Archive for novels

My 10 Best Books of 2009

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2009 by tigereye

So far during 2009, I’ve read 142 books. I say “so far” because I’m still working on three, at least two of which I’ll probably finish over the next week, barring unforeseen circumstances such as full concentration on work. Out of these 142 books, 22 have been rereads. I haven’t counted exactly how many of these books were written during 2009, but I can tell you it’s fewer than usual for me. Near-bankruptcy has placed some constraints on my lifestyle, mostly by way of preventing me from buying many new hardcovers.

Still, I managed to come up with my annual and, I’m sure, deeply important and cherished (bankruptcy hasn’t done much to dent the sarcasm, anyway) Top 10 List of the best books from 2009 that I read this year, with the usual honorable mentions. Notice it’s a little light in the nonfiction category this year: sorry. I’ve mostly limited myself to discounted titles, and there wasn’t much in the way of cheap nonfiction that I wanted to read.

South of Broad by Pat Conroy. My beloved Pat Conroy would really have to screw up to stay off this list, and this year he made me happy once again with another dysfunctional family/love story set in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Charleston, SC. (I’m not biased: I’m not even particularly fond of most cities in my home state, which makes Charleston that much more remarkable.) Conroy has said this novel could’ve been over 100 hundred pages longer, and that would’ve been fine with me. There are childhood memories, present-day love, forgiveness and lack thereof, and a cameo appearance by Hurricane Hugo. While it’s not as transcendent as The Prince of Tides, it’s great nonetheless.

Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. It’s rare for Berg to disappoint, too, although her last couple of books were less than amazing. She’s back to her usual form with this story of a widow who learns of a secret kept by her late husband. If you haven’t read Berg, she’s as gifted as Anne Lamott when it comes to finding words for the often amorphous thoughts in our own heads about our everyday lives. I’d recommend most of her fiction. This was the first knockout book of the year for me.

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’m not sure what I expected from this, but after reading Urrea’s lovely novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, it wasn’t a picaresque novel loosely based on “The Magnificent Seven.” In fact, if I’d known that, I might have hesitated before using any surplus money on this book. I’m glad I read it anyway. It’s a laugh-out-loud-funny story of three young women and a friend from a small Mexican village who sneak into the United States illegally to find seven ronin to save their town from a couple of criminals.

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman. Hoffman is, like Conroy and Berg, a usual suspect for this list. This is one of her darker novels: it’s the story of three sisters, troubled in different ways, and how they make disastrous mistakes and then patch their lives back together. Hoffman writes beautifully about love, loss, craziness, family, and magic, all of which are old territory for her but are newly revisited in this terrific novel.

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. I’m not even sure why I picked up this short first book, and less sure what prompted me to buy it, but I’m glad I did. It’s a novel in stories about the lives of a cooking school proprietor/restaurateur and her students, and although it doesn’t startle or break any new literary ground, it’s a quick, lovely night or two of reading that I’m sure I’ll go back to over the years. Note: it’ll make you hungry and wistful at the same time, which in combination will keep you awake and roaming the kitchen early in the morning. It’s worth it. It almost made me want to cook.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston. If you haven’t read him yet, Charlie Huston is the heir apparent to Elmore Leonard: he’s prolific, has fascinating if similar characters, will make you laugh and horrify you, and wanders freely between genres (his vampire series, starring undead screwup Joe Pitt, is not to be missed, even if you don’t care for vampires – they’re more like noir that happens to involve vampires). This novel is the story of a guy who goes to work for a company that cleans up after various human disasters: suicides, unobserved deaths, hoarders. There’s also a rival post-disaster cleaning team and a weird unexpected love story, and several inappropriate laughs. His new novel is out in January 2010. I’m already waiting for it.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. If I had Atwood’s imagination I would never read anything – I’d just stay inside my own head all the time. This is almost but not quite a sequel to Oryx and Crake, although you don’t have to have read that novel to fall headlong into this one. It’s an eerie imagining of the end of civilization, and possibly the beginning as well, none of which is farfetched enough to make you write it off as science fiction: parts of it are almost like prophecy. Oh, and if it doesn’t at least temporarily make you think twice about fast food, you didn’t pay attention. Brrrr.

Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper. Two years in a row, I’ve been unexpectedly enchanted by what you’d think would be overly sentimental stories of notable or exceptional pets, which instead turn out to be moving and fascinating human/animal tales. This is the story of a young woman who takes in an eyeless kitten (his eyes were removed due to a life-threatening infection) and their life together. I was suckered into this one because I have a disabled cat myself, and couldn’t put the story down: Homer the cat has a more interesting story than a lot of humans do, and the author writes about it with the sentimentality of any pet owner, but never descends into sap.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Usually, when a writer lapses into dialect, my neck stiffens up, especially if it’s southern: almost nobody outside the south (and not nearly enough writers in it) has much of an ear for how people really talk. Kathryn Stockett is the exception. This is the story of a privileged white girl in segregated 1960s Mississippi who takes an interest in the lives of black domestic servants who work for her family and friends, and the story of the black women themselves, told in a mostly dead-on dialect that never made me cringe. This is a long novel, but took only me two nights to finish. You’ll love the characters, the story, and the discovery of a new author who steps outside the silly Ya-Ya Sisterhood/Sullivan’s Island trend so many southern female writers settle for, and hits this debut out of the park.

Rocket Men by Craig Nelson. I’ve been a NASA moon shot junkie since I stumbled onto The Right Stuff as a college student. This novel will revisit a little of what you already know – the Soviet contribution to the space race, the failures that preceded the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs – but reaches deeper into the lives of the three men who first went to the moon than anyone has before. I knew a lot of this history, and it didn’t matter: I was still fascinated. At least once, Nelson turned up some detail that reduced me to tears. I can’t think of a better book to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the moon landing (although if you’re a fellow moon shot nerd, watch “In the Shadow of the Moon,” a documentary that’s even more breathtaking than this book).

As usual, there are a few honorable mentions as well, some from 2009 and some other great finds that I stumbled upon late for one reason or another:

Awakening by S.J. Bolton. This is a debut mystery/thriller about a British wildlife veterinarian and the horrible secret of her village. I was fascinated from the first page.

My Dead Body by Charlie Huston. Yes, that same Charlie Huston. This is the last of his Joe Pitt vampire noir novels, which settled several old scores, made me laugh explosively more than once, and tempted me to reread the whole batch since there won’t be more. (The first of this terrific series is Already Dead.)

Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg. If you have a pet you suspect is smarter than it’s given credit for, this memoir by the scientist who worked with Alex the gray parrot for 30 years will pin you in your chair to finish it in one sitting. Pepperberg made the whole world think twice by what she revealed about learned language in a creature with “a brain the size of a shelled walnut,” as well as learned animal behavior in general.

The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault. I’ve never included rereads in this list before, but it had been almost 20 years since I last read these novels based on the myth of Theseus, and I’d forgotten how absolutely extraordinary they are in terms of research, characterization, and human understanding. Wow. They’ve lost nothing over the years, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed them.

BONUS: a surprise movie to end this list. The best film I saw all year – in a year, by the way, that offered the remarkable “Up,” “Valkyrie,” and “Inglourious Basterds” – was “Zombieland.” Laugh yourself silly and forget the real, un-zombiefied world for an hour and a half, and then go home and make sure you have a houseful of weapons and junk food, just in case.

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The Best Books of 2007, as Chosen by a Lazy Bibliomaniac

Posted in Imaginary Book Club with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2007 by tigereye

When I look back on this year, I can’t help but think of all the nothing I’ve accomplished. I haven’t found a job yet, I haven’t quite finished the damn novel, I haven’t rearranged the house into some form of order… What exactly did I do?

Well, I had a great beach vacation, I took care of my mom while she was very sick, I helped out my dad after his bypass surgery, and I read and read and read. That’s one thing to be said about reading: you can do it anywhere. At the beach, in a waiting room, in the car during traffic jams, late at night just before bed. And I managed to read some really terrific books of all sorts, in between doing the dishes and feeding the cat.

So these are my top ten books of the past year. They’re not in any order, because I had enough trouble just picking out ten, let alone rating them. The only rule I stuck to here was the books had to be 2007 releases — otherwise this would be ten pages. Anyway, here are my favorites.

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin — hands down, one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Steve Martin writes as beautifully as he acts, and he plays the banjo and the guitar, too: is there nothing this man can’t do? The book is about his life in comedy and how he got there, from childhood magic shows through the end of his stand-up career. It’s funny, poignant without being a tell-all — the description of his difficult relationship with his father is heartbreaking, but never maudlin — and even instructive to those of us who try to be funny in any medium.  I actually wished this book had been longer, I enjoyed it so much.

The Abortionist’s Daughter, by Elisabeth Hyde — This was the year’s first knockout book for me, which is always like finding the Golden Ticket to the Wonka factory inside your first candy bar. It’s a literary murder mystery, with so many possibilities among the troubled cast of characters that I never suspected the killer was… well, you’ll see. It’s also beautifully written, while at the same time chillingly familiar, easy to imagine as a story on “Inside Edition,” complete with parental angst and failing marriages and… well, find out for yourself.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman — this first novel was as much fun as an armful of comic books. In alternating chapters, it’s the tale of a supervillain’s plot to take over the world and a fledgling superheroine’s efforts with a team of heroes to stop him. Everything you learned from comic books as a kid is done here with a light, funny touch and a sense of the sometimes silly “truths” of having superpowers. If you’ve ever enjoyed a comic book, you’ll love this novel. I’m already hoping there will be a sequel.

The God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle — this first novel is the story of a young girl growing up on a family ranch, tending to the horses against the backdrop of her ill mother, runaway-bride sister, and flawed father. The horses, her troubled family, and the riders who train on the ranch are seen through the eyes of a lonely adolescent in a way that you may remember from your own early teens, with moments of clarity that make you hurt for the narrator the way you might for your own remembered self.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling — I wish this series had no end. If I can’t have that, this book will do.

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott — I admit that I’ll read anything Anne Lamott writes. I love her novels, her book on writing, her memoir of her son’s birth — and all three of her books on faith. She writes about the difficulty of being Christian in the face of everyday problems, with an eye to the real-life limitations we all have when we try to practice faith. She never makes me feel lectured or proselytized; reading her essays is like finding a friend who understands how the good in your heart can get irremediably tangled with the neurosis and the anger and the stubbornness, and helps you start to untangle the whole mess.

It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, by John Ed Bradley — OK, this entry sounds like the old Sesame Street song that says “one of these things is not like the others,” but I assure you I’m not kidding. Bradley has been around as an unevenly good novelist for nearly twenty years, but this memoir of his college days playing football for LSU, and his coming to terms with the loss of this singular experience for, practically, the rest of his life, is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read. I’ve never played football, but if you’ve ever given up something that you felt defined you, this book will ring as true and as heartbreaking to you as it did to me. His teammates, his father, his coach — all these relationships are recounted with wrenching honesty that reminds me of Pat Conroy’s best work. The writing is beautiful and the emotion is as real as blood on the page. I’m glad I read this book.

The Rest of Her Life, by Laura Moriarty — my biggest problem with Moriarty is that this is only her second novel. She’s a terrific writer, and I wish she had a bigger body of work (she has one other novel, The Center of Everything, that’s also excellent). This is the story of a family coping after their teenage daughter causes a tragic accident, and the skewed family history that makes them prone to — although I hate the word — dysfunction. These are very real characters whose pain is palpable in every chapter. You’ll read this in two days, max, because you can’t put it down.

A Dangerous Man, by Charlie Huston — Where have you been all my life, Charlie Huston? Eventually Elmore Leonard will have to retire, and finally there’s someone who can take up his mantle when it happens. Huston is one of the best crime writers I’ve ever found, funny and spare and hard to stop reading. A Dangerous Man is the final volume in his Henry Thompson trilogy (Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things), the tale of a guy who blundered into serious trouble when he told a neighbor he’d watch his cat for him and then never managed to get his life back, rocketing from one disaster to another over the course of the three books. Huston is also the author of two crime/noir/vampire novels, Already Dead and No Dominion, which I promise are completely unlike any vampire fiction you ever thought you’d see, and one stand-alone novel, The Shotgun Rule, also good but a little less so than his trilogy or series. More fun than a posse of drug-addled hit men in a Tarantino movie, if you like that sort of thing.

Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff — I was in college when I read Matt Ruff’s first novel, Fool on the Hill, and when I finished it I wanted to drive straight to New York to marry him. He’s had a couple of uneven novels since then, but Bad Monkeys is a return to his knock-it-out-of-the-park days. It’s about a young woman indoctrinated into a secret society to kill off the truly evil people in the world — the “bad monkeys.” Or is she? Is she lying or delusional or absolutely right? You be the judge. This was a twisting, turning, double-back-on-itself mindfuck of a novel that I read in one long sitting. Don’t read it under the influence of anything stronger than caffeine. I had just taken some Advil Cold & Sinus when I started it, and I fell right down the rabbit hole. It was a truly trippy bit of fun, though.

A Few Honorable Mentions

The Used World, by Haven Kimmel

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell

Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South, by Roy Blount, Jr.

In the Woods, by Tana French

The Air We Breathe, by Andrea Barrett

Meet an Author You’ve Never Heard Of: Gillian Bradshaw

Posted in Imaginary Book Club with tags , , , , , , on December 19, 2007 by tigereye

I’ll read just about anything. In a spinner rack in my living room — which is the on-deck circle for books I plan to read next or soon — hard noir sits next to romantic comedy, sports nonfiction rests beside historical fiction, and a story of Iranian childhood backs up against a novel I bought three years ago and just found, about an epileptic rock star. I can be indiscriminate.

However, sometimes I realize that an author I’ve glommed onto like a barnacle is completely unknown outside my bookshelves. At my old bookstore, I’d try to coax customers into reading them, and their eyes would glaze over and drift toward Clive Cussler or James Patterson, away from the book I was practically waving in front of their faces. You can lead a customer to a book, but he might pick up a copy of Maxim instead. I mean, what’re you gonna do?

Write something about these authors, that’s what. I’m going to wave some books under your nose here. Don’t get distracted by the TV, or the cat, or the funny sound the washing machine is making. You might love these books. Or anyway, one of them might make somebody very happy, which is the best you can ask of a book.

Gillian Bradshaw

I first discovered Bradshaw by accident. I’m a sucker for everything written about or based on the Arthurian legends, and I was paging through a discount catalog that my bookstore received when I read a blurb about one of her books, Kingdom of Summer. It was a love story, it was at least partly about Arthur, and most importantly, it was two bucks for a hardcover first edition. (Man, do I miss that discount catalog.)

When my copy of Kingdom of Summer arrived, I learned it was actually the second book in a trilogy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t deal with a series that’s already underway. Maybe it’s the OCD. I don’t know. But this meant I couldn’t read my fascinating-looking two-dollar bargain book until I got my hands on the first and last of the trilogy.

They were out of print. I had an out-of-print search company track them down for me, at only moderately exorbitant prices, and the rest of the trilogy arrived on my doorstep in November, months after I’d ordered the first one, which was really the second one. Oh, well, you know what I meant.

They were wonderful.

This trilogy was so good that I read it in a week and then reread it immediately, which I almost never do. Very few individual books have bowled me over like this, let alone three in a series. The stories centered on the character of Gwalchmai — Sir Gawain to those of us who hadn’t researched the legend thoroughly — and were narrated by Gwalchmai himself in the first book, a servant in the second, and Guinevere in the final volume. The characters were more real to me in those books than in any other Arthurian-based story I’d ever read: Mary Stewart, Marion Zimmer Bradley, anyone else who had tried to tell this story. And the history was amazingly correct. This was the first Arthurian tale that felt as if it might have actually happened, and to real, fallible, flawed and interesting people.

So after rereading the trilogy (which I now do every other year or so), I set out to find anything else I could by Bradshaw. I’d learned, via author blurb on the back cover, that she’d been a student at the University of Michigan (classics, of course, which explained the depth of her research) and won a prize there for the first book in the trilogy, Hawk of May (the final volume was titled In Winter’s Shadow). Then I learned of the first barrier between me and anything else she’d written. Everything was out of print.

I chanced across one novel a year later, in a closeout book warehouse, of all places. I was juggling a stack of dusty mysteries when I saw Beacon of Alexandria, a story about a woman of the Roman Empire who disguises herself as a eunuch to study medicine.  I think I dropped everything else in my hands to get at this book. Again, not only was the research remarkable (several ancient cures and texts were cited during the story, which I found fascinating), the characters seemed utterly real, caught up in religious battles of the times as well as suffering the Huns’ and Goths’ invasion of the empire. So the trilogy wasn’t a fluke, I thought — this woman really is that good.

It’s difficult even now to get hold of Bradshaw’s books. She lives in England, so you can find some of them on www.amazon.co.uk, but I’ll warn you, the shipping right now amounts to just doubling the price of the hardback book. Most of her titles take a year or more to arrive in the U.S.; I’ve given up on many of them and asked a friend who does book searches to track them down for me. Bradshaw writes mostly historical fiction, like the books I listed, but she also writes very hard, cutting-edge science fiction that I find more difficult to read.

If you can scare up a Bradshaw book, in the library or at a book warehouse or online, give it a try. Her writing is magnificent, her stories and characters ring true, and you’ll be fascinated by the depth of her research into ancient cultures.

Below are some of her titles. If I’ve read them, I’ve included a brief description. There are also a few I’ve not read yet; I’m saving them like the last few Godiva candies in the box, to enjoy later.

Hawk of May — story of Gwalchmai, otherwise known as Sir Gawain, growing up and becoming one of Arthur’s knights. That’s the story, just as “girl and dog have adventure” is technically the story of The Wizard of Oz. There’s great evil to overcome in this book, and a very light touch of Christianity to the story. Bradshaw is a master at never preaching, although faith is a common theme in her novels.

Kingdom of Summer — Gwalchmai later on, as a knight, in a doomed love story.

In Winter’s Shadow — Guinevere tells the story of the fall of Arthur. It’s another doomed love story, beautiful in its sadness.

The Beacon at Alexandria — a young girl disguises herself to study medicine in Alexandria, near the end of the Roman empire. The history of medicine never interested me before this book, but the narrator describes cures and herbal remedies that I found fascinating. The empire’s social and governmental troubles play out in a way your Western Civ 101 classes never described so clearly.

Horses of Heaven — in one of my favorite love stories, a young woman sent to be queen of a culture she doesn’t understand must marry a barbaric king in a political arrangement. How and with whom she finally falls in love is epic. Set in ancient Persia.

Island of Ghosts — the leader of the Sarmatian people, defeated by Romans, guards against intrigue in his new culture. The research in this novel is probably her most impressive, as the Sarmatians really existed but their culture had no written history. Plots and roadblocks abound in this story. It’s another favorite.

Wolf Hunt — legend of a French knight who could turn himself into a wolf, told at more length and with more fascinating characters. The end is a nail-biter.

Cleopatra’s Heir — if the Queen had had a son, he was a sickly young man who would be at the mercy of all Rome, and in this novel, he is.

Render Unto Caesar — a young Greek man has to challenge the prejudices of Roman-born citizens of the empire to receive justice when his father is murdered. One of my favorite characters here is a former gladiator who befriends and helps the narrator on his quest.

The Sand-Reckoner — novelization of the life and genius of Archimedes, with some love and some intrigue. Like any genius, Archimedes fascinates.

The following are more historical novels by Bradshaw that I’ve not yet read: The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, Alchemy of Fire, Imperial Purple, and Dark North, her latest.

Science fiction by Bradshaw: Bloodwood, The Somers Treatment, Elixir of Youth, and The Wrong Reflection.