Friday, January 3, 2014

My favorite books of 2013...

I've been reading for as long as I can remember—it's honestly one of my favorite activities, because it exposes me to some amazingly creative minds and breathtakingly beautiful language. Reading also makes me feel a wide range of emotions—I've been moved to tears, I've been angered and/or frustrated, impressed, inspired, humored, and intrigued, and I've also been compelled to question things around me or shift my way of thinking. But more than that, reading relaxes me. And when you're a type-AAA personality like I am, you take every opportunity to relax you can!

This year I read 126 books. (I actually started, but didn't finish, a few more, as I just couldn't get into them.) I read some absolutely fantastic books, some good ones, and only a few I really disliked. Amazingly, some of the best books I read this year are classified in the "young adult" genre, although there's nothing "young adult" about the writing, the subject matter, or the way they made me feel. It goes to prove that this genre is so much more than books about vampires, wizards, other-worldly beings, and dystopia. (Not that there's anything wrong with those things.)

As I've done the past few years, I've selected 20 of the best books I read this past year, plus five more that just fell short of the top 20 but I still think they're too good to miss. I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on my selections, and what your favorite books were in 2013. One thing you know you can always talk with me about is books!

So here goes, in random order:

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: The second book I read in 2013 has stayed with me all this time. (Plus it left me a sobbing mess.) Louisa has lived a fairly sheltered, uneventful life in the English town where she grew up. Will was a ruthless, take-no-prisoners businessman, who lived to the extreme in every aspect of his life, until a motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic. When Louisa becomes Will's caregiver (despite not having any experience in this sort of work), the two begin a relationship of mutual respect and friendship, following a very rough start. When Louisa realizes that she could be the catalyst to changing Will's outlook on life and his desire to keep on living, she does everything in her power to make that happen, not understanding the toll it will take on her life and her relationships—not to mention how it will affect Will. Read my original review.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: A masterpiece of interconnected stories-in-verse about characters in some sort of emotional flux. Some of the connections come as an utter surprise, but the emotions they generate are truly genuine. As the title suggests, Rakoff's characters are involved with all of those verbs in some way. Beautifully written, and sadly, finished just before Rakoff's death. Read my original review (written mostly in verse, no less).

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan: Seventeen-year-old former boyfriends Harry and Craig are planning to set a new Guinness World Record for continuous kissing, over 32 hours. As their families and friends rally around and react to this decision, Levithan's fantastically moving book also follows two other young gay couples and two gay teens, dealing with their own issues. And it's narrated by a nameless Greek chorus of men who died of AIDS. Part lamentation for what they lost, part reflection on the struggles each of the characters are going through, since they've seen it all, their words are so insightful, so moving, so dead-on in many, many ways, I literally found myself tearing up multiple times as I flew through the book. Read my original review.

Indiscretion by Charles Dubow: Boy, did I love this book, about lifelong friendships, love, devotion, passion, infidelity, and desire. Can you truly love two people at once? Can you spend your entire life loving someone from a distance and be happy only with their proximity? Does betrayal truly kill long-time love? The world of literature is full of books about infidelity, so you may wonder what makes this superlative debut novel so good when there are so many books out there that tell similar stories. While the story may not be unique, Dubow draws you into his characters' lives and gets you so fully immersed that you can't help but be hooked by what happens to them. And even if you can predict what might happen, the journey to those incidents is so worthwhile it doesn't matter if you've seen it all before. Read my original review.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: When the tsunami hit Asia in December 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala and her family were vacationing on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. After the water subsided, she survived, while her husband, two young sons, and her parents all died. While she sustained physical trauma, her emotional trauma was far worse. How could she continue living her life when her entire family was gone? Why did she survive while everyone else died? When every day of her life was defined by her being a wife, a mother, and a daughter, what would happen now? An emotionally powerful account of the days, months, and years of Deraniyagala's life following the tsunami. Read my original review.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey: In the mid 1980s, children with exceptional gifts, labeled "brilliants," started to be born. More than extreme intelligence or ability, these children have talents beyond any ever seen—reading a person's thoughts or intentions just by looking at them, being able to transform themselves into what ever a person wishes, the ability to become invisible and move where no one is expecting. In the present (although in a world different than our own), a special branch of the U.S. government, the Department of Equitable Services, has been empowered to hunt down the brilliants, or "abnorms," as they're referred to insultingly. One elite member of the Department is Agent Nick Cooper—ruthless, intelligent, driven, and a brilliant himself, drawn to the department to create a safer world. An absolutely phenomenal, compelling, and intriguing read. Read my original review.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: Contrary to the title, this isn't just a book about marriage, but a collection of articles and other writings (as well as two commencement addresses) that Ann Patchett has published in recent years. Many of the articles touch on relationships—with her husband; her brief, disastrous first marriage; her friendship with the late poet Lucy Grealy; her grandmother; her dog; one of the nuns that taught her in Catholic school; even her relationship with her work. Thought-provoking, humorous, and, at times, tremendously moving. Read my original review.

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough: Cal and Kristin Stevens are forced to leave their longtime California home and move across the country, after Kristin loses her job as a university administrator and finds a position at a lesser state school in Massachusetts. Matt Drinnan, an aspiring author forced to start his life over after some mistakes completely derailed his job and his marriage, spends his days trying to fill the emptiness. Filled with regret and what-ifs, he attempts to figure out what is next for him. As Matt and Kristin's relationship intensifies beyond friendship, they find themselves stepping into territory that has many potentially negative consequences for both of them, professionally and personally, as well as Cal. Moving, well-told, and beautifully written. Read my original review.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl: An avant-garde movie director is known for exposing the horror that lies beneath everyday situations, for manipulating emotions and inflicting psychological terror on his audiences, and his films are beloved, reviled, and studied by film scholars worldwide. When his daughter is found dead after an alleged suicide attempt, an investigative reporter whose career was ruined the last time he tangled with the director, is determined to find out the truth behind the girl's death. This is an ambitious book, more than 600 pages in length, with fake newspaper and magazine articles, webpages, and photos sprinkled throughout to bolster the story. It is truly a thrill ride that leaves you breathless, although it's not a book for everyone. Read my original review.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: Do you remember what it felt like the first time you fell in love? How you wanted nothing more than to spend every waking minute with that person, talking about nothing, experiencing everything, and you counted down the minutes, or the days, until you saw them again? Do you remember how you over-analyzed everything the person said, trying to figure out if there was some hidden meaning, some sign the relationship would or wouldn't go the way you wanted? That all-consuming craziness of first true love, thrown into the emotional maelstrom of high school, is the basis for Rainbow Rowell's fantastically quirky and sweet new novel, Eleanor & Park. Humorously authentic and right on target. Read my original review.

The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli: Tom Piccirilli should be a household name. His books are filled with action, violence, and excellent character development, and this book, as well as its follow-up (described below) are excellent examples of his talent. But let's get this out of the way: nearly every member of the main family in these books, The Rands, are named for dog breeds. It's a somewhat bizarre affectation that sometimes proves a little distracting, but don't let that stop you from reading. Terry (Terrier) Rand was born into a family of thieves. Terry had no choice but to fall into the life, running scams (mostly successfully), running with—and sometimes against—the local crime family. Terry had fled his family's Long Island home five years ago, after his older brother, Collie, went on a murderous rage that left eight people dead, but days before his execution, Collie summoned Terry home. Collie lets Terry know that while he is guilty of seven murders, he did not kill a young woman whose death he is also accused of. Although he never disputed it during his trial, he has learned that other young women who looked similar to his victim have met a similar end. While he isn't interested in a new trial or a stay of execution, he wants Terry to investigate and find out the truth. Read my original review.

The Last Whisper in the Dark by Tom Piccirilli: In this equally stellar follow-up to The Last Kind Words, the pull of family becomes even stronger for Terry, as he tries to save his younger sister, Dale, an aspiring actress, from destroying her life through her involvement in a dangerous Web series; as he tries to figure out where his brooding father goes at night; and when he is recruited by estranged family members he never knew he had—once-famous film executives turned horror movie producers—to right some wrongs in their business. And to top it all off, he makes a promise to his old girlfriend, Kimmy, that he'll find her husband (his estranged best friend) and bring him home, no matter what it does to Terry and his dreams of one day having the life he thought he'd have with her. There's enough action to get your blood pumping, and enough soul-searching to challenge you. Read my original review.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer: This was such a wonderful, magical, and special book, I didn't want it to end! In 1985, Greta Wells has been devastated by double blows—the death of Felix, her beloved twin brother, and the end of her long relationship with her lover, Nathan. Distraught over these losses, and the impending loss of her brother's lover, Alan (it's the early days of AIDS in New York City), she turns to a long course of electro-convulsive therapy as treatment for her depression. But the treatments have an unexpected side-effect: it transports her between her current life and the lives she would have lived in different eras. In 1918, she lives a bohemian lifestyle, and embarks on a second romantic relationship; in 1941, she is married and has a young son. If you like books which touch the heart, even if they're not the most realistic in terms of plot (although who says this didn't happen), you're going to love this one. Read my original review.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz: Aristotle ("Ari") is a sensitive yet somewhat angry 15-year-old growing up in Texas in the 1980s. He feels disconnected from his older sisters, and his older brother went to prison when Ari was very young, and his family never speaks of him. He also feels as if his father, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, is a mystery to him, and he wishes that weren't the case. He spends most of his days alone, distant from others. One day at the local swimming pool, Ari meets Dante, a boy his age from another high school. Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim, and the two begin an intense friendship. As their relationship intensifies, Ari finds himself simultaneously needing Dante's friendship and being scared by that need. And when a split-second decision leaves their friendship on unequal footing, Dante reveals that his feelings for Ari are stronger than friendship. Ari doesn't want to lose Dante's friendship but he's not willing to deal with Dante's feelings. One of the most touching and phenomenal books I read all year. I wish it existed when I was a teenager. Read my original review.

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy: Simon Van Booy's new novel is a beautifully written, poetic book about connections, how we don't realize just how connected we are, but connections between us and others exist without our even knowing it. It's more a collection of interwoven stories than a full-fledged novel in terms of narrative. I honestly could read a book with most of these characters as the anchor; that's how well their stories were developed in such a short amount of time. And the connections between and among them made me smile, made me wonder, even made me choke up. If you're a fan of beautiful writing, read this book. Simon Van Booy's voice is one worth hearing. Read my original review.

The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley: Here's a book that will make you think, and make you want to discuss it with others. Matt Beaulieu has known his wife, Elle, since right after she was born when he was two, as their families were close friends. He's loved her since he was 17 and she was 15, and although they weathered many challenges to their relationship, they finally had everything they've always wanted—except a healthy baby. One day, Elle sustains a severe brain injury in a freak accident and will never be able to recover. Matt prepares to take her off of life support, and then he finds out Elle is pregnant again, despite her inability to carry a baby to term. Should he keep her alive on the off chance the baby is able to survive, despite the fact she never wanted to be kept alive in this way, or should he let her—and their unborn child—go? Not all of his friends and family—or Elle's—agree with his decision. Read my original review.

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider: Ezra Faulkner is the president of his high school's junior class and captain of the varsity tennis team. When his BMW is blindsided by a hit-and-run driver, leaving his leg shattered and his wrist injured, it ends any hopes of ever playing sports again. After spending the summer recovering from his injuries, he returns for his senior year of high school and everything is different—his girlfriend has found someone new, his friends have moved on without him, and he's not sure what life is like outside of the "in crowd." After reconnecting with his childhood best friend, and being suckered into joining the debate team, he meets Cassidy Thorpe, a transfer student who was a legendary debate competitor at a rival high school before she disappeared. And as the pair's friendship turns to romance, Ezra realizes that Cassidy is the type of girl he has been looking for all along. Until the relationship suddenly sours for reasons he can't understand. Schneider did such a terrific job creating and giving depth to her characters and creating a plot that draws you in instantaneously and hooks you completely, with dialogue which is tremendously intelligent and witty without being overly precious. Read my original review.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight: This book is like a combination of Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl crossed with an episode of Law and Order. Kate Baron is summoned to her daughter Amelia's private school, as she has been caught cheating and faces significant academic penalties. This seems completely out of character for Amelia, but by the time Kate makes it to the school, things have gotten much worse. Amelia jumped from the school's roof, an act of impulsive suicide motivated by her guilt. Or at least that's what school officials and the police tell Kate. But then Kate gets a mysterious text message: Amelia didn't jump. This text message sends Kate into a tailspin, desperate to believe her daughter didn't cheat or commit suicide, but she is afraid of what she'll find out. And the further she digs into Amelia's emails, Facebook and blog posts, text messages, and journal entries, she finds out all that Amelia was going through—and all of the people who might have had a hand in either driving her to suicide or causing her death. Read my original review.

The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories by Simon Rich: This might possibly be one of the funniest story collections I've ever read. The 30 stories in Simon Rich's uniquely creative, sometimes zany, sometimes heartfelt collection are all about relationships—finding them, trying to maintain them, and losing or ending them. And not every relationship is traditional—one story recounts Zeus' frustrations with an alcoholic, hiphop-loving Cupid, while another (one of the funniest in the collection) is narrated by a condom as he makes his journey from the drugstore into someone's wallet. I can't count the number of times I laughed out loud while reading, something that doesn't happen that often for me. Read my original review.

All You Could Ask For by Mike Greenberg: If you had told me before I read this that Mike Greenberg of ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning had written a novel which has as its primary characters three women—and he mastered it—I wouldn't have believed you. But this book knocked me out. The story of three women with their own strengths and quirks, the second half of the book packs a real emotional wallop. (I'm not going to get into much more detail, although my full review has some spoilers.) I literally read this book in about two and a half hours one evening. That's how much these characters appealed to me even though I'm not a woman, and that's how emotionally invested I found myself. Read my full review.

Five More Books You Shouldn't Miss
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler

The Program by Suzanne Young

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan


  1. Hi Larry, just linked to your blog through largeheartedboy-glad I found it.

    126 books is impressive. On your list, I read Night Film and Eleanor & Park last year, but neither made my top ten.

    All You Could Ask For and Wave are two that sound intriguing.

    Happy New Year

  2. Tim, thanks so much, and Happy New Year to you! I'd love to know what books did make your top 10. I'm glad you found my list!