A bazaar crowded with random offerings. William Gibson/Henrik Ibsen. Zafon, Murakami, Van Gogh. A table of well-thumbed Louisa May Alcott. Shiny Urban Fantasy and an aromatic clutter of cookbooks.
I'm putting a bow on 2013 by noting my five most satisfying reading experiences of the year - and one memorable other. There are no spoilers here! You can get enough plot details from book blurbs and dozens of other sources.
So here they are, in no particular order:
Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett does for Oliver Twist what Peter Carey did for Great Expectations (in Jack Maggs): he takes a critical supporting character out of Dickens and puts him at the helm of his own historical novel. Pratchett's twist (so to speak) places the intrepid Dickensian rogue and his unusual mentor at the center of a Boy's Own adventure that covers mid-19th-century London from sewer to palace. Along the way, there are cameos by a number of familiar historic figures. It's a charming ripping yarn. What makes it a little more than this is that the London of this story is richly informed by the work of Henry Mayhew. Mayhew himself even appears as a character. Happens I spent a couple of undergraduate years enthralled by Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, so Dodger was extra special to me.
The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
I know I said no plots, but I can't seem to talk about this without giving the elevator pitch: pensioner Harold Fry starts walking the length of England, armed nothing but a pair of Docksiders, and the determination to atone for past mistakes and sins of omission that suddenly feel too heavy to set aside. Along his way, random encounters expose him to the contradictory galaxy of emotions and actions that are the human condition. Written with deceptive simplicity, this is a perceptive, unsentimental book that brims with heart. Let us hope that Hollywood never stumbles on it, because they would surely try to turn it into something cute and spoil it entirely!
Wool, by Hugh Howey
I take it for granted that the most-talked-about-whatever is never going to live up to the buzz. Well Hugh Howey, the poster boy for self-publishing, sure proved me wrong. Wool is the best piece of pure scifi that I've read in years.Howey grabs you in from the first page and never lets you go. Like all good speculative fiction, Wool explores the present by projecting a highly plausible potential future. The writing is clean and direct. The characters are heartbreakingly real and every rivet is believable. If you read scifi/spec-fi at all, you owe it to yourself to read Wool. And if you're one of those who continues to eschew the genre, I suggest making a New Year's Resolution to give it a chance, starting with Wool.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
In the first few pages, Ursula, the heroine, is born, dies immediately, and is born again. That's not a plot: that's a conceit. Consider those pivotal moments, when your own life changed entirely. Now imagine what it would be like to press "reset" to go back to that point and take a different turn. This utterly fascinating book is one such "what if…" after another, so deftly told that it all seems plausible. And, despite the fractured lives, the characters remain miraculously true to themselves. Not that I don't enjoy the Jackson Brodie books, you understand; but I'm very glad to welcome back the Kate Atkinson of Behind Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.
Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway
You know how you set out to see a blockbuster film, all excited about the fun you're going to have? And then it turns out the only good bits were in the trailer? Well, reading Angelmaker is as much fun as as that blockbuster would be if only the whole film were as good as the trailer. I can only assume the lack of deafening buzz is due to the difficulty in labeling this book (we do love our labels, don't we?): it's a Cold War thriller, with neo-Victorian steam-punk trimmings, married to a pulp fiction gangster caper. Winding it's way through the whole is a classic Campbellian Hero's Journey. And that's all I'm going to say except for "READ THIS BOOK!!!" I have been saying this a lot, to everyone I know who reads for pleasure, because Angelmaker is a generous portion of undiluted pleasure. When was the last time you found yourself smiling from ear to ear for as long as it takes to read an almost-500-page book?
I can't close the books on this year without mentioning Adam Johnson's tour de force, The Orphan Master's Son. This brilliantly written story (I am in rare agreement with the Pulitzer committee on this one), set in the dystopic present of North Korea, was too disturbing for me to call it "satisfying." I admit that I'm a coward: I prefer my emotional agitation to be buffered by fantasy or the distance of time, or softened by the potential for preemption. That said, this is a tremendous novel.