While taste in any art form is highly subjective, there are still benchmarks one can use when judging a work's quality. In the case of books those would include how well the author has developed the plot, whether the characters are more than two-dimensional, and the other fundamentals inherent in putting words on a page so they either tell a story or develop an idea. Yet once you've ascertained that an author has proven capable of writing a coherent sentence, what is it about a book that makes it stand out from everything else you've read?
In my case it's a matter of an author having the ability to transport me with his or her ideas, manner of presentation, characters, or even just the way in which they use words to convey whatever it is they are trying to tell me. The ideal book would of course have characters who are so believable we feel we could have a conversation with them, a story so fascinating that we become so absorbed in reading the book it leaves us wanting it to continue, express ideas mentally and emotionally stimulating, provide insight into the world around us, and offer a unique - or at least novel - perspective on life. The perfect author would be able to accomplish all this without us even being aware of it and it would only be as we are digesting what we have imbibed we'd realize the effect a title had had on us.
The following list are the ten of what I read published in the past year (2009) that came closest to fulfilling the above requirements for me. Each of them have in some way helped broaden my horizons, enriched my life, and, just as importantly, provided me with great pleasure. For what's the point in reading something, even if it meets all the criteria listed earlier, if it isn't any fun? After all, just because you're expanding your mind doesn't mean you can't have a good time doing it.
The Judging Eye - R. Scott Bakker: The first book in the Aspect Emperor trilogy picks up ten years after the conclusion of the final book of Bakker's Warrior Prophet trilogy. The characters we met from the first series return as mankind begins its epic war against its greatest enemy led by Kellus, the Aspect Emperor. Not content to merely continue the story, Bakker has broadened his scope and we now travel both deeper into the history of this world he's created, and parts of it where men haven't set foot in generations. Mixing elements of horror, epic fantasy, and psychological thriller, he has created a world where his characters and readers are forced to confront things they might rather have not thought about. Brilliantly told, if slightly unrelenting, it sets the stage for what promises to be another trilogy of epic fantasy unlike any you've read before.