Friday, December 27, 2013

My 10 Favorite Books in 2013

Only a few of these books were released in the year 2013. These are just my favorites throughout the year
in chronologically-read (January to December) order:

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain)


Fountain's debut novel was the first book that I read of the year, and it was a mostly downhill journey from here. Focusing on the Bravo Squad (mainly Billy Lynn) after they become war heroes because of an embedded Fox News crew broadcasting a blazing firefight against Iraqis, Bill Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a heartfelt and hilarious and heartbreaking look at American excess and culture. The Bravo boys are on a "Victory Tour", where the group gets shipped home for a period of time to get dragged around from different events like prized cattle. Bravo are soldiers, and the contrast between their rugged lifestyle and the glitz and glam of Hollywood Producers and NFL players and Beyonce is realistic, and only part of their problem. Billy Lynn makes us wonder if parts of our American culture (greed, excess, religion) are even worth fighting for. And Ben Fountain becomes a late-starting author whose every new book will be a major event.

Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

Another first novel, another incredible debut. After writing a book of short stories, Karen Russell expands upon an idea in that collection (St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves) and builds a lush, swampy world full of vivid characters, beautiful imagery and innovative descriptions. The star of Swamplandia! is a ferocious 12-year-old girl, Ava Bigtree, whose family owns a rundown tourist attraction (aptly named Swamplandia!) in Southern Florida, where the main event is an exciting spectacle of alligator wrestling. The matriarch of the family, Hilola (also the star of the show) has died of cancer, leaving her husband, three teenage children, and the park in disarray. Swamplandia! focuses on Ava, but her siblings and father are all wonderfully drawn characters too. The novel is fantastical: Ava's brother, Kiwi, joins a rival attraction called The World of Darkness, and her sister Osceola falls in love with a ghost (is it real or her imagination?), yet Russell never lets fantasy get in the way of Ava's real struggles: learning to cope without such a shining star of a mother and the terrifying (and sometimes brutal) reality of growing up.

Room (Emma Donoghue)

Jack is a five-year-old boy. He has many similarities with other boys his age: the wondrous nature of every single new day excites him, he loves playing a variety of different games with his Ma, and reading books and occasionally watching television opens doors into his imagination. But there's one gigantic (and horrible) difference: Jack has never left the 11 x 11 prison cell of a room where he was born--it's the only thing he knows. When Ma was years younger, she was abducted by a repulsive man known as Old Nick, who still occasionally visits in the night time. And as Jack is becoming more aware of their unique situation, Ma knows that it's impossible to live in this confinement forever, so the two try and form a plan to release themselves from the bondage of Old Nick. Room has echoes of the horrible news stories of recent years--from the abduction of Elizabeth Smart to the three women in Cleveland--but Emma Donoghue makes the great decision to tell the story through the eyes of Jack, a boy that is slowly coming to the realization that something is incredibly wrong yet has never known anything different. And by focusing on a child, Room allows us to focus on moments of wonder and beauty and the hope of sunlight finally shining on Jack's face instead of the disturbing and grotesque actions of Old Nick.

NOS4A2 (Joe Hill)

Though we don't need a "new" Stephen King (the guy is still churning out great writing with this year's Doctor Sleep and Joyland), Joe Hill could be considered the "new" Stephen King. It helps that he has the same blood--he's King's son. And now's the time to start reading him, because he's sure to produce exciting and thrilling horror works for years to come. His two previous novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, both contained moments of greatness. But NOS4A2 is a culmination of Hill entering the big scene with a disturbing and incredibly well-written horror of a novel. Though the title of the novel invokes an image of vampires, NOS4A2 is a modern twist on a vampire epic that is utterly engaging: the villain is a sick man named Charlie Manx who takes children on a long ride in his Rolls Royce to a mysterious place called 'Christmasland". Our Heroine is a badass chick named Vic McQueen who can ride her motorcycle across a wooden bridge to other places (like a warp). When the two meet, it sets in motion an epic battle that turns into the ultimate page-turner of the year.

The Painted Bird (Jerzy Kosinski)

Joe Hill's NOS4A2 is a disturbing horror novel. But Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird is just plain disturbing. It's not a book you want to read if you're faint-hearted. Focusing on a young boy wandering from village to village during and after WWII, The Painted Bird shows the absolute cruelty and depravity that human beings can inflict upon one another during times of war (or any time, really). Abandoned by his parents, the boy is tortured and beaten by insane and depraved individuals and only rarely shown acts of kindness. No doubt that anyone in America today would feel privileged compared to this young boy's experiences. But it's not all bloodshed and brutality: Kosinski's vivid and poetic imagery--matched with the boy's undying resilience--never allow us to turn away from one of the most disturbing landscapes in all of the literature to come out of World War Two.

Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card)

Orson Scott Card pisses me off. No, my Republican friends, not just because of his hateful anti-gay rhetoric and peculiar political views. It's his writing: his tense changes, his switching between 1st and 3rd person viewpoints, and his sometimes-corny dialogue have a tendency to drive me up the wall. It's more bothersome in the 3rd book of his Ender's Game series, Xenocide. The second book in the series, Speaker for the Dead, fared much better: it's one of my favorite sci-fi novels that I've read (which isn't too many). Taking place many years after the more simple and funny Ender's Game, Speaker is much more dense, focusing on thoughtful notions of atonement, redemption and race relations. It's incredible what Card can do with his writing--characters filled with empathy and kindness--when his real-life beliefs echo some opposite sentiment. I don't see how Speaker for the Dead isn't the crowning achievement of Card's career: I've only finished the third book in the series, Xenocide, and it was rather over-long and un-exciting compared to Speaker.

The Shining (Stephen King)

So much has been made of the film version of The Shining for the past years. Even a documentary, Room 237, released back in March, decided to delve into the cult-like following of viewers that try and dissect the intricacies of Kubrick's masterful horror film. The original Stephen King novel, released back in 1977, tends to get lost in the shuffle. It shouldn't: The Shining is one of the best novels that Stephen King has ever written, and it's a master class in creating a suspenseful setting where psychological horrors live around every one of the Overlook Hotel's corners. I read The Shining this past summer because King's first true sequel to a standalone novel, Doctor Sleep, was being released in the fall. Sleep--though solid--doesn't live up to the original, but it was a damn tough act to follow: focusing on Jack Torrance's inner struggle with alcoholism and self-pity, King's third book should be on every single person's reading list, and it's--dare I say--better than the treasured Kubrick (loose) adaptation of the novel.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

What can be said about Lolita that hasn't been said already? Just about nothing. So I'll keep in short and sweet: published back in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov's shocking and (yes) sexy Lolita is the king of books that contain an unreliable narrator. The middle-aged Humbert Humbert is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl (or "nymphet" as he likes to call them)--everything about her: her body, her smell, her looks, her naive personality. You name it. When he becomes her stepfather, it sets in motion a journey of questionable sexual escapades that both sicken and enthrall the reader on nearly every page. The narrative in Lolita is always in question: since we're hearing directly from Humbert, we never know exactly what to think. And when our sympathies start to align in his direction--even after all of the reprehensible acts that he was performed on the young girl--Lolita causes us to question our own morality.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See (Juliann Garey)

I don't have bipolar disorder, but author Juliann Garey does, and her novel Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See is one of the best books to come out in 2013. Focusing on Greyson Todd, a movie studio executive with a young family, Too Bright never lets us look away from his world-traveling descent into near madness. The book spans years and places very quickly, never letting us feel settled or the least bit comfortable: and that works beautifully when you consider the thoughts (the incredibly-high highs and the agonizingly-low lows) that find a home in Greyson's head. With each chapter, we get to see a different side of Greyson, usually in a different city. Sure, a lot of the time--because of his mental illness--he certainly isn't an extremely-likable character. But that won't stop you from rooting for him or feeling incredible sadness when electroshock therapy may rid him of his only worthwhile memories left: the ones of his estranged daughter.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

My book bud Ry Lowell always has raved about The Book Thief, calling it one of his favorite books maybe of all time. Some of my family has loved it too. They weren't wrong: Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is one of those novels for absolutely any age group that is absolutely timeless. Its trick is taking one of the most difficult subjects in human history--the Holocaust--and turning that subject into a story of hope and love. Narrated by the omniscient Death, who is extremely busy during the period of WWII, The Book Thief focuses on young orphan Liesel, a girl with a love for the written word. When her foster parents take in a Jew to live in their basement, it sets into motion a chain of events that changes Liesel's life forever. The beauty of Zusak's novel is that it's incredibly visual. The scene set ups are so simple and so vivid that they paint a picture in your mind--one that's very hard to forget. And for anybody that loves reading, it's always great to read a story in which books become precious treasures.

Honorable Mentions:

Dark Tower Book 4: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King--

The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg--

A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones--

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson--

1 comment:

  1. Nice list. I'm glad you included some classics. I've been meaning to read Lolita for years and now you've really got me interested in it.

    I read the first couple of pages of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk at the Xmas gathering and was immediately pulled in. It was all I could do to not "borrow" it then and there. Looking forward to reading it when my sister is done with it.