Best Books of 2013

Best of the Best: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. OMG, you guys, this book! It’s gotten a lot of (deserved) buzz all over the internet, so you’ve probably already heard that everyone in the book is referred to as “she” even when the narrator (gender unknown) knows the person is male. That’s pretty cool, but even better is the fragmented narrative that takes place in pieces–all pieces of the same entity–and that eventually start making sense. Not at first, but I love me a book that makes me work. The author has said that Ursula Le Guin‘s Left Hand of Darkness was a major influence, and you can see it. I love LHD, but I’ll be the first to admit that some aspects have not aged well. Reading Ancillary Justice is like getting to read LHD for the first time all over again.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson. I’ve gushed before about this book, and I know some people with more familiarity with Brazilian culture had problems with the book, but oh, I loved it. I loved unlikeable June and the bad decisions she makes while she struggles with her ambition relating to her art, her love for the different people in her life and the social activism that is at the heart of the book. I also love that there is sex and masturbation and a bisexual love interest. By the end I was thinking, I don’t know how Johnson is going to salvage this in a way that makes me content, but she did.

Best Ugly Cry: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I wish I could re-read this book to see how the author did the things she did, but since I woke up sobbing in the middle of the night after reading it the first time, I just don’t think that’s going to happen. Among all the other things to admire, I loved that this book was about female friendship without romance.

Best Ongoing Series: Untold, sequel to Unspoken, by Sarah Rees Brennan. I loved Unspoken last year when I read it. Kami is outspoken, tenacious, smart, a writer and biracial. The pacing is runaway train, and amazingly it was even better when I re-read it in preparation for Untold and noticed details I missed when I raced through it the first time. Untold was as good as the first book and Kami’s friends Angela and Holly play a vital part and get a good chunk of the narrative.

Best Surprise Favorite: This Song Will Save Your Life, by Leila Sales. I had read Past Perfect in 2012 for my book club and it was charming and funny and light, so I picked up TSWSYL expecting to have a fun read, but not to fall in love with everything about it. I don’t fall in love with contemporaries, but Elise, who just wants some friends and acceptance and loves music really got under my skin. Plus girl friendships, totally understandable bad decisions and good parents.

Best Classic: Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. A friend put this book in my hands, saying it was one of her childhood favorites, a phrase to strike fear into anyone’s heart. But, oh, it holds up. Think I Capture the Castle in the 1960s without the genteel poverty, in the US and a MC who doesn’t know what she wants. But something of the voice is very similar to Castle and the ending, which I was afraid would suck a la 1960s expectations, was PERFECT.

Best New to Me Author: Jaclyn Moriarty. I had never heard of her before Alison Cherry introduced me to her but after I started with The Year of Secret Assignments, I went on to read four more of her books.

Best Re-read: Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells.

Best I’ve run out of topic headingsBest of All Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord. I hugely enjoyed this book for precisely the reasons it will drive some people crazy: it’s episodic, it’s intimate, it is not what you expect of an after the end of the world plot, there’s consensual sex and none of the non-consensual kind, there’s a love story, and it’s social science fiction. Caveat: I’m still not sure about the ending eight months later.

Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear. I wish I had written down what I liked about this book, but all I can tell you is that I enjoyed it immensely. And that is really enough, isn’t it?

Best Non-Fiction: Sadly I didn’t read any good non-fiction that was published in 2013. But I read Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed, which was amazing and heart-breaking in the best possible way.

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Hiatus

I’m on VACATION!!

Unless I’m overtaken by inspiration I’ll be back at the end of July.

Some of the books I’m planning to read:

Cold Fire (re-read in preparation for) Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

Elfland by Freda Warrington

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

Nation by Terry Pratchett (first attempt at a Pratchett book. I KNOW!)

Some “short” stories by Michelle West now that I finally have an ereader

No YA on that list though. I’ve been having trouble finding something that catches my attention lately (unless the Pratchett counts?).

And speaking of Terry Pratchett, I’m reading this 1985 speech, Why Gandalf Never Married, right now. (via @MituK)

Squeaking in before the bell tolls midnight and the end of 2012 (because the internet ate my first post and I’m sad to say it was much better).

Neither of my most favorite books of 2012 were published in 2012, but who cares? Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead are both middle grade. Before I read them, I would have told you I don’t read middle grade. Now I shamelessly push them on all book people and non-book people alike.

Sherman handles race, slavery, 1960s sexism and growing up without one misstep in this gem of a book. I was so afraid of the ending, but it is so so right. She’s a master. Plus it was 18 years in the making. The reader in me marvels, the writer in me weeps.

When You Reach Me has been called bittersweet, and I guess that’s the best that English can do. This book has a beauty that is enhanced and made possible by the presence of pain. It is sweet and painful, kind and unkind, each part necessary for the other.

Best why did it take me so long to read this book?: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. I’d picked this one up once before and didn’t get very far. I tried again early this year and fell hard. So hard I tried to persuade my book club to read this one instead of the book I knew was going to make me cry (they didn’t go for it). It is difficult to get into, but it is so so worth it once you do.

Best memoir wherein the author should have died multiple times: Wild by Cheryl Strayed (2012). Hilarious and horrifying all at once, I wouldn’t have believed this story if someone had told me about it, but it must be true because publishers are more careful about those things now, right? RIGHT? Do not read this as a how-to to guide for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. She should be dead several times over.

Best categorized as a mystery but I’m not really sure that’s what it is: O Jerusalem by Laurie R. King (re-read). If there are any factual errors in this book, don’t tell me, ok? I don’t want to know. Remember how when I caught a snippet of Elementary on TV I thought Lucy Liu was Sherlock and then I cried when I found out she wasn’t, that it was the guy? This has the female Sherlock Holmes who is disguised as a boy for most of the book in 19teensomething Palestine. She learns Arabic (in addition to the other languages she already knows) and is Jewish. There is obsessive comparative religion, archeology, indigenous (if that’s the word) freedom movements and everyone is passing as something else in this book, one of my favorite themes ever. I think this book was written just for me.

Best graphic novel that unexpectedly made me cry: The Arrival by Shaun Tan. My graphic novel reading is sorely limited, complicated by the fact that the Brooklyn Public Library seems to shelve these books without alphabetizing them (the horror!) But my friend Alison has this book decoupaged or plastered (or something arty) on her wall and so I determined I must read it. Dear reader, I cried.

Best quiet book with the best friendships ever: Silence by Michelle West or Michelle Sagara (2012). Since she’s the same person I’m not going to bother to look it up again. Plenty happens in this book, it’s just not as relentlessly paced or explosiontastic as some other YA books I’ve read this year. But what shines are the friendships. I love the friendship between the girl friends. I love the friendship between the neurotypical girls and the boy with Asperger’s. I wish I had been so brave and smart as a kid. And then I read the author’s story about the dedication and I cried. (I’m pretty sure I read the original, longer entry on her livejournal. I can’t seem to find it, but this will give you an idea.)

Best fantasy: The Siren Depths by Martha Wells (2012). I’ve posted elsewhere about how much I love Martha Wells’ stories. What I love about this book and the others in the trilogy is how fantastic it is, in the sense of extravagantly fanciful, marvelous. I don’t get this feeling that often from fantasy anymore, whether because I’m jaded or because there’s so much grim-dark out there these days.

Honorable mention: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I know it’s weird to have an honorable mention on my own list. I really really liked this book, but I didn’t love love love it like some of the books I left off this list. However, it surprised me. The concept surprised me, the dragons surprised me, the humor surprised me and the plot surprised me and that is damn rare so I’m putting it here.

Books I thought I read in 2012 but really read in 2011 and I’m going to tell you about them anyway:

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. Best quote from the book (paraphrased) “Being wrong feels an awful lot like being right.”

Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. As Elizabeth Bear said (more or less) “This is how to write narrative non-fiction as if it were fiction.” Or really something like that. In other words, gruesome, funny, fascinating science and history writing.

A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. For someone who won the Stoker award and has been nominated for the Nebula, Tiptree and Mythopoeic awards and more, I don’t hear that much about this author. This book is a little like Holly Black’s curse workers trilogy, without the mafia, boarding school or NJ and if Cassel had a happy home life. Ok, it’s really not, except magic runs in families and everyone has it except Gypsum and when she finally does get it, it’s unpleasant curse magic. And the book is awesome, so in that it’s alike.

Best blog: The Book Smugglers. Because why the hell not? I agree with Thea and Ana enough to trust their taste in books. Plus they’re smart, savvy smugglers with lots of sharp commentary on topics that interest me and how they intersect with books.

Best Reads of 2012

Books I wish I could read right now, but must wait until 2013 for

Untold, Sarah Rees Brennan
Unspoken was a surprise favorite for me this year. Gothics: meh. Girl detectives: ambivalent. Wuthering Heights: meh. I had read one of the author’s other books and wasn’t that excited about it, but I loved Kami Glass, I loved the pushback against soul mates trope, I loved how their relationship was called out as maybe not healthy, I loved the English country setting, I loved the girl friendships. The only thing I didn’t love was the cliffhanger ending! But even that was done well. The book ended in a resting (if not safe) place, and not in the middle of the action like some books I could mention. Oh yeah, and that cover!

No cover and the blurb would probably be spoilerific, so I’m not even looking for it.

Cold Steel, Kate Elliott

Cold Steel by Kate Elliott2
Cold Magic and Cold Fire have Cat, a heroine equally at home with a sword or a sewing needle, non-stop action, steampunk I can get behind because it’s not underpinned by racist Victoriania, POC main characters and a diverse world, lots and lots of secrets and a reluctant romance (possibly the kind I like the best.) Cold Steel is supposed to wrap it all up and I’ll finally find out what’s going on!

The blurb is so spoiler-full if you haven’t read the first two books, I’m not putting it here.

Sequel to Adaptation, Malinda Lo
This book is so super duper sekret its title hasn’t even been released yet. Adaptation was a departure for Malinda Lo from her fairy tale-esque fantasies and sometimes it showed in awkward turns of phrase, but I still devoured the book in one sitting, turning the pages faster and faster to find out what was going to happen next and what would our heroes do? It also ended on a cliffhanger so I am forced to pretend I never read it until the sequel comes out.

Emilie and the Hollow World, Martha Wells

Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha Wells
I love everything Martha Wells writes. She consistently hits all the right notes for me: great heroines, fascinating  and different fantasy, romance doesn’t overpower the story, and I usually can’t tell where she’s going. Also, she sidesteps (in my opinion) the racist, sexist, default to medieval Europe fantasy tropes that tangle so many others’ feet. And that is a huge, huge plus. Because sometimes I want to turn off those parts of my brain and just freaking enjoy a story without being blindsided by someone else’s ick.

From the author’s website:
While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure. Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father. With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange races of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.

Red, Alison Cherry

Red by Alison Cherry
Hello, lone contemporary book on this list. And actually cheating, since I’ve read it already (but not the new ending!) and I want all of you to read it too! It’s funny, it’s fun, it has blackmail and the dubious pleasure of a beauty pagent and everyone is a red head! (Disclosure: Alison is a friend of mine, I read this manuscript in its infancy and I’m going to talk it up to everyone until my lips crack.)

Battle, Michelle West

Battle by Michelle West
WHAT? Amazon says this book will be released on December 31, 2012. I’ve been waiting since 1995 and The Hunter’s Oath to find out what happens next. Need I say more? If you haven’t read Michelle West, then you don’t know that there are like 13 other novels in this universe and related to this story line and well over a million words in them. Daunting? Yes, unless you’re thinking “All those words to read!”

To sum up: if you like fantastical books (even Red gets a pass here since it’s quirky contemporary) with strong heroines (for many qualities of strong) with minimal to no romance, you might like some of these books too. (Adaptation’s sequel will probably be the exception, with not one but two main interests, but not like a love triangle; Battle will probably be at the extreme far end of no romance given past books.) Maybe I’ll do a post about why I don’t like romance in books? That would means I’ll have to think about why.