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Ellie Collins’ top books of 2013

It will come as no suprise that OUP staff love to read. 2013 has been a bumper year for fiction and non-ficiton alike. Ellie Collins takes us through her favourites.

By Ellie Collins

Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge, Jonathan Cape, Hardback

Thomas Pynchon may have a reputation for writing dense and difficult novels, but Bleeding Edge is something of a page-turner: a thought-provoking thriller. The novel follows Maxine Tarnow, a smart-talking, rogue fraud investigator with a pistol in her purse, and is set somewhere between New York in 2001, leading up to the events of 9/11, and the Deep Web – the dark, buried underworld of the internet, teeming with hackers, code-writers, criminals, and lost souls. Maxine’s investigations lead her into a series of fraught and disorienting encounters with a billionaire CEO, secret agents, drug-dealers, a man with a supernatural sense of smell, and a foot fetishist (amongst others), against a backdrop of weird parties, karaoke joints, a haunted hotel, an offshore waste disposal depot with its ‘luminous canyon walls of garbage’, and the unnerving virtual reality of DeepArcher – an online world, or program. Bleeding Edge melds strange coincidence, conspiracy, and the obtusely unexplained into a brilliant and far-reaching narrative that has stayed with me long after reading.

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel, Virago, Paperback

This darkly funny novel by Elizabeth Taylor introduces a young girl, Angel, who has ‘not a seed of irony or a grain of humour in her soul’, coupled with high-flown literary ambitions. At the age of sixteen, Angel finishes what she believes to be a masterpiece, wraps it up and sends it to Oxford University Press, ‘whose address she found in one of her old school books’. Angel’s self-belief and optimism are resplendent: ‘It might take two days, she supposed (but at most, she could not help adding), for the novel to reach Oxford; then she must allow another three days for the publisher to read it, which he could easily do, if he sat up late at night; and another two days (at most) for his reply to reach her. It would be a long week, with a long, long Sunday in it.’ The book tells the story of Angel’s career as a writer and her life, accompanied by a large, pungent dog named Sultan and – later – many, many cats. It paints a hilarious but bleak picture of a magnificent eccentric – at times exceptionally cruel, and at others pathetic, and strangely affecting. This is perfect fireside reading – comic and sad, witty and stylish.

Nicola Barker, Darkmans, Fourth Estate, Paperback

I have been interested in Nicola Barker as a writer for a long time, partly due to her interest in writing on high drama and the spectacularly outlandish in settings that are far from extraordinary: her latest novel, The Yips, is described as an ‘exhilarating tour de force’ that begins in the hotel bar of The Thistle in Luton. Darkmans had been recommended to me several times: set in contemporary Ashford, this 800+ page novel features ‘the deranged ghost of an evil, 500-year-old court jester’. The plot revolves around a large cast of characters who experience hauntings of various inventive kinds, and, though rooted firmly in the present for the most part, swings dizzyingly across centuries and narrative perspectives at times, in flashbacks and dreamlike hallucinations that occur during the malignant ghost’s possessions of some of the characters. Barker’s writing is bold, quick-witted, and well-paced; her characters are sharply drawn; and the scope of this zany novel is sweeping and ambitious. Though lengthy, this is a surprisingly quick read: don’t let the page count put you off.

Ian Donaldson, Ben Jonson: A Life, Oxford University Press, Paperback

Ian Donaldson’s biography of Ben Jonson is one of the most entertaining and incisive works of non-fiction that I have read for a while. Aside from the wealth of information the book provides on this important early modern dramatist, this biography is highly readable and offers important reflections on the nature of literary biography, and the difficulties inherent in presenting a biography of Jonson – who comes across as an ‘impersonator’: a figure adept at self-dramatization. The book opens with a brilliant and illuminating analysis of evidence surrounding the fact that Jonson appears to have been buried in a vertical position, and upside-down – standing on his head – and goes on to provide a historically rigorous, and extremely engaging, account of the events of Jonson’s life – events that seem often theatrical, somehow, themselves. Though academic in nature, anyone interested in early modern history, culture, and drama will find this a rewarding and fascinating read.

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Fourth Estate, Paperback

I received a review copy of this book years ago, and had neglected it since then; a conference trip to Athens in the summer persuaded me finally to open it. I regret not doing it sooner. In simple, elegant prose Zachary Mason offers retellings of passages from Homer’s Odyssey, and reimagines the myths and legends of the minotaur in the labyrinth; the irresistible song of the sirens, ‘sprawled languidly under the stars, arms entwined’; and the near-invincible Achilles: ‘When he was drunk Achilles would take his knife and try to pierce his hand or, if he was very drunk, his heart. And thereby were the delicate blades of many daggers broken’. This is as much a book about the creation of myth, losing oneself in legend, and the relationship between fiction and memory as it is about sad monsters and endless journeys. The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a little, understated masterpiece.

George Saunders, Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, Paperback

An extraordinary collection of short stories: I have not come across anything quite like it before. George Saunders presents a set of modern fables: dystopian scenarios that seem alien but also deliberately, uncomfortably close, in which behaviour and emotions are controlled by the flick of a switch and the administration of drugs, young girls are imported and strung up as decorations across the lawns of affluent American homes, and a little boy is leashed like a dog to a tree in his backyard. These are dark, sometimes brutal, and sometimes beautiful tales, which unfold in deeply unsettling ways and are filled, often, with a kind of indescribable dread – but Saunders also conveys some hope: the last chapter is a story about rescue. A stand-out book: innovative, challenging, and provocative.

Ellie Collins is Senior Assitant Commissioning Editor for Philosophy at OUP. She also reviews theatre for Around the Globe, playstosee.com, and for the academic journal Cahiers Elisabethains, and likes tea, cats, and stuffed olives.

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