Over this past year, I have reviewed 73 books for LitStack. Many of these books have been absolutely fantastic; a few not so much. I’ve read a number of other books, too, but was not able to write a review for them (often they were library books I couldn’t keep long enough to write an intelligent review; having no head for retaining names, places, dates, I must have the book in hand in order venture a review).
I’ve taken the opportunity at the final days of this year to revisit those 73 reviews, remembering the titles, reliving the stories, enjoying the memories. It’s really kind of selfish for me to do this, to find the best of the books I’ve read this last year and spend time with them again. But hey, this is my column, I can so what I want with it! You’re welcome to come along with me, if you’d like; it’ll be fun!
So here they are: my favorite reviewed books of 2013.
FAVORITE OVERALL READ – The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro
This story of a young woman learning how to find herself by searching for a mysterious benefactor is a deeply layered, beautifully nuanced and wonderfully written story that engaged me through many different levels, not the least of which was taking me to times and places and making me believe in them. But beyond that, it did what the best of books do – made me re-examine my own life without lecturing or dictating, but simply by showing that one should never assume that any life is ordinary or cannot change in an instant. Hands down, for me, the best of the best.
(honorable mention: Longbourn by Jo Baker)
FAVORITE LITERARY FICTION – I simply could not pick just one in this “category”; all of these books struck me very personally, and spoke to me in very different and wonderful ways: The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler , Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash
FAVORITE NON-FICTION – A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar
This true story of a young boy growing up in war torn Afghanistan – indeed, as that county descends from occupation into infighting and then into the control of the stultifying Taliban – is gripping, heartbreaking, and related with beauty and a deep respect for the land and its people. Through a love of family and their shared heritage, Qais never gives up hope, and his despair is mitigated by the lessons he learned from all those who came before him and who stand by him. This is a life changing book, and highly, highly recommended.
FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION – Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Take 19 established and talented writers. Give them the chance to craft stories full of fantasy, magic, gaslight, alternate history and/or visceral horror. Mix in a Victorian-era mindset and a nod to lingering folklore, with perhaps a puff of punkish steam, and hand them off to two of perhaps the most accomplished editors of the day, and you have Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells.
(honorable mention: The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories 3, edited by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and wirrow)
FAVORITE NOVELLA – Six Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
Author Catherynne M. Valente has taken the age old fairy tale of Snow White, infused it with images and archetypes of the Old West and threaded it with Native American folklore. The result is a unique retelling that is full of hauntingly familiar echoes relayed in beautifully sparse yet lush language.
FAVORITE SCIENCE FICTION – The Human Division by John Scalzi
This fifth installment of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe may just bring me back to loving futuristic science fiction again. Strong characters, intriguing situations, a complex but understandable future, and just enough jargon to jolt us out of the here and now, along with plenty of alien stuffs, too. This book was a joy to read, and I’m looking forward to going back and reading the earlier works in this universe, as well.
FAVORITE FANTASY – The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
It might be easy to mistake this novel as a children’s book. It’s a slender volume, quickly read, and told mostly from the viewpoint of a seven year old boy. But it would be naive to mistake it as such, for the true terror that lies at the heart of the book is the adult realization that the boy around whom the action swirls is caught up in something much bigger than he can comprehend – but we can. Although he at times is terrified, it is we, as adults, who grip the book covers, white knuckled, afraid of what may come next, whether that involves monsters or not.
(honorable mention: Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal)
FAVORITE BOOK THAT MADE ME SHIVER – Vicious by V. E. Schwab
Author V.E. Schwab’s narrative positively vibrates on the page. Her characters would be at home on the pages of a comic book, but she manages to bring that dark and colorful nuance to a more literary styling without losing the visceral edge of pen and ink. She takes all the super hero tropes and applies them to the mundane world in a way that makes it anything but mundane. And she manages to play into our modern cynicism of media and myth to give us unsympathetic characters who yet evoke our sympathies, and has us cheering deeds that in lesser hands would be devastating.
(honorable mention: The Six Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher)
FAVORITE THRILLER – London Falling by Paul Cornell
Two undercover officers, one a veteran, the other a rookie, at odds, suspicious of the other as far as techniques, motivations, loyalties. Add to that their abrasive, hard-nosed commander, who will battle for every inch even as he feels the war slipping away. Behind the scenes there is one intelligence agent, remote, talented with data but sequestered away by choice, she’s never met the other members of her team face to face. What sets this novel apart from other works is that Cornell’s characters have the Sight – an ability to see the metaphysical darkness that exists cheek and jowl with our world of light. Exciting, visceral, otherworldly and gritty, this is one heckuva police story – with witches!
(honorable mention: Box Office Poison by Phillipa Bornikova)
FAVORITE YOUNG ADULT STORY – The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Now THIS is what a vampire tale should be. Forget that it’s written for young audiences; the story and issues the characters have to deal with are timeless and applicable to all ages. Forget that it has an element of romance in it; so does life, usually, and the romance that comes with this story works, it fits, again, it’s appropriate without poking and prodding the plot to try to stretch it over an artificial edginess. Forget everything about what you think you are going to read, and just sit back and enjoy it – with the lights on.
(honorable mention: Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi)
FAVORITE FICTIONAL FEMALE IN A LEADING ROLE – Green in Kalimpura by Jay Lake
At first, I struggled with the character of Green in Jay Lake’s trio of novels about the child born of poverty and raised to be a courtesan who turned into one of the baddest of the kick ass heroines in speculative fiction. While reading Green, Endurance and Kalimpura, I often found myself grimacing at the actions she took and the motivations that she attributed to them. Even though poetry runs through her thoughts, she didn’t have as much empathy as I wanted her to, her sensuality seemed remote and removed from anything of value, she didn’t appear to have a moral fulcrum on which to balance her values.
It took me a while to realize that my dissatisfaction with Green as heroine had more to do with me than with her. I had been projecting my own biases on her rather than absorbing the totality of what had shaped her: isolation, remote relationships, barely a modicum of emotional support and virtually no sympathy or concern for the individual as individual. Once I stepped back I was able to see that Green was what one might expect of an emotionally stunted, impersonally groomed girl (girl – not woman) who had for her whole life been treated like a commodity rather than a person, in a sterile and highly performing environment. That is when I started to truly appreciate, deeply appreciate, the complicated, flawed yet marvelous character that Jay Lake had created.
(honorable mention: Isabella, Lady Trent in A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan)
So there you have my best of the best for 2013. I’m looking forward to even more fun – and many, many more great books – in 2014. See you there!