Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Someday we all will live the dream.

At the beginning of the year, I set a goal on the amazing site, Goodreads, to read 50 books this year. Somehow (basically by ignoring work, chores, and sleep in the evenings!), I surpassed the goal, ultimately reading sixty books in 2014.  If you follow that link, you can take a look at all the books I read in 2014 and my ratings. Note that not all books were published in 2014, of course, they just happened to be books I picked up over the year.

2014 was a good year in books. 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). (I also marked my three favorites of the favorites, in case you want the Cliff Notes version!)

After We Fall (formerly titled Falling) – Emma Kavanagh.  I was pleasantly surprised by this one. The novel is told from the viewpoint from four characters - Tom, a police officer; Celia, a flight attendant and Tom's wife; Jim, a father and former police officer; and Freya, a young student. Their lives intertwine over the course of the book, all centered on a plane that goes down one snowy night. Their stories are superbly told and each character extremely well-drawn-- albeit not always likeable. There are several mysteries that build within the book-- why did the plane go down, of course--along with a murder that's central to the story. You would think with so few characters that the plot would seem trite and the outcome apparent, but Kavanagh does a great job of creating suspense and keeping you on your toes. Just when you think you've figured something out, there's another small surprise.  I found myself completely immersed in the character's lives (I was immediately drawn to Tom, liked Jim and Freya, and had issues with Celia, but that's all just from my own perspective). Definitely a worthwhile read. Quick too, I downed it in a couple of days, even though I was staying up until all hours wrapping presents! (Read via Netgalley ARC; After We Fall will be published 6/1/2015)

The Burning Room – Michael Connelly. Another great Bosch novel (#19!) by Connelly, though the ending left me a bit unsettled. I love Bosch like an old friend. In this chapter, Bosch is still solving Open-Unsolveds, this time with a rookie partner, Soto. They wind up with a politically charged case, which soon looks to be tied to another old case – this one that has personal ties for Soto. It’s another great mystery, per usual, and the way Connelly voices Bosch is just soothing to me. But, then of course, this comes from the person who read about 15 Bosch books while pregnant. He’s kept me company through a lot. 

One Plus One – Jojo Moyes. One of my favorite books of the year. It’s sort of silly and outlandish in plot, but you don’t care, because you’re just riveted, wanting to read it as quickly as possible. Jess is a down-on-her-luck mom of two (her daughter, Tanzie, plus stepson Nicky), whose husband has abandoned her so she must work two jobs to make ends meet. She meets Ed, a millionaire who is also a bit down-on-his-luck (oh just some investment fraud charges and such) while cleaning his vacation home. Eventually Ed comes to their rescue (literally, as the family is sitting on the side of the road) and helps drive them to a math competition for young Tanzie, who is a maths expert. Along the way, a lot happens. You’d think the novel would be pat and predictable, but it’s really just… lovely. And one of the few books I’ve really loved that I actually think would make a good movie, provided I can approve all casting choices, of course.  **2014 favorite**

Blue Lily, Blue – Maggie Stiefvater. Two Maggie books in one year. Insanity. This is the third book in Stiefvater’s “The Raven Cycle,” which is a series not exactly for the faint of heart, as it details a mystical and crazy dreamland world. But it’s a beautiful and captivating series. The third book does not disappoint. The series follows Blue, the daughter of a psychic and her friends from a local boy’s school – the beautiful Gansey, who is chasing King Glendower; the volatile Rowan; and Adam, a local boy on scholarship. To describe the series, I only have to tell you that Blue and her mother can see the dead once a year and that she knows that Gansey will eventually die. And Blue also knows that she can’t kiss her true love, or he will die. Oh and Rowan can dream anything he wants to life (his father could do the same and actually dreamed his mother into existence). And yet, none of this seems too crazy when you read these books. In this installment, the gang continues their search for Gansey’s king, Blue suffers a horrible loss, and they meet someone who actually knew Glendower…

Leaving Time – Jodi Picoult. I actually really enjoyed this Picoult novel, and I haven’t really been a huge fan of some of her later works. It tells the story of Jenna, who lost her mother in a sad accident at an elephant sanctuary. Trying to find her, Jenna goes through her old research journals and enlists the help of two kooky characters: a dejected psychic, Serenity, and an even more dejected PI, Virgil. The story follows their journey to find Jenna’s mother, Alice, along with flashbacks into Alice’s life and how she met Jenna’s father. It also contains A LOT of research and information about elephants. As in, probably, more than you’d ever like to know. You will probably skim that a bit – a lot of readers have complained about it – but I didn’t find it detrimental to the story, just a tad supplemental. The story features one of Picoult’s crazy twists, and Jenna is just such a complete and complicated character that you can’t help but root for her, poor kid. 

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust – Alan Bradley. I can't help it. I just find Flavia de Luce absolutely delightful. I want to be her friend, her confidante, her laboratory buddy. This novel finds Flavia in Canada, navigating boarding school after discovery that she's to be inducted in the same secret society as her mother. Perhaps I envisioned a bit more secret-spy training for Flavia than the book delivered - instead, immediately upon her arrival, a dead body falls out of a chimney, and Flavia sets upon her usual course - proving the adults wrong and finding out whodunnit. It's a formula that still hasn't gotten old, because Bradley simply writes Flavia so well. She is such an amazing character - so likable, so true to herself. I can just picture her in the situations in which she finds herself, and imagine the adults around her and their expressions. Flavia has some good interactions with both her fellow students and teachers at this new academy -- many of whom knew her mother, the late Harriet. She proves herself a worthy detective, again, of course, using her wits and chemistry. The whole Nide business is still a bit odd and confusing to me. I suppose that's the point, but it's hard not to have some resolution - though I suppose we are supposed to be sharing Flavia's similar frustration at this point. Nevertheless, I am amazed at Bradley's ability to continue to write books that so embody this character. I often try to envision a Flavia film and then find myself hoping it never happens, as I would hate to have the Flavia in my head ruined by the movies. Definitely worth a read, as always, and now I'm left bereft that I'll have to wait over a year for the next installment of Flavia's adventures. (I read this via a Netgalley ARC; it will be published 1/6/15.)

The Same Sky – Amanda Eyre Ward. Another one of my absolute favorites of the year. It is just a beautiful book. Ward's writing is simply lovely and magical. When I finished the book, I was left feeling a bit disappointed - not by the plot or the writing, but that it was over. It's one of those novels that I'll be recommending to everyone. The Same Sky tells the story of two unique individuals. The first is Alice, a forty-year-old living in Texas, with her husband. Together, they run a successful BBQ restaurant and appear incredibly happy. But they've been through a long and sad string of infertility, and Alice is left empty by the latest episode - a birth-mother taking back a baby promised to her, after Alice spent the night with the baby she thought was going to be hers. Alice's chapters alternate with those of Carla, a young girl in Honduras. Carla's mother leaves for America early in the story, leaving Carla with her grandmother and one of her younger twin brothers. Carla's voice is just amazing. Ward captures this young teenager perfectly. I'm not sure how you can read this book and not fall completely for Carla. There are times when I didn't completely love Alice, or when I wanted to shake her, but Carla - I just wanted to hug her and take her home. As you read the novel, Alice and Carla's stories are completely separate, which is fascinating. They provide an intriguing commentary on our society and the American Dream -- Alice seems to have it all in America, but she feels empty due to her childless state. And Carla wants nothing more than to come to America to be with her mother. I simply loved the book - I won't give away any more of the plot, but it was well-written and beautiful. (I read this via a Netgalley ARC; the book will be published on 1/20/15.) **2014 favorite**

Natchez Burning – Greg Iles. Apparently this book is even longer than The Goldfinch and I picked it up as a “beach read.” Hmm. Genius that I am, I didn’t realize it’s actually the fourth in a Penn Cage series by Iles until I was too far into the plot to stop, so oh well. He apparently wrote three Cage novels earlier and then this one later, so it does stand alone, if you’re willing to be a bit confused. It was still a really good read about Penn Cage, mayor of a small Southern town, who unwittingly stumbles upon a series of racist crimes as he tries to exonerate his father, the exalted Dr. Tom Cage, from a crime. The story flashes back 40 years to the times of MLK, the Kennedys, and the KKK. It’s amazing, and there are so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of them sometimes. But the book is stunning and the characters are so fully drawn that they truly seem real, and you’ll start to get confused about what history is real and what Iles is making up for Burning. My only warning if you read this – Burning is apparently the first in the second half of another trilogy of Penn Cage novels, so if you read this huge book looking for complete resolution… well, forget it!

Like This, For Ever – S.J. Bolton. I can’t remember how I discovered the Lacey Flint series, but I’m glad I did. I need another spunky detective in my life, even if she does frustrate me to no end. (Just accept that Joesbury loves you already, Lacey!) This one is a little tough to read, as it centers around a series of murders of young boys, but the plot certainly keeps you guessing. As always, Lacey finds herself at the center of trouble (shocking, I know). 

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty. I would basically read anything Moriarty publishes by now. Her books are just witty and fun and usually a good story. This one is no exception. This is the story of several moms with kids in the same school in Australia (perfectionist Madeline; beautiful Celeste; and newcomer Jane). Moriarty is great at creating distinct characters. At the beginning of this one, we’re told there’s been a murder, and the whole book unfolds leading up to that day, coupled with police statements taken by those in attendance. You get some lovely (and heartbreaking) stories from the women in question, along with a pretty good mystery. Hard to go wrong with that. 

Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healy. One of my all-time favorite reads of this year. It’s poignant and heartbreaking and gorgeous, with pieces that will make you laugh out loud. It’s really hard to believe that this is Healy’s first novel. It tells the story of Maud, who is suffering from memory loss, and who is convinced her best friend, Elizabeth, is missing and in trouble. As we hear from Maud, we meet her daughter Helen, who bears the burden of caring for her, various other paid caretakers, and Elizabeth’s son. We also get glimpses into the past, as Maud remembers back to times spent with her sister, Sukey. I can’t really describe how lovely this book is, or how perfectly Healy seems to capture Maud’s memory disintegrating as the novel carries on. I recommended this book to my Mom, who is caring for an ailing parent, thinking she’d find some comfort in Helen’s story, and Maud’s too, and she also loved it. It’s really amazing. **2014 favorite**

Sinner – Maggie Stiefvater. I pretty much always love Maggie’s books, and it has nothing with her attending the same college as me. I vacillated on my 4 star rating for this one, but I sort of see this as a love letter, of sorts, to fans of her Shiver trilogy (this is billed as Shiver #4, or a standalone companion). If you’ve read the Shiver books (and you should, they’re so much fun), you’ll remember Cole and Isabel – this novel follows Cole and Isabel, post all the adventures in the earlier books. It’s lovely and beautiful and sad and funny and all the emotions a Maggie book usually brings into your life.  

That Night – Chevy Stevens. This was a bit of an “It book” this year, but it was definitely worth picking up. Toni is a fairly typical rebellious teen, until her younger sister is murdered. Toni and her boyfriend are sent to prison for the crime. The book centers on Toni and Ryan—both out on parole—trying to figure out life after prison. The two aren’t supposed to have contact, but each is determined to prove their innocence. The story alternates between past and present and it’s surprisingly engrossing, even if I wanted to kick Toni sometimes for being so stupid.  

The Divorce Papers – Susan Rieger. This was one of those books that surprised me. It was a book told entirely through correspondence (emails, letters, legal papers, etc.) and while it takes a bit to get used to (some of the legal stuff is really… legal), it’s an engaging book. The protagonist, Sophie, is a young criminal lawyer with no interest in divorce law whatsoever. But she winds up taking on one of the firm’s most important clients, Mia (through no fault of her own) and landing the case. By doing so, Sophie earns the ire of others in her firm and gets to tackle Mia, who is no easy client. But Sophie is fun, Mia is a trip, and the whole book is quite enjoyable – and a bit crazy to look at the legal battles the rich go through! 

The One & Only – Emily Giffin. I’ve read a lot of Emily Giffin’s so-called fluffy “chick lit” books and apparently, this book was pretty polarizing in its plot. I fell on the really loved it spectrum. Admittedly, it’s right up my alley, as it was all about sports and football. Shea is adrift in life, working a dead-end job and stuck in a relationship she doesn’t care for. She starts having feelings for her best friend’s dad, who happens to be a pretty famous football coach. The story seems like it would be unbelievable, but I didn’t think so. Shea was a little clueless at times, but a pretty engaging character. And I, of course, loved all the football references thrown in. 

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt. I resisted reading this book for a while, as it was sort of the “It Book” of late 2013/early 2014, but I’m glad I gave in. Be warned, it’s long, but it’s a worthy and captivating read. It starts with young Theo, who survives a crazy accident that kills his mom. He winds up living with a family of a school friend, and he embarks on this crazing coming of age journey. The book follows him as he grows up, all the while returning to the thread of this painting that reminds Theo of his Mom. I won’t lie, parts of the book are a little wild and weird, but overall, it’s a really amazing story. The kind where you just want to keep reading – chores and kids and jobs and bedtimes be damned – to get to the end. 

Together Alone- Barbara Delinsky. I chose this book to rest my brain, and it was perfect, enjoyable fluff. I basically figured out the plot about 50 pages in and still enjoyed it anyway. It’s part romance, part mystery. Emily’s daughter goes off to college, leaving her with her distant husband. We learn that Emily also had a son who was kidnapped and never found. As Emily grapples with her daughter growing up and her husband’s strange behavior, we learn more about her young son’s disappearance. The novel is silly but enjoyable and a fast read.  

Josie & Jack – Kelley Braffet. This book was mesmerizing and weird. It sucked you into the story of the two siblings, basically living alone in a creepy old house with their abusive father, who leaves them to their own devices. It's not for the faint of heart, for sure. Josie is a not an easy character to like (her brother even less so), but the story is rather spellbinding. I'd compare it to another book, but I feel like that would be too much of a spoiler to anyone interested in reading it. I give the whole book minus the epilogue 4 stars. The epilogue didn't seem necessary. Still, a worthy read.

Lock and Key – Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen became my new "read all her books like a crazy person" obsession in March. I really enjoyed this book. Ruby, at 17, winds up living with her estranged sister after her mother disappears. Her sister and her husband have money and Ruby has to start her life basically over. Ruby was a very realistic character, and for some reason, I really liked her brother-in-law, too. I couldn't put the book down. I was completely immersed in Ruby's coming of age tale.

Someone Like You – Sarah Dessen. This was a very engrossing YA novel about Halley, whose best friend Scarlett's boyfriend passes away. Lots of rather outlandish things seem to happen, but Halley is a very lovable character and you find yourself rooting for her. Somehow it all seems believable nonetheless.

The Accidental Tourist – Anne Tyler. This book was different than I usually read. At first, I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it (the protagonists are splitting up after the death of their son). The novel focuses on the husband, where I thought I wanted it to focus on the wife. But it turned out to be very enjoyable, though I cannot pinpoint why. Macon goes on his own little journey of self-discovery and you go right along with him. He's a quirky guy and it's a quirky book, but also deep, if that makes any sense.

Someday, Someday Maybe – Lauren Graham. Well, you have to take my review with a grain of salt, because I love anything Lauren Graham does. The end of the book told me she also has a MFA. What? Whatever, Lorelai Gilmore/Sarah Braverman. Frankly, I kept imagining those characters writing this as I read it, or seeing Franny, the main character, as one of those characters. The story was a tad predictable in places, but that's (let's be honest) the kind of story I like. Franny was very likable and it was a very fun and engaging tale.

The Mothers – Jennifer Gilmore. This book was very well-written and almost hard to read. Jesse and her husband Ramon have spent years trying to get pregnant and are now turning to adoption. It presents an extremely accurate portrayal about infertility and I bet about the adoption process, too. The main character is almost unlikable, but also real -- like a friend you would find frustrating, but love anyway. I just enjoyed it. It was a good read.

Feeling Sorry for Celia – Jaclyn Moriarty. OK, so in January, I read a bunch of books by this woman's sister (seriously, how do families get all this talent in one place?), so I decided to try Jaclyn's books. This novel is in a different format (all letters, some of which are from imaginary societies or people) but features a very engaging heroine. Elizabeth is in high school, dealing with a flighty best friend who keeps disappearing. The story unfolds via a series of letters between Elizabeth and her mom; a pen pal from another school; Celia (the flighty best friend); imaginary societies, etc. Elizabeth is winsome - no other way to put it and the format grows on you rather quickly. I didn't want it to end, because I'd grown attached to the kid!

The Hypnotist’s Love Story – Liane Moriarty. As you see, I'm not a discerning rater. I rate based on pure enjoyment or not, not some sort of literary prowess. This tells about Ellen, a hypnotherapist who falls for Patrick. All is great, except Patrick has a stalker -- his ex-girlfriend. The book is mainly from Ellen's point of view, but we hear from her (the stalker) sometimes, too. Very poignant story in some ways. I really enjoyed this one.

The Faraday Girls – Monica McInerney. I was surprised I liked this as much as I did. The story of a father and his five daughters, whom he brings up after his wife's death. It focuses on them mostly in their adulthood. One has a baby, Maggie, and part of the novel skips forward to Maggie as a young adult. They were a very dysfunctional family, but quite fun to read about.

What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty. I read The Husband's Secret and then got on a kick reading the rest of Liane's books (bought the first one and then found the rest via the library or Oyster, so I didn't feel too guilty about it). In this one, Alice hits her head at the gym and wakes up thinking she's 29 and pregnant, despite the fact that she's actually 39. She's forgotten the last 10 years of her life. The book chronicles her struggle to get her memory back. The ending is a probably a little pat, but I really liked this one.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The best thing you've ever done for me is to help me take my life less seriously.

I recently received a copy of Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting via Netgalley in return for an honest review.

This book is quite engaging and an incredibly quick read – I downed in it in a few days after Christmas. The characters in it are quite that – characters, for sure. The main one is Tallulah “Lulu” de Longland, who befriends young Annabelle Andrews in grade school and finds her life transformed (and not always for the better) by their friendship. 

This book has some great pieces – Lulu’s relationship with her parents, the steady Harry, a plumber, who is always there for Lulu, her twin brothers, and her mother Rose, who suffers from depression. It’s nice to see a fairly honest and yet original treatment of depression in a novel (not to give too much away but Rose names her dresses and her family gauges her behavior by what dress she’s wearing – it’s a neat little add). We also get Annabelle’s quirky parents, Annie and Frank, both artists, who don’t always do her any favors. And then there’s Josh, Lulu’s high school boyfriend, who leaves a lasting imprint on both Lulu and Annabelle.  And finally, we get Duncan, Lulu’s eventual employer, a true character (on radio) who works so hard to change Lulu’s life. 

But it’s Lulu who truly has to make the decision – once a good girl, always a good girl?

I found Lulu a very enjoyable character (for the most part, though I wanted to kick her into gear sometimes) and her supporting cast was fun for the most part. The plot is very fantastical—a stretch even for me, and I can buy just about anything. Still, it’s a fun, worthy read. (3.5 stars)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

When chimney smoke hangs still and low across the stubbled fields of snow.

I was pleasantly surprised by Emma 's "After We Fall." I requested it on a whim from Netgalley and it had the dubious distinction of being the novel that followed the latest Michael Connelly Bosch book (and in my eyes, Connelly and Bosch can do no wrong).

The novel is told from the viewpoint from four characters  - Tom, a police officer; Celia, a flight attendant and Tom's wife; Jim, a father and former police officer; and Freya, a young student. Their lives entertwine over the course of the book, all centered around a plane that goes down one snowy night. Their stories are superbly told and each character extremely well-drawn-- albeit not always likeable. There are several mysteries that build within the book-- why did the plane go down, of course--along with a murder that's central to the story.

You would think with so few characters that the plot would seem trite and the outcome apparent, but Kavanaugh does a great job of creating suspense and keeping you on your toes. Just when you think you've figured something out, there's another small surprise.  I found myself completely immersed in the character's lives (I was immediately drawn to Tom, liked Jim and Freya, and had issues with Celia, but that's all just from my own perspective).

Definitely a worthwhile read. Quick too, I downed it in a couple of days, even though I was staying up until all hours wrapping presents!