Our Top Reads of 2008

Carole's Top Reads of 2008
2008 was a good year for reading. I read more books than the previous year, but even better, I liked more of the books I read. I discovered some new (to me) authors, and that is always a great gift to give yourself. I think I’m becoming more discerning as I remind myself that life is too short (and there are too many books) to spend time reading books you don’t like. With that said, I didn’t lovelovelove everything I read, but here is a list of my favorites from the year (in no particular order).

Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother was a treat to read. How he manages to convincingly write about the quiet desperation of ordinary people while making me laugh out loud at the same time is beyond me. I’m just glad he does. This was the second novel of his that I’ve read; while quite different from one another, I really enjoyed both this one and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Thanks to one of my book clubs, I was introduced to Wallace Stegner. His Crossing to Safety is a truly beautiful book of marriages and lifelong friendships that rang true to me.

My pleasant experience with Stegner and my foray into some Pulitzer-winning novels led me to read Angle of Repose. (Not right away of course—I wanted to avoid a case of author repeatitis.) I enjoyed it immensely; not only does Stegner write compellingly about relationships, but in this novel, he captures the period of westward expansion in American history through the eyes of an educated woman from the East. I couldn’t put it down. I already have Big Rock Candy Mountain and All the Little Live Things on my list for 2009

The title attracted me to We Were the Mulvaneys--it says so much. “We” means that the story is told by an insider; the choice of “were” rather than “are” means that something pretty serious happens to change things; “the Mulvaneys” tells me that they are/were a family. This was my first Joyce Carol Oates novel, and I was enthralled and appalled all at the same time. There were plot points that literally made my jaw drop open. I had Chris read it right away after I finished it so I could talk about it with someone!

This is one of the Newbery winners that I read with my family. I, Juan de Pareja tells the story of a slave who worked under the Spanish royal painter Velasquez. What absolutely blew me away about this book is that it is about a painting—Las Meninas—about which I wrote my 11th grade term paper. The fact that I read Newbery winners and that one of them is about the one painting in the world I know a little something about is one of those delicious coincidences in life that give you pause to think.

Breathing Lessons is my second Anne Tyler novel. I really enjoyed Back When We Were Grownups, and Breathing Lessons was equally rewarding. Tyler develops her characters so fully that you are drawn into their lives and find yourself wanting to learn more about them and to find out what happens next. Breathing Lessons focuses on a long-time married couple and how very different they are from each other and why that is sometimes a good thing and sometimes not!

My sister-in-law picked Julia’s Chocolates for our book club, and we all enjoyed it a great deal. I’ve loaned the book to several people and it’s been well received by all except my father, who found it dreadful. So, I’ll revise and say that it’s good chick lit.

I'm cheating a bit and including two picks here. Our Town and A Christmas Carol. These are perennial favorites of mine—I re-read Our Town with my family, and we read A Christmas Carol every year, starting on December 20. We read one stave each night and, if all goes well, we finish on Christmas Eve. If Scrooge’s redemption doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, then you truly are a humbug!

Twilight series: I enjoyed the experience of sharing these books and the movie with my daughter this year. I am also heartened by the fact that books can have such an impact on young people these days. If you want to indulge in some innocent vampire romance, read Bella and Edward’s story.

Before Twilight came into our lives, my daughter was captivated by the Gemma Doyle series. In fact we went rather breathlessly from one series to the other, making for some hefty reading. She wanted me to read them too so that we could talk about them. Harry Potteresque in that a young girl discovers that she has powers that lead her to another world and way of life, these books by Libba Bray weave a deft tale with memorable characters. They are also a great way to spend time with your daughter.

Least Favorite Book of the Year
Last year I called this the Most Hated Book of the Year, but I found as I reviewed the list that I didn’t hate any book I had read with as much passion as I hated Middlesex in 2007. So I changed the name this year to Least Favorite, and the book most deserving of that title for me was I Dreamed of Africa.

Chris' Top Reads of 2008
This has been the Year of the Series. I have discovered time travelers in the future at Oxford University, 20th century English book publishers, bail bonds(wo)men in New Jersey, a very different Wonderland with Queen Alyss and children who can see creatures invisible to most people. And yet, most of my choices are individual books.

And so difficult to choose! For every book on this list, there is one other begging to be included. I chose those books that I could still feel, even months after reading them.

I was prompted to read this book by its introduction: if you are not up for the adventure, you are a coward and should put down the book and stop reading forthwith. From that moment on, I had no choice but to prove my courage. It was a rip-roaring tale about books — and, most importantly, one particular book, the best book ever written. The author, sadly, had written nothing after visiting the nearby metropolis of Bookholm -- which spurred the narrator to find him in Bookholm, despite the repeated warnings to cease and desist.

Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog
Time travel is one of my favorite topics, and I was thrilled to learn about Connie Willis from a discussion about The Time Traveler's Wife on Literature and Latte, a Web site for readers and writers. Willis creates a modern story of the past. At Oxford University, Professor Dunworthy helps his students travel in time. Doomsday Book is her first foray into this storyline with Dunworthy (and Finch, Oxford's answer to Radar O'Reilly), as he sends Kivrin into 14th century Oxford. Time travel is not what it's cracked up to be, and there's more to learn about it — and the past. Dunworthy returns in Willis' second novel, a delightful play on Three Men in a Boat — and in this episode, we speculate on the importance of the bishop's bird stump and listen to women say "O!"

George, a 30-year-old first-time father, cannot touch his son, or even be alone with the child. He seeks the assistance of a counselor, who dredges up memories from George's childhood in the this debut novel by Justin Evans. "Demons" and "possession," "God" and "evil" are nothing more than concepts for most of us. For George, they are so much more. When writing the final scene of the book, the author one day read a dozen iterations to his wife — who then, that night, woke up screaming. Frankly, I am not surprised. Though a work of fiction, it read like a memoir and made me wonder just what I would do with the truth about God if ever "faith" received a tangible test.

Heart-Shaped Box
Joe Hill scared the heck out of me with this book. His collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, was creepy and frightening, too, but in short, sustained bursts. This novel was an all-out scare-fest that required a Reading Buddy (and inspired the phrase for the bookish terms in the right column). An aging rock star purchases a ghost on the Internet and gets a lot more than what he bargained for. This story unfolded in surprising ways, with characters that did the unexpected, surprise actions by inanimate and non-human creatures. Just don't read it alone.

Stewart O'Nan's stories linger with me long after the cover closes. This novel describes the last day a particular Red Lobster restaurant is open for business. Days before Christmas. During a snowstorm. Days before Christmas. In Connecticut. The characters are rich — you know these people — and the story is simple yet memorable.

Richard is living a safe life: a good enough job, good enough friends and a fiancée who he thinks is out of his league. One day, he encounters a young woman who changes his life. He discovers a different world under (and over) London where every movement, every encounter is risky. One cannot be simply "good enough" to survive in London Below. As with all books by Neil Gaiman, the world created is complete and rich. I think I felt the grit and dirt under my fingernails for weeks after reading this book. Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and this book did not disappoint.

This is decadence at its finest. The tale of a British family covers three generations — starting with Lady Celia, the matriarch. We first meet her when she has created an opportunity for herself, and we follow her and her very colorful and interesting brood through the first part of the 20th century. Just be prepared: this story will keep you reading at night long after most sane people would have already turned out the light. You will regale these tales as if these were real people having real issues. Then you'll foist these books on the people around you. (Or maybe that was just me....)

Last winter, when my nearby public library closed, I took home dozens of books to read. This was one of them, and a fabulous read. Ian McEwan wove a taut tale filled with rich imagery. A story about two naive young adults who married one afternoon then planned their wedding supper at a small inn on Chesil Beach, this thin volume captures the essence of innocence and heartbreak with candor and beauty. Was I ever that young? Were any of us?

People of the Book
Carole and I anticipated this book for years, ever since Brooks mentioned the story at a reading of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March. Alternating between modern times and the past, this novel tells the story of a renown Haggadah as a book conservator investigates its history and thus its secrets. Each hair, insect wing, wine stain tells its own story within this story. Brooks has never failed to deliver an excellent story, and I can't wait to read her next gift to readers.

Water for Elephants
Life was not easy during the Great Depression, but no one suffered the rich, deep sadness and loss of Jacob, whose reaction is to leave school and hop the rail. He winds up as the veterinarian for a traveling circus. I was riveted and at least one friend is already reading a gift copy of that book they received from me as a Christmas gift. I was worried that my sensitivities toward animals would make this book unreadable — indeed, it was just the opposite.

Hated It!
None provided a visceral dislike, but there were a couple I could have lived without. I am not sure which was worse: the terminally flawed lead character and storyline of The 7th Victim or the undiscernable "secret" of The Somnambulist.


No Angel/Something Dangerous/Into Temptation — Review by Chris

For the last couple of months, I have been living with another family: the Lyttons. And I have enjoyed it immensely.

What I call the Lytton trilogy has been called "The Spoils of Time" by its author, Penny Vincenzi. The series consists of No Angel, Something Dangerous and Into Temptation. It's a hefty trilogy, and not a quick read — which is good because it's too good to get through quickly. (Each book runs about 700 pages, so it's not a quick or light anything.)

It's a take-no-prisoners book. Once you start, you really can't stop. You read to the bitter end, even if that's 3 a.m. on a Sunday Before An Important Presentation or Meeting. It is too compelling a story to put down, really. Carole already had read the series, and she received many phone calls from me in which I didn't even bother to breathe for what seemed like minutes ("Hey Carole! Celia just...."). I got to enjoy it again as Carole and I discussed it, and it was wonderful having someone with whom to gasp and laugh.

Vincenzi knows how to tell a tale. She weaves a rich tapestry, using just enough thread to snag a reader — then shuttling another storyline into place just enough to ensnare the reader, then she gives another character a moment before seamlessly taking the reader back to the first thread. And yet they all matter, all touch in multiple places — single threads that, if cut, would unravel the rug on which the reader sits.

The saga centers on a family headed by Lady Celia, and we spend more than half a century watching this family and its matriarch. The characters are rich and deep, fully imagined and fun (though sometimes maddening) to read.

Celia is a pretty determined person, and her first act as a character defines this character: she is getting married. To a man her parents do not want her to marry. At a younger age than they would prefer. Well, such little things never stopped Celia, even in 1909 — and, as we shall see, she faces down a few more formidable obstacles than this in her lifetime. Like having children, or not. War. Love. Truth. Fascism. Oh, and publishing.

Celia has married into a publishing family. Lyttons is a somewhat small, but respected, member of the book publishing community in London. Celia is enraptured by it, and she shows great talent and instinct. *sigh* If only her husband would let her work in the family firm. This is, after all, 1909, and times are different.

Only, really, they're not. Celia has many of the issues today's women face: family, love, home, work, duty, marriage, charity, honor.... and Celia faces each with her own style.

For example, she wants to make London, if not the whole world, a better place, so she signs on to assist in a study of impoverished families. She is "assigned" the Millers: the mother always pregnant, the father always working, the children tied to table legs to keep them from underfoot until they can be sent outside to take care of themselves, for the most part. Celia starts taking care of the family, rather than merely "studying" it, and winds up leaving one day with one of its young members to be raised in her own home — only temporarily, so what could it hurt....?

The publishing house into which she has married is a character in itself. Truly, without it, this might have just been another multi-generational saga. However, booklovers will enjoy this added feature, a publishing company with a heart.

Much happens in Celia's life, and beyond: two world wars, countless births, a multitude of scandals, lots of misunderstandings, marriages and divorces, deaths that you wish will never come (and some you think will not come soon enough), tragedies, woundings, survival — and a ride through London during the Blitz that will leave readers literally breathless.

More than once I had to press the book to my heart to calm myself down. One scene in particular I was glad I was alone when I read because I startled the cats with my sobs. I took a two-week break during the third book because I was so disgusted by one character's actions (and another's reactions) and I couldn't bear the situation. Honestly, I did not care for the way she resolved one set of character's situation; Celia would have disavowed this romantic notion, but I I trust Vincenzi, and there was some logic to the resolution (even if I didn't like it).

Vincenzi does not write brief stories. I also have read Sheer Abandon, which also is a taut thrilling ride — and hefty book (the paperback was inches thick!).

I am, and plan to remain, a real Vincenzi fan. Once you try her, you will be a fan as well.


Twilight Series - Discussion with Carole and Her Daughter

This summer I noticed that you couldn't really carry on a conversation with a teenage girl unless you had read Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series. My daughter accompanied me on a business trip to Nashville in June and read the three that were available in four days. I got such a kick out of watching her actually grinning while she was reading it.

In August, when New Dawn came out, she and her friends all met at the bookstore for the midnight release. The place was packed.

We visited friends in North Carolina later in the summer and their daughter was also up to speed. Later, my daughter's friend from San Antonio joined us at the beach, and she devoured the series during our week there.

Now the movie is in theaters. My daughter and I went on the opening weekend to watch this much anticipated event. We had approved the choice of Robert Pattinson to play Edward (He was Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter movie, Goblet of Fire). I wasn't familiar with Kristin Stewart, who played Bella, but my daughter said she was Lisa in Zathura.

To sum up the story, Bella is a young girl who has decided to come to the Pacific Northwest to live with her father. She is unsure of herself and is not looking forward to standing out as the new kid. Little does she realize that she soon will have much than that to worry about. She just happens to have moved to a town that unwittingly hosts the Cullen family, a family of vampires. They eschew the traditional vampire lifestyle, choosing instead to feed off of animals rather than humans. They are exceptionally beautiful (I wonder if anyone has ever written a vampire story that involves ugly vampires). Bella is immediately drawn to Edward although he seems to loathe her on sight. This does nothing for her self-esteem. It turns out that he is afraid of her because he is so drawn to her.

Their love story develops from there and Bella slowly learns the truth. The first book focuses a great deal on discovery; the rest of the series revolves around her desire to join Edward's family, and all that entails, and his desire for her to lead a normal human life.

Back to the movie--we loved it! It was beautifully filmed, and I think that the romantic tension between Edward and Bella maintained an innocence that was refreshing in a teenage love story. I read a review recently by a psychiatrist who maintains that all girls want is an Edward Cullen to love them--she praised the movie. The article generated a lot of chat; several readers scoffed that a vampire story shouldn't be called wholesome or something for girls to wish for.

We talked about it, and my daughter and I think that the success of the Twilight series is due to the fact that it is a love story first and a vampire story second. Bella and Edward are in love and he just happens to be a vampire. He is older and more experienced than Bella and rather than press his advantage, he does everything he can to protect her and take care of her. That is what girls are responding to, I think. (For those of us who have not been teenagers for, ahem, a while now, the story works too.)

While reading the books, I will admit that I found Bella irritating on more than one occasion. Her tendency to run herself down at every opportunity got old fast for me. I would have preferred her to evolve a bit more as the story developed. My daughter said that didn't bother her and didn't find it as pervasive a habit as I did. A great deal of the book is spent telling us what's in Bella's head (she tells the story), so I found the movie actually an improvement because the emphasis was more on what is happening than what Bella is thinking. I also found myself worrying that Bella was losing her sense of self and couldn't define herself in any way other than loving Edward.

Some of my daughters' friends liked the movie, but not as much as the book. While this is not unusual for a book that you love, I was curious as to why. Generally, the feeling is that too much gets glossed over. For example, Jacob, a Native American friend of Bella's family, tells Bella the legend between his people and the vampires. This is key to the development of a main story thread that runs throughout the series-many of my daughters' friends felt that this scene wasn't treated with the importance it deserved. Ditto with the development of some of the other members of Edward's family, who play larger roles in future books/movies.

We haven't encountered anyone who hasn't liked the movie, but I don't know any guys who have seen it. My son is quite dismissive of any vampire movie that isn't a gore fest--he views Twilight with a why-bother attitude. I suspect that many men feel the same way. My daughter does know some girls who have chosen to not read the books precisely because they are popular. I know that mindset and have been there myself, but sometimes things are popular because they are really good, and then you miss out.

While I wouldn't recommend this series for tweens--it deals with some pretty heavy topics--I think most teenage girls will really respond to it. If you know any teenage girl who hasn't read the books, they would make a good Christmas present.

The book titles are Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. I'm sure a movie for each book is in the works, so teenage girls will be discussing these for quite some time.


Are You Series-ous?

As I noted in earlier entries, I've been doing some light reading for the past few months. In these "light" forays, I've discovered the pleasure of the series.

I have been a fan of series books since my earliest years, when reading Encyclopedia Brown and the Chronicles of Narnia. I loved the characters and wanted to join them for yet another adventure. I trusted them — that is, I realized as I got older, I trusted the writers and editors who brought me those characters and stories.

There are some well-known and very popular series on the bookshelves today, and I have sampled at least a few of them: Harry Potter, Gemma Doyle trilogy, Twilight series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Magic Treehouse, Dresden Files, Gossip Girls, American Girls, Spiderwick .... each with its own following.

I, lately, have found myself ensnared by a couple of series: Stephanie Plum and the Lytton trilogy.

I met Stephanie Plum in the emergency room of the busiest hospital in my region. It was in the wee hours of a Thursday, Medivac helicopters were bringing in the terribly injured and it looked like it would be a long night for David and me. Cindy dropped David and me off, and Alicia returned a while later in her own car and with a book in hand: Fearless Fourteen, a kind gesture from Cindy, who was rarely wrong about a good leisure book. Plus, when sitting with my foot elevated in a wheelchair facing "The Fugitive" on a snowy and tinny-sounding television, Fourteen looked better and better. Then, as David fetched cake and took a nap, and I battled to stay awake, I cracked open the book.

And was transported.

As you can tell from my review, I found it delightful. I didn't realize, however, that it was part of a series until Carole mentioned it later. ("A Stephanie Plum novel" meant nothing at 5 am that day, nor in the exhausting, trying, hazy days following.) During my convalescence, Carole brought me the first four Stepanie Plum novels, and I began anew.

So far, I've read the first six, and I will start Seven Up after I next see Carole. (She's my Plum dealer.) The characters are feisty and memorable, and rumor has it that some of my favorites will make appearances in books I have yet to read. I can't wait.

Another series in which I have found myself hip-deep is the Lytton trilogy. I had read the first book, No Angel, five years ago and was totally absorbed — and was thrilled when I learned Penny Vincenzi had written two other books. Carole, thankfully, had read all three, so as I hit different points in the story, I would call her. With no preamble. "This is Carole" would be greeted with, "Okay, Celia has just...." or "She's not leaving! Still! What is she thinking!?" Sometimes I would answer the phone with, "Hey, Carole, I'm at...." (Thank you, Caller-ID!)

It's a hefty trilogy, and not a quick read — which is good because it's too good to get through quickly. (I think the first book is nearly 700 pages, so it's not a quick or light anything.) I am about a third of the way through the final book, and I am afraid to pick it up. When I read during my convalescence, I had the luxury of napping and sleeping in. No such luck these days, so I have to pace myself — which is impossible with such a compelling book. Therefore, unless I plan to read until I hide the book in the other room and fall asleep, my eyes red-rimmed and scratchy, I have to approach with caution. I will have to see how Carole managed. It's too good a book to put down!

I foresee a few more series in my future: Spiderwick, which my friend Kelsey shared with me; the Gemma Doyle trilogy (reviewed by Carole and a favorite of her daughter); Twilight (because I wish to discuss it with my friend Corinne); Dresden Files (only because the television series is so enjoyable).

When I find the time, I will re-read a couple of my personal favorites:
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, which holds a special spot in my heart for the week I enjoyed it, holed up in my room as I devoured each book, forsaking sleep and sun until the end; and
  • Harry Potter, with thanks to Suzanne, for sharing the first book with me, as well as Carole and the kids, who managed to keep secrets until after I read each volume.

One warning: take a breather, no matter how beloved a series is. Don't risk Author Repeatitis! Chances are your series will not falter, but don't give it a chance to fail because of your own saturation. I remember my experiences with the original Dune trilogy and wince. Frank Herbert deserved better attention than a 19-year-old college student with time on her hands could give him.