For almost 15 years, I’ve kept a record of every book I’ve read in a small, gold spiral-bound notebook. The first entry is Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which – according to my notebook – I finished on 4th August 1999. It is, apparently, seminal. I don’t remember anything about it. I often think I should go back and see what all the fuss is about but, then, the only other book that appears more than once in the notebook is Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (read a second time for book club). I don’t read books twice: there are too many unread books in the world to waste time doing that.
I’ve often thought about complementing my notebook with a blog, where I would write a little more than the author, title and date finished. I tried to register it as The Golden Notebook but was miffed to find it, unsurprisingly, taken. Besides, I find it difficult to find the time to blog, feel I should be writing creatively when I’ve got the time and am often eager to get started on the next book. So, as a compromise, I’ve been tweeting a very short review of each book I finish and promised myself I’d write this blog post to end the year.
So far in 2013, I’ve read 30 books (I’m always a bit disappointed by my annual total) and have only really hated one. That dubious accolade goes to Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. Interestingly, 20 of the books I’ve read this year were borrowed from the library. I’ve been so impressed with the book stock held by Gloucestershire Libraries, which has included all but one of the very recently published, occasionally obscure books I’ve tried to reserve. If they can get a copy of The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan in 2014, I’ll never access books from anywhere else.
Of those 30 books, then, these were my five favourites. (Note: these are the five best books I read this year. They may not necessarily have been published this year.)
The Lighthouse is a brief novel but its impact lingers. It follows Futh, an introverted middle-aged man, as he leaves behind his unsuccessful marriage for a German walking holiday. As you follow his journey, Futh’s situation – his cyclical revisiting of unhappy childhood memories, his absorption in his grief for the mother who abandoned him – is claustrophobic. But there’s real peril in the plot that drives you to turn the pages, despite a growing sense of dread, to the novel’s dizzyingly brutal and unsettling climax.
In Where’d You Go, Bernadette (nope, no question mark apparently), the story is told by Bee, the daughter of the eponymous Bernadette, through the letters, emails, magazine interviews, FBI reports, TED talk transcripts and doctor’s notes she gathers in an effort to track down her adored – and missing – mum. This book just sneaks in my top five because, despite the second half tailing off a bit, the first half fizzes with Semple’s acerbic wit and then clobbers you with Bernadette’s heart-breaking withdrawal from her career, family and society.
The Yips was one of the quirkiest books I read this year (only Everything Is Illuminated pipping it to the most unusual, probably) and without doubt my favourite. It’s typical Barker fare: full of off-the-wall characters, coarse humour and an improbable, almost anarchic plot. Plus the best 50 Cent anecdote you’ll ever read. I’m still miffed that this book was shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for a scene by which – coming so suddenly out of nowhere – I was genuinely moved.
Eleanor & Park is a romance for young adults. But it’s also much more than that: it’s a story about poverty, domestic abuse and being a misfit. And it completely nails the sheer joy and terror of falling in love. Reading this book was like being in the throws of a teenage crush: I thought about it all day, left work early and stayed up all night to read it, resented the next book I read because it wasn’t Eleanor & Park. Teenagers these days are so bloody lucky.
Whether or not you buy in to Barber’s central premise – that Christopher Marlowe’s death was staged and that he wrote in exile the plays we know as Shakespeare’s – the language in this novel is an absolute joy to read. Barber chooses to tell the story in verse (for the most part, iambic pentameter) and pulls it off, too. The Marlowe Papers is clever, playful, gripping and quite frankly much raunchier than I expected.
Very close runners-up, in no particular order, were:
T.C. Boyle, San Miguel
Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary
A.M. Homes, This Book Will Save Your Life
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry