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January 10th, 2010

My Top Ten Books of 2009

(I really meant to have this posted earlier, but that first week back at work was brutal. It's here now, though, so yay!)

So as I was putting this list together, I came to a problematic realization: I read a lot of series books in 2009. Like, a lot (is anyone even writing stand-alone books anymore? I’m starting to wonder). Series books are tricky, because a lot of the time, they exist not as entities unto themselves, but as installments in a larger story arc. And what do you do when, say volume 7 is your favorite book in the series, but you have to read the six books that come before to really appreciate it? You can’t just hand it to someone cold and say “Read this”. So for this year’s top ten, with one exception, if a book is part of a series, I only included it if a) it’s the first book in the series and b) it has enough closure that I’m confident it can stand on its own. So without further ado, here they are, in reverse chronological order, which is the way I encountered them when looking back through my reading journal (and, just like last year, these are books I read in 2009, not necessarily books released in 2009):

1.Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande
I read a piece by Robin Brande in A New Moon (a collection of essays on Twilight) and was so taken with her voice that I immediately sought out this book, her first novel. I was not disappointed. Part of the appeal was distinctly personal - the main character, Mena, reminded me a lot of myself in high school, though I never found myself in any situations as dramatic as hers and probably wouldn’t have been as brave if I had. But I also loved how smart and funny the book was, and how it addressed some heavy subject matter with a light touch. I am looking forward to reading more books by this author.

2. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
As a huge fan of Westerfeld's Uglies series, I was very excited about this book, and I am pleased to report I enjoyed it immensely. I confess that I had a bit of a hard time getting into the Alec-centric chapters at first – they were very Prussian, if I might steal an Eddie Izzard expression, and I didn’t really care about the intricacies of the machines – but I adored Derryn right off, and the beasties… oh, the beasties. I was floored by the imagination that obviously went into their creation and read through a lot of the scenes dealing with the Leviathan itself in a state of slack-jawed wonder – there is some seriously awesome world-building going on there. I’m glad this is the first book in a trilogy so I can spend some more time in that world.

3. Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
Full disclosure: I am pretty ambivalent about the ending of this one. But I liked the vast majority of it so much, it still makes it onto the list. It’s definitely my favorite of Hornby’s novels that I’ve read (I generally prefer his nonfiction – his memoir, Fever Pitch, is one of my all-time favorite books). Like another contemporary writer I kind of love, Michael Chabon, Hornby gets what it means to be a true fan of something, to love it so much it shapes your view of the world. And his witty turns of phrase are downright elegant in their execution.

4. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
So even though I left Catching Fire off the list (see series policy above), Collins worked her way in anyway. A librarian friend of mine had been trying to get me to read this forever, but I kept dragging my feet, because a book populated with giant talking rats and bugs living under the streets of New York? Didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But I finally cracked, and I’m glad that I did. I loved this book, and of all the characters, I think the cockroaches were my favorites (go figure). To be fair, I think the narration is just adequate, but I couldn’t get enough of the dialogue, with its variety of Underland dialects and true-to-life tween snarkiness. And Ripred was awesome.

5. Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
One of the most lushly romantic books I’ve read in a long time. Worth reading for the candy store scene alone. Trust me on this one.

6. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen is one of those writers whose new books I look forward to for months ahead of time. I love them all, but I think this one might be my new favorite (taking the place of the previous title-holder, This Lullaby). It shares a lot of thematic qualities (and even a secondary character) with what is probably my least favorite of her books, The Truth About Forever, and I think that may have contributed to how much I liked it, because just about everything was an improvement. It might sound silly, but I think that this is a more mature book for her – not in terms of the subject matter, but in the quality of the writing and the way all the elements of the story come together into a unified whole. This is one of the first books I’d give to somebody who knows nothing about YA lit but is curious to see what all the fuss is about.

7. Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look
In my line of work, I read a lot of children’s books that are supposed to be funny. And there are quite a few that, to kids, pretty much are, but to an adult? Say, me? Not so much (maybe that sounds disloyal to all the hardworking children’s authors out there, but, well, it’s true). This one, though – this one is hilarious. Alvin Ho is a boy who, despite being descended from a long line of warrior-farmers, is frightened of just about everything, including wasabi and kimchi. Yet he soldiers on, doing his best to be a gentleman like his dad and not get eaten by his piano teacher. I snort-laughed through a good bit of this book, and the kids in my libraries seem to really enjoy it, too (it was one of the picks for the 2009 Texas Bluebonnet list), so it appears to have a pretty universal appeal. And the glossary in the back is as funny as the story itself.

8. The President’s Daughter books by Elllen Emerson White
So I circumvented the issue of series books with this one by just including the whole series – go, me! To be fair, I read all of them more or less back to back, so in that way they all go together in my head, and I do think the four books make up one basic arc. The first books were originally released in the ‘80s but were reissued in anticipation of the 2008 presidential election, when it briefly looked as if we might have a female president, like Katharine Vaughn Powers, mother of the books’ protagonist, Meg. Meg is a deeply complex and interesting character, and even when you want to shake her (there were many times where I was like, “Gah, enough with the New England stoicism already!”), you never stop rooting for her. The members of her family are equally well-developed, and the way their relationships shift and grow as a result of their time in the White House is fascinating. And everyone – seriously, everyone – could do with having a friend like Preston in their lives. He is pure win.

9. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
When you see the word “haunting” associated with a book, like I had with this one, you can usually count on it being a euphemism for “unyieldingly bleak and depressing”. And while this book is indeed deeply sad, the simple beauty of the narrative and the keen insight into the little details of what it is that makes us human keep it from being soul-crushing. Science fiction advocates often say that sci fi can illuminate our experience in the modern world like no other genre, and I think that is definitely the case here. The sci fi elements are essential to the story, but also really, really subtle; there aren’t any flashy genre conventions, which allows the very human drama to shine. This is the first Ishiguro I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

10. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
I know opinions are wildly divided on this book. I have seen many people complain about how self-indulgent is, and I can kind of see their point, but you know what – who cares? Who among us isn’t self-indulgent a good bit of the time? The way I see it, Gilbert faces up to that reality pretty much right away and then spends the rest of the book learning how to get over herself (which, you know, we could pretty much all stand to do), and she does it with wit, honesty, and grace. In the end, I think people’s opinions about this book come down to whether they would like to hang out with Gilbert in real life or not; I for one would love to have her as a travel buddy.

Runners-up: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards, Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

And just for kicks, a rundown of the series I’ve been into:
*The Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris
*The Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King
*The Pink Carnation books by Lauren Willig
*The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare
*The Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead
*The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen

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