Dan Kois’ Top 15 Books of 2013

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 5 2013 12:31 PM

Dan Kois’ Favorite Books of 2013

Slate’s books editor on the 15 novels, memoirs, stories, and comics that delighted him the most this year.

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Illustration by Frederik Peeters

Monday: Slate staffers pick their favorite books of 2013.
Tuesday: The overlooked books of 2013.
Wednesday: The best lines of 2013, and the best poetry of 2013.
Thursday: Dan Kois’ 15 favorite books.
Friday: The Slate Book Review Top 10.

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The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. A movie-ready, table-setting blockbuster of a YA adventure about alien invasion. Is it psychologically acute? Not really. Is the prose distinctive? Hardly at all. But when a novel provides this perfect a mix of adventure, trauma, disaster, explosions, and moony teenage love, it hardly matters.

Barrel of Monkeys by Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot. This book of deeply offensive short comics, by two French cartoonists, successfully bridges the seemingly unbridgeable gap between charmingly whimsical and disturbing-as-hell. (I particularly loved a duel fought in the middle of a convention of professional sword swallowers.) For a taste of what Ruppert and Mulot are offering, check out their clever phenakistoscopes (animated here from the book) featuring two guys severely injuring each other in awful ways.

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A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam. Part of this innovative novel takes place in a Vermont home where an elderly couple has taken in a chimpanzee as a surrogate son; the rest takes place in the Florida primate research facility where that chimp, Looee, moves in after an accident. The Vermont sections are often very funny and compelling, but it’s in the research facility where McAdam teases and turns around language, giving us a creative and wondrous portrait of nonhuman society from the inside out.

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star by Tracey Thorn. I’ve never had strong feelings about Tracey Thorn’s music; I loved one song by her teenage band the Marine Girls, was indifferent to her longtime partnership Everything but the Girl, and quite liked her most recent solo album. But Thorn’s memoir is wonderful: wry, canny about stardom, self-deprecating but also proud, and suffused with love for music, her career, her children, and her musical and life partner Ben Watt. I only opened the book because of a wonderful review by Lavinia Greenlaw in the London Review of Books, which of course is how reviews are supposed to work; I hope this mini-review does the same for you.

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle. A charming middle-grade novel by actor and choreographer Federle about the Broadway dreams of a misfit 13-year-old. When Nate Foster hears about open auditions for E.T.: The Musical, he breaks curfew, hops a Greyhound bus, and heads to New York City, where all kinds of delightful surprises await. A great book for theater lovers, for aspiring stars, and for any confused kid (or adult) who doesn’t quite fit in.

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The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen. For kids, the dark isn’t just the absence of light. It’s a real thing that lives in their houses and creeps into their rooms late at night to scare the heck out of them. A Series of Unfortunate Events author Snicket and This Is Not My Hat illustrator Klassen team up for an artful and insightful picture book that has already made a lot of bedtimes a lot easier.

Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson. Pearson was on my list last year, too, for his dark and despairing comic for adults, Everything We Miss. But his Hildafolk series of all-ages comics is bright, witty, and beautiful, and the latest book is his best yet. Resourceful young Hilda has moved form the country to the city, and she must navigate its busy streets (and complicated social codes) while rescuing a fallen bird who just might be something more.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. An epic novel of the first half of the 20th century whose high-concept conceit—heroine Ursula Todd dies over and over, only to be born again to try once more to get her life right—turns into a deeply wise meditation on fate and free will. What life are you meant to lead? Are you meant to be happy or sad or in love or lost? And if you can change the world, should you?

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt. The title comes from “Dixie,” of course, but there’s nothing Old South about Barnhardt’s hilarious and sad novel of North Carolina. Tracking the ebbing fortunes of the once-rich, always-screwed-up Johnstons of Charlotte—matriarchs in gloves, daughters in sororities, uncles in their cups—Barnhardt affectionately skewers the New South with an impeccable eye for character and an ear for the great, drawled bon mot.

March Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. For much of the 20th century comics served as a way to introduce crunchy historical stories to young readers in a user-friendly way. That tradition continues with the graphic memoir of civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, but this book isn’t just square-jawed heroics, thanks to Nate Powell’s sly, thoughtful, detailed cartooning. Lewis’ story (and co-writer Aydin’s words) make March important; Powell makes it art.

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Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Ward’s angry, anguished memoir about the five young black men from her small town in Mississippi killed in a five-year span. The memoir circles closer and closer, painfully but clear-sightedly approaching the life at its center: that of Ward’s brother, the first of the five young men to die. But Ward isn’t just mourning, she’s fighting: Her book is both memorial and extended polemic, a vigorous attack on the entrenched racism and economic injustice that keeps the men of an entire town forever on the edge of death.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. This ingenious fantasy novel set in Victorian times is the “memoir” of one of the world’s great experts on dragons. As this first volume begins, she’s an inquisitive, courageous young woman who yearns to be a scientist; her first adventure is merely the first time, we know, that she will defy the expectations of her age. Brennan fuses an ear for Victorian language with a spiky feminist sensibility and produces a novel that delighted me more often than any other book this year.

Tampa by Alissa Nutting. The year’s wildest, most subversive, and most jaw-dropping book was this slim novel in a fuzzy black dust jacket that is packed with the most astonishing filth. (The British cover, meanwhile, is laugh-out-loud funny.) Told in the mad, hyperventilating voice of an eighth-grade teacher wild to bed her shy 14-year-old student, Tampa mixes deadpan social satire, lurid true-crime storytelling, and out-and-out porn into a poisonous stew—a novel that’s arousing, enraging, and deeply in tune with our monstrous times. Someone hire Harmony Korine to make the movie, ASAP.

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Translated by Anna Summers, these short, sharp stories from Soviet-era Russia more closely resemble horror stories than love stories—but they’re horror stories in which the monsters are people, just people, living in communal apartments and being as awful to each other as people often are. A wickedly entertaining collection that also will tell you basically all you need to know about living in the Soviet Union, circa 1986.

Zero Fade by Chris L. Terry. Meet Kevin Phifer. He’s in seventh grade, with a dad who’s been gone for 10 years, a mom who won’t let him get a fade, and a neighborhood bully who won’t leave him alone. It’s 1994 in Richmond, Va., and Kevin’s the hero of Chris L. Terry’s funny, well-observed young adult novel. I loved Zero Fade for its great period detail and its honesty about its main character’s emotions—including his confusion and concern about an uncle who’s coming out to his family.

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Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

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