Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Best of the Books 2013: Part Two

So here we are, carrying on my countdown of the best reads of 2013. If you're joining us for the first time, these are the best books I've read for the first time ever in the past 12 months, so they won't necessarily have been released this year. As per last year, I'm doing this in 3 parts, so pop on over to Part 1 to get the lowdown on numbers 10 through to 6, then scurry back here for 5 to 2. We'll wait for you, don't worry.



... Ready?

Okay, here we go...

5. Instructions For a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
This book followed me all year. Not in a creepy, weird way, just in that I kept noticing it everywhere. It popped up on posters on my way home, in papers I read and was even recommended to me by Amazon (who once tried to sell me Miranda Hart's Is It Just Me? based on the fact I'd read Wuthering Heights. Yeah, I didn't get it either). So this was one of those books that nagged at me for ages, tempting me, drawing me in. I tried to elude it, thinking it didn't sound like my cup of tea, but eventually I succumbed and I am so, so glad I did; it's a warm, witty story of a dysfunctional family on the surface, but has a darker core that deals with the secrets within that family. It begins in a blistering summer in the seventies, when Robert Riordan, a man who lives for his routine, goes out for the paper and uncharacteristically doesn't come back, leaving his loud, brash, Irish-Catholic wife to inform their three adult children of his disappearance. As the brood descend on the familial home to support their mother and ponder their father, it becomes evident that each is relieved for the distraction from their own secrets and disappointments - but, as anyone with a family will know, secrets eventually come out. It's not nearly as menacing as I think I've made it sound, but there's certainly a few moments where I caught myself holding my breath. Yet it's the unexpectedly funny aspect of the writing that secured it's place in the top 5 of my list, proving that you can write a serious novel and be humorous at the same time.

4. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
Now this is a novel that blew me away. From the outset, it's a churning, mysterious ball of building tension, where you're never given enough information to form an opinion, but just enough to keep you hanging on. Whilst reading this book, I gasped out loud several times, had to re-read several pages because I couldn't believe what had happened, and at one point actually looked up from it in shock to peer round at my fellow commuters, as if to ask them if they knew what the hell had just happened in my book (they didn't know). It all starts with a woman in the dock, being prosecuted for an unknown crime, with an unknown accomplice sat elsewhere in the courtroom. Within pages, the prosecutor mentions a location - the titular Apple Tree Yard - and at this point it becomes clear that this place is about to be the undoing of our nameless narrator. This is one of those excellent examples of where first-person narration can be the best thing yet; our narrator plays all her cards close to her chest so right to the very end, you never know where you stand. I don't think I've given away too much but I shan't say anymore, just in case. I will end on this though: it was almost impossible to put down. Only sleep, work and food got in the way of this one.

3. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
I read this book before I saw the film, and as per usual, it's the book I prefer (though obviously kudos to the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who both deserved their Oscar win/nomination for their performances). I just found Pat's character to be far more sympathetic and less humorous, which is unusual for me because I love laughing. His recovery from his emotional breakdown - and the slow release of the reason for the breakdown - is much like watching a little boy try, and sometimes fail, to understand the world around him, and captures that feeling of bewildered innocence I'm sure we all felt at one point. He's not necessarily a likeable character - at times you share his family and friends' frustration with his almost blind determination to avoid the truth, but for the most part he's a wonderfully sweet character. Tiffany, Pat's friend, provides a healthy dose of brashness and bluster to prevent this from being a sickly-sweet story, although she is harbouring a hurt just as great as Pat's. It's a sensitively-told story about the effects of mental illness and stress, with just enough humour to keep it light, but most of the focus on the recovery of the main characters.

2. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Now anyone who knows me personally will be able to make a pretty good guess as to why this book is so high in this list. For the unaware - I flippin' love Greek mythology. I love it so much, I did my degree because of it. This is a book about the gods of Ancient Greece - Apollo, Hermes and all the rest of 'em - living in modern day London. The reason? They're immortal, but no one believes in them anymore, so they have to eke out some kind of appropriate living - Dionysos owns a bar, Aphrodite answers dirty calls, Artemis walks dogs - whilst they wait for a solution to restore them to their former glory. Meanwhile, a timid would-be mortal couple called Alice and Neil find themselves inextricably mixed up in a squabble between Apollo and Aphrodite, which is about to blow everything apart for Olympians and their mortal associates alike. As you might expect, it's a humorous novel - though not without its poignant moments - and is full of in-jokes and references that Greek-nerds like me go nuts for. It's also really well imagined; for example, the underworld is a suitably eerie space with a genuine feeling of infinity, which is something hard to convey in print. With a pacy plot, fun characters and some great writing, it's a book I think many of you will enjoy - but for the Ancient History nerds out there, you'll love it.

So there they are, four of my top five. When you're ready, the Best Read of 2013 awaits you...

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