How do you pick the best books of an entire year? For me, I pulled a big stack of books I’ve read over the past year off the shelf and categorized them, then cross-referenced with the books I’ve already reviewed (which are on separate shelves), and then used a careful algorithmic process that takes into account things like page count, cover hue, smell, and texture.
Okay, not that last part. Really it’s just what stuck with me the most. Some categories were easy, because frankly I didn’t read that many non-fiction books (must change that this year!) or adult fiction (ditto!). Comics, on the other hand, I almost feel like I should have an entirely separate category because there were so many fantastic selections. But I’ll settle for telling you all about them later. I do try to give a little preference to books that are less prominent, simply because there are some books that tend to make everyone’s “best of” lists and I figure maybe I should focus on the ones that don’t.
Enough with the hemming and hawing! Here’s my list, followed by a few selections from Jim Kelly, Dave Banks, and Tom Fassbender.
Picture books are short, so I chose three.
Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos and Joy Ang — My 7-year-old is obsessed with mustaches and we just had a new baby in 2013, so this one struck a chord. Bonus points for references to Mario, Settlers of Catan, and Etch-a-Sketch.
Welcome to Mamoko by Alexsandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski — Sort of like a bizarro-world Where’s Waldo? You have several characters to look for over the course of the book, but you’re also trying to piece together what happens to everyone. Not as overwhelmingly busy as the Waldo books, but still very fun to look at.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts — A cute rhyming story about a shy maker geek who learns that failure can be a “perfect first try.”
Kids’ fiction: Another three-way tie, because after asking my kids to help decide amongst the three, they picked all three. All three titles are ones that I’ve read out loud to my kids, with much laughter.
The Templeton Twins by Ellis Weiner and Jeremy Holmes — I reviewed the first book early last year and then book two came out in the fall. Twins John and Abigail cleverly defend their father against the villainous Dean D. Dean, but the star of the book is undoubtedly the snarky narrator.
Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo and K. G. Campbell — Flora is a young cynic who loves reading comic books (including a series called Terrible Things Can Happen to You!). Ulysses is a squirrel who, run over by a vacuum cleaner, acquires superpowers. Together they conquer villains, have adventures, and dream of giant donuts. As you may expect from DiCamillo, the story is both delightfully funny and sometimes poignant.
Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis — Book one (Mistakes Were Made) made my “laugh-inducing books for kids” list last year, and I got a sneak peek at book two (Now Look What You’ve Done) which comes in February. Timmy Failure is a kid detective who can’t get a clue, and along with his pet polar bear Total he attempts to solve mysteries that are obvious to everyone but himself. Your kids will love how smart they feel when they read these books.
Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler — Okay, I admit I almost put this one down because it seemed like it was going to be a fancy period piece about a young woman with terrible parents. And then her friend the kraken showed up. Gorgeously written and devastating, it seems a little like a fairy tale but definitely not for little kids.
Honorable Mention: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green — also heartbreaking and beautiful, about a relationship between two teenagers with cancer. One reason this isn’t number one here is because I figure you’ve all heard of John Green already (plus it was published in 2012), but it’s also superb and I just got around to reading it last year.
The Explorer by James Smythe — Cormac Easton is a journalist documenting humanity’s first trip into deep space, but things go horribly wrong. Trapped in a spaceship far from help, Cormac can see his death coming. A sci-fi psychological thriller that had me flipping back to the beginning as soon as I finished.
Honorable Mention: Lexicon by Max Barry — This crazy, action-packed ride involves weaponized language (yep, you read that right), and adds another great reason to read anything that Max Barry writes. Best if you go into it not knowing much more than that, but you can read my full review here.
Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman — Bronson and Merryman teamed up a few years ago for NurtureShock, a fantastic science-based look at parenting. Top Dog brings their science-and-anecdotes approach to the topic of competition, and it’s fascinating. What makes a winner or a loser? How can we become better competitors? When are teams a poor strategy? Read this and find out.
Honorable Mention: More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby — This is from 2012, but I just got around to reading it. It’s a collection of Hornby’s monthly column in The Believer and is, at least on the surface, about what he reads. But Hornby writes about books the way I could write about things: really he’s writing about life, incorporating what he’s reading into it. If you love reading (and reading about reading), then this is an excellent addition to your collection of books about books.
Hyperbole & a Half by Allie Brosh — This one isn’t obscure, but for sheer laugh-per-page ratio it deserves a slot. Brosh’s intentionally crude cartoons and brutally honest essays will have you laughing and cringing at the same time. The book collects some essays that have appeared on her website and some new material, but all of it is excellent.
Honorable Mention: To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North — This choose-your-own-path version of Hamlet was one of the more bizarre Kickstarter projects I backed, and the result is an illustrated book with over a hundred possible endings and millions of ways to reach them. Sure, you can be Hamlet, but you could also be Hamlet’s ghost father or Ophelia or even Claudius for a while.
Comics: Like I said, this one was the toughest for me, because I read so many comics and so many of them were wonderful for different reasons. Is it okay to give you five books? Sure it is. Everyone could use more comics.
March by John Lewis, Andew Aydin, Nate Powell — Congressman John Lewis made history 50 years ago in the March on Washington, and has been an important figure in the battle for civil rights. This graphic novel trilogy (Book One was released in 2013) will be an eye-opening way to experience this part of our nation’s history. (Read my original review here.)
Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang — This diptych tells a fictionalized account of the Boxer Rebellion, a clash between Chinese peasants following their traditional religions and foreign missionaries and Chinese converts. The books tell the story from two different perspectives: Boxers reads like a Chinese opera; Saints is more like a confession. Together they paint a vivid picture that reminds us history is more complicated than we like to make it. (Read my interview with Yang here.)
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg — This is not actually an encyclopedia, but a collection of linked stories about “Early Earth” that call to mind ancient folktales, sly twists on Creation, the Flood, the tower of Babel. And, of course, true love. The illustrations are perfect for the subject matter, and it will delight anyone who knows the power of storytelling.
RASL by Jeff Smith — Smith is best known for his all-ages comic Bone; RASL is a darker comic meant for adults. Rasl is an art thief with a peculiar methodology: he jumps to parallel dimensions and steals paintings there, then pops back and sells them in his own world. However, the government—or somebody—is pursuing him. Smith weaves facts and fiction about Nikola Tesla into the tale, which is fascinating.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley — Food lovers will fall in love with the way Knisley remembers notable moments in her life by the food associated with them. And the stories of growing up surrounded by cooking are just as delicious as the food she describes. Plus, illustrated recipes! (I mentioned Relish in my Serious Comics post about memoirs.)
Cool Tools by Kevin Kelly — As I stated in my original review, not only is the Cool Tools book filled with hundreds of gift ideas for any tool lover you might know (including yourself), the book itself is a true gift. With over 400 pages of full-color photos and personal reviews that skip the hype, this is a geek’s coffee table book that will actually get read.
Read the original review here: The Perfect Gift for Every Tool Lover — Cool Tools.
Of Dice & Men by David Ewalt — I’ve read a number of books on the history of Dungeons & Dragons, but this is the one I’ve enjoyed most. It speaks to both hardcore fans/players, but it’s also an amazing introduction to family members and friends who might not be familiar with RPGs. It’s a personal story, as well… with the author sharing his own adventures and experiences with the various events and individuals that round out the world of D&D.
Read the original review here: Of Dice and Men — The Story of Dungeons & Dragons: A Review.
YOU by Austin Grossman — If you have fond memories of computer gaming in the ’80s and ’90s, you’re going to love this modern day mystery that revolves around a computer game company and its employees. With flashbacks to both fictional and non-fictional games, the story gives a glimpse into the real world of game development and offers a nostalgic look at the text-based and ASCII graphic games that many of us enjoyed in our youth.
Read the original review here – Fiction Meets Geek History With YOU.
The Circle — Dave Eggers has written (what I would argue is) a horrifying science fiction book that serves up a future where a Google/Facebook-like company has eroded all privacy. As a friend of mine said, “I can’t read any Google announcement now without thinking about this book.” It’s a quick read and a very enjoyable one.
Rocket Robinson and the Pharaoh’s Fortune by Sean O’Neill — Sean O’Neill’s webcomic-turned-print (thanks to a successful Kickstarter) is a little Jonny Quest, a little Tintin, and a whole lot of fun. Read the original review here.