A person of my acquaintance recently told me, "You know, I gave up buying books for you years ago." My immediate reaction to this proclamation was "I'm sorry, but have you met me? I am the one who wanted a Ph.D. in literature. I am that person who, when she lived alone, had stacks of books in every corner, because the shelves were bursting with them. I am the person who cannot leave a book shop empty handed. To me, Powell's is more than just a bookstore, it is Mecca. How can you seriously stand here and tell me that you don't think a book makes an appropriate gift for me?" Once my literary outrage had subsided, the friend in me kicked in and I became concerned that he had perhaps been hit in the head with a blunt object -- say maybe a BOOK.So, as you might imagine, it is no understatement to say that I loves me some books. Paperback, hardback, old, new, literature, trash. It doesn't matter to me. It's all like crack to a junkie, and I guess you could say the Multnomah County Library is my dealer. Books are, however, one addiction that is okay. I'm going to have to come clean and admit that it was a kind of slow reading year for me. Nonetheless, there are a number that stood out for me. So, in no particular order beyond that in which they were read, here are my Top 10 favorite reads of the past year.
Edward Marston, The Queen's Head.
The Queen's Head is the first book in Marston's venerable Nicholas Bracewell series, which is centered on the theater in Elizabethan London. While I read a number of books from the series this year, I chose The Queen's Head, because it is the first. Marston is delightfully deft at blending humor and suspense, while managing to keep the surroundings era appropriate. Recurring characters, like Barnaby Gill (the fussy clown), Lawrence Firethorn (melodramatic leader of Westfield's men) and Edmund Hoode (the forever lovelorn playwright) lend the series not only comedic relief, but thread of familiarity that runs through it. The funny thing about the Marston books is that even though I already owned two of them (.75 Title Wave purchases!), it took a trip to the library for me to actually discover and read the series!
Chuck Palahniuk, Fugitives & Refugees: A Walk Through Portland Oregon.
Chuck Palahniuk is probably most widely known (at least to me) for Fight Club. While I'm sure it's a good book and a good movie, I never really thought it would be my thing, so I have to admit to not paying much attention to Palahniuk until looking at someone else's copy of Fugitives & Refugees during a break while on jury duty last January. As it turns out, I love his tribute to city that "the most cracked of the crackpots" call home. It's a thin volume, but highly entertaining (especially if you live in, have visited or intend to visit Portland). If you don't believe me, you can read an excerpt here. I liked it enough that I'd even be willing to revisit the possibility of reading some of his other work. As an example, I believe based on reading an interview with Palahniuk on Powell's website that I could like Choke just based on the following description from the interview: "It tells the story of Victor Mancini, a recovering sex-addict whose resolve to overcome his illness is less than convincing. In fact, he continues to attend his recovery meetings only because they are such a great place to pick up chicks." You have to like anyone who can come up with a premise like that.
James Reese, The Book of Shadows.
James Reese's Book of Shadows appeared to mixed reviews in December of 2002. Fashionably late as usual, I didn't get around to hearing about (or reading it) until over two years later. If it weren't for Powell's Daily Dose, I might never have heard of it at all. The book is not flawless. It is very long (which is not a flaw in itself) and sometimes not unjustly criticized as being too unfocused. There were also some sections that just weren't my cup of tea (but perhaps that is unavoidable in a novel of this length). That said, Reese has also created a multilayered Gothic story that is generally engaging while at the same time playing with deeper themes like Good and Evil, gender (a particular interest of mine), sexuality, religion and history. While I am not a huge Anne Rice fan, his writing reminds me of some of the aspects I do like about her writing. I've read a lot of reviews from readers who were put off by the complexity of Reese's novel, all in all, I found it to be a fun read -- more so than, say Rice's Interview with a Vampire, which was recommended to me by many people, but just left me cold. It's one of the handful of books that I've started in my lifetime and abandoned without finishing. But back to Reese. The level of historical detail and obvious research entailed in cultivating the mood and atmosphere of the story, speak to my own sensibilities. I can see in this writer someone who gets excited about his project and delves head first into all that surrounds creating an ambiance. I like that. In fact, I get the feeling that I like Reese himself. In interviews and on his website, he gives off the vibe of someone who is amiable and very willing to talk about his writing and the process behind it.
Marc Acito, How I Paid for College.
Speaking of amiable authors, Marc Acito has to be one of the nicest ones I have ever met. A few months ago, I requested a signed book plate via his website. Not only did he quickly mail me the book plate I'd requested for Jen's birthday, but he also included one for me. In addition to that, he took the time to e-mail me to thank ME and let me know when it had been sent. He was also very gracious, encouraging and open with advice when I took the opportunity to ask him some writing questions. But it's not all about being a nice guy. He happens to be a nice guy who wrote a very funny book. His publisher describes it as "a farcical coming-of-age story, as if Catcher in the Rye were performed by the kids from Fame." That sums it up about as well as anything. Interestingly enough, Acito cites Joe Keenan (who wrote the side splittingly funny Blue Heaven in addition to being a writer for Frasier) as not only one of his favorite authors, but also the person whose work inspired him to write his own novel. Although I've never read any comparisons of Acito to Keenan (but maybe I am just too sheltered), I've always thought that there was a similarity in the sense of humor.
Wilbur Smith, The Seventh Scroll.
I picked up this book at Goodwill a number of months ago. As is not atypical, I got it home and put it on my bookshelf, where it was promptly lost in a sea of other books. After allowing it to acclimate to its surroundings (most immediately a Barbara Michaels and Harry Mulisch), I finally picked it up after almost a year. As it turns out, it was one of the most entertaining novels I've read in a long time. It has everything to recommend it as a vacation read -- travel through Egypt, Ethiopia, England, antiquities, archeology and intrigue. The best I can describe the novel is Elizabeth Peters meets Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown meets Arturo Perez-Reverte. While I could have lived without one or two of the bad guy torture scenes, over all, the book was great fun, and I'll definitely read it again one day.
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood.
What does one say about an American classic? Despite being considered Capote's masterpiece, I don't think I would have ever read the book, if it weren't for a coworker. While I knew that Capote's foray into the nonfiction novel was more than just some cheap true crime offering, I never thought it would be the sort of book I would enjoy. As it turns out, it kept me riveted. Part of this is due to Capote's voice, which flows so effortlessly. It was only after reading it, that I realized that Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were featured in a book on the death penalty in the U.S. that was part of the required reading for a German literature course I once took on Literary Executions. Interestingly enough, I finished In Cold Blood just a few days before another hotly debated execution -- that of Stanley Tookie Williams in California just before Christmas. Funny how short our attention spans are. For days Tookie was all over the news, then, as soon as he had been killed, nothing. But that has nothing to do with books (at least not the ones I'm talking about here), and today is not the day I want to get into my views about the death penalty.
Neil Gaiman, Ananzi Boys.
Over the years, Neil Gaiman has emerged as one of my favorite modern authors. Everything about his humor and his love of language appeals to me. So it is no surprise to me that Ananzi Boys was an absolute delight to read. If I had to pick the one book that I enjoyed the most this year, this would have to be it. While it's tough to pick, I think this may be my favorite of Gaiman's novels (though that is perhaps due to having read it most recently). Either way, I highly recommend it!
Cornelia Funke, The Thief Lord.
There are times when it can be a lovely escape to read a kid's book. Books like The Thief Lord are just perfect for such times. It's the sort of book I would have loved as a child, and I very much enjoyed it now. Set in Venice, The Thief Lord is the story of Prosper and Bo, two orphans who run away to Italy rather than be separated by their evil aunt, who wants to keep the young Bo for herself and send Prosper off to boarding school. In it, Funke has written a sweet, endearing story of loyalty between brothers, while at the same time creating a world that sweeps the reader away into a Venice of fantasy, filling them with a burning desire to make carnival masks and go for gondola rides. Best of all, it provides the purely escapist kind of pleasure that only a good book can give.
Kate Ross, Cut to the Quick.
It has been a long time since I have developed a book crush, but I think I have one on amateur sleuth, Julian Kestrel. This was one of those mysteries that I just couldn't put down. It filled me with a desire for more that I haven't known since first discovering Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters. It's the sort of thing that I love to read to escape from the stress of the every day. It's light (but not stupid) and is well written enough that a person is just drawn into the story without thinking of much else. My introduction to Kate Ross' series is, alas, somewhat bittersweet. While it is exciting to know that I have three more books to look forward to, it's saddening to think that Ross died so young. I'm sure she would have had a long, successful career ahead of her. Well, at least no one can say she did not make the most of her talent in the time she
Suzie McKee Charnas - Short Stories (honorable, because I already wrote about it back in January of '05)
Elizabeth Peters - Summer of the Dragon (honorable, because it is not the first time I've read it)
Lydia Millet - George Bush*, Dark Prince of Love (honorable, because there wasn't quite room for it on the Top 10, but was still really funny and well worth the .75 cents I shelled out, because the cover cracked me up. As it turns out the content [ex-con becomes smitten with GB during his inaugural address, and embarks on a zany campaign to attract his attention and woo him away from his wife] was just as witty.
*George Bush I, not George II