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?

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Review: Serena by Ron Rash

2815590Blurb:

The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

 

Review:

Never has a titular character deserved her title as much as Serena in Ron Rash’s Serena. Because Serena Pemberton is everything. She’s intelligent, ambitious, not exactly beautiful, unconventional, and daring; but mostly, she’s ruthless.

It is rare that a book physically affects me, but Serena did. As I rocketed towards the finale, my heart pumped faster and my palms started to sweat. Turning each page felt like the long and low creaking of a door opening in a horror film. There is a suffocating sensation, a feeling, nay an absolute certainty, that terrible events are approaching.

But while the plot chugs with refreshing speed, Ron Rash writes in restrained yet beautiful prose to create a rather thoughtful story. Serena is almost universally recommendable because it bridges commercial and literary fiction in the best way; it’s an exciting thriller that questions standards of femininity, the dangers of ambition, and the lengths of love. Serena will destroy anyone if it helps herself, her husband, and their lumber empire. Because of the early 20th century society Serena lived in and the society we still live in, it’s tempting to interpret Serena’s character as a jealous and unhinged harpy, a woman gone mad following her failure to produce a child, her one true purpose on Earth. But that’s an unfair and sexist designation. Serena is simply ambition magnified a thousand times. In fact, her qualities would likely be admired if she were a man. She’s both awe-inspiring and reprehensible and certainly one of the greatest characters I’ve read about in a long while.

While the main conflict plays out between Rachel, the mother of Serena’s husband’s illegitimate child, and barren Serena, the surrounding Appalachian landscape is ruined, logged until it too rests barren. Serena is thus also a proto-environmentalist tale set in the 1930s. The most alarming part is how so little seems to have changed since that era. Unbridled avarice and unthinking apathy towards the wonder and precariousness of the natural world are still common today, an unfortunate fact that only heightens the novel’s relevance and appeal. With a fantastic touch, Rash includes a Greek chorus of lumberjacks to discuss the personal and natural destruction around them. At the end of the novel, one worker states solemnly, “I think this is what the end of the world will be like.”

And he’s right. As the forests fall, leaving scarred and empty lands, along fall the characters’ facades until only the ugliest scraps of human nature remain, deformed and laid out to fester in the sun.

5 out 5 stars