Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Year of Books

Sandra Parshall

I’m always disheartened when I look over my list of books I’ve read – or listened to – during the past year and realize I can’t recall a thing about many of them. No, this isn’t a consequence of advancing age. It’s always been the case: a lot of the books I read are instantly forgettable.

If I can remember the plot or style or – most important – the characters in a novel months after reading it, I know there’s something special about that book. It’s either very good or unforgettably bad. This year my list has an unusual number of terrific novels on it (some of them published in previous years).

My favorite was The Help by Kathryn Stockett, not a mystery but a surprisingly suspenseful story about a young white woman in the 1960s south who secretly transcribes and publishes the tales told by black maids working in white households. This was a time and place when white people could kill blacks with impunity, so the risks taken by “the help” in the novel are enormous. The story is spellbinding and every character is unforgettable.

I also loved The Last Child by John Hart, another intense, gripping novel set in the south. The child of the title is a boy who has watched his mother slowly destroy herself with drinking and an abusive relationship since her daughter disappeared. The young son is determined to find his sister, dead or alive, and give his mother some degree of peace. His probing sets off a string of terrifying consequences. I found The Last Child riveting, and I think it’s the best Hart has published so far.

I read two Michael Robotham novels this year, Shatter and The Night Ferry, and this writer is now on my must-read list for his future work. Shatter is about a man whose past comes back to haunt him... only trouble is, he doesn’t believe it is his past. The Night Ferry is equally gripping but utterly different, except for the always superb writing. It introduces Alicia Barba, a British police detective who is the child of Indian immigrants, a character I would love to see in a series. When an old friend is murdered, a shocking revelation sends Alicia on a hunt for the truth about her friend’s life and the baby everyone thought she was about to have.

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is a stunning debut. Her lead character is a young female newspaper reporter with a history of emotional problems that included a compulsion to cut herself. Now she’s out of treatment and must return home – the source of her troubles – to write about the murders of several children. Flynn’s insight into human behavior is keen and her prose is as sharp as the razors that tempt her heroine. The conclusion of the book is going to stay with me for a long time.

The Brutal Telling may win Louise Penny a third Agatha Award and a few other honors as well. She’s on a par with Julia Spencer-Fleming and Nancy Pickard, producing traditional mysteries with all the expected features – the familiar community, the beloved regular characters, respect for the gravity of murder without dwelling on the gore – plus the emotional depth and insight found in the best literature.

When Will There Be Good News? is, in my opinion, the best of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody novels. Her books are considered more literary fiction than crime novels, but this one is as compelling as any mystery or thriller I’ve ever read. The opening sequence left me gasping in shock.

I loved Karin Slaughter’s Undone because it brought together Dr. Sara Linton from her Grant County series and Will Trent, the GBI agent from Fractured. This is a powerful story, perhaps the best Slaughter has ever written.

Other novels I enjoyed this year are The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah, Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon, Death and the Lit Chick by G.M. Malliet, Exit Music by Ian Rankin (the last Rebus novel), The Blood Detective by Dan Waddell, The Private Patient by P.D. James (possibly the last Dalgliesh novel), The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen, Careless in Red by Elizabeth George, Sand Sharks by Margaret Maron. I've just started Jeri Westerson's Serpent in the Thorns and I can tell already it's going to be one of my favorites. I have lots more 2009 releases that I haven't gotten to yet.

I feel as if I’ll never catch up with all the books I want to read, and now here comes 2010 with a whole new crop. Erin Hart’s False Mermaid in March, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One Was a Soldier and Elizabeth George’s This Body of Death in April... Do you ever wish you could drop everything and just read for a few months?

What books did you love in 2009? What are you looking forward to in 2010?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Margaret Maron's Sand Sharks was on my 2009 list, as was Nevada Barr's Borderline--two perennial favorites writing at the top of their powers. I read all three of Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death books this year--fell in love with her characters and voice. Even more memorable were Charlaine Harris's Harper Connelly books. I read the first three in anticipation of the new one, Grave Secret. Harper will never catch up with Sookie Stackhouse in popularity, thanks to HBO, but I like her better.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Oops. I meant to say I RE-read the first three Harper Connellys.

Sheila Connolly said...

So many books, so little time...

I found one new author who really impressed me: S. J. Bolton, who wrote Sacrifice and Awakening. I thought Borderline was not Barr's best, but that didn't stop me from reading, and I'm looking forward to 13 1/2 (is that the right title?).

The TBR pile is approaching six feet tall, and that's just the 2009 crop--and here comes 2010. I can't wait for the new Julia Spencer-Fleming, having been blown away by the intensity of the last one.

Joyce said...

It's really hard to narrow down my favorites, but I absolutely loved Julia Spencer-Fleming's I Shall Not Want.

Sandy, I only got around to reading your first book this year and it's now on my favorites list.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I always grab the freebies for my Kindle and one of my fave reads for this year was a freebie, THE PRAYERS OF AGNES SPARROW by Joyce Magnin. Starts out sort of cozy and does a real turn-around about half-way through, into a mystery. It will stick with me for quite a while.

I also discovered Sandra Dallas this year and am reading my way through her books. Excellent author.

Anything by Donna Andrews is always a "must read" and I have her latest on Mt. TBR.

Whew, my Kindle has tons of books, my physical TBR is teetering . . . so many books, so little time. Fortunately, over this holiday season I've had more reading time and I'm taking advantage of it, and not allowing myself to think of all the "things I should be doing." READING is what I should be doing.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks, Joyce. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Sheila, I didn't think Borderline was Barr's best either, but she has a way of bouncing back from a weaker book with one that's terrific. And I'm also eager to see what Julia S-F does in her next book. Isn't it the first of her books that doesn't use a hymn as the title?

I feel guilty about being so far behind in reading my friends' books! The truth is that I listen to a lot more books than I actually read. Right now I'm reading Jeri's Serpent in the Thorns and, when I'm doing other, mindless things I'm listening to a nonfiction book called In the Wake of the Plague. The two books go very well together.

signlady217 said...

I'm just finishing John Grisham's The Brethren. Wow! I haven't read any of his in quite a while and this one was really good.

Two really good non-fiction I read this year were More Than a Hobby by David Green (Hobby Lobby creator and CEO), and Debbie Macomber's Knit Together: Discover God's Pattern For Your Life. If you haven't read these, they are totally worth it.

Jennifer Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts series: awesome! Love the history she weaves throughout the stories.

Way too many favorites to name!(I always feel sorry for people who don't like to read; they have no idea what they're missing.)

Sandra Parshall said...

So true! I can't imagine what life would be like without all those wonderful, magical WORDS! The human species is truly blessed with the gift of written language.

Pen N. Hand said...

This one isn't out yet in the US, but it is the first book I've read in a long time cover to cover in one sitting. Elly Griffiths's The Crossing Places, which introduces a new sleuth, Ruth Galloway.
Not even sure what was so spell-binding, but the perfect blending of the noir prose against the English salt marshes was compelling.
I've been a Jeri fan since before Veil of Lies was published and she didn't let down for Serpent in the Thorns.
Books I do not enjoy I never finish there are too many good ones out there to sample both old and new.
For 2010 I'm putting my reading budget to sampling authors whose books I haven't read, except for a few favorites.

Nancy Adams said...

My two favorites this year were Jeri Westerson's Serpent in the Thorns and Sophie Littlefield's A Bad Day for Sorry. I also read Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels for the first time and quickly got hooked. Ditto for Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series (a mixture of fantasy and hard-boiled PI mystery) of which I've read the first 5 or 6.

I'm starting Elizabeth Zelvin's Death will Help You Leave Him. I love her protagonist's voice!

Yes, so many great books, so little time!

Thanks, Sandy, and all who commented, for adding to the list.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You've added to my to-be-read list! And I have a nightstand full. :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Marilynne said...

Now I have a list of books to read in 2010. Thanks for the clues. If I enjoy your choices, I'll be back for more.

Martha said...

Thank you for all the suggestions!

Nancy Martin said...

Lush Life, by Richard Price, blew me away.

Anonymous said...

I've been looking all over for this!


Dave Chaudoir said...

My favorite novel of 2009 was ENDURING by Donald Harington, sadly also his last novel as he passed away in November. It is as spellbinding a novel as anyone is likely to read. I also enjoyed Lorna Barrett's Booktown Mystery Series, of which I've read the first two. Also in mystery I read a few Jefferson Bass books which weren't so terrific, but I also read some more Susan Wittig Albert who never disappoints me (especially loved BLOODROOT). SERENA by Ron Rash was suspenseful and riveting. I read a whole slew of Berkley Prime Crime paperbacks, most of which I enjoyed. I plan to do some catch-up reading early this year, starting with Sandra Parshall's first two novels which I've just put on my Amazon list!