Top 10 Books of 2013
2013 was the year of fiction for me. I usually try to read a good mix of fiction and non-fiction (particularly theology and Christian living), but for a lot of reasons this was a year of fiction, and you’ll see that represented in my list.
2013 was also the year publishers started getting creative. Three books on my list – Hyperbole and a Half, Boxers & Saints and especially S. – made the act of reading a physical book much more enjoyable than an eReader experience. This coming from a huge ereader fan.
I also read two books this year that fundamentally shifted the way I approach the world, my faith and, well, pretty much everything. This is a rarity, and to find two newly-published books in the same year was a joy. I’ve found myself buying and distributing multiple copies of The End of Our Exploring and Playing God over and over.
2013 was also a year of climaxes. Two major fantasy works concluded this year, including my favorite series of all time. So yeah. 2013 was a big literary year for me. Here were my 10 favorites (don’t tell anyone, but there’re actually 13 books here).
Read through the list, and add your own suggestions in the comments!
TIE – 10. Life After Life
by Kate Atkinsom
I first heard about Kate Atkinson from Stephen King, who said he was “staggered by Atkinson’s narrative wizardry”. When one of the most talented living writers tells you to read someone, you do it. Read Atkinson I did (beginning with When Will There Be Good News?), and I too became a fan.
Her newest work, Life After Life, is a departure from the crime-fiction (a label that grossly-undervalues her Jackson Brodie books). The protagonist, Ursula, lives – and dies – again and again, and we are there for every delight and failure. We see her life cut short and long-lived. Tragic and triumphant.
There’s no explanation – no wormhole or angelic champion. No gypsy curse or time-traveler or multi-verse theory. There’s just Ursula, born at the turn of the twentieth century in Britain, struggling to survive. Atkinson weaves together the forces vying for Ursula’s so effortlessly that it all seems natural, normal and inevitable. Life After Life is beautiful, tragic and humbling.
Kate Atkinson is a phenomenal writer, and Life After Life reveals her at the top of her game.
TIE – 10. The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
I literally just finished The Goldfinch, but I started it at the end of 2013, and it was published last year, so I’m counting it. The Goldfinch is long – like 800 pages, which I didn’t realize when I started it. I wasn’t sure where it was going, or even what it was about, and I’d never read author Donna Tartt’s previous books. So I had no idea what to expect.
The Goldfinch is marvelous. I won’t say anything more than this: The Goldfinch is about a 17th century painting of a bird. Sort of. It’s heartbreaking, haunting, captivating and nihilistic. And ultimately, it’s a reflection on beauty, and how beauty points us beyond ourselves to something bigger.
In his review for The New York Times, Stephen King writes,
“The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.
The Goldfinch is a marvelous, sweeping book. You won’t read anything else like it for a long while.
9. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosch
I’d never heard of Allie Brosch‘s amazing blog Hyperbole and a Half before I stumbled across this compilation of some of her best work. You can find most of the book’s contents on her blog, but it’s nice to have in book form too. It’s colorful and laugh-out-loud hysterical.
Hyperbole and a Half is also a painfully honest look at dealing with depression. In a world where we’re all still trying to figure out how to discuss mental illness in a helpful, healthy way, Brosch’s honest humor offers ground for empathy and understanding.
Oh, and wait till you meet her dogs.
8. What We Talk About
When We Talk About God
by Rob Bell
After the fuss over his previous book Love Wins, Rob Bell’s latest book What We Talk About When We Talk About God barely made a splash when it released. Which is a shame because this new book is tremendous. With his usual candor, compassion and creativity, Bell offers a new paradigm for spiritual conversations.
As someone who thinks a lot about what it looks like to share the good news about Jesus with people who aren’t steeped in Church culture, I found Bell’s new book a breath of fresh air. It’s outstanding.
7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is one of the greatest living storytellers – probably one of the greatest of all time. From the Sandman comics to American Gods to the half-dozen other fantastic worlds he’s crafted, Gaiman has a beautiful, deeply spiritual imagination. His newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane gives us a brief glimpse into a magical world just beyond (or maybe under) our own. The story is complete and self-contained, but the world is so rich, you’ll wish you had a hundred more volumes to explore.
6. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
It’s probably obvious by now that I love Stephen King. The man can flat out tell a story. So when I heard he was releasing a direct sequel to The Shining – one of his most famous and well-loved novels ever, I wasn’t skeptical at all. And I was rewarded. Doctor Sleep is a crazy, scary and unpredictable thrill-a-minute. I couldn’t put it down.
BONUS: King put out another outstanding book this year – Joyland. Published only in paperback, it’s a coming-of-age story set in the early 1970s in one of the last of the independent American amusement parks. Joyland is a pure delight. Think Stand by Me set at Six Flags and garnished with a ghost story.
5. Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
I found Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese last year and it quickly became one of my favorite books (like of ever). Then I heard Yang was tackling the Boxer Rebellion – the anti-Imperialism revolt in China at the turn of the 20th century. Boxers & Saints is a staggering work. It’s subtle, beautiful and brutal. Questions of identity, religion and ethnicity crackle all over the book, and Yang’s drawings set the perfect tone.
Boxers, the first volume, tells the story of a boy who becomes a leader in the Boxer rebellion. Saints relates the other side of the story through a girl who becomes a Christian through some missionaries. Yang uses the two perspectives to complicate the Boxer Rebellion – and by extension, our perspectives on faith and the Other.
4. S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
S. – conceived by J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst – is easily the single most-creative book I’ve read in ages. The whole composition is a love letter to the act of reading a book. Dorst manages to use the book to tell at least four stories simultaneously, through a combination of printed text, footnotes, hand-written margin notes and various artifacts – including letters, postcards and a decoder wheel – to tell a marvelous mystery story.
S. is a reading experience unlike anything else you’ll have. It’s beautiful and amazing.
3. The End of Our Exploring
by Matthew Lee Anderson
The End of Our Exploring is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It’s a book I plan to return to again and again as a resource. Why is it so good? Because author Matt Lee Anderson stopped to ask the question, What counts as a good question?
Asking questions has become quite popular among Evangelicals (and in our culture at large). I’m a huge fan of questions myself – I love to teach by asking questions and getting my students to ask good questions. But there again: what counts as a good question? And for that, Anderson’s book is tremendous. It’s clear, careful and thoughtful. Anderson’s a brilliant thinker, but keeps The End of Our Exploring accessible.
If you’re interested in asking good questions, this book is a must read.
2. Playing God by Andy Crouch
I’ve never come across two paradigm-altering books in the same year, but 2013 was it. Following closely on the heels of The End of Our Exploring is Andy Crouch’s new book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. I’m part of the generation that was schooled to be deeply distrustful of power and all its children – privilege and institutions among them. As I’ve entered the ministry and acquired more and more power (we call it “influence” so it sounds nicer), I’ve wrestled with how I can wield such an evil faithfully.
Enter Playing God. Crouch grounds the discussion of power in the creation story, and all abuses of power in idolatry. Playing God has been a worldview-shifting book for me, one I’m buying and giving to my team, my friends, to anyone who will read it.
If I were forced to recommend only one book to anyone to read, it would be Playing God.
1. The Last Dark
by Stephen R. Donaldson
After my glowing review of Playing God, you might wonder what could possibly top my list for 2013. That book would be The Last Dark by Stephen R. Donaldson. The Last Dark is the final chapter of my favorite fantasy epic of all time, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I read the first two trilogies for the first time in high school (and have reread them half a dozen times or more since). The first book of the final tetralogy was released in 2004, and a book was released every three years after that.
I’ve never written about Thomas Covenant – mainly because these books have shaped me more profoundly than any other books I’ve ever read. The theological world Donaldson imagines in The Land is in many ways where my spirituality lives. And The Last Dark brought that story to a powerful, beautiful and dangerous end. These are books I’ll continue to revisit for the rest of my life. I can’t wait to revisit The Last Dark.
Click to hear the StoryMen interview Stephen R. Donaldson (aka: “the greatest day of JR.’s life).
BONUS: I have to give a shoutout to Brandon Sanderson’s A Memory of Light, the final book in the Wheel of Time series. The book’s something like 900 pages long, and the Last Battle – which the whole series has been building toward – is over 250 pages long. It’s a climax that’s been a long time coming, and Sanderson managed to pay off every crazy plot thread and resolve every character. There’re scenes in this book I’ll never forget. It was an incredible