Chip MacGregor

December 30, 2013

What's the best book you read in 2013?


As we wrap up 2013, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the top publishing stories of the year, make some predictions for the upcoming year, and get back to answering your questions. But first, I’d like your input on one question:

What was the single best book you read in 2013?

It could be fiction or nonfiction. It could be a new book that released this year, or some great book from prior years that you just discovered. But I’d like to know what your best read was in 2013.

My list of the top ten books read this year:

Heartbreaker, by Susan Howatch — A fascinating look at the good and evil that resides in us, told through the story of a young woman raising money for a healing center who meets a male prostitute looking for meaning in life. Perhaps the best book I read all year.

Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker — A gritty, clear-eyed look at four victims of a still-at-large serial killer on Long Island. Great research and writing.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer — The moving story of a nine-year-old boy who lost his father on 9/11, and who is determined to find out why and how. I was in awe of the writing.

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach — A wonderful novel about friendships, determination, acceptance, love, success, and baseball. (I’m a sucker for a great baseball story, and the story of Henry Skrimshander is one of the best novels I’ve read in years.)

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson — I love a book that makes me laugh out loud, not just smile and nod. This book by a longtime blogger will make you snort coffee through your nose. Hilarious.

Drift, by Rachel Maddow — You won’t agree with all her conclusions, but this story of how US Presidential power has been usurped to create a military doctrine where we are constantly at war, and where the Prez can now send troops without congressional oversight, is one of the most insightful books you’ll find. (Thanks to my daughter Molly for suggesting it.)

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende — A young woman travels from Chile to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, thinking she’s searching for her lover, when in fact she’s seeking a new life. This came out several years ago, and I’m glad I finally got to it.

Lamb, by Christopher Moore — Not a favorite of Christians because of the bawdy side (it pretends to tell the adventures of Christ’s childhood friend, Biff), but I was encouraged to re-read this book in order to appreciate the historical work this very funny author put into it. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the humor and could smile at the unique take on theology. This is one of those books that will offend some, but if you take it in the spirit with which it’s intended (that is, a funny and historical spirit), there’s a lot to like. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed it. Debated whether to list this or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I figured if I didn’t list this one, it would be overlooked.

Out of My League, by Dirk Hayhurst — A great memoir of playing in the minor leagues and trying to make it to the Bigs, told by an insightful, literate pitcher trying to balance his faith and his competitiveness. Loved this book.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen — This came out years ago, but I simply am listing the top ten books I read this year, NOT the “top ten books that released this year.” I’m a longtime fan of Nouwen, and this book (which began when the author came across Rembrandt’s famous painting of the Prodigal Son parable) offered me new insight into how we all are hurting, and looking for acceptance and peace. A wonderful book that I’ll read again.


That’s my list. Five novels, five non-fiction titles. Some old, some new. Two things to note: First, this list does NOT include any authors I represent. It’s hard to not pick Lisa Samson’s fabulous novel The Sky Beneath My Feet, Ann Tatlock’s Sweet Mercy, Meg Moseley’s Gone South, Susan Meissner’s The Girl in the Glass, or Les Edgerton’s The Rapist, but I wanted to stay away from looking like a homer. Second, I could have once again posted The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, and A Tale of Two Cities, because I read them all again this year, but decided I can’t keep going back to Twain and Dickens or I’ll be outed as a classicist.

One last note: A book I went back to this year, having not read it since junior high was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Good grief… I had forgotten how good that was. Or maybe I just missed it, having been a dopey 15 year old when I first opened the covers. But a great read, and I’m glad I rediscovered it.

That’s my list. What’s yours? What was the best book you read in 2013?


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  • ColleenCoble says:

    Chip, on your recommendation I read The Heartbreaker on my trip to AZ this week. When I first started it, I thought, wow, Chip is recommending a very raw book. I didn’t think I was going to like it, but oh my gosh, I believe it’s the best book I’ve ever read. The redemptive story, the suspense, the characterization, the twists and turns of this novel are outstanding. Gavin’s story will always stay with me. Thank you for recommending it. I’m going to tell everyone about it too.

  • Flower Patch Farmgirl says:

    Hold Love Strong by Matthew Aaron Goodman. His writing was piercing and
    so keenly intuitive that I had difficulty remembering it wasn’t a
    memoir. Also loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple), Cutting
    for Stone (Verghese), Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots (Soffer) and Jesus
    Freak (Sara Miles).

    I’m off to add Gone Girl and Life After Life to my list!

  • michelle says:

    Another great book on writing is Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless it Moves the Human Heart. I didn’t see this in your archives, but I think you’d enjoy it. He’s a writing instructor in NY and writes his books with characters made up from combining previous students. Some great quotables throughout. Here’s a link to my review: For what it’s worth. Enjoy, michelle grover

  • michelle says:

    A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Eye-opening, heart-wrenching, gritty details of familial and national stories in Afghanistan, and phenomenal literary quality. Hosseini has the freshest similes/metaphors I’ve read in a while.

    michelle grover

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Michelle. I LOVED Hosseini’s novel. Frankly, I liked it better than KITE RUNNER. A fabulous read (that I think I put on my “ten best” list last year). Appreciate you coming on and commenting.

    • michelle says:

      Absolutely. And I agree–I read both in 2013 and A Thousand Splendid Suns was my favorite. Haven’t read his Mountains Echoed yet, but had one friend say A Thousand Splendid Suns still shines brighter.

  • Andrea says:

    Healing Stones, Healing Waters, and Healing Sands (Sullivan Crisp novels) by Nancy Rue and Stephen Arterburn are not only the best books I read in 2013, but maybe ever. The character of Sully, quirky psychologist with a lot of his own baggage, stayed with me long after reading the last page of the third book. These were books I didn’t want to end.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    My favorite fiction title was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. For non-fiction I’ll go with The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams (I also attended a workshop of his at the Detroit Working Writers Conference). I set a goal to read 52 books this year and even started a facebook group to invite others to do the same. Thank goodness for library audio books or I’d never make it!

  • lynn says:

    I’m a sucker for memoirs and biographies. Lit by Mary Karr was incredibly beautifully written. She is such a gifted writer. I also discovered Margaret Truman’s non-fiction this year. First Ladies: An Intimate Group Portrait of White House Wives, and also The President’s House — such fun books that give you a feel for what life was like behind the scenes at the White House over the years. And then you can watch The Butler for more insight.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      LIT is indeed fabulous, Lynn. Thanks. I haven’t read Margaret Truman’s nonfiction, but I’m a sucker for great NF writing that teaches me something and helps me understand history better. Appreciate your comment.

  • Wayne Stiles says:

    I set a crazy goal to read 50 books this year, and I did! (Here’s the list of all 50). My favorite one was probably Getting Things Done. Not a new book, but new to me—and very helpful for efficiency.

  • evamarieeverson says:

    Hands down, “A Reliable Wife” by Robert Goolrick. Readers either hated it or loved and I absolutely LOVED it. I was struck by the symbolism of Christ, whether the author meant it or not (tho I suspect he did). Behind it, I had a difficult time putting “The Wedding Dress” by Rachel Hauck down (sounds like I have a theme going on here, but I don’t …). In the nonfiction genre, I rediscovered Robert Benson’s “In Constant Prayer.” I nearly cried when I read the final pages. It could have gone on forever and I would have been happy (sounds like a pun, but I promise you, it isn’t … :))

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m a huge Robert Benson fan, Eva, so I too enjoyed that book. And, of course, Rachel Hauck’s THE WEDDING DRESS was a fabulous read. Glad you mentioned it!

  • Jamie Chavez says:

    I’m planning a blog post about my absolute favorite book of the year, but I’ll give you a sneak peek: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. This was My Year of Reading Irish Literature (all 20th century but some as early as the 30s) and this novel was enormously satisfying. Brilliant, in fact. My second fave was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, about which I’ve already blogged. (Side note: Loved The Art of Fielding!)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Loved LIFE AFTER LIFE, Jamie. Great suggestion. I’ll admit I don’t know anything about TRANSATLANTIC. Can you say more?

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      If you’ve read the blurb you know that there are 3 seemingly unrelated stories, all based on truth: the 2 pilots racing to be the first to make a transatlantic flight in 1919, Frederick Douglas’s fund-raising visit to Ireland in 1845, and former US Senator George Mitchell’s participation on the committee struggling to bring peace to Northern Ireland in 1998. (Caveat: this is literary fiction. I happen to love literary fiction. Not everyone does.) Each of these are lovely stories complete in themselves … and then … oh, then the connection begins to come clear, and THAT is the real story, that is the NOVEL. (I know I’m not saying this very well. But it’s that story, “hidden” in the other three, that snares you.) It is layered and deep and beautifully symbolic; it takes place on both sides of the Atlantic—the US and Ireland. In fact there are several TRANSATLANTIC journeys. All I can tell you is the closer I got to the end the more I was transfixed (I know the modern-day Irish milieu—Dublin and north of Dublin—very well) and when I read the last pages I was sobbing like a baby (happy tears!). The language, the writing, is exquisite. And you really have to read to the very last line; I sat there just thinking “oh my gosh, oh my gosh,” stunned. A couple days later I was still telling anyone I could buttonhole about it, and tried to read the last 2 paragraphs to a readerly friend, and I cried over it again. (!) I realize I’m gushing. I’ll ping you when I manage to pull my blog post together. 🙂

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Lots of great books here to add to my list.

    Because I’m a big fan of Charles Martin, Unwritten is on the top of my list. I also read all but one of Athol Dickson’s novels this year, and they were excellent. I read all of Robert Crais’ novels, too. If you like mystery/thrillers, his book Taken was so good. The Grand Weaver by Ravi Zacharias was insightful, as are all of his. I was given a little book called Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Father Jacques Philippe, and it was quite amazing. I think I highlighted more than half of it.

    I know, you only asked for one, but it’s not possible to narrow the list to just one!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve long thought Charles Martin is one of the most overlooked novelists of our day. Fabulous writer – glad you brought up his name, Robin. Tell me more about MAINTAINING PEACE.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      About 100 pages long but filled with deep truths about finding peace. It’s about how there will be conflict, and apart from conflict, there is no peace.

      “Acquire interior peace and a multitude will find its salvation through you.” Saint Seraphim is quoted as saying (page 8).

      “Our great drama is this: Man does not have confidence in God. Hence he looks in every possible place to extricate himself by his own resources and renders himself terribly unhappy in the process rather than abandon himself into the tender and savings hands of the Father…” (Page 26)

      It’s a beautiful little book, and as I look it over, I realize I need to reread it.

  • Sally Bradley says:

    Thanks for sharing your list, Chip. I added a couple to my TBR list, mainly the baseball ones because I’m a bit of a baseball junkie. (Go, White Sox.)

    My favorite this year was Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley. Loved it, and I’m tempted to reread it.

  • Kelly Boyer Sagert says:

    Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War by Richard A. Serrano. It takes a look at some of the last surviving veterans of the Civil War, some of whom were probably frauds trying to get a pension and/or attention.

  • Sherry Carter says:

    Ohhh – I assume you want a short list 🙂 Anything by Ann Tatlock. My all time favorite: Promises to Keep. The main character, Roz Anthony, stays with me. I just finished Murder at the Lanterne Rouge by Cara Black. It explored a world that fascinated me.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Isn’t Ann Tatlock a fabulous writer? I remember reading ALL THE WAY HOME and thinking, “I have GOT to meet this woman!” So glad you said something, Sherry.

  • I’ve been blown away by several indie books this year, and I’ve discovered authors whose books I’m ready to buy, no matter what genre they venture into with next. Karin Kaufman’s THE WITCH TREE is amazing and has those paranormal elements I love. THE DISAPPEARING KEY by Wendy Paine Miller is such a great novella length and she integrates three POVs seamlessly. And my crit partner, Becky Doughty, completed her serial novel, ELDERBERRY CROFT. She has the gift of writing deep third POV–so deep I feel I’m reading first (the POV I usually veer toward). All in all, I feel the Christian indie scene is just starting to light up.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re right, Heather — the indie novel scene is starting to grow, which will mean more genres and more books coming out of nowhere and surprising us. Appreciate the comment.

  • Jean Wise says:

    I borrowed from the library Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing and immediately asked for my own copy for Christmas. Part memoir, part writing book I would read aloud parts to my hubby, saying this is exactly what I feel like as a writer. she nailed the writing experience for me and gave me words to describe what it feels like to write. Thought not Christian, I didn’t find it offensive either. One book I underlined many parts!

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    “The Language of Flowers,” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I sat up late / early to finish it one night and promptly began at page one for a reread. Better late than never; I also read, “Life of Pi,” and “The Book Thief.” I’ll stop there, because you didn’t ask for a list of what I read this year – only the best book.

    • Normandie Fischer says:

      Loved Diffenbaugh’s book. Athol Dickson’s The Opposite of Art ranked up there with my favorites.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      I loved The Opposite of Art, and The Cure was another favorite by Dickson.

    • Normandie Fischer says:

      So, if we’re talking DIckson, you can’t forget The River Rising! Also loved The Cure. I can’t speak to his others, because I haven’t yet read them. Shall we toss Charles Martin into the mix, Robin?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      What did you think of THE BOOK THIEF, Cherry? I’ve had people tell me it’s one of the best books they’ve ever read. On my reading list for 2014.

    • Cherry Odelberg says:

      The perspective was ingenious. Broke so many writing rules it gave hope:) The history was, of course, tragic. Great read.

    • Dawn Hill Shipman says:

      “The Book Thief” was amazing. One of those books you’ll never forget. It would be on my list of Top 10s for 2013. And in keeping with the WW2 theme (and my enjoyment of YA novels), I’ll add “Code Name, Verity”–heart-ripping and unforgettable. Looks like I have a lot of catching up to do–thanks, everyone, for all the suggestions!

  • Laura Droege says:

    The first one that came to mind was Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. I appreciated that she took a chance and had, not one, but two unsympathetic POV characters. My other top books include The Revisionists (by Thomas Mullen), Beatrice and Virgil (by Yann Martel), and The Things They Carried (by Tim O’Brien). None of them are happy/funny books, though each of them made me think and view the world in a different way.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      I agree that Gone Girl was one of the best written books I read all year. To be able to write like that…

    • Normandie Fischer says:

      Off to buy it! Thanks for the tip, Robin and Laura.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Beware, Normandie, there was nothing uplifting or inspirational about it. But it was engaging and well-written, and the voices of the two POV characters were very authentic.

    • Normandie Fischer says:

      Thanks for the warning. I’ll try to concentrate on the writing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hmmm… I don’t know that I’d warn anyone about that book, Robin. I thought it was wonderful. Really well done.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      I agree, but some people have less tolerance for the language and such.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      GONE GIRL was wonderful, and I’m surprised I haven’t heard from more people who picked that. As for THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, that’s a book I’ve loved for years, Laura. Tim O’Brien is a fabulous writer. Try his GOING AFTER CACCIATO.

    • Laura Droege says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Chip!

  • karenrobbins says:

    On our trip to New Zealand I needed a book in a hurry and downloaded one that popped up on the library’s home page of suggested reading. It was great! Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Great story with all sorts of struggles in it to resolve and historical with the story line based on the interment of the American Japanese during WWII. The real hotel is in Seattle. Great read.

  • Ellen Gee says:

    Angry Conversations with God by Susan E Isaacs. As a non-fiction writer it inspired me to look for unique clever ways to share my faith journey.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve seen it, but haven’t read it, Ellen. There are a bunch of books in that genre that are worthwhile and have released over the past few years — STITCHES, CHURCHES, SELLING WATER BY THE RIVER, and, going back a few years, THE WAY OF THE HEART and THE RAGAMUFFIN GOSPEL, etc. Lots of good, thoughtful choices. For that matter, some readers will love MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS and TRAVELING MERCIES.

  • Cheryl Russell says:

    Non-fiction “North of Hope A Daughter’s Artic Journey” & fiction-the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. Fun series-especially the alternate book world that he’s created.

  • Jane Gaugler Daly says:

    Christ had a friend named Biff?

  • My best reads this year are a toss up between The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and Jocelyn Green’s books Wedded to War and Widow of Gettysburg. In the opening scenes of Widow of Gettysburg, I felt as if I was watching it unfold on the big screen.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve had THE BOOK THIEF on my reading list for months, and haven’t gotten to it yet, Cheryl. I’ll do that. Thanks for your list.

  • edhird says:

    My favourite book that I read in the past year was Jonathan B. Wilson’s book God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation. (Baker Academic, 2013) It is an insightful way at integrating creation and redemption in that way that transforms how we treat God’s creation. Peter Titelman’s book Emotional Cutoff (Haworth Clinical Press, 2003) was brilliant in its insight about bridging emotional cutoff in our world of fragmented relationships. Thirdly Eric Metaxas’ book Amazing Grace on William Wilberforce (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007) inspired me to write my next newspaper article on Wilberforce’s liberation of 800,000 Caribbean slaves on July 31st 1834. Ed Hird+

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve heard GOD’S GOOD WORLD is indeed a fine work, Ed, though I’ve not read it. I’ll have to put that on my list. The Wilburforce book is excellent — and next year look for Karen Swallow Prior’s book on Hannah Moore, which is going to be wonderful.

  • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

    I discovered Sherrilyn Kenyon this year and have been exploring paranormal romance. For six months I worked my way through the Dark-Hunter series, falling in love with Acheron a little bit more in every book. Reaching his book was my most anticipated read of the year, and it did not disappoint. When I finished it, I started it over again just to savor it.

    To round out my top three, Born of Night and Born of Silence, also Sherrilyn Kenyon. Why yes, I have devoured an inordinate amount of SK this year. I’ve hit the point of forcing myself to read something else for a couple months so I stop sounding like her…

    It’s been nothing short of magical to find a published author who can see the inside of my brain and give me exactly what I want. Every. Single. Time.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Sometimes reading all the works of one author can be incredibly insightful to a writer. I remember reading all the Helen MacInnes books years ago, just to make sure I understood what makes a great suspense novel. And I read (then re-read) all of Ross Thomas’ novels a couple years ago. The guy invented the political thriller, and his books have held up remarkably well. Reading them helps me to see how a writer grows, what he has to saw, what themes he comes back to, etc. Very helpful. Appreciate this, Rachel.

    • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

      Reading her has definitely put my muse into overdrive. The woman has an amazing story of never giving up.

  • Amy Leigh Simpson says:

    I really enjoyed a few debut novels this year… Carla Laureano’s Five Days in Skye and Amy Matayo’s The Wedding Game were both fabulous. Fun reads! Also discovered NYT Bestseller Brenda Novak. When Snow Falls was one of my favorite books this year. Complex, emotional, and edgy.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Complex, emotional, and edgy… sounds remarkably like me, of course. :o) Appreciate the suggestions, Amy.

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