Friday, January 1, 2010

The Best Books I Read in 2009

Happy New Year! My first post of 2010 is a look back at the books I really enjoyed reading for pleasure last year.

10. The Surrender of Persephone by Selena Kitt (2009; Phaze Books) retells the Classical Greek myth of the virgin goddess of spring, Persephone, and her abduction by the god of the Underworld, Hades. In myth, Persephone grows into her role as queen of the Underworld to become a powerful and mysterious goddess. In Kitt's uncensored version, Persephone chafes at her mother Demeter's restrictiveness and dim view of males, both human and divine.

Up from the depths of the earth comes Hades, also known as Aidon. He lifts Persephone into his chariot and takes her to the eerily lovely splendor of his Underworld kingdom, the land of the dead. In his mind, this is a perfectly acceptable arranged marriage, a deal between Aidon and Persephone's father Zeus. Persephone feels a mixture of fear and attraction to the handsome, amber-eyed god. A thoroughly modern spin on an ancient fable.

9. From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris. Many things happen in this book (including Alcide's ascension to leader of the Shreveport pack and the appearance of a new fairy), but the entire effort is rather disjointed. Sookie is at her most fickle (she's suddenly keen on Calvin Norris and Eric, not so much Alcide and Quinn), and there is a notable lack of romance. Interesting, but not the best of the Southern Vampire series. On the other hand, Bill seems to want Sookie back...could the long-awaited reconciliation be in the works?

8. Dead After Dark by Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. R. Ward, Susan Squires, and Dianne Love. The four stories in this collection are all highly entertaining. The best of the best is J.R. Ward's "The Story of Son." It's not part of her Black Dagger Brotherhood storyline, but it's excellent, with a truly engaging heroine and a darkly romantic, tragic hero, a bit like Z in the Brotherhood. (And he's my favorite.) This is the first I've read from the other authors, but I'll certainly be wanting more in the future thanks to this introduction. All of the stories could be themed "They came from different worlds." Very spicy, very diverse tales, all very good.

7. Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez. Ever since the days of Scoobie Doo, teens have wondered whether adults were conspiring to get them. And you know what? Sometimes they're right. Daisy Giordano is not only a resident of the quirky town of Nightshade, but also the only "norm" in a family of psychics. When girls at her high school start turning up undead, she and her hunky best friend Ryan must get to the bottom of this mystery. Is a vampire on the loose? Could it be Nurse Phillips, or perhaps Miss Foster, the head cheerleading coach? Daisy may not be gifted with her mother's and sisters' special powers, but she is smart, curious, and above all determined. If anyone can get to the bottom of this, Daisy can.

6. Hell's Belles by Jackie Kessler. There are many reasons to love Hell's Belles by Jackie Kessler (Zebra Books, 2007). One is its heroine, Jezebel, who is literally a cloven-footed demon spawned in the depths of Hell. When Hell undergoes a change in management, succubus Jezebel is forced to give up her career of seducing the souls from mortal men and become a nightmare. Jezebel doesn't adapt well to the change, fleeing the Lake of Fire to become a mortal. And, since mortals have to pay the rent, she becomes a stripper.

Lacking a soul, Jezebel certainly isn't planning on falling in love. Still, when she meets Paul Hamilton, she's more fascinated by him than an ex-demon should be. Paul is beautiful, to be sure, but with his "poet's eyes" and boxer's broken nose, he's also a sweet and sensitive soul.

Other characters in this book are also well-written and interesting. There's Daun, the incubus. He gets his own book, Hotter Than Hell, two more volumes into Kessler's Hell on Earth series. Then there's Lucifer himself, who's given perhaps the most sympathetic and romantic portrayal since Milton's Paradise Lost. I was delightfully surprised by Kessler's reinterpretation of Lucifer.

Another wonderful surprise awaiting readers of Hell's Belles is the music. Kessler animates Jezebel's strip club with with classic Melissa Etheridge, new INXS ("Pretty Vegas," with JD Fortune as lead singer), The Bloodhound Gang and, best of all, a U2 medley with "Desire" and "Mysterious Ways." I wanted to stick a five dollar bill into the paperback to tip the dj.

A fellow reviewer of Hell's Belles found the ending "a bit pat," but I disagree. The ending made me cry, with its poignant blend of sadness and hope. I highly recommend Hell's Belles to all lovers of paranormal and fantasy romance.

5. The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl by Marc Schuster. First rule of parenting: you don't use drugs in front of your kids. Especially if you're the one member of the parent-teacher association charged with running the school's Just-Say-No program.

Audrey Corcoran is blindsided when her husband of ten years leaves her for a much-younger, thinner woman named Chloe. Desperate not to lose her young daughters the way she lost Roger, Audrey decides to get in touch with her fun side. Her adventures lead to her try cocaine, against her better judgement. In this tragicomic novel, Audrey copes with life on and off drugs.

I'm always a little amazed when a male author paints such a touching and realistic portrait of a woman's life. Scott Simon did it for 17-year-old Irena Zaric in Pretty Birds, and Marc Schuster does it for 30-something Audrey Corcoran. Thanks to Desperate Housewives, the suburban mom secretly on drugs may be something of a cliche, but Schuster never allows Audrey's life to become a caricature or a morality play. He simply gives her 292 pages to be her Super Mom + Party Girl self, and readers will be grateful for that.

4. Happy Hour at Casa Dracula by Marta Acosta. Thoroughly enjoyable. In this witty novel, Acosta creates a wonderful heroine in Milagro de los Santos. Mil, as she is known to friends, wants what every girl wants: to be taken seriously as a writer, live in rat-free apartment, and maybe find a fabulous guy she can get serious with. That guy is definitely not her ex, Sebastian, the hot writer du jour (del dia?) who is sitting on top of a pile of dark secrets. Along comes Oswald, who may be a vampire, and whose secrets may or may not be of the dark variety. Wonderfully written, funny and romantic, this one is a real winner.

3. CrowWoman and MudGirl by Victoria Selene Skye Deme. The author is, I believe, the illegitimate love child of Sylvia Plath, Barbara G. Walker (who wrote the wonderful Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets), and American Indian writer Louise Erdrich. CrowWoman and Mudgirl is an all-too-brief collection of poems steeped in myth and folklore. The theme, generally, is the reconciliation of the age-old dichotomy of feminine archetypes: is a woman a sweet-faced angel, or a raging bitch-goddess? In Skye Deme's poems, she is daughter, lover, monster, and more. These are big poems for such a tiny book, and deeply satisfying. My personal favorite is "Dreary Summer Day." What sounds like something perfectly mundane is actually a beautifully spun vampire tale.

2. The Prestige by Christopher Priest. First, you have to see the movie, which stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as a pair of warring stage magicians. It's sort of a steampunk-ish thing, where turn-of-the-nineteenth century technology meets the late Victorian/Edwardian era. AFTER you've seen the movie (and drooled over your choice of Jackman, Bale, Scarlett Johannson or David Bowie!), read Chris Priest's awesome book, which stunned me by being even weirder than the film.

1. GoneAway Into the Land by Jeffrey B. Allen. Remember, in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, when Willy Wonka took the children and their guardians for a ride in a boat? Remember how the boat ride suddenly because dark and sinister, and you sensed there was something seriously evil afoot in the chocolate factory? Keep that boat ride in mind, and you'll have some idea of where GoneAway Into the Land (2008, Wandering Sage Publications) is going to take you.

"His name was Danny Greber, Daniel Johannes Greber, but I named him the beast." From its opening line, GoneAway crackles with danger. Author Jeffrey B. Allen creates a vivid, animated world in which trains breathe and an attic full of discarded housewares plots its revenge. Clearly, Allen has a poet's eye. His young hero, thirteen-year-old John, has a poet-warrior's heart. Imagine Harry Potter if, instead of the slightly unpleasant Dursleys, Harry had been raised by a full-grown mountain troll. John's beast of a father is unpredictable and dangerous. He takes the story book villain to a whole new level of greed and ignorance.

"The beast" finally goes too far when he disappears, taking John's little sister, Marny, with him. The search for Marny leads John and his mother, Ellie, in the Land, a place they couldn't have imagined in their wildest dreams. (Think of Candyland crossed with Gregory Maguire's vision of Oz and you'll have something of an idea.) Allen skillfully combines the everyday world with the fantastic, a seemingly seamless combination which reminds the reader of the very best of fantasy novels. Yet, GoneAway never imitates the style of other fantasies. It remains fresh and surprising, giving the reader little thrills of recognition but never descending into fairy tale cliches.

A note at the end of the book promises the GoneAway series will continue in a second book. The GoneAway series promises to be a fascinating one, as the first book ends on notes of hope, but also of missed opportunity. It will be rewarding to see how the series develops.

GoneAway Into the Land is a highly satisfying reading fix for older children. It will not disappoint adult fans of fantasy, either. Readers who enjoyed Keith Miller's The Book of Flying and other fairy tales for grown-ups will also appreciate GoneAway.

No comments: