Friday, 3 January 2014

Books of the Year for 2013

Parade's End: still enthralling
As 2013 gets put away into the cupboard, and 2014 sits quietly in its box waiting to be opened, it's time for my annual list of my books of the year. I haven't done as much reviewing this year as usual, what with judging the Costa Children's Book Award, amongst other things, but a few new books did strike me as being worth a look.

Otherwise, I've been continuing to read Peter Dickinson, discovering his Changes trilogy , in which Merlin returns to England, casting a spell over the whole island. Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End series has held me in thrall; I've the final book in the sequence to finish this coming year. I've also been catching up on Hilary Mantel, Don DeLillo, and the two Fitzgeralds, Penelope and F Scott. Those early Mantel novels are darkly, acidly wonderful; Don DeLillo's prose is a thing of chiselled, crazy beauty; Penelope Fitzgerald I could rave over for days; but I must admit to being a little disappointed with F Scott's first novel. It had moments of mercurial brilliance, though, and is still worth looking at.

I can heartily recommend reading Shakespeare on your iPhone - for some reason, the plays seem to fit the screen very nicely.

My two favourite novels of the year were both clever and playful takes on fiction and writing. First Novel by Nicholas Royle saw an extremely unreliable narrator's past come to light in gripping fashion.

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux was a highly enjoyable sci-fi-ish romp containing enough golems, Dr Johnson references and layers of narrative to keep anyone happy. 

I also enjoyed the return of Nigel Williams, with Unfaithfully Yours, a witty and dark epistolary novel; and John Harwood's The Asylum was a welcome addition from the Gothic master. Neil Gaiman's selection of fantastical stories, Unnatural Creatures, introduced me to many writers I hadn't come across before - in particular, Peter S Beagle, whose story about a bored aristocrat inviting Death to her ball was both moving and beautiful.

Anna Stothard's third novel, The Art of Leaving, is a well-textured, finely-organised thing: evocative of damp, dirty Soho, it tells the story of a girl who can't stay with men. Her fantasies and her growing suspicions are played out amongst a wonderfully-realised London. And, although it didn't come out this year, I was pleased to discover Benjamin Wood's The Bellwether Revivals - a mightily accomplished first novel, set in Cambridge, which manages to avoid all the usual Oxbridge novel clich├ęs and is both well-constructed and involving.

Also recommended is a little experiment: Paul Griffiths' Let Me Tell You (2008), which takes the words of Ophelia in Hamlet and makes something original and strange out of them. (I came across a mention of it in a review by Adam Mars-Jones in the London Review of Books this August.)

Non fiction

The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne is a lively reappraisal of the novelist, putting her into the wider context of her time; C S Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath was a little dry, but very good on explaining the importance of Christianity in Lewis' works. Horace and Me by Harry Eyres was a memoir-cum-homage to the poet with its own elegance and wit.


The only (new) volume of poetry I've read this year is Robin Robertson's Hill of Doors; it is a thing of light and wonder.
Children's Books

I've done several children's book round ups this year, not to mention judging the Costa Children's Book award, so I will only mention one that I thought should get more attention: Ann Kelly's Runners, published by Luath Press: a carefully-wrought account of a post-apocalyptic Britain.

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