Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Very Best of 2013

Happy New Year, y'all!
As always, I start the new year by looking back at the best books I read last year. Admittedly, 2013 was not the best reading year for me. I went through several reading droughts and several slow blogging periods. I thought of walking away from this blog more than once (and I'm so glad I remembered why I love sharing my reading with y'all. I'll be sticking around for quite some time.) Despite some reading and blogging disappointments, the year itself was a delight. Mr. Nomadreader and I bought our first (and I hope last) house. I discovered my new favorite band, American Aquarium, and took a solo road trip to one of my favorite cities, Nashville, to see them in concert for my birthday. I continue to love my job and all around, I feel very blessed and happy.

In terms of reading, I didn't even manage to read 100 books in 2013. (It's the first time since graduate school I haven't read 100 books, and I'm disappointed in myself for not making reading more of a priority. There's nothing necessarily magic about 100, but my initial goal was 150, and I really didn't come close to that. I don't think I would mind if I could point to something else of substance I was doing instead, but I can't.) I thought after moving into our house and getting rid of satellite television, I would read more, but I didn't. On a positive note, I think I finally found my groove again late in the year and am optimistic 2014 will be a year in which reading and blogging are once again priorities.

When I sat down to look at the books I most enjoyed in 2013, I was delighted to reread my reviews and remember the joy of reading each of these books. While the overall quantity was down, I still have 11ish (it's hard to separate books in a series!) titles I hope you'll all take the time to read. The biggest surprise: four (!) are nonfiction. (Some perspective: a nonfiction title hasn't made my best of list since 2009.)

The Top 11ish
These are books I read in 2013, not necessarily books published in 2013.

Want to buy these titles? Clicking on the covers take you to Amazon. 

11. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor (my review)
Sotomayor's drive is even more remarkable given the circumstances of her childhood. If I didn't know differently, I would have a hard time believing her career trajectory was true. Sotomayor is an inspiration. Her spirit, intelligence, dedication and loyalty are admirable.

10. The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (my review)
The End of the Point is a beautifully written, deeply moving portrait of three generations of the Porter family and the their evolving relationships with their servants and caregivers. I was thrilled when it was longlisted for the National Book Award.

9. The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man by Peter May (my review & my review)
The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man are the first two mysteries in Peter May's Lewis trilogy. Their narratives are so closely linked, it's difficult to separate the two. Both are deeply satisfying literary mysteries infused with strong elements of ethnography and fascinating character development. Peter May's writing is beautifully fluid and his characters are richly developed.

8. Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley (my review)
Relish is a more ambitious graphic memoir than French Milk, and it succeeds on more levels because of it. It's a graphic memoir I'll return to re-read again and again over the years, as I, too, form more new food memories.

7. The Michael Kelly series by Michael Harvey
 (my reviews: The Chicago Way, The Fifth Floor and We All Fall Down)
Having three out of four novels in a series earn 5 stars from me is unprecedented. The Michael Kelly series are gritty, contemporary mysteries at their best. Michael Kelly is a character to root for, and given the depth of corruption in Chicago in these novels, that's a blessing. What makes them so good, however, are the mysteries themselves. These books are complicated, smart and filled with fantastic twists.

6. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (my review)
Easily the most surprising title on this list, I'm still referencing passages from it two months after I finished it. If I had to sum up the message of Sandberg's book, it would be with this passage from a speech she made at a college graduation: "I hope you find true meaning, contentment and passion in your life." It's simple and eloquent, and the rest of her book outlines all the complexities of our world that make that so much easier than said done. Sandberg asserts the world would be a better place if we had more women running companies and more men running homes, and I agree. I also think the world would be a better place if everyone read Lean In.

5. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (my review)
Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors, and in a year when I only read one of her books, reading it felt like reconnecting with an old friend. I can't recommend This is the Story of a Happy Marriage highly enough. It's a smart, beautiful, and poignant collection of essays, and while I favor some more than others, there isn't a bad one in the entire collection.

4. Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (my review)
Lamb is complex and beautifully crafted tale. Lamb himself is a fascinating and flawed man, and his unreliable narration is at times a puzzle to put together: how far is his reality from reality? A delightful creepiness extends throughout this novel, but there are also moments of soft, quiet, beauty. That Nadzam managed all of this in her first novel is extraordinary.

3. Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (my review)
Susanna Daniel is now two for two with me, and Sea Creatures is even better than Stiltsville, which I adored. It's a beautiful, intelligent, and heart-wrenching novel, and I hope it becomes a modern classic, just as I hope Daniel gets the recognition she deserves.

2. Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (my review)
How did Curtis Sittenfeld follow up my all-time favorite novel American Wife? With a novel that is completely different but utterly transfixing. Sisterland builds slowly, albeit beautifully and with wisdom, and near the end I began to fear Sittenfeld had written a glorious set up to an ultimately disappointing novel. The last chapter, however, is a literary tour de force and could serve as a masterclass in detailed plot development free of gimmicks.

1. Tampa by Alissa Nutting (my review)
Oh, Alissa Nutting, I fell in love with you while I read Tampa. It's a novel that reminds me why I will always love fiction best. Alissa Nutting masterfully gets inside the mind and body of Celeste. The result is a modern masterpiece whose story can only be told this deeply in a fictional way, and its haunting final pages will stick with me for a very long time. In fact I've re-read the novel's last two pages three times since I finished this book...earlier this week.

Thanks for reading along with me in 2013. Now tell me: what was your favorite book of 2013?

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  1. I'm seeing a lot of people with nonfiction on their best of lists this year, a lot of them for the first time ever. I often wonder if we bloggers are just preaching to the choir but I think this nonfiction trend shows that even if we're just talking to each other, we are making an impact. I know I would not be picking up as much nonfiction as I do now if it were not for reading so many interesting reviews of nonfiction books.

    1. Very well said, Lisa! Just like I've learned all fiction is not for me, I'm slowly figuring out the kinds of nonfiction I gravitate to, and as usual, I credit/blame book bloggers!

  2. This is a really interesting list! Over the past few weeks I have had a real hankering to read the Lewis trilogy, but maddeningly, my Mum has lent The Black House to a friend and can't remember where it is, so I haven't been able to start. I am considering just buying another copy! It sounds like a great series. I became enchanted with the Scottish island setting after reading Ann Cleeves' Shetland series earlier this year.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed Lamb, too. I loved it but haven't heard too much buzz around the blogs. I have been wondering how it compares to Tampa, so am now intrigued after reading your glowing praise of that one!

    1. Marie, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the Lewis Trilogy when you read it. I've been saving the third one to read for six months because I didn't want the trilogy to end, but it's almost time to cave and read it!

      I wish more people talked about Lamb. It came so long ago (relatively) in the US, and I think it has slowly found more of an audience. It's very different from Tampa, but they're both excellent. Happy reading!

  3. Must stop reading these lists! I loved This is the Story of a Happy Marriage and Lamb - clever and brave book. I'd like a copy of The End of the Point but have sworn off Amazon and it's not published in the UK.

    1. How devastating to hear End of the Point hasn't been published in the UK! I hope it will make its way there soon (and perhaps onto a Bailey's longlist!)

  4. Great list! I also totally loved Relish. And I WILL get to Sisterland this year. I was on the waiting list at the library for an eternity and I think I just gave up. Surely it's available by now!

    1. Melissa, I will look forward to your thoughts on Sisterland!

  5. I loved Sisterland right up until the last quarter or so, and it didn't end up making my list this year. I liked This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage a lot, too. The End of the Point is on my TBR list and I wish I'd gotten to it in 2013. I've been meaning to try Michael Kelly's books since The Chicago Way first came out, and I know that was several years ago by now!

  6. Laurie, I've heard that about both Sisterland and American Wife! I think you'd enjoy The End of the Point--it was one of the biggest surprises for me this year. I'd owned The Chicago Way on my Kindle for years, so I'm glad I finally read it--and followed with the other three very quickly. Enjoy!

  7. Lamb was very good. I loved how I wanted to make the guy out to be an innocent even though I knew he was crossing he line. It made me really consider my morals.

    1. Yes! I loved that Nazdam refused to make it a black and white/good and bad issue. It was delightfully morally complicated.

  8. Even the slower years can really introduce you to some goodies. I'm so glad to see Relish on your list, and I downloaded Lamb after I saw your review of it here. :)

  9. Ann Patchett seems to be in a lot of best-of-2013 lists. I loved Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars, but then was very disappointed with The Magician's Assistant and haven't tried anything by her since. Need to revise that policy!

    1. Alex, I really disliked The Magician's Assistant too, but I've loved everything else of hers I've read!

  10. Your list looks great, but, alas, I haven't read any of those! Well, now I have plenty of books to keep in mind. Happy New Year!

  11. I read the Chicago series (the first couple) a couple years ago or whenever the one came out but I don't remember much about them! I need to look back and see if I reviewed to remember if I should pick up the next in the series!

    I am adding Tampa and the essays by Ann Patchett to my MUST READ SOON list!!

  12. I'm so glad you're not leaving us! Yours is the only blog that I read religiously. If you recommend a book, I know I'll love it! Several of these titles were new to me, but I'm looking forward to reading them in 2014.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!