Best Books of 2013 (Sort Of)

My post on heroes is delayed. Here’s what blogs are SUPPOSED to do at year-end.

Let’s be honest: I didn’t read all the books that came out in 2013 and neither did you. In fact, a lot of the books that I read this year came out a while ago.

How on earth can I put a list together? I thought about this and decided to give three different number ones.

The Best Book I Read in 2013: Published in 2013

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers & Saints is a set of two graphic novels about the Boxer Rebellion, “a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement which took place in China between 1899 and 1901.” I’m not sure I would classify this as a children’s book, but the protagonists are young, and I’ve seen this work recommended for high school.

The two books are sold separately, but you need to read both of them in order to get the full effect. You need to see how they contrast and inform each other. The first book, Boxers, is longer and more colourful. It sets up more of the history and the motivation of the boxers, who see themselves as Chinese Opera heroes. The second volume, Saints, is a bleaker more reserved look at the consequences, humanizing the people on the other side who are massacred in the first work.

Some of  Yang’s earlier works–American Born Chinese and The Eternal Smile–used outside the story twists solutions for their endings. I wouldn’t quite call them deus ex machina, but I didn’t find them satisfying. As I neared the end of the second book (Saints), I worried that something similar would happen, but Yang pulls it off something splendid. He achieves the combination of unexpected and inevitable that good endings strive for, and it has a resonance that echoes all the way back through both volumes.

More importantly for this work about war and perspective, the ending doesn’t take an easy way out.

The Best Book I Read in 2013: Published Earlier

The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

I was motivated to read this book due to the recently created Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Sunburst Award has had a young adult category since 2010, but the Monica Hughes award is the first (to my knowledge) Canadian award for children’s fantastical writing.

The novel is set on the planet of Isis, as Olwen who lives alone on the planet learns that new colonists are coming. Explaining much more of the plot gives away the revelations which make the book oddly enchanting and immersive. The planet she creates isn’t hard sci-fi realistic, but it is definitely believable. I look forward to finishing the trilogy in 2014.

Hughes stated that the main theme she wished to explore in the novel was loneliness, but explorations of otherness are so strong that it’s hard to believe that she didn’t create them consciously. She said she didn’t become aware of themes of prejudice in the novel until children pointed them out to her.

I need to read more of her work to get a better understanding, but when measuring contemporary authors against Hughes, the three things that stand out for me would be world-building, organic theme, and empathic situations.

*Sidenote: Congratulations to Rachel Hartman who won both the Monica Hughes and the Sunburst in 2013 for Seraphina! This was my runner-up for best book I read in 2013, published in 2013, even though it was actually published in 2012.

Book Published in 2013 That I Really Want To Read

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

I get distracted easily. Sometimes I find a writer I like, and then forget to read more of their books. Kate DiCamillo was one of the first children’s writers that I got into but I’ve missed out on her last two novels.

Her newest is about a superhero squirrel. It’s gotten rave reviews and appeared on almost all the other year’s best lists that I’ve looked at. Many have called it “magic realism” which I find rare in children’s literature. At least, it’s rare when that it actually achieves the kind of spell-binding enchantment that Gabriel Marcia Marquez is known for. Too often it’s ruined with nonsensical explanations of the magic, rather than just letting magic be magic.

It also combines pages of text and sections of comics. I don’t have a lot of experience with this, although it seems to be a growing trend (Wonderstruck, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, etc.) I’m hoping that the superhero comic sections borrow ideas from Captain Underpants.

To end, here’s an interview I enjoy with Kate DiCamillo where she talks about her writing process. Of particular interest (4:02), she says that even if things are going well, she doesn’t write more than two pages a day.

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