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the island of conclusions

Books 2013

the island of conclusions

bright star

Books 2013

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bright star
Last year, I recommended more non-fiction than fiction; this year things seem to have tilted the other way.

The most remarkable thing about this year was that I (unexpectedly) listened to 18 of the 21 Aubrey-Maturin books. They gave me huge amounts of pleasure and got me through some hard times (and some long runs). For the record, my favorites were HMS Surprise and Desolation Island, though the best scene belongs to The Far Side of the World. I also liked The Commodore a lot, but I ran out of steam with The 100 Days. Maybe in 2014!

Six novels I’d recommend if you wanted something well-written and absorbing to read:

Atkinson, Life After Life: A life lived over and over again in the first half of the twentieth century. It sounds like a confusing concept, but the book is very clear and unfussy, and the period details are great.

Garey, Too Bright to Hear, to Loud to See: About a man descending into the vortex of his own mental illness. Again, it sounds maudlin and upsetting, but the writing is dry and clear, and makes an unsympathetic character very compelling.

Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: About Chechnya: a post-apocalyptic landscape that really existed. Again—this seems to be my theme this year—a situation that could be melodramatic and maudlin is instead described with dry, careful detail and real humanity. This one is the only book on the list that made me cry.

Meyer, The Son: Three generations of a cutthroat Texas family. The voices are amazing, though the scenarios are brutal. It’s an interesting book for being obsessed with masculinity and sodden with testosterone, but not misogynistic. The female characters are complicated and put up with no bullshit.

Wein, Code Name Verity: A spy and a pilot. Women acting heroically. Epic girl friendship.

Wilson, Alif the Unseen: Science fiction that takes place during the Arab spring. What the Neuromancer books would have been like if they’d drawn on Islam rather than Caribbean folklore, and with hugely sympathetic portrayals of religious women.

(if I were expanding the list to novels I think are very good and worth reading, I’d include The Woman Upstairs, which I actually think is a more thoughtful and honest novel than Life After Life, but it’s too upsetting/provocative to recommend for enjoyment)

Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. A page-turner, but I found it really upsetting, for reasons I describe here and here.

Finkel, Thank You For Your Service: The sequel, as it were, to The Good Soldiers. Again, compelling but really upsetting. As much about class in the US and the inadequacy of mental health care as it is about PTSD. The chapters on military suicide are chilling. (more here)

Guwande, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science: A classic in the field. Every essay stays with you.

Hastings, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945: Hastings is a great (though opinionated) writer. Illuminating chapters about arenas I knew nothing about, like Manchuria.

Small, Stitches: A graphic memoir, also on medical themes. I don’t usually read graphic novels, etc, but this one was really powerful.

The full list
nb: most of these I liked—I don’t tend to finish things that I don’t like or that don’t hold my attention.
nb: an * indicates that I listened to the audiobook.
nb: I haven't done this as tidily as I did last year, sorry!


Louise Aronson, A History of the Present Illness
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
John Boyne, The Absolutist*
Louise McMaster Bujold, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance*; Shards of Honor*, Barrayar
Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland
Juliann Garey, Too Bright to Hear, Too Loud to See
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding*
Thomas Harris, Red Dragon
Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves*
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Kimberly McCreight, Reconstructing Amelia
Philipp Meyer, The Son
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
Patrick O’Brian, the Aubrey-Maturin series*: Master and Commander; Post Captain; HMS Surprise; The Mauritius Command; Desolation Island; Fortune of War; The Surgeon’s Mate; The Ionian Mission; Treason’s Harbour; The Far Side of the World; The Reverse of the Medal; The Letter of Marque; The Thirteen Gun Salute; The Nutmeg of Consolation; The Truelove; The Wine-Dark Sea; The Commodore; The Yellow Admiral
Nawal El Sadaawi, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor
Mark Slouka, Brewster
Stiefvater, Maggie, The Dream Thieves
Antti Tuomainen, The Healer
Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity*
G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen


Tina Fey, Bossypants*
Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Deathi in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service
Adam Goodheart, 1861: Civil War Awakening*
Atul Guwande, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
Max Hastings, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45*
Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption*
Keith Lowe, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II*
Danielle Ofri, What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine
Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission*
David Small, Stitches

Hope 'bout y'all? Favorites of 2013?
  • Picked up The Son when it was on sale for the Kindle. Has got good reviews. I also want to read the Atkinson book. I recently finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King and really enjoyed it. It's long but I zipped through it.
    • Both are really readable, I thought. I'll be interested to hear what you think of them!

      Do you know, I've never read a Stephen King book? Weird, isn't it? Maybe I should try that one.
      • That IS weird! I haven't read one since The Stand. This one isn't a horror story it's time travel.
  • You inspired me to post my top 10 here!

    From your list, I read the Constellation of Vital Phenomena -- didn't make my top 10 but very good. Code Name Verity is a 2012 favorite of mine, but the author's next book made my 2013 top 10 list (Rose Under Fire).

    And Alif the Unseen is on my library queue (waiting for the snow to melt so we can get out on the roads again)!

    Edited at 2014-01-07 10:24 pm (UTC)
    • I really need to screw up my courage to read Rose Under Fire--I'm worried it'll be sadder than the first.

      I hope you like Alif the Unseen--it was written from a new and really interesting perspective for me.
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