At the beginning of the year, I was aiming to read more in 2013 than I did in 2012. As usual, my good intentions amounted to nothing. I went through stages when I was reading a lot, but also dry spells when I barely got through anything, and the end result was much the same as last year. Leaving aside the small handful of books I abandoned, and also non-fiction, I read 29 books this year. There’s a nice display of all the covers here. It will actually end up being 30, assuming I finish the book I’m reading now before the new year, but I’ll just sneakily include that in the list for 2014 to give myself a head start. Cheating, of course. But it’s hardly life or death.
Anyway, my first thought was that I’d pick my 5 favourite books from that selection. My second thought was holy shit, how am I going to pick my 5 favourite books from that selection? Because in truth, that’s a pretty good selection of books. If I were using a 5 star system, there’s nothing there I’d rank below a 3; and certainly, there are more than 5 books I want to mention. But from a meagre total of 29, 5 feels like the most I can get away with, although I might do a few honourable mentions at the end just to have my cake and eat it.
So with a heavy heart, and without further ado, here are my five favourite books of the year. Actually, just a little further ado, as these are my favourite books of the year – the ones I’ve enjoyed reading most – not necessarily the ones I consider the best. Is there a difference? Yes, there is. They’re also, with the exception of #1, in the order I read them rather than ranked. Oh, and they’re also books I’ve read this year, not necessarily books that were published this year. Which brings us nicely to…
5. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
This is the story of a young boy, Conor, struggling to deal with the heavy emotional and physical burdens of his mother’s terminal illness. One night, as the title says, a monster calls on Conor – an astonishing, primal tree-like creature that comes to his window and shakes the house. Refreshingly, Conor – a realistically difficult and therefore extremely likeable character – isn’t particularly frightened of the monster. Why would he be in the circumstances? But the monster promises to return and tell him three stories, and does. In between those tales, we see Conor’s home and school lives becoming harder and more complicated. It is obvious, to an extent, what we are heading towards, but the power of the novel comes not simply from the journey but the fact we don’t end up quite where we might be expecting – that the truth Conor ultimately has to face and accept is in some ways much harsher than bereavement, and all the more human for it. A Monster Calls is a beautifully-written and extraordinarily moving book. There are no prizes just for making a reader cry, of course, but Ness’s novel eschews cheap manipulation in favour of emotion that may well be raw and painful, but which always feels insightful, true, genuine. This is a very, very special book indeed.
4. Poppet, by Mo Hayder
It occurred to me earlier on that one of the (many) interesting aspects of Hayder’s series of procedurals involving DI Jack Caffery is that, at least on a grand scale, the reader is ahead of the main character. After taking a break from Caffery following The Treatment, and then returning to him a few books later in Ritual, Hayder has spun gold from Caffery’s search to discover what happened to his brother, abducted when they were both children. But if you’ve read The Treatment, you know – and in fact, that novel ends on such a powerfully bittersweet note, it’s easy to imagine the story was only ever conceived as spanning those first two books. I get comments from my agent if the reader is ahead of the main character for more than half a chapter, and yet here we are, four more books into the Walking Man series, and Caffery’s quest remains utterly compelling.
It’s far from Hayder’s only talent, of course. She has a knack – perhaps more so than any other crime writer working today – for the disturbing scene: the chilling little details that cause a passage to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The setting here is a case in point. Caffery is (eventually) called in to investigate a series of disturbances at a secure hospital. There are rumours of a ghostly dwarf – the Maude – stalking the corridors, and a vicious killer has recently been released and vanished into the community. In the background, Caffery is pursuing the truth about his brother, while also dealing with the ongoing fallout of a … well, that would be telling. You can read this as a standalone, but it probably helps to read at least Ritual, Skin and Gone first (Or at least, reading the series backwards might spoil the earlier books slightly). But read them you should – and then this too, because Poppet is chilling and disquieting, and builds to an unforced climax (cough, sorry, twelve years old, cough) that is hugely satisfying, not only in terms of resolving the various crimes in the book but on a quietly emotional level. Dare I say it’s moving? I do. I dare.
3. The Machine, by James Smythe
Along with Patrick Ness, James Smythe is an author I’ve read two books by this year. The first of those, The Explorer, I enjoyed a great deal, not least because everybody died a short distance into the novel, and I was intrigued to see where Smythe could possibly take it. (The answer: very interesting places indeed). But The Machine is better, I think. Many reviews mention Frankenstein, and that’s certainly a reasonable reference point. The Machine is the story of Beth, living alone (at first) on a terrifying near-future council estate, the community ravaged by poverty and punished by the (vividly-described) conditions of an environment in decline. Beth’s husband is a former soldier, confined to a care home after the machine of the title took his bad memories, and more besides, away and left him catatonic. The machines have been banned, but Beth acquires a black market version, with the intention of bringing her husband home and reinstalling the memories that were removed. However bad it was before, it is worse now, and she wants that damaged man back.
That won’t end well, we think – and of course, it doesn’t, although not necessarily in quite the way we might be expecting. Honestly, there is a huge amount to admire here: Smythe’s precise and evocative prose; the careful and elaborate but invisible world-building; the ominously rendered presence of the machine itself. But what stayed with me most is the character of Beth, engaged in a quest we know is foolhardy, but which is also so achingly relatable that we can’t help but understand and want her to succeed.
2. The Cry, by Helen FitzGerald
The Cry begins with an increasingly fraught long haul flight, a scene that will immediately ring awful bells of recognition, especially for parents. From the very start, we sympathise with Joanna, ostensibly the book’s main character, as she struggles to calm her crying, inconsolable baby, as she feels inadequate and insecure about motherhood, and as she faces down the increasing annoyance and impatience of the other passengers. Her husband, Alistair, sleeps most of the way. The family are on their way to Australia, to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter from a previous marriage. A short time after the plane lands, Joanna’s baby goes missing from the couple’s car, and the pair become the centre of an international media storm.
I’ve seen a number of reviews that disclose what happens to the baby, and in fairness, the reader is in on events early on in real time, but I have no intention of saying it here. In a more conventional thriller, perhaps that mystery would be central, but FitzGerald is far more interested in exploring the ramifications that unfold from an awful moral quandary. And through the eyes of the other main character – Alistair’s ex-wife, whom he left for Joanna – we gradually understand the wider moral culpability of everyone involved. Everything is portrayed superbly, from Joanna’s increasing mental instability to the blasts of social media following the investigation that occasionally intrude, and the book builds (you think impossibly at first) to a conclusion that manages to satisfy even as it breaks your heart. Brilliant stuff.
1. Like Plastic, by K
What? By whom? And what the fuck is that cover supposed to be? Three eminently reasonable questions, and let’s take the middle one first. K is a pseudonym for the writer Kevin Wignall, who has written crime novels, such as the amazing Who is Conrad Hirst?, and also the YA fantasy Mercian Trilogy (as K J Wignall). The cover? Well, I can’t explain that – although this is a self-published book (you can buy it here), and if ever there was a case for not judging a book by its cover, then here we have it.
As to the what, Like Plastic is the story of London-based Russian gangster Alexei Shakirov, who has the unusual fetish – and bear with me here – of drugging young women and stealing a lock of their pubic hair for his private collection. His latest distraught victim – Megumi, a Japanese tourist – phones her cousin in Tokyo. Roku and his wife Yuko resolve to come to London to retrieve the hair and restore Megumi’s honour. The twist is that Roku is obsessed with (fictional) comic book character Brett Plastic, a James Bond-esque figure with the superpower of extreme niceness. Roku plans to resolve the situation in a manner of which his hero would approve, and sets about being eminently reasonable in a way that exacerbates proceedings through a series of misunderstandings.
And why is this my favourite book of the year? Put simply, because it’s full of affection and joy. Despite the subject matter, it’s constantly amusing and utterly, utterly warm-hearted. The prose is clipped and precise (and this is a very short book), yet it packs in a surprising amount of plot amidst the wonderful set-pieces (a food fight in a kitchen; the farcical pursuit of a woman shopping; fireworks). The characters come alive to the exact extent they need to, and most are endearingly drawn. Even better, the main story is interrupted with almost scholarly discussions of the Brett Plastic comics (which become increasingly dark as they go, as the effort of being nice begins to wear on the fictional crime fighter), culminating in a final passage that provides a priceless wink to the audience. It’s a wink that says: we’ve all just been having a lot of fun here, haven’t we? And the answer is: yes. Yes, we really have.
And that cover? Well, if it’s really putting you off, you can always go here instead. Like Plastic is in development as a graphic novel, and some much better artwork is there. I for one can’t wait.
(Honourable mentions? Go on, then. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes; The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest; First Novel, by Nicholas Royle; After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman; The Year of the Ladybird, by Graham Joyce. On a different day, any one of them could have graced my top 5. But today is not that day.)