Sunday, January 5, 2014

Some Favorite Reads of 2013 (In no Particular Order)

Yesterday, I got to do a book consultation at work. Periodically one of my colleagues asks for advice on what they should read next. My friend, Alexandra, just said to me, “I need a book.” Alexandra likes European history. Lucky for her, we are approaching the 100th anniversary of WWI. I recommended Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower and The Guns of August, Margaret McMillan’s The War That Ended Peace, and Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

I offer here a half-dozen of the books I most enjoyed this year. I should say that when I made this list I applied the Alfieri Principle and here I quote Annamaria from a prior blog post: “For my ten books, I merely made a FAST list, thinking of books that I talk about often in the course of year’s conversations. When I got to ten, I stopped. I did not rethink.” Of course, I only chose 6 books and my comments come from reviews I’ve written earlier in the year. While I read the books I mention in 2013, they were not necessarily written this year.

The Spoilers by Annalena McAfee. Honor Tait is a journalist of the old school (think Martha Gellhorn). Tamara Sim is of the new school (She writes articles about bad hair days). Sim is sent to interview Tait when a collection of her journalism is re-issued. They don’t like each other. Sim dismisses Tait as someone who doesn’t understand contemporary journalism and Tait bemoans the fact that her interviewer seems to combine great ignorance with great confidence. Sim doesn’t care about writing. She wants some dirt on her elderly interviewee. It’s a sometimes comic but always serious novel.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger. This story of what happens to a minister’s family in the summer of 1961 is wonderfully poignant and evocative. I would say that it’s a murder mystery that “transcends the genre” if I was the sort of person who talked like that. Mystery is not a genre that needs to be transcended.

Kreuger's rendering of the daily struggles of this family, of the natural world and the details of life in the 1960s (yes, I remember watching Disney's “Wonderful World of Color” on a black and white T.V. set) frame the action of the novel perfectly.

Frank Drum says as the novel opens, that though terrible things happened that summer he doesn't think of it as depressing. One of Kreuger's great gifts is his ability to make this novel and the things that happen in it both stark and cozy. Yes, terrible things happen, but life goes on and people experience contentment and happiness again. (The scene in which Frank realizes he has not thought about an especially tragic occurrence all day and has actually laughed is perfection.)

If I have any quibble it's that Nathan Drum, Frank's father, seemed a touch too good to be true. He gives off a faint whiff of Atticus Finch. But any novel that can remind you of To Kill a Mockingbird has a lot going for it.

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. This book, about children who are very different from their parents, is remarkable. Solomon’s ability to be open to any possibility (he must be a fabulous listener) guarantees that the reader gets a full sense of what families are experiencing. Though a portion of the book deals with physical disabilities, Solomon looks at other differences as well. His interview of Dylan Klebold’s mother is very moving. I know a bit more about Joshua Bell’s relationship with his mother (featured in the section on genius) than I might like to, but the book as a whole is extraordinary.

Never Had It So Good: Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook. I love British history of any kind and this social history was highly entertaining. I read it when I was recuperating from an injured foot and it was a powerful pain reliever. Though the book’s backbone is its account of the Conservative government of Harold MacMillan, Sandbrook manages to talk about everything: literature, theater, fashion, movies, T.V., British domestic life. One of the blurbs on the cover of the paperback I own calls it “a great treasure chest of a book” and that seems exactly right to me.

Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers 1942-1963 by J.F. Powers and Katherine Anne Powers. So earlier this year I read Powers’ Morte D’Urban about a sophisticated priest who finds himself assigned to a backwater in Minnesota. (I liked it a lot). I love reading letters so I picked this up as well. Powers never gave up his day job to write full time—he never had a day job. He says to a correspondent: “I don’t want a job of course. Only the freedom to write and, it may be, starve. For I intend to make it like that, have had my mind made up for some time, and might as well begin to find out if it is possible.” This is all fine, except that Mr. Powers has a wife and, eventually, 5 children. He excoriates his wife for not making clear to her parents that he doesn’t intend to work and for having “no talent for motherhood other than to conceive.” Bear in mind that his wife is also a writer and has a job outside the home.

And it’s not as if he loves family life. He absents himself as often as possible. If you have any doubt this was a rough life check out his daughter’s afterword in which she makes it clear that her parents had no talent for shielding their children from hardship. It occurs to me that this book stuck with me because Powers is so clueless and selfish, but compelling these letters are.

Invisible Ink: How One Hundred Great Authors Disappeared by Christopher Fowler. Fowler is the author of the wonderful Bryant and May mysteries. Some years ago I recommended the cleverly titled Full Dark House to anyone who wanted a funny crime novel. This is a collection of his columns from The Independent on Sunday.

Some of these folks have not disappeared, I think. Georgette Heyer is still very popular, but not given the respect that Fowler thinks she deserves. He also talks about lesser known books by well known writers: Charles Dickens’ ghost stories and Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. There are good essays on Michael Gilbert, Lionel Davidson and Eric Ambler. New to me: Dino Buzzati, Mazo de La Roche (The Jalna series), Frank Baker (Miss Hargreaves), Kyril Bonfigioli (Don’t Point That Thing at Me), Stacy Aumonier (Extremely Entertaining Short Stories), and Alexander Baron, whose novel, King Dido, Fowler says is one of the great novels about London.

Oh, and I’m currently reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I’m having a glorious time and expect it to show up on next year’s list.

I wish you all happy writing and reading in 2014.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson


  1. Stephanie, that is a great compliment to you that your colleagues ask your opinion about what they should read. tjs

  2. P.S. You probably wanted us to reply what we are reading for 2014.... I happened to read a blog by Terry Shames of the Ladykillers ( on our list on the right column) and sent for her new book A Killing at Cotton Hill - loved it and couldn't put it down - so I've invited her to be our guest Feb. 9. This book is being considered as Best First Novel for the Edgars. Now I'm looking forward to her next two - The Last Death of Jack Harbin and Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek. Boy, can this woman write!!! tjs