December 21, 2009

Top 12 Books of 2009

I'm staring at my virtual bookshelf and realizing that this year has been, might I say, an eclectic reading year for me. My thesis- or, more accurately, the frustratingly fixed and brittle process of writing my thesis- led me in all sorts of literary directions, in search of escape. For that, Thesis Beast, I thank you. I must also thank my favorite indie, Northshire Bookstore, which I was lucky enough to skulk through (in a half-drunken state of nerdy euphoria) TWICE this year and which led me to some of the best books I've read in a long time.

(Excitement Overload.)

So, without further ado, my top 12 reads of 2009:

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan
It is: A story about a farming family trying to carve a life out in the Delta after WWII. A captivating historical drama told through the voices of a confused farmer, a haunted brother, a struggling wife, and a rebellious black man and his family. A story about justice and connection.
I would give it to: Anyone who likes historical narratives. Anyone who likes good narratives, period. My Mom.
What made it special: The narrative swept me up like a tidal wave; it was that beautiful, that intriguing. I was repeatedly arrested by the eloquence of Jordan's language. The multiple characters through which the tale is told are engagingly, complex, and completely edible. This is one of those books that I was truly sorry to get to the end of.

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead
It is: An American Civil War story about a young boy who is sent off into the fray on a coal black horse to find his father. A beautiful portrayal of exploration and love found and sustained amidst savage violence. A portrait of a young, thoughtful boy trying to hold on to his goodness, using his connection to his horse to help guide him.
I would give it to: Anybody. Everybody.
What made it Special: I picked this up while researching my civil war short story, finding myself drawn to the beautiful cover. This is a story that succeeds in being both brutally heart-breaking and incredibly heart-warming, often in the same paragraph. It is one of the most unique coming of age tales I've ever had the privilege to read. This is a magical book.

Sharp Objects by Gilian Flynn
It is: A deliciously disturbing story of a woman journalist (a cutter who carves words into her own skin) who is forced to return home to cover a creepy series of child murders. It is about what happens when this damaged, damaging woman falls back into the laps of her manipulative mother, her destructive younger sister, and the haunting memories from her past. A story of female power, female violence.
I would give it to: Anyone who is into mysteries, or crime series, and to people like me, who aren't. Anyone who likes Stephen King-type horror stuff.
What made it Special: I don't usually do creepy. I'm not into reading about violence, especially towards women. This book was all of these things... and I LOVED it. I would have eaten it for every meal if I wasn't afraid of ink poisoning. It was that good. The writing is powerful, seductive, witty. The characters are wickedly addictive. Flynn's unique take on what happens when women use violence to gain control is riveting. It kept me up into the wee hours, wanting (and not wanting) to find out what would happen next.

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
It is: This probably doesn't need explanation, but I'll give it anyway: It's a vampire mystery/romance/adventure story about what happens when a twenty-something telepath sees a vampire walk into her bar.
I would give it to: All of my lady friends who like a romance with a little bite. Spec fiction fans. Anyone who finds Southern culture interesting and sometimes a little bit absurd.
What made it Special: This series was sort of instrumental in getting me through my thesis, so I have a special fondness for everything Sookie. One of the reasons I loved it is because it doesn't take itself very seriously (no offense, Twilight); it is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of Southern life and small-town prejudice. Harris uses her sassy, wonderful leading lady to explore themes of intolerance and hatred while seducing us with whodunit mysteries (and-let's face it- some pretty glorious sex scenes. Ooooh, Eric!). Go ahead. Just try it.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
It is: A non-fiction piece of investigative/travel journalism in which the author, Tony Horwitz, travels through the Civil War South of today to try and find out what kinds of remnants it has left behind. He finds all sorts of things: monk-like reenactors, bar brawls, memory keepers, racists and abolitionists- every crazy Southern character you could dream of- written about with wit, sensitivity, and complete hilarity. This is a book about the unique and fascinating place that is the American South.
I would give it to: Anyone interested in the Civil War. Anyone interested in American culture and identity. Anyone who needs a few laughs. Anyone who loves some good non-fiction. Anyone who I can force to read it.
What made it Special: I don't read a lot of nonfiction. I try, but it's rare that one will engage and capture me the same way that good fiction does. This book was the MOTHER of all exceptions. It surprised me by making me laugh until I almost peed myself. It asked me, subtly and in stages, to think about my relationship with the South, REthink my perspective on the Confederate flag, and completely reexamine my American identity. It touched and moved and enraptured me. In short, I fell in love with it. This is a book that I will read again and again, just for the joy of it.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
It is: A YA werewolf love story, and SO much more. A story about a girl who has spent years watching the wolf that lives behind her house, only to find out that he isn't just a wolf and that he's been watching her, too. What's unique is that THIS werewolf is a boy who turns into a wolf when it gets cold.
I would give it to: Any female between the ages of 12 and... I don't know, 50? Do we ever get too old for good love stories?
What made it Special: I am a great lover of this author's blog, and I love good urban fantasy/mysticism, so I figured that I would like this book, but I didn't know I'd end up loving it. Stiefvater's writing is lyrical, a pleasure to experience. She captures so many of the unique and wonderful qualities of teenage love and feeling. Her descriptions of nature and the enrapturing pains of first love are a joy to read. The pace, the characters, the uniqueness of her take on werewolves all added up to a wonderful page-turner of a story.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
It is: This one isn't really about wolves, Were or otherwise. It is about a young woman in the harsh Canadian wilderness who discovers a dead body that is blamed on her only son. She goes off into the wilderness with a solemn tracker to prove his innocence, finding out things about the world, and herself, that she never imagined. It is about family secrets coming back to haunt us and about going in search of one thing only to find something else entirely.
I would give it to: Anyone who likes dramatic, pioneer-type fiction. My Canadian friend Lyndsey (not so much because she's Canadian, but because she'd love it).
What made it Special: The story is immediately engaging, the setting unique and captivating, and the characters both frightening and fragile. This is a murder mystery that compels you to read greedily forward to find out what happens in the end. Between end and beginning, I discovered a beauty I hadn't expected, and a book that I thought about long after it had ended.

Giants of the Frost by Kim Wilkins
It is: A speculative fiction-type book about a young female who takes a job on a tiny island and falls in love with a mysterious man who ends up being from another world entirely. This story takes its cue from Nordic myth, transforming some of its most famed characters into unique living, breathing characters. This is a suspenseful tale about lost love, family ties, and the twisting of fate.
I would give it to: My best friend, who loves this stuff.
What made it Special: I should say that I'm a little biased towards this author. She was a teacher of mine in grad school, and if every would-be writer has a literary crush, she is one of mine. That aside, I loved this book to pieces. The way she interprets Nordic myths and themes is fascinating, the narrative fast-paced and completely spellbinding. I found myself literally grabbing at the pages- I devoured this book. Kim knows how to tell a kick ass story.

Goldengrove by Francine Prose
It is: A story about a young girl who loses her older sister in a mysterious boating accident and the effect that event has on her and her family's lives. The narrative, told from the perspective of the surviving sister, encompasses the summer after the older sister's death- the summer that changes her forever. It is about the acute pain of teenage-hood and the strange paths that grief takes us down.
I would give it to: Pretty much anyone.
What made it Special: This book is so beautifully written that the language alone makes it worth reading. But it has so much more to offer than that. The point of view is so incredibly convincing that I had to stop and marvel at the author's ability to so fully illustrate the mind of a young, grieving teenager. Reading this book felt like a gift.

In The Woods by Tana French
It is: Three kids go into the woods that border their small Irish town: only one comes out, and he has no idea what's happened. Many years later, that boy has become a cop who is drawn back to the scene of his childhood trauma by the murder of a young girl. This is an enjoyably creepy story about old wounds that come back to bite you and the blurry line between the real and the imagined.
I would give it to: Anyone who likes a good mystery/police drama with a psychological twist.
What made it Special: This book sucked me in with its lyrical language and beautiful plot exposition. The author brings the life of a murder detective to life in such a masterful and convincing way. I wanted to throttle the main character, and yet, I loved him. The story is masterfully well-woven; it will keep you up until 3 in the morning, wanting- no, needing- to figure it all out.

The River King by Alice Hoffman
It is: About a mysterious drowning at a small-town New England prep school, and the people who set out to investigate it. This is a book about first love and finding ways to belong in a small town that doesn't like to (can't seem to) change.
I would give it to: Anyone who digs books that blur the line between reality and magic.
What made it Special: After falling in love with Practical Magic, I was hoping that this book would be as good, and in many ways, it was. Hoffman throws a healthy dose of her magical realism into her story, along with an interesting cast of characters and a beautifully described backdrop. I absolutely love the way she finds ways to tell an ordinary story in very extraordinary ways.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
It is: How can I describe this book?... It's a kind of cruel, twisted fairy tale that stretches back and forth between two words. After suffering abuse of many kinds, the main character escapes to a world where nobody hurts and raises her two daughters there. There are men who turn into bears, and magic coins, and... all sorts of stuff.
I would give it to: Any of my fantasy-loving friends.
What made it Special: It's funny- I'm still not sure if I actually liked this book. It was disturbing and strange... so why include it? Because it was just so good. The story is brought to life in such a beautiful, forceful way. I have never read anything so inventive or tactile. The details are so luscious that you can almost taste them. The story is fresh and just... so haunting (and not at all in a bad way). It stayed with me long after I finished the last chapter, revisiting the amazing world that Lanagan described.

1 comment:

  1. I always love the books you suggest. I loved Giants of the Frost and I just finished Shiver. I will add the rest to my reading list.