Monday, December 30, 2013

My Top Books of 2013

I read a lot of books this year. I surpassed my reading goal by 13... a fun coincidence!

I keep a record of what I read, and here's a refresher on my rules: I don't count any books below 100 pages. I tend to allow one exception to this each year to represent the dozens of picture books I've read over the course of the year. (This year I have 2 on the list... #11 and #14.) I read a variety: adult fiction and nonfiction, poetry, teen books, juvenile fiction, and graphic novels. Highbrow "literary" stuff and total fluff. Basically whatever catches my fancy. I count audiobooks the same as I would physical books. Nothing abridged whatsoever. I only count it if I finish it, which means there are a handful of books that didn't even make the list since I got halfway through and abandoned them.

So, with that said here are the numbers. Total books finished this year: 113.

Woohoo! It would be boring if I just listed out everything I read, so instead here's a highlight of my year. Since we're headed into 2014, here are my top 14 selections - though perhaps "recommendations" would be the better word, as I would highly suggest you check these titles out. They are listed below in no particular order or ranking. Because I am so bad at making decisions, there may be an "honorable mentions" category as well. 


The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

My first ever Hemingway (hard to believe, right?). It took me a little while to get used to his style, but I see now why he is so highly regarded. I thought this would be all about the old man’s fight with the fish, but that was only the beginning. It's the ending that hits like a punch to the gut. “Such a sad book,” my mother remarked when she noticed me reading it. She was remembering that ending. And it is wrenching and tragic in its way, but also so very powerful. Bold, broad strokes. Such a simple thing, this story, and yet it moves you so deeply. Yes, I will be reading more of Mr. Hemingway…

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

If you have ever dreamed of finding a hidden passageway behind a revolving bookshelf, then you should read this book. If you have ever wished you could go on a real-life quest full of peril and mystery, you should seriously read this book. If you are obsessive about any of the following, you will LOVE this book: complex codes, miniature 3D models, ancient artifacts, fonts and typefaces, the secret of eternal life, computer programming, knitting, riddles, the way books smell, adventure. This is unlike any book I have ever read, and yet once I had read it I couldn’t imagine having ever existed without having read it. Does that make sense? Maybe not. In short: READ THIS BOOK. Also, the cover glows in the dark

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

 I like Amazon’s synopsis: “August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face… Wonder begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.” Auggie is a sweet, funny kid with a lot of heart, so I’m glad that this story does him justice. It doesn’t shy away from or romanticize its difficult subject matter, but stays honest and realistic. It’s one of those books that is marketed for 5th graders, but should really be read by everyone.

The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan

This mesmerizing novel is a patchwork of different stories and perspectives over many years that make up the overall tale of Rollrock Island. It starts with Misskaella Prout, who discovers as a young girl that she has powers over the sea. She calls the seals onto the land where they shed their skins and step out as human. Hide the skins away and they can never turn back. As she grows, she is shunned and hated for these powers, but many of the men on the island pay her handsomely to call them forth a “sea-wife.” In her greed she accepts these offers, and because of it the fates of the island folk will never be the same. Haunting, heartbreaking, lovely. A beautifully-crafted masterpiece.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple 

What a weird and wonderful book. Here’s Amazon’s summary: “Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle - and people in general - has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence - creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.” Sounds strange (most likely because it is), but it is truly one of the funniest and most memorable books I’ve read - not just this year, but ever.

Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, by Rusty E. Frank

I’ve always thought tap dancing was the coolest thing. I know a lot of people think it’s schmaltzy, but you’re basically using your body as an instrument. You’re drumming with your feet. It’s pretty phenomenal - and difficult! - if you think about it. This book is comprised of interviews with many of the great names in tap dancing, from the early Vaudeville days, through the golden era on Broadway and in Hollywood, and on into the 50s. Frank divides the interviews up chronologically by decade, using the art of tap as a backdrop against which you get to see the changing tides in music, fashion, culture, civil rights, technology, and much more. It was cool to learn the history, and I very much enjoyed looking up videos of the various performers to get a feel for what they could do, but my favorite part was the bit Frank put at the end of every interview. She asks what drew them to tap dancing, what they love about it, and it’s remarkable how many of them say such similar things. They could hear the beat, the rhythm. They heard it everywhere. One performer talked about how as a little boy he would sit outside his family’s apartment as the subway train went by, and the rumble and rush of the train made a song, and he couldn’t NOT tap along. Whether it’s music or art or stories, creative people are drawn to what they love. They can’t NOT do it. And it was such a cool thing to hear from these very talented individuals reflecting back on a lifetime of getting to do the thing they most enjoyed.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell

One reviewer called this collection of short stories “a descendant of Ray Bradbury’s October Country,” while another compared one of its tales to Lovecraft. I can definitely see where they’re coming from. All of the tales in this collection have something of the eerie or sinister about them. On the more Bradbury-esque end of the spectrum you might have a story with a wistful tone, like “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach,” in which “a dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest” (Amazon). Slightly more disturbing is “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” about a group of boys who stumble upon a scarecrow that bears an uncanny resemblance to a boy they used to torment. But by far the most terrifying (and awesome, in the true awed sense of that word) is “Reeling for the Empire.” Sold into work at a Japanese mill, a group of young girls are given a noxious “tea” that slowly transforms them into human silkworms who must spin silk from their own bellies. If they refuse, it becomes compacted and they die. It’s as horrifying and brutal as it sounds, but Kitsune refuses to accept the fate decided for her by her captors and seeks a way to lead her fellow spinners in a revolt. This collection is the stuff of dreams and nightmares - dark, bold, visionary. I pretty much want to read any and everything Russell writes from here on out.

Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

I’m not just putting this on the list because it’s written by Lorelei from “Gilmore Girls” - She writes! Who knew? - but that’s definitely why I first picked it up… It’s 1995. When Franny Banks first moved to New York, she set a deadline for herself: three years, and if nothing pans out with the acting career, she’d move back home and get a “normal job.” She’s six months shy of her deadline, and things aren’t looking good. Everything rests on the upcoming showcase for her acting class, where she’ll hopefully get picked up by an agent. Her roommates are supportive as she prepares for what will with any luck be her big break, but most other people in her life insist she needs a backup plan, something besides waitressing at a comedy club and going on endless (and fruitless) auditions. (By the way, these audition scenes have some truly priceless, almost slapstick humor to them. You get the idea that maybe Lauren Graham experienced similarly horrific scenarios herself on the road to stardom.) Will Franny find success? Is she stupid to even keep trying? Should she just pack it in and give up? I won’t say, but I will tell you this: I did not anticipate the ending, but I think it was realistic and I liked it. So hopefully that doesn’t spoil anything.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

Karou has blue hair. It grows out of her head that way. She has a necklace whose beads are actually small wishes. Since before she can remember she’s had eyes tattooed on the palms of both hands. She doesn’t know anything about her past or where she came from - all she knows is the “family” who took her in, Brimstone and his band of fellow chimaera. Karou lives and studies in Prague, occasionallyrunning mysterious errands for Brimstone, but her true home is in his shop, a magical place that exists outside our world and whose doors can open to any number of portals around the globe. When strange black handprints begin to appear, seemingly burned onto these doorways, it sets into motion a chain of events that will reveal to Karou the answers from her past.

(An aside: There’s a trend sometimes with teen books to prioritize story over style. The writing doesn’t have to be phenomenal as long as the plot is. But Taylor’s prose is breathtaking. She spins these sentences that will make you pause and want to go back and read them aloud because they’re just that lovely. Frank McCourt once said of Shakespeare’s works that the words felt like jewels in his mouth. I’m beginning to feel that way about Laini Taylor.)

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

In a near future where virtual reality is the ubiquitous social media of the age, a poor teen boy finds a clue that gives him a head start in a series of puzzles that might just win him a huge inheritance. The puzzles were created by the virtual reality system's founder as a part of his will, and it just so happens this guy was absolutely obsessed with the 1980s. So, as our hero races to win the competition, some geeky amazing awesomeness ensues. I reviewed this one earlier this year, and here was my final take: "I'm not much of a gamer, but you don't really have to be to love this book. There's so many other things to recommend it as well: great characters, edge-of-your-seat action, riddles and mysteries, truly deplorable bad guys, high-risk stakes, epic battle scenes, and of course all those awesome pop culture references. Definitely check it out if you can!"

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf, by David Almond

This is a very short book, but an important one. It’s the story of a world whose gods got lazy and never really finished their creation. Some children stumble upon the empty spaces in this world, and somehow they can sense, can feel them, these things that don’t exist but ought to, so they pull at the nothingness and give it shape. The first child makes a little squeaky thing and calls it a mouse. The second child makes a soft and airy thing and calls it a bird. And so on… But their creations take on a life of their own, and some of them can be quite dangerous. And soon the lazy, dozing gods awake to find their lovely world in chaos. What will they do? Can they unmake what has been made? This is a potent parable about the power of imagination and creativity, its wonders and dangers. It’s a new story, but it reads like a fairy tale or legend that has been around for a long time.

The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan

I’m cheating, because I’m only about ⅔ of the way through this book and I’m only supposed to count them once I finish. But ⅔ was all it took to realize it deserved a place here. A rich, sprawling account of the life of Violet Mintern, the half-Chinese daughter of the American madam of a first class courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 1900s. I have been enamored with every one of Tan’s previous novels, and this one is no disappointment. Not only am I deeply invested in discovering Violet’s ultimate fate, but I’ve also learned a great deal about a culture and time period I knew nothing about before now.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

This is a novel whose main character writes fanfiction! It’s a teen book where the teen in question isn’t in highschool, but is tackling the weird and scary world of being a college freshman! Both of these things seemed kind of cool to me when I first read the jacket copy, so I kept going, and I’m so glad I did. Every time I mention to someone that I’ve read this book, they say, “Have you read Eleanor and Park?” - that’s Rowell’s other book - “It’s SO much better!” Well, no. I haven’t read that one yet. But this one is good on its own. I love the characters and conflicts. Rowell writes romance so well. It’s awkward and funny and wonderful and WOW without ever verging into sappiness or eye-rolling territory. This is another contemporary realistic fiction book to make it on the list. What is wrong with me this year? Or I guess, rather, it’s something very right with these authors, who are taking a genre I usually find boring and making it too fascinating to stop reading.

God Got A Dog, by Cynthia Rylant

This is a collection of poems all from God’s perspective, as God decides to experience different facets of humanity firsthand. God goes to beauty school and decides to open his own nail shop: “He got into nails, of course, because He’d always loved hands - hands were some of the best things He’d ever done.” God gets a desk job, and while she thought her job was hard this is sheer torture. She makes it through the day with the help of a Snickers bars - that, and “thinking about the Eagle Nebula in the constellation Serpens. That helped.” God goes to the doctor. God writes a fan letter. God gets arrested. And of course, God gets a dog. This is not a book of theology; if anything, it’s a look at humanity. A tender, thought-provoking glimpse of ways the mundane can be truly divine.


Divergent, by Veronica Roth

This is a solid book for what it aims to be. It's one like I mentioned earlier that focuses more on story than style. Those who like the Hunger Games should gobble this up as well. I enjoyed it, but demoted it on the list because I’m a little wary of dystopias, which have been flooding the market the way vampire romances did in Twilight’s wake. That said, Roth does her best to avoid the copycat label, and does a good job of not making the main character Tris feel like Katniss Everdeen Lite. I’m looking forward to the movie adaptation, and will continue on and read the sequels, but it wasn’t quite good enough to earn a place on the list with the others.

A Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin

I love Martin’s world and the characters he’s created (my favorites so far are Arya, Tyrion, and Jon Snow). I’ve been reading the books before I watch the series, which means I’m behind (please - NO SPOILERS!), but I very much enjoy doing it that way. This is a great book, and Martin is masterful in the way he weaves his multiple storylines together. Arya’s arc was probably my favorite.

Ocean at the End of the Lane & Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman

I love Neil Gaiman’s stuff. This year I read and thoroughly enjoyed both his new releases, but as I kept adding books to the list above these eventually got bumped off. Ocean was dreamlike (sometimes those dreams were nightmares) and mythic, yet tugged at something so very raw and human in me. In contrast, Milk was pure outlandish silliness. Both are well worth your time.

So that's it. My favorites of the books I've read this year. Can't wait to see what 2014 brings...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

DRAGONS: A Poem For Times I Forget I Am Brave

I know of dragons in the deep,
the scary kind that haunt your sleep:
big as mountains, wings spread wide
with eyes that gleam like sparks.
Let me at them, let me try
on land or sea or even sky.
Let them at me; I won't hide.
Let fire light the dark.

I'd rather be the fool who's dead
than live in a world where people dread
to do the things they wish they'd tried -
shackled by doubt and shame.
I know of dragons, but you see
the dragons also know of me.
In tales they tell at fireside
they tremble at my name.