Dark Matter

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This is the final bit of looking back over my 2012 shoulder and is a run-down of one of my favourite things: books. I’m sure tons of people, like me, got amazon vouchers or spending money (or a kindle/e-reader) for Christmas so hopefully a few book recommendations will be useful to someone. I wrote about my top 5 reads in 2010 and all of these still stand as recommendations too! For the past seven years my new years resolution has been “read 50 books this year” and the closest I have ever stacked up is 38. It’s a lot harder than you expect to plow through so many hunks of fiction, especially as I am very strict and still read the books I would pick even if I wasn’t doing a reading challenge (so I can’t just pick 50 thin-massive-printed choices!) and I never, ever give up on a book which is why this year I read 50 Shades of Grey despite it being horror of horrors awful.

I’m so proud to have finally read 50 books in a year, although wish there had been some type of Gladiators style paper-burst to jump through upon completing my last one as it felt like a bit of an anticlimax to just start my next book (51 books to read in 2013..!) Anyway, here are the 50 books I consumed in 2012 and my top 7 recommendations. Please note these aren’t all necessarily books that were published in 2012, I just happened upon them for the first time this year. Also, all of the books below are well worth a read, E L James aside. I couldn’t write about them all as this post would have taken a year in itself to read! But of the 50 below, none are below 3-star efforts so it was a great year for my book-worming.

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1. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

This was the first book I read this year and an instant 5-star smash that left me worried that I might have peaked too early.  I have no idea how, but the existence of this book had entirely passed me by until Nick recommended it to me. This is a massively ambitious work of fiction covering a plethora of genres; fantasy, magic, fairy tale, history, war, romance… but over and above any standard pigeon-hole this book could fall into, it’s basically a whole new genre of its own. It’s certainly one of the best books I have ever read. This isn’t a book to be rushed.

You need to set aside quality time and a nice pot of tea for this type of master piece, as the vast ensemble of characters are all so layered, the world you immerse yourself in so intricate and that isn’t even mentioning the footnotes… most of which contain incredibly detailed tales and add-ons that last page upon page in themself. I have since bought this book for my mum and two friends, and can’t wait to be the one to introduce it to new people. If you read ONE book this year, make it this one. There is a BBC TV series rumoured for later this year, so one to get in before that.

 

2. Dark Matter – Michelle Paver

My 50 reads weight heavily into my favourite genre of spooky (old houses, haunted boats, creepy dolls etc. I’m just a sucker for it all!) and this was another 5* read that kept me in the sweaty scared limbo between desperation to continue reading as the writing is so AMAZING but absolute terror at what will happen next. The story itself is set around a group of four young men taking part in a polar expedition. The narrative is told via their journal that slowly reveals the unravelling of their expedition, and their minds, as the isolation sets in…  I recommend this book even for those who aren’t strictly ‘horror fans’ as it is quite simply a master piece and sublime story telling. In fact, just writing this review has made me tempted to re-read it less than 6 months after finishing it!

 

3. Tell The Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

Unbelievably this is a debut novel, which makes me extremely excited for anything Carol Rifka Brunt might write in the future. Tell the Wolves I’m Home takes place in a heart-tuggingly realistic 80s setting. Complex and poignant, it tells the story of June and her unusual friendship with Finn. I wouldn’t want to detail anymore about what makes their dynamic so precious and readable, as it really has to be read to be believed. This isn’t a ‘fun’ read, but it is a story and a world that will stick with you for weeks afterward. I always find the sign of a truly phenomenal reading experience when it evokes real emotions (there were tears, lots of tears) and when it makes you re-aseess your own life and family relationships, which this definitely did.

 

4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon

I LOVE comics and comic book heroes and the world of inky thumbs and storyboarding. Joe Kavalier, is a young Jewish artist who smuggles himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague to seek refuge with his cousin Sammy Clay in New York. Working together, Kavalier and Clay create a comic book featuring the Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth (inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who attracts both the cousins attentions in different ways). Kavalier and Clay definitely took me a good three chapters to get my head round and really absorb into their world, but as soon as I did it quickly became one of those books that you cannot bear to think will eventually be over. My heart ACHED when I finished it, as I was so desperate to back amongst the characters that I had fallen in love with and felt were almost my friends.

 

5. When Nights Were Cold – Susanna Jones

Grace Farringdon is a young woman fighting against her family and her Edwardian destiny to marry or stay at home caring for her strict parents. Grace harbours an obsession with the prospect of becoming a female mountaineer and so alongside 3 unlikely friends from university, she sets up the Arctic Exploration Society. We learn from the outset of the book that Grace is the only ‘surviving’ member of the society and what follows is an incredibly well written and believable account of single-white-level level female relationships, competitiveness and a chilling lesson in the lengths women had to go to in order to break social barriers we take so much for granted these days. This read started a Susanne Jones flurry with me (I read three more instantly afterwards) but sadly although they were enjoyable enough, I didn’t  find they compared anywhere near to this incredible work.

 

6. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The writing style make jar when you first pick up The Book Thief. It’s unique and swirling and very enigmatic which can mean you struggle to retain the characters and information (it’s probably best read in one sitting!). However this is another absolutely 5* read and a book that I instantly wanted everyone I know to devour so I could discuss it with them. Like Kavalier & Clay it’s set in a historical period so sensitive and loaded with emotion that it’s an incredible feat to still set realistic fictional characters in this world and for them to appear so genuine. The dynamics between everyone in the book are so tender and like with K & C, you find yourself slowly becoming part of the world and having to wrench yourself out of it at the end.

 

7. The Colony – F G Cottam

Since discovering this author in 2007, my yearly dose of the highest quality spook/paranormal writing, is always a massive bookworm highlight. If there was an Olympic record for Amazon one-click purchasing, I would have definitely bagged gold for the miliseconds passing between my reading the phrase “available to kindle users now…” and reading the first line of “The Colony”. All other books and social activities fell by the wayside for the past week, as F G Cottam’s writing is reliably addictive, all-consuming and gripping. The Colony tells the legend of New Hope; a remote Scottish Island that housed a colony in the 19th century who then appeared to vanish into this air. A ‘Mary Celeste’ style unsolved mystery, it is later investigated by a 21st century media mogul. He packs off a team of experts in various fields (paranormal, virology, little green men…) in an attempt solve the mystery once and for all, and in turn lift flailing circulation figures of his newspaper.

The most striking aspect of this ambitious novel, is the epic ensemble cast. With no single protagonist, the story is told through various characters. All of whom, however fleetingly involved, are rounded and realistic. Cottam has a phenomenal talent at drilling straight down to relatable, recognisable traits meaning that, particularly in The Colony, I regularly found myself rolling my eyes and thinking ‘they remind me SO much of x…’ (particularly the less likeable males!). As with all of Cottam’s novels, this book has creep, spook and sinister in bucketloads. I’m talking endless physical reactions; real life goosebump, spine tingle, hair on the back of the neck moments that barely any other author manages to weedle out of me. I found myself in cold sweats on a packed tube and breathless with fear in a busy cafe (during the great coal mine expedition particularly!) I enjoyed the very necessary moments of light relief provided by the complex dynamics between the cast of characters and experts, moments you cling to before the next fright hits. There were also a large dose of twists I wouldn’t have predicted, and in such a saturated genre I really respect an author who can truly still shock and surprise.

 

8. Honourable Mentions:

  • Gone Girl  – Gillian Flynn : I spent the MOST time talking to people about this book (including a feverish live-whatsapp conversation with my best friend Lol as we both reached various stages!) and in fact despite claiming not to like the (shocker) of an ending, it has stayed buried in my head for the rest of the year and definitely needs to be read for WTF moments alone.
  • Lamb – Bonnie Nadzam : An extremely skin crawling, uncomfortable read but fantastically written
  • The Believers – Zoe Heller : It’s no ‘Notes on a Scandal’ but was an enjoyable plane-journey read charting the dynamics of a larger New York family
  • Snowdrops – A. D. Miller : Perfect for a quick, satisyfing immersion into the Russain culture and a modern murder mystery.
  • The Snow Child – Eowen Ivey : A captivating, haunting modern fairy tale.
  • Eleven Kinds of Loneliness – Richard Yates : One of my all-time favourite authors
  • Beginners – Raymond Carver : Short stories that leave you gasping for breath

If, even after this, you want more bookworm suggestions – I eagerly await every GoodReads review and book pick by Blair. Here is her 2012 run-down with surprisingly few cross-overs given I instantly snap up anything she rates highly!

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