2013 was a very mixed year of reading for me, and it’s my own damned fault. Because it’s the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, I promised myself that I would try and read a novel and a novella based on each incarnation of the Time Lord every month. I made it, but there was pain. The BBC released an original novella each month, which I duly downloaded, and they were mostly ‘all right’. They also re-released some original novels, one per incarnation, and they ranged from dreadful to mediocre. Off the top of my head, there’s not a novel among them that would please anybody who isn’t a fan of the show anyway, and for the most part they barely function as novels at all. They turned 2013 into a weird endurance marathon.
I’ve read 67 books so far this year, and there will be a couple more before the bells chime. I’ll post the full list nearer then, but to save you scrolling through for the good stuff here are the five books that I most enjoyed. I recommend every one of them wholeheartedly – they’re all amazing reads – and would love to know what you think if you give them a try.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman – In which Neil Gaiman takes half-memories and locations from his youth, and weaves them into a dream-like fable about memory and childhood. The power of this novel is that somehow I was reading about my own childhood too, in detail, even though none of these things or anything like them ever happened to me. The prose is simple and poetic, the unnamed narrator’s life one that swallowed me completely, and the intimate threats that begin with the suicide of a lodger and end with a life spent regrowing a heart are intensely affecting. As others have pointed out, the dreamlike fantasies that weave through the story share much in tone with Gaiman’s young adult work such as Coraline or The Graveyard Book, but there are some horrifying and traumatic moments of far more realistic threat there too, made all the more powerful for the dark fairy tale that surrounds them. What really makes this a book ‘for adults’ though is the reflection on memory and nostalgia brought to the tale by its framing narrative of a man revisiting his boyhood home in adulthood. This is a beautiful, sophisticated novel, that will live in you far longer than you live in it.
Joyland, Stephen King – There’s a little bit of ghost story in Joyland, and a little bit of murder mystery. However, it is between these two tent poles that most of King’s beautiful little tale about growing up and looking back, about learning how to fall in and out of love with life, really plays. Those who keep coming back to the author’s books may find some of this over-familiar, but the tale is told with such easy heart that in its own right there is almost nothing here to fault. King may have explored this theme a few times already, but that’s done nothing but improve his expertise in finding the things that resonate the strongest. Here is one of his most powerful recurring motifs, beautifully distilled to the bits that make it work. It thrilled me here and there, left me grinning with joy through one extended sequence of hope, and then made me shed a tear by the final page. Lovely.
The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Kay Penman – A vast tome with a staggering cast of characters? Family dynasties at war? Politics, sex, battles, and a decades long conflict for the right to sit the throne? Nope, this isn’t Game of Thrones, but it reads an awful lot like it. This isn’t surprising really – Martin’s fantasy epic is heavily inspired by the historical War of the Roses, and this novel covers those events.
And it’s brilliantly engrossing. The novel covers the final thirty years of the war, effectively following Richard III from childhood to death (I think, in this instance, that spoiler is permitted – Richard Dies At The End). It’s well researched, although the details of Richard’s final year remain controversial, and incredibly immersive. What’s lovely is the way it sprawls while never losing sight of the lives that populate it. The characterisation is enthralling, and is the driver of the book. Penman sells these characters beautifully, particularly the central conflicts between the brothers Edward, Richard, and George. The novel sparks so well between these three that it inevitably flattens as destiny catches them up and removes them one by one, but by then there’s only the one sad step towards doom and the novel’s closure. A brilliant read, and one of those books to lose yourself in for weeks.
Eat and Run, Scott Jurek – A remarkably humble account from Scott Jurek of his life and achievements. It’s not falsely modest – Jurek has been a legend in ultramarathoning for a long time, for very good reason – but nor is it driven by a need to sell his achievements to the wider world. What interested me most through Jurek’s story is his increasing need to pursue something that is only offered to him at those points where mind and body are at their weakest, a sort of peace and transcendence found in extremity. By the end of the book this moment remains a nebulous thing, hard for the author to describe but no less alluring. Perhaps it’s something so defined by the moments in which it is fleetingly experienced that it remains hard to express to others. Regardless, this is an inspiring and surprisingly relatable tale. It’s guaranteed to appeal to those who were caught up in Born To Run, and if you enjoy distance running at all you’ll get all the more out of it for seeing what you love taken to its ultimate extreme.
Whitstable, Stephen Volk – It’s often said that good horror is allegorical, taking real world terrors and recasting them in fantasies that can be safely explored and processed. In this utterly compelling novella, Stephen Volk inverts the idiom at the same time as he illuminates it.
The story stars Peter Cushing, the quiet man of horror and an icon who exuded decency on screen and in real life. It is shortly after the death of his wife Helen, and Cushing is a shattered shadow of himself, hiding away in his home in the seaside town of Whitstable. While out walking, trying to escape the world, he is approached by a young boy who is certain he has found fictional vampire hunter Van Helsing. There is a monster he wishes this hero to tackle. One that comes into his room at night, to suck the life out of him. We’re not in the colourful world of Hammer Horror movies though, and this monster is all too troubling and real. Cushing isn’t Van Helsing either – he’s a tired old man, but one who even in his desolation has too much humanity not to intervene. Thus begins a tense battle of wits between the painfully Cushing and a predator. It’s a subtle dance, in some ways a grubby, tiny one, but Volk does an extraordinary job of playing it off against the ghost of the characters Cushing has inhabited.
The portrait of the actor is a loving one, and the telling of this tale is deft and extraordinary. While it plays on a tiny stage, it ultimately feels every bit as epic as Cushing’s screen roles. It sets the best and worst of humanity at odds and lets them battle, not in vast allegory but in painstaking reality. It’s oppressive and terrifying in places, and entirely celebratory in others. Published to mark what would have been the actor’s hundredth birthday, the book weaves fantasy and reality together in a way that manages to celebrate both the man and his work in the body of what would be an extraordinary story even without Cushing as a central character.
This is the best of horror fiction, and if you go away and hunt out only one book from this list you should make it Whitstable.
Bubbling Under – Chiral Mad, Horns, Cabal, Of The City Of The Saved
There you have it. The very best of what I read in 2013, according to me. If you’re curious about the books that have pleased me most for the last six years, you’re also welcome to check out 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Currently reading (novel): Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
Currently reading (novel): Jonny Alucard by Kim Newman
Currently reading (short stories): The Weird, edited by Jeff Vandermeer.