Monday, August 15, 2011

Top 10 Read Novels: 2005-2009

Whenever I write about my annual "books read" during a calendar year (e.g. the 2010 list), I take this from a Word document in which I record every book I’ve read. They go on this list in the order in which I finish them, not begin them, as I’ve been known to read multiple books at once (currently actively reading 2 books: The Elegance of the Hedgehog and, on my Why-Pad, Rogues’ Gallery). I also rate each book with up to 5 stars, in part because it helps me remember years later how I felt about a particular book, although the 5-star books remain in my mind for the obvious reason (and, oddly enough, so do the 1-star books). I started keeping this list back in 2005, when I was moving from South Florida to NYC and thus needed to weed my library. I realize all this may make me seem a bit anal and crazy, but I learned a long time ago I’m a listmaker, and without my lists (shopping lists, "to do" lists, deadlines lists, etc.), I’d go...well, even more crazy!

In recently looking through my past annual lists, I was pleased to discover that I had conveniently come up with 10 novels from 2005 to 2009 to each of which I had assigned 5 stars. I've now sorted them into a "top 10" list of my favorite novels read during that 5-year period. Keep in mind that the books were not necessarily published between these years, but when I read them. Also, missing below are a number of my other favorite novels, like The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I read long before I kept a list. So here’s my top 10 list, counting down from 10 to 1 (original date of publication is in parentheses; book cover images link to Amazon).

10. Affinity by Sarah Waters (2000). I am a big fan of Waters, and her name appears twice on this list. With its plot involving a Victorian women’s prison, psychic powers, and a burgeoning lesbian love interest, it’s definitely worth reading, although admittedly not as riveting as Fingersmith (see below). Her novel The Little Stranger appeared on my Books of 2009 post.
9. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1997). SVH gave me her copy of this book. She loved it, others recommended it too, and I agreed entirely. The visual descriptions are exquisitely written, and the plot details beautifully the difficult life of a young geisha during a changing period of Japanese history.
8. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848). This is a classic British novel, with a number of witty (and tragic) scenes. The protagonist Becky Sharp is one of the most memorable little vixens in literature you will ever encounter. It’s worth reading all 800+ pages (took me 6 months).
7. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (2003). If you want to experience Renaissance Florence, as it moved from a flourishing artistic center under the de’ Medici family to a strict religious state under the grip of the radical Fra Savonarola, read this novel about Alessandra Cecchi, who wants nothing more than to be a painter, but is forced to adapt to becoming a woman before her time. Dunant’s descriptions are so lush, you can literally taste 1490s Florence.
6. A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (1986). Ruth Rendell is one of my favorite mystery writers, and her books under her Vine pseudonym are even better. They pull you into complex family dramas that make you realize yours isn’t nearly so bad. Here, a woman is hanged for murdering her sister, and their niece now tries to understand what exactly happened and uncovers more family secrets than she ever wanted to know.
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (2007). Yes, I’m a Potter fan. When I first started reading the books, I wasn’t into them too much, but they just got better and better. I read this days the weekend it was released and could not put it down. The last novel in the series deserves a place on this list for sure. Rowling successfully brought it all together in one fantastic climax of a novel.
4. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925). Another classic in British literature, Woolf beautifully created a stream-of-consciousness plot that takes you for a ride through the mind of Clarissa Dalloway as she plans a party, but she jumps into the minds of numerous characters she meets along the way, making for a fascinating journey through post-WWI bourgeois London. The opening chapter has two of my favorite lines in literature: "What a lark! What a plunge!" and "I prefer men to cauliflowers."
3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905). This American novel will forever haunt a piece of my mind, especially living in NYC, and occasionally finding myself desiring yet another $4.50 cappuccino from Dean & DeLuca. Here’s my review.
2. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002). I have to say this book, my second Waters novel on this list, is truly one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve ever read. It takes place in 1861 and involves the growing loving relationship between two very different Victorian women: a servant girl raised among thieves in London, and a delicate flower of a lady with white gloves raised in a dark mansion with a mysterious uncle. Just when you think you know what’s going on, everything changes...and not just once. A must-read for mystery and neo-Victorian buffs, this book is an absolute page-turner. (See book cover above.)
1. Possession by A.S. Byatt (1990). This was the second time I had read this book, and I was pleased to discover that my ranking of it as my all-time favorite novel had not changed. This is the story of two scholars, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who discover the love letters of the Victorian writers Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, and try to piece together their unknown love story. Byatt’s talent lies not only in the plot itself, but in her believable characters (past and present) and how she is able to write so convincingly as a Victorian and modern author. Byatt won the Man Booker Prize for this novel. Here is my post about meeting Byatt.

2010 and 2011 already has proven to have a number of 5-star novels too, including Howard’s End, The Children’s Book, and The Lovely Bones, but we’ll save those for a future post.

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