Best Books of 2013

2013 isn’t over yet, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have one more excellent read before the year closes. At the time of this post, I’ve read a total of 95 books which amounts to 36,913 pages this year. I’ll likely add a bit to that, but for now I’m ready to proclaim my completely objective picks for the Best Books I’ve Read in 2013.

16068905Best Book About A Fictional Harry Potteresque Fan Community: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl (4 stars) is a giddy-making book, plain and simple. You will not be able to read about Cath, a fanfiction writer for the Simon Snow books (very obviously parodying the Harry Potter series), and her first year college adventures without becoming very very excited. Even though Rainbow Rowell touches serious topics like social anxiety, loneliness, academic cheating, and divorce, Fangirl is easily the most joyful book I read this year. Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (4 stars) was another favorite, though less happy and more wistful.

89717Best Book Published A Long Time Ago That I Just Read This Year: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Does the name Shirley Jackson ring a bell? She’s famous for her New Yorker short story The Lottery. Like The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House (5 stars) packs a wallop of an ending. This is not a horror novel but a terror novel. The fear lies in what we don’t see and what we don’t know. And for any obsessive book theorizers out there, those readers that love to form hypotheses about what really happened or what it all really means, this is the perfect book for you. Bonus? It’s exquisitely written (and inspired my blog title!).

2815590Best Book About A Savage Female Lumber Baron: Serena by Ron Rash

After reading the blurb for Serena (5 stars), I had the distinct impression that I was about to read the type of book where everyone dies at the end. In the least spoilery way possible, let me say that I was not disappointed. I love books that continuously shock me, where every new page promises an unexpected turn. That’s Serena. It doesn’t hurt that the titular character is one of the most tremendous female characters I’ve ever read about. I guess that’s what you get when you base a character on Lady Macbeth.

24Best Book That Made Me Want To Book A Flight on Qantas Airways ASAP: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country (4 stars) introduces readers to the enigma that is Australia. Before reading it, I knew practically nothing about this vast continent/island/country landmass isolated in the Pacific. I learned a lot but what elevates this book above a typical travelogue is Bryson’s writing. He’s absolutely hilarious, with a keen eye for good trivia and bullshit. Honorable mention for the Best Book That Made Me Want To Hike A 2179 Mile Trail: Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods.
(4 stars)

 

15815364Best ‘Self-Help’ Book That Is Actually An Incredibly Moving Novel: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Beautifully written and painfully realistic, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (5 stars) killed me. In a good way. This slim novel can be read in only a few hours. There’s so much to discuss here—the Westernization of Asia, the impact of post-colonialism, the role of women in traditional cultures—but I was more enthralled by the story. You meet the protagonist at birth and follow him to his grave. It’s impossible not to get attached.

3483Best Book With A Final Exam At The End: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Really 2013 was the year of Marisha Pessl. Though she’s only published two books, Marisha is now a favorite author of mine. Special Topics (5 stars) was actually published years ago, but I read it in preparation for Night Film (5 stars), Pessl’s 2013 release. Both are spectacular with vividly quirky characters who somewhat mask the dark perturbations moving behind the scenes. Pessl is responsible for the most shocking plot twists I’ve seen this year. As a great connoisseur of the plot twist, I cannot be more happy to have found her books.

Honorable Mentions:

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (4 stars), Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (4 stars), Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5 stars–but never reviewed!), Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois (4 stars), The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (4 stars), and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (5 stars)

What are the best books you read in 2013?

Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

2807199Blurb:

On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House–and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.

As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek–one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?

Review:

Much like the protagonists of her novels American Wife and Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld, and her writing, are interesting, though interesting in a very quiet way. On the surface her work is unassuming: a charming combination of chick-lit and literary fiction. But after finishing American Wife I believe her work is more complicated than it initially appears. Sittenfeld doesn’t commit to telling the most thrilling story but she does commit to respectfully recording the mundane events of a mundane person’s mundane daily life—and as a result, she shows that no one’s life is truly mundane.

I have so much love for this unshowy style. So often I feel deafened by how loud people are yelling to get their voices heard in today’s world. But I can count on Sittenfeld for small but poignant renderings of unremarkable girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately in American Wife, she loses the essence of her story. Instead of always magnifying on Alice, the unabashedly normal Midwestern girl who will remarkably become First Lady of the United States, the story focuses too much on Charlie, her husband and future Leader of the Free World. This broader scope weakens the novel because sometimes it doesn’t feel like Alice’s story but merely a story in which she plays a large role.

Alice’s character is based on Laura Bush (indeed, my post-reading Wikipedia research shows that Ms. Bush inspired this novel a lot); thus her husband is modeled on the infamous George W. Bush. Unfortunately, it follows the Bush saga too closely. I would have preferred a simple fictional vivisection of First Lady life because the similarities to real life were eerie and distracting. It was impossible to view the characters as merely fictional creatures; I kept seeing Alice as Alice-cum-Laura Bush and Charlie as Charlie-cum-Mr. President-George W. Bush.

Like her debut novel Prep, American Wife is a lesson in passivity. It’s a very feminist book without proclaiming itself as such, suggesting that the people who might best lead a country—in this case, women: whose inferior position has taught them compassion—will never run a campaign for that very reason. We also see, again, how being white, rich and male in America can grant you your every wish. Conversely we see how fundamentally unfair it is to be a wife. A wife compromises herself for love; she repeatedly bends her wishes to accommodate her husband. The opposite is never true, however.

But most of all, Sittenfeld teaches us to respect complexity. Contradictions—within a country, within a family, within ourselves—are inevitable. In her quiet way, she doesn’t advocate a solution to these contradictions. She doesn’t take a position. She simply points her finger towards mundanely complex things we see everyday and never notice. How wonderful it is to notice them.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

18002456Blurb:

Lord of the Flies meets The Ruins in this frightening novel written in the bestselling traditions of Stephen King and Scott Smith.

Boy Scouts live by the motto “Be Prepared.” However, nothing can prepare this group of young boys and their scoutmaster for what they encounter on a small, deserted island, as they settle down for a weekend of campfires, merit badges, and survival lessons.

Everything changes when a haggard stranger in tattered clothing appears out of nowhere and collapses on the campers’ doorstep. Before the night is through, this stranger will end up infecting one of the troop’s own with a bioengineered horror that’s straight out of their worst nightmares. Now stranded on the island with no communication to the outside world, the troop learns to battle much more than the elements, as they are pitted against something nature never intended…and eventually each other.

Review:

I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God, the queen, and to obey the laws of the Eagle Scout troop.

That is, unless a crazy tapeworm epidemic invades the Scout camping trip. Then all bets are off!

The Troop is a delicious horror novel combining my two biggest fears: genetically modified tapeworms and teenage boys. Five whippersnapper scouts head to a small island off the coast of Prince Edward Island for a camping trip but some evil tapeworms decide to ruin all the fun! For the scouts and their leader, that is. For us readers, the tapeworms are very very fun.

For a story whose main draw is its high gross-out factor, it’s really well-written. Nick Cutter incorporates external media like laboratory reports, military orders, and court records to show what happens off the island while the scouts are fighting for their lives on the island. The characters are interesting too thanks to well-chosen flashbacks. They are not merely walking bodies waiting to become corpses. Their personalities, though overly reliant on archetypes, i.e., the Jock, the Nerd, the Bully, interact well, leading to wild clashes as their situation grows more dire.

Cutter’s prose is surprisingly elevated for this type of story. I like his writing better than Stephen King’s (whose Carrie inspired the external media approach), but it was perhaps overly poetic in places for a story about evil tapeworms. Cutter is great at maintaining the ick-factor throughout and continually pushing the plot forward. Most of the time I was thinking, “ewwwwwwwww!” but the good type of Ewww that glues your eyes to the page.

To recover from The Troop I treated myself to a big dose of this:

Prince Edward Island and environs, you are not dead to me. But if Mr. Nick Cutter ever wrote a sequel to this story, you might be.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: September Girls by Bennett Madison

16065555Blurb:

When Sam’s dad whisks him and his brother off to a remote beach town for the summer, he’s all for it– at first. Sam soon realizes, though, that this place is anything but ordinary. Time seems to slow down around here, and everywhere he looks, there are beautiful blond girls. Girls who seem inexplicably drawn to him.

Then Sam meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, and she’s different from the others. Just as he starts to fall for her, she pulls away, leaving him more confused than ever. He knows that if he’s going to get her back, he’ll have to uncover the secret of this beach and the girls who live here.

Review:

Sexist? Feminist? Blah, who cares? September Girls has inspired some extreme opinions for a book that that is the literary equivalent of a sigh.

I definitely don’t consider it sexist as so many reviewers have. The characters use coarse and objective words to describe women, but it shows how this type of language and thought is indoctrinated in men and women alike. The whole book uses a sexist mermaid legend to critique patriarchy. So if the claims of sexism are deterring you from reading it, do not fret and give it a chance.

But.

It’s boring. And I think that also may have been intentional. My favorite part of the book is how it’s an ode to summer. Especially a summer lived in the prime of youth. How time melts during June, July, and August and the lines between days disappear—is it Wednesday or Sunday? no matter, we’ll do the same things anyway. Madison captures this languorous feeling but because of that, nothing distinguishes itself here. The book is a melancholy melody of sunburnt days and firework nights. It’s realistic to those youthful summers, but the thin and often confusing plot disappears behind the limp setting.

Mostly September Girls is too subtle. I agree with many of things it says about identity and love and gender, but they are woven in so lightly that I finished the book without taking much from the experience. So I’ll throw a third opinion into the September Girls reviews circus: well-written with realistic characters and important themes but ultimately uninteresting.

Good quotes!

Starting to understand her was less like learning and more like forgetting. I was forgetting the DeeDee I created in my mind. Now, outside Ursula’s, in the grass by the highway, she was just DeeDee. She was only herself.

All we want is to break the curse. Like any good curse, it is breakable. Like any good curse, you lose as much in the breaking as you gain. Perhaps more. But what’s the alternative?

I had to think she and I were different not because of any curses or enchanted items or magic spells, but just because of who we were. Who we had made each other and who we would still become.

3 out of 5 stars