1) CRYPTONOMICON by Neal Stephenson, the king of cyberpunk. This would be a hard book NOT to jump to the top of any list in any given year. I talked about it on the blog two separate times, so I'll link to those comments here and here. Thanks again to Nancy Pearl for her enthusiastic recommendation of a book that's like nothing I've ever read before.
2) THE WEED THAT STRINGS THE HANGMAN'S BAG by Alan Bradley
I've read both of Alan Bradley's wonderful books featuring the first person narration of 12 year old prodigy and mystery-solver, Flavia deLuce. TWTSTHB is the second after THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE and is my favorite of the two - though both are incredibly good. Hard to believe that TSATBOTP was a debut, by the way. Bradley brings to life the lonely existence of a twelve year old girl living in the English countryside circa 1950's.
He adds a touch of murder to the scene and allows Flavia her believable eccentricities coupling them with a natural ability to get at the truth of a problem. Flavia, at all of 12 years old, is someone to be reckoned with.
3) SHADES OF GREY by Jasper Fforde
The first in a new series by the ever-inventive, ever-whimsical, ever-mind-bending author of the Thursday Next. Literary Detective series and the Jack Spratt, Nursery Crimes series. SHADES OF GREY takes place in a world where color causes divisions in society but not in the way you would normally think. In a place where almost everyone sees in the color grey, the ability (viewed with suspicion) to see anything but grey, leads to a kind of caste system. There are 'dealers' whose prime source of revenue is the manipulation of the color spectrum, mysterious authorities, rigid social barriers and strictly regulated do's and don't's that reminded me of a 19th century religious sect. It is a strange, drab world where, apparently, all the modern science we're used to, no longer exists, though remnants of it are stumbled across now and again. It took me a while to 'get into' the story - it was mighty confusing at first - but once I did, I was enthralled. Jasper Fforde never seems to tire of stretching the boundaries of his imagination and, in turn, ours.
4) MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson
Such a well-written, lovely book (another debut that defies expectations) that proves yet again, that, yes, you can have a second chance in life - mostly when you least expect it. Major Ernest Pettigrew, an elderly Brit living an orderly life in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary finds that life turned upside down when he, unwittingly, falls in love with a Pakistani widow. MPLS is an often humorous look at small town English life in the 21st century with the occasional heart-breaking twist or two. A book that, despite the age of the main characters, is sprightly and young at heart and left me feeling good about life. I love when a book does that.
5) THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann
A stirring, intriguing, exciting, non-fiction account of the doomed expedition in 1925, by explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett and his son Jack, of the far reaches of the Amazon in search of a lost city of gold. Author David Grann's fast-paced and obviously well-researched narrative reads like fiction, but is all the more strange for being completely true. A thrilling arm-chair adventure not to be missed.
6) THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville
A noirish, often nightmarish metaphor of a world very much like ours except it's not - a police procedural which stretches the boundaries of genre by a writer who often specializes in something called the 'new weird'. Twin southern European cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma co-exist in the same physical space though the inhabitants of each city do not acknowledge the presence of the other. This idiosyncrasy is strictly enforced by a mysterious governing body. When Inspector Tyador Borl of the Extreme Crime Squad is called in to investigate the murder of a young woman, he and the investigation are caught up in a dangerously murky system. A fascinating look at the way societies can perpetuate (and enforce) their own 'realities'.
7) 61 HOURS by Lee Child
The first of two Jack Reacher books published this year, this one edges the second, WORTH DYING FOR, just slightly. Lee Child has earned a reputation as the thriller-writer's thriller writer and these two books gild that reputation. Child is amazingly gifted in his ability to tell a story in a smart, swift way while not abandoning the very characterization that makes his type of book more than just another thriller. Once again we are treated to the dark ratiocination of knight in shining armor, ex-military cop, Jack Reacher; a big, bruisey character who stamps his own brand of violent justice on the bad guys of this world.
8) MISS HARGREAVES by Frank Baker
When, on the spur of the moment, Norman Huntley and his friend Henry, two feckless young Englishmen, invent an elderly woman named Miss Hargreaves, they think it a spendid joke on a curate who is boring them to tears. Imagine their horror and chagrin when the said Miss Hargreaves turns up in their lives exactly as they'd imagined her and no one will believe she isn't who and what they think she is - or is she? I see this as a delightful re-telling of the Frankenstein myth with a sweet (though not always- there is a vein of darkness that runs through this tale) old lady as the 'monster' inclined to make a shambles of the lives and nerves of her inventors. I must thank Simon over at his blog, STUCK IN A BOOK, for highly recommending the reading of MISS HARGREAVES (originally published in 1940, then once again by Bloomsbury USA in 2010) as well as Nancy Pearl, yet again. Here's my review of MISS HARGREAVES.
9) DO THE WINDOWS OPEN? by Julie Hecht
An often hilarious (I admit that several times I laughed until I almost fell off the sofa) series of essays/short-stories - with an undercurrent of mania - that read very much as one slightly incoherent novel detailing the experiences of a very neurotic New York photographer. Forty year old Isabelle, a woman who always seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is a talker and detailer of a life lived seemingly in constant conflict with the ordinary. My favorite story: the one where she imagines her optician is a Nazi. Julie Hecht is a writer for The New Yorker as well as an O Henry Prize winner. This book was first published in 1997 and again, I only heard of it because of Nancy Pearl's recommendation.
10) ON THE LINE by S.J. Rozan
A non-stop thrill ride of a book, this time told from the viewpoint of New York private detective Bill Smith. Last year's book, the brilliant SHANGHAI MOON, was told from Bill's partner Lydia Chin's point of view. Author S.J. Rozan very smartly alternates viewpoints in this series of NYC mysteries. My review, here, will give you the rundown. Rozan, a New Yorker herself, gets all the details of her NYC settings just right. These last two books, in my view, have been her best.
Okay, that's 10. I have several other books I want to mention, books I also very much enjoyed this year. So let's call these Honorable Mentions:
THE FIRST RULE by Robert Crais
BRYANT AND MAY ON THE LOOSE by Christopher Fowler
TO FETCH A THIEF by Spencer Quinn
ONE GOOD DOG by Susan Wilson
WORTH DYING FOR by Lee Child
THE GOD OF THE HIVE by Laurie R. King
GRAVE GOODS by Ariana Franklin
THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeanette Walls - non-fiction
A THOUSAND DAYS IN VENICE by Marlena de Blasi - non-fiction
BELLA TUSCANY by Frances Mayes - non-fiction
AGENT ZIGZAG by Ben MacIntyre - non-fiction
MURDER AT MANSFIELD PARK by Lynn Shephard
THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE by Alan Bradley
BRUNO CHIEF OF POLICE by Martin Walker
SHADOWS RETURN by Lynn Flewelling
If you like, you can check out the titles of all the terrific books I've read so far this year here. As I said, it was a very good reading year. Hopefully, 2011 will be as good.
In 2010 I read the entire 'Alleyn' canon of New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh - a diva of the Golden Age of Mysteries, writing around the same time as Agatha Christie - but I didn't include them in my lists because some were rereads and those that weren't would have taken up the entire Best Ten list. Here's a quick list of a few of my favorite Ngaio Marsh, Roderick Alleyn mysteries:
A SURFEIT OF LAMPREYS
DIED IN THE WOOL
SINGING IN THE SHROUDS
ARTISTS IN CRIME
ARTISTS IN CRIME
NIGHT AT THE VULCAN
A CLUTCH OF CONSTABLES
SPINSTERS IN JEOPARDY
SCALES OF JUSTICE