It’s been a brilliant year for books, with the return of Donna Tartt, Bridget Jones and even J K Rowling, alongside some fresh new talent in the shape of NoViolet Bulawayo, Donal Ryan and Evie Wyld.
We’ve also seen some incredible memoirs: from game-changing women including peaceful protester Malala Yousafzai and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, to thought-provoking accounts from an autistic Japanese teenager and a woman who lost her entire family to the 2004 tsunami.
We’ve rounded up the best 30 books of 2013, so put these books on your Christmas list and get stuck into our end-of-year literary feast.
Words: Stacey Bartlett
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman made his long-awaited return this year with his latest novel about a young boy who accidentally gets caught up in some sinister magic when a man commits suicide in a car outside his house. Salvation comes in the form of Lettie Hempstock, the girl from the nearby farm, who claims there’s an ocean in her pond and her grandmother saw the Big Bang. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is strange, magical and completely breath-taking.
Maggie & Me by Damian Barr
Damian Barr could never have imagined when he wrote his memoir about growing up in Thatcher-era Scotland that it would be published just a few weeks after the Iron Lady’s death. His recollections of life in a working class community under Thatcher’s rule with separated parents, a stepdad from hell and questions about his sexuality are touchingly observed and very moving. Maggie & Me is one of the most uplifting memoirs of the year.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt exploded onto the scene with her debut novel The Secret History in 1992. The Goldfinch is only her third novel, but is already one of the stand-out novels of the 21st century. Described as “Dickensian” by some reviewers, it follows the journey of 13-year-old Theo Decker, who steals a painting from a New York art museum during a terrorist attack. Richly imagined and unputdownable, The Goldfinch should be at the top of your reading pile this Christmas.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
On Tuesday 9 October 2012, 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head at point-blank range on the bus home from school in North Pakistan. But this wasn’t a random attack – the Taliban wanted to silence her forever for fighting for a right to education. Her remarkable memoir is only the cherry on top of a phenomenal year for this inspiring young woman: she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and is the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Donal Ryan’s debut novel about a divided Irish community is the breakout book of the year and has been nominated for nearly every prize going, winning the Guardian First Book Award. In the wake of the recession, resentment simmers in a small town as a once-prosperous company collapses and 21 different people, from builders to single parents, tell their side of the story. Heart-breaking, funny and true, The Spinning Heart is a beautiful and piercing novel by a talented new writer.
Letters of Note by Shaun Usher
This stunning book is a collection of 125 of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and bizarre letters taken from the Letters of Note website. From Virginia Woolf’s devastating suicide letter to Leonardo da Vinci’s job application, and from Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler to a telegram from the sinking Titanic, this is one of the most brilliant and inspiring books you’ll read this year, and will have you laughing out loud and sniffling into your mince pie.
Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding
This year saw the return of one of one of the nation’s most-loved characters: Bridget Jones. Everyone fell in love with Bridget in the late 1990s, and in Helen Fielding’s new novel Bridget is a 51-year-old widow with two children and a 30-year-old boyfriend she met on Twitter. With the school run replacing the weeknight booze-ups with Shaz and Jude and a lack of Twitter followers now the root of her insecurities, Bridget is as hopeless, loveable and funny as ever.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
When Sheryl Sandberg published her memoir about women in the workplace this year, everybody wanted a piece of Facebook’s chief operating officer. With equality in the workplace constantly up for debate, Sandberg shares her expertise and experience of working in some of the world’s most successful businesses and looks at what women can do to help themselves at work and at home. Lean In is an inspiring, important book that every woman will take something away from, and is a must-read for 2013.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel is one of the stand-out debuts of 2013. It tells the tale of ten-year-old Darling, who is one of the funniest, most memorable narrators in years. She and her friends grow up in a Zimbabwean shantytown, causing mischief and sharing their fascination with all things celebrity, before Darling moves to live with her aunt in America. We Need New Names is full of life and plays with language and dialogue in a unique way, making Bulawayo one to watch.
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
On Boxing Day in 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala called her husband to the window of their hotel room in Sri Lanka to show him something odd: 30-foot waves were rising from the sea and travelling inland. Before she knew it, Deraniyagala’s husband, parents and both her children were lost to the Indian Ocean tsunami. None of them survived. Wave is her devastating memoir: unsentimental and full of anger, it is one wife, daughter and mother’s attempt to come to terms with losing everything, and is a haunting, riveting read.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
All of us think ‘what if...’ but Kate Atkinson’s extraordinary novel explores each direction Ursula Todd’s life could have taken, starting with her birth in 1910 in the midst of a snowstorm. In one scenario baby Ursula dies; in the other she survives, and so on throughout her life – and deaths – into adulthood. As the Second World War hits London, her multiple destinies lead her to one final, game-changing decision. Life After Life is pure escapism and perfect to curl up with on a white Christmas.
The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz
Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz spent 25 years listening to stories from his patients, and has turned hours of conversation into this fascinating book. These are stories about everyday people living everyday lives and the choices they make, jealousies they feel and insecurities they have. All life is here, and all humanity; Grosz’s insights into the complex lives of others is ultimately uplifting and inspiring, and if you have ever wanted to be a fly on the couch of a psychoanalyst, this book is for you.
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver’s writing is always topical, witty and on the cutting edge of American culture, and her latest novel Big Brother is about a morbidly obese man named Edison who goes to stay with his sister Pandora and her health-obsessed husband. Edison is unbearable to live with, but Pandora makes a decision to try and turn her brother’s life around. Shriver examines why people overeat, why others diet and whether it’s possible to save loved ones from themselves in this humorous and compelling novel.
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
In 1982, 20-year-old Nina Stibbe moved from Leicestershire to London to become a nanny, and this book is a collection of the letters she wrote home to her sister Victoria. Stibbe’s days were spent looking after ten-year-old Sam, nine-year-old Will and a cat nobody likes, all of whom lived under the roof of liberal parent and single mother Mary-Kay. In a world of instant communication, Love, Nina is a gem, and is one of the most unusual and heart-warming books you’ll read this year.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
At a summer camp in 1974, a group of six teenagers make a pact to be successful, fulfilled, and, most importantly, interesting, in adult life. But over the next 30 years they realise it’s not easy to sustain teenage dreams. Narrator Jules keeps hitting walls in her career and, always mindful of the pact she made as a teenager, is on a reluctant journey of self-discovery. Meg Wolitzer writes fluently about the American Dream and whether you should surrender your goals to reality in this wonderful novel.
David Beckham by David Beckham
Do we really need to justify why this book deserves a place in the top 30 books of the year? It’s a book of lots of pictures (and a few words) of David Beckham. Enough said. Read. Drool. Enjoy.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman is good-looking, likes to cook, works out and has a job in genetics research – but the only thing stopping the women from queuing around the block is his social awkwardness and high standards. Don decides it’s time to find a wife and comes up with a foolproof plan to find the ‘perfect specimen’ in the form of a survey, but when Rosie shows up he can’t think of anybody more unsuitable. The Rosie Project is brilliant, touching and laugh-out-loud funny.
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida and David Mitchell
The Reason I Jump is an extraordinary book written by autistic Naoki Higashida when he was 13 years old. Translated from the original Japanese, in the book he addresses common questions people have on autism in short, direct chapters, such as ‘Why Do You Like to Watch TV Adverts?’ and ‘Why Can’t You Have a Proper Conversation?’ The Reason I Jump is an intelligent, vivid account of one man’s attempt (Higashida is now 21) to make people “understand what we really are, and what we’re going through”.
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
In this addictive suspense thriller, Todd and Jodie have been together for more than 20 years – but never married. So when Jodie finds out Todd has been having an affair, threatening to bring their perfect life together to an end, she decides to take the ultimate revenge. The Silent Wife switches between Todd and Jodie’s perspectives and the story races along until its nail-biting climax. Those who loved Gone Girl will tear through this thriller about the disastrous breakdown of a toxic relationship.
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is one of America’s funniest and most talented essay writers, and this is his latest collection. From visiting the dentist in Paris to shopping in a peculiar London taxidermist, Sedaris is on top form, and fans will enjoy deeper insight into his upbringing, family and relationship, which is where he gets his best material. Sedaris is touring the UK in spring for the first time in years, so snap up this book and a ticket before he takes over the world.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Sisterland tells the story of identical twins Violet and Kate, who share the peculiar ability to foresee the future. Now grown up and leading separate lives – Violet is a psychic medium and Kate is raising her family – they are thrown together again when an earthquake hits their hometown of St. Louis. Sittenfeld has written a tender portrait of the ties that bind, and her lyrical insights of everyday life are what sets her apart as one of America’s greatest contemporary writers.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
This is the charming collection of some of Orange Prize-winning author Ann Patchett’s best articles, essays and musings from the past 20 years. Her entertaining and touching accounts of her days being taught by nuns in Nashville and writing her first novel in her early twenties during her short-lived marriage and messy divorce are peppered with fond memories and observations. You don’t have to be a Patchett fan to appreciate her musings on love, life and writing, and this book is a treasure.
Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach
In a social media-obsessed world, Lottie Moggach’s very modern thriller takes identity fraud to the next level. Leila is employed to ‘be’ a woman called Tess, who is intent on ending her life but wants her online profile to live on so her family don’t suspect anything. Tess and Leila have never met, but within weeks Leila is controlling Tess’s life – and is soon forced to question everything. Kiss Me First is a remarkably clever novel that is gripping from start to finish.
The Son by Philipp Meyer
Philipp Meyer’s second novel is an epic tale of one Texan family’s rise from humble beginnings to a multi-million-dollar oil fortune over three centuries. Like Cormac McCarthy meets Gone with the Wind, we are taken from the kidnapping of Eli McCullogh in 1849 by an Indian tribe to his great-granddaughter’s final moments in the present day as she lays dying in the palatial family home. Taking in some of the most pivotal points in America’s history, The Son is a breathtaking story that feels more fact that fiction.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
When Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize this year aged 27 with The Luminaries, it made her the youngest winner in the prize’s history. The book, set in 19th century New Zealand during the Gold Rush, is a sweeping, sprawling tale that comes in at more than 800 pages and takes in fate, love, luck, greed, murder and astrology as it follows the story of Edinburgh-born Walter Moody, who is trying to make his fortune. The Luminaries is a triumph from a phenomenally talented young writer.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Jake is an Australian sheep farmer forging a new life for herself on a bleak British island with her flock of sheep, but someone, or something, is killing them off. We soon learn that Jake has escaped a menacing past in Australia, and Wyld’s brutal descriptions of Jake’s lonely life on the farm and the barren, isolated outback where she is held hostage are terrifying in parts. All the Birds, Singing is a gracefully written, absorbing thriller from a new literary talent.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Burial Rites follows the story of 34-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir, who was sentenced to death in 1829 for murdering two men. Hannah Kent evokes the harsh Icelandic landscape and the desolation of a powerless young woman living out her last days in a masterful way in this moving, beautifully written novel that blurs the lines between innocence and guilt, and by the end your heart is in your mouth.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale for the Time Being is a moving and genre-defying novel from Canadian-Japanese author Ozeki, who based main character Ruth on herself. Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on a beach, and, opening it, learns the story of unhappy Tokyo teenager Nao, who made a pact to end her own life more than a decade ago. The patching together of these two different lives highlights a compelling coming-of-age story for both narrators in this powerful novel.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Taiye Selasi’s debut novel was borne of an identity crisis brought on at her best friend’s wedding, where a guest asked where she was from. The question prompted her to weave a fictional tale of a multi-continental family much like her own, spanning four decades and travelling from West Africa to America. Ghana Must Go is an edgy debut novel that stands out from the crowd with its fluid language and vivid characters as it picks apart the complicated tapestry of one family.
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
We chose 21-year-old author Samantha as one of our ‘name-drop novelists’ back in April, and it turns out we were right: her debut novel The Bone Season, the first in a series of seven, is one of the most gripping and richly imagined fantasy novels we’ve read, and the film rights have already been snapped up by Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis. It follows 19-year-old Paige, a clairvoyant working in the criminal underworld in the year 2059, and we can’t wait for the next instalment.