my best (unpredictable) books of 2012

Filed under: reading

According to Goodreads, I read 61 books in 2012. When I came to choose my favourites of the year, I noticed that they all had one thing in common: they surprised me. With all of these books I remember reading them obsessively, usually in two or three days, not knowing what was going to come next, and hardly able to wait.

This is the way I used to read when I was younger, before two degrees in literature, ten years of teaching it, and several years of writing novels. I used to get fully caught up in the story, not being able to guess what came next. One of the down sides of understanding how stories work is that you can usually predict how a novel is going to end. You see the gun in chapter one and you know it’s going to fired by the end. You see the heroine hesitating between two men and you know before she does which one she’ll end up with. You’re fed a seeming irrelevant fact or introduced to a character who doesn’t immediately fit into the story and you start to try to figure out why that fact or that person has been introduced.

This isn’t a criticism or a complaint. I’m sure my own books are equally predictable, especially if you know how I think. And there’s a lot of pleasure in reading a well-written predictable book. You can relax, you know you’re in good hands, you know everything will turn out just as it should. Sometimes the predictability of the plot is a positive strength, for example when you know two characters are perfect for each other and you want to enjoy their journey in getting together. Or when you see something horrible happening and you know it’s inevitable, and the inevitability makes the book more emotional, more effective. This year I really enjoyed Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You, for example, even though I could guess what was going to happen. In fact the ending was so inevitable, so entirely logical and necessary, that I would have been seriously pissed off with Jojo if she hadn’t followed it through. No other ending would have been right, and her skill lay in making the inevitable seem not heartless and cruel, but life-affirming.

But these books kept me glued to my seat, dying to know what was going to happen next.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (children’s/YA fiction)

Complicated, dark, emotional, unflinching, beautifully-written book about loss, fear and strength. I actually knew how this book would end as soon as I picked it up; it’s one of those inevitable, tragic endings, and it needs to be for the book to work. But I was surprised by what happens in the middle. Ness takes some well-worn tropes and traditions from children’s fiction and folk fairy tales (absent parent, bullying at school, a monster seen only by a child, evil step/grandmother, fables) and turns them around to create a morally complex story.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (thriller)

A complex, gritty, character-driven thriller with two unreliable narrators and an ending which truly surprised me. It’s one of those books you finish and then have to go back to the beginning to read again, to figure out what exactly was happening. I can’t say any more because I don’t want to spoil it.

When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood (memoir)

Well, I sort of did know how this one would turn out; the author’s sister (who features in the book) was my English teacher in high school, and she married our former next-door neighbour, and the book is set across the river from where I grew up. It’s the story of a family in 1960s Maine whose father dies, and how the family deals with their grief. It’s also the story of a town and an industry, tracing the boom and decline of the Maine paper industry and the towns that depend on it. I know stories like this, and people like this, and my own history is reflected in the book’s pages. But the writing was so rich and surprising; the emotions so deep and unexpected in how they evolved; I was ambushed by tears and laughter all the way through.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (novel)

Reading the back of this book, I thought it was going to be a retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And it is, sort of: it’s about a female doctor who goes into the Amazon rainforest to find an elusive scientist who has cut herself off from the world. But it’s so rich, so exciting, and the ending is both surprising and inevitable, which is a hard trick to pull off. Not a retelling so much as a riff on some of the same themes from a female point of view, adding science fiction, classical allusion, and good old-fashioned adventure. As a mother, I was touched by the exploration of different types of parenthood. A wonderful novel.

Although I loved being surprised this year, I also loved good old comfort reading. I reread several James Herriott books, which I still have memorised from when I was thirteen. I reread Georgette Heyer, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King and Susan Cooper. In rereading, knowing what’s going to happen is a huge part of the pleasure, especially with books you haven’t read since you were a teenager. I read a few books with the hero-or-antihero-sacrifices-himself-for-others theme; I love this theme and it’s actually better to read these books knowing the ending, because you can appreciate Sydney Carton, or Cyrano de Bergerac, or Johnny Smith (from The Dead Zone) even more.

Do you have any suggestions for books that surprised you, or which you loved even more because they were predictable?

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