LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2013 (Part 2)
Another year has come and gone. [Insert trite analogy about fluttering book pages HERE.] You know what that means, don't you? Time for a bunch of strangers to tell you what was good! And why should you care what the LitReactor writers think are the best books of the year? Trick question! You shouldn't. But what they have to say might interest you nonetheless, because they are handsome and knowledgeable and they read like the wind. So for those who care, we submit for your approval/derision some of LitReactor's favorite reads of 2013.
* Not all of these books were published this year. We figured if someone read a book for the first time in 2013, they deserved the opportunity to crow about it.
Christopher Shultz - Columnist
I’m a big Gaiman fan, so perhaps it was a forgone conclusion that his latest novel would appear on my list. Perhaps, but I’m seriously impressed with how taut this book is. Once the action starts, it’s an avalanche of beats, turns and revelations. Also, it’s an incredibly short book, and yet it feels fully-fleshed and rounded. Great stuff.
'N0S4A2' by Joe Hill
By contrast, Hill’s third novel is massive—well over seven hundred pages, to be exact. And yet, N0S4A2 reads like a novel half its size. Hill blends imagination, pop-culture, humor and scares into this gripping narrative. Also, I’d like a time-and-space-bending motorcycle for Christmas now.
This one technically came out last year, but it just won Best Novel at the 2013 British Fantasy Awards, so it counts, right? What I like best about this novel is the challenge posed by the author: for one second, consider that we may not know the world we inhabit as well as we think we do. Good for preventing hubris. Also, a great mix of mystery and myth.
'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn
I know, this was 2012’s big blockbuster book, but screw it. Flynn’s book is like a day at the amusement park, alternately screaming in joy and terror whilst riding the roller-coaster. Amusement parks and roller-coasters are timeless, and despite all the elements that could date this book down the line, Gone Girl feels timeless, too.
'Night Watch' by Sergei Lukyanenko
This one’s really old, but it was just re-released in the modern eBook format, so, yeah. Deal with it. An urban fantasy novel with elements of noir will more than likely make my Best Of list no matter how old it is. Lukyanenko has definitely lured me into a series here, and normally I have commitment issues in this regard. There’s no better testament to Night Watch’s quality than this.
Cath Murphy - Review Editor/Podcast Editor
'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt
I’m no fan of hype, and the comparisons to Dickens probably had Charlie spinning in his grave, but Tartt’s third book wasn’t just lyrical and full of sharp observation; this story of Theo Decker’s attempt to hang on to a valuable painting, through thick, thin and a drug fuelled Las Vegas adolescence, was a pageturner from start to finish. And at 800 pages it’s not only a fantastic value for the money, it can do double duty as a doorstop, should you need one.
'The Silent Wife' by A S A Harrison
After the success of Gone Girl, twisty psychological thrillers are the genre du jour, and Harrison’s debut does not disappoint. In fact, this slim but penetrating story of a deserted woman’s attempt to take out a contract on her ex is, in my mind, a better and more mature version of Gillian Flynn’s book.
I raved about The Returned on Unprintable and I’m going to rave about it some more here. The dead returning to life is a motif we seem to be obsessed with right now, so, as with Peter Giglio’s Lesser Creatures, books which manage to discover a new angle on the genre are always worth a look. Mott’s story investigates loss and grief more than infectious agents and ravaged cities, and he gets to the heart of how we deal with death with elegance and precision.
'Want Not' by Jonathan Miles
Miles’ big, rambunctious story about consumption in all its forms isn’t just packed with wit and cringe-inducingly accurate depictions of Freegans, rapacious sub-prime speculators and overweight, over the hill academics, it’s also a very serious think-piece about possessions, acquisitiveness and waste. Want Not may sprawl, but it does so in a skillfully engineered way, building to a rug-pull of such vehemence that it took days for the bruises on my psyche to heal.
'Death of the Black-Haired Girl' by Robert Stone
A book from a master. Even at 76, Stone isn’t past his prime as a writer, but if this does turn out to be his last novel, he can exit stage left with his head held high. With his story about a tragic accident in a stuffy college town, Stone exposes his characters one layer at a time, never allowing his audience to jump to any easy conclusions about their strengths, weaknesses or integrity. After reading it, you may find, as I did, that taking the moral high ground when people act stupidly or mess up their lives is much harder than it was.
Keith Rawson - Columnist
Yeah, yeah, I'm cheating by offering up a tie, but the two books share vastly similar themes, and most importantly, both share a beautifully crafted simplicity that few books have been able to match in 2013.
'Gravesend' by William Boyle
A true Brooklyn novel. Not a novel of hipsters and upwardly mobile ennui, but of old Italian families slowly crumbling at their foundations. A brilliant example of what urban fiction can be.
Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. This was my reaction every time I turned a page of Nutting's powerful, daring first novel. It is the type of book I wish the New York publishing world would produce more of: Uncompromising novels and collections that challenge the reader as opposed lulling them to sleep.
'Low Down Death Right Easy' By J. David Osbourne
It's pretty easy to get on my best of year list. All an author needs to do is get me to read their book more than once. They have to make their characters burst from the page and make me believe their fantastic little world is a real one. Osbourne achieved this, and I found myself going back to Low Down Death Right Easy three times.
'Claire DeWitt and The Bohemian Highway' By Sara Gran
The most important, realistic P.I. series currently being written. Gran is at the peak of her abilities, and each new novel reflects her power as a storyteller. Even if you're not a fan of crime fiction, you should be reading Sara Gran.
Jessica Taylor - Defender of the People!
One of the most perfect books I’ve read recently, it was straightforward, funny, and heartbreaking. McClanahan has a voice that speaks to everyone and makes you want to feel what he feels and be with him as he struggles.
'Cipher Sisters' edited by Michael Paul Gonzalez and Amanda Gowin
This is my favorite anthology of the year for the sheer diversity alone. The stories have great range and I never felt bored while reading it. It’s also beautiful to look at. The layout and design is fantastic.
This is crime fiction most people can get behind — the kind where the authorities (ALL the authorities) get taken down. David James Keaton unapologetically takes out every authority figure that ever wronged you — from high school gym teachers to dirty cops. The book rings with wit, sarcasm, and a deviance you can truly revel in.
'Last Call in the City of Bridges' by Salvatore Pane
It was released in 2012, but hey, I read it this year, so it counts. This book moved me in a subtle way that caught me off guard. By the end I was shaken by the depth of feeling and had no idea how I'd gotten there. This book was boldly written for an entire generation and it managed to not be pretentious.
'A Pretty Mouth' by Molly Tanzer
This one also came out in 2012, but fuck it. It's my list, and I couldn't complete it without Molly Tanzer, whose voice is new and old all at once. Victorian horror was never something I searched for, but after countless recommendations I had to read this book. It is imaginative, hilarious, horrific, and incredibly original.
Taylor Houston - Columnist/Instructor
To those who know me, yes, this list will be predictable, but hey, sometimes you just want to read what you like. Here are my favorites, in order from least to best.
'Beautiful Ruins' by Jess Walter
This book may not top my best of all time list, but it was a good, solid read. I enjoyed the scenery and the development of characters. The plot twists are well-timed and believable. What I found especially interesting was the “love the one you're with” theme that seemed to pervade. There were many love stories in which people ended up settling for the person they should be with for practical reasons rather that the person that most excited them. It had a realistic quality in that way. If you just want a well-told story, this is a good read for that.
'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Okay, so this is NOT a new book, but I did read it this year. Audible.com (which I thank goodness for every day, for giving me the ability to “read” books in my car that I’d never have time to read otherwise) actually gave this out free last Christmas. Having never read any of the original Holmes books but usually liking all the various film and TV versions of the fictional detective, I figured I’d give it a try. I am glad I did. It could be that it was read by the amazing Alan Cumming, but the story—a short one—follows the eccentric detective and his sidekick through a series of clues that involve Christmas geese and hats. I think I just loved the very tight storytelling of this little tale. Not a word is wasted, and yet each character is developed and rounded. Worth it.
Yep, this is a board book for kids, but that’s the life I’m leading right now. I put this on the list because it is a cute book that even an adult can enjoy. It features heat-activated “shadows” that reveal little secrets like a robot raccoon, a camera made from cheese, and a cat with a stomach full of mice. There are enough surprises that even when you are reading it for the 900th time, you can still enjoy something new. It is part of the McMullens children’s book from, youguessedit, McSweeneys. I just love the book, and I have bought several other copies for my friends’ kids. It is unique, and a welcome break from the counting and ABCs that pervade the world of kids’ books.
'Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls' by David Sedaris
With the exception of that squirrel book, I don’t think I’ve read anything by David Sedaris that I didn’t like. Well, his latest addition to the canon did not disappoint. A discussion of the current world obsession with owls (of which I am part)—hilarious. A scathing review of the cleanliness of China—laugh-out-loud, read-again funny! His takedown of French people who suddenly love him for supporting Obama—hysterical! It’s worth a read if only because you need a laugh—which I usually do.
'Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.' By John Gorham and Liz Crain
One evening, we stopped by Toro Bravo, a local restaurant serving Spanish cuisine. But true to Portlandia lore, the wait time was ridiculous. It was, apparently, the hottest damn thing going on. C’mon, I whined, How many other people care about Spanish food?!?! Later, I found out that one of my favorite publishers, McSweeneys, was putting out a memoir/recipe book by the Toro Bravo Chef, John Gorham.
For our 6th anniversary, my husband insisted we go, and we were quite impressed. Prompted by the excellent cuisine, I got the book. John Gorham’s story is a good one—just a hard-working dude who loved to cook and made his dream a reality. That and some tempting recipes make it a quick and intriguing read. The tone, as the title implies, is no bull, and the stories of his rise to food stardom are interesting and completely sap-free. It has great photos—it even has a picture of the tattoo on John’s ass of a chicken pooping the name of his sous chef (and friend): “Chicken Shit Mills.” That should tell you something about what kind of person John Gorham is.
What do you guys think? Agree? Disagree? Agree to disagree? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles.
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