As this year comes to a close, I thought I’d do a series of posts rather than a big summary. Kicking things off: my 10 favorite books.
As you may know, late last year, I started to tackle the BBC 100 Books everyone should read. I read 22 (to make a total of 42 I can cross off) before I, not so much lost interest, but became more interested in other books. So my top 10 includes BBC and non-BBC books, and books both old and new.
10. Half a Life, by Darin Strauss. A Nervous Breakdown book club selection. When Strauss was 18 years old, he accidentally killed a girl with is car. In Half a Life, he sparely yet eloquently recalls the incident, the immediate aftermath, and the years since. A poignant study in grief, remembering, and letting go.
9. Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks. Originally published in 1997, I read Birdsong as part of the “BBC 100 challenge.” Set in Europe right before, during, and after World War I, the book is more than just a war novel, though the battle scenes are gripping, vivid, and fittingly gruesome. It’s also a love story and a story of family history.
8. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susannah Clarke. A recommendation from my friend YP. This gargantuan novel is set in a sort of alternate early 19th century England, in which magic, while still on the fringes of society, is very real. Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange are England’s only two practicing (as opposed to theoretical) magicians. Small tricks escalate into a risky Lazarian deal with the mysterious “man with the thistledown hair,” which ends up, literally, rocking the world. Clarke does an amazing job blending the magical with real-life history, and peppering the tome with footnotes that smack of a fictional history and culture of Tolkienian proportions.
7. The Visiting Suit, by Xiaoda Xiao. Another selection for the Nervous Breakdown book club. I’m only halfway through but I can easily say this memoir is one of the best books I read this year. The author was in his early 20s when he was imprisoned during the height of the Cultural Revolution for “defaming” the Great Leader Mao’s image – ie, carelessly ripping a poster of Mao in a drunken state. The Visiting Suit chronicles the five years’ of Xiao’s detention in a hard labor camp, and the constantly changing cast of prison-mates (many imprisoned for as trivial “offenses” as the author’s) he encounters during his stay.
6. Rebecca, by Daphne bu Maurier. From the BBC book list and the basis of the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same title (which I’ve yet to see). An innocent young woman takes up with a rich and moody older widower, becoming, as she is only known, the new Mrs. DeWinter. Soon she realizes she’s gotten more than she bargained for: the responsibility of running a large and complex household, dealing with the mean and sour housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and living in the shadow of the first Mrs. DeWinter, the beautiful and mysterious Rebecca. But not everything is as it seems! Dark and gothic, a total page-turner that had me both gasping at the narrator’s naiveté and tearing in sympathy at the pressure she felt trying to live up to untenable expectations.
5. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. YP recommended Waters’ latest book, The Little Stranger, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I thought I’d try one of her other books. Fingersmith happened to be the only Waters’ book at the store, and I was delighted to find that it was even better than The Little Stranger. Another 19th-Century English setting, this novel has everything – orphans! thieves! trickery! plot twists! more plot twists! I’ll say no more except Waters is definitely one of my new favorite authors.
4. Room, by Emma Donoghue. The first Nervous Breakdown book club selection, and what a way to kick off a book club. I’ve raved about Room already, so I’ll just say this: the only reason it’s not the number one book I’ve read this year is because of. . .
3. 2. 1. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. Yet another YP recommendation. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingbird have been my obsession for the past month. Technically YA novels of the Twilight age, they’re about a billion times better than the sparkly vampire series. Set in a future dystopia, the Hunger Games are sort of Survivor meets Man vs. Wild but FOUGHT TO THE DEATH. With kids. Who are not immortal.
The books are totally gripping and surprisingly gruesome, but also brought tears to my eyes. I loved all the characters, and kept picturing who would play them in the movie. I actually forced myself to slow down while reading the last book, Mockingbird, because I didn’t want the series to end.
By the way, Robert Downey Jr. is my first choice to play Haymitch, though I think he’s about 10 years older than the character.
The Harry Potter series. I have to give a shout out to all the Harry Potter books, which I read for the first time this year. Like the Hunger Games trilogy, I didn’t want the life and times at Hogwarts to end. Reading the books (almost) in order, it was very interesting to see the dramatic arc – from light and magical childhood to dark and troubling growing up. I laughed and cried. I couldn’t put the books down.
As every book should be.