Monday, January 4, 2010

Top 10 Books of 2009

So, it's true. I've been avoiding all potentially great books for at least a month now because, of the 72 books I read this year, narrowing it down to just 10 was agonizing. In fact, I failed. My top 10 list is 11 books long (but who's counting?). Here's what happened... Traditionally, the only book on my list that's ranked is #1. This year, for the first time ever, there was a tie for #1. The other 9 books are listed chronologically in the order in which they were read.

1. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
1. Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman
Fragment by Warren Fahy
The Girl Who Played With Fire by Steig Larsson
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Bite Me: A Love Story by Christopher Moore
Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron by Jasper Fforde

All of these books are out except Bite Me, which you can look forward to reading in April. Reviews of all of these books can be found posted to this blog this year, but as I have no idea how to link them, I'm afraid you'll have to hunt them down yourself.

Comments? Interested in sharing your own list? Please post below!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A different traveler's wife

The Unnamed
by Joshua Ferris

Tim Farnsworth is suffering. From the outside, his life looks great. He's a successful Manhattan attorney at the top of his game. Tim has taken great care to hide the ailment from which he suffers from the world.

I can't tell you what's wrong with Tim. Nor can dozens of doctors, specialists, and psychiatrists. He's seen them all, and no one can explain why Tim has had several episodes, recurrences lasting from months to years, of completely uncontrollable walking. Tim walks away from everyone he loves and everything he cares about. He walks until he literally drops in his tracks.

As I read Ferris's sophomore novel, I couldn't help but think of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, also about a man suffering from a bizarre and unheard of ailment. Like The Time Traveler's Wife, The Unnamed is as much about the relationship between Tim and his wife and their daughter as it is about what actually happens to Tim.

It's a difficult and moving novel, well-written, but without the emotional wallop of Niffenegger's tale. Halfway through the novel, Ferris takes the story in a different direction, and he lost me somewhat when he changed direction. Even so, there was so much to appreciate in the novel, such as Ferris's deft touch with not just the major characters, but the minor ones as well.

I didn't love the story told, but I've wanted to check out Ferris's work and don't regret doing so. As with Tim Farnsworth, I will look forward to seeing what direction he heads in next.

A slight Crichton is better than no Crichton at all

Pirate Latitudes
by Michael Crichton

I adored Michael Crichton's technothrillers. His period novels never really captivated me the same way. Nevertheless, I have to say that this latest and last is an enjoyable, if slight, entertainment. While the period and setting are surely as meticulously researched as every other work he's written, I almost felt like I was reading a pirate fantasy created by Crichton's inner child. While undeniably adult in its depictions of sex and violence (neither to excess, in my opinion), there was still a boy's adventure resting just below the surface.

The story takes a while to get going, as Crichton introduces the reader to the time, the place, and the large cast of characters led by Captain Charles Hunter, an Englishman of the Massachusetts Bay colony living in Port Royal, Jamaica in 1665. Hunter and his comrades are engaged in an ongoing, unsanctioned conflict with the Spanish plying the Caribbean waters. And that's all you really need to know.

Like Jurassic Park, this novel is a picaresque. Where in the former the characters careened from t-rex to pterodactyl to velociraptor, here it's from Spanish pirates to hurricanes to savage cannibals and more. The life of a pirate in the Caribbean--it's not a cakewalk! But I felt that Crichton plunged his rag tag troupe of characters into each new calamity with a twinkle in his eye. It's all good fun. And the best part of all may have been the novel's dénouement.

As I read, I couldn't help but think of Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. Set in a completely different time and place, the two novels have more in common than one might guess and seem to share a sensibility. Both are light entertainments written by serious writers looking back with great affection to the adventure tales that influenced the men they eventually became. While Pirate Latitudes is not one of his most substantive works, it's not a bad way to remember the wonderful Michael Crichton.

The intersection of art and science in Georgian London

The Book of Fires
by Jane Borodale

With her debut novel, The Book of Fires, Jane Borodale has written a meticulous period drama with a memorable heroine. In the fall of 1752, seventeen-year-old Agnes Trussel finds herself in the family way. Nearly paralyzed with fear and shame, when opportunity presents itself Agnes abandons her family home in the country and makes her way alone to London. Almost miraculously, she finds shelter and a job assisting widower John Blacklock, an artisan manufacturer of fireworks.

Somewhat uncomfortably, Agnes becomes a member of the small household. And by Blacklock's side she learns the tools of his trade. I know as much about fireworks as the average person, but Borodale's novel deeply explores the intersection of art and science involved in the endeavor, and it's a fascinating background for Agnes's story.

All the while, day by day, Agnes's secret is growing, threatening her position and her very future in this restrictive and unforgiving society. Agnes is definitely a reflection of her times. The novel's opening is a bit slow as she ponders her guilt and shame over and over. However, once the bulk of the story got going, I found myself entranced with the tale being told. The end of the novel was, perhaps, excessively well-telegraphed, but was no less satisfying for being predictable.

A rushed ending detracts only slightly from the fun found getting there

by Dean Koontz

Out walking his dog one day, Colorado recluse Grady Adams sees a pair of animals that are unlike anything he's ever seen anywhere before. Meanwhile, elsewhere in rural Colorado, veterinarian Cammy Rivers has noted some strange behavior in the animals she's treating. In other narrative threads we are introduced to a chaos theorist with a Robin Hood complex and a "monster in the making." There's a lot going on, and not just in Colorado. Things are going down in California, Washington, and Nevada. The questions are: How do all these disparate stories come together? And, what is the deal with these super-adorable mystery mammals? Good questions all.

Koontz has been doing his thing for decades now. And yet, his prose is still notably not good. That said, this novel was a bit less self-indulgent than much of what we've seen in recent years. I wasn't completely taken with how he brought everything together in the end, but getting there was awfully entertaining.

Rarely is so much talent so poorly used

The Chopin Manuscript
by Jeffrey Deaver et al

The Chopin Manuscript and other novels of its kind are novelties. The idea is that one author will start and finish the novel, and that each chapter in between will be written by a different author working off of what's come before. This particular collaborative venture was the brainchild of the International Thriller Writers (ITW), and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more prestigious group of storytellers anywhere. In addition to Jeffrey Deaver, there are quite a few best-selling authors participating in The Chopin Manuscript, among them Lee Child, Joseph Finder, Lisa Scottoline, and David Hewson. Even among the less well-known authors there is tremendous talent exhibited. These are all writers capable of keeping their audience rapt, but the cards are stacked against them here.

Deaver opens the story with American Harry Middleton being stopped at the Warsaw Airport and being brought to the police for questioning. Middleton insists the hand-written Chopin music manuscript he's carrying is a fake--one he was called in to authenticate, but it turns out that's not what the police want to discuss. Rather, it is Middleton's lunch companion who, along with two others, has just turned up murdered. It's a respectable start to what soon becomes a globe-hopping tale of international intrigue.

Chapter by chapter, each author builds on what's come before, but tries to add his or her own twists, turns, surprises, and reversals--to the point that things ultimately become a bit ridiculous. This is a challenging task they've set themselves, and no one drops the ball, but it's just no way to tell a cohesive story. It's impossible. The plot is all over the place, the characters are undeveloped, even settings are descriptive passages are superficial. Some of the plot twists and story elements are patently absurd.

Oh, and I have no idea why this was produced exclusively as an audio book. The production values are excellent. And it's a tour de force for the preternaturally talented Alfred Molina, who does dozens of different character voices in just about every foreign accent imaginable. Even so, it was a devil to follow. There were so many characters to keep track of, and you couldn't just flip back in the book to remind yourself who they were. Far worse was this--the bulk of the characters had Polish or Slavic names. I couldn't tell you what they were. I couldn't spell them, pronounce them, or keep them straight as I tried to follow this complex narrative. Hopefully, you have better ears for that sort of thing.

The Chopin Manuscript is a novelty. I was curious to hear it and now I have. I'm definitely impressed with the talent of all involved, but I'm not rushing out to hear the sequel.

Ultimately, too dumb to recommend

The Hunt for Atlantis
by Andy McDermott

Archeologist Nina Wilde is on a quest, a quest she inherited from her parents, who died on the hunt. She's searching for the lost continent of Atlantis. When her own university refuses to fund an expedition to the Gulf of Cádiz, Nina is offered funding from billionaire philanthropist Kristian Frost. Almost immediately, people start trying to kill her. In addition to the funds, equipment, and logistic help for the expedition, Frost gives her two more things--two bodyguards, Eddie Chase and Hugo Castille; and his daughter, Kari Frost, to assist along the way.

Soon the foursome is jumping from continent to continent--Norway, Iran, France, and Brazil being just a few stops along the way. And everywhere they go, they find themselves in mortal danger from a man called Qobras, the leader of a group determined to see that the remains of Atlantis are never discovered. Why do Qobras and his followers want to suppress the greatest archeological discovery of all time? And why is Kristian Frost willing to spend millions to find it?

Sounds good, right? This is an excellent thriller/adventure premise. Sadly, the execution of this debut novel was terribly flawed. For starters, the female protagonist, Nina, is bland and uninteresting. I can't say I really cared about her. Conversely, the male lead, Eddie Chase, is portrayed as a diamond in the rough. Unfortunately, there was not enough diamond and too much rough. Eddie can be vulgar and exhibits an offensively sophomoric sense of humor. (In general, what passes for humor in this novel fails.) Ironically, it was the secondary characters of Hugo and Kari that I found to be more interesting, appealing, and dynamic, but alas, they aren't the focus of what will be a continuing series.

Another thing McDermott does right is action. The book is full of it, and some of the fast-paced action sequences are really enjoyable to read. But the 500+ page novel is overly long, and the pace and storytelling are uneven. My biggest problem, however, is something I complain about a lot in these types of novels... just sheer stupidity. Over and over McDermott puts his characters into or pulls them out of frankly unbelievable situations. He succumbs many times to the cheat of convenient plotting. But most unforgivably, much of what he writes is so purely wrong as to be ridiculous.

I completely lost my ability to suspend disbelief when the characters finally got onto/into the water. Either research isn't Mr. McDermott's strong suit, he thinks his readers are stupid, or he simply doesn't care, but what he wrote displays a complete lack of understanding of the laws of physics, fluid dynamics, and several other sciences. I can't give examples without spoilers, but the dumbness was fairly egregious. And the novel's dénouement was the final nail in the coffin. It was beyond ridiculous.

Debut novels are often tough going, and I do see glimmers of promise here, but not enough to inspire me to read further.

I'm a time traveler, too

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead

I have wanted to read this book ever since I heard librarian Nancy Pearl talk about it on NPR. She said the magic words: she said it was an homage to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, one of my very favorite novels when I was a child a million years ago.

A Wrinkle in Time is also the favorite novel of 12-year-old Miranda, a sixth grader living in Manhattan in 1978. Miranda is rehearsing a story in her head. She needs to tell the story to a somewhat scary unknown person who's been leaving her hidden notes and appears to know the future. The first note says, "I am coming to save your friend's life and my own." It asks Miranda to write a letter relating the story of the events of the novel, and it asks that she deliver the letter by hand.

This is a bizarre and meaningless request when Miranda first reads it. But as the story unfolds, slowly, slowly, everything becomes clear. By the time you get to the end, you will understand everything that Miranda did.

Nancy Pearl and her librarian friends are predicting that When You Reach Me will win the Newberry Medal for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Let's see... The writing is excellent. The character's breathe life. The plotting is superlative. And one more thing--by the time I reached the end, I was truly moved. I don't know if it was the story's poignancy or if I was just feeling nostalgic or if it was something in between, but for a few hours this 41-year-old was 12 again. And if that's not time travel, I don't know what is.

A visit with old friends

A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books as a child. Growing up, I read it and its sequels over and over, but it must be at least 20 years since I last read this oh so formative novel. It was librarian Nancy Pearl mentioning this classic on NPR recently that made me want to rush out and re-read the book--which is exactly what I did.

Re-reading A Wrinkle in Time--more than 30 years after I first read it--I had several surprises. First, a lot of what I remembered was actually from the sequel, A Wind at the Door. I didn't remember this story well at all, but it sort of came back as I read. And second, I didn't love it the way I did when I was a girl. Don't get me wrong, I liked it a lot. But as a child I loved these books. I can still see why, but it's a different experience and I'm reading with different eyes.

The story concerns the Murray family. Mr. and Mrs. Murray are both scientists, but Mr. Murray has had to leave his family because of his work for the government. The family hasn't heard from him in over a year. That is the situation as the novel opens on the proverbial "dark and stormy night." The eldest Murray child, Meg, winds up in the kitchen that night with her mother and Charles Wallace, her youngest brother. They are indulging in a comforting mug of late-night cocoa when an unexpected visitor shows up.

Mrs. Whatsit is the first of a series of bizarre characters with bizarre names. Before she leaves the Murrays' that night, she provides a clue that she just might know where Mr. Murray is. The following day, Meg and Charles Wallace plan to seek out Mrs. Whatsit and demand further information. Along the way, they meet Meg's schoolmate Calvin O'Keefe who seems to be somehow destined to join them. So begins a great, weird, adventure through time and space.

I will always have great affection for L'Engle's novels. Even though this one no longer has quite the same effect on me, I'm sorely tempted to continue re-reading the series and L'Engle's other works. These are some of my oldest friends, and it's been far too long since my last visit.