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Sunday, 29 December 2013

My top 12 books read in 2013

This year I read 46 books. Of that number, here are my top 12. An invidious decision, this, as I’m pleased to say that over the year I haven’t read a bad book, though some shone more than others. There are a number of honourable mentions which will appear in the full 2013 listing later. In no particular order…

JANE – The woman who loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell
This book’s release, authorised by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, coincided with the centenary of the publication of Tarzan of the Apes. It’s a fitting re-invention.

Many years ago, I read and re-read all two dozen of the Tarzan books and also the John Carter series. Like fans worldwide, I’ve always felt that the films never did Lord Greystoke justice. So, it was with a little trepidation that I tackled this book. What many film-makers neglected but this novel recognizes, ‘There is no Tarzan without Jane’, to quote John R Burroughs. As I became immersed in the tale, all fears for the treatment of the lord of the jungle evaporated. It was obvious that this was a work of love and respect for the original, a worthy homage.

There are several poignant moments – not least the reading of Alice’s diary, the vaguely recalled past of young Tarzan and the erotic yet tasteful relationship between the ape man and his mate, Jane.

You don’t have to have read any Tarzan book to appreciate this wonderful novel. If you have read some of the ape man’s adventures, then you’ll find much to please you in this retelling, bringing the lord of the jungle back to an adult readership, Burroughs’ intended audience. The full review can be read here.

SEPTEMBER WIND by Kathleen Janz-Anderson
Orphaned at birth in 1940, Emily lives the next eighteen years on her grandfather’s farm with four thankless men and an indifferent aunt nearby. When the school board forces Grandfather’s hand and allows her to attend school, she experiences a beautiful friendship, and the thrill and pain of an innocent young love. Still, there is an underlying loneliness, and a secret she bears alone. When she prepares to leave the farm forever, a traumatic confrontation thrusts her into a harrowing run for her life. She arrives in San Francisco wide-eyed and filled with hope, but is deceived into entering a bordello... Emily’s innocence survives, despite the unwelcome and unexpected hand fates deals her; her heart is torn and tugged, yet it remains pure. Finally, she learns about her past, a secret she never guessed at. A journey of self-discovery. Riveting, moving and finally heart-warming.

This thick fantasy tome spans the period 1918 to 1940 – the end of one war and the outset of another. Yes, it’s about conflict, but in an Otherworld. Megan is accused of murder and her sanity is questioned. Before the law can step in, she is attracted to a gypsy friend, Alun, who helps transport her from Wales to a mythological world parallel world yet in a different time. For some mystical reason, the White Witch of this world can clear Megan’s name. In this strange world she encounters Wil, an immortal, with whom she feels a strong affinity… Myths of the Mabinogion, battles of good and evil, love across time and worlds… This is a moving account that will suck you in until the last breath of… but that would be telling. Summers uses evocative prose and description to immerse you in her two worlds.

This 1237-page tome continues the story of Kingsbridge, the town and cathedral we first encountered in The Pillars of the Earth, but some 200 years later. Monumental in size, in scope and execution, World Without End is an enthralling read that deserves all the superlatives it has gleaned. I’m only sorry it took me so long to get around to read it – it’s been sitting on my library shelf for five years. Initially, I was daunted by its size. But once I’d read Pillars, I knew that it might be a thick book, but it would be a fast read, and it was, as Follett’s story pulls you in and the pages seem to turn of their own volition.

Throughout, it’s a believable depiction of the lives and times in this period, with the feudal system crushing ambition, the plague devastating swathes of the population, and politics of church and aristocracy vying for power and glory. By the end, I felt I’d lived with these characters and was sorry to leave (most) of them - no mean achievement for a writer after so many pages! 

TARZAN CENTENNIAL by Scott Tracy Griffin
This book is lavishly illustrated throughout with colourful artwork and stills from the films. It’s a mine of information about the creation of all the books, with a brief storyline of the twenty-four novels. Hollywood never really did the ape-man justice – he wasn’t a monosyllabic tree-swinging hero; in fact, Tarzan became fluent in many languages, among them French, German and Russian.

Ron Ely, one of the many screen Tarzans, provides a Foreword in which he rightly states that he believes most of the films and TV productions misplaced the ape-man by putting him into contemporary society when the basic allure is the period he was created, the 1920s, an age when communication and travel were protracted and challenging; though the film Greystoke came close. It’s about time this great character was restored to his former glory, not as an adventurer in children’s fiction but as an exciting pulse-pounding adult hero, which was the original creation. Scott Tracy Griffin, a foremost expert on Edgar Rice Burroughs, has amassed a wealth of information about the ape man and his creator and provides insight into the creation of the novels.

This is a book to enjoy and treasure, a slice of cultural history. The full review can be read here

THE SATANIC GOSPEL by William Patrick Hackett
The blurb reads: ‘Sixteenth century Spain. In a monastery, a Hebrew manuscript written by Nicodemus is discovered. Its revelations are startling and eventually destructive to the monks and their abbot. When the translator is murdered, an illiterate monk escapes to return years later, now as an ex-soldier and very literate. Disguised as a pilgrim, he plans to retrieve and read the Spanish translation he hid and to right a dreadful wrong he had witnessed.’

This is a superbly written book, a literary conundrum to rival Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A splendid realization of Spain in the sixteenth century, where power struggles and belief vie for the souls of men. A remarkable – and perhaps controversial – novel with cunning twists at the end. Not to be missed. As impressive as Hackett’s debut novel, A Dark Time, yet completely different.


Here we have two books in one – Jack and the Jungle Lion and The Elephants of Shanghai. They’re about Jack Hunter, 1930s adventure film star who first survives a plane crash in the Amazon and finds not only an escape from head-hunters but true love; then some five years later, he finds himself in China in a race against time involving priceless jewels, secret weapons, a mysterious singer and a fiendish warlord. This is your Saturday morning at the flicks, with hair-raising cliff-hanging chapter-ends, humour and lots of pluck. Beautifully written and with a lot of heart. This should make a great TV or film series.

Spanning almost thirty years, this novel follows the trials and tribulations of Caroline, a girl from a privileged background in Kenya. Her childhood with best friend Teresa is scarred by the State of Emergency that existed due to the Mau Mau uprising. Two other significant characters are Charles Ondiek, a farm labourer who aspires to study in Oxford and Mwangi, a wielder of effective black magic curses. Interwoven in the story is Kenya’s transition to independence under Jomo Kenyatta. The breath of Africa permeates the entire book and certainly reminds me of Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing in the depth of feeling by Jane Bwye for the dark continent.

GAME OF THRONES by George R R Martin
There are so many prime characters that Martin sensibly hands over POV to individuals to move the story forward, and it works:  Lord Eddard of the North, Bran, his seven-year-old son, Jon, Eddard’s bastard son, 14, Catelyn, Eddard’s loving wife, Arya, their daughter, 9, Sansa, their eldest daughter, 11, betrothed to Prince Joffrey, 12, Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, the dwarf brother of Queen Cersei, and Daenerys Stormborn, an exiled princess, 14.  

Eddard is soon out of his depth when he joins his old friend King Baratheon in the South. He discovers truths that threaten the very existence of the monarchy and, sadly, his honour leads him into dangerous waters. Queen Cersei tells him on p471, ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.’ And this game has no rules, despite it being played out by knights, some of whom possess dubious honour. The fantasy elements hover in the shadows, never far from mind. The devious plotting by self-serving acolytes and ministers creates almost palpable tension. The duplicitous Queen and her twin brother are cunningly drawn. The book is rich in detail and atmosphere and is deservedly regarded as the beginning of a great epic.

I’ve almost finished the sequel, A Clash of Kings, but that won’t happen till the year changes…

A LIMITED JUSTICE by Catriona King
First in a series of DCI Craig novels, this is a very impressive debut. I’m pleased that I have three more in the ‘Belfast’s Modern Thriller Series’ to read in my pile of books. Considering this book was published in 2012, that’s a laudable production schedule Catriona King is maintaining.

King trained as a doctor and as a Police Forensic Medical Examiner in London, where she worked for many years – and it shows: ‘… with the smell of burnt flesh, to make a perfume that would never find a market’. Here we have the voice of experience.

DCI Marc Craig is a fine creation… King doesn’t skimp on the forensic details, but this will doubtless appeal to the vast audience who can’t get enough CSI and its siblings. However, there’s humour to leaven the trauma and horror, usually between the team workers in Craig’s section. This is a moral tale, with no easy answers.

In this superb book about friendship and relationship, we travel with the main characters from 1983 through to 2008, with a poignant flashback to 1980. What’s interesting is that the author was born and lived in Italy until 1994, when she moved to England; yet she captures the period prior to her arrival very well indeed.

The narrative is from the perspective of the three friends, and at every stage there’s a depth of character and an emotional resonance that rings true. Emotion in a relationship novel has to be felt by the reader, not simply observed – show, not tell, and Michela O’Brien does that brilliantly: she could have written ‘Livy felt hurt by him’ or something similar; instead, she gives us ‘Her heart had taken a dive into her stomach and she briefly held her breath to fish it out and put it back in its place.’ There is a birth and a death, both handled with exquisite restraint and all the more powerful and moving for that. This debut novel is excellent, the writing controlled and a delight.

BAD MOON RISING by Fraces di Plino
This debut novel is simply excellent. Frances de Plino takes command of the characters, the plot and the narrative in a measured, masterful way. This book can be read on several levels. It’s a graphic, grim psychological thriller, a police procedural foray into the dark recesses of a destabilised killer, and it depicts a view of social breakdown… What raises this book above many others in the crime genre is its emotional intensity. The characters are believable and prone to hurt, and the villain is truly reprehensible. Not for the squeamish or the prude. De Plino deftly inserts red herrings and misdirection into her plot.

Suspenseful, page-turning stuff! De Plino, in my book, can certainly give Minette Walters a run for her money.
My books currently available include BLOOD OF THE DRAGON TREES and SPANISH EYE.



Ailsa Author said...

You missed one! meh

Nik said...

That's the trouble with compiling a list of this kind, Ailsa. I'll always miss more than one. 46 isn't a lot of books to choose even 10 'top' ones from; I cut it down from a selection of 15...! It was hard to cut it to 10, as all those books were memorable and evoked an emotional response in me. I'm bound to upset some readers/writers - that's what lists tend to do! It's all subjective, of course. :)

Kathleen Janz-Anderson said...

Coming from such a talented author, I'm so honored to be on your list. Thank you! What a treat to begin the new year. I'm looking forward to reading a number of books on your list, and of course more of yours.

Happy New Year!

Nik said...

Thanks, Kathleen, for those comments. Happy new year!