Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Stellar Year in Reading: 2015, The Best and Worst

Not to brag, but I managed to put quite a few new books (and more than a couple of re-reads) on my "read" list in 2015. Some were great. Others... well, let's just "live and learn," shall we?

Let's start on a positive note, with my favorites..

The Martian — If you haven't read the book, stop what you're doing right now and read it. Seriously. Seeing the movie won't help. There are some things that a book can do that movies have to leave out. When Mark, who's been in his own head for weeks, is told to tone down his messages to Earth because they are being read in real time, his response made me want to be him. I've never loved an inappropriate word more than I did in that moment.

More importantly, The Martian reminded me just how precious our planet is: it sustains us, despite what we do to foil that effort. I truly fear that we will make our planet as inhabitable to us as Mars. (review)

Station Eleven — What happens to humans who lose their civilization out from under them? How do they retain their humanity? Shakespeare and a traveling orchestra. Never tell me the arts don't matter. In the end, it's all we have.

Double irony: the loss of technology was keen in this story, and I read Station Eleven on my Kindle. (review)

the life-changing magic of tidying up — Stop trying to organize your crap. Weed it out with one single criteria: do you love it? 

I still struggle with that question, and I find myself loathe to let go of what's unloved in case it's all I can find. My effort in 2016 will be to take this final step to heart and trust myself enough to live with love only. (My husband and cats are relieved.) 

I am certain the author was more explanatory than I, which is why you should read the book.

Kindred — if you love time-travel stories and you haven't read Octavia Butler's classic story, make it your next read. 

This story mixes love and hate, confusion and clarity, with one of the most American of institutions: human slavery. Butler jettisons the omnipotent narrator and allows readers to be as confused as the narrator in this classic story. 

I am thrilled to add her to my library, and I will be reading her as voraciously as I can in the coming years.

The Power of Habit — How are habits made, and changed? Why do we do what we do, and how do we reinforce habits, good and bad? 

Take a look into the brain with an engaging writer and discover how habits are formed and broken, and how much reward matters in the forming of habits — and decide how you may want to use this information in your own life.

(Full disclosure: I skimmed over the animal tests, which made me ill.)

Tell the Wolves I'm Home (review)
Everything I Never Told You (review) 
These novels offer storytelling at its written best. Each has its own magic, whether it's a quiet power, a refreshing honesty or an unforgettable, vivid tale. Their stories and characters will remain with you long after the final page.

Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2 — John Connolly scared the crap out of me with his short story collection Nocturnes, so of course I would not pass up the chance to be equally terrified again with a second installment. In a word: amazing. I did have to stop reading every so often to catch my breath and stop freaking out. More than one story made me question myself, reality, my concept of right and wrong and a whole lot of other things.

Now, for the Books I Hated.

Natchez Burning — As a reader, and as a woman, I was never so insulted by a writer's characters than I was with this book. Two men and two women arrive at a life-changing historical scene. The men talk business, the women talk relationships. It's more than that, but that is where I stopped reading. Three Pulitzers between them and the women were too busy talking about their men to talk shop? Please. (review)

Gone, Girl — Had it not been a library book, I would have not only thrown it across the room, but also have torn it in half. How can an author be so untrue to her characters? What she did was just downright mean: if you don't like your characters, kill them. Don't make them stop being who they are. No one wins: characters, readers or authors. (review)

Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us — Not convinced, despite the author's credentials, that I need to jettison my own judgment. I am not saying I should disregard the bloody apron the suspect is wearing and climb into the windowless van, but I do want to credit the small clues my brain is clever enough to collect to help me make my decisions.

I have listed my 2015 reads below. Let me know what you read, and tell me what you think of any books we both read this year.

Also, have you started compiling your 2016 list? What is on it?

  1. Ruby Red
  2. Sapphire Blue
  3. We Should All Be Feminists
  4. Beautiful Day
  5. The Winds of Marble Arch
  6. The Humans
  7. Tricky Twenty Two
  8. The Monk
  9. Simon’s Cat in Kitten Chaos
  10. Night Music: Nocturnes Volume 2
  11. The Girl With All the Gifts
  12. What Alice Forgot
  13. Alexander Hamilton
  14. I Could Pee on This
  15. Chronicles of Old New York
  16. The Witch's Big Night
  17. The Borrower
  18. The Dalai Lama's Cat
  19. Prisoner of the Devil
  20. Everything I Never Told You
  21. Kindred
  22. The Four Agreements
  23. A Dirty Job
  24. 52 small changes: one year to a happier, healthier you
  25. Interred With Their Bones
  26. The Cats in Krasinski Square
  27. Daily Rituals
  28. Earth (DK)
  29. Stepmonster
  30. the life-changing magic of tidying up
  31. The Husband’s Secret (half)
  32. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
  33. Puff the Magic Dragon
  34. Story of the Nile
  35. Arcadia
  36. The Light Between Oceans
  37. The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter
  38. Orphan Train
  39. She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems
  40. The Martian
  41. Start Late, Finish Rich
  42. Picture of Grace
  43. The Death of Me
  44. Divergent
  45. As You Wish
  46. The Three Monarchs (re-read)
  47. Moriarty
  48. Station Eleven
  49. Good Omens
  50. What If
  51. Tell the Wolves I’m Home
  52. Auntie Mame
  53. Trigger Warnings
  54. Unhappenings
  55. Fun Home
  56. The Girl on the Train
  57. I Knead My Mommy
  58. The Woman in White
  59. Where There’s Smoke
  60. Leaving Time
  61. The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse
  62. Natchez Burning
  63. The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition
  64. Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears
  65. Gone, Girl
  66. The Power of Habit
  67. The Quiet Book
  68. The Quiet Christmas Book
  69. Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us
  70. Jackaby
  71. Dear Committee Members
  72. The Three Monarchs
  73. The Quick

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tell the Wolves I'm Home: Growing Up in the World of AIDS

I had no intention of reading Tell the Wolves I'm Home because the description on the jacket was so unappetizing. I am grateful my book club chose this novel — it's one of my favorite reads of the year so far.

The book jacket makes the story sound like an AIDS story, which is totally inaccurate. Rather, it's a story of grief and loss; of growing up, growing apart, and growing together; of self-discovery and of the discovery of the world from a different perspective; of family; of tolerance. Carol Rifka Brunt captures this through the voice and experiences of an unlikely character: 14-year-old June, a girl at the stage in life where her self-awareness often shrinks to a microcosm of her own life.

AIDS may be a factor in this book, but it is by no means a central character. In fact, the family and community treat the disease — and the people with it — with more compassion and honesty than I would have expected. What a welcome respite from the real world, in which HIV-AIDS was (and to a certain extent, remains) a media circus threat and mystery.

June grieves for her Uncle Finn, her godfather and closest friend who, in his last year of life, is painting a portrait of her and her 16-year-old sister Greta. June thinks she knows her uncle because her uncle knows her. June doesn't know much beyond her direct experiences with Finn, so she's shocked to find out that he has a "special friend," and even more shocked that this mystery person is accused by her family of infecting Finn with AIDS.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home is about growing up and growing out of the role of a protected child, finding one's own path on the cusp of adulthood and learning what boundaries are worth pushing and what rules should remain unbroken. It's about finding out that people are more than just who they appear to be. It is rooted in a time and place: New York, 1987. It is told by a reliable narrator in a compelling story with rich description and great honesty. It's perhaps one of the best coming of age stories I've read in a long time. And it's a touching love story between people who are trying to figure out how to live with grief and loss.

Read this book and be just as surprised as June that life isn't exactly how it looks from your passenger seat on the train.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

'Throw Across the Room' Book: Gone, Girl

I was warned.

Strangers and friends alike, people who share my taste in books and those who have no idea what I read, sent up red flags.

"You will be furious by the ending of Gone, Girl," they said, to a one.

Yet, I did not listen. Hey, I survived My Sister's Keeper and Bridge to Terabithia (and so did the "throw across the room" books, but only because they were library books). I mean, how bad could Gone, Girl be?

Worse than you'd imagine.

I will try to analyze my disappointment without spoilers, but I may give away more of the plot than you wish to know. If you intend to read this book, proceed with caution. (I may discuss a few other airborne books, so be forewarned.)

Let's start with the basics: Amy disappears under suspicious circumstances. The police see Nick as the most logical suspect. Both Nick and law enforcement uncover information and evidence that points to him. He looks guilty — but is he?

The story is told in two voices. Amy's story begins as journal entries dating back seven years, when she met her now-husband, while Nick remains in the present. Both voices sound authentic, and Gillian Flynn's control of these two characters is tight and flawless. She knows when to cut between scenes, when to end a chapter, precisely how and when to ignite the bombshell. Technically, the book is taught, the perfect whodunit.

The problem lies in the final pages. I have willingly traveled with these two strangers-turned-friends through hundreds of pages of their lives, for years of their experiences together and apart. I have watched both Nick and Amy evolve from what they were to what they became with each other. I have seen how their perceptions of each other evolve, as does how they view themselves, or how they are themselves. Amy emerges slowly, carefully orchestrated, and gels to a glistening sheen.

Nick, on the other hand...

It is with Nick that Flynn failed this reader. His emergence, his evolution, his becoming make sense until the very, very end. As the final scenes close, I wanted to scream and throw the book across the room. Had it not been 1 a.m., I would have expressed my rage and disappointment.

In the end, Nick was nothing like the man of his resolve. The circumstances of his life can conveniently explain it away, but like an untimely demise or deathbed confession, there was no a-ha. There was no resolution, no logical explanation by the author. It just happened, at the end, with finality but no satisfaction for the reader.

Had there been more preamble, had Nick's character toed the line differently, the logic of his final situation would make sense. Even if I didn't like it, I could accept it. Unfortunately, I cannot accept the Nick at the End. It felt like a cop-out, like Flynn had written a good ending for one or two of the characters and she just didn't have it in her to give Nick what he had been himself building all along.

For years, I was angry at Jodi Picoult for the ending of My Sister's Keeper. I saw it as a non-resolution that took the author and her characters off the hook. When a decision was made by someone other than the character who has been set up to do so for hundreds of pages of narrative and plot complications, I felt cheated.

I can't understand, to this day, the "beloved" moniker awarded Bridge to Terabithia. Katherine Paterson wrote it for her young son, whose young friend died in a random accident — so, if she wanted to reinforce that idea, her book succeeded. It was a terrible, nonsensical ending that added nothing to the story or the characters. I felt cheated.

The ending of Gone, Girl makes me feel as though both the readers and Nick were cheated from an ending we all deserved. I don't trust Flynn and I won't recommend this book to another reader.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What Alice Forgot: Good Fluff 'n Trash™ or Just Fluff?

 I am a fan of Fluff 'n Trash™. I love Penny Vincenzi, Janet Evanovich and select other writers who offer stories with a light touch. However, along with a light touch, their stories offer substance: characters make sense and act logically within the story. The narrative matches tone and focus. Without these elements in tight control, readers encounter too much froth, and the entire thing falls apart.

Lianne Moriarty is too frothy for this reader. I got as far as the secret in The Husband's Secret and put the book down. How could I care about such a dire, stressful situation if the characters felt so insubstantial and offered an almost flippant response? Reading the book made me feel as if I was eating cotton candy when I needed a heaping pile of macaroni and cheese. The author skated across the top, not investing in the characters or the story, just telling it.

I gave Moriarty a second try with What Alice Forgot, which I thought had a brilliant premise: a woman loses a decade of her memory, retreating to a time in her life before — well, before her life began, in her head. When fainted at the gym during a workout, she awoke thinking she was a decade younger and four months pregnant with her first child. It was a golden time in her life.

Within a decade, her life was completely different. She was completely different. However, everyone hoped her memory lapse was temporary, so they didn't have to tell her how different. Also, no one seemed to like her very much, or care enough about her to truly listen to her and tell her the truth. Alice was living in the past until the present elbowed it out of the way.

What Alice forgot was significant, but the tease to get there grew tedious quickly. Why is her sister so distant? Why does her husband's assistant speak to her so rudely? Why is everyone so dismissive of her memory loss? How many times can wrong suppositions be applied to broken relationships? It's like in the movie Twister, when everyone grows quiet at the mention of a Category 5 cyclone: it's overly dramatic and leaves the audience feeling like fools for not knowing.

Thankfully, Alice is not the only resource for memory and information. Frannie is writing letters to an unnamed recipient and Elisabeth has to keep a journal for her psychiatrist; these are interspersed through the narrative and offers welcome substance to the story.

Moriarty offers an almost Jekyll and Hyde comparison of Alice-29 and Alice-39, and neither bode well. The younger Alice is doe-eyed and innocent, almost an older version of her pre-teen daughter. As readers learn more about Alice-39 through Alice's friends, family and daily calendar, the question becomes, "What happened?" The difference is very stark, almost too much so.

I would have liked to see more of Alice-39 after she regained her memory, especially pertaining to any conflict she felt or enacted and the reactions of those in her life (aside from her men). Also, Moriarty actually pissed me off with the red herring regarding Elisabeth, which was cheap and very unfair to readers.

Although I am not inclined to recommend What Alice Forgot to my fellow readers, I will not dissuade them from reading it. There is an excellent value in contemplating a life lived versus a life intended, and many reader find themselves pondering their own lives, measuring their previous trajectory from their landing place. I would not be surprised if more than a few people made important changes to try to recapture their past persona, or to put themselves back on the path they thought they were on in the first place.

What did you think of What Alice Forgot? Do you like Moriarty? Would you recommend a particular book of hers? Let me know!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Polar Book Club: Let's Go for Two in 2016!

It's time to declare Winter Reading with the Polar Book Club!
Uber-Reader Karen and I have chosen two books for the 2016 Polar Book Club: Library of Souls and The Luminaries.

Library of Souls:
Time is running out for the Peculiar Children. With a dangerous madman on the loose and their beloved Miss Peregrine still in danger, Jacob Portman and Emma Bloom are forced to stage the most daring of rescue missions. They’ll travel through a war-torn landscape, meet new allies, and face greater dangers than ever... Will Jacob come into his own as the hero his fellow Peculiars know him to be? This action-packed adventure features more than 50 all-new peculiar photographs.

The Luminaries, the 2013 Man Booker Award winner:

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.

After we finish the books — let's aim for March 15, 2016 —  club members can join an e-mail conversation about the book.

How you participate is up to you. Think about why you liked (or didn't like) the book, and consider telling other readers about it to spur discussion. No one is right or wrong. It's all about the book and reading. If you want me to throw out a few questions to start the conversation, just let me know.

E-mail me to join the Polar Book Club — and the ensuing conversation.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Summer Reads, Karen-Style

Hello, fellow readers and book lovers! I know you're thrilled to find out what everyone else is reading, so take a gander at Karen Young's award-winning Summer 2105 Reading List.

Karen, a founding member of the adult Summer Reading Program, kept her reading at rock star level this summer with more than two dozen titles in only a few months.

Without further ado, I introduce you to Karen's Summer 2015 reading list:

  1. Divergent
  2. Insurgent
  3. Allegiant
  4. Following Atticus
  5. Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman
  6. The Loop
  7. Ice Trap
  8. Ghost Hunting
  9. Seeking Spirits
  10. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
  11. I am Haunted Living Life Through the Dead
  12. Hollow City
  13. The Trail of Painted Ponies
  14. Naked
  15. Holes
  16. The Bridges of Madison County
  17. Zoya
  18. The Gift
  19. Under the Sun
  20. The Book of Matthew, New Testament, Holy Bible
  21. The Book of Mark, New Testament, Holy Bible
  22. The Martian
  23. Steamboat Gothic
  24. Special Delivery
  25. The Old Man and the Sea
  26. Ben Franklin's Wit & Wisdom
  27. Epidemic!

As a reward for her epic reading, Karen selected Library of Souls, the final book in the Miss Peregrine series. (We will be reading it this winter — but more on that soon.) Karen also chose to contribute to a charity near and dear to her heart: Golden Harvest Food Bank. What a great gift for a worthy organization. 

Did you have an epic summer of reading? I posted my list recently. Share your list — either in the comments below, or send me an e-mail.

Are you planning your winter reading? What's on your list? Let me know!