Saturday, 4 January 2014

Books of 2013

"Woman Reading" by Torajiro Kojima.

I was a bit disappointed that I only managed to read 49 books in 2013, missing my goal of 52 books (one books a week) by only 3! Each year I try to read some books from the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, this year I managed 12. According to the Goodreads stats page I read 14,226 pages which is rather a lot when you put it like that!

I keep a notebook of the books I read, with the details of the title and author, a brief description of the book (so I remember what it's about), my comments, and a rating out of five stars. 2013 was a fairly good year and I read some really interesting books. These were the five star books:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012)
I do love historical fiction, and this is it at its finest. The sequel to 2009's Wolf Hall, this again has Thomas Cromwell as the main character. Henry VIII, tiring of his second wife Anne Boleyn and desperate for an heir, has Cromwell bring her down at any cost. The writing is superb.

Embassytown by China Miéville (2011)
Only China Miéville could make linguistics cool. As usual this novel isn't just escapist sci-fi - you really have to stretch your mind to grasp some of the ideas here. Interstellar colonialism and aliens who's language doesn't allow them to lie. It's brilliant stuff.

The King Must Die by Mary Renault (1958)
My father said that it's much easier to remember historical dates and events if you read a novel about them, as the story helps them stick in your mind. I find the same with myths and legends. For someone who studied Classics at university, I'm pretty shaky on a lot of the ancient Greek myths, but after reading The King Must Die I'll never get mixed up with the story of the Greek hero Theseus again. Mary Renault tells the story of Thesesus' early Cretan adventures as if he were a real historical figure, adding in details from archaeological findings to give a wonderfully evocative sense of time and place. 

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
I put off reading this for ages because it looked like such a mushy, romantic book. Judging by the reviews on Goodreads this is a book you will either love or hate. Personally I really loved it and found it incredibly moving and bittersweet. The time-travel is possibly a little flawed if you really dig into it, but it worked for me.

Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Set in 1959, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom can't bear the constraints of his ordinary life anymore and suddenly leaves his pregnant wife and young son. The writing is incredibly fresh and vivid, with a beautiful poetry to the descriptions.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
A young girl, orphaned and working as a ladies companion on a trip to the South of France, meets the brooding Max de Winter, an older, handsome widower. Stunned and flattered by his proposal of marriage, the couple return to his ancestral home of Manderley in England. But the new Mrs de Winter becomes obsessed with her husband's former wife, who's memory is kept alive by the forbidding housekeeper Mrs Danvers. The sense of slowly growing tension is quite masterful, and your heart just aches for the young, shy girl trying to please her aloof husband and the disdainful servants.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest (2004)
Two Victorian stage magicians begin a rivalry that soon turns into a bitter feud, with each trying desperately to discover the secrets of the other's signature trick. It's a real page-turner and even if you have seen the film (which I had) it's significantly different and so much more detailed that it's worth the read. Gripping.

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean (2000)
An absolutely fascinating book about obsessions. In 1994 John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians were arrested for poaching rare orchids in a nature preserve in Florida. Orlean meets and interviews Laroche, who wanted to clone the elusive and highly sought-after Ghost Orchid, thinking he could make his fortune. Along the way, she also looks at the history of orchid collecting and meets other orchid enthusiasts, and finds that something about orchids brings out incredible obsessions in some people. They will do literally anything to get their hands on particular rare specimens and orchid collecting becomes their whole life. Orleans' writing is so skillful and interesting that even if you have no particular interest in orchids, you can't help but be intrigued.

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent (2009)
Most people have heard of Esperanto and Klingon, but did you know that since the 17th century people have invented hundreds of languages, almost all which have faded into complete obscurity over the centuries? Me neither until I read this wonderful book. The passion that these people had, and the certainty that their language was so much better than the natural languages that had evolved with all their messy grammar is amazing. Even today, people are somehow driven to keep inventing "better" and "more logical" languages. One for all you language nerds out there.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer (2008)
A wonderfully fresh look at life in England during the 14th century. Mortimer advises the reader as if they were able to time-travel back into that period and the focus is mostly on the daily life of the different social classes. What I found really interesting was the way he looks at the way medieval people thought as well as acted. The way people thought about the geography of a place before maps were widely used is entirely different from the way we think today. 

Did you have any particularly good books you read last year?


  1. I'm o impressed you've managed to read so many books! I haven't read any of these books but I do LOVE the film Adaptation which is based upon The Orchid Thief so I think I must read it in 2014.
    One book I re-read in 2013 was Witchlight by Susan Fletcher. It follows a young english woman knowledgable in the ways of herbal lore who is a witness of the massacre at Glen Coe. The descriptions of the landscapes of the Highlands and Rannoch Moor just transport you and the ending is a doozy!

    1. Thanks! The Orchid Thief is quite different from the film in that the film was about trying to make a film about the book (does that make sense?) but it is really rather fascinating, you should definitely try it. Witchlight sounds like a great read, I'll have to hunt up a copy. Thanks for the recommendation!