The Best Books of 2009

Here are my best books from 2009. They are in alphabetical order because I could not possibly rank them. They are all excellent.

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Death is the narrator, and a sympathetic one too. World War II is a busy time for Death, but he several times encounters a young German girl (the Book Thief) and is entranced by her story, which he tells to us, the readers. I would kill to write like Zusak. OK, so not really, but his writing is poetry: thoughtful, fresh and brilliant. I read some passages over and over because I loved the imagery. Some readers, I know, find this distracting. Marketed as a YA novel, many of those readers might not drool over the language (as I did), but the story is strong as well. Everyone I know who read it loved it.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
It’s great to see an epistolary novel do so well; I’m not alone in raving about this story. It is a collection of (fictional) letters written just after World War II, focusing on what happened to people who lived on Guernsey during the war. Sad and funny, hopeful and tragic. A great read.

Mistress of the Sun
by Sandra Gulland
The Sun is, of course, the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. The mistress is Louise de la Valliere. Gulland masterfully blends fact and fiction, love and treachery, magic and mystery. I read it almost a year ago, so it is hard to relay details, but I remember that it was excellent.

The Name of the Wind
by Patrick Rothfuss
This was a re-read. It is the first of a fantasy trilogy and brilliantly written. Whether you are an avid fantasy reader or not, the story of Kvothe and his search for self and truth will pull you in. It’s much more than just a fantasy novel. Pat has won lots of awards for this book and he deserves every single one of them. I’m impatiently waiting for the next installment.

by Diana Gabaldon
This book had a slow start for me, but so many people have raved about it, I pushed through. Since it is on this list, you can bet I’m glad I did. Claire Randall, a field nurse from World War II is getting re-acquainted with her husband on a trip to Scotland when she is magically transported back 200 years. Claire’s desire to return to her own time becomes complicated by her love for Jamie Fraser. 1740s Scotland is a dangerous time, and Claire, knowing history, knows exactly how dangerous. I think I read the last 200 pages without breathing. It is the first in a series and I’ll be picking up the next at the library as soon as some unknown, damned slow, reader can return it.

A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini
I enjoyed this more than Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, probably because A Thousand Splendid Suns focuses on female characters. His writing is clean and clear and his characters alive. It is a painful yet hopeful story, focused on the lives of Mariam and Laila, two Afghan women, before, during, and after the Taliban.

The Time Traveler’s Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
This book has become one of my all time favorites. Henry time travels, although he doesn’t want to. He cannot take anything with him, so ends up naked and penniless in a time he doesn’t belong. Clare has known Henry since she was six, because he often travels to her. The first time he meets her, she has known him for nearly fourteen years. With the exception of Henry, this book is rooted in real-life, late-twentieth century America. Henry and Clare’s love story is deep and moving and has haunted me every day since I first finished this book. I’m reading it for the third time. I refuse to go see the movie because I can’t see how this book could be turned into a movie and I don’t want any aspect of the book ruined.

by James Nichol
The story of a love affair between a French girl and a German soldier during World War II is alternated with the story of a Canadian sheriff searching for a dead body and then the identity of the body and its murderer. This novel is brilliantly constructed, with the love story moving quickly until it catches up to the Canadian story and the characters find themselves in Canada: who is the murderer and who is the murdered? Nichol’s writing is clean and tight. You won’t be able to put this down until you are done, and then you’ll be disappointed there isn’t more to read.

I’m not sure why there are so many World War II two books in here; it isn’t a time period that normally interests me. Still, a great book is a great book. Deliver your own book suggestions in the comments below.

About the mystery

I edited for about 90 minutes yesterday. The work involved incorporating all my younger son had written and improving a couple of scenes I’d been thinking about. I still need to read through the whole thing one more time, fixing little things and looking for major problems. Then, it will be ready to move to the next stage.

This story my family and I have written is a children’s mystery that takes place at the American Suzuki Institute, focusing on four 12 to 13 year olds (2 boys, 2 girls) and a stolen violin. The violin is a mythical “Goldin” violin–very expensive, with almost magical qualities to it.

Both of my kids are Suzuki violinists and have been attending this “summer violin camp” for many years. They are the experts for anything having to do with music. We want to run the manuscript by the director of the Institute to make sure all the details regarding the running of the Institute are accurate. One of the main characters is an actual Suzuki teacher. We need to get permission from him to use him as a character, and see if he wants to fix any of the “witty banter” associated with his lessons.

So, the next stage will be to show the manuscript to the director and the teacher and see what they have to say.

The beauty of this book is that it has a ready market of readers: attendees of the American Suzuki Institute. Hopefully the story will be good enough that word can spread out of that demographic to the general kid-reading public.

My husband has helped with ideas for the story and, as our resident computer expert, will be in charge of turning the manuscript into an actual book. We plan to self-publish this spring and have the book ready for the summer institute.

Check back here to get updates on The Stolen Goldin Violin.

Editing is no fun

I was so disciplined in November. Now it’s December and I really should be editing. But, there are Christmas presents to buy…. the house to decorate…. The semester is winding down and I’ve got papers to grade and finals to write…. soon I’ll have finals to grade…. And, my gosh, I didn’t clean the house at all during November, so now I really should get to it….

I’m vowing here and now to edit tomorrow for at least an hour—two if I can manage it. I have a million other things I could be doing, but I’m going to edit! I will post tomorrow evening and let you know if I did.

A Novel in a Month

Well, it’s November 30, and I have finished my children’s mystery. It is not the 50,000 words that NaNoWriMo tries to get its authors to write (closer to 30,000), but I never really thought it would be that big. It’s a children’s story, so perhaps shorter is better.

I still have a lot of editing to do, but I think we will have it clean and ready to be self-published by spring break. We are hoping to start selling it this summer. It is exciting. And, really, it’s amazing what a person can do when she puts her mind to it. A month ago, this story was just in my head; now it is all on paper.

I read the story to my collaborators (my family) over Thanksgiving and they gave good feedback and suggestions. My youngest son sat down and immediately wrote a couple of new scenes. They are so well written! I look forward to putting them in the story.

A Sleepless NaNoWriMo

It’s November, and I’m writing. It feels great. I’m hardly sleeping at all.

Even as a a child I had a hard time falling asleep at night. Then, about eighteen months ago, I started falling asleep right away every night. I attributed it to the small glass of red wine I sometimes had before bed. I’m beginning to realize that it actually coincided with the completion of Syncopation. After finishing that novel, I decided not to write anything until I had spent time working on agents and editors to get it published. Wow! I slept like the dead during those months. Now, I’m writing again and not sleeping. I guess it is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

What do you give up when you’re writing?

National Novel Writing Month

nanorimoI believe that doing something uncomfortable or difficult often expands creativity and gives a person greater confidence and strength. So . . . I’m going to try to write somebody else’s ideas very fast.

I’ve just registered for the National Novel Writing Month (, and I’m going to write a children’s mystery that my husband and kids and I all made up during a hiking trip this past summer. I’ve been trying to think about this story for a while, but the characters won’t talk to me, and I have a hard time focusing on the outline and plot details. I concentrate, and then the story drifts like smoke out my ears, and ten minutes later I realize I haven’t been thinking about it at all.

November should be an interested month. I’ll try to update you from time to time, but with trying to write 1700 words a day, be forewarned: I may not update this blog until December.

Story Ideas

I hear stories everywhere. When we were camping in Canada, I visited a tiny campground museum and saw a short film about the voyageurs. A young female voyageur spoke to me, telling of her adventures dressed as a man, canoeing the Canadian wilderness. Over the next few days, while I was hiking and swimming and daydreaming, the story developed and grew. Then, when we got to Montreal, I met a different story, and again in Vermont. When I was in Europe a couple of years ago, stories conversed with me everywhere we went. European history screams stories.

The problem for me, as a writer, is to focus on listening to just one of the stories calling to me. If I can focus on one, I learn about the characters, the complications of the plot, the details of the setting. When I finally put pen to paper, I have spent countless hours inside my story, talking with the characters, walking through their gardens, considering their problems. This is the magical, wonderful, dreamy part of being a writer. The torture is in the writing: choosing words, typing sentences, inking on paper. Sometimes I feel like I vomit up my story and then spend months cleaning it up.

Some people, when they learn that I’m a writer, will say, “Oh! You know, you should write about….” and give me some random idea. I smile and try to be polite. These are often people I like a lot, and I don’t want to offend them. But, golly jeepers! I don’t have any trouble with ideas. I don’t have the time or discipline to write all of my own ideas. I would like to devote my full attention to each and every one of the characters who call out to me, but there are too many and their numbers are forever increasing. Why would I want to waste my time with a story I don’t know? whose characters I’ve never met and who aren’t talking to me?

Quick thinking!

These are not words that are often said to me.  I’m a slow thinker.  The electric pulses don’t snap in my skull, rather they ooze like thick lava on a barely inclined plane.  This is why I became a writer.  A writer can take a long time.  Write, read, re-write, read, edit, read, re-write.  It can take me twenty minutes to send a short email.  This blog has taken more than a week.

I think most blogs are the work of clever, quick-thinking people.  Not this blog.  If you notice I haven’t posted anything for several weeks, it’s because the lava hasn’t descended far enough.  Pumice is worth the wait.  Isn’t it?


1 September 2009

 I got the most amazing rejection letter yesterday.  It actually made me feel good.  I will copy it here so everyone can read it:

 Dear Elizabeth,

I enjoyed reading these pages of Syncopation.   You’ve chosen a good subject: a recognizable name who hasn’t been overdone and who has an intriguing back story.  There’s also some beautiful writing here.  I love the opening piece about the pulse of the universe.  You’re also trying some more unconventional devices with the names and the back-and-forth between time periods/narration.  I’m not sure these are entirely successful, but I may not be the best judge.  I tend to prefer more straightforward narrative.  The unconventional elements make this more appropriate for a more literary list than mine.

 I’ve enjoyed seeing your work.  I wish you the best of luck in finding a home for it.


[Editor’s name withheld]

 Isn’t that a great rejection?  Makes me feel so literary and hopeful!