Not the best books of 2010

As with last year I’m not going to do a “best books of 2010” list because I’m sure I’d think I was horribly wrong no matter what I wrote. So this is more of a most memorable to me personally list:

Edit: I knew I was going to miss something embarrassingly important. Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House was absolutely gorgeous and I can’t believe I didn’t put it on this list. (I blame the bout of food poisoning that has kept me home, awake, and oddly productive today.)

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray: This may not be a best books list, but if it was this book would still be on it. It’s certainly my favourite new book in a very long time. Partly because I know and love school stories so well, partly because it is just brilliant. It’s an Irish school story, but it’s also got science fiction and science science and drugs and love and druids and priests all thrown in, and it’s funny and over the top and always just about on the verge of collapsing under the weight of itself, and it makes me quite incoherent with glee.

Light Boxes, Shane Jones: I bought this purely on the basis of how pretty the cover was. I did worry that it seemed a little smug, but then I read it and adored it anyway. Strange and lovely and fable-like (fablesque? fabulous?) and gory and quite wonderful. Review here, and also a signal boost to the amazing Raven Books where I picked up my copy.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983, Jai Arjun Singh: If this was a “best books” list I don’t know if this book would be on it. Certainly I’d feel a little odd about it, since Jai is a friend and I am obviously biased. But this is the first time someone I know has published a long work that is nonfiction and non-academic, and I was fascinated by how recognisable the person I know was; how his voice and the sort of things that interest him and concern him, came across in the book. Of course this is all a very personal reading of the book, but it was a new feeling to me, and so thoroughly enjoyable.

Jaclyn the Ripper, Karl Alexander: I started reading this on the last day of 2009, could only manage a few pages at a time (though it provided some drunken entertainment on new year’s eve) and eventually struggled to the end in 2010. I was supposed to review it, but after a long struggle finally gave up (I’m sorry, Niall!). In a year when I read multiple Indian 100 rupee novels and the occasional essay by an undergraduate, among other things, this book stands out as not only the worst thing I read all year, but the worst thing I have ever read full stop. Most memorable books of the year? I suspect this one is seared into my brain forever.

In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield: I bought this because a bunch of people with reliable opinions had said good things about it. As ever they were proved correct. This is an incredibly smart, atmospheric, historical novel. With mermaids. It has things like politics and court intrigue and a plausible history, but with all that it never gets worldbling-y, and it keeps that strange, elusive feel that is one of the reasons I first loved fantasy. The author also has an excellent blog, here.

Christmas Stories, Various: Brought out by Scholastic India – and here is a disclaimer: they employ me and that is why I don’t talk much about children’s books here anymore. This collection isn’t so much on this list for literary merit (though it has stories by some pretty great writers, including Mridula Koshy, Payal Dhar, and the epictastic Kuzhali Manickavel) but because it has a story by me in it. The story is about black magic, brothers and bicycle theft. It’s the first thing I’ve ever written for children, and I’m quite proud of it. I had another (for grown-ups this time) story accepted for publication this past year for an anthology with another publisher. Hopefully that will come out sometime in 2011 – but this is my first and it’s special.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart: As I said above, I don’t talk much about children’s books here because of possible conflicts of interest. But I have loved E. Lockhart ever since I read The Boy Book a couple of years ago. If I could make one book compulsory reading for teenagers (which would utterly defeat the purpose) I think Frankie Landau-Banks would be it. It’s got intelligent teenagers, and Bentham, and Foucault, and sexual politics, and sexual attraction and an ending that isn’t happy. I hurtled through it through the night, only stopping every few chapters to dance around the room.

All About H. Hatterr, G.V Desani: I ended up writing an entirely separate post about this one. But this was revolutionary – a bizarre, funny epic that made a point of not taking English seriously. I’m embarrassed I’d never read it before and thrilled that I finally have.

The Etched City, K.J. Bishop: A friend had been telling me for a couple of years that I needed to read this. When I finally got down to it this year my mind was quite thoroughly blown. Here’s a link to Paul Smith’s piece on it.

Kumari Loves a Monster, Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, Shyam, Jagan and Pritham K. Chakravarthy: I’m not sure what to say about Kumari… apart from actually describing it – it is a series of pictures of tentacle beastthings romancing pretty girls from Tamil Nadu. With a few lines of poetry in both English and Tamil for each scene. This should be enough, but Kumari Loves a Monster doesn’t just rest on the cool idea; it is actively adorable. It is also hot pink.

Wolfsangel, M.D. Lachlan: This book is two books. One is a huge Viking werewolf fantasy – it’s massive in scale, and feels meaty and real and generally good. The other is a quiet, thoughtful, dreamlike meditation on gods and magic and human interaction with myth. One book felt like The Long Ships (which I am reading), the other felt like The Owl Service. Wolfsangel was startlingly good, and I look forward to reading Lachlan’s next.

The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, Manohar Shyam Joshi: I wish I’d read more translated work this year. I picked this book up for its marvellous title. I’m not sure what I was expecting; certainly not something quite this. A playful, postmodern romp – I wrote more about it here – and as far as I can tell, a very good translation.

The Thing Around your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: An author I’d been planning to read for a long time, and a collection of short stories. The Thing Around Your Neck was as dense and layered as I’d been led to expect, but I was unprepared for how direct and strongly felt it seemed. I will be reading her novels this year – and if you have not read her and need convincing, her wonderful TED talk ought to be enough.

Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees: A classic that I had (for reasons unknown) never read before. Outwardly very delicate and pretty and fable-like, but then it turns out to be full of murder and addiction and other unexpected things.

Glass Coffin Girls, Paul Jessup: I like stories, and therefore I like stories that think about stories. Jessup has very much the same sort of approach to genre and how it works as I do myself. This is a great, strange little collection of horror-ish stories based on fairytales. There’s an element of dream logic to many of the stories that somehow works really well. This collection (or one story in it) also has the distinction of being the only thing I read this year that made me feel actually, physically ill.

Honourable mentions: Turbulence, Reading Series Fiction, Zoo City, Super Sad True Love Story, Four British Fantasists, rereads of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar books, Joan Aiken rereads, a Gormenghast reread, and the most recent Terry Pratchett. Adam Roberts’ gorgeous, ludic Yellow Blue Tibia was a joy to read, and I’m told that New Model Army (I have exercised great discipline in not buying it yet) is even better. Under My Roof, Nick Mamatas’ smart, hilarious post-9/11 novel. My gorgeous, Australian edition covers of Celine Kiernan’s Moorhawke books (along with Light Boxes these are the prettiest additions to my shelves in 2010) are tempting me to reread the first two as soon as possible. Alan Garner’s The Voice That Thunders and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed were both started in 2010 and will be finished in 2011 – both are promising to be pretty memorable.

Things I am looking forward to in 2011:
Anna Carey’s first book, The Real Rebecca. Anna is a good friend (disclaimer again) and a really good writer and a generally lovely person, so I’m expecting this to be amazing.
New Adam Roberts book, again with a three-word title. This man is alarmingly prolific.
The Popcorn Essayists, a collection of film essays by Indian writers. Apart from the fact that it’s edited by Jai, it’s got Manil Suri talking about being a cabaret dancer and Musharraf Ali Farooqi talking about (I think) foot-fetishes.
New China Mieville book. I was a bit disappointed in last year’s Kraken, but even Mieville’s more disappointing books tend to have plenty of meat to them. I’m hoping that this shift to what looks like a more traditionally genre-ish book (as much as that is ever likely to be the case with this author, anyway) will eliminate a number of the flaws I perceived in the last book.
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read in recent years. I’m very keen to see what Russell does with the novel form.
A Dance With Dragons. I read very few fantasy series, and this is probably a good thing. I am one of those awful people who cannot rest till I own the set – regardless of whether I actually like the books. At this point (this is probably very unflattering to GRRM and I beg his pardon) I’d be quite satisfied if someone would just give me a bulletpointed list of the major plot points till the end of the series. This is unlikely to happen. I shall read A Dance With Dragons and hop about impatiently for the next book instead.
Russians: I am reading them. It struck me this year (in part because of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed) that I had not read enough of the writers of whom she spoke. Since this is clearly something that needs remedying, I am making Russian literature something of a project this year. Suggestions for what I should read and when are more than welcome.

7 Comments to “Not the best books of 2010”

  1. Wasn't it Jeeves who relaxed reading the Great Russians, as he put it? Serious stuff, the Great Russians. Here's some modern genre fiction which I liked a lot:

    1. Boris Akunin's Fandorin series
    2. Andrey Kurkov's Death and the Penguin
    3. Garros-Evdokimov's Headcrusher

    If you get around to these, I will look forward to the reviews.

  2. I also read and loved A Thing Around Your Neck (last year, I think) and of course, Jai Arjun Singh's book. Happy New Year!

  3. it’s also got science fiction and science science

    Dammit, I knew I should have got around to reading it!

    Also: good to see a use of worldbling.

  4. Feanor: I would not be surprised. (I had to prevent myself from picking up something by Spinoza recently, just for the association). Akunin's already on a list of probables, but I shall add the others as well, thanks!

    Unmana: Happy new year to you too! I saw that you and The Guy had both read Jai's book.

    Niall: I should warn you that I'm not entirely sure where the distinction between the two should be drawn in the book.
    Worldbling needs a better adjectival form than the one I've used. Someone should do something about it.

  5. This list is intimidating! But I see you haven't read much nonfiction this year?

  6. Impressive and kind of diverse list; perhaps you should do one on subcontinental or IngLit fiction. See also, Manu Joseph's Serious Men and Daniyal's Other Rooms…('09 but published here in '10).

  7. Kath – I noticed that too. I wonder if it's a reaction to not having to do research this year.

    Jasjiv – I do occasionally write about subcontinental fiction. But I'm most likely to want to read it if it has speculative elements, and with limited time and money this rules a lot of stuff out. I did enjoy Daniyal Muenuddin's collection though.

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