Top 10 Books of 2013

One of my favourite writing gigs is reviewing books for the local newspaper. The reviewers are paid in books, which I think is more than fair, and we can choose among the titles sent to the paper. I sometimes use this opportunity to read books I wouldn’t normally buy or pick up at the library, to expand my reading repertoire.

It’s a good thing I did this year because I honestly had some disappointments among books I was looking forward to reading. I was the only non-16 year old girl to pick up the final book in the YA Divergent series–Allegiant–but it really failed to live up to the promise of the first book, which I very much enjoyed, and was worse than the second one. I did not enjoy the Giller-winning HellGoing by Lynn Coady, as much as I loved her most recent book The Antagonist and expected to like this one; for me, the characters were too contrived and the plots too loose. I heard much about the “new adult” book The Bone Season, whose very young author was touted as the next J.K. Rowling (which puts such expectations on her writing as to be patently unfair): I was stunned how excessively complex the worlds of the book were and how long it took to situate the reader in each of the various worlds. I had mixed feelings about Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda: I enjoyed it but it was bloody, constantly and literally bloody. It doesn’t so much fit in the category of a disappointment as that of a hard read; that’s not always a bad thing.

I also undertook an accidental reading project this year: the only time I really read mysteries (with a couple of exceptions) is when I am in times of transition. I read Dorothy Sayers in my ninth month of my first pregnancy, while on bedrest. This year, while in the midst of a whirlwind of renovating, moving and more renovating, I picked up a couple of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and then a few more. By the end of the summer, I decided I would read my way through the canon, all 82 of them. By late fall, I was carrying around a list of the remaining mysteries and stopping in at various secondhand shops. It was interesting to solve some of the mysteries early on while others were unclear until the very end. I would put one of Christie’s books on my list if it were a top 11: be sure to read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Another change this year was the way in which I read some books. I received a Kobo e-reader for Christmas 2012 and read a number of books on Bobo, my Kobo. While I actually still prefer paper books the Kobo is particularly convenient when traveling and I tend to keep it in my purse so that as Oscar Wilde suggested “one should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

And now, with no further ado, my list:

10. How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny. Penny’s books seem to me to be getting better and better. A friend recently asked which was her first so he could start with it. My recommendation was that he start with Bury Your Dead, the book where the series really caught its stride. I enjoyed this book as it finally brought together a number of elements that have been hinted at throughout the series.

9. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. I read this book at the recommendation of a woman I met while we were looking at cookbooks. The title captivated me and the book was lovely. It’s a gentle read, reminiscent of Maeve Binchy, about people whose lives are entwined through a cooking class they take. Each chapter focuses on a different person and a different recipe. Bauermeister writes about food and its preparation like no one else I have read. It is luscious but never too sweet. A delicious lighter read.

8. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout. In my review of this book about Everest climber George Mallory, I called it exquisite, and said: “if you are looking for a good book that tells a grand sweep of a suspenseful story while remembering the heartbreak and joys of domestic life, this is it.”

7. Conceit by Mary Novik. This Canadian author says she is engaged in “ongoing exploration of minor characters in the lives of great figures of literature.” Conceit follows the life of the daughter of John Donne. The writing in this book is a pleasure and Novik knows her stuff historically speaking too. I also read and enjoyed her newer book Muse, about Petrarch’s muse.

6. The Woman who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde. I love Fforde. He’s insane, of course, but his alternate BookWorld is a complete pleasure for anyone with an appreciation of literature and a writer with a zany, creative sense of humour. This book is more than a year old but I hadn’t realized it had come out. I enjoyed the fact that there was a touch of “physics” in this one too.

5. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Despite having an English degree that did not cure me of my love of reading, I had never read Chaucer. In one of my forays into secondhand bookshops this fall, I decided it was high time to read him. The great part about literature like this is that, like Shakespeare, the language at first keeps the modern reader at a bit of a remove so that when the code is broken and the reader begins to read the archaic language more easily, it is all the more shock to recognize the humanity shared then and now. Some of the stories the travelers tell en route to Canterbury are bawdy, some are hilarious, some are poignant and some are serious. This is a book that can be picked up and read almost as a series of short stories.

4. Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow. I had the pleasure of reading this YA novel in its earlier drafts as the author is a friend in my writers’ group. The quality of the writing, however, is such that although I knew the story and how it ended, I could not put the published version down. Dark but hopeful. I recommend this one highly.

3. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. I would not mind at all being Barbara Kingsolver when I grow up. I enjoy her fiction immensely, the way she weaves several stories and larger themes together. In this book, she looks at climate change and its surprising effects on one small valley and one woman in particular. The book is in no way preachy and in every way marvelous.

2. The Circle by Dave Eggers. Somehow I have never read Eggers before. I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. It is a cautionary tale about our increasingly connected world where our lives are lived more and more online. The book is almost a contemporary fable but again is not preachy. What stood out the most to me was the loss of small, quiet private moments for the protagonist.

1. Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tamnet. What does it say when my favourite book of the year is a non-fiction math book? But it was. Tamnet is a mathematical savant who has synesthesia. He possesses the unusual ability to think brilliantly and to be able to translate his ideas to the rest of the world. Not all of the book is about math, but it is a book that conveys a deep understanding of the world and a profound sense of wonder. I thought about it and talked about it for months after reading it.

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