My Top 10 Books of 2013

As usual, my list is formulated as such: The books don’t have to be released in 2013, but I must have read them in 2013, and it must be the first time I have read them. I stick to fiction for these lists, usually novels but not always.

10. The Whisperer in the Darkness by H.P. Lovecraft

This is a short novella that is also available for free for your e-reader (it’s in the public domain), which is how I read it. The story concerns a New England scientist who scoffs at the claims of strange, monstrous bodies found floating down rivers after a major flood in Vermont. Soon, a man living in a remote section of Vermont reaches out to him via letters, claiming that these bodies are not old wives' tales, but are clues to a secret that has plagued humanity for centuries. The man in Vermont has witnessed the cult-like, otherworldly beings who live deep in the woods. The beings are aware they're being watched, and they're closing in. The letters escalate in intensity and strangeness as the story unfolds, and our scientist eventually makes the trek to rural Vermont himself, with horrific results. The tale is spooky, fun, and skin-crawlingly wonderful.

9. The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff

Another novella, this one concerning soldiers in training during the Vietnam War. It won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1985, and for good reason. The characters live volatile and broken lives, and while the book only offers a short glimpse at each character, the cross-section is well-written, cuts deep, and speaks loudly about the loneliness and desperation we feel as we wade through the right and wrong choices awaiting us in life.

8. Dogs of God by Pinckney Benedict

This one is chock-full of strange characters that inhabit that gray world between right and wrong, between good and evil. Each has wonderfully bizarre traits and backstories, but my favorite parts concerned the transient, aging boxer Goody. He finds himself in rural Appalachia recovering from another unsanctioned backroom bout.  Goody is just looking to get by and make a few bucks, but he encounters ghosts in his house, dead bodies in a cane field, beautiful mysterious women married to notorious drug dealers, and a half-crazed backwoods criminal kingpin with twelve fingers. The book leans to the masculine side of lit-fic and has few female characters (which is too bad, because the ones he does have are interesting and deserve more page time), and often the author focuses on characters that don’t have a powerful impact on the end of the book, but the writing is solid and sometimes reminds me of Cormac McCarthy in some ways. It has its faults, but it was an enjoyable read with a strange and interesting ending.

7. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I read the book because I love the film, and I think the film did a good job of trimming the book down to its core and altering a few incidents in order to tell a smoother, more cohesive story, but the book definitely isn’t lacking in storytelling or wonderful writing. And if you also liked the film, the book has a lot more to offer, not all of it necessarily impactful (the middle sags a bit) but it’s a great world to get lost in for fellow writers. Grady is fun to “hang out with” as a reader, very likable for all of his faults, and the books comes to a satisfying end despite the fistfuls of zany situations and whirling dramatics propelling Grady along like a lost pinball. A fun, must-read for writers and literary types.

6. True Grit by Charles Portis

For years I knew it as the John Wayne movie, and then the remake opened my eyes to the fact that the book is less about an ornery lawman but a willful teenage girl, and a true heroine. The book a stunning piece of writing, and a great western, but it is full of wonderful dialogue by a full cast of amusing characters, driven by the unique voice of Mattie Ross. It’s a quick read, especially once the expedition gets under way. A lot of books are called “classics,” but this is one that’s truly worthy of the title. Stop putting this one off and give it a read.    

5. The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

The Motel Life tells the story of two brothers in Reno, Nevada who are on the run after a tragic hit-and-run car accident. They fear the law catching up with them and spend the novel always looking over their shoulder. Both deal with illness, vice, and disability, and the brothers are slowly drowning in their go-nowhere lives, but Frank is buoyed by the sudden return of his first love, and Frank dreams of reforming some sort of stable life with Annie, who was abused by her family and then disappeared for a number of years. The book is raw, real, heartbreaking, and yet hopeful. Don’t regret not reading this one.  

4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Numerous male writer "friends" over the years have told me that Plath is a hack, and I always knew that was bullshit because her poetry is phenomenal. But I didn’t know that she was also an amazing prose author as well. Just a few pages in, I knew this book was going to be in my Top 10 for the year. It’s a stunningly honest examination of the expectations placed on young women in America, and a lot of it is still relevant today. Plath’s clear, strong prose only served to remind me how pathetic so many of today’s popular “female” bestsellers are, books like Fifty Shades and Twilight. Granted, both of those have genre leanings, but I get the feeling that the female characters in each would make Plath vomit. The Bar Jar is by far a superior novel.    

3. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

This is one hell of a novel. Cormac’s western masterwork is a never-ending fever-dream of criminal insanity and masculine violence, and the book feels like it leaps from one bloody onslaught after another, most of them instigated by the Mephistophelean "Judge Holden," easily one of the most intriguing and evil characters in all literature. And yet there’s a beauty to the writing that someone like the Cormac-hatin’ Nicholas Sparks will never be able to match. McCarthy’s way with words is breathtaking, and no one, NO ONE, holds a candle to the way McCarthy uses the arcane wondrousness of English language. A haunting novel that MUST make your “to-read” list in 2014.  

2. Alan Furst: The Polish Officer Spies of the Balkans / Spies of Warsaw

I cheated here. I read a bunch of Alan Furst in 2013 and I couldn’t pick just one, so I settled on three. Furst has become one of my favorite authors (okay, okay, maybe my favorite by this point) and writes the WWII spy novels from the POV of underground resistance fighters in Europe, but he writes them with all the beauty and power of the great literary masters. They’re thrillers and spies novels, yes, but they’re also elegant, romantic, tense, and wholly noir in every sense of the word. If you’re not reading him, you’re missing out on a massive talent. These three are some of his best. 

1. They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross

This book was a total surprise. I hadn’t heard of Ross before (considering this is his only novel, dating back to 1940) but I consider his a master of noir after this book. The Mysterious Press / Open Road publishers revived this lost classic, and I’m so glad they did. It’s a depression-era crime novel about a farmer who takes a job at a roadhouse/dancehall run by a local schemer and low-level criminal, and frequented by all manner of booze-hounds, lawmen, gangsters, and dance-crazy teens. But the crimes and schemes begin to add up, and our hard-hit farmer is pulled into a world of crime, murder, lies, and lurid affairs. The book is amazingly accessible for an older novel, but also raw and brutal. The book moves at a steady pace, and even when you can see a turn in the narrative coming (and I promise, you won’t see them all coming), Ross keeps the tension on and never loses you. This was, without a doubt, the best novel I’ve read all year.