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Reviewsday: Five Best Books of 2013

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The beginning of a new year finds me making lists of books for my “must read” list, which tends to grow rather than diminish even as I avidly read all year. I also reflect on my favorites from the previous year—books that generated feelings or insights that stayed with me or books I simply found particularly entertaining. It’s always difficult to pare them down to a small number, but my top five picks for books with published reviews from me in 2013 are:

Inferno

In Inferno, by Dan Brown, Robert Langdon, Brown’s recurring hero, returns to solve a new nail-biter. A mad scientist, intent on saving the world from its own population explosion, has created a viral time bomb. Accompanied by a smart and pretty blonde, Langdon attempts to decode the clues left by the suicidal scientist while being chased by corrupt government officials and a virtual private army through the streets of Florence and the canals of Venice. His task is complicated by the fact that he awoke in a hospital in Florence with amnesia, having no memory of how he got there or why. The only thing the reader knows for sure is that Langdon is the good guy, as always, and the other characters Brown introduces could be playing for either side. In fact, Brown cleverly pulls the rug from under the reader more than once, with unexpected revelations that induce literary gymnastics and the desire to return and reread sections of the book so the reader can be “in on” the surprise, too.

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, tells the story of Pasquale, an innkeeper in the tiny oceanside town of Porto Vergogna, who inherited the property after the death of his father. Pasquale aches to build the property into a resort, complete with a mountainside tennis court, which will attract famous and wealthy Americans to the tiny town and mostly nonexistent beach. When a Hollywood starlet, Dee Moray, arrives under unusual circumstances, he falls in love with her during her short visit. Stitched between modern day and the early 1960s, Pasquale and Moray lead separate lives which are eventually reunited. Both Pasquale and Dee learn to accept what’s possible and what isn’t—like building a tennis court on the side of a mountain or luring Richard Burton away from Liz Taylor (Dee’s long ago wish)—but are still able to find enrichment in the families they built while away from each other.

The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout, is named for Jim and Bob Burgess, who together with their sister Susan, grew up in a small town in Maine. The incident upon which the novel’s action is centered involves Zach, Susan’s son. Zach is a loner, searching for approval, depressed, and somewhat aimless. What Zach does feeds bigotry against Somalis in his community but simultaneously lays a foundation for understanding. Strout allows the reader to anguish along with the characters in the book, hearing “their side” of the conflict and gaining understanding of their actions. The Burgess Boys invites readers to adjust their perceptions, without leading them to choose one perspective over another, just as the characters do in the novel.

The Dog Stars

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, tells the story of a world ravaged by a flu virus. Hig, the central character in the novel, is a pilot and the guardian of a small airport near Erie, Colorado. This post-apocalyptic setting is marked by rising temperatures, depleted animal communities and species, roving bands of scavengers seeking provisions and weapons, and a highly contagious disease referred to as “the Blood.” Together with Bruce Bangley, a ruthless tactician with a mysterious past, Hig defends a “perimeter” around the airport. Flying “the Beast”, a 1956 Cessna 182, he scouts for wildlife, watches for marauders, and occasionally stumbles on salvage. When a faint signal from an airport closer to Grand Junction reached him, Hig was determined to know whether civilization survived somewhere else.

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

David Sedaris' most recent collection of stories and essays, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, is a quirky, honest, and hysterical collection of his work. While Sedaris admits he loves the attention of being on stage and reading from his work, he also reveals himself as a flawed character in the story of his life--flawed, but very also very funny, and some of those "flaws" may explain his unique approach to recording life. Sedaris doesn't limit himself to witty stories, but occasionally adds a touch of scathing social commentary--still funny, mind you--but clearly has an agenda of its own. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is an upbeat collection overall, and made even more enjoyable if readers have an opportunity to hear Sedaris read from his collection in person, either by audiobook or at a local appearance.

Readers, what were your favorite books from 2013? What are you planning to read in 2014? Add your comments and suggestions!

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