Best Reads of 2013

Context for this Book jacket Letter: For the month of January, I will insert this letter into every book I borrow from the library!

Happy New Year to you, dear reader!

For a year in the 90s, I kept track of every book I read by filling out cue cards and filing them away in a recipe box – I know, the acme of technology usage! The orderly neat freak in me who likes keeping lists and checking them thrice loved the idea of a personal book catalogue, but I grew bored of the process after only 15 cue cards. It was too much work for, well…no reward. So, you can imagine how over-the-top excited I was when, in 2012, I stumbled upon an even better and easier way to catalogue my reading: Goodreads. I can’t tell you how many times since then I’ve wished that the site was around 20 years ago!

According to Goodreads, since I started Book Jacket Letters, I have read 57 books. Pretty darn good I think, considering I only started in March. And when I looked back over the list of books I read this year, I realized that many of them were amazing reads and worth sharing with you again, in case you missed any of them the first time round.

So, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to my favourite reads of 2013 (please note, not all of them are fiction):

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (posted May 10)

Steal like an Artist

Goodreads blurb: “Writer and artist Austin Kleon has assembled the 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative in this book, Steal Like An Artist. Full of positive messages, illustrations and exercises to get in touch with your creative side. A great read for all creative types in this age of digital devices. 160 pages, paperback.”

My Comment: It’s cute, it’s catchy, and it has some great quotes! I totally agree with the analog/digital divide in terms of needing a physical space to use your hands to create, and think this book is well worth the hour or so it takes to read! Clever!

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (posted September 17)

A Tale for the Time BeingGoodreads blurb: “In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine. / Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.”

My Comment: The best book I’ve read this year! It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and I was sucked in from the very first page. Between the deeply disturbing school bullying in Japan, to the historic horrors of kamikaze pilots, WWII, 9/11 and the 2011 tsunami, this book has the potential to derail spectacularly, but it never does. Read it – it’s amazing meta-fiction. On a side note, I just started reading Ozeki’s My Year of Meats which also seems to be heading for a hard cover copy on my book shelf (where only books I LOVE find a place).

The Humans by Matt Haig (posted Dec 31)

Goodreads blurb: “Our hero, Professor Andrew Martin, is dead before the book even begins. As it turns out, though, he wasn’t a very nice man—as the alien imposter who now occupies his body discovers. Sent to Earth to destroy evidence that Andrew had solved a major mathematical problem, the alien soon finds himself learning more about the professor, his family and “the humans” than he ever expected. When he begins to fall for his own wife and son—who have no idea he’s not the real Andrew—he must choose between completing his mission and returning home, or finding a new home, right here on Earth.”

My Comment: Unlike anything else I read this year – this book is easy to read, enjoyable, and full of interesting comments on the species known as human. It isn’t quite sci-fi, and it isn’t quite farce. It’s kind of like The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but with a glass of wine: a little more mature in the humour.

ode to jhumpa lahiri

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (posted December 5)

Goodreads blurb: Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan—charismatic and impulsive—finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind—including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife. “

My Comment: Worthy of the review praise it has received, this is my second favourite book of 2013. The slow and steady rhythm of the prose moved me to write my letter for the book in a new form for me: a poem.


Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (posted October 28)

Goodreads blurb: “With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.”

My Comment: A lot more people will watch Orange is the New Black than read the book. And that’s sad. Not just because of the choosing TV over reading aspect. Piper Kerman’s memoir raises really good points about restorative justice, and the need to better prepare inmates for their release in order to be more productive members of society. Sadly, the average viewer doesn’t really give a crap about restorative justice. The average viewer wants a laugh, and OITNB is funny and then some. But the book is worth a read.

5 star

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw (posted November 6)

Goodreads blurb: “Phoebe is a factory girl who has come to Shanghai with the promise of a job – but when she arrives she discovers that the job doesn’t exist. Gary is a country boy turned pop star who is spinning out of control. Justin is in Shanghai to expand his family’s real-estate empire, only to find that he might not be up to the task. He has long harboured a crush on Yinghui, who has reinvented herself from a poetry-loving, left-wing activist to a successful Shanghai businesswoman. She is about to make a deal with the shadowy figure of Walter Chao, the five-star billionaire of the novel, who – with his secrets and his schemes – has a hand in the lives of each of the characters. All bring their dreams and hopes to Shanghai, the shining symbol of the New China, which, like the novel’s characters, is constantly in flux and which plays its own fateful role in the lives of its inhabitants. Five Star Billionaire, the dazzling kaleidoscopic new novel by the award-winning writer Tash Aw, offers rare insight into China today, with its constant transformations and its promise of possibility.”

My Comment: This is my first time reading Aw, and I navigated the book with ease because I was so enamored with the five main characters. In most books featuring multiple characters, I tend to prefer one or two storylines over the others, and skim the sections I don’t like (hey – we all do it). Five Star Billionaire didn’t suffer the same fate; I was totally engrossed with each character, especially at the moments when their lives overlap. Aw weaves the stories together in such a way that the reader is constantly left to expect the worst outcome from every possible situation, even when redemption seems so close at hand. Don’t expect a happy ending here, but it’s an engrossing read that really captures the fast-faced and hungry attitude of Shanghai and its inhabitants.

The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler (posted June 3)

Goodreads blurb: “When a young, enigmatic woman arrives in post-war Montreal, it is immediately clear that she is not who she claims to be. Her attempt to live out her life as Lily Azerov shatters as she disappears, leaving a new husband and baby daughter, and a host of unanswered questions. Who is she really and what happened to the young woman whose identity she has stolen? Why has she left and where did she go? It is left to the daughter she abandoned to find the answers to these questions as she searches for the mother she may never find or really know.”

My comment: I really enjoyed this book. The opening scene of a bride who has taken on the identity of a dead woman and is marrying the brother of her betrothed grabs the reader’s attention and the initial plotline engages. But as Richler moves through the novel with clever use of flashbacks and flawless shifts in point of view a more complex story emerges about love and lust and fate, and how every generation is impacted by the ones that came before it. Really great bookitecture.

If you haven’t read any of these – try to make room for at least one in 2014!


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