GOOD READS 2013 – When I was the TV reviewer for BBC Wildlife magazine, the editor would not let me write a review about a bad programme. It was less than honest and made for duller copy. However, I am taking a leaf out of her book as I’d love you to spend the Christmas period being transported by wonderful books and giving them as gifts to others. Here is my selection of the books I’ve liked best this year.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey has to be the perfect winter present with its hauntingly beautiful descriptions – ‘She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white stars melting…’ – and its poignant relationship between Jack, Mabel and the child they believe they have created out of grief and longing and snow.
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is simply a tour de force. A gentle scientist, Marina Singh, is sent to Brazil to discover how and why her college, Anders Eckman has died. Anders had been attempting to find out if hard-nosed scientist, Dr Annick Swenson, is anywhere near the cure for malaria she has told her investors she is close to developing in utmost secrecy deep in the Brazilian Rio Negro.
What Maria finds is far more startling than she could ever have imagined. If The Snow Child is a modern reworking of a fairy tale, albeit set in 1820 in Alaska, State of Wonder is The Heart of Darkness for our generation.
I loved The Humans by Matt Haig: it’s a quirky, funny meditation on what it means to be human. The story is told by an alien sent to impersonate a professor of mathematics and destroy the evidence of our greatest mathematical achievement. The alien falls in love with Emily Dickinson and his own wife. With its chapter on God and Football, its a book you can safely give to men without them stumbling over the jacket and rejecting the novel before they’ve cracked open the first page.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is on far side of the spectrum of human relationships from The Humans: Amy and Nick Dunne are celebrating their fifth anniversary, when Amy disappears, seemingly under violent circumstances. Could Nick have killed her? Told alternately from Amy and Nick’s point of view, it’s a pacy, well-written, original psychological thriller and a portrayal of how those the first serotonin-soaked weeks of love can turn caustically bitter.
Not quite in that league, but still a stellar 3-4 star read are The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall, The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison, The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright and Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymot. The Book of Summers deals with a young woman’s rite of passage as she looks back at the summers she spent in Hungary and tries to come to terms with her childhood. Decadently descriptive and nostalgic.
The Forgotten Waltz is that rarity, a literary page-turner. It’s a simple enough story: two people begin an adulterous affair; the book it’s constructed like a thriller and is both chilling and acerbic. A sharp read for nights as cold as a nose bleed. The Silent Wife and Every Contact Leaves a Trace, are both excellent literary thrillers. Every Contact Leaves a Trace begins with the death of Rachel, Alex Petersen’s wife. Dymot asks how well do you know the people you love, as Alex retraces his wife’s past to discover her killer; it has shades of The Secret History, in its portrayal of student misdeeds at Oxford. Like Gone Girl, The Silent Wife is told by both parties within a marriage but this one has sailed along smoothly for 25 years before Jodie Brett, as we are told right at the start of the book, kills her husband. This is a wonderful portrayal of a character – Jodie – who is not only a therapist but has undergone therapy, which allows you to gradually uncover the true woman beneath her social veneer,
I would also recommend a couple of classics I re-read this year: The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.
I’m going to take a break until the start of 2014. In the New Year I’ll be back with blogs on the Tracy Anderson Method, Tabata training, how to write cracking dialogue and what it’s like to work with a freelance editor.
In the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a happy Christmas, a fantastic holiday and great reading. Let me know what you think of these books!