Books of the Year 2013

Choosing the books that I’ve loved, recommended and bought the most copies of for friends wasn’t difficult, whittling them down was. Because of that, I’ve gone for fifteen books that I enjoyed the most this year. If you click on the title of the book, it will take you to my original review.

Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel follows Laura and Ravi. Laura chooses to travel, using her inheritance from her aunt to do so; Ravi is forced to travel when the civil war in Sri Lanka visits his doorstep. de Kretser considers the myriad of ways in which we travel in modern society in a novel that’s sublimely written with a perfect ending. Winner of three awards in Australia, I’m astonished it hasn’t had a bigger fanfare in the UK.

 

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina contains a series of letters from Nina Stibbe to her sister Vic, written in the 1980s. At the time, Stibbe was a nanny to the sons of Mary Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB. Alan Bennet frequently pops round for dinner, while the street contains a number of the UK literati. Stibbe’s letters are full of keen observations delivered in the same tone, regardless of the participants, and this makes the book both warm and humorous. It’s one of those books that’s larger than the sum of its parts. A joy.

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

Apple Tree Yard tells the story of Yvonne Carmichael, a 52-year-old geneticist, who embarks on an affair with a stranger. An affair that will threaten her family, her career and ultimately, her freedom. Told in retrospect beginning with Yvonne standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, Apple Tree Yard had me up late at night, frantically turning pages. It’s a tightly plotted tale with an ending that will leave you gasping.

 

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is the dual narrative of Ruth, an American novelist living on a Canadian island, and Nao, a Japanese school girl. Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on shore, containing Nao’s diary, some letters and a watch. She assumes it is debris from the 2011 tsunami. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary and the store of her family unfolds, we read Ruth’s story and are manipulated by it. A wonderful story of time and quantum physics.

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

After almost a decade of rejections, the small, independent Galley Beggar Press published this gem which went on to win The Goldsmith’s Prize. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is the story of an unnamed female narrator as told to (for?) her brother who is dying of a brain tumour. It is brutal both in its short, staccato prose and in content. (I don’t recommend reading it in the depths of January, it’ll send you over the edge.) This really is ‘a new voice in fiction’.

 

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries is a yarn of a tale set amongst gold diggers during the gold rush in New Zealand. It is a story of murder, theft and love with a with a structure that builds throughout the first half and explodes with revelations in the second. One to indulge in.

 

 

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Barrington Jedidiah Walker, 74, born in the Caribbean but resident in London has kept a secret for fifty years from his wife and two grown-up daughters: the love of his life, his best friend Morris. Barry decides it’s time to come-out but obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. Evaristo has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the rhythms of Barry and Carmel’s speech are a joy.

 

Jacob’s Folly – Rebecca Miller

A story told from the point of view of a fly shouldn’t work but it does and it does so brilliantly. The fly is the reincarnation of Jacob Cerf, an ex-peddler from 18th century France. When Jacob the fly becomes aware that he can influence others, he decides to meddle with the life of Masha Edelman, a 21-year-old Torah Jew and Leslie Senzatimore, a man who lives his life in order to help others. Miller uses their stories to consider whether we really have free will or whether our lives are constrained by other forces.

The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer

Six friends meet at summer camp in the 1970s and their lives become entwined forever despite the huge differences in their statuses. Wolitzer follows them through adult life looking at the choices they make and how these affect the whole group dynamic. It’s a dense novel but one that is driven forward by a non-linear narrative and a thread that you know is going to explode spectacularly.

 

The Engagements – J.Courtney Sullivan

The Engagements opens in 1947 with copywriter, Frances Gerety, creating the line ‘A diamond is forever’. The novel then goes on to intertwine her story – one of a woman who definitely doesn’t want an engagement ring – with those of four others: Evelyn Pearsall, whose son Teddy has just left his wife and children; James McKeen, a medical responder whose wife was recently mugged; Delphine Moreau, whose young lover has betrayed her, and a human rights officer whose helping with the preparations for her cousin Jeff’s wedding to his boyfriend, Toby. An unashamedly feminist look at our society’s values.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, bound to relive her life until the changes are made that prevent her previous death. The concept sounds bizarre, the execution is brilliant. Atkinson takes us through the war, affairs and a meeting with Hitler. The section of the novel during The Blitz is particularly well drawn, so much so, you’ll want to hide behind your hands during some passages. This one will leave you wanting to find someone else who’s read it to discuss in detail.

 

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

The only book on the list not published this year, however it is one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered titles. Set in 1830, 14-year-old Mary tells us about life on her father’s farm with her four sisters and her elderly grandfather. Offered work at the vicarage, Mary is forced to go and tend for the vicar’s ill wife. When the vicar’s wife dies, she is kept on and the course of her life takes a turn for the worst. A novel about the control of men over women told with a voice that will have you rooting for this young girl.

 

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

The story of Theodore Decker, who’s caught in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, in which his mother dies. The attack leaves him with the painting ‘The Goldfinch’ in his possession and a ring that he’s to return to James Hobart. These two things will set his life on a dangerous course. Told in immersive detail, this is a wonderful novel which will have you living Theo’s eventful life alongside him.

 

The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls is the book that reignited my love of thrillers. It’s the story of Harper Curtis, time-travelling serial killer (stick with it, it works) and Kirby Mazrachi, who should have been one of his victims but who survives his attack and sets out to track him down. But The Shining Girls is more than that, it’s also the story of all Harper’s victims and those victims tell the story of women through the twentieth century. Shining, indeed.

 

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was the first book I read to make the list. It’s the story of Hattie, who leaves the segregated south for Philadelphia and a better life. Hattie is already pregnant with twins and with her womanising, gambling, alcoholic husband whom she can’t stay away from, Hattie will have another eight children. These, along with her first grandchild, form the twelve tribes of the title. Each chapter tells one of their stories, stories of homophobia, abuse and mental illness. A beautifully written story of a family and one woman’s quest for survival.

Thanks to all the publishers who’ve sent books for review this year.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013: Who Should Win?

Tomorrow’s the big day when the winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be decided. According to the prize’s website, ‘The Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually to the woman who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length novel in English’. ‘The best’? How do you decide what’s best and what are the six shortlisted titles chances?

 

Bring Up the Bodies is a beautifully written novel. Mantel’s use of imagery is striking and taking the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell gave a fresh perspective to well-trodden ground.

Best for: imagery

Any flaws? Picky but Mantel herself has said that plotting isn’t her strong point which is why she’s borrowed from history.

 

 

Flight Behaviour is a cracking good story. Not something you might expect to say about a novel whose central theme is climate change. But Kingsolver is deft enough to ensure that her characters are characters and not ciphers, ensuring that we engage with Dellarobia and her hopes and dreams for a better life.

Best for: plot

Any flaws? No literary acrobatics (although some would see that as a good thing!)

Life After Life is Kate Atkinson’s most ambitious novel. Atkinson tells the story of Ursula, destined to die and be reborn on exactly the same day until she (or those responsible for her) work out how she is to survive for longer. Both they and her are unaware of her unusual ‘gift’. The structure allows Atkinson to explore the unpredictable nature of child birth at the start of the 20th Century; both world wars; family, marriage and friendship. The writing is incredibly vivid and has you rooting for Ursula as she unpicks another reoccurring scenario.

Best for: the unusual structure.

Any flaws? Some people dislike the unusual structure as it eliminates the possibility of death being a definite end.

May We Be Forgiven falls into the Great American Novel category. It is the story of Harry Silver and his family, or to be more precise, his brother’s family. When George causes an accident and Harry starts an affair with George’s wife, Jane, events spiral and Harry finds himself with two teenagers to raise while continuing his work as a Nixon scholar and meeting women on the internet.

Best for: pace and its comments on modern society.

Any flaws? In the final fifth of the novel the key theme is laid on thick.

 

N-W is Zadie Smith’s clear-eyed tribute to her home turf. It looks at that age-old English obsession with class and whether hard work really does mean you can escape your roots. Smith plays with structure and viewpoint to varying effect.

Best for: dialogue and themes.

Any flaws? The four sections aren’t equally as successful – opinions on the most and least successful vary.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the tale of a woman who’s lost sight of who she is. Her teenage daughter tells her story, put together through reports, emails and letters. This is a witty and heartfelt look at what happens when your life falls apart and you attempt to carry on regardless.

Best for: humour.

Any flaws? Depends how snobby you are – this is the most commercial book on the list.

 

 

The Winner?

Who do I think is ‘best’? It’s got to be Kate Atkinson for the combination of vivid writing and an unusual structure which, under less skilful hands, could’ve been far from successful. Fingers crossed.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled

11th February 1910, Ursula Todd is born, strangled by the umbilical cord. No doctor is present at the house due to the snow that has fallen and closed the road.

11th February 1910, Ursula Todd is born and lives. The doctor arriving just in time, before snow closed the roads, and cutting the umbilical cord wrapped around Ursula’s neck that would surely have killed her.

Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel Life After Life tells the story of Ursula Todd, a girl, and subsequently a woman, destined to live her life over and over, sometimes in a slightly different way, other times featuring more drastic changes. It is about how one moment can change a lifetime.

‘Why is everything an “adventure” with you?’ Sylvie asked irritably to Izzie.
‘Because life is an adventure, of course.’
‘I would say it was more of an endurance race,’ Sylvie said. ‘Or an obstacle course.’

Ursula’s lives are populated by her family – judgmental mother Sylvie; stalwart father Hugh; flighty and extravagant aunt Izzie; superior and insufferable older brother Maurice; big sister Pamela, and younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy – and a wide cast of friends, lovers (of several family members) and co-workers.

It is credit to Atkinson’s incredibly vivid writing that you become attached to these people time and again and that the structure, rather than create difficulties or disjointedness in the reader’s understanding, brings us to a deeper knowledge of Ursula and her motives.

I wondered whether the repetitive structure, in particular, Ursula’s many rebirths on the same day, would become tedious. But Atkinson – mindful of her audience – tells the events of the day from a slightly different point in time or indeed, a different point of view each time. In later events that are revisited and played differently, cross points are created so we build up a full picture of what will always be and what might have been if X had happened or Y hadn’t.

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Life After Life is a very difficult book to talk about without spoiling anything (as I’ve seen several reviews and articles do recently, and not just for this book) as there are events that happen and points where the writing is so vivid that I want to talk about them. However, as a reader, I hate a good book being spoilt so I won’t. Instead, I’ll simply point out that my urge to discuss this book points to it being very very good indeed. A cert for the Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist or I’ll eat my (signed) hardback copy.