Friday, December 10, 2010

Our Best Reads of 2010

By Kim

All of us at What Women Write are compulsive readers as well as writers. As 2010 comes to a close we thought it may be fun to share the books we loved most this year. Have you read any of the books we mention? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Inspired to run to your nearest bookstore and pick one up? We’d love to hear that, too.

Kim’s favorites:

For fiction, our readers probably already know I loved Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell, Days of Grace by Catherine Hall, Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin and Room by Emma Donoghue. A few more that I did not review were Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and the one I am currently reading, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.

For non-fiction the hands-down winner was Defiant Spirits by Ross King, which was about the Group of Seven, a band of painters who worked and exhibited together in the early part of the 20th century. Much has been written about them before, but more often than not they are portrayed as almost mythical figures in Canadian history. King’s version of the story is meticulously researched and feels much closer to the truth. I picked up this book as research for my own novel, thrilled to find that my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, was NOT reduced to a mere footnote as he so often is in art history books. I was pleasantly surprised that King turned the myths back into men, exposed their flaws, and did so in an entertaining way. (Note that Joan also recommends one of his books in her list.)

Pamela's favorites:

This year I read far fewer books than normal, so my basket from which to pluck a favorite is pretty small. My fiction reading tends to be mostly middle grade, spending time each evening curled up next to my daughter as we share her recent selection. (I'll spare you the titles unless you're a fan of books featuring horses or sassy eight-year-olds.)

As far as adult fiction, my favorite for 2010 is The Blessings of the Animals by Katrina Kittle. My sister recommended Kittle, a Dayton resident like her, and I quickly read three titles of Kittle's. The Blessings remains my favorite. (There's a horse on the cover, so no wonder, right?)

My non-fiction reading surprisingly outweighed my fiction choices--by at least five-to-one. Therefore my choice of a favorite is a little tougher. Based on a book I recommended multiple times, I'd have to choose Open by Andre Agassi. I'm not a huge tennis fan but remember Agassi's days on the court and, unlike many pro athletes who make the news, he seems to have kept a fairly low profile, choosing the road of family man and philanthropist today. He has a love-hate relationship with the sport--hated playing it, hated it for robbing him of his childhood, but loves where it's brought him today. And because it's told in present-tense, Open makes for a very compelling read.

Elizabeth’s favorites:


I See You Everywhere by Julie Glass is about two very different sisters who become closer over the years, even as geography pulls them further apart. Compelling, well-written, I have no negative comment for this book. A+. Got from library, will likely add a copy to personal library.

Me and Emma, by Elizabeth Flock shows an amazing mastery of craft in addition to just terrific writing.

The book I might have recommended the most this year is one Joan suggested to me: All Other Nights, by Dara Horn. This is the story of a Jewish Union soldier in the Civil War, and his journey through the war. An excellent and edifying read.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender - Eating the chocolate frosted lemon cake her mother makes for her ninth birthday, a young California girl discovers she can taste emotions in the food people make, and cannot escape the gift. Her brother is an oddity, and her mother sad and driven to an affair, her father remote. This was a weird, compelling read, and the end made me cry. Brilliant work, I thought, beautifully written as well. Will likely purchase a copy and be on the lookout for her next.


I read a few this year, and the best, and most thought-provoking, too, was this:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Four meals traced back to their roots, from industrial to “organic” and another kind of organic sans government sanction and labeling, to hunted and gathered. Really made me think, a lot. Started at my friends' house while on vacation (they are vegetarians). Engaging voice and though probably an agenda, very fair. Will likely seek out more of Pollan’s work. A meaningful read, an important book, and timeless, at least for the time being.

Joan’s favorites:

I don’t read too much non-fiction, but this year I researched a fair bit. One of my favorites was London, A Pilgrimage, a mid-Victorian tromp through the great city’s fashionable, working-class and truly seedy areas, by Gustave DorĂ© and Blanchard Jerrold. I read a truly engrossing tale, Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome, about Filippo Brunelleschi and his genius design for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore’s Il Duomo in Florence. The book reads more like a novel, touching on personal jealousies, traumatic setbacks, political rivalries, and fierce determination.

For fiction, it was even tougher to choose. I’d have to say All Other Nights, Dara Horn’s brilliant civil war spy thriller was the page-turner of the year. Two others blew me away; the tragic, yet beautiful Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai and Away by Amy Bloom. I book-ended the year with two novels from one of my favorite authors, Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours.

Susan’s favorites:


Little Bee by Chris Cleave. Genius, genius, genius. I also loved Incendiary, his debut novel, which I read after Little Bee.

Non fiction:

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr. A brilliant writer. She simply writes beautiful sentences and is a joy to read.

Julie’s favorites:

Looking back at my list of books I’ve read this year, I was surprised to see how many I loved. It was hard to choose. I attempted to branch out in my reading this year, not only to expand my own personal horizons, but also to study the writing in books beyond the usual suspects. I fell hard for a few. Like Susan, I was blown away by Chris Cleaves' Little Bee and Incendiary, and like Joan, I loved Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden.

Right after the new year, I read Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. This dark story is genius in its use of setting as character. The creepy old English estate is as active and integral to the story as the human characters. It’s a ghost story of sorts, and I’m a big chicken. I found myself looking over my shoulder a few times while reading!

One of my very favorite professors from college, Dr. Delores Washburn, continually challenges me since we reconnected on Facebook. She mentioned Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding in response to my post about the Dog Days of Summer, which inspired me to pick up a copy. Thanks to Delores’s influence, I can’t get enough Southern fiction, but I also love discovering or rediscovering classics that still have much to teach us. This story was no exception.

I didn’t read much nonfiction this year, but I’m in the process of reading Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’m diving into revisions on my recently completed manuscript, All the Things You Are, and am already finding so many ways I will be able to improve my story. I’m about four chapters in and can tell this hands-on resource is going to be another one I keep in my writer’s toolbox.

So what are your favorite reads of 2010?


  1. Thanks for calling out Defiant Spirits, Kim. Ross is a fantastic storyteller. Douglas & McIntyre will publish his book in the USA in Fall 2011 and in the meantime you can find it on Canadian on-line stores such as

    Julie, Susan, thanks for luring me to Chris Cleaves. Do you recommend reading Incendiary or Little Bees first?

  2. That's an excellent point, DM Publishers. I ordered Defiant Spirits on immediately after it was released and got it here in Dallas within a few days. American readers, it is just like ordering on regular All my information even transferred over.

    I was honored to be able to help Ross a bit with the section about Carl Ahrens and provide a photo of the artist. That aside, though, D.S. was an excellent and entertaining resource and will be most helpful in the writing of THE OAK LOVERS, my novel about Ahrens. There were many reasons behind that public tantrum of his!

  3. Ah, an insiders edge–great! I look forward to hearing more and reading THE OAK LOVERS. Who's your Canadian publisher, Kim?

  4. DM Publishers,

    I am about 80 pages away from finishing THE OAK LOVERS now, and as it will be marketed as fiction (though very strongly rooted in fact) I have not yet begun the search for a publisher in either the United States or Canada.

    THE OAK LOVERS will certainly tell a different story about Carl than has ever been seen in Canadian art history publications, including Defiant Spirits. That said, I'm not painting a rose colored portrait of my great-grandfather. Anyone who would call the head of the O.S.A. hanging committee a 'festering tub of intestines' would make a few enemies, and he did publicly hate certain members of the Group. I show his faults unflinchingly, yet he had many good qualities, too. I hope readers come to respect him, if not love him, by the end of the novel.

    If you have not already done so, you can google Carl Ahrens and my website will come up. (Ross found me through that.) You will see that Carl's paintings were anything but 'docile and inoffensive' as Lawren Harris called them. His reputation as a dark tree painter is also not exactly accurate. Also on the website are a short biography, many family photographs, travel journals about my research for the book, and a few short excerpts from THE OAK LOVERS. Most are from the early chapters, which are heavy on his unusual courtship with my great-grandmother. His divorce and remarriage has much to do with why he was shunned in Toronto. There is one excerpt that shows the fallout from that.

    Roughly half the book takes place in Canada, a country I have come to love deeply during my research trips.

  5. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford.
    In the early 1940s, a 12-year-old boy, Henry, a Chinese boy, falls for Keiko, a Japanese girl. Life throws them together as the only non-white students at a private school in Seattle. Keiko's family is sent to an internment camp, Henry finds a way to work there on weekends. Ultimately, they are parted as her family is moved again, and again. Henry writes (it's heart-wrenching when he finds his letters after he attains adulthood. The story ends in New York City in the late 1980s.
    An engrossing read, a painful look at how war hysteria and government response affects personal and family life.
    The story moves smoothly back and forth in time and place. Highly recommended for story and for craft.

    Carol Woods


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