Monthly Archives: January 2014

my favorite books of 2013

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I read 109 books in 2013, which is about 20 or so books less than previous years.  I was comfortably on my way to surpassing the numbers of past years when complications in my family life at home during the last few months of the year caused me to fall off my reading habit precipitously.  I’m not sure how things will fare for the coming year, so I’m lowering my goal to a hopefully manageable one book a week for 2014.

On a whimsical note, and to guide some of my reading this year, I tried seeking out books that feature talking cats, not only because I happen to enjoy a good talking cat character but also because, well, why not?  Unfortunately, quality talking cats books are far and few between—heavy sigh.  (However, I can mention one book, “Plain Kate” by Erin Bow, which has one of the finest talking cats you can ever hope to meet).  I also read a lot of good fantasy in 2013, as well as some fun books in the YA genre.  In fact, many of my favorites are labeled as YA books, although most of them will also appeal to a much broader reading audience.

Here are my top ten picks of the books I read in 2013, in rough order of preference:

10. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (Contemporary Adult Fiction)

Clay Jannon gets a job on the night shift of an independent bookstore in San Francisco, where a few customers repeatedly come in in the middle of the night, but they never buy anything.  Eventually, Clay and his friends try to piece together the puzzle and to solve the mystery of these strange customers.  It’s a book for the bibliophile, but it also crams in a lot of technology, and a little bit of fantasy too.  It’s a fun and crazy book, and it basically charmed me the whole way through.

9. The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson (YA Fantasy/Science Fiction/Steampunk)

Although it took me a little bit of time to get into this book initially, once I was in, I loved it.  And the ideas and images of the chalklings coming to life have really stayed with me since then.  Sanderson is such a skillful world builder, and this is one I will be happy to revisit whenever the sequel comes out.  Such fun fantasy.

8. Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer. (YA Fantasy)

I loved “Cinder.”  I thought it was a successfully clever cyborg update of the Cinderella fairy tale.  And I was highly skeptical that Marissa Meyer could do justice to a sequel branching off into another fairy tale (Red Riding Hood).  Happily, Meyer pulled it off—in a big way.  “Scarlet” might even be better than “Cinder,” or it could be just that I was so impressed at how masterfully she weaves the stories together so that they become integral to each other, and how cleverly Meyer adapts the traditional tales to her futuristic story.  Brava!

7. Quintana of Charyn, by Melina Marchetta (YA High Fantasy/Magic)

This is book 3 of the “Lumatere Chronicles,” and the whole thing is one massive trilogy of goodness.  I read “Finnikin of the Rock” (Book 1) back in 2012 and at that time, I thought it was an outstanding stand alone book, which really excited me in this era of plethoric series.  And, even though Marchetta went on to write a continuation of the story, I still commend that book for being complete in and of itself.  That being said, and with the additional caveat that Book 2 (“Froi of the Exiles”) and Book 3 need to be read together, I’m so glad Marchetta gave us more of these compelling characters.  She is a master storyteller.  The plot is so full of twists and turns and the narrative appears to have so many internal restrictions that I did not see how Marchetta could pull off an acceptable ending to these two companion books, but I needn’t have feared.   These are richly good, and so memorable.

6. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein (YA Historical Fiction)

Talk about surprises.  This book is an amazing one!  I found this story to be a fresh and intriguing angle in the genre of WWII historical fiction, with the focus on young British women (sometimes mere girls) as aviators and spies.  I was full of admiration for Queenie and her colleagues by the end of the story.  And kudos to Wein for her near-genius plot.  It won me over completely.

5. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro (Contemporary Historical Fiction)

It may be that this book appealed especially to me because I am a geeky art historian, but I think it’s good enough to have broader appeal than just my narrow niche.  As an art replicator, Claire Roth, is asked to make a copy of a stolen Degas masterpiece, but in the process of duplication, she suspects the masterpiece is itself a master forgery. And so the mystery plot thickens. This was a fun and informative read, even if there were parts that were less enjoyable (Claire’s romance had less spark than her art), and even distracting, such as the non-existent Gardner letters (the revelations to the audience actually take away from the enjoyment of the mystery, especially since the characters never see these letters….). But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise enjoyable outing.

4. Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson (Urban Fantasy/Science Fiction, Magical Realism)

I read this book back in January 2013, and it has resonated with me throughout the year.  It is a unique story that dares to combine a computer hacker, the Arab Spring, a vampire jinn, and ideas from the Qu’ran into one book that I found to be daring, compelling and thought-provoking.  “Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”  There is another quote from the book that talks about how “…something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era.” And yet the book explores how it might be precisely living in this “post-fictional era” that may allow people to again believe in the tales of the past. If the Qu’ran can acknowledge the existence of the jinn, why can’t our modern minds? The ancient alchemists wanted to produce a living book that could produce knowledge that transcended time–have we now reached a time when technology will allow us to combine the mythologies and religious beliefs of the past with the philosophies of a optimally digitized future to create an acceptable blend of the riches of all these things?  If you’re looking for something fresh and different to read, this book might just fit the bill.

3. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (YA Realistic Fiction)

Everything in this book is unbelievably precocious, but I still willingly and happily went with it: the witty writing, the perfectly clever dialogue (that could never happen in real life), and the drama of this “not a cancer book,” because “cancer books suck.”  Not only do our main characters, Hazel and Augustus, bandy about their sardonic wit and perfectly placed observations and zingers, they have a cadre of friends and family who actually appreciate that stunning wordiness about them.  And then there’s the part where the kids go to Amsterdam, and it’s made painfully clear that the perfect words can cut both ways, for good and bad, and that makes this book all the richer and more meaningful.  I pretty much adored it

2. Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer (YA Dystopian Science Fiction)

This was hard to read in that it was almost too real.  And, once I read it, I just couldn’t (can’t) get it out of my head.  This is dystopian fantasy without the feel of fantasy.  Pfeffer imagines what would happen to the world if the moon were struck by a meteor in such a way that it gets thrown out of orbital alignment and wreaks havoc with the tides and other natural phenomenon on Earth. What works about this book is the very narrow viewpoint, which shrinks and shrinks as the story moves along. It makes the scenario extremely personal. Not only did I find myself wondering how I would deal with such a scenario, I continue to find myself pondering how characters in other, completely unrelated, books would fare (“I wonder how these characters making cheese in a remote Spanish village would deal with the tragedy in that other book?”).  Talk about memorable.

1. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helen Wecker (Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism)

Take historical fiction (not only of turn-of-the-century New York immigrants but also of medieval caravaners of the Sahara), mix in traditional folk tales of the jinn and Jewish golem, add modern twists to all of that, and you get a mesmerizing story of myth, religion, humanity and magic. The writing is lovely, the story is masterful, the imagery is memorable, and beyond all that, there are tantalizing messages of love and acceptance, of belief and wonder, of creation and art.  Simply wonderful.  Stunning.