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Top Books in 2008

Breaking Dawn (Twilight Book Four) by Stephenie Meyer: Despite all the negative press this series has been getting, not to mention the backlash this final installment of Meyers' Twilight series got from fans (fans! of Edward Cullen! hated this book! I don't understand it), I still think it was one of the most downright entertaining books I've read all year. Breaking Dawn is the drag queen of the Twilight series--it's completely, almost laughably, over-the-top in every conceivable way, but somehow its flaws only make it all the more awesome. Like, who (spoiler) ends a book by adding 50 new characters (so many new characters, in fact, that there needs to be a list appended so you can keep them straight) and then has them face off with the "villains" of the entire series and there's no fight and no one gets hurt except one obnoxious vampire lady who's burned at the stake for lying or something? It's hilarious! Still, in the 500 pages leading up to the finis anticlimacticus (yes that's real Latin and YES I mind if you Google it), Meyer manages to reach into the darkest corners of her world to write probably the no-holds-barred goriest, sexiest YA novel I've ever read. I didn't even mind that the end was totally stupid--it was almost exactly what I wanted, and the haters can suck it.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley: I have a deep, deep fascination with the Mitford sisters and I'll read anything about or by them, from Nancy's hilarious novels to Decca's exaggerated memoir (also a great book I read this year) to this, a collection of letters exchanged by all six of the sisters throughout their lives. There was a lot of tension amongst the Mitford girls, most of whom were infamous in one way or another, over the years, and that shows in their letters; they gossip about each other, throw barbs and manifest coldness, cast blame and collude against each other. The only consistently sweet and rational Mitford is the youngest (and my secret favorite), Debo, who grew up to be a duchess as planned and was the only sister on good terms with all her sisters at any given time. My not-so-secret favorite, Nancy, was bitter and tragic, but vastly funny and interesting. My not-so-secret least favorite, Diana, was shrewd and icy and manipulative, but it is her daughter-in-law who edited the collection, so of course her decades-long feud with "red sheep" Decca is skewed in favor of her. Decca is irritating in her own way, naturally, because her extreme dedication to far left/Communist causes is just as narrow-minded and infuriating (and dangerous) as Unity and Diana's extreme dedication to Hitler and Facism (though Unity attempted suicide when Germany and England went to war and was brain damaged for the rest of her life, Diana considered herself a Nazi to the end of her days, and considering she only died like five years ago, THAT'S A WHILE). But below all the controversy lies a deep and abiding love that manifests in inside jokes and secret languages, pet names shrouded in mystery, and a steadfast dedication to each other that runs like a current through the letters. For more about this fascinating family, I suggest Nancy's novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, or The Sisters, a great biography of all six of them by Mary S. Lovell.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: I reviewed this book a few months ago for the Blogulator, so there's not really much else to say here other than read it, you'll like it, I promise.

In The Woods by Tana French: I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I hate hardcover books. Hardcovers are bullshit. I know they have more prestige than paperback, but I swear you give me a choice between hardcover and paperback I'm going to pick the paperback 10 out of 10 times. Hardcovers are expensive and rigid and unfriendly, and I don't like reading them. I rarely, if ever, read books the year they come out, so this list is, I don't know, a little delayed. Whatever, the point is, In the Woods came out in 2007 and I just read it in paperback this year, but damn if it wasn't the finest novel I read in 2008. I reviewed the follow-up/sequel, The Likeness, on the Blogulator along with The Secret History (also a damn good novel) and Special Topics in Calamity Physics (not as good, but still interesting), and while I really loved The Likeness, In the Woods is an explosion of awesome in a way that none of those other books are because it is so personally affecting. Rob Ryan, the narrator of In the Woods, is such a pitch-perfect blend of tragically fucked up and earnestly endearing that it is impossible not to care about him and follow him into the darkness. Richard Papen (The Secret History) is too pathological and emotionally constipated to earn any love from me, Cassie Maddox (The Likeness) isn't scarred enough, and Blue van de Meer (Special Topics in Calamity Physics) is so annoying that, although the books are all good in their own ways, the feeling is not the same. In the Woods, for a debut, is a goddamn masterpiece.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: Sloane Crosley is a book publicist, and therefore an angel of the Lord, so I probably would've bought this book in hardcover just to support her but luckily for me it was released in trade paper sometime around the middle of this year. Cake is a collection of humorous personal essays in the David Sedaris mode, and if Crosley isn't as funny as Sedaris (she's not), she's also warmer and more lovable. You'd buy tickets to see Sedaris read at Carnegie Hall, but you'd grab a drink (or eighteen) with Sloane Crosley. I read Sedaris' new essay collection, When You Are Engulfed In Flames, this year as well and I didn't like it half as much as I liked Cake. I'm not the only one--HBO has optioned the collection for a television series that looks like it might actually get made. Check out Crosley's website for the detailed dioramas (what? yeah, but they're awesome) she made depicting scenes from her book.

It makes me a little bit sad that most of the amazing books I read this year are YA, but it doesn't surprise me. YA is quickly becoming (or continuing to become) the boundary-pushing stand-out genre, and it only saddens me because I read more adult books than YA books this year and while the YA was almost consistently good, the adult books were tragically hit or miss (and mostly miss). I was going to pick only one of these books to make this a more balanced list, but then I was like, screw it, who needs balance?

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott: This book is wee (less than 200 pages), a novella really although not necessarily in the YA category, but it is one of the most affecting stories I've read this year. "Alice" has been held captive for years by the child molester who kidnapped her, but now that she is growing up she's not enough for her captor, who wants her to find a replacement girl before (one assumes) he kills and disposes of our narrator. Alice is not willing to go so quietly, so as she tries to find a new Alice she also schemes to free herself to live. This novel was amazing, disturbing and raw and uncomfortable. It's a really short read, but definitely worth 100 times its weight in gold.
Paper Towns by John Green: John Green is a very well-established, extremely well-respected YA author who (at least, it seems to me) keeps writing the same book over and over again. I don't say that as a criticism; instead, he attacks his pet subject (the impossibility of truly knowing and empathizing with someone else, the human drive to try anyway, the failures and the triumphs of seeing someone for who they are and not what you think or wish they were, the dual human experiences of loss and guilt, etc.) from several different angles. Paper Towns is his best attempt so far at unraveling the mysteries of the human heart and personality, and if his narrators blur together a little bit (all sensitive, nerdy but secretly cool young gentlemen preoccupied with the feminine mystique) it is because they are almost like brothers in their quest. Paper Towns concerns itself quite openly with questions of identity and the age-old story of what I like to call "earning the beloved" (one I find particularly compelling); Quentin "Q" Jacobs spends one amazing night with the girl of his dreams, his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegleman, before Margo runs off for parts unknown, following her bliss or whatever. Q, absolutely certain of his connection with Margo and determined to understand her, takes the clues she leaves behind and sets off on a quixotic-seeming journey to find her as she is finding herself. The book is funny, warm, endearing and relatable, all hallmarks of a John Green story (and, indeed, John Green himself). It is also smart without being show-offy, and sweet without being sappy. All in all, it's a great book and, happily, has been lauded as such.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart: This is another book that made a splash this year; it was even nominated for a National Book Award. Frankie Landau-Banks is returning to her exclusive boarding school, Alabaster Prep, after a summer of growing boobs and becoming gorgeous. Almost immediately, she attracts the attention of Matthew Livingston, a hottie hot-hot senior Frankie's been crushing on. I can see inside your head right now and you're like, "OKAY, HOW IS THIS EVEN A NEW STORY?" Fair enough. However, let me just tell you right now that Frankie is not your typical ugly duckling turned gorgeous swan. She is wry and sharp and cautious, nosy and suspicious and perhaps just a little bit uncertain about what love is, considering her parental examples and the fact that her last boyfriend cheated on her. When she discovers that her boyfriend is keeping his secret society, well, a secret from her, and that he thinks of her more as a darling pet than a fully capable, interesting woman, she seeks to teach the boys in the Basset Hound society a little lesson by tricking them into performing various elaborate pranks, to the amusement of the whole school. The scheme doesn't turn out quite as Frankie or the reader expects, and the end of the novel, though appropriate to the character and perfect for the story, is as sad as it is triumphant.

Well, look at me. I only listed two books I read in 2008 that weren't published in 2008, and The Mitfords was published in late 2007 so it almost counts. High fives all around! Here's to more awesome reads in 2009.

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  1. Blogger chris | 11:31 PM |  

    Definitely going to check out Living Dead Girl and I Was Told...thanks for the rundown Anna! I will definitely be reading along with you the best I can in 2009!

  2. Anonymous OHD | 10:22 PM |  

    Awesome! Thanks for adding the pictures, btw.

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