As I have been doing since 2009, I kept track of my reading during the past year on LibraryThing, and at the start of the new year, I turn these book notes into blog posts about what I’ve read, with a few added links. The quality and depth of comments on the books I read varies widely, from fully-fledged reviews to hasty notes, depending on how busy I was at the time.
This post covers the first 26 books I read in 2013. The next post will cover the remaining 27, which included the five volumes published to date of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
In 2012, I read 52 books – and you can find out what I thought of those, too: Part 1 | Part 2.
Note: the links from the book title and author, where available, are to the relevant LibraryThing pages.
1. Raw Places by John Horrocks – poetry/collection (4/5)
Despite the historical and current importance of farming to New Zealand, farmer-poets are comparatively rare beasts here. John Horrocks is one such, and many of the poems in this collection take as their starting point his years spent farming in the windswept Tararua District north of Wellington.
There’s a lot of fine poems in here – with John’s permission, I posted my favourite, Dogs, as a Tuesday Poem in February – although set in the city rather than the country, it gives a good flavour of the book.
2. Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith – novel/thriller/police procedural (5/5)
This is the fifth in Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series, and it’s outstandingly good – a return to the form of the first in the series, Gorky Park.
Renko is the classic god cop in a bad place: dogged, incorruptible and determined on uncovering the truth whatever the cost to himself. What lifts this book to heights the previous few entries in the series haven’t matched in that much of it is set in the Zone of Exclusion around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Smith does a great job of describing the eerie setting, teeming with wildlife but also home to scientific research teams and fugitive humans.
While it’s not enormously hard, once the Chernobyl section of the book gets underway, to work out whodunnit, that really doesn’t matter in this case – and how Renko saves his skin (or rather has it saved for him) provides the twist I didn’t see coming. A tremendously good read even if you are not especially fond of thrillers.
3. The Glass Harmonica by Dorothee Kocks – ebook; novel (4/5)
This novel of Revolution-era France, post-revolutionary America, and the invention of pornography as a commercial genre is beautifully written, though I felt that there were times when the narrative stalled. The central character, the Corsican glass harmonica player Chjara, is very well delineated, but I didn’t always find the actions of her American lover Henry so convincing.
But it’s worth repeating that the novel is beautifully written, full of arresting descriptions and images. Although Dorothee Kocks’ writing isn’t as outré is Angela Carter’s, it shares something of the same qualities. Overall, an intriguing novel that is well worth reading.
4. Judgement Call by J. A. Jance – novel/mystery (3.5/5)
An enjoyable but not particularly memorable police procedural, set in small-town Arizona. I did enjoy reading it as a relaxation during a busy work week.
5. Amigas by Elena Bossi and Penelope Todd – ebook; novel in Spanish and English versions (4/5)
Argentine writer Elena Bossi and New Zealand writer Penelope Todd wrote this bilingual novel (that is to say, the novel exists in complementary but not identical English- and Spanish-language versions within one ebook) after meeting at the University of Iowa Writing Programme in 2007 – and it’s an interesting and enjoyable novel, if sad at times. It follows the chance meeting of two teenage girls, one from New Zealand and one from Argentina, at Rome Airport in 1969; their developing friendship, in person and then by letter; and the threat that occludes that friendship. What happens next would be telling…
The novel got off to a little bit of a slow start for me, but once the two girls meet, the story gripped me. Well worth reading.
6. Flaubert’s Drum by Sugu Pillay – poetry/collection (4/5)
Born in Malaysia, Sugu Pillay is an accomplished poet and playwright. Flaubert’s Drum, which is her first poetry collection, is a very interesting and wide-ranging set of poems that moves between Asia and New Zealand, between epic and earthquake, between the turtles of Chendor Beach and the schist of Lindis Pass. I especially enjoyed the final section of the book, which does a lovely job of tying the book’s strands together.
7. The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories by Laura Solomon – short stories/collection (4.5/5)
I’ve reviewed this one for Landfall Review Online and will post the link to the review when it appears. But, in brief, this is a very good collection of mainly but not solely magic realist stories set mainly in the UK and New Zealand.
PS: Here’s my Landfall Review Online review of the book:
8. Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges – nonfiction/essays (5/5)
Tremendous essay collection – Borges at the top of his form, lucid, knowledgeable and slyly witty, well translated by Eliot Weinberger. Each of these seven essays is good, but two in particular are highlights: the essay on Dante for its literary insights, and that on Blindness for its insights into being Borges.
Also, I think I now know why Gene Wolfe titled a novella Seven American Nights, which is a bonus.
9. The Aviator by Gareth Renowden – novel/science fiction (4/5)
Gareth Renowden is best known in New Zealand as a journalist and science blogger – in particular, for the Hot Topic blog on climate change.
With The Aviator, Book 1 of a planned series, he turns to science fiction. In a world in which runaway climate change proceeds unchecked, airship pilot Lemmy (no relation to Motörhead) and his AI and human companions tour the world from their base in the Marlborough Sounds, visiting the communities springing up in parts of the world made newly livable and experiencing the terrible consequences of runaway climate change throughout most of the world.
If you like the great near-future science fiction novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, I think you will enjoy The Aviator.
10. The Journey: Poetry by Marvin Hubbard – poetry/collection (2.5/5)
I love the commitment to social justice in these poems, but unfortunately, most of the poems don’t work well enough as poems for me to give the book a higher ranking. They tend to state their opinions – opinions I usually agree with strongly! – in abstract language without embedding them in either lived experience or interesting poetic language. I wanted to know more about how the poet’s strong commitment to social justice plays out in the world, rather than having it expressed in mainly abstract terms.
11. Enter Night: Metallica the Biography by Mick Wall – nonfiction/music/biography (3.5/5)
Metallica are one of my favourite bands, even though I did not discover their music until after they had completed the two mid-1980s albums that in my opinion remain their best work, “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets”. They have had many commercial highs – not always matched by creative highs – since then, but unlike their 1980s peers, have kept on trying to do new things musically even when it would have been easier all round to confine themselves to the nostalgia circuit.
Mick Wall’s biography of the band is excellent on their early years, and very strong in discussing the influence of the presence, and then the absence, of bassist Cliff Burton, killed in a bus crash in 1987 – but as the years and the albums go by, the book becomes less and less informative. There’s a lot more to be gleaned about their ‘grown-up’ struggles from the “Some Kind Of Monster” documentary, which documents the making of their worst album “St Anger” in a remarkably unsparing and revealing way – the complete opposite of the typical megastar musicians’ vanity project – than there is in this book.
Still, because 2/3 of the book is so good on the band’s early years and on their musical as well as personal roots, it is worth the attention of anyone with a more than casual interest in Metallica and their music.
12. Names: Poems by Marilyn Hacker – poetry/collection (4.5/5)
Marilyn Hacker is a distinguished American poet whose work I had not previously read. Contrary to my perception of her as a “difficult” poet, and though many of the poems in this collection are long, I found them to be moving, engaging, beautifully written and full of meaning. There is a sureness of voice which I enjoyed, but without the dogmatism that can be its shadow. These poems were a very pleasant surprise to me, and are worth the attention of any poetry lover.
13. Night’s Glass Table by Karen Zelas – poetry/collection (4/5)
It took me a little while to warm up to this collection by Christchurch poet Karen Zelas, but once I did, I enjoyed these sharply-observed poems about relationships, travel, family, and life in post-quake Christchurch.
14. Open by Andre Agassi – nonfiction/sports/autobiography (4/5)
The book group I’m in chose this as the book group for our next meeting at a meeting I wasn’t at: not being a huge tennis fan, I wasn’t sure this would be for me, but in fact it’s a very interesting study of the effects ruthless parental ambition can have on a young athlete. Andre Agassi’s father pushed and pushed him to become a top tennis player – and he did; but the psychological fallout wrecked the younger Agassi’s life for many years. The story of how he gradually and painfully overcame this makes for an often moving autobiography – though the descriptions of the tennis matches themselves tend to blur into one. Perhaps that’s appropriate.
15. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka – novel/picaresque (4.5/5)
Shehan Karunatilaka, who is a guest at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival 2013, studied at Massey University. Perhaps this is why this entertaining picaresque about the greatest and least recognized Sri Lankan cricketer, Pradeep Mathew, a Tamil spinner whose imaginary exploits often echo the real exploits of Muttiah Muralidaran, is full of references to New Zealand – from the expected (Hadlee, the Crowes, Dipak Patel) to the less expected (Anchor Milk) – and why the final scenes of this novel about Sri Lanka take place in and around Wanganui.
But the novel weaves a rich tapestry of cricket, politics, corruption, the Sri Lankan civil war, and a dogged journalist with a dodgy liver determined to track his elusive quarry down. Highly recommended.
Here’s an excellent interview of Shehan Karunatilaka by Saradha Koirala.
16. Race Across Alaska by Libby Riddles (and Tim Jones!) – nonfiction/sport/adventure (4/5)
First of all, I’m not the Tim Jones who co-wrote this book – though I would have enjoyed co-writing it, because it’s a fascinating story of courage, endurance and bravery. Those three qualities apply to everyone who takes part in this dog-sled race of over 1000 miles through the late Alaskan winter, but in particular, in this retelling of Libby Riddles’ 1985 race victory, it applies to her decision to press on towards the finish line in a storm that kept every other competitor hunkered down. It could have all gone horribly wrong – but it didn’t, thanks to Libby Riddles’ preparation and her superb dog team.
The one thing that disappointed me about the book is that, while it does a great job of covering the race itself, there is little coverage of the lead-up to it and no coverage at all of the aftermath, in which Riddles, as the first woman to win the race, shot to fame. I would loved to have heard what effect this had on her life, but there are only the barest hints in this book. Still, as a record of one of the world’s most demanding sporting events, this ranks very highly.
17. Ninety Degrees North: the Quest for the North Pole by Fergus Fleming – nonfiction/exploration (4/5)
I have plenty of books about Antarctic exploration, so though I should balance it up with this account of the attempts by various European and American explorers to reach the North Pole from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. It’s an enjoyable but slightly disjointed affair – the narrative of the attainment of the North Pole is much more tangled than that of the South Pole, and as a result, the impression left is one of bungling, chauvinism and malice leavened by amazing feats of endurance. Still very interesting, though.
18. The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider by Janis Freegard – poetry/chapbook (4/5)
Janis Freegard is an excellent New Zealand poet who features an alter ego called Alice Spider in many of her poems. This US-published chapbook brings together a number of the Alice Spider poems: with Janis’ permission, I published one as a Tuesday Poem on my blog, and it gives you a good feel for the surreal, quirky, and often funny world of Alice Spider:
19. The Spiral Tattoo by Michael J. Parry – novel/fantasy/police procedural (3.5/5)
I enjoyed this entertaining first novel about a large troll and a small flying Eleniu who are partners in the City Guard of a trading city with six sentient races. There’s nothing especially original in this fantasy world, but it makes a good backdrop to the murder investigation which is at the foreground of the story.
There were times the plot seemed to be spinning its wheels a bit, and the formidable antagonist is kept in the background too long in my opinion, leading to a rather rushed ending. However, with these reservations, I had a lot of fun reading this story, and have now hopped onto Amazon to buy the second novel featuring these characters.
20. The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler – fiction/novel (4/5)
This novel starts from an archetypal premise – that of an outsider of lower social class entering the world of a large upper-middle-class family, and the effect each has on the other – and it took me a while to warm to it; one plot twist in particular was all too predictable. But with that exception, the book veers off in some unexpected directions, and by the end, I was very happy that I’d read it. As a bonus, it is also extremely well written.
21. Racing In The Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader by June Skinner Sawyers – miscellany (essays, reviews, fiction, poetry)/music criticism – 4/5
I’ve been an unabashed Bruce Springsteen fan from the time I first heard “Sandy (Asbury Park, 4th of July)” – I don’t like everything he’s recorded, but if I made a list of my all-time favourite 100 songs, there would be a lot of Springsteen on it.
So this reader (which follows his career up to “The Rising”) was a very welcome companion to his music. It collects articles, reviews, interviews, and even some fiction and poetry built around Springsteen’s work. It’s not all laudatory – some of the articles focus on the early music-biz hype that both brought Springsteen to prominence and led to a backlash – and most of the articles are careful, considered, and very interesting.
The fiction included in the reader, though good on its own terms, felt somewhat peripheral, but did show Springsteen’s cultural reach.
Well worth reading if you’re a Springsteen fan – and if you’re not, the song that gives the book its title isn’t a bad place to start.
An aside: several pieces in the book talk about the sacramental quality of Springsteen’s music and performances, and there are several excellent articles on this theme on the “Rock and Theology” site:
(A warning, though: music may start to auto-play when you click this link)
22. Hidden Agendas: What We Need to Know about the TPPA by Jane Kelsey – nonfiction/politics (4.5/5)
The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is an agreement currently under negotiation between the US and 9 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including New Zealand. It has relatively little to do with trade but a great deal to do with taking various aspects of the law of these countries – covering such issues as investment policy, environment policy, and intellectual property/copyright policy – outside the control of their citizens and placing them under corporate control. (For Americans, think NAFTA on steroids.)
In other words, if passed, it would represent a substantial loss of national sovereignty and democratic oversight over law-making and public policy. I don’t like that idea, so I’m glad NZ academic Jane Kelsey has written this concise study. (I found her previous book on the subject, No Ordinary Deal, to be too dry and academic – this one is written for the general reader.)
Hidden Agendas is well worth reading if, like me, you are concerned about the corporate/security State’s increasing encroachment on people’s economic, political and civil rights.
23. Drought and other intimacies by Pat White – poetry/collection (3.5/5)
This collection of poems draws on Pat White’s experience as a farmer in the drought-prone Wairarapa region of New Zealand. These are technically very adept poems, and Pat White is a considerable New Zealand poet and author – but, for my own taste, I often found them a little too reticent – these are poems for the strong, silent type, even when they are admitting to personal weaknesses and doubts.
24. The Apex Book of World SF 2 edited by Lavie Tidhar – anthology/science fiction (4/5)
(Disclaimer: I have a story in this anthology.)
I enjoyed reading The Apex Book of World SF 2 a lot. Rather than going for the usual Anglo-American suspects, editor Lavie Tidhar has assembled an anthology of science fiction stories from authors around the world, with South America, Europe and Asia all especially well represented. Like any anthology, there are some stories that didn’t grab me, but also a number I liked very much: my favourite was “The Sound of Breaking Glass” by Joyce Chng of Singapore, a delicate and moving story.
This anthology is well worth reading for its own sake – and well worth reading if you want a wider view of contemporary SF.
25. A Man Runs Into A Woman by Sarah Jane Barnett – poetry/collection (4/5)
All the poems in this debut collection are very technically accomplished. I found some of them a little too abstract for my taste, but the best poems here are among the best I’ve read in the past couple of years. I found out after finishing the collection that my favourite poem in it, “Mountains”, was included in Best New Zealand Poems 2012. Here it is:http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/iiml/bestnzpoems/BNZP12/t1-g1-t1-body-d1.html
26. Tropic of Skorpeo by Michael Morrissey – novel/sf
My review of this NZ science fiction novel is now up at Landfall Review Online: