The Best Books of 2009

Browse the genres below for quick descriptions of our favorite books of 2009. Links in the titles lead to more information, or browse the Best Books of 2009 series as a whole. Check out our Great Reads section and our Special Features page for more recommendations.

And: don’t miss The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology: 25 outstanding stories from the web in a free downloadable ebook. Compatible with any ereader on the planet.

Table of Contents

[Literary Fiction] (8)

[Mysteries] (2)

[Science Fiction] (2)

[Humor] (1)

[Young Adult] (1)

[Nonfiction] (5)

[Poetry] (5)

[Graphic Novels] (5)

[Honorable Mentions] (13)

Literary Fiction

The Believers, by Zoe Heller

Zoe Heller’s third novel, follows a 60ish, staunchly liberal woman and her three grown children. It quietly, insightfully probes into this family’s problems and struggles, and follows them on their quests to find happiness, or at least contentment. Heller is an outstanding writer, and this is realist literary family fiction at its best.

Serena, by Ron Rash

Serena is an often gut-wrenching novel about a coldblooded couple who own a logging concern in depression-era North Carolina. Serena, the wife, rides an Arabian stallion and carries a trained eagle. Her husband, Pemberton, loves her more than anything in the world. The narrative concerns the ethics of the Pembertons’ brutal efficiency in a land where it’s a miracle to survive to see 35. Simply put, it’s a gripping, chilling read. If you have a tolerance for violence, this is a great novel.

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

Little Bee is a novel about a Nigerian refugee, self-named Little Bee, escaping to Britain. It is a novel about how one single moment, one action or inaction, can change the lives of many people, even those worlds apart. It is a novel about humanity. Cleave’s writing is eloquent yet uncomplicated; the writing is a pleasure to read and for a book that addresses some deep issues, is quite accessible.

Into the Beautiful North, by Luis Alberto Urrea

This is a fine novel by a writer whose impact is not yet what it should be. Urrea lets us know right away that the book is inspired by The Magnificent Seven, and it works on all levels. Narco bandits take over Tres Camarones, a village from which all the men, save the old and homosexual, have fled and slipped across the border into the U.S. Nayeli and three friends attempt to do the same, in an effort to bring the men back and rid Tres Camarones of the threat. Urrea’s intention seems to have been simple: write a gripping and entertaining novel that will appeal to anyone who likes gripping and entertaining novels. He succeeded.

The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie, one of Nigeria’s (and humanity’s) best young writers, has spent much of her life ping-ponging between Nigeria and the U.S., so it’s little surprise that the stories in this collection do the same. What is surprising is the consistency of her tone and delivery between these settings. Nigerians living in their own homeland feel no more comfort in their surroundings than do Nigerians in the States. All are adrift, steadily being weighted down by their own personal thing around their neck. The intent here is to show both halves how the other lives, and Adichie accomplishes this with grace and style. If she expands the final story, “The Headstrong Historian,” into a novel, she’ll win the Booker, the Orange, the this, the that …

The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, by Robert Boswell

Not quite as affecting as Living to Be One Hundred, this latest collection nonetheless delivers Boswell’s usual cast of drifters, unhappy spouses, spiritual bankrupts, and loners seeking any port in the storm. Standouts include “In A Foreign Land,” “Lacunae,” and “A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain.”

Even the dog won’t touch me, by Tom Bradley

America’s favorite Bizarro writer smacks us in the face with a new collection of short fiction aimed at making us all realize how ridiculous we are, without making us feel like dogshit in the process. It’s funny, it’s absurd, and it’s frustrating. It’s forgettable and it’s memorable.

The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess, by Andrei Codrescu

This novel hits pure entertainment on all cylinders. Codrescu is at various times sarcastic, deadpan, tongue-in-cheek, and absurd, but he gets serious when he needs to get serious. The book is an informative look at the origins of Dada and its colorful cast of characters, but it also delivers a narrative, both playful and ominous, involving a fictional game of chess between Tristan Tzara and V.I. Lenin.

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Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places centers around Libby Day, a woman whose family was murdered by her brother when she was seven. Twenty-four years later, she starts investigating the murders herself, and finds a whole lot more than she bargains for. Gillian Flynn writes excellent dialogue, creates compelling characters, and plots this book remarkably well. If you like mysteries and you’ve got a tolerance for a fair amount of violence, this book is a can’t-miss.

The Skating Rink, by Roberto Bolaño

The Skating Rink, although the most recently-translated Bolaño work, is actually the authors first novel. By publishing his most recent novel, 2666, and his earliest book in the same year, New Directions gives readers a chance to see the early and final Bolaño side-by-side. Unlike some authors who move towards readability as their style coheres, it seems that Bolaño started out relatively (for him) reader friendly before tacking rapidly towards the more difficult and radical. Readers will recognize many Bolañoisms: aternating narrators, a shattered chronology, beautiful-yet-cold women, powerless beurocrats, and, of course, a vagrant poet or two. The Skating Rink, a murder-mystery set in a small town in Spain, is Bolaño playing with all of the themes he will explore in his later books, but in a form that is his most approachable.

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Science Fiction

The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

This is a funny, cool, badass novel about a crew of mercenaries in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future. If that kind of thing is up your alley (you know who you are), then stop reading this and start reading The Gone-Away World.

Drood, by Dan Simmons

Simmons suggests that Drood, the title character of Dicken’s final unfinished novel, was not actually a character the author created but a supernatural horror equal parts ghoul, vampire, and demon that haunted “the inimitable” in the last years of his life. Narrated by Dicken’s forgotten contemporary, the laudanum-quaffing Wilkie Collins, Simmons takes readers on a surreal tour of London, from the gritty streets and subterranean opium dens to the high-society social circles frequented by Dickens. At nearly 800 pages, Drood is a bit of a door-stopper, but it flies by.  As far as pure enjoyment in reading goes, it doesn’t get much better than this book.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does a fabulous job of modifying the 19th Century classic into a bloody zombie epic. It can be cheesy at times, as it should. The characters and the plot stay mostly true to the original text, just tweaked to fit the new horror setting. The added scenes of violence spattered throughout the book add a fresh–if decomposing–layer to a classic. It is readable and fun, and manages to hold reverently true to its source material (a trait lacking in its more philistinic sibling, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters).

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Young Adult

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman is an expert storyteller, and his haunted retelling of Kipling’s classic, The Jungle Book, is truly a great read. It doesn’t tread much new ground as far as YA fantasy goes, but it still feels original and fresh because Gaiman hits all his notes pitch-perfectly.

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Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

The story of Abdulrahman Zetioun’s disappearance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is unjust and sickening; Eggers does an excellent job of letting that story speak for itself. This book is a terrific piece of journalism, revealing an appalling aspect of Katrina recovery. Eggers has a point to make with this book; he does so without being preachy. In a way, his point seems to make itself. As readers, we can only hope Eggers’s future projects are similar to this.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer

In 2002, NFL star Pat Tillman turned down a multi-million dollar contract to enlist in the U.S. Army. In 2004, he was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire. Krakauer’s book is an in-depth look at Tillman’s life and death, and how politicians used his death to further their own agendas. It’s amazingly accessible, and you’ll feel smarter after reading it.

The Adderall Diaries, by Stephen Elliott

This book is put together very well: the meandering lull in which it begins, the pace that quickens furiously when Elliot begins crushing his pills and snorting them. It’s a memoir about addiction and sadomasochism posing as a true crime account of a murder trial. In the hands of someone else, that could make for a trite memoir, but Elliot’s life is just too damn interesting, too damn ridiculous. It’s sharp and fast, and Elliot doesn’t waste even a single syllable.

Lit, by Mary Karr

Many people write memoirs, b=ut there are only two great American memoirists. The first is the late Frank McCourt. With Lit, Mary Karr became the second. This story of alcoholism and recovery is both funny and gut-wrenching—sometimes both within the same sentence. Karr is a first-rate wordsmith, and while her life might not be quite as interesting or ridiculous as Stephen Elliott’s, she makes up for it in style. Seriously, if you haven’t read any of Karr’s 3 memoirs (Liar’s Club and Cherry are the other two), you’re missing out on something special.

Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith
This book is everything that an essay collection should be: smart, funny, entertaining, and thought provoking. It should stand along side the best essay collections ever published.

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Eternal Enemies, by Adam Zagajewski

Zagajewski was born in Poland in 1945, and his poetry picks up the mantle of other great Eastern European poets like Herbert, Milosz, and Szymborska. His poems confront the challenges of rebuilding and the question of how best to memorialize times of great catastrophe and crisis. This most recent collection treats these grand themes with a sensibility both historical and personal.  Eternal Enemies presents a cohesive vision of a kind of perpetual state of aftermath, a world constantly in recovery. These pages abound with echoes, invoking great cities, poets, and thinkers both modern and ancient. The product is a landscape of humanity at once immortal and frail, prepared to forge ahead while always wary of what comes next.

What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009, by Stephen Dunn

This book makes a great introduction for anyone who hasn’t heard of Dunn. It contains some of my favorite of his recent poems, including work form his Pulitzer Prize winning collection Different Hours, and some biting new verses. Dunn has a reputation for finding beauty in the mundane, but what I most admire in his work is its ability to mine all kinds of effects from the mundane, spinning out the threads of gossip and evening walks until all the loose ends appear. Often written in short, controlled stanzas, Dunn’s free verse poems demonstrate a mastery of language that renders a direct, colloquial vocabulary into pure music, offering even everyday words the opportunity to show their hidden dimensions.

A Village Life, by Louise Glück

Glück’s poetry often draws on domestic situations and classical mythology, rendering loss and adolescent longing in language that manages to sound equally banal and prophetic. Her gift for writing about everyday drama without ever sounding melodramatic is almost unparalleled. Her newest collection reads very much like a book of linked stories.  Set in an unnamed Mediterranean village in an unspecified time, A Village Life creates a world of cycles, the passing of the seasons, sexual awakening, and coming of age. Though the setting offers a great deal of pastoral beauty, the tone of these poems often veers towards the mean or resentful, almost sinister, challenging its subjects and its readers alike.

The History of Forgetting, by Lawrence Raab

Raab writes poetry without any sleight of hand. There’s no withholding or gimmicks, no heavy-handed symbolism or some piece of trivia you really have to know before you can understand. His poems are open investigations of simple ideas that wander freely, arriving at places that seem as fresh and unexpected to the speaker as they might to the reader. The History of Forgetting invites us to consider memory and legacy, the things we remember and how we remember them. Drawing on a wide range of material, from a set of old family photos to a B movie with a hilarious title, these poems reveal painful humor in serious matters and accidental significance in things that might otherwise be considered trivial.

The Follower’s Tale, by Stephen Roger Powers

This is likely the best poetry collection based on a man’s fascination with Dolly Parton and her Tennessee amusement park, Dollywood, that you will read this year. The Follower’s Tale is one man’s search for a slice of Americana. Powers’ journey is a solo one, across back roads paved with regret, nostalgia, and yearning, but he’s never in too big a hurry to stop for sights like “The World’s Largest Model Railroad Display,” or to notice “layers across / the moon–gray, brown, crimson, rust black–above this country / road forty miles from anywhere.” His wanderlust is contagious, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself packing the car and pointing it toward Knoxville.

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Graphic Novels

Detective Comics #854, written by Greg Rucka; illustrated by J.H. Williams III

Batwoman is a strong, nuanced lead character, and Detective contains easily the most satisfying character work in mainstream comics. Though much of the story-so-far is familiar (particularly in the Bat-world: struggles with dual identity, loss of family members, bittersweet victories), Rucka manages to pull fresh ideas from those conventions, and all without irony or cynicism.

Batman and Robin #1-3, written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Frank Quitely

“Circus of Strange,” Morrison and Quitely’s introductory arc, juxtaposes the bright colors and humor of the 60s “Batman” television show with the grim amusement park setting of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke.” From the brilliant incorporation of sound effects (largely, and sadly, absent in most contemporary comics) directly into the action rather than slapped on top like a sticker, to the terrifying hordes of physically and mentally-disfigured “dolls” created by Professor Pyg, the whole arc is unsettling in its juxtaposition of both worlds.

Seaguy: the Slaves of Mickey Eye, written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Cameron Stewart

In the second volume of Morrison and Stewart’s divisive series, Seaguy, who seems on the verge of uncovering the mysteries behind Mickey Eye’s inexplicable hold on society, is bullied so deep into self-doubt he retreats into the prefabricated identity of a matador and must think his way back to reality before the villain, Sea Dog, marries She-Beard, Seaguy’s barbarian love interest.

Irredeemable, written by Mark Waid; illustrated by Peter Krause

This series from Boom! Studios engages in a bit of icon baiting, positing a world where the Plutonian (a Superman analogue, complete with mild-mannered secret identity and fabulous powers) goes rogue, begins hunting and killing his former friends, destroys the city he used to protect, and in general runs amok. Some of the surviving heroes have banded together to stop the Plutonian, but how do you hide from a man who can hear and see you from thousands of miles away? The result is a dark, compelling story that doesn’t point to any easy or obvious conclusions.

Young Liars, written and illustrated by David Lapham

A few of the players in this bizarre, mind-bending series: Danny Noonan, a loser from central Texas who may or may not also be Danny Duoshade, rock legend; Sadie Browning, heiress of the Brown Bag retail fortune and Danny’s dream girl, who has turned into an uninhibited ass-kicker thanks to a bullet lodged in her brain; Donnie, the likeable cross-dressing heroin addict; Big C, the consummate groupie; Annie X, a former model who might also be a spy for the invading Martian spider forces that are attempting to conquer Earth through the Brown Bag franchise. Sadie might also be a rebellious Martian Spider Princess, and Danny might be the worst spider of them all. Young Liars has a surprise around every turn.

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Honorable Mentions

Genesis, by Bernard Beckett (sci-fi)

Genesis is a lightning-quick dramatized discussion of the ethics of artificial intelligence. It packs a lot of interesting ideas into a short time frame, and works largely because it knows what it is (an intellectual discussion), and doesn’t try to be something it’s not (a thriller, a character study, etc.). It’s a weirdly structured novel, but if you’re interested in artificial intelligence, it’s worth a quick afternoon’s read.

Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon (mystery, literary)

Inherent Vice is a Thomas Pynchon novel you can wrap your head around. It features a pothead P.I. (think The Dude in The Big Lebowski), who bumbles his way through a weird mystery in 1970s L.A. As a detective story, it leaves something to be desired; but as a day trip into the world of one of the most talented novelists alive, it’s definitely worth a read.

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby (comedy)

Juliet, Naked is more or less your standard romantic comedy novel. Annie’s husband, Duncan (whom she hates), runs a fan website for a singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe. After she writes a review of Crowe’s latest album, Crowe contacts her and they begin corresponding. It’s pretty silly, but Hornby is the best romantic comedy writer in the business, and his wit and talent make this an entertaining, if not exactly ground-breaking, read.

This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper (literary, family drama)

This Is Where I Leave You is a zany family drama that is as humorous as it is sentimental. It reminded me a lot of Liars and Saints mixed with The Big Chill, which is actually one of my favorite movies. The plot is nothing new, and sometimes the dialogue feels a bit wooden, but Tropper’s writing shines the rest of the time.

The Original of Laura, by Vladmimir Nabokov (unfinished literary novel in note cards)

The Original of Laura isn’t really a book. It’s a collection of notecards the late master was using to work on a novel he didn’t live to finish. What’s here hardly resembles a book, and a lot of the writing is pitifully unpolished. But some of it is really, really great. Any reader of Nabokov’s, or anyone interested in glimpsing his particular writing process, will enjoy perusing through this collection of notes.

Infinity in the Palm of her Hand, by Giaconda Belli (literary novel)

Spanish poetess Giaconda Belli retells the story of Genesis through the eyes of Eve. It’s a smart and sensitive story, and very well written while remaining accessible. It avoids being preachy or didactic, which I appreciate.

Jailbait Zombie, by Mario Acevedo (horror, mystery)

Jailbait Zombie is far better than it deserves to be. The title and premise are silly, but it plays out as a satisfying horror-tinged hard boiled detective novel. Not literary fare by any means, but readable indeed.

The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter (literary novel)

The Financial Lives of the Poets is a novel both hilarious and touching. Its main character, Matt Prior, is a man afloat. The waves are crashing down on him, the bankruptcy sharks are circling, and he clings to a tiny little raft made of hemp. He stands a good chance of losing everything, yet stubbornly refuses to give up his sense of humor and his love for his family. It’s this humor that makes the novel so much fun, and the love that makes it so endearing.

Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow (literary novel)

Dave’s convinced that Doctorow wrote this book as a reaction to the growing popularity of the A&E show Hoarders. If that show is actually growing in popularity. Which it is in his household. The novel is something of a bildungsroman, but that Homer Collyer never leaves the house. It’s both funny and heartbreaking to watch Homer inch toward Helen Keller status as his brother, Langley, grows ever more paranoid and bizarre. Not Doctorow’s finest, but nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a quick read, and well worth your time.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (fantasy, young adult)

This book turns Harry Potter on its head. It begins with gifted teens sent away to magic college. But when they graduate, rather than fall into a quest that requires them to save the world, they find themselves bored, powerful, and flirting with hedonism. As they search to find meaning for their lives, things might turned out more destructive than beneficial for humanity.

Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche (literary novel)

This book contains one of the hardest-to-stomach scenes written since A.M. Homes’s The End of Alice. It’s also an incredibly astute book, and an excellent example of strong narration. If you have a weak stomach or don’t want graphically sexual content in your reading, stay away. Otherwise read this book right now.


Also recommended: the literary novels Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon, and Snow, by Orhan Pamuk.

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