Friday, 3 January 2014

2013 in Books

My effort to blog more in 2014 starts now - I've got lists of all the books, movies, gigs etc I imbibed last year and I'm putting them up, in case anyone's interested. Here's all the books I read this year, vaguely in chronological order, plus a bit of a proper blog about my top five favourites.

Bold indicates a book that I read for the first time in 2013, regardless of publishing date.
Italics indicate non-fiction.

Wild Magic – Tamora Pierce
Wolf Speaker – Tamora Pierce
Emperor Mage – Tamora Pierce
Realms of the Gods – Tamora Pierce
First Test – Tamora Pierce
Page – Tamora Pierce
Squire – Tamora Pierce
Lady Knight – Tamora Pierce
Playing Beatie Bow – Ruth Park
Gray – Pete Wentz
Struck By Lightning – Chris Colfer
How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less – Sarah Glidden
A Dance With Dragons – George RR Martin

Young Nick's Head – Karen Hesse
Rose By Any Other Name – Maureen McCarthy
The Bully Book – Eric Kahn Gale
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
Imagined London: A Tour of the World's Greatest Fictional City – Anna Quindlen
The Laying on of Hands - Alan Bennett
The Clothes They Stood Up In – Alan Bennett

Coram Boy – Jamila Gavin
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops – Jen Campbell

The Brass Opinion – Jonathan Kearns
The Universe vs Alex Woods – Gavin Extence
Adorkable – Sarra Manning
Nobody's Girl – Sarra Manning
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
The Promise – Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novel
The Search – Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novel

Bridget Jones's Diary – Helen Fielding
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason – Helen Fielding
My Sister Sif – Ruth Park
Battle Magic – Tamora Pierce
The Witch of Blackbird Pond – Elizabeth George Speare
Fortunately, The Milk – Neil Gaiman
The Radleys – Matt Haig
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowel
Elidor – Alan Garner
Trickster's Choice – Tamora Pierce
Trickster's Queen – Tamora Pierce
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
Threepenny Memoir – Carl Barat
Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself – Judy Blume
The Christmas Mystery – Jostein Gaarder
Growning Pains – Billie Piper

Here's a little bit about my top five reading experiences of 2013:

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
In case you missed the memo, the Les Miserables movie adaptation coming out last Christmas was a pretty big deal to me. This story is one of the most important things in my life and has been for a very long time. The musical came first, but I saw several film adaptations and read the book when I was in high school. Tom Hooper's film references an extraordinary, unexpected amount of book canon, and Les Mis got a huge, passionate fandom resurgence with most participants - especially fanfic writers - tackling the book. I re-read it early this year - actually, several parts of it I read a few versions of, in different translations - but the entire thing is so delightful. It's known as a tragic story and nearly everyone dies, but one of the reasons that it's so wrenching - something that the musical doesn't really show - is that you love EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER because they are all so fucking funny. They are all sassy and marvellous and it's just the most funny, sweet writing - beautiful descriptions of the human experience. Yes, Hugo quite literally loses the plot a few times when he wants to describe Waterloo or the Paris sewer systems, but like.. it is worth it, and it's all part of the charm, he's such a weirdo. Every life lesson you could ever need to learn is in that book, and I put flowers on both Hugo's tomb and the site of the barricade this summer.

Imagined London: A Tour of the World's Greatest Fictional City – Anna Quindlen
“London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present. And for that reason it will always have meaning for the future, because of all it can teach about disaster, survival, and redemption. It is all there in the streets. It is all there in the books.”

I bought this book instantly after reading the above quote from it somewhere online, because I knew right away that this author clearly gets London - gets it in a way that's so very important to me, in a way that cuts through the "So pretty! So historic!" Ye Olde Theme Park bullshit that casual visitors tend to pick up from their guidebooks. It's by an American writer, a novelist, who had a long-term love affair with London via literature before ever visiting the place, and she writes here about the London that exists in books and the London that exists in reality and the London that exists for her specifically. I've written a lot, in the past year, about the London that exists for me, as well - over 10,000 words, which I am in the process of perfecting and will post as a blog series at some point in the next few weeks.

The Universe vs Alex Woods - Gavin Extence
I kept picking up this novel in various Waterstones in London and putting it back down again, because I wasn't sure what to make of it - the blurb didn't sound like my sort of thing, but something just kept drawing me back in. Eventually I bought it and it's stunning. Absolutely astounding - not least because it's a debut novel - I am not sure I've ever read a more surprising book. The plot appears like a winding path through the woods - wanky metaphor I know, but seriously, to me it was almost tangible, how the next turn in the road would come out of the darkness and take the story smoothly to its next destination without being jolted or shocking. It's twist after twist after twist without being any sort of thriller - it really just unfolds. It includes Glastonbury hippies, getting hit by a meteor, epilepsy, Kurt Vonnegut, home marijuana cultivation, and the morality of legal assisted suicide. Above all it's about friendship. It's a special one.

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
Fangirl was my pick for Hypable's Best Books of 2013, and here's what I wrote for the site:

'Generally, when a book (or a movie, or a TV show) tries to portray a subculture to a wider audience, it doesn’t come across well – it tends to either turn into a caricature for "civilians" to laugh at, or it shows the community in a way that’s dumbed-down in its attempts to "translate" to the rest of the world. So, to say I was skeptical when the buzz around Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl started growing would be a massive understatement. My fears, in this case, were misplaced. Fangirl gets it right in a way that I’ve never encountered before. I’m genuinely shocked by the lack of heavy-handed exposition about things like shipping and fanfiction – it’s brilliantly and subtly done through the use of a few incredibly likeable civilian characters. The general story of Cath and her twin sister starting out at college, their family issues and first loves, holds up on its own, and in fact tackles some pretty tricky material in terms of mental health. The description of Cath’s involvement in fandom is so spot-on that I simultaneously want to gather up every copy on the planet and hide them- it feels that much like a look at something private – and to shove a copy in the face of every civilian I know and say "Read this. Here’s the last fifteen years of my life. Now you’ll understand me."'

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane - Neil Gaiman
This book is quite difficult for me to talk about. It's Neil Gaiman's first full-length novel for adults since 2006, and it's just as strange and magical and real as his past offerings, like American Gods and Neverwhere, but it's so much more personal than his past work, in a lot of ways. It's the first novel he's ever written in the first person, and that instantly lends something to it - usually I don't really like the first person, and actually, one of Fangirl's biggest merits was that it was in third - a first-person take on that story would have made it the self-indulgent wank I feared it would be. But when Neil does first person, which I've only really seen prior to Ocean in a few of his short stories - it instantly feels like he is the narrator. Not a fictional character, him, and I see him in every line and every circumstance, I feel like those stories are the ones that start out as a true incident from his life that he then adds to, in his own way. Some of them certainly are, for a fact, and Ocean absolutely fits the bill there. It is, by open admission, almost an autobiography - it's based on things that happened in Neil's own childhood, it's his own house... elements are changed, of course, but the setting and the start of the story are true, and most importantly, the narrator - the child, who is never named, that child feels like Neil. His inner thoughts and the way he responds to what happens to him, it's meant to be Neil. He put a lot more personal experience into this book than anything he's ever done before, he was terrified of publishing it and about how it would be received, and I understand why. Something about it feels very different. I heard the first few chapters in January, read aloud by Neil at a world exclusive event, and even those few set-up moments hit me very hard. It hurt me a lot to hear about this child being unhappy. There's scenes in those first couple of chapters involving a depressing birthday party and a dead kitten that I hope with all my heart never happened to Neil, but I've got a feeling they may have.

Again, in case you missed the memo, I have a fairly personal relationship with Neil. We are friends, in a way, and have been so for nearly five years. I care about him a great deal as a human being, he has been very good to me on a personal level. I worry about his mental state and his vulnerability a lot, as well as respecting him and leaning on him. He is a dear, dear, dear man. However, my relationship with him as a person and him as a writer has never really been blurred. Most of the stuff he's written that means a lot to me is stuff I read before we ever met. Nearly everything he's published since I've known him personally has been kids stuff, which I love too, but there hasn't been anything that I've felt him in, at least in a painful way (he's certainly very present in his children's books too, like Fortunately, The Milk.) This book, though, parts of it were really rough for me from that perspective. I cried quite a few times out of empathy for the child narrator, and I knew the child narrator was this man who I have in-jokes with and who has tried to get me a date and who helped me get into Comic-Con and who hugs like it's the last thing he'll do. So it was hard. However, objectively - as just a girl reading a novel? This book was also extremely hard in that circumstance, too. It's brilliant, a brilliant, fucked up concept. There's a part at the end, though, and it's hard to explain out of context, but it's when I realised that the whole book, the villain, the problem - that it was all a metaphor for mental illness and depression, and it is just so awful and so beautiful that when I read the climax, I cried and cried and cried, and it wasn't because I've met the author, it was because what was being said was the most important thing I've ever heard in regards to mental illness and feeling suicidal.

At this point in the book, the narrator is trapped in a protective circle that's keeping him alive, keeping him safe from demon birds and from the villain Ursula, an evil thing that, as a worm, travelled to this world through a dark hole bored into the boy's foot, and is now posing as the family's nanny. The boy is waiting for the witch-child, Lettie, to come back and help him, and the darkness is taunting him to just give in, to just let himself die so that everything is all over:

"Now, step out of the circle and come to us. One step is all it will take. Just put one foot across the threshold and we will make all the pain go away forever: the pain you feel now and the pain that is still to come. It will never happen [...] How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and send you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived. But you won't grow. You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die there, of hunger and of fear. And when you are dead your circle will mean nothing, and we will tear out your heart and take your soul for a keepsake."

"P'raps it will be like that," I said, to the darkness and the shadows, "and p'raps it won't. And p'raps if it is, it would have been like that anyway. I don't care. I'm still going to wait here for Lettie Hempstock and she's going to come back to me. And if I die here, then I still die waiting for her, and that's a better way to go than you and all you stupid horrible things tearing me to bits because I've got something inside me that I don't even want!"

I mean... do you understand what a big deal that is? Fuck you, depression. I'm not going to kill myself because you say so. I'm not going to do something because of the influence of something inside me that I don't want. It might never get better, but at least I fucking tried and that's better than letting you win. This is seriously... I want everyone to read this, and understand it, because it's just so fucking important and inspirational and it is so beautifully done as a metaphor and it's a million times more personal and emotional than anything Neil has written before and he didn't know if it would work and guess what? It's probably his most successful book of all time, it's certainly crossed over from the cult/fantasy genre to general bestseller, and it's Book of the Year for dozens and dozens of magazines, websites and newspapers. I'm not exactly surprised.

I have to give an honourable mention to The Brass Opinion, written by my good friend Jonathan Kearns. It's not finished yet - nearly - but I've read it as it's come along and I love it so very much. Jon started writing this book two and a half years ago, after sending me three story samples and asking me to pick which one I liked best. I'll spend time this year editing the first full draft and helping make it as perfect as it can be and helping out with his re-writes before publishing. I love the story and the characters, it hits every trope that I'm a sucker for while remaining very unique, and it is very dear to me. Hopefully it will be available to read for you all soon.

I ended up reading 48 books this year, which seems a bit weak to me, but I've never kept tally before. I'll be aiming to beat this number in 2014, obviously, as well as aiming for a higher percentage of never-read-before entries. In addition to these books, I read many other things during 2013, including travel guides, articles, blog series, children's picture books, single-issue comics, and millions and millions of words of fantastic fanfiction, including many novel-length stories.

Next up - films!

1 comment:

  1. I just started reading The Ocean at the End Of The Lane a little while ago after hearing on multiple occasions how good it was, and while I have been finding it a little hard to get in to to start with. It's not quite what I usually read, but you're comments about it does make me a lot of incentive to continue.

    I also really look forward to your post about London when you finish it. I've lived here for a year and a half now but haven't been able to see as much as I want to because of uni and work. Specific tips on what to look for is always nice.