Monday, 30 December 2013

My Top Ten Books of 2013

It's time again for me to consider my favourite books read by me for the first time in 2013 - although, unusually, this year's list includes more 2013 prizewinners and shortlistees than I've ever had before. Either prize juries are becoming more effective or my tastes are becoming more conventional… In no particular order:

1. After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold. 

I reviewed this novel, inspired by the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, in January. I enjoyed her Girl In A Blue Dress, but for me, this heartbreaking narrative of the scars we carry and the scars that do not heal was in a different league. It's not received the critical attention that it deserves, but I hope it will go on to find many readers. I was also impressed by her sensitive handling of her stand-in for Lewis Carroll.

2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

An obvious choice, but this novel really is exceptional, as I detailed in my initially cautious first impressions and my positive final verdict. Tartt's novels are always magnificently flawed, and this is no exception - but by the final pages, I felt she had fully earnt the risky conclusion. Theo's journey from the death of his mother in an explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to dabblings in dodgy antiques is overlong but nevertheless brilliant. (Tartt pulls off a perfect portrayal of PTSD along the way, as well). In 'the year of the doorstopper' this reminded me yet again why I love long novels.

3. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver.

This was my choice for The Prize Formerly Known As The Orange, and although I liked the winner - AM Homes's May We Be Forgiven - for me, this stood out. Kingsolver, despite previous form, is astoundingly unpreachy in this tale of how climate change impacts upon a small community in the Appalachian mountains. It's not necessarily an easy read, but it is a rewarding one. (And am I the only one who feels that the 'Bailey's' Prize is not going to be the same? I'm convinced the Whitbread went downhill after becoming the Costa…)

4. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

To wheel out another doorstop, this was my choice for the Booker and I was thrilled that it won, especially as it saw off some truly terrible efforts from Jim Crace and Colm Toibin. This novel, set in the nineteenth-century New Zealand gold rush, is a complicated, dense narrative that repays close attention, but will certainly be appreciated by those who love the original nineteenth-century doorstops. Although they have so often been paired in end-of-the-year lists, Catton's meticulously constructed mechanism is nothing like Tartt's generous storytelling. But, somehow, they both work.

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This was another novel I wasn't sure I'd like, especially as I wasn't swept away by any of Adichie's previous works. But Adichie combines all her previous talents into one in this massive story of childhood sweethearts Ifemelu and Obinze, seeking to emigrate to the West to seek the opportunities that are not available to them in Nigeria. One reason why this fantastic exploration of race in the US and Britain hangs together is because their simple love story runs through its heart. However, Adichie's social observations are vital as well.

6. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

This didn't sound like my kind of thing at all - I expected it to be needlessly experimental, saccharine and/or trite. But I loved the tenuous links between the two narrators, and the way the novel plays with time and space. The obligatory references to Schrodinger's cat are perhaps a little obvious, but I loved the footnotes and the way that every page seems joyful and alive, despite some dark narratives. I never expected this to win the Booker, but it would certainly be my runner-up.

7. The Worst Journey in The World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

2013 wasn't just about prize lists, however. This 1922 account of Antarctic travel, including Scott's last expedition and Cherry-Garrard's own insane quest to recover emperor penguin eggs, is rightly acclaimed as a travel classic. Cherry-Garrard conveys the horror, humour and beauty of the Antarctic in wonderfully accessible prose.

8. Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

Although I appreciated Wolf Hall on an intellectual level, I found it a slog; the narrative never seemed to spark into life, although the portrayal of Thomas Cromwell was exceptional. Having read its sequel, I now think that all the preparation was worth it, because Mantel hits the ground running in Bring Up the Bodies. Having established the cast, she can indulge in the historical drama of the fall of Anne Boleyn without the need to explain the context.

9. The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Although I'd read all of Gaskell's novels (bar Sylvia's Lovers, which I am reading now) I have never read her biography of Charlotte Bronte. I'm not a Bronte obsessive - I adore Villette but am ambivalent about Jane Eyre, and actively dislike the novels of the other Bronte sisters - and so I'd never seen reason to read this. However, despite its bowdlerisations, this biography conveys the timeless story of the Brontes' short lives vividly. It was the only novel in my top ten I didn't review on the blog this year, so I've linked to my review of Villette instead, where I talk a lot about this biography.

10. Quantum by Manjit Kumar.

To be honest, there wasn't a tenth book this year that made an impact on me equal to the previous nine. But Manjit Kumar's history of the debates between Einstein and Bohr is both absorbing and accessible, and I enjoyed the mini-biographies of the scientists' lives as well as the clear explanations of the content of their debates.

As for stats, I read 102 books this year, beating both the previous years' records - I blame this blog.


  1. I didn't even know Gaynor Arnold had a new book out, so I will have to go off post haste and find it (read:buy it). I quite admired The Girl in the Blue Dress, so if this one is better it sounds like a treat. :-)

    Oh, the Goldfinch. It's everywhere I go and really doesn't grab me from the synopsis. It's on my Kindle though, and I feel compelled to try it.

    Reading the Luminaries at the moment and completely engrossed, although there is something chilly and precise about Catton's writing that I find discomforting at times. Have you read The Rehearsal? On the face of it such a different novel but deep down with lots of the same qualities and concerns.

    Interesting to hear you say that Crace's Harvest was disappointing. I fell out with him years ago over The Pesthouse (which I thought was turgid sentimental pointlessness) but have heard so many good things about Harvest that I caved and bought it for 99p.

  2. The Goldfinch is a massively flawed novel and in some places certainly drags, but somehow it won me over. I was intrigued by the synopsis, though, so I'm not sure it would work if you're not already interested in the subject-matter.

    Friends have said the same about the Catton (and the incredibly intricate structure of the chapters) although I didn't find that myself. I've tried to start The Rehearsal several times but find the beginning incredibly off-putting. I may have to read it now I've talked so much about The Luminaries - my local library has a copy.

    I did get the impression there was a bit of a Jim Crace fan club out there when I read the glowing Amazon reviews for Harvest, but I should probably try something else by him before I judge him completely! Will avoid The Pesthouse...