Category Archives: fiction

2009 National Book Awards Finalists

American Salvage – Bonnie Jo Campbell
Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – Daniyal Mueenuddin
Lark and Termite – Jayne Anne Phillips
Far North – Marcel Theroux

Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook – David M. Carroll
Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species – Sean B. Carroll
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City – Greg Grandin
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy – Adrienne Mayor
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt – T.J. Stiles

Versed – Rae Armantrout
Or to Begin Again – Ann Lauterbach
Speak Low – Carl Phillips
Open Interval – Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy – Keith Waldrop

Young People’s Literature
Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith – Deborah Heiligman
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice – Phillip Hoose
Stiches – David Small
Lips Touch: Three Times – Laini Taylor
Jumped – Rita Williams-Garcia

Find out more at the National Book Foundation site.


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Children's Books, fiction

Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake


The third in a trilogy of novels set in a bleak world that is isolated from all other society, Gormenghast is a deliberately-paced story with a Gothic sensibility. It’s frequently listed on lists of best English-language novels and inspired a BBC mini-series. After finding the first novel, Titus Groan to be slowly paced if intriguing, I saw things pick up in Gormenghast, and was surprised at Peake’s willingness to have his characters do the unexpected. It is indeed an engaging and original tale.

I often see Gormenghast described as a fantasy novel, and I continuously find myself wondering where it got that label. Certainly it has some fantastic, larger-than-life characters who would not really exist in the daily world, but nothing that happens is particularly unbelievable or extreme. I guess it doesn’t slot well into another genre, because it’s not really historical fiction, but rather a universe and mythology that springs completely from the author’s imagination. As a reader, you can believe that a place like Gormenghast might exist in another time or dimension.

It’s also possible, I suppose, to see Gormenghast as Titus’s coming-of-age story. In Titus Groan he is born, and we learn much about all of the people who surround him even as we don’t really know the child who will eventually become Earl of Gormenghast and leader of the land in the second book. Once we do come to book two, though, we learn much about the young man as he grows up, from early youth all the way to manhood (there are three or four cataclysmic events that pave the way for his transition from child to adult).

Really, though, Gormenghast is about a land with rules and strict notions of how to live on a daily basis. But agents of chaos are swirling in the background, trying to mold Gormenghast into something that follows their own whims and caprices. Titus might be included amongst these chaos-bringers except for the fact that he desperately yearns to break free of his duties and expectations.

Peake was a masterful writer, full of detail and displaying a real talent at evoking a mental image through his words. I had specific images of all the key players in my mind, as well as a certain feeling about how the castle and buildings surrounding it should look. His insistence on being descriptive might make the story unfold slowly enough that it would put let patient readers off, but there are great rewards for those who watch the story unfold to its sort-of cliffhanger ending.

Obligatory FTC note: I received no compensation from any publisher, author, or anyone else for my review of this book. In fact, it’s been sitting on my bookshelf looking lonely for a couple of years now, but given the amount of time I’ve spent with it over the last couple of weeks, it probably is feeling a little smothered and would like a moment to itself.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, British Literature, fiction

Revisiting The Millions’ Best Fiction of the Millennium List

The Millions has revealed its full list of their Best Fiction of the Millennium. Reviewing the books they selected, I’ve read seven of the 20, with another four or five coming up on my reading list. I was fairly disappointed in the book that wound up in the #1 position. I found Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections to be thoroughly unlikeable, and a book that I had to slog through just to say it hadn’t defeated me. I hated all of the characters,and had no reason whatsoever to care about what happened to them. It really does go down as one of my greatest reading disappointments in recent memory, particularly given all the glowing praise it’s received.

The Millions certainly got a lot of them right, though. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) and Atonement (Ian McEwan) are two of my favorite novels in recent memory. I’ve now read everything Mitchell has ever written and a lot of McEwan’s offerings as well, and both are talented authors whom I admire greatly. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go isn’t as good as his earlier Remains of the Day, but I do think it’s a worthy entry. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is a rough read, by which I mean that the story itself is so painful that it almost hurts to keep turning the page. But he’s certainly evoking emotion and painting a picture of a world that may not last much longer.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is also sad, but delicate in its way. I’ll be reading her more recent novel, Home, soon and I very much like her writing style. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an odd duck of a book, one that I liked and thought was unique, but a number of friends have hated.

Books that were already on my “to be read” list include The Known World (and its follow-up, All Aunt Hagar’s Children), 2666 (I recently read The Savage Detectives by the same author), Varieties of Disturbance, The Fortress of Solitude, and American Genius: A Comedy. I’m semi-considering Stranger Things Happen for Halloween reading this year, as well.

The readers of the Millions had their own list, which adds good stuff like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell.

It’s been an intriguing discussion, and while I was a bit surprised at the winner (I was expecting Cloud Atlas or 2666), I think it’s generally a good representation of 21st century literature thus far. I would have liked to see a few more women on both lists, but I like that there’s a well-rounded number of authors from a variety of cultures. And of course, I now have a couple of additional books to ponder adding to my massive, ever-growing to-do list.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, fiction, literature

Best Fiction of the Millennium (so far)

The Millions is unveiling their choices for the best fiction of 2000s. Looks like a fine way to ramp up your reading list (not that most of us need any assistance on that front).

Meanwhile, if you’d like to vote for your own favorite books of the decade, you can head on over to Paste Magazine, where they’re asking for your selections.

My choices (in alphabetical order):

Atonement – Ian McEwan
Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Darkmans – Nicola Barker
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngogi Adichie
Heir to the Glimmering World – Cynthia Ozick
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
Let Me In – John Ajvide Lindqvist
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name – Vendela Vida
One Good Turn – Kate Atkinson
Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri

1 Comment

Filed under Books, fiction