[DWJ] Best Books of 2008

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Wed Dec 31 17:49:48 EST 2008

Normally this time of year I have a nice tidy list of books slotted into
nice tidy categories.  This year has been--untidy, not conducive to
organization, and I would barely remember the books I'd read if I didn't
have a reading journal (which was itself not kept up as regularly as it
should have been).  I went from being a librarian to a full-time
homeschooling mom of three out of four kids; I quit working for the local
literary organization's annual awards program; I tried to start an online
business that was sacrificed to the needs of homeschooling; and now I'm back
to wondering what I want to do when I grow up.  Not the best background for
reading as anything other than hiding from reality, but there were a lot of
good books this year nonetheless.

Great books:
_This Is What I Did:_, Ann Dee Ellis

This blew me away.  Seriously.  It looks like this little funny book, filled
with palindromes, where the author is playing with style in a way that could
have been pretentious or just stupid.  What it *is*, though, is a gripping
and painful story told with a beautiful rising tension that keeps
dodging--successfully, not for the sake of yanking our collective chain--the
issue of What Really Happened to this kid and his best friend.  Then I
finished the book and just looked at the cover and realized that the answer
to What Really Happened is actually right out in the open for everyone to
see.  I worry when an author has such a brilliant debut; where is there left
to go?  But I hope Ellis continues to find such stories to tell.

_The Graveyard Book_, Neil Gaiman

It's Neil Gaiman, so how far wrong can you go?  This was just pleasant to
read in addition to being a technically superior book.  I didn't actually
get the whole _Jungle Book_ tie-in even though, in the first chapter, I
thought "wow, this is just like when the wolves' tribe argues about adopting
Mowgli" and later "I wonder if Gaiman meant this book to be so episodic?"
I'm not all that bright sometimes.

_Nation_, Terry Pratchett

This was satisfying because it felt so much like a summation of the
philosophy you see in bits and pieces in all of Pratchett's work.

_Ysabel_, Guy Gavriel Kay

True confession--I don't actually like most of what Kay's written over the
years.  We're just not a match, even though I like (in abstract) the kinds
of stories he tells.  So I think when I really enjoy one of his books, it
stands out more.  I read this over a very long (for me) period of time and
never lost the thread of the story, though it seems to have more than its
share of moments where the plot is being re-explained to someone new.
Surprisingly, I recognized the characters out of the Fionavar Tapestry even
though it's been nearly twenty years since I read that.  Yay me.

_The Hunger Games_, Suzanne Collins

Okay.  Suzanne Collins is just EVIL.  There is absolutely no indication
anywhere on the book, until you get to the last page, that it's part of a
series.  So I got to the heartbreaking final bit and it was like being
slapped in the face with a brick.  Evil, I tell you.  On the other hand, I
was relieved to find that it *was* part of a series.  The society is too
deeply screwed up for a story to just gloss over its problems; that would
have produced a seriously flawed book.  Collins does enough winking and
nudging to indicate that the real story lies deeper than a deathmatch or a
love story.  Bravo to her for making the transition from the juvenile
_Gregor the Overlander_ to what promises to be an excellent YA series.

_The Hero of Ages_, Brandon Sanderson

I may have mentioned before that I don't really care for epic fantasy; I
won't refuse to read it out of hand, but it's not the first thing I go for.
Sanderson's Mistborn series has been an exception.  This final volume wraps
up the story beautifully, pulling together a bunch of strings (some of which
I hadn't even noticed) from all three volumes and tying them all off.  And I
have to add that any author who can pull off a deus ex machina ending AND
have it be the most appropriate ending for the story is either a genius or
insanely lucky.  I haven't made up my mind about Sanderson yet.

Great series(es):

**The Alcatraz series by Brandon Sanderson:  Sanderson is attacking the
Lemony Snicket market here, I think, but although his voice in this series
verges on overly-cute, he's approaching the whole self-aware storyteller
thing in a much different (and, I think, more satisfactory) way.  It's
valuable to note that although these are published for the juvenile market,
there's a lot in both content and style that only adults will appreciate.

_Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians_ 
_Alcatraz vs. the Scrivener's Bones_

**The Alfred Kropp series by Rick Yancey:  _The Extraordinary Adventures of
Alfred Kropp_ seemed to be EVERYWHERE this last year.  I think it's the only
book I read this year purely thanks to peer pressure (not the usual kind,
the kind where all the other books are saying "go on, read it, you know you
want to!").  Not only are these great adventure stories, they also say some
fairly serious things about choice and being good and honorable and
responsible.  And the cars.  Have I mentioned the cars?  I want the cars.

_The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp_
_Alfred Kropp: The Seal of Solomon_
_Alfred Kropp: The Thirteenth Skull_

**The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik:  Am I the last person to finally read
this series?  More guilty admissions: I chose not to read _His Majesty's
Dragon_ when it was first out because my former reading group was reading it
and I have a very low opinion of their reading preferences.  So if they
chose it, it must be awful, right?

Then we had a funny little drama play out in our house.  I picked it up for
my husband (because his tolerances for crap are much higher than mine) and
figured that he would tell me if I would like it.  His response was sort of
lukewarm...I might not like it, but he couldn't say why.

Ultimately I decided to try it for myself.


Not only was it a perfect fit for the mood I was in, it was exactly the kind
of alternate-Regency-history I like, and Novik is wonderful at copying the
sound of that period's dialogue without making it impenetrable.  So I read
all five books in as many days and then confronted Jacob.  What made him
think I wouldn't like it?

His tepid response was "well, it's got all that military stuff."

This was where I had to beat him over the head with my Bernard Cornwell
books, since *he* had never read even a single Sharpe novel.  He really
needs to learn that while I am picky about style, I will read about
practically any subject you can imagine.  And I LOVE military fiction. (Not
David Weber.  But other military fiction.)

The titles, in case I am NOT the last person to read these:
_His Majesty's Dragon_
_Throne of Jade_
_Black Powder War_
_Empire of Ivory_
_Victory of Eagles_

**Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels:  I didn't make it past
Jim's falling in love with whats-her-name Manuelito, which struck me as a
terrible relationship.  But I devoured almost all of these over the course
of a few weeks.  I'm familiar with the area Hillerman described, and I liked
the mysteries, but mostly I enjoyed his depictions of the interactions not
between white man and Indian, but between different Indian tribes.

**Best first novel: _Magic or Madness_ by Justine Larbalestier.

It's a good novel--good series, even.  Her characterization is brilliant and
I love her descriptions.  I'm not as thrilled about the plot, which seemed
strangely light for all that her magic system was good.  In general, though,
I enjoyed it.

**Best book I didn't finish:  _The Road_, Cormac McCarthy

I like McCarthy's books, particularly the sense that the land is a character
in the story, and that's probably what ruined _The Road_ for me.  Everywhere
the man and his son went, they were walking on the corpse of the earth, and
it felt so hopeless that eventually I couldn't take it any more.  By
comparison, _Children of Men_ (which I also read for the first time this
year) had moments of that same dread hopelessness, and I would stop reading
for minutes at a time just contemplating what it would be like to be the
last human alive, but at least it didn't feel like everyone was dead

**Best comic series discovery:  B.P.R.D. by Mike Mignola et. al.

I had to browse the comics a lot this year because my children are reading
manga and I want to at least have some idea what they're reading.  This
series is an offshoot of Hellboy and it's just too cool for words.  Dark and
brooding and literate and all that.

and, of course...

**Worst Book of 2008: _The Sleeping God_, Violette Malan

I'm sure this isn't actually the worst book of the year, and since I didn't
read it, it almost shouldn't qualify, but there's a story attached to it.

Jacob is far more likely to try a new book by an unknown author than I am.
I'm the collector; I'm not going to pay money for something that might be
crap and take up space on the counter that more deserving books could use.
We were at the bookstore and I was shopping for a gift, so I ranged all over
the place, but he stayed in F&SF.  I saw him reading through the first bit
of this book and needled him about it (I'm just as influenced by cover art
as anyone; when I see a book with a couple of warrior-types wearing not
nearly enough to cover their muscular hypertrophy, I stay away from it).  At
this point, he said "read the first page or so" and I assumed that meant
that maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought.

Oh, such innocence.

I thought editors were supposed to prevent dangling participles, too.

He said he was still going to buy it. I told him he'd regret it.  He was
unmoved.  I told him I reserved the right to mock him.  When, three days
later, he finally gave up on it, about 30 pages in, I laughed really hard.
Then I took it back to the bookstore and, with the help of some lovely
dollar bills from my wallet, magically turned it into _The Hunger Games_.

That's it for my reading year.  Here's hoping 2009 will be better. Books on
deck for January include:

_Flora Segunda_ (I have to be in a better mood first)
_Captain's Fury_ and _Princeps' Fury_
_How To Ditch Your Fairy_
that new Meg Cabot book _Airhead_
finish _Maps and Legends_
_Cry of the Icemark_ because a young friend keeps nagging me about it

And for those of you who've stuck it out for this whole email, how about we
start a new round of introductions to welcome the new year?  I think it's
past time to get to know each other again.

Melissa Proffitt

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