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The Five Best Books I Read in 2013 AND Introducing the 50 Book Project

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It’s New Year’s Eve and I just finished a book that absolutely blew my mind.

Recently, I’ve seen a bunch of people–well, okay, nameless and faceless Facebook groups that I follow–posting things like, “What was the best book you read in 2013?” (This differs from Best Book Of 2013, because it doesn’t necessarily have to have been published this year. This isn’t about new books. It’s about awesome books. There is, however, some overlap.) I had a hard time answering this question. I think it was John Green who said, “I don’t have a favorite book. I have hundreds!” And this has since become my default answer for people when they ask what my favorite book is. So when people ask what the best book I read in 2013 was, I didn’t have a single best book…But I can narrow it down to five. Well, five-ish.

In No Particular Order Except Perhaps The Order In Which I Read Them:

The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman: I’m counting these as one because they’re a series and you can’t really read the second one without reading the first, though this is a rare circumstance in which I think the second one was better–normally, I find the odd-numbered books in a series to be far superior. The main criticism I’ve seen in reviews is that the main character is a little whiny (okay, he’s kind of a bitch), but it was in a way that I could relate to, and I imagine a lot of people around my age could, as well: The world simply wasn’t quite what he expected it to be, no matter where he looked, even when he seemed to have everything he ever wanted. As someone who was told over and over again how valuable my liberal arts degree would be in the current job market, I feel you, kid. And there’s a valuable lesson here: Nothing is ever exactly what you expect, and even the most magical adventure won’t fill every hole in your life. The Magician King took me on a wild adventure and broke my heart, provided me with exactly what I needed to mend the pieces, then took those pieces and threw them off a cliff, jumped after them, and stomped on them over and over until there was just a little dust left over. I say “I cried” a lot when I talk about stories, but this time I actually did, and I threw the book across the room, and immediately lent them to my friend because apparently I’m a sadistic asshole. (Sorry.) I’m looking forward to book 3, The Magician’s Land, but I’m also a bit nervous because the ending to The Magician King was perfect.
Should I Read This Book? If you’ve ever wanted to run off to a magical world that you read about in a book, go get The Magicians. But maybe hold off for a bit–book 3 isn’t coming out until August 5, 2014. That’s a painful hiatus.

The Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Garman: If you know me at all, you knew this would be on here. In fact, if you don’t know me at all but know a little about fantasy and saw that the previous book was fantasy, you were probably 90% sure that this would be on here. It seems to be making everyone’s Best Of 2013 lists, which is not the least bit surprising. However, unlike most of Gaiman’s books, I would categorize this almost more as magical realism than fantasy. It centers around a nameless child and his adventures with a mysterious girl who lives at the end of his lane, and a little pond that is really an ocean (but really just a pond), and a terrifying nanny. The book was more raw and baring of emotions than Gaiman’s work usually is, and, well, honestly I can’t do this book justice, it’s only about 170 pages, go read it yourself. Or at the very least, read his wife’s blog post about it (and then go read it, because you’ll want to). I especially loved the bit about the blender (in the blog post, not the book).
Should I Read This Book? Yes. You should.

Looking for Alaska by John Green: I had never read any John Green before I read this book. In fact, I had never heard anything about his writing except that it was good. I was only familiar with him through his YouTube channel, which is hilarious and lighthearted and informative and just fun. I finally decided to pick up one of his books, and I googled “Which John Green Book Should I Read First” because, well, some authors definitely have an order to their books, even if they’re not a series, and came up with Looking for Alaska, which I read when I needed a fun and light-hearted book because I stupidly expected his writing to be like his YouTube videos. This book broke my heart even more than The Magician King did, but not in the part you’d expect (SPOILERS START HERE): I could handle Alaska dying. I could. It was really, incredibly sad, but I can handle the death of fictional characters. I’m a Joss Whedon fan, and I’ve read every book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I’m equipped, to say the least. That isn’t the part that killed me. The part that killed me was at the very end, Miles’ essay about how we need to forgive those who have died and left us here. Because, as much as most of us won’t admit it, what person who has lost someone doesn’t harbor at least a little bit of unwelcome resentment for being left? And we know it’s unreasonable and we know that in most cases, it’s not as if the person wanted to leave us. They died. It’s rarely their fault or their choice, but we’re a little mad at them anyway. So we need to forgive them. And I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read it six months ago and I’m coming to realize that we don’t just forgive them and it’s over. It’s a process. My grandmother died seven years ago and I’m not done forgiving her. Grammy, you weren’t at my college graduation and I really missed you and I forgive you. You’ll never meet Mike, and I hate that, and I forgive you. You won’t be at my wedding and I still can’t imagine it without you and I hate that you won’t be there and I forgive you now and I’ll have to forgive you again then. You’ll never hold my kids and that kills me and I forgive you. This goes on forever. And that–THAT–is what killed me about Looking for Alaska. And I cried when I finished it, and I cried for about two hours while I got ready to go visit a friend, and I cried for the entire hour-long drive, and then I stopped, but then I still think about it sometimes and I start crying again like right now oh god John Green why would you do this to me? (END SPOILERS) And while I thought I wanted something lighthearted and fun to read, this was what I needed, really needed, in my life.
Should I Read This Book? If you’ve ever lost someone you love, read this book. If you love beautifully-crafted stories, read this book. If you want a fun read, read the first half of this book.

Brokedown Palace by Steven Brust: I picked this up at a used book store because I recognized the author’s name, though I couldn’t place it, and the cover looked pretty. Eventually I realized that Brust also wrote To Reign in Hell, which I read a few years ago and thought was beautiful, so it was probably more me subconsciously remembering how much I loved his writing than it was me liking the cover of the book. (Still, it’s a nice cover.) Brust is a master of subtlety. The story is about a king and his three brothers, their decaying palace, a talking horse, and a strange tree. The central conflict? The fact that the palace is falling apart. My boss saw me reading this book and kind of rolled her eyes because she didn’t like the movie (which, honestly, I’d think she would know better), but I kind of understand–this wouldn’t translate well onto film at all. There’s no epic battle or adventure. It’s a story about a family and their home that happens to take place in a magical world. I can’t wait to read more Brust.
Should I Read This Book? If you love well-written fantasy and don’t need everything to be epic, I can’t recommend this enough.

Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill: This is the book I finished today that prompted this whole thing. The book begins with a couple of seemingly unrelated plots about normal people on Earth who somehow come into contact with magical beings. A young couple’s baby is replaced with a changeling. A young boy meets a genie. The book bounces between these stories, excerpts from textbooks about the magical realm and fairies, and folk stories. The writing is beautiful and even though it takes a little while to understand exactly how all these things are related, it doesn’t take long to get drawn into this magical world. Now, I am a sucker for stories that take place in this world but show us a new and more magical side or it, or a pathway to a connected magical world, more than I am for stories that take place in a completely different and unrelated world. In Dreams and Shadows, there’s a fairy kingdom right outside Austin, TX, and while I’ve never been to Austin, from what I’ve heard of it, that doesn’t sound completely inaccurate. Cargill’s fairies are reflections of humanity, and they really don’t paint us in the most flattering light. It’s a story of magic and fairies and angels, wishes and dreams, heroes and consequences. And it’s another one that’s wrapped up perfectly at the end, so I’m excited-but-nervous about the sequel.
Should I Read This Book? If you’ve ever enjoyed a book by Neil Gaiman, make this the next book on your to-read list. And, lucky for you, the sequel is coming out in May! That’s not too far away!

And now, Part the Second:

The 50 Book Project

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions. They’re usually all-or-nothing things–the “I’m going to eat healthy this year!” that you give up the first time you are too tired to cook and order pizza for dinner because that wasn’t healthy. Or they’re not easily measurable, or they’re unattainable, or they’re things that you just don’t want to do. And you know what? Most people want to eat a little healthier than they do, and most people want to spend more time with the people they love than they do, and honestly I don’t know what other resolutions people make.

I do like projects, though. So instead of saying “I’m going to read more!” which would be completely immeasurable because I have no idea how much I read last year, and honestly would be a little silly because it’s not like I’m one of those people who doesn’t really read and thinks that picking up a book now and then would be a good thing, I’m doing a project.

In 2014, I am going to read–and blog about–50 books.

Wait, I thought you said you didn’t need to read more. Why make this a project? Because it’s good to have goals. And because I have no idea how much I read last year. Is 50 a lot? Is it normal? For me, I have no idea. Sometimes a book takes me a few weeks, sometimes I’ll read three in a weekend (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games series). And because, if I do this, I’ll keep track. I got some notebooks so I can write stuff down as I’m reading, and next year when I’m sitting down and thinking, “What did I even read this year?” I’ll have a record of it.

Why 50? Because there are 52 weeks in a year, and two weeks of vacation seems fair. (HAH!) Okay, I’m not taking a vacation from reading ever in my life, but I felt like a nice round number was a good idea, and this way if I’m not QUIIIITE at a book a week (but still, you know, very close), I’ll be okay with it.

What about re-reading? That’s a good question. I do love a re-read, and there will be times when it’s necessary. So here’s how it is: A re-read will count IFF* I’ve only read it once AND at least ONE of the following criteria are met:
-It’s been a long time since I last read the book–say, since before Mike and I met. That was in September of 2009.
-I feel like I missed something the first time around or my understanding would otherwise be enriched by another read through
-Another book in the series came out–in this case, the entire previously existing series will be allowed to count as one book, while the new book will also count as one. If it’s just a two book series (like Dreams and Shadows and its coming sequel), well, hopefully I won’t need to re-read that one yet, but if I did then the two would just go together.
-A movie came out and I’m doing a comparison

What about short stories? They won’t count by themselves (that would be cheating), but I will count an anthology of short stories if I read… let’s say 75% of the stories in it. (There are always one or two that you just know you don’t want to read.)

Series? Well, as I mentioned in the section about re-reading, if a new book in a series comes out and I am re-reading the previous books, they will all count as one and the new book will count as one (unless I’ve read them a few times). If I haven’t read any of the series before, they’ll each count individually, but may only get one blog post depending on how long it takes me to read them–if I’m reading an entire YA series in a weekend, I’m not stopping to blog three times. Probably. Who knows.

Will you be posting one blog post per book? That’s kind of the plan, but if I pick something up that is taking an extraordinarily long time, I might post a short progress update, a little “The Road So Far” thing to let you know where I am and how I’m liking it.

What if you don’t like a book? Are you kidding? If I read at a 50 books a year pace for the rest of my life and live another 70 years–both of which are highly optimistic figures–I only have time to read about 3500 more books before I die. Realistically, probably closer to 2000. That is not a lot of books. I am not wasting my time on bad ones. If I start a book and say, “Wow, I really hate this!” I will write a quick post to let people know that the next book I write about will not, in fact, be what I thought.

Where are you getting these FAQs from? It’s not like anyone knew about this project before right now to ask them. You’re right. This is me asking myself questions to figure out what my guidelines for my project are. Nobody has asked me a damn thing because I haven’t told anyone about this project before right now.

Can I join you? I think it would be super awesome if people saw what I’m reading next and pick it up so they can discuss in the comments! I’ll try to plan a few books ahead if it seems like people want to do this.

So, for my first book of 2014, I will be reading…

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. A coworker who is currently home from college recommended it, and I figure I should read it while he’s around. It’s always nice to have someone to discuss books with.

*Note: “Iff” means “If and only if.” I learned it in a logic class in high school and I’m sticking to it.

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About Rachael

Hi. I'm Rachael. I realized one day that, even though I read a lot of books, I often have a hard time remembering them later on. I guess that happens when there's so much to try to remember! So I started The 50 Book Project, with the intention to read and blog about 50 new (to me) books in 2014. I read a lot of fantasy, but I'm trying to branch out and experience new stuff. Any questions? Suggestions? Let me know! Comment, or email me at dearohrachael@gmail.com.

3 responses »

  1. Dear Oh Rachael,
    Sorry, I will never be disappointed in you!
    Although this post made me cry and cry over Grammy, all I could think while reading part one is; She needs to blog more! So I was very happy to get to part two. I am looking forward to reading every post! As you know I don’t love fantasy, but your reviews make me want to read every one of these books. I will try to read some of your choices along with you. Well, I will start with you and finish weeks later. First I have to read all of the books you gave me on vacation and for Christmas and one book Brad sent me. Maybe you can give me a heads up on books you think I may enjoy most. Love, Mom

    Reply
  2. I’m doing the same thing! Trying for one book per week.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Brain Crushes, and Book Four: Paper Towns | Oh, Rachael.

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