What a great year of reading! Seriously, it's been such a good year of the reading, the likes of which I haven't had in a while. I read very few books this year that I outright disliked. Now, you would think in a year where I read nearly all books that I liked it would be tough to pick a top ten for this lovely meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Much to my surprise, this year it wasn't at all. Among all the good reading this year there were still exactly ten stupendously extraordinary books that stood head and shoulders above the rest. They did all the things that I want my books to do- they helped me escape from the humdrum moments of my daily life, they helped me learn things about history and want to know more, they made me think, they engaged my emotions profoundly, they often featured narrators that I could relate to almost completely, and helped me understand people and life itself more deeply. Here they are in no particular order - the best of my reading year!
1. The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin - This is definitely the year that historical fiction found its way back onto my reading menu, and I'm so glad it did. This book is about Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It's got a brilliant first person narration from Anne's perspective, and Benjamin did a beautiful job of humanizing these famous historical figures.
2. The Grave of God's Daughter by Brett Ellen Block - I think after you've been book blogging for a while, you fall into this mistaken belief that every book that's worth reading, you will have at least heard of from some fellow blogger (or maybe that's just me), but The Grave of God's Daughter proved that such a notion is ridiculous. My parents bought me a copy at some long ago book sale, and it was rescued from the stacks just this year, and it is so good. It's a historical fiction coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in a hardscrabble western Pennsylvania town where there are a lot of secrets to be learned, some of which are closer to her and her family than she ever would have expected.
3. Angelfall by Susan Ee - Angelfall was a book I never would have purchased but for the good opinion of bloggers, and I'm so glad I did. It's YA fiction about a girl trying to keep her ragtag family together after the, um, angel apocalypse, we'll say. The girl, Penryn, is a very strong character, and when she rescues a wounded angel who, she hopes, will help her find her angel-abducted sister, you know that's going to lead to some interesting situations. I was totally absorbed, and I actually pre-ordered the second book in the series, which I never do. I can't think of a stronger recommendation than that. ;-)
4. World War Z by Max Brooks - This took me about an eon to read while I was on my tour (read: "slew of tiny vacations") this summer, and that usually sets the odds against my liking a book. Not so with World War Z, which was so not what I expected. I was thinking "juicy book about zombie apocalypse." What I ended up with was a juicy book about the zombie apocalypse that also served as incredible social commentary about life as we know out and how easily it could change. This truly is the thinking person's zombie novel, and I liked it that much more because of it.
5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - What can I say about The Fault in Our Stars? I was untroubled by the only loosely realistic dialogue because I loved how snappy and intelligent it was. I cried like a baby even though I knew I was supposed to cry like a baby which can often preclude crying. I loved that John Green basically said at the outset that a story can be fully fiction but still totally communicate profound truths and then totally proved it.
Brewster by Mark Slouka - This is officially the book I feel like the biggest poop for having failed to review this year. It's kind of the age old story about a few teenagers coming of age in a small town they can't wait to leave behind, except it's got way more layers. The narrator, Jon, is a budding track star whose brother died when he was a kid, and his parents have been emotionally distant ever since. The narrator's best friend is a guy that can't say no to a fight whose tough exterior is covering a really, really bad home life. Slouka captures the tension of the pivotal moment of a track race in a way that just about makes you hold your breath and nails that bittersweet feeling of a memory in the making, the perfect moment that you know won't last even as you're living it. Plus, the climax of this book, when everything clicks for Jon and what he does and everything is probably the most emotionally wrenching (in a good way?) scene I've read in a long, long time.
7. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles - And this is first runner up in the "books I feel like crap for not reviewing this year." First of all, it's New York City in 1930s, which is right in my wheelhouse. Katey Kontent, the narrator, and her friend Eve meet a handsome well-to-do gentleman in a nightclub on New Years Eve. Only he's not exactly what he seems and there is some tragedy, and then Katey's alternating between being a bookish loner and a skilled social climber, and it's a cool picture of the whole New York City mythology in which you can be whatever you want to be, but not without a certain amount of sacrifice. For some reason, I felt a super-strong connection with Katey. Her sense of humor and her tendency to be the odd one out made me totally pull for her when she risks it all for a chance to be somebody. And also there is the handsome gentleman with all the secrets? Yeah.
8. Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden - This is such a good example of really good "thoughtful" fiction. By and large it's an exploration of the narrator's thoughts and memories for a day as she rattles around her best friend's house trying to come up with ideas for her next play to write. There's not really much action happening, but the narrator's inner life is so well-populated that you hardly notice. Madden makes the narrator's thoughts flow so naturally and comes out with some brilliant commentary about how fiction can be a profound vehicle for truth (which is something I'm apparently an especially big fan of this year).
9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - What can I say about The Book Thief that hasn't already been said? I loved it as much as everyone else seems to have done, which is no surprise. World War II-set books have always been a favorite of mine. The only surprise here is that it took me so damn long to read it!
10. I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe - This is more of a 2014 preview (January 28th), and I lucked out getting a copy from Read it Forward. It's the story of a girl who joins the Union Army during the American Civil War to be with her new husband. Honestly, at first I thought I wouldn't like it, the book jumps right in without much background, but by the end, I was cheering for, Rosetta, the narrator, as she transforms from a naive girl into a strong, courageous woman. It's definitely the sort of historical fiction that makes you want to know more - I'll definitely be seeking out some more reading about women who secretly served during the Civil War.
Runner-Ups (which totally wouldn't be in a lesser reading year!):
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
Come In and Cover Me by Gin Phillips