Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Best books of 2013 (so far)

Illustration for article titled Best books of 2013 (so far)
Illustration for article titled Best books of 2013 (so far)

This is shaping up to be a big year for books, and the first six months of 2013 packed a huge punch, seeing new releases from such heavyweights as Stephen King, George Saunders, Neil Gaiman, James Salter, Khaled Hosseini, Kate Atkinson, Colum McCann, and David Sedaris. The first half of 2013 was great for books even before we found out J.K. Rowling pseudonymously published a crime novel. Here is The A.V. Club’s list of the best some of these early releases had to offer.

Best book of 2012 that didn’t get published in the States until 2013: M. John Harrison, Empty Space
The first two books in M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, 2002’s Light and 2006’s Nova Swing, were published in the U.S. simultaneously with their release in his native U.K. The third installment in the series, Empty Space, didn’t get so lucky. A full year after appearing in England, the book finally came out Stateside—but it’s well worth the wait. Brimming with space-opera grandeur, everyday magic, and the quantum interstices that connect them, Empty Space teases out multiple and often poignant meanings to its title as Harrison extends his reign as the poet laureate of the science-fiction novel. [JH]

Best music memoir: Richard Hell, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp
I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, the memoir from veteran punk rocker Richard Hell, is cracked, erratic, and as fundamentally flawed as Hell himself. A co-founder of Television, The Heartbreakers, and The Voidoids, three of the most distinct and exciting bands of the New York punk scene in the ’70s, Hell unspools his life story with uneven yet entrancing meditations on art, lust, drugs, nonconformity, and nihilism. It ends too quickly—before his less self-destructive career as a writer takes off in the ’80s—but it distills the essence of a restless innovator and the soul of punk. [JH]

Best music memoir that’s actually really bad: Peter Hook, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
Skimming through Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, the memoir of the legendary post-punk band’s bassist, Peter Hook, can be delightful experience, full of glimpses of in-depth recording details and illuminating personal anecdotes—much of which is new to Joy Division fans. But a thorough reading of the book reveals something far more problematic and, in spots, ugly: an opportunist book by a superb musician (with zero sensitivity or tact) who seems intent on dismantling the myth that’s grown up around his old band’s deceased, iconic lead singer, Ian Curtis. By the end, Joy Division as a whole is portrayed as more sympathetically human than it’s ever been. Or at least three-fourths of the band is. [JH]

Best debut no one’s heard about: Zachary Jernigan, No Return
Zachary Jernigan had the misfortune of being one of the last authors published by Night Shade Books, a long-running independent press that collapsed earlier this year. In all that shuffle, Jernigan’s debut novel, No Return, has become a bit lost. And that’s a crime. A science-fantasy epic that’s as of a much perverse hybrid as it is an homage to an earlier era when those genres weren’t so strictly segregated, No Return is set on a world that bears wizards and astronauts equally. It also pulls no punches in its rich, visceral depictions of sexuality, martial arts, punk energy, and the philosophical quandaries of power and identity that speculative fiction uniquely exploits—and that few up-and-coming speculative writers outside Jernigan tackle with such guts. [JH]

Best book about a single song: Mark Kurlansky, Ready For A Brand New Beat: How “Dancing In The Street” Became The Anthem For A Changing America
It’s audacious to write an entire book about one song—even if it is a song as beloved as Martha And The Vandella’s 1964 Motown hit, “Dancing In The Street.” In Mark Kurlansky’s hands, though, Ready For A Brand New Beat does far more than talk about how great the tune is. Viewing the upbeat, seemingly innocuous song as both a catalyst for and the encapsulation of a nation in wrenching transition—especially in regard to the Civil Rights Movement, but also in regard to Vietnam, the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, and the early strains of the counterculture— Kurlansky keeps his narrative as brisk, riveting, and deceptively simple as its indelible soundtrack. [JH]


Best retroactively clairvoyant prediction of a pop-culture meltdown: Teddy Wayne, The Love Song Of Jonny Valentine
The titular narrator of Teddy Wayne’s novel is only 12, a year or two younger than Justin Bieber at the start of his career, but given how quickly Bieber has retreated into an “us vs. them” mentality in response to haters, while going fiercely off the rails with erratic behavior and disgustingly petulant acts, Wayne’s examination of a preteen pop idol on the verge of a tumultuous teenage period looks incredibly prescient. Jonny Valentine lives in an isolated bubble, secluded by his overzealous manager mother, trying to become friends with his middle-aged, divorced bodyguard, and making uncomfortable passes at his tutor as well as his fans. Given the current Bieber meltdown after the pressure-cooker adolescence of a pop star, Wayne predicted that trajectory down to a “t” with this character. [KM]

Best twist in the middle of a novel: Christopher Hacker, The Morels
For the first 100 pages, Christopher Hacker’s debut is a rather loose family drama about Arthur Morel, a former violin-prodigy-turned-author and his wife and young son, narrated by a former classmate/filmmaker. But when Morel publishes his newest novel, the entire story hinges on one page describing a graphically sexual incident. The family drama disappears immediately, replaced by a media fury, a trumped-up court case, and a documentary crew investigating Morel’s childhood in a very loose, artistically encouraging household. All of the malaise of that first third crystallizes into tense investigation and a menacing downward spiral, initiated by that one shocking page. [KM]


Best previously unpublished short story: George Saunders, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”
George Saunders may have never written a novel, and that is totally okay. But the longest story in his newest collection, Tenth Of December, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” could have been that elusive, yet unnecessary standalone narrative. Saunders started the story all the way back in 1998, finally finishing a version he was satisfied with in 2012. During that time the tale had ballooned to 200 pages before the story unlocked for Saunders, and the version that appears in the collection has been whittled down to just under the novella-length. As an epistolary glimpse into the life of a working-class father struggling to give his kids something to be proud of while struggling to support them, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” injects one gruesomely surreal concept—the titular lawn decorations—and the jarring dissonance forms one of Saunders’ most memorable creations. The narrator has hilarious moments of insecurity, but the darkness and underlying socio-economic scab that Saunders scratches makes this a must-read. [KM]

Best gratuitous discussion of anal fluids: Dan Savage, American Savage
Regular readers of Dan Savage’s column (and anyone paying attention to the 2012 Republican presidential primaries) are well aware of his redefining the name “Santorum” in honor of former senator Rick Santorum and his homophobic diatribes. Santorum, known to the Internet as “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex,” gets most of a chapter devoted to it in American Savage, Savage’s latest collection of essays. Savage is more interested in tracking his prank as it played out in the Republican primaries, but that doesn't stop him from a generous amount of reminders of what, definition-wise, Santorum is. [NC]


Best weightlifting scene with a father of American civil rights: Colum McCann, TransAtlantic
Most Americans learned about Frederick Douglass in history class, possibly reading his seminal Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, which documents his life in slavery. But only Douglass experts would have known about his weightlifting regimen without Colum McCann devoting a scene or two to the subject in TransAtlantic. Using two dumbbells that he’s transported to Ireland, Douglass performs a strenuous workout to keep himself fit. And this attention to his bodily wellbeing shows how far removed he is from his past. Required to make a living as a public speaker, this forefather of American civil rights turns to exercise as a link to the past. [NC]

Best extended fantasy sequence involving mole men: Will Self, Umbrella
Technically, Will Self’s Umbrella doesn’t have “mole men” in the traditional sense, but it does feature many pages devoted to an underground community living off the scraps from above. After dying in the trenches of World War II, Stanley Death finds himself beneath the earth and part of a commune-like group made up of other veterans and civilian casualties. After burrowing through the ground, Stanley begins to form a new life as he helps newcomers adapt to the world below. Umbrella is an odd book in many ways, but these sections take the cake for “events coming out of left field.” Stanley’s journey is beautifully described and brilliantly imagined, though a strange appendage on a book that, for the most part, maintains a kind of hazy realism. [NC]


Best self-publishing success story where the book is actually readable: Hugh Howey, Wool
Though Hugh Howey’s Wool stories were first available on Kindle in 2011, in March they were collected into an omnibus and received a major release in dead-tree form, a release with the weight of a premier publishing house behind it. The re-release propelled the book onto several bestseller lists, a graphic-novel adaptation is due to arrive in electronic form this October, and there is talk of a Wool film on the horizon now that the movie rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox. What’s most pleasing about Wool is that it doesn’t disappoint: This book is a winner over last year’s self-publishing sensation by leaps and bounds. Not only is it readable on public transportation and recommendable to friends; more importantly, it’s a compelling story, written well, with characters readers actually give a shit about. [AB]

Most meta book/most homework/best afro: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Mo Meta Blues
Mo Meta Blues more than lives up its title. Questlove’s memoir switches between several different structures (including emails between the publisher and co-writer Ben Greenman) to comment on itself while continually raising questions about what kind of book it wants to be in the first place. Meanwhile, Questlove addresses a broad, dizzying spectrum of topics, from doo-wop to Barthes to race, while asking the reader whether he should be talking about those things. Not only that, the density of musical references throughout the book practically demands that the reader take long breaks from actually reading to catch up with all of the music that has shaped Thompson’s life. Though the book occasionally collapses under its own weight, Mo Meta Blues still more than justifies the work required to read it. And, of course, Questlove’s afro is epic enough to be immortalized on the book’s cover as a metaphor for his crowded mind. [ET/AB]


Most mouth-watering: Doug Sohn, Hot Doug’s: The Book
Hot Doug’s: The Book is the rare successful book that makes you want to put it down: In this case, to catch a plane/train/walk to Hot Doug’s the “encased meat emporium” run by author Doug Sohn. The book is largely a compilation of contributions from fans of the restaurant (including The A.V. Club’s own Josh Modell), but Sohn also provides a history of the restaurant, from the fire that destroyed the first location through Sohn’s public battle against Chicago’s foie gras ban, an explanation of his approach to the perfect dog, and plenty of tantalizing photos. Hot Doug’s: The Book may be a poor substitute for unfortunate souls unable to pack up and move to Chicago to frequent the restaurant, but it’s the best everyone else is going to get. [ET]

Most unintentionally horrifying: Alina Simone, Note To Self
This debut novel from singer-songwriter Alina Simone is pitched as a slightly broad satire of modern life—newly unemployed protagonist Anna Krestler has a real addiction to the Internet, while her roommate Brie is a 27-year-old unpaid intern. But the New York of Note To Self stumbles into something far scarier than gently poking fun at Anna’s drifting. In the novel’s world, everyone involved in making art is struggling financially and intellectually, spews pretentious, incomprehensible jargon, and can never, ever be trusted. With a cast of monsters that doesn’t include a single truly sympathetic character and a “happy ending” that boils down to an escape to “normal life,” Note To Self is a splash of cold, existentially terrifying water for any would-be creatives. [ET]


Best cliffhanger causing a Twitter freak-out: The Madness Underneath
When the second installment of Maureen Johnson’s Shades Of London series was released this February, the Internet read it excitedly… and then reared up on its hind legs and roared. Perhaps more deafening, though, was the sound of MJ’s delighted (some might say evil) cackle, which reverberated cruelly in the minds of her 80,000-plus Twitter followers. A boarding-school ghost story set in London, The Madness Underneath could have easily leaned on hackneyed plot devices, but instead, MJ conjures up strong, funny, three-dimensional characters like Rory, the delightfully unreserved protagonist, and Stephen, the mysterious sad bastard. The problem with good characters is that readers fall in love with them. Then Johnson throws a curveball, leaving them dizzy with anticipation and grasping for Kleenex. It was so abrupt and heartrending a conclusion (if it can even be called that), angry tweeters are still yelling at MJ six months after the book’s publication date. Unfortunately for everybody waiting impatiently to find out a certain character’s fate, MJ is getting a real kick out of their desperation. [LMB]

Most chilling use of an adorable animal: Gabriel Hardman, Kinski 
While Hawkeye’s experimental Pizza Dog issue has deservedly garnered a lot of attention, the most captivating canine in comics right now is the black labrador retriever at the center of Gabriel Hardman’s digital comic crime series Kinski.  Discovered by unhappy businessman Joe during a work-related trip, the dog sparks a fire within the man that compels him to have the animal, no matter what the cost. After stealing Kinski from the little boy who owns him and befriending the child’s bartender mother, Joe becomes conflicted by his actions, but the puppy just stares with an empty expression that is increasingly ominous. As writer and artist, Hardman turns a straightforward narrative into a captivating psychological study, creating a tense atmosphere that makes Kinski the Breaking Bad of dognapping tales. [OS]


Most unexpected revival: Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat, Jorge Molina, Paul Davidson, X-Men: Legacy
A year ago, David “Legion” Haller was just another X-Men character on the sidelines, with a huge power set and fractured mental state that made him a difficult hero for writers to pin down. Following the death of David’s father, Charles Xavier, at the end of Avengers Vs. X-Men, writer Simon Spurrier found an angle for Legion that has not only made him a major player in the X-universe, but turned X-Men: Legacy into one of the most offbeat and imaginative superhero titles on the stands. David is trying to achieve his father’s dream of peaceful coexistence for humans and mutants by taking a more proactive stance than the reactive X-Men: go after threats to mutantkind before they have the opportunity to do any significant damage. To do this, he has to take control of the rampaging superpowered alternate personalities living in his head, which is just as difficult as it sounds. With the help of an art team that is more Vertigo than superhero, Spurrier has created a captivating comic book that is as much about a man learning to understand his full potential as it is about people in costumes punching each other. [OS]

Best graphic-novel treatise on the nature of crime: Matt Kindt, Red Handed: The Fine Art Of Strange Crimes
Matt Kindt is quickly becoming a true visionary of comic books, constantly experimenting with the form to amplify the impact of his stories. His ongoing Dark Horse series Mind MGMT is an epic genre-bender about a group of individuals with various psychic abilities, but his graphic novel Red Handed is his tightest, most insightful work yet. With a Dick Tracy-like gumshoe as his lead, Kindt looks at the lives of various criminals Detective Gould has put away, using their individual stories to examine the nature of crime and the flaws of this country’s legal system. There’s a long con at the heart of the book, and Kindt’s experimental panel layouts and use of collage visually reinforce the idea that Gould’s world is a collection of puzzle pieces he puts together to solve a case. It’s a riveting crime comic that tackles complex philosophical issues in a way that enhances the main action while showcasing the storytelling opportunities offered by the graphic-novel medium. [OS]


Best/worst editorial decision: Ales Kot, Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad was one of the weaker titles of The New 52 until indie comics upstart Ales Kot (Wild Children, Change) was brought on the book to completely change the its tone for the better. Joined by artist Patrick Zircher, Kot returned the title to the more realistic, psychologically intense roots of John Ostrander’s original run in the late ’80s, beginning with the introduction of sociopath James Gordon Jr. to the team. James is brought on to profile each of the group’s villainous members, and Kot’s first issues showcase a firm understanding of each rogue’s motivations and personality without sacrificing any of the action that is primarily associated with the book. Considering how strong his work has been after only three issues, it’s mind-boggling why DC is removing Kot from the title after next month’s #23 and replacing him with Matt Kindt, an excellent writer whose talents would be better appreciated on a DC title that actually needs fixing rather than one that is suddenly firing on all cylinders. [OS]