Last week I hit the 100-book benchmark – months earlier than in any previous year. I thought now would be a good time to browse through the titles I’ve consumed and see what makes the highlights reel for Best Books of the Year.
The Long List:
Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Such vivid scenery and passionate writing. A gorgeous book to fall into in the beginning of summer. Perfect matching of tone with the time of year I was reading. Love when I accidentally do that!
May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes. I hated the characters (in a way that I delighted in), hated the plot (in such a fascinating way), but this book was written so brilliantly that I think I read the entire thing with my jaw dropped and at a breakneck clip. No wonder everyone was talking about this book last year!
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra. I read this book in two big gulps as soon as it came out. I loved everything about it – even the backstories that I originally found distracting, I changed my mind about once I saw that everyone got a say, a chance to explain his or her behavior. I cannot thing of a single character whose story was not haunting. This book gave me goosebumps. I bought it as an ebook, and then went out an bought the hardcover. Signed, by the author. It was that good.
N0S4A2, by Joe Hill. This. This is Joe Hill’s breakout book. I know Horns is being made into a movie already, and everyone was talking about 20th Century Ghosts, but this. His publishers were in their fourth printing one week after its release. I could only read it when it was daylight out because it so effectively creeped me the heck out. And it’s about love and kooky librarians and magic and childhood. It was the kind of book that left a giant hole in my day when I had finished the story and it was gone. And the only reason I didn’t turn around and read it all over again is because I had to send it to my sister to read so we could talk about.
The Obituary Writer, by Ann Hood. There was nothing flashy about Hood’s prose, but it was the kind of writing that captures you and hooks into your brain, so you can’t put the book down without still constantly thinking about what was happening. Every time the story changed tracks (there are two major plot lines), I was excited because this was the story I really loved! No, this one! The ending might have been a bit predictable, but not in an unpleasant way.
All Souls, by Michael Patrick McDonald. I should have listened to my baby sister and read this memoir years ago. McDonald writes about Southie in a way that you feel really from there…or at least in a way that was easy for me to imagine, having grown up less than a hour from there. The things that happened might have sounded almost too tragic to be real, but the people. Man, those people were like so many people I almost knew.
Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri may have won a Pulitzer, and having read both of her books, I understand why, but why do I feel like she’s still virtually unknown? Every high schooler should be reading her books. She writes so well, so effortlessly, she makes it look deceptively easy.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. This wasn’t an easy book to read, but the entire time I understood that I was reading great fiction. I lost interest during the science fictiony bits, but was floored by other (linked) stories. People are buzzing about this book for a reason – still, years later.
White Tiger, by Avarind Adiga. Incendiary, Indian-style. Or maybe Incendiary is White Tiger, British-style. Both are powerful, intelligent, and fierce.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. Usually, I don’t enjoy books set in the far east because I have trouble connecting with characters. Johnson may have Americanized bits and pieces, and yes, they might have distracted a bit, but there was just something about this book that made it feel different from the others. Better researched. Certainly more powerfully and cleverly executed. It wasn’t as story-ish as I prefer my books to be, I didn’t fall into it, but I enjoyed the fine artistry it refused to let you forget at any point.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen. T.S. Spivet might be my spirit animal. In real life. This book took me a hundred-million years to read because I kept writing so many things (and not a few exclamation marks) in the margins. This is a book I know I will re-read more than once.
White Horse, by Alex Adams. I’ve read so many dystopian fantasies this year, it’s hard for one to stand out. This book has YA/Adult crossover appeal (not sure which camp I’d plant this is for keepsies), and was written so well I’d recommend it even to those who usually turn away from dystopian fic. Really, it’s more action/survival. And you’ll want to know what the deal is with that jar.
HHhH, by Laurent Binet. A non-fiction book with heavy commentary, dash of memoir, and constant lit-critting of itself, HHhH was fascinating. I loved peeking behind the curtain to the why and how and everything of it all. Though maybe Binet could have hurried the explosive central scene a bit more than he did.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis. Don’t let the fact that Oprah picked this as her debut novel in the second coming of her book club put you off – this book is going to be around for awhile. I hesitate to use the word classic, but… this is certainly an instant add-on for summer reading lists.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi Durrow. Critics are comparing this to Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye for a reason. In fact, I liked this book a hell of a lot more than Bluest Eye. It felt more concrete and cohesive than Bluest Eye ever imagined.
Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. I liked this more than Dark Places (it was certainly less depressing), but it lacked nearly all of the genius that was Gone Girl. Still, it was so much stronger than most other books you’ll read, so don’t let that deter you. My only complaint, really, (other than it’s not Gone Girl), was that it glorified cutting. We don’t need that. Cutting is not glamorous. Your scars do not make you cool. Even if they are words.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente. My new favorite fairytale! Part Alice, part Tuesday Next, mostly a book of its own cleverness and ingenuity, you must read this. And then buy it for your tweenaged girls in your life. And the teens. And your grown-up friends, too. Everyone needs smarts and whimsy and stories.
This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz. I was so nervous, reading this. I was afraid it wouldn’t be Oscar Wao. And it’s not. It’s a collection of short stories centering around Yunior, a player – the player – from Oscar. But it was magical on its own, doesn’t require a knowledge of its predecessor, and cemented Junot’s place in my list of Top 5 Living Authors. It was magical.
Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, by Jeff Backhaus. The was the first book I read this year that I knew would make this list. The book flew by, I cared deeply about the characters, and it made me ache from beginning to end. Not as strong a candidate as the others, now that time has passed, but still a book you need to read.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Man, I wish I’d read this book as soon as it came out. A brutal crime, legal trouble, and a coming-of-age story of a young boy on an Indian reservation? Didn’t sound like my thing. But you guys – this won alllll the prizes (and maybe even invented some, deservedly) for good reason. Read it. Read it now. Read it twice.
Oh, look – that made for a nice, round twenty candidates. You guys – how am I ever going to narrow the list at the end of the year if I already have 20 candidates for Best Book of 2013 in MAY?! A nice problem to have, but still – I’m screwed. But if I must, here are my top ten…
Top Ten Books of 2013…So Far
1. N0S4A2, by Joe Hill
2. The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
3. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen
4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
5. This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
6. HHhH, by Laurent Binet
7. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
8. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente
9. All Souls, by Michael Patrick McDonald
10. White Horse, by Alex Adams