The Most Underestimated Books of the Decade
Leaping into the roaring 2020s with ye token round-up of the best books I read over the last 10 years. I decided to focus on the books I loved that did not get as much attention as they should have. . I've managed to narrow it down to one book per year, by the year it was published, but it was a struggle!
2010: Something Will Happen, You'll See by Christos Ikonomou
Beautifully translated by Karen Emmerich, Something Will Happen, You’ll See is a modern Greek tragedy. Telling the stories of ordinary people whose lives have been destroyed by Greece’s economic crisis, it echoes the classical tragedies in form, while using completely modern language that captures a moment of utter sorrow, betrayal and hopelessness.
The stories stand on their own, but read in their entirety they give a nuanced sense of the despair that invades the hearts and minds of the characters. As they lose their jobs, their homes, their loved ones, or as they huddle together around a fire for warmth and companionship, or as they cling to each other in fear of the night and the coming storm of bankruptcy, the stories look inward, at their selfishness, and their helplessness. A woman climbs into bed with a man-shaped halva, eating him as revenge. Five men tell stories around a fire as they try to escape the cold night and the fear that comes with it. A man collects his father from jail. A couple tells fairytales as their neighbors remove the walls of their home, stone by stone. A young man stands watch over the neighborhood, guarding his mother and sister from threats of rape and murder. As the desperation of poverty chips away at their humanity, the people cling to a sense of control over their own fate. Meanwhile, a storm is coming; the wind picks up, it starts to rain, and a Christmas tree is swept off a balcony. This is such a powerful, devastating little book. I couldn’t put it down.
2011: We Need to Talk by Jonathan Jansen
Jansen's collection of essays about the state of educational institutions in South Africa was perfectly timed as this decade saw protests rise with the #FeesMustFall campaign. He can be a bit doom 'n gloomy, and his solutions are perhaps a little idealistic or sensational, but these essays were very readable and thought-provoking.
2012: Drive (The Expanse 0.2) by James S. A. Corey
I felt like this was the best-constructed story out of the Expanse novellas. It was given away at conventions in the build-up to the release of the TV show, and is freely available online. The story switches back and forth over a decade, building up the suspense while developing the reader’s sympathy with Solomon, whose test run of a new drive engine is going either very badly, or very well, depending on your priorities. What I love about these stories is that the science feels solid; the gravitational forces increase as the suspense increases, and the toll it takes on Solomon’s body is exponential. If he can just send a message to his wife, she can hit the kill switch. I found this story absolutely gripping, and the pieces that build up his relationship with his wife and the political climate of Earth and Mars strained relationship was absolutely fascinating.
2013: The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse by Ivan Repila (Translated by Sophie Hughes)
Two brothers, Big and Small, are trapped at the bottom of a well, stalked by madness and with no means of escape. Struggling for sustenance and clinging to sanity, Big forges a plan to free his little brother. Fast-paced and rich in metaphor, this extraordinary new story poses questions of fight, survival and solidarity when people are faced with devastation.
The writing itself is exquisite. It has a sense of folklore, with timelessness and a geographic vagueness that makes it relatable to anyone. The dream sequences are nightmarish and just mad enough, while the relationship between the two brothers is a complex and difficult one. I particularly enjoyed Small’s foul mouthed complaints as Big withholds food from him – it is a horrifying tale but it is told with the lightness of a children’s story. The building suspense of whether they’ll escape before Small wastes away, and answering the question of how they got into the well, drives the plot forward at a quick pace. This is a book you can finish in a day, but it will haunt you for weeks afterwards.
2014: The Fall of Princes by Robert Goolrick
Beautifully written, this part memoir, part fiction tale of a Wall Street Wolf's rise and fall spans four decades. It felt like Hunter S Thompson and Bret Easton Ellis got together to write the Valley of the Dolls. Each page dripped with beautiful phrasing, while the "scrapbook of memories" paints a vibrant picture of a city and lifestyle that burned brilliantly, but briefly, until it was nothing but smoke and ash.
2015: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
A multi-layered cosmic fantasy with its feet firmly astride reality and the most bizarre imagination I've encountered since Neil Gaiman's American Gods,The Library at Mount Char baffled me, bedazzled me and blew my mind. For much of it I had no idea what was going on, but that is a huge part of the charm. Have faith, readers - the pieces will come together.
This book is not for children. There is gore galore, some of which was so brutal that I got funny looks from other people after saying "Eurgh!" so many times. However, in a strange way, the violence is portrayed with detachment; it is described almost clinically, as if Dexter is laying out a crime scene. I found the understatement more unsettling than a generic, dramatic fight scene might be, which made it much more effective. Hawkins is also quite foul-mouthed - the "F" word appears over 128 times. In his interview with AbsoluteWrite, Hawkins says, "Not all books need to be PG-13. There’s plenty of PG-13 entertainment available, and I may well write some of it myself in the future. But this was a violent story. If I hadn’t alienated a few people in the telling, I think I’d be doing it wrong."
2016: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma by Ratika Kapur
Kapur skillfully brings to life the flavors and contradictions of modern India. A woman wants to become a Biologist but is trapped in an arranged marriage. A housewife scams office suppliers to supplement her income. Polite, well-educated and hard-working Mrs Sharma has an affair with a virtual stranger. Weaving a tricky story of the control that desire has over Mrs Sharma’s life, and her desire for control over the life of her son, the reader is fully wrapped around Mrs Sharma’s little finger. You’re on her side, rooting for her, even though this couldn’t possibly turn out well for anyone. But even at the most dramatic and intense moments, you are suddenly surprised by the hilarity of a particular way Mrs Sharma phrases something, or a sudden thought that pops into her mind that is both completely inappropriate and completely realistic.
2017: Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann
I would recommend this to absolutely every person who ever picks up a pen, touches a keyboard or composes a sentence in their mind. It is years of writing expertise by one of the greatest writing teachers alive today, condensed into letters so intimate they feel like one part of your soul speaking to another. Every sentence has such depth and brings so much meaning that you could spend weeks discussing them in writers groups. Each word is a seed that could grow into a forest. This book makes me want to shake off my old, dead leaves and start writing my own fiction again.
2018: Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
"Stories," she says, "are the only think in this world that are real. Everything else is just a dream."
A thriller about a missing child, her mother, her sister and the circumstances of her disappearance, this felt very different from the others in the genre. I loved the structure of the different perspectives sharing their version. I think perhaps my favourite character was Noelle, who was so easy to empathise with, and yet so inexcusably strange. This is more than a mystery; it is about the effect people have on each other, and how trauma creates who we are.
2019: The River by Peter Heller
This thrilling novel paired creeping fog on a lonely river with fear of the unseen as two college friends are pursued by man and wildfire on the Maskwa River. It made me want to pack a bag and head for the wilderness. Heller's description of the setting is so powerful that the current of the plot carries you along through the rapids and fog until you're spat out on the other side, breathless, burned and half-drowned, and emotionally wrung out.