Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Another Best Books of 2013 List

It’s list season again. Best songs. Best movies. Best vacation destinations. Best new restaurants. And of course, best books. Every year I’m thrilled to be reminded of the amazing creativity and focused discipline that results in more worthy books than I’ll ever be able to read.

These are my top 5 books of 2013. Each one captivated me from start to finish, and I couldn’t choose a favorite if someone forced me. I hope they inspire you to reflect on your best reads of 2013.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
(review from the National Book Award web site)

"Greedily" is the best way to describe how I read the historical novel The Good Lord Bird. I knew I should slow down and savor McBride’s phenomenal storytelling, but I couldn’t. The book starts with the sentence “I was born a colored man and don't you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years,” and only gets better. The narrator, Henry Shackleford, is a child slave rescued/kidnapped (there’s a fine line between the two in this story) by famed abolitionist John Brown after his father dies in a shootout. Dressed in an old sack that Brown assumes is a dress, Henry is too frightened to correct Brown when he thinks Henry is a girl. Thus begins Henry's——who is nicknamed Little Onion——new life as he accompanies the zealous, near lunatic Brown and his band of followers on Brown’s quest to end slavery. Funny, endearing, and often painful to read, The Good Lord Bird deserves all of the praise it has received.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
(review from the Guardian )

Characters who contentedly live outside of the norm appeal to me, and that’s probably why this book made my list. The Rosie Project won’t lead to meaty discussions or hours of reflection, but it’s funny and sweet and sometimes that is exactly what I want from a book. Don Tillman is a brilliant, logical genetics professor who lacks basic social skills and who is constantly perplexed by the behavior of others. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, it’s obvious to all who know him that Don has a form of autism that limits his ability to engage in perceived normal ways. He’s never had much luck with the opposite sex, but when a neighbor casually comments that he’d make a good husband he embarks on what he calls the Wife Project to find a suitable spouse. In the midst of his search—which includes a questionnaire for prospective mates—Don meets Rosie, his behavioral opposite, who is looking for her biological father. Shifting from the Wife Project to help with her Father Project, Don is surprised by how much Rosie brings to his life, and the results are delightful to witness.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
(review from the New York Times Sunday Book Review)

In this slim, fairy-tale-like novel, a nameless middle-aged artist returns to where he grew up in Sussex to attend a funeral. Driving to the end of a once familiar lane unleashes memories of frightening and fantastical events from his seventh year—a lonely time when no one came to his birthday party and a boarder in his family’s home accidentally kills his beloved kitten. When the boarder is found dead in the family car, he’s shuffled away to a nearby farmhouse where he meets a mysterious group of women, including Lettie, a girl just a few years older, who strangely knew about what happened and why. The Hempstock women are guardians against terrible forces that threaten all things and the young protagonist gets caught in the battle to stop these forces. My favorite character is Lettie, who tells the narrator: "I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” Gaiman writes about the darkness of childhood—merging imagination, memory, and magic—like no other contemporary writer.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
(review from the Man Booker Prize site)

When I read about this book—an 800+ page complex murder mystery set in the gold mines of 19th-century New Zealand—my first thought was that it was probably 300 pages too long. But reading the book proved me wrong—Eleanor Catton didn’t need a better editor and she’s in full control of the book’s many tightly constructed plots. Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika, New Zealand from Edinburgh to make his fortune in gold. Not long off the ship he encounters twelve men (characters woven around signs of the Zodiac) convened in a hotel lobby discussing disturbing local events——their stories, secrets, and motivations unveil and intertwine in endlessly entertaining and unpredictable ways. The Victorian sensationalism, the astrological overlay, and the spiraling form would be too gimmicky with lesser writers, but with Catton’s skill it all works. A rich, atmospheric writer, Catton vividly depicts the locales and lives of gold seekers, prostitutes, power holders, and eccentric townspeople so engagingly that I missed them as soon as I closed the back cover.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

(review from the New York Times Sunday Book Review)
I eagerly awaited Donna Tartt’s third novel and as trite as it sounds, it was worth the wait. Thirteen-year-old Theo survives a Metropolitan Musuem bombing that kills his beloved mother. In the rubble, a dying man insists that Theo take his signet ring and a small Dutch masterpiece that was blown out of its frame—The Goldfinch. His grief and the items connected to it form the trajectory of his life. Theo goes to live with the Barbours, the wealthy family of a school friend, where his alienation and loss of identity grow. Following the dying man’s instructions on what to do with his ring, Theo is drawn into the world of the pretty red-haired girl who drew him away from his mother’s side at the museum that fateful day. His unreliable father eventually shows up and takes him to an isolated Las Vegas subdivision where he meets another motherless teen, the wild and captivating Boris, who becomes Theo’s strongest ally. Tartt masterfully conveys the voice and perspective of youth and I cheered for sorrowful Theo throughout this heartbreaking book.

Sharon Crowley works in K–12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation. She has a well-worn library card, but still spends too much money on books.

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