Sunday, 30 December 2012

Elaine's Top Ten Reads of 2012

2012 has been a great year in my reading life.  It's the year I rediscovered my real love of reading.  It's the year I faced down a few book demons and it's also the year I discovered Goodreads and fully accepted my book geek self.

So with all that in mind, it's only natural I've read some pretty impressive books in 2012.  In no particular order, here's my top 10:

Title: North & South
Author:  Elizabeth Gaskell

Despite my love of 'the classics', I'm ashamed to admit that until this I had never picked up anything by Elizabeth Gaskell.  Now I have, I can only regret not doing it sooner.  To have this book in my life is an honour and an honour I intend to revisit many many times.

Set in industrial England, this is ultimately a novel about conflict and rebellion.  It is brimming with religious and social commentary that holds to this day.  

Gaskell's prose is just sublime.  Her writing is thoughtful and in parts, simply beautiful.  Her characters feel very real and very modern.  John Thornton is quite probably one of the best literary heroes ever created.

If you pick only one book from this list of mine to read., I urge you to make it this one.  North & South has easily taken it's place in my top 3 reads of all time.  Shame on me for not finding it sooner.

Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is an author I have ambivalent feelings toward. I have loved his work, hated his work and found it totally average. So, you understand why I picked this up with rather conflicting expectations. Thankfully though, this is one of the good ones. More than that in fact, it's one of the great ones!

Every word in Atonement is right. It's so wonderfully thought through. The narrative flows at exactly the right pace and the characters are fabulously sketched.

One of the most evocative & considered books I have read in many years. Atonement is not only one of my favourite reads in 2012.  It's one of my favourite reads ever.

Title: A Monster Calls
Author: Patrick Ness

This is actually a children's book but I was drawn to it because of the absolutely stunning artwork and I had heard some interesting things about it.

Its young age group aside, this book is harrowing, dark, sad, but most of all, moving. This book actually made me cry (which is very rare if not a first).

It's the story of a young boy who's mother is dying of cancer. A monster begins to visit him nightly in order to force him to acknowledge the truth about his situation.  This really is an excellent, simple and important look into the horrible, complex and very confusing loss of someone close to you.

Title: Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies
Author: Hilary Mantel

Two books for you this time you lucky things. 

Not only are Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies two of my top reads this year, but Bring up the Bodies is also the first book to ever be reviewed on this blog

So, why are these books so good? Set in the court of Henry VIII and told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell (a figure so firmly in the midst of this most fascinating eras, yet so little is actually known about him.  Add to that, that history maintains he's the villain of the piece despite this lack of knowledge),  Mantel manages to offers us a very fresh look at this, a story that is so familiar to many of us. 
Having, regrettably, listened to Wolf Hall on audiobook, I was determined to do Bring Up the Bodies justice by holding it in my hands and savouring every word. It didn't let me down.

There really is something truly astonishing about Mantel's version of events. The narrative is just hypnotising and her characterisation so on point that I've rarely (if ever) felt I know a fictional character the way I feel I know Mantel's Thomas Cromwell.

Grab yourself a copy of Wolf Hall and next week you"ll be buying Bring Up the Bodies, I assure you. Enjoy.

I'm rather jealous I can't read it for the first time over & over again. 

Title: The Blind Assassin
Author: Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin is a piece of art.

A novel within a novel.  Both fictional auto-biography and pulp science fiction.  There really is no easy way of describing it, apart from, impressive!  Atwood is a genius in my mind.  She manages to weave these two narratives into a tale so brimming with tension and emotion it's unbearable at times. The writing is divine.  Almost every sentence in this novel is quotable. 

Halfway through this (rather large book) I began to regret that it would ever end.  I even considered stopping halfway through and starting it again to prolong the pleasure.  Tantric book reading ladies and gentlemen, give it a go ;-)

Title: The Sisters Brothers
Author:  Patrick deWitt

I will hold my hands up and say that while this is not the type of book I would normally pick up, that magnificent cover and Booker hype caught my eye and boy am I glad they did.

Funny, touching and so sharply narrated I couldn't put it down. Very short, snappy chapters pull you along and the characterisations are spot on.  

An homage to the classic Western, The Sisters Brothers follows the last job of two henchmen in 1850's, gold rush America.  According to it's only writeup, The Sisters Brothers "beautifully captures the humour, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love".  What's not to love?

Title: Finishing the Hat
Author: Stephen Sondheim

The Collected Lyrics, 1954 - 1981, with attendant comments, grudges, whines, and anecdotes of Stephen Sondheim, this is a book for die-hard Sondheim fans, budding lyricists or lyric aficionados only.  

With the lyrics to all his shows between 1954 - 1981 as well as many additional tidbits,  this is a fascinating and poignant insight into the most talented man in musical theatre.
Sondheim appraises his own work and dissects his lyrics, as well as those of others, offering an unparallelled insight into songwriting.  

Simply mindblowing.

Title: Ragnarok
Author: A.S. Byatt

It's no secret that A.S. Byatt is one of my favourite authors.  Her writing takes my breath away and Ragnarok is no exception.  Part of the Canongate Myth's series, Byatt takes the ancient Norse legend about the end of the world and makes it current. 

It's no surprise that Byatt would be part of this project.  Almost all Byatt's novels are infused with myths and history.  In fact in her most famous novel, Possession, Byatt's fictional poet, Randolph Henry Ash writes a poem titled "Ragnarok".

Another interesting and rather emotive decision by Byatt was to tell the story from the point of view of herself, as a child, in the Second World War.  A move that makes the tale intensely close to home.  

More fascinating than the tale however is Byatt's afterword.  Byatt seizes this opportunity to draw parallels between the tale and our own battle with climate change.  To steal a line from my friend's blog post

"It is an excellent piece of writing, and she drew an interesting exegetical point from it - that the gods knew Ragnarok was coming, but they didn't have the imagination to avoid it. The parallel between our current culture's collision course with catastrophic climate change is thought-provoking."

Also, the hard back version of this book has been very beautifully published.  Canongate really should be given credit for such a fabulous series of books and the care that has been put into them.

Title: The Magic Toyshop
Author: Angela Carter

There's only one thing better than a good book, and that's a good book that introduces you to a brand new author.  Angela Carter may well just be my new obsession.  
Carter's writing is at times, exquisite and at times, harrowing.  This has all the elements of a fairy tale but goes much deeper than that.  Sex, feminism and incest all get a look in.  This book is both claustrophobic and liberating. 

The ending is abrupt and a little jarring because of that.  With hindsight though, what else was there left to say?

I have had many other great reads in 2012 but these's are the ones that have stuck in my mind and that I revisit most often.  I also enjoyed many fabulous re-reads of some of my favourite novels this year but I felt it best not to include them in this list so that this list stands as a recollection of my best NEW discoveries in 2012.  

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.” Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin


  1. ooo exciting - i love best of books of the year!! i'll be putting mine together soon. i struggle with reading classics... but maybe i could give north and south a go...
    happy new year!

  2. Hi Sian, happy new year to you too. I'm with you, I love best off book posts. I look foward to reading yours. Oh do give North and South a go. It's a really interesting book. What would be the one you reccommend from your 2012 reads?