Best of Books, the 2013 Edition

So graduate school has had a measurable effect on my reading. The year I started at UCSB, I read 119. The year after I read 99. This year, I’ve read 82. At this rate, I won’t be reading anything at all by the time I get my Ph.D. Which, as I understand it, is traditional.

This year was a bit odd, though, because I couldn’t figure out a good way to count books that I read for my exam and, worst for me, Goodreads only keeps track of books that one has read, not books that one has reread. So I chose to reread fewer books this year because Goodreads doesn’t add that to book count. So the number of pages that I’ve actually slogged through this year is significantly higher once you take into account that I reread Middlemarch, Bleak House and Vanity Fair, each of which are charmingly huge doorstoppers although the first two in particular are some of my favorites.

So, without further ado, this year’s reading graph:

Books of 2013

 

For those curious, last year’s graph can be found here: Textual Retrospective, 2012.

Notes – I realize that there is a section for fantasy, science fiction AND speculative fiction. These are all different things, I promise. Fantasy and SF are exactly what they say, speculative fiction refers to fiction where something in the premise of the text is outside of the realm of realism, but is not well-enough defined to fit into either genre is particular.

As with last year, I will also be listing my standout favorites from each genre with more than three books. And then any other really great books. You should, by the way, assume that any fictional book that makes it onto this list will have fully-realized and complex characters as well as an excellent depiction of the setting.

  1. Best Classic reread – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Given that fully half of this section is Faulkner, this came as no surprise.
  2. Best Speculative Fiction – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Brilliant premise (even though all the reviews saying “OMG, this is so clever!” left me feeling a bit like it was overhyped) and the way that she melded a sweeping historical novel with a realist British novel and then put a speculative turn to both of them was an impressive feat. This isn’t really a mystery, at least in Atkinson’s traditional sense, but it uses the same tools that her mysteries do in that it relies on character’s reactions to events to make things memorable and expects the reader to use what they know about the characters to piece together what is happening. And Atkinson’s characters are always so great that you want to delve deeper and figure out what makes them tick.
  3. Best Science Fiction – The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord. She reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold in that her science fiction focuses on what happens to people in radically new situations usually brought about by science. This book focuses on questions of culture shock and displacement, using an intricately conceived future world as the background for playing out what it means to be a person.  (Runner up is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie for, actually, the exact same reasons.)
  4. Best Fantasy – Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, which narrowly beat Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. So many good books on this list, but Wilson’s stood out to me perhaps because I’ve seen other authors attempt this kind of world (Ian McDonald in Dervish House, Saladin Ahmed in Throne of the Crescent Moon), and while those were good, Wilson’s is the first that seems transcendent. This book manages to be everything: cleverly post-modern, heavily mythical, balancing denouments that rely on a computer whiz with others that pay homage to Arabic traditions. And she handles the religious aspects of working within an Islamic society incredibly deftly, which allows her religious characters to achieve a level of complexity that people who care about religion rarely get to reach in fantasy. The thing that struck me the most about this book, especially given that it’s a first novel, is that Wilson never seemed to me to falter.
  5. Best Nonfiction – Scripting, Reading, Motions by Manuel Portela wins for most useful content and presentation, How to Do Things With Books in Victorian England wins for best written and most fascinating tidbits. I can’t really recommend anything on this list, although if you like reading stuff from University presses and care about New Media, Psychology of Reading or the Bookishness of Books, feel free to ask for my thoughts.
  6. Best Young Adult Fantasy – The Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson. It probably beat out the other two contenders because I got to finish the whole trilogy this year and that’s informing my choice. Still, it was awesome! It revolves around a female character whose growth is incredibly realistic and who isn’t forced into traditional strong-like-men roles. Also, Carson takes religions in fantasy seriously, not as excuses for gods to intervene or to invent swears, but as real practices that inform people’s lives and actually have schisms, laws and rituals constructed around them.
  7. Best Not-Appearing-in-Other-Lists – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s book is brilliant on several levels, but what worked best for me was how it, like Atkinson’s balanced the macro and micro levels of events. On the one hand, this was a book about what it means to be African in the US rather than African American. It was about identity and what it means to suddenly be different and become part of someone else’s history. At the same time, it’s the story of two people reflecting backwards and forwards on the choices that defined her life and the compromises she made or did not want to make. But they’re not really two stories, in the same way that no one is separate from their cultural identity, precisely because Adichie understands how the two aspects of the same story are meant to be woven together.

So that’s it for this year. For more information, such as the full list and my occasionally useful ratings and reviews, feel free to meander over to my Goodreads Page.

And, of course, if you have any comments on these books OR any recommendations for me, please let me know in the comments.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Best of Books, the 2013 Edition

  1. Your posts motivate me to keep track of my own reading habits, though my post is going to take a few more days to make it onto my blog. Also, I find it interesting to see where we agree and where we disagree in terms of certain books.

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