This was a good year for club-chair adventurers. From airplane hijackers to kidnappings to a renegade Colorado River descent, these tales transported us into troubled Africa, into the wild skies of the 1970s, and down raging Western floodwaters. We didn’t rank them—we couldn’t; they are all outstanding. Pack one along on your next trip, or, better yet, fill out your adventure library. You won’t be disappointed with Outside’s ten favorite books of 2013.
Children are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse
By Edward Hoagland ($20; Arcade Publishing)
Hoagland published this novel about a misanthropic American aid worker delivering medical supplies in fractious southern Sudan just months before ethnic conflicts sprung up in the region. It’s a well-drawn story of a region in turmoil.
Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America
By Jon Mooallem ($17; Penguin Group)
Books about endangered species tend not to be lively or funny. This story—part travelogue, part natural history—is an exception, and Moallem’s smart and irreverent voice is a welcome addition to the environmental canon.
A House In The Sky
By Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett ($21; Scribner)
In 2008, Lindhout, a 27-year-old adventurer and aspiring journalist, traveled to Somalia looking for stories. There Islamist extremists kidnapped her and held her for 460 days in horrific conditions. Written in conjunction with Outside correspondent Sara Corbett, A House In the Sky is a brutal and riveting story of survival.
The Skies Belong To Us: Love and Terror in the Golden age of Hijacking
By Brendan I. Koerner ($26; Crown)
Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired, takes the reader into a wild period in American history when hijackings occurred weekly and airports didn’t have metal detectors. The heart of his story is a 1972 hijacking by a troubled Vietnam vet and a beautiful young woman from Coos Bay, Oregon. The couple ends up at a Black Panther commune in Algeria, and that’s when things start to get weird.
Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives
By David Oliver Relin ($27; Random House)
David Oliver Relin made his name coauthoring Greg Mortenson’s bestseller Three Cups of Tea, which Jon Krakauer debunked in 2011. Relin committed suicide in 2012, but his final work should leave a happier legacy: Second Suns is the incredible and deeply inspiring story of the Himalayan Cataract Project, a group of doctors that perform cataract operations in the developing world, allowing the blind to see.
The Signature of All Things
By Elizabeth Gilbert ($28; Viking)
In her terrific return to fiction, Gilbert introduces us to Alma Whittaker, a scientist born in 19th century Philadelphia. Alma becomes obsessed with moss, grows into a brilliant botanist, struggles to find a worthy romantic partner, travels widely, and generally lives a life that’s overfull with examined adventure.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
By Bob Shacochis ($28; Grove/Atlantic)
Spanning multiple generations and continents, this 640-page Tour de Force lives up to its grand ambitions. It’s a spy thriller in Haiti, a story of unimaginable brutality in World War II-era Sarajevo, an awful daddy-daughter story, and a parable about America’s ambitions in the era leading up to September 11. It also contains the most wrenching and beautiful description of returning home you might hope to read.
The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon
By Kevin Fedarko ($20; Scribner)
A 100-year storm, a rapidly filling Glen Canyon Dam, and three fiery river rats. That’s the setting for this remarkable and beautifully wrought adventure story. It’s also a rich and necessary environmental history of the West’s most essential artery, Colorado River.
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson ($28; Doubleday)
Anderson anchors this brick-thick history of strife in the Middle East with the stories of four men who helped shape the region at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lawrence, the British officer who led a 1916 Arab raid on Ottoman Empire forces in Aqaba, stars.
Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier
By Tom Kizzia ($25; Crown)
Kizzia, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, reconstructs the horrible story of Robert Allen Hale, alias Papa Pilgrim, a recluse who abused his wife and 15 children for years in the Alaskan wilderness.