The Best Books of 2013

Here are all the best books we read this year—in a bit of a policy shift, we’ve included books published in previous years alongside those published in 2013. Click a title link, where they appear, to jump to our full review of that book, or a page with more information. Find our favorite books from past years here. And, if you’d like to read the full posts in this year’s Best Books series, click here.


Table of Contents

[Fiction]

[Nonfiction]

[Graphic Novels]

[Honorable Mentions]


Fiction

illusion-of-separateness-110The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy

The Illusion of Separateness weaves its story from the lives of half a dozen apparent strangers, charting a course through a series of tangential connections to a chance encounter in Nazi-occupied France. For all its emotional and thematic weight, the book moves deftly in time and perspective, reading more like a good adventure than a work of philosophy. But that’s really what it is, a work of philosophy arguing its central premise with an artistic proof that no one, anywhere, is really alone.

shining-girls-110The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

A serial killer thriller with a time travel hook, this book blends campy, pulp reading with genuine suspense to make a thoroughly entertaining novel. Don’t expect it to show up on any shortlists, but if you’re looking for a diversion during holiday travel, this would make a great option.

constellation-games-110Constellation Games, by Leonard Richardson

Constellation Games is equal parts philosophical sci-fi and adventure comedy, a story about a video game blogger who becomes a kind of ambassador to a new alien collective that shows up on Earth’s doorstep one day. It pilots an interesting situation with tremendous wit and entertaining prose.

crapalachia-110Crapalachia, by Scott McClanahan

A novel/memoir blend about McClanahan’s West Virginia upbringing, and the oddball family members and friends he grows up with. Labeled “A Biography of a Place,”Crapalachia, in a way, does for West Virginia what Donald Ray Pollock does for his Ohio hollers: which is appropriate, since the two are so close, and not just geographically. But where Pollock’s narrators are, for the most part, detached and emotionally distant, McClanahan is not. This book is a funny, sharp, and surprisingly tender ode to McClanahan’s place, time, and people.

ravelstein-110Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow

It’s an extended character sketch of an eccentric University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and his ideas on the good life and death. No one can rant quite like Bellow can, and when he really gets on a tear no one is funnier, more cutting, or a more insightful culture critic.

archangel-110Archangel, by Andrea Barrett

Living in a world on the cusp of globalization and scientific resolution, Barrett’s characters struggle to find reconciliation between the exciting new ways of looking at the world and comforting past notions of spirituality and religion. Like all of Barrett’s work, it is tremendously well written, and worth a read by pretty much everybody.

tenth-of-december-110The Tenth of December, by George Saunders

George Saunders writes phenomenal story collections, even if there are always a few clunkers (as there are in almost any story collection ever published). In this one, there are a lot of clunkers, but the few stories that hit, hit gold.

sound-of-things-falling-110The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Vasquez masterfully strings together many seemingly loose threads in this lyrical, highly engaging novel.

and-sons-110& Sons, by David Gilbert

Unreliable narrator Philip Topping follows the drama of the Dyer family, whose patriarch, noted author A.N. Dyer, is famous for a novel that will remind readers of Catcher in the Rye. Sons struggling with fathers is a main theme here, and Gilbert does a fine job with it. Not a flawless novel, but it might be the closest thing to it that I read this year.

dog-stars-110The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

Plot-wise this book doesn’t really do anything original. It’s about a guy and his dog who have a plane in the years following civilizations collapse. But the narrator is earnest and captivating, and his attempts to balance compassion with pragmatism in a cutthroat world of survival make the book into more than what it might appear on the surface.

fixer-110The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud

Malamud uses a fantastic story to delve into issues of race and morality. It will keep you riveted and stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.

harvest-110Harvest, by Jim Crace

This is a really good historical novel. Not nearly as weird as some of Crace’s earlier work (Being Dead), it’s still fairly gripping. Crace is a very careful and controlled writer–he reminds me of Ian McEwan in that way–so even if you aren’t into stories about social upheaval in a post-feudal English village, you’ll probably find something to enjoy here.

falconer-110Falconer, by John Cheever

The trap with some books about prison is that authors get caught up with questions of guilt or innocence. Cheever is cleaver enough to avoid that. This book is not a story about guilt or innocence; the main character, Farragut, is clearly rightfully imprisoned. Instead Cheever focuses on the dehumanizing elements of imprisonment, and we are left to watch as Farragut is slowly stripped of his humanity. The results are, for lack of a better word, heartbreaking.

pacific-110Pacific, by Tom Drury

Drury revisits characters from his debut novel published nineteen years ago. This a well-written literary novel, which is more than you can say for 95% of literary novels.

fault-in-our-stars-110The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Tumblr‘s favorite son (adopted from Youtube) writes pretty goddamn good novels, which just isn’t fair. If you’re super good at social media, shouldn’t that be enough? Why do these Green assholes have to have other talents, too? In any, if you haven’t heard of it, The Fault in Our Stars is a touching, heartbreaking YA novel about love and cancer. You should read it.

 


Nonfiction

closing-of-the-american-mind-110The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

The title character in Ravelstein (see above) is based on Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and Bellow’s longtime friend. The Closing of the American Mind is Bloom’s most well known book. He’s an academically conservative atheist traditionalist who sees liberal democracy as the greatest threat to its own best promises, and he has no analogue in contemporary political discourse.

salt-sugar-fat-110Salt Sugar Fat

Eye-opening nonfiction about the marketing and consumption of processed foods. Moss knows what he’s talking about, he’s clearly done his research, and he presents his ideas in easy-to-read, often amusing ways.

you-are-now-less-dumb-110You Are Now Less Dumb, by David McRaney

McRaney’s latest book follows the tried and true formula of his first one (also a Great Read): it’s an entertaining layman’s guide to cognitive biases (or, as he puts it, the ways we lie to ourselves). McRaney does a great job turning dry experiment write-ups into captivating accounts of the human brain’s quirks and fallacies. This is one of those books that will make you more interesting at parties.

la-boutique-obscureLa Boutique Obscure
This is Georges Perec’s dream journal, which I know sounds dreary but is actually quite fascinating and has a strong cumulative effect. From Melville House, translated by Daniel Levin Becker, one of the few Americans invited to become an Oulipian.

telling-room-110The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

It takes a pretty talented journalist to find the story in a piece of cheese, and Paterniti uncovered a very engaging story. And in places, the story reads like a fairy tale, which seems like a contrived idea, but is a voice that fits the story perfectly. This book is well put together, and worth picking up.

atlas-street-art-110The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, by Rafael Schacter

Quite simply a beautifully presented and intriguingly arranged book about street art. It tackles the subject geographically, as the title implies, tracing the history of street art across dozens of cities and countries around the world, with unique street-artist-created maps of some of the key places. Read my full review to see some of the plates included.

 


Graphic Novels

hawkeye-2013-110Hawkeye, written by Matt Fraction, drawn by David Aja, Javier Pulido, Francesco Francavilla, et al., colored by Matt Holingsworth, lettered by Chris Eliopoulos

Fourteen issues in, Hawkeye is still the most interesting superhero book on the shelves. 2013 saw the book extend beyond the hard luck/heart of gold off-hours hero story with a whole issue dedicated to Hurricane Sandy, a wordless issue told from Pizza Dog’s perspective, art turns from Javier Pulido and Francesco Francavilla, and a heartbreaking death. For sheer variety of narrative concepts, no other creative team can touch what Fraction and his artists, particularly David Aja, have done in this title.

saga-2013-110Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Fiona Staples, lettered and designed by Fonografiks

Vaughan and Staples’s story of a young family’s first steps in a war-scarred universe is perfectly paced, colliding nightmarish action sequences and comedy, with room for quiet, thoughtful moments throughout. All of that plus Vaughan’s knack for crafting tense cliffhangers makes Saga one of my most anticipated reads every month.

mind-mgmt-2013-110Mind MGMT, written and drawn by Matt Kindt

Mind MGMT is about how we read comics – every issue seems to bloom, and ideas embedded months earlier begin to twist and find new shapes, so that each successive read alters and distorts all the previous reads. That it’s all rendered in Kindt’s gorgeous watercolors makes that tenuous reality all the less convincing, as if everything could be washed away in a moment.

young-avengers-2013-110Young Avengers, written by Kieron Gillen, drawn by Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton, colored by Matt Wilson, lettered by VC’s Clayton Cowles

In some ways a thematic successor to Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram,Young Avengers is also about teenagers falling in love, struggling to stay in love, feeling betrayed, and dancing to good music – just that these teenagers are superheroes warding off an attack from an interdimensional parasite that calls itself Mother. The characters are great, the layouts are clever, and it’s the rare modern superhero comic that walks away from Watchmen rather than towards it, putting some of the joy and excitement back into being a hero.

satellite-sam-110Satellite Sam, written by Matt Fraction, drawn by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak

Satellite Sam is a comic about the Golden Age of television, and a significant portion of each issue is spent discussing the FCC regulations, market share and competition, and other business stuff. Satellite Sam is, also, a comic that regularly features buxom, lingerie-clad women on it’s covers. You wouldn’t expect the former from the latter, but those poles describe the world of the book pretty well. It’s ostensibly about the murder of “Satellite Sam” star Carlyle White and his son’s investigation, which yields a psycho-sexual ziggurat, but it’s really more of an ensemble piece about the cast and crew of the show, and how their lives are affected by Carlyle’s death.

 


Honorable Mentions

Batman: Black and White is hit or miss, but proves that series editor Mark Chiarello’s relationships with creators is maybe DC Comic’s best and least exploited asset.

Kieron Gillen and Ryan Kelly’s Three is off to a great start, but two issues feels like too little for a “best of” – expect to read more about it soon. Ditto for Matt Kindt’s Marvel Knights Spider-Man.

Daredevil and The Manhattan Projects could both easily be in the Graphic Novels section, but then it would look exactly like it did last year. Both are satisfying month to month, and have remained consistently good for longer than most books are around.

Grant Morrison brought Batman, Inc., and his multi-year, multi-title Bat-saga, to an end in August. The final issues showed some strain of having been refitting into DC’s new continuity, but even at the very end Morrison defied expectations by turning in a rather quiet, understated final chapter.

The Round House (2012), by Louise Erdrich

This is an excellent novel that is part mystery and part bildungsroman. Telling the story of a Native American teen coming to grips with the violent rape and attempted burning-alive of his mother, the book touches on some pretty heavy emotional and cultural stuff. It also has a tremendous ending, not a twist, but one I did not see coming all the same.

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin won the Hugo award in 2005, and, indeed, it’s the kind of innovative science fiction worthy of a prize. However, it’s nothing like Constellation Games; it’s less witty and a bit more of a shoe-gazer. It follows a brother and sister, and their childhood friend (who’s hopelessly in love with the sister, of course) as some unknown alien force puts a “Spin membrane” around the Earth so that each Earth second sees 3 years pass in the universe outside. As the heat death of the sun quickly approaches, these three friends navigate problems both worldly and internal. It’s well done.

Fight Song by Joshua Mohr

Modern suburban life takes a shit on Bob Coffin, and Bob Coffin shits right back. This one is funnier and better than your average suburban drudgery throwaway.

Transatlantic by Colum McCann

McCann follows several historical figures: Frederick Douglass as he tours Dublin in 1845; Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, two pilots who traverse the Atlantic in 1919; and U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who tries to help facilitate the peace process in Ireland in 1998. These four people are connected through time by a handful of strong women, with whom McCann spends much of the second half of the book. Not as memorable as his previous, Let the Great World Spin, but it’s worth a read. Dude is talented.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Entertaining novel about a woman trying to retrace her past, in particular as it regards her long-lost brother and long-lost “sister”–a chimpanzee named Fern, who Fowler describes as “a twirling, whirling, somersaulting carpe diem.” Love that line. A good read, but it’s unlikely to prove memorable.

Out of Their Minds by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite

This novel follows two Lennon-and-McCartney-like norteño musicians in Mexico, and is a quick and entertaining read. Originally published in Spanish in the mid-80s.

Who Killed John F. Kennedy?

This Choose Your Own Adventure parody is fun as hell, and will make you nostalgic for the original books (or the Time Machine series, which I loved as a kid). In this one, you’re a teenage detective in Dallas and must solve JFK’s murder. But you can’t; there is only one positive outcome in the book, but there’s no route leading to it.

Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick

Philbrick covers the events in and around Boston leading up to the Revolution, with emphasis on Joseph Warren, who, had he lived through the Battle of Bunker Hill, would likely be a household name. Philbrick is good at what he does, and if you have even a mild interest in historical Boston or the roots of our revolution, this one won’t disappoint.

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