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My 2014 Reading List

As must be incredibly obvious to anyone who followed this blog in the past, since starting my second blogging venture, Ultimate Bridesmaid, this one has had to take a back seat. The truth of the matter is I just can’t keep up with two regular blogs—in addition to working a full-time job, freelancing and having a life. That said, I’m still reading like crazy and people still ask me for book recommendations. So, I thought it might be fun and helpful to compile a list of the books I’ve read this year with a little mini review for you. It’s not nearly as robust as my previous posting, but it’s something.

A word about my star rating system. It’s on a five-star scale, but I liked anything I rate 3, 4 or 5.

Five: My ultimate favorites

Four: Great books that I loved, with strong writing, but just missing that “wow” factor of a 5-star rating

Three: Solid books that I enjoyed, but a few flaws jump out at me and keep it from being “great.” Also used for books by authors I love that disappoint me.

Two: A book that suffers from a lot of flaws, but had at least one interesting thing (usually the premise) to redeem it. Also books that were just “not for me”

One: Bad. Just bad.

1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Contemporary Fiction + Drugs + Art Theft + Coming of Age
5 stars
     One of my favorite books of the year. Tartt is a true contemporary master. At age 13, Theo survives a terrifying attack near his New York home—his mother does not. Young Theo finds himself passed along between a number of friends and relatives, from a luxury apartment on the Upper East Side to the suburbs of Las Vegas and back again. It’s a long and winding story, but so engrossing and what really sticks with you is the character development. Our antihero Theo is so utterly messed up, but you can’t stop watching him.

2. Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
Contemporary Fiction + British Royals
4 stars    
I’m not sure what the Queen would think of this book, but I quite liked it. It asks the question, “What if the Queen was feeling a bit down and wanted to go on a little trip for the day to cheer herself up?” Unintentionally disguised in a skull-and-crossbones hoodie, the Queen takes the train, asks a few of her subjects about herself and scares the wits out of those charged with watching over her.

3. The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
Historical Fiction, Sweden 1791 + Tarot
2 stars     
I was drawn in by the premise of this one, since I have something of an outsider’s interest in tarot, but the execution of The Stockholm Octavo really let me down. The pacing was all off, either painfully slow or skipping about, and the main character is flat, a sort of cipher through which the author explores Swedish political intrigue. My biggest pet peeve though: the main character is dumb, taking ages to realize things the reader knows at once.

4. The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro
Historical Fiction, Paris 1955 + Perfume
3 stars     
British housewife Grace travels to Paris when she learns she is the sole beneficiary of a mysterious perfumer’s will. This is a great airplane read—light enough that it’s easy reading, but with enough substance to keep you guessing. I liked the perfume angle and even learned a bit.

5. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
Time Traveling + New York + Gender Roles
4 stars
   An excellent entry in what must be becoming a popular new subgenre: time travel or reincarnation fiction. In this case, after the loss of her brother Felix, Greta undergoes a radical shock therapy treatment that catapults her back into time, into the body of another Greta living in 1918 and then 1941. The three Gretas cycle through time as the treatment progresses, each looking for something in the lives of their doppelgängers that they’ve lost in their own time.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Contemporary Fiction + Letter Format + Childhood Lost + Antarctica
5 stars     
Loved this one. One of my top recommendations from the year. It’s quirky, surprising, engrossing, engaging. 15-year-old Bee collects evidence in the form of letters, emails and newspaper clippings in an attempt to find her eccentric and brilliant mother, Bernadette, who has inexplicably disappeared days before a family trip to Antarctica.

7. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Historical Fiction, Iceland 1829 + Female Murderer
4 stars     
Agnes is sentenced to die for the murder of her master. But since prisons are nonexistent in this remote part of Iceland, she’s sent to a croft as a captive to work off her debt to society until her execution can be carried out. I enjoyed this historical fiction’s unique setting, especially since I’ve been to Iceland myself.

8. The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
Contemporary Fiction, India + Class Struggle
4 stars
      A bit of a departure from my usual, but this was an engrossing book that surprised me. Vishnu lies dying on the stairs of the Bombay apartment building where he serves as the errand runner. In something of a pre-death trance, he hears and experiences the family squabbles and class struggles of the inhabitants of the building, from the teenagers of warring families planning to elope to the man who comes to believe Vishnu is an incarnation of the deity whose name he shares.

9. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
Historical Fiction, American West + Orphans
4 stars     
Talmadge has been something of a loner since the disappearance of his sister many years ago, spending his days tending the family’s orchard in California. But when two orphan girls arrive on his property in need of help, Talmadge finds himself opening up for the first time, with life-changing consequences. A touching and beautifully written historical fiction.

10. The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Classic + Mystery + England
4 stars
    Yep, I seriously read every Sherlock Holmes story this year. Since I’m addicted to the BBC television version, I became interested in finding out how closely those stories related to the original, especially in terms of tone. My curiosity was not disappointed.

11. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Contemporary Fiction + Coming of Age + Summer Camp + New York
5 stars
     My Mom recommended this book to me since I’m a former camp counselor because it centers on a group of kids who forms a tight bond at a summer camp for the arts. But while the camp angle drew me in, it’s what comes afterward that’s really interesting. Anyone can relate to this story about how we try to maintain childhood friendships even as our lives (sometimes radically) diverge.

12. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Historical Fiction, England 1910 + Time Traveling + World War I
5 stars     
My second trek into multiple lives/time travel, this is one of my top picks for the year. It’s just so devastatingly sad and incredibly well written. Ursula is born during a terrible snowstorm and doesn’t survive more than a few minutes. And then, after a brief period of darkness, Ursula is born during a terrible snowstorm and does survive at the timely intervention of the housekeeper. We watch as Ursula lives life after life, slowly moving toward some terrible imperative, some future she must finally make her way to.

13. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Historical Fiction, New York 1899 + Mythology
4 stars    
Really enjoyed this one. I do love a good mythological creature and this one gave me two I hadn’t often encountered before. A golem and a jinni find themselves alone and free in turn-of-the-century New York. The golem, a woman created from clay to serve a master, finds herself suddenly without one and at loose ends. The jinni, freed from millennia of imprisonment, struggles to find his place away from his desert home and remember how and why his captivity came to pass.

14. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Alternate History + Crime Noir + Judaism + Alaska
4 stars     
In this alternate history, the U.S. created a safe haven for Jews during World War II, allowing thousands to flee to Alaska and thus save themselves from the Holocaust. Sitka has since operated as a semi-independent Jewish state, but the land lease has almost ended and an entire city of people finds themselves on the cusp of homelessness. Detective Meyer Landsman has other concerns though—namely a series of murders that may be traced to the most religious and secretive sect of their society. Chabon’s story is intriguing, fast-paced and unique—and even taught me a few new Yiddish words!

15. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Contemporary Fiction + Books About Books + An Orphan
3 stars
   Books about booksellers or authors or bookstore owners can sometimes get on my nerves. I can easily get the feeling that the author thinks they’re being quite clever, but really they’re writing about the most obvious topic possible: writing. This entry in  the genre manages to take a fresh twist with the addition of a plucky little orphan abandoned in an independent bookstore and raised by its curmudgeon owner.

16. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Contemporary Fiction + Fantasy and Doomsday Subplots
5 stars     
Oh David Mitchell, you are so weird and wonderful. Will you never cease to try to surprise us? Only you could find a way to make a millennia-long war between two time-controlling secret societies a subplot. Just a blip in the narrative (well, more than a blip, but still). If you loved Cloud Atlas, this will be even more satisfying as Mitchell creates more links between each section, piecing together one complex tale through the eyes of many narrators.

17. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Historical Fiction, Italy 1962 + Contemporary Fiction, Hollywood
3 stars    
In 1962, an Italian innkeeper meets a film starlette who’s come to his remote hotel in a bit of trouble and he never forgets his encounter. Years later, he travels to Hollywood to track her down, with the help of the once-powerful director who is looking for his next big sell. This was a lovely, personal story and the author has a beautiful writing style. It gets bumped down to 3 stars because of the formatting, which distractingly jumps all over the place in terms of time period and narrator.

18. Indexing by Seanan McGuire
Mystery + Fairy Tales
3 stars    
A team of fairy tale police, including a Snow White, an evil stepsister, a Pied Piper and a shoemaking elf, investigate fairy tale crimes. The book was originally published as a digital serial so when you read the chapters all together there is a bit of an episodic feeling that keeps you from getting totally immersed in it. Each new chapter kind of fills you in on what happened “last time,” which makes sense for a periodical release but not when it’s all bound together as a novel. Still, I found this fun. If you like Jaspe Fforde, this is a lite version.

19. Love and Lament by John Milliken Thompson
Historical Fiction, North Carolina 1871 + Family
3 stars     
A solid historical fiction and not unenjoyable, but three stars as it also wasn’t particularly exciting or noteworthy. The story focuses on the youngest daughter in a family of nine and the many misfortunes that befall her kin. The writer is good at character studies, but the plot is slow. If you like this time period, give it a go.

20. The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
Historical Fiction, Malaysia + The Afterlife
2 stars     
This was meh. I was drawn in by the concept, but the execution just didn’t deliver for me. The book was billed as being about a “ghost bride,” a living woman who is married to a dead man. However—spoiler alert—the woman in question never actually becomes a ghost bride though she does have some underworld adventures. My biggest pet peeve was that the main character is one of those who constantly does exactly the thing she shouldn’t do, for no particular reason, or assumes the exact opposite of the truth, again, just because. Don’t be so stupid, main character!

21. Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor
YA Fantasy + Angels and Demons + The Next Cult Addiction
4 stars     
Did you like The Hunger GamesDivergent? Are you shamelessly addicted to YA fantasy novels? Look no further for your next addiction. But you’ll have to start with Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the first book in this series. This year I read the third and final book in the trilogy and it did not disappoint (unlike some YA series I’ve heard of…). The plot is inventive and feels fresh and the writing clicks along, making this the kind of book you stay up until 3am reading because you just have to know what happens.

22. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling
Small Town English Life + We’re Not At Hogwarts Anymore, Kids
4 stars
    I finally got around to reading J. K. Rowling’s adult debut and let me start by saying this: if you expect it to be anything like Harry Potter, you will be severely disappointed. This tale is set firmly in the real world, following the struggles of a small town in the English countryside. Be warned, this book is heavy—there’s child abuse, rape, drug abuse, and even death in these pages—but Rowling does confirm herself to be a master of character writing. She has a way of really bringing people onto the page fully formed.

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Title: The Painted Girls

Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan

16138688What it’s about: Paris, 1878. The van Goethem sisters struggle to survive in the poorest neighborhood of Paris. Their father has died and their mother must be constantly watched lest she squander the little money she makes as a laundress on absinthe. Eldest sister Antoinette is sporadically employed as a walker-on at the opera, but the family’s best hope lies with the youngest two daughters, Marie and Charlotte, who have begun their training as petit rats, the youngest ballet girls. Both hope to be promoted first to the quadrille and then up the ranks of the ballet corps. It’s not only a way to make a decent living, but a chance to rise above their birth and become something beautiful and admired.

Painter Edgar Degas sits in on each class, sketching the dancers in a novel way: as they are in the practice room—small, tired and thin—rather than as they are on the stage. He chooses Marie as one of his models, creating portraits of her that ultimately result in a sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie is grateful for the extra money and finds that she is a quick study, becoming one of the more promising students in the class though she began her training later than the other girls. She dares to hope that she may be promoted to the quadrille, but is haunted by the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with her. Marie is a student of the most recent theories on human physiology, which link physical features like a broad forehead or large jaw with criminal behavior and moral degradation. When Marie looks in the mirror, she can’t help but see these features…and wonder when her baser nature will make itself known.

She also sees these features in Antoinette’s lover, Emile Abadie, a roguish youth without a home who spends his money on rounds of drinks at the cafes. Antoinette is enamored with the way he adores her, the pretty words he showers on her, and the two become more deeply involved as they work together as permanent extras in a sensational new play depicting the bleak lives of the working class—a plot all too close to home. Blinded by her devotion to Emile, Antoinette refuses to admit that she is drifting away from her sisters and compromising her chance at a good and honest life.

The Painted Girls was everything I look for in historical fiction. All of the main characters are real figures, but their stories have been massaged in some cases to intersect. Marie really was the model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and Antoinette really did act in the adaptation of Zola’s naturalist novel on the stage, but the insertion of Abadie (another historical figure) into her life is a liberty—but one I didn’t mind. Since Buchanan has chosen to chronicle the lives of such peripheral figures—not kings and queens, but average people—there’s little chance of jarring us with a bit of historical play. The Painted Girls concentrates on the story of sisterhood and finds its strength therein. It’s an absorbing novel, balancing the emotional weight of poverty and class strife with the grace of the ballet and the hope of childhood.

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In which we enter a world where libraries have armed agents to enforce late fees and toast parlors are all the rage

Title: The Woman Who Died A Lot

Author: Jasper Fforde

Disclaimer for the uninitiated: What you are about to read is a review of the seventh book in a long-running series. Be warned that reading this review will probably lead to severe confusion and potential psychotic babbling without first having read the previous six volumes. If uninitiated, please direct your attention to The Eyre Affair and prepare to enter the world behind the written word. Highly recommended for all book lovers, very comedic, but may contain dodo birds.

What it’s about: Following an assassination attempt in the Book World, the once-great Thursday Next finds herself mildly incapacitated with a limp and a possible addiction to pain patches. But Thursday can’t stay out of the line of fire for long, especially if she plans to take on the role of Chief Librarian for the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at Fatso’s Drinks Not Included Library Service. Plus, there’s the problem on the eminent smiting of downtown Swindon by an angry Deity if her sixteen-year-old genius daughter Tuesday isn’t able to get the Anti-Smite Shield up and running by Friday. Following the eradication of the Chronoguard, her son Friday is now without function and his Letter of Destiny helpfully indicates that he’ll be put away for murder on Friday as well. A bunch of fabricated Thursdays seem bent on replacing her, who knows why, and she now has a tattoo on her hand to remind her that her daughter Jenny is just a mindworm—though why she has it is unclear since Landen’s the one who believes in her anyway, right?

Though I usually enjoy the Book World more than Thursday’s real world, I was pleasantly surprised with this Thursday installment. The key was in Thursday herself, who has changed a lot since her early days of guns-blazing bids for glory. Thursday is definitely showing her age—she can barely stand up without help, let alone draw her weapon on a Goliath agent in a firefight. So this time around, Thursday has to use her smarts and learn to trust others when she’s in a jam. The older, wiser Thursday was a welcome switch for me. I also enjoyed the wealth of library jokes and strongly encourage Mr. Fforde to go into production on his “Don’t Give Me Any of Your Shit—I’m A Librarian” T-shirts as fast as possible.

Would I recommend? Certainly. Longtime Thursday fans won’t be disappointed and may be happy to see this new development in the Nextian universe.

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In which we see Brooklyn in a bygone era through the eyes of a bookish young narrator

Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Author: Betty Smith

What it’s about: Francie Nolan thinks that Brooklyn has a sort of magic. It’s unlike any other place in the world, even better than New York City.  She lives in Williamsburg at the turn of the century with her beautiful but stoic mother who makes a living as a cleaning woman, her kind but often-drunk father who works intermittently as a singing waiter, and her younger brother Neelie who is her partner in adventure and misfortune. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie’s childhood, but also purely captures a long-ago moment in history. It’s the story of a poor immigrant family slotting pennies into a tin can bank in hopes of one day owning a piece of land. Francie’s mother invents a game called Arctic Explorer, in which the children pretend they’re lost in the far North waiting for rescue care packages to arrive when there’s nothing in the house to eat. But there are many moments of happiness as well. Francie loves to sit perched on her fire escape with a book in her lap, visiting the library every day to borrow a book. She loves the good days spent with her father, waiting up at night to hear him singing “Molly Malone” in the hallway and racing to the door to open it before the final note.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those classics that somehow fell through the cracks of my reading history and I’m only getting around to now. I am glad that my first reading comes while I’m living in New York, because it adds an extra dimension to Francie’s life to know what’s become of the neighborhoods she describes and to read about the city in a bygone era. Pre-WWI New York is fascinating in its differences from today and Betty Smith seems to know just the right scenes to convey everyday life in a way that’s compelling and endearing. I found myself engrossed in scenes that described how Francie’s mother would go about paying for dinner and which shops they would visit and how they would haggle. These details might have seemed mundane at the time, but to read them now is truly a treasure. Smith has a beautiful voice that adds weight and dignity to the smallest daily concern.

You also care passionately for her characters since they are so uncompromisingly real. Francie loves her father more than anyone else in the world, but also is completely aware that he can’t support the family. A child’s love and adoration is mixed up with an adult understanding of the world. Francie and Neely are adult-children, all too familiar with hunger, poverty and unfairness. But their youth also gives them resilience and they turn out just fine.

Would I recommend? Yes! In the same vein as I Capture The Castle or Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of a girl growing up and evokes a particular place and time with stunning detail. A must-read American classic.

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In which whales fly, lizards talk and World War I starts off a little different than you remember

Title: Leviathan

Author: Scott Westerfeld

What it’s about: Imagine for a moment that bioengineering and robotics had been invented in the early 1900s and taken off at an astonishing rate. The British latched onto Darwin’s findings and before you could say “Dr. Doolittle” they were splicing genes together to create fabricated beasts for labor and war. A whole class of animals has been bred to breathe hydrogen and now creatures of the sea have taken to the sky as giant breathing airships. Meanwhile, the Germans have developed colossal walking machines piloted by men, from two-man walkers the size of a tank to giant roving battle-stations stomping about on eight legs. Scott Westerfeld takes us into this world through two points of view: Deryn, a gifted young airwoman who has lied her way into a post as a midshipmen in the British Air Service on the whale fabricant Leviathan; and Alexsander, the son of an Austro-Hungarian archduke whose wife’s less-than-royal blood has kept Alexsander from being next in line for the throne.

Westerfeld creates a clever bridge between actual European history and the events of his alternative timeline. The novel opens just after the now infamous assassination of Alexsander’s father the archduke, which sparks World War I (though Franz Ferdinand did have children, none were truly named Alexsander). From there we see the battle lines drawn out in much the same way as they really progressed, but this time the conflict is at heart an ideological one between “Darwinists” (nature and science) and “Clankers” (mechanics and religion). Alexsander is forced to flee with a few members of his household as he is hunted by Austrians and Germans who fear his claim to the throne. A stroke of luck sends Deryn on her first mission, as part of an airship crew escorting a female doctor to the Ottoman Empire with precious but secret cargo.

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I edited The Steampunk Bible. Though Leviathan is YA, it’s certainly something an adult could enjoy. Part of the fun of it is the giant thought experiment that’s occuring and the intriguing mash-up between history and fiction. The Steampunk element comes in through the futuristic revisions—living airships vs robots—but at heart it’s an amazing adventure story. Deryn and Alexsander are compelling POV characters, one a sheltered aristocrat forced out of his family home and into a world as a fugitive, and the other a common girl trying to gain respect in a man’s world. Though they come from different classes, they have more in common than they might guess. Both are hiding their true identities and want to achieve great things but have many hurdles to overcome.

As an added treat there are illustrations sprinkled throughout. While working on Steampunk Bible, I learned that Westerfeld and his illustrator Keith Thompson worked together in a very novel and symbiotic way. Sometimes Westerfeld would describe the scene he wanted illustrated, but Thompson would also produce sketches that would then inspire Westerfeld’s prose. The black-and-white line drawings are striking and add to the historical feeling of the work and the authenticity of the beasts. Since the things Westerfeld describes seem so fantastical and strange at times, they are grounded and made more real by these images.

Would I recommend? Sure! If you enjoyed the His Dark Materials trilogy, I think you’ll love this world as well. I got wrapped up in Westerfeld’s adventure story and can’t wait to come back for part 2.

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In which a genre-bending novel uses a sci-fi premise to examine how we all deal with the reality of mortality

Title: Never Let Me Go

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

What it’s about: Kath, Tommy and Ruth had a happy childhood at Halisham. They kept themselves healthy and developed their art under the care of their guardians, the men and women who were both their tutors and their protectors. But despite their idyllic country home and classical education, the children at Halisham have always known that they’re different from people on the outside. They won’t grow up to be doctors or teachers, they won’t marry or have children. Their paths have been laid out since birth. They will leave Halisham for a few year, then train to become carers. They’ll spend some time driving around the country from one facility to the next, caring for others like themselves. And then they too will begin their donations—four if they’re lucky—and complete by the age of thirty or so.

The story is told through Kath, who has been a carer for twelve years now, a long time but not unprecedented. She’s about to begin her donations and she reflect upon her time at Halisham and her childhood friends, both of whom she cared for herself as they went through their donations. Through her reflections we see the development of these children, their modest hopes for themselves, their accelerated awareness of their place in the world.

Though the concept sounds very sci-fi, the intriguing thing about this book is it hardly reads like it. The topic of donations and the origin of these children is really background noise for a psychological exploration. The story is quiet and emotional, more about their personal connections with one another. It rejects the conventions of the genre—it is not dramatic, action-packed, dire or preachy. But it is raw and intimate. I read an interview with Ishiguro where he addressed this choice and he said he was interested in exploring how people grow up and come to understand mortality and their place in the world, but wanted a condensed time period for this process that we all undergo. We all know on an intellectual level that we’ll die someday. We learn this even when we’re children. And we all accept it. We want more time, but we accept death as a given. It’s not so different for Kath and her friends—they’re just more certain on the timeline.

Would I recommend? I certainly enjoyed it. I will say that if you go into this book with the wrong expectations, you could be disappointed. It’s not a dystopia or a cautionary tale about the boundaries of science and morality. It’s about friendship, love, and personal identity. And clones. If that sounds good to you, pick it up.

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