Best reads of 2013

JANUARY

Around this time last year I was bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t read my first read of 2013 – Every Day by David Levithan – just one book earlier so that I could have waxed lyrical about it as my favourite read of December 2012. How time flies! Every Day follows the character ‘A’ who has – for his/her entire life – woken up in a different person’s body every day and has to live their life. A deep and profound book that is also ridiculously readable, it really makes you think about questions such as what defines who you are, is gender as important as society thinks it is, what happens if the world sees you not as you truly are, etc etc. Almost an entire year and I still have a book hangover from this read. I met David Levithan in the summer and just fangirled all over him. Having said that, I fear I’ve set the bar too high and still can’t bring myself to pick up any of his other works, which is a shame.

Also from January, I picked up Across the Universe by Beth Revis after humming and hawing about it for a couple of months; I decided I could no longer resist the tagline: A love out of time. A spaceship built of secrets and murder… Amy joins her important scientist/politician parents as frozen cargo on the spaceship Godspeed and expects to be woken three hundred years later when the ship arrives on the new planet that her parents are there to help colonise. However, somebody tries to murder Amy in her ‘sleep’ and the result is that she wakes up early – and is thrust into the strange social culture of the inbred descendants of the original crew of the Godspeed. A sci-fi murder mystery with lashings of red herrings and twists and turns – you never know who you can trust or what exactly is going on! – with a light-touch romance between Amy and Elder (who is in training to be the ‘king figure’ of the Godspeed) bubbling along underneath.

Finally, finishing off my surprisingly good month of reading, I picked up Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson on a whim, without even reading a single review. As might be obvious, this is a reworking of the ‘Peter Pan’ universe, although despite the title it is narrated by Tinkerbell, (not Tiger Lily) who works wonderfully as a omniscient narrator as she simply flies around Neverland spying on everyone and getting involved in everything (also, usefully, as a fairy she can of course read minds!). Although Neverland is just as enchanting as ever, in this incarnation it is also darker and with a more contemporary feel. Any Pan fans who are worried that this book will prove a sacrilege shouldn’t fear – it is a wonderful addition to the world.

FEBRUARY

Probably winning the award for book to most take me by surprise in 2013, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, which I snapped up with no preconceptions when I saw that the author Tamora Pierce (worship, worship!!) had blurbed it as “unique and breathtaking”. Liyana is very important to her desert tribe. She has been raised to be the vessel of their goddess Bayla who will come down and ‘kill’ Liyana by taking control of her body so that she can perform godly magic to save her tribe from dying during the Great Drought. But Bayla never comes and Liyana is shamed and abandoned by her tribe, left to die in the sand-storms. But then Liyana is sought out by Korbyn, the trickster god, who has already taken possession of his vessel. Korbyn tells Liyana that five of the gods – including Bayla – are mysteriously missing, and so the pair set off across the vast desert in order to find the other four ’empty’ vessels and do what they can to locate the missing deities before five tribes perish. To this day I am so surprised and disappointed about how rubbish the marketing was for this book; it’s amazing, and it has all the ingredients to be a massive bestseller and to be made into a huge film.

The first sequel to make my list, Scarlet (Book 2 of the Lunar Chronicles) by Marissa Meyer (who is very lovely, and signed two books for me and got Waterstones to post them to me when it transpired I couldn’t make her signing event earlier in the year). Where the first in the series was an imaginative Sailor Moon/cyborg retelling of CinderellaScarlet is Little Red Riding Hood. Scarlet’s grandmother is missing, and Scarlet must combine forces with Wolf, a street-fighter who she is loathed to trust, but who has information that might help her to find her grandmother… Interspersed with the continuation of Cinder’s story from Book 1 and packed with all the same dystopian political drama, creativity and gorgeous prose as the first instalment, I can’t wait to get my greedy hands on Cress come February!

MARCH

It’s very rare that I read an entire series in one go. I like to eke it out, read other things and other genres inbetween. In March I picked up Wither – the first instalment in The Chemical Garden trilogy – by Lauren DeStefano, and by the end of the month I’d read all three books. Set in a world where a genetic virus means that men only live until they are 25, women to 20, polygamous marriages purely for breeding purposes are often forced upon pubescent girls. It is for this purpose that our beautiful protagonist, Rhine, is taken and married off to Linden, a privileged and aristocratic man. Despite the new wealth and power her marriage offers her, the genuine affection of her husband and the decent relationship she has with her sister-wives Cecily and Jenna, Rhine cannot just wait out her remaining four years. If she dies in this captivity her twin brother will never know what happened to her. So, along with Gabriel, one of Linden’s more sympathetic servants, Rhine plans her escape… Although many have commented that the world-building is lacking in the first instalment, I found the story itself gripping enough that I wasn’t too bothered, and besides, this is made up for in the following two books. Bleak and chilling but delivered in a light, lyrical prose, I couldn’t help turning the pages until I got to the end of Sever. 

Possibly the cutest book I read in 2013, in March I was sent an ARC paperback of Holly Smale’s debut novel Geek Girl. Intrigued by the random (and interesting!) trivia on the cover I picked it up to flip through when I wanted a quick and light read. A quick and light read it was, but to leave it at that would be  doing the book a great disservice! A charming, funny tale about 15 year old Harriet Manners, who is the eponymous ‘Geek Girl’, generally reviled at school for being lame and far too into trivia. Harriet gets spotted by a top model agent (despite the fact that that’s her best friend’s dream) and suddenly she finds herself thrust into a spotlight she does not know how to handle. Geek Girl and its sequel Model Misfit were two of the most delightful reads of my 2013. You’ll have a smile on your face throughout.

APRIL

The first historical fiction to appear on my list, in April I received the frankly brilliant The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen through NetGalley. An alternative history where my beloved Anne Boleyn successfully delivers a son and DOESN’T get her head lopped off?? Count me in! I fully expected to enjoy the read, but what I didn’t expect was the sheer level of detail this alternative history would go into. After reading it and its sequel The Boleyn Deceit this year, I’ve had moments where I’ve started to forget that the reign of William, aka Henry IX never actually happened. All the great ‘characters’ of history are present, but their lives are changed due to the context of Henry IX. Elizabeth is here, no bastard but a highly influential and sought after Protestant Princess. Catholics still plot around the ageing ‘Lady Mary’, even more embittered than her real life counterpart. Framed by the fictional characters of Dominic and Minuette – lifetime friends of William and Elizabeth – the books are part romance, part mystery and completely enthralling. Bring on the final instalment in the trilogy, The Boleyn Reckoningin summer 2014.

I find it quite hard to define my next choice, Undone by Cat Clarke. Our protagonist, Jem, is suffering from unrequited love for her best friend/neighbour. Unfortunately, Kai is gay, so her chances with him are remote to say the least. But then, Kai is ‘outed’ online in a most horrific way, and in response, takes his own life. Jem, undone by grief, wants to know who was responsible for the anonymous ‘outing’ – and she will do absolutely anything to take her revenge, even orchestrating a ‘Mean Girls’ type infiltration of the ‘popular group’ so she can take them down one-by-one. Her revenge mission is punctuated by heartbreaking posthumous letters from Kai – he left her a packet of letters, one to open every month for the year after his death. Although the ‘whodunnit’ is quite obvious (to my mind) the book (and especially the ending) definitely packed a punch and kept me thinking about it long after I’d finished.

Another sucker punch of a book, If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch. Fifteen year old Carey lives in a camper van hidden deep in a national forest. She only knows her little sister Janessa and her mother, who is mentally ill, and appears and disappears ad hoc. Until one day, Carey’s mother disappears forever, and the father she thought was long gone arrives with social services to claim her. Carey and Jenessa must adapt back to ‘normal society’, but Carey isn’t sure if she wants to face the truth about what happened between her mother and father. Also, she needs to keep secret the reason that Jenessa has been mute for the past year, for fear of further complicating their lives. An incredibly moving and complex book.

MAY

Okay, so I know that Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is probably on EVERYONE’S 2013 list, but I couldn’t leave it out. Set over the course of the academic year of 1986 (the year I was born, yay!), the book follows Eleanor and Park (obviously) through the perils of first love. Although obviously I enjoyed the read, be warned: this is a marmite book and the blogger buzz that there’s been for it this year just makes it worse (and that ridiculously censorship debaclé – read more here). Some people are put off by the constant pop culture referencing and name-dropping, but I found it to be part of the ’80s charm’. And I loved the adorable ‘nerdiness’ of Eleanor and Park’s courtship – swapping mixtapes and sharing comics. I’ve since read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (more on that in September!) and can certainly see her becoming one of my instabuy authors.

A slightly random addition to my 2013 Favourites List here but bear with me; Clapham Lights by Tom Canty which, to be blunt, I only bought because I lived in the eponymous Clapham for so long. A comedy set on the brink of the recession, Clapham Lights follows hapless and unwilling estate agent Craig and his inept, corporate fantasist of a flatmate Mark, who is spending money he doesn’t really earn like it’s going out of fashion and forcing Craig to do so too. While I freely admit I may have found this book so funny purely because I knew the locale and the horrors of working as an estate agent (disclaimer: company was an estate agency, not my role!) I did giggle the whole way through this sharp read and it definitely stands out as one of the more unique books I read this year.

Finally, a strong contender for my BOOK OF 2013, The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. Ohmigod; I know people talk a lot about certain books being ‘unputdownable’ but The Fifth Wave really takes that prize for me. I was reading it in the backseat of a car, almost literally vomiting I was so motion sick but unable to stop reading for a moment. In a nutshell, there has been an alien invasion – four waves of one, to be precise, leaving only random survivors and the protagonist, Cassie, alone in the world. It’s a long book, and it is chockful of backstory and world-building and context, but I raced through it, never bogged down, and was horrified when it ended (I have to wait until September 2014 for the sequel, boo). I won’t go into more detail for fear of spoilers, which is a problem I think that the ‘official blurb’ suffers from too, but suffice to say: a highly recommended read.

JUNE

In June there was my short-lived attempt to read all of 2013’s Richard and Judy books (I think I read half of them, in the end). The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker was a creeping surprise. I was about two-thirds through it before I realised just how much I was enjoying the read and that it was definitely going to be in my Top Reads list come the end of the year and went out to buy the paperback so I could start lending to friends! The book follows a global disaster through the very small, domestic scope of one family. The Earth’s rotation has inexplicably begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer; gravity and agriculture becomes affected; the minds and bodies of man and beast begin to go peculiar. Governments make the decision to stick with a 24 hour clock, throwing day and night out of sync and causing a rift in society between those that want to continue living by the Earth’s movements (“real-timers”) and those that abide by the old 24 hour clock and government sanctions (“clock-timers”). And throughout it all the mysterious ‘slowing’ continues and the Earth and all its inhabitants inches towards death. But this isn’t sci-fi, or dystopia, its a coming of age story for the protagonist, 11 year old Julia, set against this apocalyptic backdrop. I could barely put the book down until I finished it, and found myself watching the sunset out of my window a little too closely: is it me, or is that sunset coming a little later than it should…?

My only non-fiction pick of 2013, in June I read Eleanor Herman’s Sex With Kings, an absolutely charming account of five centuries’ worth of royal courtesans and mistresses, from the more famous historical figures like Madame du Pompadour and Nell Gwyn to today’s Camilla Parker-Bowles. Terribly interesting and terribly witty (“Many men were willing to lay down their wives for their king” – snort!), I meant for this to be a ‘dip in, dip out’ book I revisted over a lengthy period of time, but I found myself captivated and practically finished it off in one sitting. Highly recommended, even for the most casual history fan.

My final pick for June is one I have deliberated over including. It is Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road and if you’ve read it, you might have an idea why. Man this book took a long time to get its feet underneath it. I almost ‘did not finish’ed it. But then, by the end, it was a solid four stars for me and I’m already anticipating re-reading it, knowing I will probably get more out of the opening parts on a second run-through. Set in an Australian boarding school, Jellicoe Road follows Taylor, abandoned by her mother as a child, is now a senior and has found herself as ‘leader’ of her dormitory. Her school is in a state of constant ‘warfare’ with both the kids who live in the nearby town and the military cadets that camp nearby every summer, and now Taylor finds herself a ‘general’ in this battle. Taylor’s life is interspersed by ‘flashbacks’ to five friends, at the same school two decades earlier – as well as vague mentions about the time she ‘ran away’, and it is this intricate, multi-layered plotline that at once confused the hell out of me and kept me intrigued. When I finally finished the last page, I just thought ‘wow’; the pay off for struggling through that initially disappointing beginning was huge.

JULY

July was my 2013 Reading Drought; there’s one every year! The only noteworthy read this month was The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller. I can’t remember now what caused me to look past the crap title and equally crap cover, but I’m glad I did. Maddie is a popular ‘Teen Queen’ – cheerleader, jock boyfriend, all that. However she spends a great deal of her time and energy trying to conceal the fact that she is, her term, a nerd. However, this summer, she gets ‘busted’ by Logan, a guy from school who is working behind the till at her local comic book store and recognises her. Suddenly Maddie finds herself in Nerd Heaven (Logan involves her in everything from LARPing and comic book conventions) and finds her polished cheerleading veneer starting to slip. An adorable read, full of lovely fandom power which left me with a huge smile on my face.

AUGUST

The only book to come close to the sheer addictiveness of The Fifth Wave this year was All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill. I was initially drawn to it by the Shakespearean title, but the book was absolutely nothing like what I was thinking. Touted as “The Terminator meets The Time Traveller’s Wife” this book could so easily be confusing, or heavy handed, but instead it is time travel adventure done not just right, but spectacularly. The non-stop rollercoaster of excitement and great cast of characters completely ate up my life and I couldn’t function until I found out what exactly was going on. To try and explain the plot would fry my brain, yet reading it is effortless. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, cried like an idiot at the end and have already decided to re-read in the next few years.

In August I went on holiday with my family, and as a result ended up reading one of my mother’s favourite books (NB: the absolute brick of a paperback was an absolute nightmare on my wrists, especially as they are used to holding a Kindle now!). Lesley Pearse’s Never Look Back was always going to be a safe read. I’ve read several of Pearse’s books in the past and they are always grand and enjoyable. But Never Look Back took me on an 800 page holiday from my holiday, out from the slums of Victorian London to the plains of the Wild West, the darkest edges of New York and the gold rush of San Francisco. It follows the life of Matilda, who rises out of poverty to live the original American Dream.

SEPTEMBER

Rainbow Rowell strikes again! September 2013 was the release of Fangirl, a book I’d been desperate to get my hands on even before I’d read Eleanor & Park. Because it was like it was going to be about me, about a teenager who wrote fanfiction for strangers on the internet! Those were the days. Anyway, Fangirl follows twins Cath and Wren. When they were younger, they were mad for ‘Simon Snow’ (read: Harry Potter) and spent all their spare time just generally fangirling about the series. Wren grew out of it and Cath didn’t, and as a result, the sisters are growing apart. Now they are both off to university, but is Cath’s fanaticism getting in the way of her living her real life? I absolutely loved all of the characters in Fangirl, and thought it was amazing that the chapters are interspersed with snippets of Cath’s actual Simon Snow fanfiction (which is of the Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy slash persuasion and is totally adorbs on its own merit). Highly recommended, even if you’ve never been a fangirl yourself.

My ‘re-read’ pick of the year, in September I picked up Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, as I hadn’t read it for several years and I thought with all the hoohah surrounding Richard III’s grave being discovered that it was a good opportunity to do so. If possible, I think I enjoyed it more than I did as a teenager. The book itself probably needs no introduction, as it is one of the best loved historical fictions ever written, following Richard III from childhood until death at Bosworth; most of the fanatic Richard glorification stems from young women reading this book and flat out falling in love with handsome, honest, un-crookbacked ‘Dickon’. A glorious opus, almost a thousand pages long, The Sunne in Splendour picks deftly through the confusion that is the Wars of the Roses and this year merely reaffirmed itself as one of my lifelong favourites. I’m already looking forward to the next re-read.

OCTOBER

A first for my annual favourites list, I think, the final book of a trilogy. In October I flat-out JUMPED on an ARC of Veronica Rossi’s Into The Still Blue, the final instalment of the Under The Never Sky series – now safely agreed as one of my favourite book series ever. To discuss the plot would of course be to spoil Under The Never Sky and Through The Ever Night so I will just repeat my almost constant recommendation of this series and that Roar remains one of my favourite characters ever, and that Aria and Perry are one of the best couples.

‘On paper’, Leila Sales’ This Song Will Save Your Life is not my sort of thing at all. The blurb promises a story about a girl who, made miserable by school bullies, attempts to take her life and then finds solace in music; a bit drama llama for me. But This Song Will Save Your Life was, to my surprise, much more than that. The strength of the main character, Elsie, has a lot to do with this, as if the narration was any weaker, the book would have fallen rather flat. You get mad at Elise and you get mad for her and you grow to understand why she does the things that she does, and has made the decisions that she has. Even though I’m not a real music person, I found the book a pleasure to read.

In October I attended the Harper Impulse blogger party (even though my book wasn’t out yet, I couldn’t help myself!). Whilst there I was chatting to a lovely lady who worked for Harper Voyager, who was horrified that I – a self-confessed fantasy fan – had never read any Robin Hobb. I had certainly seen them in shops – those rather intimidating shiny, fat paperbacks, and suffered from the problem when – confronted by so many books and series by the same author – you just don’t know where to start. Lovely Harper Voyager lady gave me a paperback of Assassin’s Apprentice and I started reading it that very night. All the staples are here – fantasy, faraway land; mysterious magic; royal bastard – but somehow it all feels fresh. I’m almost giddy knowing that I have all of Robin’s back catalogue stretched out in front of me – a fair few of them set in the same world/series as Assassin’s Apprentice. A definite must for fans of fantasy.

NOVEMBER

In November I turned my attention to reading other books published by the wonderful Harper Impulse and one of the first to find its way onto my Kindle was Jane Lark’s The Illicit Love of a Courtesan. It follows Ellen, who is still trying to get over the abuse she suffered following her widowhood after the Battle of Waterloo. She is a kept woman, enthralled to an odious man for the sake of her young son, a miserable life, but one she can balance until Edward Marlow enters her life. While this is an erotic romance and I usually skim-read those, The Illicit Love of a Courtesan kept me enthralled all the way through – exemplary in its genre.

After being flat out nagged on Twitter about the fact that I had never read any Morgan Matson, I picked up Second Chance Summer. A surprisingly meaty story about a family’s final summer together. Taylor’s father has received the news that he only has three months to live, so he gathers his wife and his three children and takes them back to the lakehouse where they spent all their summers when the children were small. Taylor, in deep denial about her father’s situation, is somewhat inconvenienced by this as the last time they were all at the lakehouse, five years ago, she rather burnt her bridges with her then-best friend and then-boyfriend. Even more inconveniently, they are still around. Her father’s condition worsens and worsens – will there be enough time for everybody to get a second chance? By the end you really care about this awkward, ‘quirky’ family and the bubble that is the beach community around them. Kleenex warning.

DECEMBER

Read on a recommendation because I’m known to have a soft-spot for fairytale retellings, in December I took a break from more festive reads and dipped into Stacey Jay’s Of Beast and Beauty – although, of course, exactly who is the ‘Beauty’ and who is the ‘Beast’ is not as straightforward as the old tale. The story takes place way in the future, on a planet that humans have colonised. The old magic of the planet saw that the original humans would not survive and so mutated them. As a result, half of the humans retreated under glass domes and remained as they were, and those trapped outside the domes changed to become scaled, clawed and over-large. Inside one domed city, Yuan, the blind princess Isra finds herself Queen long before she expected to. All know that she has been raised to be a human sacrifice, a blood offering to the old magic that ensures their city’s vitality. All know it but Gem, the ‘Monstrous’ outsider who was captured during the raid that killed her father. As Isra spends time with this ‘mutated beast’ she begins to question everything she has been taught about the history of their society, the truth of the roses’ magic and the cause of her own secret bodily ‘mutations’ and blindness. Gorgeous and enthralling, with exceptional world-building and near-perfect pacing, I’m going to take up the mantle of recommending it now too.

Mhairi McFarlane’s You Had Me At Hello was one of my favourite reads of 2013, so it’s no surprise that I jumped on her second book Here’s Looking At You the day it came out. What we have here is a seemingly straightforward Ugly Ducking tale. Aureliana was a bit fat and tragic at school, and certain people made her life miserable. While she’s turned some things around in the intervening fifteen years, she still can’t quite believe that she has changed. And when fate crosses her path with James, her high school crush who was an accomplice to the cruellest bullies, she certainly doesn’t believe he has changed. Quick witted and laugh-out-loud funny, just like her first, I’m an unapologetic Mhairi fangirl.

Finally, a festive treat to round off my reading year! Another Harper Impulse corker, Christmas at Thornton Hall by Lynn Marie Hulsman. Juliet is a feisty American chef, reeling from a break-up instead of a proposal, who finds herself spending Christmas catering at the very Downton Abbey-esque Upstairs/Downstairs world of Thornton Hall. It’s a little bit like modern Shakespeare, a comedy of errors indeed, with larger-than-life characters and misunderstandings a-plenty. Decadent and festive, but accessible to read any time of the year, I’d love to see the characters of Thornton Hall in a film, or a sitcom!

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2 thoughts on “Best reads of 2013

  1. I have had You Had Me at Hello on my ipad for ages. Must get stuck in this year!

    I love best reads posts, you can both recap your year and use them to make good choices for the next.

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