Sunday, 24 November 2013

Best of the Books 2013: Part One

Well it's that time of year again - it's time for me to review my top ten best reads of the year. I'm starting a little earlier than I did last year, but that's because I'm simply too darn excited about all the books I have read and I want to tell you about them. In fact, some I have been holding back on especially for this time of year (what can I say, I'm a planner). Sadly, this does mean that any books I read after this point won't be eligible, but if I find any that I go nuts for then I'm sure I'll let you know.

As per last year's format, I'll be reviewing in three parts, counting down to my all-time, best book of the year, which will get itself reviewed in full. It's also not a list about books released in the past year; it's the best ones I've had the pleasure of reading in the past 12 months. If you fancy refreshing your memory on what made the top last year, and why, have a quick gander here (for part one), here (part two) and here for the winner.

Right. Ready? Well then, let's go. Kicking off with....

10. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
I once complained a bit how I never got given books as presents, but it seems that dry spell is over because The Boyfriend came good with this one. It's about a young woman, Katey, living and working in New York in the 1930's, and the tense, unbalanced relationship she has with her best friend, Evie, and the handsome stranger who enters their lives one New Year's Eve. It's one of those books where you kind of know how it's going to end, but in no way does that ruin or affect your experience of the book. It's slow-paced but well written, with beautiful descriptions that whisk you out of the 21st century and back to the thirties (after the Depression but before the war). Having said that, it's in no way idealistic; Katey wrestles with her Russian heritage whilst Evie struggles to get a foothold in the glamorous New York social scene. It's not a happy book, but it's not a sad one either - I suppose what I enjoyed most was that it manages to convey the absurdity of time, when certain things matter so much in the present but lose their importance and become almost trivial as time passes.

9. Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch
I've been working my way through these, the PC Grant novels, as slowly as I can - it's been tempting to dash through them because they're really very, very good. And maybe it's because this is the most recent one I've read, or maybe it's because Aaronovitch has really gotten into his stride, but this, the third of four books, is my favourite of the series so far. It's got a more solid, cohesive plot than the previous titles, with PC Peter Grant using his magical skills to help solve the murder of a young American, found dead on the tracks of Baker Street tube station having been stabbed with a shard of pottery. With his one-time love interest Lesley and the mysterious Nightingale as his partners-in-crime-solving, Peter has to delve into the dark tunnels of London's famous underground network as he discovers that there's more than just a stabbing to this death. It's no secret that part of the appeal in this series is the familiarity of the settings - London is full of landmarks both famous and banal - but there's also the charm of the main character and the originality of the story to help make such an entertaining read.

8. You Had Me At Hello by Mhairi McFarlane
Now, I'm not one for chick-lit; I will read it from time to time, but generally it ends up reminding me why I don't bother with the genre much. This, however, has restored my faith somewhat. Yes, the love story has the most prominence - two best friends reconnect after years apart - but it also doesn't patronise the reader. Rachel, the protagonist, is very suddenly single at the beginning of the book, having abruptly broken off her engagement with her long-term boyfriend/fiancé, Rhys. Naturally, now would be a good time for an old kind-of flame to make a reappearance - and, naturally, he does. Ben, her best friend at uni whom she had always kind of fancied, moves back to the university city that she never left, and they start seeing each other again, causing Rachel to reassess her time at university and question the decisions she made. With a slightly predictable yet likeable supporting cast of friends, it's a genuinely funny story with a few twists, and it is full of nostalgia for those heady uni days when daytime drinking and lecture-skipping were the biggest concerns. I was wary when I bought it, but enjoyed the read so much I've pre-ordered McFarlane's next story. I suppose it's because it's a chick-lit story that doesn't actually feel like one.

7. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Everyone must know this name by now, surely; Flynn pretty much blew everyone away with Gone Girl, the twisty, turny, gasp-out-loudy tale of the most messed up relationship ever. I certainly enjoyed it - couldn't put it down - and on finishing, promptly decided to read the other two Flynn had written previously. I have to say, Sharp Objects unexpectedly turned out to be my favourite. Camille, a journalist with a troubled history, is forced by her editor to return to her hometown in Missouri to cover the violent, odd murder of two little girls. It's a place that holds nothing but bad memories for Camille, which resurface violently when she finds herself back in her menacing mother's house and speaking to her old high school friends, all of whom now seem to be carbon-copies of each other. There's just the right mix of paranoia, tension and secrecy that I've come to expect from Flynn, but with the added bonus of a sympathetic main character - unlike Gone Girl and Dark Places, Camille is a protagonist that is likable, so you care just that bit more about what happens to her. Maybe a bit slower than Gone Girl, but worth it.

6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I'm a little late to the Hosseini party, but I got here eventually. I read his latest offering, And The Mountains Echoed, first, and was so enchanted by his writing style that I decided to go for another one. A Thousand Splendid Suns charts the lives of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, who are coerced into marrying the same man, and the ensuing relationship that sprouts between them. Told over the course of several decades that bridge either side of the Taliban's rise to power, it has some brutal scenes that caused me to physically recoil as I read them, but for the most part this is a heartstring-tugger, with the focus of the story being on the familial love between the women and the strength they draw from each other. It didn't move me to tears, but it certainly made me stop and think about how lucky I am to live in a world where I have the freedom to dress how I like, work where I like and marry someone I love, and I think that makes it a novel worth reading many times.

Stay tuned for part two, counting down 5 to 2...

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