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Beth Woodward’s Best Books of 2008

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageEven though the tweaked BBC logo for our "Top Week" might suggest otherwise, here at CC2K we also include books in our annual roundup of pop-culture's best. That's right, we are intellectual geeks and there is no one better to rank literature than our book columnist Beth Woodward!

I’ve been very lucky this year: several of the books that came out in 2008 have been great, books I will probably read again and again.  My only regret is that I have not had the time or the opportunity to read more of them. (Oh, well—I guess that’s what 2009 is for!) Nonetheless, I think that several of the books I have read this year deserve special recognition for their creativity, insight into the human condition, and for their overall enjoyability. (I don’t think that’s even a word, but you know what I mean.)

So without further ado, my Top 5 Books of 2008 are:

Image 5. Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
An aging man, suffering from insomnia, is haunted by the memories of his deceased wife and the horrific murder of his granddaughter’s boyfriend.  As he tries not to think about the pain in his own life, he weaves a tale of an alternate universe where the contentious 2000 election caused several states to secede from the United States.  9/11 never happened, and there is no war in Iraq, but the alternative, civil war-infused reality is so much worse in so many ways.  I cannot adequately capture the essence of this book in a few words; I will say that this is one of the most beautiful, exquisitely sad books I have read in a long time.  Auster does not idealize his characters; instead, we see them in all their flawed, human glory.  This book may revel in life’s tragedies, but it also shows that there is hope beyond the pain.

4. Sundays at Tiffany’s by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet

Patterson’s usual thriller/crime novel fare doesn’t do much for me, but when he explores his more sentimental side he’s actually a very compelling writer.  Sundays at Tiffany’s explores the relationship between a young girl named Jane and her “imaginary” friend, Michael.  As all imaginary friends must, Michael leaves Jane on her ninth birthday, but Jane never forgets him.  Years later, Jane is grown up and bumps into Michael again — who, she discovers, is not so imaginary—and they begin to fall in love.  It’s a story that requires you to really suspend your disbelief, and it will be too sentimental for many.  But if you’re in the mood for something sweet and romantic, this is a satisfying read.

3. The Host by Stephenie Meyer
Meyer, best known for the young adult Twilight series, came out with her first adult novel in May.  The Host focuses on Wanderer, one of a species of parasitic aliens who have virtually taken over the human race.  Wanderer’s host is Melanie, who was one of the few remaining “wild” humans who form the resistance movement against the aliens when she was captured.  Problem is, Melanie’s consciousness doesn’t disappear as it’s supposed to, and Wanderer finds herself overwhelmed with the need to find Melanie’s brother, Jamie, and her boyfriend, Jared.  It’s not the most original concept — Revenge of the Body Snatchers, anyone? — but it is a lot more complex and interesting than her teen fare.  Both Melanie and Wanderer are complex, fully formed characters with their own minds and emotions, and the dynamic between them is one of the most compelling parts of the story.  The aliens here are not all bad, nor were the humans all good, and you may find yourself rooting for Wanderer more than her human counterparts.  The book was also virtually impossible to put down.  I bought this book shortly after it was released in May, intending to read it on a lengthy plane ride to London.  But I started reading it when I got home from the bookstore, and I finished it in a matter of hours — before we even left for the airport!

2. Gone by Michael Grant
Anyone who’s spent much time around fourteen-year-olds lately knows that they’re often immature, thoughtless, and self-absorbed.  So imagine if those same kids were ruling the world.  Such is the concept behind Gone, Michael Grant’s compelling novel about a small town where anyone over the age of fourteen has mysteriously vanished.  There are echoes of Lord of the Flies here, especially as the kids struggle to set up a “normal” society without adults.  But anyone dreading the thought of being transported back to 9th grade English will be relieved: this book is also a cool, engaging science fiction tale.  There’s an unexplainable, impenetrable boundary surrounding the small town, many of the kids begin to develop supernatural powers, and there are hints throughout the book that the kids’ plight may be associated with the local nuclear power plant.  This is supposed to be the first book in a series; the second book is slotted to come out next summer.  All I know is that I will be first in line to read it.

Image 1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This book centers around Katniss, a strong, smart sixteen-year-old living in a dystopian future.  The United States has fallen, and a country named Panem—which consists of the Capital surrounded by twelve subordinate districts—has taken its place.  Every year, the Capital sponsors the Hunger Games, a contest in which two adolescents from each district are chosen for a televised fight-to-the-death.   When Katniss’ beloved younger sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers to go in her place.  Readers will certainly relate to the voyeuristic games, which has a Survivor-meets-American Idol-meets-America’s Next Top Model quality.  (I even pictured Katniss’ stylist looking very much like Jay Manuel.)  But what really resonates is the political and social realities of this universe, where kids are sent to die for the entertainment of the Capital.  It sounds sick and absurd until you realize that, with all the exploitative television we see all the time, we’re nearly there already.  And all the time you’re rooting for Katniss, you wonder how she — or any of them — could survive an ordeal like this with their humanity intact.  It’s quite brutal at times, and how it managed to work its way into the teen book section is beyond me.  But the intense plot coupled with a strong, capable heroine left me wanting more — and luckily, I will get it.  Rumor has it that the second book in this planned trilogy will be published this fall.

And, as a bonus, the biggest disappointment of 2008:

Image Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
In case it wasn’t clear from the 27 articles I’ve written about the books/movies this year, I am a fan of Twilight, Stephenie Meyer’s series of books about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire.  I devoured the first three books this summer, and I waited with eager anticipation for the final installment to come out in August.  Breaking Dawn should have been epic, a heart-wrenching conclusion to this dark romance.
There are two major problems with this book.  First, Breaking Dawn reads more like an extra-long epilogue than an epic.  Every problem is solved by about 150 pages in, so Meyer must invent new problems to keep the characters occupied for the next 500 pages.  The second problem is the book’s complete and utter lack of logic.  It’s as if Meyer has disregarded everything that happened in the preceding two novels and created a scenario that, even in the scheme of her own world, simply doesn’t make sense.  Even the final “battle” is utterly anticlimactic.  (It’s as if the Mexican Army showed up at the Alamo and Davy Crockett said, “Can’t we all just get along?” and Santa Anna had responded, “Oh, what the hell? Let’s go home and watch Lost.”)  The only way Breaking Dawn even makes sense is if you disregard the idea of free will altogether, believing that everything that happened was determined by fate.  Unfortunately, that means that the most interesting parts of the series for me — where Bella grapples with the choices she must make for her future — were essentially moot points.  My advice: if you want to read the series, stop after Eclipse (the third book in the series).  It’s pretty obvious where everything is going by then, and the bittersweet, ominous ending of that book is much more appropriate for a series that contemplates the meaning of life, love, and death.