Not literally these books, though.
Can you imagine? A whole year in books. Bathing in them, swimming through them, sinking into them and generally having a very happy time of it. You can’t do that with a Kindle.
I set myself the target of reading 50 new novels in 2013. Sadly, I reached a grand total of 49, primarily because I couldn’t resist re-reading a few of my old (and new) favourites. A few times each.
But, never mind. I had a lovely, book-filled year and read 49 novels I hadn’t read before. Some were excellent; others were atrocious. Some were basically quick wins when my deadline was getting close, but the less said about those the better.
None was what you’d call serious reading but I didn’t really find myself in the mood for anything too heavy, which probably explains the categories I’ve had to resort to.
Anyway, in the spirit of the New Year, I’ve done a little round up of the novels that crossed my path in the last 12 months…
The Best and Worst Books of (my!) 2013…
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I can’t believe that I left it this late to read Jane Eyre for the first time but there we are.
The novel follows the orphaned Jane Eyre, who is raised on the cold charity of her Aunt Reed before being cast off to Lowood charity school where she survives bitter hardship to become a teacher. Yearning for more, she takes the bold step of advertising for a private position, which she secures; she becomes governess at Thornfield Hall – home of the dark and mercurial Mr Rochester.
Jane Eyre is melodrama at its best – the heroine is innovative and full of integrity even in the cruellest circumstances, and there’s plenty of deus ex machina to sweep her - and her readers – from one dramatic event to the next.
And while the novel is certainly not free of problems when it comes to the treatment of issues like race and mental illness, its strong female protagonist, who never stops searching for something more in life even as she gives up the one thing she wants most for the sake of her principles, is one of the best I’ve encountered. Gorgeous book.
Florence & Giles by John Harding
Inspired by Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Florence & Giles by John Harding tells the story of the eponymous orphans, who live alone with servants in their guardian uncle’s crumbling New England mansion.
Forbidden to educate herself, 12-year-old Florence spends hours hiding in the library, reading and talking to herself in a bid to develop her mind.
Strange events begin to occur when a mysterious new governess arrives at the mansion to teach Giles. Convinced that her little brother is in grave danger, Florence must use all her wits to protect him from a dark and terrifying foe.
I couldn’t put this book down. The story, narrated in Florence’s strange prose, traps the reader inside her mind, resulting in a kind of claustrophobia as you struggle to distinguish reality from confusion – or even invention.
The story twists and builds with grim inevitability, until all the pieces are in place and the reader is left waiting for the fall. A tense and sinister read.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller – Strangely sweet story about the world post-apocalypse, The Dog Stars combines bitter-sweet humour, adventure and characters that you really root for.
Beneath the Liquid Skin by Berit Ellingsen - Stunning collection of short stories by one of my favourite short-fiction authors. Beneath the Liquid Skin is tantalising, strange and beautiful.
Small Island by Andrea Levy - While not the kind of novel I’d normally pick up (there were a lot of those in 2013), Small Island is a vivid and beautifully nuanced story of life in post-war Britain.
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
Initially, the hype around this first novel by 22-year-old Samantha Shannon put me off reading it. Billed as the next Harry Potter/Hunger /goodness knows what else, it had a lot to live up to.
Set in a dystopian, alternative history world, The Bone Season follows 19-year-old clairvoyant Paige Mahoney as she is kidnapped from her life in London’s criminal underground and taken to Oxford, a prison that has been kept secret for two hundred years. There, she becomes the “tenant” of the handsome and aloof Rephaite Warden, to whom there is more (of course) than meets the eye.
I really did want to like this novel, for a couple of reasons: firstly, the author is so young and it’s undoubtedly a brilliant achievement to have published such a huge novel at that age. Secondly – and quite simply – it’s always nice to catch something brilliant when it’s new.
Sadly, though, “brilliant” isn’t the word I’d use for The Bone Season. Simultaneously overwrought and under-thought, the book left me pondering giant plot holes and snorting over clichéd characters. And while the world-building was ambitious, it was under-researched; it seemed that very little thought had gone into why things might be the way they were.
The combination of really poor editing and cruelly over-hyped marketing put this novel at an unfair disadvantage, I think. It’s an imaginative but not-very-well executed novel that should’ve been worked on for another year or announced into the world a little more quietly.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters - I’d heard really good things about The Little Stranger but, in the end, I found the build-up too slow and the characters impossible to relate to. Basically, I got bored.
1984 by George Orwell - clearly a ground-breaking novel with some fascinating themes, but reading it felt like wading through treacle; it felt like it needed a really good edit.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón - this is it: I’ve given up on Zafón. Plot-holes big enough to lose an ocean-liner in, boring characters and no idea of when to wrap things up.
The Downright Ugly
- The Host by Stephenie Meyer
Stephenie Meyer is no stranger to criticism, with her best-selling Twilight series splitting readers down the middle and creating a rift between those who found the books incredible romantic and those who felt like they needed to wash in bleach after reading them.
I’ve read the Twilight books and, while I find them creepy, misogynist and hilariously badly written, I’m surprised that Meyer’s later novel, The Host, has managed to slurp its slimy way under the radar.
The Host is a whopping 619-page body-snatcher novel, in which weirdly moralistic alien centipedes (or “Souls”) take over entire planets, ridding them of nasties like poverty, cancer, war, free will and sentience.
Melanie Stryder is part of a human resistance but is eventually captured and taken over by a Soul named Wanderer. However, Melanie’s mind is stronger than most and she manages to stay conscious in a little corner of her mind, while Wanderer controls her body.
Without wanting to give too much away, much of the “romance” action in this novel centres around the fact that Melanie is in love with one man while Wanderer begins to fall for another.
This leads to a large number of frankly horrifying scenes in which Wanderer’s love interest engages in sexual activity with Melanie’s body, despite knowing that 1) she is aware of it and 2) she hates him and doesn’t want to have sex with him. While I’ve tried to be fair and light-hearted with the other books I didn’t enjoy, I can’t overstate how vile and disgusting this novel is. Read at your peril.
The Ritual by Adam Nevill
So there I was again, looking for a serious scare. I picked up The Ritual after spotting its positive reviews on GoodReads – Perfect, thought I, for a bit of Hallowe’en reading.
The story follows four old University friends who have come together to hike through the Scandinavian forests in some kind of inexplicable male-bonding holiday. Given that two of them are hugely unfit and can barely walk without falling over/getting blisters, I was cynical from the start.
It soon becomes clear that our band of clichés are being hunted by something terrible in the woods. An ill-advised short-cut leads them to an ancient dwelling, where they find evidence of sacrificial rituals. After a night of terror, they set off once more into the forest in search of escape.
There’s barely anything I enjoyed in this novel. I found the characters offensively hackneyed and totally unlikeable. I wasn’t frightened at any point, and what was supposed to be a gradual and terrifying build-up became nothing more than three hours of me lolling on a sofa, half-dead from tedium and sighing, “Oh for God’s sake, come on.”
And then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any more underwhelming, the second half of the book happened. I don’t know why I was surprised – there were still so many pages to go – and yet I was. It’s like the author got bored of his foresty Gothic horror attempts and decided to tack on some machismo to liven things up. I wouldn’t touch another Adam Nevill novel with a barge pole, despite his good reviews.
…And the LOLs:
- Child of the Mist by Kathleen Morgan
I have no one to blame but myself for this – I read Child of the Mist by Kathleen Morgan at the start of November, as my year-end deadline was beginning to loom.
I read it in just under two hours, and lay stunned for approximately another three as I struggled to comprehend what had just happened – to me, to my brain, to literature.
Child of the Mist tells the story of raging gender stereotypes Anne MacGregor and Niall Campbell – heirs to two feuding Highland tribes, brought together by their tribal elders in a hand-fasting ceremony that neither desires in a bid to end years of conflict.
Long story short: flaky accusations of witchcraft abound and Anne finds herself in predictable and incessant peril. Niall takes time out from his manly tribal politics to rescue her from some verra verra bad situations, while she cries “Och!” and “Wheesht!” a lot.
- The Feaster from the Stars by Alan K. Baker
I want to recommend this, just because it had me genuinely laughing out loud. It’s supposed to be somewhere between fantasy/sci-fi/horror (basically a paranormal Steam Punk novel) but it’s side-splittingly funny. What shocks me is that it was published traditionally; a publishing house actually spent money on it.
The Feaster from the Stars joins Special Investigator Thomas Blackwood and Lady Sophia Harrington, Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research as they race to discover the secret behind strange occurrences on the London Underground.
Both the living and the dead who frequent the Underground are terrified of something haunting its dank tunnels, and Blackwood and Harrington must journey from London to the edges of space to discover the terrible secret.
The premise of this book intrigued me, which is why I stepped out of my comfort zone and picked it up (that and the fact that I was in a small library with one book left to choose). By the time that Oberon, King of the Faeries, had appeared in a puff of lilac smoke and leprechaun-esque dialogue, I knew exactly what the terrible secret was: that this book had not been burnt to ashes.
Take a look at the rest of the books I read in 2013 for the first time.
Your best books of 2013…?
I’m already up-and-running with my search for novels to read this year. I’ve got a few on my shelf already but I’d love some recommendations. Which books did you love in 2013? Which did you hate? Share your recommendations in the comments!
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