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Best Books of 2013

At the end of 2012 I made a list of all the books I read and published my first annual best books list. It was so fun that I’ve been waiting rather impatiently all year to write my next list. In 2012 I read just over 50 books, though I’m sure I forgot some while I was making my list. I knew I could read more than that (there’s a lot of down time in Peace Corps and I don’t have much of an active social life in the village) so I set a New Year’s Resolution to read 100 books. The numbers are finally in and my total count of NEW books read is 101*! On top of that I re-read some of my favorite series (and discovered audio books and how fantastic those are during bus rides or while I’m ironing). I re-read 21 books so, if you add those, that means I read 122 books during 2013. Needless to say, I had a lot of options to choose from and after careful consideration, I narrowed it down to the ten best books I read in 2013 (with a couple honorable mentions, of course). Enjoy! Fiction Les Misérables – Victor Hugo lesmiserables This was one of the first books I finished in 2013. I’ve wanted to read this classic for a long time and I finally got around to it, spurred on by the fact that I wanted to watch the new movie. Despite its vast length and frequent sideline commentary on topics such as how the France could have become rich if it had diverted its sewer system so human waste could become manure to fertilize the land, etc, etc, the story was brilliant. There’s a reason it’s such a classic. The themes of redemption, love, honor, and sacrifice make it a story worth reading (or watching) again and again. The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh thelanguageofflowers This is a book that popped up again and again, and I’m glad I finally read it. The story is based on the life of Victoria Jones, a hardened 18-year-old foster kid who has moved from home to home countless times throughout her young life. She’s just about to age out of the system and she doesn’t have a plan or a place to go. The book contains frequent flashbacks to Victoria’s younger years when she lived with her foster mother Elizabeth. At first all seems well between the two but there are several hints of something tragic that occurred to cause a separation between Elizabeth and Victoria. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Victoria comes to the attention of a florist who makes it her mission to help her. Victoria becomes a florist assistant and starts learning the language of flowers, a Victorian-era tradition. Along the way, she meets a boy who is determined to get to break down the walls she has built around herself. Diffenbaugh’s writing style is a little jarring at first as she jumps back and forth across the years, but the story finally converges with a message about the meaning of family. I enjoyed it. The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern thenightcircus This break-out novel for Erin Morgenstern was my favorite read of 2013. It included elements of magical realism, which I have a great fondnesss for, and it reminded me of one of my favorite movies: The Illusionist. The circus that is featured in the novel is a (magical?) wandering black-and-white circus that is only open from sunrise to sunset. Visitors to the circus believe that the performances are all incredible illusions, but are they? Underneath the surface of mystery and enchantment, there is a deeper plot as two magicians use their protégés to wage a secret battle of skill and style as each creates more complex and astounding magical illusions. The stakes are high for the two protégés – the loser will die. Fate steps in as their paths intertwine and the reader is whisked away for an enchanting ride. The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver thelacuna Barbara Kingsolver does it again. I haven’t yet read a book by Kingsolver that hasn’t moved me. I finally read The Poisonwood Bible this year and that was also a candidate for best books but I decided to go with a lesser-known Kingsolver novel. This work of historical fiction focuses on the live of Harrison William Shepherd, a fictional plaster-mixer turned cook turned author. Though Shepherd is not a rela historical figure, he moves to Mexico where he lives with Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera. During the time that Shepherd lives with them as their cook, he also develops a friendship with Leon Trotsky who lives in the Rivera-Kahlo household during the time Stalin exiled him from Russia. As in all Kingsolver novels, the characters really came to life and it made me curious to study more historical accounts of these famous figures. Cinder – Marissa Meyer cinder Cinder is Marissa Meyer’s debut novel, a modern adaptation of the Cinderella story. This is not your typical fairy tale. Cinder is a cyborg – part human and part robot – a combination that is feared and hated in the dsytopian city of New Beijing post-World War IV. Cinder is a mechanic of some renown who comes to the attention of Prince Kai. Unfortunately, due to Cinder’s cyborg status she is a second-class citizen who is in danger of being sold by her stepmother as an experiment to science. The city is suffering from a plague and cyborgs are being drafted to be tested for a cure. Sure enough, Cinder’s stepmother volunteers her for the scientific experiment and Cinder is plunged into a plot of intrigue and danger. The story doesn’t end here – Cinder is the first book in The Lunar Chronicles. The Color Purple – Alice Walker thecolorpurple A feminist classic, I read this book in one sitting. I laughed and cried. The characters experience love and loss, pain and betrayal, and it gripped me in a way that I truly did not expect. The story is set in the 1930s in rural Georgia. Almost all the characters are people of color and race, gender, and socio-economic status determine a great deal of how they are treated by those around them. There is heartbreakingly believable violence, especially towards women, and that makes it difficult to read but the books ends with a surprising note of redemption that sealed it forever as a book I will love. The Red Tent – Anita Diamant theredtent The Red Tent is a work of Biblical fiction, is a rather narrow genre that I haven’t explored a great deal. I didn’t have high expectations and I was pleasantly surprised. The Red Tent tells the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Joseph’s sister. She’s only mentioned in the Bible on a couple of occasions but Diamant really develops her character, as well as those of her mothers, aunts, and siblings. Women are the primary characters and they are all strong characters. The Biblical account definitely focuses on the male figures and their actions, and I enjoyed reading a (fictional) account that portrayed the rich lives of the women who refused to let men determine their destinies. If readers are looking for a story that sticks strictly to the Biblical account, this is not it. The women worship other gods than Jehovah and Diamant isn’t exactly condemning that. Even after reading it several months ago, the story has stuck with me, and in my mind, that means it’s worth a read. Honorable Mentions: The Mitford series – Jan Karon athomeinmitford Recommended to me by Amanda Banker (whose book recommendations have never disappointed me), The Mitford series is a heartwarming collection of Christian fiction novels set in the fictional town of Mitford, North Carolina. The books are slow-paced and the actions are mostly focused on the day-to-day activities of the characters, particularly Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest. Though I’ve never been to North Carolina and the culture of Portland, Oregon is a world away from traditional Southern hospitality, reading these books felt like coming home. I think what I most appreciated was watching the characters grow and change over time. It felt realistic, and it was comforting. This will be a series I come back to again and again. The Fault in Our Stars – John Green thefaultinourstars If you haven’t heard of this book or upcoming movie, you must be hiding under a rock. John Green’s young adult fiction novel made several lists for best books of 2012 (especially from Powell’s employees) and I used those recommendations to create my 2013 reading list. It took me a long time to finally sit down and read this book because I had heard it was an emotional rollercoaster. (I mean, teenage terminal cancer patients? Talk about a recipe for a heart wrenching story.) When I finally picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole book in one sitting, and yes, I weeped at the end. I also read Green’s other YA novel this year: Looking for Alaska. It’s not quite as good as The Fault in Our Stars but I still loved it. Nonfiction Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar – Cheryl Strayed Tiny_Beautiful_Things_book_cover Tiny, Beautiful Things was easily my favorite nonfiction read of 2013. Strayed is more well known for her recent memoir Wild (see below). TBT predates Wild; it’s a collection of the letters she answered as an anonymous advice columnist “Dear Sugar.” I really enjoyed it, although it’s not your grandmother’s advice column. There’s a lot of language and adult content but there’s also so many excellent nuggets of wisdom. Sugar’s letters are beautiful and profound. She doesn’t merely advise people on their situations; she relates her own experiences and life lessons. Though I loved it, this advice probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (see aforementioned warning about language and adult content). But if you can move beyond the pieces you may disagree with, you are in for a treat. This book will make you think, it will make you laugh, and it will almost certainly make you cry. I plan to buy it as soon as I move home – this is book I want close at hand. Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis merechristianity Lewis’s short book of Christian apologetics was originally a BBC radio broadcast during World War II. It’s style is conversational and it easily engages the reader, as it probably engaged listeners many years ago. Lewis did an excellent job in laying the foundation of Christian beliefs in easy-to-understand terms. While I didn’t agree with 100% of Lewis’s theology, I admired the way he explained difficult concepts and arguments. It’s clear why this book is a classic. Wild – Cheryl Strayed wild Wild is another book that landed on a lot of best of 2012 lists. Strayed describes her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a young woman in her twenties who had recently lost her mother and gone through a divorce. Without much preparation, Strayed laced up her hiking boots and hit the trail. The people she meets and the lessons she learns change her perspective on life. It was an inspiring and well-written account set in a beautiful stretch of the Pacific Northwest. After reading this and another hiking tale, Becoming Odyssa, I’m ready to move home, buy some boots, and hit the trail myself! In case you’re curious about what I was re-reading, it was three series: Harry Potter, Ender’s Game and subsequent novels, and The Chronicles of Narnia. If you haven’t read any of these, I think they are all fantastic – obviously I liked them enough to drop my new reads and re-read them. That’s pretty much the highest praise I can give to a book. In case y’all are wondering about my 2014 goals…I decided not to set a number on how many books I read. Instead, I’m focusing on topics. I want to read more feminist literature, more about the food industry, and more history. And I’ll balance that out with a good dose of fiction, of course. 🙂 *Full disclosure, some of these were short stories (Sherlock Holmes mysteries) and young adult fiction which tends to be on the shorter side BUT I also read Les Misérables so I figure it all evens out in the end, right?