Thursday, 2 January 2014

Top Ten Books of 2013

And here is the long-awaited list!  I actually found it a struggle to put together this year, in that I've only read three or four books which I think outstandingly brilliant.  Number 1 is one of my favourite books ever, but I don't think 2013 was a particularly stellar year.  Still, all ten remain great (if not all-time-great) and my usual rules apply - no repeated authors, no re-reads.

10. Of Love and Hunger (1947) by Julian Maclaren-Ross
Not a book I'd heard of before Dee gave me a copy, but any fan of Patrick Hamilton or George Orwell will find much to admire in this account of a poor vacuum-cleaner salesman.  Somehow the prose is both sparse and beautiful.

9. The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene
#GreeneForGran, in memory of Simon Savidge's much-loved bookish gran, led to a lot of bloggers furthering their acquaintance with Graham Greene - I read what must be his masterpiece, this beautiful, melancholic paean to a flawed and painful love affair.

8. Dumb Witness (1937) by Agatha Christie
I read a lot of Agatha Christie this year in quick succession, during a period of reader's block, and chose this one as a representative volume because it had my adored Captain Hastings.  My appreciation for her plotting was always high; this year I learnt to admire her writing more than I would have imagined.

7. Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
Not as brilliant as Gilead, to my mind, but further proof to me that Marilynne Robinson is the greatest living writer whom I have read.

6. Symposium (1990) by Muriel Spark
I read quite a few Spark novels this year (I was teaching her to an undergraduate) but blogged about relatively few.  This was the best - I described it as containing a pantheon of Sparkisms, and I stand by that!

5. Phantoms on the Bookshelves (2008) by Jacques Bonnet
One of the loveliest books-about-books I have ever read, and one which will entertain (and justify) any spendthrift bibliophile.

4. Hallucinations (2012) by Oliver Sacks
Sacks is endlessly fascinating and brilliant, and this book about hallucinatory sights, sounds, and smells is told with exceptional skill, as well as being (I'm sure) scientifically significant.

3. Skylark (1924) by Dezső Kosztolányi
I'm very grateful to Claire of The Captive Reader for recommending this (and my parents for buying it) - it appeared on her top books of 2011, and now here it is on mine!  A sensitively told and moving novel.

2. Stet (2000) by Diana Athill
The life of an expert literary agent can't help but be interesting, and Athill writes unself-consciously, wisely, and very (seeming) great fairness about some quite difficult people.



1. London War Notes 1939-1945 (1972) by Mollie Panter-Downes
And this is the best book I read in 2013!  I was so lucky to track down an affordable copy, after borrowing from the library, and I know that it isn't available easily - but I can think of no more accomplished, humane, and plain useful record of the wartime home front from a contemporary's viewpoint.  It changed the way I think about the day-by-day events of the second world war, and (like Guard Your Daughters at the top of 2012's list) I think it is scandalous that it's out of print.  Well, Guard Your Daughters is coming back into print in 2014, so fingers crossed for London War Notes following suit...

34 comments:

  1. I enjoyed Stet a while ago, but I have to say that 2013 was a good reading year for me. However, the first part, when I had some personal challenges, wasn't so great, and I suspect that the thesis took away from your reading somewhat that year!

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    1. I think you could be right - headaches and thesis were not a good reading combination!

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  2. I keep checking ABE, hoping for a bargain on London War Notes - but no luck so far, so I envy yours. I haven't read anything else on your list (unless it was the Christie under another name), but I'd made a note of the Bonnet. As a spendthrift bibliophile (I love the phrase), I need all the justification I can find!

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    1. I have a 'want' alert set for abe, so was able to nab the £10 one minutes after it arrived... it's worth setting up one of those to make sure. And you'll love the Bonnet!

      The Christie was published as... something else... can't remember what...

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    2. Eleanor Elliott3 January 2014 00:09

      In the US I believe it was Poirot Loses a Client.

      I liked your comment about Christie's writing versus her plotting. My personal favourite of her murder mysteries purely for her writing is The Hollow - I think the characterisation in that book is so interesting. No Hastings though, unfortunately!

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    3. That's it, thanks Eleanor! I actually like both titles.
      I haven't read The Hollow, but will certainly put it on my list for my next Christie binge...

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  3. I really must read Stet - I keep hearing how good it is - I've read other memoirs of Diana Athill which I enjoyed.

    Good news that Guard your Daughters is coming into print again - this must surely entirely due to your good self - who is to publish it?

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    1. It's so much better than Someone Towards The End, in my opinion...

      Hesperus are going to publish Guard Your Daughters! They've been cagey about how they found out about it, but I do rather suspect my review might have had something to do with it...

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  4. I always so look forward to your Top Ten list, Simon! I'm happy to see a couple of my favourites here and several others which I am looking forward to one day reading for myself. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed (and possibly my toes, too) that someone does republished London War Notes; I can't think of any out of print book that is more deserving of renewed attention.

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    1. And you won't be surprised to know that your Top Ten is always the highlight of the top tens for me, Claire :) Such reading serendipity as ours is rare - and I have to thank you, of course, for Skylark being on my list.

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  5. I'm going to have to keep my eye out for Stet as I have seen it on a few lists now. I actually picked up the Bonnet book at the library before Christmas after seeing your review, but with the holidays I haven't gotten to it yet. Need to sit down with it before I return the stack. Thanks to you, one of my daughters has discovered Oliver Sacks. Happy Reading to you.

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    1. How lovely to hear that Sacks has become popular in your household, that's really lovely! And, Susan, I doubt not for a moment that you'll love the Bonnet - do let me know!

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  6. Darn, the library does not have a copy of London War Notes. But I think I'll have to go ahead and order Phantoms On The Bookshelves from Barnes & Noble. I'm one of those book lovers who can seldom part with a book - whether I liked it or not. I need some justification. Good list. Oh, and I read Dumb Witness this year and really liked it as well. One of Christie's best.

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    1. I lucked out with Oxford library having it, and then finding an affordable copy (after a few months) - I do so hope somebody reprints it. Do let me know what you think of Phantoms!

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  7. I love this list. So many great recommendations. I have Phantoms on the Bookshelves on my list now, entirely thanks to your recent review, and you've got me very curious about London War Notes. Will have to search it out somehow...

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    1. Thanks Melwyk! It was only just now that I realised it represents the 1920s, '30s, 40s, 50s, 70s, 80s, 90, 2000s, and 2010s - unintentionally diverse! The very best of luck tracking down London War Notes.

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  8. A lovely list, Simon, and I have Of Love and Hunger to look forward to! I *do* hope someone pickes up the Mollie Panter-Downes as it sounds excellent.

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    1. I so hope someone will! Persephone really should, since they have rediscovered Mollie P-D so wonderfully. I look forward to your thoughts on Of Love and Hunger - and thank you for the Spark!

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  9. I've been wanting to read Stet since you first reviewed it and, miraculously, my library owns it. It will definitely be a 2014 read for me. Enjoy your reading this year!

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    1. Lovely news, Anbolyn! I look forward to seeing your thoughts.

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  10. Great list.

    While I like The End of the Affair and loved Skylark, I couldn't stand Housekeeping. It came highly recommended though, so it must be me, not the book.

    Happy reading for 2014.

    Emma

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    1. How nice to find someone else who has read Skylark! Have you read other Robinson novels? I was pressing Gilead on everyone a while ago, but I know some people didn't take to it.

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  11. Very enjoyable list of books. I've ordered Phantoms on the Bookshelves and have noted your other selections. Thanks and happy reading!

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    1. Thanks Ricky! I do hope you enjoy Phantoms - I'm sure you will.

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  12. I love "London War Notes". I started looking for it after I read Mollie Panter-Downes' short stories from Persephone. Fortunately, I was able to borrow it from the university library in town and spent several weeks with it before returning it. I would love a copy if it came back in print.

    I read "The End of the Affair" this year, too. Excellent! I need to find a copy of "Phantoms on the Bookshelves" and finally get to "Gilead" this year.

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    1. It's so wonderful - I really think Persephone would do well with it. To my mind, it's worlds better than Few Eggs and No Oranges (which they have done), and there are plenty of MPD fans who would love to read a copy.

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    2. I agree. I liked Few Eggs and No Oranges but I loved London War Notes. Does Persephone take recommendations? If so, perhaps a bunch of us should lobby for it.

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  13. I had an Agatha Christie binge too, late in the year, when too knackered to think of reading anything new - but I missed Dumb Witness. Not that I need any more encouragement to wallow in her wonderful cosiness! I also have London War Notes out from my uni library, and am filled with anticipation.

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    1. Oo, well done for getting hold of it, Vicki! And I enjoyed the Christie section of your review of 2013. :)

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    1. I hadn't realised quite how eclectic it was til re-reading, but it is certainly a nice spread of genre, date, nationality, and gender!

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  15. Congratulations on what seems to be a wonderful reading year. Skylark was the very first NYRB Classics book I ever read, and it will always have a place in my heart. And I've now added Phantoms on the Bookshelves to my to-acquire list. (Hey, if you say it justifies bookish expenses, it all evens out, haha.) Happy New Year, Simon, and thanks so much for making my 2013 blogging life all the nicer.

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    1. Aw, thanks Sasha! And yes, buying Phantoms will feel basically like saving money.... ahem.
      All things considered, it wasn't a bad reading year at all.

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  16. I have London War Notes on my TBR list already, but I think I discovered it at another blog. Thanks for reinforcing my determination to find a copy.

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