It's still close enough to the New Year that I can do these. I am declaring it by fiat.
As usual, this is the best of the books I read in 2013 that are new to me, not the ones that came out in 2013. As somebody who's not a new book hound, the cross-section of those two categories is not very large.
A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (2013)
This was far and away my favorite book I read this year. I read fewer books that normal this year (more on that further on in this post), but this book is still incredibly deserving. This book could have failed. It's been set up for so long. 14 books take a long time to write. It's been so long since this series began that it predates the first Iraq War. In the intervening time, we've been through nearly a quarter century, six presidential elections, and a complete revamp of the epic fantasy publishing landscape, largely promulgated by this series.
It wouldn't have been a surprise if the book fizzled. Jordan, the original author, died without finishing the series, and though the work of Sanderson was admirable in the previous two volumes, good enough wasn't cutting it here. There was so much riding on this last book as the final book in a series that explicitly drove toward it from its very beginning that anything less than perfect was going to feel like a letdown. But this book delivers in spades. The entire thing is a roller-coaster ride, and the Last Battle in this series absolutely lives up to its ultimate billing. I read this in an absurdly short time, losing sleep and dodging responsibilities to finish this 900+ page beastie in about 24 hours. This is everything I ever could have hoped for to end this series, and even further cements it as easily, easily the best fantasy series I've ever read.
Best Graphic Novel
The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution by Larry Gonick (2006)
The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad by Larry Gonick (2009)
These are such a matched pair it's not fair to distinguish one from the other. This is a continuation of Gonick's History of the World series, and they're some of the best way to get a really high-level sweep of history. This is no flightly comic book, this is serious historical scholarship, with references and bibliography. It just so happens that it's presented in an incredibly accessible fashion.
The historical bent is good as well. There's a heavy emphasis on non-Western history, as well as a strong conviction. Gonick will poke fun at historical figures and even at historians when it is warranted, and in a way that leaves little doubt where he stands on the issue. This is no mealy-mouthed it's-not-for-history-to-make-judgements book, it takes legitimate (and prescient) stands on issues such as individual liberties, and the crushing missteps of the Iraq War.
As far as I'm concerned, if somebody seems interested in history and wants the big picture, this is the series they should check out.
(Full reviews: Part 1 and Part 2)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) - I reread this one before seeing the Baz Luhrmann film that came out this year. I read it when I was in high school (though not for a class), but this read was much, much better. I got a lot more of the longing perspective that this film brings with the passage of time, and I came to a much richer appreciation of the skill of the writing. Absolutely deserves its status as a classic. (Full review)
A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990) - This was the best nonfiction book I read this year, though it's not worth of a full-blown best-of-the-year. The scholarly work is impressive, but the book wasn't revolutionary for my worldview, or exceptionally written, and thus gets only an honorable mention. (Full review)
The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering Volume 1 by Ramesh Menon (2004) - This book wasn't especially mindblowing, but it deserves mention here for no other reason than the amount of time devoted to it. Even though it's only volume 1, it's a huge book, and even though it's modernized into readable prose from its original Sanskritic verse, there's still a lot of concepts that are translated to Hindi instead of English, because the analog is much closer. I spent six months primarily reading this book, which is why the list of other books I read this year is so short. (Full review)
Android: Strange Flesh by Matthew Farrer (2012) - The first Android novelization was good. This one was not. This deserves dismissal as pure genre trash, and not even good genre trash at that. (Full review)
Full List of Books I Read This Year
Android: Strange Flesh
One Hundred Fifty Years in Christ: The Sesquicentennial History of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, New Munich, Minnesota 1857 to 2007
The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution
The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad
The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)
Forts of Old San Juan: San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico
A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard, #2)
A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time, #14; A Memory of Light, #3)
Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico: Conspiracies and Uprisings, 1795-1873
Flight from the Dark (Lone Wolf, #1)
The Great Gatsby
The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things
The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Vol 1