I suddenly became a voracious reader in 2013. Not that I didn’t love books before but this year I have read paperbacks, ebooks and enjoyed audio books as well. Consequently, I have had the luxury of enjoying far more books than I normally would and audio books, in particular, have certainly made household chores a pleasure rather than an annoyance.
By the time the clocks struck midnight on 31 December 2013 I had read 178 books, many of them fantastic, others very disappointing given the hype they have previously enjoyed. I’m not sure what it is about Booker Prize winners but I struggle to find any that I really enjoy. Not that it’s been all doom and gloom this year. I have read some stunning books, at least two being so good that they may have even earned a coveted place in my top 10 favourite ever novels where the likes of Norwegian Wood, The Lord of the Rings and Brave New World can be found.
Of the 178 I read, there were 17 that reached the dizzy heights of a five star rating from me. I do not hand that top rating out often so all 17 that achieved this mark really are special. What are the best books you’ve read this year? Feel free to comment and let me know which ones have moved you the most and left the greatest impact.
Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir of the Second World War and the Holocaust was wonderfully written but also painfully moving. The amount of detail she could recall in such seemingly trivial things as flowers in a garden really gave her story its resounding impact. Anyone that survived the Holocaust is remarkable and Gerda’s journey is never without its tragedies but, amidst all she suffers, there is a will to survive. After everything Gerda has to go through we can finally feel some relief when she is in hospital and meets an American soldier who simply cannot stay away, the very same man that would become her husband. All memoirs of this time have relevance as important pieces of history but Gerda’s story is easily one of the best I’ve read this year.
David Mitchell is one of my favourite UK comedians, whether it’s his rants on panel shows or his starring role as Mark Corrigan in Peep Show. I read a few autobiographies in 2013 but Mitchell’s tale was one of my favourites. His reminiscences were interposed with him taking a long walk and recording the different streets and landmarks on the way. Mitchell is the sort of comedian you can listen to for hours and never get bored and that was the case with this book. There were some fascinating insights, especially his university days when he first met good friend and comedy partner, Robert Webb. While Peep Show looks like it may be coming to an end it seems that Mitchell’s story has only just begun and this is a great place to start the comedy journey.
Boyne’s novel about the Holocaust through the eyes of a German boy was brilliantly conveyed, depicting the innocence of a child, Bruno, forced to join his father when he is stationed to work at a concentration camp. Bruno one day ventures outside and comes to a fence where he finds people in pajamas, who are actually the Jews being held prisoner and he befriends a Jewish boy named Shmuel. While some critics have lambasted this book for being implausible, it is a beautifully written story that captures Bruno’s perception of his world perfectly and through his lack of understanding about what the Holocaust is and why the Jews are being persecuted, he and Shmuel are able to fashion an unlikely, but ultimately, moving bond.
It’s seems an injustice to give Anne Frank’s diary anything other than five stars. This intimate, sometimes funny, but very often moving account of her many months spent hiding in Amsterdam from the Nazis, is both tragic and fascinating. Anne is thirteen when she begins her diary and as the time passes we can see the change in her as adolescence is left behind and she begins her journey to womanhood, talking about periods and her growing fondness for Peter, the son of another family that is hiding with the Franks. There is something of a cold chill when you read that final diary entry in August 1944, when Anne, her family and the others in hiding were discovered and taken to concentration camps. It’s a tragedy for everyone that perished in the Holocaust but it leaves a bitter taste to learn that Anne died mere weeks before the camp she was in was liberated. Her legacy is without question and it is a thoroughly deserved one.
Usually I try to read books before I see the film adaptations but in the case of Fight Club I broke my golden rule by quite a few years. Reading Palahniuk’s book, you realise what a fantastic job David Fincher did in adapting the story. The unnamed narrator here is riddled with depression and insomnia but his life takes a turn for the better when he meets the confident and assertive Tyler Durden. Together they form Fight Club and gain a following of equally lost and resentful men, which gradually evolves into Project Mayhem. Fight Club is a short novel but the narration is fantastic and the conclusion, which is different to the film, was also something of a surprise. I’m honestly not sure which denouement I prefer.
I first experienced Makoto Shinkai’s anime version of this memorable love story and it became my film of the year, so there was no question that I would try the graphic novel as well. The book adds a lot of depth that couldn’t be included in the film whose only weakness was its run time of a solitary hour. The book gave more scope to Takaki’s life as an adult, including his attempts to forge a relationship with someone other than Akari, his friend from school and undoubtedly the love of his life. While the novel couldn’t hit you with the same visual beauty as the film, it is still a must read and offers one of the great love stories.
Not for the first time, I committed the sin of seeing the film before reading the book. I doubt I’m alone in having seen Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather before reading Mario Puzo’s wonderful novel. Again, as with Fight Club, the adaptation is impeccable with scenes and dialogue lifted effortlessly from the pages of Puzo’s book, which adds a lot more depth to the story of the Corleone family with the eventual fall of Vito Corleone and the rise of his son, Michael, as head of the family. One or two elements seemed needless but the overall story is a delightful read as we live with the Corleone family through one of the biggest crises in their history, and look at how they strive to bounce back mercilessly against the rival families in New York. A fast-paced, relentless and fabulous read.
The first of two books by Chris Cleave on this list making him something of a rewarding discovery in 2013. Gold is all about the Olympics and cycling with friends and rivals – Kate and Zoe – constantly locking horns on the track but maintaining good relations off it. It is Zoe that wins all the medals while Kate prioritises family with her husband, Jack, and daughter, Sophie, who has leukaemia. With Sophie seriously ill in the run up to the London Olympics, the question is whether Kate will compete against her rival or will family prove to be more important. Chris Cleave carves a complex story between Kate, Zoe and Jack, exploring their affection for Sophie and for glory on the track. It was a great study of priorities between family and work but the revelations along the way made it so much more.
2013 was certainly a good year for me watching films before reading the books they were based on, wasn’t it? Steig Larsson’s crime trilogy is one I had watched in their Swedish film incarnations back in 2012 but I had always intended to read the books. I completed the whole trilogy in 2013 but only the first instalment was worthy of its place on this list, though the other two were both fantastic. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist teams up with hacker Lisbeth Salander to solve the mystery of the Vanger family where one of the members, Harriett, disappeared many years before. Whether it was the impact of Lisbeth in this opening book or the more self-contained nature of the story compared to the other instalments, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the best of the trilogy by far and, although seeing the film took away the surprises, this remained a fantastic read from start to finish.
Jonasson’s book was one of my earliest contenders for the book of the year until John Irving muscled his way into my praises, but that cannot diminish the impact of this great book. It’s certainly got to be a frontrunner for longest title of the year. The book is as unusual as the title suggests with 100 year old pensioner, Allan, escaping from an old people’s home at the outset, taking a suitcase full of drug money and making something of a road trip, meeting some interesting people and also taking us back from some interesting incidents in his own life, a bit like an alternative Forrest Gump type story. This is a warm and promising debut effort from Jonasson.
Dimont’s epic book about Jewish history was well told, informative and simply remarkable at times. I had basic knowledge of the Jews in history but this book really hammers home everything that they have been through for thousands of years and how they are undoubtedly one of the greatest survivors. The Jews have watched empires rise and crumble while they have endured through whatever persecution has been thrown their way. The history of the Jews and their impact on many religions is without question and very sadly, theirs is seldom a tale of peace. If you’re looking for a good overview of Jewish history then this is a fantastic place to start.
Sylvia’s Plath’s letters, most to her mother, cover her hopes and aspirations in the early 1950s to her isolation and battle with depression, which led to her death in February 1963. Every letter gives credence to what a great writer Plath was, her effortless use of the English language, coupled with the privilege of her early poems, many being enclosed in her correspondence. Although Plath only reveals what was on the surface, it’s clearly visible in her words of how her life changes. Her romance and marriage to Ted Hughes evokes so much enthusiasm in every line she writes but, almost without warning, the strain begins to show and as the time passes, Plath becomes more isolated and lonely. This was a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the twentieth century’s great poets who died far too young.
Sir David Attenborough is a renowned national treasure in the UK, even though he doesn’t like to be regarded that way. David’s Life series has stretched across many years and this instalment that covers mammals is a sheer delight. Filled with gorgeous photography it also has Attenborough’s trademark informative commentary on every page, every sentence insightful but never becoming so complicated that the reader is in danger of not fully understanding. If the other books in the Life series are as good as this one then I’ll be in for a real treat when I get to them, hopefully in 2014.
The problem with short story collections is that you often get really great narratives and some that are okay or sometimes even poor. This wasn’t the case with Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Okay, truth be told, that title story which is far longer than any of the other tales is head and shoulders above the rest as we follow Nottingham teenager, Smith, who is in Ruxton Towers, a prison school, and finds solace in long distance running. He is offered light labour in exchange for winning a race that will give much prestige to the school but what happens during the race is simply wonderful. The other stories focus on hard times for people in and around Nottingham in Austerity Britain and not one tale left me unimpressed. A fantastic collection.
The second book by Chris Cleave to appear on this list, The Other Hand is superior to Gold but it’s also unfair to compare them as they are very different stories. This is a moving tale of a Nigerian girl, Little Bee, who comes to England in search of Sarah and Andrew, a couple that she met on a beach in Nigeria two years before. What happened that day is carefully revealed to us and as Little Bee settles in England we wish her and Sarah well for the future but Chris Cleave is not an author that dabbles in fantasy. While some of the subject matter is hard-hitting and the atrocities in Nigeria may be hard for some readers, this is a beautiful and moving story of friendship between a brave girl and a woman who is willing to make many sacrifices to protect her.
My book of the year until July, Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany was forced to settled for second place in my best reads of 2013 but only just. Told in both the present (1987) and covering the 1950s and 1960s, this is the story of John Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany. Owen is something of an enigma being small in stature and having a high pitched voice throughout his life. Despite these constraints and the inevitable bullying that comes his way, Owen has an ability to touch people who come into his presence and John’s cousin, Hester, gradually falls for him. This has all the Irving genius in it, seemingly trivial objects having such paramount importance, brilliantly fleshed out characters, hard hitting moments that leave you stunned and clutching the pages tightly, and a plethora of memorable scenes and exchanges. So far, I have read three books by John Irving and all have been five star efforts for me. A Prayer for Owen Meany, for me, is his second best after The World According to Garp but it is a truly amazing and beautifully told story that needed a very special book to prevent it being my favourite of the year.
**BOOK OF THE YEAR**
Matthew Quick’s debut novel really came to life with the film adaptation from David O. Russell but, for me, the ultimate experience is to be found with the book. The Silver Linings Playbook addresses mental illness, marriage, family, friendship and football. It is written from the perspective of Pat Peoples who has left a mental hospital, returned home to be with his family and to begin his goal of winning back his wife, Nikki, who no one is keen to discuss. These efforts are scuppered somewhat by Pat meeting Tiffany, who has been widowed and suffered depression herself. Quick builds one of the great friendships and romances with Pat and Tiffany who we want to get together but Pat only desires his beloved Nikki. I loved what David O. Russell did bringing this to the big screen but if I had to choose I would go with the book every time. I didn’t know what to expect when I first began The Silver Linings Playbook, but by the end I was in no doubt that I had just read my book of the year.
Latest posts by Dave Brown (see all)
- Guest Post: 5 Great TV Series to Binge Watch this Summer - July 13, 2016
- The Bleaklisted Movies: V for Vendetta - December 1, 2015
- DigiWriMo (Day 30): DIGIWRIMO #digiwrimo - November 30, 2015