Cutting for Stone is one of those novels whose size and reputation could easily intimidate its prospective readers. It comes in at almost 550 pages, after all, and most of the story takes place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, of all places. Its main characters are Ethiopian, Eritrean, Indian, British, or some mix of those nationalities and, even when the action moves to New York City, it is to a part of the city few Americans know anything about. The novel is part history lesson, part love story; it is both a modern novel and a reminder of the kind of thing Charles Dickens wrote on his best days; it is a science lesson and a travelogue. Bottom line: This is a very special novel, a reading experience everyone should at least consider having. Pick up this book; flip through it; read a few pages to see if it is something for you. If not, put it aside and try it again in a few months. Maybe you will get lucky the second time around.
- Karl Marlantes - Matterhorn, a first novel by Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes, was some thirty years in the making and it was only published after Marlantes cut about 1,000 pages from his original manuscript. Despite the cuts, the book still comes in at close to 600 pages in length and it tells a story that will be stuck in the minds of its readers long after they have turned the final page. This one, too, is a reminder that the written word almost always tells a story more powerfully than the same story can be told on film.
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim - The Calligrapher’s Daughter is Eugenia Kim’s debut novel and, as so many first novels do, the book tells a story very close to the author’s heart, one, in this case, inspired by her own mother’s life. Set in Korea between 1915 and 1945, it recounts the suffering inflicted upon the country by Japanese invaders that arrived there early in the 20th century. Japanese administrators, determined to wipe out any memory of an independent Korea, allowed only Japanese to be spoken in schools, taught only Japanese history to Korean children, destroyed the Korean royal family, and filled local prisons with those that dared protest. During World War II, when Japan realized its chances of prevailing were slipping away, life became particularly desperate for Koreans because Japan saw Korea as little more than a source of slave labor, food and raw materials to be exploited for the Japanese war effort.
4. The White Garden - Stephanie Barron - Everyone knows that, one day in 1941, famed British author Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets with heavy rocks before stepping into the cold waters of the river Ouse. Perhaps because of the extra weight she carried into the water with her, Woolf’s body would not be found until three weeks later. Woolf’s family and friends, aware that she was often in a suicidal frame-of-mind, were not surprised by her end, so the official verdict of suicide was never challenged. Now, in an intriguing piece of alternate history, The White Garden, Stephanie Barron examines the possibilities of what may have happened during the three weeks between Woolf’s disappearance and the recovery of her body in the Ouse.
5. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier - Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, based on the true story of fossil-finders Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, is a piece of feminist historical fiction that works. Set in the early years of the 19th century, the book is a reminder of how completely women were excluded from the scientific community of the time – regardless of what they might achieve they were unlikely to receive much official credit for their work. It was a time, too, when people still believed that God had created the earth, and human beings, a mere five or six thousand years earlier and any evidence to the contrary was seen as something blasphemous.
6. Drood - Dan Simmons - Drood is more than a book; it is an experience, a total immersion into Victorian England and the personal lives of two of the most famous authors of the day: Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Either way the reader chooses to experience this Dan Simmons book, by reading it or by listening to the audio book version, requires a major commitment of time and effort. The book itself is almost 800 pages long and the audio version of 24 CDs requires just under 30 hours of listening time. The audio book, read by Simon Prebble, is the route I chose to follow.
7. Bury Your Dead - Louise Penny - Bury Your Dead is book number six in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series but, as has so often been the case for me, I am arriving late to the party. There are several unrelated plotlines in Bury Your Dead and Louise Penny juggles them like a champion, maintaining the reader’s keen interest in each of them as they slowly reach their separate climaxes. In addition, and an aspect of the book that particularly appealed to me, there is a very painless history lesson at the heart of the murder with which Armand Gamache is most directly connected.
8. North River - Pete Hamill - For a book that includes so much actual, not to mention potential violence, Pete Hamill’s North River is at its heart a very gentle novel. Dr. James Delaney, a WWI medic who was himself wounded in the war, is having a tough time of it in 1934 Greenwich Village. Delaney’s neighborhood patients are suffering the effects of the Depression and cash money to pay for Delaney’s services is hard to come by. Despite the fact that his wife, Molly, who suffers from depression, has walked out of his life and has not been heard from since, Delaney keeps her room as she left it in hopes that she will walk back into his world one day.
9. Shadow of the Swords - Kamran Pasha - Few will argue the old cliché that there are “two sides to every story,” or that truth requires consideration of both sides, especially when it comes to the study of written history. The tendency of history textbooks to present only one point-of-view brings to mind the famous Winston Churchill quote, “History is written by the victors.” But the “victors,” unfortunately, tell us only what they want us to know, and the losers generally have lost their right to argue the point. Kamran Pasha’s Shadow of the Swords is an opportunity for Western readers to look at the bloody Third Crusade of the late twelfth century through the eyes of Saladin, commander of the Muslim forces in Palestine at the time of Richard the Lionheart’s invasion of the region. Note, however, that portions of the book are written from Richard’s point-of-view, although Saladin’s character remains the most influential one throughout the book.
10. City of Tranquil Light - Bo Caldwell - City of Tranquil Light, Bo Caldwell’s second novel, is a beautiful story set in China just when that country was on the cusp of all the cultural shocks the rest of the 20th century would bring it. It is the story of two young Mennonites who were inspired to return to rural China with the charismatic minister who came to their communities seeking the funds and volunteers he needed to keep his mission there alive. The saga begins in 1906 when a 21-year-old farmer from Oklahoma and a 22-year-old nurse from Cleveland decide to become foreign missionaries. For Katherine Friesen, the decision is a little easier than it is for Will Kiehn – Katherine’s sister is married to the charismatic young minister with whom she will be traveling to China. Will, on the other hand, has never known a life other than farming and he fears that he is unprepared for what is ahead. He is right about that. But no one could have been prepared for the lives he and Katherine will lead in a remote Chinese village for the better part of the next twenty-five years.
And there you have it: a Top 10 list of the best fiction books I encountered during 2010. I am pleased with the list, having thoroughly enjoyed all ten of these and, for a change, I think I could have come up with a strong second ten books. Interestingly (to me, anyway), four of the books are review copies provided by publishers and six came from my county library, including the two audio books that made the list. Not a single book that I purchased myself made the list.