Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 13 Books of 2013

I didn't do as much reading this year as I generally do. Part of it was my class last winter, and part of it was the advent of Emma Approved, my discovery of Doctor Who, and watching grown men scream like little girls at Slender Man games.

However, I did get a fair bit read, and I've compiled a list on my library account of more (most of the ideas taken from the Recommended Reading section on the Republic of Pemberley). Without further ado, here are my top 13 books of 2013!

1. The Iliad by Homer

While it's easy to glean ideas about The Iliad from pop culture references, it's another thing entirely to actually read it. I actually listened to it in audiobook format (Robert Fitzgerald translation), and while the reader wasn't the greatest, he did in fact do a great job of portraying the emotion that pervades the story. When Patroclus died, I swear the reader was about to actually burst into tears over it. (Not that I cried or anything...) The scene between Achilles and Priam is also extremely touching (as my brother points out over here). There's also some humor here and there-the "smack talk" amongst the soldiers tends to be very amusing. (Imagine two guys who used to play football, drunkenly discussing their glory days in the bar. You get the idea.) And my favorite part, when Aphrodite enters the battle to help one of her favorites, and gets cut by an arrow. She runs away crying, and the rest of the gods laugh at her for freaking out over a paper cut. And speaking of The Iliad...

2.) The Odyssey by Homer

I literally just finished The Odyssey, available on the website "Poetry in Translation". (I'd been reading it during slow times at work.) I initially started out listening to it on Librivox, but they changed readers to a very old woman who sounds like she's past everything but tea and quadrille, and needs a throat lozenge to boot. As I couldn't listen without the urge to clear my throat, I took to reading it. The Odyssey tells of Odysseus' trip home after the events of The Iliad, as well as his son's coming into his own, and becoming a man. In this, the gods aren't fighting as much, so we mainly see Athena helping Odysseus around Poseidon's traps for him. Poseidon, you see, is mad that Odysseus blinded his cyclops son. You know, after his cyclops son kept devouring people. (The frustration of the ancient Greeks must have been enormous, given how arbitrarily silly the gods were.) One thing that really struck me was how the Greek reverence for hospitality has never really changed. There is a lot of emphasis on welcoming guests and exchanging gifts, and Homer shows us just how bad Penelope's suitors are by having them treat the "beggar" (Odysseus, of course) horribly. I also enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between Penelope and Odysseus. Most of the marriages in the Greek myths are horribly dysfunctional (Agamemnon's disaster is referenced in-universe), but all we see is Odysseus wanting to get home to his wife, and Penelope using all her wiles to avoid the cultural pressure to remarry, because no one can compare to Odysseus. Their reunion is beautiful.

3.) Something Red by Douglas Nicholas

I've already reviewed this, but I want to reiterate some of the things I love about this book. The novel is absolutely poetic, giving luscious descriptions of a wintry medieval landscape, creating word-pictures of an endless forest, large feasting halls and cozy inn. The characters are drawn with a few deft strokes, with all of their flaws and virtues. The only way I can describe this book is "beautiful".

4.) Two Graves by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Preston and Child's Pendergast is one of the most complex and enigmatic literary characters I have ever encountered. Throughout most of the books, he is calm, cool, and in control. Two Graves throws that all right out the window. The book can be retitled "Pendergast beats up everyone". This is the culmination of the emotional and psychological torment the character has gone through in the previous two books of the trilogy. Pendergast is pushed farther than ever, and the book is as much about blowing up Nazis (literally) as it is about Pendergast overcoming his demons. (Again.)

5.) The Narrows by Ronald Malfi

I'm pretty picky about my horror. The market is inundated with sexy werewolves/vampires/zombies/Cthulhu and is somehow horror, even though the only scary thing is the sanity-blasting writing in Twilight. That said, there are plenty of genuinely good horror authors that know how to set up atmosphere and understand that the less explained, the better. Ronald Malfi is one of those authors. The Narrows succeeds where others fail because 1.) The characters are complex (I keep using that word), 2.) The atmosphere is laden with tension and paranoia, and 3.) The monster is unique but barely explained, leaving it as a very real threat to the world. While I'm not as thrilled with Cradle Lake (I just couldn't get into it), The Narrows represents the best part of modern horror.

6.) The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

While I had a few issues with this book, it was overall one of the better ones I'd read this year. It was mystery, horror, thriller, and historical all wrapped into one. I loved the view we get of the time period, as well as some of the pervading beliefs. The characters, flawed as they were, leapt off the pages. And none were so compelling as Jakob Kuisl, the gruff, intelligent hangman with a penchant for medical knowledge. Pötzsch does a wonderful job of bringing his ancestors to life in this book, and for that alone it deserves praise.

7.) Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

It is hard to describe this book, simply because it is so unique. Sloan's story combines conspiracy theories, cults, antiquarians, new technology, and the search for immortality, and it all starts out with an unemployed guy getting a job at a bookstore. It's a funny and extremely quirky book that remains lighthearted even as it explores issues such as leaving a legacy, the tension between tradition and innovation, and the impact a good book can have on one's life.

8.) The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

This was another "different" kind of book that's hard to class. It is, of course, a mystery; or rather, a series of mysteries; but it is also McCall Smith's love letter to Africa. Mma Ramotswe is such a sparkling, confident character that it's not hard to root for her, and the funny and interesting characters that surround her only add to this delightful book. It also has its heartfelt side, exploring the love of one's home and family and overcoming loss and and grief. The strange situations and amusing ends to most of the mysteries makes this a rather cozy read.

9. The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

What if there were nasty tentacled alien god-things trying to break through into our universe and devour our souls? What would we do about that? Charles Stross knows. We would battle those nasties with the dual weapons of bureaucracy and inefficiency. The Laundry series is a very strange and amusing look at what happens when you combine spy fiction, office humor, and Lovecraftian abominations. The book is rather amusing, in a droll, British sort of way, as Bob Howard tries to stop cultists from summoning the Eater of Souls, even if the Eater of Souls has already been summoned and is in fact his manager. Needless to say, Eldritch Hilarity ensues in one of the best of the Laundry books.

10.) Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

In this epistolary novel, Kate attends her sister to Regency London so her sister can catch a rich husband; her cousin Cecelia isn't allowed to go because their relatives fear the mayhem that would ensue if they were there together; and magic is a common part of everyday life. This book had me laughing out loud several times as the girls try to make sense of the magical nonsense going on around them, their suitors try to wrap their minds around the girls' antics, and Cecelia's brother has been turned into a tree. It is all delightfully silly.

11.) Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady

I had read this before, but it's such a cozy that I had to re-read it. We know very little about how Jane Austen would have continued this book had she lived longer, but the author (Marie Dobbs) does a good job of guessing at it. The ending may not be quite Austenesque but it still contains the tongue-in-cheek humor one expects in an Austen novel. This is one of my comfort books I read when I'm feeling ill or just don't feel like thinking about a new book.

12.) The Tale of Hilltop Farm by Susan Wittig Albert

One wouldn't think that Beatrix Potter and mysteries (including murder mysteries) could mix, but Albert does a very good job in doing just that. The book takes place as Beatrix first buys the now-famous Hill Top Farm, depicting her struggle with being a female owner of a farm and her grief at the loss of her fiance, while shenanigans ensue in the small town. Even more amusing, the animals in-universe act very much like Potter's book creations and are strong, fun characters in their own right. The entire series is lovely and comfortable.

13.) Wu Zhao: China's Only Woman Emperor by N. Harry Rothschild

This was a book assigned for my History of Asia class last winter. Wu Zhao is a fascinating person in history, as well as something of an innovator. She broke down class barriers by ascending from being a merchant's daughter to ruling the empire; she broke down gender barriers by proclaiming herself to be emperor (rather than empress, the wife or widow of an emperor), and she broke down religious barriers by keeping an admittedly shaky peace between the three belief systems of that time-Confucians, Buddhists, and Daoists. She was politically savvy and often ruthless, but was a complex person with conflicting interests and impulses. The book gives plenty of detail on the culture at that time. This is definitely a good biography for those interested in China's history.

Edit: Hi everyone! Anne over at ModernMrsDarcy wants us to share our faves of 2013, so I'll be linking this over there. And while you're at, check out her 2013 list and the reader link-ups. Reading all these is going to take a while. I suggest you get started now. NOW.


  1. Yay for book recommendations! Now I've got to go update my goodreads account.

  2. What?! This Mr. Penumbra book sounds AMAZING. Also, I think we need to be friends. I love reading and writing about conspiracy theories, cults and the supernatural.

  3. The one that jumps out at me is The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, because my friend Carrie raves and RAVES about this series, but I've never heard anyone else recommend it. Till now. :)