I seem to be reading fewer and fewer new books each year. I don't know if I'm growing more hypercritical as I get older or the titles being released are really not as good as they used to be. All I know is that I seem to spend more time re-reading items from my collection than reading new releases. This year was no exception, as I couldn't even come up with a list of ten titles among those I reviewed to put on my list of favourite reads of 2011. However, the titles listed below are all ones that I will gladly keep to read again and again for the pleasure they brought and the ideas they generated.
River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh: If you've given up hope of ever reading historical fiction that's not merely a romance novel made respectable then River Of Smoke will be a welcome breath of fresh air. The second book of Ghosh's Ibis trilogy lands the reader smack in the middle of the British-run opium trade of the 1830s.
Set primarily within the foreigner's enclave in Canton, China, it follows the fortunes of a disparate set of characters ranging from the mixed blood bastard offspring of British traders, Indian opium merchants, Chinese merchants, to the heads of British trading houses. The latter's version of Manifest Destiny disguised as a belief in Free Trade makes the Monroe Doctrine look like a thing of restraint and reason. While his vivid descriptions of life at sea and on land bring the era to life, it's Ghosh's ability to recreate vernacular and dialect that gives his characters an extra dimension that allows them to almost leap off the page. This is an experience not to be missed.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: Originally published in the 1930s and now reissued under the Penguin Classic imprint, Cold Comfort Farm is still one of the funniest books you'll ever read. Gibbons pokes fun at literary conceits, the bored middle class and religion in equal measure. For those who've seen the BBC film adaptation, the book will delight, while the uninitiated are in for a treat. A very timely reminder of what satire sounds like and is capable of accomplishing.