Book, of course. Because what else do I eat, sleep, and breathe?
Yes, I know I’m a little early with the ‘Best of…’ lists. It’s the biblio-equivalent of blasting Christmas music. (And if that irritates you, don’t ask me what I’m listening to.) But the thing is, I did my “Best of the the First Half of 2013″ back in May, when I hit the 100-books-read mark, and since I’m a scootch (or two) past the 200 book mark, I thought it was time. Don’t worry, though – if I read anything absolutely brilliant between now and the end of the year, I’ll make sure it gets mentioned. Although as my plans stand, until the long-list for the Tournament of Books is released, I plan on spending a lot of quality time re-reading some Stephen King. Holidays and comfort reads – here I come! But before I get too comfy…
1. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. It’s a gorgeously written book, exactly what you’d expect from Hosseini. It’s perhaps a little closer to The Kite Runner in its divided generational and locational approach, and my least favorite of the three. That being said, Hosseini’s least is better than most others’ best, and that is why I still picked it as my Goodreads Fiction Book of the Year. (Though that was because my fave, Constellations of Vital Phenomena was ousted after the semi-finals.) Need another rec? I pre-ordered this book as hard-cover, and don’t begrudge a single penny…or inch of shelf-space. So there.
2. The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesay. My sister Kim wasn’t as enamored with this as I was, though I thought she’d love it. It’s a modernization of Jane Eyre, with a few twists and turns. Kim thought it was too faithful to have been worth her precious allotment of reading time, I found enough new life to be worth mine. Of course, the fact that Jane Eyre is one of Kim’s all time favorites and I found it too drab and dull might have had something to do with our differing opinions.
3. Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. This will always be the year that I “discovered” one of my new favorite authors, Ms. Rainbow Rowell. No one writes like Rowell. People who loved John Green, but found him a bit pretentious are going to love her. (I didn’t find Green all that overblown, his dialogue is just fine, thanks; but Rowell is still the cat’s pajamas.) E&P is about mixtapes, high school, and falling for that first, glorious time. It’s about learning to have faith in who you are (whoever the hell that is – and yeah, it’s okay if you don’t know) and how finding one person who really gets you can make or break you. Just like this book made and broke my heart. Good god, RR.
4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. This is a story about a man who falls through a well of grief into the summer when he was ten or eleven, a summer of magic, a summer when there was an ocean at the end of his lane. In a book marketed as written for grown-ups, Gaiman’s voice is so evocative and intimate, so lyrical and dreamlike, you’ll have trouble believing it’s the same master author who penned American Gods and Neverwhere. The story of love, friendship, and surreality and time-and-space myths is haunting from the first word to the last. Expect to be moved. Expect, too, to get a little teary-eyed when it is over.
5. Joyland, by Stephen King. This, I’m going to say right now, was The Perfect Summer Read. A short, gritty crime story set in the middle of a carnival scene made realer-than-real with King’s carney talk and familiar characters brought to life. Yet, for all of King’s familiar dazzle and craftsmanship, this didn’t feel like classic King. Well, aside from the fact that it was a better three-hour ride than you could find elsewhere. But the classic King voice wasn’t there, the classic King tropes – doors, clowns, zombies, other worlds, other whens, mind-reading… Oh. Wait. There was mind-reading for half a minute there at the end. But it’s not really central to the story. Okay, fine, read it and then argue with me, but you tell me the heft of the novel wasn’t an out-of-King’s-body-of-work experience. And it was still fantastic. Better than that even.
6. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes. I kept checking the cover as I read this to make sure it wasn’t Stephen King. Because really. It could be. It could be a giant cover story. It’s a bit grittier, but then Joyland showed us King does know how to step out of his own lingo. And it is filled with magic doors, grisly murders, a serial killer who likes objects…that seem to glow with the girl’s vitality, a magic house, and doors. DOORS, people! Doors that open on different whens. I’m not even kidding: I crushed on this book so hard.
7. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I read this on the plane ride back from Boston – and we all know plane books are either the best or the worst of the lot. (My read on the way up, Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments barely missed the cut.) I loved this historical mystery/spy thriller set in World War II. I loved the unreliable narrator. I loved trying to figure out who was lying, about what, and what the damn code was. I even loved bawling my eyes out at the end. Because damnit, I’m such a plot wimp. When? When will this be made into a movie? It’s only a matter of time.
8. The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. Yes, I was the last person on the face of the earth to have read this. Or so it feels. All I can say is that I’m glad I knew how the dang war turned out because I would have been biting my nails on the edge of my seat reading this. I have never, never seen such characterization! No wonder this book gets all the nods it does.
9. The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman. I’ve seen the movie made from this play. I’ve seen countless specials. I remember the news coverage when Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered. And still. Still I was so moved that I could barely make it through this book. How? How could anyone feel that this was okay? Sometimes I have no faith in humanity. None at all.
10. The Never List, by Koethi Zan. I bought this book on the strength of so many reviews I read the week it came out. Reader reviews. Readers who were gasping, readers who were raving, readers who recommended it as the one book to buy. So I bought it. And then read it in a single sitting. The story of sisters who almost die on their way home from elementary school, and shaken by the truth that statistics happen to people, the girls swear to never go to strangers’ parties. Never walk home alone. Never…never…never. You get it. And then they break the rules once and are kidnapped into a house of horrors. And then… well. Go. Read it. It’s not as original as Shining Girls, but still worth hardcover price.
11. Visitation Street, by Ivy Pochoda. I happened into this because it was an ebook available from my library – which means a book I can read in drips and drops on my phone as I’m waiting on so many things. That was the plan, at least. But this book, this was so alive, so pulsing with vivid language, and characters you actually gave a flip about, so reminiscent of hanging outside in the neighborhoods where I grew up, I couldn’t put the book down! This is definitely one I’ll go out and buy when it hits paperback because I know I’ll read it several more times.
12. Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman. This is a quick read, a story told in short excerpts from cursed Rory Hendrix’s case file from the state, letters from her grandma, entries from an outdated, worn-down copy of a Girl Scouts Handbook that acts as Rory’s bible in all things. The sections are short, sometimes only two pages, but the jabs of Rory’s one-two punches hit home and make you ache for this little girl. If you’re down for some open-ended heartache, move along. I don’t use the word cursed very lightly.
13. The Dangerous Animals Club, by Stephen Tobolowsky. I have a thing for memoirs. Everyone who knows my reading style knows this. I have a thing, too, for personal essays. And no one tells them like Stephen Tobolowsky. The title essay which opens the book had me laughing out loud so hard, that I found myself re-reading it three times before I could move on to the next. Not every section had the same impact, but all in all, it was a collection well selected and well told.
14. Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer. I couldn’t put the book down. And I’m picky about epistolary style narratives. But it just worked for Frances and Bernard. She’s a bit stuffy when they meet, Bernard is a bit of a cad, both meet at a writer’s commune of sorts. As their stories weave in and out, you can’t help but root for the star-crossed lovers, just as you can’t help but beat the dang book against the table when the inevitable ending arrives. God I hate when the journey is worth it, because you so much want to apply the brakes beforehand. BUT YOU CAN’T.
15. Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King. That’s right – TWO stories on my Best Of list. I was so very nervous heading into the sequel to one of my very favorite King’s, The Shining. Especially when you know right off the bat that our beloved Danny Torrance is an alcoholic, just like his dear deranged daddy, and near about as good at keeping things under wraps. But then…the story happened. King’s magic started weaving its spell…and gods blast it – I fell in love with the characters. Again. I wouldn’t say it was one of King’s best – certainly it isn’t in my King Top 10 – but it was still a fantastic ride that made me bubble up with all of the best anticipation. No one does it like Stephen King can.
16. Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat. I’ve read a lot of Danticat, and thoroughly enjoyed most of it. There have been a few misses. And here lately where I’ve been reading a lot of mainstream writing, I was feeling a bit of pressure. Would I like Claire? Would island life, Haitian myths and family life, folk lore and storytelling… would it still appeal to me? Yes. Yes, it did. Danticat still has the magic to pull you under, to make you pay attention through dangling, meandering story lines, through backstories and lineages that seem almost not to matter. Except with Danticat, everything matters. In the best ways. Nothing and no one is forgotten. Especially not Claire.
17. Tenth of December, by George Saunders. I was surprised when this collection of short stories came out in January that everyone was already declaring it one of the year’s best. It was maybe why I put off reading it… maybe too because I’m not a huge fan of short stories (I prefer to give my stories time to develop) and I hadn’t read any Saunders before. Wow, was I wrong on all accounts. Short stories from George Saunders are like tiny little gifts. Yes, I wanted the first story to develop into its very own novel, but the beauty and concise way Saunders had of making everything just fit, just seem right… to put it plainly, it just worked. If everyone else wrote their short stories like this, I might like them more.
18. When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan. Everyone was calling it a modernization of The Scarlet Letter, and with touches of The Handmaid’s Tale for reasons. And yet…it’s more than that. Jordan’s novel stands so brilliantly on its own. I loved the strong female characters, the twisty (but firm) ending, the lack of wishy-washyness… My only complaint is that one strong male character wouldn’t have weakened a single thing, fer crying out loud. But other than that…brilliant.
19. Reality Boy, by A.S. King. I would have read this novel in one sitting if I didn’t get so flippin nervous for the main character in parts that I had to put it down to let my heart rate settle. (Yes, I get over-attached to characters – deal.) The story had so many chances to go off the rails, so reach too far, to overdramaticize itself, and it resisted at just the last moment, when I was sure all would come crashing off the rails. When I finished, I laid the book down and said to myself that I might have just read the best book of the year.
20. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. That Rowell lady – she did it again. Two books out in a year. Two times she made and broke my heart with every 50 pages it seemed. A book about finding your own identity…about leaning on others but mostly yourself…and being okay with less-than-popular things as long as that’s who you are. It’s…oh, I’m still simmering in all of my Fangirl thoughts. I would say the one drawback is that I didn’t need all of the fanfic sections, but, because Rowell is so amazing, I found that you could skip those sections and not lose a single measure of the story. Told you – she rules.
So now that I’ve given you my long list, how am I ever going to narrow it down to my Top 10?! I’ll give it a shot…
1. Doctor Sleep
2. Reality Boy
3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane
4. The Laramie Project
5. And the Mountains Echoed
6. The Shining Girls
7. Eleanor & Park
9. Visitation Street