Best Books of 2009
You’ve read all the rest of the end-of-year lists by now—the New York Times, Salon, your own, etc.—and now it’s time for, well, mine. Of the 300 books I’ve read in 2009 the following are the best of the bunch, the ones I gave stars to as I recorded them in my reading journal. Some books that originally received stars will not be included here because looking at their titles I can’t remember what they were about—ah, wine! I’ve divided the books by category and they come from all books read during the year so some may be from previous years or Advance Reading Copies of books yet to be published. Since I read more graphic novels (GN) than in previous years, those will be noted for people who are particularly interested or averse. Hi-ho!
Blue Pills, Frederik Peeters (GN). Subtitled “A Positive Love Story,” this is a memoir of the author’s romance with an HIV-positive woman.
What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn. A debut then-and-now novel-cum-mystery about a ten-year-old amateur girl detective’s disappearance in 1984 and the resolution nearly twenty years later.
American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld. An ambivalent reader of Ms. Sittenfeld’s work—she did notably liken being a Chick-Lit author to being a slut—I was drawn in by her fictional portrait of Laura Bush.
Incognegro, Mat Johnson, art by Warren Pleece (GN). A Harlem journalist, passing for white in the ‘30s South, becomes embroiled in a mystery when his unable-to-pass brother is jailed and threatened with lynching for the murder of a white woman.
Once Were Cops, Ken Bruen. A fascinatingly idiosyncratic writing style distinguishes this police story about a psychotic Irish cop who comes to work with New York’s Finest on an exchange program.
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (GN). Subtitled “A Family Tragicomedy,” and written by the author of the renowned comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” this autobiographical graphic novel focuses on the author’s father: closeted gay man, English teacher, funeral home proprietor, suicide.
The Spare Room, Helen Garner. What stinks even worse than fish after three days? That’s what the metafictionally named character Helen finds out when a domineering dying friend comes to stay . . . and stays . . . and stays.
Sima’s Undergarments for Women, Ilana Stanger-Ross. A middle-aged woman, lonely in her marriage and with a penchant for picking out the perfect bra for any figure, finds the fabric of her life disturbed in ways both pleasing and not when a young Israeli woman comes to work in her shop.
Peripheral Vision, Patricia Ferguson. This complex story spanning several decades is kicked off when young Georgie is almost blinded in an accident in 1953, impacting a nurse, a medical student, and Georgie’s guilt-ridden mother, as well as an eye surgeon forty years down the road.
Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch. A novel in stories, alternately funny and poignant, about a Southern deb who longs to be anything but.
April & Oliver, Tess Callahan. Childhood best friends, the eponymous duo become somewhat less so as life takes them down different paths before clashing them together again following a death.
The Castaways, Elin Hilderbrand. This Nantucket sort-of mystery centers on just what happened that day when Greg and Tess went out on the boat to celebrate their anniversary and both wound up dead, as told in the six distinct voices of the remaining members of their tight-knit circle. This was the first book I read by this author and I enjoyed it so much I read all her others.
Capote in Kansas, Ande Parks and Chris Samnee (GN). Capote, accompanied by Harper Lee, travels to Kansas to investigate the Clutter murders for the book that would eventually become In Cold Blood.
Little Bee, Chris Cleave. Following an incident on a beach, the fates and fortunes of a sixteen-year-old Nigerian orphan known as Little Bee and those of a well-heeled British couple, both journalists, become intertwined.
Until It’s Over, Nicci French. A psychological thriller, penned by the husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerard and Sean French, about a London bike messenger who suddenly seems to be attracting murders. Ditto what happened with Hilderbrand’s The Castaways.
Darling Jim, Christian Moerk. A recluse and two of her three nieces are found dead in a Dublin suburb and it looks like the aunt was holding the younger women against their will. Now the third sister is at large. Connected to all of them: Jim Quick, a wandering bard who is dangerously darling and charming.
Labor Day, Joyce Maynard. It’s the Thursday before Labor Day, and a 13-year-old’s lonely life with his quirky mother is irreparably altered when they take in an injured escaped con who persuades them to give him a lift.
In the Heart of the Canyon, Elisabeth Hyde. A grab-bag group of all ages, plus a stray dog and a few experienced river guides, spend two weeks making their way through the rapids of the Grand Canyon.
The Family Man, Elinor Lipman. Supremely witty charmer about a divorced gay man who gets a second chance with his long-lost stepdaughter.
Best Intentions, Emily Listfield. Is Sam cheating on Lisa, as Lisa suspects? And if so, with whom? You be the judge.
Impossible, Nancy Werlin (YA). The ballad “Scarborough Fair” informs this fairy tale about a family curse in contemporary times.
What I Saw and How I Lied, Judy Blundell (YA). Atmospheric tale set in 1947 about a 15-year-old girl with her mother and stepfather on vacation in Palm Beach during the off-season.
Every Soul a Star, Wendy Mass (MG). The whole world seemingly converges on the Moon Shadow Campground for a total eclipse of the sun.
Graceling, Kristin Cashore (YA). Katsa has one blue eye and one green eye, distinguishing her as a Graceling, beings with special abilities. Katsa’s special ability? She can really kick your butt.
Cold Hands, Warm Hart, Jill Wolfson (YA). What’s it like to have someone else’s heart beat within your body? That’s what 15-year-old Dani learns when she receives a heart to replace her congenitally damaged one from a gymnast injured during a meet.
Freeze Frame, Heidi Ayarbe (YA). Did Kyle mean to shoot his friend Jason, resulting in Jason’s death? That’s what Kyle’s struggling to discover, using his prodigious talents as a film buff to do so.
Evermore, Alyson Noel (YA). The first in a fantasy-romance series about a girl, Ever, who is the only member of her family to survive a car crash—even the dog dies—only to discover she now has a superhuman power to go along with her sense of survivor’s guilt.
Dust of 100 Dogs, A.S. King (YA). Sparklingly original debut involving pirates, reincarnation, and yes, dogs. Lots of dogs.
Right Behind You, Gail Giles (YA). A fourteen-year-old boy struggles to find his way after being released from a detention center for violent youth where he’s been incarcerated for years for setting a neighbor on fire.
Out of the Pocket, Bill Konigsberg (YA). A popular senior quarterback finds himself outed before he’s ready after confessing his secret to a close friend.
The Hate List, Jennifer Brown (YA). Five months after her boyfriend opened fire in their high school cafeteria, Valerie returns to a school where she’s mostly unwanted, given that many blame her for what happened.
Candor, Pam Bachorz (YA). Dystopian story about a too-good-to-be-true town in Florida where the founding father controls teens through subliminal messaging.
Nothing Like You, Lauren Strasnick (YA). Wonderfully non-soapy story about a girl who sleeps with someone she shouldn’t…and then keeps on sleeping with him.
Love is the Higher Law, David Levithan (YA). Curiously uplifting novel about three very different young adults making sense of their lives in Manhattan in the wake of 9/11.
King of the Screwups, K.L. Going (YA). Liam loves fashion and girls, which works out just fine somehow when his rigid white-collar father kicks him out, leaving Liam free to move in with his gay, cross-dressing uncle.
Fade, Lisa McMann (YA). Second volume in the trilogy so brilliantly launched with Wake, about a girl who can witness the dreams of anyone who happens to be sleeping close by.
Identical, Ellen Hopkins (YA). One of the author’s amazing 600-page prose poems, this time about twins whose perfect surface lives mask the darker realities of their family’s existence.
Alibi Junior High, Greg Logsted (MG). Yes, my husband wrote this book. So sue me. What, he should be penalized further for being married to me by having his book not included? Besides, School Library Journal and PBS Kids both agree with me that this fun story—about a thirteen-year-old boy used to living a globetrotting life with his CIA dad who now has to adjust to something more scarily normal when he’s forced into hiding—is ideal for reluctant readers.
(The nice thing about nonfiction is that often the titles are so obvious, there’s no need for annotation.)
Sinatra in Hollywood, Tom Santopietro
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, Taylor Branch
And—drum roll, please!—my absolute, hands-down, #1 favorite reads by category for 2009 are:
Best YA: Freeze Frame, Heidi Ayarbe
Best Nonfiction: The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, Taylor Branch
Someday, I may be crazy enough to post my least favorite books of the year, but that year is not this year. In the meantime, I hope 2009 found you reading more great books than stinkers and that 2010 is even kinder to you.
Be well. Don’t forget to read.
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