It’s been a little more than a year since The Gazette expanded our books section.
Each Sunday, the additional space has meant that we’ve been able to offer more reviews of books by local authors or authors visiting Eastern Iowa.
We did the math and figured that collectively, Gazette book reviewers have shared their insights about more than 100 books in these pages in 2013.
These folks love to read. They love books.
So we asked them to do something hard. We challenged them to name just five favorites from the long list of books they read this year.
Here are their picks:
- “A Questionable Shape” by Bennett Sims
This is not your typical zombie novel. Sims, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, penned a beautiful novel that is largely a philosophical investigation into the nature of undeadness — which, by extension, is an investigation into the nature of being alive.
- “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra
This is a beautiful, funny, tragic novel set in war-torn Chechnya. It would be impossible to be overly effusive in praising Marra, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for his accomplishment.
- “Sea Creatures” by Susanna Daniel
Daniel, an Iowa Writer’s alum, offers a story of a family struggling to find normalcy amid diverging needs and impossible choice. The book is a tale of loyalty and to whom, and at what cost, it is owed.
- “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” by Ann Patchett
This collection of essays firmly establishes that Patchett, an Iowa Writer’s graduate, is as brilliant a non-fiction writer as she is a novelist. Aside from Patchett’s beautiful, impeccable writing, what makes these essays special is her ability to connect any subject to personal experiences that resonate with the reader.
- “The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons” by Lawrence Block
The first new entry in the chronicles of Bernie Rhodenbarr in a decade, this book should satisfy both longtime fans and people discovering the series for the first time. The burglar books are humorous mysteries.
- “Heads in Beds” by Jacob Tomsky
The best-selling memoir from former front-desk clerk Tomsky is a rollicking insider’s look at the upscale hotel industry. With fast-paced chapters and a wonderful overarching plot, it’s a perfect read while traveling.
- “Painted Hands” by Jennifer Zobair
This book by an Iowa native follows two young, professional women as they confront a shifting of priorities. Told from multiple points of view, Zobair challenges stereotypes (especially regarding Muslims and conservatives).
- “Our Man in Iraq” by Robert Perisic
This was one of the most striking novels of the year. When Boris begins sending incoherent reports back to Croatia from Iraq, Toni, Boris’ cousin, rewrites them, blurring the line between truth and fiction and raising points about the role of the media, truth, and the chances we take in life to do what we think is best.
- “The Sound of Things Falling” by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Vasquez explores the idea that we are a result of our personal world, not our personal choices by telling the story of Ricardo Laverde from everyone’s perspective but his own.
- “Marble Season” by Gilbert Hernandez
By multiple award-winning author and illustrator Hernandez, this is truly a book for all readers. Set in California in the 1960s, Marble Season follows Huey, the middle of three siblings, as he obsesses over comics, makes and loses friends, and starts thinking about girls. Hernandez’s drawing style and dialogue is reminiscent of Charles Schultz.
- “The Son” by Philipp Meyer
A beautifully written, gripping story of a Texas family and the tough-minded, violent people who battle the elements, Indians, and their own demons. The book covers six generations, with the most powerful, unblinking chapters on Eli McCullough’s years among the Comanche.
- “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson
This book is a bit of a literary “Groundhog Day,” where the author keeps returning to the past to make things right, only to find out something else goes wrong, and she has to start over. I’ll never forget this book and its moving exploration of life, love.
- “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
There are things not to like about this sprawling book, but the author ultimately creates an original tale about an orphan whose life is saved, eventually, by art. Critics compare Donna Tartt to Charles Dickens. She’s better than Dickens, though there’s despair aplenty.
- “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg
This thoughtful, honest book asks a lot of the right questions. And it encourages young women to dream big, to pursue opportunities, to raise their hands and share their talents.
- “Alex” by Pierre Lemaitre
I’m a fan of mysteries, and this one is original and dark. It’s too bloody for some, so let me cheat and recommend three mysteries by local writers — Dennis Green’s “Traveler,” Lennox Randon’s “Friends Dogs Bullets Lovers,” and Rob Cline’s “Murder by the Slice.” They’ve got some blood and mayhem, too, but they end in the light.