Your favorite 2013 book

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I’d like to cast one last look over the shoulder at 2013. Let’s talk about the best book each of us read last year.

At the beginning of 2012, I asked this question, and your answers informed my reading for the year. I discovered some wonderful new authors as a result. So I have a selfish motive–to fill out my to-read list for 2014. Hopefully you’ll discover some pretty great options as well.

I was hard-pressed to decide which book to name “the best” of everything I read. My mind first turned to two nonfiction books: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Both books had an impact on my life, which I don’t often find true. A book might startle me, inform me, touch my emotions, or stir my mind. But actually change how I think? That seldom happens.

Yet, these two books didn’t make it to the top of my list. That spot is reserved for a novel my book club chose to read.

I knew from the get-go that I didn’t want to read this book. First of all, I kept mis-remembering the title, which only made it sound worse. I thought of The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson as The Orphan Maker’s Son. I figured it was a story about an assassin connected to the mob. In actuality, the story takes place in North Korea.9780812982626


Not that awards always indicate that a book will be great read. But it’s a a pretty impressive list, yes?

The book follows the life of Pak Jun Do, who is the orphaned son of a Korean songstress and the master of a work labor camp of orphaned boys. So he has a father, but he is treated even more cruelly than the other boys because the orphan master doesn’t want to ever give the appearance of favoring his son. That would be deadly for the father. The book portrays the cruel, duplicitous, Orwellian life of North Koreans. The easy ways everyone lies to deceive each other is distressing, but the lies are so artful and creative they fascinate.

At times the book takes surreal turns that only emphasize the falsity that makes up the citizens’ lives. But the Koreans’ story-telling is part of how they keep going on with the drudgery facing them every day. They let their imaginations take them to places their bodies can never go.

While the story is a dark one, it’s also beautiful. For Pak Jun Do falls in love. In a society where being emotionally isolated is integral to survival, the choice to love is a dangerous one. It makes you vulnerable in ways you never are when you’re concentrating on taking care of yourself. As Jun Do discovers love, he finds life is about more than surviving; it’s about living to love–or dying for your love.

The complexity of North Korean relationships is expressed when, one day, a father prepares his son for the likely possibility that some day a family member must betray another one. The father demonstrates what that moment might look like by denouncing his son in ways that could only lead to his son’s death. Then, after spewing out the terrible, betraying  words, the father says, “See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me, in order to protect the two of you, know that inside, she and I are holding hands. And if someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it’s not really you. That’s inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands.”

It’s an intolerable life of fear, hunger, ill-health and pretense of loyalty to “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il. Yet it’s a wonderful story of resilience, humanity, and the joy in sacrificial love. And the writing is superb–amazing, actually.

I’ll never see North Korea the same way as a result of reading this book. Nor will I ever see despair and love the same way.

Now, you tell us, what was your favorite book that you read in 2013? It could be fiction of nonfiction, a new release or a classic that you discovered for the first time or rediscovered all over again. I’m ready to add to my list.


What book was your favorite 2013 read? Click to tweet.

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  1. “The Heart and the Fist”, by Eric Greitens.

    It’s a study, based on the author’s experiences, of why compassion is useless unless backed with force, and why force without compassion is ultimately empty.

    • Janet Grant says:

      That sounds like a thought-provoking premise.

      • It is. Greitens worked for various humanitarian organizations in Africa and the Balkans, and then decided to join the Navy and go through BUD/S (SEAL) training.

        What he saw in his work was the world helping people after they’d been hurt. He wanted to be able to contribute to preventing the hurt.

        It’s a sometimes harrowing look into the path a committed humanitarian chose to be as effective as he could.

  2. Wow, Janet. That book sounds thought provoking, to say the least.

    I read a lot of fiction last year. I think my favorite fiction book was, Softly and Tenderly, by Rachel Hauck. I also loved two debut novels: Made to Last, by Melissa Tagg and The Wedding Game, by Amy Matayo.

    For non-fiction, I think my favorite was The Greatest Gift, by Ann Voskamp. A beautiful Advent devotional. Some of her thoughts reshaped how our family celebrated Christmas in 2013.

  3. Forgive me, but my favorite read was my very own. It’s not one to put at the top of your list, but editing it over and over this last summer … the simple message God gave me has changed my life. And just when I think God is finished with it … I receive an email this morning asking me to speak at a church women’s retreat in March. I’m already shaking in my boots, but I’ve done it before and saw God come through mightily for me. So, I’ll do it again all for Him. I ask for prayers.

    • Janet Grant says:

      A book that informs the author is the very best kind because the authenticity from which the writer creates shines through. I wish you the best in your speaking engagement. God does amazing things when we’re shakily but willingness step forward on his behalf.

  4. Ron Estrada says:

    Just one, huh? I’d have to go with The Help. I finally got around to reading it and it touched me deeply. I’m a few years too young to remember the very real issue of racism in 1960s Mississippi, but the author does a fantastic job drawing us in and making it feel real.

    My favorite non-fiction book was The Moral Premise. It changed the way I think about my writing. I got to see Stanley Williams at a local writer’s conference, so that made it even better.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I loved The Help. The exploration of racism from “the helps” POV was compelling.
      I’m not familiar with The Moral Premise, but it sounds powerful to have had such an effect on you.

  5. It’s so hard to pick, but I’m going to go with The Beyonders Series by Brandon Mull. A World Without Heroes, Seeds of Rebellion, and Chasing the Prophecy. I bought it as a single e-book so I will always see it as one book I guess. This was a wonderful YA hero story. I love the character development, how the hero inspires people who have totally given up to risk everything for what is right. Loved it.

  6. Janet, I hope more comments and suggestions arrive soon. What a great way to formulate your reading plan for the year! The Orphan Master’s Son is going on my list for the year now, thanks to your recommendation.

    I read a lot of fiction in 2013, as I usually do, but I reviewed my list after I read your post, and I would have to suggest Joni and Ken Tada’s book, Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story. I grew up with a paraplegic father, so this book was personal for me. Even though I witnessed and even participated in the trials of a handicapped life and the caregiving spouse, reading of the emotion behind the physical limitations provided a glimpse into the mental and spiritual challenges of the physically handicapped and the people who love and care for them.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I appreciate the honesty with which Joni has always written about her life. She continues to be an inspiration to all of us. And, of course, Ken is the hero in the background, and I loved getting to know him better through that book.

    • Joni is a wonderful writer. I have lots of her books and am reading her first devotional, Diamonds in the Dust again for 2014. I’ll put the book you mentioned on my “to Read” list.

  7. Craig says:

    LUNATICS by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel… Brilliant.

  8. What a difficult question. I’m torn between The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee and Longbourn by Jo Baker. Technically, I re-read The Surrendered in 2013, so I guess Longbourn is the winner–and what I terrific book it is, especially to those of us who love Pride and Prejudice. At last, a P & P “knock-off” that stands on its on feet and uses Austen’s classic in an original and compelling way.

  9. I’m enjoying reading what everyone’s favorite book was! I’d have to say the one that impacted me most and changed some of how I think and pray was Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. That one stuck with me. I also really enjoyed Bonhoeffer.

  10. Jenny Leo says:

    My favorite fiction read was “The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard” by Erin McGraw, about a woman who reinvents herself–for better and for worse–in the early 2oth century. I enjoyed the author’s use of language, and the story is based on the startling real-life actions of her grandmother. I also enjoyed Wendy Markham’s “If Only In My Dreams” and Ellen Meister’s “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” because of the time-travel elements, which always draw me in.

    Haven’t decided yet what my favorite nonfiction read was. Quite possibly it was Jilly Cooper’s delightful “How to Survive Christmas,” which kept me laughing over the holidays.

  11. Barb says:

    The book I read in 2013 that I’ve recommended over and over: When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood. It’s a beautifully written and touching memoir about a family and a town you’ll not soon forget. I discovered it while perusing the shelves of an independent bookstore–I love discoveries like that!

  12. Lots of great books to add to my to-read list. Thanks for all the recommendations.

    If I have to pick just one, I’ll say Unwritten by Charles Martin. I’m a huge fan of Martin, and this one didn’t disappoint.

  13. I read mostly fiction, yet when I think of the best book I read in 2013, Mark Batterson’s “The Circle Maker” comes to mind.

    I’m also glad I read “No Longer a Slumdog” by K.P. Yohannan. It helped me remember that so many people in the world are suffering and need Jesus.

    I also recommend “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” by John Boyne. Technically it’s a book for teens, but it sure pulled at my heartstrings. It’s a fictional tale about the son of a Nazi officer.

  14. Happy New Year Janet!

    The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke is a book I’ve referred to many times this year.

    For fiction, my favorite was The Geurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
    “That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”
    ― Mary Ann Shaffer

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks for the quote about book-reading. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a special book. I didn’t even know Guernsey existed until I read that book. Talk about an unusual WWII novel, that was it.

      • You bring up one of the many reasons I love reading and writing historical novels. The joy of discovery. A place or time in history that was a secret to you until you cracked open the pages of a book. 🙂

  15. Wow! The Orphan Master’s Son sounds like a must read, Janet.

    I have two favorites this year. For fiction, Reconstructing Jackson by Holly Bush, but it is violent in parts because it is set during the Reconstruction Era of America. It’s about two people thrust together under difficult circumstances, and how Reed rebuilds his life after the war.

    For nonfiction, I loved Thy Will Be Done: When All Nations Call God Blessed by Ronald Kirk. A theology editor for Nordskog Publishing, Kirk shows us how we can apply our faith to every area of our lives and how that can change the world. Discussing the roles of the members of the family was definitely enlightening in this day and age.

  16. Jenny R says:

    One of my favorites was The Girl With No Name.

    Here’s the opening: “There was something about pea pods that mesmerized me. I didn’t know why, but there was something magical about the way the bloated pods burst so cleanly in my hand when I squeezed them. So the corner of the allotment where the peas grew was special, and I would spend hours there, engrossed in my own little world.”

    I was hooked.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Well, that’s certainly an engaging opening. What’s the storyline?

      • Jenny R says:

        It’s about a girl in South America who was abducted and then abandoned in a forest. She learned to survive by imitating the actions of capuchin monkeys (she ate what they ate, climbed the same trees, etc.). It was a fascinating read.

  17. Only four books got five stars last year on my Goodreads list. If I can only pick one, then it’s “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd. Similar themes to “The Help,” which is excellent, but with even more lyrical writing. I’m not saying (not at all) that I agree with the portrayal of the black madonna worship, but the writing is masterful.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I think The Secret Life of Bees had much more nuanced story-telling than The Help. And, if I had to rank the two, I’d go with your ranking and give The Secret Life of Bees higher marks. It was a pretty wonderful book. Thanks for reminding me of it; it’s fun to recall it.

  18. I have four “bests” that are basically a tie: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and Love Poems by Pablo Neruda. It was a pretty good reading year!

  19. Shirlee says:

    I’m a non-fiction geek and my day job revolves around data. Thus, my pick is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I’m excited by data that tells a story, and Gladwell’s data tell fascinating stories about success. I believe the time and place of one’s earthly existence is ordained by God, and I see the book as an affirmation of God’s glorious plans–probably not the author’s intent.

    This is a great topic, Janet. Thanks everyone for the additions to my 2014 reading list.

  20. Angela Mills says:

    It seems impossible to pick favorite books, I can’t even settle on a favorite candy without getting anxious.

    Gone Girl is the first book I’ve read in a while that really surprised me. (Beware: Bad language and situations) I loved The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton and Winter of the World by Follett, though I can’t remember if that was 2013 or not.

    In nonfiction, I was the last person alive to read 1,000 Gifts and it did change the way I think. Love all the comments here, my to-read list is growing!

    • Janet Grant says:

      I was blown away by Gone Girl. Loved it! The way the author played with the reader’s mind was pretty amazing. And I cared for the main characters in a sick kind of way, which is exactly what the author intended, I think.
      One Thousand Gifts continues to resonate in my mind and heart two years after I’ve read it. That says something about it, doesn’t it?
      I haven’t read The Secret Keeper or Winter of the World. Actually, I’ve never read a Follett book. Maybe it’s time.

  21. Fun list with a lot of great ideas. Thanks. I’m afraid my reading tends toward the light-hearted adventure or thrillers and mysteries. Jack Reacher and Mitch Rapp always head the pack. My most enjoyable read last year was a swashbuckling tale called The Barbed Crown by William Dietrich. It’s the fourth in the Ethan Gage adventure series, chronicling the adventures of a charming ner do well in the Napoleonic era. Very well written, delightful, bawdy and likable.

    On the Christian side, I re-read The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, by Leon Morris, a classic in theology and doctrine.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Wow, talk about reading widely…Bill, those two books are oceans apart! I’m not sure I’m up for Leon Morris’s book, but I do enjoy a good swashbuckler now and then.

      • Morris’s book, in my humble opinion, should be required reading for every seminary student. I’ve read mine 5 or 6 times, and it shows.

        He wrote a companion volume for lay people — same book on a more popular level — called The Atonement.

  22. We have to CHOOSE?!?!?!?!

    Hmmm, I read Burning Sky and adored it. The prose, from the very first line, did me in. I mean, here’s a story within a line within a book: “The woman who had been Burning Sky had kept off the warrior path
    that came down from the north through mountains, along the
    courses of rivers and creeks.”

    Who had been? And, transversely,had been who? Huh? And how would a woman know the paths warriors take? But why isn’t she ON the path? What is she hiding? WHY is she hiding?

    And the whole rest of the book was like that!

    But my absolute favoUrite book of 2013? Courting Morrow Little, by Laura Frantz. Every word has weight. Each nuance has power.
    And I don’t just love it because it’s a romance, I love it because each chapter is more intense than the last. The risks for each character are absolute. There is no fluff to counteract the intensity, but there is humour to break the burden of getting involved with these people.
    The era in which the book is set has no lightness to it, there is a palpable sense of terror in Morrow’s everyday movements. McKee is the wall through which all must pass, and none has more at stake than 19 year old Morrow.
    The deft hand with which Laura weaves misery, hope and salvation, on several levels, makes this book my favoUrite read for 2013, and Laura Frantz and Lori Benton, my favoUrite writers.

  23. Karen says:

    Loved My Own Mr. Darcy. Fun, clean contemporary romance with strong writing and a likeable (though sometimes frustrating) main character.

  24. Best–most important–book by far was “There’s Dynamite In Praise.” A thin little paperback put out in 1974 by Don Gossett. The cover immediately fell off when I got it, but the contents upended my method of praying as I learned how God covets our praises. How he yearns to hear them, and rejoices when he does, pouring out blessings upon those speakers.
    In each chapter Gossett gives examples of praise experiences from both the Bible and people he knew in his work as a pastor and missionary. At the end of them, he includes lists of praise verses to memorize. I didn’t realize there were so many, and that they were so insistent upon praising God. I am rereading it again now to start out the New Year and am quite sure will do so many more times. Praise the Lord!

  25. P.S. Love your picture with the soft watermelon sweater, Janet!

  26. Anna Labno says:

    Hi all,

    I read more nonfiction than fiction in 2013 which is unusual. But I was researching and learning.

    Top Nonfiction Books:

    Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg
    Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass
    Stein on Writing
    3096 Days in Captivity by Natascha Kampusch

    Top Fiction Books:

    Pope Joan by Donna Woodfolk Cross
    Wreath of Snow by Liz Curtis Higgs
    Orphaned Hearts by Shawna K. Williams

    Sadly, I didn’t read a lot of fiction. I read a lot of books on writing and books in another language for my research.

    I loved the Help, but I didn’t read it last year. I have added the following reads to my list after reading your comments:

    The Secret Life of Bees
    Gone Girl


    Anna Labno

    • Janet Grant says:

      Anna, well, you read some great books on writing, and I looked up 3096 Days in Captivity. I can’t imagine the strength of self that I a 10-year-old girl could have to be a slave for 8 eights yet remain strong.
      I love everything Liz Curtis Higgs writes, but I’m not familiar with the other two novels you mentioned. I’ll check those out.

  27. Great question! I’ve discovered some wonderful authors this year! Wendy Paine Miller’s debut novel, The Disappearing Key, ranked high on my list–beautiful prose and I couldn’t put it down. I was totally blown away by Lori Benton’s Burning Sky, another debut. And I was so thrilled to know the end of Lonnie and Gideon’s story in My Hope is Found by Joanne Bischof. Another author I just discovered is Karin Kaufman–I LOVE her mysteries with touches of the supernatural, and for a self-published author, both her writing and her cover art are superior (same as Wendy P. Miller and my crit partner, the lovely Becky Doughty!). I’m also totally excited about Becky’s release of the entire collection of Elderberry Croft (already bought it!). So all in all, it’s been a great reading year and I’ve been impressed on the indie front! I know I’ve left out some fave books! And as a debut indie author myself, I was floored and thrilled to find my book on some fave books of 2013 lists. Here’s looking toward a bright 2014 for authors!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Heather, thanks for the great list, including several debut novelists. We’re always looking for those bright new lights. And I feel as though I’ve helped to discover them when I read their debut novels. (I know, talk about desperation for fame…) Congratulations to you for seeing your book mentioned as a favorite for 2013. This would be an opportune time to tell us the title.

      • Oh, oops–just checked this! I know lots of Books/Such peeps know who I am, but I know you’re getting new readers all the time. The title of my Viking historical is God’s Daughter, and I’ve been blessed with some wonderful endorsements and reviews. God has truly blessed this indie journey for me and I know He has me right where I’m supposed to be! Here is the Amazon link: Thank you for asking about that, Janet. I have such a “big mouth” online I just figured everyone knew what it was! Ha.

  28. My favorite was Dear Mr. Knightley, a contemporary story told in letters. I typically don’t like that style, and while I like Austen’s books as movies, I’m not a big fan of the books. But this book was so amazing. The heroine was thoroughly likable and I couldn’t put the book down. Amazing story. All the hype you may have heard about it? Totally true.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Sally, thanks for the heads-up about Dear Mr. Knightley. Epistemological novels are hard to keep the reader engaged, but when they work, they are wonderful. Sounds like I better add this one to my list!

  29. I think my favorite to read this year is an oldie, Heroes and Hero Worship, by Thomas Carlyle. Published in 1839, it was a compilation of lectures he gave in 1838. Exactly why I liked this would be difficult to explain in a short post. But I like it as much for disagreements I have with what he says as well as for the agreements and writing style.

  30. The Orphan Master’s Son was my favorite book this year, too. Difficult to read but fascinating–I couldn’t put it down. As for non-fiction, I enjoyed Ben Carson’s books.

  31. Frindle
    By Andrew Clements, illustrated by Brian Selznick