My age and number of children may mean I can no longer remember much more than a week in the past, but 2013 seems to have been a particularly good year for books. Whether the standard is high, or I’ve been lucky I’m not sure, but I’ve thought ‘This is the best book I’ll read this year’, so many times, that singling one out for that honour is nigh on impossible. Instead here are a few of the books I loved, in no particular order.
Things started well with Jonathan Trigell’s Genus. A dystopian vision that chimed with my own political opinions and post Christmas come-down. Another early and occasionally depressing read was James Smythe’s bleak vision of the future, The Machine. A retelling of Frankenstein, this was probably the most technically proficient novel I read of 2013. The tale is elegantly constructed, and is a powerful meditation on love, loss and above all, identity.
Countering the darkness of those dystopian early reads was Tom Winter’s bittersweet Lost and Found, a book that had me laughing aloud numerous times. A chronicle of mundane lives in suburbia, this is the only book I’ve read this year that you could give as a gift to absolutely anybody. It’s such a sharply observed and warming tale that it’s hard to imagine anybody not liking it. It is the perfect gift. If the person doesn’t like it they are probably dead, or at the very least suffering from a rotten heart. This book also has a place in my (non-rotten) heart as it contains my first (and only) review quote inside the paperback addition.
Winter’s book was the first of many contemporary novels I read this year, whose light tone belied their seriousness and emotional impact. In addition to Lost and Found, The Humans by Matt Haig, The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extance and The Coincidence Authority by JW Ironmonger all had me laughing and crying in equal measure. Haig’s story of an alien trapped inside a physics professors’ body, doubles as a handbook to human existence; the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Humanity, if you will. It puts Haig in the same league as Douglas Adams.
Ironmonger (who wins, hands down, the best author surname of 2013) had me in pieces with his novel about fate and African child armies. It’s a disarming and arresting work of fiction, which opened up my eyes to my own ignorance. Robin Sloan, combines typography, books, codes and Google in his quirky, nerdy tale Mr Penumbra’s 24 hr Bookstore. It’s hard to imagine anything better than a vertiginous perennially opened bookshop and as such Mr Sloan wins the prize for literary construct of the year.
And then there’s Alex Woods. I almost didn’t read this book, it’s conceit sounding trite, but it blew me away. This in part is because its subject matter had a deep personal significance. It’s clear headed and endearing narrator helped me sort through my own jumble of emotions about my father’s battle with degenerative illness and just exactly what his exit from this earth might be. I said it a lot this year, but this is what books are for.
Science fiction meets World War Two has cropped up three times on my reading pile this year, each time delivering a charged and emotive read. Lavie Tidhar’s Violent Century served up spies and superheroes, spandex and skulduggery in as fascinating a What if? as you’ll ever read. Kate Atkinson’s rewind and repeat story, Life After Life takes in both wars, women’s suffrage and whole lot more, in a beautifully constructed novel, which exhorts us all to live life like its the only one we’ve got. The final book in this quality triumvirate is not so much science fiction, but a story about science fiction. In The House of Rumour. Jake Arnott blends SF, espionage, occultism and misinformation to great effect, resulting in a mosaic of twentieth century history assembled in a way never seen before.
For out and out history, the prize is definitely taken by The Last King of Lydia by Tim Leach. This isn’t my usual fare at all, but a glowing review from Kate at ‘For Winter Nights’ pushed it my way. A retelling of Herodotus, a gaping omission in my education, I found this novel to be enthralling from first page to last. It’s a meditation on the selfish futility of chasing power for the sake of power. It’s a must read, whether you traditionally like historical fiction or not.
Many of the books I read are YA fiction. I like the pacy storytelling, and often I find the subject matter more thought-provoking than many adult novels. Perhaps, I’ve yet to grow up, but for anybody looking for a manual as to how the world is put together, YA fiction is normally a great place to start. TL Costa’s Playing Tyler has this in spades.
What I thought might be a rehash of Ender’s Game turned out to be a whole lot more. The ethics of war and the blurred lines between patriotism and warmongering make for a challenging and invigorating read for inquisitive teenagers. Playing Tyler is one of the very best YA novels I have ever read. In the book there are shades of Mayor Prentice from Patrick Ness’s exemplary Chaos Walking trilogy. Perhaps then, it is fitting that the only YA book I read that might surpass Tyler is Ness’s newest offering, ‘More Than This’. Another exhortation to live you life as fully as you can. It’s the perfect handbook for navigating the confusing road into adulthood.
Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass is an imaginative riot that confounded my expectations and almost defies description. The closest succinct summation is that it’s a modern Alice in Wonderland. My final YA mention is for the second book in my favourite series at the moment. Control by Kim Curran, sequel to my book of the year last year ‘Shift’. This continues the tale of Scott, and his ability to change the decisions he’s made, and so altering the present. The plot is great, the pace breakneck and the the end is a cliffhanger like no other.
My thriller of the year, and possibly any year, is Game by Anders de la Motte. This conspiracy/victim manipulation thriller had me gripped from first page to last. Great characters, fast action and a plot that twists and turns, all the time managing to stay the right side of credible.
My final word is on children’s books. I have three boys, and reading is as much part of their lives as it is mine (well that’s not quite true). My oldest son and I both loved Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately the Milk. It’s the first Gaiman book I’ve loved unreservedly and it makes brilliant reading for children from 8 to 108.
Last then, a very special book. I’m not sure whether it’s the best book I’ve read all year, but it certainly delivered my favourite reading experience. I read Goblin Secrets by William Alexander to my son, and we both loved it. We both looked forward to the end of the day when we could sit down together and catch up with Rownie and his adventures with Goblins as he tried to discover the whereabouts of his missing brother. Goblin Secrets is a wonderful tale, filled with magic and excitement. The city of Zombay, its peculiar streets and mechanical inhabitants are brought to life with evocative prose. The use of theatre and masks is unlike anything I’ve read before. Father and Son adored this book. It’s an absolute triumph.
So there it is, 2013. A wonderful year for books. If you’ve been reading the blog, then thank you. I intend to carry on 2014 in the same way. Reading haphazardly, reviewing as often I as I can. I hope to see you there. Have a very happy Christmas and may 2014 bring you the books you are looking for.