The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

2009: A Literary Review

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageCC2K’s Book Editor, Beth Woodward, takes a look back on 2009 and names her favorite books of the year.

Another year has come and gone, and what I have realized is that somehow, through the forces of fate or divine intervention or boredom, I have spent more time reading his year than in any other year in my recent memory.  For the past several months, in fact, I have been doing almost nothing else: very few movies, very little television, etc.

And I’ve got to say, I’m very happy about this development.  I’ve always been an avid reader, but the extensiveness of the reading I’ve done this year has made me remember why I love reading as entertainment, as well as an art form: watching a movie or television might be easier, but only reading allows you to really transport yourself to the world of the characters.

I’ve also been keeping up on current releases better than I have in previous years, and I’m pushing the bounds of the things I like literarily.  For a long time, I didn’t read anything outside of the “Fiction and Literature” (i.e. mainstream fiction) section of the bookstore.  Then, I started reading a lot of young adult literature because I liked how it blended genres so seamlessly: supernatural romance, science fiction crime thriller, etc.  The result is that I now spend more time in the genre section of the bookstore, especially the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section.  

I also stopped worrying so much about finding the “best” books.  Instead, I now go into a bookstore and think, “What am I going to enjoy reading the most?”  Who cares if it’s a bestseller?  Who cares if it’s praised by critics?  If I have fun while I’m reading it, that’s a victory in itself.

My favorite literary moment of the year?  On a personal level, finishing my first National Novel Writing Month.  On a more macro level, seeing John Irving and Nicholas Sparks—two of my favorite contemporary authors, even if I am, at times, a little ambivalent about their work—at the National Book Festival.

ImageBiggest literary disappointment?  Audrey Niffenegger’s sophomore novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.  I already skewered the book in this column, so I won’t say much more, except that I still think Niffenegger’s work is both entertaining and engaging, and I just hope her next novel can sustain me until the end.

But since I don’t like to dwell on bad things, I’m going to end my final column of 2009 with a list of my favorite books of the year.  (I do not, in any way, shape, or form, believe I am qualified to offer an opinion on what the “best” books of the year were.  I read a lot, but not nearly enough to have an informed option on that.  But I have read enough published this year to pick favorites, choices inspired by nothing more than my personal literary preferences.  I am both proud of myself for having read this much—and deeply concerned that I may have to work harder to get a life!)

So, for your reading pleasure (I hope!), are my 10 favorite books of 2009:

1) Shiver, Maggie Stiefvater: This is, by no means, the most profound book on my list.  Nor is this story (werewolf boy rescues human girl and falls in love with her) the most original, especially given that 2009 will probably go down in pop culture history as “The Year of the Werewolf.”  But for some reason, when I look back on the books of 2009, this bittersweet story is the one that still haunts me.  Sam is a teenage boy who turns into a wolf in the cold of the winter months.  Grace was once attacked by the werewolves and was saved by Sam, but for some reason she never turned.  This is the tragedy of their story: Sam will ultimately remain a wolf forever, while Grace cannot be turned.  But it’s Stiefvater’s beautiful prose and her gift for seamlessly mixing music, poetry, and art into her work that escalates this simple novel above-and-beyond the typical teenage love story.  The characters—sensitive, poetic Sam and serious, practical Grace—feel authentic, and the book conveys real emotion without becoming maudlin.  There were some loose ends here, and the sequel, Linger, is slotted to come out in July.  Part of me can’t wait to dive back into Sam and Grace’s world, but another part of me thinks that this book was just so beautiful and perfect that I almost want to keep it, like the winter world the wolves inhabit, frozen in time.

2) The Last Song, Nicholas Sparks: Awhile back, I lamented that Sparks had hit his authorial peak, that—despite his commercial popularity—all his subsequent books would be pale imitations of The Notebook.  I’m now convinced that Sparks read my article and decided to prove me wrong.  For once, Sparks decided to take the focus off of romance.  Instead, the heart of this story is the relationship between a teenage girl and her estranged father.  Sparks is not the most artful writer in the world, not even the most artful writer on my list.  Subtlety is not one of his gifts, and what was probably intended to be quiet foreshadowing came across as hit-you-over-the-head obvious.  Still, this book resonated with me on a personal level like no book has in a very long time.  A great deal of this has to do with my own personal history: my own relationship with my father was somewhat difficult before he died in 1997, and this book brought all those long-buried unresolved issues back to the surface.  But even when I try to remove myself from the equation, I still think this is one of Sparks’ best efforts.  And that is Sparks’ talent: when he moves outside of his comfort zone (i.e., homespun southern romance), he can really evoke some genuine emotion within his work.  It was almost enough to make me forget that the movie adaptation—starring Miley Cyrus—is slotted to come out in April.  Almost.

Image3) Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins: I’ve already lavished some pretty extensive praises on Collins’ Hunger Games series, so I won’t spend much time on this.  But trust me on this much: the so-called “sophomore slump” doesn’t apply to Collins’ kick-ass series.

4) If I Stay, Gayle Foreman: In a coma after a car accident that killed her family, teenage cellist Mia reminisces about her past as she contemplates the most important decision of her life—the only choice she has left: stay or go.  The well-rounded, believable characterizations of Mia, her family, her friends, and her devoted boyfriend, Adam, only make the tragedy of this novel all that much more poignant.  This book will break your heart.

5) Bone Crossed, Patricia Briggs: Briggs placed a heavy burden on herself for the latest installment of the Mercy Thompson series.  The love triangle that had been a subplot of the first books was resolved at the end of the third book, Iron Kissed, and the darker turn that book took could have turned Mercy into a Lifetime movie-esque character in the hands of a less capable writer.  But battered though she may be, Mercy is still the plucky coyote we’ve come to know and love.  An honorable mention should also go to Briggs’ Hunting Grounds, the second book in the related Alpha and Omega series (which follows some of the characters featured in smaller roles in Mercy’s books).  The Alpha and Omega series is sweeter and more romantic than the Mercy Thompson books, but Anna—the heroine in the Alpha and Omega series—just isn’t quite as engaging as Mercy.

6) Fade, Lisa McMann: McMann’s Wake series (Fade is the second book) was one of my favorite unexpected finds this year.  High school senior Janie is a dream catcher, someone who gets sucked into other people’s dreams—whether she wants to or not.  But she slowly begins to channel this ability to help the police solve crimes.  What do I love about this series?  I love that, unlike many books where the characters have supernatural abilities that most people would envy, Janie’s ability endangers her health and well being, and it strains her relationship with her boyfriend, Cabel (although not in the ways you’d expect).  I love that Janie and Cabel are such realistic characters, both damaged in their own ways.  (Janie’s growing abilities make her an outcast, her relationship with her alcoholic mother is strained, and she’s never met her father.  Cabel is scarred, physically and mentally, by an abusive father.)  And I love that McMann manages to blind romance, science fiction, and detective novels into these quick reads.

7) City of Glass, Cassandra Clare: Clare’s Mortal Instruments trilogy was one of my sole pleasures during my busy NaNoWriMo.  Clary, a 16-year-old from New York City, discovers that she belongs to an ancient race of demon hunters called the Shadowhunters, something her mother has been hiding from her.  When her mother is kidnapped, Clary must unite with Jace—the stubborn, handsome boy who may or may not be her brother—to bring down the rogue Shadowhunter Valentine.  City of Glass concludes the story in an exciting way while still leaving a few loose threads dangling (especially with Clary’s best friend-turned-vampire Simon) to warrant a spinoff series.  The books are lengthy, and the mythology can get a little involved and confusing.  Still, they’re a great way to pass the time on a slow Saturday (or stop you from going insane during NaNoWriMo).

Image8) Frostbitten, Kelley Armstrong: The tenth book in Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series returns to the original—and most popular—narrator: Elena, the world’s only female werewolf.  (Told you this was the year of the werewolf!)  Elena is now a 40-year-old mother of two, married to the volatile werewolf, Clayton Danvers, who turned her.  She has grown from the reluctant, angry werewolf who debuted in 2001’s Bitten to a strong and loyal Pack member—so much so that Jeremy, the Alpha, wants her to take over the job.  But as Elena and Clay travel to Alaska to confront an emerging threat, Elena must also confront the demons of her past.  By keeping the focus almost exclusively on the core relationship of Elena and Clay, Armstrong has created the most character-centric book in the series.  Furthermore, the passionate descriptions of Elena and Clay’s relationship proves that not all authors believe that romance dies once a couple gets together.

9) Hunger, Michael Grant: The second novel in Grant’s Gone series isn’t quite as original or compelling as the first, but this series is still a worthwhile read.  Plus, it’s the rare young adult find that will appeal to both male and female readers.

10) North of Beautiful, Justina Chen Headley: This touching book was one of the few young adult novels I read without a supernatural or sci-fi twist.  High school senior Terra is tall, blond, and beautiful—except for the port-wine stain birthmark covering one of her cheeks.  Ashamed of her appearance, and fearful of her domineering father, Terra hides from the world until she meets Jacob, who was adopted from China as a child and has scars of his own.  There’s no catch here, no simple solutions and no surprise twists.  It’s simply an authentic, heartfelt coming-of-age story about a girl who learns to accept herself, flaws and all.