CategoryThompson Sam

My favourite books of 2013

I love end-of-year list time, because it’s a chance to reflect on the best moments. I read over 150 books this year, which I’m sure must be a record for me, and is certainly unusually high. There were plenty of highlights amongst all those books, but I have managed to sift them down to twelve, my usual number for these lists.

You can see my previous best-of-year lists here: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009. I’ve kept changing the format over the years (ranked or unranked; books from all years, or just the year in question); I’ve settled on including books from all years of publication (as long as I read them for the first time this year); but I think it’s more fun to rank them, so I’m also going to do that. And, taking a leaf from Scott Pack’s book, I’m going to list them in reverse order.

So, here (with links to my reviews) are my Top 12 Books of 2013:

70 acrylic

12. Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2011)
Translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds (2012)

Of all the books I read in 2013, this may be the one that most thoroughly depicts the real world as a strange and treacherous landscape. This is a novel about the power of language to shape perception, as it depicts a young woman gradually discovering a new way to look at life (and, just possibly, finding love) when she meets a boy who teaches her Chinese.

11. Andrew Kaufman, Born Weird (2013)

This is the third Andrew Kaufman book that I’ve read, and he just gets better and better. Born Weird tells of five siblings who were given ‘blessings’ at birth by their grandmother, which she now plans to undo on her death-bed. Kaufman has a wonderfully light touch with the fantastic: there’s just enough whimsy to illuminate the family story, and there’s real bite when the novel gets serious.

10. Project Itoh, Harmony (2008)
Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith (2010)

A searching exploration of self-determination and authoritarianism in a future where remaining healthy is seen as the ultimate public good. One of the most intellectually engaging books I read all year.

9. Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (2012)

Chalk this one up as the book I liked that I wasn’t expecting to. A short but powerful character study of a mother becoming distanced from her son as he is swept away by social change and the great tide of story. This would have been my second choice for the Man Booker Prize. (My first choice? That’s further down/up the list.)

twelve tribes8. Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012)

A wonderfully fluid composite portrait of an African-American family making their way in the North across the twentieth century. Just recalling the range and vividness of this novel makes me want to read the book again.

7. Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)

Ten story-chapters that make the same fictional city seem like ten different places. Communion Town depicts the city as an environment crammed with stories, each vying for the chance to be told. It’s invigorating stuff to read.

6. Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

With one of the strongest voices I’ve encountered all year, this is a nuanced account of a man’s pragmatic rise from childhood poverty to business success – with a keen sense that there are costs to be borne along the way. The second-person narration, which could so easily have been a gimmick, works beautifully.

all the birds

5. Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (2013)

It has been really exciting over the last five years to see fine writers of my age-group emerge and establish names for themselves. Evie Wyld is one such writer; her debut was on my list of favourite books in 2009, and now here’s her second novel. Wyld remains a superb writer of place, in her depiction both of the English island where sheep farmer Jake Whyte now lives, and of the Australia that Jake fled. I also love how elegantly balanced this novel is, between the volatile past and the present stability that’s now under threat.

4. Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2011)

Here’s the most memorable character of the year for me: the gloriously ghastly Rosa, who will do anything for her family if it suits her, and will do anything to them if it suits her better. This book is a joy – blackly hilarious, with a bittersweet sting.

3. Shaun Usher (ed.), Letters of Note (2013)

My non-fiction pick of the year. This is a lavish collection of facsimile letters, which is both beautiful to look at, and a window on very personal aspects of history.

2. Jess Richards, Cooking with Bones (2013)

Jess Richards’ work was my discovery of the year: Cooking with Bones is a magical novel that defies easy summary; but it includes a girl who doesn’t know who she wants to be, when all she can do is reflect back the desires of others; supernatural recipes; and one of the most richly textured fictional worlds I’ve come across in a long time. More fool me for not reading Richards’ debut, Snake Ropes, last year; but at least I have the wonderful promise of that book to come.

luminaries1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

Once in a while, a book will come along that changes you as a reader, affects you so deeply that the experience becomes part of who you are. Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal was like that for me, which is why it topped my list of books read in 2009. With The Luminaries, it has all happened again. Several months after reading it, I am in awe at the novel’s range and richness; yet I feel that I’ve still glimpsed only a fraction of what Catton has achieved in the book. I was overjoyed at her Man Booker win, and can only hope that it will bring Catton’s work to the attention of as many people as possible. My wish for all readers is that they find books which mean as much to them as a work like The Luminaries means to me.

Now, what about you? What are your favourite books of the year? Also, if you’ve read any on my list, let me know what you thought.

Comparing Book Covers: UK vs US

I’m always fascinated by the differences in book covers between countries. The Millions runs an annual feature comparing US and UK cover art, and a similar post appeared on Flavorwire a few days ago. I’ve decided to do a cover post of my own, with some of the books I’ve featured on this blog.

(UK covers are on the left, US covers on the right; title links go to my reviews of the books, for context.)

Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

 dbuk  dbus

The UK cover indicates folklore and the sea; it’s nice enough, but feels perhaps a little too obvious. The US cover, I think, captures the deeper heart of the book – that mixture of domesticity and sinister magic; I especially love the way that the stairs shade into abstract geometry. Winner: US

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

 bauk  baus

Two broadly similar treatments here, with the red parasol as focus. I think the closed parasol in the case evokes the novel’s themes better. Winner: UK

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry – B.S. Johnson

 cmuk  cmus

The covers of the most recent editions. There’s a simple elegance to both, but for me the disintegrating ledger is a little too literal, especially compared with the boldness of the UK cover. Winner: UK

The Longshot – Katie Kitamura

 lsuk  lsus

I like the composition of both these covers, but the image of the fighter and his trainer walking away makes it look as though their job is done. The clenched fists of the US cover evoke the tension and violence which are at the novel’s core. Winner: US

The Still Point – Amy Sackville

 spuk  spus

Oh, there’s no contest here: the paper cut-out look of the UK cover is gorgeous; the US cover doesn’t come close for me. Winner: UK

Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord

 riuk  rius

The composition of the US cover is elegant, but I think the UK cover better evokes the tone of the book (tricksy-but-serious) . Winner: UK

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu

 hluk  hlus

Hmm. Yu’s novel plays with the conventions of both sf and mainstream ‘literary fiction’, which is captured nicely by the UK cover, with its ordered arrangement of laser guns. But it’s also a playful novel, and that spirit is evoked by the US cover, made to look like an old manual, complete with ‘creased’ cover obscuring the publicity quotes. I can’t choose one over the other. Winner: it’s a draw.

Communion Town – Sam Thompson

 ctuk  ctus

I’m not sure either of these covers really captures the essence of Thompson’s book, but the UK one wins out for me as being more intriguing and distinctive., turning a map into abstract art. (Incidentally, this is the cover of the UK hardback; the paperback cover, like the US one, goes down the less-interesting ‘murky skyscraper’ route.) Winner: UK

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Robin Black

 iluk  ilus

Well, I don’t think the UK cover is very interesting at all. The US cover is not great, but the paint effect is a nice touch, and the title is used well within the composition. Winner: US

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

 sbuk  sbus

Wow. What a difference in treatment. I love nigh on everything about the UK cover (it looks even better on the physical object). The US cover is too specific to suit the novel’s air of ambiguity, and just isn’t as well conceived as the more stylised version. Winner: UK

“Nowhere is exactly as you think it’s going to be”

Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)

Communion Town has a quote from China Miéville on the front. That’s handy, because it is just the sort of book I could imagine having a quote from China Miéville on the front – which is to say that it’s a speculative novel  (collection?) which is intensely about the city and the experience of urban life. In some ways, it is a conceptual opposite of Hawthorn & Child: where Keith Ridgway’s novel is all about thwarting and denying story, Sam Thompson’s debut is built on the premise that everyone has their own story – and, in a city, they all jostle up against one another.

So, we have ten stories/chapters, all set in the same fictional city (unnamed – Communion Town itself is one particular district, but the name also signals the idea of disparate people coming together in a single place). It’s a non-specific city, but feels less like a bit of everywhere thrown together than like a version of London whose reality has been stretched and twisted: there’s a metro rather than a Tube, and olive groves in the surrounding countryside, but the whole patchwork atmosphere of the place is very reminiscent of London. Thompson has a knack for coming up with evocative place names – Sludd’s Liberty, Cento Hill, Rosamunda – that further enhance the sense of untold stories taking place out of sight.

But what of the stories within sight? The first, entitled ‘Communion Town’, has echoes of Miéville in its tale of two asylum seekers interrogated by an unknown agency, a terrorist plot by a group called the Cynics, and talk of ‘monsters’ beneath the city streets. This is the first of many perceptual ambiguities in the book, and I have to say it’s one of the most harrowingly effective that I’ve come across in some time. Depending on what you interpret the ‘monsters’ to be, the implications of the ending range from uncomfortable to downright shocking.

Then we move to the second chapter, ‘The Song of Serelight Fair’, and suddenly we’re in a different world – or, rather, the same world, but filtered through the perspective of such different characters that it might as well be different. This is more of a love story, in which a student moves into the circles of a girl from a more privileged background, and soon finds himself out of his depth.  But, again, there’s that added fantastic dimension, this time waiters who appear and behave like automata, right down to having music emanating from their chests. Are they mechanical? People forced to wear costumes? Or – perhaps most chillingly – is this the way that the privileged set perceive those lower in the social order?

So the book continues, with each chapter providing a different window on this city, making the place anew in the process. ‘The Significant City of Lazarus Glass’ is a distilled golden-age detection, in which the city becomes a web of riddles and outlandish crimes – that’s if it isn’t just a giant memory palace. ‘The Rose Tree’ is a tall tale told down a café, which paints the city as a place of dark corners, where strange transformations await the unwary. ‘The City Room’ tells of a bright (though possibly haunted) childhood world, where the city of Thompson’s book may or may not be a boy’s home-made model.

Like, I suspect, many people, I first heard of Communion Town when it was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize. I hope that won’t be the last we hear of this fabulous kaleidoscope of a book – that its full story has yet to be told.

See also

  • Nina Allan’s review of Communion Town for Strange Horizons
  • Aishwarya Subramanian’s review at Practically Marzipan
  • Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review for WeirdFictionReview.com

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