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2013: Best of Books

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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.

 

Best Fiction

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.

(Full review)

 

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)

 

Honorable Mention

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)

 

Worst

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

The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Vol 1

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Much has been said about the Mahabharata by people much smarter and much more familiar with it than I. It's an enduring tale, a prodigious tome, and one of the foundational texts of one of the largest religions and one of the largest nations in the world. It's obviously a powerful story.

On the recommendation of a friend, I spent much of my reading time this year on this bad boy. It's brought me to a deeper understanding of some of the assumptions of Indian culture, and it's given me more than just the embarassingly basic knowledge of Hinduism that most Westerners get.

Having done so, I'd hardly qualify it as a must read, any more than the Bible, the Iliad, or Beowulf are must-reads. However, it is one of the easier portals to learning more about Indian myth, and definitely serves a purpose if you want to come to greater understanding of world culture.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/826380698

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The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things

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Glassner's book has a provocative title, and it's filled with well-researched numbers and a clear view of reality. It's also got a terse but powerful style that reads quickly, despite being packed full of statistics and meticulous research. As a result, Glassner is convincing when he points out that fear is a powerful force, oversold by our culture to point us at the wrong problems. It's also a salient point that misallocation of fear causing us to spend a ridiculous amount of resources trying to solve the wrong problems.

However, the book doesn't do a great job of pointing out alternatives. This ends up being "Look, this is a problem that exists!" book -- a fact that is unintentionally hilarious when compared to the thesis of the book. There's no concrete suggestions about how to combat this culture of fear. Should we be researching further into this phenomenon? Being more selective with our media consumption? Should Americans simply fearing fewer things or different things, or fear the same things but in different proportions? Is fear the mind-killer or what?

It doesn't help that the book was published one year too early, in 2000. The post-9/11 culture of fear is obsessed with different issues. The fears that the book covers are mostly domestic, and many of them feel somewhat quaint. Some of the book reads "Awww, I remember when that was a real fear we had as a nation!" We still naively fear the wrong things, but they're different wrong things than the book points out. It's not something that the author could have predicted, but it does certainly lessen the book's impact.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/660776536

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The Great Gatsby

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I read this in preparation for watching the Baz Luhrmann movie adaptation. I had read it once a long time ago, not for class, but I think when I was still in high school. That time I wasn't enamored of it, but upon this rereading, it has improved greatly in my mind.

What does one say about a classic? This is well-deserving of its status as rite-of-passage literature. It's a wonderful synopsis of the 20s, but even more, it's a wonderful synopsis of wealth and what it means to have it. Fitzgerald, through his narrator, leaves the perfect amount of information for the reader to discover. The plot is nothing special, certainly, belonging more in a Shakespeare play than in anything written in the last 100 years. But, the atmosphere is powerful, and the philosophy of the characters is even more accessible and powerful for their contrast. Gatsby's yearning for the past, contrasted with Daisy's hedonism and Carraway's detachment. Even the minor characters can be interpreted as manifestations of their philosophies, and the 20s and the American dream is made up of all of these colliding philosophies and characters.

It helps that the prose is often so good that it hurts. If you've somehow never read this book, read it now.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4700387
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Flight from the Dark (Lone Wolf, #1)

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Cheeseball 80s fantasy at its best. I saw a couple of these at my library when I was a kid, but because they are part of the cultural ephemera of serial paperback novels, there were only a couple books in the series available to me at the time. As this was before ebay and thus before the availability of everything, I couldn't find any of the other books. Fast forward 20 years, and I have now tracked down the first few books in this series.

The gimmick of this series is that it's a roleplaying game masquerading as a book. Not only do you choose the path of your character, much as with the better-known Choose Your Own Adventure series, but this adds some simplistic inventory management and combat systems, aided by a random number generator at the back of each book. There's little skill to be exhibited here, and you'll certainly die a few times by unavoidable choice, but part of the fun of the book is taking a character through several times.

The writing is better than it really has any right to be, as this is a pretty silly gimmick of a book. There's plenty of fantasy tropes, but the story mostly makes sense, and there's an easy narrative to follow. The simple narrative trick of making the reader choose their actions has a very compelling effect. I found myself rolling my eyes at parts, but still invested in the outcome of my character.

If the concept of book-as-game is interesting to you, by all means, check this out for a bit of simplistic adventure fantasy.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/609690953

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Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico: Conspiracies and Uprisings, 1795-1873

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This was originally a thesis for a degree, and it shows. The good part is that it means that this book is very well documented and researched, with lots of very rich footnotes and plenty of references to primary sources. The bad thing is that it is extremely dense, given to extremely dry recitation, and often unwilling or unable to synthesize the information into a point of view.

If the brief synopsis on the back cover is to be believed, this was a very influential book -- it revolutionized the image of the 18th and 19th century Puerto Rican slaves from docile coordinators to frequently-unhappy agitators. This may be the case; I'm simply not knowledgeable enough on these matters to say. However, it did seem an odd statement to make. Slavery is linked hand-in-hand with injustice and rebellion in my mind, perhaps because my native country, the United States, fought the bloodiest war in our history over slavery. Slaves that never rebel seem like an inherent contradiction.

If you're really dying for some information on this topic or need to cite this for a paper you're writing, check this out, but otherwise don't bother.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/609099058

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A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time, #14; A Memory of Light, #3)

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It had to end sometime.

Even though the series outlived Robert Jordan, and was passed to Brandon Sanderson, we all knew that it would be ending. It's a testament to Sanderson and Jordan both that, in retrospect, it seems inevitable that this would be a great book. This book has the benefit of 13 books to set the stage, but it also comes with all of the expectation of those 13 books. It takes a great grasp of character to make all these storylines feel complete. Sanderson and Jordan nailed it.

Though I am sad to see this series end, I couldn't have asked for a better conclusion to this series. This serves as a worthy capstone to the best epic fantasy series ever.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/597066686

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Dead End (Fear Street, #29)

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This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/585664291

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The New Girl (Fear Street, #1)

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This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/585664009

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Krondor: The Betrayal (The Riftwar Legacy, #1)

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This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/585659179

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