Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Fiction

Originally I planned to write separate categories for general fiction, SF/Fantasy, and Horror. There's really not much straight-up SF/Fantasy or Horror on this list, but some titles contain elements of each of these genres, so let's just toss out all the genre classifications! Right out the window - There they go! After all, good writing is good writing, right? So: the best adult fiction of any kind that I read in 2009:

Mansfield Park (1814) - Jane Austen

Everyone should read something by Jane Austen at some point in their lives. Yes, everyone. No, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn't count (although it is fun).

The Truth About Celia (2003) - Kevin Brockmeier

If you asked me to give you just one word on what I thought of this novel it might be "sad" or "beautiful" or maybe just "Wow." Or maybe I'd just point to the book, then point to you, then point to the book again. Sometimes word descriptions just don't work. Maybe I'd just hand you the book.

The Truth About Celia is a book of interconnected short stories told from various points of view. Celia is a seven-year-old girl playing in her backyard one early spring morning while her father Christopher shows their historic house to a couple of visitors. Janet, Celia's mother, has gone to rehearse with a community orchestra. And at some point during the day, Celia simply disappears without a trace.

Christopher, a writer, tries to deal with Celia's disappearance by creating stories that might explain what happened to his daughter. Sometimes they're stories of pure fantasy as in "The Green Children," a story of two children who are transported to a parallel world where their green color fades with time. Another, "Appearance, Disappearance, Levitation, Transformation, and the Divided Woman," is a tale from the point of view of Stephanie, a divorcee whose ten-year-old son Micah wants desperately to become a magician. Sometimes the connecting elements of these stories are clear, sometimes nebulous as Brockmeier bends the rules of narration to wonderful effect.

Other stories are told from Christopher's point of view, Janet's, and even Celia's. Maybe the most effective story, "The Telephone," is about Christopher receiving calls from Celia over the toy phone still in her room four years after her disappearance. Yet Christopher is torn between keeping the news of the calls to himself or sharing them with Janet while their marriage begins to slowly disintegrate.

Sad. Beautiful. Wow. Get your hands on it and read it.

Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) - Philip K. Dick

A novel I'd like to read again soon. A wild ride with lots to think about. Read the Wikipedia description. It's far too much to go into here. And if you've never read PDK before, this is probably not the best place to start. My vote would be The Man in the High Castle.

Castle (2009) - J. Robert Lennon

The most powerful book I read in the first half of 2009. Since reading it, I've seen many negative reviews. Ignore them. Eric Loesch buys a large piece of land in his upper New York state hometown. He wonders if the locals remember him, as their welcomes seem not-so-welcome. Loesch discovers one small part of his land that is actually owned by someone else, yet the owner's name is blackened out on all the legal documents. An extremely potent look at power, memory, culture and the 21st century world we live in. Highly recommended.

Her Fearful Symmetry (2009) - Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry has taken a lot of knocks, many of them unfounded. I believe the culprit in this case is the old "I-loved-your-first-book-and-demand-that-each-subsequent-book-be-just-like-it" syndrome. I have not read her first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, so I cannot make any comparisons, but even if I had, it shouldn't matter. Writers (and all artists) are free to pursue any paths they choose, even if they diverge from the expectations of their previous works. If it's good writing, it's good writing and it shouldn't matter if Niffenegger's next novel is about time travelers, ghosts or pig farming in Oslo.

The main story here (and there are several smaller ones) concerns 20-year-old American twins Julia and Valentina Poole, who have inherited a London apartment from their recently deceased aunt, whom they have never met. But there are two important conditions: the twins must live in the apartment for a full year before they can sell it and the girls' parents must never enter it. I guess if I had to pin this novel down, it's a ghost story, but it's so much more. The writing is wonderful, the atmosphere both humorous and creepy. Her Fearful Symmetry is one of those novels that comes dangerously close to coming off the rails at times (especially as the ending approaches), but I found myself drawn in, unwilling to leave until it was over (and maybe even not then).

As I Lay Dying (1930) - William Faulkner

(I choose this cover because I find the Oprah sticker so distasteful.)

“My mother is a fish.” Oh boy. Faulkner loves multiple points of view, stream of consciousness and dark, dark humor. He also loves strange and does it well. I haven’t read tons of Faulkner (at least not yet), but As I Lay Dying seems to me one of his more approachable novels. One by one, we meet the family of Addie Bundren as they seek to honor her wish to be buried in a nearby town. As with much of Faulkner’s work, the novel is set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.

Pobby and Dingan (2000) - Ben Rice

Delightful, funny, sad and celebratory short novel about Kellyanne, a young girl who loses her imaginary friends Pobby and Dingan. The story is narrated by Kellyanne’s brother Ashmol, who believes in none of the products of Kellyanne’s imagination. But he does care about her. Seek this short book (only 94 pages) out. You won’t be sorry.

Private Midnight (2009) - Kris Saknussemm

This is one seriously messed-up book. Many readers have said that Private Midnight is hands-down the weirdest book they've ever read. I'd have to say that Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves still holds that distinction for me, but Saknussemm's novel is definitely near the top.

Private Midnight is a mixture of detective noir, David Lynch, supernatural horror, psychological games, mythology, sexuality and way, way more. Disturbing? Yes. Also very hard to put down.

Illyria (2007) - Elizabeth Hand

(Please note that the picture on the left is the expanded novel-length edition of Illyria, due out in May, 2010. The novella that I read is pictured on the right.)

It pains me that Elizabeth Hand is not more widely read. Both her short and long fiction are stunning. She has a beautiful command of the language and a vision of the strange that together form work that is simply incredible. Illyria is a dark romance focused on the stage, particularly Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." Maddy and her cousin Rogan are teenagers born on the same day, yet in many ways opposites. Romantic and artistic longings are beautifully and painfully intertwined in this short, masterfully written tale.

Isis (2006/2009) - Douglas Clegg

First published as a limited edition by Cemetery Dance in 2006, Clegg's novella has thankfully gained a wider audience in this Vanguard Press edition. If you could bring a loved one back from the dead, would you do it? The concept has been around forever, but Clegg has managed to make the tale compelling and extremely difficult to put down. A creepy little Gothic tale with some wonderful illustrations.

Peace Like a River (2001) - Leif Enger

I have found that you either love Enger's Peace Like a River or you hate it. You either buy into it or you don't. The novel, set in rural Minnesota in the early 1960s, is narrated by Reuben "Rube" Land, an asthmatic 11-year-old boy. The plot itself is fairly simple: two boys break into the Land home, intending to threaten (or just scare?) Rube's 9-year-old sister Swede. Older brother Davy intervenes, killing the two boys before hiding out from the police. The bulk of the novel consists of the family trying to find Davy before the law does. The book contains a combination of earthiness, elements of the fantastic and faith. Perhaps each of these elements in isolation bother people. Perhaps it's the combination of them. Regardless, Peace Like a River is a unique experience that's worth your time.

Await Your Reply (2009) - Dan Chaon

Finally, my favorite read from 2009. No other novel I read this year was as compelling and as satisfying as this one. In the first chapter of Await Your Reply, we see Ryan Schuyler, a college dropout, racing down the highway with his severed hand in an ice chest. In the next, it's Lucy Lattimore, recent a high school graduate running away with her history teacher. Then we have Miles Chesire, searching for his twin brother who vanished 10 years ago. From there, it's a wild ride.

Wild, but not chaotic. I could tell you more about these characters, but I won't. (And I'd advise you not to read too many reviews that might reveal more than you want to know.) Dan Chaon masterfully unwinds these parallel stories that seem to have no connecting elements other than identity.

Await Your Reply is all about identity and the possibility of starting over, a concept attractive to many people in these unstable times. But the novel is also about family, relationships, trust and fear. Alternating chapters told across various timelines add an almost insurmountable tension, keeping the pages turning at a brisk pace. Yet read too quickly and you'll miss some wonderfully resonant writing that requires patience.

As soon as I finished the novel, I wanted to start it again just to see if I could find the clues that I'd missed the first time. You may have the same reaction. Don't be surprised. And don't plan to get much sleep once you've started this one.

That's it for fiction. Next time: a list of every blessed book I read in 2009: good, bad and everything in between.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Mystery and Suspense

I read a good bit of mystery/suspense this year, but to be honest, most of it wasn't very good. So here's what was left, the best of the mystery/suspense/action/thriller/noir books I read in 2009:

The Grifters (1963) - Jim Thompson

Several thoughts on this one here.

The Little Sleep (2009) - Paul Tremblay

Don't let this little jewel slip under the radar; seek it out. South Boston PI Mark Genevich suffers from narcolepsy. That's right, a private investigator who can fall asleep while questioning someone, while on a case, while driving, while... well, you get the picture. A wonderful combination of the hard-boiled and surreal with plenty of humor and power. Definitely worthy of your time. Check it out.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006/2009) - Stieg Larsson

If you haven't yet caught Larsson fever, start with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Just understand that this second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, is even better.

Knots and Crosses (1987) - Ian Rankin

My first experience with Rankin and his Scottish detective John Rebus. Good, solid (if somewhat dark) detective fiction. I read the first three books in the series this year and while Hide and Seek and Tooth and Nail were both good, Knots and Crosses is the best of the three for my money. (Thanks to my friend Tom for recommending Rankin.)

The Siege (2009) - Stephen White

I’d never read anything by White before now, but I may keep reading him on the basis of this one. The action takes place at Yale, where someone is holding an unknown number of students inside the building of one of the university’s secret societies. At various intervals, prisoners are released to deliver messages from their captor, messages which are sometimes confusing, sometimes deadly.

Ravens (2009) - George Dawes Green

When a Georgia family wins over $300 million in the lottery, two low-life drifters try to cash in on the winnings by holding members of the family hostage. It seems a lot of reviewers have dismissed Ravens as out-of-control, over the top and simply unbelievable. I think it’s one of the most revealing looks at the culture of greed and, oddly enough, how the Stockholm Syndrome works.

The Long Goodbye (1953), Farewell My Lovely (1940) - Raymond Chandler

I hadn’t read any Chandler since reading The Big Sleep a few years ago, so taking on two of his novels was a real treat. The Chandler imitators are a dime a dozen, but nobody captures the spirit of hardboiled like Chandler when he’s penning Philip Marlowe tales. Marlowe is a tough, hard-drinking thinker of a private detective getting involved in cases that have no tidy solutions, mostly because, beneath his jaded hard shell, he is a moral man who can’t help but at least try to do the right thing, even at a cost to himself. I love everything about these novels: the gritty L.A. atmosphere, the 1940s and 1950s feel, the language, the femme fatales, everything.

Rogue Male (1939) - Geoffrey Household

Something of a forerunner of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. A man attempts to assassinate an unnamed tyrant (obviously Hitler) and is captured before he can carry out his mission. The would-be assassin escapes and provides the reader with what reads like a memoir on how to lose yourself from those intent on finding you at any cost.

9 Dragons (2009) - Michael Connelly

Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel since Echo Park (2006). The killing of an Asian convenience store owner in Los Angeles seems somewhat routine until Bosch gets an anonymous phone call telling him to back off the case. In no time at all, Bosch receives a video on his cell phone showing that his daughter in Hong Kong has been kidnapped. Connelly remains one of my favorite crime fiction writers.

Next time: The rest of Fiction

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best Books of 2009: YA and J-Fiction

I read Young Adult (YA) and J(uvenile)-Fiction novels for two reasons: (1) I want to know what kids are reading and which books to recommend at the library and (2) I like them. I also find that a lot of other adults read YA for enjoyment. There's lots of good stuff out there. Here are some of the best ones I read this year.

What I Saw and How I Lied (2008) - Judy Blundell (YA)

It's entirely possible that this novel could singlehandedly change teens' minds about reading historical fiction. Winner of the National Book Award, which I didn't discover until after I'd finished the book.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) - Sherman Alexie (YA)

A great novel about friendship, being different, ethnic identity, and so much more. Also laugh-out-loud funny.

The Hunger Games (2008) - Suzanne Collins (YA)

The biggest danger in reading The Hunger Games is in finishing it: You're going to immediately want to read the next book, Catching Fire. Then you're going to want to read the third book. As soon as you find out it won't be published until August 24, 2010, you're going to want to hurt someone.

I absolutely could not put The Hunger Games down. In this futuristic setting, children from the 12 districts are chosen by lottery to participate in a fight to the death, a real "Survivor" scenario. Very compelling, although at times you must suspend disbelief. (If child-on-child violence bothers you, stay away.)

Bog Child (2008) - Siobhan Dowd (YA)

Eighteen-year-old Fergus McCann finds a dead body buried in the mountains of Ireland, a body that may be hundreds of years old. This novel did not go at all where I expected it to, but Dowd's story is hard to put down, touching on friendship, family, responsibility and love. Highly recommended.

Deadville (2008) - Ron Koertge (YA)

For some reason, this quiet little novel really connected with me. Ryan is a high school kid that's basically sleepwalking through life two years after his little sister died of cancer. When a senior girl named Charlotte (who doesn't even know Ryan's alive) has an accident and falls into a coma, Ryan is there by her side everyday. He spends less and less time around his slacker friend Andy (No comparisons, now....) and begins his own awakening. It's much better than I'm making it sound.

Unwind (2007) - Neal Shusterman (YA)

Perhaps my favorite YA read of the year. Previous thoughts on Unwind here.

Graceling (2008) - Kristin Cashore (YA)

Thoughts on Graceling here.

Stormbreaker (2001) - Anthony Horowitz (J-Fiction)

I must admit I wasn't expecting much from this, the first book in the Alex Rider series, but I was pleasantly surprised. Alex Rider is sort of a James Bond-in-training (only without the sex and martinis). Exciting with lots of gadgets and a few surprises. A good book for reluctant readers, especially boys.

The Giant-Slayer (2009) - Iain Lawrence (J-Fiction)

It's 1955 and Laurie Valentine goes to visit her friend Dickie, who is in an iron lung hospital ward suffering from polio. She meets other kids there, also in iron lungs. To take their minds off their awful situation, Laurie begins to make up a story, the story of Jimmy the Giant-Slayer. This book could easily have descended into sappiness, but Lawrence does an admirable job of pulling off the story-within-a-story.

Leviathan (2009) - Scott Westerfeld (YA)

Okay, so I'm not quite finished with this one, but I'm still including it! Leviathan is sort of an alternate history of World War I. In this war we have two factions: Clankers, who fight with (and in) machines, and the Darwinists, who have developed a hybrid of machines/living creatures. Prince Aleksandar (whose parents have been assassinated) flees those who would seek his life via a Cyklop Stormwalker, a two-legged fighting machine. The other half of the story involves Deryn Sharp, a girl trying to pass for a boy as an airman in the British Air Service. Deryn is assigned to the hulking flying/living battleship Leviathan, which is part whale and many other species. Of course, Aleksandar and Deryn will cross paths.

It's rare that books fill you with a jaw-dropping sense of wonder, but Leviathan is one of those books. It's also a very handsome-looking book, beautifully illustrated. (Two more books to follow in the series.)

There's still two categories to cover - Mystery and other Fiction. Both will probably have to wait until after the New Year. Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Collections

Well, this is unusual. I only read a handful of short story collections this year, possibly because I spent a good amount of time working on The Great Short Story Collection Purge, reading one or two stories from my unread collections. (And there are an awful lot of them. I'm currently still on authors whose names begin with D.)

So here's what I can recommend to you from this year's completed collections:

Last Evenings on Earth (2006) - Roberto Bolano

Chilean writer Bolano died in 2003 at age 50, but not before writing what many consider his magnum opus, 2666. I still haven't read 2666, but wanted to get a taste of Bolano's writing before diving into a 900-page novel, so I was pleased to find Last Evenings on Earth in our library.

Like Bolano, most of the characters in these stories suffer early deaths and nearly every story has something to do with writing poetry or literature. The stories also center on an intense desire by these characters to be something more than they are. These are haunting stories, sometimes featuring elements of the fantastic. Seek this one out.

Pretty Monsters: Stories (2008) - Kelly Link

If you've never read Kelly Link, this is a good place to start. Several of these stories have appeared in other collections, but even if you're a seasoned Link fan, don't let that put you off. No two Kelly Link stories are alike and she's unlike any other writer you've ever read. Link's stories are filled with hilarity, absurdity, fantasy, myth, weirdness, horror, uncertainty, unexpectedness, delight, humanity... Just read the collection, okay?

Pretty Monsters is marketed as YA, but don't let that stop you either. Buy it. Read it. Loan it out to friends. Then buy it again. (Because you won't get it back.)

Secret Lives (2008) - Jeff VanderMeer

An absolutely delightful collection. I read this one in anticipation of VanderMeer's new Ambergris novel Finch, which I hope to get for Christmas (subtle hint). As the title implies, these are short little biographies of fictional people, their secret lives that the author graciously allows us to peek into. Often beautiful, often laugh out loud, these stories are filled with VanderMeer's wonderfully rich imagination, a true gift to readers everywhere. Each story is excellent, but the final two are stunningly beautiful.

Three categories left:

General/Speculative Fiction

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Christianity and Culture

The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (2007) - Tim Challies

Tim Challies takes the reader on a full-scale, yet highly readable journey through all aspects of biblical spiritual discernment: its definition, uses, practices, and yes, even its dangers. Each well-constructed chapter builds on a solid foundation of Scripture. I’ve encountered very few books this concise and yet this thorough. Challies is an excellent writer who has given Christians a book we really can’t afford not to read.

Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be (2008) - Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck

Maybe you haven’t heard the term “emergent,” but you’ve probably heard of some of its people. Names like Rob Bell (author of Velvet Elvis), Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz), Brian McLaren (The Secret Message of Jesus) and others crop up in discussions of emergent leaders. Authors Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck are not emergent and although they see much good in the movement, they also see much danger. For anyone who wants to know what the emergent church is all about, or for anyone who wants to engage the culture in a biblical manner, Why We’re Not Emergent is an excellent book.

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (2009) - David Dark

Nobody writes on Christianity and culture quite like David Dark. According to Dark, when religion refuses to tolerate questions, “it obstructs our ability to think, empathize, and live lives of authenticity and genuine engagement.” Dark’s works are always challenging, yet always rewarding.

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (2008) - Francis Chan

“Because when you’re wildly in love with someone, it changes everything.” Christianity isn’t about a list of do’s and don’ts. It’s about a passionate relationship with God. If you sometimes feel that you’ve lost that relationship or that it’s not what it used to be, Crazy Love is for you. It’s a book you’ll want to read again and again.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (2009) - Timothy Keller

God has given us so many good things. The problem comes when we turn those good things into idols. Keller takes a biblical look at our culture’s idols and why they are so destructive to our walk with God.

The Fine Line: Re-envisioning the Gap between Christ and Culture (2008) - Kary Oberbrunner

We often see two extremes in the church: Christians who withdraw completely from the culture around them and Christians who embrace every aspect of the culture with no discernment whatsoever. Oberbrunner calls Christians to be relevant to the culture by walking the fine line between the two extremes.

unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity...and Why It Matters (2007) - David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons

Christianity has an image problem. A study of sixteen to twenty-nine-year-old nonbelievers (or unChristians) reveals that most feel Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind. “Find out why these negative perceptions exist, learn how to reverse them in a Christlike manner, and discover practical examples of how Christians can positively contribute to culture.”

Next time, it'll be one of these:

General and Speculative Fiction

Friday, December 18, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Non-Fiction

I love making lists and always look forward to listing what I thought were the best books of the past year. These are the best I read in 2009, although they don't necessarily have to have a 2009 publication date. Today I cover the best Non-Fiction of the year. Here they are:

Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) - Malcolm Gladwell

What is it that makes some people succeed? Is it talent alone? Gladwell doesn't think so. Outliers takes a fun, somewhat scattershot approach to what makes people successful, but much of the material consists of information you may have read in other places. Even so, Gladwell is always a fun, thoughtful read.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1968) - Flannery O'Connor

If you become a fan of Flannery O'Connor, you'll want to read everything she ever wrote, both fiction and non-fiction. Her thoughts on writing, the South, and Christianity contain gems that I already look forward to revisiting.

Making Movies (1985) - Sidney Lumet

Lumet is one of my favorite film directors, so it's no surprise I devoured this memoir of films and how they are made.

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference (2009) - Warren St. John

I first heard of this book on a podcast and was intrigued enough to seek it out. I'm glad I did. I have little interest in soccer, but great interest in how people from other cultures behave in unfamiliar environments. Further thoughts here.

Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse from Moscow to Siberia (2009) - Daniel Kalder

This was one wild ride! Initially I thought this was a work of science fiction, but it's got more imagination and strangeness than most sf stories I've run across. More here.

The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership (2009) - Bill Walsh, Steve Jamison, Craig Walsh

Being a Cowboys fan, I never rooted for the 49ers, but after reading this memoir/leadership book, I have a whole new respect for Walsh and his philosophy. More here.

Columbine (2009) - Dave Cullen

Thoughts here.

That's it for general non-fiction. Next: the Best Books on Christianity and Culture