Friday, January 3, 2014

Best of 2013 - Books

Dammit, always the last to the party. Or maybe I just missed the party? (The party here being 2013 round ups). Sometimes I get my analogies confused. Regardless, I want to do a couple of 'Best Ofs' because I have neglected this blog this (last, jeeez) year but there are still things I wished I had shared with you all.

Unfortunately, because I didn't blog about these at the time and I don't keep notes on my life some of this is bound to be a bit hazy. [I would kind of like to keep notes on my life, a real paper diary or a journal or something, I feel like it is a nice, personal way to track your growth and development and life experiences and whathaveyou but when. There are already so many things that I don't have enough time to write that a paper diary seems like an illegitimate luxury. Maybe when I am old? More old people should keep/share journals, I bet they would be interesting. Or a memoir perhaps... Although I'd definitely need preexisting notes to write a memoir given I can't remember what happened to me yesterday. I would love for my maternal grandmother to write a memoir because she has had an amazing life but at ninety she is still to busy living to get around to writing. That's the trouble, ain't it?] {That aside got a bit out of hand} (Truly, I love parentheses).

Because I am the least topical blogger on the internet none of my Top 3 books of 2013 were actually published in 2013 but I'm going with more of a Year in Reading kind of thing. I totally love the Millions 'Year in Reading' column where writers, authors and staff discuss the best books they've read over the year, irrelevant of publication date. It seems like a much more realistic and honest way to go about things than arbitrary list sorted only by date. (Although I will grant that this is particularly true for books, not all pop music ages as well as good fiction, for example.)

The Known World, Edward P. Jones (2004): Goodness, this is intense. It is powerful and overwhelming and heavy and important. It made me sob on the Tube. It is, more or less, the story of a black slave owner in the American South. There are no clear heroes though, in that the world is muddy and that good and bad is messy and blurred, but also because there is no lead protagonist(s) - there is a group of complicated characters interacting across time and space. Jones plays with history in such interesting ways, darting back and forth within the personal histories of his characters but also judging 'modern' understandings of history and how we interrogate and respond to past events. The book feels Victorian in its weight and span and it was a similarly slow read to some of those expansive novels. You have to work at it but that is kind of great because the story lives with you and gets into your bones and you have to face the reality of people owning people over and over again. It is brutal and brilliant and I don't understand why more people don't talk about it. I try not to be didactic on here (maybe? That might not be true...) but you should read this.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell (2011): Marry me, Karen Russell? You know that feeling you get when you just fall instantly in love with the way someone writes? KR gives me that. This novel isn't quite perfect but it is close and the writing is just luminous and perfect and I want to roll around in her prose. Ava, the thirteen year old centre of this book, is the daughter of the recently deceased and renowned alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree and she is alone. Her father is in denial, her brother is trapped in The World of Darkness (a rival theme park) and her sister is in love with a ghost. The Florida swamps are eery and add amazing atmosphere to the surreal story and intermittent magical realism. There is maybe too much emphasis on Kiwi (the bro) and his story and not enough of a voice from Ossie (the soeur) and I can't say anything about the ending without saying too much but it is still a charming and evocative book crammed with beautiful language and imagery and ideas that can't help but make you smile. It was more than enough to make me pledge to read everything Russell ever writes.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness (2008): I could have slightly cheated and included the whole of the Chaos Walking trilogy here, the last of which came out in 2013 so could legitimately have been in this list, but I found the final book a bit of a let down (the pacing is just not right, it feels like something went wrong in the editorial process - either the story shouldn't have been forced into the popular trilogy format or this book was rushed out to capitalise on popularity/whatever, which is ridiculous because the man's had something crazy like eight books out in the last five years - because it feels off in a way that doesn't feel authorial... that sounds odd, has anyone read it? do you have thoughts?) and it was the first book that really blew me away. I have read a lot of YA and children's fantasy this year for 'research' and as with any genre a lot of it is fairly predictable - that is why we read genre fiction after all, to fulfil specific narrative desires and expectations. The Knife of Never Letting Go was one of the few YA titles that surprised me, that surpassed my expectations and pushed me, it was so bold and determined and intriguing. I've included the official blurb below because I don't want to post any spoilers but the story begins in a world without women, a world where everyone and everything's thoughts are public. And Ness commits, it's amazing, he just goes straight at massive issues - male attitudes towards women (in a book with a male hero), rape, privacy, control and free will, the corruptive influence of power, the lack of moral absolute in a realistic world, the impossible choices we are called upon to make on a real, daily basis as well as within a fantastical setting. He doesn't hold back or patronise or protect his readers - I would have loved to read this as a child. It is so smart and inventive and unexpected and funny and tense. And there's a dog and you can hear its thoughts and, man, do I love a talking dog. It explodes the limitations of a YA novel and goes beyond genre in every direction and it is what YA should be. If that YA is an interest, I would highly recommend it. I will hopefully be grabbing his adult fiction sometime in the new year too.

Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown. 
But Prentisstown isn't like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts in a constant, overwhelming, never-ending Noise. There is no privacy. There are no secrets. 
Or are there? 
Just one month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd unexpectedly stumbles upon a spot of complete silence. 
Which is impossible. 
Prentisstown has been lying to him. 
And now he's going to have to run...

And, basically, this is why I don't blog much at the moment. Because I can't just knock out 300 words and a couple of pretty pictures. I'm not hating on that style btw, even though it sounds a bit snarky, I read and enjoy lots of blogs like that - my blog used to be like that! - but apparently I can only write long and incoherent screeds right now. Which means that blog posts end up taking up time I arguably don't have and then don't get even passingly edited because I have run out of steam...

(Also, because I just tried to take a quick photo of my copies together and apparently my laptop's SD card reader has broken and god only knows where my camera/usb cord is. Why can't my thoughts and ideas just neatly transpose themselves onto here without any demands of me or technology? Good question.)

Oh well, I have never tried to force this blog to be anything other than what it is. To your own self be true, little blog. Apparently said self is sporadic, verbose and a trifle manic. So be it. Perhaps I will simmer down in the coming months. I'm hoping (praying) to have Phase 1 of The Big Project finished in the next month or two and then things might (might) return to normal somewhat. Or I may have lost track of normal.

Shutting up now.

Chuck x


  1. You owe it to yourself to blog about and how the hell you want, long, short, not at all. That's a little 2014 thing for you, handle your business how the hell you like!

    Swamplandia sounds pretty interesting, might give it a bash.

    Buckets & Spades

  2. I wish I had time to read fiction right now. Alas, most of my reading comes in the form of historical works, theoretic, and socio-political analyses. If I were to make my own list like this people would probably be bored to tears!

    I understand the blogging thing. I can write in short snippets but, for the most part, it feels so inadequate. Like there's so much more to say and I don't have the energy to put it out there. Oh well. Happy new year!

  3. Okay you've totally convinced me - at least two of these three are going on my list of books to read in 2014. You are also so much better of a book reviewer than I am. I desperately need to pick up some tips from you