Saturday, January 11, 2014

Books read in 2014 with brief notes

1. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Wow, what a voice! This novel blew me away (and that sentiment seems pretty universal since it won the National Book Award). The story and the language it is told with manages to be poetic and ribald and funny and poignant, all at the same time. I had a hard time reading the last 75 or so pages because the sense of loss for the Old Man was so intense that I didn't want to experience it. But when I steeled myself and dove in, it was worth it--a beautiful, funny, sad goodbye to such a memorable character.

2. Allegiant by Veronica Roth
The final book in the Divergent trilogy. Blech. Pretty bad read in lots of ways. So many things were wrong with the book that it made me feel that the author started the series with no idea where it was to go. It was a rambling hot mess with so many gaps that it actually messed up the books that came before it. It tried to justify the society that was set up in the first two books and boy did I ever NOT buy it. It was way better to leave the source material and history unexplained than to put forth this laughable premise.

3. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Engaging historical fiction. I enjoyed the beginning and the end the most but grew a bit exasperated with the very engaging heroine during her Tahiti adventure. I simply didn't find her lost husband a compelling enough figure to warrant such effort--I'm afraid I agreed with old Hanneke-the-housekeeper when she referred to him as "just a bit of nonsense." But still it was fun to travel with Alma and go experience the world through her eyes, even if I did not share her motivation. The book had many memorable characters and events and I think it will stick with me.

4. Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
It's fun to follow a book that is concerned with big ideas (see #3) with a fun, lighthearted mystery. This is the 5th Flavia de Luce mystery and she's still a lovely character with whom to explore the English countryside, listen to chatter on about chemistry and poisons, and solve improbable but highly entertaining mysteries.

5. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Short (only 129 pages) but memorable novel about Japanese immigrant women. Told in a strange group voice with no names until near the end when they are leaving for the Japanese Internment of WWII. Reminded me a lot of the Tim O'Brien story collection The Things They Carried.

6. As She Left It by Catriona McPherson
Interesting little mystery set in Leeds. Lots of things to enjoy here: an engaging main character, excellent portraits of neighborhood characters, lots of ethnic diversity and interesting questions asked about morality, responsibility and guilt. The ending wasn't very satisfying though. Too tidy, too convenient and not a terribly believable resolution to some of the biggest questions posed.

7. Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff
A quieter, smaller book than How I Live Now but with a similarly distinctive adolescent voice. Much less drama than her previous book and more focus on a kid becoming aware of what it means to transition from childhood into adulthood. Engaging read.

8. On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
Really interesting distopia (for grownups!). It takes present economic conditions and extends them to their extremes and then plops down an unshakeable every-woman character in the middle to experience all three models that are depicted. It's told in a compelling "group" voice using "we" as the main pronoun and makes the journey of the main-character into something mythic. Lots and lots to think about here.

9. Boxers  by Gene Luen Yang
First part of a two part graphic novel (second is Saints) telling the tale of the Boxer Rebellion in China. Kind of hard to assess without reading the other half, though interesting enough that I'll make sure to track it down.

10. The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
A really lovely middle-grade read. The main character's emotions were rendered with sensitivity and lack of sentimentality which is a difficult balance to pull off well.

11. Yellow Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson
My daughter's class is reading historical fiction this month so I thought I'd try out one that has been on my radar. Does a good job of helping contemporary kids imagine what it must be like to live in a different time and see how different their responsibilities and challenges would have been. Can't say it was the most "moving" read, but perfectly capable historical fiction.

12. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Wow. This is an mazing first novel about the wars in Chechnya. It feels particularly relevant with the present Russian crap going on in Crimea--another place that I find hard to picture. But after reading this book, I have a far better understanding of what happened in a part of the world not far from today's conflict.

13. Into the Still Blue by Veronica Rossi
Last in the Under the Never Sky trilogy. A fun, action-packed read. The happy ending made it clear that I wasn't the audience--I prefer the happy-ish and much more complicated ending of The Hunger Games. At first I thought Rossi was going to go that direction but then I noticed the cover art which kinda gives that away. That's fine--it's YA and pretty fun and way better than the over simplicity of Divergent which I dislike the more I think about.  I'm curious how my 13 year old son would respond to all the kissing in this book because there's lots more romance than some other books he has read.

14. Hild by Nicola Griffith
Really gratifying read, though not an easy one. I had sticky notes marking maps, lineage charts, glossary and pronunciation guides. But I loved this story of Hild, the Angles king's seer, in 7th C Britain. What stood out for me was the incredible vividness of the natural world--plants, birds, animals, weather, rocks--it all was so detailed and rich in this book, particularly tastes, smells and sounds (which I think are much harder to capture via the written word than visual descriptions). Looking forward to the next installment of Hild's life.

15. Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
A fun middle-grade book, told with a whimsical style. Lots of spit and approved of messiness. If you don't like heights then a few sections will be a little difficult to enjoy reading (standing on a tightrope while feeding birds, for instance). The only downside--the ending was really abrupt. I expected another few chapters after it but it just stopped.

16. Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Part two of the set that began with Boxers. Meh? I don't really get the awards. It shows two sides of a conflict from two unique perspectives, but did I learn a whole lot about the Boxer Rebellion or identify strongly with either main character? Nope. I guess it showed the futility of loyalty to any one cause, but I found it kind of vague in its intentions. There was some humor, particularly in the way that the main character in this book perceives Christianity at first.

17. Bluffton by Matt Phelan
A youth graphic novel about a boy who lives on Lake Michigan and spends his summers with Buster Keaton when his troupe comes to town. The illustrations/watercolors are lovely and it is a nice little slice of historical trivia. But I'm not sure how much a kid would care about it unless they had seen some of Buster Keaton's movies.

18. Americanah by Chimamana Ngozi Adichie
A re-read and I loved it again!

19. The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
I really wanted to love this but didn't. I thought the writing was stilted and the premise didn't work for me. I also couldn't picture some of the main characters (and I have quite a bit of experience in picturing aliens and the like). I might go read some reviews to try and figure out what everyone else saw in it (I think it's being published in 21 countries or something?)

20. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
A really well-done YA "issue" book about rape. The voice and emotions of the main character are vivid and don't ever fall into "after-school-special" melodrama.

21. Someone by Alice McDermott
A lovely, memorable novel about an Irish-American girl, her family and what love means. It sounds ponderous but is anything but that mainly because it is told in such a kaleidoscopic way that the layers build upon each other. So many forms of love are addressed (parental, community, spouse, sibling, gay) in a fairly short novel. I loved it from start to finish.

22. The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth
A graphic novel that feels like the beginning of a series. I liked the story and thought the black and white art work was compelling--at times seriously creepy.

23. The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen
ugh. The trilogy started out so well with The False Prince, then got a little unbelievable in The Runaway King, and unfortunately descended to the truly absurd in this final book. I read it aloud to my daughter and would have stopped if she hadn't kept hoping it would improve. Hate to say it, but this was one stupid book.

24. Guts by Roddy Doyle
I can't remember the last time I read such a good-hearted book. Flawed, fallible, and warm describes pretty much every character, even in moments when they are acting selfishly. Usually the behavior comes down to fear or mortality, of insignificance, of impermanence, so even those moments are understandable. What I enjoyed most were the moments that the main character Jimmy looks at his children with wonder. And it's damn funny, too.

25. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Yep, read it again. Start to finish. Still got choked up at the end. And it led to one of our best book-group discussions ever.

26. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
I enjoyed this book set in turn of the century Manhattan and told from the points of view of the two titular mythical creatures. Their "natures" and relationship were the most interesting parts. I found the villain a little hard to swallow, he seemed so very one-sided in his greed for power and lack of morality of any kind. The ending seemed a little stretched (can anyone be crammed into a flask, not just jinni? And if so, why aren't there more of them?) but better than killing off the two main characters.

27. The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes
I still don't get the title. Or really the point of the book. Nor do I buy the voice of the main character who is supposed to be 18 and sounds like a 30 year old. The author tries to explain that away by telling us that Juliet was born with a birthmark on her face which is supposed to mean that she has suffered and is wise. But meh. I didn't buy it. There were some effecting scenes of a field hospital in Italy in WWII but as a whole, the book did not hold together for me.

28. The Smartest Kids in the World, and how they got that way by Amanda Ripley
Interesting read about education policy following three exchange students to Finland, South Korea and Poland. The portraits of the various ed systems are interesting with the author making the strongest push toward the benefits of rigor and of kids learning resilience and good work habits by accepting that school should be hard. There were some things I wish were covered in more depth (such as how are the sample kids who take the PISA selected? how does project based learning fit into what she's discussing with rigor? Other than a little bit of a mention about Tom struggling with math in Poland, how did their American education prepare them (or not prepare them) for a different system? It seemed like there wasn't much on what they experienced academically, more just focused on attitudes and expectations of students.) Gave me some things to think about as my oldest moves to high school this fall.

29. Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
A fun art-mystery middle grade novel. I think my 11 year old would enjoy it (despite her love of fantasy and the lack of dragons).

30. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Wonderful novel. Follows two intersecting paths--one of a blind French girl who moves from Paris to St Malo during WWII and one of a German boy who is a radio technology whiz kid. Tender portraits of both characters with a lovely supporting cast, too.

31. A Face Like Glass by Francis Hardinge
Why, after the success of Fly by Night, has this book not been published in the US? I ended up buying the electronic publication but it bugs me that I can't lend it to other people. It's a wonderful, weird fantasy set in the underground city of Caverna.

32. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley
The 6th Flavia de Luce novel and one that takes a turn from the previous 5. I'm guessing that the author realized that the # of murders in the quiet village has been piling up since he began his series and so had to justify a change of scene for his main character. This book mainly served as the justification for the change of scene, rather than a full fledged mystery in and of itself. It got a little wacky in some of the characterization and plot leaps, but was still a light, fun read.

33. Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre
Chugs along on an interesting path following money laundering, Russian mafia and links to British spy and political institutions, up until the perfunctory last chapter. The ending wasn't unexpected (doom written all over the preceding chapters) but was surprisingly un-subtle when compared to the rest of the book. I suppose that might have been the point, that a delicate operation is just smashed w/a sledge hammer at the end, but it wasn't very satisfying.

34. Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby
A wonderful collection of Nick Hornby's "what I've been reading" columns collected into one big tome. I enjoyed his humor and musings, and collected a number of titles to put on my "to read" list.

35. The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic  by Emily Croy Barker
This was an engaging read; there were a few things that I found a little grating (some of the obvious Pride and Prejudice parallels, the Fairy culture that seemed too obvious) but on the whole I enjoyed reading it. I thought the author did a good job inventing and describing how the magic that the main charter was learning worked and felt. That felt fresh and exciting.

36. The Madwoman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh
A funny, easy-to-read account of menopause. I felt a little distanced from it because of the LA-conspicuous-consumption-culture and the fact that the author is such an extrovert. I'd love to read a funny, thoughtful memoir of menopause by a more introverted person.

37. Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido
I just loved this novel. It isn't hugely deep but I had so much fun reading it and getting to hang out with such engaging, clever, funny and flawed characters for 215 pages.

38. Faithful Place by Tana French
I wasn't the biggest fan of her first mystery novel, but I enjoyed this one even though the murderer was somewhat obvious. The characters were a pleasure to spend time with.

39. Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
A quick middle grade novel, sensitive kids, interesting friendship. A little thin in the wrap up but an enjoyable read.

40. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Different from Hardinge's other novels in that parts of it are set in the real world rather than a wholly imagined universe. That said, once she has established that we are in 1920's England things start to get quite wonderfully weird and she spins her strange magic. I probably wouldn't recommend this as the first Hardinge novel to read, but for fans it is quite gratifying.

41. Broken Harbor by Tana French
Another Irish mystery. I thought this one was well-done, particularly in its depiction of the main character's sister. Her madness came through as complicated and not at all trite or dismissible. I also enjoyed how it took a minor, and somewhat scorned character from Faithful Place and made him the hero and showed what was going on behind the facade.

42. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Oh what fun to be whisked away on David Mitchell's magic carpet! So much fun to read, even if the supernatural beings were a little hazy in their origin/existence department. I particularly liked the little references he sprinkled throughout to his previous books.

43. The Truth by Terry Pratchett
Nothing like a little Terry Pratchett for relief from beginning of school year stress. This one is about the rise of newspapers in Ankh-Morpork and while there are no witches, there is a nice vampire photographer who keeps turning himself to dust with his flash and a zombie lawyer who must make all the lawyers out there cringe. Silly and very entertaining.

44. Lock In by John Scalzi
A nice fast sci-fi read about robots that serve as bodies for people who have a virus caused lock-in syndrome (so can't use their own bodies). Clever plotting and witty dialogue, the only thing is that all the characters end up sounding like, well, John Scalzi. It reminds me a bit of John Green where everyone is funny and clever (and in Green's case, they are all lovable, too) but if you don't look at dialog tags, then the words could be coming out of anyone's mouth.

45. Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
A nice set of short stories by the author of Jim the Boy. I liked it when they overlapped and a young character in one appears as an old on in another (which leads me to think that I was craving another novel from him). I didn't care for the novella that ends the book.

46. The Travelling Horn Player by Barbara Trapido
Nice to revisit some of the characters from Brother of the More Famous Jack. It was sweet and funny and sad, but it makes England seem a very small place when this cast of characters keeps running into each other. Some people might think that makes it a comedy of manners, but it felt too contrived and the ending banquet when everyone is (unexpectedly) seated together and they unwind all their connections had me rolling my eyes rather than laughing along with the absurdity. And it ends on a strangely sombre note--still not sure why she chooses to punish Stella at the very end.

47. Snuff by Terry Pratchett
More wit and levity!

48. The Minaturist by Jessie Burton
Interesting historical fiction set in 17th C Amsterdam. I didn't mind it, but didn't love it. I thought the character of Johannes was so obviously gay that the big reveal was more like "duh."

49. Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett
Even more wit and levity! Yes, I do need humor these days...

50. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Should be required reading for anyone with aging parents. Really well written and thought out.

51. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Post apocalyptic fiction for grown ups, this time, what is left of civilization following a killer flu virus. Similar to The Dog Stars but with more flashbacks to the process of the collapse of humanity. I don't know if I was as blown away by it as some reviewers have been, but I did find it thoroughly enjoyable and credible.

52. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
A story in verse, invoking the myth of Geryon and Herakles to paint a portrait of the artist as red monster. I got frustrated with my own internal voices over thinking the story--wish I cold have shut down the lit crit voice and let it flow.

52. Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
Yup, more humor needed. This was a wonderful time spent with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax who are always good company.

53. Egg and Spoon  by Gregory Maguire
I really enjoyed this venture into Russian folk tales, retold w/wit and sympathy. Baba Yaga and her house were wonderful--wacky, but not so clever that they become cute. And I liked the two main characters and that despite switching places for a time, they weren't "transformed" by their experience into someone unrecognizable. They gained understanding and affection for each other which felt more real; a nice emotional grounding in the midst of the fantasy.

54. The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey
Sometimes it's hard to read a sequel after a longish gap. I'm wondering if my experience would have been different if I'd read this right after The 5th Wave (which wasn't possible since it was still being written, but I'm imagining the experience of a future reader who would have that opportunity.)  It took me a while--and a couple of Google searches--to remember the details of The 5th Wave, who all the characters were, where we had left them, what the continued questions were. Once I got the background info under control, I did enjoy the book, though I can't say I really understood the "revelation" about the aliens. I finished the book and went on line to forums to try and figure out what exactly I was supposed to take away from it (while I wait for book 3) and found my confusion was shared by pretty much everyone else. Maybe it'll make sense when book 3 comes out. Maybe it won't and will be a weakness in the whole concept of the series. I'd suggest that people wait until book 3 comes out and read them all in a row to see if it hangs together better in that format.

55. Magician's Land by Lev Grossman
It has been a while since I read the previous two books, so my start was kind of creaky trying to remember who everyone was. But once I got over that, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Lev Grossman does such a good job of taking what appeals about Harry Potter and magic and both exposing it to reality while not making fun of it. It's a really hard balancing act but very fun to watch. And I loved Quentin in this book--the way he has come to terms with his own non-greatness (especially the detail of his special skill being "mending"). That's basically what growing up is, right? When the delusions of grandeur get brought down but you keep plugging away and redefining what is important in life.

56. Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
I enjoyed this but, like most of Amy Bloom's books, know that I will not remember it. It is well written, the characters are interesting and distinct, but it is so all over the place that I know it won't stick with me. I'd have loved a whole book about Gus, told from Gus' perspective and following his weird experiences in WWII, but he was just a side character.  I also got the sense that the whole book came from a photo that the author saw and that she describes in detail in the last scene. I could be wrong, but it strikes me as something that landed in her lap and she used it to spin a story.

57. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
I love Margaret Atwood, but this collection of tales is disappointing; kind of feel like she swept a bunch of papers off her desk and thought, well, why not just publish it?

58. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Ok so this one is a re-read since my book group chose it, but I enjoyed it the second time just as much as the first--more so perhaps since I paid more attention to detail this time.

59. Silk by Alessandro Baricco
Meh. Thin little book in translation about a man who transports silkworm eggs from Japan to France in the 1800s. It's a weird romance and I still found disturbing the fetishizing of the "non-Oriental eyes" on the woman he saw in Japan. There were some pretty images in the book but not enough for me to recommend that someone seek it out.