Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My seven favorite books of 2013.

Book tree from the window at Literati Bookstore - please buy from them!
They have a website! It is so easy!

Yes, my seven favorite books. No, seven is not a nice civilized, complete-feeling number like five or ten. It's a little arbitrary. But when I compiled the list of books I read this year, and thought about the ones that really touched me and amazed me, that glued themselves to my hands and made me postpone meals and bathroom breaks and subway stops, well, it was seven. And so here, in no particular order, they are:

GONE GIRL, Gillian Flynn. You guys have all heard about this book, and for good reason. It's extraordinary. I will confess to being one of those for whom the ending was not entirely satisfying, somehow, but it doesn't even matter--I have never read a book so utterly compelling in its tension. Spectacular book.

BLACKBIRDS, Chuck Wendig. I first discovered Chuck via his blog, where he delivers road-tested (you can tell by the mud stains) writing and publishing advice, and I grew interested in his novels through the sheer force of his personality. Having read his craft advice gives me an interesting--and slightly voyeuristic--perspective on his fiction ("oh, here Chuck is deliberately abusing his characters like he's always telling me to do!"), but also gives me a heightened appreciation for the skill on display in his writing. BLACKBIRDS is the first installment in his urban fantasy series about Miriam Black, a young woman whose pyschic gift--experiencing a vision of the time and manner of a person's death when she touches them--has corroded her existence and forced her into a life of unsettled drifting. Miriam is a wonderfully drawn character: tough yet compassionate, opportunistic yet loyal to her own asymmetrical code of ethics, and this twisting story of her misadventures with dark places and darker people is wonderfully atmospheric and addictive. (And, a quick FYI: THE CORMORANT, the third book in the series, was just released today.)

CRIMINAL, Terra Elan McVoy. I loved this book for two reasons. First, Terra's writing is tight and fierce and compelling; and second, it made me think. I love fantasy and historical novels and all the attendant blood-letting and general abuse that often accompanies them, but when it comes to fiction with a contemporary setting, I will be the first to admit that I gravitate toward stories that take place in my own sphere of life: Privileged, Well-Adjusted Middle-Class-hood. As I worked my way through CRIMINAL, I felt a mounting frustration with the main character, Nikki: she's needy, and spineless, and she heaps one horrifically poor decision on top of another as the story continues. And then, finally, it clicked. She truly doesn't know better. Terra has created a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman raised with so little love and so little self-esteem that she risks everything to protect the brutal man she loves, simply because she is so starved for affection that his sporadic attention feels like the only worthwhile thing in her life. Nikki's story is all the more sad by virtue of how very believably Terra has rendered it.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my dear friend Liz this summer, where I mused aloud that I couldn't understand how people could still become involved in meth use, even after seeing its catastrophic effects on other people around them. Liz, who is one of the most compassionate and thoughtful people I know, turned to me and said, "Because some people were never brought up to believe that their lives were worth anything at all."

THE LOVE WARS, L. Alison Heller. I will skip a longer description of this one since I already wrote a full review here, but suffice it to say, I adored this book. I'm counting months until Alison's second release, THE NEVER NEVER SISTERS.

WHY CAN'T I BE YOU, Allie Larkin. The heart of this book. The warmth, the vulnerability, the unadulterated charm. The mistaken-identity plot felt, at first, like it was going to lead me into a tale of wacky hijinks and supposedly-comical misunderstandings, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. The critical point here is that Jenny, the main character, goes along with the mistaken identity of Jessie because she is so unbearably fatigued with her own bleak life. Jessie's friends offer a heady dose of warmth and humor that are absent in Jenny's own colorless existence. With a light and empathetic touch, the book offers a wise lesson on the meaning of family--sometimes it's not the people you're born to, but the people you choose.

ELEANOR AND PARK, Rainbow Rowell. I started this book last week, on the recommendation of several friends, and by the end of the third chapter it had marched right up and stolen my heart. I only put my Kindle down to pee. This story of first love is tender and piercingly bittersweet, but never saccharine, and perfectly calls to mind that incandescent wonder of the first time you discovered the way another human being could make you feel.

FOREVER, INTERRUPTED, Taylor Jenkins Reid. From the opening words of this novel, I loved it. I also hated it. I hated it not because there is any flaw in the writing or story (there isn't) but because I knew it was going to make me cry ugly, hiccuping tears, and that is exactly what it proceeded to do. It is a beautiful love story, unraveled alternately in the present and in flashback, and it's made all the more moving by the fact that you know from those very first words that one of the lovers is doomed. This story is a painful and yet ultimately hopeful take on life after loss, and the way love transforms us even after the person we loved is gone.

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