Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Books read in 2012 with brief comments

1. The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund
Amazing history of WWI, totally different from any other history I've read. Made the chaos and lack of information (and the propaganda) palpable and showed, rather than told, the great social shifts in class that the war precipitated. Ends with a chilling one-page entry that also shows how WWII was inevitable.

2. The Illumination  by Kevin Brockmeyer
Blerg. Beautifully written but with such a sour and petty view of humanity that it turned me off. Each of the linked stories had such potential to be about people who discover that the world is not a horrible, lonely place and in each one the author chose instead to say, actually, it is horrible, maybe even worse than you imagined.

3. The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriaty
Fun Middle grade read.  Historial/magical fiction in NYC at the turn of the century with all sort of immigrant issues twisted together with magic.

4. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
I liked it more than I expected, though I did think it draggggged on a bit.

5. The Magician King by Lev Grossman
LOVED IT. Unfortunately you do really have to have read the first book in order to get this one. (And I don't remember loving it like crazy, just enjoying it). This one had so many perfect moments. I'd like to own a copy so I can put little flags on pages where I should re-read bits.

6. Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
Fun YA read. A little predictable in the sacrificial heroine ghost, but a quick paced, entertaining read.

7. The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Sobbed for the last 100 or so pages. Wow. There are tiny little John Green-esque things that one could mention (everyone is endlessly witty and clever, even parents), and what happened was hardly a surprise, but they are so insignificant compared to the depth of feeling that the book provoked in me and the incredibly thoughtful musings about what gives life meaning. Loved it.

8. Icefall by Matthew Kirby
Good YA story set in Nordic past. Very much about the power of storytelling.

9. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
Loved it--reminded me of Birds of America. Totally caught the teenage confusion w/out being overwrought. Small daily tragedies.

10. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Loved it, even the parts about baseball kept me engaged. The only part that seemed a little "convenient" was a main character's death near the end. That was a little too tidy. But otherwise, what a fun read! (And it was well paired with a DVD viewing of Moneyball).

11. I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
Fun-enough Flavia de Luce mystery, though a bit thin. Still not sure what the Lady of Shalott quotation for the title means.

12. The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin
Intense YA book about damaged girls at a wilderness school. Only a few details didn't ring true, but the main character's voice wasn't one of them--confused and raw and right.

13. Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman
One of the best adult Aspie portraits I've read. Only a few little parts that didn't jibe. The other story line was interesting but not quite as compelling. And I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about the last two chapters. But all in all a good read.

14. The Humming Room by Ellen Potter
A re-telling of The Secret Garden, set on an island in the St. Lawrence seaway. The main character, Roo, was good and fierce. The whole locking-your-kid-away-because-they-are-damaged thing is pretty unbelieveable these days (and they made the kids' disability into depression rather than physical weakness) but probably not a problem for a young reader.  I kept wanting to call child protective services on the uncle...

15. Liar's Moon by Elizabeth Bunce
The sequel to Starcrossed. I had some troubles with the logic in this novel, though the main character is still very appealing.  Why in the hell would anyone who is trying to help "magical refugees" choose to transport them from outside of the capitol city through the capitol so that they have to pass right under the nose of the magical inquisition? There are constant references to swarms of "greenmen"--the inquisition's special guard dedicated to hunting down magic users--in the city streets. But from the previous book, these greenmen are few and far between once you get out of the capitol city. It also seemed pretty easy to get in and out of the city despite the fact that it is referred to as a police state. Lots of people seem to head to their country estates without much trouble. And the climactic fight on board a ship that seems to attract no one's notice (despite the ship being stuck in a blockaded area of the river and references made to being able to walk across the river from boat to boat) even with pistols going off was just weird. So I guess this is a long winded way of saying the logic kept me from immersing myself in this book, despite the pleasing characters and detailed world-building.

16. Elegies for the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen
Sad but beautiful way of crafting a character through elegies of people she cared about and who died in her life. You learn about Mary by the way she interacts with these people and yet the elegies are vivid portrayals of the dead characters. Fine balancing act between narrator and subject.

17. Immortal Beloved by Cate Tiernan
One of the strongest, funniest YA narrator voices I've read in a looong time and a neat concept to boot (thank god, no vampires). Very fun read and I'm hunting down the next book now.

18. The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
Beautiful, short book about a young boy with an abusive father. I loved the boy's conversations with Jesus: quirky, funny and also filled with longing for comfort and answers.  I don't know (yet) whether Kuijer's other books have been translated, but I'm going to keep an eye out for them.

19. Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John
Meh. YA book that had some really promising parts but too many really clunky ones. Also, no explanation why the MC's (age 17 or so) parents decided to have another baby. Most parents of 17 year olds that I know are not too motivated to go back to the baby years.

20. Tales of the New World by Sabina Murray
Short stories all of which touch on exploration of some kind. My favorites were the first one and the last one--exquisite and unexpected.  My least favorite was about the Aztecs; maybe it is my weak stomach but I would have preferred fewer mentions of people's hearts being ripped out of their chests and the rivers of blood running down from the temples...

21. A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper
As other reviewers have noted, this is very similar in tone to I Capture the Castle which Dodie Smith wrote in the 1940's. Michelle Copper published this in 2008 and does a terrific job with the period voice. The concept was fun, though the final few chapters were a bit melodramatic: the transition from an eccentric domestic drama to Nazi bombs and axe wielding housekeepers was jarring. But still a very fun read.

22. Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers
Medieval ninja nuns sounds like a cool premise for YA and in some ways it was. I liked the feminist bent to the book but there was a lot of clunky, repetitive writing and some big logical gaps that kept me from really getting into it.

23. Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron
This was a pleasant, quick read but I have to admit that I don't really know what the point of the book was. I keep reading reviews which say that the book is about "love" but it didn't feel that way to me. Instead I got lots of quiet desperation and the sense that post-war Britain was a grim place where the only people who appear happy are shown to be simply more intent on acting a falsehood than those who are honest and admit they are unhappy.

24. Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
Good YA Sci Fi/dystopia/light romance. I really enjoyed this: world building was convincing and the environmental disaster was plausible.  I liked the genetic mutations of the senses of the outsiders though (SPOILER ALERT) I did find it a bit implausible that the MC conveniently developed hers during the few weeks she was out of the pods. I know, I know, it was the set up for a sequel (which I intend to read) but it still seemed dropped in. I was relieved that the romance wasn't heavy handed: it was pretty obvious that the two characters who loathed each other would change their minds but it happened incrementally, not all at once as in some YA that I've been reading.

25. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
Boy, did I love the first (title) story and boy, did I not enjoy any of the others. Weird when that happens. The first one made me laugh and feel so open to humanity and all our weird quirks. The rest made me despair for the human race. My recommendation: read the title story and then STOP.

26. Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff writes such pretty sentences. I appreciated that but was frustrated by the main character who was sooooo good and sweet and well intentioned that he didn't feel real. Sad story about the loss of idealism but with a weird little jump into the near future that put it in the speculative-environmental category. Meh.

27. The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
A return to the distopian world that he created in Ship Breaker. Intense read. Once again, I found the half-man character the most interesting, but there were plenty of well-drawn human characters, too.

28. Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel
Loved Wolf Hall and enjoyed this one, too. I'm more familiar with the history of this part which may be the reason it wasn't quite as compelling as Wolf Hall but plot was kind of secondary to the wonderful characterizations and the beautiful language. Loved, loved, loved the last paragraph. And the section where Cromwell actually feels satisfaction by getting revenge on Wolsey's tormentors was delicious ("right forepaw").  There aren't many peeks under Cromwell's surface but this one was so subtle and poignant in showing his loyalty and the emotions that run beneath his surface calm.

29. Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger
I enjoyed all but the last story. That one drove me nuts.

30. The Leftovers by Tom Perotta
Interesting concept (a post-Rapture-like event), clear characters and events, but it fell a little flat to me. The Holy Wayne part seemed a little too convenient (maybe if it had been fleshed out more it wouldn't have felt like it was just there to support the other narratives?) and thus I saw the ending coming a mile away.

31. The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Very fun story of Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service. I enjoyed the structure of the story with the MC's quest for her lost identity and that made it more than just a "secret organization of people with super powers" story. It got a little convoluted at the end, but still was a satisfying read.

32. The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
What starts as an Edwardian country house story takes a surreal twist. I don't want to give it away, but I will say I certainly did not see it coming! Fast and fun with some really nice writing to boot.

33. Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler
A quirky book, but one that I enjoyed. I wouldn't have minded a bit more of the ending, where the change that the main character has been building toward takes place. I liked how the book never really took a position on who was telling the truth, whether magic or voodoo existed or were just histrionic projections by bored women, and it was hard to tell what one of the main character's motivations were. But that was a good thing--the ambiguity made me think.

34. Among Others by Jo Walton
Another quirky book with more references to other books (all SF/Fantasy) than I've ever encountered. If I hadn't also read many of them I don't know if I would have stuck with the book. It was well written and strange, and I did find the main character's voice compelling, but I still can't seem to perceive the shape of the story. Usually, after I read a book, I can look back and visualize it, but this one remains hazy. Not sure what that means.

35. The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart
A sort of prequel to the Mysterious Benedict Society. Clever enough, though less compelling than the regular series. For some baffling reason my library has it shelved in the "Teen" section when it is very clearly a "Youth" level book. Can't imagine why.

36. Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
Decent-ish historical mystery novel set in Tudor England. I figured out a bunch of the twists and the murder which, as I'm not much of a mystery reader, tells you that the plotting was a little heavy handed. But it was an ok read.

37. The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis
Listened to this one with the kids on audio book, read by Kenneth Branagh who was a terrific reader. I never read this one when I was a kid--it's the prequel to Lion Witch Wardrobe and other than the really, really heavy handed temptation of Adam scene it was fun. I'd forgotten the light tone that C.S. Lewis has that is much harder than it seems and that is key to making his fantasy worlds enjoyable in the telling, not just the concept. It's not just what he's writing, but how.

38. Redshirts by John Scalzi
A fun sci fi book that riffs on the minor characters in a Star Trek-like ship and TV series. Kind of thin overall, but that's not a big surprise since it is an idea that has been done before (Galaxy Quest movie, in particular) but Scalzi is so witty that it was a fun and fast read. I thought the three codas at the end of the book were padding though and added by an editor who thought the book would be too short and have to be marketed as a novella without them. It does have more of the feel of a novella: one idea, no subplots and not much character development--particularly the main character who was just kind of witty void who we were told was deeply religious and philosophical from his past actions, but who didn't display any difference in voice than everyone else.

39. The Phantom Tollbooth  by Norton Juster
I read this once as a kid a loooong time ago. We listened to the audio book (read by David Hyde Pierce who was a fantastic reader) and it was a huge hit with the whole family. The kids and I have been engaging in the linguistic banter and play that the book encourages ever since.

40. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
Loved it. Did a wonderful job of mixing the magical and the menacing aspects of fairy (faerie) lore. And I just love Joyce's humanity. His characters are so full and flawed and lovable without being sticky.

41. Poison by Chris Wooding
I liked the girl-on-a-quest part of this book more than the meta-narrative part, which I saw coming from a mile away. I also thought that he could have done a lot more with the fairy realm--made it darker and less predictable. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the first half of the book and will try out some of the other stuff Wooding has written.

42. Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom
Another mystery with some of the same characters as Dissolution. I liked this one better--it seemed like the minor characters were less "types", though there were still some of those. And I liked the new sidekick he introduced in this one.

43. Kindred by Octavia Butler
Interesting time-travel/historical-fiction mash up. Lots of subtlety when it came to depicting a contemporary response to the actual complexities of slavery.

44. The School of Night by Louis Bayard
So so historical novel/mystery. Concept was fun (Elizabethan philosophers and scientists, long lost documents) but contemporary characters were just so...obvious. As was the "treasure".

45. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Ugh--this book depressed the hell out of me. Combine the miserableness of adolescence with the end of the world and it isn't exactly a surprise that it was one huge downer, way more so than the very similar Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. I think because the character in the latter book had some spirit and Julia in Walker's book was so passive and excessively wise that she just annoyed the crap out of me.

46. Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
One of the best books I've read all year, and one of the best books of short stories I've ever read. The title story was breathtakingly amazing.

47. Me, Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
I'm trying to think of another YA book that does such an amazing job of representing what it's like to be a high-school kid and I can't think of one that comes close. I wish every teenager would read this so they know that they are not alone in their rollercoaster of excruciating self-consciousness, bewilderment and self-loathing. Oh, and it is wicked funny, too.

48. Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Hmmm. Mixed feeling on this one. Good writer, some lovely evocative descriptions of food but really plays up the tough-girl attitude which isn't that interesting (to me). The stuff that I did find interesting--her strange quasi-marriage--kept being referred to but huge gaps in there that made me thing--whaaaa? How did she go from a "green card" marriage to deciding to have kids with the guy? Her longing for his Italian family and their closeness, and her resentment at never being one of them, seemed misplaced considering she didn't even live with her husband, nor did she ever seem to consider herself from anyone else's perspective. Maybe that kind of narcissism (and perfectionism) is necessary to be a chef, but it didn't make me want to spend a lot of time or energy w/the author.

49. First Light by Rebecca Stead
Really neat YA/Middle Grade book about an alternative culture living below the ice in Greenland. The two main characters were really well drawn and I loved how the author described the dogs (who are pretty major characters, too). I pushed aside the little unrealistic bits (like how the whole underground world stayed wasn't shattered as the glaciers moved...) to just enjoy the story.

50. Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
Interesting fantasy YA about a desert culture (tribes, oases, sandstorms, etc) and their relationship to their gods who, every 100 years come down to earth and inhabit a "vessel" body (thus killing the occupant of the body). Told mostly from the POV of one of the chosen vessels it was a mixture of contemplation about duty and sacrifice for the greater good, and a pretty darn good adventure story (some gods get tricked into inhabiting false vessels and the MC and a god who successfully inhabits his vessel have to go save them and thus save the desert clans). I enjoyed the world building but wasn't really sure what the god/clan relationship was at the end--did the gods decide that they would co-inhabit their vessels (and thus not kill them)? I couldn't tell.

51. For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
This was a quirky one--a futuristic retelling of Austen's "Persuasion" but set in an anti-technology future; the aftermath of a tech boom ended up dooming mankind and so the "leaders" of the new society are the Luddites (term used non-pejoratively). It helps that "Persuasion" is probably my favorite Austen book so I enjoyed the retelling on that level. But I also really liked the weird view of the future/past. I wish that it was a little clearer where this book was set--I got that it was in the Southern Hemisphere (you go north to get warmer and south to get colder there) so I suspected maybe we were talking New Zealand, but I would have liked a few more clues. And there were a few references to race/skin color that I'd have liked a bit more clearly spelled out (and would have liked to get the blond white girl off of the damn cover) just so I could visualize this aspect better.

52. Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
This was a fun, fast, clever read. However, at the end of it I felt a bit like I'd eaten too much junk food. Maybe it was the pace, maybe it was the relentless cleverness, but I felt kind of fried at the end whereas usually when I finish a book that I've enjoyed I feel satisfied and maybe a little wistful. In the author bio, it said that Semple had written for some very clever sitcoms (Mad About You, Ellen, Arrested Development) so maybe it was sort of how I would feel if I had watched hours of those shows--nothing wrong with the shows, just maybe I shouldn't be binging on them.

53. Lionel Asbo - State of England by Martin Amis
This is the first Amis I've read and it surprised me. I wasn't expecting such grit, which may speak more to my ignorance of Amis than anything else. Parts were brutal, parts were sweet. I wasn't a big fan of the baby-bait/pitbull end scene, but was relieved that the author didn't take the most obvious way out. And it did convincingly explain the final break between Des and Lionel.

54. The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
This is Fforde's first book for younger readers--I've read some of his Thursday Next series and enjoyed them in a geeky-english-major-who-gets-the-jokes sort of way. This one was fun, particularly the first half--I loved the magician's consortium that he created with all its disfunction and humor. The ending of the book was a little abrupt, particularly a death of a significant character that seemed rushed and unsatisfying (I kept leafing back and looking at it, thinking maybe I missed a page since it was dispatched so quickly). But even so, I'm thinking it would be a good read-aloud to my kids. It says on the cover that this is the first book in a series so I'll keep my eye out for the next book.

55. Matched by Ally Condie
First book in a series. I had checked it out of the library before and read a page or two and didn't go any further. But then I saw John Green's (The Fault in Our Stars author) video of Christmas book picks and he said he loved this series. So I read it again. And it is pretty compelling in a perfectly teen-age way: the tug between safety and rebellion, the age where it seems perfectly reasonable to want to go back to the safety and security of childhood, but the craving for independence. There were plenty of things about the futuristic-extremely-repressive society that were unrealistic or unlikely, but set that aside and you can enter back into that age, that feeling of being torn between wanting someone to just tell you what to do and the urge to do nothing that anyone tells you. I don't think the plot is the most compelling feature of this book: it's that perfectly captured feeling.

56. Sutton by J.R. Moehringer
Really, really good. Would have been a good read even without the last section which throws doubt on the main character/narrator. With that twist it made it a great read. I keep thinking back onto scenes, how I first read them, and then what I thought once the trustworthiness of the narrator was introduced.  

57. Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier
First in a trilogy. I liked, but didn't love it. Stuff I liked: the fairy folk depictions. Some of these felt very old english with the people who have leaves for hair, or twigs for fingers. Also the old rhymes to call them to the main character. Wished were different: I'd have liked a little more darkness from the common fairy folk (not just the big honcho one who shows up in the end), a little more trickiness and risk for the main character, maybe even a little humor (she took herself very seriously). I thought the author could have made Silver and her band a bit more like this instead of just doubters of the main character. Also, there were two many "is he bad or is he good" wafflings by the main character about the main man. It was pretty obvious where it was going and the last few of the doubts and trust issues were just tiring.  That said, I like the overall arc of the book--saving a kingdom from a lousy ruler by connecting with the hidden fairy folk in the land--enough to look for the next one in the series.

58. Darkness Falls by Kate Tiernan
Read this earlier in the year and forgot to record it until I read the third one. Good, in a middle book sort of way. The roller-coaster of self-doubt in the MC got a little tiresome after a while, but it was still fun to read.

59. Eternally Yours by Kate Tiernan
Last book in the Immortal Beloved series. Again, fun read, though  kind of repetitive.  You could tell the urge to wrap it all up was coming, but the author had to stretch it out.

60. Crossed by Ally Condie
Book two of the Matched series. Ok, but implausible, particularly when the main characters found each other in the canyons. Nothing to rave about though I'll still read the last book.

End of the Year!

Of the grown up books I read this year, I'd recommend:
Memory Wall 
Bring Up the Bodies
Elegies for the Brokenhearted
The Magician King
Some Kind of Fairy Tale
The Beauty and the Sorrow
The Book of Everything
The Uninvited Guests

Of the YA books I read this year, I'd recommend:
The Fault in Our Stars
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl 
The Drowned Cities
Immortal Beloved
Under the Never Sky
The Last Dragonslayer

My 2013 reading adventures can be found here.

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