At this time of year, it’s customary to look back on what we’ve accomplished. Among other things, I think back on the year’s reading and try to see what books stand out from the crowd. (Not that books really come in crowds. Stand out from the mass? Stand out from the pile?) I read 119 books in 2013. Some of them strain the definition of book; one of them was only 15 pages long. But I’m counting them anyway because I also read The Lord of the Rings, and I figure its 1,138 pages make up for a lot. Choosing only 10 books out of all that was more of a challenge than I thought it would be, which is a good thing, since that means that many books were memorable, and not just words passing in front of my eyes to keep me temporarily entertained.
And with that, the list:
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (8/10; finished 2/12/2013): Bad fantasy geek that I am, I’d only read this once before, in high school. The time was finally right to reread it as an adult. Really, can you read LOTR and not remember it? In some ways, rereading it improved it greatly. I appreciated Tolkien’s descriptions of the different cultures, peoples, histories, and languages far more now than then—I think that’s a side effect of growing up. I could tell the characters apart and picked up on some subtleties in their depiction that I missed the first time. I realized that the appendices had interesting material in them, instead of skimming through them. But this time around, I also had a better idea of why I disliked what I disliked: flat character depictions, the dearth of female characters, the attempt to dictate to the reader how to judge the characters. It’s a measure of Tolkien’s writing skill that despite those flaws, the detailed battle descriptions (not to my taste), and his practice of leaving one group of characters or another in limbo for hundreds of pages at a time, I still give this book 8 stars.
- Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan (10/10; finished 2/14/2013): My rebound book after finishing LOTR, but unlike many rebound relationships, I came out of this one glowing. I lavished admiration on this book right after I finished it, but here’s a short version: Mel Duan’s best friend has fallen in love with a vampire, and he with her. She wants to become a vampire herself, leaving her human friends and family behind. Can Mel bring her to her senses without destroying their friendship?
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (10/10; finished 3/26/2013): Yes, sometimes I read books other people have heard of. Sometimes I even read bestsellers. It took me a bit to get into the rhythm of this story, but once I realized that different chapters took place at different times, it clicked. Some books I love for their characters and some for their plots, and The Night Circus has both, but I admit neither is awe-inspiring. But the combination of the shifting timeline, the magical circus, these characters, and this plot was awe-inspiring, enough that even though I’d checked the book out from the library, I ended up buying a copy for myself.
- Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi (12 volume manga series, series average: 6/10; finished 7/24/2013): I’d read this back in the 1990’s when it was first translated into English. The new, accurate translation—yes, accuracy was one of its selling points—finished up this year. The gaping plot holes and uneven characterization were jarring, and could no longer be blamed on questionable translation. The episodic plotting wore thin quickly (let’s just repeat a battle with each girl and each villain until it’s time for the final confrontation!), the villains were two-dimensional at best, and if I ever had patience for power-ups as a plot device, it had evaporated by this reading. But…the heroines are still likeable, and there’s still something about this story of reincarnated planetary princesses with magical powers based (loosely) on astrology that captures my imagination. Just as long as I don’t read the source material too closely or too frequently.
- The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt (10/10; finished 7/29/2013): Having been blown away by The Righteous Mind last year, I wanted to read more from Haidt. Here, he looks at the teachings of the world’s great religions and philosophies, asking, now that we know more about how the brain functions, which of these teachings actually can bring happiness? I was disappointed to learn that Stoicism may not work. I still like it anyway.
- Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton (9/10; finished 8/1/2013): I found this book the old-fashioned way, by seeing it on a shelf at a bookstore and being intrigued enough to pick it up. De Botton looks at Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism to see which practices (not beliefs!) are of benefit to their practitioners and speculates on how they could be adapted to an atheistic society. Reading it, l learned things about both religion and secularity that had never occurred to me. The book is brimming with photographs; I realized I’m not used to that in nonfiction (excepting art books) beyond diagrams and call-out boxes used to clarify points.
- Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert Johnson (10/10; finished 8/27/2013): Not a dream dictionary. Johnson has written a two-part manual for working with your dreams and more generally, your unconscious mind. The first part spells out a procedure for interpreting your dreams, but you’ll be the one figuring out what all the symbols and characters mean. In the second part, Johnson teaches you the basics of active imagination. I was delighted to find a book that took such a practical approach to this instead of being mostly theoretical or mystical, and the instructions made sense (hey, not everyone can write coherent instructions).
- River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (10/10; finished 10/2/2013): Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite authors, so any book of his is likely to show up on this list. I’ve read comments that River of Stars gets off to a slow start because Kay needs a good amount of space to introduce a vast number of characters and their world: an alternate version of Song Dynasty China. True. But in doing all that, he also lays the foundation for a political and cultural disaster, and waiting for the moment when his carefully-constructed world would start to collapse was anything but boring. And I continue to be amazed at how well he manages a sweeping plot, enough characters to populate an empire, and a timeline that stretches over decades without a misstep.
- Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke (8/10; finished 10/5/2013): I spent three months reading writing books this year, and many of them were excellent. Indeed, I gave some of them higher ratings than this one. But this one stands out for me because it spelled out the key problem I’ve seen in so much fiction in its very title. Plus, I liked his approach to characterization: using the MBTI and other typology systems as a skeleton for characterization. Since by his own admission he finds plot-writing easier than characterization, I hoped that he’d be able to explain it better than so many writers who have the inverse problem.
- Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison and others (9/10; finished 12/18/2013). I read my first fanfiction as a teenager, and whenever I fall in love with a new SF or fantasy series, I usually end up searching out its fanfic. This is the first time I’ve gotten to read nonfiction about fanfiction, though. It’s hard for me to summarize this book. Jamison outlines a history of fanfiction, complete with illustrations—I was tickled to see photos of fanzines like what I read way back when and screenshots of websites that I used to visit regularly. Jamison’s (and others’) essays on Twilight fandom and the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was educational, thought-provoking, and a bit unnerving.