Friday, January 10, 2014

Our Best Reads of 2013

By Kim

Are you looking for something great to read? The contributors here at What Women Write have some recommendations for you. Here are our top picks for 2013.


The Pieces We Keep by Kristina McMorris

This is McMorris’ third novel and, I believe, her best so far. It has the elements I loved about her previous books – WWII setting, unconventional love story, gorgeous prose, and a bittersweet conclusion. It would have been simple to stick with a formula that has proven to work in the past. Instead, McMorris challenged herself (and her readers) by taking two seemingly unrelated story lines, one present day and one from WWII, and presenting them in alternating chapters. A careful reader will soon have theories about who is haunting Jack and why, but the puzzle is so cleverly unraveled that I doubt anyone will have all the pieces in place before the end. To see my full review, click here.

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

I devoured this lush novel during every spare moment of my recent vacation, hating to look up and remember I was in Missouri, not on Skye. On several occasions I wondered how Elspeth and Dave could possibly meet, let alone have a happy ending. I read on with bated breath. Every time I thought I had things figured out, I’d find out I was wrong.

This is a beautiful debut, and a must read for all romantics. For my full review, click here.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The grace on the Opera stage contrasts sharply with the lives of the dancers backstage, many of whom, like Marie and Antoinette, are from the Paris gutters.The Painted Girls unflinchingly contains all the grit and blood of the Paris slums, though it is far more hopeful a tale than novels like Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The alternating first person point of view plunks the reader right into Marie’s tattered shoes or Antoinette’s sweat-soaked wash-house clothes. That the narrative is in present tense adds an immediacy to the tale that keeps pages turning. As a mother, my heart alternately ached and swelled for those girls, especially because I have my own “little dancers” – ages eleven and seven. Neither of them will be reading The Painted Girls any time soon, but when they are grown, or at least nearly grown, I will hand them a new copy. My own will probably be as tattered as Marie’s shoes by then. To see my full review, click here.

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

Sometimes when I’m familiar with the subject matter of a novel already, it disappoints. This one amazed! I’d only known “Josephine” as half of a famous couple before, but Webb introduced me to Rose Tascher, who was a force to be reckoned with. Napoleon did not make an appearance until about page 175, and I didn't miss him. Not a bit. He’s not even named when he’s first introduced, and the description of him made me sputter my mocha latte all over myself at Starbucks. I was tempted to read that part aloud to those who stared at me for laughing. See my full review here.

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

A gripping novel filled with sensuality, danger and passion. I read Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven in school, but knew very little about the man other than that he was a bit odd looking. Cullen made me see him through Frances Osgood's eyes and, I admit, I fell a bit in love with him. Mrs. Poe (not Frances) is a remarkable character herself. Victim or villain? I had a hard time coming up for air until I found out.

The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

I loved Walsh's The Last Will of Moira Leahy a few years ago and was thrilled to receive an ARC of The Moon Sisters, which will release on March 4th. (It is available for pre-order now.) This gorgeous novel is about two polar opposite sisters who, while grieving their mother's apparent suicide, embark on a magical journey to the setting of her unfinished book. If you are a sister, or have one, you won't want to miss this literary feast for the senses. I will do a full review for my March 7th post.


The Goldfinch-Donna Tartt

Whatever you've heard about Donna Tartt, and whether you've read her other two highly acclaimed novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, you really must tackle this near 800 page work of genius. I literally walked around the house for ten minutes in a daze with my hand over my mouth after I reached the end. This is simply a stunning and brutal story written with the most gorgeous language and insightful prose I've seen in a long, long time. Released at the end of October, it’s been named at the top of several “best of the year” lists. I would venture to say it’s one of the best novels I've read in the past decade of hard-core reading. This book is a masterpiece.

Madame Bovary-Gustave Flaubert

Of course, this book is the original time-tested masterpiece of fiction, and I’m embarrassed to say that this reading of the classic was my first. I read the Francis Steegmuller translation (although I’ve heard wonderful things about the more modern Lydia Davis translation, and was cautioned by the checker at the bookstore that when reading Bovary, the translation is key.) Flaubert is used as the benchmark for interiority in characterization, for his complete grasp of close third point of view, and for use—albeit in the original French-- of verb tense. I should also note that it was important for me to read How Fiction Works, by James Wood, before reading Madame Bovary (at the advice of a literature professor friend.) More on that book below.

The Tilted World-Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

This novel is another great study in point of view. Husband and wife team Franklin and Fennelly wrote the alternating POVs of Ingersoll and Dixie Clay in this compelling tale of the 1927 Mississippi River Great Flood. Slipping between chapters was a delicious experience in language and exposition, with the gender-specific details shining through. Fennelly, a poet, and Franklin, a novelist, both teach at the University of Mississippi, and collaborated on this piece at the urging of their agents, husband and wife team Nat Sobel and Judith Weber. It is a beautiful story, rich in historic detail, yet is also a touching tale of family and ultimately, of love.

How Fiction Works-James Wood

Don’t allow the size of this book fool you: it is absolutely packed with insight and references in 123 segments. James Wood, the highly regarded literary critic for The New Yorker, also teaches half time at Harvard and is married to author Claire Messud. I've carried How Fiction Works with me for the past six months and still haven’t finished it. With a four page bibliography, reading this was almost like taking a master class is fiction and literature. Wood covers everyone from the Russians to Homer to James Joyce, covering topics like character, consciousness, and sympathy. This little red book was named A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year, a Los Angeles Tomes Best Book of the Year, and a Washington Post Best Book of The Year and was published in 2008.
Others with high recommendations that I read this year:

Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert
Let the Great World Spin - Colum McCann
The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud
The Tenth of December - George Saunders
Guests on Earth - Lee Smith
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin


Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert 

One of the most compelling novels I've read—ever. A brilliant birth-to-death book about a woman botanist in the 19th century. It's a potion of life, determination, philosophy and world culture. Read my full review here.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra

An intense, stunningly written novel set in the backdrop of war-torn Chechnya - so tragic and intense, and darkly funny. Read my review here.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson 

This novel is a literary conundrum. It starts when Ursula is born to a British family in a 1910 snowstorm and dies that day. She is reborn on the same day in slightly altered circumstances, only to die at age five. And then again. Each alternate life has repercussions for her family and possibly the world. After I finished this one, I did not want to pick up another book for days.

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

A breathtaking debut set in early nineteenth-century Iceland. A woman imprisoned for the murder of two men is placed with a family to await her hanging. The narrative alternates between diary entries for the accused woman and third-person of those around her. Fans of Sally Gunning’s books will love this one.

The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom

Who wouldn't root for a six-year-old Irish orphan who is raised in a slave kitchen after losing her parents on a ship from Ireland? The characters in this novel are so finely drawn, from the chilling farm manager to the strong-willed daughter of the plantation owner. Their voices are still in my head.

The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer

This novel is based on the author’s grandfather, a young Hungarian who gets the chance of a lifetime to study architecture in Paris, only to have it taken away from him when World War II erupts. I read a lot of WWII fiction and this is one of the best.

Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline

A beautifully written novel that balances the gritty realities of orphans in the Depression era to those in present-day. Kline studied and researched orphan trains and has received much praise from those who have lived through this haunting time in our history. Read my full review here.

Sure Signs of Crazy, Karen Harrington

Wow – what engages a reader most? Voice, voice, voice. This book from our friend Karen Harrington had me laughing, crying and rooting for the precocious Sarah Nelson.

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro

So inspiring, true, personal and universal.


2013 was a bizarre year for me in terms of reading. I went through my goodreads account as well as my Amazon purchase history to refresh my memory. What I discovered is most of what I'd read were books I'd already read! I'm in two book clubs and in charge of selecting the books for one at a retirement home and have learned to choose books I've vetted, so I know the content will be well-received. I mistakenly chose one I'd not read beforehand and NO ONE liked it--even though I did, but quickly realized the content was a bit too dark for our membership. 

Therefore, much of the new books I'd hoped to read in 2013 remain unread as of this blog posting. Along with some other goals for the new year, I'm adding: Make a significant dent in my TBR stack! Among those are several titles already listed here by Joan and Susan. 

A few I enjoyed this year include Julie's Calling Me Home, Elizabeth Berg's Tapestry of Fortunes and Dani Shapiro's Still Writing.

My inability to focus for long stretches of time due to my mother's illness and her eventual passing had me doing some light reading which books included Tina Fey's Bossypants, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston and Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.    

My sister sent me three books by Lisa Genova and I thoroughly enjoyed Love Anthony, a story about two women whose paths cross at the most opportune times--as one grieves the loss of a child and the other mourns the end of her marriage. Still Alice and Left Neglected are in my TBR stack. Here's to an upcoming Year of Reading!!


A few years ago, I logged every book I read, and it was a smart choice. Why have I not repeated that? This year, I intend to, but for 2013, much of what I read is lost to me. I know I re-read some old favorites including a couple of Jane Austen's novels, some Maeve Binchy, Anne Tyler. I also added Binchy's last (A Week in Winter) and Tyler's latest (The Beginner's Goodbye), and refreshed my enthusiasm for both of them amongst my very favorite writers.

I also added a new favorite author to my list: Ron Rash. I think Susan gave me the heads-up on this North Carolinian, and I could not stop gushing to friends and family and strangers and dogs and bugs and light bulbs about the terrific Nothing Gold Can Stay, a collection of short stories published in February. It helps that I'm familiar with the area, visiting each summer, but even if you've never been to Western North Carolina, the stories will hopefully resonate with you anyway for their truth and wisdom and tiny heartbreaks and triumphs. I followed up quickly with his novel Serena, and cannot wait to see the movie this year with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

In December, I bought myself a copy of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy Kaling's hilarious memoir, and I admit to an ulterior motive, but even if I weren't hopeful that she and I will eventually cross paths, I'm glad I read it. Funny and smart, it was a great read for the busy season and one I will no doubt read again.

A few more that I recall from the year:

Mary Coin, by Marisa Silver
Still Alice, by Lisa Genova (yes, Pamela, read it!)
Divergent, by Veronica Roth (and yes, dear daughter, I will read both sequels this year)


2013 was a bit of a blur with the release of Calling Me Home in February, then gearing up late in the year for the January paperback release, but I did manage to start reading a lot again by summertime when I was traveling. Instead of looking at my list and seeing what I read and choosing from those, I'm just going to name and annotate a few that float to the top every time someone asks me what I loved reading this year--the ones I truly "couldn't put down."

I kept seeing Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret popping up here and there, most notably the New York Times Bestseller List week after week, and then when She Reads chose it for their September pick, I figured I needed to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed. I dove into the story headfirst and while I figured out fairly soon what the secret was, I couldn't stop reading. The way Moriarty puts all the pieces together is really kind of genius--especially when you get to the very end of the book. I won't say anything else because that would spoil the fun. But speaking of fun, Moriarty is also very funny. In the droll way that is my very favorite type of humor, she had me chuckling on countless pages in the midst of a pretty dark storyline. Rather inappropriately at times, I might add. But she also had me gasping and nearly in tears a few times. I love a book that inspires a range of emotions like that.

A book I picked up rather randomly (but remembered later that author Allie Larkin had told me about it months earlier) was Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I usually don't read a lot of young adult fiction, but man, this turned out to be another book I can't stop raving about. I don't know if it's because I grew up in pretty much the same time period as the two teen narrators (mix tapes? punk rock? no cell phones, anyone?), or because I was a misfit an awful lot like Eleanor (and maybe a little like Park) when I was in high school, but this book slayed me in numerous ways. And guess what? It was another dark storyline laced with humor and tears and surprise. Hmm, now that I think about it, I like to write dark story lines laced with humor and tears and surprise. I guess that makes perfect sense. (I think that's why I've always loved fiction by Elizabeth Berg, and hope to read the one Pamela mentioned very soon.)

Next, every year, I read a lot of books by friends, and 2013 was no exception. One I was privileged to read and blurb ahead of release but was published in 2013 was The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan. I loved it! And it was definitely a favorite for the year. I'm sure it's partly because I was thrilled to read it early and excited to be so drawn in to a story by such a dear friend. But mostly? It's just a great story. I'm reading her work-in-progress, too, little by little, and Amy is simply a talented writer of women's fiction, not to mention a champion of it. (See her blog, Women's Fiction Writers.) Also? The Glass Wives is a book with a rather dark story line, laced with humor and tears and surprise. GO FIGURE!

Finally, did anyone mention Me Before You by Jojo Moyes? You guessed it: Dark story line. Humor. Tears. Surprise. Another one I was happy I decided to read to see what all the fuss was about, and happy to discover I loved it. I've actually been reading Moyes for years, and am continually surprised at her success with genre bending and hopping around a bit. But with Me Before You, she clearly hit upon a subject and voice that sent her plummeting from "solid author" status to bestseller on just about every possible list. It was a perfect storm, much like this fabulous story.

What are your favorite reads? Tell us about it in the comments.

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