Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Best Books of 2008

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.


Pickles and Dimes said...

Nice! I haven't read any of these yet, but I am 153rd in line at the library to read Enger's latest. Stupid small library.

Tess said...

I haven't read any of these either! On to the Wishlist they go!

Alice said...

YAAAAAY. i have an actual list of Things To Buy When I Need Good Stuff To Read, so these are ALL going on there. thank you!!

Fiona Picklebottom said...

ANOTHER list with nothing I've read on it? Wow. I'll have to remedy that. The last 2 look particularly interesting to me. I'm heading over to Bookmooch to update my wishlist.

Anonymous said...

I love Richard Russo. I heard him give a reading once a few years ago and he was a delightful person.

I cannot say enough good about the Lomax & Biggs series by Marshall Karp. The second book is as good as the first, which never happens, and the third comes out in March (finally!). Bonus is the fact that Marshall Karp is a really great guy. Terrifically funny, seems very genuine and "real" despite his success.

Shelly said...

Shauna - Dude, I have two words for you - "Barnes" and "Noble". 153rd is just not high enough. Oh! And I read Lin Enger's book, Undiscovered Country, which was also quite good. Not Top Ten good, but good.

Shelly said...

Tess - These are MUCH better choices than Out. You will like them much better.

Shelly said...

Alice - you're welcome! I love recommending books to my friends. I hope you enjoy them.

Shelly said...

Fiona - Knowing how much you read, and how much I read, isn't it amazing that we don't overlap more? Yet when you list books, I haven't read any of them, and when I list books, you haven't read any of them. Mysteries of the universe...

Shelly said...

Shelly - I am so glad to hear that Richard Russo is nice. I LOVE his books. And Marshall Karp sounds very nice, too. I read Blood Thirsty this year, too, and really liked it as well. It didn't make the Top Ten, but it was quite good. I'm excited to hear that there's another one coming out soon. Thanks again for recommending these!

Marshall said...


I know you don't expect the author to show up on your site, but here I am. Thanks for naming The Rabbit Factory to your top ten. It's especially gratifying that you zeroed in on Mike Lomax and his story.

I've always been a character driven writer and I created Mike in my head (and in one chapter) 5 years before I even started writing The Rabbit Factory. And then he grew. Some of the things he did surprised even me, but I rolled with him. What surprised me most was that after the book was done, it went from a standalone to a series. So I agree -- the mystery story was fine (maybe I don't entirely agree with the predictable part), but Mike is the heart and soul of the book.

When I sat down to write Bloodthirsty I wrote the first 6 chapters with Terry Biggs, the funny cop, as the narrator. It was funny. But no heart. So I scrapped it, and went back to Mike as first person. Terry can be funny as third person in Mike's world, but I think the intimacy between Mike and the reader is what transformed the book and the series into all those nice things you said.

Book 3, Flipping Out, will be released April 1. I'm setting up a blog tour and if you'd be interested in an advance copy and you're willing to post a review one day in April, let me know. My contact info is on my site,

I'd also be glad to do Q&A with your readers on that day. Thanks again for a great blog. It's the leading contender for my Best Blogs of 2009 list.

Marshall Karp

Shelly said...

Marshall - WELCOME! Thank you so much for your visit. I did not expect you to visit, but I'm honored that you did. I absolutely loved Rabbit Factory and Bloodthirsty was quite good as well (the mystery is better in Bloodthirsty! : )
I like the character Terry Biggs, but I agree that he's the sideman.
I would LOVE to help you get the word out about Flipping Out and would be delighted to receive an advance copy. And my readers and I would be honored to have a Q&A with you. Thank you for the kind words about my blog. I'm truly honored that you visited. Please come back anytime.