It is a truth universally acknowledged that a library blog in possession of a good staff must be in want of a best books post. Library workers are frequently their own best customers, passing titles back and forth with reckless abandon, buttonholing colleagues in stairwells to insist they check out the book that kept us up late swooning (or shivering). Nothing brings us more joy, however, than turning those efforts outward and sharing our favorites with you.
The Eleventh Stack team consumed a mountain of reading this year (probably taller than Richard, and he’s pretty tall). Here are some of the ones we enjoyed most.
The Turncoat by Donna Thorland
Though labeled historical fiction, this book has a passionate and sizzling romance at its heart, so I would call it historical romance as well. The first book in the Renegades of the Revolution series, I loved this dangerous romance set amid the intrigues of Revolutionary War Philadelphia. Quaker country-girl-turned-rebel-spy Kate Grey falls for British officer Peter Tremayne despite their opposing allegiances. I especially enjoyed its life meets fiction aspect as George Washington, John Andre, General Howe, and Peggy Shippen all make appearances here. I look forward to reading more in the series from this debut author. Thorland, who is also a filmmaker, made a fascinating book trailer; I think it would make a great movie.
Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff
My poor hometown. Native metro-Detroiter and award-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff writes a raw and thoroughly readable portrait of the Motor City’s state of emergency, from its abandoned neighborhoods, horrible city services, double-digit unemployment rates, and rampant crime to the die-hard residents who refuse to give up. A moving and frightening account of the decline of a great American city.
I spent most of 2013 hanging out with some questionable, unreliable, but incredibly memorable characters from the Gilded Age. You don’t get much more eyebrow-raising than Odalie from The Other Typist, Suzanne Rindell’s debut that has been described as “part Hitchcock, part Patricia Highsmith, and part Gatsby.” It’s a phenomenal, can’t-put-down read that I’ve been recommending all year long. Also of note is The Virgin Cure , Ami McKay’s historical fiction story of a twelve year old orphan in 1870s New York that is based on the true story of one of her relatives.
And then there was benevolent Talmadge from The Orchardist. I adored Amanda Coplin’s luminous debut novel with its grand, overlapping themes of morality and religion, of being one with the earth and the eternal struggle of good versus evil. It’s been compared to The Grapes of Wrath (this one is way better). Like Steinbeck, Amanda Coplin joins the list of authors who have given us a true American classic.
(Other highly recommended books in case the Gilded Age isn’t your thing: Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation, both by George Saunders; Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan; Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, The Bird Saviors, by William J. Cobb, When It Happens to You, by Molly Ringwald (yes, THAT Molly Ringwald!), Still Life with Oysters and Lemon and Dog Years by Mark Doty (listen to the audio version); Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon, and Songdogs, by Colum McCann.)
What can I say? In the words of Sinatra, it was a very good year.
Jess – Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
If you’ve had good experiences with Alice Hoffman and Geraldine Brooks (Kent even gives a shout out to Brooks as a mentor in her acknowledgements), then this is for you.
In rural Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir has been tried and accused of murder – and now must await execution in her home district. No prison means she’s forced upon a family who obviously wants nothing to do with her. Over the next months, Agnes is put to work on the farm. She slowly begins to open up about her messy past to a young priest, chosen for a long ago kindness, and to the wife of the household, who begins to see a Agnes as woman who has been worn down by a harsh life. Based on true story of one of the last two executions in Iceland, Kent deftly blends some amazing research with strong prose to weave a story about woman who was truly a victim of her circumstances.
Suzy– Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker. Suzy really enjoyed this book a lot, but is not here to tell us about it because she is off riding her bike someplace not currently buried under several feet of snow. We are
extremely jealous of very happy for Suzy, and hope she comes home soon to tell us more about the book.
Much to my surprise, the two books I’ve enjoyed most this year were both set during World War II. I’ve never been much of a war buff, but that’s a testament to how the power of good fiction can make you more interested in history. In this case, the novels were Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.
Life After Life –the tale of an Englishwoman who keeps reincarnating as herself and trying to kill Hitler–has cropped up on a number of best/notable lists this year, including the New York Times, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and I’ve already reviewed it earlier this year, so let me just say this: what an ending. When I read the last few sentences, and the light bulb over my head finally went on, I was amazed at how cleverly Atkinson had made her point: no matter how hard we strive as individuals, we can never act out of context. We always need other people to help us achieve our objectives, even if we are strong and clever.
Code Name Verity takes us behind enemy lines as Verity the spy and Maddie the pilot tell their stories in alternating sections. The crux of this novel–which I also reviewed earlier this year–is truth: who’s telling it, who’s hiding it, and how flexible it can be depending on how high the stakes are. For Maddie and Verity, the stakes are very high, indeed, and I loved that the book, while intended for a teen audience, didn’t shy away from the horrors of war…or deliver a tidy happy ending. If you want a great portrait of what it must have been like to be a teenager during WWII, pick up this novel….but be prepared to have All Of The Feelings. If you adore Wein as much as I do after you’re done, you’ll want to move on to her 2013 release, Rose Under Fire, in which pilot Rose Justice is captured and sent to the concentration camp Ravensbruck.
It was really hard to pick my favorites from what turned out to be an amazing run of excellent reading this year. Some other books I devoured include Letters From Skye (historical romance), Longbourn (historical fiction), and The Son (epic southwestern family saga). And now I must stop, before I blog your ear off…
I do love fantasy books! My favorites for this year were The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Both of these books have already achieved positive critical acclaim, but I will add mine:
The Golem is created by a mysterious and mischievous Rabbi as a bride for a young man who is set to travel to New York from Poland. The Jinni had been trapped for centuries in a lamp which also made its way to New York City. They both try to fit in to society with their separate supernatural talents, but recognize each other as different right away. It is interesting to see these magical beings from two different cultures coming together. The author creates characters with unusual and distinctive personalities.
Neil Gaiman is the master of creating fantasy worlds that do not follow any specific cultural tradition, yet are somehow universal. A man journeys back to his old home town, and is drawn to a place only half remembered. The reader is transported to the mind of a seven year old, a time in a person’s life when one is very vulnerable, and when one can accept magic as a matter of fact.
Nestled behind the International Poetry Room on CLP-Main’s second floor, you’ll find one of my favorite places in the Library. The Oversize Book Room is home to volume upon volume of giant, gorgeous books. These are books that are graphic-heavy, photo-heavy, and often really heavy in weight, and therefore they do not fit on our regular book shelves/make great impromptu weapons. Fashion, art, landscape photography, crafts and home repair are some of the subjects that you can find here. One day while helping a patron find another book in this section, I stumbled upon the splendid Jack London, Photographer. This is my favorite book of 2013 because it exemplifies what I love most about the Library and the serendipity that lives here. I had no idea that Jack London was a photographer, and a talented one at that! This gem contains somewhat disparate, at least in terms of location, photo collections. They are a fascinating look at early 20th century history through the eyes of a classic author. Chapters have titles like ” The People of the Abyss,” which is a stark look at impoverished Londoners in 1902. Battlefields are a subject as well, such as those of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and the Mexican Revolution of 1914. I loved this book because it was a rejuvenating break from my usual reading of text-heavy new fiction and new nonfiction.
For me this was an unusual year, and my reading reflected all the strangeness. I found myself reading old (Kim by Rudyard Kipling), new (A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki), rereads (The Final Solution by Michael Chabon and The Fall by Albert Camus), pastiche (The Mandela of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu), Buddhist fiction (Buddha Da by Anne Donovan), science fiction (Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone by Ian MacDonald), and the truly, wonderfully bizarre (Duplex by Kathryn Davis).
Part of the unusual nature of all this is the fact that, thematically, there is a great deal these books have in common. There are all kinds of connections between them, come to think of it. And really, there is not a book listed above that you can go wrong with, but, since we are picking favorites, here we go…
My favorite book of the year turns out to be a tie between the first two listed: A Tale for the Time Being, and that hoary old chestnut, Kim. Both of these books surprised, in different ways. I was frankly stunned by how good Kim (and Rudyard Kipling) is. I’d always thought of Kipling as just another dead old white guy, with a penchant for British colonialism and simplistic stories, who might easily be ignored for, oh, 50-plus years or so. And was, by me.
It really is delightful to wake up every day and realize how very, very wrong you can be.
Ozeki’s book is difficult to describe, so I’ll let the author speak for herself (from her website):
A Tale for the Time Being is a powerful story about the ways in which reading and writing connect two people who will never meet. Spanning the planet from Tokyo’s Electric Town to Desolation Sound, British Columbia, and connected by the great Pacific gyres, A Tale for the Time Being tells the story of a diary, washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, and the profound effect it has on the woman who discovers it.
Kim is part quest–for self and for meaning–, part old-fashioned adventure via the time-honored motif of the journey, and, consistently, a fine, penetrating story on what it means to be human.
Yes indeed, how very good it is to wake up each and every day.
Of course my favorite book this year was a cookbook, specifically Michael Symon’s 5 in 5: 5 Fresh Ingredients + 5 Minutes = 120 Fantastic Dinners. I’ve watched this man on television so many times now that as I was reading the recipes I could hear them, inside my head, being read to me in his voice. Now, Michael does cheat the five ingredients rule a little because he uses items from his pantry that are not part of that total number. The first section of the book, after the introduction, is a list of what items should be in your pantry at all times. These include things like extra virgin olive oil, a variety of vinegars, pasta, canned beans, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and other spices. You probably already have most of those in your kitchen cupboards, so no worries there. The recipes are not complicated; most have only 3-4 steps. This is food you could cook on a weeknight and would want to eat. Plus, who wouldn’t love a cookbook with a chapter called “On a Stick”? Foods on a stick rule!
There you have it! Your turn. What were your favorite reads of 2013, whether new finds or old favorites?