Books of 2010: The best of the rest

December 23, 2010 at 2:42 am (Best of 2010, books)

In late July, I listed my favorite books of the year thus far.

Here’s the second and final part of  that list:


*Mrs Craddock – W Somerset Maugham
*Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson
Conspirata – Robert Harris
*Short stories by W. Somerset Maugham


*The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie
The Labors of Hercules – Agatha Christie
Red Herring – Archer Mayor
The Dragons of Archenfield – Edward Marston
*Portobello – Ruth Rendell
Red Bones – Ann Cleeves
Bad Boy – Peter Robinson
*The Dark Vineyard – Martin Walker
A Question of Belief – Donna Leon
The Darkest Room – Johan Theorin
Babel – Barry Maitland
Long Time Coming – Robert Goddard
The Instant Enemy – Ross MacDonald
*Deliver Us From Evil – Peter Turnbull
*The Charming Quirks of Others – Alexander McCall Smith

Some day I’ll find another picture of Peter Turnbull. Meanwhile, this tried and true image will have to do: . Turnbull’s prose style is highly idiosyncratic. It may be an acquired taste. If so, I’ve acquired it. I find his procedurals utterly compelling; this latest is no exception:.

Two superb novels from Ruth Rendell this year: Portobello and The Monster in the Box (How do I love her; Let me count the ways...)

Some great reading courtesy of Donna Leon as well: A Sea of Troubles and A Question of Belief


The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal
*The Fall of the House of Walworth – Geoffrey O’Brien
*The Last Empty Places – Peter Stark
*The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

Comments and observation:

For the sake consistency, I placed an asterisk by certain titles I particularly enjoyed. I did this with the first post on my favorite books of 2010, but it seemed more difficult this time, as though I were making hair’s breadth distinctions between books when I got so much pleasure out of each of them.

Back in October I described a visit to Books with a Past and my purchase while there of a volume of works by Somerset Maugham. This acquisition was prompted by a conversation I had recently had with a library patron and my subsequent decision to read a new biography of this author:   At this writing, I have only some sixty pages left in this 549-page work. I’m dragging my feet about finishing it, as it is one of the most enthralling reading experiences I’ve had in years. (Am I always saying that? Well, but it’s really true this time!) As is bound to happen when you’re reading an author’s biography, that author’s works come under scrutiny as well as his or her life. Mrs. Craddock was Maugham’s second novel, written in 1900. I had never heard of it, but Selina Hastings’s praise of that work  made me want to read it. It was marvelous. (There’s a link to my review above.) As for the short stories, they too are terrific. Many critics believe that this was the form in which Maugham truly excelled. I’ll have more to say about the stories in a subsequent post.

Two of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels made the cut this year. This prompts me to recount my Archer Mayor story. The day after posting my review of Red Herring, I was scheduled to fly out to Chicago for the purpose of seeing (yet again!) this excellent small personage: . While browsing at an airport newsstand, I found myself standing next to a tall, slender man wearing a checked shirt and a knit vest. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he jotted down some notes on a scrap of paper. I looked at him – then looked again. Be darned, I thought, if that is not the spitting image Archer Mayor. Oh well, I thought, you watched a video of this author just yesterday. (See the Red Herring post, linked to above.) You’ve simply got Archer Mayor on the brain. And so I didn’t say anything to the gentleman at the time. But days passed and I couldn’t put the (alleged) sighting out of my mind. Finally I e-mailed Mayor from his website, detailing the exact time and venue, and asking him if he was in fact, at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport at the date and time specified. Long story short: It was him, all right, on his way to an appearance at the venerable Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ. (I took the opportunity to tell him how much I admire the Joe Gunther novels, for which he thanked me graciously.)

Archer Mayor


Digression on the Subject of Travel Plans (Trust me – this is relevant): This coming May, I plan to return to Britain. I’ll be taking a tour entitled, “From Brother Cadfael to Lydmouth: The Welsh Borders through Time.” We’ll also be attending Crimefest 2011 in Bristol. Our culminating activity will be a visit to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home, where we’ll meet with John Curran, authority on Agatha Christie’s life and works and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. When Ron and I visited the south coast of Devon in 2006, Greenway was still being readied by the National Trust for viewing by the public. (This goal was achieved in February of 2009.) As we sailed up the Dart estuary, we gazed at the house from afar; ever since, I have longed to go inside. It is the opportunity to finally do so that the tipped the balance for me with regard to signing up for this tour.

Greenway, glimpsed from a distance in 2006

Naturally, a tour like this comes with a reading list. One of the titles on that list is The Dragons of Archenfield by Edward Marston. Though a mere 242 pages in length, I found the novel slow going. This was mainly due to the multiplicity of characters, the complexity of the plot, and the difficulty experienced by this reader in keeping track of the doings of the various warring factions. Despite all this, I liked the book, finding it an enjoyable romp through early medieval Britain. We all remember from our long-ago history lessons (not to mention Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe) that following the Battle of Hastings, there was considerable enmity between the victorious Normans and the defeated Saxons. But did you know that one of the reasons the former disdained the latter was that  they drank ale instead of wine? And were you aware that women were often in charge of brewing that ale? Soldier Ralph Delchard, an emissary from King William the Conqueror, tosses off the phrase “this disgusting English ale” when he first meets a lovely widow named Golde. Unfortunately for Ralph, Golde herself runs a brewery with her sister. No worries; a romance develops anyway. I wasn’t quite sure of its likelihood, but it certainly added spice to the proceedings!

Into the mix of Normans and Saxons, Marston adds the Welsh, who of course have their own claims to the land. And conflicting claims of land ownership are at the heart of the action in The Dragons of Archenfield.

In London, at the conclusion of the aforementioned 2006 trip – a Smithsonian tour, by the way – Edward Marston hosted a panel of authors. When I chatted briefly with him afterward, he was delighted to learn that I live in Maryland, the state in which one of his favorite authors, Barbara Michaels, also resides.  . We’ll be having lunch with Edward Marston, at which time he’ll talk to us about his novels set in the Welsh borders.

It will be a pleasure to once again encounter Mr. Marston.


Finally, I have to say how much I’ve enjoyed my reading in nonfiction this year. Alas, I’ve never done a proper review of Lyndall Gordon’s eye-opener, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds. I loved this book so much I bought it. So perhaps at some point I will get around to writing about it in some depth.

I haven’t written about The Last Empty Places at all, though I also loved (and bought) that book. Peter Stark writes marvelously about places in this country that I thought I knew about and didn’t. He makes four richly described pilgrimages into the American interior; on two of those occasions, he wife and children come with him. What a great gift to give to your kids! More to come on this very special chronicle – I promise!

Peter Stark

Permalink 2 Comments

The Mad Aggregator strikes again! A bevy of Best Books lists for the year 2010

December 20, 2010 at 2:20 am (Best of 2010, books)

I used to dread the yearly appearance of these lists:  “Oh no – look what I haven’t read and should have!” (This, after months of intense, nay compulsive book consumption.) But this year, as my interests became more esoteric and I began to focus more on classic novels and short stories, my fears pretty much evaporated. It’s a good thing, too, as I’ve read very few of  these titles, and that includes the “Best Mysteries” lists. I have no immediate plans to remedy  this situation, as I’ve been so deeply gratified by the path I’m currently following (about which more in a subsequent post). But enough about me! On second thought, can that ever  be – enough about me, I mean? Should the title of this post be “The Mad Egomaniac strikes again”?

Nay – enough of these errant and rambling ruminations – Here are the lists. I’ll start with The New York Times and the Washington Post. I’m always on the lookout for these come December. The Times first compiles a list of One Hundred Notable Books for  the year, from that list, the ten best are culled. This year the Washington Post more or less followed suit. The first part of the list, in the online iteration, is called “The best novels of 2010.” This is an awkward heading as it makes no provision for short story anthologies, although William Trevor’s Selected Stories is on the list. The print version is called “Fiction & Poetry,”  the same heading used by the Times. Here’s the Post’s nonfiction list. And here is the list of   Ten Best, presented for some reason in the form of a slide show. (These titles do not appear on the longer lists.)

A few observations: two novels made the top ten for both the Post and the Times. One is Room by Emma Donoghue. Room also appears on numerous other lists this year. I admit to being daunted by the subject matter; however, critics and reviewers alike have been singing its praises for months, so I will probably give it a try. The other novel that achieved this distinction is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I haven’t read this either; the reviews make it sound rather experimental for a lover of the traditional chronological narrative like myself.  Joanne, another savvy reader friend from the library, liked it with some reservations. I might give it a go – we’ll see…sigh… I really am trying to keep an open mind…

I tried The Big Short and it did not work for me. This happened with quite a few of this year’s titles: read a few pages, sigh, read a few more pages, think about my age (66), the longevity (or lack of same) of my eyesight – and put the book aside. I began listening to The Likeness by Tana French a while back, but lost interest after the first disc. And there were nineteen more! This has been one of my problems with French; her books tend to be very long. But Faithful Place has turned up on so many  best-of  lists – and my discriminating friend Cristina is such a fan of this writer – I’ll probably give it a go.

Finally there’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s eagerly awaited new novel. It placed among the top ten in the Times but did not make the cut at all at the Post. I’ve rarely seen such a polarized – and polarizing – reaction to a work of fiction. Freedom made many other best-of lists, but opinions on this novel remain sharply divided. It has received numerous accolades from critics and readers who consider it on a par with The Corrections, if not better. But it was also the object of a withering take down by B.R. Myers in the October Atlantic Magazine.

I loved The Corrections. I was one of the readers waiting in hopeful anticipation for Freedom. And well, you guessed it – several pages in, I put the book down, feeling deeply disappointed. I have not picked it up again, but I don’t rule out the possibility.

Of the eighteen different titles on the two top ten lists, the only one I consider myself to have already read is Selected Stories by William Trevor. I say this because I’ve been reading his collected stories as they’ve come out for several years now. They are, of course, wonderful. As for nonfiction, where I’ve lately had some of my best reading,  I haven’t read any of the titles named, but I have a reserve on, and am eagerly awaiting, Stacy Schiff’s biography of  Cleopatra and Apollo’s Angels: A history of Ballet by Jennifer Homans. (I put the covers at the top of the post – they’re so gorgeous!)

I recently read in the New Yorker Magazine a lengthy and  fascinating review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I commend it to you. I have no doubt that this is an outstanding book, but I don’t plan on reading it. At my age, one must struggle not to live in constant fear of this disease, and not to be angry and bitter over loved ones lost to it. (I gather that that Mukherjee  explores these issues with great insight and sensitivity.)

Any and all comments, suggestions, and/or recommendations concerning my thoughts and yours on the year in books are most welcome. Meanwhile, here are more lists: Best fiction, from Salon’s Laura Miller; also her selection of the best nonfiction.  Best of 2010 from Kirkus Reviews. Same from Publishers Weekly.

NPR went about the task in what I think is a different and creative way. The Daily Beast did some aggregating of its own. And finally, Largehearted Boy really went to town!

I’ve already posted a Best of 2010 list of my own that goes through July. I’ll soon be posting my picks for the remainder of the year. Be on the lookout…

Permalink 6 Comments

Midyear roundup: best reads of 2010, thus far

July 31, 2010 at 2:35 am (Best of 2010, books)

Here are my favorites reads so far for 2010. As in the past. I’ve included books that were published prior to this year but that I’ve read since this year began. I’ve linked to relevant posts in this space.

An asterisk denotes a title I found especially outstanding – a probable candidate for “best of the best,” at the close of the year.




*Unfinished Desires – Gail Godwin

*A Week in December – Sebastian Faulks

The House in Paris – Elizabeth Bowen

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

The Man in the Wooden Hat – Jane Gardam

*The Road Home – Rose Tremain

*Family Happiness – Leo Tolstoy

What Is Left the Daughter – Howard Norman

Mystery / Thriller

The Price of Malice – Archer Mayor

Wycliffe and the Tangled Web – W.J. Burley

The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson

*The Monster in the Box – Ruth Rendell

The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths

The Serpent Pool – Martin Edwards

*A Sea of Troubles – Donna Leon

The Brutal Telling – Louise Penny

*The Dark Mirror – Barry Maitland

*The Girl Who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

*The Lost Art of Gratitude – Alexander McCall Smith

The Black Cat – Martha Grimes

*The Poacher’s Son – Paul Doiron

The Corpse in the Koryo – James Church

*A Stranger in the Family – Robert Barnard

*The Ninth Step – Gabriel Cohen

*The Silver Bear – Derek Haas

Nine Dragons – Michael Connelly


The Art of Time in Fiction – Joan Silber

Denial – Richard S. Tedlow

*Parallel Lives – Phyllis Rose

*The Poisoner’s Handbook – Deborah Blum

*Lives Like Loaded Guns – Lyndall Gordon

Contested Will – James Shapiro

The Metaphysical Club – Louis Menand

*A Midwife’s Tale – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Sargent’s Daughters – Erica Hirschler


Author Gallery


Lyndall Gordon


Phyllis Rose

Alexander McCall Smith and Jill Scott, who plays Mma Ramotswe in the TV version of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. If you have not watched these films...well, drop everything and do so at once! (They are owned by the Howard County Library.)

Louise Penny

Donna Leon, a great novelist in any genre

Ruth Rendell - like Donna Leon, a writer of depth, irony, and subtlety

Craig Johnson, who, when not wielding a pen, seems equally at home wielding a chainsaw!

Archer Mayor

Gail Godwin, whose writing has given me much pleasure over the years

Richard S. Tedlow - a fine writer and a wonderful brother (to Yours Truly) as well


Jane Gardam

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, by his constant portraitist Ilya Repin (1901)


Permalink 5 Comments