Thursday, November 18, 2010

Best “Other Books” of 2010

It’s that time of year when blogs and boards and publications begin to post their top books of 2010.  For the past several years, I’ve posted my top ten romance novels, and I’ll do so again soon. But I haven’t yet narrowed my list to ten. However, I do have a list of ten books in other genres that I have read and loved this year. Most of them are 2010 publications. A few were published in 2009, but I read them in 2010. So, in alphabetical order by author, here are my top ten “other books” of the year.

1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
(Mystery, Delacorte, April 2009)
I came late to the reading of this book. Although I read a lot of mysteries, an eleven-year-old protagonist repeatedly described by those who had read the book as “precocious” didn’t sound like my kind of book at all. I was wrong. I loved Flavia, who is indeed precocious, but also funny, brave, and completely engaging. She has an interesting mind and, despite her toughness, a real vulnerability. How realistic is it that a pre-teen in 1950s England would have her own poison laboratory, be smart enough to outmaneuver her older sisters and a company of adults, and solve the mystery with skills that have more in common with Miss Marple than with Nancy Drew? Not very. But Bradley makes me believe for the duration of the book and leaves me eager for more adventures of Flavia de Luce. Book 2, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, is on my TBR shelf now.

2. The Goddess of Fried Okra by Jean Brashear

(Women’s Fiction, Belle Bridge, March 2010)

I reviewed TGOFO here in early April. You can check the link for a full review. For this blog, I’ll limit myself to praising the book’s protagonist, Eudora "Pea" O'Brien, who moved me to laughter, tears and left me with the feeling that I’d found a friend. Her journey is one of the most original and satisfying female quest tales that I’ve read. When you add these qualities to a sterling cast of secondary characters, endearing eccentrics, who are interesting and memorable and a sense of place as rich as the best of Southern fiction, you’ll see why this book is on my list of the best.

3. The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart by Deborah Digges
(Poetry, Knopf, May 2010)

This posthumously published collection, the fourth by Digges, sounds in the ear with a storyteller’s rhythm and resounds in the heart with a sparseness as deep as grief and a simplicity as powerful as love. The title poem introduces the volume, and it is not only thematic but also the best poem in a strong collection. Reading the poems, I was reminded of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but the tenderness and terror are uniquely Digges’s. Read the opening lines, read them aloud so that eyes and ears and being experience them. Then I think you’ll understand why I love this book.

The wind blows
through the doors of my heart.
It scatters my sheet music
that climbs like waves from the piano, free of the keys.
Now the notes stripped, black butterflies,
flattened against the screens.
The wind through my heart
blows all my candles out.

4. If I Stay by Gayle Forman

(Young Adult, Dutton Juvenile, April 2009)

I’ve read YA books since I was a pre-teen, and I continue to find some of the best and bravest books I read in this genre. Forman’s If I Stay reminded me a bit of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. One moment Mia is a seventeen-year-old cellist who expects to attend Julliard. She has a mother, a father, and a younger brother and a boyfriend who plays in a band. The next moment there are two Mias: one near death, a victim of an automobile accident in which her parents were killed and the other the consciousness of Mia who sees her own mangled body and later doctors working to save her. This second Mia watches as family and friends visit her, and she is confronted with a decision. Her life has been devastated by the accident. It will never be what it was before. Is such a life worth fighting for? Should she go or should she stay? This is not a comfortable book. (Many of the best YA novels are not comfortable reading.) It is heartbreaking, but it is also powerful and important

5. The Gentleman Poet by Kathryn Johnson

(Historical Fiction, Avon, September 2010)

This is another book I reviewed, this time quite recently for The Romance Dish. It is a blend of history, adventure, mystery, and romance—and Will Shakespeare himself is a character, writing The Tempest on the island that inspired it. I loved all the parts of this book: the 1660s setting, the real history with its politics and religious conflicts, the Renaissance Survivors (much better than any 21st-century reality show) the love story between the protagonist Elizabeth and the ship’s cook, and the friendship that grows between Elizabeth and Will.

6. A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield

(Mystery, Minotaur, August 2009)

Any list of favorite books that I construct probably signals clearly that the books I love best are character-driven. This debut novel introduced me to a character I adore and look forward to reading more of. We would never encounter Stella Hardesty in a romance novel. She is plump, plain, and past the 40s hill. After thirty years as an abused wife, she administered justice to her abuser with a wrench. No one is more surprised than Stella when she becomes the champion of other abused women, using her own brand of persuasion to convince the abusers to see the error of their ways. The issues at the heart of this mystery—domestic abuse, child endangerment, societal views of justice, acceptable heroines—are all serious concerns, but the serious is balanced by the comedic. I’ll just say I doubt that anyone has ever used erotic bondage equipment as Stella does. And she even gets a love interest. Littlefield has already published another Stella book with two more set for the future. I plan to read them all.

7. The Secret of Everything by Barbara O’Neal

(Women’s Fiction, Bantam, December 2009)

Barbara O’Neal (Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind) is a writer who leaves me raving about the emotional punch of whatever she writes. The Secret of Everything joins a long list of favorites by this writer. Tessa Harlow, a travel guide, is left injured in body and spirit by a tragic accident. Against her father’s advice, still recovering from her injuries, she sets out for Los Ladronas, New Mexico, to check it out as a tour site and to uncover secrets of her own past. She meets Vince Grasso, a search and rescue worker who is widowed with three young daughters. Tessa and Vince strike sparks, but she is wary of commitment. The problem with a summary is that it makes the novel sound pedestrian when it is anything but. The summary gives no hint of O’Neal’s evocation of New Mexico in descriptions so powerful that the reader feels as if she’s been there and can’t wait to return. It leaves out the details that leave the reader hungry for food from Vita Solano’s restaurant, 100 Breakfasts, and omits details of the heart-stealing dog and kids. In fact, Vince’s oldest daughter, Natalie, is unforgettable, one of my favorite kid characters ever, and a big reason why TSOE is on this list

8. The Countess and the King by Susan Holloway Scott

(Historical Fiction, NAL, September 2010)

The third and final of the books on the list that I reviewed, The Countess and the King is another of Scott’s books that brings to life in full dimensions a woman who has been relegated to the footnotes and anecdotes of Restoration history. Katherine Sedley was not yet ten when she was separated from her mother and entered the debauched world of her father and his “Merry Gang.” Scott shows the choices Katherine makes and her motives for making them, and she makes the courtesan who became a countess a vital and unforgettable part of a fascinating period.

9. Hold Up the Sky by Patricia Sprinkle

(Women’s Fiction, NAL, March 2010)

Patricia Sprinkle has been one of my favorite mystery writers since I started reading her Sheila Travis books more than fifteen years ago. I’m a big fan of MacLaren Yarbrough and Sprinkle’s Thoroughly Southern Mysteries as well, and I enjoyed her Job’s Corner Chronicles duet, but Hold Up the Sky is now my favorite Sprinkle book. Redemption and reconciliation are my favorite themes, and they are layered in this book about four women. Margaret Baxter’s perfect life is unraveling: her husband is divorcing her, her dream house is being sold, and her oldest son has turned into a troubled teen. She goes home to the family farm in appropriately named  Solace, Georgia, hiding the truths of her life from her father and sister. Her sister, Billie Waits, is terrified that she will no longer be able to support her disabled daughter because her ex-husband has stopped sending child support. Mamie, the housekeeper who helped bring up the sisters, is dying of congestive heart failure, a secret she guards jealously. The lives of these three women become entangled with that of Emerita, a Mexican immigrant with her own secrets, who is stranded near the farm. The four women must learn to forgive, to trust, and to love enough to share their truths and embrace their differences. When they learn these lessons, they discover strength and grace for all that life hands them. This is an inspirational that inspires without sermonizing, one that features characters who struggle and stumble and never have all the answers. There’s even a love scene. :)

10. The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood,
Renata Liwska (Illustrator)

(Children, Houghton Mifflin, April 2010)

The audience for The Quiet Book is children ages four through eight, but this just may be my favorite book of the year. It’s a perfect bedtime book for little ones, but Underwood’s examples of quiet provide food for thought for the parent or other adult reading the book. The book begins with the quiet of being the first one awake and ends with the quiet of sound sleep. In between are funny, unexpected, emotional kinds of quiet like “swimming under the water quiet,” “hide-and-seek quiet,” “thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet,” “jelly side down quiet,” “best friends don’t need to talk quiet,” “bedtime kiss quiet,” and others just as wonderful. Liwska’s illustrations are the perfect complement to the text. Softly colored animals, including a bear, a porcupine, an owl, and a  rabbit show the kinds of quiet. Underwood and Liwska are co-creators of an April 2011 companion book, The Loud Book. It’s already on my book calendar.

Have you read any of my favorite "other books? What non-romance books have you read this year that you rate five-star reads?


Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ahh...thank you so much for including me on your "best-of" list. Can you see me blushing from there? :)

BelleBooks said...

Thank you so much for including Jean Brashear's GODDESS OF FRIED OKRA on your top ten list. We are so proud of Jean and this novel!

Deb Smith, editor, Bell Bridge Books

Sophie Littlefield said...

so thrilled to be on this list with such amazing authors! big thanks :)

Janga said...

You blush so prettily, Susan. :)
Thank you for writing such great books, and thanks for the comment.

Janga said...

Deb, I wanted to read Jean's book from the first time I heard it mentioned at Riding with the Top Down, and I loved it so much I've reread it already. Your pride is certainly justified.

Janga said...

Thank you for dropping by, Sophie. I'm looking forward to the further adventures of Stella.

quantum said...

I doubt that I would ever become aware of many of these books without this wonderful blog! *smile*

I picked Susan Holloway Scott, Kathryn Johnson and Jean Brashear to investigate further. Tentatively adding Deborah Underwood for reading to my Grand ..... though she has enough books already! *grin*

It's such a pity that so many e-books have restricted formats or don't download to the UK ..... makes me start to gnash my teeth!

As for new non-romance fiction, I have been reading Elizabeth Peters, The Amelia Peabody Archaeological mysteries. I have audio versions and the narrator catches the humor admirably through adroit voice adjustments.

Just read (listened to) 'Curse of the pharaohs'. Its light and very amusing in places. Peters uses her doctorate in Egyptology to very good effect in these books!

Beth said...

Oh I love the Amelia Peabody series. I listened to them all at least 3 times. Barbara Rosenblat is wonderful narrator and does a perfect Emerson. I have had the good fortune to meet both Peters and Rosenblat and both are a delight.

Janga said...

Q, I understand your frustration when books you want to read aren't readily available in your preferred format. Maybe with the increasing popularity of ebooks, things will change soon.

I read the first five or six Amelia Peabody books and enjoyed them, but I grew weary of them after that and never finished the series. I know I'm in a minority, but I actually prefer the Vicky Bliss books. And I love Barbara Michaels's Georgetown books.

Janga said...

Beth, how exciting that you met Peters! I think she is amazing. Was it 1966 that she published her first book? Not many writers maintain her level of productivity and quality over more than four decades.

irisheyes said...

The only one on your list I've read, Janga, is The Secret of Everything by Barbara O'Neal... and I loved it!

She has such a way with world building and character development. She really knows how to put you right where the characters are and make you feel for them.

MsHellion said...

I've read two actually, which is better than some of your book lists! *LOL* But I think we share more similar tastes in women's fic. :)

If I Stay and The Secret of Everything are the two I've read. I remember your glowing review of the Okra one and it's still on my TBR list. I've started the Susan Holloway Scott one--I love those sorts of books, but I don't think it was the right time for me to read it at the time. I wanted something more fluffy and I didn't finish it then. :( But it was definitely me; not the story or writing. I've loved other stuff by SHS.

Janga said...

Irish, I totally agree. Barbara O'Neal is one of my favorite writers, whatever she's writing or whatever name she's using. It's less than a month now to the release of her new one, How to Bake a Perfect Life. I am so looking forward to it!

Janga said...

Hellie, I think you'll love The Goddess of Fried Okra.Jean's voice is different from Marsha Moyer's, but they share a knack for creating eccentric, endearing characters.

And I hope you finish The Countess and the King. The King's Favorite is my favorite too. :) But that's because I have always thought Nell Gwyn an endlessly fascinating character. I've loved all of Susan'a books.

Anonymous said...

I've got my fingers crossed that my post will go through this time (after several tries) because I am just so, so grateful for this fantastic honor! THE GODDESS OF FRIED OKRA is the book of my heart, and it's not possible to express just what your endorsement means to me.

I'm keeping this list for my own TBR. Have already read Barbara's book-LOVE her work!--but no others until I saw your list and got IF I STAY. Wow, oh, wow. Lovely and haunting book...I'm still thinking about those characters, days later.

Thank you again for this wonderful and humbling honor!