Sunday, January 13, 2013

Books read in 2013 with brief notes

1. The Twelve by Justin Cronin
The second book in The Passage trilogy. I enjoyed it, but I had trouble remembering the details from the first book since it has been a while since I read it. I imagine the experience would be quite different if I read the two back-to-back. There was one character whose development I didn't buy: Horace Guilder. He went from disappointed schmuck to total monster so quickly that it didn't make sense to me. But I did believe in most of the other characters. It would have been helpful if they could have put the character list at the FRONT of the book, rather at the end (where you discover it after finishing the book...)

2. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Good read. Intertwining stories in a variety of locales means that this could have been a messy read, but it was very economically told. There were a number of really lovely moments, particularly in the part set in Italy, and a number of laugh-out-loud moments for the part set in LA. I can see my book group enjoying this so I'll try to keep it in mind for when it comes out in paperback.

3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Mixed feelings about this book--some parts of it I loved (Renee's dry tone and observations were bitingly appropriate and there were laugh-out-loud scenes with the dog named Neptune). Some parts of it I found harder to like (Paloma in general, the extreme and simplified romanticization of Japanese culture which seemed inconsistent with the depth and questioning of Western philosophy). What really surprises me is that the book is a best-seller and I'm curious if any of it is because of the engagement with philosophy or in spite of it. I did have some fun little sniggers of memory of my academic past when the main character dismisses phenomenology and her assessments of how to get ahead in academia. But those don't strike me as appealing to a large audience. My book group is reading it and I'm curious what they'll have to say (or if anyone will actually finish it).

4. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Interesting fantasy novel with dragons. I'm still trying to decide what level this is: it was rich enough world building for adults, though the character was young and there wasn't any sex. At first I wondered if my kids would like it, but there were a number of cultural references particularly to music and court behaviors that were pretty crucial to the plot that I don't know if they'd understand. Maybe a kid whose hobby is Renaissance history (yes, I know one kid like that) would get them, but I think my kids wouldn't. Which is a shame, because it is an interesting read. At first I thought her representation of dragons and their awkwardness with emotion and social ritual was a little to "autistic" but it softened up to be more Spock-like (intentionally repressed vs incomprehensible) over the course of the book.

5. Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
I know a lot has been written about the fact that the main character in this YA fantasy novel is fat, but I don't feel like much has been written about how the character becomes thin over the course of the book, this rendering her powerful and desirable. I really wish that the journey hadn't taken this course. I wouldn't have minded the main character losing enough weight to increase her mobility and stamina, and changing her relationship to food from compensatory comfort to appreciation, but did her stomach have to be "taut" by the end? Couldn't she have remained a big woman and been represented as desirable? Other than this, I did enjoy the adventure and the world building and the character's growing realization about her intellectual prowess and abilities.

6. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Really beautiful telling of the untold part of the Iliad, from the point of view of Achilles "loyal companion" Patroclus.  Their relationship, both emotional and sensual, was key to understanding Achilles, his great strengths and his faults, particularly how he viewed everyone except for Patroclus as almost not as human as the two of them.  I loved the part where the familiar characters come in: Odysseys was perfectly rendered (and I bet it was difficult to keep him from taking over any scene he was in, he's that fun to read and probably to write), the pettiness of Agamemnon (good to know he's going to be murdered by his wife when he gets home since he's such an ass at the war) and even Hector, who we only see from a distance until the very end, is fleshed out and rounded. The novel is a beautiful, sad love story that will stick with me for a very long time.

7. Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
Mixed feelings about a book I had high hopes for. I love a story told the way this one is told: multiple points of view, jumping about in time from the 1700s to the present with stops in between. But I don't really know what the story was. There was a whole lot of emphasis on Native American myth and on alien abduction, but most of the latter stuff was presented first as an ambiguity but then discredited from within the story. I enjoyed some of the voices, but unfortunately didn't buy one of the key characters: the father Jaz who resents the hell out of his autistic son, Raj.  Their story was told simplistically, like the author thought it would be cool to include an autistic character, but didn't really understand what he was writing about--that is to say, it was presented very black and white without all the levels of subtlety and ambiguity that good fiction that includes autistic characters contains (thinking of Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the Middle Grade book Rules, the YA London Eye Mystery and Marcelo in the Real World). All in all, I think I'd say the book was trying to do too much (themes of miscegenation, the immigrant experience, belief/faith in the unseen, etc) and thus didn't do any of it justice.

8. The Song of The Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde
I think my 12 year old boy will love this series (this is the 2nd). They have the wit and weirdness of Douglas Adams. This one had a bit of a thinner plot than The Last Dragonslayer, but I so enjoyed spending time with the Jennifer Strange, the Transitory Moose, Tiger Prawns and the Quarkbeast that I didn't really care what happened, so long as it kept being told in such a fun way.

9. Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi
The sequel to the YA novel Under the Never Sky. It was a fun read and not bad for a middle book; it didn't retrace too much stuff but added complexity to relationships (particularly friendships, the main romance was pretty predictable). I'll read the next one when it comes out.

10. The Undertow  by Jo Baker
Wonderful read. My brief review here.

11. Dust Lands by Moira Young
Sequel to Blood Red Road. I still really love the voice of the main character. And I love that so many of the female characters in the book are tough as hell, not just the main character. Not quite sure what to make of the DeMalo incident, other than it helps to make the character flawed. But I think it will make even more sense in the next book. And I'm still a bit on the fence about the Tommo character's transformation in this book. But still a fun read.

12. Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling
Wow. It's really hard to reconcile the author of this book with the author of Harry Potter. This is a scathing indictment of contemporary Britain and quite a compelling read to boot. There are a few moments and characters that one feels sympathy for, or at least pity, but there are plenty that are just portrayed as irredeemably awful. I can't say it was the most enjoyable book (there's only so much petty and cruel scenes of humanity that I can take at one sitting before becoming kind of sour myself), but it was vivid and the story is sticking with me.

13. Princess Academy: Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale
Meh. I loved the first book, but am not so enthusiastic about the second. It bit off some big subjects (political unrest, the appropriate response to abuses of power) and that part wasn't so bad, but the interactions among the characters was pretty thin. In particular, I found it really hard to believe that Mini thought Britta was too busy with her wedding preparations to hear about the social unrest outside the palace gates. Also, the king was just odious and for Miri to do an abrupt turn about at the end and say "I like you!" to him once he was slightly willing to share power was really stretching it.

14. Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan
Fun, fast YA novel, that makes fun (gently) of the teen vampire trend. I enjoyed the voice of the main character and found the alternate history (with vampires!) pretty believeable. I also liked that there was a mystery underneath the teen-drama--could have very easily just stuck with the latter and had a decent book, but I'm glad they didn't.

15. I, Hogarth by Michael Dean
I enjoyed this fictional autobiography of the 18th C painter, William Hogarth. There was a winning mischievous tone to the narration which I thought suited the book. I'm not sure whether anyone who isn't an 18th C England buff would like the book, but I thought it was fun.

16. Great House by Nicole Krauss
I liked some, but not all of this book. I still don't get the point of the desk which is described as being so significant to everyone, but remained a hunk of furniture to me. And I didn't care for the subject of the first story. The others were a bit more compelling, but still stayed somewhat distant for me.

17. The Red House by Mark Haddon
I enjoyed this, though I did have to wonder what the greater message was. The individual portraits of  the flawed characters was compelling. Daisy was the most interesting, but maybe because by the end of the story she has actually resolved something, while the other characters don't change as much. Lovely portrait of the 8 year old, Benjy. And for people who remember Incident of the Dog the reference in the last paragraph to the house cleaner and her daughter, who rocked and sang to herself, couldn't help but bring up thoughts of autism and how good Haddon is at writing about it.

18. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood
Very fun audio book version of the children's novel. Had all of us saying "Cassa-WOOF" and "Nuts-a-woo" by the end of it.

19. Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
A re-listen. The audio book is just so good it even kept me road-alert a second time around. And after listening, I kept telling my kids "there will be a reckoning."

20. A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
I figured I might as well read this one, too, while I was at it. It's good, though I did have to speed-read the self-surgery section because it made me queasy. I really liked the character of Katie who, with her temper and flaws, could be a pretty objectionable person in some hands, but Haddon made her very sympathetic and interesting.

21. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
Liked the environment of the story (England, during the plague) and the concept (a bit like Canterbury Tales with a band of people coming together and each having a story) but I did not like or get the overall mystic part. Never really understood the whole "reading the runes" thing and the creepy kid was just too, well, creepy. It was easy to dismiss her and I wish the author had found a way of telling the story without using her as a device. Fleeing the plague was plenty of motivation for me.

22. How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
Wow--what a beautifully written book. I consciously slowed down my reading so I could savor this novel. I could have read the Annette and Giorgio sections forever and want to go back and read them again, they were so full of sensation and insight without ever getting precious.  And the Susan and Peter sections were good changes to the narrative, too.

23. The Runaway King by Jennifer Nielsen
Fun YA/middle grade second book in the trilogy that began with The False Prince. The main character's voice is the biggest strength of this series: he's witty, exasperating, stubborn and all around fun to listen to. There were a few details that stretched my incredulity (I know, it's fantasy, but still), particularly the part where he's sword fighting with a broken leg....ah well. I consciously had to suspend my disbelief and just read for fun.

24. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Really, really good novel! The world, post-apocalyptic flu with a scattering of survivors. The main character, Hig, I loved: flawed, complicated, confused, capable. I could have listened to him for 100s more pages.

25. Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed
Meh. Maybe if you are from southern CA you'd like this. I found it hard to give a crap about such materialistic and shallow people. There was a bit of insight about the complications of celebrity culture, but not enough to make me care about any of the main characters.

26. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Absolutely loved 3 of the 8 stories (title story, "Reeling for the Empire" and "The Barn at the End of Our Term", liked 2 ("Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" and "The New Veterans") and didn't much like 3 ("The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979", "Proving Up" and"The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis"). That's pretty good for a story collection, especially since those first three (and especially, "The Barn at the End of Our Term") will haunt my thoughts for a long time.

27. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Wonderful read. Would be a great book for my book group because there is so much to discuss. I'd love to talk over the ending and the overall meaning of the book with other people because it is so rich. Atkinson is just so damn smart!

28. Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds
An intense book of poetry about the poet's divorce, though really an extended meditation on why and how we love and what we expect from other people. Very thought provoking.

29. The Underground Man by Mick Jackson
Sad but sweet historical fiction about the eccentric, lonely and very wealthy Victorian-era Duke of Portland.

30. Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George
Read-aloud with Fiona. Nice voice for the heroine and I enjoyed the eccentricity of the various dragons. Some of the other characters were a little thinly sketched, but all in all, a fun kid read. We're on to the second book, Dragon Flight.

31. The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
An interesting read, though the voice never quite came alive in my head for me. I wish I could see Fiona Shaw's performance of the stage version of it. The book is interesting for people who read the Bible as a historical and critical document.

32. Dodger by Terry Pratchett
A fun-enough Pratchett read, this time set in "real" Victorian London with Dickens and Disraeli make appearances. But I prefer more of the sly wit that is in virtually every Discworld book.

33. Tenth of December by George Saunders
An acquired taste, which I'm not sure I've definitely acquired yet. The writing is masterful, but I didn't actually enjoy very many of the stories--maybe they fed my own neuroses a little too effectively? I did like "Escape from Spiderhead": despite the brutality, there was a humanity about it, and it had a beautiful ending. But I found it hard to continue reading some other stories.

34. The Pushcart War  by Jan Merrill
A read-aloud with the kids. They loved it and I loved that it was as fun as I had remembered. Fiona noticed the few contractions in the text which I thought was very perceptive for a 10-year-old, and which, I think, gives it a bit of an immigrant vibe without resorting to dialect.

35. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Disappointed in this book. I thought that since it was a novel, the author was going to find an inventive way to intertwine the Richard III research with a contemporary plot, maybe a mystery. But it was just a treatise which, on the most basic level, pointed out that Shakespeare's history plays were actually fiction and not accurate historical records. Duh. It's not as if this is the first time someone pointed out that Shakespeare-kissed-a-whole-lot-of-Tudor-ass in his plays, but it is written as though it was. And I frankly didn't give a crap about the modern day inspector. Bah. Left me grumpy.

36. Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
I was charmed by this book, even if the San Francisco characters sometimes bordered on caricature. The narrator is a gentle presence to spend a few hours with and the revelation is very humanistic, even while the appreciation for technology and all things digital winds through the book.

37. The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty
Light summer read, clever concept that I think would make a better movie than book. The writing wasn't terrible, but was awkward in places, and the main character wasn't someone I could picture. But with the right actress, I can imagine this story coming alive on screen and god knows there's a ton of action and opportunities for humor and flashy special effects.

38. Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick
I don't understand why this book is marketed as YA, other than an assumed attempt to cash in on that genre's love of all things mystical/occult-ish. In reality, it is a lovely, dark set of linked stories about two people's love for each other and how it manifests itself in various forms of sacrifice. The love is of all different varieties: lovers, siblings, parent and child. There are definitely creepy parts, but on the whole, they aren't the moments that stuck with me.

39. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Oh what a wonderful read! Oh what a wonderful book! Creepy, and lovely, and whimsical and meditative and oh, I could go on and on. I will be re-reading this book many times because it made me feel so good.

40. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Ok, so I had trouble remembering the first book which meant that I had some trouble getting into this sequel. And then when I did finally remember what had happened, I also remembered there were things that bugged me about the first book. So meh. I suppose if you loved the first book, you would enjoy this one, but I read it in a more removed, analytical so-this-is-what-sells-well mode.

41. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
A re-read for book group--I'd forgotten what a terrific book this is. It makes me want to go back and re-read Oryx and Crake before the third book in the series, MaddAddam, comes out this September. Atwood is, as ever, so sharp and playful with language that it makes the prophetic doom aspect bearable.

42. Transatlantic by Colum McCann
A beautiful book, going back and forth across the atlantic from Ireland to America and Canada. I read one review which said that the reviewer didn't love the section about George Mitchell negotiating the Good Friday peace accords as much as the other sections, but I think it was my favorite part. Wish I understood the last line though, which did make me feel a little dense.

43. The Cuckoo's Calling by JK Rowling
A fun enough mystery read, though the resolution felt a little absurd--I know it is supposed to show arrogance, but it was stretched to the point of absurdity.

44. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
Distopian teen fiction. Sort of enjoyable, but would have been better at about 1/3 the length. Actually, I bet the whole trilogy of this series could be condensed into one tight (longish) novel, but after Twilight, it seems like there is a big economic reason to drag it out.

45. Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Second book is a little better than the first--more action, less "get on with it" feeling. The love interest seemed kind of thin, more just a set up for the 3rd book.

46. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Didn't expect to like this from the review I read, but then I'd forgotten how wonderfully sympathetic Strout makes all her characters. I loved reading this, even though it was a little obvious that the guy who was a jerk was going to be taken down a notch (or two or three) and the sad sacks were going to go up. She did it all with such humor and humanity.

47. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
I wanted to love this as much as The Year of the Flood but I didn't. There were definitely moment that were lovely--mostly involving Toby teaching Blackbeard and her stories to the Crakers ("Please stop singing.") But this felt mostly like wrapping up loose ends. I know that's what the last book in a trilogy usually does, but I don't think there was one really new idea introduced while the first two books bubbled with inventiveness. I'm trying to think of what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have been like if it cut the whole Deathly Hallows part out of the story and maybe just did some extra background on, say, Lily and James as a way of killing time before Harry has his showdown with Voldemort. Sure, you still want to read it because you are attached to the characters, but there's nothing that expands your vision from the previous books. I also thought that the Zeb and Toby relationship lacked any tension or spark or complexity, which was kind of a bummer.

48. Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman
Fun comic book imagining of the Marvel superhero crowd in the 17th Century.

49. Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
Pleasant sci-fi novel. Not earth-shaking, not something you can't put down, but thoroughly pleasant with a number of very fully realized societies and cultures.

50. Brilliance by Marcus Sakey
Fast paced thriller, fun read though I saw the "plot twist" coming a mile away which makes it less of a twist and more of a ramble up a wide long curve. Clever enough concept, though I thought it was stand-alone until the last page where it says "End of Book One". Not sure if it really has the juice to keep going.

51. The Celestials by Karen Shepard
Interesting novel about Chinese immigrants brought in as strikebreakers to a New England factory. I thought the cultural contrasts and impressions back and forth were very well done and at times, quite lovely. I wasn't sure I bought one of the main plot points though, the childless wife of the factory owner having an affair and a child with the Chinese foreman. It was all presented so naively, while the rest of the book was very savvy about interpersonal and inter-cultural communication and miscommunication. Still, an interesting read.

52. Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
I didn't expect to like this book but I really did. I admired Prep but found it excruciating to read and there is no doubt that Sittenfeld captures the general horribleness of adolescence (particularly female adolescence) better than any other writer I've read. Prep was all that all the time and while I've not forgotten the book, I also couldn't enjoy it. Sisterland has a section that takes place in Jr High, and it is vivid and familiar in an uncomfortable way. But there is lots more to this book: I loved the sister's relationship, loved the complexity of all the characters, really, and the surprises that the book tossed my way I was happy to embrace.

53. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Oh wow did I love this book! There was so much insight and cultural critique of America, England and Nigeria, but it was also a pretty wonderful love story. Not sure how the author pulled that off, but it was an amazingly compelling read.

54. Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier
Second book in the Shadowfell fantasy series. I thought it was good--particularly since I think the 2nd book can be the hardest to pull off in a trilogy. I really enjoyed the depictions of the folk characters, like Himself. Look forward to reading book three.

55. Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal
I have kind of mixed feelings about this. I picked it up because reviews compared it to "The Graveyard Book" which I love so much it's just silly. And the relationship between Jeremy and the ghost of Jakob Grimm is quite lovely and touching, particularly at the end. But I'm still undecided about the rest of the fairy tale echoes and outright references in the book. I think the book is doing some things really well, like the theme of the saving power of stories, and while some characters are one dimensional there are refreshing surprises, like the bully who isn't really a bully. I guess I wanted to LOVE this and instead just ended up liking it.

56. Little Century by Anna Keesey
I really liked this novel about turn of the century Oregon. There was a richness and complication to the characters but one that wasn't bogged down by extensive description. There were just the right revealing moments to show all the layers without "explaining" any of them. And there was abundant sympathy that sometimes is lacking in historical fiction.

57. House of Hades by Rick Riorden
I can't believe this author can still crank out more tales of demi-gods, but he can (and there's yet another due out next year.) Luckily I was able to set aside my cynical self and just enjoy the adventure like my daughter did--curl up, have snacks and read, read, read.

58. Longbourn by Jo Baker
Well done "below stairs" view of Pride and Prejudice.  Made me think a lot about what "home" is when you have no security from year to year.

59. The Son by Philipp Meyer
Family saga about the Texas frontier. Three very complicated main characters who are all at one time, highly sympathetic and at another, completely despicable.  And the limitation of what each character knows about the others--the blind spots, the hidden reasons behind actions, the stories never told, what they tell themselves about themselves--makes the whole journey into a commentary on the human condition, epic in scale and beautifully rendered.

60. Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
I enjoyed this book but didn't fall in love with it the way I expected to. Perhaps it suffered coming right after The Son which is a tough act to follow. I understood the reason for the framing device, but didn't really get involved in that story line, even at the end when the connection was made. I did like the section about Vera Dare when she was old and looking at her sons and their personalities.

61. The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
62. A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner
I don't usually post re-reads but I got Brian hooked on this series (starting with The Thief) and when I picked up these two I just couldn't resist diving in again. I also wanted to give this last book a read right after reading The King of Attolia because when I read it a few years ago, I had forgotten some parts of the book that preceded it. I still don't think it is quite as compelling as the three books that are focused on Gen, but it was better read this way. And this time when I read it I got the sense that there will be another book with these characters banding together to face the threat of the Mede empire.

63. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith's memoir about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe. The parts where she remembers him are tender and beautifully written. Some of the middle part got a little list-like (which I suppose is to be expected in covering two such varied lives and the many famous people they interacted with) and I found myself having to google a lot of names to figure out who they were. It's a very interesting read for anyone who wants to think about Art and the artist's identity.

64. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The problem with this book is that after reading it, every other book I pick up is dissatisfying. It's that good. The best word I've heard to describe it is "Dickensian" and it has that breadth of character, journey, humor and perception. And if there is one book that will make you want to go to an art museum and savor the paintings, it's this one.

65. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I could not have asked for a better book to follow The Goldfinch. That is a hard act to follow but this book blew me away. There's so much in it that I have to re-read the book. One moment stuck out in particular. Rosemary's mother tells her, "I wanted you to have an extraordinary life." That sentiment hit me hard, both as a mother and a daughter. What we want for our children and for ourselves, the pain that can go with extraordinary and what it means to be "normal", all those thoughts ripple through me. No easy answers, of course. Stories like this aren't meant to answer those questions but to pose them and to keep those questions with you.