The superlatives of an outstanding reading year

DAMN this was a good year for books. As I was scrolling through old posts trying to make a Best of 2013 list, I was astounded at the percentage of posts this year that were four or five stars. Now, I will say that as years go on, I have become ever less inclined to review books about which I felt neutral, but even so, 2013 was an incredible year for books. It was so good that I gave up on the Best of 2013 idea, which would have felt uncurated because it would have included almost everything I read this year, and decided instead to tailor my list of superlatives to the particular strengths of this year.

Best bookish thing that is not a book

To nobody’s surprise, Emma Approved. Are you watching it yet, or have you been holding off because you were burned by Welcome to Sanditon? If the latter, I’d like to take this opportunity to endorse Emma Approved with a full heart. Emma and Mr. Knightley have excellent chemistry; Sen. Elton is pleasingly personable but you can see how he will turn out to be secretly douchey; and as in most Emma adaptations, Harriet and Mr. Martin steal any scene they’re in together. This creative team is brilliant, and my wish is that they keep on doing video blog adaptations of 19th-century classics forever. The 19th century was a good time for Lit’rature. It’s not like they’d run out of ideas. Mainly I don’t want them to stop before they get around to Jane Eyre.

Best job by me of convincing my mother of an opinion of mine that she disagrees with and I have been trying to talk her around to my position for more than a decade now

This defense of Sirius Black. Mumsy still does not love him, but she conceded that I had a point, and that my point made her like him better than she used to. Hooray for me!

Most deserving of its hype

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell. The blogosphere could not stop talking about Eleanor and Park this year. Y’all were not lying. This book is damn amazing. I wanted to read it again the minute I finished it. I cannot wait to own my own copy, which I will cherish and put a book plate in with my name in my fanciest handwriting.

Most deserving of how m.f. excited I was about it before it came out

More Than This, by Patrick Ness. I went into A Monster Calls with too-high expectations, and when More Than This started off so slowly, I became terribly anxious that I wouldn’t love it the way Patrick Ness’s books deserve to be loved. But it rallied with the introduction of two new-and-wonderful characters, and I ended up loving it. In particular I love it that Patrick Ness is not in a rut. More Than This is totally different to the Chaos Walking series, which is totally different to The Crane Wife (review forthcoming), which is totally different to A Monster Calls. I love him, and I am excited for whatever he wants to do next.

Lowest expectations for a book that ended up being pretty good actually

Shadows, by Robin McKinley. As I’ve mentioned before, I count a couple of Robin McKinley’s books among my favorite books in the world. But only a couple, and the rest of her books leave me feeling dissatisfied and bored. My expectations of Shadows were rock-bottom, and it turned out to be a really fun read.

Most wanted to be The Secret History and was angry and disappointed when it wasn’t

You thought I was going to say The Goldfinch, didn’t you? Ha, ha, you were wrong. The answer is, The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood. I did not like it. Why wasn’t it more like The Secret History? Why aren’t all books more like The Secret History? These are questions I cannot answer.

Loveliest surprise

You’ll be tired of me saying it, but Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye. I didn’t expect not to like it, but I was surprised by how much I ended up liking it. A runner-up, because I did expect not to like it, was Kate Atkinson’s strange and wonderful Life after Life.

Saddest fictional death

Uncle Finn in Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rivka Brunt. That book wrecked me. Although it’s difficult to say in a year so packed with wonderful reads, I am going to go ahead and say that Tell the Wolves I’m Home was my best book of 2013. Eleanor and Park was awfully, awfully good, but I’m giving it to Tell the Wolves I’m Home by dint of the fact that it’s not getting quite as much play and thus needs me to love it extra.

Saddest real-life death

Elizabeth Peters, of course. I am crushed that Elizabeth Peters has died, and I regret that I never wrote her a letter to tell her how much enjoyment I got from her books over the years.

Made me feel the best about myself for enjoying it

HHhH, by Laurent Binet. I often struggle with books in translation, so I’m always thrilled — with the author and myself — to encounter a book in translation that I unreservedly love. HHhH is that kind of book. It is surprisingly lovely and sweet for a book about assassinating a Nazi officer.

Whack-a-doodlest book lent the most gravitas by its author’s serious, Southern-accented radio interviews

Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright – If you haven’t read this book about scientology yet, now’s a good time to read it. I think it would be fun to read over a vacation: lots of crazy parts that you can read out loud to your friends-and-relations, who can’t escape from you because y’all are on vacation.

Favorite term I coined myself like a genius

“Process dystopia” to describe the kind of book that shows the world all going to hell, instead of starting the book after the world has already gone to hell.

Coolest design

Obviously, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film. No contest, because I haven’t finished reading the JJ Abrams / Doug Dorst collaboration S yet.

Best execution of a tricky premise

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. This book! So good! Karen Joy Fowler does not invent a premise and coast on it. She follows through all the way. She commits. I loved the writing, I loved the jokes, and I loved the sadness. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves gets additional credit for reminding me to care about James Tiptree Jr., an author I now really like.

Jolliest good fun

Lexicon, by Max Barry. This was just fun. It was fun and fun and fun, and there are not enough books in this world that are just pure fun.

Lovablest book that did not appeal to me on paper

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Nothing about the synopsis for this book would have called to me, but fortunately I read part of it in a NetGalley excerpts package and fell in love with the narrative voice. I loved it, and I think it’s something special and particular, and I’m not just saying that because the ending is perfectly geared towards my sensibilities.

Best Harry Potter news

It’s a tie! It’s a tie between the news that JK Rowling is writing a movie about Newt Scamander and his escapades as a wizard naturalist in the early twentieth century, and the news that the UK is releasing beautiful new editions of the Harry Potter books illustrated by Jim Kay of A Monster Calls. Y’all, I miss Harry Potter.

Most merits its long long length

Again, not The Goldfinch! (I think that could have been edited down a bit.) This one goes to Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s great. I didn’t want it to end.

Author least afraid of going balls-to-the-wall crazy with plots

Laini Taylor! I am well excited for the third book in her Nouns of Substances and Atmospheric Nouns trilogy. She just goes all out with her storylines, and that is wonderful to me, as anyone who has ever heard me speak about The Vampire Diaries will know.

Best character

Boris, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. There aren’t enough good things to say about Boris. If the book only consisted of passages with Boris in them, and had no other plot, it would be worth it just for that. I don’t remember the last time I encountered a character in a book that I enjoyed spending time with as much as Boris from The Goldfinch.

Insanest that I still haven’t finished reading it

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. I know I know I know I know. But here’s what’s up: I’m reading it to Social Sister. I’ll finish reading it when I finish reading it to Social Sister. That’s how we roll.

And that’s 2013, my friends! I’ll be away from blogging over the next couple of weeks to celebrate holidays with the family, and I wish you all happy holidays and a wonderful New Year. See you in January!

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

Here is a book I purchased for my mother’s birthday although I had not read it and I had read very few if any reviews of it at the time of purchase and I didn’t read it first. I got it for her only on the basis of the short excerpt NetGalley provided in their “Buzz Books” sampler. That is how much I love the narrative voice of Nao Yasutani. A very very lot.

I’m leading with that because the synopsis of this book would not have induced me to read it. One of the two lead characters is — like the author — a writer called Ruth who has a husband called Oliver. They live on a small Canadian island, and one day a package washes up on the beach — Ruth presumes from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Well-wrapped to protect it from water damage, the package contains two diaries, some letters, and an old watch, all inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. One diary is in French but the other — disguised as a Proust novel — is in a teenager’s purple-pen rounded English cursive. It is the diary of a teenager called Nao who is planning to kill herself but wants first to write the life story of her great-grandmother, a radical feminist turned Buddhist nun following the death of her son in World War II.

When writing about this book, Vasilly said there was something about it that felt really special. I felt just the same, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the whole book. There were times, certainly, when it felt like Ruth’s sections of the books were proceeding by rote — she’s interested in the diary, she’s trying to find Nao in real life, she’s talking to her husband about Nao’s life — and I was impatient to get back to Nao. But as the book went on, and Ruth’s life on this island became more fleshed out independent of Nao’s story, I was able to enjoy both sections of the book about equally.

This was helped, of course, by the increasing sadness of Nao’s life, which at times it was a relief to escape from for a little while. Although Nao tries to talk about her great-grandmother, Jiko, she is frequently sidetracked into stories of her own difficulties. Her father was fired from his Silicon Valley job when the dot-com bubble burst, and Nao, who thinks of herself as American in many ways, has never fit in with her Japanese schoolmates. She is brutally bullied in school (really, it gets pretty upsetting), and at home her father is becoming increasingly depressed over his inability to provide for his wife and family. Nao is terrified that her father will kill himself, and her fear expresses itself in anger with him.

Though Nao’s story is tragic, there kept being moments of light that saved it from being too much for me. Nao’s voice, as I’ve said, is captivating and warm and lovely. And old Jiko is a wonderful, wonderful character. She is just the right combination of mystical and down-to-earth, and there’s never any doubt why Nao admires and loves her so much. For instance, this, when Jiko has asked Nao if she feels angry.

“Of course I feel angry,” I said, angrily. “What do you expect? It was a stupid thing to ask.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It was a stupid thing to ask. I see that you’re angry. I don’t need to ask such a stupid thing to understand that.”

“So why did you ask?”

Slowly she turned herself around, pivoting on her knees, until finally, she was facing me. “I asked for you,” she said.

“For me?”

“So you could hear the answer.”

I just loved that.

As well, Ozeki has a knack for keeping you invested in characters you might be inclined to write off or stop thinking about. I was as frustrated as Nao was with her father, and thinking many critical thoughts about him, and then Ruth found a posting about suicide on the internet, which she suspects was written by Nao’s father:

Recently I am reading some philosophical books written by great Western minds all about the meaning of life. Those are very interesting, and I hope I will find some good answers there.

I don’t care for myself, but I am afraid my attitude is unhealthy for my daughter. At first I thought I should commit suicide so she will not feel shame on account of my failure to find a good job with big salary…Now I think I must try to stay alive, but I have no confidence to do so. Please teach me a simple American way to live my life so I do not have to think of suicide ever again. I want to find the meaning of life for my daughter.

I got all choked up.

Finally, the end. Ah the end. How I loved it. This is the sort of ending that will not please everybody, but it greatly pleased me. It has a quality of semi-deniable magic, which — given the slightly magical feel of the book in the first place — did not feel out of place to me. It’s also an ending with some ambiguity to it. We don’t really find out what happened to Nao, but the book ends on a note of hope. I like a hopeful ending. It doesn’t feel like a cheat to end a sad book on a hopeful note.

If I had to sum up the reason I loved this book, apart from Nao’s really wonderful narrative voice, I would say, I guess, that I admire a book that can look at sadness and still feel hope. I admire a book that suggests — even in the midst of sorrow — that all systems tend towards love.

I received this free e-book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.