Top 10 books I read in 2013: mini-reviews
Just in case you were wondering how big of a nerd I am, I've read 38 books in 2013 not counting re-reads, and am currently in the middle of book #39 (Seraphina by Rachel Hartman). Granted, some of those books were for college literature classes, but more than half were books I read on my own. Because I, uh, binge-read. A lot. Below are mini-reviews of ten books I read in 2013 that I loved, spoiler-free because I also love you:
#10. Unravel Me (Shatter Me, #2) by Tahereh Mafi
Shatter Me, the first book in this YA trilogy, was on my Summer 2012 reading list and it absolutely sucked me in from the very first page. Mafi's dystopian debut is about a 17-year-old girl named Juliette whose touch is fatal—literally. The first novel is dripping with experimental writing (it feels almost like reading a prose poem), and a steamy romance that quickly becomes the focus of the book (I mean, the protagonist is a teenager who can't touch anyone... it was bound to happen).
The sequel, Unravel Me, is similar in its style. It picks up a few weeks after the end of Shatter Me, with Juliette trying to figure out where she fits into the rebellion (it is a dystopian society, after all), and spending a somewhat large portion of her time crying (angstangstangst). But unlike the first novel, we get to know more supporting characters—I fell in love with minor characters like Kenji (the dude needs his own spin-off series. I'd pay for that). More than that, I was so impressed by Mafi's world-building in the second book, which made me feel as though I could see everything around Juliette in the rebel base. I still think both books are essentially PG-13 romance novels (hello, Chapter 62) disguised as dystopian thrillers, but hey—they are great. Mafi is great. She's breaking rules, and I like it. And holy cow can she write a love triangle.
#9. Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender
Okay, I know this book came out in 2005, but I only recently discovered Aimee Bender (she teaches at my university) and her amazing body of work. Willful Creatures is the first anthology of short stories I have read outside of a literature class, but I guarantee it won't be the last—especially since Bender has published one other one. I came across Willful Creatures accidentally at the LA Central Library, and read it in a single afternoon because I couldn't put it down. It's an anthology of magical realist short stories about... humanity, really. Which is a bold claim to make, but there's really no other way to describe what holds these stories together. They're all written with stark honesty and Bender's signature musical style (no quotation marks, no superfluous words, no metaphor that hasn't been purposefully placed).
Don't get me wrong, most of the stories are totally weird. But weird works, in this case. And I couldn't get some of the stories out of my head for days afterwards—Bender's writing has a way of seeping into your bones and staining your dreams. My favorites were "Off," "End of the Line," and "I Will Pick Out Your Ribs [From My Teeth]".
#8. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins
I was tempted to give this graphic novel to every guy I knew doing No-Shave November. In TGBTWE, a man with a single chin-hair lives on a very tidy island, surrounded by very tidy people with very tidy haircuts. His chin-hair suddenly and inexplicably begins to grow into an enormous and uncontrollable beard, with a mind of its own.
And you guys. This book is completely beyond amazing. I borrowed it from a friend, who saw it at a Foyles bookstore while we were both in London and bought it when she returned to the U.S. I'm not a huge reader of graphic novels, but that didn't even matter. The illustrations are beautiful, the writing is clever and funny (it's written in verse), and the story is a true fairytale—simple enough for a child to understand, but so much darker than it appears to be on the surface. Also, who wouldn't want to read a book about a man who grows a beard that takes over the world? I dare you to read this and not to flail around like, "THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER."
#7. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
I didn't grow up with this book, like so many people I know. But when I finally bought a copy at a Waterstones bookstore in London, it felt like I was a kid all over again.
The book, in case you didn't know, is based on Barrie's own play from 1904, which he expanded into the novel Peter and Wendy (later renamed). Barrie's writing is witty, funny, dark, and strangely charming. The thing that surprised me most about the story was how much of a little brat Peter himself is. There are a lot of retellings out there that portray Peter Pan as this romantic figure, and forget that he's also just a little boy, with very little understanding of right and wrong. Barrie's Peter is wild, rowdy, and lonely. Yet, there's a reason why everyone keeps retelling the tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up—it's about loss and flying and nostalgia and remembering who you are. And it's also about a boy who fights pirates and a girl who tells stories and the adventures that they have in a magical land. If you've ever been interested in Peter Pan, because of the Disney movie or Hook or Return to Neverland or the 2003 live-action movie or for any other reason, read this book.
#6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
I saw the play adaptation of the 2003 book in London, and it blew me away. I cried my eyes out and I never cry watching plays. The woman sitting next to me was like, "Please remove the blubbering American from my sight."
The book is just as good, if not better. It's the story of a 15-year-old boy named Christopher who is both brilliant and autistic. He finds the body of his neighbor's dead dog and the rest of the book is his journey to discover what happened to the dog, while exploring his complicated family life. It's an amazing book, told entirely from Christopher's point of view (which lends an intensely literal, logical tone to the novel, and yet allows us to empathize with him as we see the world through his eyes). It's funny and yet pretty heavy, so at times I had to take a step back to breathe, but it's a story I'll never forget.
#5. Palace of Stone (Princess Academy, #2) by Shannon Hale
If you know me at all, you probably know of my love for Shannon Hale. She is one of the reasons why I became a writer. I've read and reread her books a hundred times each. I grew up with her writing, and Princess Academy remains one of my favorite books. That being said, Palace of Stone caught me by surprise in the best possible way. Maybe it's because I've grown so used to reading books like The Hunger Games and Divergent, fast-paced books that keep you on the edge of your seat—but I was completely caught off-guard by Hale's lovely, leisurely writing. Reading Palace of Stone felt like returning home after a long, exhausting trip, like I could finally catch my breath.
Palace of Stone is the sequel to Princess Academy, and it follows Miri and her friends as they travel down the mountain to the lowlands, to attend Britta as her ladies. There, Miri attends a university-style school and discovers that many people in the lowlands are unhappy with the monarchy and growing restless—which leads to revolution. I was reminded, reading this book, of all of the reasons why I fell in love with Hale's writing to begin with; she gives us such a different kind of heroine, a non-Katniss, a non-Tris (not that I don't love those ladies, too), someone who is strong in a quieter way. Miri is a reader. Miri is a scholar. Miri is powerful because of her ability to speak. And so are the other girls in this series. This book is called "delightful" in the blurb, but it's more than that—it's inspiring, for any woman writer, for any woman, and for any human, ever.
#4. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Fangirl is about a girl named Cath who is a writer and a hardcore Simon Snow fan (who is a fictional character who seems to be based on Harry Potter). Cath enters college with her twin Wren, who seems to want nothing to do with Simon Snow or Cath, and the book follows Cath as she tries to figure out how to do the whole college thing—and that includes writing a crap-ton of Simon Snow slash fanfiction, trying to get along with her wild roommate, and navigating a budding romance. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
I should note that I'd never read anything by Rainbow Rowell before Fangirl. I hadn't read Eleanor and Park, even though I'd heard great things about it—I read Fangirl because a few of my friends and I decided it would be a fun read. And it was. And it gave me the feels. All. Of. The feels. I loved Cath, and I was a huge fan of the way Rowell lovingly portrays fandom culture, showing both sides of the whole "fanfiction debate" (is it original if you are using characters from another author's story?). Also, I didn't even know that "New Adult" fiction was a thing until a few months ago, but if Fangirl is NA, then I'm so excited for what the genre will produce next. Because reading about characters in college was something I never knew that I needed in my life until now.
#3. The Legend Trilogy by Marie Lu
I'm including all three books. Because I have so many feelings about this series, and how sad I am that it's over, and I can't, I just can't.
The Legend trilogy is made up of Legend, Prodigy, and Champion, and it follows the lives of two protagonists from their alternating points of view—June and Day. June is part of an elite class in this dystopian United States (now called the Republic), and Day is the nation's most wanted criminal. June is a prodigy and part of the military, while Day is trying to survive on the streets. When June's brother is murdered, Day is the prime suspect, and a simple game of cat-and-mouse turns into a full-scale revolution as the novels progress.
Legend came out right around the time Divergent started to get popular, and I think that this series has received less attention than it deserves because of that. Still, it's a fantastic story, full of political intrigue and layered family dynamics, and I think Lu rocks the dual-perspective narration (which is incredibly difficult to do). If that doesn't convince you, DO IT FOR THE FEELS, because there are many of those.
#2. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
I started reading Code Name Verity while I was in the same-day ticket queue at 7:30 AM at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, and I honestly don't remember how I got back to my flat. I was so absorbed in this book that I didn't put it down until I finished it.
Code Name Verity came out in 2012, but I didn't get it until the very end of the year. It's the story of two best friends in World War II, both fighting for the British. When their plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France, one of the girls, Verity, is captured by the Gestapo, while the pilot, Maddie, has a chance at surviving on her own. Verity's interrogators give her a choice to either reveal her mission or be executed, so Verity writes out her confession—weaving in details about her friendship with Maddie and her struggle to survive another day in the Gestapo prison.
I could not predict a single moment of this novel, and by the end, my mind was reeling. It's face-paced and brutal, and yet there is such beauty and hope in how much these two friends love each other. It's so much more than a "spy novel." Wein doesn't make light of the horrors of war—and yet she doesn't leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. There's little I love more than good historical fiction, and this one is by far ranked at the top. I can't really say more than that for fear of spoiling it for you, but trust me when I say this is one of the best novels I've ever read.
#1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
There's been a lot of hype about Gaiman's Ocean. People were talking about it before it was even released. Gaiman himself has said that it is the most personal novel he has ever written. His wife, Amanda Palmer, wrote an entire blog post about how this novel has affected their relationship. So I don't know if I can explain how much I adored it, but I'll try.
In Ocean, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral, after which he wanders down the road to the farm where, when he was seven, he encountered a remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and her grandmother. The man hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the old farmhouse, the past comes flooding back. Gaiman tells the story of an adult’s past through the eyes of a child. And this version of the past is strange, frightening, dangerous, beautiful, delicious, terrifying, inexplicable, and intensely personal, as though Gaiman was telling the story of his own childhood.
It got under my skin, this novel. I could sit down and try to put into words all the things I loved about it, and I'd come up with a list longer than the book itself. It made me wonder about things I might have forgotten about in my own past, and it reminded me of moments from my childhood that I'd never thought were important. This novel is steeped in magic, and not just because it's a fairytale. I have read very few books that made me feel as though I was dreaming, drowning, falling through darkness while cupping the only light source between my palms. But Ocean did. Also, it was recently named Book of the Year 2013. So there's that.