These are the books I read in 2013: mini-reviews and highlights

Thanks to the awesomeness that is Goodreads, I’ve managed to keep track of every book that I have read throughout the course of this year. My aim for the year was to read more books than last year, in which my total was 26.5 (Ulysses took me almost four months over last summer). I know, I know, quality over quantity, but 26 seems far too

Scriptsmall a number for a whole year! Happily I achieved this goal for 2013, with a total of 36 books.

I felt like I had a very solid run with books this year – I really loved almost everything I read, with some minor exceptions. It was a very good year for amazing, mind-expanding speculative fiction (never underestimate a book just because it sits on the genre shelf in bookstores). It was also a surprisingly good year for buying books because of their pretty or interesting covers, and the content of those books turning out to be even more awesome than their packaging.

Here’s the list, in the order that I read them. Highlights (and one low-light) are in blue, and brief thoughts on each are below:

  1. Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond
  2. Froi of the Exiles (Lumatere Chronicles, #2) by Melina Marchetta
  3. Quintana of Charyn (Lumatere Chronicles, #3) by Melina Marchetta
  4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. Embassytown by China Miéville
  7. On the Beach by Nevil Chute
  8. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  10. Island by Aldous Huxley
  11. Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Lisa Appignanesi
  12. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
  13. A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel
  14. The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey
  15. By the Book: a reader’s guide to life by Ramona Koval
  16. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
  17. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
  18. TheFrench Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
  19. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  20. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  21. The Death of the Moth and other essays by Virginia Woolf
  22. How to Climb Mont Blanc in a Skirt: A Handbook for the Lady Adventurer by Mick Conefrey
  23. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  24. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  25. The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski
  26. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  27. Possession by A. S. Byatt
  28. Shakespeare: the World as Stage by Bill Bryson
  29. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  30. Letter to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon
  31. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
  32. The Colour of Magic (Discworld #1) by Terry Pratchett
  33. Journal of Katherine Mansfield by Katherine Mansfield
  34. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
  35. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi.
  36. Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente.

And here’s my brief thoughts on each one:

1. Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years by Jared Diamond

An interesting look at the history of civilisations and what allowed different societies to expand and gain cultural dominance (hint: it’s not the superior whiteness of their skin). It is not coincidental that 2013 was also the year I started playing Civilisation IV – the book was a perfect complement to the game. It’s all about location and resources.

2 & 3. Froi of the Exiles (Lumatere Chronicles, #2) by Melina Marchetta
and Quintana of Charyn (Lumatere Chronicles, #3) by Melina Marchetta

I can’t consider these books separately as they are all one story (I read book 1 of the trilogy in December 2012). I was curious to see how Melina Marchetta – author of Looking for Alibrandi and other such contemporary, real world novels – would transfer to a fantasy setting, and of course she did not disappoint. This series didn’t make me cry as much as her other books. Which is a good thing for my tear ducts, I guess.

4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I picked this up because I wanted to see the movie with Emma Watson (and everyone knows you have to read the book first), and I’m glad I did. I wasn’t quite a teenager in the 90s, but pretty close. It’s nice to be reminded of the times when we felt infinite.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This was one of the earliest books I studied in high school (pretty sure it was year 7).   I was a very sheltered 11 year old and was mostly clueless about race and discrimination. Now that I’m older and hopefully at least a little bit wiser, this was so worth a re-read. The courtroom scene made me bawl like a… Well, like an 11-year-old.

6. Embassytown by China Miéville

One of the unexpected highlights of my reading year. This is a sci-fi novel that examines the power and structure of language itself. It’s about the importance of that difference between the signifier and the signified. It’s about aliens that speak in two voices. It’s about words. It is strange and weird and phenomenal.

7. On the Beach by Nevil Chute

I’d been meaning to read this for a while because it’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in Australia, and I want to write one of those one day. It’s always weird reading something ‘futuristic’ that was written in the past; sometimes I couldn’t tell if what I was reading was bizarre characterisation or just a product of the period in which it was written (1950s). Who calmly goes about their business when impending nuclear fallout is going to kill everyone within 6 months? Imaginary Australians from the 1950s, that’s who.

8. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I read this because it had a pretty cover and an interesting blurb and also because it is a product of Nanowrimo. Proof that novels written in the space of a month CAN be published! (After much editing, I’m sure). This was fairly light reading, but had some lovely passages and some imaginative ideas.

9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I’m not really sure how to describe this book, other than ‘probably the best I’ve read this year’. Talk about epic – it spans multiple characters, multiple styles and thousands of years. It is a glorious puzzle box of a book, about people, and power. ‘We may be just one drop in the ocean, but what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?’

10. Island by Aldous Huxley

This is Huxley’s utopian counterpart to Brave New World, one of my absolute favourite dystopias. Of course that was going to be hard to live up to, not least because dystopias by their nature make for more compelling reading (it’s hard to write a narrative without conflict). This book was a bit uneven, but still interesting, especially in comparison to Brave New World.

11. Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Lisa Appignanesi

I picked this one up in Gleebooks because I couldn’t resist the title, and also I felt I should do some reading on feminism that didn’t come off the internet. I found myself somewhat disagreeing with some of the essays and then realising that was exactly the point – feminism isn’t some monolithic structure where you have to toe the Party Line or you get kicked out of the club. It was good to read some other perspectives, sometimes very different to my own. After reading this I also attended a tie-in session at the Sydney Writer’s Festival in May.

12. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

This book helped to tackle some of my prejudices about rural America. It’s about climate change, but also more broadly about science and communication.  While it was definitely a book with a purpose, this didn’t take away from its readability or its empathetic characters. As with every story about a woman stuck in an unhappy family life due to an accidental pregnancy, I always wonder why marriage and children was the only outcome that was considered – especially since this character was not particularly religious. Then I remember the book is set in America…

13. A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel

Manguel could write about grass growing and I would find it moving, fascinating and enlightening. In this case, he was writing about books, so it was even better. This wasn’t my favourite of the books he’s written about reading, because many of the chapters were about books that I personally have never read before. Still, I will read anything this author produces and enjoy it immensely. (My year 12 English teacher would be so surprised – and pleased, I hope).

14. The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey

This is a sweet, tiny little hardback about a young boy who wants to be a superhero and solve mysteries. It has a lovely cover design. It is satisfyingly bite-sized; I think I finished it in a day.

15. By the Book: a reader’s guide to life by Ramona Koval

I picked this up off the same library shelf as Manguel – I do like reading books about books. Again, there was quite a lot about books that I’ve never personally read. But it was more autobiographical writing that tied in with the author’s reading history.

16. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

I’m so glad I read this book this year. Of course, everyone knows Mandela – but having read his autobiography I have even more understanding of what the world has just lost. For me, the most inspiring thing about Mandela was his ability to understand the difference between a system of prejudice and the people who are perpetrating it; his anger was always reserved for the former. I deeply admire his ability to be angry without becoming bitter or cynical; it’s something I’d like to work on in myself.

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

Another random buy because I liked the title. These kind of purchases can be a bit of an (un)lucky dip, but all of them this year have been winners! As a bonus, it turns out this is the first book in a trilogy of modern fairy tales, so this was the discovery that just keeps on giving.

18. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

I liked this book, but I didn’t really GET this book. I think perhaps it expects the reader to be more familiar with the romance genre (in the traditional sense of romance). The ending(s) baffled me. Still, it was  an enjoyable enough read, if ultimately a little unsatisfying.

19. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This was my most highly anticipated book of the year, and it did not disappoint. Neil Gaiman is not only one of my absolute favourite authors, but also someone I look up to a lot as a writer. He tackles such incredible ideas without ever sacrificing the enjoyable, page-turning quality of his work. He is consistently able to make my hair stand on end. He is the example I point to if anyone questions the literary value of ‘genre’/speculative fiction. This book is about the darkness of childhood, but such a short summary can’t possibly do it justice.

20. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Another random I picked up because of the pretty, pretty cover. I never thought I would feel so uplifted by a post-apocalyptic novel. This was a story about the irresistibly human impulse to find beauty and joy in the world, even after that world has fallen down to rubble around your ears. Lovely, lovely characters. After a virus has wiped out most of the planet’s population, the protagonist flies over a deserted world in his vintage plane with his trusty dog. Considering it deals with the end of the world as we know it, this is a wonderfully gentle, life-affirming book.

21. The Death of the Moth and other essays by Virginia Woolf

Disclaimer: I named my first ever desktop computer ‘Virginia’ in honour of Woolf, so I can’t exactly claim to be unbiased when it comes to her writing. Her voice comes through the decades so clearly, it’s almost spooky. I wrote a blog post about this here.

22. How to Climb Mont Blanc in a Skirt: A Handbook for the Lady Adventurer by Mick Conefrey

At first I was a little miffed at the title of this book – publications ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ are often full of horribly sexist stereotypes, in my experience – but then I read the introductory chapter in which the author admits to writing a previous book about adventurers and only realising after publication that they were almost all men. Thus, this book was made to redress the balance. It is full of bite-sized anecdotes about female explorers, and the unique challenges that they faced because of their gender, as well as a generous dose of their quirky habits and weird bits of advice.

23. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book was written in 1958 and in some ways, it shows. Basically, it’s about a mentally retarded man who is given experimental neuroscientific treatment to make him a genius. And… I couldn’t quite get past this over-simplification. Obviously the book was ‘speculative fiction’ at the time it was written, but all these years later, our understanding of what exactly constitutes ‘intelligence’ and how you get it is still anything but clear. Also, I found it very disturbing that the character, still emotionally a child (even if mentally a genius), entered into a sexual relationship with another adult. Big whopping consent issues, right there.

24. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Gosh, Hamlet is whiny! But it was great to finally read the play that so many common English expressions are drawn from. After reading this, I saw the play performed at Belvoir Street Theatre. So many fantastic lines. How is it that a man who lived so long ago can still speak so clearly to us today?

25. The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

Sadly, this was one of the dud books in my reading year (but happily, it was pretty much the only one). After reading House of Leaves, I was expecting another postmodern masterpiece… Nope. It was a simple story. The illustrations (images of thread that had been stitched into paper) were interesting at first, but never developed any deeper significance. And it felt like almost half of the pages of this already slim hardback were left blank – like a short story masquerading as a novel(ette). Disappointing.

26. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

How can you not love Atwood? And somewhat gruesome apocalypses? (Insert Buffy joke about the plural of apocalypse here). Continuing on from the first novel in the series, Oryx and Crake, It’s a frightening world of genetic engineering gone wrong. It’s disturbing, but you can’t stop reading. I’m looking forward to reading the third book (MaddAdam) once it comes out in paperback.

27. Possession by A. S. Byatt

Words, words, words. I love books that are about the power of language, contortionist books that bend back on themselves, funhouse mirror books that reflect back their own crazy shapes. This is a story of the romance between two Romantic (in the historical sense) poets, and the 2 modern day literary researchers discovering their story. It has my favourite quote from a book this year:

“There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect … There are personal readings, which snatch for personal meanings … There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.
Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark.”

28. Shakespeare: the World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is my other ‘could write about grass growing’ author. And the more I read and see of Shakespeare’s plays, the more curious I am about the writer who came up with them. So Bryson writing a biography of Shakespeare makes for some happy non-fiction reading. However, as Bryson points out, there is not actually that much that we know for sure about the Bard himself. There are enticing holes in the story of his life, and rumours abound. One of the most entertaining sections of this book is devoted to cataloging the more crazy ideas and then gently debunking them.

29. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Trying to catch up on my Classics. My edition of Animal Farm included a fantastic Introduction, in which I discovered that my conception of Orwell as an anti-communist author is almost completely incorrect, and probably a product of the way the book seems to be taught in American schools. Orwell was actually very pro-communist in theory, and his parable was only critiquing the way communism was put into practice under Stalin in Soviet Russia. And there I was thinking that Orwell was a right-wing capitalist… Oops.

30. Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

This was a re-read of one of my HSC English texts. It is an epistolary novel in which Fay Weldon plays (with, one suspects, only a modicum of exaggeration) a bossy Aunt who is writing to her niece, Alice, about studying Jane Austen at university and Alice’s goal of writing and publishing a novel. The fussy, nosy Aunt persona is actually almost endearing, and the letters are full of lofty writing advice.

31. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

This book has a pretty cover, and also won the Miles Franklin Award for 2013. I can see why some reviewers found it a little slow-moving, but the prose is more than dazzling enough to make up for it. It’s a dual story about an Australian woman who travels the world and eventually settles in Sydney, and a Sri Lankan refugee who seeks asylum there. Quite a melancholy read.

32. The Colour of Magic (Discworld #1) by Terry Pratchett

Fairly entertaining but nowhere near as good as Good Omens, which is the only other Pratchett I’ve been exposed to. However, I’ve been told the Discworld series doesn’t really take off until a few books in, so perhaps I won’t give up on it just yet.

33. Journal of Katherine Mansfield by Katherine Mansfield

I loved this, and wrote about it in my most recent blog post.

34. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

This book is endorsed on the front cover as ‘an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird‘, which is quite apt. As the narrator, Charlie, is quite a bit older than Scout in Mockingbird, this is somewhat more adult in tone (and the crime which forms the basis of the book’s plot, discovered in the first chapter, is revealed in a proportionately more horrifying manner). For me this cemented Craig Silvey’s position as a writer with great empathetic powers, but as a bonus it also included the most electrifying and exciting game of cricket ever retold in literature. You’d think it would be impossible to be kept up until 2am to find out who wins a cricket match; you would be wrong.

35. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi.

I read this in a bundle with a few other Scalzi short stories, which I think I enjoyed more than the non-fiction portion about writing and the writer’s life (since I haven’t actually read any of his fiction before). The chapters about writing are taken from his blog Whatever, which I am a regular follower of. At this point, I think it’s time for me to stop reading books about writing and just write something myself. Hello, 2014 New Year’s Resolution.

36. Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente.

A glittering little novella about technology and machines and souls and science fiction transformed into folk tales. I wish I could write like this.

And that’s it! Roll on 2014.

What excellent or terrible books have you read this year? Is it possible to pick a favourite?


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: How many books did you read in 2013?

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