Best Books of 2010

Here’s the list, in the order that I read them this year:

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
This story follows several families in Britain from the end of the nineteenth century through World War I. The characters and settings are rich, but what Byatt does that is most memorable is show how the attitudes and actions of one generation bear upon the next. I thought about this book for weeks after finishing it.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
The story of Mary Anning, a nineteenth-century woman who found and identified dinosaur bones, and her friend Elizabeth Philpot. Their shared obsession with fossils occurred in a time when women were not allowed to be so engaged. Their friendship crossed class lines (Elizabeth was an aristocrat and Mary was not) and endured through misfortune and success. A wonderful story because so much of it is true.

The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davies
Fitz, a modern-day conservationist, is searching for the remains of the Ulietta bird which went missing from the extensive collection of nineteenth-century naturalist Joseph Banks. The novel moves between Fitz’s search and Bank’s life. Both stories are exciting: Fitz must find the bird before another who wants it only for its monetary value; Banks falls in love with a mysterious woman, whose existence is linked to Fitz’s search for the bird. Great book.

The Bells by Richard Harvell
I reviewed this for HNR and will import an abbreviated version of that review: When I look at my copy of The Bells sitting in front of me, I cannot believe it lies there immobile and lifeless. The sounds and music within its pages should make the book throb and vibrate across the table. During the time I spent entranced with this story, my body rang like the bells within its pages. The Bells is a fictional autobiography, a letter written by a castrati father to his son, explaining how their relationship came to be. The Bells is a love story, for Moses falls in love with a woman who is forbidden to him. The Bells is also a mystery – for how can Moses, a castrati, a musico, be the father of the recipient of this novel-length letter? Finally, The Bells is music. Harvell’s magical prose gives sound to Moses’ life: the bells, the arias, and the uneven breath of true love.

The Hunger Games / Catching Fire / Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
I wrote about this trilogy in an earlier blog. The story takes place in a dystopian future where children are put into an arena to fight to the death on national television. I know, it sounds awful, but it is a brilliant series. Collins’ minor characters are some of the best ever written. Powerful.

Ender’s Game / Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card
These two books are the same story told by different characters. Earth has been attacked twice by insect-like creatures, uniting the nations of the earth. The most brilliant children are found and trained to be an elite corps of soldiers to fight another invasion. Ender is one of these children (first book); Bean is another (second book). Exciting reads, but they make this list because of the complicated psychology of the characters.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde may be one of the cleverest men alive. I re-read this book and haven’t quite re-read the others in the series—but I recommend them all. The stories take place in a sort of alternative reality Britain where the Crimean War is still being waged, and where people go door to door trying to convince residents that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Thursday Next is a female literatec, a sort of police officer to keep literature safe. A bad guy goes into the original manuscript of Jane Eyre and kidnaps Jane, making the story stop abruptly as Jane Eyre is a first person narrative. Screamingly funny, incredibly clever, and impossible to describe well. A must read for anyone who loves English literature.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Is it the best book ever written? Quite possibly. Another re-read for me. A comfort read.

I read sixty-seven books this year. It is the first year I’ve kept track, so I don’t know if that is a lot or not for me. I’d love to hear what you think of this list. Also let us know what were some of your best books of 2010.


When I wrote Syncopation, I had never unexpectedly lost someone I loved. I had to imagine Adele’s grief. I had to create the things she would think and feel and do. When Adele learns that her sister has drowned, she wants to be there as quickly as she can. She feels that if she can get there soon, there will be something left of Didine.

My mother died this week. She was sixty-eight and in good health. She had a massive stroke and died quickly. I live far away from my mother, but I felt a passionate need to get to her as quickly as possible. The shock and surprise are nearly overwhelming.

People grieve in different ways, as I can see around me. I am disconcerted by the fact that I’m grieving so much like Adele. I guess I shouldn’t be, as she is my creation. I have a pretty accurate imagination, I guess. It is still odd, as Adele and I are so different.

I said a few blogs ago that I have the best mother. I’m so glad I said it. She was a writer herself and was my best reader. She was amazing at being both supportive and constructively critical. We talked regularly, spending some part of every conversation on books and writing.

When I was packing for this trip, I didn’t take the library book I had been reading, instead I grabbed Pride and Prejudice for the plane, as a comfort read. Yesterday my sister and I were going through things in our mother’s room, and I discovered that she had a copy of Pride and Prejudice on her bedside table.

My mom was a quiet person, a literary person. She was also actively engaged in a variety of volunteer jobs, all with the goal of making the world a better place.

Because of the way she died, my mother was able to donate many of her organs. I get great comfort from this. My mother would be so happy that through her death, others will live.

I was trying to think of the best way to describe my mother, and I remembered Matthew Arnold’s words:

Sweetness and light.

Creating a Pen

I subscribe to the Writer’s Almanac. It’s a wonderful service which I recommend to everyone. The right poem can be like clean mountain air, like the almond-cherry memory-scent of your grandmother, like the throbbing orange embers of a dying fire. Beauty in the morning—why start a day any other way? Of course, I don’t connect with every poem, but the Writer’s Almanac nearly always presents some small diamond for me to ponder. Today’s jewel:

To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. — Jim Harrison

I’ve been thinking about this all day.

My family bought me a netbook as an early Christmas present, and I’ve been hoping it will be the “pen” that gets me writing more. At home, I don’t have an office or a private place of my own. I’ve always shared a computer and somehow manage to be last in precedence—by my own doing because it is easier to let someone else use the computer than to write.

But really, to create my pen, I need more than my own computer. I need privacy and a designated time to write. I don’t do spontaneity. If I suddenly have two hours alone at home with nothing to do, I should write—but I can’t (don’t?). I’m not ready. It’s like I need to talk with my characters ahead of time and let them know when I’m coming. I can’t just drop in. They won’t talk to me. Or if they do, it is only to mess up the story with anachronisms or dead-ends.

My pen is not a tool but a state-of-mind. Writing flows from me when I know I’ll have some time and privacy and have prepared for it.

I imagine every writer has a different pen.

Killing A Story

This morning I read a quote from Ann Patchett:

“The way I write, I have a novel in my head for a long time that I think about, and in those months it is so beautiful, so incredibly profound …. The novel in my imagination travels with me like a small lavender moth making loopy circles around my head. As soon as I start to put it on the page I kill it. It always breaks my heart. For me, the greatest challenge is to stick with the book I’m writing when what I want to do is hit the delete button.”

Wow! She could not have more perfectly described what I go through with my writing. I love thinking about my novel. I love my characters and spending time with them in my head. I’m enthralled by their thoughts and moods. I’m transfixed by their challenges and inspired by the way they overcome them.

And so, I try to share all this with the world, and the minute my thoughts hit paper they are vapid. My characters are empty and stale, the action barely action at all.

This is the challenge as a writer. Many people seem to think that coming up with ideas is difficult–not at all. The hard part is the writing. So much is lost in the transfer from mind to word. The difficulty is to stay at the task despite how demoralizing it seems. Because with revisions and alterations and lots of hard work, the story can be shared. And perhaps there is one perfect reader out there who will see the lavendar moth. And maybe there are other readers who, even if they cannot see the moth, will like the characters a little and will desire to read the story to its conclusion. And even if all they say is, “Yeah, that was pretty good,” I would feel satisfied.