It’s that time again—when everyone and their mom is posting ‘best of 2013′ lists. And since I’m no Arty the Smarty (at least not on this issue), I’ll join the club. Here are the best books I read in 2013 (most of which were not actually published in 2013). I’ve included a few re-reads, but by and large these books were all new to me in the past year.
[Side note: 2013 was the year of the road trip, so a decent chunk of these were more listened to than read; I've tried to indicate the audiobook version (including the narrator) where applicable. Audiobooks tend to be pricier than hard copies, but many titles are available for digital download through your local public library.]
This rollicking steampunk-supernatural-mystery novel is technically the sequel to the (also excellent) Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer, but I listened to The Detective first and had no trouble whatsoever following the plot or immersing myself in Howard’s fantastic universe. The title character is diabolically clever, unscrupulous, and self-absorbed antihero along the lines of a more grown-up Artemis Fowl (before he softened into a regular, straightforwardly moral hero). This darkly funny tale makes for a great road-trip read.
Best Horror Fiction: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake
What happens when a teenage ghost-hunter starts to fall for the vicious and violent ghost girl he’s supposed to kill? Why does she spare his life? And will he ever avenge his murdered father? Think of it as Supernatural: The Teen Years, or a gender-flipped Buffy the Ghost Slayer (season 1). While this creative and entertaining book is targeted at teen audiences, it does boast a fair amount of violence and some strong language (though it’s not as gory or outright scary as much of the genre).
Honorable Mention: Allison Walker Is Trapped, by Madelein Roux
Best Classic Fiction: A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter
If you’re not familiar with Gene Stratton-Porter’s work, do yourself a favor and read this book. Stratton-Porter writes in the vein of Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodges Burnett—mainly wholesome, moral tales like An Old-Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, and The Secret Garden, in which there is no problem that can’t be solved by hard work, exercise, kindness, a cheerful attitude, and time spent in the great outdoors. This last step is particularly crucial to Stratton-Porter, a naturalist and wildlife photographer who set most of her stories against the backdrop of the rich biodiversity of the Limberlost Swamp in Indiana. In the charming and delightful A Girl of the Limberlost, young Elnora Comstock struggles to fit in at school, reconcile with her bitter and resentful mother, and make her way in the world. Male readers may appreciate Stratton-Porter’s Freckles, in which a hard-working, one-handed orphan takes on the monumental task of guarding the enormous Limberlost trees from would-be lumber thieves.
Best Modern Devotional/Religious Work: The Envy of Eve: Finding Contentment in a Covetous World, by Melissa B. Kruger (Reviewed here)
By far the most helpful and convicting book I’ve read on fighting sin—specifically the sin of envy or covetousness. Kruger offers guidance that is both biblically based and deeply practical. This would make an excellent small group book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Honorable Mention: Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul, by Gary Thomas (Reviewed here.)
Best Short Story Collection: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, by Michael Chabon (ed.)
With short stories from such well-respected authors as Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Michael Crighton, Laurie E. King, Nick Hornby, Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Chabon (who also edited the work), this collection seeks to re-create the golden age of the ‘ripping yarn’—the genres that once dominated the world of short stories. Chock full of detective stories, westerns, weird fiction, ghost stories, etc., this is a delightful nod to the pulpy mags of yesteryear. As with any collection, there are some less-than-stellar entries, but by-and-large the collection is very solid. My favorite entry was “The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter”, a sad and macabre tale based on the (true) story of Mary, a murderous circus elephant executed by hanging.
Honorable Mention: Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir, by Duan Swierczynski (ed.)
Best Biography: Cash, by Johnny Cash
A laid-back and refreshingly authentic account of the life of the Man in Black. Cash’s voice shines through from beginning to end—you can almost hear him telling the stories and sharing his thoughts and reflections, his ups, his downs, his failures, and his redemption. And as it turns out, he’s a really, really good storyteller. The book moves at an easy pace, but Cash pulls you right along with him and makes the read a downright pleasure. If you’re not a Cash fan already, I expect reading this book will make you one.
Honorable Mention: Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This year marked my first foray into the world of Dorothy B. Sayers, and I found myself utterly charmed by the dapper gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey (who, in my mind, is played by the delightful William Powell, as the quick-witted and clever Wimsey has more than a touch of Nick Charles in him). In this entry, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother—a duke, naturally—is accused of murder, and Wimsey must find a way to discredit the rather damning evidence against him. Strong Poison, in which Wimsey finds himself defending a lovely mystery novelist wrongfully accused of the murder of her fiancé, is also excellent.
Honorable Mentions: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith &
Many readers are familiar with Konigsburg’s beloved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but this Newbery Medal winner was new to me. This lovely book tells the story of ‘The Souls’, a four-person Academic Bowl team. The story begins at the state finals, and each question triggers a flashback to events in the life of one of the Souls. Each story builds upon the next as the children’s lives become increasingly entwined, first as friends, and then as a team. This is one of those stories that doesn’t sound like it would be all that interesting or compelling, but in the hands of a capable author like Konigsburg, it blossoms into something truly delightful.
Best Nonfiction: The History of Hymnody, by Kevin Twit
Ok, this is technically a lecture series, not a book. But it is so good. And it’s available for free through the Covenant Theological Seminary website. Kevin Twit, a minister with Reformed University Fellowship (the campus ministry wing of the PCA) and hymn-re-tuner extraordinaire, walks his students through the history of hymnody, complete with musical excerpts (including the original—and much more rhythmically complex—melody of ‘A Mighty Fortress’). Twit is engaging and easy to listen to, so if you’re at all interested in hymns and their history, you’d do well to give this series a try.
Honorable Mention: On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, by James M. Lang
Best Puritan Work: Works of Flavel: Volume 1, by John Flavel
This volume contains a brief biography of Flavel’s life, and his The Fountain of Life Opened Up, which is a collection of 42 sermons comprising “a display of Christ in his essential and mediatorial glory.” It includes sermons on Christ’s humiliation in his incarnation, life and death; Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices; the events leading up to his crucifixion; his last words on the cross; and his resurrection, ascension, and judgment. Flavel is one of the more accessible Puritan writers, and you’d be hard-pressed to do better than spend a few months marinating in his meditations on Mediator. Need I say more?
Honorable Mention: The Christian Soldier; or, Heaven Taken by Storm, by Thomas Watson
I am ashamed to admit that I’d never actually read any Wodehouse before this year, and my life was the poorer for it. The anecdotes of hapless imbecile Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, the longsuffering valet who’s constantly extricating Wooster from various outlandish entanglements, are flippin’ hilarious (assuming you go in for the British parlor comedy romp sort of thing). My Man Jeeves is the first entry in Wodehouse’s series and as good a place to start as any (though you could easily start with any of Wodehouse’s other books). There are a ton of audiobook adaptations, too, but I particularly like Prebble’s voicing of the characters. The TV series, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, is also a hoot, and is available for free on Youtube.
Honorable Mention: Into the Twilight, Endlessly Grousing, by Patrick F. McManus
Have you ever read a book that was objectively awful, but that you nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed? For me, The Inner Society was just such a book. This work of Christian teen fiction is chock full of such clichés as the poor (secretly pretty) outcast, drug addiction, rehab conversions, secret societies, roofies, dead moms, drunk dads, funny uncles, bullies, true love waits, self-esteem issues, a dude named ‘Old Man Keller’, AIDS PSAs, and an obligatory reference to 9/11. It was utterly terrible and I loved it.
Happy reading, y’all!
*Technically, Neil Gaiman would totally dominate pretty much every category he’s written in, but I chose to highlight some lesser-known works while still giving the nod to Gaiman’s brilliance.
Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.