Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Books read in 2015 with brief notes

1. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro
I read this slowly throughout 2014 and finally finished it in January 2105. It's a terrific non-fiction book for Shakespeare geeks, going into the circumstance and cultural history surrounding 4 of Shakespeare's most famous plays (Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Ceasar and Hamlet) all of which were first performed in 1599. Slow going, but a good steady companion that I really enjoyed coming back to when life got turbulent.

2. The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
Fun historical fiction. I really enjoyed her Nicolo series years ago; this series came before it and the characterizations are not as subtle, but it's still a fun adventure.

3. Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King
Really good YA novel: tight, thoughtful, complex and Feminist. Excellent messages about consumerism and independent thought without being heavy handed at all.

4. A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
An exquisite memoir that is about, but not morbidly about, the author's husband's traumatic brain injury and what life is like afterwards. It is surprisingly hopeful, beautiful and inspiring. There's sadness there, but it isn't a sad book. It is also a strong argument for canine companionship.

5. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
A gentle read, and since it is the depth of winter and I need to be gentle with my psyche I enjoyed it. It was (damning word) nice. A bit obvious. But still a good reminder to pare down and appreciate what (and who) is there in front of you.

6. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Blech. Only finished this because of book group but found it pretty stupid. Such a bummer when an author I loved in my 20s is one I dislike in my 40s. I'm scared to go back and re-read her earlier work--maybe it was as bad as this and I was too stupid to notice?

7. Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
A re-read because I was reading it aloud to the girl-child and what fun it is! I thought the alternate 18th-C setting and vocabulary would be beyond her but it had her asking questions and collecting words instead. It's quite a kick when you hear your 11 year old use the term eponymous correctly. We're on to the next one (Fly Trap) and also enjoying it immensely.

8. Girls Like Us by Gail Giles
Amazingly well written story of two disabled girls who graduate from high school and learn to live in the big, wide, cruel world (though school was pretty damn cruel, too.) Minimal words achieve maximum impact because the characters are so precisely drawn. Super fast read, too.

9. The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Really good zombie novel--it reminds me of the literary-ness of Justin Cronin's The Passage and The Twelve (which were about vampires). The adult characters were a little obvious (who would fill the roles of mother, father, villain and sacrifice) but still enjoyable. I loved the chapters told from Melanie's p.o.v.

10. Seconds by Brian Lee O'Malley
Ok-ish graphic novel about a chef and a house spirit. The art style was too cutesy for my taste and there wasn't a lot of substance.

11. The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
Decent graphic novel about the first Asian super hero.

12. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Wow. Really, really good. No surprise that it won the National Book Award. Hope my daughter also likes the verse.

13. Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller
I enjoyed the book, though thought the violence went a little far. Also, I wasn't sure I needed the unreliable narrator. I liked Sheldon so much that I wanted him to be reliable and for his story to be true.

14. The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais
Blech. What a lousy book. Other than nice food descriptions it was a pointless read. And even the nice food didn't do much for me (I would have spent my time better reading a cookbook....)

15. Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
Finally, a good book to counter balance some of the stinkers I've been reading! I admit that I couldn't get into two of the stories, but loved the rest. I've had that history w/Link before--because they are so conceptual, either they hit the mark or they don't and I've stopped trying to force the ones that don't. I thought the first story, "The Summer People" was exquisite--dark and creepy but also full of longing and mystery.

16. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
This was a decent fantasy, but it petered out for me. Maybe it was the romance aspect which seemed very thin and made an interesting and edgy character into kind of a dip. It's the first of the series, but I doubt I'll be reading the rest.

17. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
meh--while well written, I found it trying to spend so much time with a sociopath. I'm sure others might find the portrayal fascinating, but I found it a bit tiresome.

18. The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee
A decent YA/middle grade mystery set in Victorian London with a mixed race heroine. Not sure if I'll read any more of the series, but it was entertaining enough.

19. Saga Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
A space/fantasy graphic novel that's pretty interesting set in a war between horned and winged humanoids. Some of the art is funny and lovely and weird and that kept me reading--I could do w/less of the erotica though it does seem to be deployed for a purpose.

20. Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Beautifully imagined book about Vanessa Bell and her relationship with her sister, Virginia Woolf. Such sensitive and empathetic descriptions of mental illness, love, jealousy, and genius. It'll be hard to read Woolf the same way again after reading this novel.

21. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
I had tried reading this before, but never got into it. This time I listened to the excellent audio book while painting my front hallway and really loved it. Beautiful writing, fierce characters and sensory detail that made me remember all the hours I spent with horses as a kid.

22. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Meh--this book got a whole lot of rave reviews but I found it tedious. It took a while to get to its major predicament and then became all Crime-and-Punishment-guilt-guilt-guilt focused.

23. Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
It took me a while to get into this sequel to Seraphina so if you haven't read the first, make sure to read the second shortly after, before you have forgotten all the different aspects of the world. It was worth it to re-educate myself on the fantasy world because it built into a pretty cool book. I thought until about 75 pages to the end, that it was setting itself up for a third book, but then there was a ton of action and it wrapped up most of the loose ends.

24. Runaways (comics)
Read this compilation of the Marvel comics. Pretty fun.

25. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
A re-read for my book group--still wonderful. Cried at the end (again). I love the way that Gaiman writes about memory and the struggle to remember and childhood.

26. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Very cool middle grade graphic novel about a girl joining a roller derby team. Really terrific reading for the 10-13 year old set.

27. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
This YA fantasy novel started out strong, but I felt like it lost its way a bit by the end. Plusses: nice cultural development based on Polish folklore, a messy/sloppy/cranky heroine, a nice contrast between formal, codified magic and natural magic.

28. The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy
Fast read and beautiful writing. Probably drives some people crazy (the coincidences are intentional as the title declares) but if you can set that aside and just flow with it, it makes for a very nice read.

29. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
For any ordinary author this would be an accomplished Victoria creepy story that ties in theories of evolution and women's place (or absence from) the scientific community. But for someone as accomplished as Hardinge it was just so so. Kind of formulatic. Lacking in the sparkling wit and wonder of her imagined worlds like Caverna or Gullstruck Island and the cities of Toll and Mandelion, this just felt serviceable.

30. Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Can't remember if I read this before or not...but I was on vacation and it was a speedy fun read. All of Scalzi's heroes eventually end up sounding alike and have the cocky/self-depreciation tone that is Scalzi's voice on his blog, but it's still fun to spend time in their company and to know that nothing too tragic will happen to anyone you care about.

31. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
I loved this and scenes and characters from the book have really stuck with me. It has been a while since I read Anne Tyler and I think this is one of her best. Sympathetic without being sentimental.

32. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A strange novel, but I really liked it. It's set in post Arthurian Britain and a fog of forgetting blankets the country. The story is slowly (and never completely) revealed as the two main characters try to remember their pasts while on a journey to an uncertain destination. Sir Gawain shows up and his (old) noble steed Horace. There are meditations on memory, forgetting, love and forgiveness. It takes some patience but I thought the ending was beautiful.

33. Euphoria by Lily King
I thought this would be much more histrionic (both from the title and love-triangle plot) but found it surprisingly subtle. I enjoyed this novel--it took me some place far from myself and gave me plenty of ideas to chew on.

34. Hammerhead by Nina MacLaughlin
A nice meditation on the pleasures of manual labor. It felt a little "forced" at times via the structure of focusing each chapter on a tool and a lesson learned from that tool, but it did keep the story moving forward and not veering off course.

35. and 36. The Kiss of Deception and The Heart of Betrayal by Mary E. Pearson
First and second book in a YA series. I dislike the titles and the soppier romance bits, but otherwise this is a pretty darn good fantasy adventure series. The world building is very rich, the main character is spirited and smart, there is use of multiple points of view to good effect, and both the mythology of the cultures and the adventure are compelling. I'm very interested to see how she wraps it up in the next book.

37. The Martian by Andy Weir
Really good science fiction with LOTS of science! I loved that the author shared his geeky enthusiasm for everything from botany, to orbital telemetry, to electrical engineering. Add in the irreverent sense of humor and I think my techie kid is going to LOVE this book. (Updated: he loved it and devoured it in a day!)

38. Lumberjanes by Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson and Brooke Allen
Excellent comic series! A bunch of kick-ass girls at an alternate girl-scout style camp have all sorts of strange and supernatural adventures. Excellent girl-power series. My 12-year-old daughter loved it and so did I.

39. Exquisite Corpse by Penelope Bagieu
BLECH! YUCK! Trying hard to get the nasty taste out of my brain from reading this graphic novel. Just...dumb.

40. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Thankfully my next read was really, really good--a YA book that melds fantasy and reality with a light touch. Very compelling characters written minimally but with depth. It's nice to finish a book and wonder if you got everything that was going on--invites re-reading!

41. The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough
This YA book seems to have been inspired by the way Death was represented in The Book Thief. It's an interesting and compelling read, taking two elemental forces and personifying them. And there's a good interracial relationship in there too.

42. The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich
It has been a while since I read Erdrich and this book made me want to find a chart made by some obsessive fan which shows how all the characters in all her books intertwine--mentions of Nanapush and the bingo hall brought back flashes of memory of previous novels. Oh, and this one is very good, too. It's sad, with a wistfulness that comes from the main character telling the story from a distance of time that has passed.

43. The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
Sweet sad experience to read Pratchett's last book. There are some perfect moments, though on the whole the book is not finished--many scenes are sketched out and clearly waiting to have Pratchett's humor and sharp observations added. I'm glad it was published though and agree with Rob Wilkins who wrote the end note: "Anything you wish to know more about in here, you are welcome to imagine yourself." Thankfully he left us such a large, rich world from which to draw our imaginings.

44. Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett's novel that came out between the first and second Tiffany Aching novels. Polly reminded me a bit of Tiffany and that is quite a compliment. Seems that Pratchett was increasingly focused on feminism in his later books which is quite lovely.

45. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
This book contains some of the most beautiful nature writing I've read in a long time (it reminded me a bit of Hild--which I loved--in its lyrical, unsentimental descriptions of the English countryside.)  It was a wonderful story too, about a woman and grief and a hawk and an author. I loved T.H.White's books when I was a kid and went deep into Arthurian everything; Macdonald's insight about sides of White's character were fascinating and heartbreaking and a little scary, too.

46. and 47. The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Sequels 2 and 3 of Old Man's War. Entertaining Sci Fi. It kind of reminds me of my feelings about John Green--fun to read but after a while I want some characters that aren't witty and clever all the time.

48. Cotillion by Georgette Heyer
Regency romance? WTH is that doing on this list? Well, it isn't a bodice-ripper, just a comedy of manners novel and is actually really well written (unlike most books published now under the title "Regency romance". I was very impressed with the detail of the culture/language but even more so with how Heyer takes a character who is extremely dismissible on first appearance and slowly, over the course of the story, reveals hidden depths. He still has a superficial shallow side at the end, but that is minor compared to the other sides of his personality. A surprisingly enjoyable read.

49. Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
A contemporary story about girls on the cusp of adolescence, particularly the social shift that middle and high school girls experience and the effect on friendships.  It was very well told--intertwining stories and playing w/time (one story takes place episodically on Valentine's day, the other story starts at the beginning of the school year and then progresses to the same Valentine's day where the two stories meet.) Can't say I loved the book though--it struck me as trying hard to be topical (sexting scandal) and focused on the kinds of "mean-girl" behavior that, in some ways, I think is a part of the "mean-girls" problem (it's represented in books like this one as the norm). I felt relieved after reading it that my 12 year old daughter has friends who don't treat each other like the characters in the book, who go to a school where their is a pretty wide definition of "normal", and who know there are alternatives to what the mainstream media says tween/teen girls are supposed to care about.

50. The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
This YA novel started off very well with an interesting concept, defined characters and a looming conflict. But I can't figure out the message of the ending--the transformation of the main character at the end is baffling and it feels like the book couldn't decide whether it wanted to come down on the side of one political decision/system or another. I enjoyed reading most of the book, but the ending was too ambiguous and threw all the rest of my thoughts about the plot into doubt.

51. The End of All Things by John Scalzi
Decent enough way to tie up the conflicts that were built between Humans and everyone else in the Old Man's War series. I liked the shifting point of view, but could have done w/out the congratulatory statements at the beginning of each novella. Oh well.

52. My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel
Interesting non-fiction book about anxiety disorders told by a man with one. I would have liked a bit more about how he has managed to function as an adult--he's the editor of The Atlantic magazine so he has managed to be successful despite his disorder. The writing about being a child with the disorder was very well done, then there are lots of chapters about different treatments that are pretty dry. It would have been nice to have included more personal anecdotes in these.

53. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I had a hard time getting into this but did enjoy it eventually. It's a well-written portrait of a friendship and of a neighborhood and if that focused premise appeals to you, then this book likely will too. (I'd say it is an inward thinking book, not an outward thinking one).

54. The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz
Blech! Oh my god this was horrible--the original novels weren't high art or anything, but this continuation by a different author is just sloppy, crappy writing. Wow. Talk about cashing in on a franchise.

55. The Czar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
What a great antidote to the previous book! The cover says "stories" but as all the stories are linked, I would label it a novel (I've read many a novel that is less coherent than this.) It's a beautiful book and the writer makes you care deeply for flawed characters stuck in a very flawed system. One of the best books I read this year.

56. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Thank you Patrick Ness for an excellent book to end the year!  This sharp, emotionally true YA novel plays with YA tropes in a clever way and focuses on the "normal" people who exist in the background. The main character, Mike, has his struggles which don't involve saving the world but controlling and living with his OCD and a complicated family. There's a little connection to the other-worldly stuff going on in their town, but it is done so subtly that it in no way glamorizes the special at the expense of the normal. Really wonderful and highly recommended.