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Best books I read in 2010

It's that time again, when I page through my journal and my Goodreads dashboard to remember what I read last year and pick out my favorites. So here they are--in, refreshingly, no particular order except that in which I remembered or was reminded of them.

FICTION

Isabel's Daughter, Judith Ryan Hendricks. Avery, a young woman raised as an orphan, gets unexpectedly thrown onto the track of her mother's identity when she stumbles upon a portrait that resembles herself, in Santa Fe, NM. The questions of what she'll discover, and how her relationships will turn out with the other people she meets along the way, kept me reading; and I also loved the influences of Native American culture, herbology, and a whiff of magic. But my favorite feature was probably the setting and its mouth-watering sensory detail. The colors of scenery and artwork, the sounds of desert thunder, and best yet, the taste of New Mexican peppers and sopapillas and chilis verdes--yum! Oh, also, Hendricks gets mega-bonus points for actually emailing me back personally when I dropped her a line to say I liked her books--and for saying she'd read one of mine too! Thank you, Judi!

Bread Alone, Judith Ryan Hendricks. Hendricks also wrote a couple of books featuring my dear city of Seattle. This is the first in the series; I haven't read the second yet, but plan to soon. A Californian woman, abruptly dumped by her husband, finds solace and redemption in making bread for a small Seattle bakery. Again, luscious sensory detail. Reminded me never to write a scene without smells, tastes, textures, and colors.

Moon of Little Winter, Margaret Marr. Kudos to Marr for drawing me right in with an original and quirky premise: two strangers (a man and a woman) show up in the middle of the night to claim the same house, which apparently sits smack dab on a property line. Needless to say, sexual tension kicks in immediately, but so do the spooky complications: bones discovered on the property, objects moving by themselves, spirit wolves, witches both good and bad, and the darkest of family secrets. Marr put a fresh spin on the old "haunted house" storyline with her many innovations. I had a great time reading it and didn't want to put it down.

Voices on the Waves, Jessica Chambers. Chambers is such a skillful novelist, I would never have guessed this was her first published book. She writes with the beauty and grace of a complete pro. This story sucked me in from the start with its rich cast of diverse characters and utterly gorgeous English seaside setting (doesn't hurt that I'm an Anglophile, I suppose), and charmed me into staying up late to keep reading. The characters' interactions were complex enough that I couldn't foresee where they would all end up. Though love does blossom in one or two places, its darker cousins, jealousy and shallow lust, play important roles too, as does good old friendship. I truly cared about all these people, even the ones who behaved badly, because Chambers is so good at finding the humanity in everyone.

The Love Thing, Chris Delyani. Delyani's novel is set up with an irresistible premise: the story of Pride and Prejudice as a modern American office romance, with nearly all the characters played by gay men. Really, do I need to say more? All right, I will: the cakes! The young hero gets roped into the job of baking birthday cakes for everyone in the office, and, though lacking culinary training, dives into the task boldly and turns out a drool-worthy series of baked masterpieces that would make Julia Child approve. Made me ashamed of my Duncan Hines boxed mixes, I tell you. A tasty and charming story all around.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, Susanna Clarke. If you liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, with its simultaneously dark and tongue-in-cheek mingling of Regency and Faerie, and want another taste, then this collection of short stories along the same theme ought to satisfy your cravings. It also would work for anyone who couldn't get through the weighty length of Strange and Norrell but did enjoy the premise. Fanciful, odd, ever so creative.

Swann's Way (In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1), Marcel Proust. I didn't so much read this as meander through it a few pages at a time over the course of a couple of years. And oddly, I tended to find myself liking it. Calling it a novel would not feel entirely right, though of course technically it's a novel. What's remarkable about Proust, though, isn't the plot and characters so much as the startlingly true insights about emotions, love, the senses, time, and memory--and such insights crop up on pretty much every page. As someone wise once put it, Proust was (nearly) a neuroscientist. I'll tackle volume 2 one of these days. Really.

The Gravesavers, Sheree Fitch. This one's Young Adult, loaned to me by a friend, and I'm so glad I got to discover it. A 12-year-old girl spends the summer with her sour grandmother in Nova Scotia, and discovers not only (of course) the family harmony she'd been lacking, but ghosts and spooky truths about a shipwreck that occurred off the coast long ago. At times sad, at other times invigorating and beautiful, this was a lovely and addictive read.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. Is this novel overly precocious, with its young author, and even younger narrator (age 16), spouting graduate-degree-level political theories and literary references, complete with bibliographical citations in parentheses? Yes, it is. Does the author lean too heavily on ultra-unusual-and-brainy metaphors and analogies, some of which take the shape of page-long anecdotes that get in the way of the action? Sure, no question. Are a lot of the characters--the teens especially--so flawed as to be annoying to read? Yep, definitely. HOWEVER...as I passed the halfway mark, did I crave this novel more and more intensely, putting off other tasks simply so I could sit and read and learn what happened between a group of cliquish teens and their mysterious teacher (and the narrator's brilliant dad)? Yes, absolutely. And as that is the central challenge to any author, and best test of any novel, I give this one high marks.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Yeah, okay. You know what To Kill a Mockingbird is about. You read it in high school. So did I, but I'd forgotten nearly everything about it, so I re-read it, and was thoroughly charmed and moved, as everyone tends to be. Young Scout is a shining example of a candid, engaging narrator, and Atticus is the parent we all wish we could be. We'll try harder, Atticus, we promise.


NONFICTION

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson. When Bryson realized he had no idea why the oceans are salty, or how a nuclear bomb works, or why the periodic table looks the way it does, he set out to get a thorough, ground-level education in science. This book lets us acquire one too. Having Bryson as the author makes it a fun experience, of course--he never lets go of his sense of humor, and always gives us a look at the quirky human beings behind the stuffy, dry scientific discoveries. If you, like so many of us, find yourselves in danger of having your high school (and college) science education completely gone from your brain, and wish to remedy the situation, this is about as pleasant a method for doing so as you could find.

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. Chicago hosted the World's Fair in 1893, as you might have heard. I kinda-sorta knew that already. But the "White City"--the Fair's huge buildings and grounds--and the effort it took to build them were completely new to me. Oh, and there was also a serial killer operating in Chicago at that same time. An incredibly scary, prolific one, who built an actual murder mansion to make the killing easier. I would tell you about the basement but I don't want to spoil it for you. Or revisit that chillingly horrible part of history, honestly. Still, a fascinating read! The very best of humanity squished alongside the very worst.

Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder. Writers, snap this one up! The sadly departed Blake Snyder penned this little handbook to help screenwriters turn out good, marketable scripts, but the principles of scene and storytelling he lays down are applicable and hugely useful to any writer. It got me rethinking my novels, and energized me to face the revisions with new purpose. Also, he's hilarious, and so easy to read. Thanks, Blake. You'll be missed.

Postscript
To the many, many other authors I know: I probably just haven't gotten to your books yet! I apologize and hope to do so soon. Those two little kids take up a lot of my would-be reading time. Someday apparently they'll be teenagers and spend all day sleeping and texting their friends. Or so I'm told. Anyway, I'll catch up on my to-be-read list then.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
rachel2205
Jan. 7th, 2011 10:07 am (UTC)
The Devil in the White City is amazing!
mollyringle
Jan. 7th, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC)
I know--I can't believe I'd never heard of Holmes and, for that matter, most of the White City stuff before! The parts about Holmes were so scary I actually had to impose my "no reading before bedtime" rule after a point. *shudder* Still, I'll keep an eye out for Larson's other books.
naill_renfro
Jan. 10th, 2011 05:14 am (UTC)
Ooh, there's one book on that list I hated more than I've hated anything I've read for a long, long time. I'm sure you can guess which one; it's the one whose author needs to be told "Despite what you may think, you're no Vladimir Nabokov. (See Pale Fire, 1962.) You're more of a Dan Brown." If the carrier you're going with is "erudition," you'd better be able to fake it more convincingly.
mollyringle
Jan. 10th, 2011 05:38 am (UTC)
Heheh--given the parenthetical reference, I'm going to guess Pessl. :) Sometime in the early chapters, I actually said to my husband (who read it before me), "I can see why people hate this book." Really, pretentious much? She needs to dial that back a good ways. (Thus I gave it four stars and not five on Goodreads.) Plus I wouldn't want to hang out with any character in that book, which isn't a good sign. But she had my attention by the midway point, so I hand her that.

Hmm, Pale Fire is one of Nabokov's I haven't read. I'll have to try it. Oh, and I probably should add that I most definitely read Swann's Way in English (Montcrieff translation), not the original French. I lack the French required in a massive way.

In happier news, I'm embarking on a re-read of Prisoner of Azkaban for parodying purposes. Hurray, Marauders!
(Anonymous)
Jan. 11th, 2011 04:00 am (UTC)
I could go on for fifty pages about everything I hated about it. (Yes, Nabokov could get away with it. But he knew how to do it right, and even then... not in his first published work! It takes a while to build up that credibility even if you are Nabokov, and she doesn't come close. [Mashenka, 1926. Or, even, si l'on préfère, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941.] See? Pretention is easy!) But what really made it painful to read was how every character managed to be horribly unpleasant without the redeeming virtue of being in interesting. ("Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway.") In the running for most unpleasant of all is the narratrix, and it was impossible for me to make myself believe the author intended her ("Blue van Meer," forsooth!) to be read that way.

I read it at the same time, more or less, as A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka, 2005), a much better book, if distinctly middle-aged. (It's not good enough to live up to its title; nothing could be good enough to live up to that title.) I picked both books up at once because of their similar and similarly quirky titles.
naill_renfro
Jan. 11th, 2011 04:02 am (UTC)
That was me... I was logged in, but I stopped mid-comment for dinner, and I guess I got logged out. I didn't know LJ would do that; live and learn.
mollyringle
Jan. 11th, 2011 09:49 pm (UTC)
That 50-page rant could be fun, for despite my including this book on my "liked" list, it was the kind of "liked" I like to make fun of. OK, thinking about it, what do I *not* make fun of?

One thing that "saved" it for me was that Blue got completely and perhaps over-abundantly punished and humiliated by the end. If she'd skated through without any comeuppance (like, let's say, Bella Swan, although come to think of it, Blue and Bella have a lot of similarities), I wouldn't have liked it at all. As to her name--hah, another thing I said to my husband, "This must be her first novel. You can tell because she gave her protagonist an unusual name." Seriously, someone should make a chart to illustrate it: weirdness of protag's first name as correlated to author's experience.

(As a writer, I completely did that too, though it isn't noticeable anymore, because the order in which I got things published is not the same order in which I wrote them. The one I'm thinking of as containing my debut-weird-first-name narrator isn't actually published at the moment. But I can't bring myself to change his name because I'm too used to it by now.)

'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' - hah! I saw that title when I double-checked the listing for Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything.' Didn't realize it was a novel. Indeed, a great title gets you a long way. At least it gets your book off the shelf and into someone's hand, which is the only way to begin.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 27th, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
books!
Molly!
How nice of you to put both Isabel's Daughter and Bread on your list!
I also love Susannah Clarke's Ladies of Grace Adieu...and the cover is beautiful. You are the only other person I know who's read Save the Cat--a really fun read--and now I need to head for the library with my print out of your recommendations. Thanks for your charming site, your hilarious parodies and your virtual friendship...
Best, judi hendricks
mollyringle
Jan. 27th, 2011 11:30 pm (UTC)
Re: books!
You're most welcome, Judi! Thanks for your enthralling stories, and for being sweet enough to write back to a lowly newbie writer. :)

The cover for Grace Adieu is a perfect example of simple yet gorgeous. I love what's being done with cover art these days. (Yours too! Both the painterly and the photographic ones are beautiful.) And Clarke is an amazing producer of fanciful story ideas. I wouldn't mind a peek inside her head.

I heard of Save the Cat on a writing podcast, then remembered one of my sisters also recommended Blake's work (she even met him once, at a screenwriting conference or somewhere similar). I now plug it whenever I can.

Have fun looking up some titles! Some of those are only available as ebooks currently, so try out Kindle's free preview of the first chapter if they offer it.

Take care,
Molly
lenanderson
Jan. 28th, 2011 05:06 am (UTC)
A very influential book, this `To Kill a Mockingbird’. Many of us first read it in high school, only to go back to it again and again. And after each reading, we feel rejuvenated, a reaffirmation of Browning’s 'God's in his heaven, All’s right with the world.’ The story of the novel is simple enough. 'To Kill a Mockingbird summary' was a great read. It helped me greatly in appreciating the way in which Lee crafted this simple story in a simple town that has captured the hearts of millions in the last fifty years. Truly, the book inspires us to be better persons. And that, perhaps, is the greatest test of the power of words.
mollyringle
Jan. 29th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC)
Well put. Atticus and his kids do make me want to try harder at bettering the world, and clearly they've done so for millions of others.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )