National Geographic Staff’s Favorite Books of 2010 (Part One)

Man reads rare book in special collection.

With the holidays behind us and months of winter weather still ahead, now is the perfect time to catch up on all the reading you’ve been meaning to get around to. Inspired by all the “best books” lists we’ve been reading during the past month, we decided to put together our own favorites list. We asked staff here at NGS to tell us about the best books they read in 2010, and book-lovers from across the Society responded to the call. The result is a great (we think!) roster of recommendations that range from Nobel-prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller to Susan Collins’ dystopic young adult novel Mockingjay.

We’re posting our fiction picks today. Stay tuned for our non-fiction list. And make sure to tell us what books you’d recommend!

Arsenault, Emily. The Broken Teaglass. (2009) – “In Arsenault’s quirky, arresting debut, two young lexicographers find clues to an old murder case hidden in the files at their dictionary company. Billy and Mona are drawn together by tantalizing hints of murder in the company’s citation files. The result is an absorbing, offbeat mystery–meets–coming-of-age novel that’s as sweet as it is suspenseful.” (Publishers Weekly) Michael Jourdan

Bradley, Alan. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery. (2010) – Flavia is back on the case in her second adventure. The eleven-year old chemist helps solve the mystery of a puppet master and his electrocution. Suzan Eaton

Cleeves, Ann. Raven Black. (2008) – Atmospheric thriller set in the Shetland Islands during the annual Up Helly Aa yuletide festival. Received Dagger Award & starred review from Publishers Weekly. Cathy Hunter

Collins, Susan. Mockingjay. (2010) – “This is the final installment in Collins’s engrossing ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy, in which the future is a giant reality-­television show and politics, war and entertainment have become indistinguishable. Katniss Everdeen, 17, the figurehead of a rebellion against the decadent Capitol, is a terrific heroine: part Pippi Longstocking, part girl with the dragon tattoo.” (New York Times). Michael Jourdan

Cotterill, Colin. Thirty-three Teeth. (2006) – Set in 1977 Laos, the elderly state coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun sets out to solve three separate mysteries. The story manages to combine political intrigue, folklore and satire. Suzan Eaton

Courtenay, Bryce. The Power of One. (1989) – It’s a coming-of-age story of an English child in Boer South Africa at the start of World War II. He’s picked on as a young boy, then he befriends two older men who teach him the wonders of life and how to survive and thrive.

Cronin, Justin. The Passage. (2010) – “Skillfully blending elements of classic horror, biotech thrillers, and post-apocalyptic fiction with appealing characters, suspenseful storytelling, and bloodcurdling action, Cronin has written an intelligent, imaginative, and genuinely scary thriller that will grip even the most jaded reader.” (Library Journal). This is part one in a series that is still in progress. Maggie Turqman

Dyer, Geoff. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. (2009) – In the first half of the book, Jeff, a freelance art critic, is sent on a plum assignment – an art show in Venice and an interview with a former model. The only thing making his life difficult is his own ennui. His ambivalence is temporarily overcome by a romance with a gallery curator. In the second half of the book, a freelance journalist, who may or may not be Jeff, is given another great assignment, this time to India. As he stays past the time line of his assignment, the narrator begins to explore his spirituality. Are these two quests, for love and spirituality, the same story or two separate ones? Marta Segal Block (The Booklist). Anne Marie Houppert

Farmer, Ben. Evangeline. (2010) – A great novel based on Longfellow’s epic poem of the same name. “Farmer delivers an evocative impression of American colonial and frontier life; his descriptions of everything from the Maryland frontier to a Louisiana swamp settlement give a real sense of the New World’s newness. A meticulously-rendered setting . . a passion-driven plot.” (Publishers Weekly)

Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. (2010) – This book about a Midwestern family got so many rave reviews that I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the hype. But by page 20 I was won over. Critics may have loved Freedom because it’s a Serious Book about the failure of American idealism, or whatever, but, ultimately, this is a book about people — the failures that push them apart and the complicated ties that hold them together. Franzen is brutally honest about what motivates people, and the result is a novel that’s both funny and surprisingly empathetic. Alyson Foster

French, Tana. In the Woods. (2008) – “French expertly walks the line between police procedural and psychological thriller in her debut. When Katy Devlin, a 12-year-old girl from Knocknaree, a Dublin suburb, is found murdered at a local archaeological dig, Det. Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, must probe deep into the victim’s troubled family history. There are chilling similarities between the Devlin murder and the disappearance 20 years before of two children from the same neighborhood who were Ryan’s best friends. Only Maddox knows Ryan was involved in the 1984 case. The plot climaxes with a taut interrogation by Maddox of a potential suspect, and the reader is floored by the eventual identity and motives of the killer.” (Publishers Weekly)

Giordano, Paul. The Solitude of Prime Numbers. (2010) – “Alice and Mattia are both misfits who seem destined to be alone. Haunted by childhood tragedies that mark their lives, they cannot reach out to anyone else. When Alice and Mattia meet as teenagers, they recognize in each other a kindred, damaged spirit. When Mattia accepts a research position that takes him thousands of miles away, the two are forced to separate. Then a chance occurrence reunites them, forcing a lifetime of concealed emotion to the surface.” (Goodreads) The author’s natural ability to pull scientific and mathematical observations into the narrative was very interesting to me, especially as I do not possess an eye that can analyze the world in such a detached manner. Highly recommended. MJ Slazak Courchesne

Glukhovsky, Dmitry. Metro 2033. (2010) – “The year is 2033 and humanity is nearly extinct. The half-destroyed cities have become uninhabitable through radiation. Man has handed over stewardship of the earth to new life-forms. Mutated by radiation, they are better adapted to the new world. A few score thousand survivors live on, not knowing whether they are the only ones left on earth. They live in the Moscow Metro–the biggest air-raid shelter ever built. It is humanity’s last refuge. But now a new and terrible threat has appeared.” (Amazon) Michael Jourdan

Keilson, Hans. Comedy in a Minor Key. (1947) – This novella was recently re-released to celebrate the author’s 100th birthday. It is the story of a young Dutch couple who shelter a Jew during WWII who will never see his freedom–he dies from pneumonia despite their efforts to take care of him. Once he passes away, they are confronted with the macabre task of disposing of his body. Cathy Hunter

LaFevers, R.L. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. (2008) – This charming book for middle-school readers features a plucky 11 year-old who spends her days wandering the halls of a musty London antiquities museum where her father is the director. Her mother is usually off in Egypt collecting rare artifacts which Theodosia must decontaminate with homemade amulets and potions–really, why do the adults never realize the objects are cursed? The fate of the British Empire rests in her hands when her mother returns with the Heart of Egypt–an artifact that will unleash chaos until it is returned to its rightful place. Cathy Hunter

McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin. (2009) – This novel focuses on the lives of various New Yorkers on the day in 1974 when French trapeze artist Phillip Petit walked a tight rope between the World Trade Center towers. It won the National Book Award for fiction. Several people recommended this book.

McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men. (2006) – Llewelyn Moss is out hunting one afternoon in rural Texas when he stumbles on a crime scene: several dead bodies, a shipment of heroin, and a suitcase with 2 million dollars in cash. Does Moss take the money? You bet. Does someone coming looking for it? Absolutely. McCarthy’s novels aren’t for the squeamish or faint of heart, but his spare prose is gorgeous, and once you start this book you’ll be holding your breath until its terrifying end. Alyson Foster

Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. (1990) – This jaunty crime novel, set in L.A. in 1948, introduces Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a recently laid-off mechanic who is young, black and–but for the need to meet the mortgage on his new house–a most reluctant sleuth. Easy hails originally from the tough Fifth Ward in Houston; he served his country, landing on the Normandy Beach. He knows racism firsthand and seeing too many white men in one day unnerves him. But a white businessman, Dewitt Albright, engages Easy to locate a beautiful French woman named Daphne Monet who has a “predilection for the company of negroes.” She also has $30,000 of someone else’s money. Easy becomes entangled in a chain of events that takes him to bar after bar to meet a range of characters, most of whom are seeking their own advantages in the pursuit of Daphne. With bodies piling up, there is no turning back for Easy, as he is dogged by brutish white cops and a few “brothers” none too friendly. The language is hard-boiled (“Somewhere between the foo young and the check I decided to cut my losses”) and the portrait of black city life gritty and real. (Amazon, from Publishers Weekly) Elaine Donnelly

Pattinson, Eliot. Beautiful Ghosts. (2005) – The fourth in a series featuring a disgraced Beijing investigator who has taken refuge with outlawed Tibetan monks, this mystery finds him investigating a death among a hallowed Buddhist ruin. There is much detail about Tibetan and Buddhist culture, particularly the art, and the juxtaposition of Tibetan characters who cling to remnants of English literature and customs is lovely. Cathy Hunter

Portis, Charles. Dog of the South. (Republished 1999) – “Hilarious and heart breakingly odd…you find yourself laughing so hard in sections that tears run down your face.” (The Baltimore Sun) Ray Midge is off to find his wife and his car, both of which have been taken to Central America by that no-good Guy Dupree. Along the way Midge meets Dr. Symes who is seeking his fortune while trying to dodge his unfortunate past.

Setterfield, Diane. The Thirteenth Tale. (2007) – “A ruined mansion in the English countryside, secret illegitimate children, a madwoman hidden in the attic, ghostly twin sisters–yep, it’s a gothic novel, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything fancier. But this one grabs the reader with its damp, icy fingers and doesn’t let go until the last shocking secret has been revealed.” (Library Journal). Michael Jourdan

Shaffer, Mary Ann. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (2008) – This is a VERY QUICK read. If you’re looking for something that requires a (tiny bit) more thought for the beach, this would be a good option. The only thing I found distracting and unrealistic was the author’s use of dates throughout. As the story is told through a series of letters during WWII, I found it hard to believe that people would be able to receive a letter within a day of its posting, but beyond that, I thought the idea and execution for the book were well done. MJ Slazak Courchesne

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me. (2009) – This young adult mystery won the Newbery award in 2010. Set in New York City in the 1970s, the novel tells the story of Miranda, a sixth-grader, who gets mysterious notes saying she needs to be saved from a future tragedy. “At its heart, the book is a mystery, but ­precisely what puzzle is being solved in these closely plotted pages remains itself a mystery until the end, when the main character has a series of jaw-dropping realizations. . . .Readers age 9-15 (and older) will share Miranda’s wonderment as she discovers who has been communicating with her, and why, and are likely to find themselves chewing over the details of this superb and intricate tale long afterward.” (Wall St. Journal). I read this book after hearing the author speak at the National Book Festival and thought it was great — very clever and entertaining. Also liked the tie-in to A Wrinkle in Time — another favorite book… Maggie Turqman

Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. (2009) – This debut novel details the lives of black maids in 60’s Mississippi and the white women they work for. “In a page-turner that brings new resonance to the moral issues involved, [Stockett] spins a story of social awakening as seen from both sides of the American racial divide.” (Washington Post). Several people recommended this book.

Tropper, Jonathan. This is Where I Leave You. (2009) – Publishers Weekly calls this book “a snappy and heartfelt family drama/belated coming-of-age story. Judd Foxman’s wife, Jen, has left him for his boss, a Howard Stern–like radio personality, but it is the death of his father and the week of sitting shivah with his enjoyably dysfunctional family that motivates him. . . The family’s interactions are sharp, raw and often laugh-out-loud funny, and Judd’s narration is unflinching, occasionally lewd and very keen. Tropper strikes an excellent balance between the family history and its present-day fallout, proving his ability to create touchingly human characters and a deliciously page-turning story.”

Waters, Sarah. The Little Stranger. (2009) – Publishers Weekly gave this “stunning haunted house tale” a starred review and compared it to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Taking place in Britain after World War II, the setting is the massive but crumbling Hundreds Hall and the cast is a small, vividly-drawn collection of characters led by narrator Doctor Faraday. The story unfolds like a Victorian ghost story and at times moves into the purely terrifying. Alison Ince

Vargas Llosa, Mario. The Storyteller. (1989) – With his unexpected win of the Nobel Prize this year, Vargas Llosa has been in the news a lot lately. A good place to start reading his fiction is, in my humble opinion, The Storyteller, which has some interesting things to say about anthropology and the culture of the native. Library Journal explains that the novel narrates “the story of Saul Zuratas, a Peruvian Jew who becomes an habladore (storyteller) to the Machiguengas–a tribe still wandering the Amazon jungle–and the tribe’s stories themselves. The examination of the roles of anthropologists and ecologists in preserving the integrity of native societies is here explicit, and the good reader reaps the rewards of a novel that tackles major political issues as it fulfills the basic human need to tell and hear stories. A well-written work, demanding that we think about the results of acculturation and ecological disaster.” If you want to start with something more personal, check out his excellent memoir, A Fish in the Water (1994). Garrett Brown


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One Response to National Geographic Staff’s Favorite Books of 2010 (Part One)

  1. Pingback: National Geographic Staff’s Favorite Books of 2010 (Part Two) | Dispatches From the Stacks

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