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Best books of 2009

Following a long-standing tradition of mine, I've compiled the best books I read in the past year. I've chosen ten novels, and have also added four noteworthies from the non-fiction shelf.

Fiction, in the order in which I read them:

No Name, Wilkie Collins. Collins writes clear, page-turning prose for a Victorian, and though this one is nowhere near as famous as his The Woman in White or The Moonstone, I found it quite compelling. It's the story of a young woman's mission to get revenge upon the heartless relatives who, via a legal loophole, rob her and her sister of their inheritance and legitimacy. The story twists one way and then the other, over and over, as the cat-and-mouse game plays out. Great for mystery/suspense fans, but Collins doesn't neglect the romance element either.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Ah, the near-magic of a quest to find an obscure but dearly loved book and its author! Any good bookworm knows this feeling, and Zafón plays it to maximum advantage by setting it in mid-20th-century Barcelona with its haunted buildings. By turns both gruesome and gorgeous, it's a rich treat for readers who love a Gothic flavor in their fiction.

A Pickpocket's Tale, Karen Schwabach. Schwabach's book is a great read for all ages, though intended for elementary- or middle-school students. I could smell, feel, hear, and see the filthy streets of 18th-century London and the pastoral roads of 18th-century Manhattan. The young girl's story of redemption, growing from orphaned pickpocket to respectable family member, is certainly as much fun as, and easier for young readers to tackle than, Oliver Twist's. I especially liked the Flash-cant, the dialect and vocabulary spoken by the London thieves of the era. The glossary at the back was almost as much fun to read as the story itself.

The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff. A grad student comes home to scenic Templeton, NY (based on Cooperstown), to lick her wounds after a disastrous affair with her professor, but that's just the surface. Groff covers the whole history of the town in whimsical fashion, back to pioneer days, encompassing the occasional ghost, supernaturally talented resident, and a local lake monster. Literary in the most accessible way.

Goddess of the Spring, P.C. Cast. I feel silly including this, since it's the literary equivalent of having someone at a spa in a Greek-style tunic give you a foot-rub and sprinkle rose petals upon you. In other words, it's really enjoyable, though totally lightweight. It's the Hades and Persephone story, in frothy romance-novel version. Guaranteed to make anyone who knows Greek mythology go "WTF?" every few chapters, but still fun.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis. Intricately thought-out time travel, told as silly British romp between the future and the O So Frilly Victorian era. Charming and smart; a definite pleaser for Doctor Who fans.

For the Time Being, Marie desJardins. Aliens scoop up a bunch of brilliant but, on the whole, socially challenged college geeks because they (the aliens, that is) need help with a time machine. I swear I knew these geeks in college, and you'll recognize them, too. Humor lightens up the "help, we're stuck on another planet and may very likely die" angst that can often drag down such novels. Also, I'm deeply impressed with desJardins' time-travel plotting. I emailed her to gush, and she verified she did indeed have notecards and charts stuck all over her walls to keep track of the complex timeline while writing.

Sleeping with Skeletons, Doralynn Kennedy. As you'll see if you open a copy, I have officially endorsed this book with a blurb that says, among other things, "I wish all suspense could be so beautiful, and all romance could be so suspenseful." This is one of those rare romances that would appeal equally to men as well as women, since it's full of spies, weapons, fast cars, and bad-ass behavior. But it's also got an actor for a hero, who's in the middle of playing Mr. Rochester (*sigh!*) in the gorgeous Irish countryside (*sigh!* again) when he gets smitten with that dangerously mysterious new American woman who's shown up. There's something for everyone here. Great, smart, edge-of-your-seat storytelling.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh. Oh, the gorgeous, ironic, witty, tragic tumble of England's rich families from decadent 24/7 partying to being bogged down in WWII like everyone else. Actually, in the case of the Flyte family, Catholicism is equally to blame (or credit, if you like) for the sobering up of the characters. This novel is beautiful on every page, even if it doesn't end exactly happily. But it does give secret hopes and much fodder for daydreams to those of us fond of very suspiciously close male friendships between Oxford students.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Berniéres. Sometimes difficult, both textually and emotionally, but so worth it. It's full of life and beauty (I pined for that idyllic Greek island setting), while covering all the horror and pointlessness of WWII--especially when you're Italian and your country freakin' switches sides halfway through. But if, by making Antonio Corelli an affable goofball with musical talent, de Berniéres is saying "love and humor (and music) can save the world," then I am so totally in agreement.


The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant, Dan Savage. Just what the title says. Dan and his boyfriend (he hates the genderless term "partner"), in what he calls typical quick male decisiveness, decided to adopt a kid, and this is how they did it. As you already know if you read his Savage Love column, or listen to the podcast, Dan is a hilarious and raunchy writer, while simultaneously displaying plenty of sweetness and common sense. A fascinating read on all levels--legal, social, and personal.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley. Insightful, intelligent, and sometimes entertaining trip through the world history of the novel. Made me want to read several of the 100 books she chose as her representatives for this journey, even though they are not meant as a "100 best" list. Great observations on every page, whether you're a writer, reader, literature teacher, or some combination thereof.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt. I wish everyone in the world would read this book, for the roads worldwide would be safer and happier. After scouring the existing literature and traveling the globe to talk to traffic experts, Vanderbilt put together this accessible summary of why certain roads are more dangerous than others (not the ones you'd expect, usually), why and where traffic markings work or don't, and why driving in India (or L.A.) often resembles one of Dante's levels of hell. Every chapter leads you to tell your friends, "I just read this interesting thing..."

Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show, Glenn Yeffeth (ed.). A collection of sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious, always intriguing essays on the phenomenon that was Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Writers of sci-fi and fantasy dissect and examine the relationships, the symbolism, the character arcs, even the advertising tie-ins. Only of any interest if you've seen the whole series, of course, but great fun if you have.

What were your favorites of the year? Share!
List of best movies forthcoming...
Happy New Year!



( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 3rd, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC)
Wasn't it fun? Steve has read other books of hers, and highly recommends them too. I need to get to those someday...
Jan. 2nd, 2010 08:21 am (UTC)
I absolutely adored The Shadow of the Wind. Have you read the sequel-but-prequel The Angel's Game that came out earlier this year? Not quite the same sentiments as The Shadow of the Wind (the love story element is a lot more angsty and the book overall is a lot more disarming and ethereal, i.e. it kind of really messes with your head), but just as amazing.
Jan. 3rd, 2010 04:09 pm (UTC)
Cool--I haven't read anything else by him, but I ought to look that up.

I'm now distracted and amused by your "Ooh Mr Darcy" icon, however. Hah!
Jan. 5th, 2010 02:28 am (UTC)
Wonderful list! (And wonderfully eclectic, too.)
Jan. 5th, 2010 03:45 am (UTC)
Thanks! My reading list is always eclectic. Probably why my writing ends up so dang hard to classify, making it hard to send accurate queries to agents.

P.S. I know you said you hate hate hate the Buffy episode "Where the Wild Things Are," but I just reached it in my rewatching, and it's got a Willow/Giles canon-fodder moment! The Scoobs catch Giles singing and playing guitar in the coffee shop, and Willow says, rather starry-eyed, "Now I remember why I used to have such a crush on him." There, you can't hate it entirely now!
Jan. 9th, 2010 04:27 am (UTC)
Hate hate hate hate hate. But yes, even the very worst Buffy is better than most of the rest of what's out there; the Giles/Behind Blue Eyes scene (and its effect on all the female Scoobies, regardless of orientation) is wonderful. Now that I know it's there, of course, I can just fast-forward to it. The only thing I can think of I'll miss in the rest of it is Spike talking himself out of helping: "I am. I know I'm not the first choice for heroics, and Buffy's tried to kill me more than once, and I don't fancy a single one of you at all, but... Actually, all that sounds pretty convincing."

But then, I actually liked Beer Bad and Doublemeat Palace. Beer Bad is just silly, and I like Buffy's final word on beer.("Foamy.") Doublemeat Palace, well, I've expressed myself at length on that one, I think; its conceit (working fast food is hell) acknowledges the premise of the first three seasons (high school is hell) and is also manifestly true: Don't whine, Buffy. Yeah, you got dragged out of heaven, but while these other poor sods have nothing in their life but their dead-end fast-food jobs, you, whenever you're not here, are fighting demons with your cool friends, hooking up with and/or killing vampires, saving the world... don't you think any of your co-workers would give anything to trade places with you?

Plus it has Wig Lady, possibly the most disgusting thing ever shown on television. What's not to like?
Jan. 14th, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC)
Yep, it was a great Spike episode too. He and Anya reminiscing about how they didn't appreciate the ability to kill, back when they had it, was funny as well, if macabre.

That book of essays tells me the Doublemeat Palace storyline made fast food advertisers pull out, which rather makes me fond of and defensive toward the little arc.
Jan. 20th, 2010 02:47 am (UTC)
Where the Wild Things Are has one of my all-time favorite Giles scenes, where he tells off the horrible religious lady ("You have ruined lives, Mrs. Holt."). He's my hero for that.
Jan. 20th, 2010 02:51 am (UTC)
Glad you liked Brideshead. Waugh sure could write, even if he was from all accounts a complete git as a person.
Jan. 20th, 2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
Heheh. Yeah, the fact that he thought the novel portrayed Catholicism in a positive way indicates a high level of being warped in the head. But luckily readers are free to interpret works in the ways that mean the most to us. :)
Jan. 21st, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
Granted I'm no fan of the RCC to begin with (homophobia and misogyny anger me - I'm funny that way), but I cannot imagine anyone reading Brideshead and thinking, "Catholicism sounds like fun - I think I'll convert!"
Jan. 25th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
Exactly. Tolerant non-conformist Catholics can make life work pretty well, but following the religion to the letter, like Lady Marchmain, seems to lead to unhappiness all around. "Mrs. Flyte, you have ruined lives!"
Jan. 29th, 2010 11:51 pm (UTC)
i liked the 2 phillipa gregory novels that i read; the other queen & the boleyn inheritance
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )