Top Thirteen Books of 2010

Yes, this post is from a year ago. But I like it. 

2009 was an excellent year for books. I discovered The White Goddess and The Mathematical Experience, two books which would become some of my favourites of all time. My top list for last year was filled with wonder.

And then the other day I realised it was nearly the end of 2010, and that I’d need to do my ‘top books of the year’ list pretty quickly. I worried that I hadn’t read anything ground-breaking enough, but actually, looking back through the year, I think I’ve read quite a lot of wonderful things. Here are my top thirteen:

13. Dark Places ~ Gillian Flynn

Anyone who has previously written a book called Sharp Objects must be great as far as crime fiction goes, right? Gillian Flynn was a new addition to my library this year, and one I was pleased to discover. Dark Places was a dark and gripping tale of Satanism (the media-blown-up kind, not the Satanic Bible kind), accusations of child molestation, axe-murdering, shooting, cows being slaughtered (not in the so-we-can-eat-them way), and a lot of very disturbed people. If you’re into crime fiction, I recommend it.

12. Introduction to Historical Linguistics ~ Terry Crowley

Despite a glaring spelling error (‘cogate’ instead of ‘cognate’), which I, in my sleep-addled brain-state, managed to replicate in a conference submission, Introduction to Historical Linguistics was an interesting, eclectic and accessible introduction to… well, historical linguistics. Ahem. Next!

11. Narziss & Goldmund ~ Hermann Hesse

Hesse has a way of drawing readers into a story and making them really care about the characters, without losing the philosophical nature of the writing. It’s often easy to become bogged down in brainwaves when you’re reading a book that makes you think as well as telling a story, but Hesse weaves beautiful tales and activates your grey matter all at the same time. I’d recommend anything he’s written.

10. The Large, the Small and the Human Mind ~ Roger Penrose

Well, it wouldn’t be a top books list without Penrose, would it? This book is more introductory than his others, and I read it after I’d read all the rest, which arguably is the wrong way round, but it was good. Very good. About as painless an introduction as you’re going to get into quantum physics and the theories of consciousness that can spring from it.

9. A Life in Pieces ~ Richard Baer

A beautiful and empathic window into the life of someone with dissociative identity disorder, seen through the eyes of both her and her psychiatrist. Resembling The Flock in some ways, it begins with the woman’s total lack of awareness of her alter egos, and takes the reader through the gradual realisation of the fractured nature of her consciousness. Beautifully written.

8. Have You Seen Her? ~ Karen Rose

I pretty much just picked a title at random, because 2010 has been Karen Rose’s year on my bookshelf. Having exhausted Tess Gerritsen and Mary Higgins Clark, I needed to find another author whose books I could read obsessively, and Rose was it. The characters reappear in different novels, making it easy to pick up where you left off last time; the books can be read in any order without worrying about having missed parts of the story (the lack of which was my main criticism of James Patterson, whose books I also love).

Rose tackles difficult subjects and leaves you feeling raw. The twists are subtle and interesting; sometimes I worked out whodunnit before the end, sometimes I didn’t; but it never mattered. Each book is so gripping that I could read them all the way through without really caring what’s actually going to happen at the end. It’s the relationships between characters that Rose does so well.

7. The Glass Bead Game ~ Hermann Hesse

Yes, Hesse makes it into the list a second time, because he is fantastic. One of my lecturers at uni recommended this book to me, and years later with uni behind me, I finally got around to reading it and understood why he’d loved it so much.

Any book that can bring back a flavour, a picture, a feeling to your mind months after you’ve finished it has to be something worth reading. Impressions, whether good or bad, are the mark of a writer who pulls in his audience and keeps them interested.

There are so many interpretations that could be given to this novel; I’m not even going to try to describe my own. I don’t want to taint it for any future readers, I just want to say it’s a book that should be read at some point in your life.

6. La Rêveuse d’Ostende ~ Eric Emmanuel Schmitt

You know sometimes, you pick up a book expecting it to be a novel, and actually it’s a work of art? The kind of artwork that makes you stop in the middle of a gallery, take a step back, peer upwards and swallow a few times to keep yourself from crying? Yeah, that. Schmitt can write. His descriptions are beautiful, his characterisation is flawless. Read it.

5. How To Research ~ Blaxter, Hughes & Tight

An essential book for anyone who’s interested in academia, marketing, statistics… any aspect of work that involves research, data gathering and statistical analysis. Somehow, possibly through the use of some kind of magic, they manage to make statistics sound interesting. It’s easy to read, it doesn’t make you feel stupid, there are extra notes and boxes for people who like to work more than they need to, and everything is laid out clearly and concisely.

4. The Surgeon ~ Tess Gerritsen

The best crime fiction book I’ve read all year, The Surgeon was moving, chilling, gripping, fascinating, exciting; so good I even read the sequel (still good, not as great as the first). It was everything you could possibly imagine a good crime novel to be. If you like thrilling crime fiction, you should read it. If you don’t, read it anyway; it would be an excellent introduction to the genre.

…and the top three…

3. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana ~ Umberto Eco

Eco pretty much gets into the top three just by being him. This year, I read Baudolino and this one. I have to say, Baudolino didn’t do much for me. My in-laws, both classicists, loved it but didn’t like this one so much. I found The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana to be beautiful in the way that only Eco’s books are.

The depth of Eco’s literary referencing is astonishing, and this book, like his others, is a work of literature that goes far beyond its story. The premise of the novel is interesting: a man wakes up with amnesia and can’t remember anything about himself or his life, but can remember bits of the books he’s read. The number of books you’d have to read just to be able to write the first couple of chapters of Queen Loana is impressive in itself, and Eco with his immense knowledge keeps up the literary ping-pong right until the book’s finale. Yeah, Eco’s books don’t have endings. They have finales.

2. Gypsies Stop tHere & No Gypsies Served ~ Miriam Wakerly

This was a hard call. I love Eco, and I think he’s one of the best authors of all time. But if I’m going on just how much I was impressed by a book, and how important it is to society at the moment, Wakerly’s two novels have to take joint second place.

I started reading the first book pretty tentatively, worried in my prejudiced way that a self-published author wouldn’t be able to fulfil my expectations. To say that I was pleasantly surprised would be a massive understatement. Gypsies Stop tHere gripped me from the first page and carried me all the way through to the end on a wave of ‘I don’t want to put this down’. And then I picked up No Gypsies Served and had the same feeling all the way through that one.

Really, really important books. Really, really beautifully written. I think they should be on every school’s curriculum. As well as being given out free with the Daily Mail. That would be awesome.

And that, dear readers, is the only time you will ever see the words ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘awesome’ in the same sentence on one of my blogs.



1. Persepolis ~ Marjane Satrapi

My sister-in-law bought this for me for Christmas. My husband advised her against it. He knows I’m a little bit strange. I like to put things in boxes in my mind. And in my mind’s boxes, a book has writing in it. A novel has writing and no pictures. Persepolis has more pictures than writing. Husband knew I would probably be a little bit freaked out about the whole thing. She bought it anyway. She said she wanted to stretch my boundaries, or words to that effect.

And stretch them she did. Persepolis is wonderful. I’m not even sure how to describe it. It’s incredibly moving. Simple. Beautiful. None of these words are quite saying what I mean. Sublime? Perhaps. Essentially, it’s the simplicity of a child’s style of story-telling coupled with the sophistication of a woman who has seen many things. It’s the elegance of a well-written novel coupled with the creativity of a fantastic comic strip. It is everything you could ever want and more. For the first time in the world ever, I didn’t want to get off the train to work just because the book was so damn awesome. I still haven’t finished it. It’s waiting for the journey home this evening. It’s going to be a happy new year’s eve.

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