Top Reads 2013

I thought it was impossible last year and this year seems just as difficult, unlike last years clear-cut outstanding read, which I would recommend to anyone and everyone, I’m not so confident that my Outstanding Read of 2013 has universal appeal. But I absolutely loved it and recommend it highly!

Outstanding Read of the Year

Arthur BraxtonMy outstanding read of the year, the one that stopped me in my tracks and then pulled me along at a fast pace and left me wondering what it was that was so compelling only to realise it was the originality of voice was Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton.

I love that I knew nothing about it before reading it, I chose it on instinct, had never heard of the author and the book just worked its magic from the beginning . Then there was the serendipitous event occurring at the Victorian Baths where it is set, just as I was reading it – well that was the icing on the cake.

It’s a coming age story of a teenage boy who starts hanging out at an abandoned Victorian bath-house where things don’t always appear as they should, he discovers an uninhibited young woman swimming naked in the pool, the point from which all his perceptions about life begin to alter. It is strange, magical, weird and infused with hope without being in any way sentimental.  But don’t take my word for it, read it!

As for the rest, in no particular order, here are my memorable fiction and non-fiction reads for 2013.

Top Fiction

BoothThe Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was the first book of the year and a reread for me, something I rarely do, but I wanted to see if Martin Booths excellent book stood the test of time. And it sure did. I love this book and the way this author writes. The book is about a British prisoner held for many years in a Russian gulag, who decides not to return home after his release. The story is narrated on the day of his 80th birthday as he looks back and his past comes to visit him.

monster 2A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – in all pursuits, sometimes it’s a good idea to go off piste  and for me this venture into young adult fiction was exactly that.  I picked this up in the library having recalled seeing a few excellent reviews and was intrigued by the concept of a writer picking up the threads of another writers idea and bringing it to fruition – Siobhan Dowd died tragically at the age of 47 and Patrick Ness brilliantly brings her story idea to life in this incredible, poignant tale.

BrodeckBrodeck’s Report by Phillipe Claudel – a very recent read and his words stay with me, I feel like I want to read everything he has written. Having survived a concentration camp, Brodeck returns to his village where life resumes as before until a stranger arrives in the village unsettling the inhabitants to the point where they decide to dispose of him, Brodeck isn’t involved but is given the task of writing a report about it. He writes twin narratives, unveiling the best and worst tendencies of humanity.

HonourHonour by Elif Shafak The 4th book by this wonderful Turkish author I have read and she is becoming more known with each new book, this one being nominated for numerous prizes and Turkey being the guest nation at this years London Book Fair. Honour is a story of a poor family and follows the lives of two sisters, one who goes to live in London as an immigrant, though she will always be that girl from the village. It highlights the difficulty in straddling two worlds, especially for the next generation, who try to assimilate into the new culture, but who when vulnerable are often drawn back into the least desirable aspects of the old culture.

The Honey ThiefThe Honey Thief by Mazari Najaf this is an original set of short stories told by a Hazari man from Afghanistan to his Australian friend. The stories originate from an oral story telling tradition and offer a unique insight into an ancient, adaptable people, who have survived  centuries of persecution. In addition, the author shares some excellent recipes.

Shadows & WingsShadows & Wings by Niki Tulk A wonderful story about family connections, silence and our inability to bury the past. A young girl living in Australia travels to Germany to visit the birthplace of her Grandfather and to learn about his role in the war. Simultaneously, his story is narrated from when he was a boy, to when he became that young man who, like all men at that time, was drafted into war. A beautiful book, thoughtfully narrated and at times so excruciating, it is as if we are reading a personal diary, not a work of fiction. I wish more people knew about this astonishing book.

Top Non-Fiction

Hare Amber EyesThe Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal – I am probably one of the last to have read this, since it was published two years before I picked it up, although I bought numerous copies when it did come out for family as Christmas gifts, knowing it would be an excellent read – and while it may not be to everyone’s taste, if you have any interest in European culture and history, this story of the Ephrussi’s, a Russian Jewish family from Odessa, whose two sons set themselves up in Paris and Vienna, told through the eyes and potter’s hand of the ceramicist and descendant Edmund De Waal will certainly appeal.

FindingsFindings by Kathleen Jamie I read this excellent collection of essays in February, a month in the northern hemisphere where many are in hibernation and there is not much to sing and dance about. Finding’s was like being in nature when we are not, the way Kathleen Jamie writes is to make us appreciate and really see without the need to label, identify or show off our knowledge. She observes with a painter’s eye and takes the reader on a similar journey, infusing the imagination with images of those forsaken Scottish  islands she visits. Brilliant winter reading.

Brain on FireBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan This book is a must read for anyone who knows anyone who has had any kind of brain disease or impairment. Susannah Cahalan was just an ordinary girl, working as a journalist, when in her early twenties, she started imagining things and observed herself becoming somewhat crazy. Some kind of infection got to her brain and thankfully for thousands of others, who have already benefited from the things she shares here, she lived to write about it and demystify the malfunction of the brain, something that results in thousand of incorrect diagnoses, due to the little we know about how to remedy it.

Portrait of a FamilyPortrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga After a visit to Istanbul in May, I indulged in a wonderful period of reading Turkish literature and this book was a great find – a recommendation from the English bookshop in Istanbul and they weren’t wrong. It is a classic, a fabulous story of the life of one family whose destiny is changed by war – another unique insight into a culture and the intimate family life of people we don’t usually have the opportunity to witness.

Happiness of Blond PeopleThe Happiness of Blond People: A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity by Elif Shafak it’s a short but compelling essay by one of my favourite writers, a woman who was born in the East and lived many years in the West and  has a unique perspective from which to make her observations. Worthwhile reading and love these Penguin Specials, short essays are so popular here in France, it’s great to see them being made available in English too.

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women what better way to wind up a year of reading than with some short, poignant Buddhist stories, some only a few sentences long. This is a volume to sit near the bedside and dip in and out of, because not every message will be relevant for today. One hundred stories interpreted by another 100 wise women and we are free to interpret them ourselves. 

So what books stood out for you in 2013?

44 thoughts on “Top Reads 2013

  1. What a fascinating list! The only one I have read is Findings – which I read due to your lovely review of it. I do have The Honey Theif tbr on my kindle – again thanks to your review of it. The Drowning of Arthur Braxton sounds excellent. Happy New Year – I look forward to being inspired by you again in 2014.


    • The great thing about Finding’s too, is that many say her Sightlines book is even better, a good reason to have read Finding’s first, then we still have another delight to come. I must locate a copy to read in 2014 and I will be reading more of Tove Jansson, whom I neglected to mention on the list, maybe because rather than being one standout, I seem to just really enjoy all her work and 2014 is the 100th anniversary since her birth, so we shall expect to see her name about I am sure.


    • You are in for a treat!

      What was a wonderful addition to this reading experience for me too, was the discovery that Persephone Books had published Edmund’s grandmother, Elizabeth De Waal’s novel The Exiles Return, which I also read and very much enjoyed this year. She was an astonishing and unique woman, whom I would have loved to know more about, a woman quite before her time and who saw and experienced things in life we can only imagine.


    • Yes, the essay from Elif Shafak was a bonus read, I enjoy all her writing, I like the worlds she creates and her ability to reach back to an old storytelling tradition while keeping it interesting for contemporary readers. I am sure her best is still to come, she is still discovering her niche, even though it has been within her all along.


  2. I knew that if I looked at your list I’d find something to add to my TBR list, Claire. The Drowning of Arthur Braxton and Shadows and Wings are now on it – thank you, and a very happy 2014 to you.


  3. I’ve only read Like Bees to Honey by Caroline Smailes – and it was a simply wonderful life-affirming book. I have her latest in the TBR and am so looking forward to it after you’ve made it your book of the year. Some other great titles too – Phillipe Claudel is an author I must read.


    • I’m looking forward to reading more of Caroline Smailes work, happy to know there is a backlist and that she is at work on another novel. There is something about the way she expresses and narrates a story that is compelling and deeply satisfying. I do hope you discover Phillipe Claudel soon too, his work is brilliant.


  4. I love this list, Claire — lots of interesting and diverse reads, so much better than the usual homogenised lists that crop up in the papers at the end of the year.

    As I said on Twitter, I loved Brodeck’s Report when I read it a few years ago. I’ve also read his book Grey Souls, which is haunting and melancholy (dare I say depressing?).


    • I’m going to read Grey Souls for sure and probably others, as I really like Claudel’s style, even if it is somewhat melancholic, his view of humanity.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the list, it’s thanks to the diversity of reading blogs and not being confined to only what bookshops have to offer that has given it more breadth I am sure.


  5. My choices from this list would be Honour, Portrait of a Turkish Family and Brodeck´s Rapport. Now what does that say about me? I like books about displacement ( Honour, leaving your homeland to live in other places), facts ( Portrait of a Turkish Family) and French Lit ( Le Rapport de Brodeck). I have only one question….is the wonderful book YOU recommended to me on the TBR for 2014? Yes, I´m taking about Ru by Kim Thuy. ` il m´a hantée longtemps….`


    • Yes, I haven’t forgotten about that book, it’s still there and I mean to read it, in fact yesterday someone was asking about how much French Canadian Lit is published in France and thought I don’t know the answer to the question, but suspect that it is a lot, I remembered this book and especially that so much more of this kind of work and also Japanese Lit is available in French than in English.

      I do love cross cultural fiction and non-fiction, though I have a preference for contemporary work rather than the classics, chiefly because of the use of language and for what I need to gain from it.


  6. Just more books to add to my pile. This seems to happen every time I read your blog! Hope 2014 brings even more outstanding reads and your reviews.


  7. This is such a great list! I’ve read about the Arthur Braxton book on someone else’s books of the year list today – sounds good to me! I’ve decided to shortcut and just use your post as my shopping list for a book buying visit at the weekend – though I’ve already ordered the Claudel book on the strength of your earlier post! Your recommendations are always spot on for me, taking me places I’d never otherwise have gone, so I’ll look forward to wherever I go with this new list!


    • I think you might enjoy Arthur Braxton too Col, I think Caroline Smailes is a writer I’d like to read more of her work and it will be interesting to see what she writes next, I’ll definitely be reading it. I hope you find some of these books in your shopping trip and enjoy the places they will take you to!


  8. Fantastic, I love a good summation and it’s possibly one I shall be using for that ever elusive good airport read…but really there is one glaring omission…where’s the new Dan Brown book, ha!


  9. Wonderful favourites list, Claire! You have read some amazing books in 2013 🙂 I want to read Patrick Ness’ ‘A Monster Calls’, Mazari Najaf’s ‘The Honey Thief’ and Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Findings’. It looks like Elif Shafak was your favourite writer of the year 🙂

    Thanks a lot for all the wonderful reviews and essays on bookish topics last year, Claire. I enjoyed reading them very much. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on books and bookish topics this year. Happy New Year! Hope you have a wonderful year filled with many new wonderful writers and books and many beautiful reading moments!


    • It is amazing to look back over the variety of reads and I do hope you add those three to your list Vishy. Elif Shafak is one of those writers who I want to read everything she writes and don’t mind the flaws, because she has such a unique perspective.

      It’s interesting because having now done the analysis of my reading, I realise that though most of absolute all time favourite books are by men, they are often a one-off read, e.g. Martin Booth’s The Industry of Souls, Louis de Bernieres Birds Without Wings, James George’s Hummingbird, whereas with the women writers I really like, I feel inclined to want to read everything they have written: Elif Shafak, Barbara Kingsolver, Susan Hill, Caroline Smailes. Perhaps Cormac McCarthy is an exception, I do want to read all his work, but it is tempered somewhat by the darkness of his subjects.

      And then there is the knowledge that in the past, what was offered via the limited channels available was very anglo-oriented, now I have an insatiable appetite for world literature, from a local point of view, we’ve had too many works where even sharing stories of life in other countries has been represented by those from an anglo background or education, just as travel can broaden our minds because we can meet with authenticity, so too in literature are we beginning to see greater authenticity and a wider variety and availability of literature born of another culture, a refreshing improvement in my book.


      • I want to read Elif Shafak soon, Claire. Thanks for gushing about her 🙂

        It was interesting to read your thoughts on men and women authors. I have not thought about this topic much, but I think that if I ponder on it a bit, I might agree with you. For example, I would love to read all the books by Barbara Kingsolver. And A.S.Byatt. And Marlen Haushofer. And a few others. It is difficult to think of a male writer whose complete works I would like to read. Out of contemporary male writers, maybe Julian Barnes.

        I also liked very much what you said about how what was offered in the past was mostly anglo-oriented. I totally agree with you on that. One of the great things that is happening these days is that a lot of world literature is getting translated into English and so many of us readers are able to discover a country afresh through the voices of insiders. We are lucky to be living during beautiful times.


  10. Interesting! I was also all over Turkish lit when visiting a couple of years ago. Still gave Shafak’s The Flea Palace in the TBR. This is the first time I’ve heard of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, but have added it to my “to-investigate” list of GoodReads.


  11. Truly an impressive reading list. None of which I read. I am alway intrigued by what calls to a person. I have been reading since I was a wee girl and have yet to figure out what my choices say about me. I have realized since I started writing and experimenting with voice and style my reading choices have exploded. I guess that is to be expected. Happy 2014 reading..


    • Well if this list of top reads didn’t quite answer that question for me, my asking myself, What Do We Read? certainly did. Something about finding the common denominator, for me, I know it’s to do with language and metaphor and avid description that doesn’t overly compromise pace and now I also know its about ‘other perspectives’ which means travelling the world through literature.


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