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My Ten Favorite Books of 2013

I read about 50 books a year. Here’s my 10 favorite this year, some mysteries, some young adult books about different facets of special education and one memoir, all in no particular order.

Lisa Lutz, Craig Johnson, Ace Atkins, Jeri Westerson – These authors kept cranking out great additions to their series.

1.  Lisa Lutz, The Last Word – I have been bragging on and promoting Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Family series for each of her books  and have interviewed her for each one as well. The last interview, done when she came to BookPeople in Austin, is here. Her books are as funny as Carl Hiaasen’s (whose new book, Bad Monkey) almost made this list and the late Donald Westlake’s. If you need a laugh – and who doesn’t – this will help get you one.

2. Craig Johnson, Serpent’s Teeth – Craig Johnson’s Longmire series continues to impress and amaze so it should be no surprise that the television series, Longmire, is also quite good. Johnson is also a hit with BookPeople readers though the beer that accompanies his annual visits to BookPeople may also help. I described his last visit and interviewed him again here.

3. Ace Atkins, The Broken Places – Ace Atkins continues two good series, his Spenser series which started after the Robert Parker estate picked him to continue the series after Parker died. But more impressive is the depth of his other series about Quinn Colson, who served as an Army Ranger for 10 years before returning to his home in Mississippi, where he is now the county sheriff there. I interviewed Ace here

4. Jeri Westerson, Shadow of the Alchemist – Jeri Westerson’s series about Crispin Guest may at first blush seem completely different than, say, the Spellman series and the Robert Parker series but on one level they are quite similar. While existing in 14th-century London, Guest is essentially a private eye for hire back before private eyes existed. Instead of computers and phone calls Guest has to visit people and use others to help him see what is going on. But he has the same challenges – people lying, law enforcement not being cooperative – that Spenser and Spellman have. Westerson and I compared notes here for her last book.

5, 6 and 7 – Wonder and Out of My Mind and Colin Fischer – Three fascinating and inspiring novels. While categorized as young adult they are worth reading for adults too. These three novels explain what it is like to have a special need, in each case with the person speaking as the protagonist. When I was starting to burn out on my special education work last spring these books inspired and encouraged me to keep going and I am glad they did.

R.J. Palacio,Wonder  – Palacio has written an astonishing book about a boy with a dramatically disfigured face who is going to mainstream school (5th grade) for the first time. The author makes an intriguing brave decision not to actually describe the boy’s face until at least halfway through the book. The boy, writing about himself and his life, is no holds barred in criticism of others and himself. This is one of those books I’m encouraging everyone to read. Technically this student would not be part of special education but I’m lumping him because he would have special needs. Wonder also does a great job of dealing with bullying and stigmatizing of people who, through no fault of their own, look different,

Sharon Draper, Out of My Mind – This mesmerizing, engaging book by Draper, a long-time teacher, is about Melody, a girl with cerebal palsy who is 11 and has been nonverbal all her life. I knew this book was going to affect me greatly, having worked with students who were non-verbal, and it sure did.

Melody has a photographic memory and is probably the smartest kid at school but is, at the book’s start, stuck in pre-kindergarden level classes. But through speaking in this book as narrator, and with events in the book I’m not even going to hint at, she does have a voice. Kept a Kleenix handy and be ready to cheer her on. As Draper says on amazon.com, Out of My Mind is “written for people who look away, who pretend they don’t see, or who don’t know what to say when they encounter someone who faces life with obvious differences. Just smile and say hello!”

10. Ashley Edward Miller, Colin  Fischer -This book is awesome! I strongly recommend it to everyone but especially those who know, or work with, someone with Asperger’s syndrome  because it captures perfectly what they’re like (or what some are like since not all are the same, of course) and is an entertaining story in its own right. The premise is the protagonist is a boy who has Asperger’s and his idols are Dr. Spock of Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes and he decides to do some detective work about some weird stuff happening at his school, namely a gun found at his school.

The difficulty students with Asperger’s and autism have with detecting a person’s tone – and often solving that partially through reading facial expression – is emphasized and explained well.

8. Veronica Roth, Allegiant – This is the third book in a popular and well received young adult trilogy that, as with the Hunger Games trilogy is worth reading 0and easily enjoyed by people of all ages not just young adults. In all three books, Roth gives thought provoking situations for readers to consider. The first two books are narrated by Tris Prior and the third alternates between Tris and her boyfriend, Four. In the first book, Divergent, we learn of a fictional world where people join different factions, each one meant to uphold a particular virtue of humanity. Tris joins a faction different from the one she was born into.

By the time we reach the third book the faction system is being torn apart but there are other disputes which still exist, with people speaking as if they know  (or more precisely think they know) what is truly best for their world. Sometimes Four and Tris find themselves reaching different conclusion.

This book has great pacing and plotting and some mind-blowing twists as it all ends in ways I’m not going to even hint at. This is a great series for parents to read with their teenagers.

9. Alex Grecian, The Yard – This book is fascinating both because of an intriguing plot – someone is killing cops! – and because of the setting, London in the late 1880s. Scotland Yard had recently been set up to stop Jack The Ripper but they failed to stop and capture him resulting in many residents having scorn and skepticism for law enforcement.

While there are many reasons to enjoy this book the most notable one I tell to others when selling them on this book and its sequel is its portrayal of the evolution of crime solving in the shape of the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley.

One of my favorite parts of the book, and this won’t spoil the story for you, is when Kingsley describes to skeptical police officers his belief that everyone has unique fingerprints. While mocked for the concept it does pay off. It’s fun to compare where they were at that point compared to where we are now with the so-called CSI effect where juries are skeptical of someone’s guilt if there is not DNA and other scientific proof the person did the deed.

10 Piper Kerman – Orange Is The New Black – Technically this book, and a few others I have listed, came out before 2013. However, a lot of people in 2013 did what I did, namely watched the mesmerizing, fascinating television series broadcast on Netflix based on the memoir by Piper Kerman and then went back to read the memoir, We did this to both compare the book to the series – what’s similar, what’s different – and to note the differences in style. The book is more educational and serious than the television series which some, but not me, are calling a comedy. Either way both are great in their own ways. I’m working on a piece with more to say on this memoir and television series.

Let’s hope 2014 has as many good books in store to read as 2013.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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