2013: My year in books

Some people mark the year by life events, news stories, or the passing of seasons. I mark the year by the books I have read.

Bookshelf 2013

Thanks to the wonders of Goodreads, I can tell you that in 2013 I read 46 books. In the past year, novels have brought me to Boston, Mexico, and Iran, and have opened portals to the fantasy lands of Faerie and Camor. They’ve sent me back in time to ancient Rome and Victorian England, as well as forward in time to a dystopian America.


I rated the books as:

  • 3 books rated 5 stars, “It was amazing” in Goodreads classification
  • 17 rated 4 stars “really liked it”
  • 17 rated 3 stars, “liked it”
  • 7 rated 2 stars, “it was ok”
  • 2 rated 1 star, “did not like it”


I read 14 non-fiction books in 2013. Through them, I learned how women survived without men after World War One (Singled Out by Virginia Nicolson), how a 17th century Irishman may have inspired the legend of Zorro (The Irish Zorro: The Extraordinary Adventures of William Lamport by Gerard Ronan), how Louisa May Alcott became the JK Rowling of her time (Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen), how one woman’s cancer cells have helped nearly every medical breakthrough of the last half-century (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot), and how the modern pharmaceutical industry fails in its primary function (Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre).


In 2013, I read 32 fiction books, including:

  • 11 fantasy
  • 9 historical fiction
  • 9 crime/mystery
  • 5 classics
  • 5 “coming-of-age” stories
  • 2 sci-fi

The total adds up to more than 32, because some books fall into more than one category. For example, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender comes under both fantasy and coming-of-age genres.

Most read authors

Most read authors

I read books by 36 separate authors in 2013, 17 women and 19 men. I read only one book per authors, with the exception of:

  • 5 by Jim Butcher
  • 3 by Jane Austen
  • 2 each by Dennis Lehane, Neil Gaiman, Bill Bryson, and Scott Lynch

Jim Butcher is managing the impossible and maintaining my interest over a series that has gone into double figures. I have to thank my brother-in-law, Damien McKenna, for introducing me to Harry Dresden, “Chicago’s only wizard detective”. Book after book, Harry ably copes with the various vampires, werewolves, fairies, zombies, trolls and other creatures that threaten his city and his friends. This year I read books 10 to 14 of the Dresden Files. It’s formulaic, but Harry is consistently entertaining and engaging, and I keep coming back for more.

At the beginning of the year, I realised that I had only read half of Austen’s works and determined to complete the other half. The electronic versions were available free through the Gutenburg project, so I had no excuse. I enjoyed Emma, but was underwhelmed by Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.

Denis Lehane (Moonlight Mile and Shutter Island) and Neil Gaiman (Stardust and Anansi Boys) were as consistently good as ever. Bill Bryson entertained me with A Walk in the Woods but disappointed me with The Lost Continent. Scott Lynch was my big find of 2013, with his wickedly delightful Gentleman Bastard series (so far I’ve read The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies and I’m currently reading The Republic of Thieves).

The Best

I rated most of my books as 3 (“liked it”) or 4 (“really liked it”) stars. I’m quite stingy about granting 5 (“it was amazing”) stars, reserving this for the crème de la crème. This year, 3 books were exciting enough to gain this top spot (book title and author, followed by my Goodreads review).

 5-star bookshelf

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson returns to form with this slice of 21st century life, seen through the prism of his weird imagination. The main characters are:
A 60-something draft dodger turned drug smuggler turned technology billionaire
His supersmart niece, adopted from an Eritrean refugee camp and now geology and programming expert
Some Chinese online role-playing hackers
Some Russians of variable moral ambiguity
A resourceful Chinese woman with blue boots
Some Islamic terrorists
Some British spies
Various geeks of varying geekitude

I’ll say no more. Go read Reamde.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

One of those stories that would be unbelievable as fiction. Henrietta Lacks never wanted to change the world, she only wanted relief from the cancer that was killing her. Unfortunately, the medicine of the time couldn’t save her, but her “immortal” cells have played a role in just about every medical advance in the past half-century. But her family remained in poverty, lacking health care and uninformed, for decades.
Breaking news: A new arrangement has been made between the Lacks family and the National Institute of Health.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Scott Lynch first came to my attention through this brilliant reply to a bigoted critic. I finally got around to his first book, and I can’t remember when I last had this much fun reading a novel.
Camorr is a fantasy version of Renaissance Venice, except it has magicians, and indestructible glass structures left behind by an alien civilization, and “alchemical” lights, and female gladiators who fight sharks, and multiple gods including one specifically for thieves… but yeah, other than that, very much like Renaissance Venice. Locke Lamora is a liar, a conman, a thief, and a smartarse, but he’s one of the most moral characters in Camorr. He and his merry band rob from the rich and give to… well, themselves actually… but at least they don’t kill people… unless they absolutely have to. But even they can get in way over their heads.
It is (creatively) violent and there is (a lot of) swearing. But if that doesn’t bother you, then read this book. Read it especially if you like Joe Abercrombie’s novels or the badass of the week‎ website.
I have already ordered book 2, Red Seas Under Red Skies. Book 3, The Republic of Thieves, is out this week. Wayhay!

The Worst

In 2013, I gave the 2 –star “it was ok” rating to seven books. Only two, however got the dreaded 1-star “I did not like it” rating.

James and Bryson

The first was P.D. James’s A Taste for Death. I had never read this author before, and I’m unlikely to again, as I explained in my review:

Some people rave about P.D. James, but I’m afraid that her writing style never grabbed me. This book contains more descriptions of furniture and interiors than an IKEA catalog. The dialog was remarkably stilted; nobody talks anything like these characters. Sorry, fans, but P.D. James is not for me.

Sadly, this seems to have been my year for disappointment with previously-loved authors. Was Barbara Kingsolver’s lacklustre Lacuna really written by the same author as the breath-taking Poisonwood Bible? I felt traitorous when I gave a 2-star to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, but it failed to engage me in any way.

And I was even more disappointed with Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, as you can probably tell from my 1-star review:

“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” This is the memorable first line of Bill Bryson’s first travelogue. Unfortunately, it’s the best line in the book, and it’s downhill from there.
According to Bryson, the American people are stupid and fat, the towns are ugly, the countryside is boring, and everything is overpriced. He even fails to be impressed by Yosemite and Yellowstone, which takes some doing. If I were American, I might be offended. As an Irish person who has visited America several times, I just find it tiresome. How many different ways can you say that people are fat?
This negativity would be excusable if it was funny, and very occasionally Bryson manages a witty remark (I liked his comment about how Utah is the one place where you are never bothered by Mormon missionaries, because Utah people assume that everyone there is Mormon already). However, the overwhelming snobbery and grumpiness drowns out everything else. Bryson would be a terrible travelling companion.
If The Lost Continent had been the first Bryson that I read, I would never read another. Fortunately, it’s not; I enjoyed Down Under and A Walk in the Woods, and I count A Short History of Nearly Everything among my favourites. It seems that Bryson mellowed from a grumpy 30-something to an older man who can actually enjoy travelling and life in general.

The Year Ahead

So, what’s next for 2014?

I’m currently reading Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves, and unfortunately I run out of Gentleman Bastard books until Lynch writes another. But in 2014, Jim Butcher is bringing out book 15 (Skin Game) of the Dresden Files, and Diana Gabaldon is publishing the latest in the Outlander saga (Written in my Own Heart’s Blood).

Every year for the past few years, I’ve read at least one hefty book by Neal Stephenson; I’ve yet to read Snow Crash or The Diamond Age, so I’ll have to flip a coin for which one to tackle first. I keep saying that I should read more Neil Gaiman.

There are a few new-to-me authors on my “to-read” list, including Mary Beth Keane (Fever, the story of Typhoid Mary) and Vanessa Diffenbaugh (The Language of Flowers). In both cases, the subject matter grabbed me first and then the first chapter was compelling enough for me to buy.

Thanks to my friend Colleen Jones, I also have the entire Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (dragons in the Napoleonic wars) as well as Sweetly by Jackson Pearce (a retelling of Hansel and Gretel). Different Seasons by Stephen King was in my Christmas stocking, a collection that includes the stories adapted into the The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me.

So in other words, I’ll be revisiting a paranormal Chicago, time-travelling to 18th century America, deciding whether I want my cyberpunk served with helpings of computer virus or nanotechnology, feeling the temperature of early-20th-century New York, learning about foster care and flowers, sailing with a dragon or two, and breaking out of prison. Should be an interesting year!

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