The book publishing business is still struggling to adapt to the churning waves of change being unleashed by new technology. Before we get too far along into the new year and the industry-wide changes it may bring, lets’ take a belated look back at 2013. Last year was an exciting one for the book industry, if not always for positive reasons.
On the business front, Apple (along with several major publishing firms) and Amazon continued to wrangle over the question of whether publishers conspired to fix e-book prices. By the end of the year, bibliomaniacs and e-book buyers like myself were still waiting for the promised settlements to show up in our Amazon accounts.
Barnes & Noble is struggling to make a go of its own e-book venture, the Nook, and is trying to prevent the Nook’s woes from affecting its still-resilient “dead-tree book” retailing business. (CEO Leonard Riggio insists that his year-end sale of Barnes & Noble stock was for tax reasons, and had nothing to do with his outlook for the company’s business.)
Then came the sudden announcement of the merger between Penguin and Random House. (Personally, I remain convinced that “Random Penguin” would have been a great name for the new company.)
And on the book front? Well, it turned out that “Robert Galbraith,” author of the gritty mystery The Cuckoo’s Calling, is none other than J.K. Rowling making a further bid to leave her Hogwarts years behind her. In the literary fiction universe, the buzz surrounded 28-year-old Eleanor Catton, who waltzed off with two of the most prestigious prizes in the literary universe. Her second novel, The Luminaries, beat works by Colm Toibin and Jhumpa Lahiri for the Man Booker Prize and landed Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award.
I’ve read Galbraith’s book and am partway through the intricately plotted 832-page marvel that is Catton’s novel, but neither appears on my own list of personal “best books” for 2013. I’ll be posting a dozen that are, six fiction and six non-fiction, most of them a little off the beaten path in one way or another and each boasting a different kind of appeal to me as a reader. All of them, however, make me feel sad that I read them. Why? Because never again will I have the joy of discovering them for the first time…
Today, we’ll start with the fiction:
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally
An evocative tale of two Australian sisters who set out to become nurses during World War I, following them from their home to Gallipoli and on to the Western Front. It’s ruthlessly unsentimental. "There are only two choices, you know," Naomi tells her sister Sally at one point. "Either die or live well. We live on behalf of thousands who don't. Millions. So let's not mope about it, eh?" In the flood of books likely to accompany the centenary of the Great War’s outbreak, this one is sure to stand out.
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna
The narrator of this crisply written and subtly suspenseful novel is the hired man of the title. He is working to help an English woman renovate and restore an abandoned farmhouse that she and her husband can then rent to vacationers. Only slowly does the reader learn about the narrator’s secrets and those of the village, revolving around the farmhouse’s former occupants. A reminder that while the latest batch of Balkan wars have been over for more than 15 years, the legacy of ethnic conflicts lingers.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
I literally couldn’t put this down, but wandered around the house with my Kindle two inches from my nose until I had finished reading. It’s the tale of the Dreyfus trial and its aftermath, told through the eyes of George Picquart, a loyal and principled French officer given responsibility for the anti-espionage division of the army after Dreyfus has been shipped off to Devil’s Island. There he discovers another spy – and evidence suggesting that an innocent man had been framed. It’s history; I knew the outcome. But it felt like a thriller.
In the Night of Time by Antonio Munoz Molina
This isn’t a simple novel to read; the author can write paragraphs that go on for pages. But buried within them are some beautiful turns of phrase and fascinating characters, whom we accompany back and forth in time. The nexus of the action takes place in the year leading up to the outbreak of civil war in Madrid (to which our main character, Ignacio Abel, is nearly oblivious, being more caught up with his unexpected love affair with a visiting American): for the first time in his life, he is living for the moment. The cost of that will become apparent… Translated by Edith Grossman – another big plus.
Hild by Nicola Griffith
I’ve been a fan of historical fiction since the dawn of time, I think, and am constantly on the hunt for a novel that transcends the genre. (Think Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.) This fit the bill for me in 2013: The established mystery and sci-fi author has crafted a compelling yarn about the early years of the woman who would become St. Hilda of Whitby. Griffith does a marvelous job of making real and vivid these early centuries, after the departure of the Romans from Britain and before the arrival of the Normans.
The Golden Scales and Dogstar Rising by Parker Bilal
I read a lot of mysteries, and Parker Bilal gets my nomination for best new discovery of the year. Bilal is the pseudonym for a British/Sudanese literary novelist who has started to write mysteries, set in Cairo in the late 1990s and featuring a Sudanese refugee private investigator as his main character. He does a fabulous job of blending a fascinating mystery with details of the time and place, including the political tensions that culminated in the ouster of Mubarak (which took place after the publication of this first book in the series). His third book in this series is due out next month, and I’m already impatient.
Check back tomorrow for my list of top non-fiction titles.
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