Reviewers' picks from the year in print. Best New Talent, Guilty Pleasure, Most Overrated, Most Disappointing.

Books 2015 #2

You can tell Abigail Ulman’s a born writer. The stories that make up her debut, Hot Little Hands, are good in ways that can’t be taught. In light strokes, Ulman imbues her characters with life and texture and brings a lithe immediacy to the stories around them. They’re stories of the now, or near-now, most of them peopled by digital natives and shaped by digital culture. Trying hard to be hip, the mother of a 15-year-old says of some celebrity or other, “Supposedly he’s addicted to porn.” “Everyone’s addicted to porn,” replies her daughter offhandedly, as much as to say “duh”. Even the digitally infirm will find pleasure – if occasional startlement – here. There’s a melancholy sweetness and Ulman sketches her characters with subtlety and sympathy, even as she exposes the dead nerve at the centre of their lives. Several stories are linked and would make a fine stop-start novella. The best are talky, with a seeming slackness that is really elasticity played loose. Invariably, it comes back with a twang.

An opal wrapped in a bay leaf and held in the hand was supposed, in the 13th century, to cause invisibility by bedazzlement. That’s but one of the myriad, if dubious, recipes for invisibility recounted by the British science writer Philip Ball in Invisible. Like all good popular science books, this one offers no end of fabulous facts, perfect for filling conversational troughs at the Christmas table. But Invisible is much more than a compendium of facts. Ball regards invisibility – if such a thing is possible – from every angle, through the lenses of science and technology, myth, philosophy, psychology, war, and spycraft, magic, and the occult. He even considers the kinds of invisibility rendered by race and gender. (For much of history, he says, “Invisibility was a characteristic of proper female decorum.”)

The book surveys the quest for invisibility from the ancient Greeks, through alchemists and Rosicrucians, H. G. Wells’s invisible man and Tolkien’s “One Ring”, to the invisibility (that is, anonymity) offered by the internet, and the potential of nanotechnology. As well as the “how” of invisibility, Ball looks at why humans want to disappear (most of us do, apparently). It seems to come down to sex or crime, or both. Ball is more nuanced and thoughtful than many science writers, and no cheerleader for “progress”. Though he admits that “thought photography” – a fin de siècle union of X-rays and the occult – turned out to be fanciful, he can’t help wondering “whether the ‘thought patterns’ now revealed by magnetic resonance imaging of brains are liable to meet the same fate”.

To a reader who’s never got past the first few pages of a Gerald Murnane novel, Something for the Pain came as a revelation. But I’d never “got” him until now. This book is that rare thing (as, evidently, is its author): a true original. Subtitled “a memoir of the turf”, it lays out the much-awarded Murnane’s lifelong obsession with horseracing. A reader with no affection for that sport might well bridle at such a bastard offering. But, as the veteran 3UZ race caller Bert Bryant (scarified in Chapter 8 as an “incompetent buffoon”) might have said, “Where there’s smoke, there’s blue cod.”

The book is all heart. Murnane not only declares his profound love for racing colours (with an encyclopaedic memory of same), he also reveals the pact he made with his dying wife as to the spiritualistic intimations of a win at 20-1 odds. He makes the reader care about the outcome of a disputed finish and vividly describes his synaesthesia that links the 1812 Overture with a closely contested race. Each chapter also interweaves glimpses of his life off course. The book is hilarious, moving, unique: a step inside one man’s passion, a key to his rich imaginative life. If you read nothing else this summer, read Something for the PainFL

Best New Talent

Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance

A poet, Wright unflinchingly traces the course of her eating disorder in prose that’s spare and wry yet sensual, and finds that hunger, “like writing, is a mediator”.

Guilty Pleasure

The real pleasure of adult colouring books is in the rubbing out. Mindful erasing – the next big thing.

Most Overrated

Talk of Franzen’s “woman problem”. Or so I thought before reading Purity.

Most Disappointing

Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child

As if Ferrante’s sackcloth prose and the unremitting brutishness of the Neapolitan saga weren’t disappointment enough, the last book’s title is (spoiler alert!) a spoiler.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Books 2015 #2". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL