Thursday, January 20, 2011

Best Reads of 2010, Part 2

Elizabeth Zelvin

Going down the list I started last week, here are more of my personal favorites and why.

I’ve admired and enjoyed SJ Rozan’s work since reading her Edgar winner, Winter and Night, which put her on the short list of writers whose work I went out and bought in toto after the first dose. Last year’s Shanghai Moon got a lot of praise and attention, and I enjoyed it, but the one I loved was the new one, On the Line (2010).

Rozan’s books alternate the first-person point of view of her two interconnected PI protagonists, Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. That’s alternating books, not alternating chapters. If you ask me which of the two is my favorite, I’d say Lydia Chin—spunky female protagonist, of course I love her. Rozan herself says she first created Bill Smith as the quintessential world-weary but honorable tough American PI, and that when she needed another one, she deliberately came up with his antithesis. Thinking of this, I was wondering what, if anything, made Bill special, why I wouldn’t find another tough-guy PI boring. On the Line reminded me.

Bill is tough, but it’s a purely functional toughness: he can turn on the violence when needed, but he doesn’t revel in it. He’s decent, sensitive, and very smart—a quality I prize in fictional characters when it’s accompanied by heart. The cleverness with which he unravels the villain’s clues is impressive. And his motive is impeccable: Lydia’s in trouble, and he really, really cares about her. I’ve been on Bill’s side all along in the potential romance between these two. Lydia has good cultural reasons for pushing him away: the parental pressure on Asian American young people not to diversify when it comes to love is authentic. But I’m a romantic, at least as a reader. I’ve been wanting Lydia, or rather, Rozan, to unbend and give poor Bill a break.

Rozan’s prose, which doesn’t waste a word or suffer a weak verb to live, has always been a delight. On the Line had this quality, and in addition, the writing struck me as less literary, more immediate, than in any of her previous work. This serves both the pace of the narrative and the tech aspect of the story, which I hardly know whether to call theme, setting, or texture. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say the requisite chase scene takes place on Twitter, a fresh and brilliant twist that I thoroughly enjoyed.

That’s the last of the 2010 novels that sank in deep enough to make my list. I love Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, but I preferred Locked In (2009), which I read last January, to the more recent Coming Back. Like Lois McMaster Bujold in Cryoburn (see last week’s blog), Muller made sure longtime readers got a glimpse of all their favorite characters, but unlike Bujold, she didn’t pull it off in Coming Back. I found the new book slight, and I suspect readers new to Sharon and her family and friends wondered what all the fuss, ie Muller’s reputation, was about. Locked In, on the other hand, was a real mystery with a fresh plot device—McCone’s medical condition, in which she can think clearly but not move or speak—and plenty of opportunity to display this beloved character’s intelligence and determination.


Daryl Wood Gerber a.k.a. Avery Aames said...

Liz, What a lovely tribute to Rozan's writing! You've made me want to read the book.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I was about to say something about her prose style, but I checked, and I'd already said it in the blog. :)