With two children, a four-day-a-week job, a blog and a myriad of chores, I find it a miracle that I actually manage to read at all. This is one of the few upsides of living in London and commuting by packed Tube – I can actually read for almost an hour each way, although sometimes this means reading a book next to someone’s armpit. I’m also in two book clubs, which meet monthly, so I hardly have a lot of time to read for myself, but I try.
This is what I liked in 2013:
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler: This is certainly not a new book and has dated slightly, but the story of a man trying to rebuild his life after the failure of his marriage and the death of his son is touching. I thought it was an excellent book – well written and with well-rounded characters who jump off the page. I will be seeking out more books by Tyler. I also blogged a review here.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron: I really enjoyed this light read about another failed marriage, which is semi-autobiographical. (I’m not sure what this says about my life with the English Husband!) Ephron manages that rare thing – to be funny about a bleak time in her life. It’s very witty and a great account about how her husband, famous journalist Carl Bernstein (Watergate saga), cheated on her with her close friend when she was about to have their second baby. Ephron wrote the screenplay to When Harry Met Sally among many other things. She was a prolific writer and blogger. I wrote about her here.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell: A big success when it came out in 2010, O’Farrell’s story about two women separated by 50 years is well worth a read. One woman is coming into her own in 1950s Soho with a group of artistic friends. Another is coping with the aftermath of a traumatic birth and how her baby has inextricably altered her life. O’Farrell convincingly ties these lives together.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: I’ve read almost all of Patchett’s books, mostly because I totally fell in love with her novel Bel Canto. Not all of her books have equalled this one, with an exception being The Magician’s Assistant (also highly recommended). But I did enjoy State of Wonder, a story that takes a young doctor to the Amazon on a quest. The journey there and the things she encounters completely alters her life and makes her reconsider what is important. It also has a very good twist.
An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge: Despite the rather jolly title, this is not a book I would recommend if you are feeling depressed. The narrative starts off ordinarily enough – a girl in 1950 Liverpool is hoping to find fame in a theatre company’s Christmas production of Peter Pan. What you learn about her life is at once shocking and profound.
Regeneration by Pat Barker: Although novels about the First World War are about two a penny, this one is different. It focuses on the psychological aspect of the war, since the story is set in a hospital for traumatized soldiers. With the 100-year anniversary of WWI in the new year, this novel (the first in a trilogy) will leave you with a lasting impression you’re not likely to get from other books about the war.
The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon: An autobiographical book about a boy who grows up in Sarajevo. Hemon moves to the United States during the Bosnian War and writes very movingly about being an immigrant coming to America, in deceptively simple prose. A chapter on his daughter’s illness is also one of the very best I have ever read. You will struggle to read this without shedding a tear.
And the books that didn’t quite do it:
May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes: I really wanted to love this one and it was certainly top of my reading list once I had a bit of time to plough through its 500 pages. It gets off at a blistering pace with a fatal car accident, an affair and a very shocking event; you do wonder if Homes will be able to sustain the momentum and suspense. She can’t. I tried hard to like the characters and particularly the ending, but the book lost it for me some 200 pages off the end. I did finish it, but I was left feeling disappointed. I liked her short stories better – Things You Should Know.
Gone Girl by Gillian Reynolds: Most people read this huge bestseller before me, so I kind of knew what I was letting myself in for: a seemingly perfect couple are not what they seem, with the wife disappearing halfway through the book and the husband suspected of foul play. Like the book above, the novel has a very promising beginning and I was instantly hooked. Unfortunately, I also felt like the ending of the book let it down. I struggled to finish it, because I couldn’t care about the characters by the end. It hasn’t put me off seeking out more by Reynolds, though, so I’ll be hoping to read Dark Places in 2014.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: This book had a lot of positive press in the UK and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, one of the biggest literary awards of the year. Like the title suggests, Harold Fry goes on a journey, walking 600 miles from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed because he receives a letter from a dying friend. He thinks that by walking he might be able to save her. I was not totally convinced by the story, which I found a little cloying and contrived at times. I had high hopes, but just didn’t love it.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James: The master crime writer gives us a murder-mystery sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I am a huge Austen fan and a lover of crime fiction, so I thought this would be a sure-fire hit. I was wrong. There are much better books out there by P.D. James. Death Comes to be Pemberley was just adapted for BBC One this Christmas season. I didn’t watch it, but perhaps the TV version was better than the book.
What I’m looking forward to reading in 2014:
- Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – from the author of The Secret History comes this highly praised book.
- Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – if I can ever find the time! This door stopper of a book won the Booker Prize in 2013. Catton is the youngest ever recipient of the prize and, yes, I’m pretty awed by her talent (and a little jealous).
- Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple – a refreshing take on what it means to be a mother and a woman, told through a series of letters, emails, snippets and IM exchanges. Very modern and apparently very funny.
- Stoner by John Williams – the greatest novel you’ve never read, according to London’s Sunday Times. This was a Christmas present from the English Husband. I also got him a copy for Christmas too. Great minds think alike. Published in 1965, this novel has been rediscovered and was named book of the year by a top bookseller in the UK.
- And anything at all by my very favourite short story writer, Alice Munro, who deservedly won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013. Congrats, Alice!
If you have any books you’re really looking forward to reading, I’d love to hear what they are.