Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Favorite 2013 Books

By Sandra Parshall

The year isn’t over, and I suppose it’s possible the audio of Dan Brown’s Inferno that I just picked up from the library could turn out to be one of my favorite books published in 2013... but I doubt it. I also haven’t gotten around to several 2013 books that I know I will enjoy, and I probably won’t get to them until January or February. So, for what it’s worth, here are the books I liked best this year.

BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent: By far my favorite, but a book that many will find difficult to read. The writing is gorgeous, the story heartwrenching. Set in bleak northern Iceland in the early 19th century, the novel is loosely based on the life of the last woman to be executed in that country. Agnes is a young woman who, along with a young man and another woman, has been convicted of murdering the man she worked for, who was also her lover. All three have been sentenced to death by beheading.

Iceland had no system of jails, and both long-term prisoners and the condemned were normally transported to Denmark. In this case, however, the decision is made to carry out the executions in Iceland and to put the prisoners to work on different farms while they await death. Agnes is placed in the care of a family with three daughters. Everyone fears her, without realizing what a sad, helpless, harmless creature she is. Over several months, as death draws closer and Agnes confides in her spiritual adviser and eventually the women in whose home she’s living, Agnes slowly reveals the truth about her childhood as an orphan and the tangled relationships that ended in murder. This is an astonishing and spellbinding first novel that took me to a time and place I could not have imagined and introduced me to a unique character.

SYCAMORE ROW by John Grisham: This surprised me, because I’m not much of a Grisham fan. The two or three books of his that I’ve read in the past disappointed me. This one sounded special – a convoluted southern saga involving family secrets and race, set in the transitional 1980s, a delicate time between blatant, legally sanctioned discrimination and the new order, in which racism still exists but equality is enforced, albeit unevenly. I loved this book. It’s filled with fully realized and instantly recognizable characters, and it unspools in a fashion that makes it hard to put down.

The story: A cranky old man in smalltown Mississippi decides to kill himself rather than wait for advanced cancer to finish him off with agonizing slowness. Shortly before his death, he changes his will, cutting out his dreadful son and daughter and their offspring and leaving 90% of his approximately $25 million estate to his middle-aged black housekeeper. He chooses a lawyer he’s never met – Jake Brigance, the young hero of A Time to Kill, the events of which took place three years earlier – to make sure his children don’t succeed in a court challenge. Son and daughter, of course, try to prove undue influence or a sexual relationship. The truth of the old man’s motivation, however, lies buried so deep that it isn’t uncovered until the last pages of the book. This is a great yarn that never bored me for a second.

YOU ARE NOW LESS DUMB: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself by David McRaney: Don’t yawn. It’s good! It’s entertaining! It will make you laugh! More than that, it will make you think...about the way you think. McRaney uses a conversational, amusing style to explore human thought processes and how they’re guided or stymied by society, the reasons why we form opinions and make snap decisions, and much more. He has a lot to say about the human need to put everything into context, to turn every event into a story so it will make sense: this happened, which led to that, and here’s the reason why. McRaney recommends a book called Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron, which I bought immediately and will put to good use.

NO MAN’S NIGHTINGALE by Ruth Rendell: This is an Inspector Wexford story, coming as the series nears its 50th anniversary. Wexford is retired now, but he’s called out to consult in the murder of a female vicar who has been an outspoken advocate for church reform. I prefer Rendell’s sharp suspense standalones and her dense psychological novels written as Barbara Vine to the Wexfords, but anything new from this wonderful writer is always welcome.

NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl: It’s too long, but I loved it. Veteran journalist Scott McGrath begins looking into the suicide of beautiful young Ashley Cordova, daughter of Stanislas Cordova, reclusive director of a dozen horror films with a massive cult following. The story winds round and round, visiting some strange and fascinating places and people, and parts of it are surprisingly funny. Great entertainment, and I thought it was delightful.

RAGE AGAINST THE DYING by Becky Masterson: Brigid Quinn, an (involuntarily) retired FBI agent in her late fifties, is a marvelous character. In this terrific debut (which deserves all kinds of award nominations in the coming year), Brigid is living quietly and happily with her new husband, who has little idea what her past as an undercover agent was like. Now she’s drawn back into action when someone confesses to the still unsolved murder of Brigid’s former partner and the agent currently working the case disappears. Brigid is torn between getting justice, saving another agent’s life, and endangering herself and the man with whom she has finally found happiness. Read this one for the character. Brigid is unforgettable.

UNSEEN by Karin Slaughter: Will Trent goes undercover to catch a murderous drug dealer and crosses paths with Detective Lena Adams. It’s a Will Trent book. That’s enough for me. I would follow this character anywhere.


Barb Goffman said...

Thanks a lot, Sandy. MORE books to put on Mount TBR. ; )

Janet C said...

I absolutely loved Night Film, Rage Against the Dying, and Unseen.
Now, I'm going to have to get Burial Rights and Sycamore Row. I'd pretty much given up on Grisham, but this one sounds like it's right up my alley.

Sandra Parshall said...

Other books I enjoyed, not all published in 2013: Jackie as Editor by Greg Lawrence (about Jackie Kennedy Onassis's career in publishing, very interesting); Never Come Back by David Bell; Her Last Breath by Linda Castillo (never figured out the title); Never Tell by Alafair Burke; The 9th Girl by Tami Hoag; The Snow Child by Eowy Ivey; Gods and Beasts by Denise Mina; The Burning by Jane Casey; Death of the Demon by Anne Holt; Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin; The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood; The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid

Sandra Parshall said...

How could I forget The Book of Killowen by Erin Hart?? Lovely novel, like everything Erin has written.

Plus: Night Terrors by Dennis Palumbo; Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly; The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

Terry Shames said...

I wish I could thank you for recommending these books--but I have too many to read already. Oh, well, I have to get them anyway. To those I would add Life After Life, Kate Atkinson. There are more I can't think of!

Julia Buckley said...

Thank you for this post. To be honest, I've had my head in the sand (writing) for a lot of this year, and I haven't heard of most of these books. I am especially interested in RAGE AGAINST THE DYING, and I love the Dylan Thomas poem-inspired title.