Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Best of 2013 - Books

Like the best albums of 2013 list, this is a list of the best books I read in 2013, rather than the best to be released in 2013. The list is (I like to think) pretty varied, so hopefully it'll give you a chance to stumble upon something that sounds interesting.

All the President's Men

A lot of the books on this list can be described as imperfect in some ways. This one can be a bit confusing in parts (maybe it's just me that struggles with books with lots of names) and ends at a strange point. But it is a key chronicle of the episode that gave us the -gate suffix for even the most minor of incidents. It's interesting to speculate whether, with the current surveillance available, it would be possible for the media to discover and then reveal something like this, or to consider the key role played by leakers (not just Deepthroat) in light of the fact that the Obama administration has pursued whisteblowers more aggressively than any president in American history.

How to Make Gravy 

I finally got round to reading Paul Kelly's How to Make Gravy. It was interesting to hear at the Toff in Town gig how he found it hard to write, because it comes across as being written by someone who finds these things easy (I guess that's part of the genius). The book has a story for each of the songs, although the stories are sometimes only very loosely related to the songs. The format is unusual, but works really well, making it an interesting read, even for those who aren't big Paul Kelly fans.


During the year I found a really good list of the best books of the last hundred years (I'd post a link but I can't seem to find it). Unlike most of these lists the books are pretty accessible, rather than all being a billion pages long and really hard to read. Although Dune is a science fiction classic, it is just as much about politics and ecology. I haven't read the (many) sequels, but the first novel works well as a stand-alone story.

The Underdog

Marcus Zusak's Book Thief was my favourite book of last year, and hopefully lots of people will be reading that now that it's been made into a movie (albeit one being met with mediocre reviews). Prior to the Book Thief Zusak had written children's books, The Underdog being the first of them. The novel focuses on Cameron Wolfe, a slightly rough 15-year-old; his family; and the girl he falls for. It's a very sweet novel that gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the awkwardness of being a teenager.

Bad Science/Bad Pharma

Ben Goldacre's two novels provide a fairly damning indictment of his subjects, particularly the pharmaceutical industry. I particularly liked these two because he does an excellent job of systematically demonstrating the problem and (unlike most similar books) providing some realistic proposals about how to address the problems he has identified.

Tokyo Vice

A lot of the books I read I stumble upon through fairly random paths. Jake Adelstein was mentioned as being one of the best english speaking authorities on Japan's Yakuza in relation to the discretions of a New Zealand rugby player in Japan. Anyway, the book describes his time as the first non-Japanese reporter working for one of Japan's largest newspapers, in particular, his time as the police reporter. In addition to providing lots of insights into crime in Japan, the book is an interesting account of the experience of a Westerner living and working in Japan.

The Signal and the Noise

Nate Silver's (the US election picking guy) book is about how to make predictions and how they go wrong. He uses some really interesting examples of failures (like the Fukashima disaster), but also of areas where our predictive powers have substantially improved (like weather forecasting). It's a really interesting book, even if you aren't a 'numbers person'.

The Racket

Gideon Haigh's account of the legalisation of abortion in Australia is disturbing and revealing in equal parts. The level of corruption amid the police, medical profession, judiciary and politicians is shocking, particularly given the horrific impact it had on women.

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog is another imperfect novel - it's too long, but for most of the time this fictional (but well-researched) account of the numerous failures of the War on Drugs (not that War on Drugs) is an interesting read. It's particularly interesting to see the tale told (mostly) from the Mexican side of the border, unlike most novels and movies that only have an interest in things north of the border.


Only one pop-science book made the list, which is a bit of a surprise. This one is a must read for anyone intrigued by the recent Masters of Sex series. It outlines the research and researchers working on figuring out exactly what the hell sex is about (with some interesting diversions, such as a visit to a Danish pig farm to interview people whose job is to give pigs orgasms). In addition to all the research described, it's interesting to see how much the field has been held back by the view (held by insitutions, colleagues and funders) that research on sex is somehow 'improper'.

The Given Day

One of the reasons that The Wire was such a great TV series was that they used established novellists as writers. One of these was Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island, which have both been made into movies (short version: Gone Baby Gone = good, but not as much as book; Shutter Island = average, hard book to turn into a movie). This one is a departure from his previous crime fiction novels, instead this is an epic leading up to the Boston police strike in 1919. The tone of this and the fact there are some important historical figures as characters reminds me of Boardwalk Empire. This book deserves to be described as an Important American Novel, but that kind of talk usually makes me think a book will be really hard to read and quite dull and this book is neither of those things.  

The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer

I actually got this out because I thought it was a different book called the Difference Engine. This book covers the torturous path to build, what is now regarded as, the first computer. The tale of an obssessive scientist who believes in the value of their work, despite the opinions of virtually everyone else, isn't particularly original, but that doesn't stop this from being an interesting story.

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