If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.


If we’re going to get through the next few years, we need a change of narrative so profound that our entire culture changes direction.  We need not just new stories, but a whole new shape to what a story is. And it will start with our writing.

Ten of the Best Books of 2013

Over the past year, I’ve been privileged to read a large number of immensely good books: truly, the quality of writing is as great now as it has ever been and I’m convinced that some of these will become classics, read for decades, if not for centuries to come.

So I thought I’d list some of the ones that have really touched me.  Not all are fiction, not all are historical; all are good.  These are not in any particular order, and some were published last year, but I’ve only got around to reading them in the past twelve months.  Any one of them would make a good gift for the readers in your family – of any age and any gender. Some have been reviewed on this blog, and I’ll link to the relevant reviews.


The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson: This is one of the highlights of the year: a slow burning, brilliantly plotted crime thriller set in Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century. Magnificently drawn, beautiful, lyrical and with superb characterisation.  We have some truly amazing historical crime writers and Imogen is one of them.

In a similar league is Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman which was serialised on Radio 4 Women’s Hour: also set in early 20th century Paris, it focuses on the silent film industry.  Both books have lesbian protagonists, both beautifully drawn.  And Paris is essential to each one.  They make a good pair.

Boneland by Alan Garner: third in his series that began with the utterly life-changing Wierdstone of Brisingamen, which did, genuinely, change the path of my childhood.  With Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth and Mary Stewards Crystal Cave, it taught me that there were gods beyond the nonsense I was force-fed at school.  Garner wrote Brisingamen when he was 21. He has written Boneland as an adult, with an adult’s perspective and it’s entirely, mindblowingly amazing. Every word is poetry and that poetry moves beyond this reality into places few dare go. It’s wonderful.

Into the Valley of Death by AL Berridge   I did review this, and the review was lost, for which I heartily apologise: blame the technology, but don’t blame the book.  This is a pitch-perfect look at the Charge of the Light Brigade and why it might have happened.  As far as I know, nobody else has ever suggested the sequence of events portrayed here, but it makes perfect sense to me.  This book has enough shooty-stabby scenes (of extreme warfare: this is the Crimea and it’s not pretty) to keep die-hard Cornwall fans happy, while being literate and engaging with an inspiring depth of characterisation. Thoroughly recommended.

Crowbone by Robert Low.  A great deal has been said about Rob Low’s utterly amazing ‘Kingdom’ series  – a truly epic (in all senses of the word) view of the Scots/English wars with a use of language and a depth of characterisation (seeing a pattern here? I do like real people in books) that put Low way at the head of our generation of writers. That said – and you should read every part of the Kingdom series – Crowbone is a joy and a delight: fifth in the Oathsworn series, they are just utterly magnificent Viking sagas.  I used to think Dorothy Dunnett wrote the best viking book ever with King Hereafter (do, do read it) but these five together are a world apart.

Traitor’s Field by Robert Wilton. Up there with Rob Low and AL Berridge in his use of language, his shining intellect and the sheer craft of his work is Robert Wilton.  Traitor’s Field takes the morass of the English Civil War and makes it comprehensible in all its grim, internecine bloody conflict.  This is the second in what is turning out to be an outstanding series of spy thrillers: it’s intricate, clever, enlightening, gory – and the spy twists are just breathtaking.  Utterly unmissable.

Reamde by Neal Stephenson – Who else could write a science fiction thriller of four or five hundred thousand words and make every page a cliff hanger (well, almost)?  With Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson proved he was one of our most engaging, erudite and imaginative living authors, and Reamde takes it all one step further.  Buy this for someone who devours ordinary books in one sitting.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.  You can’t think of Neal S without thinking of Neil G who is definitely our single most imaginative living writer and has been since Douglas Adams died.  The Ocean is a fairy tale, a shamanic mystery, a story of childhood and memory and the lies that parents tell their children. It’s sheer, utter magic with every single page and you haven’t lived if you haven’t read it.

Clicker Revolution: The View from Here by Kay Laurence: If you only go to one dog training website, make it the Learning About Dogs site, hosted by Kay Laurence. If you only go to one set of training days, make it hers. If you only buy one dog training book, make it this one.  Kay knows more about dogs and how they actually think and learn (as opposed to how we’d like them to think) than anyone else I know.  She’s a genius, and she lives in the UK.  Make the most of it.

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal.  You can get the gist of this book in Jane McGonigal’s TED talk here, but the book still fills in a lot of gaps and is well worth reading.  Why is it that games are addictive and real life isn’t?  And how can we flip that around so that life is as addictive as gaming? And do we need to meditate while we’re doing it? (yes).

So that’s 10.  I could as easily list 20: I haven’t mentioned John Barratt’s brilliant non-fiction title, ‘The Battle for Marsden Moor’ or Elizabeth Fremantle’s glorious take on Katherine Parr in ‘Queen’s Gambit’ or Kate Worsley’s brilliant debut ‘She Rises’ or the late and much missed Tim Griggs’ glorious ‘Distant Thunder’, Stuart MacBride’s Aberdonian crime thrillers, Catriona MacPherson’s gorgeous Dandy Gilver series set between the wars with a very Sherlockian woman as the heroic sleuth, or Rob Ryan’s fantastic take on Dr Watson sans Sherlock, ‘Dead Man’s Land’… or any of a dozen other supremely wonderful books that have been published in the recent past. But these are a good lot to be going on with: you’ll enjoy any or all of them, I promise.

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