Tag Archives: fiction

Best Books of 2010

I read.  I read fast, and I read a lot, and I read many varied things.   This year I read 135 books, so from among those, here’s my list of the very best.  (You’re welcome to  check out my full reading list on goodreads.com, right here.)

So, in no particular order:

1) Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King.  Great collection of short stories and novellas.  What Stephen does well is make you care, then rip your heart out.  Bah humbug on anyone who says he’s a “genre writer”.  He’s a master, pure and simple.

2) Anasi Boys, by Neil Gaiman.  I’ve held out on reading this one for a long, long time, because I couldn’t bring myself to squander the ‘first read’ of this book.  I knew it would be brilliant, because Neil always is, and I knew it would break my heart a little to never again be able to read it for the first time.

3) I Am Not a Serial Killer, by John Cleaver.  I have waited for this book my entire life.  Seriously…this is the book I always wished someone would write.  The only thing that kept it from being 100% perfect was the author’s decision to take the second half in a supernatural direction.  We don’t really need imaginary monsters when we’ve got real ones.  But.  Still so wonderful.

4) The Way of Boys, by Anthony Rao.  Non-fiction.  Everyone who has a boy, knows a boy, or has ever seen a boy needs to read this.

5) Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok.  Loved this, gave it to my mother to read, and she loved it too.  You don’t know how amazing that is, but it basically proves that there is no one on this planet who would not love this book.

6) The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novak.  Okay, I’m cheating a little here, but I’m not listing an individual book.  But this is brilliantly done fantasy, and I couldn’t single out a single title when they all deserve mention.  If you love dragons, you’ll love this series.  If you hate dragons, or are so sick of seeing them in fantasy books you want to breathe fire, you’ll love this series.  If you love fantasy, it’s a given you’ll love this, but you don’t have to love fantasy, because it’s basically not even fantasy at all, but historial fiction.  Whoever you are, and whatever you like, give the first book a try.  I can nearly guarantee within the first few chapters you’ll be hooked.  Thank you, Sara, for giving me the push to read this!

7) World War Z, by Max Brooks.  Remember what I just said above about liking/hating dragons in fiction?  Replace ‘dragons’ with ‘zombies’ and you’ll have the description for why you’ll love World War Z.

8 ) The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.  Our food production has gone to hell in a handbasket, and unless something is done very very soon to change things, we’re all going to be in deep, deep trouble.

9) Wild Stories, by Colin Thompson.  Children’s stories about the wild and domestic life that lives in one house and backyard.  It brought me to tears many times, and completely charmed me at the same time.  It should be a classic.

10) The Passage, by Justin Cronin.  Intense and well-written.

11) Dragon Keeper/Dragon Haven, by Robin Hobb.  Robin Hobb is one of the top five current fantasy writers.  This is an awesome two-book series, bringing us all back to the “Rain Wild” world we’ve loved since her first series. She does some of the best world-building ever.

12) Ottoman Women Myth & Reality, by Asli Sancar.  Truly interesting non-fiction book that blew my old perceptions of what life was like to be a woman (or a slave) under the Ottoman Empire to smithereens.

13) The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson.  Neil Gaiman and Brandon Sanderson are hands-down the two best writers of fantasy alive today.

And there you have it, my most unforgettable reads of 2010!

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A Year in Books

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions.  I tend to celebrate my ‘new year feelings’ on July 4th anyway, which is when I get all introspective and moody on the previous year, and give myself either a thumbs up or down.

But, to celebrate the ‘official’ New Years, I’m making a not-really-resolution to read (and write) more good books.  (Hey, I was totally going to do that anyway!)  By my best count, I’ve read 110 books this year, and when I go through the list, I can single out 11 of those as being truly good books.  The sort of books that, months later, when I see their titles written down, they give me that tingle of happy memory.  Here they are (in no particular order of goodness):

Black Juice, by Margo Lanagan.  This is a collection of short stories, and while I don’t remember most of the stories in it, one does stand out as being one of the top five short stories I’ve read in my entire life: Singing My Sister Down.  I still get chills, thinking of it!

Tesla: Man out of Time, by Margaret Cheney. This non-fiction book about America’s true genius will completely change your view of history.

Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater. Wonderful and haunting.

Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks. The first of a fantasy trilogy, and the others are equally good.  Deep, shocking, and twisty!

Mimus, by Jeffrey Masson. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, this is character-driven fantasy at its very best.

Bess of Hardwick, by Mary Lovell. Non-fiction about an incredible Elizabethan woman.  And my ancestor!

In the Woods, by Tara French. Beautifully written study of character, masquerading as a mystery.

Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson. If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you already know the strong adoration I have for Sanderson’s writing.  He’s brilliant.

Common Sense, by Glenn Beck. Non-fiction about the trouble we’ve sunk America into and how to save ourselves.  This should be required reading for every American.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. One of the absolute best accounts by an unreliable narrator I’ve ever seen.  Twisty, chilling, and mesmerizing.

Project X, by Jim Shepard. I can’t stop reading this book.  I’ve read it cover to cover three times, and every now and then I dip at random into it, just for the pleasure it gives me.  So true, and so perfect, this one has a forever place in my Top Five Books.

And that’s the 2009 Eleven Books I Loved.  When I was writing out this list, however, I was disappointed that several books I could have sworn I read in 2009 just missed making this list, having been read in late-ish 2008.  Since I can’t bear to leave their titles unspoken, I made a second list, of the Thirteen Books I Loved in 2008.  Again, in no particular order, I give you:

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Grown-ups who don’t read “children’s books” are missing out.  This one is more eerie than Stephen King and more delightful.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. So. Bloody. Good.

Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. The man’s a master of words, and this is a true treasure.

Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson. This is the last book in a trilogy, and while I read all three with massive amounts of enjoyment, I chose the final book for my list, because this is where everything you think you know about his world and characters flips upside down, and you are left with your mouth hanging open in shock and your heart racing.

Time Traveler’s Wife, byAudrey Niffenegger. Brilliant story, brilliantly told.

Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan. Bears and girls and twisted fairy tales, oh my.

Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt. If you drive a car, ride in a car, or walk near a car, you should read this non-fiction book.  It could very well save your life.  And it’s fascinating!

Passage, by Connie Willis. It sucks you in and won’t let you go.  Brain science and the Titanic, flawlessly mingled into a totally original work of fiction.

The Ghost Writer, by John Harwood. Okay, I will admit that the ending was flawed.  But the rest of the story more than made up for it.  Chilling and twisty.

Shadow Man, by Cody McFadyen.  Gory, riveting thriller.  Unlike some of those other guys (coughpattersoncough) McFadyen can write.  Lyrical and lovely even at its most disturbing, it doesn’t skimp on the thrills or plot.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Massive tome, massive but quiet story that lulls you with its delightful language and whimsy, only to creep up on you and half throttle you with nail-biting suspense in the last half.  Not to be missed.  There really is absolutely NOTHING else remotely like it in the literary world.

The Unthinkable – Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, by Amanda Ripley. Here’s another book that could be life-saving, and it makes for fascinating reading as well.

Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon. This is a undescribable and brilliant work of fiction.  Part coming of age, part fantasy, part mystery, part thriller, it brings me to tears every time I read it.  It’s one of those perfect works of fiction that touches you no matter how many times you’ve read it before.  I make a practice of reading it every few years.  Another Top Five Forever.

And there you have it, Alisa’s Year(s) in Books.  If you want to see the other books that didn’t make my lists, you can check me and my book reviews out on goodreads.com.

The Bridegroom Arrives in Sarn

Below is an excerpt from a fantasy work-in-progress.  Hope you enjoy!

The city of Sarn is built of red stone, tier on tier of high balcony and tower.  By night the stone is black, but it holds the heat of blood until morning, having soaked up sunlight with the jealous avidity of an old man licking up a virgin’s tears.  Sarn at night is a place of tombs, of revels.

But all of this is only what is written in books, by men who have not been there.  There are no tales told of Sarn, only rumors.

Lining the wharf were iron cages, gilded over with thin, flaking peels of gold.  And in the cages were strange, elongated people, people with silver-smooth skin and perfect features, people with long silken tangles of hair that seemed to shimmer and dance over their shoulders and down their naked bodies.

I stared; everyone in my caravan stared.  The heat of Sarn’s red stone burned up through the thin leather ship soles of my boots and a fine red dust wafted up through the swirl of our cloaks and into my face.  The dust burned like pepper on my tongue and in my throat.

“Where is the welcome?” my captain asked, staring in open dismay at the confusion before us.  “My lord, perhaps it were better we should return to our ship.”

“No!”  Narus, my youngest retainer tore his gaze off the iron cages and held out his hands to the city, where we could clearly see the tall sharp spires of the Bloody Hall.  “Should we hide on our ship like frightened children?  My lord, if they will not come to us, let us go to them – let us storm their city like true conquerors!”

In truth, I did not want to return to the ship myself.  My throat was afire with the dust of Sarn.

“We will go,” I said, “by that road,” and I pointed down the market street, where the iron cages stood.

“My lord,” the captain protested, but I pushed past him, Narus so close behind me that he trod on my cloak.  My other retainers followed, leaving the captain scrambling to assemble a proper guard.

It was more than a slave market; Sarn was a city whose breasts gave suck to the sea while her buttocks perched on the desert cliffs.  Everything could and did come to her, either by caravan or ship; and there were things in that market that I had never even heard described in my land.   Small glass balls held light captive, cloth rippled with strange colors, exotic spices and queer twittering birds with frail claws and trailing feathers that drooped in the red dust.  Jewelry of gold and rare stones, mahogany chests spilling out brilliant silks and gold thread, velvet-furred cats, and cats with no fur at all, books bound in thin leather and each letter painted by a monk’s hand, monkeys, and silvery black and gold fish.

But the slaves were the heart of Sarn’s market.  Not just the beautiful ones, those caged as the centerpiece, but also the slaves in the cages of bent and ugly iron in the side alleys of the market, the slaves who were twisted and ugly as their cages, inhuman in horrible ways that made me shudder.  They had horns or hairless fleshy tails, or faces mashed inward like pugs, or boars’ tusks, or masses of black curled hair covering their bodies.  Their eyes glinted yellow and slitted like cats’, sly in their ugly brutish faces.

One of the Sarnese merchants spied us lingering beside his iron cages and sauntered out of his striped tent, taking in our wealth with a casual glance at our boots and weapons.

“I have a pretty fae who likes to dance,” he said, “she moves like a wave, all curve and passion.”  He insinuated his body between us, turning us back toward the gilded cages and his more expensive wares.

“She is all pleasure, for a patron of the arts.”  He ran his finger lightly down a gilded cage, watching for my reaction.  The fae inside was round-fleshed and pearly-skinned, with masses of golden hair that wound around her ankles and spilled out of her cage and into the red dust.  Her hands lay palm-up and limp beside her thighs, as passionate as dead fish.

“Or perhaps…”  The merchant gave me an evaluating stare and then turned us toward the cages filled with beautiful men. “Perhaps my Prince would prefer one of these?  They are the best of their kind, easily taught in all skills, from acrobatics, to serving, to…whatever pleases my lord.”

I told myself to be impassive, and must have succeeded because the merchant smiled instead of seeking shelter behind his cages.

“Where do these people come from?” I asked.  “Do you breed them as you do your camels?”  There were so many rumors told of Sarn’s slaves, these fae who do not thrive outside of Sarn, who spindle and die if they are transported beyond Sarn’s port.

“They are all wild-capture; they cannot be bred.”  The merchant idly smoothed down the curls of one of the fae men.  “Let me make you a gift for your welcome, Prince – whichever of these you favor most is yours.”

My captain’s fingers closed on my arm although I did not need his warning.  I knew not to accept bribes from these people, these sly Sarnese.  But it did not matter; I did not want one of these strange fae, who watched with the dissipated coolness of cats despite their cages.

“I have servants of my own.”

The merchant shrugged and bowed over his hands as he stepped backward into the blowing shade of his pavilion, the stripes undulating with heat mirage.

“Great heavens,” my captain murmured, releasing my arm.  I don’t know whether he was reacting to the fae, or simply the heat.

A horn blew, echoed in cacophony by a dozen more, and my captain’s hand went to his sword.  He looked down the market street and his hand fell away in fresh astonishment.

Sarn had come to greet us at last.

A menagerie of strange animals rumbled toward us: camels and lithe desert horses with scarlet tack and pompoms tied to their reins, tiny wild-caught deer crowned by massive gilded antlers and ridden by winged fae, goats, zebras, giraffes, and little dun-colored cats that weaved with military precision through the differently jointed legs.  Towering over the other beasts was an elephant, ridden by a man who was neither fae nor Sarnese.

He looked like one of my own people, well-tanned and leanly muscled, with a just-barely tamed tangle of dirty blond hair.  He was even dressed more in the style of my people than of the Sarnese: simple well-cut breeches and shirt, tied with a sash and a belt for his sword, although my people didn’t wear such a clash of colors as he did, blues and reds and oranges and purples.

He threw out his arms as he approached and slid off the back of the elephant, the elephant coiling her trunk around his waist to ease his drop to the ground, and walked to us with a slightly effeminate swagger.  It seemed deliberately false to me, and I didn’t protest when my captain drew his dagger and stepped between us.

“Who are you and what do you want with my prince?”  It was hardly the most politic greeting, but I could hardly blame my captain for his assumptions.

The elephant rider stopped short, cocking his head.  “Why, do assassins always come riding an elephant and blatting horns in your land?  Shouldn’t you assume I’m here to welcome and greet your prince and react accordingly?”  He tutted and turned his attention to me, bowing with an elaborate courtesy that seemed as false as his swagger.  I wondered if he were mocking me.

“I am called Gilly, and I am sent to bring you to the Court of the Seven Daughters.  Will you be welcomed freely, or must I fight your man for the honor of escorting you?”

My captain put up his dagger, glowering.  “We’re not riding those blooming elephants.  Not any of the other things either.  We’ll walk, if Sarn’s hospitality can’t spring for a carriage.”

Gilly didn’t turn so much as a eyelash toward him, keeping all his spotless attention sorely for me.  It felt odd, as though I should be looking for an enemy sneaking up behind me.  “If my prince will come with me?  Your men may return to their ship, or to their own country, whichever they prefer.”

“We’ll come with the prince,” my captain said.  His fingers were twitching in the folds of his breeches, wishing he hadn’t put away his dagger, but clearly feeling he would lose face if he drew it again.  “We don’t leave the prince’s side, and we don’t go home until he does.”

“I think you’ll find,” Gilly said, still entirely focused on me, “that your contract clearly states that you only are welcomed into Sarn’s court – as the Bridegroom – for the Sarnese court does not welcome outsiders.  The contract also states that should the Sarnese fail to guard your safety, their kingdom will fall to yours.  There can be no higher surety than this.”

“You’re not Sarnese,” I said.  I knew what the contract said, although I had naturally assumed that ‘you’ meant me and my retainers.  That the Sarnese would demand I separate from my servants, I had not considered.  I wondered if my father had known when he had signed it.

Gilly shrugged.  “Your men cannot make the sacrifices that I have made in order to belong.”