Best Books of 2013

Lee Polevoi


The "best books of year" lists are out for 2013 and most contain the usual (and worthy) suspects. What follows here is a more idiosyncratic selection, highlighting works of fiction that in some cases may have been overlooked but deserve a wider readership.


TransAtlantic by Colum McCann


A novelist who uses well-known historical figures in his work risks having readers judge the quality of his characterization by what they know (or think they know) about these real-life individuals. In TransAtlantic, Colum McCann takes this approach a step further by introducing Senator George Mitchell of Maine, a “character” drawn from real life. McCann succeeds in pulling it off, while simultaneously displaying the drawbacks inherent in this narrative strategy. But it’s finally the writing itself that keeps readers glued to the pages. Arresting phrases and images appear on every page (“Emily had the texture of old weather”), with only occasional missteps (“as if she might suddenly take flight, a parachute of intrigue”).  The book’s poetic language, combined with its elegant structure, make TransAtlantic one of the most beautiful and lyrical novels of the year.   

Pacific by Tom Drury


Anyone familiar with his work knows this is Tom Drury’s world and the rest of us just happen to live in it. Ever since chapters from his first novel, The End of Vandalism, appeared in The New Yorker some 20 years ago, readers understood they were in the presence of a unique voice—deadpan yet deeply insightful, slightly off-kilter yet in its assessment of the ebb and flow of the human spirit, wonderfully on target. Pacific is a sequel of sorts to The End of Vandalism, revisiting the fictional Midwestern domain of Grouse County and inhabitants known to readers of his earlier work. Nothing ever gets stated outright; in Drury’s off-center worldview, such things simply aren’t done. But long before Pacific ends, the reader has come to know and care for virtually everyone and wishes the short scenes might continue on for yet another hundred pages.

Men in Miami Hotels by Charlie Smith


Cot Sims, the hero of Charlie Smith’s new novel, is a Florida-born gangster hoping to wind down his career after first seeing to the well-being of his destitute mother in Key West. Toward this end, Cot steals a pouch of emeralds belonging to his boss, Albertson, a gangland kingpin who sends his unpitying henchmen in pursuit. After the emeralds turn up missing (that is, out of Cot’s possession), things go bad, then very bad, and then really bad. While Smith makes supple use of traditional crime genre devices and motifs, the scenes he creates—in Miami, Key West and the surrounding islands, on the quaint backstreets of Havana—are fresh and beautifully rendered. The adroit use of mood, metaphor and setting invites comparisons to Thomas McGuane’s classic Key West novel, Ninety Two in the Shade, and Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro. But Men in Miami Hotels inhabits a lush world of doomed love and sweat-soaked treachery that is uniquely its own.

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré


John le Carré is, of course, a master of the spy thriller, though in recent years his efforts have been marred somewhat by outrage over the criminal excesses of the Bush Administration. In A Delicate Truth, he’s back on track, chronicling the unfolding of Operation Wildlife, a counter-terrorism scheme that goes terribly wrong. As in most of his work, the narrative voice moves seamlessly in and out of points of view and alternating time frames, with no sacrifice in clarity or momentum. In fact, the opening 45 pages are as suspenseful as anything le Carré has written since his immortal Smiley novels – a remarkable feat for a writer in his 80s. Don’t wait for the movie!

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry


This novel, published in 2012, seems to me sui generis in its vision and language. Set in a lawless Irish city sometime in the near future, the story features a wide array of colorful characters, most notably the two protagonists – Logan Hartnett, leader of the gang that runs the city, and Gant Broderick, the former (yet still highly feared) gang leader of Bohane. Events leading to their inevitable showdown are depicted in a vivid argot entirely the author’s own, and the reader is quickly swept up in a flood of language unlike what we’ve read before: “The water’s roar for Hartnett was as the rushing of his own blood and as he passed the merchant yards the guard dogs strung out a sequence of howls all along the front. See the dogs: their hackles heaped, their yellow eyes livid. We could tell he was coming by the howling of the dogs.”


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s Chief Book Critic. 

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