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.

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