Thursday, January 13, 2011

Best Reads of 2010

Elizabeth Zelvin

This is the time when we get to tally up and share with others our favorite reads of the preceding year. This year, I started making my list way back in January 2010, when I was still reading a few of the highly praised mysteries of 2009. I’ve been adding to it and winnowing it throughout 2010, and I think I’ve distilled it to the handful of books I absolutely loved reading. In one case, I got the hardcover by a favorite author the day it was published, read it straight through, then turned back to the beginning and read the whole thing again with equal relish. In another, a book and author I came upon by chance, I thought it was so exceptional that I devoted a whole blog to it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about readers in my years in the mystery community, it’s that every individual’s taste is different. You may hate the books I love, and vice versa. My own husband and I are yin and yang in this regard. Even with the narrow range of books that we may both pick up—a certain kind of high-quality historical and fantasy fiction—I get bored if the battles go on too long, while he gets bored if the relationships and feelings go on too long. (Same with movies, but that’s another story.) But my list is my list, and I want to write about why I think these particular books are so wonderful.

As I said, I wrote a whole blog about Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows (2007), so I’ll repeat here only that it had all three elements of great novel writing: storytelling, writing, and characterization.

The same can be said of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn (2010), the long-awaited new volume of the Vorkosigan saga, which I insist in including on my mystery list because one aspect of Bujold’s genius is the deft mixing of genres. Cryoburn is science fiction, mystery, galactic political thriller, and immensely satisfying character-driven novel all at once. Miles Vorkosigan and his family and friends are the kind of people readers like me fall in love with, wish they could meet and befriend, and hunger to hear more about. They are endearing, smart, and funny—intensely real, achingly delicious. I can read about characters like these till the cows come home, over and over.

Margaret Maron’s Christmas Mourning (2010), and her Judge Deborah Knott series in general, shares that characteristic, at a less intense and charismatic level, of endearing characters, of a world of family and friends that the reader would be delighted to belong to. Every time the Knotts sit around playing music, I wish I had been born into a family that did that. In this one, the mystery is neatly done and the personal elements enough to satisfy someone like me who (dare I admit this?) is really reading the book primarily for the relationships.

Also on my list is Sara Paretsky’s latest, Body Work (2010). Paretsky, just named a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America and the chief founding mother of Sisters in Crime, writes a protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, who is a different kind of smart from either Miles Vorkosigan or Judge Deborah and a more abrasive kind of endearing. I have to reread Paretsky’s books just to make sure I can follow the more brainy aspects of the plot, which often have to do with business or politics. I don’t exactly long to know V.I. personally, but I care about her and the circle of friends and supporters she’s gathered around herself. I admire her doggedness—she’s as persistent as, hmm, Rocky, in coming back after a knockout—I like the way she cares about her mother’s memory (and those last ruby glasses, or are we down to one?), and I adore her overt feminism. In the case of this new book, after reading the beginning, I settled into this meaty read with a sigh of satisfaction. Yes! Paretsky is still at the height of her powers; neither the tight plotting nor the development of this installment of the series character arc is going to let me down.

That’s not the whole list—more another time. What’s on your Best of 2010 list, and why?


Sandra Parshall said...

I haven't read the others you mentioned, but I loved Margaret's Christmas Mourning. That's a series I read because I adore the characters. And the writer!

My favorite book of the year was Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer, a probing, unsettling book that I found totally absorbing. I also loved Scott Turow's Innocent, a followup to his first book, Presumed Innocent.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

I add my adoration to yours for the Knott family - AND the writer. I love how Ms. Maron handles a mystery, but the characters and the setting just feel like home. Christmas Mourning was one of her best, I think.

My other favorite reads of the year included Louise Penny's Bury Your Dead, and for pretty much the same reasons I love Margaret Maron's work. In addition to be well plotted mysteries, there's that sense of place and wonderful characters with a depth to their relationships.

Another favorite read this year, although not a mystery, is also one of my all-time favorite reads ever. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Marilynne said...

I've re-read a lot of old favorites this year. Maybe I'm missing something in the newer books.

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