The 17 Best Fiction Books of 2013

Books Lists

The world of books experienced a momentous year in 2013. Famous authors released long-awaited novels, awards season highlighted the rise of the short story collection and classic books were adapted for film. So when it came time to choose the “best” fiction titles of the year, Paste was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of incredible books published in 2013.

We decided to choose the books we’d loved reading over the year. Books that made us snort in hilarity, books that made us weep over injustice, books that made us reevaluate our perceptions. Some of these books won international awards; others were crammed on the bottom shelves of bookstore obscurity. But all of them reminded us why
we love reading.


17. Unfettered: Tales by Masters of Fantasy edited by Shawn Speakman

A treasure chest for any fan of fantasy fiction, this anthology boasts fresh stories and rare outtakes from such heavy hitters as Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvatore, while also introducing such rising stars as Todd Lockwood. The collection doubles as a fund-raiser for author/editor Speakman’s cancer treatment bills, and the beginnings of a foundation he will run to aid other self-employed artists who fall ill with insufficient health insurance, even in the Affordable Care Act era. Call it Tolkiencare. And call it the year’s best fantasy collection. — John Ruch


16. Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash

Over the course of fourteen stories, Ron Rash presents a complex and nuanced view of Appalachia traversing time and emotional scope with ease and uncertainty. From the Civil War to the present day, his characters all have one thing in common: they are united in the spaces they inhabit. While there are plenty of memorable characters—farmers, modern day meth heads and British academics searching for history—the lands of Western North Carolina come alive just as much as any individual. — Jessica Gentile


15. Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Even if Edwidge Danticat sounds like the kind of name a professor at Hogwarts would sport, the magic of her book arises more out of the mundane happenstances of everyday life than from anything fantastic. For that matter, the book’s structure alone has all the illusive glory of a kaleidoscope. The vanishing of a young Haitian girl is Danticat’s starting gun, but you won’t feel like you’re racing at any time. Instead, the book is a jaunt through the lives of the Haitians who knew young Claire and the life of Haiti itself. Claire of the Sea Light is the kind of book whose beauty comes across nearly as reparative to that nation’s spirit as it does to our own souls. — Mack Hayden


14. Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway is a Southern tale of familial mishaps and mismatched morality. It doesn’t have time for the Hallmark sentimentalism of Fried Green Tomatoes and instead heads for the funniest moments of Faulkner. The literary South is a landscape peopled by an Atticus Finch for every hundred Flannery O’Connor grotesques. In other words, it’s a lot like real life down here, especially in Barnhardt’s novel. A good man and/or woman is hard to find. But Barnhardt knows his territory and is hyper-aware of how easy it is to find men and women pretending to be good. It’s ironic how deep of a look he gives us into such hysterically hypocritical behavior when we’re being told to lookaway, lookway. — Mack Hayden


13. The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

Husband-and-wife Mississippi writers Franklin, a crime novelist, and Fennelly, a poet and essayist, team up on this blend of historical thriller and romance. During the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, a federal agent tracking bootleggers discovers an abandoned child. His quest to find the boy’s home ultimately leads to a dangerous love affair. The Tilted World is part Southern Gothic, part historical noir, and one of the year’s most unusual and surprising thrillers. — John Ruch


12. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Three momentous voyages to and from Ireland anchor McCann’s epic historical novel: the 1845 Ireland visit by former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass; the first nonstop, transatlantic airplane flight in 1919; and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s 1998 trip to broker Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement. McCann weaves these real events together with the fictional lives of four generations of women in a powerful tale of history’s weight. TransAtlantic was one of only 13 books nominated for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize and establishes the Dublin-born McCann as another outstanding keeper of Ireland’s great literary tradition. — John Ruch


11. Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

Even prior to the publication of Red Moon, Benjamin Percy occupied a shady region in the wilds between “literary” and “genre” fiction. His stories of rural Oregon borrowed from the lexicon of cowboy literature; shades of the mystery and horror genres cropped up in his tales of telemarketers and water bureau employees. Red Moon leans hard on these genre tendencies, resulting in a novel that not only takes a respectable stab at Big Themes, but also beats most of its contemporaries in terms of sheer entertainment value. Set in a world where werewolves (“lycans” in Percy’s argot) form a repressed lower class, the book investigates contemporary political tensions through a sprawling, careening epic. It’s a love story, a political allegory, an adventure and a not-too-shabby specimen of all the aforementioned. — Shane Danaher


10. Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair

It’s fair to say we’re a bit biased when it comes to our love of Pickett’s Charge (Paste’s Books Editor Charles McNair wrote it after all). The premise: Threadgill Pickett, the last living Confederate soldier, learns that only one Yankee soldier still lives. So Threadgill does what any “rational,” 114-year-old man would do—he breaks out of an Alabama old folks home and sets out for Maine to murder the Yankee and end the Civil War once and for all. Part tall tale, part comedy, part tragedy, Pickett’s Charge is a rollicking journey through a century of Southern history. — Frannie Jackson

9. The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd

Civilization will always have its discontents. It’s a theme often harped on by the literati, and it’s the theme Amy Grace Loyd plays out in microcosm here. The story is set in a tenement hall where order rules and privacy is respected from the top floor to the bottom—until, of course, sexual and destructive impulses kick in after a new tenant’s arrival. From that point onward, everything begins to spiral downward into chaos (or upward into liberation, depending on how you look at it). The Affairs of Others is a book with both grit and optimism, a marriage of modern-day realism and romanticism well worth exploring. — Mack Hayden


8. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

A friend described The Flamethrowers to me as “the feminist Invisible Man,” a summary that isn’t too far from the mark. Rachel Kushner’s second novel takes a seemingly incongruous collection of cultural flotsam and with it crafts a rollicking calliope of a narrative. Anchored by the exploits of Reno, a native of Nevada who moves to New York in order to enter the art world, The Flamethrowers touches on subjects as diverse as motorcycle warfare, tire manufacturing, abstract art, Italian high society and the land speed record. Much of 2013’s internet ink was expended leveling praise on The Flamethrowers, and the novel earned every plaudit. Kushner’s unique talent feeds from her equally unique curiosity, and the results are stunning. — Shane Danaher


7. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

McBride, a journalist and musician, made a major contribution to America’s ongoing discussion of race with his acclaimed 1996 memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. In The Good Lord Bird, McBride tackles similar themes from a totally different angle. This comic novel romps through the adventures of a young boy, recently freed from slavery, with John Brown, the fiery, white abolitionist hanged for trying to incite slave rebellion in the years before the Civil War. Heralded as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the 21st century by critics, it was the surprise winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction. — John Ruch


6. A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

A year when National Security Agency spying proved to be stranger than fiction might sound like a tough time for master spy novelist Le Carré to offer his latest. But A Delicate Truth, released two months before Edward Snowden’s revelations, feels prescient rather than outdated. When an anti-terrorism operation on Gibraltar goes badly wrong, a government employee risks everything as a whistleblower on a tyrannical U.S.-British intelligence conspiracy. Sound familiar? A chilling thriller with a moral core and finely drawn characters, the novel eschews sex and violence for the tense in-between moments—the shadows and doubts that haunt our War on Terror psyche. This Truth hurts so good. — John Ruch


5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman weaves the wonder of fairy tales with the chills of nightmares in his newest book for adults. A hauntingly beautiful tale of childhood adventures, The Ocean at the End of the Lane pits otherworldly forces against a child’s innocence. Both magical and heartbreaking, Gaiman’s novel will enchant you. — Frannie Jackson


4. Tenth of December by George Saunders

Traumatized veterans, emotionally-scarred prisoners, suicidal cancer patients, suburban dads trying to satisfy their pre-teen daughters’ expensive whims—these are just some of the characters who populate the dark (and often darkly amusing) world of George Saunders’ imagination. Amid the bleak and troubling scenarios (“The Semplica Girl Diaries” posits a world where immigrant girls are literally strung out on wires as lawn decorations for wealthy households), there’s a gripping humanity that underlies every tale, as unsettling as they may be. In a way, Saunders’ warped world is very much our own. — Jessica Gentile


3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt made a name for herself with 1992’s suspenseful and smart The Secret History. The Goldfinch proves her ability to keep readers hanging by a thread hasn’t waned at all in over twenty years. At almost eight hundred pages, this may well be one of the longest coming-of-age stories ever written, but it’s a story ably told through Tartt’s seamless characterization and plotting. This tale about art becomes a work of art itself in the telling. — Mack Hayden


2. Dear Life by Alice Munro

Alice Munro continues her streak as one of contemporary literature’s most masterful storytellers. While technically published in 2012, Dear Life truly emerged victorious in 2013. Considering it won the Nobel Prize in Literature and garnered a reprint, we’d be remiss to omit it from this list after such a stellar year. Much like in life, there is no dearth of love, loss, guilt and shame in this collection of domestic tragedies. Packing an emotional punch to the heart, Dear Life proves Munro’s cultural relevance only increases with time. — Jessica Gentile


1. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

No one combines the fantastical with the mundane quite like Karen Russell. An old couple bickers in the Italian countryside—they just happen to be vampires. Horses graze on a farm—they just happen to be the reincarnated souls of former U.S. presidents. The stories in Vampires portray ordinary life with an otherworldly twist in a fascinating and unexpected way. And yet these haunting tales are written with such clarity and recognizable perspectives that they manage the greatest feat of all: in the surreal, we see ourselves. — Jessica Gentile

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