Wednesday, December 15, 2010

best of 2010: fiction + the rest of my vacation

It occurred to me after posting my last Thanksgiving recap that I probably should have just finished it off because there's not much else to report. The day after the glorious petting of the sloth, we went to the Naples Art Museum, which was absolutely spectacular. The third floor was all glass stuff, including a breathtaking Chihuly ceiling and really cool works by an artist named Stephen Knapp. It's kind of hard to explain, but the "paintings" consisted of treated glass angled in the wall with a light shining down on them, and all of these kaleidoscopic rays shimmered against the wall. There was also an exhibit by Steven Assael, who worked in "old masters" style with modern subjects, like a heavily tattooed and pierced woman and a homeless couple riding the subway.

We had Thanksgiving dinner at J's father's house, and there were 28 people there! As is the custom, I ate until I was at the bursting point, and particularly enjoyed a piece of rockin' pecan pie. And everybody was extremely nice to me. When we left at the end of the night, I thanked J's father and stepmother for inviting me to their home, and she patted my cheeks, beamed, and said, "Now it is your home too."

The rest of the trip was spent visiting the Everglades, having a key lime shake at the oddly named Robert Is Here that was so good I'm adding it to my "last meal" list, and of course, playing with the kittens as much as possible. I was so enamored by them that I didn't even care if G's family heard me crooning, "Oh, look at you, you little fluffenrumpens! Look at your little muffin heads! Oh, what a loud purr! Such a big purr from such a little!"

...shut up.

Anyway, now it's on to the best novels of 2010. A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2010, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first title listed, these are not necessarily in preferential order.
  • As always, your mileage may vary.

1. If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous: Still reeling from her father's suicide, Marina decides to take a job teaching English in the small Japanese town of Shika. She and her girlfriend Carolyn live in a cramped apartment across from a family that takes offense at their constant, though unintentional, disregard for the neighborhood's confusing rules for trash disposal. As Marina struggles with culture shock and the strain it puts on her relationship, she realizes that the grief she tried to leave behind in the US has only gotten stronger. Beautifully written and bittersweet; many scenes are quite funny, but the last few pages made me cry. (Not necessarily due to something bad happening, mind you; I shall neither confirm nor deny.)

2. Up from the Blue by Susan Henderson: The story begins with a woman named Tillie Harris going into labor and reluctantly calling her estranged father for help. Then it switches to Tillie's childhood, when her mother became mentally ill and then suddenly disappeared. A stunning, heartbreaking book.

3. Little Face by Sophie Hannah: A young mother leaves her baby daughter Florence in the care of her husband while she runs a quick errand. When she gets back, she looks in the crib and sees a different baby than the one she left behind. Her husband and domineering, wealthy mother-in-law insist that she's suffering from postpartum psychosis and that the baby is Florence. Undeterred, she goes to the police, who don't believe her either. The tension gets ratcheted up to almost excruciating levels, and I stayed up an hour past my bedtime to finish it. I was tired as hell the next morning at work, but it was worth it because this book is a corker.

4. Breaking Out of Bedlam by Leslie Larson: Cora Sledge is an obese, feisty 82-year-old woman who's addicted to junk food, cigarettes, and pain meds. Against her will, her children put her in an assisted living facility. Her granddaughter gives her a journal as a gift, and although she initially scoffs at it, soon she can't stop writing in it. She talks about the tragedies that befell her when she was younger, her daily life at the home, and the new resident who catches her eye. Funny and freshly original; I loved this book, and I loved Cora.

5. Horns by Joe Hill: Ignatius Perrish wakes up one morning, looks in the mirror, and sees horns growing from his temples. Initially, he thinks it's a hallucination brought on by heavy drinking, but it turns out the horns are real. He also has a new power to go along with them: people instantly blurt out their darkest secrets when they see him. He decides to use this power to his advantage and find out who raped and murdered the love of his life. Joe Hill is Stephen King's son (which, to his credit, he tried to keep secret for as long as he could in hopes of being judged on his own merits), and obviously he inherited some of his father's chops, because this book was fucking AWESOME.

6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: When Katniss Everdeen's sister is chosen by lottery for the Hunger Games---a televised fight to the death to gain food and favor from the oppressive government of Panem---Katniss volunteers to take her place. The other competitor for her district is a boy named Peeta, who seems to have a bit of a crush on her...which would be sweet if they weren't supposed to kill each other. This dystopian novel suffers from some choppy writing, but it's as addictive as potato chips.

7. The Wilding by Maria McCann: Jonathan Dymond, a man in his late twenties, lives a peaceful life with his parents until the day a letter arrives from his dying uncle. His father reads the letter and destroys it, but Jonathan later finds a scrap that hints at some dark secrets. He decides to go visit his Aunt Harriet, a truly nasty piece of work, to see if he can find out more. While there, he finds himself growing attracted to her servant Tamar, and it turns out she's hiding a few things herself. Nowhere near as good as As Meat Loves Salt, my favorite book of all time, but it's still engrossing and beautifully written.

8. The Truth-Teller's Lie by Sophie Hannah: When a woman's lover goes missing, she lies to the police and tells them that he raped her so they'll take the search more seriously. But it turns out that her story bears some striking similarities to several unsolved rape cases, and things get very complicated indeed. This novel has more twists and turns than a snake with a broken back, and although I thought I knew where it was going more than once, I was always proven wrong. Another winner from the supremely clever Sophie Hannah.

9. Pray for Silence by Linda Castillo: The small town of Painters Mill is rocked by the brutal murders of a local Amish family. Police chief Kate Burkholder, who was raised Amish but left that life behind, finds a diary hidden by one of the teenage daughters talking about her secret affair with an unnamed "English" (non-Amish) man. The entries are sweet at first, but quickly turn ugly with lurid descriptions of being drugged and forced into pornography. With very little to go on, Kate has to find the murderer and bring him to justice. Utterly gripping and almost impossible to put down.

10. The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah: Sally is a British woman who has a big secret: she told her husband she was going on a business trip, but---overwhelmed by the demands of her two small children---she went on a solo vacation instead, met a man named Mark Bretherick, and had a weeklong affair with him. Cue present day, when she's watching the news with her husband and they announce the murder-suicide of a woman and her young daughter. When they show her grieving husband, his name turns out to be Mark Bretherick...but it's not the man she had an affair with, despite every other detail (such as his job position and the names of his wife and child) matching up. Not only that, but the dead woman could be her twin. Sally starts to investigate, and pretty soon she's in way over her head. A creepy thriller that practically glued itself to my hands until I finished it.