My favourite books of 2013

I love end-of-year list time, because it’s a chance to reflect on the best moments. I read over 150 books this year, which I’m sure must be a record for me, and is certainly unusually high. There were plenty of highlights amongst all those books, but I have managed to sift them down to twelve, my usual number for these lists.

You can see my previous best-of-year lists here: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009. I’ve kept changing the format over the years (ranked or unranked; books from all years, or just the year in question); I’ve settled on including books from all years of publication (as long as I read them for the first time this year); but I think it’s more fun to rank them, so I’m also going to do that. And, taking a leaf from Scott Pack’s book, I’m going to list them in reverse order.

So, here (with links to my reviews) are my Top 12 Books of 2013:

70 acrylic

12. Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2011)
Translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds (2012)

Of all the books I read in 2013, this may be the one that most thoroughly depicts the real world as a strange and treacherous landscape. This is a novel about the power of language to shape perception, as it depicts a young woman gradually discovering a new way to look at life (and, just possibly, finding love) when she meets a boy who teaches her Chinese.

11. Andrew Kaufman, Born Weird (2013)

This is the third Andrew Kaufman book that I’ve read, and he just gets better and better. Born Weird tells of five siblings who were given ‘blessings’ at birth by their grandmother, which she now plans to undo on her death-bed. Kaufman has a wonderfully light touch with the fantastic: there’s just enough whimsy to illuminate the family story, and there’s real bite when the novel gets serious.

10. Project Itoh, Harmony (2008)
Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith (2010)

A searching exploration of self-determination and authoritarianism in a future where remaining healthy is seen as the ultimate public good. One of the most intellectually engaging books I read all year.

9. Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (2012)

Chalk this one up as the book I liked that I wasn’t expecting to. A short but powerful character study of a mother becoming distanced from her son as he is swept away by social change and the great tide of story. This would have been my second choice for the Man Booker Prize. (My first choice? That’s further down/up the list.)

twelve tribes8. Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012)

A wonderfully fluid composite portrait of an African-American family making their way in the North across the twentieth century. Just recalling the range and vividness of this novel makes me want to read the book again.

7. Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)

Ten story-chapters that make the same fictional city seem like ten different places. Communion Town depicts the city as an environment crammed with stories, each vying for the chance to be told. It’s invigorating stuff to read.

6. Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

With one of the strongest voices I’ve encountered all year, this is a nuanced account of a man’s pragmatic rise from childhood poverty to business success – with a keen sense that there are costs to be borne along the way. The second-person narration, which could so easily have been a gimmick, works beautifully.

all the birds

5. Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (2013)

It has been really exciting over the last five years to see fine writers of my age-group emerge and establish names for themselves. Evie Wyld is one such writer; her debut was on my list of favourite books in 2009, and now here’s her second novel. Wyld remains a superb writer of place, in her depiction both of the English island where sheep farmer Jake Whyte now lives, and of the Australia that Jake fled. I also love how elegantly balanced this novel is, between the volatile past and the present stability that’s now under threat.

4. Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2011)

Here’s the most memorable character of the year for me: the gloriously ghastly Rosa, who will do anything for her family if it suits her, and will do anything to them if it suits her better. This book is a joy – blackly hilarious, with a bittersweet sting.

3. Shaun Usher (ed.), Letters of Note (2013)

My non-fiction pick of the year. This is a lavish collection of facsimile letters, which is both beautiful to look at, and a window on very personal aspects of history.

2. Jess Richards, Cooking with Bones (2013)

Jess Richards’ work was my discovery of the year: Cooking with Bones is a magical novel that defies easy summary; but it includes a girl who doesn’t know who she wants to be, when all she can do is reflect back the desires of others; supernatural recipes; and one of the most richly textured fictional worlds I’ve come across in a long time. More fool me for not reading Richards’ debut, Snake Ropes, last year; but at least I have the wonderful promise of that book to come.

luminaries1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

Once in a while, a book will come along that changes you as a reader, affects you so deeply that the experience becomes part of who you are. Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal was like that for me, which is why it topped my list of books read in 2009. With The Luminaries, it has all happened again. Several months after reading it, I am in awe at the novel’s range and richness; yet I feel that I’ve still glimpsed only a fraction of what Catton has achieved in the book. I was overjoyed at her Man Booker win, and can only hope that it will bring Catton’s work to the attention of as many people as possible. My wish for all readers is that they find books which mean as much to them as a work like The Luminaries means to me.

Now, what about you? What are your favourite books of the year? Also, if you’ve read any on my list, let me know what you thought.


  1. Sterling work as usual David. Have a grand holiday.

  2. Two of my Top 3 of the year on there – Evie Wyld and Eleanor Catton. Add to that Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Great list, some good ideas for me to read in 2014.

  3. So many of these are already on my to read list, but there are some I’ve never heard of which sound fantastic, thanks for the great ideas!


  4. I’m so glad you liked The Weird Family too. I haven’t read anything else by Kaufman because he tends to tread a little to close to fantasy/ magic realism for me, but I loved The Weird Family and have vowed to read something else by him.

  5. Brilliant list and fabulous to see Eleanor Catton at the top of it. Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton was one of my top reads for 2013, better get started on my list!

  6. David Hebblethwaite

    22nd December 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks for all your comments, folks!

    Route: Cheers, and the same to you!

    Mark: I’ve heard good things about Burial Rites – definitely a book I should check out.

    Sophie: My pleasure; I hope you enjoy any that you decide to try.

    Tanya: Now, for me, it is the fantasy that makes Kaufman’s work. If you want to try something else by him, I’d suggest The Tiny Wife next.

    Claire: Well, The Luminaries could only ever be in one position on this list, it’s that good. Arthur Braxton was one of the books bubbling under these twelve; I feel I should revisit it at some point.

  7. Some really lovely picks! Looking forward to trying ‘Letters of Note’, in particular 🙂

  8. I haven’t read any of those at all, so thank you so much for the wonderful list. I wanted to read the Catton and the Hamid already, so will definitely do so now! I think my books of the year were either Adichie’s Americanah or Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. But my favourite books were possibly the two American mid-century modern classics by John Williams and James Baldwin.

    My year’s reads are listed here:

  9. The Luminaries made my list as well – although most of the books on my list are old ones – I read far fewer recently published things.

    I am impressed that you read over 150 books – I did 133 – a few years ago I once managed 141 – I can’t imagine I will ever beat that.

  10. I have a couple of these titles on my to-read list, but haven’t even heard of a couple others (mainly the translations) Thanks for pointing them out, it is wonderful to discover tempting new titles!

  11. Very interesting list! I haven’t yet got around to Cooking with Bones but Snake Ropes was a weird and wonderful debut. And speaking of Weird, Andrew Kaufman’s books look well worth exploring – I very much enjoyed All My Friends Are SuperHeroes and The Tiny Wife.

  12. David Hebblethwaite

    5th January 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Replying to the most recent comments (thanks, folks!):

    Laura: Letters of Note is a gorgeous book; hope you enjoy it.

    Helen: For what it’s worth, I was lukewarm about Stoner, and gave up on Leaving the Atocha Station (but I liked The Dinner, and loved Far North)… Still, I would recommend all of the books on my list, so I hope there’s something there that you’ll like.

    Ali: I think the final total ended up at over 160, but it was definitely an exceptional year (I had an unusually prolific run at the start): usually manage 110-120 books, and I expect 2014 to be more like that.

    Melwyk: Glad to point you towards some new titles! If you ready any, do let me know what you think.

    Susan: I really must catch up on Snake Ropes, musn’t I? (And All My Friends Are Superheroes, which is the only Kaufman I haven’t read.)

  13. I’m absolutely persuaded by Catton having now read The Rehearsal. She’s a remarkable talent. I’ll be surprised if The Rehearsal isn’t on my 2014 end of year list.

    Sorry to hear you didn’t like the Lerner, which I loved. The Stoner has been accused of misogyny. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    Thompson seems to have spoken more to you than a lot of others. I’ve seen a fair few negative reviews, but clearly with you he found his reader. I still haven’t decided if I’ll read it or not.

    The Di Grado though, that’s wholly new to me and one I will take a look at.

  14. David H

    19th April 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Hi, Max. So pleased you liked The Rehearsal: I suspected you would. I think it’s a good idea to read that book before The Luminaries – not just because it’s less of an investment of time, but also because it gives you an idea of the kind of writer she is, the sort of things she might do in her fiction.

    I’d like to try the Lerner again one day; I couldn’t get into it at the time, but I’m a different reader now. As for Stoner, I don’t know whether I’d go so far as to call it misogynistic; but I can see where those accusations are coming from, and certainly Williams gives little attention to his female characters.

    I can see how the Thompson would be an acquired taste, but it does seem that reviewers who are used to reading sf have been the ones to ‘get’ it, so it could be a book you’d like.

    I still like the Di Grado more than anything on the IFFP longlist. I think it might well be up your street.

  15. Yes, I’m glad I’ve taken them in the order I have.

    The Lerner I read in part as an examination of the nature of poetry, and what poetry can and can’t do. Stoner somehow never grabs me as I feel it should, which is probably why I haven’t read it yet. I shall eventually though I expect.

    The SF point on Thompson is interesting. I’ll consider it again in that light.

    The Di Grado looked an obvious one for me I thought.

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