The Alternative Best Books of the Year 2011

I love broadsheets (I have to; one pays half my mortgage) but this weekend I read my way through the annual Best Books of 2011 features and found my jaw clenched so tight I feared for my tooth enamel.

Were they a smorgasbord of unheralded literary – and not so literary – delights? Did they enlighten me? Point me to places in Waterstones I might not otherwise have sought? Did they heck as like. The choices of of Margaret Drabble? Julian Barnes? Alan Hollinghurst? CHECK. Books by Julian Barnes? Alan Hollinghurst? Margaret Drabble? Ohhh yes. *pause for weary sigh *
Some lists were more imaginative, but the same names popped up with wearying regularity. Antonia Fraser and Andrew Motion, John Banville and Hilary Mantel… you get the picture. All of these people are amazing writers, yes. Their talent is indisputable; it’s no doubt why they make so many repeat appearances in these pages. But I can’t help feeling these features are a rather weary ring-round of the same old faces. They feel, to me at least, increasingly like an irrelevance, with no energy or surprises; a waste of an opportunity.
I thought of the books I’ve enjoyed this year; often books by people who don’t appear in the broadsheets. Where were the commercial novels, the funny books, the first novels, the graphic novels? Where was Caitlin Moran’s critically lauded feminist tract How To Be A Woman? Or Alan Partridge? Where were the phenomenally successful authors that we never see in these pages? Writers like Sophie Kinsella or Jodi Picoult? I’d LOVE to know what they are reading. I’d even like to know what Katie Price is reading. I’d actually be reassured to find that she actually reads books.
I’ve just read my way through 30-odd first novels for the Costa Book Awards, and many of them I have since pressed on people, delighted to have found amazing new voices, unheralded books I’d never have read otherwise. (I think I saw ONE of these in the books pages)
Taking all this into account, I thought I’d open the floor for some of my favourite writers – and readers – to submit their own. I’ve kicked off with some of my own (I’ll no doubt kick myself for those I’ve forgotten) Please do add to the list.

Mine: ( from the Costa Shortlist:)
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry: an extraordinary, rollicking and perfectly plotted swagger through a post-apocalyptic Irish turf war.
Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson: rich, gripping (and very funny) family saga told by a girl sent to live with her grandparents in Congo.
The Last 100 Days by Patrick McGuinness: If anyone had told me I would be gripped by a tale of Caucescu’s Romania I would have laughed. But this is a fascinating and wryly humorous tale of an innocent abroad.
Pao by Kerry Young, an epic tale of multicultural Jamaica and of a young man negotiating his way through its fledgling political system.

Excluding books by people I know (for obvious reasons), I also loved Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, which made me laugh until my stomach hurt, Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist, and Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods, whose sentences I kept pulling apart just to study their brilliance.
I also really enjoyed the Alex Rider graphic novels, which I’ve been reading with my sons. Gripping and beautifully drawn.

Stella Duffy, author of Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore: “One of the novels I most enjoyed this year is Zoe Strachan’s novel “Ever Fallen in Love” (Sandstone Press) for many reasons, not least the smart pace and lovely writing, but also for its honesty about relationships (family and romantic), a welcome take on the university novel from a different class perspective (not about posh kids finding themselves at Oxbridge – woo hoo!) and for proving it is possible to set a ‘gay novel’ outside a major metropolis.”

Jenny Colgan, author of Meet Me At The Cupcake Café The book about the world economic crisis, Boomerang, by Michael Lewis, is gripping reading, and essential for anyone trying to get a grasp on where we are, financially speaking. The Big Short, his previous book, is even better. He’s an absolutely peerless journalist on the trail of the biggest story of his life.

The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs was funny, sad and compulsive, and SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep was as clever and engrossing a thriller as I can think of. Like most of the rest of the world, I dived into A Game of Thrones for months on end and started muttering ‘winter is coming’ ominously in response to almost any question. But the book (although it was published in 2010) that most took my breath away, made me heartbroken, then overjoyed this year was completely unpredictable- it was Andre Agassi‘s staggeringly honest, sad, frank, fascinating autobiography, Open. Whether you’re a tennis fan is immaterial; if you’re a life fan, you have to read this book.

Chris Manby, author of Kate’s Wedding: I’ve just finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s memoir ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?‘ in which she talks about the childhood that inspired ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ and her recent search for her birth family.  It’s a wonderful read.  Laugh out loud funny at times.  Twist of the guts sad at others.  Winterson writes about the importance of the written word as a means of escape.  She says, ‘I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues.  We are not silenced.  All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech… we get our language back through the language of others.  We can turn to the poem.  We can open the book.  Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.’

I never imagined I had much in common with Jeanette Winterson but it turns out that I do.  We’re both adoptees, unlikely Oxford graduates and novelists. On the subject of adoption and the long shadow it casts over the lives of everyone involved, I found that Ms. Winterson had certainly ‘deep-dived’ the words for me.

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