I've done my best.
When I'm choosing a book to read(if it hasn't been recommended by a friend), I must admit that the title draws me first. If it's a cheesy title I probably won't even pick it up. (In fact, the one I'm reading now has a terribly cheesy title, in my opinion. I'm almost embarrassed to admit I'm reading a book called Extreme Measures!) Next, cover artwork. It's not essential, but if it catches my eye I'm more likely to open the cover and read the spiel in there. I usually read the back cover as well, skimming for anything that hints of offensiveness or boredom. Then if I'm still iffy on it, I'll read the first paragraph. If I'm still not sure, I won't bother.
Fourteen of the books on my list are on the subjects of the Middle East, Asia, Africa and immigrants in America or are set during WWII. I'm interested in Asia in the past, Afghanistan and the Middle East in more recent history and currently, Africa as it is currently, and all settings for WWII. I haven't read any strictly historical books on the second World War, but I do have some waiting in line.
Some books come recommended, such as Safely Home, which was recommended by Lora, if I remember correctly. I read amazing reviews of Khaled Hosseini's books, as well as of Stephen King's books. I loved the former and hated the latter. Clearly, recommendations may or may not help.
But what gets me most isn't a good story, it's excellent writing. The most awesome writers can weave magic out of the mundane and typical. They don't need brilliant stories or specific genres to propel them to noteriety, they do it with the sheer beauty of their words. They have the gift of magic.
And so here are my choices for best book of the year, from my own reading list:
Red Letters: Living a Faith That Bleeds
First Place (tie):
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Worst Books of 2008:
The Lovely Bones
Bag of Bones
(Note to self: don't read anything with "Bones" in the title.)
Change of Heart
I realize the 3 books on my "worst list" are either very popular books or by popular authors. I've chosen them mostly for their offensiveness factor, as well as elements of the ridiculous. If I'd chosen them by boredom rating, The Alchemist would have made the list, as well as The Prayer Chest. Both were glorified snoozefests.
If I'd been able to choose one from this year, the only one I've read would have made it. I LOVED Cane River by Lalita Tademy. As a rule, I don't read Oprah books, but I'm glad I bent that rule in this case. A very interesting story based in fact from Louisiana, starting before the end of slavery and working up through three generations until 1936. A great novel.