Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top ten favorite new reads of 2013

Here we are, my ten favorite new reads of the year!  Mostly English novels, plus one that's American and one that's Japanese.  And a YA novel too - I'm definitely not the only one to be singing Elizabeth Wein's praises this year.  These are in order of when I read them, because goodness, it was hard enough picking only ten without having to rank them too!

The Constant Nymph - I Capture the Castle meets Elizabeth von Arnim meets modernist arguments about the value of music, with a beautifully-characterized family and a tragic end to an unorthodox love triangle.  I know this sounds like a ridiculous mix of literary elements, but it somehow comes together to a cohesive and awesome whole.  Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph was the bestselling English novel of its decade, but is sadly unknown today.  I highly recommend it, and you can read more of my thoughts at my original review here.

Silas Marner - I ran out of books on a trip to Chicago, and picked this one up at a Barnes and Noble so I'd have something to read on the airplane home.  I'm ever so glad I did!  Silas Marner is a beautiful, ethereal fairy tale full of Christian symbolism about a man whose life is changed by adopting a daughter.  After this first taste of George Eliot, I'm dying to get to Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, both waiting patiently on my to-read shelf.

Cluny Brown - Cluny is a plucky young lady without appropriate ideas of what's proper, so her overwhelmed uncle, a plumber, sends Cluny off into service as a Tall Parlour Maid.  We then get to follow Cluny's coming of age as well as the marital travails of the young heir to the house.  I loved this one so much that I promptly ordered my own copy after reading the library's!  An upstairs/downstairs tale, it's the perfect recommendation for anyone pining after Downton Abbey.  I've been trying out some other books by Margery Sharp, but have been sadly disappointed after the charm of this one.

The Warden - The first in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles, The Warden isn't quite so epic as the next few (or so I'm told), but this quiet story about uproar caused when the meek Anglican priest Septimus Harding is publicly criticized for his substantial income (which he spends on musical endeavors!).  The real villains in this story are the other priests, led by Hardin's son-in-law, the Archdeacon, who attempt all sorts of machinations to foil the legal proceedings.  I adore stories about noble priests, and the advantage Harding has over the Bishop of Digne in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is that while the Bishop is overwhelmingly good from start to finish, Harding really has to struggle to figure out what the right action is, and then decide whether he'll take it, for no matter which way he decides, somebody is going to be financially and emotionally harmed.  It's a tremendously moving story.

Miss Buncle’s Book - An unmarried spinster writes an anonymous novel about her village (for Barbara Buncle holds fast to the maxim "write what you know").  When her neighbors start recognizing themselves in the characters, mayhem ensues, and a surprising number of the events Barbara predicted come true.  No one will be the same, not even the author herself.  Pure fun, from the first page to the last!

Code Name Verity - The only YA book on this list, Code Name Verity is here among my favorites for good reason.  Not only is it a compelling page-turner - I finished it in one day, unable to tear away from the book despite the homework waiting - but it is a masterfully-written, haunting story of an English spy captured and tortured by Nazis.  Because Verity's diary is meant to be read by her captors, nothing is straightforward, and readers must constantly question what they know.  The second half is narrated by Verity's pilot, and the deep friendship between these two women makes up the heart of this novel.

Deep River - Four Japanese tourists in India find spiritual discoveries on the banks of the Ganges River: a man whose wife recently died of cancer, a man still haunted by his experience as a solder during the war in Burma, a man who recently survived a life-threatening illness, and a cynical woman who encounters in India a Christian man whose faith she delighted in breaking many years ago.  Like all of Shusaku Endo's books, this one is beautifully written and translated, deeply philosophical, deeply theological, and impossible to really get at first reading.  I need to read this again (and perhaps again and again) to figure out exactly what he was doing here, what vision of Christianity he was portraying, and how come this devoutly Catholic author spoke so positively of pantheism.  A really good book leaves you thinking; this one was by far the most thought-provoking novel I read all year.

The Squire - So many of my friends are having babies!  I read this book, largely the musings of an Edwardian gentlewoman expecting her fifth child, in order that I might have some idea how pregnancy and motherhood might be experienced and explained.  It is a truly lovely, introspective novel as much about mortality as it is about maternity, and it unfolds just as slowly and peacefully as Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent (one of my favorite books last year).  I was delighted to be recently given a copy from my sister, along with another of Enid Bagnold's books, The Happy Foreigner - I hope this one is as good!

The Alteration - One of two alternate universe books I read to accompany my independent study on Tudor and Jacobean England this semester.  Both books asked, "What would twentieth-century England look like if the English Reformation had never happened?"  I liked Kingsley Amis's The Alteration a LOT better than Keith Roberts' Pavane (even though Pavane is apparently a highly-lauded example of alternative science fiction).  In Amis's take, the English Reformation never happened because Martin Luther agreed to go to Rome.  Luther became Pope Germanian I, meaning that no reformation movements gathered steam.  The novel was a fascinating view of society, culture, and politics, had the European world remained Roman Catholic.  Governments remained religiously-oriented, class divisions grew even starker, and science and technology lagged to the point where the book's setting in 1970s England still feels much like the medieval period - electricity is banned, so the world is still lit by candlelight.  And oddly, apparently if the reformations never happened, Mozart wouldn't have died early, but would have gone on to write over 800 compositions, including a second Requiem!  Most of the greatness of this book is exploring the world, but the plot and characters are engaging enough.  The "alteration" in question is the decreed castration of a highly skilled boy chorister, which would enable him to keep his beautiful voice and sing for the glory of God at the pope's chapel.  When young Hubert decides he doesn't want to undergo the procedure, he finds himself in a hopeless struggle against church policy and cultural expectations.

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey's debut novel is an exquisitely-crafted and hauntingly beautiful retelling of a Russian fairy tale, in which a childless married couple longs so hard for a child that they may well have dreamed her up out of snow.  I loved the hints of magic, I loved the setting in 1920s rural Alaska, I loved the friendship that Mabel and Jack struck up with the neighboring family, and I loved the ethereal snow child Faina herself, so unearthly that conversation with her has no quotation marks, so that Faina's words themselves blend into the surrounding snow.  It's the perfect winter novel, but be aware that it's hard to put down, and hard to avoid a few tears.


  1. Thanks for this list. I find it hard enough to pick a top ten from 50 or 60 books. How do you do it with 200? Adding Deep River and The Alteration to my TBR.

    1. As I add to my list of books read each year, I mark in bold those that I particularly loved. This year, I marked 12, and as you say, it's a lot easier to pick out the very top from a smaller list! And it's unlikely that any academic books would make it to my top ten list, because my own definition of "favorite" is more on the side of enjoyment than influence. I suppose if people were interested, I could list a few favorite academic texts.

      I hope you enjoy Deep River and the Alteration - I'm curious to hear your thoughts! And if the "what if the English Reformation never happened" trope appeals to you, you might try Pavane as well; just because it wasn't to my taste doesn't mean it wasn't a well-written book.

      What were your favorites this year?

    2. And hear I thought that at least in grad school you're choosing your own area of specialization, so the works read should count as "fun". You crushed my rosy dream. ;)

      I may check out Pavane. The trope does appeal to me as a bit of a Reformation nerd.

      I don't have a computer at home right now, but you've inspired me to post my Top Ten, even if it's a few days into the new year.

    3. Well, there's fun and there's fun. I've truly enjoyed a lot of the books I read for my work - for example, John Bossy's Christianity in the West was awesome, as was Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic - but they are work, which means I approach them in a really different manner, with a specific system for taking notes. There's something really freeing about reading fiction without having to take notes! (This is, sadly, one reason why I don't post many full reviews anymore. Before I started in grad school, I did take notes as I read fiction, which helped me write lengthier reviews.)

      Yes, do check out Pavane! It's less a narrative like The Alteration and more a series of character sketches that, taken as a whole, describe society through the lens of various professions. Some things bugged me - the upsetting tendency to define women according to their appearance or relationship to a man, and marking women's transition to adulthood according to the size of their breasts - but it's still an interesting take on this alternative history genre, with an interesting twist at the end regarding the action of the Church.

      And yes, better late than never! :-) Happy New Year!

  2. Oh, I loved your summaries, Samantha! You really did read some terrific books this year. Deep River is a title new to me and sounds like something I would really enjoy. Thanks for that recommendation. Happy New Year and all the best for 2014!

    1. Thanks, and happy New Year to you as well! I hope you like it - I've also read his book Silence and found it just as good.

  3. Nice list! Miss Buncle's Book is one I particularly liked when I read it.

    I'm glad to see your recommendation of The Squire. I came across a copy at a book sale a while back and got it only because I don't often find green Viragos, and it looked good, but at the time I hadn't heard anything about it.

    1. Miss Buncle's Book is just such a cheerful and pleasantly surprising book! I bet even people who don't tend to like domestic fiction would really enjoy it.

      I did indeed love The Squire, and while it seems to usually be spoken of as just a book about pregnancy, I think it has a lot more to say. Have you read it since you bought your copy? Did you like it?