Bookmunch reviewers books of the year 2013

rev2013

Daniel Carpenter: It almost pains me to say it after a year of such high quality comics, but my recommendation to anyone this year is non-fiction book The Skies Belong to Us by Wired writer Brendan Koerner. Subtitled ‘Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking’ this tells the story of war veteran Roger Holder and his girlfriend, party girl Cathy Kerkow who, for several reasons (none of which are particularly clear to either of them) decide to hijack Western Airlines Flight 701 and take it to Africa. In and of itself, that is compelling enough, but when the story starts involving the Black Panthers and European film stars, it morphs from an interesting story to a caper worthy of A Fish Called Wanda. Utterly unbelievable with moments of proper genius, this is not just my book of the year, but one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

Lucy Chatburn: One year after reading Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden I’m still not sure I’ve completely got my head round it. Via a complex, multi-layered adventure through contemporary Pakistan and Afghanistan, Aslam tackles the gulf of misunderstanding which separates the various parties operating in the post-war environment. Blending Eastern storytelling (dreamlike, almost magical coincidences abound) with more factual western narrative, this isn’t the most approachable novel, but it’s definitely something different.

Thom Cuell: John Higgs’s The KLF: Chaos, Magic and The Band That Burned a Million Pounds is a music biography unlike any other. Less concerned with the recorded output of The KLF than with the bizarre symbolism of their actions, and the waves of counter-cultural thoughts and conspiracy theories which inspired them, the book is fast-paced, intellectually exciting and packed with talking points. If Higgs can’t fully explain why the band decided to torch their earnings in a barn on Jura (and the musicians themselves can’t, so there’s no shame in that), then he probably gets as close as anyone to understanding the bizarre mix of influences which led up to the event.

Jim Dempsey: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a novel written in the style of a self-help book, which, on the first page, decries the genre of self-help books since self-help cannot be achieved through following the advice in a book written by someone else. But that doesn’t stop the unnamed narrator providing guidance, and doing so in true self-help book style – by using the second-person. The novel begins with “you huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning”, and takes you through to finding your true love, marrying another, building a business and, of course, getting filthy rich. The conceit works, and it never draws attention to itself. Hamid manages to make the narrative believable without inducing those moments that fail other second-person novels where the reader thinks, ‘No. I didn’t do that. I didn’t go there, and wouldn’t have done that.’ Instead, Hamid uses a difficult technique to tell a deceptively simple story. It won’t be everyone’s favourite book of the year, but I enjoyed Hamid’s originality, creativity and smart storytelling.

James Doyle: The book I’ve enjoyed most this year is Philip Langeskov’s short story Barcelona published by Daunt Books with a fittingly extravagant and imaginative cover design. Much of the pleasure I personally took is that I have known Phil for a long time and been disappointed that he publishes so rarely. Barcelona, perhaps, demonstrates why. It sets a high standard that would be hard for any writer to meet, a precision of language conveying a fully-realised relationship with its familiar tensions and frustrations, and evoking the commitment its characters bring to the relationship. A trip to Barcelona brings up the uncertainties the characters feel while moving them towards a future they didn’t quite believe in. It has a depth of feeling that is all the more powerful for its restraint and the understated authority that you could find in a William Trevor story.

Steve Finbow: 2013 saw a return to form for some novelists, a detour for others and a slapstick-porno-funfair for one. Stewart Home’s Mandy Charlie and Jane takes on the campus novel and subverts it. Adrian Barnes’ Nod tips a wink to Richard Matheson in a nightmare world of social and personal disintegration. Mark Leyner returns to form with The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. David Peace channels Bill Shankly in Red Or Dead. Tony White’s cool Shackleton’s Man Goes South fuses history and experimental narrative. But, even though the above writers are some of my favourites, I’d say the two best novels published in 2013 were Richard House’s The Kills – a textual and visual juggernaut of conspiracy theory and paranoia and Dave Eggers’ The Circle – a zeitgeisty exploration of the Information Age. And the writer who had the most fun? Why, Douglas Coupland in Worst. Person. Ever. Well, I enjoyed it.

Julie Fisher: My choice this year is: This is where I am by Karen Campbell. This tells the story of recently widowed Glaswegian, Deborah, who volunteers at the Scottish Refugee Council and is assigned refugee, Abdi, to mentor. Abdi has arrived in the UK from war torn Somalia via Kenya with his four year old mute daughter Rebecca.  Deborah and Abdi meet once a month over the course of a year during which they learn to accept their pasts and live for a new kind of future. I loved this book for its two distinct and utterly convincing voices and for its beautiful prose. Both Deborah and Abdi are wonderful speakers who relate their stories with honesty and humour, bringing a warmth to the narrative which could easily have been brutal, dark and depressing, but isn’t. Campbell’s ability to write so convincingly from the point of view of such different characters made this a stand out novel for me this year. I look forward to reading more from her.

Nicola Mostyn: Always a little behind the curve, my favourite reads of 2013 are mostly long-published novels I’ve only just discovered. These include Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair with its intense, almost forensic exploration of heartbreak and passion pitted against inexorable religious love, and Steppenwolf  by Herman Hesse, a dreamlike descent into themes of isolation, division within the self, mysticism and potential transcendence, which (to coin a counter-culture phrase), totally blew my mind. A more contemporary find was Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y. Whip-sharp, eccentric, wholly original, self-indulgent and hugely entertaining, Thomas shows exactly why authors should always write what they love. And this year’s re-reads (is it true that some people never re-read books? This always amazes me) included The Doors of Perception, The Bell Jar and Stephen King’s Cujo. After (reluctantly) finding Doctor Sleep a disappointment, it was good to remember that, while King’s more ambitious stories can these days feel a bit thin, he once made even the smallest tales loom large.

Maia Nikitina: Almost a year after reading Guy Ware’s debut story collection You Have 24 Hours To Love Us, I still find myself thinking about his characters more often than of anything else I have read this year, including a few of the Man Booker Prize nominees. I think what makes his writing so powerful is the uncanny yet so life-like quality of never having a clean, well-explained and therefore disappointing sheen to it. Ware does not make it easy for his readers – only those who put in the effort of thinking, re-reading, re-thinking will get the full satisfaction of getting to the end of the story and still being fascinated by it. Illusions we believe in, the identities we choose, and the turns we make are the main themes explored in this collection. It’s hard to choose a favourite but In Plain Sight and Hostage are the ones I’ll be re-reading the minute I finish writing this.

Valerie O’Riordan: Ah, the annual Best-Of List… My year in reading has been coloured by a self-imposed graphic novel educational regime, so some of the most memorably books for me this year aren’t from 2013 at all – I’m thinking Maus, I’m thinking Ghost World – though I’ve read little to top Chris Ware’s amazing Building Stories, which came in at the tail end of 2012, so it almost counts. Novel-wise (or, non-graphic-novel-wise), China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station was a favourite, as was Dave Eggers’ A Hologram For The King, plus I read a whole bunch of Donald Antrim and BS Johnson reissues, all of which were ace – but if we’re talking new releases, then my vote for Best Read of 2013 has to go to Eleanor Catton’s stupendous The Luminaries. I know, the Booker, blah blah, but listen: like it or not, sometimes the judging panel gets it shockingly, brilliantly right. Come on, guys – gold mines, hookers, card games, ghosts? How can you not love that?

C Margaret M. O’ Toole: I know I will reread The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The world in this story is so believably developed and enthralling that I am only waiting to hear that it has been picked up by Hollywood. However the central story of star-crossed lovers manages to update Romeo and Juliet without ever making a reference to it. It is beautifully written. Even with The Night Circus in the mix it is not my Book of the Year. That joy belongs to SaltWater by Lane Ashfeldt. This collection of short stories transported me to various parts of the world without the need of a plane, though I really did want to go to Greece in the middle of February. The main strength of this collection is the simplicity of the writing. Ashfeldt has no need to dress ideas up in their Sunday best; her skill at selecting the perfect words allows for the reader to become fully engrossed in this collection.

Joe Phelan: In August 1992 reporter Ed Vulliamy gained access to a so called prisoner of war camp in the Bosnian Serb controlled town of Omarska. Along with an ITN film crew Vulliamy recorded the conditions endured by the inmates of what was the first concentration camp in Europe since the end of the Second World War. After the cameras stopped rolling Ed Vulliamy sought out and maintained contact with the survivors of the camp. He recorded their fate, good or bad, amongst the Bosnian Diaspora scattered throughout the world. In Britain he would be part of a court case which challenged the veracity of his report. Later at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Vulliamy would testify at the trial of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Told in a style that is neither condescending nor highbrow, Bosnia: The Reckoning, is nothing short of compelling.

Tamim Sadikali: Irvine Welsh has always told the story of society’s underbelly. His calling-card is the ugly truth, served up with the verve of someone who does not shame easily, but who loves to shame. Skagboys is a prequel to Trainspotting, the 1993 novel that launched Welsh and which first took us to Leith, and that (in)famous band of heroin addicts, spearheaded by the hungry, immoral but shrewd Mark Renton, and made immortal by Ewan McGregor in Danny Boyle’s 1996 film adaptation. Skagboys places the motley crew five, six years earlier, in their late teens and early twenties, as they first faced the harsh glare of adult life and stumbled across heroin whilst sifting through society’s detritus, searching for alternatives to the servile jobs and cardboard homes that their parents were condemned to. Early on, you get a real sense of the author over-reaching: the jokes and efforts at camaraderie misfire, and he bangs the drum of his own politics to a point where, at times, the characters and story per se get drowned out. But the author re-discovers his groove. The boys initially flirt with the drug, staying in control of the new experience, but the way in which the ground underneath them shifts, taking them from cocky thrill-seekers to full-blown addicts, is unpredictable and masterful. The characters, too, have a depth and complexity that this reviewer considers unequalled in modern literature: to variously invoke sympathy, condemnation, awe, pity, love and hate for just the one character, speaks of a rare gift. But it is that ugly truth that keeps smacking one in the face, wrapped as it is in poetry that time and again leaves the reader swooning. The baseness of the story with the high art of its construction, is a devastating combination. Nothing else this year delivered such a payload.

Peter Wild: At the beginning of November, I wrote: “I have read 85 books so far this year, a portion of whom – Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King and The Circle, Hiroshi Tasagawa’s All the Emperor’s Men, Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, Harvest by Jim Crace, Secrecy by Rupert Thomson, Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, You’re All Just Jealous of my Jetpack by Tom Gauld, The Democracy Project by David Graeber, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, The Ocean at the End of the World by Neil Gaiman, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell, The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom, Familiar by J Robert Lennon, Unexploded by Alison Macleod, Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood, Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe, Grimm Tales by Philip Pullman, Difficult Men by Brett Martin and The Property by Rutu Modan – I have enjoyed a great deal. But (and I say this with a happy heart, intoxicated with the pleasures of having finished a tremendous novel) The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s first novel in over a decade and only her third novel in a twenty plus year career, towers over all of them.” Since writing that, I’d add Stoner into the mix but The Goldfinch remains my favourite read of the year.


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