Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books Read in 2013

What a great year of reading!  Seriously, it's been such a good year of the reading, the likes of which I haven't had in a while.  I read very few books this year that I outright disliked.  Now, you would think in a year where I read nearly all books that I liked it would be tough to pick a top ten for this lovely meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Much to my surprise, this year it wasn't at all.  Among all the good reading this year there were still exactly ten stupendously extraordinary books that stood head and shoulders above the rest.  They did all the things that I want my books to do- they helped me escape from the humdrum moments of my daily life, they helped me learn things about history and want to know more, they made me think, they engaged my emotions profoundly, they often featured narrators that I could relate to almost completely, and helped me understand people and life itself more deeply.  Here they are in no particular order - the best of my reading year!

1. The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin - This is definitely the year that historical fiction found its way back onto my reading menu, and I'm so glad it did.  This book is about Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  It's got a brilliant first person narration from Anne's perspective, and Benjamin did a beautiful job of humanizing these famous historical figures. 

2. The Grave of God's Daughter by Brett Ellen Block - I think after you've been book blogging for a while, you fall into this mistaken belief that every book that's worth reading, you will have at least heard of from some fellow blogger (or maybe that's just me), but The Grave of God's Daughter proved that such a notion is ridiculous.  My parents bought me a copy at some long ago book sale, and it was rescued from the stacks just this year, and it is so good. It's a historical fiction coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in a hardscrabble western Pennsylvania town where there are a lot of secrets to be learned, some of which are closer to her and her family than she ever would have expected.

3. Angelfall  by Susan Ee - Angelfall was a book I never would have purchased but for the good opinion of bloggers, and I'm so glad I did.  It's YA fiction about a girl trying to keep her ragtag family together after the, um, angel apocalypse, we'll say.  The girl, Penryn, is a very strong character, and when she rescues a wounded angel who, she hopes, will help her find her angel-abducted sister, you know that's going to lead to some interesting situations.  I was totally absorbed, and I actually pre-ordered the second book in the series, which I never do.  I can't think of a stronger recommendation than that.  ;-)

4. World War Z by Max Brooks - This took me about an eon to read while I was on my tour (read: "slew of tiny vacations") this summer, and that usually sets the odds against my liking a book.  Not so with World War Z, which was so not what I expected.  I was thinking "juicy book about zombie apocalypse."  What I ended up with was a juicy book about the zombie apocalypse that also served as incredible social commentary about life as we know out and how easily it could change.  This truly is the thinking person's zombie novel, and I liked it that much more because of it.

5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - What can I say about The Fault in Our Stars?  I was untroubled by the only loosely realistic dialogue because I loved how snappy and intelligent it was.  I cried like a baby even though I knew I was supposed to cry like a baby which can often preclude crying.  I loved that John Green basically said at the outset that a story can be fully fiction but still totally communicate profound truths and then totally proved it. 

6. Brewster  by Mark Slouka - This is officially the book I feel like the biggest poop for having failed to review this year. It's kind of the age old story about a few teenagers coming of age in a small town they can't wait to leave behind, except it's got way more layers.  The narrator, Jon, is a budding track star whose brother died when he was a kid, and his parents have been emotionally distant ever since.  The narrator's best friend is a guy that can't say no to a fight whose tough exterior is covering a really, really bad home life.  Slouka captures the tension of the pivotal moment of a track race in a way that just about makes you hold your breath and nails that bittersweet feeling of a memory in the making, the perfect moment that you know won't last even as you're living it.  Plus, the climax of this book, when everything clicks for Jon and what he does and everything is probably the most emotionally wrenching (in a good way?) scene I've read in a long, long time.

7. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles - And this is first runner up in the "books I feel like crap for not reviewing this year."  First of all, it's New York City in 1930s, which is right in my wheelhouse.  Katey Kontent, the narrator, and her friend Eve meet a handsome well-to-do gentleman in a nightclub on New Years Eve.  Only he's not exactly what he seems and there is some tragedy, and then Katey's alternating between being a bookish loner and a skilled social climber, and it's a cool picture of the whole New York City mythology in which you can be whatever you want to be, but not without a certain amount of sacrifice.  For some reason, I felt a super-strong connection with Katey.  Her sense of humor and her tendency to be the odd one out made me totally pull for her when she risks it all for a chance to be somebody.  And also there is the handsome gentleman with all the secrets?  Yeah.

8. Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden - This is such a good example of really good "thoughtful" fiction.  By and large it's an exploration of the narrator's thoughts and memories for a day as she rattles around her best friend's house trying to come up with ideas for her next play to write. There's not really much action happening, but the narrator's inner life is so well-populated that you hardly notice. Madden makes the narrator's thoughts flow so naturally and comes out with some brilliant commentary about how fiction can be a profound vehicle for truth (which is something I'm apparently an especially big fan of this year). 

9. The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak - What can I say about The Book Thief that hasn't already been said?  I loved it as much as everyone else seems to have done, which is no surprise.  World War II-set books have always been a favorite of mine.  The only surprise here is that it took me so damn long to read it!

 10. I Shall Be Near to You  by Erin Lindsay McCabe - This is more of a 2014 preview (January 28th), and I lucked out getting a copy from Read it Forward.  It's the story of a girl who joins the Union Army during the American Civil War to be with her new husband.  Honestly, at first I thought I wouldn't like it, the book jumps right in without much background, but by the end, I was cheering for, Rosetta, the narrator, as she transforms from a naive girl into a strong, courageous woman.  It's definitely the sort of historical fiction that makes you want to know more - I'll definitely be seeking out some more reading about women who secretly served during the Civil War.

Runner-Ups (which totally wouldn't be in a lesser reading year!):

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
Come In and Cover Me by Gin Phillips

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! 
Hope your day is filled with fun, family, peace, joy, and maybe a few good books!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Paperboy by Tony Macaulay

Tony Macaulay spent his formative years growing up in the working class neighborhood of the Upper Shankill in Belfast during the Troubles of the 1970s.  On the one hand, Macaulay's youth is typical.  He's eager to follow his brother into an early career of delivering the nightly Belfast Telegraph, he wears the dreadful clothes that were all the rage during the 1970s, gets picked on by his brothers, lives to steal kisses from the lovely Sharon Burgess at the disco, and is in love with the Bay City Rollers, but in a totally "manly" way.  On the other hand, Macaulay's youth is spent in a Belfast divided by Peace Walls, plagued by acts of terrorism afflicting everything from bus routes to phone booths, and is fiercely divided between Protestant loyalists to the British government and Catholic supporters of a united Irish Republic whose differences don't seem all that distinct to Macaulay or to us, for that matter.

And yet, as you will learn in these slightly less fragile pages, I was happy with my calling.  I was a good paperboy.  I delivered.

Okay, so the absolute best thing about Paperboy is that Macaulay is hilarious.  I can't remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud so often. For this reader, humor is hard to hit spot on in a book.  Many authors, I find I don't quite get their sense of humor or their efforts seem forced.  Not so in this case.  Macaulay's humor easily encompasses both the laughable foibles of his young career as a paperboy as well as the decidedly more serious points of living in a dangerously divided Belfast during the seventies.  The easy hilarity in the stories of young Tony jumping fences in his coin-stuffed platforms and parallels to achieve paperboy seniority, waiting for the last guitar lesson of the night behind a girl whose parents were hoping for her to be the next Tammy Wynette (thereafter referred to as "Pammy Wynette"), and kicking a member of the Bay City Rollers as the only "manly" way of expressing appreciation for the band is the stuff laughing out loud is made of. Still extra giggles are reserved for the low income things that shouldn't be funny but are - like all the home improvement projects completed by his dad with supplies he "borrowed" from the foundry where he works and the many would-be affordable things purchased for a weekly fee from the Great Universal Club Book.

Paperboy is an appealing book that's more about Macaulay's youth and career as a paperboy than it is about the Troubles that plagued the city of his childhood.  That it deals with the Troubles as more of a sideline ever-present reality in young Tony's life rather than as a focus is more a blessing than a curse.  Macaulay does a fantastic job of capturing his own childlike perspective in that he's learned to live with being searched for weapons when entering a store, expecting that milk bottles will soon become petrol bombs, and  not being able to get home because paramilitaries are bombing buses and have vandalized every phone booth for a couple miles. 

I sometimes looked through the employment pages to see what I might do when I graduated from newspaper delivery, but there was never anything.  Then I noticed that there were always more death notices than job advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph, so I came to the comforting conclusion that by the time I was eighteen years old, enough people would have died for me to get one of their jobs.

The downside to dealing with the Troubles on the side, of course, is that if readers go into the book mostly ignorant of the conflicts driving the Troubles, they might well emerge similarly ignorant. Macaulay scores some points for how he successfully immerses readers in his life in 1970s Northern Ireland, but doing so perhaps assumes that readers understand more about recent Irish history than they do, and the conflict, which is probably more or less bewildering to people in the know is mind-boggling to the more ignorant.  Macauley's book definitely gave me incentive to dig into the historical background, but some of the book might be lost on people who aren't interested in doing a little extra legwork to set the scene, so to speak.  

Overall, Paperboy is a laugh-out-loud funny read about one pacifist paperboy's childhood in the scary streets of 1970s Belfast.  It's a childhood that might well remind you of your own in spots but for the bombs and the barricades, one that might inspire you to discover more Irish history, and might also remind you that we wouldn't all be so different from each other if we weren't hiding behind the real and imagined walls of the uncompromising ideologies we've created.

(E-galley provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Liz Crane grew up departing the city for idyllic summers at her Uncle Stanley's orchard on the Canadian shores of Lake Erie.  Summers for Liz are times for endless games with her cousins, young love, and worshiping at the feet of the charismatic Stanley Butler.  Uncle Stanley was a forward-looking farmer, the first to try a new crop or a new method of growing, and most definitely the first to "import" workers from Mexico to help with the summer fruit harvest.  However, his deep connection to the past meant that Liz and her family's summers were littered with the re-telling of the stories of the "old Great-Great's" of the Butler family who tended lighthouses in Ireland or split from the rest to farm on either the Canadian side or American side of the Great Lakes or even made a dangerously unflattering, if mostly anonymous, appearance in a Stephen Crane short story.  As Liz, from a distance of years, reflects on her uncle's fate, her young love for the son of one of the migrant workers, and her family mythology, it soon becomes all-too-apparent that painful secrets ran deep beneath the summers of her youth, secrets with the power to tear a family apart.

While I greatly anticipated reading Sanctuary Line, I'm afraid I didn't love itIn fact, I almost gave up on it shortly past the fifty page mark.  Liz's narration, while rife with beautiful prose, seemed to be so wooden and lacking in emotion that I had trouble engaging with it.  When an author chooses to use a first-person voice for their narration, readers might be inclined to expect a deeper understanding of and stronger emotional connection with the narrator, but Urquhart's densely poetic prose did more to interfere with that connection than it did to promote it.  

Despite my issues with the narration, Urquhart's prose is undeniably evocative.  In her hands, the Butler farm comes to life, full of warm evenings filled with dancing, games and storytelling, as does the windy peak of an Irish lighthouse where tragedy waits to strike, and the early days of the farm that would one day belong to Uncle Stanley.  Even the house where Liz rattles around recalling the distant past is imbued with a haunting melancholy that contrasts sharply with the vitality it held during her childhood.

The high point of Sanctuary Line would have to be the stories of Liz's Great-Greats which are woven easily into her nostalgia.  Indeed, one of my favorite things about much of Canadian fiction that I've read is the deeply felt connection to distant family members, and how their enduring mythology permeates the present as it does in Sanctuary Line.  The stories of the farming Butlers who divided from their brethren, the lighthouse-keeping Butlers are compelling, maybe in part because they offer a brief escape from the heavy-laden first person narration, but mostly because they have that air of stories passed down verbally through a family's history until they became legends of a sort.

All told, Sanctuary Line is a beautifully written book, and one with many good points but one which I found ultimately disappointing.    Sanctuary Line's good points never lined up to create a cohesive whole, and the result is a book that had the potential to be heartfelt, but lacked in its ability to emotionally engage its readers.

(This book was provided to me by the publicist in exchange for my honest review.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Loose Leafing: Reviewing Books is Hard

Here we are on the first morning of the last month of the year, and despite the fact that I read at a glacial (Glacial, I tell you! But not as glacial as last year.  It must be the global warming.) pace, I am woefully behind on book reviews.  I have come to the conclusion that this is a result of a few things.  One, I work too much and too hard at my soul-sucking job (Did I say "soul-sucking"?  I mean busy, secure...okay, it's a mixed blessing).  Two, I never get any peace and quiet in which to assemble a few coherent thoughts and/or I am a big procrastinator that doesn't take adequate advantage of peace and quiet. 

And finally, three, book reviewing is just freaking hard.  Let me tell you why, in case you don't already know.  For starters, when you've been chipping away at your book blog for six years, everything you have to say starts to sound the same as everything you've already said...several times. (ETA: In case you were wondering, this is another one of those posts I like to write with the confused voice where "you" means me but maybe actually you too, and "I" is, well, also me...and still maybe you too?  Oh, well, you know what I mean or, um, I know what I mean. Huh.)  Also, you will find that not only do you feel like you've already described ten other books with the same words you're using to describe the current victim of your lack of writing prowess, you will find that you're tortured over how you're boring yourself and your readers by reviewing your books with the same overused format and even sentence structure of yesteryear (lots of lists and even more inexcusable parentheses!).  You will find that it's a struggle to change any of that too radically without violating your strong conviction about "what a book review is," which is impossible to define much less articulate.  You just know it when you go to cross-post your review to LibraryThing and find that it just doesn't...work. 

Secondly, there are, all told (at least in my perspective), only three "classes" of books when you sit down to review books, each of which is hard to review for its own special reasons.  I give you now the three classes of books and some excuses for why they're impossible to review:

The Sucky Book - This book was really just not that good.  It was good enough to finish, but only because you secretly hoped the end would redeem the rest of it.  It didn't.  Now you have to sit down and say something mean about some author's poor defenseless baby while trying to fair, balanced, and well, not...too mean.  So, you sit at your computer trying to divine the good points of a book you didn't like and trying to decide if your negative comments are snarkier than the book at hand deserves.  Because I'm a book reviewing freak of some kind, I find that the Sucky Book might well be the easiest to review. As it turns out, I can do a passable job of veiling my dislike in half-compliments without totally selling out and saying I liked books that I didn't.  Who ever said negative reviews were hard to write?  I mean, at least I did have a feeling about the book even if it was, well, not a very good feeling.  Not so the...

"Meh" Book -  This book was...well, it was okay.  It wasn't earth shatteringly wonderful nor did it irritate you or disappoint you enough to draw your ire.  It was passable entertainment for a few hours, but next year or maybe only a few months down the road, you will have forgotten it completely.  What does one say about a book which left you feeling little more than apathetic?  It had a beginning and an end.  It was interesting but not compelling.  Its characters were moderately sympathetic.  I vaguely cared about what happened to them but lasting impressions are not forthcoming.  Also, I lied about the categories as "Meh" Books can actually be sub-categorized into slightly less "meh" and slightly more "meh" books.  The slightly less "meh" books are reviewable, you can focus on good qualities and artistic elements quite easily instead of worrying about getting ensnared by the snark monster (see above) or devolving into a babbling buffoon (see below).  The slightly more "meh" are nearly impossible to review through the fog of apathy, but not so impossible to review as the...

Book You LOVED - This book is fairly self-explanatory.  You loved it.  No, I mean you really loved it with a fiery passion.  Surely this should be the easiest book to review, right?  I mean, come on, you loved it.  Now share your love with the world!  Easy peasy, right?  NO!  Not easy peasy.  Hard!  Here's the thing, when I LOVE a book, it's usually not for reasons that make sense that can be easily conveyed in writing.  It's not the fantastic plot, it's not the characters that leaped off the page and became my buddies, it's not the pacing, not the beautiful prose, not short chapters or long chapters or an authorial wisdom that reveals the truth in fiction.  Well, it's sort of those things but more than that it's my emotional connection to the book.  How do you review a book that you loved so much that it pried such a visceral emotional reaction out of you that you are reduced to a bumbling moron whose only explanation for loving said book is something about "feeling all the feels" punctuated by the occasional sob, sniffle, or irrational laughter? 

When I truly love a book it's becoming harder and harder for me to step back and talk about all the
good rational things like plot and characters and writing quality when all I'm thinking about is how the book is soggy with my tears or something because I was all like "sniffle, sob, sniffle, YES THAT!  EXACTLY! AUTHOR, I SEE WHAT YOU'RE DOING...AND I LIKE IT!! sniffle, sob, sniffle."  How exactly does one break that down into something that is going to sell someone on a great book when they are not you and perhaps do not feel all the same feels exactly the way you do? 

This year my plan of attack for reviewing such books was to...wait.  Wait until that visceral reaction mellows out a little and then attempt it.  Except I waited so long that I then forgot half the book except for that troublesome visceral emotional reaction.  Fail.  So now, here I am as the year draws perilously close to its end and half of my favorite books of the year I haven't even reviewed!  You probably all think that I, like, hate books because the only books, with a few exceptions, that I'm reviewing are either Sucky or "Meh."  Not so!  As it turns out, it is I that am sucky at reviewing books I loved because when I love them I love them irrationally and it's hard to channel irrationality into a good book review.  I've tried, with decidedly mixed results.

So, as I scramble to get all my reviews in under the wire so that I can spam the internet all December with them while everybody's too busy with holiday stuff to read them (er...FAILx2!), tell me, do you share any of these struggles?  If so, how do you write good book reviews despite the challenges? Or am I just over-thinking or engaging in the time-honored tradition of productive procrastination in avoidance of all the reviews I have to write? You make the call. ;-)