Friday 20 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: the 10 Best Books I Read in 2013

And so we reach the not-especially-grand finale not only of the Existential Ennui Review of the Year, but of Existential Ennui for the year. And on both counts, all I can say is, thank fuck for that. On reflection, five end-of-year posts (five! What on earth was I thinking?) was at least two posts too many (if not five posts too many), and as for the year in general, while it's been wonderfully life-changing in at least one respect, it's also been bloody long and in places bloody hard, and I'm kind of glad it's almost over.

But let that not deter us from finishing the year chez Louis XIV in traditional fashion with my ten best books of the year, as picked from the big long list of the books I read in 2013. As usual, and unlike with my newly-instituted-and-unlikely-to-be-repeated ten best comics (linked by The Comics Reporter, no less) and ten best albums posts, few of these books actually date from 2013 – just one, in fact, although another one was published into paperback in 2013 having been published in hardback in 2012, so it's still reasonably 'new'. The rest date from much earlier than 2013 – decades earlier, making the top ten as comically arbitrary – and thus of no use to anyone – as previous years' efforts. (Equally arbitrarily, I've once again discounted any novels I'd read before, of which there were four this year – see the aforementioned big long list.)

Since I've already reviewed all of these books – you can click through to each review via the titles – I'll be keeping additional commentary to a minimum. Let the countdown... commence!

10. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2013)

I'm still not sure if the denouement of Atkinson's device of having a character live their life over and over again in order to avoid a succession of untimely deaths quite, um, lived up to the journey there, but in any case the journey there was well worth taking.

9. Deep Water Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1958)

Highsmith preferred to tell a story from the perspectives of two protagonists (usually opponents, usually men), but Ripley's Game aside, arguably her most powerful novels adhere to a singular viewpoint, Deep Water being an early example.

8. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (Gollancz, 1963)

Widely recognised as a classic not only of the spy fiction genre but of twentieth century fiction in general. And yet... while I admired it, and it is evidently a great novel, for me it's not up there with Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, or indeed that novel's two sequels. Perversely, perhaps, I also preferred the two less-acclaimed novels which preceded The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, namely:

7. Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) in The le Carré Omnibus by John le Carré (Gollancz, 1964)

Obviously I'm cheating here... or am I? After all, these are the ten best books I read in 2013, not the ten best novels, and I read le Carré's first and second novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, together in The le Carré Omnibus. Ergo I'm not so much cheating as... not being completely honest. Ahem.

6. Alys, Always by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)

A The Talented Mr. Ripley for the 21st century? Not quite – for one thing, Frances Thorpe, the star of this novel, isn't as murderous as Tom Ripley – but Lane shares Highsmith's cool detachment, steady pace and sly psychological depth. Advance word on Lane's second novel, Her, is very good.

5. The Sandbaggers by Ian Mackintosh (Corgi, 1978)

What's this? A novelisation? Ah, but what a novelisation. Mackintosh's take on his own espionage TV show packs more in, and in a more convincing manner, than many more celebrated spy novels manage.

4. Swag (1976) and The Hunted (1977) in Elmore Leonard's Dutch Treat by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1987)

Yes, yes, I'm sort of cheating again – see The le Carré Omnibus above – but I did genuinely read Swag and The Hunted in the Dutch Treat omnibus (later securing a scarce first hardback edition of The Hunted). And anyway, who'll begrudge me a minor con in the year that Elmore Leonard died? Incidentally, the third novel in this collection, Mr. Majestyk, is almost as good as the two I've highlighted, but I read it last year (as a paperback original).

3. LaBrava by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1984)

In previous years I've limited myself to one appearance per author in my top tens, but under the circumstances, this year I think I'm justified (arf) in dispensing with that rule. Besides, Leonard's novels were some of the best things I read in 2013 – were this a top twenty rather than a top ten, he'd be filling most of the positions from 11 to 20 – and LaBrava was one of the best of that best.

2. A Magnum for Schneider by James Mitchell (Herbert Jenkins, 1969)

Is this, like The Sandbaggers, a novelisation? After all, Mitchell adapted it from his own own screenplay – for an Armchair Theatre production which acted as the pilot to the subsequent Callan TV series – so I suppose in that sense it is. But then really, who cares? What matters is that it's a brilliantly grubby spy story, economically and unfussily told, and all the better for it.

1. Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard (Secker & Warburg, 1977)

It couldn't really be anyone else at number one, could it? But even if Leonard hadn't passed away in August, this novel would have still nabbed the top spot. Follow the link in the title to find out why.

And with that, my work here is done for the year. A very merry Christmas to you all, and see you in 2014.


  1. That le Carre omnibus is good, but it's not _that_ good.
    Pretty interesting choices here, thanks.

  2. I also liked Deep Water when I first read it. One of my favorites among her non Ripley books. I still have my copy of Alys, Always sitting in a box unread -- purchased due to your rave review, BTW. Must get to it before the year is out.

    Merry, Merry, to you and Rachel and little Edie, too!

  3. Some great titles there - have a great Christmas chum.

  4. Nick, a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  5. Happy New Year - one day late. With becoming a dad this year I think it is amazing you read and blogged as much as you did. I loved the vacation posts, all of the Elmore Leonard, Ian Mackintosh, and all of the book covers. (And pretty much the rest of it all, too.)

    I read three of your top ten this year (10,6, and 1) and agreed with your assessment of them.

    Best of luck in 2014.

  6. Aw, thank you, Brian -- happy new year to you too. And apologies for still not replying to your last email; your words re The Goldfinch were noted, and I've been keeping my eyes open for a copy.