Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Reads in Review: The Good and Bad

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

Let's start on a positive note, with my favorites. I won't bother with the synopsis, but I will link to the ones for which I wrote a review.

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

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

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

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

the life-changing magic of tidying up — Stop trying to organize your crap. Weed it out with one single criteria: do you love it? I still struggle with that question, and I find myself loathe to let go of what's unloved in case it's all I can find. My effort in 2016 will be to take this final step to heart and trust myself enough to live with love only. (My husband and cats are relieved.) I am sure the author was more explanatory than I, which is why you should read the book.

Kindred — if you love time-travel stories and you haven't read Octavia Butler's classic story, make it your next read. This story mixes love and hate, confusion and clarity, with one of the most American of institutions: human slavery. Butler jettisons the omnipotent narrator and allows readers to be as confused as the narrator in this classic story. I am thrilled to add her to my library, and I will be reading her as voraciously as I can in the coming years.

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

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

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

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

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

Now, for the Books I Hated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2015

2016 Polar Book Club: Twice as Nice with Two Books

It's time to declare Winter Reading with the Polar Book Club!

Uber-Reader Karen and I have chosen two books for the 2016 Polar Book Club: Library of Souls and The Luminaries.

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

The Luminaries, the 2013 Man Booker Award winner:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Review: What Alice Forgot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2015

Listing Karen's Summer Reads

Summer readers enjoy the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer with a book in hand.

Members of the adult Summer Reading Program also have an added bonus: the chance at a free book of their choice for being the most ambitious reader of the group.

This year's winner is Karen Young, an avid reader who joined the summer book program when it was first established in 2013. This is her summer 2015 reading list:

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

For her epic reading, Karen will receive the book of her choice. What will it be? I'm kind of excited to find out myself!

She also chose to contribute to a charity near and dear to her heart: Golden Harvest Food Bank. What a great gift for a worthy organization. 

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Summer Reading: Had Me a Blast!

The summer whipped by so quickly, I was positive I hadn't read a single book. How in the world can anyone get into the pages or bits in the blink of an eye?

Well, I did manage to get one or 30 under my belt. Here is the definitive list of books I read between Memorial Day weekend and the autumnal equinox weekend. The list is heavily populated with thick, heavy books of fiction and non-, but it also is peppered with a couple of re-reads and shorter reads (juvenile fiction and short stories).  The way I figure, it all evens out.

  1. The Borrower
  2. The Dalai Lama's Cat
  3. Prisoner of the Devil
  4. Everything I Never Told You
  5. Kindred
  6. The Four Agreements
  7. A Dirty Job
  8. 52 small changes: one year to a happier, healthier you
  9. Interred With Their Bones
  10. The Cats in Krasinski Square
  11. Daily Rituals
  12. Earth (DK)
  13. Stepmonster
  14. the life-changing magic of tidying up
  15. The Husband’s Secret
  16. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
  17. Puff the Magic Dragon
  18. Story of the Nile
  19. Arcadia
  20. The Light Between Oceans
  21. The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter
  22. Orphan Train
  23. She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems
  24. The Martian
  25. Start Late, Finish Rich
  26. Picturing Grace
  27. The Death of Me
  28. Divergent
  29. As You Wish
  30. The Three Monarchs
  31. Moriarty
  32. Station Eleven
  33. Good Omens
  34. What If
Favorites — My favorite reads of this list include Station Eleven (read on a Kindle, ironically), the life-changing magic of tidying up and The MartianI liked Divergent, but if the writer told me again how short the protagonist was, I was going to go find her and discuss the issue with great vigor. 

I discovered Octavia Butler through Kindred, and if you haven't read any of her books, this is a wonderful introduction. Kindred hearkens to The Handmaid's Tale with a common narrator (as opposed to an omnipotent one), which is a great option for any book, but particularly science fiction. I already have another of her books on reserve at the library.

Least — Among my least favorites are The Husband's Secret (too light and fluffy for its subject matter) and The Four Agreements (glossing across the top of the subject with no substance).

As always, my summer reading will benefit my community: I will donate $5 per book read to Main Street Child Development Center and I will buy three new books for the Fairfax County Public Library from its Amazon Wish List.

So, my fellow readers, how did you do this summer? I've heard from Karen, but I am sure there are a few more of you out there who'd like to compete for a free book of your choice! 

Wait, what?

You — yes, YOU — can win a book if you read the most books this summer.

Please send your reading list by October 30 so we can compare lists and you can get your new book all that much sooner. (Of course you will win. You read a lot, didn't you?)  Remember, the time frame is May 22 (the Friday before Memorial Day) through September 27 (the Sunday following the autumnal equinox). E-mail your lists to me, or post it in the comments below. Good luck, and I can't wait to see what you read!

Start you brain power on what you'd like to designate for the 2016 Polar Book Club. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review: Prisoner of the Devil

What if Sherlock Holmes was a part of something real, something historic? That's the question Michael Hardwick and Simon Haugh ask — and answer — about the great detective in Prisoner of the Devil, which is being re-released after three decades.

The prisoner of the tale is Alfred Dreyfus — of the historic Dreyfus Affair, perched on the cusp of the first World War — and the devil is the hellish island to which he was sent on the flimsiest of evidence. It's a worthy read for fans of Sherlock Holmes, and an interesting retelling of real-world history.

Prisoner of the Devil is a tale of French anti-Semitism involving Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of treason in 1895 by a secret tribunal. In the book, narrated by Dr. John Watson, Dreyfus' brother approaches Sherlock Holmes and implores the world's greatest detective to uncover the truth that will exonerate his brother.

The book was as much a world history lesson as a mystery, and a good one. Bringing both Holmes brothers, Watson and a few other familiar characters into the mix helped broaden the scope of the investigation and provide an important global perspective of the world on the brink of war. Thankfully, readers unfamiliar with the case are given all of the information needed to follow the case as laid out in the book.

After the disappointing Moriarty released earlier this year, I was hungry for a better bite of Holmes, and Prisoner of the Devil did not disappoint. Hardwick does not toy with his readers, trick them into believing a lie or twisting the tale in a way that requires copious notes and a list of characters. Although a re-release, the book feels fresh and new. Readers will want to hang on every word recorded by the faithful Watson and appreciate the rich, almost regal language of turn-of-the-twentieth-century England, a country that hung on to its customs and manners in the shadow of one of the longest-reigning monarchs in British history.

Read this book to give Holmes and Watson a chance to shine in a global forum, to risk life and limb for a man not of their nation, but of importance to France and the world as it stood in that time and place. Take away a little history and a bit more appreciation for fine characters in literature.

Mark your calendar for November 24, the book release date, and give yourself an early holiday treat.

(Full disclosure: my review was based on the pre-publication book sent to me by the publisher.)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

What I've Heard About Audiobooks

When a friend told me she didn't like to read, I assured her that she just hadn't found the right book. When she did, it was the Shades of Gray series, and she couldn't read it fast enough (or often enough). She found The Book, so we figured her voracious reading habit would commence.

But that didn't happen.

Instead, her reading faltered. No other book captured her attention. The page was cold and lifeless. Books were stilted and boring. At first, she thought she just read too slow. Rich detail was lost in the words. She read for school and retained the information, but the pages for leisure reading never came alive for her like they did for me.

Last summer, when she and her son were planning a long drive, she asked me for recommendations for books she could borrow on audio. I threw a few titles there, as did her son. In the end, they settled on The Help.

She found herself smitten again, and her son enjoyed the book as well. In fact, they were so wrapped up in the book, she and her son sat in the driveway at her destination so they could finish a chapter.

She has since read nearly every book I have suggested, fiction and non-fiction — and she talked me into reading a book she enjoyed on audio: The Martian. Her description of The Martian was rich and vivid, and I read it right away. She was right: I thought it was a great book.

With books, she found the page didn't speak to her — but the words did when they were spoken. She has since zoomed through a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, some I've read and others are on my reading list. It had been fun talking books with her. (Now I have to hurry and read Game of Thrones, not just because everyone I know has read it already, but because Melanie's description of the story from the audiobook is very entertaining. In fact, that book has given us our new shorthand phrase for "it could be worse.")

Apparently, audiobooks are a thing. Another friend is a voracious consumer of audiobooks, and she has sung their praises for years. Recently, two other people told me they "listened to the greatest book," and it was something I had read. Even David Sedaris praised an audiobook: True Grit as read by Donna Tartt. Was I the only person not on the audio train?
I decided to give it a try: I reserved True Grit on CD from the library. (There was no audiobook version, alas.) I borrowed Sacre Bleu on disc to test the waters; I popped in the first CD for my 10-minute drive home from the library, and was mesmerized by Christopher Moore's saucy words read out loud. I could see how it would look on the pages, the parts I knew he knew I would find funny.

Then, as I tried to read them while I was working out at the gym, I got lost. I wasn't paying attention, and iTunes isn't up for easy-rewind (at least for me). I got frustrated and turned off the book. iTunes also doesn't bookmark the audio, but the library's collection is heavy on CDs, and I download them onto my computer so I can listen to them on my phone. (Relax, I delete them when I return them to the library.)

Before I lose my temper, I'll give Audible a try. Rumor has it the service bookmarks the audio and is easy to replay.

I am not convinced that audiobooks are the right fit for me. I am very visual, probably because of my reading habit; I take copious notes when I listen and remember them better than I can recall the spoken words. However, I like being told a story, so perhaps audiobooks will be more entertaining than meetings at work. (One can only hope.)

What do you think of audiobooks: are you a fan, or can they keep your attention? Are they your first source of books, or just saved for road trips? Have you even tried them? Let me know!