Quite a while ago, in honor of my twenty-fifth birthday, I posted my top 25 favorite books. A few months later, the books I read in 2011. I received a good bit of feedback that the lists are helpful! I do not have any claim on a valuable literary opinion – I have a friend who has hated 80% of the books I’ve passed on to her – but I do read a good bit and I try to read variety.
If you keep up with The Beanstalk, you might recall that I read 21 books in 2013. Here they are, with reviews. They are listed in the order in which I completed them. They’re rated on a scale of five stars. I’m stingy with fives. East of Eden and The History of Love are the barometer for a five.
1. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. (**) This book broke my heart on two planes. It is the story of a small town in England, set in modern day, and the months surrounding the death of one of the town’s prominent citizens. It is the style of writing wherein many separate stories, separate lives and people, overlap and intersect so that the reader can see the ways in which they are connected although perhaps the characters themselves cannot. The story is deeply sad and dark, almost as if Rowling was reaching as far away from her Harry Potter roots as she possibly could, the difference being that the Harry Potter series is a picture of the triumph of good. The Casual Vacancy is quite the opposite. It seemed as though she was trying to express the depravity of humanity in one hundred minute ways. I wanted to like it so badly, but I really didn’t, and I find that so tragic! I gave it two stars because it’s very well-constructed, well written, and that is always one of my judgment factors. But the story was just too bleak to recommend unless, like myself, you simply wanted to read her stuff. Note: it has nothing to do with magic or fantasy.
2. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. (***) A coming-of-age story about a girl named Julia living on the West Coast. The uniqueness of the story comes when the world wakes up one morning to find that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow. Julia is going through the normal, strange feelings and experiences of any young girl, but there is this intense eeriness as the days grow to be longer and longer, and the same with the nights. This is an odd story because Walker seizes complete freedom to imagine what could happen if… The story does not feel like science fiction, although there is a scientific angle to some of the exploration of what would happen in the world if something like this really did occur. I was captivated throughout, but not completely satisfied.
3. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. (***) This book is about a small town in England in the seventeenth century that whose citizens, when visited by a traveling salesman from the city who happens to be carrying the Plague, begin to fall irreversibly ill. From the first page the reader is made aware that the outlook is bleak for all of the characters. Having that knowledge tucked away, I was able to read the book with that expectation, so I enjoyed it for what it was. Even though the story is bleak, really the only word I can think to describe the situation, the characters are great and the writing is well constructed.
4. Bossypants by Tina Fey. (****) I may not be considered a valuable critic on this type of literature—nonfiction meets memoir meets autobiography—but when my oldest friend (permanently, so far) lent me the book and said she loved it, I was ready to give it a go. Especially after the previous book. I needed to laugh. And I did! I laughed my way through Bossypants, which is no surprise since Tina is a comic woman all-star. I loved the way she told stories with humor, but also addressed issues of women breaking into a man’s world. My favorite chapter is “The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter.” It’s a quick read.
5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (****) Boy. This book is like a steak dinner with sides. The student of literature in me feels this obligation to myself to read the Classics, even though it’s usually more of a duty than a pleasure. With this book I made a vow to myself that I would read 20 pages a day, which for the most part I did, and it still took me a long time. The story stands on its own legs – Anna Karenina is a woman who wants more out of her life as a mother and wife in high society Russia – and flings herself into an affair with a handsome, younger man. The story is Tolstoy’s comment on this unsatisfiable aspect of humanity – and he overtly emphasizes gospel truths in response. There are several secondary storylines, which move the story along. The writing is obviously one of the great accomplishments in literary history. Worth the read if you can make the time.
6. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty (****) A fictional imagining of a true time period, this book is about a woman named Cora who takes a job as a kind of babysitter/nanny for a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks when she leaves Wichita, Kansas for her first trip to New York City. The book is based on the life of the real Louise Brooks, a film and dancing star in the twenties that challenged the norms of what was expected of women in that day. The story, however, is really about Cora, her relationship to Louise, as well as the odd challenges of her own life back home in Kansas. I think this book is an example of a flat out good story. It had also been quite a while since I had read anything from that time period.
7. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (***) My late grandmommy was from Mississippi, and that is the setting for this novel. My mom picked it up for that reason, and passed it along to me. This is a sort of true crime novel, but with the added elements of tasteful, literary drama. It’s about two Mississippi boys who have grown up in the same town and are now adults. One has become the town constable and one the town mechanic and creep, since his reputation was obliterated when he was accused but never convicted of kidnapping and murdering a girl years earlier. The past is dredged back up when another girl goes missing. This book was outside of my typical wheelhouse, but I liked it. It’s dark, but so thick with the reality of our legal system and the workings of a small, southern town. I also liked it because of the Mississippi factor.
8. Zorro by Isabel Allende (***) Isabelle Allende’s take on the legend of Zorro is very exciting and creative, but it felt slow. The telling feels biographical rather than fictional. I really enjoyed the spin and thorough exploration of who Zorro could have been, but sometimes reading it felt like plodding.
9. The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony (*) This book was a risk. I picked it up because the cover was beautiful (if I don’t have a good recommendation, that’s how I choose) and the synopsis-teaser on the back was intriguing. It’s about forbidden but exquisite Flemish lace smuggled through France in the 15th or 16th century, and the premise was exciting. For some reason I found this book eerily haunting, to the point that I regretted reading it afterward. Its characters suffer from different forms of abuse and darkness, and the presentation of it all was too dark for my taste.
10. City of Women by David R. Gillham (****) One of my favorites of 2013. It seems as though I gravitate to WW2 literature, although it isn’t intentional—the literary market is saturated with the topic (for good reason). This book was a different spin, since the main characters are German. It’s the story of women in Germany trying to survive, make a difference, as the world crumbles under the weight of war. One particular woman, Sigrid, is the wife of a soldier who gets involved in an underground mission that leads her into an unlikely (or likely?) relationship. This book is the color gray, if that makes sense, but it is brilliant and beautiful.
11. Beach Music by Pat Conroy (***) The Prince of Tides, another book by Conroy, is one of my favorites, so when a friend recommended this one I jumped. Like the rest of his books, this one is mainly set on the southern east coast, although part of it takes place in Italy. Also like his other books, it’s a story about family secrets and the attempts to mend dysfunctional relationships. I liked the book, didn’t love it, and it was VERY long. Maybe a good beach read.
12. While I was Gone by Sue Miller (*****) This might be the best book I read in 2013, but I think that is based on the writing. This is the first book I’ve read by this author (also wrote The Senator’s Wife, which was more highly acclaimed), and I couldn’t believe I had missed her all these years! I was totally captivated by her writing. This story is about middle aged woman, a veterinarian, living in New England and going about her life when a man from her past walks back into her world. His appearance throws her back into the past to re-live some bizarre events from a strange, hippie time in her twenties. There is a big ole’ plot twist, which I loved. But really, this book is about the writing! It is absolutely beautiful.
13. The Last Letter from your Lover by Jojo Mayes (***) Picked this one up at Target right before we were heading to the beach (because of the cover). It’s women’s fiction, romance. To be honest, the story is a little foggy in my mind but I remember being captivated, caring very much about the characters, hoping for resolution. The book doesn’t disappoint. It is about a woman who wakes up in the hospital after having survived a car wreck, remembering nothing from her life before. She realizes very quickly that she is a wife and mother to a family she has no felt connection to. The story sort of twists around all of these unexpected (or maybe you’d think they were sort of typical for a Romance… I didn’t) and comes to this very satisfying ending that I loved. This is just a feel good book that I liked a lot.
14. Bread and Wine by Shauna Neiquist (***) A couple of good friends recommended Shauna to me. She’s a kind of blogger, thinker, writer, Christian mother/cook/etc. She’s sort of earthy, Texas-y, funny, comfortable in her own skin with this fabulous, long hair, and she just writes about life and spirituality and general musings on how to thrive and function and exist in the world we live in while we love Jesus. This particular book is focused on meals, eating, and the larger picture of community and what community really looks like, in a spiritual sense. It’s got good recipes too!
15. The History of Love by Nicole Krause (*****) Five stars. Second favorite book of all time. Re-read. Loved it more than the last time. To me, this book is perfect.
16. The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller (*** and ½?) Picked this one up because of While I Was Gone. It’s the same beautiful writing, but the story was perhaps less intriguing, although it’s funny, this is the book I go back to in my mind when I work on my own writing. The quality of this woman’s writing is incredible, I absolutely love it. This is a story based on 9/11, it’s kind of the idea of a play laid on top of real life, sort of mirroring real life events. It’s about relationships between lovers, siblings, family, friends. It’s about honesty and risk and it’s just sort of an intriguing and fascinating study of people. I’m sort of re-thinking the stars on this one… maybe four?
17. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (****)
18. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (****) I’m writing one review for both books. This is the second time I’ve re-read these books, since the movie was coming out. Gosh, I love em. I know it’s Young Adult. I know it’s below my reading level. I know it’s trendy but they’re so good. Sort of Gladiator meets Lord of the Flies meets The Giver. Really brilliant. Totally addictive. And the movies are great.
19. The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons (****) This book was the surprise of the year! A friend lent it to me, had bought it at Costco on a whim as far as I know. It’s sort of Downton Abbey-ish, about an enormous estate house in England during WW2 (as I said, can’t escape it). The master of the estate hires a Jewish girl from Austria to come work as a servant in the house, but her relationship to his son soon changes that tide. I just thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. It was such a pretty book—the landscape, the description, the whole thing.
20. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon (****) Christopher Boone is a teenager on the autism spectrum who witnesses the death of a neighborhood dog and devotes himself to solving the mystery of uncovering the killer. Christopher sees the puzzle at hand as the focus, but it is clear that there is so much more going on outside. Somehow you’re able to see the big picture of the family dynamics as well as the intricacies of the child’s brain. The fascinating thing about this book is the insight into Christopher’s mind, who narrates the story. I was completely intrigued by the way Haddon unpacks the very logical nature of this type of brilliant brain. Haddon is experienced with working with kids with disabilities, and he is considered an educated source with this subject. Such a good read, simply for its novelty.
21. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (***) This book was turned into a movie in 2013. It’s the onset of WW2 in Germany (surprise, surprise) in a small village. Liesel, an orphan, comes to live with foster parents (big, exploding, endearing personalities) who you want to hold suspect, at arms-length, but who you can’t help but love. The war heats up and the village experiences the brutality of the Nazi party in its own isolated ways, including the Jewish man with whom Liesel’s family comes in dangerously close contact. I can’t wait to see the movie. The book is interestingly narrated by Death personified, and it was beautiful.
Whew, that’s a lot! Twenty-one. Cheers!
Some books I plan to read this year:
No Country for Old Men
The Emperor of Maladies
What’s on your list?