Wherein we squawk about our favorite books from 2013.
It’s hard to believe another year has passed, but it’s time for the Squawk of the Year again. I didn’t read as many books as I’d have liked to in 2013, but the one that sticks with me is The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin.
This is an epic, sweeping novel about guilt; about a man seeking redemption. At a young age, William Talmadge lost his father and then, a few years later, his mother. He and his seventeen-year-old sister work the family farm until his sister disappears, leaving behind only her bonnet, which was found in a nearby field. The emotional effects of this traumatic event color the rest of Talmadge’s life. Years later, when he discovers two young, pregnant and hungry girls stealing fruit from his trees, his life is upended; and, along the way, he discovers a way to assuage his misplaced guilt.
This is a tender, moving story and I cried at the end. You can’t get a better testimonial than that.
My squawks this year are a rarefied species, not even bi-monthly, so mea culpa for that. On the other hand, when I look back over them, I realise how lucky I was with my choices because almost every one of them is a potential Squawk of the Year for me. But that defeats the object of this exercise, so I’m forced to make a choice. A runner-up would be our own Marc Nash’s Long Stories Short, which is packed with beautifully crafted pieces and stays with you when you close it, but the gold medal has to go to Catherine Czerkawska’s The Physic Garden. Like Marc, she’s a friend, so I may seem to be opening myself to charges of favouritism or whatever the ‘friend’ version of nepotism is but objectively this, like many of her other books, is a beautifully conceived and executed story which evokes life in 19th century Glasgow and, more specifically, that of a gardener at the university. It plays with our sympathies, informs us about the development of conflicting disciplines, sets urban against rural and so on and so on. It’s impossible to say in just a few words what makes it so good but take any aspect of the novelist’s art and you’ll find it exemplified here to perfection.
Nothing really blew me away this year, but the most worthwhile grapple I had with a book was Ben Marcus' "The Age Of Wire And String". The book presents itself as some kind of alien report on human culture. But either the alien intelligence can't quite penetrate the connections between things and the relationship of cause and effect; or they can, but are stymied by the structure of their language and ability to organise their observations using our foreign terms.
There is no code here to be penetrated, rather here are our own logics reflected and refracted back to us through this text, showing us up to be absurdly non-rational beings in our habits, practises and behaviour. This is how alien we must seem to a, well to an alien. Ben Marcus has pulled off the not insubstantial feat of being a human writing about seeing humans from a non-human perspective. The aliens have assimilated our lexicon and basic rules of grammar, yet they are producing virtual nonsense text in order to set down their analysis of us. Our language lets them down. As it does us.
Hello there - My favourite book of 2013 was Empire Antarctica, by Gavin Francis. It's the thoughts, recollections and studies of a doctor after he accepts a placement on a research station amid the ice, silence and darkness of the Antarctic winter. Perfectly pitched and beautifully written, it proves that there are no limits to the imagination, no matter how hostile or isolated the environment. A brilliant piece of natural history writing, it is only flawed in that it never references John Carpenter's The Thing. But it does have lots of penguins.
I was intensely focused on writing in 2013, so I didn't allow myself much reading time. However, one of the novels I did read stood out. It was written by one of several indie authors with whom I became acquainted through social media, and someone I've come to respect as a writer and a person: Rebecca Lochlann. The novel, In the Moon of Asterion, is the third in her excellent Child of the Erinyes series. In my original review of it here on Booksquawk, I wrote, "as a reader, I was captivated, caught up in a boiling whirlpool pulling me toward the inevitable conclusion." It would be well worth your while to add this historical fantasy fiction to your TBR pile.