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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Top 10 best and worst books I read in 2008

I had originally intended to eschew the "best of 2008" and "worst of 2008" trend that always appears at the end of the year.((I still intend to avoid resolutions.)) However, one of the best websites I discovered in 2008 was Goodreads. Since joining in May, I can't recommend it enough. A self-proclaimed bibliophile, much of my leisure time goes toward reading. Thanks to a terrible memory, I have trouble recalling the particulars of books I've read; my reviews usually emerge as hazy generalizations that make me feel like I didn't read the book at all. Continuing my trend of using technology to replace my memory, Goodreads helps me organize my books; I can keep track not only of books I've read, but I also add books I want to read. It's pretty much awesome.

So I thought, since I can actually remember what books I read this year, why not post a top 10 list of the best and worst books I read in 2008? Technically, this is "best and worst since May 2008", since that's when I started using Goodreads. Even so, I had trouble paring down each list to only ten books--I can only imagine it'll be more difficult to do next year when I have twelve months' worth of books from which to choose.

Top 10 Best Books I Read in 2008

10. The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards

The Memory Keeper's Daughter cover From my review:

This is a story of curdled bitterness. One of the main characters tears his family in two and creates a gaping wound that doesn't heal until several decades later. A tale of "twins separated at birth", The Memory Keeper's Daughter explores how the secret complications of that separation affect all the members of the two families that raise these twins....

9. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose cover My review contains spoilers, so read it at your own risk:

It took me a long time to finish this book (perhaps the longest time it's ever taken me to read a book). Umberto Eco sets out not just to provide another pulp fiction fodder for the masses, but to construct a richly-textured story--or rather, history--with elements of mystery, rhetoric, and religion. As a result of the book's depth, not to mention its lengthy passages of medieval rhetoric, I started this in October and am only now finishing it; I read other books on the side to keep myself occupied. But the length of time it takes me to read a book is irrelevant, as long as I enjoy it. And that I did....

8. The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

The Monsters of Templeton coverJudging from the other reviews, this is one of those books where you either love it or hate it, for the exact same reasons. Where I see wonderful voice and interesting plot, others see purple prose and pretentious fiction. And that's fine.

First I read this book with curiosity and, I confess, not a little scepticism. Then I read this book with pleasure and even, perhaps, morbid anticipation. Finally, as I turned the last few pages and the book spoke to me of endings and new beginnings, I read this book with appreciation and wonder....

7. Small Favor, by Jim Butcher

Small Favor cover The tenth book in Butcher's bestselling Dresden Files series brings us yet another cover that showcases Harry Dresden in his trademark duster, hat, toting his trusty staff. From my review:

This may be the best Dresden Files book yet....

The blending of mystery with urban fantasy is tangible and potent. Few can do it so well. This novel is great in that respect, because urban fantasy lovers can read it and get exposed to a little mystery they might otherwise ignore; mystery lovers likewise get some urban fantasy. Yet Butcher remembers the golden rule of genre writing: the genre is a setting, not a story. This book is not about faeries, or wizards, or magic, or solving a crime. It is an action adventure with motifs of temptation, redemption, suffering, and all that makes us human. It's a story, set in a world of faerie, magic, and crime. What's not to like?

6. Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy, edited by Gardner R. Dozois

Wizards cover Anthologies are a great way to discover new authors. I picked this one up because it had stories by favourite authors like Neil Gaiman and Orson Scott Card. Along the way, I've come up with a few new names I can explore.

5. Dreamsongs: Short Works (Volume 1), by George R.R. Martin

Dreamsongs cover What a great way to tide us over until Martin gets around to finishing the next book in his epic A Song of Ice and Fire saga. Whether you're new to Martin's work or a fan, like me, you'll enjoy this large and varied collection of his earlier short fiction.

Martin is brave to publish Dreamsongs, which gives us--especially those of us who are younger readers and haven't been as exposed to the short fiction magazines of Martin's youth--a glimpse of Martin's formative years and the works with which he became a professional author. You can clearly see his writing improve over the course of the five-part book. Yet at the same time, even his early stories carry the kernel of creativity that's evident throughout this volume....

4. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity with Rwanda, by Roméo Dallaire

Shake Hands with the Devil coverOne of those books that every Canadian should read, this tells the chilling story of the Rwandan genocide from the perspective of the UN task force commander, Roméo Dallaire.

Daillaire's book is commendable because even though it comes from an obviously biased source, it largely avoids obsessing over assigning blame. Instead, he chronicles what happened during tenure as Force Commander of UNAMIR. Thanks to him, future generations have a testimony as to what happened in Rwanda. Eyewitness accounts help make clear what government reports and newspaper articles cannot; they communicate the human experience one undergoes in these situations. They remind us that this isn't fiction, so it isn't a tragedy. It is truth, but it is injustice....

3. Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill

Lullabies for Little Criminals cover From my review:

About two hundred pages into the book, I suddenly realized that this story was breaking my heart....

The theme that resonates with me most is that childhood is the most precious innocence we have. Baby makes several philosophical remarks about childhood, how society encourages us to grow up too fast--and the fact that we can't go back afterward. We're stuck as adults. As an 18-year-old, I've reached the legal age for adulthood. I'm venturing into that scary world of responsibility; no one treats me as a child anymore. I have the advantage of never experiencing Baby's hardships, yet I still feel confused at times. Everyone probably does, which is why this book captures your heart....

2. I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle

I Love You, Beth Cooper cover This book was just fun to read. Yeah, it's yet-another-book-about-adolesence, but it's a witty one:

I Love You, Beth Cooper could be, at first glance, a typical coming-of-age story about the nerdy smart guy who falls for the popular cheerleader (or for his construction of who the popular cheerleader is). To some extent, it is such a story. But it's not only such a story, and that isn't the aspect of this story that makes it awesome. Rather, it's the fact that in spite of employing such a major trope, the story is never trite, and it never tries to force a redeeming theme on the reader. Instead, anything and everything that could possibly go wrong for the protagonist does. And when things go right, they don't always go right in the way one would expect....

1. Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth cover image From my review:

I went into this book not knowing what to expect, and I loved it. Jhumpa Lahiri creates timeless families that straddle the cultural divide between America and India. She captures the conflict of growing up as one tries to balance one's parent's wishes with the influence of one's heritage and the culture of one's surroundings.

Of the first part of the book, I loved "Unaccustomed Earth", "Hell-Heaven", and "Only Goodness." The other two stories were great, but ...more I went into this book not knowing what to expect, and I loved it. Jhumpa Lahiri creates timeless families that straddle the cultural divide between America and India. She captures the conflict of growing up as one tries to balance one's parent's wishes with the influence of one's heritage and the culture of one's surroundings....

Shortlist for the Best

Some books that made the shortlist, in no particular order:

Top 10 Worst Books I Read in 2008

10. Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia cover This may come as a surprise to those who know that I love Le Guin's other work, or for those familiar with Le Guin's other work--she's a pretty big name in fantasy and feminist fiction. Unfortunately, I couldn't give Lavinia any more than two stars. It was enjoyable, but not great:

...in places the narrative was somewhat dry, so while the setting and characters were interesting, the story was not always so. Some people might not like the narrative style either--there is very little dialogue, except in Lavinia's conversations with Vergil. Instead, it is told in an almost stream-of-consciousness perspective, with Lavinia relaying back her interpretation of the other characters' thoughts and actions....

9. The Sword of Truth series, by Terry Goodkind

Naked Empire cover My coworker lent each of these consecutively to me during the summer; it was sort of a "summer reading project." Goodkind, a fantasist who insists he's not a fantasist, crafted an 11-book series in an alternative world concerning the ultimate battle of good versus evil. Oh, and there's lots of rape.

My advice is that you should read this series, actually--or at least the first few books. Why? Because then you'll have more fun when you read the parodies of it, of course!

8. Beginner's Greek, by James Collins

Beginner's Greek cover Actually an OK book, if you don't mind this genre. I expect it will be a movie soon. From my review:

As with most plots of this nature, I found it utterly predictable. Certain aspects were surprising, of course--I didn't see the best friend dying by a lightning strike on Peter's wedding day, of course. But it was clear that Peter and Holly would end up together, somehow, and that everyone would live happily ever after. If you're looking for a fresh new plot with compelling characters, you won't get it here. Oh, the characters are interesting, and you'll end up hating most of them by the end. But you have to be able to stomach the smugness that the book exudes as all the threads come together and the loose ends get tied up.

It was OK. Enjoyable light reading, and it fulfilled my need to yell at the book when characters are being stupid and cheer when good things happen.

7. The Uses of Enchantment, by Heidi Julavits

The Uses of Enchantment cover This story was a disappointment. Julavits has fantastic style, but the plot and the characters were substandard. From my review:

I empathize with Mary, who was either abducted and never properly counselled about it or engineered a fake abduction and never adjusted properly to society. But she spends most of the books complaining about how manipulative and narcissistic her mother was, and how she never got a chance to reconcile with her mother prior to her mother's death from cancer. Although the story spends a lot of time discussing therapy and Mary's experience with it, Mary never seems to have to exert much effort in her life or deal with any consequences (beyond her obvious estrangement from her family). She crashes a car, revisits the ghosts from her past, but at the end of the book, has she really changed from who she was at the beginning? No. And that was a disappointment.

6. Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston

Blasphemy cover A predictable mystery with a sci-fi twist, it was fine for formula fiction, but I could have done with something more satisfying.

5. Overture, by Yael Goldstein

Overture cover Four words: "torrid but virginal liason". Need I say more?((If I do, check out the review.)) If that intrigues you, you might like this book. If, like me, that would cause you to snap and perhaps evacuate the contents of your stomach, don't read this book. Because you need a stomach for plot-twisting romance, which is something I don't have.

4. What I Was, by Meg Rosoff

What I Was cover This book was the origin of the "not my cup of tea" shelf on my Goodreads profile, I believe. It's an example of how THE TWIST can ruin an otherwise acceptable book. From my review:

The first part of the book was quite intriguing. The narrator is a noncomformist boy who's been expelled twice; this is literally the boarding school of last resort. Then he discovers a friend in the form of a boy living alone in a house on an island near the school, and the two form a tentative relationship laced with overtones of homosexuality--which is just what Rosoff wants before she pulls THE TWIST that changes everything.

Unfortunately, after THE TWIST, the book isn't the same. It rapidly becomes a "hindsight is 20/20" sermon in which the main character regrets that he has no regrets and ultimately has not made much of his life. We are left with no resolution. It's quite postmodernist....

3. The Last Theorem, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

The Last Theorem cover As with Le Guin, I'm sad to say that Arthur C. Clarke earns a spot on this list--and at number 3! Since I don't know how much of the book is actually Clarke's, however, that somewhat mitigates my pain. From my review:

My major problem with the book is the lack of any consequences, or really, any conflict at all. At points the story threatens to inject a conflict--such as when Ranjit becomes an unwitting accomplice to pirates and subsequently spends two years being tortured in prison. For a moment, I thought that might produce some genuine unhappiness that could mar this otherwise oppressively upbeat book. Unfortunately, that was not the case....

2. The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta

The Abstinence Teacher cover I didn't buy this book when I was tempted to at Chapters, and I'm glad of that. I read it after my dad borrowed it from the library; I almost couldn't finish it. From my review:

The Abstinence Teacher begins by introducing us to Ruth, a divorced mom who's the sexual education teacher at the high school in this small, conservative town. She's under siege at school for wanting to teach safe sex instead of just abstinence. Meanwhile, she picks fights with her younger daughter's soccer coach, a born-again evangelical Christian, for leading the team in a prayer after a game. And she neglects her older daughter, which drives that daughter to seek meaning through--you guessed it--Christianity. Oh, and she wants to find a man. And she's friends with a gay couple.

I'm not making this up.

See, that's my problem with this novel: it's too contrived. I say too contrived because I realize that most novels, especially ones with overt thematic agendas like this one, need to be contrived to an extent. Perrotta has gone further than that, however, because he weaves sexuality into every aspect of the book and uses stereotypes like "the gay couple" to advance his theme. Others may not have a problem with this, but I found it awkward and artificial....

1. The Art Thief, by Noah Charney

The Art Thief cover For the love of whatever deity(ies) you worship, or don't worship, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. EVER.

This is an example of a book that isn't anyone's cup of tea. Noah Charney's career in art history is obvious in this book, since he spends so much time lecturing us about art history, at the expense of the plot. Ostensibly a mystery, whenever that story threatens to become interesting, Charney beats it back into submission with a baseball bat and resumes showing us how brilliant he is.

Blech.

Shortlist for the Worst

None of these books made it on the list because I disliked all of them, but they aren't very bad books. As such, while they weren't to my taste, if you think you'll enjoy them, you could do worse than these:((You could read one of the books that actually made the list, for instance.))

One Last Plug

And in case I haven't linked to Goodreads enough for one blog post, here's my profile so you can stalk me. If you're on Goodreads, feel free to add me as a friend. If you're not, and you like reading, why aren't you?!

That's it for the best and worst books I read in 2008. It was fun, no? Come back in 363 days or so, and we'll do this all over again.