Friday, 17 January 2014

Top 5 Books I Read in 2013

I didn't read as much last year, I got bogged down in a couple of books and was easily distracted (largely by Twitter if I'm honest). But, I did read some great books including a decent portion of the 2013 Booker Prize short list. Next year the Booker is opening up it's nominations to a global market. That feels a bit wrong to me but I'll still look forward to seeing what novels get selected. Whatever the merits of the prize it has introduced me to some excellent authors I doubt I'd have otherwise read though it has also forced me to read a couple of novels I've really struggled with (Will Self's Umbrella last year and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being this year). I intend to get through my movie backlog this year, so book numbers may well be down again, but if I only finish one book it's going to be Moby Dick which I've been dragging around with me on buses & trains all year without making any real progress.

1. "Empire Of The Sun" J.G. Ballard - J.G. is rapidly rising in my list of favourite authors and this might well be his masterpiece. It actually took me quite a long time to finish, but that was more down to timing than because I found it difficult to read. It's a vivid fictionalisation of Ballard's time in Shanghai before, during and at the end of the second world war and, typically of Ballard, brings a very different perspective to the impact of war.

2. "The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry" Rachel Joyce - This was one of the later books I read from the 2012 Booker short list (a very fine Booker year based on the books I read) and is a genuinely heart warming tale of a man who steps out to post a letter and keeps on walking. Harold becomes something of a cult hero as people gradually become aware of his "pilgrimage". Rachel Joyce tells the tale beautifully, mixing humour with poignancy without ever sounding trite. I think I read all of the 2012 short list, bar Hilary Mantell's winning entry (something of a recurring event since I began reading Booker short lists), and this would have been my choice for a winner.

3. "Harvest" Jim Crace - My favourite of the 2013 Booker nominated novels I managed to finish (you won't be surprised to hear that I failed to read 800+ page winner The Luminaries). I've spoken to a few people who found this tough going which surprised me as I read this one fairly quickly. On the surface this is a story about an idyllic English village that falls apart due to the demand for economic progress and impact of the 18th & 19th Century Enclosures Act. However, for me, the real heart of the book is about how we react to outsiders and change.

4. "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!" Richard Feynman - 2013 was the 25th anniversary of Richard Feynman's death. I'd borrowed this book from my brother-in-law the previous Christmas but the BBC film about his work on the Challenger Shuttle inquiry spurred me into reading it. And I'm very glad I did, Feynman's character oozes out of every page without ever sounding arrogant or boastful. Ostensibly a series of anecdotes about Feynman's life & work it's an easy book to dip in and out of as time allows though I found I just wanted to keep on reading it. He was obviously academically clever but also seems to have had a very sociable personality as well as a penchant for practical jokes.

5. "TransAtlantic" Colum McCann - I attempted to get a head start with the 2013 Booker Prize so began reading the long list pretty much as soon as it was announced (a big thumbs up to the Library for being able to get these books fairly easily and saving me a fortune). I worked on the basis that if I read the shortest ones first I'd have more under my belt by the time the short list was announce. That worked fairly well though I've still got a a couple of the short list to read. TransAtlantic was one of those I read early and disappointingly didn't make the short list. A little like Harvest, this is another novel with a historical setting, telling the story of three transatlantic crossings in different eras. Of course there are small threads that tie these stories together before a finale that reminds us however hard life may be there is also wonder and hope.


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