I love to read--probably way too much, but as another year comes to a close, I am filled with gratitude for all the wonderful books that made my time spent reading extra-special. I don't think I read a single book I didn't like on some level, but as always there are some books that stand out for me and that I know I'm going to remember for the rest of my life. So in no particular order, I'd like to share with you the best of the best. These are:
Best Novel A Valley of Betrayal (Chronicles of the Spanish Civil War, Book 1) by Tricia Goyer. If it wasn't for Twitter, I don't think I would have had the opportunity to learn about Tricia and her excellent books. So I'm delighted to have a venue to tell you all how much I enjoyed discovering her entire list of titles. For my initial purchase I chose A Valley of Betrayal, the first in a trilogy set during the time of the Spanish Civil War. I based my choice on the fact that although I have a degree in Spanish literature, I actually know very little about the civil war beyond the murder of poet Federico Garcia Lorca. However, thanks to the wonderful characters and strong writing in A Valley of Betrayal, my understanding of who was fighting whom, and why, was greatly enhanced and deepened. The characters and plot line were so compelling that immediately upon finishing the book I had to zoom back to Amazon.com and order the next two in the series, and needless to say, they are just as good as the first book.
Best Young Adult Novel The Luxe by Anna Godbersen. From the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, I then plunged into the social whirl of Manhattan 1899. What a wild ride that was! And what a super book this is for teen readers of all ages--and who isn't a teenager somewhere in their secret heart of hearts? The Luxe is another book that is part of a longer series of four (I seem to have been drawn to series this year, probably because the writing was so good in all of them I couldn't stop at just one book). The best way I can describe this particular title is by saying it's like Little Women with bad girls meets Project Runway a la Henry James and Edith Wharton. The clothes, the settings, the misbehaving characters... I was totally captivated, and of course I cried buckets at the end.
Best Short Story Collection Cliffs of Fall: And Other Stories by Shirley Hazzard. Hazzard is one of my favorite writers, so when I learned of this collection I just had to read it. Many of the troubled relationship themes presented here are ones that are explored in more depth in Hazzard's novels, but as little stand-alone pieces--sometimes no more than a sketch or a vignette--they are quite perfect. A keeper, for sure.
Best Novella The Tropics: Child of a Storm - Caught in a Rip - Hurricane Secret by Mary Deal. Several months back I wrote an entire post about this incredible book which contains three related novellas (series, again!). You can read the post here, but before you do, I just wanted to mention that Mary also has some fabulous island- and tropical-themed photography that is the perfect complement to her writing. I knew she was a talented writer, but seeing her photography and has brought my memories of her stories to vivid life. Exquisite!
Best Nonfiction People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck. I hope you never encounter genuine evil in your life, but if you do, this is the best book on the subject I have ever read. For many years I have struggled with the question: Is there really such a thing as evil? And for just as long I have tried to think of so-called evil people as "crazy" or "willful and stupid." After reading this book, I am now convinced that evil does exist and that there can be no other explanation for some people's behavior. The book is also an excellent resource if you are a writer, and can help you to understand that there is a very real difference between the story villain or antagonist who simply "does bad things" and the character intent on destruction. Highly recommended.
Best Poetry Return from Erebus by Julia McCarthy. Ah. Poetry. 'Fess up, all: When's the last time you picked up a book of poetry and read it from cover to cover? If it's been a while, here's the perfect book to get back into what I consider poetry with a capital P, aka "the real thing." Not some pretty lines strung together or journal entries broken into verse or opening a vein and seeing what happens on the page, but seriously structured language that delivers surprise after surprise. Reading Julia's work is like opening some kind of wonderful origami puzzle box that with each new unfolding leaves you astonished at the rightness of it all. Buy this book. Now!
Special Mention Necklace of Kisses: A Novel by Francesca Lia Block. Weetzie Bat and her extended family have long been some of my favorite characters ever. For a long time I resisted reading Necklace of Kisses because I didn't want to think of Weetzie as a grown-up. Now I think I was supposed to wait because every so often the right book falls into your hands at the right time. Soon after returning from a trip to Los Angeles, I found this book on sale at Borders for a dollar. How could I refuse? From the minute I started reading it felt like I had just walked or driven through every scene described in the book, the same places I had explored as a child and teenager long before Block even started writing. Block's descriptions of Los Angeles are, in my opinion, the best ever written and after reading them I was compelled to devote a dozen or so pages in my art journal to record and collage my own impressions. This story is sheer magic and that enchantment has stayed with me all year. Loved it!
Tip of the Day: It's fun to keep a record of your reading. It's also a valuable exercise to discover what your reading tastes are and why. I like to save a few pages in the back of my journal to jot down titles, authors, and a couple of lines about why I liked (or didn't like) a book. Not only is this good information to share with my book club and reading friends, but it helps me define my publishing niche. For 2011 it might be a good idea to start an entire journal to keep track of the year's books.
In the meantime, Happy 2011, everyone--wishing you a great new year of books, writing, and creativity!