My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012

Madeleine St John

'Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John' by Helen TrincaEarlier this year, I enjoyed The Women in Black, Madeleine St John’s first novel, and became interested in learning more about this writer. I had vague memories of seeing interviews with her after she became the first Australian woman to be short-listed for the Booker Prize, for her third novel, The Essence of the Thing. She insisted at the time that she wasn’t Australian at all, she disparaged the existence of literary prizes and she claimed to loathe every second of this Booker-related publicity, and I remember thinking she was protesting a tad too much. And now, having just read Helen Trinca’s biography of the novelist, I’ve learned that, in fact, Madeleine St John was absolutely thrilled at all the attention. It was the highlight of her life – a life that, according to this biography, was desperately sad and bitter. She had a troubled relationship with her cold, autocratic father, the Australian politician Ted St John, and her alcoholic mother killed herself when Madeleine was twelve years old. This seems to have led to a lifelong state of insecurity. Her biographer notes,

“Over and over, she would draw people in with her loving charm, intelligence, creativity and high values. But before long, she would create a crisis or an argument, driving away friends who were left bewildered by her behaviour. Then, after a break, a card or phone call would signal a desire to resume relations. All her life, Madeleine made sure she rejected others before they could abandon her, then hauled them back on her terms.”

while her younger sister, Colette, said,

“She just had this talent for alienating people and it didn’t matter what you did. That’s what she did with relationships, she was terrified of intimacy.”

She struggled with depression most of her life, trying various forms of psychotherapy, medication and religion in an attempt to relieve the anguish, then died alone, aged sixty-four, of lung disease. It must be said that there isn’t much evidence of Madeleine’s “loving charm” in this biography, but the charm must have existed, otherwise why else would so many intelligent, creative and successful people have wanted to be her friend in the first place?1 Yet she was a terrible snob, keeping a copy of Debrett’s on her bedside table and constantly reminding people that her family was in it (her father was distantly related to Baron St John of Bletso). Perhaps that’s why she was so good at describing people in her novels – she’d spent so long observing other people’s language and manners in order to determine their ‘true’ position in society and work out whether they were worthy of her attention. And perhaps her “high values” help to explain why her first novel wasn’t published till she was in her fifties – perhaps she felt that none of her fiction was good enough to show anyone else until then.2 Michelle de Kretser gave this biography a lukewarm review in The Sydney Morning Herald, saying it was “carefully researched” but not “a work of literature”, and anyway, Madeleine St John was only a “minor writer”3, but I found it fascinating.

'A Pure Clear Light' by Madeleine St JohnHowever, I think Madeleine St John’s novels are even better, and I especially recommend A Pure Clear Light, her second novel. Ostensibly, it’s the story of a pair of middle-class Londoners (complete with three beautiful children, a Volvo and summers spent in France) whose marriage starts to unravel when the husband begins an affair, but it’s actually a chance for the author to poke fun at some very shallow, hypocritical people. Simon, the adulterous husband, is particularly awful, disparaging his wife’s forty-something unmarried friend who’s “missed the bus” (“loose-cogging around the scene, just getting in the way – it’s embarrassing . . . she’s just so pointless”), all the while relishing his mistress’s “autonomy” (naturally, he has fits of jealousy if she mentions any of her male friends). He’s also horrified when his wife turns to her local church for consolation, because he thought he’d successfully “talked her out of” Roman Catholicism (“having itemised the horrid ingredients of that scarlet brew – moral blackmail, misogyny, cannibalism and the rest”). Flora, his wife, is a little too good to be true – running her own business, managing the children (even her friend’s children) with good humour and good sense, and being endlessly supportive of her horrible husband – but it does make the reader care about what happens to her, and I found the novel’s conclusion to be both clever and plausible.

I also liked The Essence of the Thing, involving two characters who play minor roles in A Pure Clear Light. Again, an apparently solid relationship is revealed to have deep cracks, and this time, it breaks apart. Nicola simply can’t understand how Jonathan could abandon her so callously, but he’s such an inarticulate, repressed character that the reader can’t help thinking she’s much better off without him. In fact, I can’t understand why any of the women in Madeleine St John’s novels put up with their respective men, but their situations do provide lots of opportunity for thoughtful and often hilarious commentary on love, sex, marriage and modern life. This novel’s plot was a little too predictable and the lessons a little too obvious, but it’s still an enjoyable read. I haven’t read Madeleine St John’s final novel, A Stairway to Paradise, but it’s on my To Read list. I’m so glad I came across this writer. Even if some people regard her as “minor”.


  1. Among her friends and advocates were Bruce Beresford and Clive James, who were her contemporaries at the University of Sydney in the early 1960s.
  2. She worked for decades on a biography of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, but destroyed the manuscript after it was rejected by a publisher.
  3. What are the criteria that differentiate a “minor” from a “major” writer? Is a “minor” novel by a “major” writer superior to a “major” novel by a “minor” writer? And is Michelle de Kretser a “minor” or a “major” writer? Enquiring minds want to know.

What I’ve Been Reading Recently

'Restoration' by Rose TremainI absolutely loved Restoration by Rose Tremain, about a medical student in Restoration-era England who attracts the patronage of King Charles II after (accidentally) saving the life of the King’s spaniel. Robert Merivel is a most endearing character, despite his many faults, which include laziness, gluttony and a complete inability to resist temptation. He has a good heart and a robust sense of humour, and he humbly accepts his punishment when he does the unforgivable and falls in love with the King’s mistress. All the other characters are equally vivid and interesting, but my favourite is Merivel’s best friend, Pearce, who works at a remote Quaker-run lunatic asylum. The author does a wonderful job of recreating the era in a manner that is accessible without feeling too ‘modern’. It’s true that Merivel’s beliefs about medicine are sometimes extremely progressive for his time (for example, he questions bloodletting as a cure and refers to the spread of the “plague germ”), but then, he is meant to be a rationalist in a rapidly changing world. I actually read this book because the sequel, Merivel, was recently published and sounded very interesting, but Restoration is so perfect and complete in itself (ending in exactly the right place) that I wonder why it needed a sequel. However, I can certainly understand why the author would want to spend more time with Robert Merivel, so I’ll probably read Merivel, too – just not right now.

'The Women in Black' by Madeleine St JohnI also enjoyed The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, a charming story about a group of women working at a grand Sydney department store in the 1950s. I loved the descriptions of familiar Sydney experiences: eating lunch by the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park; catching the train from Wynyard Station; strolling through Martin Place and giving in to the temptation “to walk along the GPO colonnade”. (The only unfamiliar bits were the trams and eating ice-creams at Cahill’s, both before my time.) The author, an Australian who moved to England in 1968 and never moved back, was clearly glad to escape a narrow-minded society that provided her with very limited options. Marriage was then the only acceptable goal for women, although Australian men aren’t exactly portrayed as prizes in this book. For example, Patty’s husband is described as a “drongo . . . neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate”, while Fay’s two previous lovers have dumped her without marrying her. Meanwhile, young Lisa longs to accept the university scholarship she’s been offered, but her father refuses to sign the permission form (“I can’t see what you want with exams and first-class honours and universities and all that when you’re a girl”). Luckily, Lisa and Fay are taken under the wing of Magda, the ‘Continental’ refugee who happens to have a lot of suave, cultured male friends, and even Patty manages to put aside her bitterness and reach for happiness. The plot of this book is utterly predictable, but that doesn’t matter – read this for the gorgeous, detailed descriptions, the spot-on dialogue and the sympathetic portrayal of female friendship.

'The Oopsatoreum' by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse MuseumFinally, I’ve been chortling my way through The Oopsatoreum, by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse Museum. This is an entertaining look at the life of Henry Archibald Mintox (1880–1967), one of Australia’s “most fearless inventors”, whose “sheer diversity of his legacy is matched only by its great lack of practical relevance”. Mr Mintox produced “a startling range of prototype inventions from his back shed in Burrumbuttock, New South Wales, and came to be known as the ‘Edison of Australia’, although only within his own family and at his own insistence.” Among his useless inventions were a ‘lesson trap’ (a giant cage baited with a cupcake for luring in schoolchildren; after being trapped, they’d receive “a stern lecture on the perils of tooth decay”); an automated ‘dog walker’ that reeled in the dog after thirty minutes; and a ‘handshake gauge’ for testing the trustworthiness of job applicants. The book consists of photographs of the inventions with short explanations of their history, along with some illustrations in the form of Mr Mintox’s ‘plans’. Mr Mintox is, of course, a figment of Shaun Tan’s imagination, but the ‘inventions’ are actual objects from the Powerhouse Museum (the ‘handshake gauge’, for instance, is “an artificial hand for use with a resuscitation mannequin in first-aid training”). This is a very funny book, let down only by some design flaws (for example, the designer has chosen to place a lot of the illustrations over two adjacent pages, causing details to become invisible where the pages meet the book’s spine; also, the publishers forgot to employ a proofreader). But I’m sure less persnickety readers will overlook this, and it’s certainly a book that Shaun Tan’s many fans will enjoy – and, according to his website, there’s an accompanying exhibition planned for 2013 at the Powerhouse Museum.