So I’m sitting here, enjoying my Christmas vacation, pouring over endless “best of” lists for 2013, and I think to myself, “hey, I read a lot of books in 2013—I should totally add to that noise!” But because basic best/worst lists can sometimes be on the dry side, I’m going to try something different and breakdown my reading year in greater detail.
As previously stated, I made it through a fair number of titles in 2013. One hundred, to be exact. (The full list: https://backlisted.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/the-great-2013-reading-list/) It’s a lower number than I’ve read in previous years, likely due to the fact that my writing/reviewing output saw an exponential increase. Now, not every title on this list was released in 2013, but screw it—this is my blog and if I read it in 2013, then it’s fair game.
So without further procrastination…
Best of 2013:
(*Note: reviews for almost all of my top ten books of the year can be found on this site—the only one I didn’t get around to writing about was the Gaiman title.)
- The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
- Cataract City, by Craig Davidson
- Life Form, by Amelie Nothomb
- Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
- Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, by Ty Burr
- Remember Why You Fear Me, by Robert Shearman
- Fiend, by Peter Stenson
- By Blood, by Ellen Ullman
- All My Friends Are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman
Honourable Mentions: Savage Love, by Douglas Glover; I Don’t Know How to Behave, by Michael Blouin; Rage of Poseidon, by Anders Nilsen; In and Down, by Brett Alexander Savory; The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (I so desperately wanted to love this last one, but found it utterly limp and uninteresting—I would have loved so much more of the art world aspects of it to have been on display. Fantastic writing, however.)
>>For six months I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. I’ve not been able to get this book out of my head, and several times this year I’ve contemplated picking it up and reading it all over again—a rarity for me, especially given the ridiculous size of my backlog. The novel is a time travel masterpiece on the death of a certain type of oppressive type of masculinity—the sort of entitlement to power that is anathema to cultural progress—and the strength of individual women coming to grips with their own power and its ability to shape the changing world around them. No, the whys and hows of the time travel or never explained, nor do they need explaining—to do so would be an unnecessary distraction for a title with character, imagery, and lyricism to spare.
>>Craig Davidson’s Cataract City is, for me, the novel that should’ve won the Giller. Similar to The Shining Girls, Davidson’s novel explores the limits of unchecked masculinity and the small island it still dominates in a world quickly leaving it in the dust. I’ve seen some valid criticisms of the work—primarily a similarity in tone and language between many of the narrative’s key players—but none of them in any way detract from the harsh, economical, gut-wrenching story of two childhood friends searching desperately for their purpose—for their golden ticket to take them away from their blue collar, go-nowhere town.
>>And then there’s Amelie Nothomb’s Life Form. I don’t have too much more to say about this title other than what’s already been written in my review. Nothomb’s books are bliss for me; each of her novellas that I’ve read has been a single-serving slice of joy, with layered, delicately absurdist imagery and a profound willingness to strip her skin away over and over again for the benefit of the reader. Life Form isn’t her strongest title—that honour still belongs to her first book, Hygiene and the Assassin—but it is still a very worthy addition to her already impressive catalogue.
Worst/Most Disappointing of 2013:
(*Note: some of these are very well made/well written titles that have received, in some cases, extreme accolades, so bear in mind I am not calling most of these books crap so much as saying that regardless of their merits, they disappointed me greatly. Except for those first two on the list—those are absolutely crap and should be avoided at all costs.)
- A Murder of Crows, by David Rotenberg
- The Placebo Effect, by David Rotenberg
- The Demonlogist, by Ander Pyper
- You, by Austin Grossman
- This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla, by Andrew Steinmetz
- Clone: First Generation, by David Schulner, Juan Jose Ryp, and Felix Serrano
- Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey, by Chuck Palahniuk
- Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
- Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
- It, by Stephen King
(Dis)Honourable Mentions: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud; Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady; Caught, by Lisa Moore (these three titles were all nominated for the Giller—the Messud title only for the longlist—and all three I found vacant and largely removed of emotion and character. I fully admit here that my disappointment in these titles was likely increased due to the hype they received in the run up to the Giller, but that doesn’t make their lack of impact any less upsetting.)
>>I don’t want to go into the Rotenberg titles any more than I already have (see the reviews linked to at the end of this paragraph), but suffice it to say I found these books offensively bad and would not recommend them on any level.
>>As for The Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper, I seem to have been in the minority on this title as it received its fair share of positive press since its release (and it has popped up on at least one list of the year’s best books). That being said, I felt the book wanted desperately to rewrite the Dan Brown method but wound up having even greater problems—like convenient plot revelations with absolutely no work done to get us there and emotional character turns that made little sense. I couldn’t help but feel that the basic plot could have used a few more drafts to help iron out some of the details.
Authors I broke up with this year: Chuck Palahniuk, Austin Grossman, and Denis Johnson.
Sorry, guys. I’ve tried to love you, I really have, but… it’s not you, it’s me. Also, I’m lying—it’s mostly you. I wish you the best of luck, I really do, but short of being given an ungodly cash incentive, I’m moving on.
On thin ice: Marisha Pessl, Stephen King, and Lisa Moore.
While I loved Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her second book, Night Film, was a bloated mess of ideas and extra-textual elements substituting for genuine character development and narrative depth. My first experience with Lisa Moore was this year’s Caught, which I found to be perfunctory to its detriment—there was no colour to the story, no intrigue or growth or anything approaching emotional resonance save for one scene where the main character revisits the former love of his life who’s since moved on with hers. And Stephen King… the this-is-totally-not-necessary-in-any-way gang-bang scene in It nearly killed the novel for me (it certainly knocked it down several dozen pegs). I’m yet to enjoy one of his books all the way through. Conceptually I find him fascinating, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired—possibly too much. I’ll likely give him another shot—I’ve been given too many of his books over the years to not read a few more—but On Writing remains, for me, his only exceptional entry.
2013 by the numbers:
Books Read: 100
Written by Men: 52
Written by Women: 39
Written by Both: 7
Canadian Authored and/or Published: 43
Short Story Collections: 11
Comics and Graphic Novels: 15
Young Adult: 5
Poetry: 2 (sort of—Amber Dawn’s amazing How Poetry Saved My Life is part-memoir)
Unpublished Manuscripts: 5