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My Top 5 Reads of 2010 and their Engines

I failed miserably this year to keep up with all the good fiction reads coming out. I was distracted by research reading, my son’s wedding and the urge to be outside in the (short) summer. As a result I missed many good books, alas. The pile of books by my bed is undiminished.

Here are some novels that vastly entertained, intrigued, or in the case of a couple of them, gave me a kick like a mule. The last two are older books. In no particular order:

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi. Science Fiction.

This wonderful story gives a one-two punch: brilliant milieu combined with taut narration, sharp dialogue and intriguing indirection. Here is Bangkok in a post-oil future, a deliciously intelligent extrapolation. The engine of this story for me is the premise of how genetic disaster and manipulation drive the characters to desperate acts.

The Girl Who Played with Fire, Stieg Larsson. Thriller.

I tell you, for a long plane ride (trip to Italy) this book was addictive. I skipped the first book after hearing the second one was better, and didn’t miss a beat. If you write thrillers, this is the book to study for it’s premise, superb tension and plotting. To me, the engine of this story is character: the genius and ruthless violence of its troubled young woman protagonist. What a concoction!

Mozart’s Blood, Louise Marley. Historical fiction.

This deliciously dramatic tale is the best mash-up I read this year. The novel combines alternate historical fiction over a number of centuries with fantastic elements of vampires and immortality. Study this book for how to make the fantastic feel absolutely real. (Clue: the physical and emotional detail.) The engine of the story for me? The milieu: the back-stage view of the fascinating, petty, glamorous world of opera.

The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott. Historical fiction.

Historical tour de force set in 1940’s exotic India. If you’ve only seen the TV series, there’s so much more! The dilemmas and stew of racial prejudice and insufferable social roles are woven into an enthralling narrative. The engine: the premise of forbidden love amid the straight-jacket rules of the British and Hindu cultures.

Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin. Literary fantasy.

Set in the New York city Belle Epoch, this novel, although densely poetic and a slow read, is filled with I-kid-you-not astonishing insights on life, God, love, courage and the magical zen suchness of life. It kept kicking me awake. I wanted to be a better person immediately and I never felt preached at, only inspired to wake up before life rushes by. Beats A Christmas Story all to hell. The engine of this one is the spectacularly realized theme of the power of love.

I’m starting my reading list for 2011, so if you have recommendations, please let me know. (I’m especially interest in non-epic fantasy!)


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