Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The best of 2013: My favourite books of the year

The best books of 2013

Practically every newspaper, magazine, book website and blog did their 'best of 2013' lists about a month ago, and while I realise you've probably seen 100 of these by now, I just can't let the year end without adding my opinion. (NB: these are all books I read for the first time in 2013, although a lot of them were published this year as well.)

Without a doubt, my favourite book of the year was Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Exciting, intriguing, unique, dark, downright weird and brilliantly inventive in every way, with great characters and a zinging, ever-evolving plot - it was everything I could possibly want a book to be. It received mixed reviews from the press and bloggers, but I absolutely loved it, and I'd urge everyone else to at least give it a go. If you like it half as much as I did then you're in for a fantastic treat.

I also loved The Engagement by Chloe Hooper. It's an incredibly compelling tale about a young woman who becomes involved in an ill-advised affair, which grows darker and stranger at every turn. As well as being one of the most frightening and disconcerting books I read this year, it was also one of the most beautifully written.

I was blown away by A.M. Homes' The End of Alice, which I read in one sitting, utterly unable to put it down. I would hesitate to recommend it to everyone, because it's a difficult book to actually enjoy; it's told from the point of view of a paedophile, and the author doesn't hold back with explicit scenes depicting sexual abuse and violence. But it is an absolutely brilliant, powerful piece of work - short, sharp and horrifying, but most of all astonishing. On a similar note, Tampa by Alissa Nutting was one of the most-talked-about books of the year, and deservedly so. An unflinching portrait of a sexually voracious female teacher with a penchant for teenage boys, it's another one that's not for the squeamish, but if you can deal with the subject matter then it's a thought-provoking and (very) darkly comic read.

Following her unique and intriguing debut Snake Ropes, the second novel from Jess Richards, Cooking With Bones, didn't disappoint. The only predictable thing about this book is its constant unpredictability. It's so complex and many-layered that it's impossible to define - basically, it's a sci-fi dystopian fantasy romance murder mystery coming-of-age ghost story fairytale with elements of feminist theory and gender issues. But it's also a great, very human story with fantastic characters.

The timely and immensely readable Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach was among my favourite debuts of the year. Lauded in the press for addressing the modern obsession with social media and online communication, it's actually more interesting as a character study exploring how easily a lonely, naive person can be manipulated, even by someone they cannot see. Another book I enjoyed this year that dealt with the societal impact of the internet, albeit in a very different way, was Dave Eggers' The Circle, in which a similarly naive character starts working for an online company with a sinister no-privacy ethos.

First Novel by Nicholas Royle is not, in fact, a first novel, but its protagonist is even more obsessed with debut fiction than I am. This book was one of my surprise hits of 2013 - a metafictional mystery in which the lines between reality and stories are constantly blurred.

Orkney by Amy Sackville was an incredibly memorable and haunting read: an unsettling account of an academic's overbearing love/lust for his much younger wife. The pair honeymoon in Orkney, where he becomes increasingly frustrated at how unknowable she is, leading to a deliberately opaque climax. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld had a similarly murky, folkloric feel, and created a palpably bleak atmosphere that has stayed with me long after finishing the book.

I read an awful lot of brand new books this year, so a lot of my 2013 favourites were, in fact, published in 2013. But not all of them. I think I only read two books in 2013 that could be termed classics - James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - but I adored both... Which perhaps suggests I should read classics more often. I also got round to reading Ghostwritten by David Mitchell and was amazed by how, well, amazing it was. It's like Cloud Atlas but much better - I can't believe it was Mitchell's first book.

It's not out until 2014, so I'm not sure whether I should mention it here or not... But Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss was a late entrant to my best-books-read-this-year list all the same. It's a hilarious, macabre adventure that should be a must-read for anyone who loves cats and humorous horror.

In terms of sheer enjoyment, my policy of reading a lot of new releases meant I read a lot of books which, while not quite masterpieces of literature, were a lot of fun. One of the most addictive, unputdownable novels I encountered all year was The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, about a social-climbing secretary in 1920s New York who proves to be the most unreliable of narrators. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman provided similarly delightful historical fiction with class and attitude. My favourite ghost story of the year was The Quickening by Julie Myerson, in which a young couple's dream tropical honeymoon turns out to be more of a nightmare.

Honourable mentions to a few more gems: The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth, The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen, Telling Stories by Beverley Jones, The Girl Below by Bianca Zander, The Sea Sisters by Lucy Clarke, The Burning Air by Erin Kelly, The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller... I want to mention more, but I'm making myself stop there.

I read almost 100 books this year and, inevitably, there were a few disappointments along the way, such as the latest from Jonathan Coe, Expo 58, which wasn't actually bad at all, it was just very lacklustre. Worst book of the year was Close My Eyes by Sophie Mackenzie; biggest disappointment was Petit Mal by DBC Pierre. Stay well away from both.

And courtesy of Goodreads, here's absolutely everything I read in 2013.

What was your best read of 2013? I'd love to know whether you agree with any of my choices!

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  1. my husband loved tampa... but i gave up on it after just a few pages, and although i loved marisha pessl's first book i've got about halfway thru night film and am struggling. i'm planning on giving it another go tho, especially as it was your favourite!
    my faves of the year are right here - http://sianlilemakes.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/books-of-year-2013.html

  2. Happy New Year to you! We have some shared favourites here, notably Night Film and Kiss Me First, both of which I really enjoyed. I am majorly intrigued by the sound of Cooking With Bones, though. I haven't heard of it before so it must have somehow slipped under my 2013 radar, but it sounds like a real melting pot of all my favourite literary themes.

  3. I love this round-up... have read a few things you've recommended this year and really trust and agree with your choices so far :)