Friday, December 31, 2010

My Favorites for 2010

I always have trouble narrowing down my annual selection of favorite books. I limit it to books I have blogged (thus eliminating the wonderful “Winter's Bone” blogged by Dorothea and "Half of a Yellow Sun" blogged by Anna) and, as I look at the list, I try to choose those that didn't just entertain me but also left a lasting impression. (It's always a little depressing to have to re-read my blog in order to remember anything about the book). Books that allow me to peek inside a place I've never been (a culture, a profession, a country) always engage me.  And I love a book that offers me a mystery to unravel even as it fascinates me with interesting characters and plot. 

For a lasting impression nothing could top Agatha's Hoff riveting memoir Burning Horses (A Powerful Story), the story of her mother Eva's life in a Hungary turned upside down by World War II.

I read two books where characters worked for newspapers - The Imperfectionists (Reporting From Rome) and Not Untrue and Not Unkind (Reporting From The Congo) – and both offered very different pictures the underside of journalism. 

Two books had me trying to fit together the shifting pieces of a puzzle as I read - Await Your Reply  (Mistaken Identity) and  Mr. Peanut (Marriage and Murder).  And Cloud Atlas (Worth A Second Look) was the literary equivalent of a Russian matryoshka doll – each story opening on to another and then circling back again.

Two short story books gave me what I love about this form - fresh, unexpected glimpses of characters captured like a snapshot - Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It (Short And Bittersweet) and If I loved you I would tell you this (Unexpected Slices).

And if you're just looking for laughs you can't go wrong with Headlong (Country Life).
A stack of of unread books awaits me as I cross into 2011.  Happy New Year and Happy Reading.  Make your own list of 2010 favorites.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Free Kindle Books

I suspect that I am not alone in having this experience. After reading through the "quick start guide" to my new Kindle 3, I was paralyzed trying to decide which book to download first. I was fortunate to go for a run with my friend Gail on the morning after Christmas. Gail has been a long-time Kindle user and lover and offered to send me some links for free Kindle books. Little did I expect such a treasure-trove of information. I just had to share it - with Gail's permission, of course. I know that many of you have been using Kindles for a while so may not find anything new here. But there probably is at least one other "newbie" like myself who can benefit.

If the veterans among you have other tips and suggestions for the Kindle, please share in the Comments below.
Here's what Gail had to say:

"Welcome to the Kindle world. I hope you enjoy it.

1. Here are some free ebook sites, for books in the public domain. I think ManyBooks and Feedbooks get their books from Project Gutenberg, but I found the ManyBooks site easier to navigate than Project Gutenberg, and I could "shop" it from my Kindle. I have not looked at the PG site in a year, so it may have improved.

2. This is an old list of free sites, but it looks like the sidebar links have been updated so the information might still be current. There are so many, I have barely touched the surface in my surfing. There are far more books available than I have time to read, let alone surf.

3. This is a site I have started using only recently. It lists the Amazon books that recently dropped in price. I have also created a list of books that I would like to read. The site tracks the prices for me, and emails me if a book in which I am interested drops in price.

4. This lists the free Kindle books that Amazon offers. It seems to subtract those in the public domain. The list changes frequently, and it is really a toss-up as to whether it is worth checking since there is so much dross.

Happy reading!"

P.S. Here is a link to an interesting article in the Financial Times about the ebook revolution. You may have to register (for free) to read the article.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Writer's Right to Privacy

I found J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, “Summertime” to be very interesting. The reason I use the word interesting is that the premise is so unusual. The story evolves as the rough draft of a biography of the late John Coetzee, a South African writer, written by an Englishman referred to as Mr. Vincent. The “biography” takes the form of five interviews by Mr. Vincent with people who had known Coetzee in the 1970’s when he was living in a suburb of Capetown with his elderly father. Four of the five interviewees were women who had had a “relationship” with John Coetzee. The fifth, Martin, was a colleague from Coetzee’s teaching days.

The interviews are intriguing and often very amusing. The women often describe Coetzee with the most unflattering and demoralizing rhetoric. The stories the interviewees relate of their own lives are often far more interesting than the life of the J.M. Coetzee, before he became a famous writer.

One might ask, “Why would J.M. Coetzee, the novelist, (who is very much alive in 2010) want to write about a J.M. Coetzee who is somewhat similar to himself but who is dead? and why, in such a strange and unflattering way? It seems that this author, who has received many prestigious awards including the Nobel Prize for Literature, wants to make a statement: “Why are people so interested in a man just because he is a famous writer?” But only J.M. Coetzee could present this question to his readers in such a creative and beautifully written form.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I don't read a lot of mysteries, and I don't often blog about the ones I do read, because they seem a little lightweight. But I am a fan of Irish mystery writer Tana French. I enjoyed “In The Woods”, which Anna blogged (Psychological Suspense ) and I blogged her second book “The Likeness” (Mirror Image). In her third book, Faithful Place, French returns to grizzled, wisecracking Dublin Undercover Detective Frank Mackey.

Frank is a lonely middle-aged divorced man, whose heart was broken at age nineteen when his true love Rosie Daly, who had promised to run off to England with him, left without him. Except she didn't. Twenty-two years later Rosie's suitcase, containing the ferry tickets for the couple's escape, is found in an abandoned house.

The discovery pulls Frank back to Faithful Place, the grim cul-de-sac in a Dublin area called The Liberties, where he and Rosie grew up, and from which he hoped he had permanently escaped. Frank's family still lives there, and there is no dysfunctional like Irish dysfunctional. As he tells his ex-wife, "You don't meet my family, you open hostilities."

"Faithful Place" is a detective novel, with plot twists and turns, but it is also a dark Roddy Doyle kind of family drama, as Frank is torn by his loyalties to his family and his distrust of them. The family dynamic is so suffocating and toxic that sometimes it was hard to keep reading, but Frank Mackey's voice - sometimes witty, sometimes angry, sometimes heartbreaking - kept me turning the pages.

Friday, December 3, 2010

An Irish Favorite

I think we all have authors that we use as safety nets. We know they won't disappoint us, so when we're going on a trip, or anticipating a long wait or a boring commute, we take them along as a reliable companion. For me William Trevor is one of those safety nets.

First of all, he's Irish, and I'm a sucker for Irish writers. He's prolific, so he's easy to find in my favorite used book store. He's probably best known for his short stories, but his novels are also prize-winning. Last year I read and loved his latest novel “Love and Summer” (see my blog), so I picked up a used copy of his 1998 novel Death in Summer to take along on a trip.

Trevor's characters are never captains of industry or glamorous socialites. They live in small towns or on the fringe of society in big cities. In "Death in Summer" a young widower struggles to care for his infant daughter after the accidental death of his wife. But he is not the only character dealing with disappointment and sadness. The vulnerabilities of the characters seem to draw them to each other, leading to unexpected events. Trevor prose is spare, but it's not a quick read, because he unfolds his story in fragments.

Trevor is not an author for readers who like inspiring characters and uplifting endings. But once again he gave me haunting images of ordinary people touched by loss and by love.