My 2013 in Books

31 Dec

So the last day of the year is finally here. I’m all set to go for 2014: I have my Vintage Typewriter calendar hanging on the wall beside me, Sharpies are at the ready to put a nice red tick in each day/box that I reach my goal of written words and my Erin Condren Life Planner* has been stickered to within an inch of its life.

In the meantime, let’s talk about books.

I actually managed to complete my Goodreads Reading Challenge this year, somehow finishing 56 books, most of them in sustained reading binges (I certainly didn’t read constantly all year). I have to say though, it wasn’t a great year for me in books, with many titles I was looking forward to getting my hands on for months ultimately disappointing me. But there were some gems in there too so if you’re looking for some New Year reading material, here are my recommendations…

(Note: not all of these books came out in 2013.)

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Favorite Fiction

There was a glut of psychological thrillers written by women this year, probably because of last year’s global Gone Girl obsession. (Have you seen the first still from the movie? I. Cannot. WAIT!) I get that, but I have to say that by July, seeing a comparison to Gone Girl on a book’s jacket was more likely to make me put it down than pick it up — mostly because it was slapped on every thriller and only a very, very few of them can ever even come close to the talents of Gillian Flynn. (Side note: Gone Girl is not even her best book. Find yourself Sharp Objects and Dark Places.)

One thriller that didn’t disappoint was The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, a book I came close to missing because the synopsis turned me off. A time-travelling serial killer? Um, no thanks. (Or: no, you’re grand, as us Irish would say.) But I’m so glad a review from someone I trusted pushed me back to this book, because it was brilliant. Easily the best thriller I read all year. Very inventive and genuinely unnerving. What more do you want?

Other notable mentions: The Rosie Project, which had me grinning with glee the whole way through and then left me in a puddle at the end. A pure joy of a book. Defending Jacob seemed to be an interesting but unoriginal courtroom procedural… until you get to a few pages before the end and then BOOM! The Husband’s Secret: not what I’d normally pick up but, again, so glad I did. An exceptional book with a gut-wrenching emotional punch. Also makes you seriously consider if honesty is really always the best policy…

Most Interesting True Tales

I was lucky to find a lot of juicy non-fiction this year. Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige-Hill is an absolute must read. Not only does it reveal the “real” world of Scientology (the world that lifelong Scientologists experience, not the take-away lite version the celebrities seem to get) but it made me understand, for the first time, why someone would head in that direction in the first place. Jenna holds nothing back and for her courage alone, she should be rewarded with readers. I just hope someone from Amnesty International gets around to reading this too.

Other notable mentions: Running Like a Girl is the book I hoped Run, Fat Bitch, Run would be. (But don’t get me started on that offensive turd of a book.) It’s actually perfect reading now, at the beginning of a new year, and I might have to pull it out for a re-read myself. Most of these books are written by people who were always fit, who don’t understand that if you’re not fit you can’t just run out your door and keep going. (The author of the Offensive Turd wasn’t unfit or fat—she was pregnant. But as I said, don’t get me started…DEEP BREATH.) But Alexandra genuinely started from zero, and her goal was just to survive the marathon, not to win it or anything. This book is enjoyable, funny and inspirational and I loved her explanation for how she went from the kind of girl who was somewhat of a couch potato to marathon runner: ‘I just decided to be able to.’

Also: The Good Nurse was a chilling insight into how a health care system actually helped America’s most prolific serial killer to kill. Frightening stuff. Song of Spider-Man was just pure entertainment, a firsthand account of the disaster that was Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway by the book’s writer (the guy who writes the dialogue). The best thing about it was the author himself, Glen Berger, who you just want to treat to a long beach vacation and a hug by the end. His opening? “Look, I know it’s just a f–king show…’

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Is It Just Me…?

A few much-hyped thrillers left me wondering if I was missing the point. How To Be A Good Wife? It kinda made me want to shove my own head in an oven it was so bleak and depressing, and I just didn’t believe that there was any ‘illuminating undercurrent about the female domestic experience’ or whatever arty-farty subtext newspaper reviews tried to convince me there was. The Silent Wife was exceptionally well-written, but not enough happened in its pages for me. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked didn’t have much stalking in it, and wins the award for the most pretentious, over-written, off-topic prose this year (or maybe ever?) Saying it didn’t contain stalking caused heated debate on Goodreads—you can read my review here but I’ve already deleted the more troll-like comments—but regardless of the legal fine points, this book wasn’t what it said on the tin. We were promised orange juice concentrate, and instead we got orange-flavoured water garnished with intricate orange cuttings. The Never List was more like The Never List Will Never Be Mentioned Again After Chapter One, and it had a plot that felt like it was shoehorned onto the characters. A real disappointment for me, as I was looking forward to reading it for MONTHS. Lost Girls was supposed to be a true crime book, but it spent all of its pages recounting what people with the most tenuous and irrelevant links to the victims had to say about what they thought might have possible happened. By the end, the author was reprinting entire comments from memorial Facebook pages and so, just like in life and in the investigation of their murders, these girls got lost again.

And um, The Fault In Our Stars? What’s up with that? Wasn’t I supposed to experience some kind of life-changing, life-affirming rapture amidst its pages? The internet had me believing I would and… well, it was just okay. Apparently though I am utterly alone in this opinion.

It Ain’t Lolita…

Tampa by Alissa Nutting is probably the most controversial novel of the year, a (somewhat) satire about a twenty-something female teacher who seduces her teenage male student. If the terms child abuse or rape haven’t come to your mind, reverse the genders and try again. And that’s what makes this well-written and original novel sit like a meal that didn’t agree with me in the pit of my stomach. It’s supposed to be a satire, but how can child abuse be funny? How can this extremely graphic book be on anyone’s favorite reads list? How are we supposed to feel about it? Honestly, I just don’t know…

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My Favorite Reads of 2014

I have to say if I were to recommend just one novel to you this year, it would be Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. It wasn’t necessarily the book I’d rate the highest out of this lot, but on the whole, it was the best one when you consider how well it was written, its page-turning factor and how much it made me think. Shriver uses food to question whether life is a lot like it: with hunger being the best part, with the actual eating of the foods we desire being the most disappointing part of the experience, are we just meant to be hungry? Is getting what we want—achieving our dreams, reaching the peak of our careers—the end of the joy, rather than the start of it? Considering that the main character nurses her morbidly obese brother back to health and that Shriver’s own brother died from a similar condition before she wrote this book, and Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin-esque twist at the end, this book is really an unforgettable experience. I read it in April, and I still think about it now. (For those of you who have tried Shriver in the past and found her a bit wordy and heavy going, I would also say that this is perhaps her most readable book, so don’t let that put you off.)

And there’ll be no prizes for guessing my favorite non-fiction book of the year: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth by Chris Hadfield. It’s actually the last book I read this year, and it was so much more than I hoped it would be. You can read my Goodreads review here.

So, that’s it. For some nostalgia and Beautiful Ruins love, re-visit my 2012 in books.

Tell me: what 3 books did you read this year (that I haven’t) would you INSIST I read in 2014? Or did you read any of the above and totally disagree with my take on it? Let me know in the comments below… And HAPPY NEW YEAR!

(And get well soon Michael Schumacher. Still can’t believe it but I do believe he’ll pull through.)

*If you make a purchase from Erin Condren through that link, we BOTH get a $10 credit. Woo-hoo!

18 Responses to “My 2013 in Books”

  1. Kate Sparkes December 31, 2013 at 13:33 #

    Ooh, so much to add to my reading list, thank you!

    You’re not alone in your thoughts on The Fault in Our Stars. I haven’t read it yet, but a friend of mine said the same thing– she had NO idea what all of the hype was about, thought it was below average, and felt like she’d wasted her money. I’m going to see if they get it at the library. If it’s a lot of teen angst, I’ll probably feel the same way, but so many people say it’s the best thing ever written that I have to try. For me, the hype is probably working against it at this point.

    • catherineryanhoward December 31, 2013 at 13:41 #

      I can safely say it is not the best thing ever written. :-D

      Maybe it just appealed to its demographic in unusual ways we adults can’t appreciate…? I know I LOVED Twilight because it reminded me so much of being a teenage girl in love.

      • Kate Sparkes December 31, 2013 at 13:45 #

        Maybe. I know some adults who loved TFIOS, probably for that reason– it reminds them of something in their past. I’ll definitely have to pick it up just to see how that works for me. EXPERIMENT! :D

  2. Keris December 31, 2013 at 13:37 #

    Fantastic round-up! Loved it. My favourite book this year was The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert – didn’t want it to end. I’m reading The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender by Sam Killermann at the moment and I think it’s a book everyone should read. Really complicated concepts explained with humour and pictures! (Also I “paid for it” with a tweet, which isn’t something I’d come across before!) Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed was also utterly wonderful, although I had to stop reading it in public cos of all the weeping…

    • catherineryanhoward December 31, 2013 at 13:40 #

      WAIT: Cheryl Strayed has a book I don’t know about?! That’s going STRAIGHT to the top of the To Read pile. And The Signature of All Things… I’ve heard loads of good things about it but I would fear that Gilbert as a person would get in the way of my enjoyment of it. Am I being paranoid about that?

      • Keris December 31, 2013 at 13:49 #

        It’s a collection of her agony columns, but it’s so much more than that – beautiful and sad and wise.

        I think you can enjoy the Liz Gilbert without liking her, yes. I think it does have her ‘voice’ but it’s obviously different in fiction. There’s a great review here http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/06/signature-all-things-elizabeth-gilbert-review

        Oh and TFIOS is definitely not the best book ever written. I liked it a lot, but if you want to read a beautiful YA romance, I’d go with Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Oh and you should also read Fangirl (by Rainbow Rowell), Catherine. (Sorry, that’s four.)

        • catherineryanhoward December 31, 2013 at 14:03 #

          I actually have everything Rainbow Rowell has ever written in my Amazon cart for when I can afford to buy books again. I’m so there!

  3. Caroline December 31, 2013 at 13:56 #

    Thanks for the ever-informative overviews, Catherine and happy New Year!

  4. Robin December 31, 2013 at 14:03 #

    I love hearing about books, thanks for your list! I just joined Good Reads and am psyched because it’s tough to find other booky-friends. I love Gillian Flynn too and read all 3 of her books this past year…can’t wait for the movie! I was also hunkered down by family reading w/my son, where we read all 7 Harry Potter books from August – November, and at the same time read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, and that took me 6 months at 10000+ pages! Looking forward to more quicker reads in 2014~ I would recommend Kate Atkinson–am reading Life after Life and am almost done but LOVE all of her novels, esp. Human Croquet. I also love and would recommend Tana French, they are all murder mysteries set in Dublin. Her latest from this year is Broken Harbor, but I loved the one before that too, Faithful Place. Thanks again for your awesome list—will look some of these up!

    • Robin December 31, 2013 at 14:05 #

      ack, that 1Q84 was 1000+ pages, not 10,000, went a little crazy w/the zero!

    • catherineryanhoward December 31, 2013 at 15:23 #

      Tana French was actually a re-read; I’m a big fan and have read all her books. Life After Life has been sitting, pristine and untouched, on my shelf for months. I keep telling myself I’ll get to it when I have time to concentrate. I think I’m a bit intimidated by its size!

  5. Kristi Helvig December 31, 2013 at 16:04 #

    I heart my Erin Condren planner…it’s a little sad how excited I get when the new one arrives. I did love TFIOS but I also read and write YA, and have a friend whose child died of cancer so the book rang very true for me. My favorite YA read last year was If I Stay by Gayle Forman and my fave book club read was The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (yes, it’s about baseball but it was amazing IMHO). Happy 2014!

  6. John Manchester December 31, 2013 at 16:10 #

    I found this year in thrillers disappointing. Books by stalwarts like Michael Connelly, John Sandford, even the great Lee Child didn’t quite do it for me. And I have to include The Shining Girls – I think the writer is very talented, a lot of nice scenes, but it felt like the writing was rush, the story undercooked.

    My favorite thrillers this year were all TV series – The Returned, end of Breaking Bad, Top of the Lake, The Killing. And Dexter, which I finally got around to.

    Guess I’ll just have to write the book I want to read (or try to get into writing TV, which ain’t gonna happen.)

  7. Rosie Amber December 31, 2013 at 18:22 #

    Some great books on your list. I love reading too, here are 3 books I’ve enjoyed this year. It’s NOT a Holiday by Andy Robinson and Kirsty McGregor(Group travel Guide), Inceptio by Alison Morton (Mystery)and Beatrysel by Johnny Worthen (Thriller/horror).

  8. Lene December 31, 2013 at 20:43 #

    Thanks for filling up my 2014 list of books to read!

    I have two favourite books of the year. First, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. Uncompromising, chilling, unnerving. And the first in a trilogy. Second, The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan, but get the audiobook version. Terrific story taken into the stratosphere by a brilliant narrator.

  9. Carinn Jade January 1, 2014 at 02:08 #

    The only thing you are missing is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. I assume I have been living under a rock so I haven’t read The Emperor’s Children but I thought TWU was great.

  10. robdarke January 8, 2014 at 11:41 #

    I really enjoyed Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and would thoroughly recommend it and a self-published book called Where Is Jason Rayner by K J Rabane is also an intriguing read. I would love to see my book The Accidental Courier on your list Catherine – I think we enjoy similar reading tastes

  11. Renny January 9, 2014 at 13:18 #

    Great article! I really liked the Husband’s Secret so I threw it in the ring for my book club to judge it and they loved it ;)

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