Riot Round-Up: The Best Books of 2013
We challenged our contributors to pick their top two books of the year. The result is a BIG list that’s just as eclectic and idiosyncratic as we are, and as we’ve come to know you are too. We think it’s a hell of a collection, and we hope you’ll enjoy it and share your picks for Best of 2013 in the comments!
Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (with Mike Norton, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Clowes)
Young Avengers gave me more joy than any other comic I read this year. It was the book I looked forward to reading the most each month, and the one that had me smiling and happy dancing the most. It’s like really great pop music in comic book form. And I LOVE IT! At it’s core, the comic is about being in your twenties and trying to get your life together, but with lots of punching and lasers and kissing and running away from your parents because they are literally trying to kill you. There is a fantastic, unstoppable energy to Young Avengers. It’s full of the bold passion and invincibility of being young. And it’s just so epically awesome to read.
Kieron Gillen does some really wonderful character work in this book. Not only do you feel like you know these people, you feel like you actually knew them when you were 20. His work with Kid Loki both in Young Avengers and earlier in Journey Into Mystery has defined the character for current comics continuity. I don’t want to read a Loki that is not written by Gillen. And Jamie McKelvie’s pencils! I can’t even. He’s doing the work of his career. The facial expressions, the action sequences, the page layouts: they’re all perfectly executed and unlike that vast majority of superhero comics.
One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah MacLean
I read a lot of romance novels this year, thanks to the fantastic WORDs of Love book club. But One Good Earl, the second book in Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels series, is the book that really got me hooked on romance. What I love most about romance novels is that they unabashedly embrace what they are. They celebrate love and sex and happy endings, and they usually have spectacularly punny titles.
One Good Earl has all of these things, but what sets it apart from the rest of the pack is Sarah MacLean’s stellar writing. Her sense of character and drama and steamy sex scenes are all fantastic. Few writers have me wanting to tear through pages more than MacLean does. But what I love most about this book is it’s bespectacled, nerdy heroine Pippa. Aside from having the best name in the history of ever, Pippa is curious, brilliant, and determined. The book opens with Pippa going to a notorious gaming hell owner and scoundrel to find out the particulars of sex for SCIENCE. Wonderful hilarity ensues.
Stay Up with Me by Tom Barbash
It’s the holiday season, just past Thanksgiving, and I find myself wondering what the characters in Stay Up with Me might be doing right now: did the man with the errant wife end up throwing the yearly Thanksgiving-Day-parade party in his swank New York apartment? Was their viewing of the floats ruined by the gale force winds? Is the tennis pro getting ready to start another year on tour? What about the boy who realized his mom was going to destroy every relationship he embarked on? Can’t he just love in peace?? Six months later, and this book has stayed with me like the adventures of old friends. That’s the best recommendation I can give.
Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield
I’m on a theme trend, which includes books about living space. Barbash’s characters all lived the 21st century American dream life with huge homes stuffed with only the best “stuff,” and the hint of vacation mountain cabins and beach houses to be had when the season is right. Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter, attempts to get to the bottom of our obsession with the home, and everything we fill it with. Howard Mansfield writes in the dreamy prose of a poet, while discussing everything from what makes a home feel like home to the rebuilding of communities after being literally bombed, flooded, or otherwise destroyed. What encapsulates the soul of any space, allowing us to call it “home”? At it’s best, it’s a spiritual undertaking of a fairly mundane topic, and at the very least, it’s a nice antithesis to everything currently in holiday marathon lockdown on HGTV.
The Son by Philipp Meyer
A sprawling family epic that is best described as Steinbeck-meets-Cormac-McCarthy. The book follows the rise of a Texas oil family from its Civil-War-era patriarch to it’s modern-day matriarch and her soft-handed children. It’s violent and beautiful and will make you think hard about what it means to work, to be a “real” man (or woman), and what leaving a legacy to your children really entails. A contender for the title of Great Modern American Novel.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Take all the things you think you know about Gilbert’s writing based on Eat, Pray, Love and throw them down a trash chute. This Victorian-style novel has everything: a lady scientist and her obsession with moss, Darwin, Tahiti, abolitionists, lovely writing, ships, botany, stern Dutch mothers, etc. Gilbert has done something fascinating: written a Dickensian novel (in both time period and style) where the main female character isn’t saved by marriage- she’s saved by her work.
Brenna Clarke Gray
Reality Boy by A.S. King
This was my favourite YA title of 2013 and one of my favourite reads across the board. A.S. King is a gift to YA literature — she takes her protagonists seriously, weaves them lovingly, and allows them to be flawed and damaged just like real teens are. They aren’t little adults, and she has this perfect sense of the catastrophizing teenage brain that resonates a little too well with me. One of the things I love about King’s writing, and Reality Boy in particular, is the way she constructs parents and parental resentments — the damage wrought by parents who can’t release their own issues and focus on their children. I think King should write a How Not to Parent guide. That’s how I’m starting to read her fiction as I tick over 30, I have to say.
Hellgoing, Lynne Coady’s most recent collection of short stories, won the Giller Prize here in Canada, which is our big deal literary prize, and it won accolades from a lot of critics, but more importantly than all of that — it’s beautiful. Coady is an expert at the short story form and one of my favourite Atlantic Gothic writers at the moment. She’s like Alice Munro in her ability to spin a breath into a story that sticks in your lungs and refuses to let you go. These stories are so profoundly human that they are painful, at times, to read. Hellgoing hasn’t found a US publisher yet, but if you can’t bug your favourite Canadian to send you a copy, you can get her previous novel, The Antagonist, from Knopf.
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
It’s difficult for me to count this as just one book. I read the three in the series back-to-back (the first two are Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood), and so when I say this is one of my top picks for the year, I’m talking about the whole reading experience. The world building and character development just blew my mind. It’s the most exciting and most fulfilling series that I have read in a very long time. Atwood is at the top of her game.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
There are so many books out there that take risks and that fail miserably. Life After Life is one of those rare gems that takes a huge risk and reaps tremendous rewards. It isn’t just one story. There are endless variations, and even though the book comes to an end, I’m still sitting here, wondering what the next life will be like. That the book has stuck with me this long and this vividly is a testament to Atkinson’s skill as a storyteller.
A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
This book’s cover is what attracted me first. But the book’s content makes it one of my favorite reads of the year. Sims crafted a book about zombies without ever needing to call them zombies. It’s not really even about them (I mean, it is, but it’s so much more). It’s about, I think, the human condition of fear motivated by isolation and isolation motivated by fear. But this isn’t a horror novel. It’s about the relationship between a son and his father (a young man tries to find his father, most likely dead, in the aftermath of an undead pandemic). It’s about the relationship between lovers (how can you trust the one you love, when that love is a liability in the face of contagion?). Sims’ narrative voice is clear and genuine, funny at times but always respectful of his characters.
This novel spoke to me. I finished it and immediately wanted everyone else to read it so that I could share that feeling. I’m thrilled that this is the first novel by Bennett Sims, but I’m saddened that it’s the only novel by Bennett Sims. Expect big things.
If you’re a fan of the zombie genre, you need to read A Questionable Shape. If you’re not a fan of the zombie genre, but you value thoughtful, moving, well-written prose, you need to read A Questionable Shape. Look. You need to read A Questionable Shape.
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
At the beginning of the year, I started reading through the Everest-sized mound of short story collections which dominates the center of that special place in my house I call the To-Be-Read Room (some people have TBR “piles” or “stacks;” I have an entire room dedicated to the cause). It didn’t take long for me to find my favorite collection of the year (and yes, I also read George Saunders’ Tenth of December). Jamie Quatro’s debut collection I Want to Show You More is a profound, weird, funny, sad, and wholly-original gathering of short fiction. Nearly a year after reading it, I’m still thinking of highlights: a church that falls apart, sending its parishioners to live in the woods; an ultra-marathon in which runners carry totems–including a glass-blown penis–in backpacks; and several heartbreaking stories about a family coping with the loss of its matriarch as she battles cancer.
Set in the South–primarily on Lookout Mountain which straddles the border between Georgia and Tennessee–Quatro’s stories take on big themes like adultery, spirituality, grief and parenting, but it’s the intimacy of the characters which drives the book forward. There’s a quadriplegic mother at a pool party, a rotting lover’s corpse in a bed, a fair amount of phone sex and at least one frail character’s perilous journey up and down a hilly suburban street in her quest to mail a letter about the Iraq War to President Bush. Quatro’s style has the terse, stabbing power of Raymond Carver in his finest hour, but at the same time there’s the fuller lyricism of something by Alice Munro, languorously stretching and humming below the surface of the words. Each time I finished one of the stories, I thought, “Wow, that’s the best one in the book,” and then I’d go on to the next story and find it was the best one. I ended up closing the book and sighing, “Okay, they’re all the best.” I can’t wait for Jamie Quatro to show me more with her next book.
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
This is a portrait-of-a-friendship as geopolitical-thriller. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Or neither. It’s hard to say, which is part of the pleasure of this tricky, unexpected novel. It’s lithe and it’s weighty. It’s about a young girl and it’s about the Cold War. It’s a story of secrets and a tale of celebrity. It’s a mystery where the mystery is sort of beside the point. It’s got past and present, wholeness and brokenness. I think you get the picture, or at least enough of it to go buy the book already. It’s gorgeously written and deeply enjoyable–you won’t regret it.
The Madonna on the Moon by Rolf Bauerdick
Here’s what I wrote earlier this year when I told you to watch for this book in July: “In this fascinating novel, the launch of Sputnik II kicks off an unexpected chain of events in a lightly fictionalized Romania. The novel follows a teenage boy as he both witnesses and participates in the unraveling of the tiny mountain community of Baia Luna: a teacher goes missing, a priest dies, and suddenly the village finds itself enmeshed in a web of violence, sex, and ideology spun by communist bureaucrats in the regional capital. And meanwhile, two villagers—a shopkeeper and a Gypsy—are trying to find the Virgin Mary on the moon before the Soviets get there first. Part Bildungsroman, part murder mystery, part political thriller, part theological exploration, The Madonna on the Moon is a strange and fantastic ride. (The translation, by David Dollenmayer, is almost flawless, giving a clear sense of the linguistic rhythm of the original while adapting idioms and slang in ways that read smoothly in English.)” Yup. Definitely weird and definitely amazing, I’m still thinking about The Madonna on the Moon six months later.
Rivers by Michael Farris Smith
In my Fat Amy voice: “Sometimes I have the feeling I can read dystopian fiction, but then I think mmm… better not.” Then this book came into my life and completely changed the way I thought about an entire genre. What would happen if Hurricane Katrina level storms kept on keepin’ on for years? In Rivers, Smith explores this possibility and creates dark and memorable characters. The writing style reminded me of Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown, and that isn’t a comparison I take lightly. I spent many hours in my hammock with my fingers glued to Rivers, jumping and nearly hurling myself out of my perch every time a bug landed on me. It’s creepy good.
Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt
Completely outrageous characters…completely believable if you have spent time in the South. Barnhardt perfectly nails the generations of Southern socialites. The “Christmas dinner” scene is one of my all-time favorites, and Gaston Jarvis is a character for the literary record books. The story moves along as each character gets their own POV chapter. Really fun, very funny, but also very serious. I promise, you’ll know these people.
Shift and Dust by Hugh Howey (Silo Saga)
You know what, I’m just going to rope these two together into one pick. When I picked up the first book in Howey’s Silo Saga, Wool, I had several moments where I actually gasped. As a kid, I devoured Ray Bradbury stories, particularly his short stories set in science fiction futures that were…let’s just say they were less than ideal. Reading through Wool took me back, and made me feel that way again about dark science fiction, and for that Hugh Howey, I thank you.
I tore through Shift (released January 2013) and Dust (released August 2013) with the same amount of enthusiasm, eager to get absorbed into the incredible world Howey put together. The premise? The world is dead, and all that remains of mankind is tucked away in enormous military silos, where people continue to have as-close-to-normal-lives as possible. It’s a society where people live, die, love, cheat, steal, betray… all self contained in these artificial constructs. And to rise up and question your existence, could lead to banishment outside the silo, into the harsh poisoned air.
I’d love to dish out more about Shift and Dust, but if you haven’t read the first book, I’d probably ruin everything for you. So go pick up the trilogy, immediately.
Hawkeye, Vol 1: My Life As a Weapon by Matt Fraction
I talked a bit about this book in my Best of the Month blip, and now I have to revisit it. I like comic books. I read graphic novels and collected anthologies, but never really delve into single issues. The collected volume of Hawkeye comics makes my best of the year list, because it completely changed that. I’m visiting my local comic book shop with the intentions of buying single issues for the first time, because this is a series that completely changes what I thought I knew about comics.
In My Life as a Weapon you get a look at Hawkeye as a person. Clint’s life. The people around him, friends and neighbors. He’s not just some arrow shooting Avenger, he’s just a normal guy like you and me. He makes mistakes, he’s imperfect. He stumbles and fails. It’s the most humanizing look at a superhero I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to start reading more books like this one. Bravo, Marvel.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Two brothers growing up in 1950s India are as close as brothers can be. Then their lives diverge — one becomes a political radical and marries young, the other emigrates to America and becomes a milquetoast American college student majoring in marine biology. But the sins of the former soon come back to haunt the latter — and continue to do so for decades. This multi-generational story is another terrific addition to Lahiri’s oeuvre. It examines the immigrant experience and the cultural divide, and it’s all told in Lahiri’s signature prose that is so fluent and articulate, it barely feels as though you’re reading. Lahiri gets the most pub for her short stories, but this novel should definitely move her into the pantheon of great modern novelists as well.
Want Not by Jonathan Miles
Well, I loved this book, too. I mean, I really loved this book. Not only is it smart, funny, and breathtakingly well-written, it sure gives you a good case of guilty conscience. Greed leads to waste — whether of things or people. That’s the theme, and Miles explores this by telling us three stories simultaneously. What makes this novel special is twofold. First, the characters here are terrific — we have a sleazy collection agency owner, an overweight soon-to-be-divorced linguistics professor with some interesting neighbors, and a couple of Manhattan squatters who dumpster dive to feed themselves, and who have a rather fascinating backstory. Secondly, this novel is about as fun to read from start to finish as any novel you’ll find. Miles is just great — he’ll crack you up with a one-liner on one page, and kick you right in the sad with a set piece about World War II soldiers liberating a concentration camp on the next. And finally, the conclusion of this novel, when the stories converge, will leave you quite literally breathless. I’m not being glib. For about 15 pages near the end, I honestly had to remind myself to breathe. This novel is, no hyperbole, a masterpiece. It was just published in late November, and I think you’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the coming weeks/months.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
This book made me laugh, cry, think, and talk incessantly about it to friends while I was reading it, which is a mark of greatness as far as I’m concerned. The two perspectives we get are from a Japanese high school student (via her diary) and a struggling novelist in Canada (who finds said diary washed up on a beach). Everything about it is so surprising and wonderful that I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that Ozeki captures each perspective perfectly and involves you deeply in their stories. As soon as I finished the ebook, I immediately read back over the considerable number of highlights and notes I saved.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
After I finished this book, I texted my husband to say that I would probably be bursting into tears at the thought of it for the next few days. This actually only happened once. My favorite Gaiman since The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, for me, entirely about the mood it evokes and the feelings it has about childhood and memory. Though my life bears little resemblance to the unnamed narrator’s (except the part about stealing light from hallways and bright windows to read in bed at night), the nostalgia I felt while reading it was painful. Well done, sir.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
An expansive novel about race, immigration, identity, and success, Americanah does sweeping social critique that still manages to be generous. This isn’t a screed or an indictment: this is a work that embraces the contradiction and unfairness it sees as part of our world. And it’s a damn fine story to boot. This is what social realism looks like for America today
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s memoir sheds new light on an issue you may already think you’ve got covered: violence and prejudice in the South. Ward is a gifted writer, as she proved with her National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones. Here she chronicles the deaths of five young men in the course of five years, all black and all gone before their time, and delves into the roots of the violence, both psychological and physical, that marked their lives. She’s telling a story we all need to hear, as difficult as it might be to hear it. And beyond the political ramifications, it’s a moving story of grief and tragedy that anyone who has ever lost someone will want to pick up.
The Girl Who Soared Above Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente
Valente’s Fairyland series has been a delight from the start, both because of its excellent whimsy and because of the genuine heart the whimsy masks. I’m hard-pressed to think of books that are as cleverly funny and as good at pulling on your heart-strings, and The Girl Who Soared Above Fairyland (the third installment) dialed those qualities up to 11. I laughed, I cried, I highlighted lines that I want to cross-stitch, and then I cried some more. If you’ve ever dreamed of being swept away to Fairyland — but were also a bit afraid of the consequences — then my friend, you must must must read these books!
Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman
While I didn’t read much published this year, Offerman’s “memoir” easily takes the top spot. While his famed TV character, Ron Swanson, is pretty one-dimensional in his uber-machoism, Offerman retains that manliness in real life while also showing us a depth of character not often found in Hollywood. He deeply loves his wife of 11 years (fellow Hollywood star Megan Mullally), he builds stuff with his hands in his woodshop, and he extols the virtues of spending time outdoors. In the midst of the wisdom he dispenses in this book, we also get a look into some uproarious anecdotes that chronicle the comedian’s road from farm town in Illinois, to theater in Chicago, to his Parks & Rec fame in LA. If you’re a fan of Swanson, you’ll love this. If you’re not, you’ll come to love him (if, of course, you can handle his frequent f-bombs and references to his and his wife’s seemingly stupendous sex life).
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor Douglas in Rainbow Rowell’s phenomenal book Eleanor & Park is one of those characters I related to so closely that I have a hard time thinking critically about the book. Eleanor’s story could be the autobiography of my teen years (we were about the same age in the 80s when this book takes place)— overweight bullied young girl in love with music, growing up in a house filled with domestic violence. Alas, I had no Park in my life, but thankfully Eleanor does. Park is a mixed-race boy who loves punk rock music and comic books and is none too thrilled when crazy-haired Eleanor plops into his seat on the school bus. What follows is one of the sweetest, most-heart wrenching love stories I’ve ever read. Eleanor & Park’s relationship is so awkward and adorable it’s nearly unbearable. Eleanor’s home life is so awful that it is actually unbearable and at one point I had to push the book aside just so I could sob for awhile. It was too much. This is a great book for music lovers, romance lovers, and anyone who wants to remember that exquisite pain of being sixteen.
Last Night at the Viper Room by Gavin Edwards
Oh, River Phoenix, it’s hard to believe you’ve been gone for twenty years now. Phoenix, was one of those young, shining stars of Generation X. A vegan, teenage heartthrob who is most known for his role as doomed Chris Chambers in “Stand By Me.” His death of a drug overdose outside the Johnny Depp-owned Viper Room on Halloween 1993 shocked many people. Phoenix had a clean-cut, animal-loving image that everyone around him went to great lengths to protect even though he had a dangerous drug addiction. Edward’s short biography of the actor not only uncovers the sick, sad road that led to Phoenix’s ruin (child of weirdo Christian sex-cult missionary hippies goes to Hollywood) but also puts the provides the context around Hollywood in the 80s and what Phoenix’s peers (Ethan Hawke, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio) were doing at the same time. This ones an informative, heart breaking, and a sort of angsty stroll down GenX-memory lane.
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon van Booy
This is a book I very nearly didn’t read. It was only due to fellow Rioter Amanda pointing it out as her favorite one month. Something about her description made me go order it right away. It arrived, beautifully blue, and once I started reading I knew I had something special in my hands. It tells connected stories, though the connections aren’t clear until the very last pages. We read stories of the characters lives, in the most wonderful prose, and we get swept along.
The book starts with a story of Martin, and we like him immediately. The scope then broadens and we meet a diverse cast of characters, and their stories are then woven together, all in Van Booy’s beautiful prose.
The Stories: Five Years of Original Fiction by Tor.com
I don’t know if it’s cheating on Tor’s part, but they put together a massive collection of the stories that have appeared on their site over the last five years, as far as I can tell without selecting in any way. However, they are a notoriously hard market to get your stuff published in, so you are almost guaranteed quality stuff anyway. So, this collects the stories they publish– science fiction, fantasy and horror and this collection has 150 stories. Yes, 150. It is also no longer available, at all, though the individual stories are free to read online.
Well, the stories are, for the most part, pretty amazing and the contents reads like a “Who’s Who” of the current speculative fiction field and at nearly 4000 pages (yes, 4000) it is bound to last for a while.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is my desert island book.
& Sons by David Gilbert
If Jonathan Franzen wrote The Royal Tenenbaums, & Sons is what you’d get. An aging literary genius named A.N. Dyer calls his sons home to New York after the death of his oldest friend. One is a long-recovered addict and drug treatment counselor, another a trust-funded experimental filmmaker, both with baggage to spare. The third son, Dyer’s namesake, is the product of a mysterious affair that effectively ended the author’s lone marriage. Dyer and his sons all get the stage to themselves at various points throughout the novel, which uses snippets of Dyer’s novels to frame his tattered relationships and the lives of each of the characters, who so desperately want their lives to match the books’ literary quality and significance. & Sons wears its ambitions on its sleeve. It’s a big-idea, 450-page, Literature-with-a-capital-L kind of book. That’s a dangerous road to walk. It’s so easy to stumble. But Gilbert doesn’t. Even when the book takes a hard left (and does it ever) or wanders down some uncertain path, I was eager to follow.
Lexicon by Max Barry
If I’m ever called to court to testify regarding the divide between literary and genre fiction, I might just open Lexicon and begin reading. I’m confident no one in the room would let me leave until I’d finished. That’s how propulsive, smart, intricate, and fully-realized Lexicon is. Barry’s alternate world is populated by people (called poets and given names in keeping with the strength of their abilities; the leaders of the organization are called Yeats and Eliot) who have tapped into the roots of language so fully that they can, with training, persuade people to do just about anything. Think Inception meets X-Men meets Lev Grossman’s Magicians series. As you might imagine, these people of great power do not always exercise great responsibility, and chaos ensues. The task of putting things right falls to powerful young poet (real name: Emily) and an Australian man whose wiped memory has left him clueless as to what the poets want with him. Yes, Lexicon is action-packed, but for me, the book’s greatest pleasures lay in its examination of the power of language, the inherent weakness of desire, and our often painful need to belong.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
I hadn’t read anything substantial (besides a horrendously failed attempt at Dianetics) about Scientology before Going Clear. Most of what I saw didn’t look objective at all. When I saw that Wright had a book about Scientology coming out, I knew I’d read it. I became a Wright fan after his Pulitzer-prize winner about Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower.
I’ve been waiting for a book that would let me use the word magisterial in a review. Well here we go: Going Clear is a magisterial piece of reporting and a disturbing peek into a world that I understood so little of before opening the book.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Did you ever wonder what happened to Danny Torrance after The Shining ended? I didn’t. But that didn’t stop me from getting excited about Doctor Sleep, a long-time-coming sequel to The Shining. It picks up with Danny in middle age: he’s a broken alcoholic and sundry bits of nastiness are about to disturb even the meager peace he’s been able to carve out for himself.
If you haven’t read its predecessor, you’ll still be able to jump into Doctor Sleep and hit the ground running. Read the Wikipedia entry on Shining and you’ll be all set. Doctor Sleep is a lot of fun, a lot of grossness, a lot of scares, and a worthy sequel to an iconic horror novel. But it can also stand on its own. I’m a huge Stephen King fan, but I can admit that I didn’t have enormous expectations for this book. I’m so happy I was wrong.
C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath
There have been many Lewis biographies written over the last few decades, and A Life is a worthy addition to this legacy of scholarship. McGrath gives a chronological overview of Lewis’s life that is detailed without being tedious, and appeals to a younger generation of Lewis enthusiasts. Of particular note is McGrath’s assertion that previous biographers and scholars have misdated Lewis’s conversion to Christianity by an entire year, which he backs up with an impressive analysis of letters and written memories. This ballsy allegation makes the book worth reading in and of itself, and will undoubtedly result in the McGrath either being hailed as one of the greatest Lewis scholars of our generation or eschewed by the academic community.
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
Sarah Bessey has been quietly but forcefully promoting her own brand of feminism–Jesus Feminism–on her blog for over six years. And following the trend of many bloggers today, she wrote a book detailing her vision for what Western Christendom could look like if women were unrestricted in their roles within the Church hierarchy. Bessey sets out to marry traditional theology with a progressive view of women, something, she believes, that Jesus did over two thousand years ago when he spoke to the woman at the well, made friends with prostitutes, and treated the women around him with a level of respect rarely seen in his culture. With elegant prose and heartfelt passion, Bessey argues that feminism–”the radical notion that women are people, too”–is central to the gospel.
17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma
Lauren is haunted by girls who’ve gone missing, and the things that unifies all of these girls is that they all disappeared when they turned 17. With her own 17th birthday drawing nearer, will Lauren succumb to the same fate? Suma’s lushly written novel delves into mental illness, while exploring the idea of what it means to be a girl who “goes missing.” Lauren’s hauntings are up for debate: is she truly ill or is she seeing something? Are there lines that can be drawn between being haunted by ghosts and being haunted by one’s own mind? This is chilling literary YA at its finest.
The Golden Day by Ursuala Dubosarsky
This little book is an Australian import, and for those who are familiar with “The Picture at Hanging Rock,” this story will sound familiar. Eleven girls and their teacher go to the park on an outing, and the teacher goes missing, causing the girls to question what happened to her. Did the man the teacher met at the park have anything to do with her disappearance? Can the young girls tell anyone about what they saw and what it is they did — and did not — know about their teacher’s behavior that day? Set during the Vietnam War in Australia, this slim novel delves into what it means to lose one’s innocence, as well as whether what we see is what is real or if it’s instead something we’ve constructed entirely of our own faulty memories.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
I am a sucker for really good sports stories; The Boys in the Boat is a truly incredible sports story. Set during the lead-up to the tense 1936 Berlin Olympic games, The Boys in the Boat tells the story of a working class group of college students at the University of Washington and their quest for a gold medal in eight-man crew. Brown writes beautifully about the boys on the team and their enigmatic mentor, one of the truly great characters in the sport of rowing. His descriptions of every race are hold-your-breath tense — especially the gold medal race against the cheating Germans. It’s a wonderful book.
Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu
There are times when a book finds you just at the right time. That was my experience with Does Jesus Really Love Me? I live in Minnesota, which has gone through some major back-and-forths over the issue of gay marriage in the last 12 months. In this book, Jeff Chu goes on a pilgrimage to find out how Christians of different stripes can come to such widely different conclusions on issues of faith, the church and homosexuality. The best part about the book is that Chu gives other Christians wide latitude to share their thoughts, and reaches out to extreme believers in all different directions. It’s a comprehensive, important, illuminating book for anyone exploring these issues.
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne
If you had told me at the beginning of the year “Kit, your favorite first-person narrator this year (and also in forever) is going to be a Justin Bieber stand-in in a roman a clef about the teen singer’s life,” I would have politely replied “You are a crazy person. Adjust your medication and reconsider whether your therapist is a good fit.” But that’s EXACTLY what happened! This book, which follows Justin I MEAN JONNY through a national tour is hilarious and heart-smashing. Such a good growing-up story, such a razor-sharp skewering of the fame monster. It’s like US WEEKLY meets The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Obsessed.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
I was ALREADY a Wolitzer fan. (The Wife is one of my favorite backlisters!!) This chubby novel (chubby in a sexy way, curvy, shapely, pin-up girl chubby!) is about a group of friends who meet at an artsy summer camp in the 1970s and then remain friends for life, and we get the rest of that life in the novel. The story follows the successes and failures of these friends and how wins and losses affect the network of relationships. So well-observed, so smart, and such a juicy read, this novel reproves my constantly-espoused belief that great fiction should feel like great gossip about people who aren’t real.
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
Goats and gangrene, I loved this book. Here’s the deal: Egon Loeser is living in 1930s Berlin, and he hasn’t had sex in a very, very long time. And he thinks his salvation lies with Adele Hitler (no relation), who sleeps with pretty much everyone *except* Egon. Lovesick, he follows her from Germany to Paris to Los Angeles, getting mixed up with quack doctors and Communists along the way. This is bawdy and hilarious, and has my new favorite ending of all time. Wear a helmet when you read it, because your head will explode.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
There are many Rioters who read and loved this book this year, but they knew if they picked it before me I would be waiting for them under their beds, because I am a huge Donna Tartt fangirl. Her first book, The Secret History, is one of the greatest books ever! And this is a big, messy, gorgeous book is no slouch. It has art forgery, antique dealing, love, death, criminals, truckloads of substances: it’s a Dickensian masterpiece, all told in Tartt’s languid, luxurious style. We waited eleven years for The Goldfinch, and holy cats, was it worth it! It’s a feast to be savored.
Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
A volatile mix of history and mythology, Yang’s chilling account of the Boxer Rebellion is a masterpiece of historical fiction. He weaves together several storylines, drawing you in with action and humor…and then tearing you down, revealing the innate brutality of rebellion and war. In fiction and in history, there is a natural desire fit everything into a convenient narrative (heroes and victims, winners and losers). Yang exploits that tendency and repeatedly shocks the reader out of his/her complacency in a way that is both unsettling and refreshing.
Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea
While I wouldn’t necessarily call this the best picture book of the year, it might be the most irresistible. And if the story of an insecure goat who is jealous of a talented newcomer sounds familiar, it’s probably because it is reminiscent of Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Here, Goat plays Salieri to Unicorn’s Mozart, only instead of conjuring beautiful symphonies from the heavens, Unicorn makes it rain cupcakes. Like I said: Irresistible.
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
I was very excited for the publication of NOS4A2, the third novel by Joe Hill, who is one of my favorite writers and seemingly an all-around cool guy. I was nuts about his first two books — Heart-Shaped Box and Horns — and I think his almost-concluded comic, Locke & Key, is one of the best things out there. I was also nervous, though, because what if NOS4A2 didn’t live up to the hype and excitement I was putting upon it?
It absolutely did. A much longer book than his first two, it’s also a much more confident book. It’s not only a very tense, very strong horror story, it’s got a strong sense of gleeful play running throughout. References to authors and stories Joe Hill likes abound throughout the book. The book is willing to challenge bigger, more sprawling concepts than his earlier novels, which were highly-toned and lean horror machines. Even better, NOS4A2 appeals to one of my guilty pleasures when you buy it in physical form: it is lavishly illustrated by his Locke & Key partner, Gabriel Rodriguez.
The world of NOS4A2 is being explored further in a comic series called Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland, and I’m excited. The story and the premise of NOS4A2 was so cool, I can’t wait to get back into it.
Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin
Lance Parkin and I are both part of the same Super Secret Alan Moore group on Facebook. From the moment he began talking about his work on this biography, I had to do everything in my power to just shout at him “I cannot wait to read this! I would like to read it RIGHT NOW PLEASE!” His poor publisher, when they contacted me, were probably floored by my jabbering enthusiasm when I wrote back.
So we can suffice it to say, I loved the biography when I read it. Enthusiasm aside, though, this is an excellent work. It’s not definitive, but I’m not sure it’s trying to be. Instead, it offers a very thorough, well-assembled attempt at examining the life and times of Alan Moore, and try to explain him in such a way as to explain the decisions he’s made and the stories he’s told. In this capacity, Magic Words succeeds. It is a fantastic history of one of our finest writers, and it also provides a functional history of comics while you’re at it. Highly recommended.
Saga, Vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
When I first read Saga, Volume 2, I wanted to Eternal Sunshine the book out of my head so I could turn around and read it for the first time again.
The series itself has been popping up on Best Graphic Novel lists of 2013 lately, and for good reason. It’s smart, well written, and beautifully illustrated and designed. Against the backdrop of a war between two planets that’s been going on so long, that it’s actually been outsourced to other species, two star-cross’d lovers get married and have a child. Neither side likes this very much. Enter bounty hunters, a harangued prince of cyborg proportions, some seriously pissed off parents, and a “non-corporeal baby-sitter.” Most of this is only in the first volume. Which is very, very, very good.
The second volume is so much more. It’s so much more complicated than two people from opposite sides of the war falling in love. You should probably just go read it.
“I’m so jealous you get to experience it for the first time!” – Alana. Saga, Volume 2. Chapter 8
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
I am Fangirl. You are Fangirl. We are all Fangirl. The story centers around the quiet twin, Cath, and her first year of college. She’s not so well known in the real world, not like her party-ready sister Wren, but she is a huge deal online. Particularly in the Simon Snow fandom, where her fanfiction is read by thousands of people all over the world. To say Cath is a Simon Snow fan is incorrect. Cath is one of the Simon Snow fans. And who cares about the real world anyway? Wren doesn’t want to be roommates? Fine. Cath’s brash roommate always has her weird (and weirdly cute) friend Levi over? That can be avoided. Her fiction writing professor wants her to write original fiction? Please. She has an epic Simon Snow story to finish first.
Rainbow Rowell writes another side of the collegiate experience. I can’t imagine how comforted I would have been by this book had it come out when I was a teenager. This is a story more relevant than ever, when fandom is running rampant. And it is so much more than a funny story about a nerd in college. One of the best parts is the family drama. Cath’s father is flawed and believable, and her absentee mother is heartbreaking. Do yourself a favor and read this book. It is a amazing. (Don’t believe me? Just ask EVERYONE ON TUMBLR.)
The Eternal Wonder by Pearl S. Buck
Thank goodness for those people who look closely at the items they find in the abandoned storage units they buy at auction!! I mean, the people who found the recently-published novel written by Pearl Buck could have just said, “Oh, look, a pile of papers. Where’s the recycling bin?” But no–they realized that what they had was pretty big, and…now we have the pleasure of reading it, forty years after Buck died. It is a truly beautiful novel, intimately concerned with the nature of genius and art. Curiosity and wonder, Buck insists, are what drive the human race to better itself with each generation. This novel will leave you feeling melancholy but also intellectually energized. Recap: Good. Stuff.
Ok, much of my reading this year hasn’t included books written in 2013, so I didn’t have tons to choose from. Joyland, though, is one of the more fun books that passed through my hands. Its combination of murder mystery, theme-park funkiness, and coming-of-age tale make it a fast and enjoyable read. I imagine Stephen King sitting down between writing his more massive novels (like Doctor Sleep, which I will read, I swear) and saying, “Hmm, think I’ll knock out a book about 1970s carny rides and murdered girls who come back as ghosts to haunt those rides and a little boy with psychic powers” and BAM, two hours later, it’s done. Cause King is the man. But then we already knew that.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
2013 was, for me, the year of the audiobook. Both of my picks this year are books I discovered on audio, and The Golem and the Jinni was a powerhouse of an audiobook. Helene Wecker pulls mysticism and legend from two vastly different cultures and creates a fantastical character study around these two mystical beings: a golem from the Jewish tradition and a jinni (or genie) from the ancient Syrian legends.
The story becomes less about how each of these creatures will function in turn-of-the-century New York (that setting checks all my boxes anyway!) and more about them as “people,” both independently and with others. In quotes, because they are not actually people. The beauty of this book is not just the language, which is exquisite, but in the fact that you don’t want to leave either character by the time the last chapter rolls around. Considering the audiobook is nearly 20 hours long, that’s saying something.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
My other favorite for the year was actually one of my first audiobooks, and it became the measure by which all others were judged. In case you missed one of the biggest book stories of the year, The Cuckoo’s Calling was actually written by a just-a-little-bit-famous author by the name of J.K. Rowling. This detective novel should be a primer for any wanna-be author of this particular genre. So much of what disappoints me about most books in this realm is that they tend to repeat the same cliches, the same tropes, the same stereotypes over and over.
I think that because Rowling wasn’t coming from that tradition she didn’t resort to those standards and the book is all the better for it. The main character, Cormoran Strike (best detective name ever) is actually a person, a fully realized character with his own issues and voice and biases. But he’s also wonderful and kind and complicated. The narration in the audio version of his voice in particular made me fall in love with him. Like, I legitimately wanted him to jump out of my iPhone and become a real person so I could date him. And when I got to the end, which happened much sooner than I wanted it to, I was praying that Rowling would not give up writing this series because she’d been outed as the author. I want many more cases with Cormoran.
Rachel Smalter Hall
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Tell me you’ve got a dark and twisty book about an angsty teen, and you’ve got my attention. Jenni Fagan is a Scottish writer who got her start in poetry, and I’m totally smitten with her debut novel, The Panopticon. Our star, Anais Hendricks, is a 15 year old drug fiend; damaged goods; a thieving orphan who beats up other kids and pulls their hair. She kisses boys and girls and prances around in her undies on acid. When she lands herself in a group home for problem teens, weird dystopian things start happening and Anais’ reality starts to unravel. Jenni Fagan’s rare and special blend of poetry and potty-mouthed dialogue is a little tough to tap into at first, but give it a dozen or so pages and you’ll fall right into the pocket. The Panopticon wasn’t just fun or entertaining, but also beautiful, complicated, and cutting — long-lasting — and that’s why it’s one of my picks for Best Books of 2013.
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
I don’t like comparing writers to other writers, but I can’t help it here. The things I love best about At Night We Walk In Circles are the same things I love about Roberto Bolaño — both walk the tightrope between bleak absurdity and heartfelt beauty, for an overall tragicomic effect. But where Bolaño is messy and sweeping, Alarcón is accessible and entertaining. This compact, well-paced little novel about a guerrilla theater troupe traipsing from village to village in an unnamed Latin American country has it all: prison, patricide, broken marriages, earnest teenagers, mistaken paternity, all-wrong love, a play-within-a-play, and hijinks galore. It’s a quick and comic read with enough heft to hold up to multiple rereadings; a shiny little jewel that rises to the top of my pile for the year.
Rebecca Joines Schinsky
All That Is by James Salter
Salter’s first novel in more than 30 years is at once the capstone to an incredible career (he is 87; this may well be his last) and a love letter to the publishing industry. This is the story of a life in review, as World War II veteran turned book editor Philip Bowman reflects on more than six decades of love and loss. The Salter trademarks are all present and accounted for–the breathtaking sentences, the elegant sex writing, the quietly devastating observations that help us better understand ourselves and our culture–making this just as a good a starting point with his oeuvre as it is an end.
Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson
With every significant advancement in technology comes the Luddite rallying cry that it will ruin everything, accompanied by a chorus of early adopters who see it as the solution to all of our problems. Thompson, a longtime tech and science reporter, delves into where this fear and hope come from and points out that neither has ever yet been confirmed. He draws on extensive research and fascinating case studies to examine how being more connected than ever before has enabled us to create faster, collaborate more efficiently, and solve problems collectively, and he answers critics who contend that new tools are making us stupider. Thompson’s central thesis is that new technology is not going to be the end of us, nor is it going to be our salvation, but it is changing us in positive ways, full stop.
This isn’t a book about neuroscience; it’s about culture and creativity and not being afraid of what’s new and different just because it’s new and different. And there’s data! So much data! This is the perfect–and perfectly-timed–antidote to the recent spate of anti-Internet rants by less informed critics.
Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
This middle-grade delight ended up rather under the radar this year, but it’s worth your time: books, games, and an absolutely delightful sense of wordplay. Kyle’s talent for games–board as well as video; we don’t waste time moralizing about one or the other–gives him an edge when it turns out the benefactor who just gave the town a new library isn’t letting anyone out of the building until they solve a massive puzzle. One of the highlights of this book is picking out all the allusions to other children’s books tucked into its pages.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
You know how you kind of wanted to be an astronaut when you grew up? Consider this an overview of why your career path didn’t end up in a spaceship. Chris Hadfield, who already gave us an insider’s perspective on the space station during his stay in low-earth orbit, shows what it takes to be an astronaut. (Lots of attention to detail. Lots. And a commitment to preparation that would make wedding planners quit.) As an astronaut, he’s the star of this object lesson, but making you grit your teeth at this epitome of spaceman perfection, he just leaves you wondering if you should maybe think about taking up the guitar.
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life by Jonathan Sperber
Anyone has has picked up a biography of Karl Marx before (and there are many) will know what a sensational literary character he was. Passionate, profound, arrogant as only geniuses are, and very, very human, Marx lived a life full of incident, worthy of a Victor Hugo epic. A philosophical street-fighter, an intellectual bully, an incorrigible romantic and a lifelong burner of bridges, Marx set out to define the century he lived in, and ended up defining the next one. Sperber has chosen a familiar, much-examined subject, but brings the protean Marx to life by dint of fantastic levels of research and gorgeous, erudite prose, resulting in what may become a definitive work.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
After this, I’ll shut up about Night Film… Probably. I can hardly claim the book has been underexposed, but in this case, the hype is justified. Pessl has produced an outstanding literary thriller that both thrills and terrifies the reader with the power of artistic expression, and its dangerous consequences. Magnificently dense and otherworldly, Night Film is a love letter to underground cinema, a revitalisation of modern noir, a sly and original approach to the methodology of horror and, ultimately, a damn fine page-turner. It is also one of the most beautifully designed books of the year, and may be the first novel of the decade to embroider its narrative with the trappings of the internet in an elegant, non-awkward manner. An inevitable cinematic adaptation approaches, but it’s hard to see how it could top this.
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
There are very few books these days that will keep me awake wanting to read one more chapter, one more chapter (I do enjoy my sleep), but The River of No Return makes the list. This novel about a society of time travelers was impossible to put down. Nick, a 19th century marquis, is transported from a battlefield in Spain directly to the 21st century and subsequently inducted into the Guild, an organization that controls time travelers just like him. Nick resigns himself to a life in the modern world, until the Guild asks him to go back to his own time and stop their enemies, the Ofan, who are killing time—and not in the metaphorical sense, either. Not only is Ridgway an awesome storyteller, she does a great job of building the world of Regency England in a unique and believable way. I also loved the two main characters, Nick and Julia. The River of No Return is one of best marriages of fantasy and historical fiction I’ve come across in a while. I can’t wait for Ridgway’s next novel!
The Bridge by Rebecca Rogers Maher
This novella about two people who want to commit suicide sounds like a hard sell, but it’s actually very uplifting and romantic and hopeful. Henry and Christa meet on the Brooklyn Bridge, each determined to jump swiftly into that good night, but their coincidental meeting derails their plans. They decide to show one another their favorite parts of New York City over the course of the next day, each in an attempt to convince the other person life’s worth living. I think you can all guess what happens from there; but it’s HOW the story plays out that’s really wonderful. Aside from the two main characters, I love the fact that The Bridge is about something—life is hard and messy and it takes courage to face it some days, but it’s also about forming connections with other people. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s inspiring, heartfelt, emotional, and will lift your spirits. Just read it.
And that’s our great big, huge, not very small at all year of awesome reading. What are your favorite books of 2013?
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