Wednesday, December 30, 2015

And all my swords have turned to words that blow like poems in the wind (Best of 2015).

At the beginning of the year, I set my goal on the site, Goodreads, to read 55 books this year. Somehow, I surpassed the goal, ultimately reading 86 books in 2015. If you follow that link, you can take a look at all the books I read in 2015 and my ratings. Note that not all books were published in 2015, of course, they just happened to be books I picked up over the year. In fact, because some of them were Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs), they won't be published until 2016.

One of the (many) things I love about Goodreads is its ability to rate books. Below is a run-through of my most highly rated books of the year (beginning with the most recently read). This mostly means any book rated 4 stars or higher. I'll end with my three favorite books of the year -- the only three who earned 4.5 star ratings! You can find reviews of any of these via my goodreads site, or simply follow the link in each entry to the in-depth review in this blog.

So without further ado, my favorite books read (not written) in 2015, starting with the most recent:
The Ghost Fields - Elly Griffiths. This is the 7th book in Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series. She is called on by Detective Chief Inspector Nelson to investigate a skeleton found in a World War II plane. Once Ruth realizes the dead man sitting in the plane couldn't actually have been the pilot (oh and he's been shot, too), things unfold quickly from there. Ruth and Nelson become ensnared with the upper class Blackstock family, who somehow become enmeshed in all aspects of Nelson's case and investigation. I absolutely love the Ruth Galloway series. I completely identify with Ruth, and I love the way Griffiths writes her - she's a smart, funny, modern woman and mother. The entire book is cozy and familiar, yet propelled by a completely enjoyable and thrilling mystery. You can't go wrong with this one (and if you haven't read any of the Ruth Galloway books, I highly recommend you immediately pick up "The Crossing Places" - the first in the series - stat!).

No One Knows - J.T. Ellison. This was an interesting and well-written thriller. I was hooked from the beginning. Josh and Aubrey Hamilton had a great marriage and a seemingly wonderful life, until he disappeared five years ago. Josh vanishes into thin air - as the couple head into a bachelor/bachelorette party - and is never seen or heard from ago. When Josh's mom finally has him declared dead, Aubrey is devastated.
You rarely read a book where the husband disappears, but you hear the story from the wife's perspective, so that was a nice change of pace. The story flips back and forth in time, so we can unravel bits and pieces of it ourselves, but we mainly hear from Aubrey's perspective, which is sort of nice. The novel is suspenseful and keeps you guessing, and the ending is surprising. You can pick this one up for reading on March 22, 2016.

The Crossing - Michael Connelly. This is actually the 20th (!) book in the Harry Bosch series, but for the first time, he's no longer working for the LAPD. After being forced to leave the LAPD (before they could fire him), Harry is "retired" and looking for a way to occupy his time. He reluctantly agrees to work for his half brother, Mickey Haller, a well-known defense attorney. Mickey brings an interesting case to Harry's attention - a reformed former gang member is in jail for a crime he swears he didn't commit (and for which Mickey is convinced he's innocent). It's a brutal rape and murder, and Bosch isn't sure he can stomach working for "the other side." Is this case worth his reputation and betraying the morals Bosch has lived by for his entire life? I deeply the entire Bosch series, so I read this book with a bit of trepidation... what would my beloved Bosch be like without his LAPD badge? I'm glad to say he's still the Bosch we know and love. In the novel, Bosch certainly struggles with the new and different mindset he must face on the other side -- the struggle of seeing the case versus the bigger picture. His brother, of course, cares only for how the facts affect the case and his client. But Bosch, being Bosch, has a bigger end state in mind - if Mickey's client didn't do it - who did? That's not to say the book is simply about Bosch struggling with his own issues. Connelly presents his usual well-structured and plotted mystery, with a cast of interwoven characters. We follow along as Bosch uncovers clues from his perspective and also hear from the so-called bad guys. It's a compelling and layered mystery.

Pretty Girls - Karin Slaughter. This is one of Slaughter's stand-alone books - dealing with a trio of sisters: Claire Scott leads a seemingly perfect life - she's beautiful and adored by her wealthy husband, Paul. However, Claire's life is shadowed by the disappearance of her eldest sister, Julia, over twenty years ago. Julia went missing while in college and was never seen again. In the aftermath, Claire lost not only Julia, but her other sister, Lydia, as the sisters have been estranged for years. As a result, Claire has clung to Paul and the comfort and security he provides . However, a new tragic event changes everything for Claire - and will eventually lead her to look at everything in her life differently, including Julia's disappearance and her relationship with Lydia. This novel is engaging, suspenseful, and filled with twists and turns. Sometimes you see them coming and other times you don't. It's a quick read, but not a particularly light one - be prepared for a dark read. The book is raw, violent, and even heartbreaking at points. The book's strength is that it presents not only a compelling and interesting mystery tale, but a chilling portrait of its characters, as well. Some of the plot points are a bit fantastical and it suffers from the trope where Claire and Paul Scott just have unlimited financial resources, but overall, I found this one fascinating.

The Guest Room - Chris Bohjalian. This was an interesting and timely book from Bohjalian with a somewhat fascinating premise. Richard Chapman reluctantly agrees to host his younger brother's bachelor party--at his own home. He suspects his brother, Philip, and Philip's good friend Spencer may be hiring some "entertainment" for the party, but isn't expecting the two women and Russian bodyguards who show up for the evening. Nor is Richard expecting what follows -- an evening of drinking, partying, sex, and suddenly - murder, when the women kill their bodyguards and disappear. Suddenly, Richard finds himself trying to explain what happened to his wife, their young daughter, his employer, and the world at large. Further he finds himself haunted by memories of his interactions with one of the girls, Alexandra. Besides telling the story, the novel brings up a lot of questions about morality. What role does our society play when it comes to bachelors parties -- and what is the expectation of those attending? And the spouses and fiancees on the other side? What do we tell ourselves about the origin of the "talent" that appears at such functions? Bohjalian attempts to explore these questions through Richard's story - which unfolds from Richard's perspective, that of his wife, Kristin, and one of the hired girls, Alexandra. It becomes almost a bit of a thriller - as we piece together bits before the party, the aftermath, and also learn what led up to the girls' fateful decision. Overall, the book weaves the story nicely around its characters. Little details give a nuanced perspective that authors less experienced than Bohjalian may lack. Further, Alexandra is a lovely protagonist and written in such a quiet way that doesn't come along very often. In the end, this felt more than a "life in suburbia gone terribly wrong" story - it was cold and heartless, yet heart-breaking and compassionate. This will be available for publication on January 5th.

Carefully Everywhere Descending - L.B. Bedford . This is a refreshing YA LGBT novel with a nice, normal protagonist who actually seems real. (Shouldn't seem so shocking, but they're amazingly hard to find.) It's wonderful to see a LGBT book where the character's sexuality is just part of her life, versus what drives the entire plot. Audrey Anderson is a bright student from a low income family. Audrey spends most of her time focused on school, with college as her ultimate goal. While she's close to her best friend, she isn't that involved with other kids at her school. However, when one of the most popular (and beautiful) girls in school, Scarlett, asks Audrey to tutor her in English, Audrey finds herself caught up in the typical drama of high school - friendship, prom, etc. The book does a good job of portraying Audrey and Scarlett's romance - Audrey's unrequited love for Scarlett seemed a bit much at first, but remembering back to the angst of teen love, it seemed right on point. I found Audrey to be a compelling and realistic character and it was great to see an author use a YA protagonist from a low income background, even if it did seem a bit overused at times. Too often these books focus on the popular kids, driving their parents' cars and living life without a care in the world. Audrey's life is probably far more realistic for many. Frankly, the book had some holes and issues, but it was still worth the read for its portrayal of a real YA lesbian relationship and Audrey's overall situation.

The Girl In the Spider's Web - David Lagercrantz . I was hesitant to read this novel, knowing the fights between Larsson's girlfriend and his family over his material. Eventually, I chose to read it, as I think of Blomkvist and Salander as dear friends and it was difficult to pass up the chance to continue to read further about their lives. I think Lagercrantz does a good job picking up with the material. No one can fill Larsson's shoes, in any way, but he does an excellent job of staying true to the characters and creating a highly suspenseful and interesting tale. It's apparent you're not reading a Larsson novel at times - the plot is almost too quickly paced, versus Larsson's meandering writing. But mostly, the plot was so well paced and well-written and Blomkvist seemed so like himself, that I just found myself immersed in the story. This book picks up, time-wise, after the last of Stieg Larsson's Millennium books ended. Mikael Blomkvist is struggling - his career is being debated in the press and his beloved Millennium magazine is floundering. He receives a tip from a source about a story. Mikael reluctantly follows up, but becomes more intrigued when it sounds like the story might involve Lisbeth Salander. The story flips between Sweden and the USA -- bringing in an element of the NSA -- and it's exciting and fun. Lagercrantz does a strong job of bringing the series into the present day with this plotline. He also writes about an autistic child, August, so clearly, that you just find yourself rooting for the kid. Blomkvist, as I mentioned, seems much his usual self. I love him so, so it was a little easier to overlook the lack of Lisbeth in this novel, but I do have to point it out - there's definitely not as much Lisbeth as one might want. She's around, of course, and amazing and strong (of course!), but you'll find yourself wishing for more Lisbeth scenes. Finally, the end left me wishing for more in the series, so I figure that's a sign Lagercrantz did his job well, despite all the tumult associated with the book. I appreciate the care he took with Lisbeth and Blomkvist, and I was glad to spend some time with them again.

Who Do You Love - Jennifer Weiner. This is a fairly typical Jennifer Weiner novel, but that's good, because she does her job well. Rachel grows up the beloved daughter of wealthy parents in Florida. They are extra attentive as she is born with a heart problem and requires multiple surgeries as a child. At age eight, in the ER, she meets Andy, also age 8. Waiting alone in the ER, he has a broken arm, and Rachel calms him down with stories. While it's a short meeting, the two leave a clear impression on each other, even as children. Obviously, the premise of the novel is that Rachel and Andy will meet again, so when they do so in high school it doesn't come as a big shock. In fact, one of things Weiner does so well with this story is weaving a compelling tale, despite the reader knowing that Rachel and Andy will run into each other, over and over. It's definitely rough in some spots and jumps around a bit, but it's an enjoyable read. Rachel is an interesting character, if not always a likable one, but she comes across as human and real. Andy is a little harder to get to know, but he too is an intriguing character. The book makes a big show comparing Rachel's wealthy upbringing and Andy's impoverished childhood in Philadelphia - sometimes it seems a bit forced, but it brings up some good points about the class system. Some of the plot is a little unrealistic and it wraps up rather predictably, but I still found this a fun read and more enjoyable than some of Weiner's last couple of books.

Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories - Katherine Heiny. This collection of short stories started off strongly, and I found myself drawn into the web Heiny creates for her characters. The majority of her stories feature women and after the first couple ended, I found myself disappointed that we wouldn't get to know more about the characters. (There is one group of characters that she re-visits throughout a couple of stories in the collection, which does help sate your curiosity a bit.) Because I devoured this book so quickly - over less than two days - I was a bit fatigued by the end. Most of the stories feature adultery in some form or another, and frankly, that got a bit old in the end. That would really be my only issue with the story set. By the end, you're thinking "really? again!" and wondering if these women have anything else to do to occupy their time. Otherwise, this collection is vibrant and poignant and at times, made me laugh out loud. I found myself tagging pages where lines were just so hilarious, I wanted to jot them down for safe-keeping: it's rare when that happens. And again, even though the stories were brilliant little nuggets, so many of the characters were so intriguing, I found myself wishing I could read more about them. I just wish they had a little more to do than cheat on each other all the time.

Where She Went - Gayle Forman. This is a sequel, of sorts, to "If I Stay" and picks up three years after Mia leaves Adam to start a new life at Juilliard. We learn that Mia has become a star in her own right, while Adam is rock star: the main focus of his band, Shooting Star. He has a celebrity girlfriend, a major tour, and a crazy life. But is he happy? And is Mia content with the choice she made to walk away from Adam? This book is told from Adam's point of view and we learn about how Mia's decision has left him devastated. It's another rather short book, but it's also lovely. I am not sure exactly how to describe it. I liked "If I Stay," but I truly loved "Where She Went" -- it was beautiful and poignant and touching. Even though Adam (and Mia) could be a bit frustrating at times, it was certainly a worthwhile read.

Little Black Lies - Sharon Bolton. This was a great book - I love all of Bolton's Lacey Flint novels (read them, if you haven't!), but this standalone is excellent, too. It's told from the varying viewpoints of three people - Catrin, her ex-best friend Rachel, and Catrin's acquaintance, Callum, a former solider who was once stationed on the island. Catrin is still reeling from the loss of her two sons nearly three years ago. Her grief and anger is exacerbated by the fact that Catrin blames her (now former) best friend, Rachel, for their deaths. They both live on the isolated community of the Falkland Islands, where people generally know one another - and everyone's business. When several children go missing over a short period of time, even the tight-knit community must admit that something is going on. Catrin finds herself drawn into the search for the latest missing boy, despite the fact that she just wishes to wallow in her grief as the third anniversary of her sons' death approaches. Bolton goes back and forth over a short time period, slowly unraveling events, first from Catrin, then Callum, and finally Rachel. It's a mesmerizing approach, as we try to decipher how much to trust each of our narrators. During each character's turn, I found myself completely enthralled and wrapped up in their life. I eventually stayed up far too late the final night, frantically finishing the book to find out what happened. Bolton created yet another fascinating mystery that will have you guessing the entire time.

The Bones of You - Debbie Howells. When local village teenager Rosie disappears -- and later is discovered murdered, fellow villager Kate is understandably upset. Kate has a daughter Rosie's age and also spent a little bit of time with the quiet teen and knew her mother, Jo, somewhat. Rosie's murder causes quite a stir, especially because her father, Neal, is a well-known journalist. Kate becomes closer to Jo after Rosie's death and starts to learn more about Jo, Neal, and Rosie's younger, Delphine. As she gets pulled into the family's secrets, Kate finds herself more and more intrigued and confused about what happened to Rosie. I tore through this book in a couple of days. It's compelling and chilling. The book switches narrators and we "hear" from Rosie, as well, but the format isn't hokey or silly, as it often can be if done incorrectly. I figured out some of the plot fairly early on, but it didn't make the book any less complex or exciting. The characters are well-drawn and interesting, and there's just *something* about the book that draws you in.

Ms. Conception - Jen Cumming. I tore through this book in two days, and I think my heart pounded through a good two thirds of it. Parts of it were almost too heart-breakingly painful to read. Cumming's novel is like no other I've read in perfectly depicting the hard, emotional struggle of infertility. There's so much I identified with in the novel, which certainly helped lead to my 4-star rating. I am not 100% sure that the book would resonate as much with those who haven't been through this, though I honestly wish I had had this book to give to all those "well-meaning" individuals who had "helpful" advice during my own infertility struggles, because I really do think it shows how hard the process is on a couple. Abby is desperate to get pregnant. After several years of marriage (and trying to conceive), she and her husband, Jack, enter the roller coaster life of fertility clinics. Along the way, Abby is juggling a busy career, her slightly insane mother-in-law, and her own quirky mom and sister. Cumming does a good job of portraying humor in Abby's difficult journey - it's the only way Abby can survive. Her stories of the full bladder trials during IVF, for instance, are funny and spot on. So much, though, is serious and very carefully portrayed -- Abby's focus on a home project after each negative test; her studious avoidance of babies; dreaming nine months forward about potential holidays -- anyone who has struggled like Abby will identify. She captures the aching loss of Abby beautifully -- I actually hurt as I read this book. Overall, I would have potentially liked to have seen a little more character development about Abby - you don't get much backstory about her yen for children. Still, the book is amazing in its ability to make you feel like Abby and hurt with each negative test and setback. It's the most accurate (yet compelling) fictional journey of infertility, IUIs, and IVF I've read in quite some time.

Breathe, Annie, Breathe - Miranda Kenneally. I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I picked it up on a total whim (having received an ARC) and really enjoyed it. First, I have to state that apparently this is part of Kenneally's "Hundred Oaks" YA series, which I didn't know. It definitely can stand alone, however. Annie is finishing up high school and training for a marathon. She's never been a runner - in fact, she hates it. However, Annie is running in honor of her late boyfriend Kyle, who never had a chance to run the marathon for which he was training. Annie is a very mature kid, which took a bit of getting used to. She was definitely in a very developed relationship early in life and she came across older than her years. However, we learn that she's been on her own a bit - her dad was never around and her Mom has been busy working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat. So her maturity works, overall. Annie is struggling with guilt over Kyle's death. She starts to find relief in her marathon training. She also starts to find relief in Jeremiah, the brother of her training coach. Jeremiah is unlike anyone Annie has ever known. This was a simple, YA love story. You pretty much know where it's going to go. But it was surprisingly sweet and touching and well-done. Annie is an extremely likable character. Her maturity lends her some credence not always found in YA characters. I also found myself quite swept up in Jeremiah (not unlike Annie), who was also different from the typical YA beau.
Overall, this is probably really a 3.5 star novel, but I just enjoyed the story so much, I bumped it up to 4.

The Shadow Cabinet - Maureen Johnson. I loved this book. I am sure Johnson's Shade of London series isn't for everyone, but I've fallen for American-based Rory, a transplant in London, who can now see ghosts. It sounds preposterous, but Johnson has made it work- and work well- in all three novels so far. I love Rory, I love her character, and I love the group of people she's come to surround herself in London - far away from the home she knows in New Orleans. *spoilers if you haven't read the first two books - which you should, immediately!*
In book three, Rory is dealing with the grief of losing Stephen, as the team frantically tries to find his ghost. They are also trying to find her prefect, Charlotte, who was kidnapped by Rory's therapist, Jane. We learn more about Jane and her past involvement in an ancient cult and a likely string of murders. It all involves a much bigger plot involving London's ability to harness its dead, and the existence of a murky, rumored government organization who polices ghosts. We also meet a new character in this novel, Freddie (a girl), who is quite bright, but of whom I still remain suspicious - silly, perhaps, but it's so hard to trust new people coming into the gang. We see more of Jerome, which is nice, and Boo and Callum, of course. There's actually less focus on actual ghosts than you'd think and more on some big conspiracies, but it all works, really well. The camaraderie of the team, and the way Johnson voices Rory is just lovely, and the book reads so well. Even what should be a crazy plot is made readable and believable through the lens of these developed characters.

Michael Jordan: The Life - Roland Lazenby. I'm a huge Michael Jordan fan, so I was excited to read this book. It was definitely a worthwhile read, especially if you're a basketball, MJ, or Chicago Bulls fan. The level of detail is amazing, and I learned a lot about Michael's early years, especially, as well as some great facts about his college selection process, his first deals with Nike and such. If you're a sports geek, you'll eat this stuff up. The book picks up speed once Michael joins the Bulls and sort of blows through his Championships. I get it - there are plenty of other reads about those events (including some by Lazenby himself, I believe), but I wouldn't have minded a few more details about some of his years with the Bulls. If those years go by quickly in the book, his time after the Bulls is really glossed over. For me, that was the one real disappointment of this biography. That's sort of the part of MJ that's such a mystery and it was a little sad not to know more about what he's up to these days. There is, however, some great information about his time with the Wizards organization. All told, even when some of the years pass by quickly, the book is a worthy read. I think it presents a pretty fair portrait of Jordan. He's recognized as a hero to many, but Lazenby certainly brings in quotes and perspectives from all sides, including those who don't always sing his praises. You learn a lot about MJ's childhood and family make-up and how it created the determined, competitive individual that he is. If you're a fan, there are some quotes that will make you laugh out loud and other passages that will fascinate you. And there are plenty of little tidbits you can trot out at dinner parties... (ok, ok, maybe just with your other sports nerds friends. But there are lots of fun stories and facts throughout the book!). By the end you'll know a lot about Michael, but still be left wondering a bit. But perhaps that's the key to Jordan all along.

And finally, my three favorite books read in 2015:

*Everything, Everything- Nicola Yoon. I waited for my library to get this one in for what felt like months, but it was worth the wait. This was a lovely and touching book. I fell head over heels for Maddy and Olly and their angsty, teen love. Madeline Whittier (Maddy) has SCID, an immunity disorder (think "bubble boy") that confines her to her home. Even stepping outside could kill her. Therefore, she lives alone with her Mom, limited to contact with her and her nurse, Carla. For most of her seventeen years, Maddy has been fine with this, until Olly and his family move next door. Suddenly, Maddy finds herself questioning everything about her life. The book is fun, with the writing interspersed with Maddy's drawings and sketches (done by Yoon's husband). A scene with a bundt cake is priceless (trust me). Maddy's voice is fresh and it's interesting to "see" the world through her eyes -- as someone who hasn't been outside since she was a baby. The supporting characters are spare, due to Maddy's limited life, but I loved her nurse, Carla, and Olly. Maddy's mom is a formidable character, as well. The book takes on a lot - Maddy's illness, domestic violence, teen love, mental illness - I think a lesser author could have easily stumbled. It's not perfect, of course, but I still found myself swept up in Maddy's life and story. It's beautiful, touching, and fun.

*Angels Burning - Tawni O'Dell. I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it took me by complete surprise. Part of it was that I felt that I knew the characters. I've grown up with families like these - gone to school with them, live near them now. O'Dell portrayed the town dynamics flawlessly and she did a magnificent job of bringing each character into full detail. Dove Carnahan is Chief of Police in a rural Pennsylvania town. Her job is typically more administrative than investigative. So when a girl's body is found beaten and burned in abandoned part of town, Dove must rally her team's limited resources to find out what has happened. In addition, she must work with the state police, including Chief Nolan, with whom she has a past, to solve the crime. In doing so, Dove becomes entwined with a local redneck family. The crime also brings up memories of the murder of Dove's mother many years ago. Dove is an interesting character - flawed in many ways, but you cannot help but root for her and like her. The entire book felt somewhat familiar, like I'd picked up in the middle of series. (Speaking of, when this ended, I thought, oh I hope O'Dell writes another book featuring Dove.) Dove reminded me a little bit of Kate Burkholder, from Linda Castillo's excellent series - another strong female detective fighting for her hometown. There were a few plot points that seemed a bit unbelievable (at one point, Dove shoots out the tires on a boys' pickup truck, just because he's annoyed her - something that would no doubt get her fired in this crazy media/viral video age we live in), but O'Dell's writing and plot gets you past any missteps. I thought Dove focused a bit too much on worries about her age (she's just turned 50) and her gender -- pointing out how men wouldn't treat her a particular way if she was actually a man. But really, Dove is so excellent at her job that she really just manages to prove that she can do anything - age or gender be damned. The plot is intriguing and compelling and you find yourself drawn into the deceased girl's family and acquaintances, as well as Dove's own family and past. Honestly, when this one was over, I felt sad, which is a rare quality anymore. This excellent book will be available on January 5th.

*Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell. I was late picking up this excellent book by Rowell (published in 2013), but boy, I'm glad I did. I feel like reviewing this book can't do it justice. This was a lovely, amazing, heartwarming, heartbreaking novel. Rowell does an unbelievable job of capturing adolescent love, relationships, and high school life. And not your typical YA cool kids, easy romance, where the protagonists "meet cute" and fall in love on Day 1. Park and Eleanor's friendship isn't easy, their relationship isn't easy: their lives aren't easy. Rowell portrays all of this beautifully, even if it's agonizing to read, without making it seem trite. Park and Eleanor are two of the most developed characters I've read about in ages. They leap off the pages, to the point where I wanted to adopt Eleanor and hug and befriend Park. The book slowed a bit for me in the middle -- the creep of an adolescent relationship can be a bit rough -- but it's worth it. The ending is crushing, in many ways, and I would just about kill for a sequel, even though I can grudgingly probably admit it's best the way it ended. No matter what, a beautiful read-- so worth your time-- and one I'll be recommending to anyone I can find who hasn't read it yet.

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