It is that time of the year once again, where we look back on the books, films and music from the past 12 months and draw up lists. Let’s start with the books.
It has been an interesting year book-wise. It was a year where owning a Kindle (or other eBook device) was worth its ‘weight’ in gold as Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch (784 pages), Eleanor Catton – The Luminaires (832 pages), Sergio de la Pava – A Naked Singularity (880 pages), and Richard House – The Kills (1024 pages) all decided their stories needed a large canvas. Less so, thankfully, Donal Ryan – The Spinning Heart (160 pages) and Colm Toibin – The Testament of Mary (112 pages) for whom brevity was the name of the game.
But as we all know, size doesn’t matter*
Let’s begin with this year’s Booker prize. It was a strong and varied long-list which resulted in – its final year before the Americans flood in – one of the best short-lists in many years. Indeed my only disagreement with the judges on the final six was the inclusion of NoViolet Bulawayo’s – We Need New Names, at the expense of Donal Ryan – The Spinning Heart. Ryan’s astonishingly assured debut work tells its story of the effects of the economic crash on the people of a town on the west coast of Ireland in 21 monologues. It doesn’t sound like it would work as a coherent piece of fiction, but it did so superbly. Its simplicity was its strength. And its brevity means I have already re-read it.
The rest of the short-list was equally strong. Jhumpa Lahiri’s – The Lowland, told a story of two brothers and how the political situation in India effects their life choices and how guilt and family effect our lives. Colm Toibin’s – The Testament of Mary gave us a totally believable account of Jesus’ mother in later life at the time of the creation of some of the Gospel’s. Ruth Ozeki’s – A Tale for Time Being showed how a diary contained within a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of the Canadian beach home
Jim Crace’s – Harvest is a wonderful book. It’s harvest time in a small village and the appearance of a group of outsiders provide the ideal scape-goats for a crime, and place one character in a quandary of whether to help them or not. As with all Crace’s work it is beautifully written. It was the Bookie’s favourite to win the booker, and Crace has stated that it will be his final novel. I know some found it an unsatisfying and dull novel, but for me it was rich and rewarding, even if its biblical nods were a bit obvious.
And then there was the winner, and Eleanor Catton’s – The Luminaires was a worthy winner. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, part gold prospector story, and yet none of these at the same time, this well structured and episodic tale is a delight to read. Catton perfectly catches the mid-19th century world of shipping and banking with her tale of the New Zealand gold rush (did you even know there was one?) However, like a number of books this year the thing that lets the book down slightly is a hurried ending, where seemingly after more than 800 pages Catton panicked and thought, how do I end this? This stopped it, for me at least, from being a truly great book.
Of course, the literary event of the year was without doubt the appearance of the third novel by Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch. Maintaining her one every 10 years release pattern Tartt presented us with another book that showcased once again just what a tremendous writer she is and also just why she divides opinion. The first 200 pages of this book are frankly as good as anything you’ll ever read, and her genius does reappear throughout. But, as with her previous book The Little Friend, you do, at times, have a vision of Michael Chabon’s Grady Tripp character, a man who seven years after writing a worldwide and critical smash now has a two thousand pages of a book that is not even close to being finished, and whilst being beautifully written and detailed is lacking any sense of control and story. Worse still, some of it feels very clunky. I would have edited out the character of Boris entirely. When he was present on the page the book was almost laughable – but not in a good way. And this is a shame, because make no mistake, when The Goldfinch is good, it is very good indeed. So much so, that even despite its flaws it was one of the best books of the year.
Not only was Tartt back, but so was Thomas Pynchon, although I found Bleeding Edge hard to love. It was engaging but it didn’t hold me in like the best of Pychon’s work. Similarly, Grace McCleen who wrote one of my favourite book of recent years The Land of Decoration, was back with The Professor of Poetry. An enjoyable book, but not in the same league as her debut. Sergio de la Pava’s – A Naked Singularity was part Grisham, part The Wire, part Aaron Sorkin (though not in a good way. it is weighed down by too may long soliloquies on life and philosophy) It was ambitious though and I was glad I read it. Also it made me laugh out loud on a couple of occasions to embarrassing effect on public transport.
The book that stuck with me most this year was one I read near the start: Amanda Coplin’s – The Orchardist. This seemingly gentle tale of an old orchardist and his relationship with a couple of orphan girls is a touching tale about loss and yearning. Beautifully written in a style that reminded me of Marilynne Robinson and Annie Proulx. If pushed I’d say this was my novel of 2013.
The thriller world this year revolved around Gillian Flynn’s – Gone Girl and Lauren Beukes – The Shinning Girls. Both were thoroughly entertaining reads. Great for the beach or just for the read on the trip into and out of work. Belinda Bauer’s – Rubbernecker was the fourth and the most interesting idea-wise of her British crime novels but lacked the over-all punch of her first three novels. Charles Cumming’s – A Foreign country – was a hugely entertaining spy thriller about a disgraced MI6 officer sent to track down the missing the first female head of MI6 who has vanished just before she is due to take her post. Emma Chapman’s – How to be a Good Wife took an interesting look at mental illness in the guise of a domestic thriller. It made you questions whether she was ill, deluded or correct in her suspicions.
Another of the year’s best Books, that tackled mental illness, was Nathan Filer’s impressive – The Shock of the Fall. It tackles the guilt associated with coping with the loss of a loved one, and the difficulties those with mental illnesses go through trying to cope and be ‘normal’. Filer was a mental health nurse and it shows through the love he has for his central character and the honestly and believability he brings to his characters and the situations in which we find them. A Great book.
* There are a LOT of people who would disagree with this statement.