The sheer number of “best-of-the-year” posts – both around the book blog-o-sphere and on general book sites – has been nearly overwhelming the past few weeks. I love reading everyone’s lists, but of course I end up adding a ton of new titles to my to-read list!
All these wonderful lists have set me to thinking about my own year in reading. It’s hard for me to narrow down this sort of lists, and I won’t be trying to nestle these books into categories or enumerate them in any sort of hierarchical order. I just loved each and every one of these for their own sake, regardless of genre or original publishing date, whether they were a reading group or challenge commitment or why I read them when I read them, so I’ll simply present them alphabetically.
I read 59 books in 2013. Of those 59, these were my favorites – an even dozen plus a couple of honorable mentions plus addendum:
Cinnamon and Gunpowder – Eli Brown (2013) – Pirates meet the pantry meets One Thousand and One Nights! Action on the high seas, great character development, unconventional protagonist (and antagonist,) engrossing story line, detailed environmental descriptions, attention to historical detail, a subtle and smart late-blooming romance that didn’t make me roll my eyes, tragedy and triumph, salty humor and tons of wonderful foodie ramblings… I couldn’t not love this book. This is probably the book I’ve recommended to others most often this year, as it has such wide appeal for so many different types of readers. And look at that gorgeous cover! I want a framed poster of this cover!
Ragtime – E. L. Doctorow (1974) – To be completely honest, I was not expecting to like this one much at all. I am not generally a fan of New York stories nor of books set in the early 1900s. But this amazing and intricate work of historical fiction – actually, alternate history – was just so mind-blowing in its scope that I couldn’t help but be charmed and drawn in. With a host of famous personages lending a sense of reality to the fictional narrative, multiple plots interweaving, playing off one another, bouncing away then looping back together again, I was glued to the pages all the way through. Doctorow is a wizard, and I need to read more of his work.
Gun Machine – Warren Ellis (2013) – This book seems to have flown largely under the radar, despite good reviews in both genre fiction and general fiction circles and publications. Comic/graphic novel author Ellis kept me rapt with wonder all through this taut, strange thriller tinged with notes of something more than natural (whether it be real or imagined by an addled mind.) It was fast-paced and kept me guessing and re-evaluating my suspicions again and again. This weird puzzler should appeal to fans of mystery, crime novels, police procedurals, noir, thrillers, character studies or urban fantasy.
Doctor Sleep – Stephen King (2013) – I’m not a big fan of King’s horror titles, but I am a huge fan of his Dark Tower series, and I also loved some of his harder-to-categorize work (The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the writer’s guide-cum-memoir On Writing, etc.) and even really enjoyed The Stand, despite my explosive irritation with the ending. But this was fantastic! King did a wonderful job of writing from the perspective of a young, extraordinary girl as well as from that of a damaged alcoholic with a traumatic past. He even made the monstrous antagonists of the piece seem somewhat sympathetic in a way. The characterization was superb, the atmosphere painting was top-knotch and of course the action was great. This was fun and funny and disturbing and horrifying and just all-around a great read.
China Mountain Zhang – Maureen F. McHugh (1992) – I had wanted to read this for several years and finally got to it in 2013 when it was a Goodreads group read. I loved the character development and seamless world-building of this tale, which takes place in future post-everything-going-up-in-smoke America (now controlled by China) and China and the Arctic, as well as a communal settlement on Mars. The narrative slides back and forth between Zhang, a gay man in a place where such is illegal, athletes of an extreme sport involving flying and cybernetic implants, architects (let’s just say they’re like psychic architects…it’s hard to explain) in China, and homesteaders on Mars. This was a great piece of well-drawn social science fiction, with plenty of questions asked and pondered regarding ethics, technology, identity, art, the group vs the individual, tradition vs change, and so much more. Great, great stuff!
Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987) – So much has been said over the years about this powerful book, and all the accolades and praise are well-deserved. Morrison seduced me with her beautiful language and crushed me again and again under the weight of the horrors her characters must endure. I was also intrigued by just how many ways different readers might interpret all the strange, supernatural-ish goings on woven into the more realistic outer story. I feel both a bit elated and a bit traumatized just recalling this book. Truly a masterpiece.
Revenge: Stories – Yoko Ogawa (Eng. trans; orig. pub. Japan 1998) – I finished this over the holidays, and I tried to review it; I really did. But I found the task impossible without giving away anything that might ruin the experience of others. So dark, yet so hopeful… So evocative, so heart-breaking, so innovative. I could gush on and on. Ogawa is very clever, and these linked short stories – each in some way looping back and referring to the previous story – reveal their secrets in tiny, maddening increments, provoking many “Aha!” moments. The language was often beautiful, the imagery often horrible, but the intrepid reader is rewarded with a more satisfying overall story. This is a book that is definitely much greater than the sum of its parts. I will read more of Ogawa’s work.
The Tunnel – Ernesto Sábato (1948) – Oh, this under-loved gem should be better known! Sleek and sinuous, this is an extremely smart psychological novel tracing an artist’s descent into something like madness, possibly like love and certainly like ruin. If you’re ever in the mood for a quick read that will leave you marveling at the skill of the author, this Argentinian story of obsession may just do the trick.
The Alchemy of Stone – Ekaterina Sedia (2008) – I am not generally a reader of romance, of the paranormal variety or otherwise. But even I was charmed by this tale of an automaton who is more human than the humans around her. The language was lovely, the characters were great, the setting was finely-detailed, and there was plenty to think about – questions of identity, sovereignty, power vs power-over, and what makes us human. I’d previously read a couple of other titles by Sedia, and I think this is my favorite.
Faraway Places – Tom Spanbauer (1993) – Oh, the language! Spanbauer could probably write a dishwasher repair manual and make it read lyrical and evocative and nostalgic. But, oh, was this harsh and tragic, too…as much of a kick in the heart as Beloved, to be sure. I feel this should be better known. The language and characterization and social themes and dark bits and myth-making quality of the book screams “give this author serious literary awards.” But it seems those awards never came. It’s not quite fair.
Cannery Row – John Steinbeck (1945) – I loved this! I enjoy Steinbeck’s folksy get-to-know-the-townsfolk stories so much more than his (excellent, but not exactly enjoyable for me) work in the vein of Of Mice and Men. This was believable and funny and colorful and just plain good. I will read the sequel.
The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West (1918) – I expected to feel mild about this book, but I was rapt the whole way through. There was a certain something to the story that I can’t quite describe, a feeling of something beneath the surface of the characters’ lives that we weren’t fully privy to. And of course there were lots of somethings beneath the surface, and West really made me feel it keenly even before she showed me behind the curtain. I need to decide which West to read next, as I feel I will be fan of her work in general.
A Year in Japan – Kate T. Williamson (2006) – This is an honorable mention because there wasn’t much to read. It was more like a diary in drawings, with small blurbs of text, a travelogue of the author’s time in Japan. But it was so lovely and charming, the pictures, the writing, even the feel of the cover of the book…rather a mixed media project more than a book one reads.
Duplex – Kathryn Davis (2013) – This is an honorable mention because I’m not finished reading it yet. It’s short – under 200 pages – but it’s taking me forever…not because it isn’t good but because it’s so strange and surreal and complex that I read a paragraph and wonder if I’ve skipped something. I go back and re-read sections again and again. This is one truly strange book. I love strange books; I read a lot of strange books. Surreal is one of my bookish buzzwords. But this book isn’t just strange for its story; it’s strange in structure and in emotional impact. Davis reveals things in reverse. It’s the reading equivalent of talking with a friend you have spent every Thursday with for years who tells you “So, little Billy’s starting kindergarten this year, and my husband just won the Nobel prize in chemistry, so we’re thinking of moving back in with my parents in Italy.” And you say, wait…what? When did you get pregnant? Last time I saw your spouse SHE worked as a janitor…and I thought you were from Wisconsin and your parents have both been dead since you were ten!” It’s kind of like that on every page. But you know what? It’s brilliant. I’ve never read anything quite like it. I can’t decide if I love it or hate it, but I know I appreciate the artistry of it.