Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My 13 Favorite Books of 2013

Every year, I read so many great books, it's often hard to pick my 10, or 12, or even 13 favorites. But I have once again managed to narrow it down.

Following are my favorite reads of 2013 -- books I particularly enjoyed either for their wit, their writing, and/or their ability to amuse and/or enlighten me -- listed alphabetically by author. I have mentioned some of these in previous Book Nook posts. Several others I have not yet blogged about. As per usual, there is something for everyone.


The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank. I loved this book, and I am totally not into the whole Southern ya-ya sisterhood type of novel. But Benton Frank had me cheering for the heroine, Leslie "Les" Carter, the put-upon (by her husband and adult children, who take Les for granted), about-to-be 60 "last original wife" among her close-knit group of couple friends -- and had me chuckling to myself repeatedly. She also made me want to move to Charleston.

While guys will probably consider The Last Original Wife menopausal chick lit, that's selling the book short. To me the book is a heartwarming (dang, I used heartwarming!) yet humorous tale about self discovery, taking charge of your life, and going after what you want -- something apparently you're never too old to do. Highly recommend.

The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. I loved this book. Which is saying a lot because, as the spouse would say, "it doesn't seem like a Jennifer read." What can I say? I guess I'm not that predictable after all. So why did I love this book, which is about a teenage boy, a loner who is the only child of a single mother who runs an occult bookshop, who at 10 years old was struck down in his bathroom by a meteorite (the boy, not the mother), develops epilepsy, and winds up befriending his much older, pot-smoking, Kurt Vonnegut-loving neighbor? I'm not sure. Must have been the writing. Though I found the characters and their relationships with one another endearing. Just read it.

The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood. Beautifully written -- a sensuous, sensual read about the power of taste and smell and the desire they can inspire. (The author mentions in his acknowledgements that he had originally planned to call the book Taste, which I think would have been a better title.) The book takes place in late 18th Century France and is the tale of one French aristocrat's quest to taste everything -- food, as well as women -- the world has to offer. A must read for food lovers as well as lovers of historical fiction , particularly works set in France.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. I loved this book. It is charming and funny and sly, all of the qualities I appreciate in a book -- and it is an original. As for how to describe the book, Amazon does a pretty good job in its one-sentence summary: "A reluctant centenarian much like Forrest Gump (if Gump were a [Swedish] explosives expert with a fondness for vodka) decides it’s not too late to start over..." As the main character journeys across Sweden, meeting other interesting characters, we learn about his fascinating (and explosive) past -- much of which involves his role in critical moments of Russian, U.S., Chinese, and Indonesian history. A thoroughly delightful read.

Together Tea by Marjan Kamali.I know it's cliched, but I really did laugh then cry reading this fabulous, heartwarming book about an Iranian mother and her Iranian-American daughter -- and their quest to belong in the United States after fleeing Iran in 1980. Indeed, I found it hard to believe this was Marjan Kamali's first novel, it was so beautifully written and flowed so effortlessly.

I think any woman who has lived in a foreign country -- or far from where she was raised -- especially if she raised a family in a new place, will relate to this story. The book also gave me a fresh prospective on what it was like to be an Iranian in Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as what it was like to be an Iranian in the United States just after the hostage crisis.

Above all, though, the book is a warm and often funny love story, between a wife and a husband, a mother and a daughter, and the daughter and the boy she meets while visiting Tehran in 1996 (when much of the novel takes place). I cannot recommend this book enough.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. The romantic in me loved this book. Loved. One of the most beautiful, moving books I have ever read. I was captivated -- and I don't care a fig about the Jacobites or Scottish history (though I love a man in a kilt -- if he has the legs to pull it off). In brief, The Winter Sea tells the story of best-selling historical fiction writer Carrie McClelland who, while researching her next book about the 1708 attempt to return James Stuart to the throne, comes across a story line she did not know existed. Compelled to pursue this new story line, she finds herself on the shores of Scotland at an ancient castle, where, though genetic memory and research, an ancient secret and love come to light. (Hmm... Maybe I should write jacket copy for a living.)

Brilliant by Marne Davis Kellogg. I stumbled upon Brilliant, which was published in June 2004 (long before the financial crisis), while looking for something else in the stacks at my local library. And am I glad I did. It is my definition of a guilty pleasure: a funny, sexy romp through fabulous places (in this case London and Provence), involving jewels, thieves, fast men and fast cars, the auction business, and a sharp-tongued, sharp-witted narrator who is not what she seems. Highly recommend for those looking for a little escapist literature. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Several people in my Book Buzz group told me I would enjoy Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and they were right! Part mystery, part coming of age story, though it's often unclear who is coming of age here, the precocious 15-year-old narrator (for lack of a better term), Bee, or her brilliant but neurotic and reclusive architect mother, who one day disappears. Full of warmth and humor, as well as a kind of valentine to Seattle. I loved it.

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro. I know I keep saying it, but I loved this book, the tale of two women, one French, one British, which moves back and forth between Paris in 1955 and New York in 1927 (with a stopover in the South of France in the early 1930s and Paris in the early 1940s). The title is a bit of a red herring, at least in my opinion, though a large part of the novel does involve perfume.

At its heart, however, the novel is a tale of betrayal, hope and love. The central question or mystery: Why did Eva d'Orsey, the mistress of a famous French perfumer, who died at the age of 41 or 42, leave her considerable fortune to Englishwoman Grace Munroe, a young woman of 27 who didn't even know d'Orsey? And did I mention it's mainly set in Paris -- and there's food and Champagne and shopping and romance? A must read for my female readers (maybe some of the male ones, too).


The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell by Rachel Herz. Why do some scents repel us while others give us pleasure? And what role does smell -- or scent -- play in romance and procreation? These are some of the topics Herz, an expert on the psychology of smell, tackles in The Scent of Desire. A fascinating, informative read, one which had me constantly saying to the spouse, "Did you know...?"

In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules by Stacy Perman. WARNING: This book will make you crave a hamburger, constantly. Specifically an In-N-Out burger. And fries. And a shake. East Coasters, you are screwed. That said, I thought this was one of the best business books, or books about a business, I've ever read.

While I have never had an In-N-Out burger, I knew about the chain -- and greatly enjoyed Perman's most recent book, A Grand Complication, which I recommended in a previous Book Nook post. If you are at all a fan of the burger chain or enjoy a good nonfiction book about business, in this case an iconic family business with a side order or scandal and intrigue, check out In-N-Out Burger.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone. One of the best business books -- or books about a business -- I have ever read. Yes, another one. Well researched and well written. Stone spent years getting to know Amazon and Bezos as a business reporter, and and has a knack for making potentially dry business topics interesting. A must read for entrepreneurs and people who like reading about successful entrepreneurs, as well as those who have ever wondered, How does Amazon do it? And there are those pesky Amazon same day delivery drones. (Click on the link to read reviews by Amazon employees and Jeff Bezos's wife, MacKenzie.)

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson. The subtitle pretty much says it all. A fascinating look at the evolution of the kitchen, or the technology (both low tech and high) behind food preparation and consumption. Very informative, often humorous, "a book to savor."

So what were some of your favorite books from this past year?

Please leave me a Comment with the name of the book and the author.

1 comment:

Betty Cracker said...

This book roundup comes at a good time as I'm casting about for new reads. 2013 hasn't been a banner year in literature for me: I've read much more crap than good stuff.

My favorite of the year was "Tenth of December" by George Saunders, a collection of stories. I also liked "Cloud Atlas" (David Mitchell), "Heft" (Liz Moore) and "The Last Policeman" (Ben Winters).