Friday, December 31, 2010

Top Eleven Favorite Reads of 2010

I found 2010 to be an interesting reading year.  I'm surprised how many on this list were actually published this year, and I attribute most of those finds to Kathy and Carole.  Others are sequels or written by already-favored authors.

ArchEnemy — The third (and final) installment of the Looking Glass Wars series, the clash between good and evil of Wonderland is as big as author Frank Beddor's imagination.  Who will be sacrificed to save the kingdom?  Is Queen Alyss strong enough to beat Black Imagination?  Will England survive? Begin at the beginning with this series, and enjoy every page.

Black Hills — Paha Sapa is an explosions expert working on carving Mount Rushmore.  Only this Sioux doesn't exactly see the destruction of his holy mountain as a positive effort.  Readers glimpse the history of South Dakota and the nation through a man's life story.  Dan Simmons' sweeping saga with personal anecdotes will make readers think.

The Gates — Samuel Johnson, age eleven, and his dachshund Boswell decided to beat the rush and go trick-or-treating a few days early.  What he saw through the Abernathys' basement window sent him running straight home — and should send readers straight to their bookstores. John Connelly has a fabulous sense of humor as he follows the happenings in Biddlecombe on the cusp of Halloween.  Nothing and no one is safe from Evil (with a capital "E"), but if one can find the unlikeliest allies, even the impossible might very well be within reach.

Have a Little Faith — The best way to find out what you believe is to look beyond those borders.  Mitch Albom does that with Rabbi Albert Lewis and Reverend Henry Covington, two very different men of faith.  It made me reassess my own faith, and deeply appreciate the true, deep and loving faith of others.

Her Fearful Symmetry — This ghost story by Audrey Niffenegger was filled with fascinating characters, including memories, ghosts, lies and children who truly do not know their parents after all.  Elspeth is dead, to begin with, or soon enough; however, her life extends beyond the grave to many who don't realize its grasp. Nothing is without a price, especially life and death.

Johannes Cabal the Detective — The second book by Jonathan L. Howard finds Johannes in his next situation: in an Eastern Europe country on the brink of war.  Bureaucrats do not fare well in this tale, nor do necromancers, soldiers or dirigible captains.  The afterward is worth the price of admission alone.

Little Bee — Little Bee is not her name, but she explains her story in exquisite English and offered observations and perspectives that made me catch my breath again and again.  Chris Cleaves' story will remain with readers long after they turn the last page.

One Day — Everyone has read "a day in the life," but no one has read about the story of Em and Dex, Dex and Em, two college friends whose life intertwines in lovely, sad, startling and profound ways.  David Nicholls follows these two for decades, watching their lives intersect on a single day every year.

This is where I leave you — I wish I had the courage to reveal a story and characters the way Jonathan Tropper does in this amazing story.  The Foxman family sits shiva for their recently departed patriarch, and they haven't all survived in that house together in decades.  The language was true, the story was amazing, the characters unique and weirdly lovable even when they weren't.

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise — Carole noticed this book one day at Politics and Prose and was drawn to it because of her summer travels with her daughter to England.  I was intrigued as well and picked up my own copy of Julia Stuart's novel. It was delicious: not always easy to read, but always rewarding.

The Swan Thieves — Elizabeth Kostova proves lightning strikes twice with this complex, interesting and compelling novel.  She guaranteed I won't view Impressionism the same way, as she guaranteed Dracula was reborn to a new generation.  She draws us in with mysterious letters and a mute psych patient and rivets us as the story goes full circle.

Bonus Favorite: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Author Rebecca Skloot spent a decade researching and writing this book, and I am glad to have been able to thank her for persevering.  It wasn't an easy read, but it was fascinating as Skloot introduced us to the HeLa cells, and what they meant to everyone — especially the family of the woman whose cells spawned them.

Worst book of the year: Beatrice and Virgil.  As the bookseller and historians asked the fictional writer in this book, "What is it about?"  As if taxiodermy wasn't enough to put me off this book, it tossed in the Holocaust, rabid dogs, euthanized felines and a flayed fox.  Yum-ee!  Thanks, Yann Martel.

What did you enjoy reading this year?  What did you hate?  Tell me!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review: The Magicians

The Magicians is less a novel and more a series of novellas fashioned by Lev Grossman — fascinating, imaginative long story stories centering around self-absorbed teen Quentin Coldwater.  The book jacket throws around words like "Narnia" and "Harry Potter" to suck in readers.  Do not be fooled — this dark, relentless book is nothing like those fantasies.

Grossman creates a world that separates him from C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling like he tries to separate "magic" from "fantasy."  His gritty, cold and brutal approach are startling, unique — and not for everyone.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Quentin is a math genius and a fair hand at magician tricks with cards and pulling coins out of ears.  Life is boring: school is easy, his parents are distantly interested, his friends are expanding and contracting.  On his way to an interview with an admissions officer from Princeton, Quentin reviews his options and finds them all lacking.

He also finds the interviewer quite dead, and he and his friend James are shuttled aside by officials as they examine the situation.  The only one who seems to have an interest in them is the nonplussed paramedic, who tries to hand Quentin and James large envelopes with their names on them.  What the two young men choose to do at that point changes their lives forever.

Grossman attempts to bring the magical world into the harsh light of reality, where people pay the consequences for their actions.  Grossman appears to provide an antidote to magical worlds offered by other authors.  For Quentin and his fellow Brakebill students, it's not abracadabra, physics and chemistry be challenged with mystical creatures and the willful suspension in reality.  In Grossman's fictional world, magic is hard manual labor that may or may not pay off in the end— and can be directly applied to any world in which a magician may find her/himself.

Few characters in this novel are truly likeable.  Students are isolated from the rest of the world, despite their ability to return to it — and as a result, the unlikeable people are pushed together to grow even less likable as time goes on.  They are surrounded by tension and difficulty at every turn, and the school and their teachers are, for the most part, unlikeable as well.  While reading this book, isolation and desolation seep into readers' consciousness, and a dark cloud rumbles as slowly approaches.

Honestly, I don't need that kind of reality in my fantasy.  I get it: life is hard, people die and fantasy is not real.  It is like telling a perfectly happy 5-year-old there is no Santa.  It has a kill-joy feel to it, a meanness that looks to spoil fantasy for the reader.

A sequel, The Magician's King, will be published in summer 2011.  Grossman gave a unique and unflinching look at the world he created, which was fascinating in its own way. I just don't know if I want to go back.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spooky Books for Long, Dark Winter Nights

As the nights grow longer and chilly, spooky stories are the perfect companion.

Nocturnes is a selection of short stories and novellas by John Connolly.   Many of the stories are quick glimpses into the macabre, while others linger a while longer.  Readers will never look at a circus or clowns the same way again.  I'm also a little cautious about mirrors, too.  Expect to meet witches, vampires, fairies, a tormented stranger and a vengeful ghost.  These bite-sized morsels are delicious.

Another short story collection worth checking out is Fancies and Goodnights, written by John Collier in the early 20th century.  Each story has an old-fashioned feel to it, almost like Collier identifies older fears we think we have abandoned.  After tasting a little Collier, just try to enter a department store without looking over your shoulder.  Collier is praised by Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl and other fantasy and science fiction writers, who credit him with inspiration and guidance.  Prepare to be unsettled.

The Gates, another book by by John Connolly, is listed as a young adult novel, but as I have stated before, "YA" doesn't mean it should be resigned to the young.  Samuel Johnson, age 11, and his daschund Boswell witnesses his bored neighbors accidentally open up the Gates of Hell.  What comes through isn't pleasant, especially when it wears the skin of Mrs. Abernathy and threatens the small boy and his dog.

What if there is existence after death?  Would you want to know?  Audrey Niffenegger explores that realm in her latest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.  The characters were intriguing, the story compelling and we discover that life, and death, aren't at all what one expects.  Elspeth, a twin, dies, and leaves her apartment, and the life it gave her, to her sister's mirror-twin daughters.  When the young women arrive, they meet many of the people in Elspeth's life — including one they didn't expect.

Connolly scores another direct hit with The Book of Lost Things, a book about a book.  David is a sad and troubled child whose life and sanity hangs in the balance on the cusp of World War II.  After his mother dies and his father remarries, he hears books talking to him — especially one in particular, older and more dangerous than the others.  Connolly mixes tragedy and humor, fairy tales and reality, a child's worst nightmares and his greatest dreams.  Readers must encounter this book if only to meet the dwarves.

Heart-Shaped Box is, hands down, one of the scariest books I have read in years.  I suggest you have a Reading Buddy on hand, like I did, when you attempt this book.  In Joe Hill's first novel, an aging rock star named Jude purchases a suit said to be haunted by a ghost.  From the moment Jude opens his UPS package, you know this is no lightweight story: it draws blood from the start and it keeps going for the jugular.

One can't complete a spooky book list without mentioning Stephen King.  I stepped away from him for a while because a couple of recent novels didn't hit the mark with me — but a recent collection of novellas and short stories did.  Just After Sunset reminded me why I wore a cross around my neck for most of the seventh grade and why I couldn't sleep for days after finishing Misery.  Some of the stories are more compelling than others, but as with his best, some of the scariest stuff was what could be true.  Between the artifacts appearing in a man's home to an obsessive-compulsive whose illness began after a photo session in the wilds of Maine, there's more than enough to keep a reader jumping.

What are some of the scariest books you have read?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Beatrice and Virgil

Did you ever have a day you are sorry you spent in a particular pursuit and wished you could get it back?  Thus was the case with Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel.

First of all, what in the world is it about: a fictional author with writer's block, a horrible play, a horrific playwright, taxidermy?  I think it may be the first, but maybe the last.  Still haven't quite figured that one out, sad to say.

Secondly, is this worthy of paper?  The answer is no.  There are no redeeming elements of the story.  I don't like the narrator, his wife, his music teacher, the taxidermist, the waiter.  I kind of like the veterinarian, but that's because he does what has to be done.

That brings me to the gross elements of the story.  Taxidermy isn't my favorite subject, but I stuck with the story because I loved Life of Pi.  It had to get better, right?


I waded through stories of rabid dogs killing cats, torture of a donkey, the slaughter of all of the animals in Eden and description of the flaying of a fox — for what? For the narrator to be brought to his knees quite by surprise by someone everyone else found creepy and dark, but seemed at the time to be acting out of character until the very end? I like surprises as much as the next person, but I didn't like this.  In fact, I dropped the book from my hands.  (Had it been my own copy and not the library's, I'd have heaved it across the room then recycled it.)

And that is just the perspective of a reader.  Now let's let the writer in me speak.

  • Awful story structure: it wasn't so much a novel as a piecing together of material Martel seemed to like in a loosely chronological order.  
  • Terrible editing: though I don't know what an editor could have done to salvage the piece. There was no flow, and the only interesting language was when Henry was describing Beatrice and Virgil's presence to Henry.
  • No character development: Henry's wife was non-existent but yelled in ALL CAPS.  Henry was a selfish, self-centered one-hit wonder who thought a "flip book" about the Holocaust was a good idea.  The other Henry was a tall, thin, reticent taxidermist whose work was disjointed and whose personality probably was the reason Erasmus got rabies.
  • Gratuitous violence against animals: Gustav Flaubert's short story aside, the use of animals in the story to suggest "horrors" was disgusting and unnecessary.  
  • Central element hugely flawed: I may not be a theater-goer, but anyone who sat through that drama was either a friend of the playwright or a friend of the cast/crew — and even they deserved their money back.

Edward Champion also took a shot at this book in an essay titled, "Why Yann Martel's Book Beatrice and Virgil is the Worst Book of the Decade."  He cites chapter and verse.  I just don't have the stomach for that kind of detail.

On the bright side, I found my least favorite book of the decade.

Please, please avoid Beatrice and Virgil.  If you choose to read it, don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What to Read for Christmas

Everyone has their favorite Christmas stories.  Many of us have migrated from the page to the screen, taking in our stories through video.  Just remember: many of them started out as stories themselves.

In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash was written by Jean Shepherd, known world-wide for creating Ralphie Parker and his love of Ol' Blue.  The stories take place during the Great Depression, and many of the stories take place outside the Christmas season.  However, with the rich language Shepherd uses to amuse and illustrate the movie, how can someone resist such a read?

Take a walk through a different landscape with science fiction writer Connie Willis in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories.  I just met the author during her East Coast book-signing stop in Maryland, and had I realized I would fall in love with this book a week later, I'd have discovered it earlier. This collection pays tribute to other stories that already had shaped the season, but allow us to fit in a few more favorites.  The title story is a delight, and her story regarding a young couple who get lost on Christmas Eve re-introduced the wonder of the season yet again.

If you haven't yet read A Christmas Carol, stop what you're doing and purchase a copy now.  No matter how many actors you might have seen putting this story on stage and film, nothing quite beats the original.  (Plus, you will want to read it again and again, hence the suggestion to have your own copy on hand.)  Charles Dickens got straight to the heart of "Christmas" being synonymous with "love" in this archetypal book that has to be read to be appreciated.

Bring poetry into the season with one of the most famous Christmas poems of all time: "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clark Moore.  You can find a copy of it here at The Academy of American Poets.

Another traditional favorite is a short story written by O. Henry: "The Gift of the Magi."  A newlywed couple wants to give each other their hearts' desire: Jim wants to give his wife a set of combs for her beautiful long hair, and Della wants to give her husband a fob for his heirloom pocket watch. What they do to try to achieve these goals defines their love for each other.  Read this touching classic here.

Don't stop at the classics.  Go modern, go new — and tell me what you find.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review: A Murderous Procession

Adelia is back, and better than ever, in A Murderous Procession.

The undercover doctor is, again, doing a favor for that pesky Henry Plantagenet.  This time, however, she is escorting Henry's (and Eleanor's) daughter, Joanna, to Italy to marry a king. Henry, ever the scrupulous and cautious king, is going to get her there safe and sound, at any cost.

As the story opens, Adelia is having way too much fun in her life to want yet another adventure.  Allie is growing up, Mansur and Glytha are settled into domestic bliss, her practice in the quiet hamlet keeps her busy and rewarded.  Lady Emma Wolvercote and Pippy, her four-year-old son, are in the neighborhood.  Aside from Rowley being more available in these outlands, her life couldn't be better — even in the face of rugby in its oldest, purest and most violent form.

However, Henry won't accept refusal.  It is in Allie's best interest to learn how to be a lady, if she is to marry well — and who better a teacher than than Queen Eleanor herself?  It is decided: Allie and Glytha will remain with Eleanor until Adelia and "Doctor" Mansur return after a successful adventure.

As Adelia and Mansur join Rowley in the 10-year-old princess' entourage, they also take on a relic of great value, a few old friends — and a secret enemy once thought to have been defeated.  This person in the shadows wreaks havoc, all the time making people more suspicious of the two odd ducks in the entourage: the strong-willed woman and her Sarcean companion.

Again, Ariana Franklin paints a colorful portrait of life in the 12th century.  This time, however, readers get to travel farther afield with Adelia, meeting even more unique characters who introduce the intrepid reader to Cathars, small-scale war,  travel by sea, medicine vs. prayer and how "duty" transforms people to accomplish, and survive, the impossible.

Franklin also is expanding my admiration of English monarchs.  With each book, I fall a little more in love with Henry II, discovering my heart can extend beyond the Tudors (my personal favorite British monarchs).

Read this book, and admire the time gone by — and join me in anxiously awaiting the next book so this cliffhanger can be resolved.