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Best I Read, 2013 Edition

Another year has passed, and it’s time to sit back and take stock of what worked and what didn’t for me in 2013. As always, this is a list based on what I read for the first time in 2013, not what was released by publishers in 2013; I won’t have read enough books that came out this year to put together a meaningful top ten list for at least a decade. First off, the metrics (so you know it’s not “I read ten books and here they are in order”…):

Number of books finished/defenestrated this year: 277

Total page count (of the books above, not including those I’m in the middle of): 23,333
(Average pages per book: 84.23)

Pretty darn close to my goal of 300, though I still missed. I blame Netflix, plus quitting smoking. (I always read whilst sitting on the porch smoking.)

As a side note: this is the first year in recent memory where the 25th book on the list is four stars; I didn’t have to dip into the three-and-a-half-star pool to come up with the list. In fact, I could have extended it to thirty and have just finished the four-star books. Pretty good reading year.

And without further ado, the 25 best of the year:

25. Sandra Boynton, Night-Night, Little Pookie (Robin Corey Books, 2009)

photo credit: Amazon
“The last two pages of this book are exactly the kind of magic Boynton weaves in her best moments.”

24. Mem Fox, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008)

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“The bean would ask for this one multiple times in a row every night we had it out of the library, and I didn’t mind in the least reading it every single time.”

23. Kaoru Mori, Emma, vol. 9 (CMX, 2009)

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“All excellently-done, though “Erich and Theo” still stands out (the story details a night spent alone in the forest by Theo, Erich Meredith’s pet squirrel, after he is inadvertently left behind following a family outing).”

22. Sandra Boynton, Are You a Cow? (Simon and Schuster, 2012)

photo credit: Amazon

Are You a Cow? got read three full times before I was allowed to put it down. If that doesn’t qualify as the Bean Stamp of Approval, I don’t know what does.”

21. Victoria Adler, All of Baby Nose to Toes (Dial Books, 2009)

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“Of the books of its type, honestly, the only other one I’ve found that even comes close to being this re-readable, enchanting, and popular at storytime is Mem Fox’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes.”

20. Bill Martin and John Archimbault, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (Scholastic, 1989)

photo credit: Amazon

“This one is a great deal of fun and compulsively readable; the kid enjoys listening to it as much as I enjoy reading it to him, and it’s one of the first books he’s started asking to have read to him again as soon as we’ve finished reading it the first time.”

19. Lyn Lifshin, Shaker House Poems (Sagarin Press, 1976)

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“Loose-limbed and yet succinct, playing fast and hard with the guidelines that govern word choice and placement, but cleaving always to image, image, image, which is what makes her work consistently so good[.]”

18. Shane McCrae, Mule (Cleveland State University, 2010)

photo credit: Iowa Review

Mule practically bleeds style, and while I’m not one to complain when style gets in the way of substance (e.g. my review of Timothy Donnelly’s Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, a book no one else I know gets), it should be noted that at no point does McCrae ever lose sight of his subject matter here.”

17. Robin Hobb, Blood of Dragons (Harper, 2012)

photo credit: Harper Voyager

Blood of Dragons, while not packing as much of a punch as concluding-trilogy volumes like Ship of Destiny or Fool’s Fate, brings the Rain Wilds Chronicles to a satisfying conclusion.”

16. Cathryn Falwell, Rainbow Stew (Lee and Low, 2013)

The book's three young protagonists gathering vegetables on the book's cover.

“It’s kind of depressing that we live in a culture where someone needs to write a book like this—where we are so divorced from the idea of gathering fresh food, preparing it straight from the land, and then eating it right out of the pot is alien enough that someone felt the need to illustrate it to a generation of children (and, let’s be honest, a generation of parents) who are used to vegetables in cans or freezer bags and meat in styrofoam trays. (Don’t worry, I’m not implying grandpa processes a cow or anything in this book.) But on the other hand, if someone had to do it, Cathryn Falwell was the right author.”

15. M. Alice LeGrow, Bizenghast, vol. 4 (Tokyopop, 2007)

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“This one is more character-based than action-based, which is never a bad thing, and LeGrow pushes the series to new heights here; this is getting really good, like early-issues-of-Bleach-level good.”

14. Robert T. Jeschonek, My Favorite Band Does Not Exist (Clarion, 2011)

A stylized band in concert photo sits on the front cover of the book.

“Jeschonek is not going to dumb down this time, nor will he take pauses to explain things, and while this is a very good thing for the novel’s readability factor, I’ve read more than a few reviews that imply the book is off-putting for this reason. Your mileage may vary; mine certainly did. But then, I am also pretty well outside the age range to which the book is marketed to (I have a daughter in said age range), and have a great deal more reading experience under my belt to draw on and reference. So, I have to heavily qualify my recommendation for this book. Which is unfortunate, because I flat-out loved it and would prefer to give it the highest of regards.”

13. Kaoru Mori, Emma, vol. 10 (CMX, 2009)

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“…this is just as good as anything that came before it, and it is a fitting note on which to send off one of my favorite manga series.”

12. Greg F. Gifune, Blood in Electric Blue (Delirium, 2009)

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Blood in Electric Blue is short (just over two hundred pages), sharp, well-drawn, and leaves just enough unanswered questions at the end to keep the reader thinking about this one for a long, long time after s/he turns the last page on it.”

11. Carter Goodrich, The Hermit Crab (Simon and Schuster, 2009)

photo credit: Simon and Schuster

“I will tell you right now that I am unable to give this book an unbiased review. Come on, a pre-lit book featuring an obsessive introvert? How did someone even get the idea to write such a thing? I’m in love with it.”

10. Charles Sheehan-Miles, Just Remember to Breathe (Cincinnatus Press, 2012)

photo credit: Goodreads

“There were two points while I was reading Just Remember to Breathe where I had to put the book down in a place that made me think ‘this story can go two ways from here. And if it goes way A, I’m going to be very, very frustrated with this book.’ When I ended up getting back to the book (the first time took two days, the second only a few hours), he went with path B both times. It should probably go without saying that ‘path A’ was ‘this is how the majority of other romance novels do it.'”

9. Jodie Medd, Lesbian Scandal and the Culture of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

photo credit: Cambridge University Press

Who better than Egon Schiele?

“Jodie Medd has written a book that I hope becomes the new standard for academic non-fiction—it’s a book that attempts readability, and succeeds.”

8. John Everson, Needles and Sins (Necro Publications, 2007)

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“Everyone else is focusing on the horror stories here. And they’re good, though I’m not quite sure some of them are all they’re cracked up to be (“Mutilation Street”, in particular, which Jacob singles out in her intro, strikes me as a gimmicky one-trick pony that could have been so much more than it is). I’m going to focus on the two non-horror stories here, which are, perhaps not coincidentally, the two stories that kick this book up from being good to being in the realm of Greg Gifune good and Vincent Sakowski good and Thomas Ligotti good and Richard-Christian-Matheson-when-he-wrote-“Red” good.”

7. Sandra Boynton, Hippos Go Berserk! (Simon and Schuster, 1977)

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“Oh, Sandra Boynton. All of your books are good, but every once in a while you hit the jackpot.”

6. Wayne Simmons, Fever (Snowbooks, 2011)

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“As is usually the case with Simmons, the result is a cracking good read; this is, in my estimation, even one of the few cases where a novel’s sequel (judging by the ending, this is the middle volume in a trilogy) is a superior product to the original.”

5. Serdar Yegulalp, Flight of the Vajra (Genji Press, 2013)

photo credit: Genji Press

“Yegulalp’s tagline here is “space opera. rebooted.”, and man, does he ask a lot of epic-level questions. There’s enough meat on these bones for most authors to have turned out a trilogy, or something even larger than that.

4. Jon Klassen, I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick, 2011)

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“Once the bear’s memory is jarred, he realizes he has seen his hat, leading to a Sergio Leone-style confrontation and a great, great punchline that’s probably the best I’ve seen in a pre-lit book since Emily Gravett’s Wolves (it’s just as mean-spirited and just as funny).” [ed. note 2014: a bonus link because this rules so hard.]

3. Matthea Harvey, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (Alice James Books, 2000)

photo credit: Barnes and Noble

“I totally stole “the instructions don’t make/sense unless I sing them” as a title for an upcoming XTerminal track. Not sure I can give you a more strident recommendation than that.”

2. Mary Biddinger, O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2013)

photo credit: Black Lawrence Press

“Biddinger is one of the best poets working in America today.”

1. Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf, 2013)

photo credit: Goodreads

“I have a confession to make. I’ve been known to tear up at the odd film now and again, and certain songs can get me sniffling. Okay, both of those things are understatements. And even TV shows can do it. You know the episode of The Vicar of Dibley where [SPOILER ALERT] Hugo and Alice get hitched, so David is the guy ending up sitting there listening to Geraldine’s joke? And at the very end of the sequence, he just looks at her and says, “Stay.”? [/SPOILER ALERT] I bawl like a baby. Every time. Hell, I’m tearing up now just thinking about it. But that sort of thing doesn’t really ever happen to me with books. I can remember, in forty-odd years of reading, crying at maybe three or four books. I can now add “The New Veteran,” the penultimate story in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, to the list.

I read Russell’s debut story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolvesnot long after it came out and, to be frank, was blown away. I gave it five stars. I’m not as stingy with five-star book reviews as I am with five-star movie reviews; I’ve given less than forty five-star movie reviews in my lifetime (and revised at least two of those downward that I can recall off the top of my head), whereas since the start of my current spreadsheet (June 17, 2007) and factoring in some other books I remember from before that (e.g. St. Lucy’s), I’ve got fifty-four five-star books sitting in front of me right now. But that’s still a very small percentage of my overall reading; that’s fifty-four five-star books out of 2,325 books read, give or take. (2.3%, for those who don’t want to do the math.) Six authors have received more than one five-star review—Stephen King, Major Ragain, Catherynne Valente, Kathe Koja (the current runaway winner with four five-star reviews), Martin McDonagh, and now Karen Russell. Because Vampires in the Lemon Grove shows me something I’m not sure it ever occurred to me Karen Russell could do—she got better. If St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is “ a miracle”, as Ben Marcus asserts on its cover (and I was in 2007, and still am in 2013, inclined to agree), then Vampires in the Lemon Grove is, what, a choir of angels singing in exultation? Perhaps.

Those of you who have read St. Lucy’s will feel right at home here. The magical-realism factor is a little more front-and-center here than it was there; stories like “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”, in which a scarecrow made in the image of a bullied boy becomes a symbol of atonement for one of his tormentors, or “The New Veteran”, in which a tattooed landscape of Iraq becomes the means by which a massage therapist changes the dreams of a Sergeant, couldn’t work without the magical-realist mechanisms that drive them. (This does mean, of course, that readers who are allergic to Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Hoffman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, etc., are going to be just as turned off by Karen Russell; tread lightly if magical realism is not your gig.) But, perhaps paradoxically, it also feels more ingrained into Russell’s world than it did in St. Lucy’s; the Wisconsin winter of “The New Veteran” seems like the most natural place in the world for magic to happen, and let’s face it, if there’s a more mundane part of the world than Wisconsin in the middle of winter, I can’t think of it. These stories, like many of the others in the collection, are of a piece with St. Lucy’s; the quality is solid through and through. And then there are the stories that are even better. “Proving Up”, even the ARC I’m working from (which like most ARCs is shot through with those bloody TKs; I don’t even have an acknowledgements page so I know what magazines to thank for printing these wonderful nuggets of perfection) mentions that this story, the best in the collection and, arguably, the best short story I’ve encountered since Richard Christian Matheson’s “Red” (which I first read in the late eighties), won the National Magazine Award for Fiction in 2012 when it was still titled “The Hox River Window”. It’s a stunning piece, a period story centered around the quirky clause in the Homestead Act requiring that the prospective homeowner have, in the house that they have built, at least one glass window. (This clause is not fiction; the Homestead Act did indeed require homesteaders who headed west to claim their 160 acres to build shelter that had at least one glass window.) And it’s better than anything in St. Lucy’s, and I’m not quite sure, still, how Ms. Russell managed that.

There’s a terrifying possibility here. In the horse racing world, when you get a really, really good three-year-old, one who could be a world-beater, you’ll often hear trainers saying “we haven’t seen the bottom of him/her yet.” The hoss hasn’t really faced the competition to really dig deep and open up the lungs and uncoil the beast within. I made the assumption, incorrectly and somewhat ridiculously, that because St. Lucy’s was such an incredible collection, that we’d seen the bottom of Karen Russell. Now I know I was wrong—and I strongly suspect that even with this collection, we haven’t. Which makes me hope we won’t be waiting another seven years for her next collection. Buy this for “Proving Up” and “The New Veteran”; the other six stories in this collection are the very delectable icing on their cake. If this doesn’t top my best reads of the year list, I will be very surprised. *****”

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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