Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 - The Year in Books

Last January zero_zero_one, who blogs at Cognitive Blindspot, posted a list of the books he'd read during the previous year. It was a pretty lengthy list, and it got me to thinking about how many books I read in the course of a, being a list-oriented person anyhow, I started a list of books I'd read in 2008. As one way of recapping the year, here is my list of what I read during the past year, along with comments and my favorites (in bold print):


The Cabinet of Curiosities, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Childs - it's brain candy, but it's fun...the adventures of FBI Special Agent Pendergast and his evil brother continue.

The Fall of Berlin, Anthony Beevor - I enjoy reading the history of places I've lived. This is a harrowing account of the final battle for Berlin at the end of World War II. For detailed, yet readable history at the level of those who lived it, it ranks with Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, which I read many years ago.

Thunderhead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Childs - more Preston/Childs brain candy, but a cracking good read about exploration, heroism, and eerie happenings in the most remote corner of the American southwest.


The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson - gripping history of the brutal struggle for Italy during World War II.

Sword Song, Bernard Cornwell - Uthred continues his struggle to regain his birthright in the England of King Alfred the Great. If you like vivid descriptions of swordplay and the details of grubby life centuries ago, it's for you.

Death in Vienna, Frank Tallis - a great, atmospheric mystery set in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. The writing is elegant and brilliantly captures the sights, sounds, smells and feel of old Vienna, and the cast of characters includes Sigmund Freud.

The Greatest Battle, Andrew Nagorski - a solid, well-written history of the titanic battle between the German and Soviet armies at the gates of Moscow. Be glad you weren't there.


The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989, Frederick Taylor - a little plodding at times, but a very good history of the politics that led to the construction of the ghastly (and now, thankfully, demolished) Berlin Wall...a chunk of which now has pride of place on the shelf in my study. You'll want to buy a picture of Walter Ulbricht just so you can throw darts at it.

Silent in the Sanctuary, Deanna Raybourn - brain candy. A disappointing mystery.

Stalin’s Ghost, Martin Cruz Smith - Arkady Renko, Smith's Moscow detective who first appeared years ago in the brilliant novel Gorky Park, is back on the job. Not a bad story of contemporary Russian crime, but not Smith's best.

A Prisoner of Birth, Jeffrey Archer - it's a knock0ff of The Count of Monte Cristo, but it's a great story of wrongful imprisonment, redemption, and revenge.


Vienna Blood, Frank Tallis - the first of Tallis's stories about crime and psychoanalysis in Vienna (see Death in Vienna, above). His next book in the series, Fatal Lies, comes out in February...I'll be there when they open the boxes.

Compulsion, Jonathan Kellerman - the continuing adventures of consulting psychiatrist Alex Delaware. A good story, but not one of Kellerman's best.

True Enough, Farhad Manjoo - I wrote about this marvelous book in my April 22nd post titled Just True Enough... It's a short, well-written, and very thought provoking look at just what "truth" means in the modern world. This is a must-read.

The Serpent’s Tale, Ariana Franklin - brain candy. 'Nuff said.


The Killing Ground, Jack Higgins - IRA enforcer turned British agent Sean Dillon and his compatriots continue the twilight war against evildoers of all sorts. If you ignore the fact that Dillon is probably by now about 80 years old and the plots are all interchangeable, it's a good book to read in your spare time. Brain candy, but fun.

The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel - if you enjoy books and reading, you'll love this. I wrote about it here back on May 8th. A wonderful book...what more can I say?

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach - Ms Roach has written several interesting books on topics ranging from the ongoing lives of cadavers (Stiff) to the investigation of life after death (Spook...see the comments in December, below). Bonk is hysterically funny and tremendously entertaining. I reviewed it in the blog on May 20th.

Days of Atonement, Michael Gregorio - excellent, atmospheric murder mystery set in French-occupied Prussia during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. You'll be glad you didn't live then.


The Forgery of Venus, Michael Gruber - I love Michael Gruber's writing, but this one left me a bit disappointed. The idea is good, I just found myself unable to keep up with the twists of the plot.

The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby - brilliant. Read it.

The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara - a novel of World War II in Europe. Jeff Shaara is the son of Michael Shaara, who wrote the brilliant Civil War novel The Killer Angels. He's not a bad author, but he's no match for his father.

Vienna, 1814, David King - a very interesting, very readable history of the Congress of Vienna, which tried to resurrect Europe after the initial defeat and exile of Napoleon. How can you go wrong with a cast of characters that includes Talleyrand, Metternich, Tsar Alexander, and Beethoven? Strongly recommended.

Escape, Robert K. Tannenbaum - the latest installment of the ongoing adventures of Butch Karp, the incorruptible and indestructible New York District Attorney, and his bizarre collection of family and friends. Brain candy, but fun.

Skeletons at the Feast, Chris Bohjalian - the harrowing story of a group of German women and children fleeing from the advancing Soviet army in the closing months of World War II, and the man who becomes their unlikely protector. Brilliantly written and plotted. Read this one.

Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen - a marvelous novel set in a traveling circus during the Depression. Wonderful, well-developed characters (including Rosie the elephant), and a twist ending I never saw coming. Another must-read.

The Broken Window, Jeffery Deaver - Lincoln Rhyme, the quadraplegic detective, comes through again. You'll never want to go online again after reading this story of identity theft and Internet-enabled criminality.


Odd Hours, Dean Koontz - the continuing adventures of Odd Thomas. An okay read, but a little on the ho-hum side for my taste.

The Critique of Criminal Reason, Michael Gregorio - philosopher Immanuel Kant as consulting detective. First book in the two-book series that continued with Day of Atonement (reviewed above). A good, atmospheric read.

The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston - Preston gets himself declared persona non grata in Italy as he investigates the tale of the serial killer in Florence known as The Monster (who also appeared in Thomas Harris's book Hannibal). Interesting if you like true crime stories, but not a must-read.

The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark - I read this short novel because of a short review on the Head Butler website. A bizarre, twisted tale worth reading.

Sepulchre, Kate Mosse - more brain candy, but a good tale that bounces back and forth in time to reveal the dark secret in a family's history, and its connection with an eerie old sepulchre in the forest. Read it in a dark room during a thunderstorm.

The Man with the Iron Heart, Harry Turtledove - nobody writes alternative history like Harry Turtledove. In this brilliant, fast-paced story, he looks at what might have happened if the Nazis had planned an Iraq-style insurgency to bedevil the Allies after the defeat of Germany in World War II. If you enjoy "what-if?" stories, read this one - they don't come much better.

Killing Rommel, Stephen Pressfield - I first read Stephen Pressfield in his wonderful novel Gates of Fire, about the Spartans' stand against the vast Persian army at Thermopylae. In Killing Rommel, he moves his skills forward to describe the British Army's attempts to kill the Desert Fox in the North African desert. A brilliant tale of men at war in terrible conditions.

Franklin and Lucy, Joseph Piscopo - a very good study of Franklin Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor, and Lucy Rutherford, the woman he always loved but could never have. An interesting look at one of our greatest presidents and the relationships he maintained even under the pressures of the most terrible war in our history.


A Voyage Long and Strange, Tony Horwitz - a readable and very interesting look at the period of American history that's blank to most of us: the time between Columbus's landing in 1492 and the Pilgrims' landing in 1620. There was a lot of exploring and fighting going on, and Mr Horwitz describes it all very well.

Executive Privilege, Phillip Margolin - Margolin writes good, workmanlike thrillers, but has a gift for utterly unbelieveable plot twists. This one's no different. Brain candy.


The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins - whether you believe in God or not, this is an interesting look at how and why we believe on the basis of faith alone. He's a bit too dismissive of those who don't share his beliefs, but it's a good book to read for the questions it raises.

Rough Justice, Jack Higgins - the indestructable Sean Dillon returns yet again. Brain candy, but you'll love the villain's ugly demise.

Fractured, Karin Slaughter - whenever I finish reading Ms Slaughter's books, I want to wash my hands. Many times. Good writing, interesting plots, but no one quite plumbs the swamps of moral depravity like she does (except, perhaps, Andrew Vachss with his character Burke - see Terminal below).

City of Thieves, David Benioff - didn't make much of an impression on me...I can't remember anything about it, which ought to tell you something.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol I and Vol II, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill - these were the first graphic novels I'd read, and I was pleasantly surprised. If you suffered through the awful film of the same name, you might be inclined to pass these up...but don't. The concept is superb, and the two stories - one inserting the League into the classic H.G. Wells story The War of the Worlds; the other having the League fight the famous villain Fu Manchu - are well-plotted and illustrated. Not must-reads, but fun if you like the idea of a graphic novel.

Devil Bones, Kathy Reichs - forensic anthropologist Temperence Brennan, star of the TV show Bones, takes the stage. I liked the TV show better.

The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst - nobody, but nobody, captures the atmosphere of World War II Europe like Alan Furst. This is a great story of espionage, loyalty, and betrayal.

The War Within, Bob Woodward - the Iraq war as fought between the White House, the Pentagon, Congress, and ... oh, yes ... Iraq. Try to sort out the competing agendas of those who allowed themselves to be interviewed for this book.


The Black Tower, Louis Bayard - another moody, atmospheric mystery set in Revolutionary France. Not bad, but not as good as I'd hoped.

The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson - it's hard to describe this story about a horribly burned and disfigured man and the woman who has loved him...for centuries. It's a great story of love, loss, and redemption.

Terminal, Andrew Vachss - like Karen Slaughter, Vachss plumbs the very deepest depths of human nature for plots and characters that will make your skin crawl. It's a good story, but you'll want to take a shower after reading it.

A Most Wanted Man, John Le Carre - I may be the only person who thought this story was grossly overrated, but I can't help it - it was grossly overrated. And in its depiction of professional intelligence officers as amoral bastards, it did a disservice to people who do a hard job in an ugly world we'd rather not admit exists. An okay read, but far from LeCarre's best.

By the Sword, F. Paul Wilson - the latest adventure of Repairman Jack, a one-man combination of The A Team, McGyver, The Equalizer, and the Impossible Missions Force, trying to rid the world of bad guys while caught up in a fast-approaching apocalypse. Fun, but brain candy.


No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, Norman Davies - a good summary of the war in Europe, persuasively making the case that it was the Soviet Union who won the fight against Nazi Germany...for all the heroism and hype, D-Day was a sideshow to the titanic struggle in the East.

Bones, Jonathan Kellerman - more Alex Delaware. More of the same. Not a yawner, but far from an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Brain candy.

The Groucho Letters: Letters From and To Groucho Marx - if you want to laugh loud and long, enjoy this collection of letters from and to one of the most genuinely funny men ever to wield a pen. I could read this book over and over, and laugh anew each time.

The 7th Victim, Alan Jacobson - yep, more brain candy. Who dreams up these convoluted and unbelievable plots, anyhow?


Spook, Mary Roach - not as good as Bonk or Stiff, but interesting and written in Ms Roach's incomparable, witty style. Is there life after death? If I can read more of her work there, I hope so.

The Road, Colman McCarthy - my daughter recommended this book, and gave me a copy for my birthday to make sure I'd read it. It's the story of a father and son walking The Road through a horrifying, post-apocalyptic America peopled with wolves, cannibals, lunatics, and the occasional good person. Very depressing. Read Stephen King's The Stand for a different (and in some ways, better) riff on the same theme.

World Without End, Ken Follett - a wonderful historical novel of the 14th-century England of lords, serfs, peasants, bishops, nuns, outlaws, and the Black Plague. Long and complex, but readable and full of characters you'll either love or hate. I'm now reading the book that came before this one - The Pillars of the Earth - which seems to be just as good.

Just After Sunset, Stephen King - a collection of short stories from the king of horror stories. When he's on his mark, no one writes good descriptive prose like Stephen King...but no one can overwrite like he can, either. What he needs is an editor who can grab him by the lapels and smack him around until he cuts each manuscript by about a third...what's left will be superb.

Well, that was the year in books. What were your favorites? Did you read any of these and have a different take on it than I did? Let me know.

Tomorrow will be a new year which, hopefully, will be better than this one. But before we get to tomorrow, we have to survive tonight - if you are celebrating, do it safely. Don't drink and drive. I need you all back here in one piece tomorrow morning...or afternoon, depending on how hard and late you party.

Happy New Year! Have a good day. More thoughts next year.



KKTSews said...

OMG I knew you always loved to read (recalling you had cajoled the librarians in GE to hold new books for you before anyone else got to read them) but this list is amazing. I'm awed, humbled, etc, etc. It's a wonder you have time to do anything else but read.

I actually read several on your list and agreed with you. Only difference is I read Pillars of the Earth before World Without End.
Loved them both.

Enjoy your New Year's celebration.

Daniel said...

I know that I read a lot but this is quite a list...
It does inspire me to track mine next year. Though based on what is in my bathroom it is going to start with "Twilight"......
I have a like 6-7 to 1 ratio of SF books to "serious"/real books. This may change if I get into the grad school that I am shooting for...

John said...


Bob said...

Quite an impressive list, there, Bill. I recommend reading some of Khaled Hosseini's work as well. I just started "A Thousand Splendid Suns"...and it is an amazing book. Certainly up there with "The Kite Runner".

lacochran said...

Wishing you all the best in 2009!

Leslie David said...

I go to the library once a week and get a stack--since I don't have cable reading is mainly what I do when I stay in.

We read some of the same books--Love Preston & Child--did you know that Michael Preston, the one who writes the biohazard books, like The Hot Zone is is Douglas Preston's brother? If you like the Agent Pendergast books you have to read Brimstone, Dance of Death, Book of the Dead and The Wheel of Darkness. I also am a fan of Jeffery Deaver's and have read all the Lincoln Rhyme novels. I read Devil Bones and several of Kathy Reich's other novels--those of us who are wiccans were very pleased with the description she gave concerning the practice of Wicca. Of course other of my favorite authors are not on your list--Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts, Suzanne Brockmann, Linda Howard, all definitely fitting the description of mind candy.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

You have a wide range of reading tastes.

Happy New Year.

Bilbo said...

Katherine - good thing Agnes loves to read, too! And don't forget how much time I spent schmoozing the library staff in Germany...I invested heavily in birthday cards and lunches...

Daniel - I like SF, too, but I find it hard to find SF I think is good....too much of it depends on stale plots and characters with weird names.

John - I forgot to mention that I do page through the Bible occasionally.

Bob - I'll have to try soon as I dig my way out from under the rest of the to-be-read pile!

LA - same to you!

Leslie - all the authors you name are ones Agnes likes, so between us, we cover your whole list. And yes, I've read the entire Agent Pendergast series (did you know there's a new one coming out this summer titled "Cemetery Dance"?).

Capt Picard - My mother once said I'd read the labels on the cereal boxes if I didn't have anything else available... Best wishes for more adventures in the coming star year!

Mike said...

When you retire you'll have to build your own room at the library. AND Borders.

Amanda said...

Oh my goodness! That is quite a list!!!!