My Favorite Novels of 2013
The only book in order is my top choice for the year and one of my favorite of all time (I know its only been out a few months but I read it over two years ago and it rocked my world then and continues to so do or do so or doe-si-doe). The rest are arranged in the order that I thought of them.
Winger, by Andrew Smith. This is a great book that perfectly captures the voice of adolescence. Ryan Dean’s voice is wonderful and authentic and did I mention there’s rugby in the book? Everyone should read this book. It is poetic and brutally powerful.
The Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness (including The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men). I’m cheating. This is three books but they really are one epic science fiction story that will make you cry and break your heart and keep you turning the pages right up until the end. This is how great sociological science fiction is written. And it happens to be a YA book. The gender politics (everyone can hear what men think but nobody can hear what women think) and the commentary on the nature of being human cuts through you right from the beginning. Then there’s the alien race and consciousness. Wow.
Railsea, by China Miéville. I have to say right from the start that this author is not everyone’s cup of tea and… I read another book by him that I liked and another that I couldn’t finish (rare for me). What does this mean? The language is difficult to get the hang of but once I did I really found this story of White Whale hunting and metaphor mapping to be a wonder. But the language… stay with it. I found it an original work of really great and unique science fiction.
11/22/63, by Stephen King. Two friends recommended this to me. I held off until I was ready to travel to Seattle and had 5 hours on a plane facing me there and 5 hours back. So… I have to say this is vintage King writing historical fiction with a vengeance. I loved the main character and would have followed him anywhere after the first couple of pages. Early hook, King never let me go. Time travel, butterfly effect, the 1960s (I was born in 61) all used to good effect. I was sad to see this one end and I’ve recommended to everyone I know since. It’s a long novel and that is a very good thing.
The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King. First know that I love a good western and I love the Dark Tower Series. Given that then you can understand why I loved this King coming of age again story. It is chilling and beautifully written.
Out of my Mind, by Sharon Draper. The story of a disabled child stuck in a wheel chair, unable to speak or communicate yet incredibly smart and aware of what’s going on around her and nobody knows it. This story is so powerful. It’s told from inside the young girl’s head, how she sees and knows the world rather than from the outside in and this makes the experience raw and challenging. I especially liked the ending and its realistic, no Disney fireworks conclusion.
The Dust of a Hundred Dogs, by A.S. King. Reality Boy was terrific too (so I’ll sneak in a quick recommendation as A.S. King rocks with all her books) but I have to tell you Dust of 100 dogs just rocked my boat. I’m a sucker for a western but I’m also a bigger sucker for a pirate story. And this is a love story also! This is told from the protagonist’s point of view from three unique angles (many dogs perspectives, a modern-day teenager, and a pirate from the days of swashbuckling). This is not a story for the squeamish (rape and pillaging abound) but man did it grab me. I saw the ending coming but felt so satisfied when it arrived that I didn’t care.
Calico Joe, by John Grisham. I know I know. John Grisham? Hey, what can I say. I really enjoyed this baseball book about father-son relationships. I can’t believe how fascinating this story was. My father-in-law hated this and I loved it. The insight into why players do what they do was terrific.
Buddha, by Osamu Tezuka (including Volumes 1-8, yes, you read that right, 1-8). I’m cheating but I’m not really cheating. It’s one long epic graphic novel in 8 volumes. And it’s the story of Buddha. And the covers were all designed by Chip Kidd. How can you go wrong? This is the Buddha story with a vengeance. It’s all manga from the grandfather of manga, filled with inside jokes about school in Japan, and part Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It’s also a deep book about religion, it’s uses and misuses and yes, about why we fear death and how we as human beings can come to terms with it. My son and I read these together. Take your time reading the story and enjoy the pen and ink on the full-page panels. The detail is incredible. This is an amazing lifetime achievement.
The Drowned Cities, by Paulo Bacigalupi. Even more brutal and disturbing than Ship Breaker – more violent if you can believe it. And so disturbing reading about children making war on children. This is total heart of darkness time. Keep one eye half closed as you read, but do read it and hope that Bacigalupi writes another story that takes us back to this world. Just… no more chopping off of fingers, please! Ouch.
Well, that it for 2013.
I’m looking forward to the reading list for 2014.
And my own work moves forward, slowly, but surely. If I can just keep at it I should have two books in to my agent this year. Fingers crossed. Nose to the grindstone.
Hookers, Language, and Naked Acrobats
Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man by Jay Atkinson is not your ordinary memoir – at least not here in the US. In England there are plenty of memoirs of famous ruggers but here in the US? I don’t know if there is even one – either famous ruggers or memoirs about them. Regardless, Atkinson surely has the credentials and the longevity in the sport to be an expert voice on it.
A friend of mine – someone I faced on the rugby pitch many times over the years and with whom I share a love of the sport – gave me this book for the holidays and I read it quickly and with great enjoyment. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a hooker (a position in the scrum that is responsible for “hooking” the ball back to his teammates when the ball is sent into the scrum. It’s a brutal position simply because of the physics of the scrum (all the pressure of eight players pressing into the shoulders and necks of the front three players and the front row center player is the hooker). I played rugby for 13 years and for all but maybe four or five games played with the backs at wing, fullback, or center. I played 2nd row once (my ears wouldn’t allow me to do it a second time) scrum-half once (now that was fun even if I was terrible) and flanker two or three times. I say this because as a back I especially enjoyed the peek into what it was like to be in the front row and hook.
But what does all this mean? It means Mr. Atkinson had a tough sale to make about a sport that is not real popular here in the US. And he sold it anyway. It helps that he’s published a few novels, some of which have been successful critically and sales-wise (I’m going on record to say that I’ll be reading one of his novels this year …)
What I was amazed at was how heartfelt the memoir is. Now hear me out. Heartfelt and rugby don’t necessarily go together but let me see if I can explain. Atkinson’s book wades through drinking, partying, and sex scenes (there’s one in particular with a naked hand-standing acrobat… ) one after the other for most of the first two-thirds of the book – which is a lot of what rugby is about – mayhem – but it is a bit of an onslaught. Still it is not a sport for the faint hearted and does linger in alcoholic mayhem post play. I think I’m too attached to that word, mayhem. But war stories like this can be tiresome after a while. What’s the point? How do they build the overall story of this man’s life? In a novel wouldn’t some of them be cut to make sure the narrative moved forward?
Atkinson’s story snuck up on me. The backbone of the rugby life laced with stories of his family and his writing is what did it for me. His relationship with his father and with the writer Harry Crews (his teacher) became the emotional thread that built and peaked the narrative in the third act. It made his story a coming of age story that resonated with me deeply. It gave the memoir shape, it gave it form.
It also reminded me of what a writer friend told me once when critiquing my “rugby” novel a long long time ago (it was a novel that never sold but got me my first agent), “Put in all the rugby language and don’t worry if people don’t understand exactly what it means. Fuck ’em.” What I see in Atkinson’s use of the language of rugby – which by the way is the same language that Andrew Smith so skillfully uses in his book Winger – which has its main character play rugby – is how beautiful language can be when it’s unique to an activity – even when it’s brutal. It is language that even if not understood in a direct word for word translation tells a story with texture and depth.
Oh. And what about that kick-ass cover? I remember one game almost drowning in a good foot of water and mud on a flooded field in Bayonne New Jersey…
There Ain’t No Sanity-Clause
I’ve thought about this a lot.
There are a lot of writers out there writing about how to write novels, how to write stories, how to write right, how to write wrong.
I’ve written some posts about the writing process in this blog and as a guest poster for some friends but no matter what angle I write about I just don’t think I’m bringing much new to the discussion. The best of them, like Andrew Smith’s “How to Write A Novel parts 1-4 and counting…) make me laugh at the absolute insanity (there ain’t no sanity-clause) that is the world of publishing and the writing life (whatever that is).
But I keep feeling like there’s something I can offer. I’m just not sure what I can bring to the table.
Salt and pepper?
Brussel sprouts? Okay I really don’t like Brussel sprouts so let’s not talk about them ever again. Seriously. I can eat just about anything but brussel sprouts. I get a gag reflex just thinking about those little green balls of sprout. So let’s stay off the brussel sprouts.
Here’s two bits of advice I can give. It’s not much but it’s only January 20th so work with me.
Both bits of advice you’re heard a million times before – I’m sure – so I’ll try to give each a different context to make them sound important and fresh. Or at least not stale. I’m not sure why I’m stuck on food analogies but hopefully they will work their way off… the table.
The first bit of advice comes from a man named Pattabhi Jois who died in 2009 and was one of the great yogis (not as in bear but as in the yoking of the physical and the spiritual) of our time – and developed the style of yoga called Ashtanga yoga. I never met him but I wish I had. I have been to yoga studios that he taught in and spoke in so I got to soak up some of his vibe but that’s about it. Still his influence on yoga in the 20th century has been great.
Anyway I digress. Whenever students asked him when they would achieve the next level of anything in their yoga practice (or their life) he would say, “Practice and all is coming.” I think it works the same way for writing.
The other bit of advice I’ve been told and passed on to others just like many many other writers is if you want to be a writer you need to read – a lot. The only thing I can add to that is to read everything, not just the classics, but all genres, good writing and bad writing. I say this because it has worked that way for me. Everything I read is like a short course in how to write, what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help myself. If I was a Brussel sprout farmer I would see all food through the lens of a brussel sprout. As I writer I read on two levels, for pleasure, and to understand why I like or dislike what I’m reading. This can be summed up as, do what works for you as a reader and don’t do what doesn’t.
For example, I read Robert Jordan’s first book in the Wheel of Time Series (many friends recommended it to me) and was driven crazy (there still ain’t no sanity-clause) by the number of characters that muttered. He muttered. She muttered. We muttered. They muttered. You familiar muttered. So… I try not to have characters mutter. I also learned from that book (I only read the first book in the series so I can’t say if this is so about the other books in the series) to make sure that things happen in my writing. Jordan was a beloved writer, just not by me. Little happened in that first book and it was a long book for little to happen in. So… having things happen is good. Not having things happen is bad. I try to make sure when I write that things happen.
So this year I’ll be trying something new on my blog in my own personal attempt not to mutter, to make things happen, not to eat brussel sprouts, and to bring back the sanity-clauss.
I’ll be writing about the books that I read during the year and telling you what I learned from reading each of them. And if there’s one thing I know about my own writing it is that I have a lot to learn.
Maybe this is something I can bring to the table.
Winger, Pizza, Jobs, and Helsreach Ants
As a writer I love to read and I read a little of everything with a lot of YA, some non-fiction (biographies too), and a graphic novel when I can find one that hits the sweet spot.
I’ve never done a top ten list before on books but there’s always a first. Here are my favorite books that I read this year (some are from prior to 2012 and some will come out in 2013) in no particular order except for the first one – which is hands-down my favorite and I even read it twice, once in 2011 and once two months ago.
- Winger, by Andrew Smith is the first and easily worth two readings. It hasn’t been published yet but is coming out in 2013. If you’re not already an Andrew Smith fan this book will make you look up all the rest of his work and start reading them one after the other. The main reason I loved this book was the voice of the narrator. He is 14 and Andrew really captured the voice of this boy perfectly. It is incredibly funny and sad for different reasons at different times. Did I mention the protagonist plays rugby? And that it is illustrated perfectly (the narrator draws so “his” drawings are included throughout). This is storytelling at its finest.
- The Maze Runner (trilogy and prequel – 4 books total), by James Dashner is rough reading. This is really four books but it all starts with The Maze Runner. My son read it first (might not have been such a good idea as he’s 10 but…) and when I finally got to the first book I had to read through them all. Do I have gripes about the storytelling? Yes. Was it one of the most compelling reads of the year? Yes. Is it good sci-fi? Yes again. Thought provoking? Brutal? Depressing and terrifying (especially the prequel)? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
- Helsreach, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a Warhammer 40,000 novel about space marines called the black Templars. I know, I know. Space marines? Warhammer 40,000? Hey, the man can write and as far as these novels go this is a keeper. Hordes of orks (don’t ask) in a Waagh (don’t ask again) swoop down onto a planet that is protected by the black Templars and they fight the battle literally to the last marine. Absolutely fascinating novel of warfare in the 41st century with some interesting work on the writer’s part in bringing out multiple viewpoints. This book was just plain muscular fun.
- The Wind Through The Keyhole, by Stephen King is wonderful, vintage King. The Gunslinger series is my favorite of his works and this adds another notch to the belt of the tale. This is a haunting tale of Roland as a boy out on his first mission. I don’t read King too often any more but this one just sang.
- The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi is a challenging read. I bought it for my son because we both read his other great book Shipbreaker and this continued the tale of the bioengineered war beast Tool. How could you turn that down? Then I read it quickly to screen it before I allowed my son to read it and I’m glad I did. Wow. The violence depicted is absolutely brutal. Children doing horrendous violence to children during a time of total war. This is a great book, wonderfully written, visceral to the point of making me put the book down and cringe at least three times. It is also a book of great, harsh, truth. The scope of the story is small and the pace is quick. It is an exercise in focus. This guy is good.
- Everybody Sees the Ants, by A.S.King is simply wonderful. It’s the first book I read by A.S. King and I immediately picked up Please Ignore Vera Dietz as soon as I was finished. Ms. King is another writer (like Andrew Smith) who nails the teenage voice (in her case both male and female in different books). Writing well, with a ring of authenticity from a young person’s perspective is a huge challenge and this story of a boy who has been bullied and his family just broke my heart. What I especially like are the realistic adult characters and how they give such great texture to Lucky’s story.
- Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A.S. King is the second King book I read and it was also a powerful tale of loss and coming of age. She’s got a new one out in hard cover called Ask The Passengers that is going on my to-read list for 2013…
- Passenger, by Andrew Smith is a follow-up to The Marbury Lens and is a hallucinogenic thrill ride that is deeply frightening and moving. This is a painful book to read, brutal, gory, with imagery that made me squirm. If you read Marbury then you owe it to yourself to read this as it makes the wonderful worlds created in Marbury expand into even larger more epic (does that even have meaning?) proportions. This book and Smith’s Winger are on two ends of the spectrum in style and content yet they both move from that same incredible strength of voice in their main characters. This book has already won a bunch of awards and I won’t be surprised if it wins more in 2013.
- Playing for Pizza, by John Grisham. Okay, okay. John Grisham? I’ve never read a book by him (nothing against him and I’ve seen his movies just never had the urge to read him) but my father-in-law recommended this book and it was a lot of fun so for its uniqueness it makes the list. This is a book about a football player from the NFL who ends up playing for beer and pizza in Italy. If you enjoy football stories (I do) and Italian food (I do) then you will enjoy this quick and smile inducing read. Something tells me this will be made into a movie…
- Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson is an exhausting read but well worth the trouble. Steve Jobs was not a nice guy and it’s hard reading about your hero and seeing all his warts but if you can get past that it is really a fascinating story of Apple, the computer industry, and Steve Jobs all wrapped up in one. You will never look at Apple the same again (and you will probably still buy ’em or change to them if you have never tried Apple products before).
There you have it. The literary might of the year from my perspective (as limited as it is).
Chop, Chop, Burn…
I’ve been reading a lot.
I read a lot normally but I especially enjoy reading when my day job gets me down. Grant writing, something I have to do to keep my day job, does indeed, gets me down. But it pays the bills so I do it. It’s a particularly stressful and challenging writing exercise that is usually done in some kind of collaborative trance amidst the silent screams of those engaged to tango.
I do not enjoy them, Sam I am, I do not like green grants and ham.
So to keep my sanity I read and write. Because I work so much during these time periods, the writing gets sidelined much of the time but… nobody takes away my subway reading time – that’s gold. Here’s what I’ve read in the last couple of months.
The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi – This is a novel not to be taken lightly. There are severed fingers, death and destruction on a cosmic scale and the re-emergence of a favorite character from Bacigalupi’s award winner Ship Breaker, a dog-face named Tool. This book is an incredibly brutal war story where children are the warriors and children are trained and taught to kill children. It is palpably haunting and way too disturbing for my son to read. Sorry, Max. This one you have to wait on. It’s a book that provides me with reason to screen some of my sons book selections – even though the selections are stellar. For anyone else with a strong stomach, this is a beautifully written winner that you will not easily forget.
Furnace (Lockdown book I, Solitary book II, and Death Sentence book III) by Alexander Gordon Smith – There are five books in the series and seriously, how could you not pick this series up? I found it while I was in the Andrew Smith section. I just happened to see books by an Alexander Smith about a prison named furnace that seemed incredibly hellish and was filled with boys and – it looked terrific. What I will say about this series – which I have stopped reading in the middle of book III – is that it is compelling and fascinating and bloody, and brutal. What I will also say is that I didn’t care so much about the main character and that made it hard to read on. By the middle of book III I just didn’t like him any more. And so Furnace has gone the way of The Game of Thrones, put down because I didn’t want to read about the main character(s) anymore. I think I’m more likely to come back to Furnace though, because I see where Smith is going, I just don’t want to go there right now. I’ll leave this one up to you. If you’ve read the books, let me know what you thought.
I just finished Steve Jobs. I’ve talked about Jobs before, though, and that’s probably enough for the time being. Firm thumbs up on the biography.
My son bought me the first book in The Rangers Apprentice Series by John Flanagan and I have to say it’s shaping up to be a fine fantasy read. Only a few chapters in and I’m totally engaged with the two main characters. I’m a sucker for swords and bows, long knives and shields – though not particularly in that order. More to come when I’m finished.
More book talk later in the week. There’s another one my son swears by and I always read what he thinks is good just as he does with me. I’ve got him reading The Bartimaeus Series by Jonathan Stroud. One of my personal favorites. He’s ripping though the second book as I write this and the moon rises over Jackson Heights.