There is nothing in the world like a good story and I especially like stories that introduce me to unforgettable characters, some so vivid that it is hard to remember that they are not real. (Or are they? I mean, what is real anyway?)
I think I read more fiction than usual this year, probably because several of my favorite authors came out with new books and also because I enhanced my traveling by listening to audiobooks. Here are a few of the standouts:
How to Be Good and A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby were real favorites this year--I was only disappointed that he doesn't have more books along this line. My brother-in-law introduced me and Mowgli encouraged me and both of them were absolutely right--I loved both of these books for their insight and their humor. In How to be Good, Katie Carr's marriage is deeply threatened when her husband decides to work harder at becoming a "good person," with the help of a strange guru he found on the street. What does it mean to be a good person, anyway? And how hard should we try to be one?
In A Long Way Down, several memorable characters meet at the top of a tall building, each planning for different reasons to jump off. They form an awkward community of hope and keep you in suspense the whole time. Because each of the suicidal characters is so well-drawn, it felt like I was listening in on the internal dialogue of people I actually know. The suspense is pretty riveting, too. Will they all be able to stay alive?
Because I loved Major Pettigrew and his neighbor Mrs. Ali, I loved this sweet story of their struggles with aging and friendship and racism and romance. Not entirely unsubstantial, this is a hopeful book written with love for its characters and for the reader.
Runners-up for fiction: Lots of great runners-up for storytelling, all books I enjoyed as I read them and have carried with me since. Another book to deal with friendship and racism and romance is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, this time through the eyes of two young teenagers, one white and one Japanese in the early 40s in California. Black Water Rising by Attica Locke is a murder mystery set in the city of Houston and populated with people and places I recognized. I listened to it on CD and had to drive around aimlessly at the end just to see what happened. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is the coming-of-age story of one California preteen when the rotation of the earth changes and catastrophe slowly descends on all its inhabitants. It's not a perfect book but it's really interesting to think about how every change changes everything and to see how people's lives and relationships are affected. And, for a dystopian story, it's remarkably hopeful. I don't usually love Anne Lamott's fiction as much as I enjoy her nonfiction but Imperfect Birds really captured me with its flawless depiction of the dynamics of an enmeshed, addicted family. Elizabeth, Rosie and James seemed so real and acted so much like real people act--so unpredictably predictable--that I was sad when the book ended and there was no more window into their lives.
I was also disappointed with some of the fiction I read this year. Each anticipated new book by Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner and Emily Giffin was considerably less than I hoped for, either because of improbable characters (have you figured out that it's all about the characters for me?) or just my lack of interest in the worlds they created.