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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Nervous Marigold's Top Eleven Fiction Reads of 2009

(Complete with bonus listings)

Ah. Finally done. I read about 80 books this year, including a number of "young adult" novels. There was a lot of fiction this year - I guess I needed the escape factor. The eleven books on this list are mainly not books released in 2009: they are the best books I read this year. The list is organized in alphabetical order by author. I will mention the best few non-fiction books I read this year in a separate post.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with
traviolent Zombie Mayhem!
by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (2009)

A brilliant piece of conceptual art. The thrill is in the concept of a literary mash-up, there is no need to actually read it to enjoy and even wonder at the idea. I, however, did read it, as I have never gotten around to Jane Austen (gasp!) and, after checking, I realized her part was perfectly and sufficiently faithful. Fantastic way to catch up. Having said that you don't need to read this book, I confess that I also have on my pile Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben Winters, and I will probably get the prequel to P and P: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, by Jane Austen and Steve Hockensmith because it looks and sounds so funny too. So rare to find something new in writing!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery (2008 in English, translated from French)

This year's book that got me thinking about the best books of the year. That this book could be a huge seller restores one's faith in the existence of a clever reading public, one that delights in its own cleverness. Interesting. This is a book I will keep in my permanent collection, most unusual for current fiction.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz (2007, won the Pulitzer in 2008)

A book both street and scholarly, and totally fabulous, but again all us clever readers are congratulating ourselves for being both clever and cool. Oh well. The book is still fantastic.

Mountain Man
by Vardis Fisher (this edition 2000)

This is an old book, written in the mid-60's, but this new edition only recently came to me, loaned as a favourite by a friend. This book is the opposite of clever and cool. It comes from a world-view which is both harsh and lyrical. It feels unvarnished and honest: a strange book to read amid the current values of eco-this and that, plus politically correct reverence for aboriginal peoples of the world, an attitude which implies that less development of technology equals moral superiority. It requires an honest reader to recognize our current paradigm as nothing more than a paradigm, and re-evaluate the way we see the world. An amazing book. (Side note: he is one of the authors most often shown as a favourite author among LibraryThing readers! And I had never heard of him.)

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures: Stories
by Vincent Lam (2006)

This is a book of inter-linked short stories by a Canadian writer who is also a physician. I had it on my pile a long time, and then when finally got around to it, I really loved it. Lam is adroit and convincing as a writer, and the physician characters are human but not weak.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
by Reif Larson (2009)

This is an extraordinarily beautiful book, narrated by compulsive 12-year-old mapper, illustrated with maps and diagrams of daily life on nearly every page. The boy has some difficulties relating to people, and I group it with books about people with Asperger's syndrome, (although no-one else seems to have) so it is not new in that aspect, but the graphic treatment was really lovely, particularly appealing to readers who are semi-compulsive organizers and/or art-appreciators as well. Ahem.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Steig Larson (2008 in English, translated from Swedish)

Absolutely deserves to be the phenomenon that it is. Really blew open the "Nordic Crime Fiction" category in North America. I love mysteries and thrillers. I once read about Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie (I think) the idea that in formulaic fiction, one is not looking for pure creativity, but for deftness with the formula. I often think of that benchmark when reading genre fiction of any kind (like stories about people with Asperger's? hmmm), and I think Larson succeeded beautifully.

Pretty Monsters: Stories
by Kelly Link (2008)

Surprise last-minute entry. This writer could pick up the baton that has passed from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman, stopping briefly at Clive Barker. Short stories, just over the edge of reality, with a wonderful ear for tone in a number of genres. This is her first book, so it remains to be seen if she can maintain her unique strangeness over the long haul.

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

A true tour-de-force by a rare writer who is changing English letters. One thinks (everyone who reads thinks) of Hemingway simplifying written English into a terse American voice, and McCarthy takes that up to the present, and projects it into the future. In fact this book is post-apocalyptic science fiction, but I understand that is not his usual genre. I plan to read his biggest book, All the Pretty Horses, and I have high hopes for it. (PS The Road also has one of the all-time great covers.)

Shelf Monkey
by Corey Redekop (2007)

This book should be compulsory reading for all LibraryThing devotees. It is about loving the books more than the readers. It is a kind-of absurdist view of the future of book-retailing, a fearful vision that is probably shared by most passionate readers. It is so funny and so throw-away clever. It encompasses a delightful and broad reading list. It's written by a guy whose day job is librarian in New Brunswick, and who has a great book review blog (called Shelf Monkey) Can't say enough good things. Can't wait for the next book. A total and delightful surprise.

The True Meaning of Smekday
by Adam Rex (2009)

This is a kids' novel by someone I think is a genius: he writes, he illustrates, he rhymes, he is funny, he is literate. This book moved into our family vocabulary in number of ways. We also adore his kids' book Frankenstein Takes the Cake, which every literate lover of horror should read, if not own. No other writer shows kids the fun of having an education as well as Adam Rex.

Greatest disappointment of the year:
The Watchmen
by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons (1986)

I am trying and trying to get a thrill from graphic fiction. I am working on Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. I have bought half a dozen of the most famous works, recommended by the young guys at the local independent comic store: Sin City; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Fables: Legends in Exile; The Last Man: Unmanned and The Watchmen. I already had 300. So far, all I've managed to do is slog through The Watchmen. I will watch the movie, if I come across it. I will ask to borrow a friend's copy of Watchmen and Philosophy. I love Shakespeare manga and opera manga. I try the kids' stuff like Bone. (Bleah! How can they get it? What do they see in it?) I am determined not to be left behind by current culture, especially print culture. I study art. I should be able to "get" it, but I can't find that thrill. If I can get around to these other books, maybe I'll find it. I dunno.

Funniest reading experience of the year (maybe actually ever):
by Jack Kilborn (2009)

I requested an Early Review copy from LibraryThing of this book. It was soooo scary, I was too afraid to read it. End of review. Note: best viral pick-up among my friends.

Final note:
I was holding this list to see if any of the books I would read during this last restful, reading-full part of the year would qualify. They did not, but...thinking over a top one hundred books of the decade that a friend sent me, and realizing we have spent 10 years in the 21st century already, gave me a kind of time-crisis, so I read two near-future books and one millennial book to help me cope, and they were perfect: Spook Country by William Gibson, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and Gentlemen of the Road: Jews with Swords, by Michael Chabon. It's been a good holiday.

The marigold wonders nervously:
Is it OK if I give a shout-out of thanks to my reading doppelgänger for sharing much of this list with me, you know who you are, and say "love ya babe! first up for the new year is Bang Crunch Stories by Neil Smith?" I think it's OK. It's OK right?

For comparison purposes, last year's list here:
The Nervous Marigold's Top Ten Reads of 2008