Top Reads 2013

I thought it was impossible last year and this year seems just as difficult, unlike last years clear-cut outstanding read, which I would recommend to anyone and everyone, I’m not so confident that my Outstanding Read of 2013 has universal appeal. But I absolutely loved it and recommend it highly!

Outstanding Read of the Year

Arthur BraxtonMy outstanding read of the year, the one that stopped me in my tracks and then pulled me along at a fast pace and left me wondering what it was that was so compelling only to realise it was the originality of voice was Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton.

I love that I knew nothing about it before reading it, I chose it on instinct, had never heard of the author and the book just worked its magic from the beginning . Then there was the serendipitous event occurring at the Victorian Baths where it is set, just as I was reading it – well that was the icing on the cake.

It’s a coming age story of a teenage boy who starts hanging out at an abandoned Victorian bath-house where things don’t always appear as they should, he discovers an uninhibited young woman swimming naked in the pool, the point from which all his perceptions about life begin to alter. It is strange, magical, weird and infused with hope without being in any way sentimental.  But don’t take my word for it, read it!

As for the rest, in no particular order, here are my memorable fiction and non-fiction reads for 2013.

Top Fiction

BoothThe Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was the first book of the year and a reread for me, something I rarely do, but I wanted to see if Martin Booths excellent book stood the test of time. And it sure did. I love this book and the way this author writes. The book is about a British prisoner held for many years in a Russian gulag, who decides not to return home after his release. The story is narrated on the day of his 80th birthday as he looks back and his past comes to visit him.

monster 2A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – in all pursuits, sometimes it’s a good idea to go off piste  and for me this venture into young adult fiction was exactly that.  I picked this up in the library having recalled seeing a few excellent reviews and was intrigued by the concept of a writer picking up the threads of another writers idea and bringing it to fruition – Siobhan Dowd died tragically at the age of 47 and Patrick Ness brilliantly brings her story idea to life in this incredible, poignant tale.

BrodeckBrodeck’s Report by Phillipe Claudel – a very recent read and his words stay with me, I feel like I want to read everything he has written. Having survived a concentration camp, Brodeck returns to his village where life resumes as before until a stranger arrives in the village unsettling the inhabitants to the point where they decide to dispose of him, Brodeck isn’t involved but is given the task of writing a report about it. He writes twin narratives, unveiling the best and worst tendencies of humanity.

HonourHonour by Elif Shafak The 4th book by this wonderful Turkish author I have read and she is becoming more known with each new book, this one being nominated for numerous prizes and Turkey being the guest nation at this years London Book Fair. Honour is a story of a poor family and follows the lives of two sisters, one who goes to live in London as an immigrant, though she will always be that girl from the village. It highlights the difficulty in straddling two worlds, especially for the next generation, who try to assimilate into the new culture, but who when vulnerable are often drawn back into the least desirable aspects of the old culture.

The Honey ThiefThe Honey Thief by Mazari Najaf this is an original set of short stories told by a Hazari man from Afghanistan to his Australian friend. The stories originate from an oral story telling tradition and offer a unique insight into an ancient, adaptable people, who have survived  centuries of persecution. In addition, the author shares some excellent recipes.

Shadows & WingsShadows & Wings by Niki Tulk A wonderful story about family connections, silence and our inability to bury the past. A young girl living in Australia travels to Germany to visit the birthplace of her Grandfather and to learn about his role in the war. Simultaneously, his story is narrated from when he was a boy, to when he became that young man who, like all men at that time, was drafted into war. A beautiful book, thoughtfully narrated and at times so excruciating, it is as if we are reading a personal diary, not a work of fiction. I wish more people knew about this astonishing book.

Top Non-Fiction

Hare Amber EyesThe Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal – I am probably one of the last to have read this, since it was published two years before I picked it up, although I bought numerous copies when it did come out for family as Christmas gifts, knowing it would be an excellent read – and while it may not be to everyone’s taste, if you have any interest in European culture and history, this story of the Ephrussi’s, a Russian Jewish family from Odessa, whose two sons set themselves up in Paris and Vienna, told through the eyes and potter’s hand of the ceramicist and descendant Edmund De Waal will certainly appeal.

FindingsFindings by Kathleen Jamie I read this excellent collection of essays in February, a month in the northern hemisphere where many are in hibernation and there is not much to sing and dance about. Finding’s was like being in nature when we are not, the way Kathleen Jamie writes is to make us appreciate and really see without the need to label, identify or show off our knowledge. She observes with a painter’s eye and takes the reader on a similar journey, infusing the imagination with images of those forsaken Scottish  islands she visits. Brilliant winter reading.

Brain on FireBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan This book is a must read for anyone who knows anyone who has had any kind of brain disease or impairment. Susannah Cahalan was just an ordinary girl, working as a journalist, when in her early twenties, she started imagining things and observed herself becoming somewhat crazy. Some kind of infection got to her brain and thankfully for thousands of others, who have already benefited from the things she shares here, she lived to write about it and demystify the malfunction of the brain, something that results in thousand of incorrect diagnoses, due to the little we know about how to remedy it.

Portrait of a FamilyPortrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga After a visit to Istanbul in May, I indulged in a wonderful period of reading Turkish literature and this book was a great find – a recommendation from the English bookshop in Istanbul and they weren’t wrong. It is a classic, a fabulous story of the life of one family whose destiny is changed by war – another unique insight into a culture and the intimate family life of people we don’t usually have the opportunity to witness.

Happiness of Blond PeopleThe Happiness of Blond People: A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity by Elif Shafak it’s a short but compelling essay by one of my favourite writers, a woman who was born in the East and lived many years in the West and  has a unique perspective from which to make her observations. Worthwhile reading and love these Penguin Specials, short essays are so popular here in France, it’s great to see them being made available in English too.

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women what better way to wind up a year of reading than with some short, poignant Buddhist stories, some only a few sentences long. This is a volume to sit near the bedside and dip in and out of, because not every message will be relevant for today. One hundred stories interpreted by another 100 wise women and we are free to interpret them ourselves. 

So what books stood out for you in 2013?