Category Archives: Books and Reading

my favorite books of 2013

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I read 109 books in 2013, which is about 20 or so books less than previous years.  I was comfortably on my way to surpassing the numbers of past years when complications in my family life at home during the last few months of the year caused me to fall off my reading habit precipitously.  I’m not sure how things will fare for the coming year, so I’m lowering my goal to a hopefully manageable one book a week for 2014.

On a whimsical note, and to guide some of my reading this year, I tried seeking out books that feature talking cats, not only because I happen to enjoy a good talking cat character but also because, well, why not?  Unfortunately, quality talking cats books are far and few between—heavy sigh.  (However, I can mention one book, “Plain Kate” by Erin Bow, which has one of the finest talking cats you can ever hope to meet).  I also read a lot of good fantasy in 2013, as well as some fun books in the YA genre.  In fact, many of my favorites are labeled as YA books, although most of them will also appeal to a much broader reading audience.

Here are my top ten picks of the books I read in 2013, in rough order of preference:

10. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (Contemporary Adult Fiction)

Clay Jannon gets a job on the night shift of an independent bookstore in San Francisco, where a few customers repeatedly come in in the middle of the night, but they never buy anything.  Eventually, Clay and his friends try to piece together the puzzle and to solve the mystery of these strange customers.  It’s a book for the bibliophile, but it also crams in a lot of technology, and a little bit of fantasy too.  It’s a fun and crazy book, and it basically charmed me the whole way through.

9. The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson (YA Fantasy/Science Fiction/Steampunk)

Although it took me a little bit of time to get into this book initially, once I was in, I loved it.  And the ideas and images of the chalklings coming to life have really stayed with me since then.  Sanderson is such a skillful world builder, and this is one I will be happy to revisit whenever the sequel comes out.  Such fun fantasy.

8. Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer. (YA Fantasy)

I loved “Cinder.”  I thought it was a successfully clever cyborg update of the Cinderella fairy tale.  And I was highly skeptical that Marissa Meyer could do justice to a sequel branching off into another fairy tale (Red Riding Hood).  Happily, Meyer pulled it off—in a big way.  “Scarlet” might even be better than “Cinder,” or it could be just that I was so impressed at how masterfully she weaves the stories together so that they become integral to each other, and how cleverly Meyer adapts the traditional tales to her futuristic story.  Brava!

7. Quintana of Charyn, by Melina Marchetta (YA High Fantasy/Magic)

This is book 3 of the “Lumatere Chronicles,” and the whole thing is one massive trilogy of goodness.  I read “Finnikin of the Rock” (Book 1) back in 2012 and at that time, I thought it was an outstanding stand alone book, which really excited me in this era of plethoric series.  And, even though Marchetta went on to write a continuation of the story, I still commend that book for being complete in and of itself.  That being said, and with the additional caveat that Book 2 (“Froi of the Exiles”) and Book 3 need to be read together, I’m so glad Marchetta gave us more of these compelling characters.  She is a master storyteller.  The plot is so full of twists and turns and the narrative appears to have so many internal restrictions that I did not see how Marchetta could pull off an acceptable ending to these two companion books, but I needn’t have feared.   These are richly good, and so memorable.

6. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein (YA Historical Fiction)

Talk about surprises.  This book is an amazing one!  I found this story to be a fresh and intriguing angle in the genre of WWII historical fiction, with the focus on young British women (sometimes mere girls) as aviators and spies.  I was full of admiration for Queenie and her colleagues by the end of the story.  And kudos to Wein for her near-genius plot.  It won me over completely.

5. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro (Contemporary Historical Fiction)

It may be that this book appealed especially to me because I am a geeky art historian, but I think it’s good enough to have broader appeal than just my narrow niche.  As an art replicator, Claire Roth, is asked to make a copy of a stolen Degas masterpiece, but in the process of duplication, she suspects the masterpiece is itself a master forgery. And so the mystery plot thickens. This was a fun and informative read, even if there were parts that were less enjoyable (Claire’s romance had less spark than her art), and even distracting, such as the non-existent Gardner letters (the revelations to the audience actually take away from the enjoyment of the mystery, especially since the characters never see these letters….). But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise enjoyable outing.

4. Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson (Urban Fantasy/Science Fiction, Magical Realism)

I read this book back in January 2013, and it has resonated with me throughout the year.  It is a unique story that dares to combine a computer hacker, the Arab Spring, a vampire jinn, and ideas from the Qu’ran into one book that I found to be daring, compelling and thought-provoking.  “Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”  There is another quote from the book that talks about how “…something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era.” And yet the book explores how it might be precisely living in this “post-fictional era” that may allow people to again believe in the tales of the past. If the Qu’ran can acknowledge the existence of the jinn, why can’t our modern minds? The ancient alchemists wanted to produce a living book that could produce knowledge that transcended time–have we now reached a time when technology will allow us to combine the mythologies and religious beliefs of the past with the philosophies of a optimally digitized future to create an acceptable blend of the riches of all these things?  If you’re looking for something fresh and different to read, this book might just fit the bill.

3. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (YA Realistic Fiction)

Everything in this book is unbelievably precocious, but I still willingly and happily went with it: the witty writing, the perfectly clever dialogue (that could never happen in real life), and the drama of this “not a cancer book,” because “cancer books suck.”  Not only do our main characters, Hazel and Augustus, bandy about their sardonic wit and perfectly placed observations and zingers, they have a cadre of friends and family who actually appreciate that stunning wordiness about them.  And then there’s the part where the kids go to Amsterdam, and it’s made painfully clear that the perfect words can cut both ways, for good and bad, and that makes this book all the richer and more meaningful.  I pretty much adored it

2. Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer (YA Dystopian Science Fiction)

This was hard to read in that it was almost too real.  And, once I read it, I just couldn’t (can’t) get it out of my head.  This is dystopian fantasy without the feel of fantasy.  Pfeffer imagines what would happen to the world if the moon were struck by a meteor in such a way that it gets thrown out of orbital alignment and wreaks havoc with the tides and other natural phenomenon on Earth. What works about this book is the very narrow viewpoint, which shrinks and shrinks as the story moves along. It makes the scenario extremely personal. Not only did I find myself wondering how I would deal with such a scenario, I continue to find myself pondering how characters in other, completely unrelated, books would fare (“I wonder how these characters making cheese in a remote Spanish village would deal with the tragedy in that other book?”).  Talk about memorable.

1. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helen Wecker (Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism)

Take historical fiction (not only of turn-of-the-century New York immigrants but also of medieval caravaners of the Sahara), mix in traditional folk tales of the jinn and Jewish golem, add modern twists to all of that, and you get a mesmerizing story of myth, religion, humanity and magic. The writing is lovely, the story is masterful, the imagery is memorable, and beyond all that, there are tantalizing messages of love and acceptance, of belief and wonder, of creation and art.  Simply wonderful.  Stunning.

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the top ten books I have read in book club

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My book group has been meeting for 10 years now, and although the ladies who have attended have changed a bit over the years (due to people moving, time constraints, and even, sadly, death), we have finally settled into a reliable core group of outstanding readers who look forward to our monthly meetings of socializing and discussion.

We have read 112 books to date, and I have only missed reading 4 of those. Of those number, I have awarded 18 books with the full 5 star rating (“it was amazing”), and 51 books with 4 stars (“really liked it”). I only gave 2 books just 1 star (“did not like it”): “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult and “The Thistle and the Rose” by Jean Plaidy; while there were 4 books at 2 stars (“it was ok”), leaving 33 books at 3 stars (“liked it”), with a remainder of 4 unread, and thus unrated, books. That means we chose extremely well! So many good books. Of course, my opinions about a certain book did not always correspond with the group’s sentiments, but that’s just how those things go sometimes.

Our first book, way back in September 2003, was “The Princess Bride,” by William Goldman. I absolutely adored that book and I gave it 5 stars in my review, but like a handful of my other 5 star reviews on the list, I had read it BEFORE I read it again in book club, so I am choosing not to count those among my favorites in this list. Among those wonderful titles are: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.  These were all books that I considered for my top ten list, but, as I said, I had to cut somewhere, so I used the reasoning that it wasn’t book club that brought me to these stories (rather, because I liked them, I recommended them for the group).

The rubric I did use went something like this:

  • I liked it well enough to give it 4 or 5 stars in my goodreads review
  • The story has stayed with me or resonated in some special way
  • I had not read it before book club (see above)
  • It taught me to see the world a little differently

Beyond this, the book could just have had a certain je ne sais quoi that set it above another worthy volume in my memory.  That being said,  here are my top ten picks:

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10. The Help.  Books told from multiple perspectives can sometimes be distracting, however, this device, in the hands of Kathryn Stockett telling this story, adds welcome dimension, richness and perspective. I loved all three of the women who helped tell this story about black maids and the women who hire them (after being raised by them) in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. This story is full of warmth, fear, love, prejudice, injustice, friendship, dignity, heartbreak, and courage. I absolutely loved it, and admire Stockett’s own courage in putting such a compelling voice to this time period and these civil rights issues.

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9. Bel Canto.  I had thought about putting The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in this spot, but I changed my mind.  As I am thinking back to when I read these books, I feel like this one better represents my reading preferences.  Bel Canto also has the advantage of  being about music and the transcendence of art.  It also helped me become an Ann Patchett fan.  Her books are quirky (that’s a good thing!) but also thoughtful and resonant. 

HUNGER GAMES, THE8. The Hunger Games.  I remember when a member of our group pitched this dystopian novel as her choice for us to read, because in her description of its premise, it didn’t sound too enjoyable (and, at that time, it had yet to become so popular as to be a household name).  But we went along with it and were all drawn into the the compelling, and thoughtful, story of these children fighting to the death for public entertainment.  Chilling, but engrossing.  Definitely one to stay with you.

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7.  A Walk in the Woods.  Just say the title of this book by Bill Bryson and I start chuckling.  This book was so entertaining, along with being somewhat informative.  This was my introduction to Bill Bryson and it is still my favorite of his.  It did not necessarily make me want to hike the Appalachian Trail, but it did make me appreciate that it exists and to vicariously enjoy its beauty.

 

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6. Unbroken.  Hillenbrand is an able researcher, she has an ear for a good story, but most of all, she has the skill to weave many facts together to make a book that is compelling, informative, and down-right riveting. I would often stop reading just to comment on how impressed I was with the writing. And then, of course, there is Louis Zamperini, who is a remarkable human being. What heroes he and his compatriots (and his family) were and are. This was an absolutely fascinating and worthwhile story.  We also read Seabiscuit earlier in book club, and it was surprisingly good.  This was better.

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5. The Fault in Our Stars.  I adored this book.  It was unbelievably precocious, but I still willingly and happily went along with it: the witty writing, the perfectly clever dialogue (that could never happen in real life), and the drama of this “not a cancer book,” because “cancer books suck.”

 

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4. A Town Like Alice.  With a title like that, I was simply not prepared for how good this book was.  I had not known about the Japanese led forced death-march in Malaya during WWII, and it was pretty painful to read about.  But Jean’s humanity and courage has resonated with me in the years since I read the book, as well as the triumph of the love story in Australia after the war.  Absolutely worth reading.

 

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3.  The Woman in White.  How had I never read this book before (I was fairly steeped in Victorian literature as an undergrad)?  This is a creepy mystery with a deliciously evil villain and lots of lovely descriptions and language.  It is a bit of Gothic horror, psychological thriller and 19th-century romance are twisted up together.  Sometimes the classics are better.  I couldn’t put it down.

 

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2. Destiny of the Republic.  I never read much non-fiction before I joined my book club, but I have discovered that I really enjoy the genre.  This book is a gem.  It is a fascinating, excellent book that is both well-researched and well-presented.  I knew almost nothing about President Garfield before reading this, and I really enjoyed learning about not only this remarkable man, but also the other characters associated with his assassination and death.

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1.  A Sense of the World.  It’s been three years since I read this book, and I can’t get it out of my head.  For that reason, it is sitting here in my number one position.  Jason Roberts is a tenacious and talented writer, but the star of this book is its subject, James Holman, the Blind Traveler (1786-1857).  Writer and traveler give us a remarkable glimpse into a very different world at a very different time—the many cultures, lifestyles and wonders of the 19th century; but more than that, I still think about Holman when I am feeling unwell or sorry for myself, when I would just like to curl up in my bed and ignore the demands of the world: when Holman was deathly ill and had every reason to languish in his sufferings, he didn’t complain; instead he climbed an erupting volcano!  The man was fearless, courageous and resourceful.  Definitely someone to admire.

I’m really grateful to my book group for getting me to read things out of my regular reading patterns.  Sure there were a few that I didn’t like, but that is a small price to pay for the many wonderful and memorable books that I was also exposed to.  I’m glad that we persevered through the sparse years, when only a small handful of us would show up with any regularity (sometimes only two!), because now we’re a tight group of friends with a passion for books who tend to schedule our months around book club night.

fairy tales in a digital age

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I love fairy tales.  I have always loved fairy tales.  I read the usual ones as a child, and then I got books from the library so I could read more.

I went to graduate school in art history, but I wrote my masters thesis, in part, on fairy tales (and their illustrations).  I read more fairy tales than I had ever done before.  I read about fairy tale philosophies.

As an adult, I love reading the new crop of fairy tale re-tellings–you know the books that take the short tales of history and flesh them out, enrich the stories, create back stories, or update them in some way.  Some of these stories are rooted in the past; some try to reinvent the classic characters in a modern time.  Here are some especially good ones:

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But what I’ve noticed in the last few months is several books that have kept the classic tales as they are in the past, but show how they have been affected by a modern digital world.  Take, for example, Julie Kagawa’s “The Iron King.”  This book centers on the land of the fey from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Oberon, Titania, the fairie courts, even Puck (reimagined here as a sexy teenager), plus a Cheshire-like cat named Grimalkin (who I make special mention of because he is my favorite character in the book).  The spoiler of the book (and yes, I’m giving it away here, so be warned) is that there is a new presence in fairy land–a new kingdom, in fact–one not susceptible to the curse of iron, but rather born of metal, emerging from a modern age of technology and industry.  It’s not the greatest book, but I am fascinated by this premise.

The next book that struck me was “Cinder,” by Marissa Meyer.  Here the Cinderella tale is recreated fairy literally, stepmother, prince and all.  However, it is not set in some medieval past, but in a future of science fiction.  Our erstwhile heroine is a techno-wizard as well as being cyborg (part robot).  Soon she is drawn into a plot to help the prince against a possible lunar invasion, not to mention find a cure for a plague currently ravaging the population.  Sure there are plot holes, but the innovation of this updated fairy tale made it extra memorable for me.

13239822Finally, I wanted to talk about a book that surpasses the others in originality and the philosophical queries it ponders.  This book is “Alif the Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson.  This is what Wilson says of writing the book–she has tried to:

imagine a world composed not only of recognizable twenty-first century dangers, but of the supernatural threats that inhabit our myths and dreamlives. Alif the Unseen is a story about the flow of information, about the power and danger of coded knowledge in a time when much of life is conducted from behind the anonymizing veil of a computer screen. And it’s about stepping from behind the screen into the real world, more fantastic than any fiction, where the choices we make shape the lives of those we love and those we’ve never met, in ways both seen—and unseen.

I found this story that dares to combine a computer hacker, the Arab Spring, a vampire jinn, and ideas from the Qu’ran into one book to be daring, compelling and thought-provoking.  There is a quote from the book that talks about how  “…something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era.”  And yet the book explores how it might be precisely living in this “post-fictional era” that may allow people to again believe in the tales of the past.  If the Qu’ran can acknowledge the existence of the jinn, why can’t our modern minds?  The ancinet alchemists wanted to produce a living book that could produce knowledge that transcended time–have we now reached a time when technology will allow us to combine the mythologies and religious beliefs of the past with the philosophies of a optimally digitized future to create an acceptable blend of the riches of all these things?

I don’t have an answer for that, but I’m glad that the fairy tales of the modern age are allowing us to ask such new and intriguing questions.

favorite books I read in 2012

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I read 138 books in 2012, including 2 re-reads, one college textbook (a new text for the class I teach), and even one book that I abandoned (yet still reviewed).  Of that number I have chosen my top ten favorites of the year.

11235712In the number 10 spot I have chosen “Cinder,” by Marissa Meyer.  I have been enjoying the recent trend of fairy-tale retellings, and this one is especially inventive with the Cinderella story so adeptly reimangined in a futuristic cyborg setting.  It is very creative and fun, but most of all memorable.  I was left wanting to know more at the end of the story, so I’m glad there are more books coming out, though I’m a little hesitant that the forthcoming books will be focusing on other fairy tales–we shall see.  If Meyer handles it half as well as Jessica Day George does in moving from the 12 Dancing Princesses story in “Princess of the Midnight Ball” to the Cinderella story in “Princess of Glass,” with overlapping characters and a consistent world of magic, then I’m sure they will be worth reading too.

6060130Although a large percentage of my favorite books are fantasy novels this year, I do have a couple of other selections to highlight.  Sarah Dunant’s “Sacred Hearts” is one such book and comes in at number 9.  This book is set in a 16th-century Benedictine convent and explores the many reasons why women would come to spend their lives in such a place.  In that way it gives a little historical background of Renaissance Italy, and although the women described are fictional, you do get a sense of how restrictive the culture could be for women and how the convent could be seen as allowing its nuns a certain amount of options or even freedoms within its confining schedules and prison-like walls.  I enjoyed the main characters, especially Suora Zuana (the dispensary mistress) and even Serafina (a novice incarcerated against her will), and I was satisfied by the ending.  In addition, Dunant’s writing is lush and luminous in description.  I can see why this book got on a list at NPR of novels that should be made into movies.

1743390Another book of vivid imagery that sticks with you is “A Curse Dark as Gold,” another fairy-tale re-imagining by Elizabeth C. Bunce.  This is just my level of scary ghost story–it’s truly spooky, but not gross or horror-like.  With the story of Rumplestiltskin underlying the main plot of a miller’s family trying to succeed during the Industrial Revolution (despite an enduring curse and the death of their father), there is a lingering atmosphere of darkness and danger (but only in a delicious fairy-tale way).  I loved the characters, I loved learning about the weaving trade, and I thoroughly enjoyed the love story.  The magic and ghosts were extra bonuses.  Save this book for Halloween time for a seasonal read, or, if you can’t wait, read it now.  It’s that good.

10763598  Speaking of spooky, Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” is also dark and dangerous, but in a completely different way.  This book is a wow book.  It is set in a gothic and ghostly Prague and is filled with so many memorable and unique characters.  As I was looking back through my year of books trying to fill an empty spot on my top ten list, I kept coming back to this one and finally realized that it needed to be counted among my favorites (here it is in the number 7 spot).  Although it is touted as a romance (“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.  It did not end well.”), I found those parts to be overblown and less successful than the story of Karou and her “monster” family.   I was very intrigued by the conflicts she faced of good and bad (are the angels good?  is her “father” bad?), and the consequences of choices.  I like the idea that good and bad are not always as evident as black and white, and that demons can be loving parents too.  It reminds me of a line from the song “No One is Alone” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods: “Witches can be right, Giants can be good, You decide what’s right, You decide what’s good.”  If you like fantasy, especially fantasy that is a little dark, a little funky, and a little bit turned around, then I know you’ll be drawn in by Taylor’s luscious writing in this book.  And, I have not been able to think about teeth in the same way since reading this novel.

11277218I am delighted to include another Flavia de Luce book by Alan Bradley in my list again this year.  “I Am Half Sick of Shadows” once again brings us back to Buckshaw, this time to enjoy the filming of a movie on site as the days lead up to Christmas.  Unfortunate about that murder, but Flavia is in her element as resident sleuth, only allowing herself to be a little distracted by the raging snowstorm and her determination to come up with some chemical concoction to catch Father Christmas.  Flavia is one of those characters you can’t wait to visit again and again.  And even though I would not be the sort of person to get caught up in her shenaningans in real life, I sitll relish reading about her adventures and quirky world view.  Plus, the writing is a joy.

SorceryCecelia_mech.indd“Sorcery and Cecilia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot” is delicious!  It is the perfect sort of fantasy, regency era, witty, magical, silly, original, romantic, mystery fluff that I just eat up.  I love the magic of charms and spells here–the characters are fun and enchanting.  And I adore the epistolary framework of this book, especially since it came about by the authors, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, playing a “letter game.”  Their writing excercise was so perfect, they got it published.  I am so impressed by this idea that if any one of my writing friends wants to have a go at our own version of this game, I’d be willing.

8041873Sometimes the books that make it to my favorites list are obvious–they were simply excellent books, well written, enjoyable, memorable.  Other times it is much harder to decide: do I choose one that I loved reading at the time but didn’t stick with me over time, or do I opt for one that I may have rated lower but has kept coming back to mind?  I generally go with the latter.  For example, I loved a book called “Cat Girl’s Day Off” by Kimberly Pauly–it was a delightfully funny read, witty and inventive, and it even had talking cats (I can’t resist those!), but it was just a fun, fluff book.  I really can’t remember much about it these many months later.  On the other hand, a book like “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer,” by Lish McBride, which I also thought was fun and funny when I read it, has only grown in my estimation as time has passed.  I continue to chuckle just by thinking about it.  I want to read it again and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel this year (“Necromancing the Stone”).  “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer” has a lasting, if macabre, charm to it (and it’s hard to get Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” song out of your head).  Did I mention that it also has a talking cat (sort of)?

9361589“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern was a book that I knew would be on my favorites list from the minute I read it.  It was a stunningly spellbinding book.  I loved the battle between a sort of natural magic vs. a magic of spells.  I found the story fascinating, full of evocative images, and simply magical.  I loved it all: the physical book with the lovely cover art, the striped paper inside, and the ribbon bookmark; and I loved the story and characters: that amazing clock, the magical competition, Marco and Celia, Poppet and Widget, and so much more.

10335318I knew next to nothing about President Garfield before I read this book, “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard, so it was a real pleasure to get to know a little bit about this remarkable man.  Of course finding out about how capable, honorable and compassionate Garfield was made it harder to read about how incapable his doctor was, and what a needless loss his death was after Guiteau shot him.  Candice Mallard does a remarkable job telling this historical story with precision and thrilling pacing.  There were times I could not put the book down.  This is non-fiction that is accessible, readable, and surprising (even when you already know the ultimate outcome).  An excellent book, and it is only my passion for all things Nextian, that keeps it out of the number one spot.  It was by far the best book we read in book club this year.

13001274For my top pick of the year, I simply had to choose Jasper Fforde’s brilliant continuation of the Thursday Next series, “The Woman Who Died A Lot.”  Thursday Next is getting older.  She no longer has her position at SpecOps, she has false memories of a non-existent child, and her body is stiff with pain and injuries.  Her children are intelligent young adults, but the timeline has changed so that their opportunities for success are not what they once were.  Goliath is still causing trouble.  Aornis has escaped and is always a danger.  Moreover, God has revealed himself to the earth again, and has begun smiting unrepentant cities—next on the list: Swindon.  Can her new job as head librarian at Wessex All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library Service provide her adventurous spirit with enough fuel?  Since she lives in a literature-obsessed alternate world, with the Book World only a read away, not to mention the tantalizing possibility of access to Dark Reading Matter, of course it can!  This was a fabulous addition to the Thursday Next series.  Yes it was a bit chaotic, but when the end of the world is looming, it is to be expected.  Jasper Fforde’s sense of humor shines bright in these wacky adventures.  I absolutely love these books.  Warning: Do not attempt to read them out of order.  Go back and start with “The Eyre Affair.”  And then keep going.  Fun, fun, fun.

a stack of books

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I check out almost all of my reading books from the library, so I send in a lot of requests for holds (the library emails me when my books come in and I just go pick them up!).  Usually, I try to have three or four books show up at a time, but if I want to read something more current and in demand, I will sometimes have to be put on a waiting list, and that can add a sort of randomness to how many books are waiting for me.  At my most recent library trip, I collected a larger than usual stack of books to read, but I am so excited about all of them that I don’t mind looking at the large stack by my bed.  It provides so much anticipation.

I have now read three of the books from this stack, and am well into my fourth.  I read Adriana Trigiani’s “The Shoemaker’s Wife,” Elizabeth C. Bunce’s “A Curse as Dark as Gold,” Laurie Viera Rigler’s “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict,” and am currently reading Sadie Jones’ “The Uninvited Guests.”

Trigiani’s latest novel is a sweeping epic of two families from northern Italy, and their life stories encompassing a childhood in an orphanage, emigration to America, working at the Metropolitan opera, and establishing a shoemaking career in a Minnesota mining town, among many other stories.  It is somewhat based on a family story and that is where the charm lies–in looking at the individual life and how the love of country, beauty and family sustains our characters through all their trials and challenges and gives meaning not only to their own lives, but lays the foundation for the lives that will follow.

Bunce’s fairy tale-like story “A Curse as Dark as Gold” is dark and spooky and perfect for Halloween time.  It is somewhat based on the “Rumpelstiltskin” story, and the darkness of that tale permeates every corner of this story of a miller’s family trying to succeed during the Industrial Revolution, despite an enduring curse and the death of their father.  If you want a ghost story for older children, this might fit the bill.

A friend gifted me a copy of Rigler’s “Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict,” which I read and enjoyed last month.  After realizing that it was a sequel, I decided to check out the first book, “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict.”  I think this book, where a 21st century single girl wakes up in the body of a Regency-era girl (but retains her modern memories), is not nearly as successful as the second book, where the reverse happens: it tells the story of the Regency-era girl in the body of her 21st century counterpart.  I found the Austen girl in the modern world a more enjoyable concept, and the freshness reflected in the writing, the attitude and the ways things played out.  The modern girl gone back in time seemed a little more tired and not as strong, although it still had its enjoyable moments.

I’m anxious to finish the rest of my stack.  Watch for my reviews on goodreads.com.

read any good books lately?

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I am a fairly obsessive reader, and I get asked this question a lot:

Have you read any good books lately?

So I’m wondering why I usually stand there like a deer in headlights and can’t think of a thing to answer.

Of course I’ve read good books lately.  Many of them.  I just can’t seem to bring anything specific to mind when the question is asked.

Many things go through my mind: what kind of books do I think they would like?  what would be the best recommendation?  with all the books I’ve read, which ones stand out most in my mind?

Maybe if I read fewer books, it would be easier to come up with one or two to recommend off hand.  But I read LOTS of books.  Soooo… here’s what I usually answer:

Have you heard of a website called goodreads?

If I can get my friends on goodreads, they can see everything I’ve read and even read my little reviews to find out what I think about them.  PLUS, extra bonus, I can see what THEY have read as well (if they take the time to enter them), and then I can get book recommendations in return.

I LOVE goodreads.  After the library, it’s my favorite book place.

So, if you want to know about the good books I have read lately, check out goodreads. (Yes, it’s a shameless plug.  But it’s free, so why not?)

literary signpost

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Yesterday, Scholastic posted this image on facebook from the Crown Publishing Group and I was charmed.  I love the idea of a sign post like this in my garden.  The post then asked if there were any literary destinations that we would add.  Of course there are!  Here are some things I would add to my sign:

1. Wonderland, instead of Neverland (never been much of a fan of Peter Pan, but I am a BIG Alice geek).

2. Green Gables.  Who doesn’t want to go there?

3. The Secret Garden (though why would you have a sign if it is secret?).

4. Pemberley.  I may take this road more often than others, excepting perhaps the next one…

5. Jurisfiction.  Have you read Jasper Fforde?  If not, you should.  (There’s a new Thursday Next book coming out this year–it’s out now in the UK, but we have to wait a few months here in the US.)

What would you have on your sign post?

talking with cats

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I read a lot, and I usually have a nice stack of books waiting for me at all times, but every once in a while I get to the bottom of the stack before my new books come on hold at the library.  Such a thing happened this week (okay, it’s true that I have my next book club book waiting for me, “Cutting for Stone,” but I’m not quite ready to start that one), so I started browsing the stacks at the library looking for a few things that I could take home right away.  I was in the mood for some YA fantasy, so I was scoping out likely titles in that section when I noticed the shelf of new YA books sitting apart.  They were bright and shiny and tempting.  Two different titles caught my eye, and a glance at both dust jackets convinced me to take both home.

 

I started with Pauley’s “Cat Girl’s Day Off,” since I was a little more suspicious of that title, but I was quickly sucked in by the quirky characters, hillarious chatter, and outragous plot.  I finished the book in one day.  The next day I started Cashman’s “The Exceptionals.”  After only a few pages, I couldn’t believe what a strange coincidence it was that the two books I randomly picked up off the new YA book shelf at the library both had to do with families that have special abilities (talents, superpowers) that are impressive, while the daughter in each book has a talent that seems weak and embarrassing: talking to animals.  The books are really quite different in every other sense, but, really, what are the odds?  In the first book, Natalie can only communicate with cats, while Claire, in “The Exceptionals” can hear all animals (in fact, it’s the cat who gives her the most trouble, mainly because of its attitude, but that’s the point with cats, right?).  And, oh wow, now that I’m writing about it, I realize that the book I read right before these two (a queer little juvenile book titled “Sunshine Picklelime”) also had the main character, a girl, that could communicate with animals–strange trend.

Anyway, “Cat Girl’s Day Off” is set in contemporary Chicago, in a world in most ways like our own, except that certain people have special “talents,” as they’re called here, but are more like superpowers.  For example, in Natalie’s family, her older sister has three super cool Talents, including being a human lie detector; her younger sister can ‘disappear’ like a chameleon; her mother has a really high IQ and laser vision; and her father’s nose is hypersensitive and he can tell each bit of chemical component in things.  For the most part they live and work among the regular folk and are not much commented on.  Natalie is somewhat embarrassed by her meager talent of talking to cats, and so she keeps it under wraps at her high school (who wants to go through life being known as “cat girl,” right?).  But, when she understands the wailings of a pink cat owned by a celebrity columnist, she gets caught up in a crazy mystery involving kidnapping, mistaken identities, and the filming of an homage movie to John Hughes and “Ferris Bueler’s Day Off.”  The pacing is madcap and the writing is witty and often hysterical.  I love the different cats and their attitudes.

On the other hand, “The Exceptionals” is a much more serious affair.    Claire also has a family with “special” abilities, like telekinesis, clairvoyance, and the ability to talk with ghosts.  They all live and work at or attend Cambrial Academy, a school where those with exceptional talents can practice them in an environment of safety and secrecy.  Claire finds her “special” so humiliating that after a childhood of feeling like she was looked down on, she pretends that she has lost her ability, and so gets sent to regular school.  Unfortunately, as a sophmore, she gets in trouble, and her parents decide it’s time for her to attend Cambrial Academy after all, even without a “special.”  About the same time, some of the most exceptional  students start disappearing, and Claire has to learn how to refine her talent to see if she can use it to help the school, her family, and even the world.  It is not as unique as the other book, but the writing is competent and the characters are fleshed out enough for me to connect with and care about them.  I love it that Claire tries to hone her skills on the principal’s cat, but that cat does not trust her at all, and repeatedly dismisses her and taunts her.  It’s a small moment, but pretty funny.  In the end, she connects with a hawk and its baby instead.

Both books were good and I might have given both about four stars, but “Cat Girl’s Day Off” had something a little more special, to my tastes, and I was tickled by the talking cats, so I gave it five stars.  “The Exceptionals” paled a bit in comparison, and I think it will ultimately bemore forgettable, so I down-graded my review to three and 1/2 stars.  I’d recommend either one, depending on your mood and reading tastes, as both are solid stories and well-written.  But I definitely give the edge to that silly pink cat.

ways of seeing

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I just started reading a new book last night: a juvenile book called “The Calder Game,” by Blue Balliett.  I’m only about a third of the way into it, but there is one theme that definitely stands out already: different people see the same things in different ways.  The title character, Calder, sees the world as puzzles to be solved.  His friend Petra sees things as word combinations.  His other friend Tommy is an expert collector, and he sees the world in reference to his found objects.  There is also the art of Alexander Calder, his colorful mobiles and stabiles–and how people see his art.  Is it wondrous and amazing, crazy, too modern and bold?  Does it remind them of animals, engineering, air?  This book, at this point anyway, seems to be about ways of seeing and observing.

Whether or not I ultimately think the book is successful, I appreciate that it got me thinking on this theme.  I was reminded of an experience I had the summer before I went to graduate school in art history.  My BA was in the Humanities, with an emphasis in English literature.  I was with a bunch of my friends enjoying an evening at a beach house.  The sun had set and I was sitting looking at the ocean with a friend of mine who was a professional artist.  I have always had a somewhat fearful respect of the ocean.  It kind of scares me, but it’s beautiful too.  When I looked at it that night, I thought of it in terms of its vastness, its power, its persistance.  I saw it as a metaphor.  I saw it in terms of words and emotion.  Then I asked my artist friend what he saw when he looked at the ocean.  I wondered if artists really did see the world differently and if my world view was going to change as I studied art.  His answer was very telling.  “I see light and shadow,” he said.  (Wow.  Revelation!)  He saw the changing colors of greens and blues settle into darker tones muted with black as night came on more fully.  I was amazed.  My eyes were opened!  I had never looked at the world with such visual awareness before.

Today, many years beyond graduate school and semesters of teaching college art history courses at various times, I do see the world differently.  I am still a reader, so I still see things with the broader awareness that books bring.  I still love words and see the world in terms of verbal description.  But now I also love art with a deeper understanding, and I do see the world in terms of line, color and composition.  I see contrast and texture, balance and shape.  And, yes, light and shadow.  I appreciate the fuller perspectives my life and education have given me.  And I also appreciate that different people see the world differently.  That’s what makes life so rich and interesting.