh, both cities I know quite well. The action and plotting are a bit comic book but there are enough comedic touches to make it an entertaining ride.

18. Cold Service by Robert B Parker
19. Hush Money by Robert B Parker
Both of these Parker books were in the for-a-dollar bag. They are each competent entries in the Spenser detective series. Quick and painless reads.

20. Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart
Picked by several people as their book of the year, this novel is set in Rome and New York City in the near future. It traces Lenny (obviously modeled on Gary) and Eunice (his Korean American gf) as they navigate their way through the fashion-obsessed, technology drenched, book disdaining world. Everyone is glued to their apparats (descendants of today's smartphones) which broadcast constant streams of data about you and bombard you with information about the people and things around you. I particularly liked the portrayals of the Bipartisan party and the ubiquitous National Guard checkpoints.

In a lot of ways, SSTLS reminded me of William Gibson's recent novels, although Shteyngart is more skeptical of the frantic, technology driven future. It reminded me of a thought I had whilst in Rome in November - that there is hope for a happy future after an empire collapses, which is heartening given what the USA is going through currently. There are many clever references ("The Rupture") but there is also a lot of depth. Lenny and Eunice are convincing characters and quite different from one another. My last novel I read in 2010 and one of my favourites.

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