Thursday, December 26, 2013

The 10 Best Things I Read in 2013

I thought I'd close out the year with a list of the ten best books I read in 2013.  Note that these are books I read in 2013, not books that were published in 2013.  Also, look, I learned to post images!

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room is the story of a woman and her five-year-old son, Jack, who have been trapped in one small room his entire life.  It's told from Jack's point of view, and it's the best job of an author authentically impersonating a child's voice I've ever encountered.  Room is a harrowing read at times - Jack is in moderate danger at one point - but well worth it.  It's an authentic, original, and engaging story.

Wool, by Hugh Howey

Ah, science fiction! My first love.  If you're interested in reading Wool, look for an omnibus edition - it's split into several parts that would be tedious to have to track down separately.  It's a post-apocalyptic tale of a siloed society - literally.  Everyone in the world lives in an underground silo, because the environment outside the silo has become too toxic for human life.  They grow their own food, pump and refine their own oil at the base of the silo (their power source), and manufacture everything they need.  And this society has existed for at least a few hundred years.  As you can imagine, the silo is starting to break down.  Wool is about what happens when people start to question whether they really can't go outside.  I'm reminding myself in the course of writing this to put the two sequels, Shift and Dust, on my to-be-read list. 

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski 

House of Leaves is one the strangest books I've ever read; I couldn't put it down.  I actually first encountered it about 12 years ago - my now-brother-in-law was enthusiastically recommending it.  I flipped through it, noted the weird page layouts, page-long footnotes, and variously colored text, and put it aside.  If only I had read it then!  In part it's the story of a man who discovered a physically impossible room in his house - a door appeared one day in an external wall, leading into a cavernous space that didn't exist from the outside of the house.  And in part it's the story of a possibly crazy old man who documented the story of the man with the crazy house.  And in part, it's the story of the young man who is going through the effects of the old man (who dies near the beginning of the book) discovering the story of how the old man discovered the story of the impossible room.  The young man is definitely crazy by the end of the book - perhaps driven to that state by his examination of the documents.  Parts of it are nigh-unreadable - the old man's story is dense with academic and philosophical discussions.  I'll tell you a secret - I skipped those parts.  You don't need them for this to still be a compelling story.  It was also interesting to me because, like an medieval illuminated manuscript, the text itself and the layout of the pages helps to tell the story.  The last thing I'll say about House of Leaves is that it's the best kind of horror story - you never see the monster, and nothing is ever really explained.

Mirror Kingdoms, by Peter S. Beagle

Mirror Kingdoms is a collection of the best short fiction of Peter S. Beagle.  I'm sad to say that I never read anything of Beagle's prior to this, although his best-known work, The Last Unicorn, has been on my to-be-read list forever.  (I know, I know, how dare I call myself an SF&F fan having never read Beagle?  Send an angry mob with feathers and tar.)  The stories cover a range of subjects, genres, characters, and perspectives; the only thing they all have in common is that I loved them.  (Particularly "Lila and the Werewolf.")  Don't make the same mistake I did (and am frantically rectifying) by missing out on this fantastic author.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

So, in general, I don't like post-modernist novels.  They're typically overwrought and not as clever as the authors think they are.  Cloud Atlas actually lives up to it's hype.  It consists of six different loosely connected narratives, ranging from a tale of adventure on the 19th century Pacific, to a far-future technocracy in which cloned slaves are the moral issue of the day, to a post-apocalytic Hawaii where the natives have reverted to their folkways after the demise of advanced, technological society.  You get the first half of five stories first (sometimes stopping in the middle of a sentence to switch narratives), then the whole of the sixth story, and then the second half of the first five stories.  I won't say anything about the ways in which the stories are linked, because I think recognizing the connections and parallels is part of what made this book so enjoyable.  Two warnings:  the dialect of the post-apocalyptic Hawaiians is atrocious.  Just do your best to get through it.  Second, the abrupt switch in narrative is jarring the first couple of times; contain your confusion and just keep reading.  All will be made clear and delightful.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans

I have to admit that I was surprised by how much I liked this book.  I approached it with some indifference; what could it have to tell me, a life-long churchgoer with 20 years of Sunday School and bible studies under my belt, about what the bible says makes a good woman?  And, as I thought, there wasn't anything surprising about the parts of the Bible that Rachel used to conduct her experiment.  Rather, it was her reaction to and thoughts about how those rules could and should be applied in modern life that were interesting.  I liked how she corresponded with faithful women of other traditions, and how she described certain (often overlooked) Biblical heroines.  Rachel had a thoughtful, balanced approach to interpreting the "rules" that the more extreme Christian sects insist on applying literally.  On top of that foundation, she adds her humor, including some  funny glimpses of her relationship with her husband, who was not all comfortable with his role as "lord and master" in Rachel's experiment.  It's an interesting and worthwhile read, even for those of us who thought we had already heard everything there is to say about being a Christian woman.

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

This book is what would happen if Dan Brown decided to write one of his thrillers set, not in Europe, but in Silicon Valley, and to incorporate lots of 21rst century technology.  (Oh, and miraculously develop talent, cause Brown's kind of a hack if you ask me.)  Mr. Penumbra tells the story of a down-on-his-luck web designer, who happens into a job clerking at a small, independent San Francisco bookstore (the eponymous Mr. Penumbra's).   But all is not what it seems to be; the store only has a few regular clients and they never buy anything.  Rather, they borrow thick texts of unintelligible gibberish.  "Why?" you may ask.  You'll have to read this delightful combination of 100-year old mystery (complete with a secret society!), timeless romance (just a little of that),  and usage of spanking new (literarily speaking) technology to find out.  Bonus: you get a fascinating look at the inner workings of Google (the company, not the search engine) as well as a mini-lecture on Renaissance printing technology.  It's a fun, easy, fast-paced read.  My one complaint is that I'm not sure that the method by which the mystery is ultimately solved really works out...but you'll have to decide that for yourselves.

 Unveiled: The Secret Lives of Nuns, by Cheryl L. Reed 

This is the one book on this list that I picked simply because it contained so much interesting information I did not previously know.  For instance, did you know that not all nuns wear habits anymore?  Did you know that not all nuns take life-long vows?  That the proper term for a community of nuns, or the building where they live, is a monastery, not a convent?  That some orders of nuns still practice flagellation (beating themselves) in expiation of the sins of others?  That still other orders of nuns practice perpetual adoration of the Eucharist (that is, 24-7-365, someone is praying before a Communion wafer)?  Those last two really boggled this Protestant girl's mind.  This book is chock-full of factual information such as I've described above, plus thoughtful discussions of what nuns are and should be, and interviews with sisters about what they do, why they do it, their relationships with each other and with Catholic church authority, why they became nuns...on and on and on.  It was fascinating.

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

The Speed of Dark is told from the perspective of an autistic man, Lou, in a near-future society where autistic people have become a large enough fraction of the population that social structures have been put in place to support them.  (I mean, much better and more effective social structures than we have in place to assist disabled people now.)  New techniques for correcting the cause of autism in utero have been developed, which means that there are no more autistic people being born.  Lou is of the last generation born before those techniques became widely available.  Lou lives independently in his own apartment; drives a car; has a small circle of autistic and non-autistic friends; and supports himself by working at a job that his autism makes him uniquely talented for.  Told from Lou's perspective, the story explores how autistic people see themselves, how society sees them, and the resentment that some "normal" people have toward any accommodations made for those different from themselves, and which group of people are really handicapped by their ways of thinking.  An experimental procedure has been developed that might - might - cure autism in adults; and Lou's boss is considering forcing his autistic employees to take it or be fired.  Following Lou's thoughts about the cure is fascinating - he goes from "Can I really be forced to take this cure?"  (he can't, not legally), to "Why should I take this cure?  Autism is part of who I am." to "Maybe I should do it after all?"  This brilliantly written book gave me a lot of insight into autism and autistic people.  And I believe Elizabeth Moon has an autistic child, so I'm inclined to view her as an authoritative source.  An excellent, thought-provoking read.

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

The final book on my list is the third in the Gentlemen Bastards series.  If you are a fan of swashbuckling high fantasy, I'm telling you - go get them all, right now.  They're set in a elegantly realized, complex world that reminds me of medieval Italy - little persnickety city-states that are constantly sniping at and trying to one-up each other - with just enough fantastical details thrown in to satisfy the reader.  Magic works, but it's not overused; and additionally there's real magic and then there's alchemy (which is kind of like chemistry, but less logical).  There's also a long ago race - the Eldren - who left behind amazing structures of unbreakable Elderglass; but where they went and why they left is a total mystery.  (I think the author is finally winding the story around to telling us more about the Eldren in the fourth book, which I really cannot wait to read one minute more.)  Beside the setting, these stories are peopled by wonderful rogues with hearts of gold and clever tongues.  Please read these complex, original, inventive, entertaining books, so that Scott Lynch keeps writing more of them!

That's it!  I hope something in my list caught your eye.  Happy reading and Happy New Year!

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