Friday, December 30, 2011

My Best Books I Read in 2011 Lists: Best Fiction, Young Adult, and Short Stories

I love this time of the year, this looking back and making lists reflecting on the year gone by and what lies ahead. And with all that comes my annual list of the Best Books I Read in 2011.

I'm probably going to end 2011 with having read either 69 or 70 books, depending on how the next day or so goes. (I'd like to get to that nice round number of 70.) So, while this seems like a lengthy list, it's really not when you look at it as a percentage. Still, it was a pretty good reading year, all things considered. 

My usual disclaimer applies: these are books that I read in 2011, not necessarily books that were published in 2011 (although there are are few of those as well). I've broken my annual list down for you into two separate posts.  In this post, I'll give you my picks for:
Best Fiction

Best Books That Are Marketed for Young Adults But That Completely Blew Me Away and Are Ones That Every Grown Up Should Read;

Best Short Story Collections

In a separate (and shorter) post that will go up either later today or tomorrow, I'll give you my Best Memoirs/Essays and Best Nonfiction lists.  The descriptions are from my reviews; you can click on the links in the title to read the review in its entirety.  (Some I didn't write a review for - and I'm guessing that, at this point, that's not going to be happening - but they are ones that still stay with me even months later which is even more a testament to how lasting and wonderful they are!) Books are listed alphabetically, by author's last name.

Best Fiction 

"And both of us luxuriate in the village yard with words that have a lover's lightning - lightning that can shake the world, invert what is for what ought to be."  (pg. 161) Words that have a lover's lightning.  How can any reader not love that phrase?  And words like that, my friends, are part and parcel of the treat you're in for with this superb novel. 

Jerome Charyn makes Emily Dickinson so intriguing, capturing her voice and her feisty spirit in such a way that you can't help but want to keep reading and learning more.The reader is taken on a wonderful literary ride through Emily's life (Charyn writes in the beginning which elements of the book are fictional, which is very helpful because that is one of my personal stumbling blocks with historical fiction). We meet her beaus and her Holyoke friends, her headmistresses, and her family. We see her as a budding poet and as a recluse, forever in mourning of the deaths that affected her and would become a force in her poetry.  

By Nightfall is a novel about internal and external beauty and what happens to us when we feel that the beauty has gone out of our lives. Peter Harris knows a little something about beauty. He's a 44 year old art dealer in New York City with a respectable client list and a slight case of insomnia, living in SoHo with his 41 year old wife Rebecca.  Like many professional couples who have been married and have been parents for a number of years (21 of them), theirs has become a marriage (a life) of complacency, of routine and familiarity, of going through the everyday motions of jobs, of sex, of social obligations. By Nightfall is much more of a in-depth look at who we are as a person, and how we relate to each other, and the questions we ask ourselves in the middle of the night as we sense our life becoming not what we anticipated.

(Cunningham's debut novel, A Home at the End of the World, which I also read this year, deserves an honorable mention on this list. I'm just not sure how I feel about the last third of the book. It felt rushed, too tidy. But the writing, my God ....)

The first thing you need to understand about Room is that this is so much more than your regular novel, and about so much more than the actual plot.  So much more.

From the book jacket:  To five-year old Jack, Room is the world. It's where he was born. It's where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack's imagination - the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells, the imaginary world projected through the TV, the coziness of Wardrobe below Ma's clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night in case Old Nick comes.  

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it's the prison where she has been held since she was nineteen - for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven foot space.  But Jack's curiosity is building alongside her own desperation - and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer."  

It is original in respect to the writing - for it is the mark of a true talent to sustain the incredibly authentic voice of a five-year-old over the course of a novel, which Emma Donoghue (a mother of two young children herself) does brilliantly.  The pacing is perfect and has you on the edge of your seat.  While Room is indeed very tense in parts, this isn't a gory or graphic novel. (Donoghue could have easily gone down that road, but didn't, and it works just as well.)

The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano 

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

(I had a review written in Drafts, attempted to copy and paste a portion thereof here for you, and promptly deleted whole damn thing. Sadly, it was really good. Almost as good as the book, which I really loved and which was the first book I read on my Kindle.) 

Internal and interpersonal conflicts, those spoken and unspoken, are at the heart of Children and Fire. Thekla - a teacher of 9 year old boys - is a complicated, conflicted woman, proud of her independence but who learns that it has come at a price paid by others' dependence and guilt. While she's thrilled to have finally landed a teaching position after ten years, it comes with a combination of guilt and loyalty to her beloved teacher and mentor, Sonja Siderova. There's the personal torment of those in her family (her mother Almut, her father Wilhelm) that they can never escape, that keeps them prisoners in their minds. There's Thekla's inability to commit to Emil, whom she loves but who she won't allow herself to fully love. ("Loving was different. It was only the falling she minded. She wished she could love like a man, be skin only, lust only. Her friend Emil was good practice." pg. 13)

The structure of Children and Fire works beautifully and provides for the novel's tension, particularly toward the end. The chapters alternate between February 27, 1937 as we follow Thekla and her students through their school day and the years 1899 - 1933 which provides the critical elements to the novel's backstory such as the relationship between Thekla's parents and a wealthy Jewish couple in town and her father's family tragedy.  The day that the current action takes place, Tuesday, February 27, 1937, is not random; it's the one year anniversary of a fire that destroyed the Reichstag, the parliment building in Berlin.  Even though that fire was hundreds of miles away from quiet and quaint Burgdorf, there is the fear that whatever evil force was responsible for the fire will eventually come to their small village. (And as the reader knows from history, it surely will.)

The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd 

In this National Book Award winning novel, Colum McCann transports his reader to New York on August 7, 1974. There, high atop the city and on a wire strung between the newly constructed World Trade Center towers (which are not even at half their full office capacity), is tightrope walker Phillipe Petit, strolling and soft-shoeing his way across the skyscrapers, 110 stories above the concrete jungle below.  

But although the fundambulist's story is at the center of the novel, Let the Great World Spin is really about the stories of those who witnessed this daring act and those whose lives were therefore affected by it.  While the tightrope walk really did happen, the fictitious literary liberties taken by McCann are within these stories.  As with Olive Kitteridge (another novel within stories that I adored), all of these characters are not simply witnesses; they are all connected. How McCann shows this while drawing his reader into a New York of August 1974 - a time when the Bronx was burning, a time defined by Vietnam and boys who didn't make it home - is the brilliance of this novel.  

The characters who inhabit this world are vivid, incredibly true to life and alive on the pages.  We see Tillie and Jazzlyn, a mother-daughter prostitute pair living in the Bronx.  We see Corrigan, an Irish immigrant and priest who is one of the more complex characters in the novel, and his brother Ciaran who is stymied as to how best to help.  There's Claire, a grieving mother whose only child was killed in Vietnam despite working on computer programs and seeing a future that included computers being interlinked and having the ability to communicate with one another. Let the Great World Spin is about the everyday (a car crash, a judge presiding over a case, a group of ladies gathering for tea) and the extraordinary.  

It is about the extraordinary moments in the everyday.

I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn 

Every once in awhile, a novel comes along with the power to significantly change one's perspective while simultaneously being a beacon of hope for people who have been forgotten, who are disenfranchised, and who remain on the fringes of society.  

It happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee that illuminated race relations in the Deep South. And it has the potential to happen again (as I hope and pray it does) with The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

Just as To Kill a Mockingbird was and still is, The Story of Beautiful Girl is also a game-changer, this time for people with developmental disabilities who were, once upon a time, "put away," sent to stark and barbaric institutions with cringeworthy names like The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, forgotten by families and by the world as a whole.

That's the name of the fictitious Pennsylvania "school" where Lynnie Goldberg was placed as a young child by her middle-class, Caucasian family who didn't have the emotional wherewithal to cope with and accept her developmental disability. Such was common in the 1950s and 60s, a time when parents were advised to put their children away to better "forget" about their mistakes in the form of their children who were labeled as imbeciles, idiots, incurable.

(But as The Story of Beautiful Girl illustrates so clearly, forgetting becomes impossible to do when hearts are involved, even when the distance of years and place come into play.)

At the School, Lynnie - who is mute - meets Homan, an African American man who is deaf, but who is only known to the school officials as a John Doe, Number Forty-Two.  (He is based on a real person.) There they become friends and fall deeply in love amidst the neglect and abuse that was all too prevalent in such institutions (and which still exists today, here, in the United States).  Lynnie is also pregnant, and during one storm-filled November night in 1968, the couple escapes from the School.  A baby girl is born, and the couple finds refuge - temporarily - with Martha, a retired widowed schoolteacher living in a remote place, both in terms of place (her home) and in terms of the fragile, unresolved feelings she still carries after her husband's emotional distance and loss of their only child.  Read the rest of my review here.

Books That Are Marketed for Young Adults but That Completely Blew Me Away and are Ones that Every Grown Up Should Read 

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

With Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine gives an incredibly heartfelt and wonderful gift to people with Asperger's Syndrome, their parents and teachers, and their peers.  

It is, quite simply, the gift of knowing that there is someone (Erskine herself) who "gets it."  And that knowledge, that understanding, is truly something "good and strong and beautiful," to quote one of the many themes that resonate through this book. 

When we meet fifth grader Caitlin Smith, her world seems to be anything but good and strong and beautiful.  It is a world where her mother died when she was 3, and her beloved brother Devon was recently killed (along with several others) during a school shooting.  Left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives are Caitlin and her grieving father. 

While such a tragedy would be difficult for anyone to comprehend, it is compounded even moreso by the fact that Caitlin has Asperger's Syndrome.  Her world is very much like the charcoal drawings she creates: black and white.  No color, no gray area, no ambiguity.  All that is confusing to Caitlin, and she struggles - oh, how she struggles! - to make sense of the senseless, to cope with feelings, to try and reach the elusive closure.  Read the rest of my review here

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

This is more fairy tale than fright-fest, more enchantment than gore.  Right from the first couple pages, I was captivated by the story of a baby who crawls away from his family - all murdered - to live among the larger-than-life spirits in a nearby graveyard.  
"Ever since the child had learned to walk he had been his mother's and father's despair and delight, for there never was such a boy for wandering, for climbing up things, for getting into and out of things. That night, he had been woken by the sound of something on the floor beneath him falling with a crash. Awake, he soon became bored, and had begun looking for a way out of his crib. It had high sides, like the walls of his playpen downstairs, but he was convinced that he could scale it. All he needed was a step ..."  (pg 10-11)
C'mon, doesn't that make you want read on to find out what happens to the orphaned boy?  

What happens is that he makes his way to a nearby graveyard where he is taken in by the kindly souls that reside there.  He gets parents and a new name ("Nobody Owens," and is nicknamed Bod), and a guardian named Silas.  They teach him practical things, like history and the alphabet and how to Fade and Haunt.  In Bod, Gaiman creates such an endearing, lovable character that you just want to scoop him up and adopt him.  He evokes your sympathy, first with the loss of his entire family and then as he is ignored by much of the world when he does, on occasion, venture out of the graveyard. 

You Are My Only is the story of Emmy Rane, a devoted young mother who does what every mother has innocently done: leaves her baby unattended for the briefest of moments. On a still, bright day, outside in the yard while tucked snug in the branches of a tree swing, four month old Baby goes missing.  The only trace of her is one single yellow sock.

You can see this unfold because we have all experienced this - a simple act that results in the shifting and forever changing of lives - and you can see this in the opening pages of You Are My Only because Beth Kephart takes you right there.  You're with Emmy in her moments of desperate terror (anyone who has ever had a child wander off, gone missing even for mere moments, knows this piercing anguish). You're right there when Emmy's emotionally and physically abusive husband is in her face, accusing her of being a bad mother by causing Baby's disappearance through her carelessness.

From there, You Are My Only alternates between two timeframes and two points of view: Emmy Rane's, as she endures the days and months after Baby's disappearance, and Sophie Marks' (formerly Baby) who is now 14 and living an always-on-the-run-from-the-No-Good life with Cheryl, the only mother she has ever known. The way in which this story unfolds for its reader is beautifully written, with Kephart's signature lyrical prose infusing each page. 

You Are My Only is a story that reflects the times in which we live.  While there have always been hearts-held-captive baby-gone-missing stories in our nation's history (think Lindbergh, think Elizabeth Smart, think Jaycee Dugard) having this fictional one appear now brings a powerful message in these dark days of personal despair and economic uncertainty for so many.  With You Are My Only, Kephart is saying that we have the strength within us to endure the darkness and break through into the light. It is a message that she personally knows well, and it shows - beautifully, triumphantly - in this novel.  

Sixteen-year old Jacob Portman and his grandfather Abe have a special relationship. They're connected in a way that transcends familial bonds, and in a way that mystifies (and maddens) Jacob's emotionally-distant parents. Their closeness allows Jacob to become curious about his grandfather's past, about the "peculiar" children he grew up with (and the reasons for their peculiarity) and why they still so much a part of Abe's life today.

Abe's past is one spent in a children's home (that would be Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), located off the coast of Wales.  Jacob and his orinithologist father travel to this remote island for two purposes: bird-watching and research for the father and for Jacob, to discover the origins of the stories his grandfather held close to his heart while cryptically sharing details with Jacob. What begins as Abe's story continues as Jacob's, and as he discovers truths he never imagined, author Ransom Riggs takes his reader right there to Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  Read the rest of my review here

 Best Short Story Collections 

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Stories by Yiyun Li 

Everybody Loves Somebody
Stories by Joanna Scott 

Some additional Honorable Mentions:
The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris
Ford County: Stories by John Grisham 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson 
Dangerous Neighbors, by Beth Kephart
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary E. Pearson 
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork

Have you read any of these? Did any of them make your Best Of 2011 list ... or make it onto your list of books you'd like to read in 2012? Regardless, hope you have a Happy New Year ... and Happy Reading!

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


LBC said...

Awesome list and I was really happy to see The Story of Beautiful Girl on your list. It was on my top ten of the year as well, and I really feel that it deserves a wider readership. Happy New Year!

JoAnn said...

Love your list, Melissa! Room is on my best of audio list and I can't believe I haven't gotten to By Nightfall yet. Haven't heard of this Ursula Hegi, but really enjoyed a couple of her other books. Let the Great World Spin was on my list last year. Look forward to your non-fiction/memoir post.

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

What a brilliant list you have. Especially in the YA genre. Must add...

Marce said...

What a really great list. Go watch Secret Life of Bees, omg I am not a crier but that had me tearing the whole time, a little embarrassing at times, lol

Happy New Year

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I've been nervous about Room for a long time...maybe I'll give it a try...great list! said...

I've read both The Monsters of Templeton and Let The Great World Spin. While I agree with you on the Groff book, I have to disagree with you with McCann's book. I just couldn't get into it...I got about halfway through and just gave up. Maybe someday I'll try again.

Trish said...

Wonderful list. Mockingbird made mine as well (posted on Saturday), as did Room, and I have read several of the others as well as put a few on them on my TBR list (probably from your initial reviews!).

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Great list. I don't do much YA. But, I really liked The Story of Beautiful Girl. It was so well written and such a tender, poignant story.

2 Kids and Tired Books

Sue Jackson said...

Great list!! Room and The Story of Beautiful Girl were two of my favorites from last year, too. Too bad you moved...Rachel Simon lives here in Wilmington! She came to our book group discussion, and we all had a wonderful time.

I just discovered your memoir challenge - perfect for me! I love memoirs.


Great Books for Kids and Teens

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Sue Jackson said...

Oh, and I read 68 books last year - about the same as you!