And so we come to the Second Annual Bookhound Awards, awarded to the great and not-so-good of this year. It's time for a reminder of what gave pleasure, and of what will never be read again. There are 10 categories this year : Book of the year, New Read, Re-read, Top crime, Best non-fiction, Surprise of the year, Disappointment of the year, A sense of place, Funniest read, and my usual Best performance by an animal (preferably fictional but you never know...)
So in no particular order :
Crime read of the year
And the nominees are : Endless Night / Agatha Christie - for still being scary and surprising in spite of numerous reads ; another Agatha, Death comes as the end for having one of the most unusual settings for a crime novel, and for having a good solid crime at the heart of it ; Robert Drewe's The shark net, ostensibly recollections of a teenager's coming of age in Western Australia, Drewe happened to be growing up at a time when there was a serial killer on the loose, his examination of how this affects an entire society is unforgettable ; My soul to take, Yrsa Sigurdardottir's follow-up to Last rituals. Different, but almost as good ; Last act in Palmyra. Crime doesn't get funnier than this as Falco and Helena battle to stay alive as they travel to Palmyra with a stage troop.
And the winner is : Death comes as the end. Very clever, with a surprisingly scary ending, and a wonderful setting.
Funniest read of the year
There have been some great comedy moments in 2011 (most of them intentional!). The books that made Bookhound laugh included :
Death and the penguin. Andrey Kurkov's surreal satire on post-Soviet Ukraine. You know it's going to be great fun from the time you read the section describing how the zoo couldn't afford to feed its animals so gave them to willing volunteers (one wonders who got the lion?) ; Monica Dickens' memoir of life as a high-class cook/housemaid in 1930's Britain One pair of hands. To a certain extent this has dated, but it still remains screamingly funny, and one of my favourite instant pick-me-up reads ; I'd always enjoyed the Tintin cartoons as classic kids' adventures, what I hadn't realised was how funny the books are, with lots of little jokes that will probably soar right over your kid's head but will be thoroughly enjoyed by the adult reading the bedtime tale, so I have to nominate Herge's The Calculus Affair ; MASH by Richard Hooker, an astonishing and very funny look at the life of an Army Surgical Unit in the Korean War. It's so funny, that it's sometimes hard to believe that much of it also happened to be true ; and finally Douglas Adams' The hitchikers guide to the galaxy. Surreal and weird, it's often been copied but never surpassed.
And the winner is Death and the penguin. The first in a series of comic reads. Andrey Kurkov was one of my new author finds of the year.
Top non-fiction read
There were some great non-fiction finds this year. My favourites included Robert Drewe's The shark net, the enchanting The sight of death by T.J. Clark. You might think that a book looking at an art scholar's perception of a single painting (and not even a particularly well-known painting) over the course of a year would be incredibly boring, but this book wasn't like that at all. It was completely fascinating, and I loved it ; Chris Stringer's Homo Britannicus, a wonderfully inspirational look at the history of the landscape of Britain, and how dramatic geological changes affected the lives of the people living within the landscape. I'll never look at Britain in quite the same way again ; another art related book Alice Beckett's Fakes : forgery and the art world a surprisingly honest look at the fake art market and how it affects the real one, although even this book is not quite what it seems....; Come tell me how you live by Agatha Christie. This was a charming read, the story of a series of archaeological digs undertaken by Christie's husband, Max Mallowan, in the years leading up to the Second World War. She writes evocatively of the time and place, and with an enthusiasm for her subject that shines through.
This was one of the hardest categories to judge. Virtually all the non-fiction reads this year were brilliant. But the winner is T.J. Clark's The sight of death. It completely blew me away, wonderful writing, incredible subject. Just fantastic. Honourable mentions go to Come tell me how you live and Homo Britannicus.
A sense of place
Some books can just do it, you turn the pages and like Sheherazade's husband you're fully immersed in a strange and wonderful land, perhaps even a time outside your own. Some books however do it better than others. These were my favourites this year :
Agatha Christie : Death comes as the end for bringing Ancient Egypt exuberantly to life ; J.K. Rowling for the Harry Potter sequence - it's not easy to create a fantasy world that works and continues to work over the course of several books, but she's done a superb job ; Fair stood the wind for France, so French you can smell the lavender, see the vineyards, and hear the cicadas - wonderful writing ; another novel set in time of war also receives mention David Downing's Potsdam Station set in the dying days of the Battle for Berlin. I've read plenty of non-fiction about this, but rarely has it been brought so stunningly to life as here, and finally In the company of the courtesan, Sarah Dunant brings Renaissance Venice dazzlingly to life, I believed in every bit of it.
And the winner is Potsdam Station. This wasn't the best Downing I've ever read, but the scenes set in Berlin as the characters struggle to survive are brilliantly written. Quite amazing.
Best performance by an animal
The human kangaroos in Eric Linklater's The wind on the moon. Although not strictly animals, they were very funny, and beautifully portrayed in this hilarious and touching childrens' classic ; Snowy, Tintin's white terrier sidekick - where would Tintin be without him? he even speaks! ; Jasper, cocker spaniel and loyal friend in Du Maurier's Rebecca, he's also an important element in the story as he's able to move the narrative to new locations. Du Maurier liked dogs, and that's very obvious in the way she portrayed Jasper ; Mischa, Andrey Kurkov's depressed penguin from Death and the penguin, certainly one of the funniest animals this year, and a bravura performance throughout ; and probably the wonderful of all (as they're not fictional) the courageous sled-dogs of the far north in Yukon Alone.
And the winner is : Mischa the penguin (well, he's got to have an award to cheer him up)
Surprise of the year
These were books from which I got a lot more than I was expecting.
Herge's The Calculus Affair, I was expecting a kids' adventure tale. I got comedy, brilliant cartoons - truly beautiful and intricate, and a compelling tale that kept me enthralled from frame to frame. Homo Britannicus, an interesting but dry tale of British geology? Wrong! Beautifully written, Chris Stringer takes you through British history into the current geological age. It's made me look at the landscape in a completely different way. Charles Dickens' A tale of two cities, quite simply I'd forgotten how good it was. I enjoyed every moment, my only disappointment was that my other revolutionary favourite Hilary Mantel's A place of greater safety palled when contrasted with Dickens. Robertson Davis' Tempest-Tost, very funny, although not one of the funniest reads of the year. What was great about it though was the joy of finding a previously undiscovered author to love. Marcus Zusak's
And the winner is : Homo Britannicus for making geology an eye-opening experience.
Disappointment of the year
Rather to my surprise there are some high-powered names in the list this year. I read very little that was truly dreadful, but there were several books that I had anticipated keenly and which failed to live up to expectations. These included : The hare with the amber eyes by Edmund de Waal. I just wish it had been more about the little Japanese figures themselves. Much of what de Waal wrote was interesting, but I often found it quite hard to feel much sympathy for people who seemed so alien, and self-regarding. I was truly disappointed in this.
Agatha Christie's The labours of Hercules. A short story collection that I had either never read before, or read so long ago I'd forgotten all about it. It was dreadful, pure tosh, stories were weak and/or repetitive. Definitely my worst Christie read ever.
Another disappointment was Monica Ali's In the kitchen. I had read and loved Brick Lane and was hoping for more of the same, not only was it nothing like Brick Lane but it was badly written, with a thin storyline, and nothing really to redeem it. Oh dear!
Another disappointment was the re-reading of Mary Stewart's Touch not the cat, I had loved it when I read it years ago, and was thoroughly looking forward to reading it again. But is was sooo disappointing, a very weak storyline, paperthin characters, poor writing. Mary Stewart is so much better than this. Avoid! ; Cormac McCarthy's The road : Just my sort of thing - apocalyptic fiction? Tick. Great reviews? Tick. This should be brilliant....um, no, it wasn't, it was all a bit pointless really - which may have been the point, but this sort of thing has been done before elsewhere in Canticle for Leibowitz, for instance, and done so much better. I thought the writing was good in the sense that he's great at shaping words and coming out with lovely metaphors, but the narrative was horrible. I just couldn't connect with it.
And the loser is : without a doubt The road. Everyone else seems to love it, I can't see what the fuss is about.
And now for the top 3 awards:
Re-read of the year
All of the nominees made a huge impact on me when re-reading them. They are A tale of two cities / Charles Dickens ; Fair stood the wind for France / H.E. Bates ; Robert Neill's Mist over Pendle, Agatha Christie Endless Night and the Harry Potter sequence / J.K. Rowling.
And the winner is : A tale of two cities. Blew me away with its narrative, some of the best black humour anywhere, and some great characterisation. Just a fantastic read that sweeps you along with it.
Best new read of the year
Life and fate / Vasily Grossman ; Death and the penguin / Andrey Kurkov ; In the company of the courtesan / Sarah Dunant ; The sight of death / T.J. Clark ; The book thief / Marcus Zusak.
Unusually for me non-fiction's been particularly strong this year, but the winner in spite of that is The book thief, a stunning and moving literary debut.
Book of the year
The book thief / Marcus Zusak ; A tale of two cities / Charles Dickens ; The sight of death / T.J. Clark ; In the company of the courtesan / Sarah Dunant ; Homo Britannicus / Chris Stringer.
Another difficult decision, but my book of the year by a dog's whisker is : A tale of two cities. I loved both The book thief and The sight of death which were very close runners-up, but I discovered on re-reading the Dickens, that this would definitely be my desert island book, so it's got to be Book of the Year. A big round of applause to all the nominees who have given me so much pleasure in 2011. Here's to more reading and blogging in 2012. Cheers!