These are the books that have stuck in my memory as the most enjoyable or thought- provoking reads of the year. For those who don’t already know – I don’t bother to review books I dislike. In 2013 I read 115 books, didn’t complete 4 others and posted 69 reviews.
The Bloody Angel – Book 4 in the Eddie LaCrosse series by Alex Bledsoe
Having in a former life owned a yacht, I have very limited tolerance for tales that get the sailing wrong… So when my husband kept on recommending this book, I rather grumpily decided that I’d better read a couple of chapters to shut him up before returning to the next cool space opera beckoning. And then became hooked…
Twenty years ago, a barmaid in a harbour town fell for a young sailor who turned pirate to make his fortune. But what truly became of Black Edward Tew remains a mystery – one that has just fallen into the lap of freelance sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse. For years, Eddie has kept his office above Angelina’s tavern, so when Angelina herself asks him to find out what happened to the dashing pirate who stole her heart, he can hardly say no – even though the trail is two decades old.
If that sounds like a really cracking plot with plenty of opportunity for swashbuckling characters, a hatful of exciting adventures, plenty of humour and more than a slice of real heartbreak and horror – you’d be right.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I picked up this copy of the book as an SF Masterworks because as a solid fan of many women fantasy and science fiction writers, I had never read her work and I discovered it was a Hugo Award winner. I’m so glad I did…
When Kivrin Engle travels back through time to complete her doctoral thesis, due to an accident she lands in the middle of a major crisis her Faculty were struggling to avoid. Meanwhile the Oxford she left behind is laid low by a mysterious strain of influenza and, with no one willing to risk arranging her rescue, time is running out…
This book, indeed, deserves to be part of the SF Masterworks series – from the moment I opened the first page I knew I was in the hands of a great writer at the top of her game. Willis sets the scene in Oxford’s near future with deft dexterity, her characters crackle with humanity and there is a bone-dry humour running through the whole story that helps to make the grim adventure Kivrin endures bearable.
The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan
As an ex-teacher, the failure of our state education system is a subject that haunts me – and when I read this book, I was excited about its potential for helping fix our broken system. A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere: this is the goal of the Khan Academy; a passion project that grew from an ex-engineer and hedge funder’s online tutoring sessions with his niece, who was struggling with algebra, into a worldwide phenomenon. Today millions of students, parents and teachers use the Khan Academy’s free videos and software, which have expanded to encompass nearly every conceivable subject, and Academy techniques are being employed with exciting results in a growing number of classrooms around the globe.
Khan suggests that instead of having a teacher deliver a lesson to a group of children in a totally arbitrary manner, they learn individually at their own pace using modern technology with the teacher acting as enabler. He also suggests that a far more creative, wide-ranging curriculum should be in place, where children undertake complex self-directed tasks in groups. A revolutionary approach to state-funded education? Absolutely. Read Salman Khan’s solutions to our educational problems – and then could someone point the Minister of Education in the direction of this book? Please?? We cannot continue to squander our most precious resource – our children.
The Clockwork Rocket – Book 1 of The Orthogonal by Greg Egan
Egan, as a physicist, has always been on the harder side of science fiction, but the important difference – for me – is that he is also able to write convincing characters into the bargain.
However, this time around he has produced a truly different world – one where the laws of physics as we know them no longer work. As he explains on his website – along with a series of diagrams – this fictional world he’s invented where light travels at differing speeds is due to changing a minus sign to a plus sign in a mathematical formula that governs the geometry of space-time. He calls this a Riemannian universe as opposed to the Lorentzian version we inhabit. In Egan’s world, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity simply doesn’t make sense. Further, the basic humanoid template, so prevalent in most space opera adventures, is also off the table. Egan demonstrates a head-swivelling leap of imagination by producing a race of beings who don’t look like us, or breed like us… It’s an awesome achievement. And highly readable into the bargain.
The Glass God – Book 2 of The Magicals Anonymous by Kate Griffin
Sharon Li: apprentice shaman and community support officer for the magically inclined. It wasn’t the career Sharon had in mind, but she’s getting used to running Magicals Anonymous and learning how to Be One With The City. When the Midnight Mayor goes missing, leaving only a suspiciously innocent-looking umbrella behind him, Sharon finds herself promoted. Her first task: find the Midnight Mayor. The only clues she has are a city dryad’s cryptic warning and several pairs of abandoned shoes…
Sharon’s determinedly fair-minded stance is given a major workout as she comes up against a number of unpleasant nasties in her pursuit of the Midnight Mayor. Griffin hasn’t eased up one jot on some of the more revolting corners of London, as the story rolls forward with all the energy and slickness we’ve come to expect from one of the foremost fantasy Brit writers.
A Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb
1937. In a village on the Dorset coast, fourteen-year-old Mitzy Hatcher has endured a wild and lonely upbringing – until the arrival of renowned artist Charles Aubrey, his exotic mistress and their daughters, changes everything. Over the next three summers, Mitzy sees a future she had never thought possible, and a powerful love is kindled in her. A love that grows from innocence to obsession; from childish infatuation to something far more complex. Years later, a young man in an art gallery looks at a hastily-drawn portrait and wonders at the intensity of it. The questions he asks lead him to a Dorset village and to the truth about those fevered summers in the 1930s…
Those of you familiar with The Legacy will recognise that Webb has again revisited the dual narrative, with one story unfolding back in the past and one storyline gradually progressing in the present. The past finally meets the present in an exciting and unexpected denouement – but the engine that drives this story is a lost, unloved soul who anchors all her hopes and affection on a charismatic artist. Webb apparently loosely based Charles on Augustus John, who had a reputation as a womaniser and clearly loved women’s bodies with a strong, sensual appreciation.
Webb’s depiction of Mitzy’s harsh childhood, where she spends much of time scavenging the surrounding countryside for plants, herbs, fish and small animals to eat or make up potions for her mother to sell, is far from the rural idyll that soft-focused adverts use. Yet, she still manages to evoke the beauty and rhythm of the Dorset countryside – so much so, that I fell asleep with the colours of this book swirling in my head. The initial friendship of Charles’ two girls is a revelation for Mitzy, who is shunned by all the village children, except for Wilf. This particular narrative caught at my heart and as it spirals into a tailspin of obsession and the inevitable darkness, the book’s denouement was completely unexpected and shocking.
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of Angela and Tommy. You shelter beneath the Forest’s lantern trees. Beyond the forest lie mountains so forbidding that no one has ever crossed them. The Oldest recount legends of a time when men and women made boats that could travel between worlds. One day, they will come back for you. You live in Eden. You are member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of two marooned explorers. You huddle, slowly starving, in the warmth of geothermal trees, confined to one barely habitable valley of an alien, sunless world. You are John Redlantern, a teenager and agent of change for life in Eden.
This book has a 1970’s feel about it – but with modern nuances with the story being told through a number of the most prominent characters in first person viewpoint. And if you only ever pick up a handful of science fiction books a year, make this one of that handful – this memorable and disturbing read is worth it.
The Red Knight – Book 1 of The Traitor’s Son Cycle by Miles Cameron
Twenty-eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild. Twenty-eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern’s jaws snaps shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip your head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men – or worse, a company of mercenaries – against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.
It requires the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it. The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he’s determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery it’s just another job. The abbey is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can’t deal with. Only it’s not just a job. It’s going to be war…
Military medieval fantasy generally doesn’t do it for me. I’ve read plenty in my time, and until my husband nagged me to try this book, I’d more or less decided I wouldn’t shed any tears if I didn’t ever read any more. But this is different. For starters, Cameron knows what he’s talking about. He’s been involved in role-playing, martial arts – he’s actually jousted in tournaments… And it shows in the writing, which gripped me from the first page until the last – and gave me an insight into just how very different that world was, compared with our modern version.
Sister by Rosamund Lipton
When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first flight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face. The police, Beatrice’s fiancé and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.
The strong first person viewpoint and constant tension, coupled with the fine writing had me utterly engrossed, so that I gorged on the book in two hefty sittings. Though I did have to break off at one stage to find some tissues because I was weeping… The protagonist is beautifully handled as we follow her desperate search for her sister, which entails finding out a series of very uncomfortable truths about herself. Lupton is adept at braiding the surroundings, weather and cast of well depicted, vivid characters through Beatrice’s consciousness, so that she is one of the strongest and most interesting protagonists I’ve read for a while.
Advent – Book 1 of The Advent Trilogy by James Treadwell
For centuries it has been locked away. Locked away. Lost beneath the sea. Warded from earth, air, water, fire, scrying thought and sigh. Now magic is rising to the world once more. And a boy called Gavin, who thinks only that he is a city kid with parents who hate him, and knows only that he sees things no one else will believe, is boarding a train alone, to Cornwall. Where he steps into a different world…
I’ve seen this book compared favourably to Susan Cooper, and while such hyped comparisons are often absurd, this time, I was reminded of Cooper’s threat-ridden landscape and sense of tension. Treadwell is a superb writer – the description of the ancient house, Pendurra, is outstanding. It is a hefty read and at no time does Treadwell throw his young readers any sort of ‘you’re only teenagers, so I’ve made it easier for you’ lifebelt, I’m delighted to report. This non-teenager was engrossed with the quality of the storytelling and this shifting, frightening world has stayed with me since I read it.
A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thompson
Summer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted village. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.
Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other. One a noisy, rebellious tomboy living in a household where the adults only occasionally pay attention to their three children, while the other is the heart of her parents’ aspirations and already knows she needs to be neat and pretty to succeed. Neither girl trusts or like the other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek. This thriller/mystery is like nothing else I’ve read, and I’m still not sure that it fully works… but it certainly powerfully evoked the time and has stayed with me since I read it.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Finn looks and acts human, though he has no desire to be. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection. A billion-dollar construct, his primary task now is to tutor Cat. As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Finn is her guardian, her constant companion… and more. But when the government grants right to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world, and her heart.
If you’re looking for a slam-dunk, action fuelled adventure full of clear-cut baddies and heavy-tech weaponry, then don’t pick up The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Because this offering is on the literary end of the genre, with nuanced, three-dimensional characterisation and coolly sophisticated prose that places this book in a heavily contemporary setting, due to the recent crash in civilisation – and also accounts for the sudden, huge reliance on robots, as their tireless assistance is needed to provide vital labour in rebuilding society. Not that this is the focus of the book. This story concentrates on Cat and her relationship with the world, after having been tutored by a robot for all her formative years. And, by default, Finn’s relationship with Cat also is under close examination. Because the bond between them is heart and engine of the book, it has to be pitch-perfect. And it is. Don’t expect any black and white answers – this book is beautifully complex and Cat’s life unfolds in unexpected and sometimes disturbing directions. And in common with the other books in this list – it is a story that still steals into my head when I’m not thinking of anything else in particular.
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell
I heard this book narrated on Radio 4 and was transfixed. Normally the radio is the background for the necessary loathed household chores I have to perform – but during that week, I sat down and listened. So it was a no-brainer to get hold of the book and read it for myself. Most books – for me – provide a really enjoyable way to escape the everyday. But there are a hatful of books that are inspirational, thought-provoking and genuinely life changing. I’m a tad allergic to books which trumpet this aspect – mostly because they’re not. However, The Reason I Jump is the real article.
This remarkable book, written by Naoki Higashida when he was only thirteen, provides some answers. Severely autistic, Naoki learnt to communicate via pointing to letters on a ‘cardboard keyboard’ – and what he has to say gives an exceptional insight into an autistically-wired mind. He explains the often baffling behaviour of people with autism, invites us to share his perception of time, life, beauty and nature, and offers an unforgettable short story. Proving beyond doubt that people with autism do not lack imagination, humour or empathy. Naoki makes a heartfelt plea for our patience and compassion. Even if you don’t have anyone autistic in your life, it is worth reading – especially when you consider that every letter was pointed to and then written down by a scribe, before being translated into English.
Among Others by Jo Walton
After reading Tooth and Claw, I wanted to read more of Jo Walton’s books. Googling her immediately brought up Among Others, so it was a no-brainer to go and get hold of a copy. But would I find this next novel – so completely different from dragonkind set in a Victorian backdrop – equally engrossing?
When Mori discovers that her mother is using black magic, she decides to intervene. The ensuing clash between mother and daughter leaves Mori bereft of her twin sister, crippled for life and unable to return to the Welsh Valleys that were her own kingdom. Mori finds solace and strength in her beloved books. But her mother is bent on revenge, and nothing and no one – not even Tolkien – can save her from the final reckoning.
This is a remarkable book. I’ve never read anything quite like it and – for once – the OTT phrase on the cover by Jeff Vandermeer A wonder and a joy is absolutely spot on. For starters, there is a complete backstory that would easily fill a novel in the scenario that builds up to this book. Among Others is dealing with the aftermath. What happens next, once the protagonist has averted the End of the World at great personal cost. And make no mistake, the cost is heartbreakingly high.
The writing is extraordinary in the pin-sharp description of the everyday, alongside the remarkable and Mori’s character is so compellingly realistic and nuanced, I’m still undecided whether there is a large chunk of autobiographical detail wrapped up in this book. And I don’t really care – other than to fervently hope, for her sake, there isn’t too much that is borrowed from Walton’s own life. Memorable and remarkable art invariably is a fusion of imagination and reality – and this is both a memorable and remarkable book. Certainly the most amazing book I’ve read this year.