14 January 2014

The 53 Books I Read In 2013: Part 2: 27-53

For more info about this list and how it was compiled, check out Part 1: Books 1-26.

And now, on with the countdown!

27. Wolf at the Door by J. Damask - novel/urban fantasy (4/5)

Joyce Chng (J. Damask) is a Singaporean author whose work features, among other places, in The Apex Book of World SF 2. I was so impressed by her story in that anthology that I bought this novel, about werewolves of Chinese descent living in Singapore, and I enjoyed it.

The great strength of this novel is the way the author interleaves the social dynamics of pack and family, as both family members and outsiders threaten to disrupt the lives of the protagonist and those near and dear to her.

There is a quite complex sequence of flashbacks embedded in this comparatively short novel, and those didn't work so well for me - the story they told was interesting, but in the limited space available, I found it too fragmentary. Still, that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the main story, which is well characterised and well told.

28. Old Hat by Mark Pirie - poetry/collection (3.5/5)

This is a collection of triolets - 8 line poems with several lines repeated, based on medieval French poetry. Mark Pirie is a fine poet, but this is a very restrictive form, and I found that the limitations of the form limited my interest in many of the poems here - still, despite that, there are some fine poems in this collection.

29. Let me be Frank by Sarah Laing - cartoons/graphic memoir (4/5)

"Let me be Frank" is Sarah Laing's memoir of her five months as the Frank Sargeson Fellow, a literary fellowship in Auckland. It's an entertaining book that shows off her skills as both an author and a graphic artist, though ironically, one of the themes of the book is that having well-developed skills in both these areas makes it hard for her to be taken as seriously as she would like in either.

If that makes the book sound like an exercise in whinging, it isn't - instead, it's a well-told (and drawn) tale of balancing literary life and motherhood.

30. Skirting The Boundary by Isabelle Duncan - nonfiction/history of women's cricket (4/5)

If you are interested in women's sport in general or women's cricket in particular, then I recommend this book - my only reservation being that it is strongly focused on women's cricket in England and to a lesser extent Australia, and goes into a lot less depth about other countries. But it's still a very welcome entry in a sparsely populated field.

31. The Linen Way by Melissa Green - nonfiction+poetry/memoir (4.5/5)

This is a very moving personal memoir by a poet whose work drew the praise and admiration of such great poets as Derek Walcott and Joseth Brodsky, yet who has fought a decades-long battle against mental illness and the impulse to suicide.

"The Linen Way" quotes liberally from Melissa Green's debut collection The Squanicook Eclogues, a multiple prize-winner on its publication in 1987 that was republished in 2010, and also features poetry by Brodsky and Rilke.

This is another excellent ebook from New Zealand's Rosa Mira Books, whose adventurous publishing programme includes writers from the US and Argentina as well as New Zealand.

Highly recommended to everyone, and even more highly recommended if you love poetry.

32-36 comprise the five volumes published so far of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin.

32. A Game of Thrones - 4.5/5

33. A Clash of Kings - 4/5

34. A Storm of Swords - 4.5/5

35. A Feast for Crows- 3.5/5

36. A Dance with Dragons - 4/5

High (but most certainly not heroic!) fantasy novels, Books 1-5 of the projected seven volumes of "A Song of Ice and Fire", which I discussed on this blog as follows:

Maybe Modern Life Isn't Rubbish After All: George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire":


37. Iceland Saga by Magnus Magnusson - nonfiction/history (4.5/5)

A very interesting and enjoyable telling of Iceland's history through the medium of the great Icelandic Sagas. While this approach means some aspects of Iceland's history are downplayed - for instance, I'd love to have read more about how volcanic eruptions and climatic change have affected Iceland since its settlement - I still found this book fascinating - and as a bonus, Icelandic place names now make a whole lot more sense to me.

38. The Guild by Felicia Day - graphic novel (4.5/5)

This was a re-read - something light between finishing volume n of "A Song of Ice and Fire" and starting volume n+1. As I did the first time I read it, I enjoyed this origin story for the web series - it's well told, well drawn, and often poignant as well as funny.

39. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling - fiction/novel (4/5)

Suppose J.K. Rowling had written a book about a stultifying middle-class family who kept a young wizard under the stairs - and then decided to throw away the bit about the young wizard, and write about the middle-class family and their equally insufferable social milieu instead. If she had, "The Casual Vacancy" is the book that would have resulted. It's a very well-written and well-observed novel about the English bourgeoisie at their worst: narrow-minded, self-serving and intolerant. It is a fine novel, but far from an enjoyable one.

40. Regeneration: New Zealand Speculative Fiction II edited by Anna Caro and Juliet Buchanan - fiction/anthology (4/5)

Another fine collection of New Zealand speculative fiction stories from the same team that edited and produced "A Foreign Country: New Zealand Speculative Fiction". My story "Rescuing the Airmen" is included in this collection.

41. Rising To The Surface by Latika Vasil - fiction/short story collection (4.5/5)

A fine debut collection of short stories by Wellington (NZ) author Latika Vasil - a collection whose power is cumulative, and derives from the author's understated, observational style. You can read my interview with Latika Vasil here:


42. Tear Water Tea by Saradha Koirala - poetry/collection (4.5/5)

This is the second collection by Wellington, NZ poet Saradha Koirala, whom I admire very much for her word choices, which always seem to be exactly right. I enjoyed her first collection, Wit of the Staircase, and I think "Tear Water Tea" is better yet - more varied in style, more sophisticated in delivery. It's also beautifully illustrated.

You can see a sample poem, which I think captures Saradha's style well, here:


and read my interview with Saradha here:


43. Something for the Birds by Jacqueline Fahey - nonfiction/autobiography (3.5/5)

This autobiography of a well-known New Zealand artist covers the first half of her life. It's full of interesting material - she grew up in Timaru, not far upcountry from Janet Frame's Oamaru, and readers familiar with Janet Frame's work and life may find a number of echoes here - but Fahey doesn't have Frame's facility with narrative, and the telling of her story is so jumpy that it's often hard to work out who is doing what with whom where. Still, it's worth seeing past the disjointed narrative for the picture this book paints of growing up Irish Catholic in mid-20th Century New Zealand.

44. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton - fiction/novel (3.5/5)

I like Edith Wharton's writing very much, and this novel has many of her strengths, but I struggled with it because of Edith Wharton's relentless snobbery towards her main character, Undine Spragg, a loathsome and predatory specimen of the "nouveau riche" who preys on and ingratiates herself into classy but faded old-money New York society.

Edith Wharton directs (or at least strongly nudges) the reader to hate Unidine and take the side of her victims, but the old rich of New York are no better than the nouveau riche in my view: their old money ultimately derives from expropriating Native American land, so why should I sympathise with them?

Thus, although Undine is most certainly far from likable, I found myself with a sneaking admiration for her, and felt that, portrayed by another author with a broader range of human sympathies, she could have emerged as a heroic, or at least anti-heroic, character. I'll fight you for her, Edith!

45. The Rope Walk by Maria McMillan - poetry/collection (4/5)

It's taken a long time for Wellington poet Maria McMillan's first collection to appear, but the wait has been worth it: this collection, another beautiful job of production from poet and publisher Helen Rickerby's Seraph Press, is a good showcase for Maria's poetry and is well worth reading. You can see a sample poem from the collection here:


46. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson - nonfiction/memoir (3.5/5)

This is Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and early 1960s. I'd classify this as minor Bryson: it's always interesting, occasionally very funny, but doesn't reach the heights of his best books - perhaps because his childhood was simply too happy and, mostly, too uneventful to provide enough material for a consistently interesting book.

47. Theatre of the Gods by Matt Suddain - fiction/novel/SF (3.5/5)

I've reviewed this book for Landfall Review Online, so I'll wait until that review appears before saying more here.

48. Inferno by Dante Alighieri - poetry/verse narrative (5/5)

I'm re-reading the Divine Comedy (in the translation by Mark Musa) for the first time in a number of years. From memory, this is the third time I've read it, and it remains as wonderful as ever - this time, though, I'm dawdling rather than hurrying through it, and as a result I'm paying more attention to the poetry itself - and the excellent blank-verse translation by Mark Musa. What a book!

49. The Autobiography by Bill Bruford - nonfiction/autobiography (4/5)

Bill Bruford came to fame early as the drummer for progressive rock band Yes before leaving to strike out into more challenging musical territory with King Crimson and then various jazz and jazz-rock groups.

This is a bittersweet autobiography, as it was written at the point at which Bruford had decided, after forty year's active service, to retire from being a professional musician. Bruford is very much a thinking drummer, and this is a thoughtful autobiography. Much of what he says about the problems of maintaining confidence in one's abilities, and of dealing with a rapidly evolving (devolving?) industry, I could identify with from my own (much more modest) writing career.

There is at times a slight whiff of "you young people today don't know how lucky you are" at which I suspect the younger Bruford would have taken umbrage - but this is still well worth reading for those interested in Bruford's musical career or in what it's like to try to maintain a meaningful career in the creative arts.

50. Sidelights: Rugby Poems by Mark Pirie - poetry/chapbook (3.5/5)

Rugby is New Zealand's national sport, but it hasn't been the subject of very much New Zealand poetry. This chapbook is full of rugby poems, all of them interesting, and some of which I enjoyed very much. I'm going to post a review and, I hope, a sample poem on my blog, and will link to that from here.

PS: Here's a triolet by Mark - about music rather than rugby.

51. The Happiness of Rain by Jan Hutchison - poetry/collection (4/5)

I enjoyed this collection - mostly nature poetry, including some fine poems about Banks Peninsula near the author's home city of Christchurch, but it also includes poems about such diverse subjects as John Clare and Katherine Mansfield.

In 2012, I featured Jan Hutchison on my blog: You can find an interview with Jan here:


and the title poem of the collection here:


52. The Faroe Islands by Liv Schei - nonfiction/geography/history (4.5/5)

In the past few years, my long-standing interest in Antarctica has broadened to encompass the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions as well. I've been reading about Iceland recently - and now I've moved south-east, about halfway between Iceland and the Shetlands, to the Faroe Islands, a remote but rather wonderful collection of islands settled a couple of hundred years before Iceland. This book is a very interesting guide to the history, culture and geography of the Faroes. Recommended if you're interested in travel (including armchair travel) or geography.

53. Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith - novel/thriller/police procedural (4/5)

I see that my second book for 2013 was Wolves Eat Dogs, in my view the best of Martin Cruz Smith's series about ex-Soviet detective Arkady Renko - and Havana Bay is the one book in the series I hadn't previously read. While it doesn't quite match Wolves Eat Dogs, it's still very good.

Renko is a fish out of water anywhere outside Moscow, but doubly or triply so when plonked down in Havana, where (as usual) he gets beaten up, starts a new relationship, and solves a complex crime. There are times the travelogue aspect takes over a little too much, and (unusually for me) I figured out what was going on well before the end which reduced the tension somewhat, but on the plus side Renko's Cuban partner-in-crimesolving is a very well-realised character who could shoulder a series in her own right. Recommended.

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