I haven't written a blog post in a good long while, and have left Nic flying solo at Alexandria for the better part of a year. I have still been around now and then, lurking, reading my favourite blogs and very occasionally commenting. 2013 had been an eventful year for me, but not a reading year. In 2011 I read over 80 books; this year (so far) I have read 32. I've blogged a lot less than that - a handful of times. But I turned 30; I started a PhD; I lost 70lbs; I got a big promotion at work; I passed my driving test; I fulfilled all of my 2013 New Year resolutions. Except the ones about reading and blogging more, obviously.
I realise that something had to give during this crazy year of work and work and more work, and that thing was reading and writing about reading. I didn't have a slump as such or lose faith with it; I was burnt out and just set it aside. Now I'm working part time - two days a week - and studying part time, and I can already feel the juices flowing back into the parched areas of my brain. I'm almost ready to pick the reins back up again, and take the dust sheets off my book shelves, flex my review writing fingers.
I have missed the new releases and the buzz of excitement around prizes, and the warmth of the blogosphere and its many recommendations and passions; even the looming guilt of my towering TBR. Thank goodness I haven't really bought many books this year either, or it would be even vaster than before. I'm going to make only reading and blogging resolutions this year, and I'm going to work as hard at fulfilling those as I did at losing weight and all the rest.
All that is for later though, when the New Year is here. Now I want to tell you about my books of 2013, because although I haven't read a great deal I have read some wonderful worthwhile books that I should have told you about.
1. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
(Longman, 1952; Virago, reprinted 2013)
A book of epic proportions on a small canvas, and I think my overall favourite of the year. It is the first of Renault's back catalogue to be reprinted by Virago (more in April 2014, squee, and her entire ouevre by end of 2015) and is entirely unlike what I was expecting. I have several of her novels on my TBR, including the Alexander trilogy, and had her pegged as one of those superior mid-20th century historical fiction writers like Dorothy Dunnett and Patrick O'Brien. From the title I expected that this would be in the same category, but then I read an article in the Observer that dashed all my assumptions.
It isn't about the Classical world at all, but a pioneering novel of gay love in 1940s Britain. It's the story of Laurie Odell - a young man recuperating in military hospital after his knee has been irreparably damaged in the retreat to Dunkirk - and the men he loves. Laurie is different and he knows it. Though he occasionally flirts with the idea of kissing a woman, marrying a woman, his mind and body always turn back to men. Before the war, at Oxford, he was part of a 'set' that introduced him to a 'scene' of sorts, and before that, at school, he experienced a brief intense moment with head boy Ralph Lanyon, who was later expelled for a nameless crime. At the hospital he meets ward orderly Andrew Raynes, a Quaker and conscientious objector, and the two fall sweetly into a unspoken love. Later Laurie is also reunited with Ralph, also wounded at Dunkirk and the pair fall back into their schoolboy relationship.
The Charioteer is wonderful in all sorts of ways. It's tender and romantic; and swiftly and obliquely written; and incredibly straightforward about the homosexuality of its characters. Renault carefully unpicks underground gay culture in the war years - the fearful hiding but also the freedom of the blackout and of contact between so many men thrown together in the forces - and the fraught identities and masculinities of its members. Laurie is caught between a pure Platonic love with Andrew and the possibility of a more open, passionate life with Ralph. The book takes its title from an analogy in Plato's Phaedrus, of a charioteer with two horses, one white and one black, one clean and pure and always on the right path, the other fierce and headstrong and forever pulling towards something darker. This power struggle is everywhere in the book, in Laurie's choice of lovers, between hetero- and homosexual desire, between war and pacifism.
It's strange to think that so honest (and frankly polemical) a book was released in Britain only 15 years after The Well of Loneliness was censored and 14 years before sex between men was legalised. I highly recommend it.
(Doubleday, March 2013)
A book that has stayed with me all year, and which I actually wrote about here (Victoria in blog writing shock!). Since then, of course, the book has won the Not-the-Booker Prize , been shortlisted for the Orange Prize (it will always be that to me, no matter how much Baileys I'm plyed with) and Costa Awards, and appeared on any number best-of lists. I'm sure you've all heard about it a million times. Here is a quick synoptical excerpt from my original review:
If you could relive your life, if you had the chance to do it all again and change things for the better or worse, would you?
Ursula Beresford Todd has no choice in the matter. She is born, and born, and born again on the 11th February 1910, and each time the thread of her life spools out slightly differently. The first time we meet her for only the briefest moment before she dies, the umbilical cord choking off her first breath.
The second time she survives through the intervention of a doctor; another time because her mother snips the cord with a suspicious prescience. This is the first hinge of many in her life, when events might shift and send a shiver of change through the story.
Sometimes Ursula lives to be an elderly spinster, other times 'the black bat' comes for her and she dies of childhood flu, or under a collapsing wall in Blitz-torn London, or even during one memorable twist by biting down on a cyanide capsule.
You probably know that the book begins with Ursula attempting an assasination of Hitler, and maybe that put you off, but don't let it. That is just one avenue on the complex map of Ursula's life, and not the most important one by far. My only regret was that I read it on Kindle - courtesy of Netgalley - rather than in hardback because the structure of the book demands flicking back and forth, being able to reread sections and revisit parts of Ursula's many and various incarnations.
(Doubleday Childrens, July 2012)
Another book that I wrote about, and the first of two YA novels on my best-of list. Reading it restored my faith in reading after a dismal 2012. (It turns out that I blogged quite a bit at the beginning of the year, and a lot of my favourite books are from those early months. Does the writing make them seem better, or did I write because they were better? Interesting question.)
Seraphina is just sixteen years old, an unimaginable creature born of a human man and a dragon. Yes, a dragon, a dragon that has taken human form and fallen in love with a lawyer of all people, in contravention of every law of the land of Goredd and of the peace treaty between human and dragon kind. When Seraphina is a little girl scales appear on her body: a girdle of silver around her waist and around her left arm. No one must ever know, see or - Saints forbid - touch this monstrous part of her. Her true ancestry is revealed to her. Linn, her dragon mother, died in childbirth but left her with a parcel of memories which now burst upon her as powerful visions and a menagerie of imaginary grotesques that she has to manage through meditation and self-control. Her gift for music - something Linn also passed to her - is what saves her life, gives her meaning and at the beginning of the novel takes her right into the heart of Goredd's civic life, as assistant to court composer Viridius and music tutor to the young princess Glisselda.
It was on lots of blogging best-of lists last year -which is why I bought and read it in January, thank you all - so I'm a year late, but I'm sure there are more people out there to convert to it. Just imagine: Half-dragons, and dragons that look like humans, and dragons that look like dragons. Lots of dragons basically, and lots of fun and thoughfulness. Where is book 2 Rachel Hartman? I need it now!
4. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
I didn't write about this (boo) but lots of other bloggers and podcasters have done and I'm years late so you have probably all read it anyway. Or dismissed it because it was on the Booker Prize shortlist in the year of the 'readability' brouhaha. I'm here to exhort you to think again. The book follows Eli Sisters and his older brother Charlie as they shoot and whore their way from Chicago to Sacramento on the trail of an inventor, Hermann Kermit Warm, whom they have been paid to kill. Along the way they encounter prospectors and no-hopers, thieves and desperate children, and Eli begins to question his vocation as a gun for hire while his brother drinks himself into a bloody stupor. Can you be tenderly violent? Well this book is that, and also poignantly immoral. And episodically cinematic.
It's told in Eli's voice - thoughtful and innocent for a man who butchers people on demand - and filled with incident, dead ends and gold. I've read that some were disappointed with the ending, but I thought it perfectly pitched and strangely happy. It was very satisfying in the way that a really sour lemon sherbet is satisfying; it makes your eyes widen and your tongue tingle.
5. Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns
(Virago Classics, 2013; first published 1947)
Ooh look, I wrote a review post again! Huzzaaaaah! Back in January I described Comyns' writing as 'joyous, creepy, deadpan surrealism' and that still rings true in my memory; although the plot has thinned away, the disconcerting sensation of reading it is still pin-prick exact. Here is what I said then:
Sisters by a River is a cacophony of observation and of seeing. The scenes Barbara paints are unusually vivid, and beautiful; and they are the work of someone who has a palate for strangeness, for the surreal, for the dangerous. Whereas usually novels have elements of strangeness that creep in, Sisters by a River has elements of normality. Everyone and everything here is strange and sinister; when it is not strange, when it is not creepy, it is somehow out of place, creepier still. So that when Barbara describes a fairly ordinary Christmas with ordinary Christmas presents and an ordinary dinner we feel slightly off-balance, distrustful. Comyns has so successfully reoriented our vision that we see the world as it might appear refracted through the lens of Bosch or Dali.
It's very short, and was reprinted by Virago in July 2013, so you have no excuse for not seeking it out.
6. The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre by Madeleine Bunting
The only non-fiction book on my list, and one that kept me up reading into the night: a page turner about a piece of land on the North Yorkshire Moors. Its a delightful cornucopia of natural history, archaeology, travel writing, art criticism, biography and autobiography.
The author's father was the sculpture John Bunting, who spent years of his life hand building and decorating a private chapel on an acre of land he first visited as a schoolboy in 1942. He died in 2002, leaving it to his children. The book is about the moors, and about sculpture, about religious belief and doubt, about guilt and war and about the relationship between a difficult man and his family. After reading it Esther and I made a pilgrimage to see the place, which is still owned by the family, and I felt like I knew it from the page.
7. The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
(David Fickling Books, February 2012)
I love me some creepy mermaids, and some remote islands, not to mention some fraught gender dynamics. This is my first foray into Lanagan, who broke into the mainstream with Tender Morsels a couple of years ago (but has been a star of the sff world since her short story collection Black Juice and before). That book has always frightened me - everyone I know who has read it seems traumatized by the experience - but this one sounded less devastating. Well, it was and it wasn't.
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.
Lanagan's is a haunting age-old story of desperation and longing and revenge and love, and the nature of free will. She writes a clean chiselled poetic prose about a visceral bloody world that seems both impossibly strange and hyper real. I want more, and I don't at the same time.
8. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
(First published 1899-1900; I read the Oxford World Classics edition, 2008)
Like Heart of Darkness but better (or better than my memory of Heart of Darkness). This is the book that I most regret not blogging about, because at the time it filled me with ideas that have inevitably faded. Never mind; I'll re-read it one day.
Conrad is a master of nested narrative, weaving so many he-said she-saids into this story about the eponymous anti-hero/actual hero that I emerged dizzy and squinting. Jim is the son of some undistinguished English clergyman, who seeks his fortune in the farthest reaches of the Empire only to disgrace himself in a single ignoble act. He abandons a sinking ship full of native passengers along with his captain and first mate, saving his own skin rather than trying to save everyone elses. Luckily for the passengers but unluckily for Jim the ship doesn't sink and when it makes port his cowardice is broadcast far and wide. In a devastating display of misplaced pride and shame Jim takes himself off into the jungle to atone, and let's just say things don't run smoothly.
I recognise that Conrad's tortured late 19th century prose stylings aren't for everyone. If you think Dickens is verbose and overwrought, Conrad is probably not for you, although the two writers couldn't be more different in their moral content.
9, 10 & 11. A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow by George R R Martin
(Harper Voyager, 1996, 1998, 2000)
I wasn't sure where these books would rank in my reading, so many years after I first encountered and loved them. There has been a TV series and world wide fandom since then, so who knew how they would stand up to a more critical gaze? I was aiming to read from A Game of Thrones right through to A Dance with Dragons in 2013 (the first three books being a reread) but in the event I lost momentum in the middle of book 3 part 1, exactly like I did years ago. For a while I thought I wouldn't be able to continue, but then I relocated my enthusiasm and finished it on Christmas eve. I'm starting to think 1500 pages is about my limit for one author in one go.
There is no denying that I enjoyed falling back into Westeros immensely. Even if epic fantasy isn't your cup of tea (it's mine, though I indulge only rarely these days) I would still give this series a try. GRRM has lots of pages to work with and so he can build a hugely complex world, geographically, politically, historically. He falls back on traditional medievalism for his culture and society, but I'm a medievalist and I don't see why he should apologise for it. A lot of my problems with the TV show, which I also love but which gives me the cringes sometimes, aren't in the book or mitigated by its complexity.
And George (after 1500 pages we are on first name terms again) can really rock dialogue. I could coast from one conversation to another quite merrily. And there are some seriously playful thematics too, espiecally in the third book. I particularly like the way he layers up the myth, folklore and legend of the Seven Kingdoms, and uses his multiple POV characters to lace rumour and doubt through the story. I am most definitely continuing the journey in the new year: in fact I've already read the first two chapters of A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold.
(Macmillan Children, May 2012)
Aha! Another book that I wrote about. 2013 was certainly the year that I discovered YA fiction. (I also read The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy, which only didn't make my top books because of the most histrionic ending EVER. Jury is out on genius until I see where books 2 & 3 take me. Somewhere extremely depressing I imagine.) It was also the year of the wonderfulness of Frances Hardinge.
Caverna is a vast underground city, a claustrophobic, disoriented world unto itself. Its citizens are born, live and die in tunnels without ever seeing daylight or the warmth of the sun or the tug of the wind. Nobody leaves and people from the surface never come in.
The insularity of Caverna, and the proximity in which its people live, demands a stratifed, tightly structured society. Power is held entirely in the hands of a small number of families, Court artisans who create the True Delicacies and battle each other in an intense cycle of dynastic struggle. Meanwhile their water is pumped and their tunnels are dug and the trap lanterns that keep them alive are fed by the Drudges, a vast underclass of people who live and die in nameless obscurity.
In nameless and in faceless obscurity as well. In Caverna facial expressions do not come naturally to babies. They do not smile or frown or screw up their eyes in distaste. All children are born blank as slates. Each 'Face' or expression has to be taught and learnt. Beyond the five basic expressions taught to the Drudges - to give them the Faces for expectantly awaiting orders, politely carrying out a task, a smile of gratitude, humility when they have erred - Faces also have to be bought.
Into this world comes Neverfell, a girl who doesn't need Faces because she was born with them, an expressive freak amongst blank people, and a catalyst for revolutionary change underground.
13. Night Waking by Sarah Moss
(Granta, April 2012)
And finally, a book I read this week and which has just edged out Orkney by Amy Sackville (I don't feel too bad, because I wrote about it here). They are both are set on virtually deserted Scottish islands but the comparison ends there.
Imagine Peter May and Rachel Cusk wrote a book together, with a helping hand from Sarah Waters. Night Waking is that book. It's got mysterious baby skeletons dug up on Hebridean Islands; a two year old who refuses to sleep through the night; a half crazed mother wielding organic baby snacks while her husband counts puffins; and letters from a lonely 19th century nurse cut off from her family during a dark, cold winter. Which makes it hard to categorise: a motherhood thriller? More like a gender equality thriller. It's going to be my first proper review of 2014 I imagine.
It wasn't my first Sarah Moss book this year, as I also read her autobiographical travelogue Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (and wrote about it briefly here.) This was about her own year of isolated living with two small children, and I imagine rather informed Night Waking. I'm very much looking forward to her next book, Bodies of Light, which is a companion piece of Night Waking and comes out from Granta in April 2014.
So there we have it: 13 books I would really love you to try. Eight by women, five by men (although three of those by the same man), continuing my incorrigible gender bias.
Hope you all had wonderful reading years too. I'll be back in the New Year with a post about my reading resolutions and another about the books I'm most anticipating, and also a review of Night Waking. But before that I'm off to spend New Year in Northumberland, on Hadrian's Wall, with The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and a lot of leftover Christmas food.