Notes from Neil

By Neil Rajala

Best of (Semi)2013: Fiction

Wednesday, Dec. 5 — I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are fully ready for the sprint to the end of 2013. Weren't we just toasting to its beginning? Here's what we're reading:

BEST OF 2013: Fiction

It's year-end list time! A recap of my favorite reads, just in time for holiday gift giving. Since I've already recommended my notable books of the first half of the year, this list will cover from July onward. Fiction this week, nonfiction in seven days, and in no particular order:

Want Not
- Jonathan Miles.
The first of two titles that were recent reads so impressive I couldn't leave them off the best-of list. Mr. Miles tells three alternating stories with entirely unconnected casts of characters; each so compelling the reader can't wait to get to the next chapter. Slowly, imperceptibly, the threads of the three lives start to converge. By the last quarter of the novel, the overlap happens in shocking and life-altering ways. A beautiful structure, a satisfying payoff, and highly recommended.

Brown Dog - Jim Harrison.
This book is a collection of six novellas featuring Brown Dog, the underachieving U.P. native who may or may not be of Chippewa heritage, who has become a near cult figure among Mr. Harrison's fans. All but one of them is a reprint from a previous book, only He Dog is new, but having them all in one volume is a treasure. With apologies to Steve Hamilton, Joseph Heywood and even Robert Traver, nobody writes about the Upper Peninsula like Mr. Harrison. Having grown up there, whenever I immerse myself in these stories I'm taken back home. The locations are instantly familiar; the dialogue pitch-perfect and the character of Brown Dog is a recognizable amalgam of people I knew well. Take it from a Yooper, this is the real deal.

Dissident Gardens
- Jonathan Lethem.
Mr. Lethem does love his tangents. If you're going to dive into this grand story about multiple generations of New York activists, be prepared to follow the author wherever he chooses to go. You'll be rewarded with a great story, vivid characters and memorable prose from a unique stylist.

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt.
The novel of the year? Other reviewers and readers are saying so, and I'm not sure I can disagree. The story of young Theo Decker and the aftermath of his surviving a NYC terrorist attack is as grand in scope and successful on as many levels as anything I read this year. Comparisons to Salinger, Dickens and Irving have been thrown around, which gives you an inkling of Ms. Tartt's achievement.

Lost Luggage - Jordi Punti.
This award winning Spanish writer's first American translation is a heartfelt and mysterious journey by four young men who share the same first name and the same father. They first learn of each other's existence when the father goes missing and a police report brings them to a Barcelona hotel room. Did their father intentionally bring them together? Is he still alive? Why did he give his sons the same name? The young men unravel their shadowy father's life story and their own histories while attempting to find him.

Night Film - Marisha Pessl.
Stephen King's Doctor Sleep got all the big horror novel press this year, but Ms. Pressl's novel about an investigation into the suicide of the daughter of the world's most notorious and reclusive cult-film director will lead to just as many white knuckles and sleepless hours as Mr. King's book.

Snow Hunters - Paul Yoon.
This little gem of a novel has the holiday advantage of being stocking-sized, but that's not why you should share it with book-loving friends and family members. The story of a North Korean man who leaves his country following the war to work for an elderly tailor in a small village in Japan, Snow Hunters is spare in style but rich in emotion. Mr. Yoon's prose is elegant, evocative and utterly beautiful.

Honorable Mentions:
All of which will fully reward the time you're able to spare for reading:

Visitation Street - Ivy Pochod.

Let Him Go - Larry Watson.

The Tilted World - Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly.

Bleeding Edge - Thomas Pynchon.

The Valley of Amazement - Amy Tan.

If I missed any novels that you loved this year (and I'm sure I did), drop me a line and let me know. Back in a week with the Nonfiction list!

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.