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Moving a 2200-square-foot house and 4,000 books turns out to be rather draining. There’s all the packing, for one. (If you are planning a move any time soon, I highly suggest you call my mother-in-law, who is a very demon for packing and has way more energy than I do.) Then there’s the moving. We hired movers, and this was a good thing, but they started getting these pained looks every time they brought in a stack of book boxes and I said “Those all go downstairs.” And then the unpacking, which is the least strenuous but takes the most time. It’s a little like Christmas, if Santa came into your house and put all your stuff in boxes so you don’t know where your toothbrush is (not in the bathroom box) or what happened to half your drinking glasses (still haven’t found those). But in the end, you have a wonderful new home full of stuff.
And, in my case, a basement full of boxes and not enough bookshelves.
I’ve now bought and built 8 full-size bookshelves and 3 half-width ones. Since I’m not made of money, I had to compromise on real wood and go for the best of the build-it-yourself ones. Mine came from Ikea, where they take building even those particle board shelves seriously. These shelves are sturdy and attractive, with features you don’t normally get in DIY bookcases. The back bottom edges have half-ovals cut out of the bottom so they will fit neatly over a baseboard. There’s a kit with metal brackets to allow you to slot a half-wide shelf diagonally into a corner and set up the adjacent shelves evenly. It adds a surprisingly sophisticated look to the library. I also love the height, which at almost 80” has them towering over all my old shelves. They were terribly intimidated by the newcomers and had to retire to bedroom duty.
Unfortunately, I still need a lot more bookcases, and I’ve run out of walls to put them against. Finding a true free-standing bookcase is difficult. Library suppliers have them, of course, but those are expensive and a lot fancier than I really need. Ordinary bookcases have this sad tendency to fall over if you stand them in the middle of a room. I could bolt them to the floor, probably, but that will have to be the last resort. It’s hard enough bolting the bookcases to the wall when you don’t have a power drill.
Still, it’s starting to look like a library, and someday the boxes will be gone and there will be wingback chairs in front of the fireplace and life will be sweet.
I’ve been reading a lot and planning several long reviews, but until I get to them, here’s a taste of what I’ve read in the first quarter of 2010:
The Empress of Mars, Kage Baker (read January 26, 2010): Baker’s Company series ended in 2007, but there are still many stories to be told in that world. If you haven’t read the main series (beginning with In the Garden of Iden) you should definitely not read this book. Not because it won’t make sense, but because you will miss the entire subtext that reveals what’s really going on with this story. At the very least, I suggest reading the short story collection Black Projects, White Knights so you will know about the Company, their immortal cyborg agents, and a few of the personalities who crop up in this novel. I enjoyed The Empress of Mars quite a bit. It was expanded from a novella, and that shows in the book’s occasional choppiness, but by the end it all comes together well.
Runner, Thomas Perry (read January 28, 2010): I am addicted to the Jane Whitefield series, despite the fact that I only started reading it after Perry stopped writing it. It was complete chance that I saw this book on the shelf in a library I normally don’t frequent. You know what it’s like when you find a beloved book you didn’t even know existed? I let it sit around the house for a few days to build up the anticipation, and it did not disappoint. In this series, Jane Whitefield helps people disappear, usually people who are in immediate danger. However, with each book it becomes more difficult for her to do her job, particularly after she gets married. In Blood Money, the previous book, Jane seems to give up on her work entirely. Runner gives her a reason to take it up again, years later—but this story also addresses the dilemma she finds herself in, whether to have a normal family or to do the thing she has a gift for. The final sentences of the novel are chilling, because she finally makes a choice…and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Start this series with Vanishing Act or Dance for the Dead; Vanishing Act feels like a prequel to me now that I’ve read all six.
Confessions of a Tax Collector, Richard Yancey (read February 3, 2010): The author of the Alfred Kropp books and the Printz-award-winning The Monstrumologist tells the true story of how he used to be the most hated man in America: an IRS agent. Yancey is a brilliant writer and always fully in control of his story, and this book is so well structured and so narratively satisfying that it could easily have been fiction. It’s a story not only about the inner workings of the Internal Revenue Service, but about the author’s development from a self-centered adolescent (emotionally, not chronologically) to a rapacious and talented agent to a mature and responsible man. I highly recommend this book, though with a language warning (they’re IRS agents, of course they swear like sailors, how else do you expect them to survive the job?).
Blackout, Connie Willis (read February 9, 2010): Willis hasn’t published a novel since Passage, nine years ago, and with Blackout the drought has ended. Willis returns to one of her favorite subjects, World War II, but with a much broader scope than any of her previous novels. I forgot while I was reading it that it is the first part of a duology (at least), and that threw me when I got to the end and found…it wasn’t. Willis moves between at least five major POV characters, all of whom have interesting stories, but I found I was more interested in the side characters than the main characters. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to the sequel, All Clear, due out October 19.
Lots and lots of P.D. James mysteries (read January through March): I discovered, or rediscovered, P.D. James last fall…but that’s sort of a stupid way to put it, isn’t it? Like she was missing and I intrepidly tracked her down, instead of what I actually did, which was start buying her books at the thrift store because they were there. These mysteries are profoundly satisfying in their own unique way, with the combination of mystery puzzle, literary style, and extraordinary characterization. Something about the style reminds me of Josephine Tey, which is never a bad thing.
I plan to give more attention to some of the other books on my list soon. First up, the latest in the Dresden Files, Changes. If I ever get the David Bowie song out of my head, that is.
Posted on: April 9th, 2010
Some books deserve recognition not only for being excellent, but for being an excellent representation of a particular kind of book.
Best New Series
The Inspector Ian Rutledge books, Charles Todd
Again, this is not a new series in the sense that it just started this year (because how can you know if it’s a good *series* without at least three volumes?) but is “new” to me. I heard about it from another reviewer whose recommendations are…let’s just say that he and I seem to have markedly different tastes, and about 82% of the time, if he likes something, I’m not only going to dislike it, but wonder why anyone would ever think it was good. But I keep paying attention to him because the other 18% of the time, his recommendation is both spot-on and fabulous. (I’ve never seen such a bizarre overlap of artistic preferences before. It’s sort of fascinating all by itself.)
The series, beginning with A Test of Wills, is about Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard inspector newly home from World War I with a case of shell shock and an invisible passenger—the spirit of Hamish Macleod, Rutledge’s former corporal. When Macleod refused to lead the squad over the trenches into certain death, Rutledge ordered him shot for dereliction of duty; moments later, his body protected Rutledge from death when a German attack hit their position. Whether Hamish is genuinely present or not is irrelevant to the story, since Rutledge treats their connection as literal and occasionally realizes things through Hamish’s perceptions that help him to solve cases. However, Rutledge is damaged, and he knows it. It doesn’t affect his ability to solve cases that no one else can, and despite his superior’s animosity toward him (and active efforts to humiliate and disgrace him so he’ll have to quit) Rutledge brings mystery after mystery to a satisfactory, if not brilliant, close.
I didn’t actually read the first novel, because my library inexplicably has all the books but that one, so I started with Wings of Fire and then proceeded to gobble the rest up. Charles Todd is actually a mother-and-son writing team, but the prose is seamless and the plotting nearly perfect, and I would never have guessed this was a team effort. Even if you are not a fan of mystery novels, you should consider reading this series simply as excellent fiction. It is also possible to enter this series nearly anywhere, though I wouldn’t recommend it; the experience is enhanced by recognizing elements from earlier books that crop up in later ones.
One other note: Charles Todd wrote a couple of books that are not part of the Rutledge series, The Murder Stone and A Duty to the Dead. Most listings of Todd’s books do not indicate this fact. I recommend these books as well (The Murder Stone may be my favorite) but you might as well be warned.
Best First Novel
Graceling, Kristin Cashore
Abused orphan girl with phenomenal fighting powers learns to stand up for herself and changes the world. It’s funny how you can make almost any book sound stupid or cliched if you try, but Cashore’s novel makes it easier than most. And yet this is a beautiful, charming, emotionally engaging book—proof that the line between cliche and brilliance is usually in the way the story’s told. In this world, some children are born with Graces—magical abilities to do different things, like see farther or run longer. Such children are feared and exploited for their abilities, but Katsa has it worse than most: she has the Grace of killing, and her uncle the king forces her to assassinate for him. When she meets a prince from a nearby kingdom who is Graced with combat skills, she finds that they have much in common, but never expects that he will become her first friend. Ultimately, she and the prince (whose name is, sadly, Po—come on, Cashore, you couldn’t come up with something that didn’t either make us flash on the Teletubbies or think of the toilet?) are the only ones in a position to stop a neighboring kingdom from destroying all the others on the continent—but at a very high price.
What keeps this book from being just another silly teen fantasy is that the characterization on all levels is superb, from the main characters right down to the people they encounter in passing. The Graces, rather than simply being superpowers that are super cool and perfect, are both difficult to live with and mark you as a pariah. (Visibly. People who are Graced have eyes of different colors, something that develops some time after birth. Again, this is so much a mark of silly shallow storytelling that I would have thrown up in my mouth a little bit if it had been anything other than a Bad Thing in this story. Kudos to the author.) I have some minor issues with how the society is developed, primarily with regard to Katsa’s actions as an icon of women’s rights and the idea that learning to fight is the natural first step in women’s social emancipation. Towards the end it has more the feel of a sociological statement, in places, than a story about two people trying to carve a place for themselves in a world that sees them as tools. Overall, though, it’s an excellent story. I have not yet read the prequel, Fire, but I’m looking forward to it. (Yes, I’ve owned it since October. So I’m lazy. So sue me.)
Black Sheep, Georgette Heyer
I read this all the way back in January. Thank you, Sourcebooks Casablanca and Harlequin and Arrow and all the rest, for making Georgette Heyer novels once again available to the masses! We’ve almost got the whole collection, but despite this being one of the better-known Heyer romances, I’d never read it before.
Romance novels tend to have a lot in common with one another—boy meets girl, complications arise, girl hates boy, boy reconciles with girl, they get married/sleep together/renew their vows because the first time they got married it was to save the ranch/fortune/reputation of boy/girl. The chief appeal is in the characters and how they interact. I happen to be a fan of Heyer because often, her women are older and more sure of themselves, and her men are mature but possessed of a sense of humor. I especially like the Heyer romances where there are two romances going on, the primary being the older man and woman, and the secondary being a pair of very young lovers who have all the sense of a jar of mayonnaise. In Black Sheep, Abigail Wendover is the sensible 28-year-old woman whose selfish but beautiful niece Fanny (ah, for the bygone days when someone could be called Fanny with a straight face!) has entered into a relationship with Stacy Calverleigh, a fortune hunter. At least, Abigail is certain he’s a fortune hunter—certain enough to enlist the help of Stacy’s uncle, Miles Calverleigh, in breaking off the relationship. This is a desperate action because Miles is the black sheep of the title, sent away to India in disgrace as a youth after having an affair with a much older woman. Miles actually has no interest in his disreputable nephew, but a great deal of interest in Abigail, and so the story unfolds, with Miles and Abigail’s friendship growing ever warmer. Of course the ending is happy all around, and I particularly enjoyed how Stacy was sent packing and Fanny was humbled. Lovely romance.
The Mommy-Track Mysteries, Ayelet Waldman
Sometimes I find a book just by coincidence, in passing, that has an unexpected connection to something else in my life. I am a huge fan of Michael Chabon (okay, yes, it’s my fandom that’s huge, not myself, ha ha very funny shut up). I’ve known for a long time that he is married to “the novelist Ayelet Waldman” as the back flap of most of his books reads. To me, that always sounds like “I’m famous so I’ll give a nod to my spouse, who hasn’t actually sold a book ever, but still calls herself a novelist.” I just don’t know what to make of it.
Then last summer, our library had Waldman’s latest book out on the New Arrivals shelf. Of course, I had to read it—well, not it, but the first book in the series. I mean, Michael Chabon’s mysterious wife! It was a surprise just to learn she had published something. (Yes, I could have looked her up. So I’m lazy. So sue me.)
It took about three pages of Nursery Crimes to discover some important facts. 1) Ayelet Waldman does in fact have a thriving career as a writer of mystery novels. 2) Those novels are quite good. 3) We have almost everything in common except religion, home town, and the fact that I chickened out on keeping my last name when I married.
The series is about Juliet Applebaum, mother of a toddler and expecting her second child, who gave up her law career to stay home and raise the kids. In the first book, her daughter Ruby fails to make the cut for a prestigious day care center, along with some other children whose parents are vocally upset about the decision. When the center’s founder is killed in a hit-and-run accident, Juliet wonders if it wasn’t foul play. Gradually, she begins to investigate the accident and discovers that a lot of people had reasons to want the woman dead. Eventually, Juliet is able to solve the crime and help bring the killer to justice.
The first volume is the weakest of the lot, as it was also Waldman’s first novel; you can see her working out the kinks in what she’s trying to do and figure out how to tell a detective mystery. Still, from the beginning, her portrayal of her main character and motherhood are very good. I’ve enjoyed the whole series so far, and I think I owe Ayelet Waldman an apology for thinking she was a nobody. She’s definitely anything but.
These are books that I wouldn’t have read if they hadn’t been recommended to me, either because I wouldn’t have noticed them or because I would have thought they looked stupid. Isn’t it nice to have other readers around?
I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, Ally Carter
Technically, I found this book for Greystoke, but he insisted that I read it (and the other books in the Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy and Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover. It’s about a private school for girls that is actually a school to turn them into SPIES! I would so have wanted to go to the Gallagher Academy as a teen. Too bad it’s not real. (It’s really not. Promise.)
Cammie Morgan is just starting her sophomore year at the Gallagher Academy, where she’s been going since seventh grade. Her mother is the school principal, she has two good friends she rooms with, and this year is the first year she will be taking the advanced classes that lead to eventually being a spy. But this year is going to be different in other ways: first, with the introduction of brat-girl Macey, who has been kicked out of every prep school in the nation before ending up at Gallagher, and who has been assigned to room with Cammie and her friends. And second, when the sophomore class is doing an “exercise” in the nearby town, Cammie meets a boy. Not just any boy. A boy who actually notices her as no one else has before. Soon Cammie is putting her spy skills to the test to sneak out to meet him, even though she knows if their relationship is discovered, both of them will be in big trouble.
This is one of those stories where there’s depth behind the surface. There are a lot of funny moments, mostly to do with being a teenage girl in high school and your first boyfriend, and some very good action. Without drawing attention to it, though, Carter shows each of these girls growing and changing as each struggles with some very real challenges that have nothing to do with espionage. Carter ends each volume with the promise of something more to the plot than you were expecting, making it increasingly hard to wait for the next book. I’m very impressed with this series.
Scepter of the Ancients, Derek Landy
(originally published as Skulduggery Pleasant)
Recommended by two young ladies I know who have been borrowing my books for a couple of years. They started mentioning this series last year and finally loaned me the first one in June. This is a juvenile series that probably only made that cut because the print is really big and the protagonist rather young; the content is on a level with the early Harry Potter books, but a bit scarier, I think. The main character, twelve-year-old Stephanie, meets Skulduggery Pleasant when he shows up at her weird Uncle Gordon’s funeral. Because Stephanie inherits her uncle’s estate, she brushes up against Skulduggery’s world of magic and strange creatures—none stranger than Skulduggery himself, who is a living skeleton. Skulduggery is trying to prevent the evil Serpine from getting an item that will help him rule the world, and Stephanie eagerly jumps into the conflict, despite not being entirely sure she can do it. Still, how can you turn back from a conflict when you have a chance to make a difference? In later books Stephanie, with her new name Valkyrie Cain, continues to work with Skulduggery as his apprentice in magic and learns ever more about the magical world and her hereditary place in it.
This series is very much in the vein of the Harry Potter books, but only on the surface. Shared elements include a group of wizards who run things, various magical creatures, a dark wizard who used to be one of the good guys, and so forth. As I mentioned, though, it is quite a bit darker than the Harry Potter books and the story gets serious a lot faster. The bad guys’ goal is to allow the ancient Faceless Ones to enter our world and utterly destroy it; why any human would want this, I don’t know, except that they hope to be on top in the new world created by the evil gods. Some of the characters appear to play both sides, and do so convincingly; I’m interested in even the ones who turn out to be evil (or who change their minds). Skulduggery kind of reminds me of David Tennant’s Doctor Who; energetic, a little goofy, but deadly serious when the occasion requires. I’m rather impatiently waiting for the fourth book.
Worst Book 2009
Usually there’s at least one really horrible book I can rip into, something so dreadful, so poorly-written, so soul-numbingly awful that it is a pleasure to tear it to tiny shreds and then jump up and down on the pieces. Either I’m getting better at weeding out awful books before I begin them, or I just got lucky this year. I did read a number of less-good books, some that simply weren’t my thing and others that had fairly major problems, but there was nothing I can feel justified in thoroughly denigrating. Isn’t that nice?
That’s it for 2009. I’m making a new start, setting up new pre-orders, and hoping 2010 will be another great year for reading. Thanks for coming along on the ride.
Posted on: January 22nd, 2010
Previously I discussed my best books of the year. But I’m never able to exclude other great books just because they weren’t quite as great.
Notable Books of 2009
Great Sky Woman, Steven Barnes
In November, I was browsing the library shelves in that aimless way you get when you know you’re in the mood for a particular kind of book but you don’t really know what it is. (Unless this only happens to me.) Our library puts books on the bottom shelves so their spines point upward and you don’t have to crouch down to see what’s there. I happened to see this title, and the author’s name seemed familiar…oh, duh, he’s the coauthor of the Dream Park novels! Despite the fact that I like those books and believe firmly that Barnes’s contribution is what makes them good (it’s a long story, even for me), I had never bothered to look for any of his solo novels. This seemed like a good time to start. Great Sky Woman is set in prehistoric times, in Africa, and the story centers on a group of people who live in the shadow of Kilimanjaro (Great Sky Mountain). Barnes’ mythology is compelling and his characterization very strong, particularly in the development of the two main characters. He also avoids some of the things I really hate, like making his characters wise beyond their time and full of modern knowledge or setting up a conflict between the wise, peaceful, earth-loving tribe and the huge, brutish, violent tribe. There is a tribe of huge, brutish, violent people, but they are firmly contextualized within the story. Having read Michael Crichton’s account of climbing Kilimanjaro with modern gear and oxygen, I really enjoyed the part of the novel where several people make the same climb without all that gear. (They also whined less than Crichton did. Seriously, I love the guy and all, but he comes off poorly in some parts of Travels.) I am looking forward to reading the sequel, Shadow Valley, in the next week or so.
(And every time Greystoke walked past someplace the book was lying, he would say “Great SKYYYY, woman!” It was funny the first time.)
Turn Coat, Jim Butcher
The eleventh book in the Dresden Files maintains the same high standard Butcher established long ago, with Harry Dresden continuing to fight otherworldly evils and his own inner demons. I enjoy watching an author develop over time, and Jim Butcher has visibly honed his craft from book to book. The last few volumes of the series have established the overarching story and drawn different plot elements (the Vampire Courts, the White Council, the Order of the Blackened Denarius) into place within it, which gives each successive story a more polished feel and, I think, makes the series more compelling. In this book, however, the story is important but ultimately secondary to Harry’s relationships with some of the other characters, particularly his long-time nemesis Morgan and his half-brother Thomas. The next volume is titled Changesand Butcher says that’s exactly what we should look forward to. I know I am.
Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett
I’ve already said a great deal about this book, so there’s not much to add. I’ve said before that the intertextuality of the Discworld series is an important part of the reading experience, but just as I was reading this it really came home to me that every time I read a Discworld novel, I’m thinking about all the others at the same time. How odd, and how beautiful. No wonder Unseen Academicals is so multilayered.
(Weird. My spell checker recognized neither “intertextuality” nor “Discworld” and suggested substituting “intersexuality” for the former. I think my spell checker is disturbed.)
Recovery Man, Kristine Kathryn Rusch
This book is part of the Retrieval Artist series, which I like a lot—though sometimes I’m not sure why. Rusch is a wonderful writer, good with characterization, plot, and description, and her vision of a future reality holds together well. It’s just kind of unpleasant to read sometimes, for two reasons. Well, three—Rusch has a habit of extending a story beyond the confines of a single novel, which makes some of the novels appear unfinished. They aren’t; it’s just that the resolution is of theme rather than plot. But it’s still not exactly comfortable.
More importantly, in this future, when humans and aliens coexist, humanity’s tendency to cooperate and compromise has led to a series of laws wherein humans can be tried and convicted for violating alien laws—even if those laws are stupid or extreme. Most of the time, in this series, that means some seriously unjust punishments—and this makes me frustrated, not with the book, but in the same way that anyone in that world would. Unpleasant. As a result of this situation, three “industries” have sprung up related to it: organizations that help unjustly accused “disappear” to simply avoid trial; bounty hunters who hunt down the Disappeared for the aliens; and Recovery Artists, who also track down the Disappeared, but only to deliver inheritances or to inform them that they no longer have to hide. Miles Flint, the main character, is a policeman turned Recovery Artist. He’s very good at his job, thanks largely to his apprenticeship with a legendary Recovery Artist named Paloma. This is where the second frustration kicks in. Paloma has taught Miles not to trust anyone, not to have personal connections, not to let himself get close to anyone, because this is a weakness that could be exploited (for example, by a bounty hunter who lies to Miles to get him to track down someone she will then capture). And Rusch is good enough that you can really feel that isolation. It is profoundly depressing to realize just what it means not to trust anyone, anywhere, and in the first few books I seriously questioned the need for some of what he did; humans just can’t function totally alone, certainly not in his kind of job. Later volumes expose Paloma’s hypocrisy in this respect, and have Miles becoming aware that in taking Paloma’s advice, he was actually disregarding it—because he had to trust her in order for it to work.
Recovery Man is about Miles redefining himself and how he does his job. He is pulled into a recovery that involves his ex-wife, who left him years ago, after the death of their infant daughter. Now she’s been kidnapped on behalf of the aliens she was running from. The trouble is, Miles had no idea she was a fugitive, nor that their daughter’s birth and death were part of a larger plan. The story moves from Miles’s investigation to his wife Rhonda’s attempts to escape to Rhonda’s daughter, Talia—who has no idea she’s a clone of Miles’s dead daughter. It’s beautifully balanced between the action of all three subplots, and Miles’s remembered connection to Rhonda and his new connection with Talia are a nice contrast to the isolation of the early novels. The story continues in Duplicate Effort, in which the hunt for the truth about Rhonda’s past is resolved.
Alcatraz Versus The Knights Of Crystallia, Brandon Sanderson
Again, I’ve already written about this book, but what makes it remarkable is how its self-referential nature not only undercuts the story, but questions the idea of received knowledge in general. Do we take for granted our sources of knowledge, or do we go beyond checking a fact to checking the origin of the fact itself? And, of course, the book is fun for the whole family. That’s rare enough to warrant a shout-out as it is.
Next up: awards for a lot of different books in a lot of different categories. Remember what I said about not being able to exclude great books?
Posted on: January 16th, 2010
This tradition, for me, started years ago over at the Diana Wynne Jones mailing list, which is full of a lot of really nice people with exceptional taste in reading. The end of a year is such a nice defining line, a mark that sets one group of the books you’ve read apart from the rest, and over the years I’ve gotten a lot of good recommendations from the year-end summaries the DWJers produce. It was also part of my resolution, back in 2004, to keep a record of everything I read. That record made it so much easier to remember what I’d liked or what I hadn’t that I ended up posting some very long year-end summaries. Despite being way behind schedule, I don’t want to give up on my favorite tradition, though my residual guilt over inflicting long emails like that on the DWJ group means I will break this one into several posts.
First, some housekeeping. It’s probably a huge surprise to you that I am a bit obsessed with books and book-related things. A few years ago I began keeping my reading log in an Excel spreadsheet. This led to the discovery that there were a LOT of things I could do with the data I was storing. Like keep track of how many books of a particular genre I read, or calculate the percentage of the total that was books I’d never read before. My reading total was way down this year; it’s normally up around 200 books, but this year it was closer to 150. This reflects the general crappiness that was 2009, probably. A third of that was fantasy; another third was science fiction and young adult combined. That’s pretty typical. What’s atypical was how little contemporary fiction I read and that there was no historical fiction in the mix, since usually I read a good amount of both. I also managed to buy a good number of the books I read, despite being on a very strict budget (two new books per month at any price and as many used books as I can fit into my budget). Best of all, most of the books I read were very good, despite there being fewer in all.
The bad part, really, was how many new books I bought and then failed to read for some reason. Every one of them was something I wanted very much, but as I mentioned, 2009 wasn’t the greatest year and I was frequently in a mood where all I wanted was something very familiar or very specific. I failed to read the most recent Sharing Knife book by Lois McMaster Bujold; Kristin Cashore’s Fire is still sitting on my bookshelf; everyone I know (soon to include my own daughter) has read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins but me. I’m not sure how much sense that makes to anyone else—you have these books, they’re good books, you have time to read, and yet…. At any rate, this year’s list reflects my temporarily skewed reading habits, but remains very respectable.
And thus, to the list….
(Note: Unless otherwise specified, each category refers to books I read last year, not necessarily books published for the first time in 2009)
Best Book(s) of 2009
Flora Segunda and Flora’s Dare, Ysabeau S. Wilce
Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber, Kenneth Oppel
Last year, instead of one Best Book, I had a list of six great books I was unable to choose between. This is a bit different; it’s more like two best series than five best books. In both cases, each book in the series reflects and reinforces the others, creating one tremendous whole, and I could not choose an individual novel in the series as better than the others. Why are there two series? They’re both fantastic in completely different ways, again making it impossible to choose. Finally, it’s my list. If you want to quibble, make your own. (And share it with me, in case there’s something I want to read.)
I read Flora Segunda early in 2009—in fact, it was the second book I read that year. It’s brilliant, funny, and very hard to explain. I remember that it took a long time for me to figure out what was going on, but when I finished it, I immediately ordered my own copy and the sequel, Flora’s Dare. Part of its brilliance is the setting, which seems to be an alternate-universe California which has recently won (but actually lost) a war with the country to the south, an Aztec-analogue society that still practices human sacrifice. Flora is the daughter of an important general and a formerly brilliant agent who has lost his mind after being held captive and tortured during the war. Flora wants to be a Ranger—something like an ultra secret agent—but her mother has other plans for her. There’s magic—weird, beautiful magic. There’s family—weird, intertwined families. There’s treachery and secrecy and spies and intrigue. Despite the fact that this is young adult fiction, the structure, language, and subtext may make it more suitable for adults (at the very least, experienced readers). It is a complex book that is not for everyone; I recommend it particularly for anyone who enjoys nontraditional fantasy and is willing to interact strongly with the text. If there is a sequel in this world I want more than anything, it is the third book in this series.
Airborn was intended to be for my son—an avid reader, but of an age where re-reading the same books repeatedly is more fun than trying to find something new that might or might not suck. I can’t now remember if he recommended it to me, or if he asked me to read it first in case it, you know, sucked. Ultimately, we both became slobbering fans; I remember picking up the second book, Skybreaker, looking it over idly and then jumping up and down with excitement that it was the sequel. (With Starclimber, we didn’t realize it was actually out until we were browsing the library website at home, and we ran out to the car and drove to the library immediately to get it. We’re hard-core that way.) The series is one of the great adventures in fiction and Kenneth Oppel the true inheritor of the mantles of both Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne. In a world where hydrium, a lighter-than-air gas far more powerful than helium, powers vast airships and ordinary airplanes are mere gadgets, Matt Cruse wants nothing more than to have a career sailing around the world like his father did. During his apprenticeship on the airship Aurora, he meets Kate DeVries, a beautiful and brilliant rich girl out to restore the reputation of her scientist grandfather and make a name for herself. The two are thrown together through a crash landing, a pirate attack, and a final battle atop the airship. Each book in the series has Matt and Kate breaking new ground: the upper stratosphere in Skybreaker, and suborbital space in Starclimber. There are terrible alien creatures, wild adventures, and science straight out of steampunk fiction. Even better, the characterization and plot are superb, and the tension builds to an almost unbearable point without ever becoming overwhelming or stupid. Like Flora Segunda, this series is marketed as young adult; I generally say that most young adult books are suitable for adults as well, and in this case it’s even more true. This is a series for anyone who loves adventure, regardless of age.
(Next time: Notable Books of 2009)
Posted on: January 14th, 2010
I have done a Best Books of the Year list for about seven years now, and I almost always get it published before New Year’s. This year, fate conspired against me. I had wonderful plans for how much reading and writing I was going to do over the holidays. I was going to work a little every day and read a lot every day and let the kids go feral in the kitchen and have the best vacation ever.
On the first day of vacation, my computer died a grisly death.
Well. It wasn’t so much “grisly” as “selfishly unaware of anyone’s feelings but its own.” It would shut down for no reason after reboot and did this over and over again until it finally refused to turn back on again. You could practically see its resentment every time I turned it back on and forced it to do all those pointless startup routines, like a teenager who has to be rousted out of bed five times before actually rising for the day. My husband Greystoke, who is at minimum some kind of computer demigod, who has gotten programs to run right simply by laying hands on the monitor, was unable to revive the beast. Selfish little git. (The computer, obviously.) [more]
This put us in even more of a pickle than me simply being without my electronic lifeline. Greystoke has been needing a new computer for a while and wanted to buy a laptop so he could play King of the Techies at our weekly parties. I could then inherit his machine, which is good enough for anyone who isn’t a programmer. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough money for a laptop, and buying me a new computer would just postpone the problem and costing us more in the long run. It took a couple of days for us to figure out the obvious solution (and all of you are so clever, I’m sure you’ve all been saying “What about eBay?” since the beginning of the previous sentence). Three days of monitoring auctions got us a very nice laptop, and a little extra money got us expedited shipping. This was December 24th. Okay, so it would be a long weekend, but with the end in sight, it was easier to endure.
Except “expedited shipping,” it seems, did not equal “get off your butt and mail the package on Monday so it arrives before New Year’s Eve.”
It was 11 days before we had the laptop and another week before my computer was set up and fully functional again (transferring data when only one hard drive can be connected to the “new” computer at a time, going back and forth between drives because I forgot to transfer something important the first time, waiting for the docking station to arrive). Up until yesterday I was only “borrowing” Greystoke’s old computer, because he was also transferring stuff to his new laptop. I don’t know why that should make me so reluctant to do anything so permanent as writing, or updating the book database, or anything like that. But it did. Also, one of the things I couldn’t find was the Excel spreadsheet where I keep track of everything I read in a year, and that made it hard to come up with any kind of list. (I remember actual *books*; what I don’t remember is when I read them. I can be convinced I read something last April even though the database says it was August 2007.)
The one high point of this adventure is that the docking port for the laptop can only handle one extra monitor, so I got Greystoke’s spare. It is little and cute next to the 19” flat screen. Using two monitors is weird at first, but the weird goes away fast and is replaced with a sense of wonder that you ever managed with just one. Now that the trauma is over, I can look at it all as a good way to say goodbye to 2009 and welcome the new year happily.
Posted on: January 13th, 2010