I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas with your family and friends, and got everything you wished for. I’m still mid-way through the round of family visits, so here’s a post I prepared earlier.
Yes it is a list – I’m going to inflict my Books of the Decade on you – all five star books, published in the noughties, that I’ve particularly enjoyed reading during the last few years. So here they are in chronological order …
2000: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
I’m starting off with the possibly the best bookish book about books ever written. What bibliomane could resist this book! A delightful collection of essays about books and life with books. Topics are wide-ranging – from the marrying of libraries to compulsive proof-reading, and from plagiarism to the joys of reading aloud. Totally fabulous.
2000: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Lionel is a young orphan with Tourettes. Yet his boss Frank sees something in him worth cultivating unlike many others in Brooklyn who don’t take him seriously. When Frank is murdered, Lionel vows to find out whodunnit. This is Lionel’s story of how he found Frank, (or Frank found him) and his work to solve the crime – all seen through the body of someone with Tourettes, constantly ticcing and having other compulsive behaviours When Frank is killed, Lionel loses his surrogate father and as he progresses in his quest to solve the murder he has to finish his growing up fast. This is an immensely readable and extremely enjoyable New York novel with a loveable and quirky main character.
2002: War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen
The things normal people got up to in the war. Good girl Gloria falls for a GI and learns to be bad with disastrous consequences. Told in flashback, Gloria is now an old lady and installed in an old nursing home due to, her son Hank, thinks dementia or even mad cow disease. Gloria however is not senile at all, just supressing all the bad stuff and is preparing to die and join her friend Doris. Hank, who has grown up without a father is desperate to find out where he comes from. Jensen serves this sad story up with large helpings of really black humour, some sick jokes, and loads of sex! Gloria, once relieved of her virginity was a bit of a one-woman shagging machine. It won’t be a surprise to you to find out she gets pregnant and abandoned by her man, but I won’t say any more.
This is an intelligent novel that shows, to use the words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, you get what you need.” With the young men all away fighting, rationing, bombs and death all around, wartime brought different values to the fore as you might die tomorrow. Contrasting against that with the contemporary strand of the story is a bit of a dig about how we treat our elderly folk. You’re taken with Gloria all the way through all the ups and downs of life’s rollercoaster – quirky, funny, sad – a fantastic read. Liz Jensen has written several other books on my TBR pile – must read more soon.
2003: The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills
A superb satire on crackpot government schemes, trade unions and workplace practices. The Scheme is a self-perpetuating plan to keep people in work – people drive vans and make deliveries – however they only collect and deliver parts for the vans they drive, thus keeping a huge number of drivers, warehousemen, engineers, supervisors etc etc in work. The workers are mostly proud to belong to The Scheme, but gradually complacency starts to set in, and niggles between colleagues lead to factions in the workplace and before you know it there’s a strike! Could this spell the end of The Scheme?
Mills’ short novel is peopled with characters we’ll all recognise … from the jobsworths to the shikers, from the whatever gets me through the day bods to the advantage-takers – all of human life is there in this microcosm of best intentions gone awry. Gentle, yet biting, and with tongue stuck firmly in cheek – I loved this book and have more to read on the TBR pile.
2005:The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
The mixture of love story, prison break, religious cult, and war story combine potently to make something that appears 100% Russian (not that I’d know what that is, but that’s the feeling I got). Atmospheric, exciting, mad and very, very cold.
2006: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
When Jessup goes missing after putting up the Dolly family house for his bail bond, his daughter Ree has to find him or be made homeless. What’s more, her ma is crazy and she’s having to bring up her younger brothers on her own. This is life on the edge and making a living is hard. Just about everyone is related, but these mountain folks still don’t trust each other, as Ree discovers when she goes looking for her pa on the other side of the valley.
In a mere 193 pages, you get an icy clear picture of this hard life in the brutal winter of the Ozark mountains. Although there’s little cheer, Ree has a true pioneer spirit and you root for her from page one. I’ll now have to track down all his previous books – highly recommended.
2006: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This is the book of the decade in most of the lists I’ve seen, and I find I can’t really disagree.
Nuclear winter is setting in. The American landscape is grey – almost everything is burnt or buried in ash. There is no wildlife, it’s either died or been eaten, human bodies are everywhere – dessicated and mummified by ash, others rotten, some obviously cannibalised. We follow the progress of a father and son – not named, just trying to follow the road south. They’re exhausted, starving and ill, their whole world contained within a shopping trolley. His overwhelming love for and instinct to protect his son is the only thing keeping the father alive. The son remains full of hope that when they get to the coast, everything will be alright – the father does his best to keep that belief alive.
The book is written in short bursts, each giving a glimpse of what living in this awful new world is like. We don’t find out much at all about what happened – it’s nearly all about the ‘now’ for father and son – what point is there dwelling on a past that can never be recovered.
2007: The Dig by John Preston
A lovely gentle novel about gentlemen archaeologists and country life and the story of the Sutton Hoo discovery just before WWII. In a sleepy town in Suffolk, Mrs Pretty, a widow, finally decides to have some tumuli on her land excavated. She gets in a local self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, who painstakingly digs away and reveals the sandy remains of a wooden ship – only the nails remain. But in step the men from the British Museum to take over the dig … but all rivalries eventually get put aside when they discover gold!
We all know the results from the amazing gold on display to this day in the British Museum, but the human story behind those involved in the dig is less well known, and for all the lack of big drama is compelling none the less. What made this novel for me is that I went to visit the site maybe 15 yrs ago, and was treated to a fantastic talk by a volunteer and the dig itself was still live – the ship may have been discovered, but in the neighbouring field, they were trying to find out more about the way of life of the Anglo-Saxons who lived there.
2007: Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Marcus Sedgwick’s wonderful novel tell the time of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia. Sedgwick is one of those teen authors whose books are crossover adult reads too, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough – it has revolution and politics, spies and intrigue, romance and family drama, all steeped in Russian fairy tales.
Sedgwick’s novelisation is no dry biography. He starts by using the Ransomes collection of Russian fairy tales to tell the problems of the people, embodied by a great Russian bear spurred into action against the Tsar by two friends arguing in the forest – they are Lenin and Trotsky – superb scene-setting. Into this the character of Ransome, who had run away from an unhappy marriage to Russia in 1913, wanders in and instantly falls in love with a woman stirring a pot on a stove in an office – Evgenia. She was Trotsky’s personal secretary; they married eventually. Combined with all the derring do of the amateur spy, the author delivers a totally fabulous novel. Click here
2007: Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve
I love novels based on Arthurian myths and legends and this one, which won the 2008 Carnegie medal, is a great read. Reeve’s book for teens presents a totally different take on the stories that is highly original. The land it portrays is one of warring tribes; Arthur could be the one to pull the tribes of the west together to face the Saxons, and Myrddin (Merlin) is doing his best to make it so. However, Myrddin’s chief weapon is not Earth magic – it’s spin! Yes, you heard me right, ’twas ever thus. Myrddin comes from the bardic tradition and is a master story-teller, embellishing and embroidering Arthur’s exploits to the masses to put his man forward as the natural leader. He’s also good at creating illusions and using any opportunity to promote his master.
The story is mainly told almost entirely from a young girl’s point of view, Gwynna, who becomes Merlin’s assistant (dressed as a boy for safety). It takes us from the episode of the Lady of the Lake through to the deaths of Merlin and Arthur. All is seen from the slightly removed perspective which reveals the politics and spin underneath and the legacy it creates.
I warn you – next post will be my books of the year 2009. In my noughties books, there were a couple of obvious choices, some more quirky, and others which I loved, but know the authors have written better books – I just haven’t read them all yet.
I’d love to hear from you.