Okay! On to the books that I WOULD actually recommend. We're going to take this in two parts, because I can't get it all written right now.
Ten Best Books I Read in 2008 Part One
(I realize that I didn't say this about the Ten Worst, but they were in no particular order. The Ten Best will also be in no particular order. Ranking things makes my head hurt.)
1. Bridge of Sighs - Richard Russo - If you've read Empire Falls (also by Russo), this one has a similar feel. Small town, a family of characters that you follow throughout their lives. If you haven't read Empire Falls, get on it. Seriously, you are missing out. That is one of the best books I've ever read. It would make a Top Ten list of all the books I've ever read, if I were ever to put one of those together. Russo is the master of the small town and absolutely brilliant at creating characters about whom you care and want to know every detail of their lives.
2. So Brave, Young and Handsome - Leif Enger - I'm sure that no one is surprised that this made the list, given how much I talked about it when it came out. Still, I'll say it again - it's a gorgeous book, written with a midwestern simplicity and sensibility (that's a compliment, in case you can't tell). The characters are fully fleshed, three dimensional and very real. I'll also throw in another recommendation for his first novel, Peace Like a River, which may be a little better than So Brave, Young and Handsome, but they're both excellent.
3. Driving Sideways - Jess Riley - I read this because I found Jess' blog and thought she was funny. I wrote a review to help Jess get the word out about her novel, and she sent me a signed copy. The book is about a young woman who recieves a kidney transplant and thinks that she's channeling her donor. So she hits the road to travel to the home of her donor and learn more about him. Things turn to be quite different from what she imagines, and her health takes a turn for the worse. The book is part comedy, part road trip, part drama. And all of it works beautifully. The story walks a fine line between heartwrenching and uplifting and never descends into maudlin sentimentality or Pollyanna-ish cheesiness.
4. The Rabbit Factory - Marshall Karp - This book has everything. On the surface, it is the story of two cops investigating a series of murders that are taking place on and around a very big theme park corporation (obviously modeled on the Disney empire). And the mystery story is fine, if a bit predictable. That's not what sets this book apart. The main character, a cop named Mike Lomax, is the heart and soul of the book. It is his story and the growth and changes that he experiences that set this book head and shoulders above other mysteries. Several things are going on in Mike's life - he recently lost his beloved wife, after a long and painful illness, and she left letters for him to read each month for a year after her death. His dad, who has been through the same thing (the death of his own beloved wife, Mike's mother), and is happily remarried, is urging Mike to get back into life and start dating again. Their interactions are brilliant. Through his dad's meddling, you can see how much he loves Mike and wants to help him. The characters are wonderful, real and human and powerful. And the character arc of Mike Lomax is a thing of beauty.
5. Belong to Me - Marisa de los Santos - This is a quiet little story about a young couple who move from the city to the suburbs. They struggle to find their place and make new friends. They've struggled in the past with infertility, which isn't discussed, but implied. Gradually, the wife befriends a lady and her son, also newcomers to the suburb. And she becomes pregnant. But when her new friend meets her husband, secrets are revealed. This book is a total sleeper. Everything's moving along quietly, the couple is assimilating into their new home, and then bang! A bomb is dropped on the story. The storyline is believable, which is the key to a book like this. If it hadn't been realistic, the book would have been awful. It's also extremely well-written, which never hurts.
Coming later today or tomorrow - Part Two - Books 6-10.
Edited to Add: Crap! I forgot to thank Shelly Overlook for recommending The Rabbit Factory. I picked it up based on her review.