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.
10 – Part 2
Here’s my second set of five. Make of them what you will, but in no particular order:
Spartacus by Howard Fast is a great book and a great piece of literature. I read this about fifteen years ago and was blown away by how evocative it was and how many layers it carried on it’s scarred shoulders. I loved the movie Spartacus (I’m Spartacus! The watches on the Roman soldier’s wrists in the big battle. The crucifiction after the horrific fight between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis who still sounds like he’s in Brooklyn) and only saw the novel while digging for gold at a used bookstore on 19th street near 5th avenue. I couldn’t put this down. As a piece of historical and political fiction (yes and swords and sandals action – though less than you’d think) it blew me away. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing historical fiction. Note I’ve also seen the first season of the TV show and had a hard time watching it as the violence was incredibly intense and the story so upsetting. But then when was slavery ever anything but? This is the only novel I’ve read by Fast and it’s a keeper.
The Stand by Stephen King is wonderful. I’ve read it twice, once when I was a teenager when it struck me as the ultimate teenage angsty end of the world story. I loved the characters, was terrified and caught up in the story, and completely satisfied with the ending. This is King at his best. Then I read it again some twenty years later when he reissued it with an additional 400 pages in the “uncut” version and I loved it even more. This had one of the most gripping opening 50 pages ever. I can still picture the guys at the gas station watching the car with the… and the guy waking up at the hospital…
Captail Blood by Rafael Sabatini surprised me when I read it. I had seen the Errol Flynn film of the book when I was a kid about a dozen times and knew it by heart. When I wrote my novel Open Wounds I used the movie and the book as key plot points. The first half of the book Captain Blood, is almost word for word the screenplay of the movie. But, and here’s the good part, the second half of the book takes Captain Peter Blood to the edge of madness and home again. You’ve missed out on a terrific read if you haven’t taken this step past what is already a great movie story. I’m a sucker for a good pirate story.
Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison is absolutely brutal. The movie Soylent Green (Soylent Green is people food! says Chuck Heston from his stretcher) was made from a small piece of this massive, thought-provoking, and yes, depressing and dark science fiction novel. I picked the book up because it said, “Movie based on…” and because I’d read and liked Harry Harrison (Bill the Galactic Hero is a favorite). This is a gritty and powerful and cautionary tale all wrapped up into a crowded, unable to breathe in, novel.
10 – Part 1
With a nod to Matthew MacNish’s Facebook post on his most influential books from at least 10 years ago. Piece of cake for the first five but not so easy from there-after. They’re in order of how they came to me. First five today – the rest later in the week.
1. The Gods of Mars/The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are the second and third books of the John Carter of Mars series. I found a beat up hard cover copy of these in a two-book special issue on a dusty, lonely shelf in my seventh period study hall in 8th grade. It was the only study hall I ever took. I loved these books so much I took the hardcover with the Frazetta art on the front home with me. When my friend Joe died at the end of that year in a terrible train accident a small part of me thought he died because I took the book. I could come up with no other reason for losing my best friend. It has haunted me. Over the years I collected each of the Frazetta covered hardbacks in the series combing through used bookstores everywhere I went for those special editions with the line drawings illustrating the text. Frazetta did the covers for all Burroughs’ books in the 70s so I read everything he wrote, even if he wrote them all during the early 1900s.
2. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. They are all one to me emotionally. The year before Joe died we read these one after the other. I still remember reading the Bridge at Khazadoom chapter in the car with Joe and my brother on the way to the community pool. We didn’t want to leave the car until we finished that first book.
3. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Nobody has ever captured the thrill of getting a new pair of sneakers on the first day of summer the way he did. I love lots of Bradbury books but this one was just about growing up, nothing more and nothing less and it was magnificent. His voice is so distinctive and poetic. I don’t write like him but I aspire to have a voice as singularly unique and an imagination as full of wonder. I got a lot tied up in him.
4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This was the most powerful fantasy novel (and it is one long epic novel told in three parts) I’d read in a long, long time and I read it just before my son was born and before Harry Potter turned up. And it’s YA. And I cried at the end and stared at the ceiling afterwards examining the cracks and wondering about the world. Damn.
5. A Deadly Shade of Gold by John D. MacDonald. I started reading the Travis McGee series when I was in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The PC library was four shelves of worn paperbacks sitting in the shade by the nurses office in Tegucigalpa. I don’t remember which number book this was for me but it’s the fifth in the series and I’d read a few before this one came along. As a writer this book blew me away because the mystery was cleared up half-way into the book. I was young and naively thought genre books like mysteries always followed a pattern. I had at that moment a blinding realization – that I didn’t care that the book had stopped following the pattern and that was because I enjoyed the main character Travis McGee so much I was willing to go anywhere plot-wise with him. He tore the genre formulae apart. Genre didn’t have to follow formulae. With a good character in hand you could do just about anything in any genre. I always tell writers to read Macdonald’s Travis McGee series. He was a master of genre fiction. You also watch him grow as a writer as the books were written over a twenty-year spread. Check out McGee, the dames who come to him looking for help and his houseboat The Busted Flush somewhere down the coast of Florida. Don’t forget the rum.
Chasing the Moldy Warpe
Reading Railsea by China Miéville is like taking a course in world-building.
I loved this book. It is the kind of book that took me 50 pages to get hooked on but I was intrigued enough from the opening line to get there.
This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
Spectacular opening line.
The reason it was challenging to get into was the same reason it was so fascinating. Miéville creates a world that is told to us by a narrator using a language similar to English but different enough from it that I stumbled through it until I caught its rhythm. I can truthfully say there are a number of things that I read that I truly still do not understand after finishing the book but I don’t care and it in no way took away from the beauty of the book for me. Actually I liked it even more.
Yes, it’s a dystopian world and I like them. Period.
Yes, it has to do with trains and trains are cool.
Yes, it has to do with Moby Dick and the searching for a philosophy or white whale. I liked Moby, even the whale parts.
And yes, the main character is not a superstar, gun and sword wielding hero. He’s pretty mundane, and every-boyish and that’s what makes him so wonderful.
Look at what Miéville does with point of view. It’s 3rd person omniscient through Sham (the bloodstained boy) Ap Soorap’s perspective through the half-way mark and then the narrator tells us it’s time to switch – as if he’s an actor talking to the audience and breaking the 3rd wall. Then the story splits into three stories until they all converge back into Sham. It’s an incredible narrative risk that works spectacularly.
So listen to his narrative. You don’t even need a context:
“No such animal’s crossed our paths,” she said. “Be assured I know now your vehicle’s name, & at the first sign of that beckoning metal in a sinuate mustelid eruchthonous presence, I shall take careful notes of locations. & I shall get you word. On my honour as a captain.”
And then there’s this one from captain Naphi about her “philosophy” the great moldy warpe Mocker-Jack:
“How meanings are evasive. They hate to be parsed. Here again came the cunning of unreason. I was creaking, lost, knowing that the ivory-coloured beast had evaded my harpoon & continued his opaque diggery, resisting close reading & a solution to his mystery. I bellowed, & swore that one day I would submit him to a sharp & bladey interpretation.”.
He uses the symbol & instead of the word and, and then two-thirds into the book explains why he does.
From word choice, to the rhythm of the narrative, to the way characters speak, to the characters themselves. This world is built from top to bottom and bottom to top. Read it as a reader for pleasure. Read it as a writer for a course on world-building. Read it for the bloodstained boy and the moldy warpe.
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).