29 January 2014

Book Review: Long Man by Amy Greene

The evening I picked up Long Man to read, I had never read Amy Greene before. I had just finished a different book and wasn't read to fall asleep just yet, and this book was sitting on my nightstand within reach, so I gave it try.  I picked it up at work to bring home because I was drawn to the colors and composition of the cover image; in a fit of mixing my metaphors and media, it reminded me of a cross between Willa Cather (author) and Russell Chatham (artist), neither of whom I actually know much about.

Turns out that Long Man is just up my alley, ticking off a lot of boxes of things that I love in my novels: Literary fiction? Check. Small town setting? Check. Celebrating the quiet dignity of a people often overlooked by the rest of the world? Check.  Southern? Cantankerous characters with old-fashioned names like Beulah? Exposes how the poor get waylaid by so-called progress for the convenience of the franchised? Check, check, and check.

There's no way to sum up this novel without making it sound dull, unfortunately, because the beauty of this novel lies in the richness of the characters and the location far more than in the actual plot.  It's the story of a handful of people in the small town of Yuneetah in east Tennessee in 1936.  Most of the town has already evacuated at the command of the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), who intends to flood this valley in an effort to bring electricity to the region. A little girl goes missing on the same day that a drifter wanders through, a drifter with a checkered history in this town. Did the girl wander off on her own, or was she taken? With very few neighbors left to head up a search party, the girl's fate becomes more tenuous with each passing hour, especially with the rising floodwaters of the river (known locally as Long Man). Meanwhile, a very old woman who lives on the mountain above this valley reminisces about history--her own and the town's--and how nature will have the last laugh over both.

Amy Greene is masterful at demonstrating that while the 1930s South may have been a simpler time, it doesn't mean that its inhabitants are any less complicated than people today. She also lives up to the writerly admonition to show, not just tell. Here are some excerpts that give a good sense of the prose and tone of the novel:

"The people of Yuneetah were losing more than their property. They relied on each other. If a house was taken by a flood they rebuilt it. If a man got sick they worked his crops. If he died they rang the death bell and the whole town came to see what needed doing. It hurt them to part not knowing when or if they'd meet again."

"For the most part Ellard believed he had done right by his hometown. Outsiders might have judged him for looking the other way when the moonshine runners came through and passed whiskey out by the carloads, but the next day he would see the bootleggers paying their druggist bills and settling up with Joe Dixon. Ellard had always put te well-being of his neighbors above any stranger's idea of morality or justice."

If you like Southern novels, or the works of Kent Haruf, or the literary lovechild that Eudora Welty and Jim Harrison might have produced, you would definitely like this book.  If you savor a sense of place over a fast plot, finding pockets of local flavor amidst this largely homogenized nation of the US, this could be the book for you, too.

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book that I believe I at one time requested from the publisher, but it's possible I just picked it up from my bookstore's galley room. It will be published in February 2014 by Knopf. 

27 January 2014

Book Review: The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

I blogged a blue streak in the first half of this month, then work got in the way.  The good news is that I don't actually have to work twelve days in a row because I unexpectedly had Saturday off.  Which means I can write a blog post or two to schedule for next week.  The bad news is that I'm still pretty tired because I worked 54 hours over six days, not including time spent at home emailing and doing other work-related things, and I don't even get any overtime.

The good news (again) is that I had the perfect book to read during all of this work madness: The Boundless by Oppel.  It's a middle grade adventure story starring Will, whose father works for the Canadian Pacific Railway, first as a mining laborer and later as one of the few men capable of engineering The Boundless, the pride of the CPR.

The Boundless is a marvel of a train, comprising 987 cars that stretch for seven miles, with four classes of service and every amenity that the age can provide, built by the greatest visionaries to ever dream of conquering a continent. It is the Titanic of the tundra and fraught with commensurate perils brought on by overweening pride.

Add in a circus, a hint of magic, a talented and lovely young disappearing artist, a man who may be able to manipulate time, a murder, mysterious creatures, and a revenge scheme that has percolated for years, and you've got a pretty good adventure in the making. The Boundless harbors a carefully guarded secret, and once Will becomes separated from his father on the train's maiden journey, he must be careful whom he trusts.  Only a level head, a driving desire to save his father, and the courage to keep his promise can save him, aided along the way by a handful of circus performers who take delight in flouting both authority and convention.

This book is without a doubt the most fun I've had with a middle grade book since reading John Stephens' The Emerald Atlas. I love tales that feature adventure touched by fantasy, where loyalty and stoutness of heart are eventually rewarded after the hero struggles to figure out what's right, and then still struggles to do it even after he's figured it out.  If Huckleberry Finn had encountered The Night Circus floating down the Mississippi instead of crossing the continent on rails, the adventure would have been quite similar to Will's on The Boundless.  I can't think of a better way to praise a novel for young readers.

I'd also like to put in a plug for the jacket designer and the person who illustrated each new chapter heading.  Both go unnamed in the advance reading copy that I read, and that's a shame because they both exhibit details that add to the story.  Take a closer look at the cover, where a golden spike and a key set off the title. A casual glance would only see symmetrical golden illustration, but the spike and the key are both important elements of the book.  Likewise with the chapter headings:

Each one provides a clue to a key element in the upcoming chapter.  Usually I'm the kind of reader who doesn't pay attention to these things, as I want to race on to the next chapter and the next, but these, like the chapter headings and Mary Grandpre's illustrations in the Harry Potter books, are worth slowing down for. I'd go so far as to say that they're worth reading the physical book instead of an e-book.

There are minor surprises along the way, and though most adult readers will anticipate the majority of Oppel's plot twists,  that doesn't diminish the reading experience in the least. Or at least it didn't for me.  This book is about Will; more specifically, it's about his deciding what kind of person he is going to be, coming to terms with his father's fallibility, and  learning about the importance of showing kindness before judgment.

NB: I randomly selected an advance reading copy of this book from the many shelves of ARCs in my bookstore. It will be published by Simon & Schuster in April 2014. 

14 January 2014

Book Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The publishing world is making much ado about E. Lockhart's new novel, We Were Liars, including asking reviewers (especially early reviewers) to be secret keepers for the novel. I'm afraid that almost from the start, it didn't do much for me. I won't say that I found the book a yawnfest--I did read it relatively straight through in one sitting--but it drastically disappointed me. I will, however, keep most of this book's secrets so as not to spoil much of it for anybody who happens upon this review. (Feel free to contact me via Goodreads, email, or other means if you would like real spoilers, though.)

Here's the set up: contemporary setting, privileged family, private island, summer retreats, extreme wealth, an abhorrence of scandal, a manipulative patriarch. Four teenagers -- two siblings, their cousin, one friend -- spend their summers together on a private island. Naturally this Kennedy-like clan presents a different face to the public than they do among themselves. Our narrator is the cousin who is in love with the friend, who is completely inappropriate for her: wrong tax bracket, wrong background, wrong family, wrong color. But then something really goes wrong.  So wrong that our narrator now has amnesia. What could it possibly have been?

If I had had lower expectations of this book, no doubt I would have enjoyed it more, but it ticked quite a few of my readerly pet peeves:
1. A first person narrator, who tells more than half of the story in present tense.
2. An unreliable narrator. This is not a spoiler.  Read the title again. Also, the narrator has amnesia.
3. The narrator has amnesia.
4. In the last 30 pages or so, the narrator's recovered memories necessitate a negation of approximately 80% of the "facts" that the reader has taken at face value for the previous 180 pages. 
If these things don't bother you, or at least if they don't bother you the way they bother me, then you'll probably enjoy this book. I would have liked it more had it not been hyped to me from various sources. I've seen the same tropes done before, and done better, and from what I knew of this author, I frankly expected more.

Beyond my personal peeves, I thought that the sibling and cousin relationships were particularly ill-drawn and I had trouble suspending my disbelief that these kids are supposed to have spent their entire summers together on their family's private island, year in and year out, and yet have bizarrely stilted dialogue and interactions.  Those parts just didn't jibe at all. I will concede, however, that the parent-child relationships and the adult relationships rang quite true.

The Big Reveal at the end is tragic, to be sure, but only somewhat of a stunner.  If you read enough novels, or even any novels, with a teenaged amnesiac narrator trying to remember her past, then it won't have completely out of left field for you. The actual execution of the teens' Big Plan and its subsequent demise, however, is so stupefyingly, mind-numbingly, improbable that I actually almost laughed. These are smart kids who have attended the best schools that money can buy and earned good grades.  You can't possibly tell me that they know so little about physics, chemistry, and the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.
I've got three letters for you: W. T. F.
I won't say more, as beyond there spoilers lie. But what about you? Did you read this one and love it?  Want to tell me that I'm way off base on this and simply not able to appreciate the genius of this book? Or did you read it and feel the same way I did?

NB: This book will be published in May 2014 by Delacorte. I read an advance reading copy that was provided by the publisher. 

13 January 2014

Book Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

I originally meant to read Shotgun Lovesongs during the mini readathon hosted by the fabulous Tika at Reading the Bricks, as I figured out the perfect way to justify this book to fit in with the MINI theme: it is set in Wisconsin, and I was born in Wisconsin, and when I was born, I was a MINI human being. (I am all about the justification. I was born to justify.)

But then there was a terrible snowstorm last week and my store closed early and I had to brave the scary, snowy roads to pick up my mom at the airport 'cause she was coming to visit that same night. I was without a book, so I semi-randomly grabbed this one from the bookcase in my office and tossed it into the vehicle, along with water, a shovel, snacks, a flask of good rum, a flashlight, and other other provision that I could think of and was handy. Mom's flight was delayed (but not canceled: the airport in Hartford is a serious little workhorse, even in the snow) and we headed immediately to the nearby hotel where I had cleverly reserved a room before the rates went exorbitantly high. We put our jammies on; mixed some not-bad rum punch, thanks to the generosity of Dion at the front desk of the Fairfield Inn, who provided us with some complimentary Ruby Red grapefruit juice; ate my snacks (good call, since ALL of the restaurants had closed by the time her flight landed); and ducked under the covers while the storm raged outside.

In other words, perfect reading conditions.  I picked up reading in the book about 75 pages in, as I had also been listening to the audio book format on the drive down to the airport. This is a debut novel from a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Nickolas Butler also has happened to earn a living  as a hot dog vendor, an inn keeper, an author escort, and a coffee roaster, which frankly interested me more than his degree from the most expensive writing program in the country.

I can't say that this book did or did not live up to my expectations, because I didn't really have any.  It's a mostly quiet story about some guys from a small town in Wisconsin.  One of the guys (Leland) went on to become a world famous indie rocker; one of the guys (Kip) became a hot shot Chicago farm broker, one of the guys (Ronnie) explored his wild side by becoming a bull-riding rodeo man, and one of the guys (Henry) stayed in Wisconsin and farmed the same land that his father and grandfather before him had.  Eventually all of the men end up back in Little Wing, WI, and each chapter is told from the first person POV of one of these guys, plus Beth, who was friends with all of these guys in high school but ended up marrying Henry.

So far, so good, the multiple points of view not withstanding.  I tend to really like quiet books that explore the life in small towns.  The fact that Shotgun Lovesongs also takes place in my home state of Wisconsin was a plus.  Novels that explore place as much as they explore character?  I like 'em. Novels that also give dignity to the people and places that the wider world overlooks?  I love 'em.

That being said, I didn't exactly love Shotgun Lovesongs.  As a reader, it ended up being a little heavy on the testosterone for my personal preferences.  Even Beth's chapters mostly revolved around what it was like to be married to Henry or what it was like...spoiler alert...to fool around with Leland one night long before she and Henry married. Kip is kind of a douche and wonders why his old high school buddies don't like him the way they used to.  Leland is a wandering soul who uses Little Wing as his touchstone, especially after his relationship with Hollywood's It Girl falls apart. Ronnie is now the town drunk who's had one too many concussions from his rodeo days and his mind doesn't work the way it used to.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

My main criticism with this book is that all of the voices sounded alike. There was no discernible difference from the way they thought, read, or spoke, from one character to another, with the exception of a few grammatically incorrect dialogue bits from one or two of them.  Beth sounded like Ronnie sounded like Leland sounded like Henry sounded like Kip.  Which is fine, but more than a little bit lazy and rather defeating the point of having multiple first person narrators.

My second criticism with the book is another bit of spoiler alert. About three quarters into the book, Leland gets stoned and confesses to Henry that he once slept with Beth.  Never mind that it was a year and a half before Henry and Beth were married, and that Henry and Beth weren't even dating at the time.  Henry gets so outraged that he wants a divorce. He drops Leland as a friend and gives Beth the cold shoulder for several months before he's able to get over it.  I mean, sure--it's worth getting upset over the fact that your spouse and your best friend slept together and you didn't know about it until now.  But to want a divorce for that?  Puh-leeze.

If you like books set in small towns, exploring the lives of the people there, and you're not as finicky as I am about multiple points of view and you have a greater tolerance for reading about men who do stupid things, this book is absolutely up your alley.  There were plenty of moments when I enjoyed this book, so don't let my pet peeves get in the way of your reading this novel if you think it might be for you.

NB: This book will be published in March 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin's Press.  I read an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.

11 January 2014

Mini Readathon Wrap-Up

Hi, everybody!  *waves to fellow participants*

I really feel that today's mini readathon was a success, if by success, one means a good bit of reading, some snacking, and a really excellent nap in between.  Which I do. How 'bout y'all?

I had some excellent feline, canine, and human companionship.  I got some quality reading in. I started three books (All Our Names; boy, snow, bird; and Pippi Goes On Board), and I finished one (Pippi).  I ate some cheese, chocolate-covered ginger, and some unscheduled pineapple licorice (which were cut into small strips, so still in keeping with today's theme). I drank a lot of water and one large grapefruit margarita (to keep scurvey at bay). I took about an hour long nap during the second course of the readathon. AND I communed with some fabulous bloggers. I also held off on joining Twitter, though I almost gave in a couple of times because I knew the rest of the participants would be having a gay old time.

All in all, not a shabby way to spend a day.  Why can't we do this all the time? Why do I have a hangup about joining Twitter?

Cheers to Tika, for sponsoring this utterly fabulous miniature readathon.  I hearby propose that you host such readathons on a quarterly basis.

Now I'm off to eat some dinner--my husband is indulging me by serving breakfast-for-dinner, and Alley's silver dollar pancakes inspired me so much today that that's what we're having.

How 'bout y'all?  What did you read today?  Was it good?  More importantly, how were the snacks? 

Mini Readathon Mini Midpoint Post

So, we're all having fun, yes?  Snacking and reading and whatnot?

I'm a little surprised how quickly the midpoint arrived.  I've barely started snacking, but that's largely due to the bacon & chicken fetuses I ate for breakfast (cheers, Alley!) immediately before starting.  I've also given up sipping from my ridiculously mini shot glasses and just started using my usual water bottle.
Roxy, showing great solidarity
I've received lots of "help" from my various animules.

I read quite a bit, but not as much as I thought I would in those four hours.  Largely because I took mini-breaks to check out other people's posts and blogs and whatnot.  But I'm about 100 pages into All Their Names, which I think is just fantastic, and 60 pages into boy, snow, bird, which is well written but not as engaging for me.
Still sitting upright in the first half
I snacked a little on the chocolate covered ginger and the mini brick of cheese. Now I'm feeling a little peckish and will probably toddle over to the kitchen for reinforcements.

In a show of solidarity, my husband joined me for the first four hours of the readathon.  We're reading on matching loveseats, which is almost too adorable for words.

How's it going for y'all? I think I'm about to give myself a break from serious tomes and treat myself to a little Pippi.

Going horizontal for the second part. 

Mini Readathon: Post the First

I have NEVER ever taken part in a readathon before, but this year I'm participating in Tika's Mini Readathon. This one is special, in that it assumes that snacks are at least as important as more important than the reading itself, and it goes for a civilized amount of time.  These two concepts I can get behind. The fact that my favorite ladies in the blogosphere will be participating?  Well, that's just the icing on my cupcake! (Get it? It's a mini cake.)

You see, the theme here is mini.  Any justification that we can apply to food, drink, or book to relate it to mini will work.  And apparently the more outlandish, the better.

Here is what I plan to read:

boy, snow, bird by Helen Oyeyemi. I need to read this for work, and it fits in with the readathon because the title is written in all minuscule, that is, lower case, letters on my advance read copy. PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE LETTERING ON THE IMAGE TO THE LEFT. Minuscule, as opposed to majuscule (upper case letters), is clearly mini. I also earn points from my husband for using typographical terms for my reading. Also, the title is made up of very small, one could almost say mini, words.

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu.  I need to read this one for work, too, but I'm not sure of the mini-justification yet. Maybe I could say that it counts as mini because the title is made up of very short words, but I hate to use the same justification more than once. If nothing else, I could read it on my Kobo, which has a mini-screen, but I'm hoping that after I begin it that I will come up with a  better justification.  Besides, I'd rather read my book and not an e-book.

In between those rather heavy books, I intend to cleanse my readerly palate with some of my favorite books from childhood: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery and Pippi Goes on Board and Pippi In the South Seas by Astrid Lindgren. These qualify as mini because I read them as a child; i.e. as a mini-person. Everybody here probably has read one or the other, so I don't imagine there's a need to share the images of Anne or Pippi, though they are the bestest.

Now, on to the most important part: the snacking!

Here are the items I am already planning to snack on. No doubt I will improvise others throughout the day:

I used a penny to give 'em scale
I've been saving these mini beauties since Christmas, when my brother and sister-in-law sent them to us.  Baby brick cheese and baby summer sausage?  Score!  Double points because they are from Wisconsin, where I was born--i.e., where I was a mini-person.

Everything that I drink today shall be imbibed via these mini shotglasses, which were a present from my Secret Santa this year.  I will start out with coffee, water, and juice, but by late afternoon I will switch to booze. Mini margarita has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Mini pieces of ginger, swathed in dark chocolate.  You know, for health. I received these for Christmas from one of my granddaughters.

Behold the mini mango sorbet.  I was telling my friend Liz yesterday just how stoked I was about today's mini readathon and she started getting really into it, helping me plan the justifications for all of the books I need to read.  Then she presented me with this piece de resistance as I was leaving her house. For clearly I will need a mango sorbet pick-me-up at some point during the 'thon. I daresay it will be even more refreshing than a turn about the room.

So that's that.  I think I've convinced my husband to take the day off and read along with me. I couldn't be happier about the prospect of sitting across from him all day and annoying him with the updates from all of the other readathonners, but I confess that I'm a little concerned about having to share my snacks. After all,  I didn't plan for two people to be eating them.  But since he just cooked breakfast, aka petit dejeuner, for me, and since petit is clearly a synonym for mini, I suppose I should just get my share on and stop being stingy.  Besides, Miss Marilla Cuthbert considers stinginess to be one of the worst traits a person can have and I want Marilla to approve of me so that I can stay at Green Gables.

I am so ridiculously excited about our day that it's a good thing I'm not a small dog, or else the floor would be quite wet by now, but enough about me now.  What are y'all reading and eating today? What are you most looking forward to?

10 January 2014

Book Review: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin returns to her strengths with her most recent historical novel, inspired by a real-life nautical mystery: in the late nineteenth century, the ship known as Mary Celeste was discovered adrift, utterly barren of human life, with no sign of struggle or storm damage. The captain's log shed no light on the matter, and the ship's cargo was still intact, eliminating the possibility of piracy. For the seafaring families of New England who captained and crewed the ship, the mystery haunted them for generations.

Martin's novel weaves in and around that mystery, introducing the reader to the extended family of the captain of the Mary Celeste, including the wife who was on board with him when the ship disappears. The wife's sister, already a little unbalanced and convinced that she communicates with the dead, abandons her grieving family to re-invent herself as Violet Petra, a rising star within the spiritualist movement, which reached the height of its fevered fervor in late 19th century America. Then we meet a character named Arthur Conan Doyle, a young man who wants to become a writer, who hears the story of the Mary Celeste and decides to write a sensationalized (and entirely fictionalized) account of its last days. This account is the first step in his achieving world wide acclaim as a writer, but it also links him irrevocably with Violet Petra and the journalist who is hoping to expose Petra as a fraud.

Intriguing, no? We get a real feel for Martin's range in this novel.  There are thrilling and terrifying scenes at sea interspersed with domestic scenes from those who remained at home, quiet in their desperation. She moves the story forward with a variety of styles and means: a straightforward, third person narrative, journal entries from various characters, newspaper clippings, a story within a story, and excerpts from the journalist's memoir.

I am not entirely sure why Martin doesn't have a wider readership. She won the Orange Prize for her previous historical novel, Property, and her critically acclaimed story of Dr Jekyll's housekeeper, Mary Reilly, was turned into a film by the same name. I've not run across many of her readers, and that just puzzles me. Full disclosure: I know the author a little, as she teaches at the college across the street from my bookshop, and I worked for a couple of years alongside the woman who was her research assistant on this very book. Even if I didn't have these connections, however, I'd still be surprised at not encountering more bloggers who read Martin. Her writing is solidly good and always serves the story, and when she's writing historical fiction, she's absolutely at the top of her game.

NB: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste will be published later this month by Nan A Talese, an imprint of Doubleday.  I read an advance reading copy provided by the publisher. 

04 January 2014

Last Month in Review: December 2013

Oh, December 2013. Even though you were here just a few days ago, you're mostly like a distant memory for me.  Despite working retail, I still managed to read a dozen books, albeit some were audio books and one was a re-read. In chronological order, here they are:

1. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.  Technically this was the third time I read this book this year, so I reckon you could say I kinda liked it.  Full review here.

2. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding.  (audio read by Samantha Bond) Had some mixed feelings about this one.  It was hard to listen to Bridget talk about how hard her life is as single mum when she's well-off enough to own her home, send her two kids to private school (which they call public school, right?), employ a nanny and not have to work at all. Sure, she's sad and there's no statute of limitations on mourning a beloved spouse, but she really does come across as awfully spoiled.  Still, there are moments, and when they happen they're pretty great. Samantha Bond was a good choice for reader.

3. The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes. A young woman gets a mysteriously worded letter from her brother stationed on the Italian front during WWII, shortly before he disappears.  She becomes a nurse and requests a posting in Italy to track him down. Solidly written and a slightly different take on the traditional wartime relationship book.

4. Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear. Eh. Occasionally it was quite fascinating, but I was interested in having a more cohesive narrative. I think I wanted a combination of Andew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods show and a foodie memoir and didn't really get satisfaction from either component.

5. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.  Easily the best book I read in December and one of the best books I read this year.  I LOVED this collection of essays. So well written and intimate and insightful.  This may well end up being my favorite Ann Patchett book.

6. The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell.  (audio read by Brian Troxell)  Despite having a pretty good reader, this book was a little hard for me to follow on audio. Beyond my own seasonal distractions, there were so many random jumps in character POVs and timelines for this novel and I wasn't always able to keep up.  Beyond that, I mostly didn't care, so I wasn't especially invested in following it. There were, however, passages of such beauty that I regretted not having a physical book so I could underline them.

7. The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness. I can't pretend that I absolutely understood this book (I'm sometimes too literal a reader to appreciate the fabulistic), but I thought it was lovely and ethereal. I am, however, largely in love with the cover.

8. Long Man by Amy Greene.  A quiet novel set in a small town in eastern Tennessee, just days before it's scheduled to be flooded in order to bring electricity to the region. When a young girl goes missing, the few people who hadn't already evacuated help search for her while her mother accuses an itinerant ne'er do well of taking her--or worse. Very well written but not in any kind of showy way.

9. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This YA book was WAY overhyped to me and thus I ended up picking it apart. I won't spoil the book for you, other than to say the ending was utterly ridiculous, but you can read what I said on Goodreads, if you like. Suffice it to say that it fulfills three readerly pet peeves of mine and there was a good chance that I was never going to like it, whether it had been hyped or not.

10. Thirty Girls by Susan Minot.  This is one of the most powerful stories I've read in a long time.  Dueling narratives of Jane, and American journalist in Kenya, and Esther, one of the thirty thousand Ugandan children who were stolen by the Lord's Resistance Army over the course of a decade and forced to do terrible, terrible things. Why, WHY had I not heard about these children before?

11. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin. Ghost ships, 19th century spiritualism, nautical adventures, and Arthur Conan Doyle as a character?  Yes, please!  Great attention to period detail and well written.

12. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. (audio read by Rebecca Lowman and Maxwell Caulfield)  Okay, I read this one in book form many months ago and felt totally "eh" about it.  I mean, it was fine, it was a little cute, but more than a little annoying.  Then I listened to the audio because the publisher mailed one to me, and listening to it has VASTLY improved my opinion of this book.  I think this proves, more than anything else I could give as an example, that there is such a thing as the right book at the right time for the right reader. Now, however, these characters are my friends, and I feel things for them, and I may or may not be in love with Levi (I am). I wouldn't have said at first that Rebecca Lowman was a particularly good reader, because she sounds just like an 18-year-old college freshman talking about her life, but, well, that's kind of the point of the book.

And now I have so many books to look forward to in 2014.  I may take place in my FIRST EVER readathon, courtesy of Tika at Reading the Bricks and I'm pretty darn excited about it  Particularly the snacks. It will help assuage the deep sadness that I know many of us will be feeling when we recall the SIX MONTHS we spent reading Harry Potter together in 2013, picking it apart, falling in love with the series even more, and finding the perfect gifs to express our feelings. Alice, whatcha gonna do for an encore? 

02 January 2014

The Year in Review: Best Books of 2013

      This is how excited I am about 2014    
Based on the infrequency of my blog posts for the last couple of months, you could be forgiven for thinking that I'd been abducted by aliens or trapped under something heavy. It has been exactly one entire month since my last blog post, and even that one was the only post I wrote in December.  Sometimes Real Life just gets in the way of Blogging Life and I'm trying hard to choose forgiveness over self-recrimination for my lengthy absences this fall/winter.

But I'm still here and I'm ready to talk about all of my favorite books from 2013 of the 123 books that I read. Didn't quite reach my Goodreads goal of 125, but 123 ain't shabby. My list for the year combines both my favorite reads and the best reads, which don't always, or even often, align.

The #1 best book for me this year was easy to pick.  I've read a ton of good novels this year, but this one set standards for literary excellence that made every other book I read after it a little lackluster.  I'm talking, of course, about Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. I somehow managed not to review this one, despite making many assurances of doing so. Sorry. But if you like meaty novels that illuminate the human condition of the 21st century and are so finely crafted that the author's use of metaphorical language shifted from character to frickin' character, AND if you're not afraid of books that are nearly 800 pages long, then you should by all means read this book.  It's amazing.

I was tempted to be a little disingenuous and claim that The Goldfinch was also my favorite book of the year, but that would be stretching the truth a little too far. It comes close, certainly, but I think the honor of my favorite book must go to the one that I've read three times this year. That's unusual for me, but it was so damned funny that I turned to it during my stress times this year. Therefore, my favorite book of 2013 is The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I've given it to a lot of folks for Christmas this year, and people I know, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s have all read and loved it.  Mostly women, to be sure, but a good handful of men I know, too. Here's my full review.

The other top novels for me this year, in chronological order of when I read them, are as follows.  I should note that I have only selected novels that were also published in 2013.  Lately I've been reading a lot of books to be published in the spring of 2014 but I'm not considering them for this year.

1. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Okay, technically I read this one in December 2012, but I saved it to include with my 2013 list.  One of the best pieces of meta-fiction I've ever read.  Quantum physics, Japanese pop culture, Zen buddhism, and two terrific narrators all combine to make this an exceptional book. Full review here.

2. Benediction by Kent Haruf, for the gentle dignity with which he treats small town, middle America. Stark language that reflects the landscape of the high plains in which it's set. He also had a small section on religion that rather broke my heart. Full review here.

3. Flora by Gail Godwin, for producing a literary masterpiece of a life told in reflection. I didn't write up a full review, but here's the shelf-talker version: Helen, the book’s narrator, looks back in her old age to the summer of 1945, when her cousin Flora moves from Alabama to North Carolina to take care of her. A precocious, moody, and sensitive child, Helen is devastated by her grandmother’s death and her father’s temporary abdication to Oak Ridge for the war effort, but determined to maintain a certain snobbish propriety in the face of Flora’s country ways. Godwin channels the spirits of Jane Austen and Eudora Welty in this brilliant examination of loss-haunted lives, all redolent with Southern atmosphere.

4. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. This book is gorgeously written and depicts a woman brimming with an incandescent anger.  It also sparked some debate about "women's fiction" and character likeability and our expectations for male vs female authors. Full review here
5. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This debut novel is seriously impressive. Lyrical writing, using a handful of characters and their various intersections to depict the horrors of war--in this case, the recent Chechen civil wars. Sorry, I didn't review this one, but it's making the rounds on lots of other folks' Best Of 2013 lists, so track down some of their reviews to read.

6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for addressing in a real and provocative way the issue of race in America and the subtle differences between being African American and being an African in America. She's an amazing writer and has been given a Macarthur, so if you read literary fiction and haven't already read her, you absolutely should.
7. The Son by Philipp Meyer. Wow, this is one tough novel, but so worth the reading. This is one of those books where I was aware that it was good as I was reading it, but it wasn't until I came to the end and reflected on it that I was aware how *astonishingly* good it really was. Full review here.
8. A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik. This is one of those books where sparsely lyrical language juxtaposes with the horrors of humanity. This was a helluva fine read and a complicated one. I didn't write a full review, but here is a shelf-talker for you: a survivor of the civil war in Liberia makes her way to Santorini. Homeless there, she focuses on two things: day to day survival and maintaining her sanity after what she witnessed. As the book unfolds, the reader gets an intimate portrait of both Jacqueline and the island, the beauty of one acting as a counterpart to the horrors in her mind.

9. This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila. I didn't read many short story collections this year, but this one would stand out even if I'd read a ton of them.  It should be required reading for all tourists who visit a tropical locale for vacation, but particularly for anybody vacationing in Hawai'i. Full review here.

10. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I have been a huge fan of her short stories since 1999, when she published Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection.  I was not, however, a fan of her longer work until I read this book.  This history of a family spools out slowly and deliberately like a tendril of not-quite-room-temperature honey, but with all of the clarity and luminous language that I've come to appreciate in her stories.

So those are the best novels that I read this past year, but I'd like to give out a couple of honorable mentions:

Longbourn by Jo Baker. It came as quite the surprise just how much I enjoyed this backstage version of  Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the servants.  This is a finely researched and well-written piece of historical fiction, not to mention an important reminder that not all young Regency ladies are as lucky as Elizabeth Bennet. Full review here.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt is also a notable book.  I didn't review it, but it's the story of two girls growing up during the height of the USA-Soviet scare.  When one girl disappears with her family in a plane crash, the other one never really recovers from the betrayal she discovers. This novel was well written and interesting and remarkably self-assured for a debut.

I read and/or listened to 17 works of nonfiction this year and two of them really stand out:

Sheri Fink's Five Days at Memorial, a work in true journalistic style about the Hurricane Katrina disaster at a New Orleans hospital.  Even though these events happened a few years ago, she still had my heart racing.  I somehow never wrote a full review, but here's my two-bit version: This is narrative nonfiction of the highest order, dealing with Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans, and the misappropriation of both common sense and decency in one of the cities' hospitals. So good. So frustrating. Were medical staff euthanizing patients during those dark hours of madness? If they were, was it justifiable or criminal? I predict that this book will be making the awards circuits when the time comes.

The other nonfiction is surprisingly NOT the new Bill Bryson book (which I also loved), but Ann Patchett's first essay collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. My husband read it eons ago on vacation and I meant to read it then myself, but one thing led to another and I somehow didn't.  But about a month ago I was reading through my blog roll catching up on other people's posts and I saw this one from Bibliophiliac. I was reading it, nodding along with all of her excellent points, when I ran across my name.  I'd forgotten that I'm mentioned in passing in the essay about short stories (it's a long story), so I grabbed my husband's copy and started reading it that night.  SO, so good.  I'm a bona fide fiction girl, but even so, this book might be my favorite of Patchett's works.  This book is incredibly useful and insightful if one wants to be a better writer, but I actually think it is just as useful and insightful if one wants to be a better human being.  No, seriously. This book is amazing. Just read it.

That leaves me with...YA.  The very best book of YA that I read this year won't be published until spring time 2014 (Maybe One Day), and the very best YA book published this year is a book I actually read last year, but it was SO good that I'll mention it here anyway.  I'm talking, naturally, about Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.  Full, gushing review here. But as for the best YA book that I read this year that was also published this year?  Well, that's got to be the delightfully anti-Twilight vampire book from Holly Black called The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. I even [temporarily] colored my hair blue for the event.  This was an absolutely rollicking read. Full review here.

My reading stats break down a little differently from previous years.  I read fewer books this year than the last couple of years and I read a higher percentage of non fiction this year.  This was also the first year that I started to embrace e-books. Or at least e-galleys from publishers.  Despite the douchiness of Amazon, here's a shout-out to Goodreads for helping me keep these things straight:

Total books read: 123
Fiction: 106 (86%)
Nonfiction: 17 (14%)
Audio books: 22 (18%)
E-books: 10 (8%)
Fanfiction (novel length): 8 (7%)
Short story collections: 4 (3%)
YA/middle grade: 31 (25%)

I read at a roughly 3:1 ratio, female to male writers. Interesting.
I read at a roughly 9:1 ratio of white writers to non-white writers.  Boo.

What about y'all?  What did you read and love in 2013?  What surprised you?  Disappointed you? Thrilled you?  I want to know!