1. Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg
Very melancholy read that was much less about the scenario (a new infectious disease that strikes fast and makes people forget everything before killing them) than about a sad, abused lost girl. The fact that she is immune to the disease turns out to be not very important other than the fact that it places her in a weird hospital-like setting for the first half of the book. There were a number of blips that kept pulling me out of the story (things like how the disease progressed, and the weather seemed really inconsistent). It was nicely written but I can't say I enjoyed it much.
2. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Creepy horror stories in graphic novel format. The art is incredible though the stories didn't really stick with me (I picked up the book after a week and didn't remember that I'd read the first three stories already.) I'd love to see the artist illustrate other people's work though.
3. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
A re-read. I think I first read this when it came out in 1984 so it has been a long time. Many of the characters have become familiar due to the way she continues to work their stories into her fiction. It's very interesting to read it as a "first novel" and as the groundwork for her later novels--so many characters and intertwined families are introduced and it is reassuring as a reader to know that she will come back to many of them. Also, I found it interesting that a young writer focused on a love triangle in which the 3 players are old for large chunks of the book. Yet she writes them with such understanding and no condescension. Still a pretty amazing book.
4. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro
I didn't enjoy this as much as his previous "year in the life of Shakespeare" book (which was about 1599). It was interesting to consider the historical context that surrounded the creation of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra but since none of these are favorites (and I'd have to say that Macbeth is probably the Shakespeare play that I am the least interested in), I found it less compelling. Also, James I was kind of a mess and Jacobean London was not as fascinating a place as Elizabethan London. Still, good for the Shakespeare geeks out there.
5. Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Wonderful novel about a bedraggled woman and the clever 10-year-old evacuee she takes in during the Blitz. It was satisfying and vivid and funny and sarcastic and warm-hearted all at once. Highly recommended.
6. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Scarily realistic dystopia--written in 1993 and feels like it is coming true now w/drought, corporations-are-people and the rise of Donald Trump. I wanted more about the main character's vision of taking her new religion to outer space (that is, I would have liked a little more sci fi) and the religion itself didn't do much for me, but the characters and the vision of the future were vivid and memorable.
7. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Following one dystopia about water rights with another might not have been very good for my mental health and anxiety...again water rights and increasing corporate power are the main players here. The three main characters here are pretty good, though I thought bringing two of them together as a couple felt a little forced. Lots of cruelty and not much kindness so be warned and make sure you're up for it before starting.
8. More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby
This is a weird one for me to re-read but it was still fun. I first read this collection of Hornby's Believer columns in the big collection Ten Years in the Tub but I read this much smaller collection (only May 2010-December 2011) much more carefully. I loved having the whole big collection but think I probably tuned it out after a while because while I remembered some of these columns from the big book, many of them didn't ring a bell and I put that down to too-much-of-a-good-thing.
9. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
An entertaining magic vs science novel. I felt like it was trying to decide whether it was going to be YA or Adult and only decided on Adult about 2/3ds of the way through with the appearance of sex scenes which were OK, but felt kind of dropped in there to justify the audience decision. Much of the book focuses on the two main characters when they were in middle school, and even when they are adults they refer back to these years a great deal. I thought the representation of magic was more appealing than that of science so there was a bit of a bias here as to who would actually save the world, though the last few scenes were trying hard to push the point that both were needed and balance could be restored by collaboration rather than competition.
10. Real Tigers by Mick Herron
The latest in a series about MI5 (I haven't read the earlier ones and enjoyed this one just fine) following a department of losers who are all collected in one depressed department called Slough House. Snarky to the extreme, it's a fun fast read in which you know that rooting for the underdog is going to be very satisfying.
11. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Almost read this in one sitting (but then a kid got sick and I was reading Harry Potter out loud for hours at a time). The prose is spare without ever feeling sparse. It's a beautiful, meditative book that asks so many questions about love and mistakes and forgiveness and flaws and the way we tell stories. It has its definite opinions but asserts them so subtly that it encourages the reader's contemplation.
12. Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud
The best book I've read so far this year. I kept consciously putting it down and rationing it so that it would last longer. This is an absolutely beautiful piece of historical fiction about a young boy's friendship with the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The natural world is so vivid and tangible in this book that I found myself shutting my eyes to feel it. The characters are rounded and lovely without ever feeling sweet or twee. When I was closing in on the end I had no idea how the author was going to pull off the ending and what she did took my breath away. I had to go back and re-read the last chapter immediately after finishing.
13. Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart
I was not impressed with this book, though it has received rave reviews. It is based on a real person, Constance Kopp, the first female sheriff, which sounds like a promising scenario. But the entire book felt like it was just setting up for a series about her and the male sheriff who sees her potential. The actual story was pretty leaden and the minor characters--particularly Constance's two sisters--were written as caricatures and were annoying and dismissible. Why do I care that Norma raises carrier pigeons or that Fleurette sews and cares about her appearance when this has nothing to do with the plot? Presumably these talents may become relevant in the next books in the series, but I'll have to take that on trust because I won't be seeking them out.
14. A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd
I was hoping for an engaging, fun mystery to get me through a tense couple of weeks of life and instead got this dud. Ugh. Leaden writing, totally un-compelling characters and not really even a real mystery (the conclusion wasn't one that any reader could have figured out), just a pat sort of ending. I have no idea why I finished the damn thing. Thankfully I'm reading two wonderful books now as an antidote.
15. Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
Really wonderful, complicated short stories that I've never read (despite multiple English degrees). I loved "Sonny's Blues." I can't think of another fiction writer who is able to address the feeling of jazz improvisation so well. Writing across artistic disciplines is really, really hard so being able to capture the essence of a different discipline is pretty special.
16. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
I read this w/out having read Fangirl and think I enjoyed it more because of that. It was a really entertaining alter-Harry Potter wizarding story and I'm glad I didn't have the hints of what would happen which would have been the case if I'd read Fangirl first.
17. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
I liked the parts about family and mental health better than the fan fiction and romance parts. I think she did a great job capturing the feel of the bi-polar father and the sister who might have a drinking problem. The main romance never really did much for me and the fan fiction stuff was ok, but (see 16) I'm glad I hadn't read this book before reading Carry On.
18. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
A hard week so just what the (book) doctor ordered: a dose of Pratchett. Thank god the man was so prolific--there are still some that I haven't read and that I plan to hold in reserve for weeks like this one.
19. Mislaid by Nell Zink
Excellent contemporary fiction! Funny but not silly, clever and unexpected. I didn't know anything about it before reading it (someone must have recommended it since I requested it from the library, but I don't remember reading a review) and it was fresh and fun and fast. And now I'm going to go track down her other books.
20. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
A lightweight, kind of predictable novel, though pleasant in its way. I found the curmudgeon stuff irritating rather than lovable or humorous but the side characters grew on me as the novel progressed.
21. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
Mixed feelings about this one. The multiple-perspectives and the way the story shifts among them is really well done. The writing is good too. But the main character, Victor, just didn't work for me. I'm not sure why the author made him so young but it made it really hard for me to buy into his perspective. He was just too wise for me to believe so every time I got to his part of the story I was pulled back. Maybe if he had been 5 years older? Not a teenager?
22. How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman
Fun non-fiction reading for the English Renaissance geek. She goes into great detail about the mechanics of daily living from sleeping to clothing to plowing to ale brewing. There was a weird little detour in the "professions" section where she went into depth about sign painters but didn't mention virtually any other male profession, but I suppose that was just her own geeky interest coming out and using the example as a case study for craftsman-type employment.
23. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon
Meh. Really obvious YA novel. I know I read a good review of it but can't figure out what they saw in it. It also contains a huge editing flaw --clearly the name of a nurse changed between one draft and another because the illustrations repeatedly have the wrong name. Sloppy.
24. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Nice to read a YA novel that deserved the praise it received. Complicated scenarios, complicated characters and neither a gloom-and-doom nor happy-clappy perspective on the difficulties of being a teenager. Very satisfying.
25. Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
If you can channel nostalgia for late 1960's English TV then this book can be pretty fun to read. If that's not a place you want to go, then it'll probably be a bit tiresome, despite Hornby's wit and good humor. I found myself flipping back and forth between enjoying it and finding it a little tedious depending on my mood.
26. Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi
Somehow I never noticed there was a sequel until I went to get the original out of the library for Fiona to read. Excellent graphic novel, complicated and engaging.
27. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
I was very interested to see what Anne Tyler would do with her retelling of the problematic Taming of the Shrew. Unfortunately, while rendering the main character prickly and her father and sister a boob and flake (respectively) she ducked the main issue of the designated groom "taming" his bride. Her Petruchio character doesn't do any taming--he just convinces Kate to marry him so he can get a green card. But there's none of the messing-with-her-mind or teaching her how to shuck off her harsh ways which I think could have been a fascinating thing to attempt in this day and age. Instead he just seems to appreciate his "vinegar girl." So that means there's not much growth/change for Kate at all, she just finds someone who appreciates her. I ended the book with a shrug.
28. Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim
Peeking behind the closed society of North Korea through Kim's experience was very interesting and sad. As a text I thought the book couldn't decide whether it was a memoir or investigative reporting: it lacked a lot of follow up to qualify for the latter (why were all the universities except the one where she was working closed that year? what is the current status of the university where she taught?) and didn't explain enough stuff for the former (what's it like to impersonate a Christian missionary? how in the hell did she get a visa based on her previous writings?).
29. Shakespeare's Kitchen by Lore Segal
Nice series of linked stories by an author I have heard of but never read. The writing is excellent--very light touch with humor and poignancy side by side. I particularly loved the story "Reverse Bug" and the way people's responses to an idea (brilliant humanitarian concept) vary from the actual thing (Jesus Christ make it stop! I didn't think you'd actually try it out on us!)
30. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, J. K. Rowling and John Tiffany
Gobbled this up and can't wait to (try) and read it out loud with Fiona. Wonder if she'll help me by picking a part to read? My feelings about the play can be expressed best by Kelly Link's review (totally agree with her on every point) and by the fact that I'm now trying to figure out when and how I can take Fiona to London to see the play.
31. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Kind of a relief to read a standard WWII Blitz novel. There are lots of very witty characters in this book and while I found them entertaining, sometimes they began to sound alike. The sections about London in the blitz were fine though there are so many books that have explored this that it did feel a bit too familiar. The stuff about race relations in London (and how truly horrible they were) was enlightening as was the part about the siege of Malta which I had never heard of. I'm not a big fan of the title (or the last line of the book which hammers the title home without much subtlety) but the novel as a whole was an enjoyable read.
32. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
I went into this book wincing and hoping that it wouldn't be too horrible a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice and instead really enjoyed it. Sittenfeld did a fantastic job of updating the story--I'm pretty picky about my Austen and her re-telling was really sensitive to details. I loved how she didn't make Lizzie intellectual--she's interesting and intelligent and works at a magazine called Mascara. I also liked how she altered the Wickham character and made it just about Lizzy's judge of character without pulling in Lydia. This, in turn, gave her the freedom to make Lydia's story much more interesting than the simple selfish younger sister. Jane as a yoga instructor is just perfect as is Mr Collins as a dot.com tech genius. The reality show-wedding was a little silly, but still fun. I'm sure many people loathed this re-telling, but I think Sittenfeld was very brave to write it.
33. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This is an amazing book. I head Terri Gross interview Whitehead and went out and bought the book--so glad I did. I loved the way he made the railroad real--the magical realism aspect of it didn't dilute the content at all. And the weird section that takes place in South Carolina--progressive paternalism--wasn't at all realistic but was an amazing facet in Cora's awakening. This is a book to read and discuss and then go read discussions about it. I'm envious of kids who will get to read this for a college-level class because I'm sure there are things I'm missing.
34. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
It took me a bit to get into the "epic" structure of the book where you leave behind a character you have come to know at the end of the chapter and move on to the next generation, but once I did it told some amazingly compelling stories. I found the parts set in Ghana fascinating, mostly because I haven't read many books that tell those stories, whereas the parts in the US, while very well told, were much more familiar. Another book that I think would benefit from discussion rather than solo reading.
35. The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
I listened to the audio book and thought it held together much better than just reading the novel. The excellent Stephen Briggs (who read all the other books in the series) read it and his voice and expressiveness downplayed some of the thinness that I spied on the page. It made it feel like a satisfying ending to the series.
36. White Cat by Holly Black
I tried reading this YA series twice before and never got into it, but Jesse Eisenberg reads the audiobook and that (plus some really tedious home repair stuff that required extended audio entertainment) got me into it. Fun concept, pretty well done, and I plan to listen to the next book in the series.
37. The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies
Another wonderful novel by Peter Ho Davies, this one focused on what it means to be Asian-American. The story is told in four parts, each set in a different era and about a different character. I found that the one about the film star Anna May Wong pulled me in the most (maybe the female voice?) though all were compelling and showcased fragmented identities and loyalties. Complicated, in the best, most human, way.
38. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
If you were wondering whether the acidic wit of the author who, with affection and charm, pointed out all the pettiness of provincial thinking in contemporary Britain could do historical fiction, the answer is a resounding YES. I experienced the claustrophobia of the social position of a 23-year old spinster who is attempting to earn her own living--of course I knew about how women have been infantilized by the men of the world, but Beatrice was such a wonderful smart, relatable character that I don't know I have ever felt it to such an extreme. The same goes for Snout and the intimate reveal of the British class system. And the book is one of the most enjoyable that I've read in a long time--I found myself rationing the last few chapters to prolong the reading experience. Highly, highly recommended.
39. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Oh god there are sad stories in here. The writing is excellent but some of the stories required me to put them down and walk away for a few days before I had the stomach to finish them.
40. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
I enjoyed this novel about a marriage, though to be frank I was relieved when the Lotto portion ended and Mathilde's portion began. I got a little fed up with how glowing Lotto was in every way. It might have something to do with my current resentment for white male privilege so take my gripes with a grain of salt.
41. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Meh. Fluffy bit of fiction. I liked two sections of the book but found the rest to be pretty pedestrian and irritating.
42. Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon
A really bautiful novel with complicated relationships. Lots to say about mothers and daughters, society's expectations and the relief that comes when you decide not to be guided by convention. Highly recommended.
43. Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
Schlocky Victorian soap opera by the guy who created Downton Abbey: the good are good, the bad are bad and it all works out in the end. Juliette Stevenson reads the audio book and that's what makes this escapist froth enjoyable--I love her and she's having a ball doing all the voices.
44. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
This is an exquisite, lyrical, spare novel about a girl and her three friends, growing up in Brooklyn in the 70s and early 80s. It is beautiful, heartbreaking and shows such ecconomy in the prose that my breath was taken away. I kept asking myself "How did she convey so much with so few words?" Woodson is a poet and it shows without being showy.