As the New Year turns around, my mind inevitably turns with it: to the books that I'm anticipating reading in 2013. Some are new releases, others are not so new. I started tapping out the titles from publisher's catalogues, from other blogger's best of 2012 lists and from the handwritten wish list I keep in my red moleskine notebook. Before I knew it, there was this long long post, which I suppose is a sort of dream reading list for next year.
There are some distinct trends to my reading mood at the moment - cold, snowy remote northern places are very appealing and have been, I guess, since Independent People last year. Any reference to Iceland, Orkney, the Scottish islands or the Arctic in a blurb is sure to have me salivating. It's even worse now that I'm rereading A Game of Thrones. 'Winter is coming' and all that. (I'll be writing about this reread soon.) History and the past loom large in nearly all the books I've chosen, but then that's nothing new for me. And, for some reason, mermaids.
Some are due out in the first half of 2013, the majority are already released. The ones that aren't out yet I have already pre-ordered. Naughty me. I've included a synopsis of each, as well as my own brief thoughts.
Iceland. Tick. Early nineteenth century. Tick. Gorgeous cover. Tick. I don't know if this book could do any more to float my boat. Hannah Kent won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award with Burial Rites and it promises great things. The rights have already been sold for translations into 15 languages.
In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. Agnes is sent to wait out the months leading up to her execution on the farm of district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed her spiritual guardian, will listen to Agnes’s side of the story. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force everyone to work side by side, the family’s attitude to Agnes starts to change, until one winter night, she begins her whispered confession to them, and they realize that all is not as they had assumed.
I'm incapable of resisting a book jacketed with a snowy Breugel, or one set in Yorkshire, or about eccentric histories. Daisy Hildyard is another debut novelist, currently studying for a PhD in science literature at Oxford University. She sounds like a ridiculously talented woman and I can't wait for this one.
After his death, a young woman returns to her grandfather's farm in Yorkshire. At his desk she finds the book he left unfinished when he died. Part story, part scholarship, his eccentric history of England moves from the founding of the printing press into virtual reality, linking four journeys, separated by the centuries, of four great men. The exiled Edward IV lands in England and marches on London for one final attempt to win back the throne; Tsar Peter the Great, implausibly disguised as a carpenter, follows his own retinue around frozen London; the former African slave Olaudah Equiano takes his book-tour down a Welsh coal-mine; and Herbert, Lord Kitchener, mysteriously disappears at sea in 1916.
Orkney! I'm obviously not alone in my obsession with northern windswept landscapes. Amy Sackville has joined me there for her second novel. You might remember her first book, The Still Point, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and made my 'Ten of the Best' booklist in 2010. I love the fact that the secondbook has been given a similar jacket to its predecessor. And do I sense a selkie subtext?
On a remote island in Orkney, a curiously-matched couple arrive on their honeymoon. He is an eminent literature professor; she was his pale, enigmatic star pupil. Alone beneath the shifting skies of this untethered landscape, the professor realises how little he knows about his new bride and yet, as the days go by and his mind turns obsessively upon the creature who has so beguiled him, she seems to slip ever further from his yearning grasp. Where does she come from? Why did she ask him to bring her north? What is it that constantly draws her to the sea?
Karen Russell is such an exciting writer. Her first short story collection - St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves - was on the same 'Ten of the Best' as Amy Sackville in 2010. Her first novel, Swamplandia (which grew from a short story in her first book), was a triumph this year and I'm absolutely ecstatic about this new collection coming out in March. They sound as deliciously oddball as I could hope.
On Strong Beach, an awkward teen with a terrible haircut has a reversal of fortune when he finds artefacts from the future lining a seagulls' nest. By the Hox River in Nebraska, a window fuels both family pride and deadly revenge. In a godforsaken barn in what they suspect is Kentucky, Presidents Eisenhower, John Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes are bemused to find themselves reincarnated as horses. And in the collection's title story, Clyde and Magreb - he a traditional capes-and-coffins vampire, she the more progressive variety - settle in an Italian lemon grove in the hope that its ripe fruit will keep their thirst for blood at bay.
I first heard about this graphic novel on the brilliant Books on the Nightstand book podcast, and then Alex in Leeds also recommended it in her Books of 2012. Sold. Plus I would love to read more graphic novels in 2013 as I didn't read any in 2012. This sounds like a good place to start because - would you believe it - there is a mermaid in it.
One hundred years ago. On the foggy Hudson River, a riverboat captain rescues an injured mermaid from the waters of the busiest port in the United States. A wildly popular--and notoriously reclusive--author makes a public debut. A French nobleman seeks a remedy for a curse. As three lives twine together and race to an unexpected collision, the mystery of the Mermaid of the Hudson deepens. A mysterious and beguiling love story with elements of Poe, Twain, Hemingway, and Greek mythology, drawn in moody black-and-white charcoal, "Sailor Twain" is a study in romance, atmosphere, and suspense.
Boarding school and magic: this would have been a dream of a novel when I was a teenager. I think it has been out for quite a long time in the US now, but the UK release seemed a little fraught and drawn out. I kept putting different editions on my Amazon wishlist, only for them to disappear and be replaced by others. Anyway, it finally looks like a paperback release in March. I haven't read Jo Walton before, although I do have Farthing and I don't know yet whether I will read that or this first.
Fifteen-year-old Morwenna lives in Wales with her twin sister and a mother who spins dark magic for ill. One day, Mori and her mother fight a powerful, magical battle that kills her sister and leaves Mori crippled. Devastated, Mori flees to her long-lost father in England. Adrift, outcast at boarding school, Mori retreats into the worlds she knows best: her magic and her books. She works a spell to meet kindred souls and continues to devour every fantasy and science fiction novel she can lay her hands on. But danger lurks... She knows her mother is looking for her and that when she finds her, there will be no escape.
This books has been recommended everywhere on the best of 2012 lists, so it had to be on here. No mermaids this time (shame!) but dragons instead, which is almost as good. I never liked dragon fantasy when I was a teenager - Anne MacCaffrey put me off I think - but then George RR Martin and Naomi Novak rehabilitated them in my eyes.
The kingdom of Goredd is populated by humans and by dragons who fold themselves into a human form. Though they live alongside each other, the peace between them is uneasy. But when a member of the royal family is murdered, and the crime appears to have been committed by a dragon the peace and treaty between both worlds is seriously threatened . . . Into this comes Seraphina, a gifted musician who joins the royal court as the assistant to the court composer. She is soon drawn into the murder investigation and, as she uncovers hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace in Goredd for good, finds herself caught desperately in the middle of the tension. For Seraphina hides a secret - the secret behind her musical gift - and if she is found out, her life is in serious danger . . .
Where did this book come from? It seems like it emerged from nowhere. I first saw it lauded by Gabriel Josipovici in the Times Literary Supplement's Books of the Year as 'one of the finest novels of the last decade'. Since then it has appeared here and there, but not in a big way and I have to admit that part of its appeal is how silently it has crept up on me and how little I seem to be able to glean about it from the reviews. The plain cover gives very little away; I hope they keep it for the paperback. So here it is, for the mystique.
Presented as a collection of found papers, appendices and notes, The Big Music tells the story of John Sutherland of 'The Grey House', who is dying and creating in the last days of his life a musical composition that will define it. Yet he has little idea of how his tune will echo or play out into the world - and as the book moves inevitably through its themes of death and birth, change and stasis, the sound of his solitary story comes to merge and connect with those around him.
In this work of fiction, Kirsty Gunn has created something as real as music or as a dream. Not so much a novel as a place the reader comes to inhabit and to know, The Big Music is a literary work of undeniable originality and power.
No need to say where I heard about this one: everywhere. John Self of Asylum has waxed lyrical about it, and it was on the Green Carnation longlist. I'm going to be reading it very soon, courtesy of the 12 Days of Kindle offer. Ordinarily I'm not keen on getting new books on my Kindle - I like to stroke them - and stick to using it for classics and rereads and what would be mass market paperbacks. But I find the cover Hawthorn and Child so disconcerting that I'm quite happy not to have to look at it.
Hawthorn and Child are mid-ranking detectives tasked with finding significance in the scattered facts. They appear and disappear in the fragments of this book along with a ghost car, a crime boss, a pick-pocket, a dead racing driver and a pack of wolves. The mysteries are everywhere, but the biggest of all is our mysterious compulsion to solve them. In Hawthorn & Child, the only certainty is that we've all misunderstood everything.
Excited, very excited, about this one. Celine Kiernan recommended it so highly on Goodreads that I wanted to read it immediately. And then it appeared on Ana's Best of 2012 (alongside Seraphina) and in several other places. Right, I thought, I have to read it soon.
Two young women become unlikely best friends during WWII, until one is captured by the Gestapo. Only in wartime could a stalwart lass from Manchester rub shoulders with a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a special operations executive. Yet whenever their paths cross, they complement each other perfectly and before long become devoted to each other. But then a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France. She is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. The story begins in "Verity's" own words, as she writes her account for her captors. Truth or lies? Honour or betrayal? Everything they've ever believed in is put to the test...
I have been wanting to read this for years. I always love the idea of Mars-Jones' books but have never read anything by him. John Cromer sounds like a great character and I love long interior novels. I was actually surprised to discover that it's only just over 500 pages - I thought it was a 1000+ pager.
Meet John Cromer, one of the most unusual heroes in modern fiction. If the minority is always right then John is practically infallible. Growing up disabled and gay in the 1950's, circumstances force John from an early age to develop an intense and vivid internal world. As his character develops, this ability to transcend external circumstance through his own strength of character proves an invaluable asset.
Selkies again. I can't wait to read this. I say that, but actually I've waited ages because I have it on my shelves already, and have had since mid-2012. I've even read the first 14 pages, which were spell-binding. Then I put it down, because I wanted to save it and because I felt it wasn't the right moment. Enough of that. The time has come to pluck it down.
Rollrock island is a lonely rock of gulls and waves, blunt fishermen and their homely wives. Life is hard for the families who must wring a poor living from the stormy seas. But Rollrock is also a place of magic - the scary, salty-real sort of magic that changes lives forever. Down on the windswept beach, where the seals lie in herds, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells - and brings forth girls from the sea - girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting innocence and loveliness - the most enchantingly lovely girls the fishermen of Rollrock have ever seen.
But magic always has its price. A fisherman may have and hold a sea bride, and tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into those wide, questioning, liquid eyes, he will be just as transformed as she is. He will be equally ensnared. And in the end the witch will always have her payment.
This is going to be my classic read of early 2013. I bought it nearly a decade ago but have been daunted by its dark reputation and the serious sound of it. I associated it with those broody existentialists at university; the ones reading Sartre over an espresso on a Sunday morning. I'm ready to be surprised by it, because I'm getting used to classics that utterly thwart all expectations.
Raskolnikov, a destitute and desperate former student, wanders through the slums of St Petersburg and commits a random murder without remorse or regret. He imagines himself to be a great man, a Napoleon: acting for a higher purpose beyond conventional moral law. But as he embarks on a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Porfiry, a suspicious detective, Raskolnikov is pursued by the growing voice of his conscience and finds the noose of his own guilt tightening around his neck. Only Sonya, a downtrodden prostitute, can offer the chance of redemption. As the ensuing investigation and trial reveal the true identity of the murderer, Dostoyevsky's dark masterpiece evokes a world where the lines between innocence and corruption, good and evil, blur and everyone's faith in humanity is tested.
Thanks are due to Kim of Reading Matters for mentioning this in her top books of 2012 post. I hadn't heard of it before but it sounds right up my Icelandic alley. And I love that chilly, watery cover.
In a remote part of Iceland, a boy and his friend Barður join a boat to fish for cod. A winter storm surprises them out at sea and Barður, who has forgotten his waterproof as he was too absorbed in Paradise Lost, succumbs to the ferocious cold and dies. Appalled by the death and by the fishermen's callous ability to set about gutting the fatal catch, the boy leaves the village, intending to return the book to its owner, a blind old sea captain. The extreme hardship and danger of the journey is of little consequences to him - he has already resolved to join his friend in death. But once in the town he immerses himself in the stories and lives of its inhabitants, and decides that he cannot be with his friend just yet. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, Heaven and Hell is a perfectly formed, vivid and timeless story, lyrical in style, and as intense a reading experience as the forces of the Icelandic landscape themselves.
As well as the books in my list, I'm planning on rereading the second and third Song of Ice and Fire books by George R. R. Martin so that I can move on and finally read A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. I have both in hardback and have had since they were released but feel like I need to re-read the earlier books. I read them in a rush in 2003/4, nearly 10 years ago and need a refresher. I also want to reread them before I properly embark on watching the HBO series.
And finally, all this talk of mermaids is making me yearn for a reread of Kit Whitfield's wonderful In Great Waters.