The books pages are filling up with round-ups of what people most enjoyed reading this year, and here’s my contribution. Most of my choices are fiction, but there’s a bit of poetry and non-fiction in there as well – and only two books with a 2012 publication date. I tend to let the idea of a book grow on me, or go with recommendations or gifts, rather than struggling to keep up with all the latest releases… Or in the case of Game of Thrones, I watch it on DVD first!
I haven’t included Fifty Shades of Grey, which I couldn’t honestly say I enjoyed, though it did pique my interest, and it is currently the only book in the house hidden away out of children’s reach, so I guess that’s a testimonial of a sort. (Here’s my blog post about why I prefer Jilly Cooper’s Octavia.)
There’s plenty in the list below that has made me think, taken me out of myself, made me see the world differently, and, in some cases, prompted me to wonder how I could ever have left it so long before coming to the book in question.
Still, sometimes you just hit upon the right novel at the right time… So here are 10 of my favourite reads of the year, in no particular order.
1. Game of Thrones, by George R R Martin
I’m filled with admiration for this. The scope and boldness of it, the Shakespearean echoes, the vivid and entirely real characters fighting for survival in a fantasy world, the way each chapter is paced and shaped… Onto the second volume in the series now. Here’s an earlier blog post in praise of Game of Thrones.
2. Constellations, by Ian Pindar
My other half’s second poetry collection came out in May this year, and has just received a wonderful review (along with Emporium, his debut) in the TLS. Musical, beautiful, elusive, melancholy and profound. You can read more about it and about Ian’s other work on his blog.
3. Bing Yuk!, by Ted Dewan
This gets my award for the children’s book that gave us all most pleasure this year. My autistic son had spent a lot of time reading Jelly and Bean books with me, and they are amazing – he was able to decode them in a way that was simply not possible with other books. Then I read Bing Yuk! to him and he was absolutely charmed. (He is a much more fussy eater than Bing Bunny, who won’t attempt a tomato, but does like lots of other things.) ‘Bip!’ and ‘Sput!’ have pretty much acquired the status of catchphrases round here… Meanwhile, my daughter enjoyed the Harry Potter novels, which made for some later-than-ideal bedtimes.
4. The War Against Cliché, by Martin Amis
I struggle a bit with Martin Amis, simply because he was a writer that boys, or I suppose young-ish men, liked when I was studying English and they were too, and I couldn’t ever quite get over the suspicion that they had appropriated him because they felt that in some way he was on their side and not on mine. It’s something to do with that scene in The Rachel Papers… (I should qualify this by pointing out that not all the literary-minded boys I knew at the time were diehard Amis fans – just enough for me to feel slightly irked…) Anyway, I read this collection of prose this year and must admit, albeit reluctantly, that it is blooming brilliant. Dammit.
5. Heartburn, by Nora Ephron
For humour at the edge of heartbreak: unbeatable. Memorable for, among many other scenes, the description of how the narrator’s family made its money, and her mother’s expletive-peppered reaction to finding herself in goyishe heaven after a near-death experience (she promptly decided to come back to life).
6. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
I can’t believe it took me so long to discover this novel. Charming, dry, funny and sad coming-of-age tale in which the daughters of a helplessly blocked writer pit their wits against poverty, hunger and the inconvenience of living in a crumbling castle. A great book for any writer to read, since so much of it is about putting pen to paper (or putting it off).
7. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Ian told me he saw someone walk down the street reading this, and then cross over without looking up and carry on along the other side of the road. Dangerously addictive. Very carefully put together so as to maintain your sympathy for a heroine who might just have no choice but to kill.
8. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Horrible Miss Hilly finally gets her comeuppance… and Skeeter gets the help she needs to tell the story she wants to tell. The stakes are high, but in the end the truth comes out… The plot is driven along by a plan to write a dangerous book in the face of an impossible deadline, and there is plenty of anxiety about the book’s possible reception. Seems to me that Kathryn Stockett wrote her own fears about the story she was telling, how it would go down with her readers, and whether she was entitled to tell it at all, into the heart of the narrative – and that combination of dread and compulsion is part of what gives it its power.
The Help, I Capture the Castle, and Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart, which I’m going to mention later on, all feature in this blog post about the way writers treat the subject of writing in their fiction.
9. Merivel, A Man of His Time, by Rose Tremain
I read Restoration, which features the same hero, back when I was still at school, and associate it loosely with A S Byatt’s Possession, pre-Raphaelite paintings, and going to see a French film in London for the first time (it was Gerard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac, at, I think, The Lumiere). I’ve read very little historical fiction since, and I didn’t know what to expect from this new novel, which catches up with Merivel in middle age, but I certainly wouldn’t have expected a tale of queasy romantic compromise, near-starvation in Versailles, and a tragically thwarted attempt to save a bear.
… and some more great reads…
Top ten lists are a bit artificial aren’t they? It’s a format that lends itself to omissions. So here are some extras.
Bonus mention goes to The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is about archetypal elements of stories – the relationships between the hero and characters such as the mentor and the shapeshifter, the trials and setbacks that have to be overcome on the hero’s journey. It explores the fresh twist given to age-old archetypes by films as varied as Star Wars, Pulp Fiction and Titanic, but when you start to look, you can see the story structures he talks about all over the place. (I spotted some in Stop the Clock! And now I know why crucial scenes so often happen in bars!)
Among other storytelling tips, I took away from this book the advice that you should be sure to have enough hazard in your fiction. A hero has to be up against it. Up against nothing much won’t do.
Also this year, I enjoyed my first ebook, though I read it on PC rather than Kindle so I’m still lagging behind the times: A Matter of Degree, by local author Beckie Henderson, a story of romance and poison pen letters set in academia, which opened my eyes as to what might be going on behind the scenes in higher education. Here’s Beckie Henderson’s blog about being a working mother.
I’m going to wrap up with a shout out to the writers who are mentioned in the acknowledgements to my first novel, Stop the Clock: Jaishree Misra, who has written six novels; Anna Lawrence Pietroni, whose debut, Ruby’s Spoon, blends magic with a Black Country 1930s setting, and tells the tale of a girl whose longing for adventure is granted when a mysterious stranger comes to town; and Neel Mukherjee, whose novel A Life Apart follows the stories of an Indian student in England and an Englishwoman in India. (Ian Pindar, my other half, is mentioned in the acknowledgements for Stop the Clock as well, of course.)
Final honourable mention goes to The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays, edited by Ian Hamilton, full of gems like George Orwell’s essay on Englishness, and Martha Gellhorn’s account of Ernest Hemingway getting into a butch-off with a Spanish Republican Army general, in ‘Memory’.
My reading ambition for 2013: rationalise the books. They are everywhere, in tottering heaps round my desk, in the kitchen cupboards… The writing’s on the wall. Ebooks are the way to go.