Every year at the Honolulu Advertiser, I write a short roundup of some of the stand-out books I reviewed or read during the past year. Here are my Best Books of 2009, not all-inclusive, of course, but, I hope, helpful all the same.

By Wayne Kaumuali’i Westlake
Edited by Mei-Li M. Siy, Richard Hamasaki
UH Press; 275 pages
The epigrammatic poems comprising Wayne Kaumuali’i Westlake’s ‘new’ collection reveal the day-by-day creation of his poetic philosophy—a Taoist-Hawaiian cultural spirituality with a later dose of taut political awareness. Smartly arranged by theme courtesy of local poet Richard Hamasaki, Westlake’s verse provides a remarkably intimate and complex self-portrait of man and poet. And though he died in 1984 at age 36, his pungent catalogue of multifaceted, everyday life experiences remain relevant today. Whether mischievous or thoughtful, his poems consciously wander landscapes of time and space, shine with form and rhythm, exploding from tradition—rewarding reflections that nearly convince Hawai’i should only be written about this way.

By Ben Greenman
Melville; 254 pages
Diverse writer and New Yorker editor Ben Greenman’s sharp, ebullient new novel has inherent star quality and sparkling prose that, for the moment at least, shines brighter than any previous work. The novel’s third-person narrator sticks close to its larger-than-life funk-star protagonist, the prose resounding with crisp language tuned to the era’s slang as Foxx speaks to everyone in mesmerizing riddles and rhymes. But Greenman doesn’t forget the more important B-side—he centers alternating sections on Foxx’s wife Betty, the woman who, unbeknownst to Foxx, keeps him grounded and sane. The narrative pulses with natural beat, never betraying a stray word or scene, instantly drawing readers into its current and refusing to settle down until the very last sentence. “Please Step Back” finishes like the closing of a beautiful record, one that can be turned over and listened to again—until Greenman releases his next big hit. 

By Ian MacMillan
Mutual; 201 pages
In his sinewy new novel, published posthumously, Ian MacMillan, who died in 2008, showcases a lifetime of keen observation of his Kailua home via terse, economic prose nonetheless rich with detail and energy. MacMillan seizes readers’ attention from the first words of this deceptively simple story about an ancient mystery and hidden treasure that ensnares a small group of people with competing motivations, sustaining a kind of caffeine-buzz tension that refuses to die out even at the end. The narrative facilely bounces through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, maintaining a quick plot pace as characters discover something more valuable within themselves, ultimately unfolding a subtly authentic tale of greed, loss, and the downfalls and saving graces of human nature. Great writers leave you wanting more, and with “The Bone Hook,” MacMillan once again proved his greatness. Lucky for us, there’s another book due out next year.
By William Fiennes
WW Norton; 216 pages
At first glance, Fiennes’ newest memoir is an ingenuous ode to a childhood lived in a 700-year-old moated English castle, where tour groups surrounded him and playing in ancient rooms loosed his imagination. Yet Fiennes quickly pokes holes in this idyllic depiction, letting in darker anecdotes revealing his epileptic brother Richard’s truly frightening behavior. These, along with scientific excerpts on the history of the brain and mind, punctuate and interrupt Fiennes’ otherwise poetic, dreamy and swirling narrative, just like the outbursts once disrupted family life. Intensely personal, “The Music Room” resurrects, probes, and compassionately preserves a specific time and place, finally meditating on how what one inherits can define and forever shape our lives, and our minds.
By Paul Malmont
Simon & Schuster; 386 pages
In his new and evocative historical novel, Paul Malmont soars on the wings of Jack London’s personal history, the first fictional work about this American literature icon, set against the backdrop of early-1900s Hawai’i. London is presented as a riveting hero in the last years of his life, and Malmont courageously, if also romantically, resurrects turn of the century Hawaiian society, complete with captivating depictions of Queen Lili’uokalani, Duke’s beachboys, surfing, Kamehameha’s Nu’uanu Pali battle, and more. Perfectly detailed and well researched, the novel offers entry to a complete and irresistible dream where following your passion—whether writing, movie-making or love—can deliver the world.

Published in the Honolulu Advertiser 12/20/09