Monday, August 27, 2007

OSC Recommends 2006 Edition (Gift-Buying)

OSC's Book of the Years, 2006

Fiction

Novel of the Year

For the book lover, you simply can't do better than The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. This gorgeously written gothic is literary without being pedantic or difficult; on the contrary, you forget how good the writing is, you care so much about these strange and wonderful characters.

Best Teen Novels

Neal Shusterman's Everlost is the story of the spirits of dead children, trapped in this world until they find a way to "get where they were going." Sad and hopeful at the same time, Shusterman turns it into a fantasy adventure with such truth and emotional power that you could safely get this book as a gift for an adult. No better teen novel was published this year.

But don't stop with Everlost. David Lubar's Hidden Talents will make an extraordinarily good gift -- a sort of much-more-believable version of Heroes, starring teenagers trapped in a last-resort high school.

Both these novels are contemporary fantasies; for wonderful fantasies in a medieval setting, Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia series -- The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia -- are a perfect gift set, which will set teen (and younger) readers dreaming.

Best Family Novel

If you like to read books together as a family, here's the best choice this year: Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull. It's the story of a brother and sister who discover that their grandparents are guardians of a preserve for mythical creatures, where some pretty terrible things can happen -- especially when the kids don't think they have to obey the rules of this place.

Best Adult Fantasy Series

Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Oracle's Queen are brilliantly original and moving. This story still haunts me, months after reading the books. There's plenty of gritty realism to make this a book for adults and mature teenagers, but what it definitely is not is "escapist." This book drags you through so much emotionally painful territory that you're almost relieved when it's done and you can escape to your safe regular life.

And if you're buying a gift for someone who reads far too fast for three volumes to be enough, then you have to go on to Kate Elliott's "Crown of Stars" series: King's Dragons, Prince of Dogs, The Burning Stone, Child of Flame, The Gathering Storm, In the Ruins, and Crown of Stars. This series has the sprawl -- and the realistic level of detail, and the extravagant invention -- of George R.R. Martin's ongoing (and unfinished, curse him!) series (most recent volume: A Feast for Crows). It also has a metaphysical layer all its own.

Both the Flewelling and the Elliott books have female protagonists. Usually this means you can't give them to males to read. All I can say is: I'm male. I loved these books. So if you give them as a gift to a (mature) teenage boy, and he balks ("You gave me books about a girl?"), you can say, "Orson Scott Card told me that these books work brilliantly for men and women readers."

And if he still doesn't believe you, bring out the big guns: "Card said that this book was perfect for men who are secure in their sexual identity."

Or you can just give him Prospero's Children by Jan Siegel. This standalone novel (it has sequels, but you aren't required to read them) has a contemporary English setting, where ancient magic comes to surface in the lives of a brother and sister who find themselves trapped in a strange and dangerous house, surrounded by enemies that nobody else can see. The story begins slowly, with an overwritten prologue, but it takes off soon enough.

Best Science Fiction Novel Not By Me

Without question, that would be Eifelheim, by Michael F. Flynn. This story of alien visitors to a medieval German village, and the modern scientists trying to piece together what really happened, will fill your mind with unforgettable images.

Best Period Mystery Series

If you have a friend or family member who loves a good character-based mystery, but is put off by rough language and dark and ugly situations, then the perfect gift this year will be the whole Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear: Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, and now the new novel, Messenger of Truth.

I haven't finished Messenger yet, but halfway through, I can say it's every bit as good as the first three -- and that's very, very good. The first three are available in paperback; Messenger, in hardcover only.

Ongoing Mystery Series

The nice thing about Echo Park by Michael Connelly, S Is for Silence by Sue Grafton, Winter's Child by North Carolina's own Margaret Maron, Crusader's Cross by James Lee Burke, The Two-Minute Rule by Robert Crais, and Blue Screen, Sea Change, and Hundred-Dollar Baby by Robert B. Parker is that you can enjoy any of these books without having read a single previous book in the series. Unlike fantasy series, mystery series books are usually designed to stand completely alone. These do.

They are also gritty sometimes and use language that some younger and some older people might object to. I find them all to be in perfectly good taste, but tastes differ, so think of whom you're giving the gift to before deciding.

For a mystery series that is definitely aimed at women readers (and men secure in their sexual identity), I suggest Jane Stanton Hitchcock's Social Crimes: A Novel and One Dangerous Lady. Both books take high society apart, making it both delightful and repellant at the same time. I enjoyed them both enormously, and except for the jarring repeated use of the F-word by one character, these would make a great gift for anyone with a taste for satire, witty writing, and glamor.

Old Books

In case you want to get someone a book that has already stood the test of time, and you're pretty sure they've already gone through all the normal list -- Austen, the Brontes, Eliot, Hardy, Dickens, Twain, Melville, Thackeray -- may I suggest that you get a copy of C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces.

This retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth is definitely not a Christian allegory (the attribute that for me makes the Perelandra books almost unreadably bad); instead it's a great reenvisioning of a classic story, the kind of book that moves you and also makes you think. At the end, there are many characters you love, and one that has made you so frustrated you want to scream at her -- except that she's already screaming at herself.

Nonfiction

Best American History

It's beautifully written, crystal clear, absolutely fair to everybody, and tragic in its scope and themes: Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

Best Ancient History

Never has a careful, scholarly work about ancient history been so pertinent to contemporary concerns: Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

Best Personal History

The author tells a highly personal story of his obsession with some unexplained ruins in Nova Scotia, and reveals how he came to the conclusion that they were built by Chinese explorers and settlers before Columbus, and were the source of many of the wild stories about the Seven Cities of Gold. By the end, I was convinced that at least it was worth investigating further. And it's entertaining from beginning to end: Paul Chiasson, The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America

Best Current Events

Mark Steyn is more conservative on a lot of issues than I am, but in America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, he makes a solid case for the demographic disaster that lies ahead for western civilization. Plus, he's a witty writer, making the book both entertaining and terrifying. Kind of like Stephen King with facts.

Best Commentaries on Contemporary Culture

Larry Miller is a comedian. Spoiled Rotten America is very funny. It's also a serious look at many aspects of life -- inside and outside the family. I don't always agree with him, but by the end of the book I felt like I'd had a great conversation with a really smart guy.

John M. Ellis, in his book Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, laments the way "literary theory" (i.e., politically correct elitist groupthink) has taken over so much of the American university, making the possibility of a genuine education less and less likely.

Best Science Books

I'm no physicist and unlikely to become one. Lee Smolin, in his book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, does the best job I've ever seen of explaining high-level physics to a lay audience. He also documents -- in a personal, fascinating story -- how "string theory" came to be dominant in the field of physics without ever actually corresponding with the real world or explaining anything.

(If you read this book and Literature Lost, you'll get a pretty good overview of why it seems that universities are sliding into a completely voluntary dark age.)

For any language lover there could be no better Christmas gift than Steven Pinker's Words and Rules. Pinker, author of the must-read book The Language Instinct, is an important working scientist and a gifted popularizer of the latest work in linguistics. By the end of this book, you'll understand why grammar works as it does -- and you'll enjoy yourself along the way.

Best Practical Advice

I can't vouch for everything in Mark Hyman's Ultra Metabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss, but as we have worked to make our diet (and our lives) conform more and more closely to principles outlined in this book, we feel healthier and stronger than ever before.

Best Child-Rearing

I've written at length about these three books, which I think are indispensable to anyone who is raising children:

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, with Diane Eyer, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn -- and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less: This book is must reading for anyone who is raising, has raised, or thinks he or she might raise children sometime in the future. It helps you relax about their level of development at any particular age, so you can enjoy them more and torment them less.

It might make a wonderfully subversive (and yet educational!) gift to give either or both of the next two books to teenagers and gifted pre-teens. They'll get some idea of how scholarly arguments are made -- and they'll also be armed for discussions with their teachers about the level of homework they receive.

But if you don't dare give these books to kids, certainly you could give them to parents: Alfie Kohn, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing; and Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It.

Most Fun

OK, maybe these could have gone in the "contemporary culture" category, or in a memoir category, or something else. But the fact is, they're just plain fun to read, filled with cool trivia, and written by a couple of witty and really smart guys: Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!; and Ken Jennings, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. I promise you, you will be thanked for these books!

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