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Originally published December 8, 2013 at 5:11 AM | Page modified December 9, 2013 at 11:58 AM

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31 of the best titles of 2013

A year-end list compiled by Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn and reviewers.

Seattle Times book editor

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This may seem like an odd thing to say as we present The Seattle Times’ best books of 2013 list, but here goes: Best-books lists are, shall we say, in the eye of the beholder? Squishy? Subjective?

Case in point: Two titans of the publishing world, the trade journals Publishers’ Weekly and Library Journal, issued their best-books lists in November. Each named 10 “best books.” One book made both lists, a debut novel called “A Constellation of Vital Phenomona” by Anthony Marra. Pretty swell for first-time novelist Marra, but not much of a consensus!

Nevertheless, on our books page we spend all year dividing the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the gold from the dross, so here’s the final sort — Seattle Times reviewers’ nominations for the Best Books of 2013. Thirty-one in all, 15 fiction, 16 nonfiction.

And the best of the best? Seven books got multiple votes. The novels: “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. “Hild” by Nicola Griffith. “Someone” by Alice McDermott.

Nonfiction: “Lawrence in Arabia” by Scott Anderson. “The Family” by David Laskin. “The Unwinding” by George Packer. And, the top vote-getter of all, Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat,” the elegiac true story of the University of Washington crew team, a group of Northwest boys who came out of nowhere to vanquish Hitler’s hand-picked team at the 1936 Olympics.

Full citations on these and other books are below. Thanks to all our reviewers, who come through faithfully to help me compile this shining list.


“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf). Adichie’s book triumphs because it successfully translates the experiences of two young Nigerians struggling to establish themselves in the United States and Europe into something we all can relate to — the challenge of finding your place in the world. It is a novel about the slipperiness of identity, the trickiness of nostalgia, the foolishness of pride and the necessity of love, especially for oneself. Tyrone Beason

“Maya’s Notebook” by Isabel Allende (Harper). Allende, renowned for her historical fiction, creates a contemporary heroine with a beguiling mix of clear-eyed toughness and lightness of spirit in the haunting, heartwarming story of a California 19-year-old’s journey from the hell of substance abuse in Las Vegas to redemption on a remote Chilean island. — Agnes Al-Shibibi

“Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown). This novel by Atkinson, a fantastically talented British author, might be the single most thought-provoking book I read this year. It tells the story of Ursula, a young English girl who lives her life over and over and over again. Someone, or something, wants her to get it right. — Mary Ann Gwinn

“Longbourn” by Jo Baker (Random House). Head and shoulders above the usual Jane Austen spinoffs, sequels and prequels, this imaginative novel takes us behind the scenes of “Pride and Prejudice” to a gritty, touching and richly imagined account of the Bennet family servants’ perspective. Melinda Bargreen

“All the Land to Hold Us” by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This haunting novel brings us Richard, a geologist working in the harsh desert of west Texas, where the landscape is as potent as any character, and the seemingly relentless hardship paves the way for genuine, welcome relief, and yes, happiness — like the slaking of some terrible thirst. David Takami

“Sweet Thunder” by Ivan Doig (Riverhead). Seattle novelist Doig returns to his native Montana for this epic tale of loyalty, politics, love and newspapering set in the gritty labor wars of early 20th-centry Butte. Doig is at his best in his historical novels; this one dazzles with fascinating characters and contemporary themes. Tim McNulty

“The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking). Botany has never seemed more exciting than through the eyes of Gilbert’s fictional heroine, Alma Whittaker, whose energetic pursuit of plants and the man she loves captures the 19th-century thrill for discovery. Ellen Emry Heltzel

“Hild” by Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “Hild,” by Seattle author Griffith, spins taut threads from the elements of treacherous kings, desperate bandits, brilliant tapestries, and dying gods, weaving them into a marvelous story of a seventh-century Englishwoman’s coming of age. Nisi Shawl

“Benediction” by Kent Haruf (Knopf). A man who has led a seemingly unremarkable life learns that he has one summer left, and between his memories and the visits of family and friends, we see the drama and grace that lie just below the surface — not merely of his life, but perhaps of our own as well. Richard Wakefield

“Someone” by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — McDermott, winner of the National Book Award for her novel “Charming Billy,” turns her empathetic eye to another flawed yet so-like-you-and-me character, the plain and plain-spoken Marie, who finds love and meaning almost in spite of herself. Ellen Emry Heltzel

“The Fountain at St. James Court” by Sena Jeter Naslund (Morrow). This bifurcated novel alternates between the life of a 19th-century female artist and a 21st century female writer. Naslund never disappoints — with this book she once again creates memorable characters, surprising scenarios and astute notions on living life with intention. Barbara Lloyd McMichael

“Life Form” by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alice Anderson (Europa). Belgian novelist Nothomb imagines herself as a writer getting fan mail from a most unlikely reader: a U.S. Army private stationed in Iraq who, in an act of rebellion, is eating himself into a state of staggering obesity. It’s a fantastical tale that grabs you from the start and doesn’t let you go until its final twist. Michael Upchurch

“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki ( Viking). Ozeki’s latest book is a capacious story about a Japanese teenage girl whose diary, possibly carried across the ocean in the 2011 tsunami debris, is read by a Pacific Northwest novelist fighting writer’s block. It’s a dazzling and humorous work of literary origami: The narrative sections fold over on themselves in time and theme and wordplay. Wingate Packard

“Bleeding Edge” by T homas Pynchon (Penguin Press). Set in New York City during the dot-com boom, this crypto-tech-noir yarn follows Upper West Side single mother and fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow as she navigates the nether reaches of the nascent Internet. With a subject perfect for Pynchon’s worldview, this book is his best in years. Brian Thomas Gallagher

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown). The long-awaited new novel from the author of “The Secret History” is the sort you get happily lost in; combining page-turning plot twists with achingly beautiful prose. It’s a story about the love of beautiful things; about spending youth searching for something undiscoverable; about how life can shackle us to a perch, unable to move forward. Moira Macdonald


“Lawrence in Arabia” by Scott Anderson (Doubleday). The story of an eccentric British officer who helped form and then lead an improbable coalition of Arab armies during World War I, this book provides an overview of the war and how its resolution created the disastrously unstable modern Middle East. It’s a dazzling accomplishment that combines superb historical research with a compelling narrative equal to any courtroom thriller. Kevin J. Hamilton

“The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff: The Redemption of Herbert Niccolls Jr.” by Nancy Bartley (University of Washington Press). This book is a deeply researched, finely written story by a Seattle Times reporter of a Depression-era child who grew to intelligent manhood behind prison bars, supported by a multifarious group of advocates. Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown (Viking). Brown tells the improbable story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar varsity crew and its rise from obscurity to win the Gold Medal in the 1936 Olympics, defeating the heavily favored Nazi crew while Hitler himself watched from the stands. A breathtaking story told by an equally compelling author. Kevin J. Hamilton

“Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital” by Sheri Fink (Crown). Fink paints a grim picture of the five sweltering days in New Orleans’ Memorial hospital after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. A physician and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Fink then dissects the investigation of nine suspicious deaths of the sickest patients there. John B. Saul

“Thank You for Your Service” by David Finkel (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Finkel follows an infantry battalion as it returns stateside from Iraq, using extraordinary access and exquisite detail to show how our ever-expanding population of combat veterans struggles to find peace at home. Ken Armstrong

“Like Dreamers” by Yossi Klein Halevi (Harper). A nonfiction epic about a half century of social and religious upheaval in Israel, told through the intersecting lives and careers of the band of paratroopers who seized the Temple Mount during the 1967 six-day war. David Laskin

“Telling Our Way to the Sea — A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez” by Aaron Hirsh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). University of Colorado-Boulder research associate Hirsh’s fascinating debut book draws a composite picture from a decade of teaching intensive summer field trips about science, conservation and biodiversity in the Sea of Cortez and at the Vermilion Sea Institute in Baja’s tiny fishing village of Bahia de Los Angeles. Irene Wanner

“Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection,” edited by Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop (Smithsonian Books). This book is an exhibit between covers of hundreds of objects from the Smithsonian’s Civil War collections, including 550 color illustrations and explanatory text by dozens of Smithsonian experts. It’s a huge, lavish, handsome book; the next-best thing to actually visiting the Smithsonian. Steve Raymond

“Exploding the Phone” by Phil Lapsley (Grove Press). A fantastically fun romp through the world of early phone hackers, who sought free long distance, and in the end helped launch the computer era. Charles R. Cross

“The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” by David Laskin (Viking). Seattle author Laskin, an occasional Seattle Times book reviewer and superb nonfiction writer, outdoes even himself with the story of his own ancestors — one branch achieved gilded success in America, one branch became pioneers in Palestine, and one set stayed in Middle Europe and got swept up in the Holocaust. Mary Ann Gwinn

“Dallas 1963” by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis (Twelve). These Texas authors explain how evil forces coming together in Dallas during the early 1960s made the city a likely killing ground when President John F. Kennedy arrived for a visit. Steve Weinberg

“The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” by George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction, “The Unwinding” weaves stunning portraits of people known (e.g., Newt Gingrich, Joe Biden) and unknown (a factory worker in Ohio, a Wal-Mart employee in Florida) to chronicle an economy and a country in decline, courtesy of Wall Street and Washington. — Ken Armstrong

“Gulp” by Mary Roach (Norton). Fearless science writer Roach, the person I’d most like to stand next to at a cocktail party, takes us on a fascinating, hilarious and only occasionally gross trip down the alimentary canal, explaining just what happens to food and drink between the mouth and the you-know-what. — Adam Woog

“Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City” by Russell Shorto (Doubleday). This finely spun history of Amsterdam explores both a city and an idea, as American author Shorto, a marvelous picture painter in words who’s lived in Amsterdam for five years, recounts how the city’s brand of “liberalism,” with its maverick blend of freedom, tolerance and strangely skeptical/conservative pragmatism, originated. — Michael Upchurch

“The Downfall of Money” by Frederick Taylor (Bloomsbury). The story of the German hyperinflation of 1919-23. It is a tale of a time and place where the political world was vastly more messed up, and in a more fascinating way, than now. — Bruce Ramsey

“Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II” by Mitchell Zuckoff (Harper). Zuckoff reveals for the first time the tragic stories of plane crashes in Greenland and the extraordinary efforts to save the survivors. This wonderful book is a tale of courage, war and perseverance. David Williams

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