I love books.
People who know me will not be surprised by this admission. In some ways they were the first friends I ever had: I was a shy, nerdy kid and stories gave me characters who became friends, whose lives I could lose myself in.
I’m pretty sure many people consider me a sort of human library. My predilection is for fiction and I honestly enjoy being “a book matchmaker”: I love nothing more than hearing that someone flat out loved a book I recommended.
This year, for whatever reason, I kept a list of all the books I read, from January through to December. The list-making happened organically: the first time I finished a book back in January, I picked up a pen and wrote down the title I’d finished, along with the date, and the next time I finished one, I jotted that one down as well.
I honestly didn’t mean to keep a list for the whole year, but I enjoyed the process so much that I just kept doing it.
I loved how the books I read were like my tree rings for this year; they showed me the unintentional journey I was on.
The list told me I read a lot, predominantly fiction—and I apparently have a bias for a good, suspenseful read.
It’s taught me that I love sharing information about books that I’ve read, so without further ado I present to you the 10 fiction books I read in 2013 that I can’t get out of my mind.
(Caveat: these are not necessarily published this year).
10. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. It’s the sequel to Wolf Hall (which, to be honest, I haven’t read yet) and has an interesting narrative take on the kingship of Henry VIII. Mantel does a great job of showing Thomas Cromwell’s inner workings as he tries to navigate the end of Anne Boleyn’s tenure as Queen. It’s simultaneously more tawdry and less tawdry than you’d imagine this man to be—truly historical fiction book porn.
9. The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, told from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, who accompanies him to Paris during his first extended stay overseas. This book’s special thrill is the imaginative, fly-on-the-wall look at the relationships between the literary intelligentsia of the 1920’s—with some of the characters being F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda and Gertrude Stein, much less Hemingway himself, it’s an intoxicating mix of setting and interesting people.
8. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. At first, the split narratives between Nick and Amy Dunne seemed very contrived to me and I couldn’t figure out why I was sticking with it, then the first twist happened and I was hooked. This story became so much more than a murder mystery; it is a deconstruction of the tensions between two parts of America and the end was masterful. To say more would potentially give it all away, so I won’t.
7. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver. I am fascinated with the short story form. I find them the most delicate, complicated creatures and I read a lot of them, trying like hell to figure out how to write them. I think Carver was one of the master storytellers. I have never read this particular collection before—only selected stories —but each of Carver’s stories is like a small, taut bird, trembling, vulnerable, perfect.
6. 419 by Will Ferguson. At first, the premise took a bit of selling: it’s about a woman investigating the mysterious death of her father who gets steadily pulled into the web of an internet money scam, but then that’s exactly what sells it. Laura is an intriguing narrator: I couldn’t quite figure out what her motivation was and I enjoyed that as the protagonist she remained a bit mysterious and hard-to-get.
5. Joyland by Stephen King. I hadn’t read any Stephen King since high school, so it was kind of surprising to me to realize I was so excited about this release, a book that (once again) feels like a departure for him. It covers familiar ground, for sure, with a murder mystery unravelling in a vintage amusement park, but King got into the emotions of his protagonist in truly touching and unexpected ways. (Honourable mention: Doctor Sleep).
4. (Trigger warning) The Round House by Louise Erdrich. It takes place in 1988 when, on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, a young mother in the community gets sexually assaulted. Her 13-year-old son, Joe, sees his mother’s grief and he decides that he wants to do anything he can to help her. This book exquisitely portrays Geraldine’s and her family’s attempts to heal.
3. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. The story of a well-to-do, suburban couple whose marriage is unravelling is a well-told one, but the author is unafraid to explore the emotional depths and lengths that his main characters, Walter and Patty, go to after their teenaged son decides to move out and live with his girlfriend. Told in three parts, if you like sprawling family epics, this could be the read for you.
2. Unsaid by Neil Abramson. Helena is a vet who has recently passed away from cancer, who is trying to help her loved ones through the transition of her passing in whatever way she can. The poignancy of what Helena’s going through, as well as the points it makes about (separately) animal rights and the strange processes of grief are what gives this book its power.
1. The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This one wins for both brevity and for sheer imagination. It’s been years since I’ve read a book, geared for adults, that was this inventive, and Gaiman shows a poetic touch for language and wordy spell-casting that I wasn’t expecting. I won’t give plot or too much away, because you’ll want to discover this book in your own time, in your own way. In retrospect, this was hands down the best book I read all year.
These are the books that have stayed with me from 2013—definitely not a perfect list, nor an exhaustive one, but ones that I find myself telling people about, over and over. Something about each of these books was magic, or stardust. I hope that, if you try them out, you enjoy them just as much as I did.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Elephant Archives