For both fiction and non-fiction categories and virtually every other genre, and whether it was an established author or a novice, 2002 was marked by literature that was nothing short of outstanding, with some of the selections being benchmarks. As the year comes to an end, it has become an Express tradition to take a look back at the best of the best, at least in the hungry eyes of this reviewer.
In the last two year-end editions of Express, well take a look back at my top ten picks of the year, not in any particular order. They reflect the books I think back on the most and often compare other works to, and they also tend to be ones that I either recommended often or heard back that others had enjoyed immensely. If youre still doing a bit of last minute shopping or putting together a reading list, consider the books here. I dont think youll be disappointed.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Booker Prize-nominated “Atonement“ was McEwans first novel since his marvelous “Amsterdam“ took home the prize in 1998, and was the second book of the new millennium, following “The Corrections“ by Jonathan Franzen, to truly deserve the label “masterpiece.“
This elegant, engrossing novel about childhood, family relationships, vulnerability, love, class, war, redemption, shame, and forgiveness was snubbed for the prize, but will no doubt be referred to in years to come as one that played a key role in carrying on the rich tradition of British literature. The book is a knockout, a superior work taking McEwans considerable talents to new levels and demonstrating that he can work on the sort of expansive canvas and with the frighteningly accurate glimpse into humanity that Franzen did with “The Corrections.“ Once you wade into the remarkable, unpredictable, and moving world of “Atonement,“ you wont soon want to leave because there is so much to marvel at and savor.
Blessings by Anna Quindlen
It has been a pleasure to follow the evolution of Quindlens writing career, as shes become successively more graceful, sharp-witted, and confident with each new effort in her versatile oeuvre.
“Blessings“ is about exactly that, and much more in the form of the remarkable nature of things that become blessings in our lives, particularly when they are unexpected, perhaps even unwanted. In it, a newborn foundling has been abandoned by her parents in the garage of a vast estate owned by a cranky, wealthy, 80-year-old, widowed matriarch named Lydia Blessing. The baby is discovered in a box by Lydias handyman, a young ex-con named Skip Cuddy, who, for reasons even he doesnt understand, wants to keep her. He does so, secretly, for a few days, when Lydia becomes involved, and against her better judgement, Lydia decides to assist him in the effort. For a time, Lydia, Sip, and the baby theyve named Faith are a family, something which redefines who each one of them are. “Blessings“ goes into new territory for Quindlen, which makes for a wonderful reading experience.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
Fabers third book has been touted as “the first great 19th-century novel of the 21st century,“ a claim on which he delivers the goods. Bursting with life, this panoramic 800-page-plus story focuses on Sugar, a 19-year-old prostitute in 1870‘s London who aspires to bring both her mind and body out of the gutter. Something of a prisoner in a brothel run by Mrs, Castaway, a character so evil and frightening that she gives a catalogue of Dickens characters of the same ilk a run for their money, and then some. Red-haired Sugar is as intelligent and well-read as she is wanton and sensual. She has a reputation for being able to service men in any way they would like (and a fair chunk of the tale is given to those explanations), but much of her “spare“ time is spent writing a violent, sexually explicit diatribe against the men who use and then discard her.
At the books onset, were introduced to the teeming underbelly of London life by an unnamed narrator, who seductively pulls the reader into the world of sin, squalor, decadence, and decay in which the tale is set by the warning, “Watch your step.“ Hes right. “The Crimson Petal and the White“ is a distinctive, enormous accomplishment.
The Last Place by Laura Lippman
A first-rate thriller, this is the seventh book in a mystery series about Baltimore, MD detective Tess Monaghan from real-life Baltimore Sun reporter Lippman. The strongest asset of her well-conceived series is savvy, wise-cracking, independent former reporter turned private investigator Monaghan.
Seven must be a lucky number for Lippman, because this is hands-down the best effort in the thriller genre since “The Emperor of Ocean Park“ and “The Beach House“ earlier this summer. The author has clearly not been content to rest upon her previous successes and adds a number of new twists in this outing, most notably, that heroine Tess is being watched from the very beginning of the tale by stalker shell soon encounter in a game that gets more dangerous by the minute. This is one of those stories whose topicality is a hot button because it feels coaxed out of, or a jarring reflection of the disturbingly more frequent headlines in todays papers about the abduction of young women. You wont be able to put it down.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Sebold, who authored the disturbing rape memoir “Lucky,“ has crafted a remarkable and haunting debut novel in “The Lovely Bones,“ an artistic high-wire act that succeeds triumphantly, in spite of the considerable risks it takes.
This is a coming-of-age tale, but with none of the trademarks one might anticipate in that it is about the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl named Susie. As we meet her, her death and transition into heaven have already taken place. From above, in a place where “life is a perpetual yesterday,“ Susie narrates the story of her life and demise, and keeps watch over her grieving family friends, as well as the ruthless serial killer and the world weary detective trying to solve the case.
The book is a page-turner and the action has the momentum of a river current that cant be slowed. The resolution is more strong than sentimental, making “The Lovely Bones“ a minor miracle.
Coming next week in Express: The Best in Books for 2002, Part II.