It's the end of the year, so it must be time for a list. From the books I read in 2009 — those I reviewed in The Eagle and others — I've selected standouts in several categories:
"The Year of the Flood" by Margaret Atwood
"Science fiction" and "literary" are two ideas not often found together, but people who automatically dismiss SF as less than literature can start with Margaret Atwood to get rid of this notion. In "The Year of the Flood" Atwood creates a detailed world (ours, in the future), populates it with fascinating characters and conceives a compelling plot, while also delving into moral and social issues and even dropping in some biting satire. Marvelously written, exciting and thought-provoking, "The Year of the Flood" was my favorite of 2009.
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Best book by a Kansas author
"A Kansas Year" by Mike Blair
Using the form of journal entries with splendid color photos, Mike Blair has gathered reminders of the everyday natural wonders of Kansas throughout the year. Some of the entries are informative; others are pure poetry. But they are all delightful, and bear repeated readings, a season at a time.
Far more good books come out than any one person can ever get to, and sometimes a really good one goes unnoticed. Then you find it, read it, and wonder where it's been all your life.
"The Gentle Axe" and "A Vengeful Longing" by R.N. Morris
"The Gentle Axe" had been recommended to me as a good detective story, and even though I bought it early in 2008, I didn't get to it until the middle of this year. Good thing, too, because as soon as I was done with it I didn't have to wait for the sequel. Both stories are set in 19th-century St. Petersburg, Russia, and follow the cases of the wise and patient Porfiry Petrovich, last seen as the police inspector in "Crime and Punishment." Morris creates an enveloping atmosphere to surround his intricate, unpredictable plots and richly drawn characters.
Best guilty pleasure
"The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" by Alan Bradley
This mystery is set in an old English country house inhabited by an eccentric old family and their eccentric old servants, where someone turns up dead. What sets this book apart is Flavia de Luce, a precocious preteen with a penchant for chemistry who rides around the countryside on her bike poking her nose where it doesn't belong in order to untangle a murder. It's charming, quirky and fun.
'I want that week of my life back' book
Every once in a while a simply dreadful book comes along, and after you're finished you wonder why you wasted your time with it. Most of these I just quit, but this one was for a review, and as such I felt obliged to see it through.
"Chronic City" by Jonathan Lethem
This book was one I had been really looking forward to reading, which made the disappointment even more profound. Lethem is an incredibly talented writer, but this novel was a waste of those talents. Nothing interesting happens, and the characters are tiresome to boot. And so this book sat there, clogging up my reading queue for an entire week of vacation.