Top 5 reads of 2012

So I haven’t quite finished catching up with the last of my 2012 books that need reviewing, but since none of them are going to make an appearance on either my 5 Best or 5 Worst lists this year I thought I’d just plow on and get these up.

2012 was a pretty good year for books for me, I managed to fit more books in than I have for a very long time, and I enjoyed almost all  of them – which is always good! That should probably make any ‘top 5’ of 2012 a quite difficult task, but when I actually got down to looking over the books I’d read this year the standouts were obvious. These were the books that I really loved, not just enjoyed, but ones that found a special place in my heart and that I will happily try to force on any and all acquaintances. So, in no particular order:

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We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen

For a long time I thought this book was going to be the standout book of the year for me. In the end it wasn’t, it was supplanted by another book on this list, but I don’t love it any less for that. We, The Drowned is a powerful, harrowing, and emotionally draining novel that I was recommending  for months after I finally finished it. From the age of sail to the end of the second world war it follows the fates of a family of Danish sailors – from Treasure Island style adventuring to the grim merchant convoys of WWII – and their hometown from the centre of shipbuilding commerce to an obsolete and purposeless ghost-town. The violence is brutal, the society it portrays bleak and depressing, and the characters horribly, depressingly and all too believably flawed. Not something to read if you want cheering up, but an absolutely beautiful and powerfully written book and the only novel I’ve read to use first person plural narration for almost the entirety of the book and to use it to such great effect without it ever seeming like a gimmick.

War With the Newts,  Karel Čapek

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek

And the book that supplanted it on my list of favourites – again translated fiction and again a book that eschews conventional narration, but this time a political satire from 1920s Czechoslovakia (as it was then). In equal parts funny and depressing, this book now has a place among my all time favourite novels. A fabulous book that works really well on two levels. It’s an early and slightly cheesy sounding sci-fi; gigantic intelligent sea-dwelling newts are discovered, enslaved, and abused until finally they strike back, declaring war on humanity and slowly eating away at our coastlands to turn them into living space for their expanding population. But it’s also a powerful satire of European politics and capitalism – from the brutality of the slave trade to the social injustices done to the working class, enforced segregation, and finally the 1920s and the rise of fascism. Even the publisher annoyingly neglecting to put in an introduction/afterword can’t mask the strong  critique of 1920s politics, the looming threat Nazism, and the events leading up to World War II – made all the more chilling as Čapek died before the final invasion of Czechoslovakia and before war was declared. A very odd, but wonderful book, the rise of the Newts powerfully told through fictitious newspaper reports, academic journal’s, and radio transcripts with minimal third person narration.

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Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan

The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan

And now for something a bit less heavy and depressing! It’s probably cheating a little to put the whole series on this list but my blog, my rules, and I couldn’t pick just one standout book from the rest. I was a bit slow to get on the Percy Jackson bandwagon but now I’m there I’m firmly entrenched. An absolutely wonderful children’s series. Easy to read and humourously narrated by the titular character, but also packed full of action and at times packing an emotional punch too. Drawing heavily on one of my favourite things ever – Greek Mythology – it uses it and reimagined it in wonderfully inventive and amusing ways. Absolutely fantastic. If I ever get nieces or nephews or (lets hope against this one) children, I now have at least five birthday/christmases sorted.

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Henceforth to be shortened to Fairyland, and another children’s book. This was my first introduction to Valente and I think I can already call myself a fan. Her prose is beautiful, her ideas inspired, and who can fail to love a young wyvern who believes his father was a library? An oddball ‘Alice in Wonderland’ type book about a girl who travels from our world to the strange world of fairyland. Right from hearing the title I knew this one was going to be impossible to resist, and I was right. The next book’s already out in America, but as a poor Brit I’m still eagerly awaiting its release, and in the meantime acquired myself a couple of Valente’s adult novels. I think she could well go on to be my absolute favourite discovery of 2012.

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A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

And who would have thunk it? A non-fiction book making my top 5 reads of the year! For a history graduate (history undergraduate when I started this blog) I am almost notoriously bad for never picking up non-fiction in my leisure time. I love history, I think it’s brilliant, but it does still feel a bit like work. Now I’m done with the degree though I’m beginning to pick up more and more just for my own enjoyment. This one I’d been meaning to read for a while actually but 2012 was the year I finally got to it, and I have to say I absolutely adored it. A broad history of the world told through 100 selected objects from the British Museum’s collection, it seems practically designed with me in mind. It’s an easy read to dip in and out of – each chapter being approximately four or five pages – but absolutely rammed full of information and trivia all beautifully presented. Liked this one so much that I gave one of my best friend’s a copy for christmas – the tradition being I always give her one of my absolute favourite books that I think she’d enjoy as well.

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So there we are, my top 5 books of the year. I read a lot of other great stuff this year; Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Kim, The Bloody Chamber etc. etc… but these were the standouts: apparently I’m a sucker for depressing translated fiction and children’s books.

Really looking forward to more Percy Jackson this year and to borrowing the Ukrainian novel I got my dad for Christmas!

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