Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Best books of 2013

It's that time of year again. Not just things published in 2013, but things I happened to read in 2013. In no particular order, either.

Real stories

The bomb: the race to build and steal the world's most dangerous weapon (2012) by Steve Sheinkin

I almost never picked this one up, because I am a smarty-pants about World War II in general and about the creation of the atomic bomb in particular. But when it kept sweeping award after award at the YMAs, I knew I'd have to give it a whirl. This account had thrilling stories I'd never heard before (that Norwegian heavy water plant!), and the edge-of-your-seat narrative style held it all together nicely.

All made up (2011) and This is not about me (2008) by Janice Galloway

These hardscrabble memoirs from Scottish writer Galloway are fascinating reading, well apart from the usual poverty porn. The national addiction to sugar! And her sister Cora is one of the most shocking creatures I've encountered in print. And while Galloway's fiction is robust, her unflinching ability to describe her own hardships is inspiring.

She left me the gun (2013) by Emma Brockes

Journalist Brockes travels to South Africa to learn about her mother's childhood abuse at the hands of her own father. Like the Galloway, this could be dreary, but the punctuation of differences in manners and morays places it is a larger context about identity and the past.


The lonely passion of Judith Hearne (1955) by Brian Moore

Miss Hearne is a woman deeply concerned with propriety, and she is an alcoholic. Moore chronicles her descent through the rungs of  Belfast boarding houses, and what is perhaps her last chance for romance. This book is shockingly modern in its sensibilities.

A week in winter (2013) by Maeve Binchy

Giggling, because is Maeve Binchy realistic? No juvenile is too far gone for the salves of Irish rustification, evidently, and all old sins are always forgiven. The last Binchy isn't the best, but it still makes you feel better about the human condition, which was just opposite of the finding in a study that, as my husband says, did not report what it claimed to report.


A bit of singing and dancing (1973) and The small hand and Dolly (2013) by Susan Hill

I'd had Howard's End is on the Landing on my Amazon wish list for ages, but it was just coincidental that I happened into The Woman in Black in the West End this March, since I had been nonplussed by that Johnny Depp flick. Lucky me, to discover the work of Susan Hill, in the middle of a screaming audience. her world is thoughtful, well-drawn, and just a smidge creepy. I'm quite obsessed now, though I can't get into the Simon Serralier books, not being a procedural fan. But for Hill, I tried.

Scowler (2013) and Rotters (2011) by Daniel Kraus

I would call Kraus a complement to the dark and suspenseful Susan Hill, but if anything his writing is even a little more robust, having a wonderful middle American muscularity to it. Describing either book is difficult, but they are such extraordinary experiences, I can't say enough good things about them.  And the sense of PLACE is extraordinary in this rapidly homogenizing world, too.

Past imperfect (2009) by Julian Fellowes

I'm not sure how I didn't buy this when it was new -- I was well into Snobs before Downton, after all. Past Imperfect has a lovely story arc surrounding an uncertain paternity that frames the contrasting looking backwards but living now zeitgeist to capture a very specific moment in twentieth-century time.

The silent wife (2013) by A.S.A. Harrison

This was described as Gone Girl readalike, but that's selling it short. Again, very time-and-place-driven (contemporary Chicago this time). The wife is wronged, and bent on revenge, but handles it in a more realistic matter, and with a just slightly more believable conclusion. Also, many pages fewer than the lugubrious Flynn.

Stranded (2012) by Emily Barr

This books is alternately told between flashbacks to a child growing up in a religious cult and an adult woman taking her first solo adventure of a vacation with her ex and child at a great remote. The plot ends up going places only the inventive Barr could go, and it is really thrilling when everything comes back together.

Where'd you go, Bernadette? (2012) by Maria Semple

I found the twee voice of little Bee so off-putting, it was difficult to get into this novel at first...but again, Alex designation pulled me back. Somehow, out of the supposed mess of Bernadette's life and abandoned career, the balancing act contained within this novel makes you understand more about life, parenthood, and the Pacific Northwest. 

New adult(ish) 

Is New Adult simply YA with more sex? Or is it just to make grown-up women feel better about having grown past all this? I'm not so sure, but I think both of these could be squished into that category.

Little fish: a memoir from a different kind of year (2013) by Ramsey Beyer

There is one word on one page of this book which gave me pause about including it in a teen collection, but I think the terror and excitement of venturing out into the world is so universal, I thought it might forewarn some of our college-bound darlings about the very predictable patterns of leaving home. And the art is especially charming.

Fangirl (2013) by Rainbow Rowell

I read all three Rowell books this year, and this was my clear favorite. It seems like Rowell knew about Eleanor and Park, but she knew Cath in an entirely different, and less idealized, way. I found Cath's romantic escapades utterly believable, as was the spectrum of students in Lincoln (another vividly-rendered place, as was their Omaha). It took me a while to get through it, mostly because I was jealous of everyone else who got an ARC, and I was a little scared the fandom would dominate the novel rather completely, but it was a delight.

Young adult

If you find me (2013) by Emily Murdoch

Two girls, raising themselves in a camper in the woods, hiding from their father. But maybe he's not the monster their mother made out...and life outside the woods, among peers? Even harder, in some ways. A couple of adult readers I know said they "saw" the conclusion coming, but I haven't recommended it to a teen who hasn't loved it. The voice is right up there with Woodrell, I think.

If you could be mine (2013) by Sara Farizan

Forbidden love in Iran? And who knew that gender reassignment was state-supported there? This book is brave and normalizes life in a very different place. A stunning debut.

The fifth wave (2013) by Rick Yancey

I'm not sure if it's the perfect embodiment of paranoia, or the post-apocalyptic landscape, but this one taps right into my own worries as well as my teens'. It's a perfect stand-alone, and a great follow-up read for the current dystopian craze.

So, trends: more grown-up books (perhaps I'm front-loading, since I'll be listening to more kidlit for the Odyssey, which as a YALSA/ALSC joint award spans the whole age range), more nonfiction (especially memoirs), more suspense and/or horror, a just a touch of new adult (though I really think that is all marketing and less a real shift in writing style).

And, as I watch the year-end lists (my favorite being NPR's rather inclusive one), I am surprised by the recurrences of things I just didn't like (e.g. The Interestings, which was a DNF for me...) I'm glad we all have different tastes.

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