my favourite reads of 2013

According to my Goodreads profile, I read an eye-watering 103 books in 2013. I'm glad that my long commute is being put to good use!

There were so many standout books from my reading list. I've tried to narrow it down to a Top 10 but I just couldn't! 2013 was a stellar year for my reading life. Some books were fresh off the press, others had been around for a while and I discovered them for the first time. I'm so glad I did.

So, without further ado. I thoroughly recommend these great reads. 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Were I the type to get girl crushes, this would be one of those scenarios. Not only is Hannah Kent a very talented young writer but she’s also gorgeous and got a lovely personality as well….don’t you just hate that?! I was lucky enough to interview Hannah for my podcast when she visited London in September last year and you can hear about chat here.

Burial Rites is Hannah’s first novel and has been published to great acclaim. It captures the dark and oppressive yet startlingly beautiful and evocative Icelandic landscape with the impending execution of a possibly innocent woman in the background. It feels strange to call it a beautiful book when the subject matter is so dark…but it touches on so many aspects of human nature, truth, survival and how others perceive us versus who we know ourselves to be that you can’t fail to be moved by it. It has stayed with me ever since turning the final page. Highly recommended.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

In a similar camp to Burial Rites, Evie Wyld’s second novel also focuses on a female character who is very much an outsider. Not your typical heroine, Jake Whyte is a sheep farmer, physically strong, emotionally scarred and has every reason to keep herself hidden from the world. Quiet yet menacing, it challenges you in terms of what roles you expect men and women to fall into – both in fiction and in real life – and the writing is so incredibly beautiful. I loved the way the narrative is structured – there is a present day narrative with details of Jake’s quite deliberately lonely life on an English island, and the other is a rewind through her troubled past in Australia, with everything happening in reverse chronological order. Sounds complicated, but it’s so compelling. Highly recommended, particularly for a dark and stormy night!

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, ever since I discovered Strayed’s wonderful advice column Dear Sugar and the book that resulted. This is Strayed’s own heroes journey, a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother died of cancer and her first marriage broke down when she was only in her early twenties. A painful journey in both the physical and emotional sense as she conquers her demons and lays a few ghosts to rest, the reader is at Strayed’s side every step, barefoot or otherwise (!), of the way as she accepts, embraces and finally lets go of the past and is profoundly changed by the end, ready for her next chapter. A real book for the soul, this one.

Like A House On Fire by Cate Kennedy

I’ve really got into short stories over the past few years and quite a few collections have come out of Australia in that time that have been rather phenomenal. I really loved this collection by Kennedy, the first book of hers that I’ve read. Loss and lack are the key themes here, whether it’s loss of a partner, a job, an old way of life or innocence. Like life, the stories have their ups and downs and don’t always have neat endings. But Kennedy’s writing is perceptive and compelling, with the characters leaping to life from the page, making the reader wince at times with recognition – always the hallmark of a good book for me.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I’ve wanted to read this for years and can’t believe I waited so long for it – but it was worth the wait. Funny, heartbreaking, bittersweet and mouthwatering all at once, Heartburn is the tale of a woman scorned – Rachel is seven months pregnant and discovers that her husband Mark is in love with another woman. In between plotting revenge and trying to win Mark back, Rachel shares her favourite recipes. So it was a mixture of my two favourite genres really!  Ephron, who passed away in 2012, made no secret that Heartburn is based on the breakdown of her second marriage in the same circumstances. “I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book – if I could just stop crying,” says Ephron in my edition’s introduction. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.” Me too, Nora. Me too. I found this book incredibly relatable on so many levels and if you’re a fan of Ephron’s movies (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie and Julia) you’ll love this book.

Cargo by Jessica Au

With sensory and vivid prose, this novel transports you to a seaside Australian town in 1992 and into the lives of three teenagers from various walks of life, each with different demons to battle. But what unites the three stories is not just the fact they overlap (which is done very well) but also the themes of adolescence that each of the protagonists grapple with – love, burgeoning sexuality, independence, freedom and a growing awareness of who they are and their place in the world. It is beautifully written and evoked memories of all the tartan shirts, Frozen Cokes, Doc Martens, swimming at the beach and watching Home and Away every night that typified my own pre-teen existence in Australia circa 1992.

Dearest Rose by Rowan Coleman

My first read of Rowan Coleman and it won’t be my last. I had heard great things about this novel – in fact it won Best Epic Romantic Novel at the 2013 RoNAs – and it didn’t disappoint. The novel opens with Rose and her seven year old daughter arriving at a B&B in the depths of Cumbria in the middle of the night, much to the chagrin of the landlady. The novel unfolds with the tale of what led Rose to that point, interspersed with how she goes about rebuilding her life in the present, with some funny but also heartbreaking moments, culminating in the novel’s truly horrifying climax. Rowan Coleman really doesn’t shy away from revealing the darkest, ugliest parts of abusive relationships and for that she is to be congratulated. It was such a compelling read. Have some tissues handy.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Recently retired and emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his plain, dry, white-bread existence one day with the arrival of a letter from a former colleague who is dying. He responds to the letter and goes out to post it. Instead of putting it in the mailbox, he keeps walking, to the other end of UK, to deliver the letter in person, convinced by doing so he may save his dying friend. As he walks, Harold reflects on the events of his life, all the while having to deal with the reactions of his wife, friends, neighbours and total strangers to his “unlikely pilgrimage”!  The journey forces him to confront painful memories of the past he has kept hidden so he can “keep calm and carry on” as so many people do. A story about the courage to move forward in life, to find your way back to what really matters. Absolutely wonderfully written, I couldn’t put it down.

Limoncello and Linen Water by Tessa Kiros

I don’t think Tessa Kiros is capable of writing a book that isn’t evocative, exquisitely styled and photographed, and sumptuously written. This one is a tribute to the Italian women in Kiros’ life and the life lessons and wisdom she has gleaned from them, some domestic, others more profound. The recipes too are amazing, particularly Marisa’s potatoes with breadcrumbs.

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

This is Lisa Jewell at her radiant, sparkling best. Engrossing, real and heartbreaking stuff - this book is about the Bird family and the fallout of a tragic event that takes place one Easter Sunday and reverberates through their lives for decades. A must for any Lisa Jewell fans and a wonderful introduction to her writing for new readers.

The Secret Lives of Men by Georgia Blain

Another wonderful short story collection by an Australian writer I'd not read before. I really enjoy stories that are slices of life, so to speak, that quietly and thoughtfully evoke daily life and its various struggles. In this collection, Blain skilfully and compellingly draws characters who examine their motivations, their behaviour in the present and the past, their longings and their failures. The stories are deceptively simple, the prose is stark and evocative and the effect is lingering. The minute I finished the book I wanted to read it again. One to keep on a shelf within easy reach.

By the Book: A Reader's Guide To Life by Ramona Koval

Interviewing Ramona Koval while I was in Melbourne last year was one of the highlights of my career to date. She is a warm, funny and generous woman and reading this book is like having her right in front of you, telling you about her favourite books and their effect on her through her life. This book is such a treat for people who love books – you’ll be nodding and smiling in recognition at mutual favourites, scribbling down titles (or checking the handy index at the end) of books to seek out and read, or most likely both.

Honestly: Notes on Life by Nikki Gemmell

I would buy a book about paint drying if it had Nikki Gemmell’s name on the front cover. She never disappoints me. This is a collection of her non-fiction, a series of columns she writes each week for The Weekend Australian about whatever’s on her mind – be it something small like the joy of a handwritten letter or some of the bigger questions in life. Frank, uplifting, reassuring and always beautifully written in her trademark lyrical style, this is one to savour.

Leftovers by Stella Newman

Stella is one of the funniest writers I know and after her very readable debut Pear Shaped, I was so excited about reading this one. Susie Rosen is, according to a magazine article she stumbles upon, a ‘Leftover’ – a post Bridget-Jones 30 something who has neither her dream man, job, nor home. According to her friends, Susie just needs to get over her ex and start online dating. But Susie’s got another plan. She’s holding out for a promotion and bonus at her ghastly job in advertising and once that happens she can finally quit and pursue her dream career in food, then surely everything else will fall into place. But of course, it’s not that simple!  This is a funny, relatable, well-written and heartfelt book about making things happen for yourself, as tempting as it is to wait for “one day”. Not a typical romance at all and a very empowering ending. I loved it!

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I adored this book and became truly enchanted by all the characters, particularly Don Tillman, the quirky protagonist who is an Asperger’s sufferer, a professor of genetics at Melbourne university and a stickler for routine. He decides he’s going to get married but without a suitable contender in the picture as yet, embarks on The Wife Project to find his perfect woman. The Wife Project becomes The Rosie Project when Don pauses his search for a wife and decides to help an acquaintance find her real father instead. It’s absolutely hilarious, heart-warming and a reminder that love will usually find you when you least expect it. Highly recommended.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Seeing the name Kate Morton on a book cover to me says “guaranteed page turner” and this one was no exception. In fact, I think this is my favourite of all her books. I won’t spoil the plot for you (!) – all I will say is that if you like romantic family sagas with a gasp-out-loud-on-the-train twist, you’ll really enjoy this.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman

This was an exquisite book and one I’m still thinking about, a year later. The dust jacket foretells…”this is a story about right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same.” Very true.

After surviving the brutality of the First World War, Tom and his new wife Isabel begin their life together on an isolated island off the coast of Western Australia where Tom has a job as the lighthouse keeper. Isabel suffers some tragic miscarriages and a still birth and sinks deep into grief. One day, she hears a baby crying. She and Tom discover a boat washed ashore on the island, with a dead man and a live baby inside. Tom, whose moral code was only strengthened after witnessing the horrors of war, wants to report this immediately, but Isabel has already taken to the baby and pleads with him to let them keep her and pass her off as their own child. Against Tom’s better judgement, he eventually agrees.

Some years later, they return to the mainland with their daughter and come to realise that their decision to keep the baby and raise her as their own has come at a great cost to someone else in the town. Will they continue to keep the secret?

This is an incredible book, absolutely unforgettable and very moving. Having written this, a year on, I’m going to read it again! I’d recommend having tissues close by for this one as well.

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

This long-awaited graphic memoir from illustrator Katie Green was one of the highlights of my reading year. The emotional effort it must have taken to draw her harrowing story must have been enormous. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is glad she did.

Lighter Than My Shadow is Katie’s story of her struggle with and recovery from anorexia nervosa, with the added trauma of sexual abuse during her recovery. Both taboo subjects, Katie never shies away from the struggles she endured and the story is told beautifully through her charming illustrations. It’s hard to read though, particularly if you’ve been through something even remotely similar. The early part of the book was particularly resonant for me, transporting me back to my teenage years where I was paranoid about putting on weight, hid food in my room and habitually starved myself as punishment for not “fitting in”. Katie’s journey, however, takes a far more sinister turn than mine did. The illustrations are so evocative, capturing the mind of a young girl who is aware her life is spinning out of control and her desperate attempts to control it, battling the “black cloud” that hangs over her in almost every picture.

Not an easy read by any stretch, and you might want some alone time afterwards to digest it. But it is so, so important that stories like this are told not only to expose the dark hearts of these taboo subjects but to give hope of recovery to anyone currently struggling. While there are a lot of shadows in Lighter Than My Shadow, there is light too. It’s such a brave, emotionally honest and beautifully realised book and deserves a very wide audience.  

What were your favourite reads of 2013?