Tuesday, December 08, 2009

best of 2009: fiction

And now it's time for my favorite novels of the year. The standard disclaimers apply:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2009, but since that's when I read them, they belong on this list.
  • Aside from the book listed at #1, these aren't in order of preference. I tried doing that, and it was a bit much even for a renowned anal retentive like me.
  • As always, your mileage may vary.

1. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn: The author's debut, Sharp Objects, is one of my ten favorite novels of all time, so I was anxious to get my hands on this one...and it didn't disappoint. Libby Day is a woman whose mother and two sisters were butchered by her older brother when she was seven years old. She managed to escape, but the emotional trauma left her scarred for life. She's been living off donations that poured in after the murders, but the money is starting to run out. Opportunity knocks in the form of the Kill Club, a group of people obsessed with famous crimes. They believe her brother is innocent, and they want her to investigate the crime and see if her testimony all those years ago was coached. Libby is reluctant to do so, but when they offer to pay her, she agrees, thinking it will be easy money. Of course, it winds up being anything but. Not for the faint of heart, but if you like the new breed of female authors (Karin Slaughter, Chelsea Cain, Mo Hayder) who write thrillers that would make Hannibal Lecter flinch, you'll devour this utterly riveting treat.

2. Chalktown by Melinda Haynes: An intensely weird but engrossing Southern gothic about a teenage boy who sets out on a journey with Yellababy, his mentally challenged brother, in a sling on his back. He's heading for Chalktown, where the residents solely communicate by using chalkboards on their porches. It reads like it was written by the autistic savant child of William Faulkner.

Side note: This book found its way into my hands in a rather odd way. When I was staying in Fortuna, Costa Rica, the lodge had a small library of books left behind by previous guests. I had already whipped through all of my reading material by then, so I grabbed the first book I saw that wasn't a romance, and it wound up being this one.

3. Undone by Karin Slaughter: An elderly couple is taking the scenic route home from their anniversary party when their car hits a woman. When she arrives at the hospital, the doctors discover that most of her horrific injuries were actually caused by brutal torture. The police find the underground chamber from which she escaped, but then another victim turns up, and more women begin disappearing. Another nailbiter from the queen of gory, gripping thrillers, but I feel obligated to warn potential readers of two things. First off, the author is very aptly named, and some of the descriptions of the killer's handiwork are nauseating in the extreme. Second, this book will pretty much take over your life until you finish it.

4. The Local News by Miriam Gershow: In this powerful debut novel, Lydia is a 16-year-old girl whose older brother, Danny, disappears. Her parents are devastated and throw themselves into the search, but Lydia is somewhat indifferent to the whole thing because Danny was often cruel to her; as she puts it, "Going missing was the only interesting thing my brother had ever done." But as the months pass, Lydia begins to wonder just how unaffected she really is. Funny, achingly sad, and beautifully written; I tore through it in a matter of hours because I couldn't put it down.

5. Huge by James W. Fuerst: Eugene "Huge" Smalls is a teenage boy with a temper and a fondness for old detective novels. When the retirement home where his grandmother lives is vandalized, she gives him twenty dollars to solve the case. I have to quote the Kirkus Reviews blurb here, because it sums this book up perfectly: "Fuerst pulls off the same trick as the 2005 film Brick in making his protagonist's suburban surroundings and mundane foes seem as hard-boiled and corrupt as those in the Chandler novels Huge treasures." I loved Huge, both the character and the novel; it's one of the most original I've ever read. This is the author's debut, and if he's this good right off the bat, his next book will be amazing.

6. Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Single by Heather McElhatton: The title character is a woman who lives in Minneapolis, working as a copy editor by day and going on terrible blind dates at night. She dreams of Mr. Right, and when she meets the rich, handsome son of her boss, she thinks her dreams have come true...but of course things aren't so easy. I thought this was going to be standard chick lit, and although it does feature some of the usual cliches (supportive gay friend, weight issues), I was SO wrong. For one thing, I've never read a chick lit novel with an extended description of anal experimentation gone awry; for another, it's incredibly funny, often in a very dark way. (And relatable; the scene where she hides in a bathroom stall so no one will see her gorging on Cinnabons made me cringe in recognition. Not that I've done anything like that recently, mind, but it hit a little closer to home than I would have liked.) Most of all, the ending absolutely floored me. By the 50th page of this book, I thought I knew how it would end, but I was so very wrong.

7. Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain: Cop Archie Sheridan is languishing in a mental hospital after failing to catch charismatic serial killer Gretchen Lowell. They have a history together: Gretchen tortured him to the brink of death and then inexplicably turned herself in. But she's been on the loose for months, and when it looks like she's back to her old tricks, Archie checks himself out of the hospital and goes on the hunt. Then he discovers a cult devoted to Gretchen, and he begins to wonder if she's really at fault, or if her worshippers are taking their adoration to a whole new level. The first two books had me biting my nails to the quick, and this one is no exception. Tense, gory, gripping fun. I can't stress this strongly enough, though: absolutely not for the faint of heart.

8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett: A beautifully written novel about a young white woman in 1962 Mississippi who decides to write a book about the black maids in her hometown. Despite their fears of losing their jobs or worse, they agree in hopes of changing the way they live. Powerful and moving.

9. Little Bee by Chris Cleave: The book jacket asks readers not to spoil the plot for their friends. I think they were overstating it a bit, since it's not like there's a huge twisty reveal or anything, but I'll defer to their wishes because this book was so awesome. I'll just give you the bare bones and say that it's the story of two women, a Nigerian refugee named Little Bee and a British woman named Sarah, who meet under strange circumstances in Nigeria and are later reunited in London. Little Bee has a heartbreaking backstory; at one point, she says "In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film. Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it." A powerful, unique, and even occasionally funny novel.

10. Under the Dome by Stephen King: The small town of Chester's Mill, Maine, is suddenly enclosed in an invisible dome of unknown origin. The chaos starts immediately: a woman reaching for a vegetable in her garden has her hand cut off when the dome slams down; a small plane and numerous cars crash into it; a man's pacemaker explodes when he gets too close. (Yes, aside from the bloodshed, this sounds like The Simpsons Movie, but King swears he first came up with the idea in the 70's.) Things get worse as supplies start to dwindle and people begin to lose hope, and since this is a Stephen King book, of course there are some Very Bad People trapped inside as well...including a town official who takes advantage of the situation in order to turn Chester's Mill into a police state. Not many people can match King at his best, and he's in fine form here. Filled with black humor, heartache, and nastiness, Under the Dome is a stunner.