My Year in Reading, 2013

Interestingly, my absolute favorites of the year were books I listened to rather than read. In every case, I’d say they were excellent books to begin with and a strong narration enhanced my enjoyment, but I think it’s just chance that my top “reads” were audio. Links to my reviews, if I wrote one.

Overall Best, Most Memorable, Most Engrossing Book:

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, read by Robin Miles. Yep, non-fiction. Wilkerson weaves the stories of three people through her history of the 20th-century migration of many African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North and West: Robert Foster, George Starling, and Ida Mae Gladney. Wilkerson’s respect and affection for her subjects, and their trust in her, is evident in her intimate record of their lives. I’ll remember these people for a long time. There are stories of racism and tragedy here, yes, but also stories of success and joy. The book moved me to tears more than once.

It also made me think about my own childhood in a city which was transformed by the migration, and the people I knew growing up who, I now realize, must have been descended from Southern migrants (or were migrants themselves). I gave this book to my parents for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to doing a little oral history of my own–discussing the Chicago of my childhood with them.

Except I Forgot I Also Listened to These in 2013:

The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold (narrated, respectively, by Lloyd James and Kate Reading). Politics, religion, unlikely (middle-aged!) heroes. So much to love and think about in these books. If I had to pick one over the other, I’d probably go with Paladin, because of Ista, a woman who thinks her life is essentially over (and a failure) but who gets another act.

Young Adult: 

Graffiti Moonby Cat Crowley. A novel where voice is at the center, brought to life by a trio of narrators (Ben Maclaine, Hamish R. Johnson, and Chelsea Bruland). Self-discovery, artistic expression, and a nice romance.

Favorite Romances (Historical):

A Woman Entangled, by Cecilia Grant. I read this on summer vacation so never wrote the review it deserved. It’s “quieter” than Grant’s previous work, but in my opinion the best paced and plotted; it still plays with genre conventions, though in a less showy way. I like that Grant has done something different with each book, the tone and style changing to suit the story, but is still developing a strong, recognizable voice. I hope she has a long career.

The Sword Dancerby Jeannie Lin. An unusual setting (Tang Dynasty China), plenty of well-written action/adventure, and a moving, understated romance. Like my favorite Regencies, Lin’s novel takes the constraints of the society in which it is set seriously. I added a lot of Jeannie Lin to my TBR after reading this one.

Favorite Discovery: Alyssa Everett. I haven’t outright loved one of her books yet, but I do really like her voice. Everett was published by Dorchester, and now that she’s been picked up by Carina, I’m hoping to watch her get even better.

Favorite Romances (Contemporary):

The Other Side of Usby Sarah Mayberry. A category romance from a master, featuring  grown-ups. Two walled-off people figure out how to open themselves up to each other. Pretty much my favorite thing in romance. The only 2013 contemporary on my list, mostly because I read very few–there are plenty in my TBR.

 Againby Kathleen Gilles Seidel. A workplace romance where the work matters, and characters who (mostly) act as smart as we’re told they are. This book was an absolute joy.

A Personal Matter, by Karyn Langhorne. I just finished reading this, and I’m not sure it will end up seeming like a 5-star book to me, but it’s up there. I’ll write more about it soon. Laura Vivanco recommended this to me in a discussion of romances with POC characters/authors (this is an inter-racial romance with a white hero and black heroine). She said it’s her favorite contemporary, but some people complain that it’s boring, and I was sold. As my list shows, “quieter” books have really been working for me.

Like Again, this is a workplace romance with two smart characters; they are prickly and kind of emotionally closed off, for good reasons. Love doesn’t solve Alayna and Ben’s problems or save them. It’s not even really the catalyst for change. It just happens alongside all the other shit in their lives, and they decide they need to make space for it. Part of what made this so interesting for me is that it shared some plot points with a couple of much-praised 2013 books that I had mixed feelings about (I’m trying not to be spoilery, though I guessed what was going on with the hero really early on). This book, published in 2004, is longer, slower-paced, and with much less emphasis on lust and sex. And for me, it dealt much more successfully with some serious themes than fast-moving, sexy books aimed primarily at an emotional gut-punch reading experience. I think it will hold up for me on a re-read because it appealed to my head as much as my heart, and for me, more restrained emotion is often more moving.

Trends In My Reading:

I read less romance in 2013, and less of it was new; my love for Again and A Personal Matter shows why. A lot of the current trends in romance don’t appeal to me and I’ve been feeling a bit disenchanted with the genre.

What did I read instead? A lot more mystery, my first genre love, but I didn’t give a single one of those 5 stars. That might be because I’ve been reading mystery so much longer that it takes more to impress me, or because I don’t belong to an online community discussing the genre in depth, or just because nothing really blew me away. Thanks to recommendations from various online friends, I especially enjoyed classic writers like Dick Francis and Helen MacInnes and mysteries with gay protagonists by Joseph Hansen and Michael Nava.

I’ve been reading more literary fiction, too, but I didn’t find a novel that I both admired and loved, which is what makes a book a standout for me. I think the best literary novel I read last year was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (here’s a great post by Rohan), but I found much of it a slog (which might be the point, really). I’m hoping for more success with my literary fiction next year.

In 2014, I want to keep reading more literary fiction and non-fiction, both of which enriched my reading life this year. And I want to fall in love with romance again–but that might require being a really picky reader.

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9 Responses to My Year in Reading, 2013

  1. Rohan says:

    Sounds like a good reading year! But .. a slog? Isn’t it funny how different a reading experience can be. I think the only really notable mysteries I read this year were Tana French’s– I can’t recall, did you read any of hers? In retrospect I think Faithful Place is the one that made the biggest impression on me though they are all very good. But I’m not sure I hit 5 stars in that genre either. I read The Other Side of Us thanks to you and really enjoyed it – and I think it was also you who put me onto Cecilia Grant. I liked A Woman Entangled too: as you say, quieter.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, parts were a slog? This was a case of the reader, not the book, and if I’d read it at another moment I might have felt differently. I really do think I haven’t been reading enough “literary” fiction and those reading muscles have atrophied. I need a challenge next year.

      I found the first Tana French book pretty gripping, but found myself skimming in the middle of The Likeness and never went back for more. I did read a lot of 4-star mysteries this year. I think mystery series often go on way too long. I’ve drifted away from writers I loved, and who are still writing good stuff, but after 10 books or whatever I want to spend time with new people/places.

  2. I loved A Woman Entangled. I feel like I’ve moved past the window where I’ll really write about it, though. I love how Grant has made each book its own—characters, relationship dynamics, backstories all very different. I’m not sure I could say which is my favorite, even.

    Can’t wait for her next book and I wonder why it took me so long to pick up this one.

    I read mysteries from time to time. They can be a good palate cleanser. But I really have to be in the right mood. I find what I struggle with in mysteries is that the explanation for the motive and character action when it comes to the murder/murderer sometimes falls flat for me, and kind of casts a pall over the entire book in a way that the endgame of books of similar quality in other genres doesn’t. If that makes sense. I think this basically means that murder mystery isn’t my go-to genre, though I can certainly enjoy and even love it at times.

    I really enjoyed the one book I read by Alyssa Everett!

    Again and A Personal Matter sound interesting, but they’re not very available, at least digitally, as far as I can tell.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I feel bad these days about loving books that aren’t digitally available (though neither is especially hard to get hold of in paper–I got the Langhorne new from Amazon).

      I have read way too many mysteries lately where the underlying motive turns out to have to do with child abuse. I’m kind of sick of the implication that being abused turns a person into a ticking time bomb. I’m burned out on dark Nordic crime, too, I think. I recently listened to Kerry Greenwood’s first Corinna Chapman book, featuring a heroine who runs a bakery in Melbourne, and really enjoyed it (I liked the first Phrynne Fisher book by the same author). Maybe I need more light/cozy mystery, though that never used to be my thing.

  3. Rosario says:

    I’ve been reading less romance as a proportion of the whole as well. There are quite a few authors I really love in the genre, authors who are putting out intelligent, thoughtful books that still punch me in the gut (favourites this year included books by Meljean Brook, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan and Cara McKenna). However, some of the big trends haven’t really appealed to me (e.g. motorcycle club books) or worked for me (e.g. New Adult, which sounded like a great idea, but hasn’t worked out in practice, a couple of authors excepted). At the same time I’ve got better at finding lit fic books that I really enjoy, so it’s still been a really good reading year for me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I check out the “big” year-end lists for literary fiction ideas, but what I really love are individual bloggers’ lists, which are so often less predictable, and where I find books I’ve never heard of. I’m making lists of books to try and aiming for things I think I will LIKE, not just things that are “good”–I do like to stretch myself and sometimes I’m surprised by what I turn out to like, but I also don’t want reading more literary fiction to seem like homework, because I absolutely don’t believe it has to be.

  4. Sunita says:

    I love the “my year in reading” approach. I have a Best of 2013 post in the Q at Dear Author that will run in a few days, and I’ll post something at VM afterwards, but more along these lines. I also read less romance this year, and I had a stretch mid-year where I almost couldn’t read it at all. What really helped were the books that are at the boundaries of the genre, like Susanna Kearsley’s book and the GG Kay I reviewed. They were longer and more complex and I had to slow down to read them, and it made me realize how much I had been tearing through romances, most of which were short and tightly focused. They re-energized me to go back to the genre, but I’m a lot more willing to DNF now if I don’t think a book is either high quality or interesting/unusual in some way.

    I also listened to a number of audiobooks, and that has been a great re-discovery for me this year

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is a really interesting comment. I’m looking for romances that repay a reader who doesn’t tear through, and considering the accelerating pace of publishing I think they’re harder to find. A lot of romance readers read 200 books a year or more, and I feel like a lot of books are written for people reading at that pace (I don’t mean that as criticism but they work best for people with a more emotional reading focus and trade in broad gestures, I think).

      Actually, my favorite romance of the year might have been the one in a (complex) middle-grade fantasy I read for teaching: Merrie Haskell’s PRINCESS CURSE. (Bujold’s were great too). Sometimes there is more emotional subtlety in novels with romantic elements than in books where the romance is front and center.

  5. Meriam says:

    Liz, I look forward to your post on A Personal Matter. I read it a few years ago, also following a rec from Laura (or possibly a post on TMT). I thought it was great as a standalone romance but also specifically as a romance with a POC heroine. I remember looking for other works by the author and feeling VERY disappointed her body of work was so limited.

    I pretty much left the romance genre around 2008, and only came back to it in 2013, so reading-wise it’s been a revelatory year for me. Imagine my surprise and pleasure to discover Courtney Milan, Cara McKenna (the working class in romance! I am so excited about this) Jo Bourne et al. I’ve yet to read Cecilia Grant: a little worried she won’t live up to expectation.

    Overall, I feel energised by the genre again. It’s been great to come back and find new talent and new conversations, and some quite marvellous new blogs, to boot.

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