January 1, 2015

New Year, New List

For the last three years I've been keeping track of every book I read. It's been a daunting task, particularly last year when I read over 100. This year, I stayed in my sweet spot of slightly over 80, 84 to be exact. You can see each book I read in 2014 by clicking here.
This has been a strange year for books, now that I look over what I read. I would have read many more books this year, but found myself dissatisfied by some of the "big hits" of the year. Since my motto is that life is too short to read bad books, that kept my number a bit lower this year than it might have been.
It was also a year of dystopia, WWII, and women. Sounds like a country song. The dystopia theme was one of the reasons that I was frustrated with the selection of books this year - it was just too prevalent and too many of them weren't well-written.
WWII was another favorite theme this year, but there were many, many expertly written selections there, so you'll see at least four books with that theme on my list.
And then the women - I read one or two editorials this year that lamented the fact that there were so few female writers among the book award nominations this year, and I agree. Because, as you'll see by my list, I was able to find great female authors, and great books written about women.
So enjoy my selections for the top tomes I read this year - and here's to a 2015 filled with amazing new books for us all!

Top 5 in Biographies

Morrissey, by Morrissey, of course. This man provided the soundtrack to much of my angsty teen years with his angry poetic lyrics. This lyrical autobiography proves he hasn't lost his touch, or his edge.
A Spy Among Friends, by Ben MacIntyre. Kim Philby rose up the ranks in Britain's secret spy network, almost to the very top rung, all while spying for Russia. This engrossing story describes how the old-boy club helped promote and conceal him for so long.
Factory Man, by Beth Macy. This fantastic book hits close to home, written about my family's home ground, the industry I've worked in so long, and a bullheaded man determined to save his family's heritage and company.
The Romanov Sisters, by Helen Rappaport. It must be difficult to find new ground to cover when writing about such well-known history, but by focusing on the beautiful daughters of the doomed Czar Nicholas, Rappaport does just that.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. I resisted this one for a while, mainly because I've been burned too many times by a heavily touted book that turned out to be a dud. But I should have know that in Hillenbrand's deft hands I would find a lyrical and uplifting story of grit and determination.

Top 5 in Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This is a book so well written that I found myself putting it down in fear that I would read it too quickly. WWII is almost a backdrop to the story of a young blind girl in Paris and a boy in Germany and that one moment when their lives intersected.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. This is not an easy book to read, and it is definitely not an easy book to forget. It's the story of Australian POWs forced to build a road in Burma, and yes, it may remind of you Unbroken. But it is deeper and more visceral, juxtaposed with a love story on the sunny beaches of Australia. Incredible.
The Bees, by Laline Paull. This may rank as my favorite book of the year. It's an inside look at a working hive, and a bee who doesn't want to conform. It touches on themes of religion, community, and adventure - and is spellbinding.
The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook. Yes, this is the third book in this segment alone that focuses on WWII, but it really examines Germany immediately after the war ends, as a British colonel and his family move in with a German widower and his daughter.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. Hetty Grimke, a slave in Charleston, is nicknamed Handful for a reason, and when she is given to Sarah as an 11th birthday present, she lives up to her name as she and Sarah both struggle for a kind of freedom over 35 years.

Top 5 in Non-Fiction

Tinseltown, by William J. Mann. Murder, mayhem, and drugs in Hollywood - not in modern times, but in the 1920s, when the movie business was in its infancy. Racy themes and scandals behind the scenes threatened to either derail the fledgling business, or to allow censorship to have free rein.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, by Karen Abbott. Four women, two from each side of the conflict, do their part in the Civil War, each in her own way. The soldier of the title is one of the best stories, but all four will fascinate you.
What If? by Randall Munroe. Formerly a roboticist for NASA, Munroe now writes the webcomic xkcd, a stick-figure comic that covers all things science. Here he wittily answers some of the questions you never knew needed answers.
Humans of New York, by Brandon Stanton. If you have not ever seen his website, go there now. I'll wait. (http://www.humansofnewyork.com/) This compilation of some of Stanton's best work is touching, sweet, honest, and real.
The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan. Near Oak Ridge, Tenn., during WWII (note the theme), a town grew up almost overnight, full of buildings and workers. It wasn't on any map, despite using more electricity than the city of New York. This is the story of the women who played an unwitting role in the atomic age.

Top 5 in Mysteries

The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan. Valentine Millimaki is always looking for someone. It's his specialty as a sheriff's deputy in the cold Montana country. So when he's assigned to the night shift to watch over a killer who is waiting for his trial, Millimaki begins to look for the humanity in the murderer John Gload.
Red Road, by Denise Mina. Scotland isn't all kilts and haggis, as Detective Alex Morrow knows all too well. In the latest book of a terrific series, Morrow is dealing with twins, her criminal brother, and an international arms dealer. Just another day at work.
Silkworm, by - oh let's cut the crap, it's by JK Rowling. Detective Cormoran Strike has to find a missing writer, but no one else seems to want him found. And just as in the Potter books, Rowling pulls you in with descriptive writing and indelible characters.
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. Based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, an accused murderer in early 1800s Iceland, this is an icy cold tale of guilt, passion, and secrets, perfect for a dark winter's night.
Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia. Fifteen years after a murder took place in room 712, the Bellweather hotel is host to hundreds of high school musicians, a witness to that previous murder, and perhaps another dead body.

Top 5 in Popcorn Books

Note: I define "popcorn books" as those that are fast and not-so-filling reads. They must feature good writing, and they must be FUN.
Pennyroyal Academy, by MA Larson. Technically a Young Adult book, this is the first in a series. It may remind you of Harry Potter, but in a good way rather than in a rip-off way. The titular school trains young princesses and knights to fight for their kingdoms - but the story knocks fairytales on their ear with princesses who rescue themselves, witches who hide secrets, and dragons that may not deserve to be slain.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine. This is another retelling of a fairytale, this time inspired by the Brothers Grimm story of the 12 dancing sisters. In a twist, the terrific tale is set in the heady speakeasies of the 1920s.
Longbourne, by Jo Baker. I was disappointed in the PD James mystery inspired by Pride & Prejudice, so that kept me from picking this up for a while. But the story of the servants behind the scenes at the Bennett house was well worth the wait.
We Were Liars, by E Lockhart. When she summers with her family on their island, something happens to Cadence Sinclair. She can't remember the details, but it appears that one of her family members tried to kill her. Who? And how? Watch out for a big twist.
One Plus One, by Jo Jo Moyes. A fun and frothy story of a math prodigy and her dysfunctional family on their way to a mathletics competition with an out-of-touch businessman in tow.

October 16, 2014

I See What You Did There

After several days' worth of posts on awards for literature, now we finally get to the good stuff - the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards, celebrating the best in mystery/thriller writing for books and for television. I note that they are sponsored by Specsavers, a chain of eyeglass shops across the UK, which is appropriate because this is the award program most likely to ruin my eyesight.
I usually find myself in a frenzy of reading/watching to catch up with all of the nominees before the awards are announced, which leaves me a scant 10 days at this point. Good thing I just got my own new pair of specs. So let's get started with the lists of nominees!

Crime Thriller Book Club Nominees

Before We Met, by Lucie Whitehouse
Entry Island, by Peter May (love him!)
Letters to My Daughter's Killer, by Cath Staincliffe
Treachery, by SJ Parris
The Tilted World, by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly (fabulous book)
Watch Me, by James Carroll

Living Legends Nominees

Best living writer of crime/thrillers.
Michael Connolly
Robert Harris
Dean Koontz
Lynda La Plante
Val McDermid
Denise Mina
Wow - tough category!

CWA Gold Dagger Nominees

Crime Novel of the Year from the Crime Writers Association.
This Dark Road to Mercy, by Wiley Cash
Keep Your Friends Close, by Paula Daly
The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson
How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny

CWA Steel Dagger Nominees

For the CWA's Ian Fleming-esque thriller.
Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty
An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris
I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes
Natchez Burning, by Greg Iles

CWA New Blood Dagger Nominees

CWA's nominees for the best crime novel by a first-time author. 
The Strangler Vine, by MJ Carter
The Axeman's Jazz, by Ray Celestin
The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson
The Silent Wife, by ASA Harrison

Best Film Dagger Nominees

Cold in July
Dom Hemingway
Starred Up

Best Television Dagger Nominees

Happy Valley (a must-see on Netflix)
Line of Duty, series 2
Sherlock, series 3 (so amazing)
The Bletchley Circle, series 2
The Honourable Woman

Luckily for my eyes, I've seen many of the film and television nominees. But now it's time to buckle down to those books. Let me know which of the nominees you've read or seen! The winners will be announced on Oct. 24.

October 15, 2014

And the Awards Keep on Coming

Yes, it's book awards season, with which I have a love-hate relationship. In some ways, it's like Christmas, with a huge pile of presents that I feel compelled to read all at once. On the other hand, couldn't we spread it out a little more? 
Yesterday, the Man Booker Prize winner was feted in London, so today the National Book Award committee announces its short list finalists. Sure, why let that prize winner have a moment to enjoy? Let's just cut that off right at the knees.
Okay, I'm done ranting about that. Now let's move on to the finalists for those NBA awards. I find myself in the confounding place of actually approving of this year's list of nominees. Usually I think the nominee lists are too packed full of stuffy tomes that no one actually wants to read - but not this year. I've read a couple of these and I am looking forward to reading the rest, which is not something I've ever said about this award program before. So bully for the NBAs!
The nominees for Fiction are All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and Redeployment by Phil Klay. Redeployment is a collection of short stories, which I normally don't read, and Station Eleven is yet another apocalyptic future novel, so we'll see if I make it through those two. See my rant on the glut of "the future is scary" books in yesterday's post.
For Nonfiction, the nominees are Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast, The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson, No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal, and Tennessee Williams by John Lahr. I was disappointed that When Paris Went Dark didn't make it the cut from the long list - it's a great book.
And the nominees for Young People's Literature are Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Noggin by John Corley Whaley, The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin, Revolution by Deborah Wiles, and Threatened by Eliot Schrefer. This category usually has some gems, so I'm looking forward to reading these.
Yes, I skipped the Poetry category. I won't read them, so if you want to find out who is nominated, you can click here.
Tomorrow, I'll list another of my favorite awards programs, the Crime Thriller Awards for both television and books, which will be held in London on Oct. 24. See what I mean? So many books, so little time.

October 14, 2014

Winner, Winner

LATE-DAY UPDATE: Well I'm shocked to say that I was right. That never happens. But Richard Flanagan deserved to win the Man Booker Prize for this amazing book! Congrats to him!

The reason that I love the Man Booker Prize over all other book award programs is that I always discover a book among its nominees that profoundly impacts me. A few years ago it was Pigeon English, an incredible story about a young immigrant boy in England that I still think of almost once a month - it was just that good.
This year, the book that knocked me for an emotional loop was definitely The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. More on that book - which also gets my vote to win the Prize when it's announced tonight - in just a bit. 
First, let's talk about the fact that, for the first time, the Man Booker Prize committee opened up the contest to English-language books from any country, rather than just the U.K. I had high hopes for that, imagining Hilary Mantel-like writers squaring up against Philip Roth-esque American authors. 
But the selection committee shortlisted two U.S. novels that I don't think are up for the challenge: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, and We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.
Fowler's previous novel was The Jane Austen Book Club, and her Man Booker contender is just as light and entertaining. I'm not knocking the fact that it's a less substantial book, but it doesn't offer anything new. And Ferris's book examines religion's role in today's tech-savvy world in a way that's supposed to be funny, but fell flat for me. In fact, it was an exasperating read. So these two books, out of all of the fabulous American fiction published this year, are what caught the eye of the Man Booker group? Hmmmm.
I also wasn't thrilled with Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others, a story of a '60s family in Calcutta that gets caught up in political uprisings. There were almost too many characters, leaving me little time or inclination to get to know any one of them well enough to engage with them.
Luckily, there are other (better) books on the short list. Ali Smith offers a really new way of telling a tale - or two - in How to Be Both. The novel centers on two characters who tell their own story, one a modern-day teenage girl and the other a female Italian Renaissance artist living as a man. Depending on which copy of the book you pick up, you will begin with one of the two characters first, and then wind your way through two stories that twist around each other. It's fabulous storytelling for a modern world.
Howard Jacobson takes on (yet another) dystopian society with his novel J. In the scary future imagined by Jacobson, no one is allowed to use words that begin with the letter J without making a motion like pulling a zipper across his or her lips. The fear of the unknown is the key to this novel, with some of the frightening shadows never fully explored. It's a good book, but I'm tiring of the "future is scary and vaguely Big Brother-ish" stories that are constantly fed to us through books, movies, and video games. The overabundance of similar story arcs kept me from really embracing this one.
And then we come to The Narrow Road, the lone Australian entry on the list. Flanagan tells the story of Australian POWs forced to build a road in Burma, a harrowing real-life event that involved some of the worst atrocities by the Japanese army. Yes, there are shades of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, but The Narrow Road goes deeper and is more visceral, giving us a visual imprint that's hard to shake off. Flanagan juxtaposes the darkness of the jungle with the bright light and sandy beaches of Australia, going back and forth between the POW camp and the love story of the central character Dorrigo Evans. It was a difficult story, but one that I could not put down. Flanagan is a master of pulling the reader in, and then never letting go. But it is a tough read emotionally; let's just say I had to have a palate cleanser of Philippa Gregory immediately after. 
So tonight, I predict that Flanagan will win the award. But if he doesn't (just as Pigeon English didn't), I'm still a winner for having read his novel.

September 9, 2014

The Fall of Man

Fall is the time of Man - the Man Booker Prize, that is. Today the famed literary award panel announces its short list for the coveted prize, and that in turn means that I have a lot of reading to do.
This is one of my two favorite book award programs - the other is the Dagger Awards, presented by the Crime Writers Association. Oddly, although the Man Booker is a British award, I find it to be less stuffy and highbrow than the U.S. awards, like the National Book Award. Or maybe it's just my Anglophilia showing.
All I know is that I always love the Man Booker selections, whether they win or not, and I quite often completely agree with the award winner. This year will be especially interesting since it's the first time that the Man Booker group has expanded its rules, allowing all books originally printed in English to be nominated, no matter the nationality of the author. Take that, National Book Award.
So here is the short list of nominees this year. I'll let you know soon which one I believe should take the top prize. And if you're going to read along, get cracking! The prize will be awarded on Oct. 14.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris (US)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan (Australia)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (US)
J, by Howard Jacobson (UK)
The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee (UK)
How to Be Both, by Ali Smith (UK)

September 5, 2014

Life-Enhancing Technology

Leave it to the Swedes to deliver "life-enhancing technology" with the droll/dry wit they are known for. Ikea has rolled out its 2015 catalog in a format that is so simple and intuitive that it "feels instantly familiar." What is this amazing device? They are calling it a bookbook. (And yes, that name is trademarked.)
In a very tongue-in-cheek video (see below), Ikea says its bookbook comes fully charged with a battery life that is "eternal." Think of it! No cord required. Wow.
Not only that, but the device offers tactile navigation with "pre-installed" content that loads instantly. Shazam.
I gotta get me one of those bookbooks. I just hope there isn't a long line at the store on launch day...

September 4, 2014

That Thing on Facebook

There are so many quizzes, questionnaires, and tags on Facebook that it can be practically impossible to get anything done. I get pulled in just like everyone else - which means I now know that I should be living in England, that I'm darn good at history and science (15 out of 15!), that if I was a cheese I would be Provolone, and that if I was a Disney princess I would be Mulan. Duh.
But the new fad that's going around made me stop and really think (instead of mindlessly clicking on green when asked my favorite color). When tagged by a friend, you're supposed to name the 10 books that "most impacted your life." Note that it doesn't ask for your 10 favorite books, or the 10 books you couldn't put down. It's hard for me to narrow any book list down to just 10, but this one was especially difficult.
Since it was already a fairly long post when I finished listing the titles and authors on Facebook, I didn't take the time to explain why and how each of the books impacted me, so I thought I would do that here. As you can see, many of these I have already reviewed or referenced on this blog - just follow the links for more.
And now consider yourself tagged - which 10 books most impacted YOU?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This book was completely mind-blowing for me. The symbolism was rich and intense and the writing was different from anything else I had ever read. If I could tell you the number of times that I think about Ellison's description of Optic White and the 10 drops of black...now that's an impact. And here I must thank my high school English teacher, Ms. T, who assigned this to the class that adores her to this day.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I know a lot of little girls may have dreamed of being Jo, but I tried to make it a reality. I created my own Pickwick Papers, developed plays for my sisters to showcase their talents, and set myself on a lifelong writing path in the process.

Light in August by William Faulkner
I went through a full summer of Faulkner as a teen, and this book is the one that started the whole thing. It appealed to my sense of being a misfit (weren't we all) and it was thrillingly full of Southern Gothic themes of race, sex, class, and religion. It made me question everything I thought I believed.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Like Light in August, this book came along at the right time in my life. With its gentle protagonist and his simple-but-not idea to change the world, this book reminded me that life isn't always about the destination, but the road you travel.

Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd
This huge chunk of writing transformed me into the Anglophile I am today, covering pre-history to modern day at the magical English site. It was also the first book in the sweeping-historical-saga genre that I actually appreciated, er, loved and obsessed over. One of the highlights of my life was re-reading Sarum while staying one mile away in lovely Wiltshire.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I am a huge fan of YA fiction and of Neil Gaiman, and this is my favorite of his books. It is charming, witty, and unique, and it made me appreciate the category all over again.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Where to begin? It is set during a favorite historical time period, it is set in one of my favorite countries, and it is a completely different take on a story that I thought had been told in every way possible. But that isn't what impacted me - no, that was Mantel's writing, which is straightforward, gripping, and worth every award she received. I could not put this down.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
There are two books that I consistently give as gifts. One is Peter Mayle's A Dog's Life, because it's so funny and everyone needs a good laugh. This is the second one - and I press it into people's hands with a determined "You have to read this." A completely different take on race, crime, and Southern literature, it really is that good.

With No One as Witness by Elizabeth George
There is no one in the same class as George when it comes to writing characters, and her Lynley-and-Havers duo ranks among my favorites in all of literature (yes, I do mean that). There are 19 books in the series at this point, and I selected this one as having the most impact on me because it is one of maybe three times in my life that I gasped out loud at a book's plot twist. Incredible.

First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough
Historical fiction is a tough genre - veer too close to the history side and it's boring, swerve over into the fiction lane and it's too fluffy. McCullough finds the perfect middle ground in her Masters of Rome series with meticulous research combined with her imaginings of the real men and women behind the myths. She even includes her own sketches of the historical players - and they're quite good. There are three historical time periods that I'm nuts about, and that can be attributed to three books. This is the one that dragged me into ancient Rome, and I've never left. In case you're curious about the other two points in history: Ancient Egypt and Tudor England.

Of course, once I saw everyone else's lists, I wanted to add more books to my list. So here are some honorable mentions: To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride & Prejudice (Austen's sarcasm obviously had an impact), Pillars of the Earth, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Handmaid's Tale, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.