Last Minute Shopping? Try one of Cristina's Favorite Reads of 2013

It's the 23rd of December; how many of you still have Christmas gifts to buy?  When I'm in doubt about what to buy, I always fall back on a book.  I read dozens books this year, a few of which everyone seemed to love except me (The Interestings were...NOT interesting; The Husband's Secret) There are still a couple of book published this year that I haven't yet gotten around to reading (The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert).  Here were my favorite reads of 2013:

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1.  Night Film by Marisha Pessl.  Pessl, who exploded onto the fiction scene in 2006 with her debut novel, the riveting yet pretentious Special Topics in Calamity Physics, graced her fans this fall with a much darker and richer mystery.  Night Film centers around disgraced journalist Scott McGrath and his obsession with a Stanley Kubrick-esque cult filmmaker.  McGrath's research and photos from his work are sprinkled throughout the novel, but it doesn't feel gimmicky.  The story just keeps getting weirder, culminating in a long, bizarre sequence on the filmmaker's estate where the main characters are seemingly living inside their very own horror movie.  The ending was a little too pat for my tastes, but it's a great read otherwise.
 




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2.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  My love of Tartt's The Secret History is well-documented.  Her second book, The Little Friend, was a disappointment, so I was apprehensive about her newest novel, The Goldfinch.  I shouldn't have been.  Theo Decker, the book's main character, survives a bomb explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; his mother does not.  Theo walks away from the ordeal with 17th century Dutch painting, The Goldfinch, and the impulsive decision haunts him.  The novel follows Theo into adulthood on a Dickensian quest that includes stints in New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam and a wonderful cast of characters like Hobie, Theo's humble mentor, and Boris, Theo's troublemaker Ukrainian friend, as well as Theo's greedy, gambler father.  I don't think I'll obsess over The Goldfinch like I did The Secret History, but that may be as much a function of my age when I read these books (and Tartt's age when she wrote them) as much as anything; The Goldfinch is more ambitious in scope and more mature in tenor than Tartt's earlier works.  The 800 pages will pass quickly.


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3.  NOS4A2 by Joe Hill.  It's no secret that I'm a fan of horror and Joe Hill.  I adored his debut, a collection of short stories titled 20th Century Ghosts, but NOS4A2 (Nosferatu, get it?) solidified Hill's place as a horror master in his own right.  NOS4A2 is not a vampire novel - at least, not a traditional vampire novel.  It pits Charlie Manx - an evil being who travels in his vintage Rolls Royce to collect children and feed off of their souls in a hellish place called Christmasland - against Vic McQueen, a badass biker chick and perhaps the only person who can defeat him.  Vic had a run-in with Charlie as a child that left her a broken, self-destructive adult, but the point is that she survived.  When Charlie kidnaps Vic's son, she is forced to confront him again.  I lost many a night's sleep reading NOS4A2.  And Mr. King?  Sorry, but this book beats the pants off of Doctor Sleep.
 

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4.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.  I'm pretty late to Gaiman fandom.  As a lover of horror and fantasy, I'm not really sure how he escaped my book radar for so long.  I first stumbled upon Gaiman on vacation in the Caribbean just a few years ago - a previous guest at our rental house had left a well-worn paperback copy of Neverwhere - and I was hooked.  Between that trip and now, I've read the bulk of his novels and anxiously awaited The Ocean at the End of the Lane to be published this fall.  It is a slim book, only 180 pages or so, and I read it in one sitting.  Gaiman deftly explores the disconnect between a child's willingness to believe and an adult's refusal to recognize what's right in front of him.  The unnamed, middle-aged main character returns home for a funeral (admittedly, an overused novel start) and memories of a strange and magical time in his life come back.  When the narrator was a boy, he unwittingly stepped into an ancient battle of good (the three Hempstock women that live at the end of the lane, guardians all) and evil, which is initially packaged as a nasty, seductive governess.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a heartbreaking look at the destruction of innocence.


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5.  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  If I was forced to name my absolute favorite book of 2013, I would go with Life After Life.  I've read and liked most of Atkinson's novels, most of which feature detective Jackson Brodie, but Life After Life just blew me away.  Suspended somewhere between mild science fiction and historical fiction (I am normally not a fan of either genre), Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, who is born in 1910 but is condemned to die and be reborn repeatedly.  Some of Ursula's deaths are accidental (umbilical cord accident; falling off a roof; drowning); other causes include the Blitz, suicide, murder (by a cruel and abusive husband), and influenza. Often, Ursula senses the whisper of a past life and chooses differently, but this of course impacts her and others around her in unimaginable ways. Ursula's story comes to a head with a fated meeting with Adolf Hitler.  Atkinson pulled off quite a hat trick with Life After Life, folding Ursula's lives and deaths delicately yet never losing the twin common threads of destiny and renewal.