Final post of the year, and what better way to round off 2010 than with a Top 10 Chart of the Best Books I Read This Year. As with almost all of these year-end posts I've been doing, however, and as the Bloody Great List of the books I read in 2010 – from whence this Top 10 is culled – demonstrated, few of the books I ploughed through over the past twelve months were particularly new. Consequently, this chart, which amongst its entries boasts just two books published in 2010, is utterly arbitrary and ultimately useless in gauging anything about the year just ended other than my reading habits. Then again, ain't that Existential Ennui all over?
Getting the list down to ten was a struggle. I initially assembled a Top 20, but while there were certainly some good books in the lower orders of that longer chart, they weren't quite as outstanding as the ones further up the list, and so made the whole thing seem slightly pedestrian. But once I'd determined to prune it, deciding what to keep and what to lose became increasingly difficult. I was stuck at thirteen for a while, then twelve, and then really dithered at eleven. Honourable mentions must therefore go to Belinda Bauer's Blacklands, to fine efforts by Gavin Lyall and Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, to Dan Clowes's Wilson and Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Outfit, and to more than a few Richard Stark novels, including The Man with the Getaway Face, The Score and especially The Split.
Anyway, here's the Top 10. I've reviewed a lot of these books before, so in those cases I've kept further comments to a minimum and provided a link back to the original review, should you wish to read my ramblings. All that's left to do before we get stuck in is to wish you a merry new year, and see you in the alarmingly science fiction-sounding 2011.
This being a Top 10, I've had to limit my Westlake selections to one novel written under his real name and one written as Richard Stark. This own-brand excursion is the second in his comedic series starring luckless thief John Dortmunder; it's a charming, breezy affair that culminates in an increasingly ridiculous – in a good way – bit of business centring on efforts to hide a mobile bank. Go here for a longer review.
9. Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
A brilliant novel about the bitterness of old age which I had ruined for me when I happened to listen to part of a talk by Amis's most recent biographer Zachary Leader in which Leader divulges the ending of the book. Bastard. But I did discover that Amis made eight pages of notes for the novel, beginning with a list of forty-five ways of being annoying. Hopefully one of those simply states, "Zachary Leader". There's no plot to speak of, merely a sequence of short chapters detailing the minor slights, petty squabbles and general intolerance betwixt a cast of old folk living out their latter years in a country cottage. That ending, by the way, is a supreme act of character vandalism.
8. The ACME Novelty Library #20: Lint by Chris Ware
I think I said pretty much all I had to say about this one in this review. A remarkable graphic novel.
7. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Not much more to add to this one either.
6. Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
Or indeed this.
Easily the most epic novel I read this year, The Passage is a brilliantly realised piece of horror fantasy. The descriptive passages may be a bit flowery in places, but the force of the narrative is undeniable, and Cronin's attempts to offer a scientific explanation for vampirism lends the story a certain plausibility. Partial review here.
4. Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
3. Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas
2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre
I'm still planning on posting something on le Carre's Karla Trilogy once I've read the third book, Smiley's People. But I'll be astonished if that novel manages to top this bruised, elegiac, reflective, mournful masterpiece.
Donald Westlake's first novel under the Stark moniker may not be as elegantly written or exquisitely layered as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, nor its characterization and dialogue as beautifully crafted as that of Chinaman's Chance. But in terms of its importance, both to my reading this year, and to fiction in general, it can't be beat. The blunt, stripped back prose style; the cunning formal complexity; the depiction of an illegal, underground, yet strangely professional America where men steal to finance their individual versions of the American Dream: these are just some of the things that make it special. And at its heart, the thief among thieves: Parker, that weird, taciturn, detached yet utterly compelling creation. Simply the best.
Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 1
Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Book and Comics, Part 2
Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 3
Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 4
Go here for the 2010 Review of the Year in Books and Comics, Part 5