Sunday, January 01, 2017

the year (2016) in books

Happy New Year!! 2016 was another spectacular reading year. Since 2015's goal of 75 books proved to be unrealistic, I set a challenge to read 61 books, just one more book than I actually read in 2015. Among those books, I vowed to read more short stories and more shelf-sitters. During May, I read at least one short story a day, which you isn't reflected in the total number of books read for the year. I'd like to think the stories added up to at least two books. Throughout my choices, a theme developed--trilogies. I finished the Jane Gardam Old Filth trilogy, which set the bar unbelievably high for literary fiction. It was about the most perfect thing I have read since Kate Atkinson's Ursula Todd duo and the first two of Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy. The second trilogy I read this year was Ben Winters' Last Policeman trilogy. And, I read two more shelf-sitters this year than the year before. Again I continued to supplement reading physical books with ebooks and audio, and I tracked my reading on Goodreads. 

1. Man with the Wooden Hat (Jane Gardam): The second book in the Old Filth trilogy. The first book Old Filth was such a wonderful surprise that it wasn’t difficult to pick up the sequel almost immediately. This was the story of Feathers’ wife Betty, and I think I liked it best.

2. Before the Fall (Noah Hawley): Book group read. A quick and satisfying thriller on many levels, except for the ending, which was weak. Hawley writes for TV and the pacing was often set for that genre. This thriller starts with a private plane crash that has two survivors--a struggling artist and the 4 y.o. son of a media mogul. The story is told through the passengers' backstories. Not surprising, this book was one of the summer's biggest beach reads and landed a place on the NYT bestseller list.

3. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Carrie Brownstein): Raw and powerful. It was a quickish read that covered Brownstein's Sleater-Kinney career and emphasized how the band "kept it read," never selling out to the big record labels. As a result, their tours were pretty gritty. 

4. Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt (Caroline Preston): Fun novel told mostly through visuals—vintage ads, postcards, candy wrappers, menus, and more. This 1920s Bohemian romance contained collegiate life (Vassar), ocean liner travel, and a stint in Paris.

5. Last Friends (Jane Gardam): The final book in the Old Filth trilogy is Terry Veneering’s story. Veneering was Feathers’ nemesis and his Betty’s occasional lover. Each book in this series had a unique feel as each focused on a different character. No volume felt retread, but instead revealed more of each character in a layered and satisfying way. High recommend!

6. Tamara Drewe (Posey Simmonds): Shelf sitter. This graphic novel's take on Far From the Maddening Crowd was started, abandoned, started, abandoned. Watched movie. Picked up again. Finally finished. Wish I had Hardy’s novel under my belt before reading Tamara Drewe.

7. Girl with All the Gifts (M.R. Carey): Read at my friend Suzanne’s recommendation. Although it had a slow start, I enjoyed seeing how this zombie novel unfolded. Occasionally too intense for bedtime.

8. Lumberjanes, vol. 2 (Noelle Stevenson et al): Friendship to the max! Kick-ass teenage girls battling the supernatural at summer camp. 

9. Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson): A Conversation with Books 2016 title. Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir about growing up African-American in the 1960s and 70s, felt so brave and beautiful. Written in verse, it knocked my socks off. I was not alone in feeling this way as Woodson was bestowed with countless honors, including the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor. Woodson is a national treasure.

10. The Road to Little Dribbling (Bill Bryson): In which the author retreads Notes from a Small Island. Bryson read the audio version, which was a selling point for me right up to the moment early in the book where it appeared that BB seemed to have lost his funny.

11. The Outsiders (M.E. Hinton): My boys have been insisting politely for years that I read The Outsiders, which I somehow missed when I was a teen. True confession: I also haven't seen the movie. The boys each read the book in 7th grade, which was the same year they read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that I hold dear but the boys don't. The Outsiders resonated more with them, and I was curious to see why. As a result, we had some great conversations, sharing notes on the parts of the book that moved us most. More SE Hinton, please.

12. Bloodlines in Berlin (Paul Schue). My friend Paul, a history professor, wrote this novel in his spare time, and generously shared the manuscript with me. Bloodlines is a pre-WW2 mystery/thriller set in Berlin in the 1930s. There is a serial killer whose motivation is racial purification. There are Nazis, natch. The protagonist is a journalist. The novel has great potential despite having been rejected by every publisher and agent to which it was sent. (update: I spoke with Paul on NYE. He's revising the ms., this time dropping the serial killer and focusing on the mystery elements. I'm in favor of that and look forward to reading his revision.)

13. Ready Player One (Ernest Clines): This novel, rich in 80s pop culture, came highly recommended to me, but I have to admit that it started slowly and didn’t gain momentum until Wade started the game. And, then the pace galloped with the speed of a video game. Thrilling. Took me right back to junior high when I stole quarters from my father’s change caddy and hit the arcade with my friends Ann and Kim to play Ms. Pacman, Qbert, Galaga, and Frogger. Much about this book is in oldest son’s wheelhouse so I included a copy in his Christmas bookstack.

14. Knitlandia (Clara Parkes): I found this quick read at the library. The slim volume contains vignettes of knitting and travel destinations, and it was super satisfying. Currently following Parkes on Instagram with no regrets.

15. The Shepherd's Life (James Rebanks): Two summers ago, we spent a week at Yew Tree Farm in the Lake District of England. One of its draws was that it had a small flock of Herdwick sheep. We were obsessed with all the sheep. They were everywhere. And on our many long walks, the boys would collect the wool they found on the ground, on bushes and plants. Rebanks is a third-generation sheepherder in the Lake District and this memoir is a testiment to hard work as well as a portrait of a beautiful landscape, one of my all-time favorites.

16. Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan):  Looking for an escape novel to take with me to Belize, CRA’s juicy, candy-colored cover called to me. It was funny and light and perfect vacation reading.

17. The Last Policeman (Ben H. Winters): At Mr. Bibliotonic’s strong recommendation, Last Policeman, book one in Winters’ near-apocalyptic trilogy also came on vacation with me. The setting was the last months of Earth. The Last Policeman is still fighting crime even though his mission seems pointless. He’s a modern gumshoe, which made for a great character. There are several subplots that are equally compelling. My favorite read of vacation week.

18. Sheepish (Catherine Friend): This memoir told in vignettes was written by a MN sheep farmer who sells fleece for wool, thus touching on two obsessions--sheep and knitting. However, I didn't love the author's voice and would rather the story have had a solid, continuous narrative. 

19. The Nest (Cynthia d'Aprix Sweeney): This novel about a seriously dysfunctional family was captivating and darkly funny. The nest in reference is the inheritance they’re about to receive. Each sibling is counting on the money to save them from their bad life choices. At times, the characters reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s largely unlikeable characters, and I almost liked these better.

20. Gardens of Awe and Folly (Vivian Swift): Another delicately rendered travel journal from Swift. This time the focus is on gardens, particularly those in France. Once again, I have been inspired to flex my watercolor skills.

21. Countdown City (Ben H. Winters): The continuation of the Last Policeman trilogy in which former detective Henry Palace continues to solve crimes against the backdrop of the destruction of earth.

22. World of Trouble (Ben H. Winters): The concluding volume of the Last Policeman trilogy. There is no stopping the asteroid that is on a collision course with earth. Former detective Palace finds sanctuary in the woods with fellow police officers, then goes on one final mission to find his sister’s killer. The series was fantastic.

23. China Rich Girlfriend (Kevin Kwan): Once home from vacation, I also continued to read Kwan's satires of Asia's socially mobile. Very funny and sly. Perfect escape reading.

24. Redeployment (Phil Klay): Winner of the 2014 National Book Award. Last year I dipped into this book during National Short Story Month, and this year, I decided to finish it. These stories are all moving and detail the challenges faced by soldiers at war and at home. I will read whatever Phil Klay writes next.

25. Eligible (Curtis Sittenfield): I listened to the audio version of Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, which was fun. In fact the first 11 chapters got me through crown repair at the dentist, and I was grateful for the sly, stylish, funny writing.

26. The Only Street in Paris (Elaine Sciolino): The author, a NYT correspondent, wrote about the street she lives on in Paris. This anecdote-filled narrative about the characters who live and work in the shadow of Sacre Couer/Montmartre on the Rue des Martyrs made me want to travel to Paris.

27. The Edge of Nowhere (Elizabeth George): Set on Whidbey Island (WA), where my friend Krista lives, this YA mystery featured a girl on the run who can hear other people’s thoughts. The need to suspend disbelief was taxing, and I found the book disappointing. George came highly recommended. I should try her adult novels.

28. The Waters of Eternal Youth (Donna Leon): If it’s April, then it must be time for a new Brunetti mystery. I look forward to the newest installment each year so I can reacquaint myself with Venice and the characters of Brunetti’s precinct. The mystery hardly matters and this one was rather meh (was the granddaughter of his mother-in-law’s friend intentionally pushed into a canal and left for dead only to live and be brain damaged?).

29. Everyday Matters (Danny Gregory): An illustrated memoir in which the author teaches himself to draw. Inspiring.

30. Sweetbitter (Stephanie Danler): My friend Martin, a bookseller at my local indie bookstore, put this book in my hand. It had buzz. I can see why. This modern bildungsroman was set in the restaurant industry and had a feeling and narrative that was familiar to me (swap the restaurant for publishing). Sometimes I wanted to shake the protagonist, but mostly the author had a nice way with pacing and imagery.

31. The Long Secret (Louise Fitzhugh) A classic. My friend Caryl loaned me this book after I had re-read and enjoyed Harriet the Spy. The continuing adventures of Harriet were even better. So evocative of a time and place. Harriet’s spunkiness was ever-present.

32. A Murder of Magpies (Judith Flanders): I listened to the audio version of this mystery, set in the British publishing industry. The author presented setting and characters with great authenticity. The mood was lighthearted, which was perfect for summer reading.

33. The Singer's Gun (Emily St. John Mandel): Last year I read and loved Mandel’s Station Eleven, and since then have been curious to read her backlist. John and I listened to The Singer’s Gun on a road trip. It’s crime noir with several unreliable narrators and a story that unfolds in unexpected ways. Mandel is a talented writer, and I look forward to reading more.

34. Modern Lovers (Emma Straub): I enjoyed Straub's latest almost as much as The Vacationers, which I read in the Lake Districk (2014). Straub builds great characters and keeps the situations light but smart.  

35. Above Suspicion (Helen MacInnes): The first in a spy thriller series written in the late '30s. MacInnes is in a class with John le Carre and Graham Green. This particular book is set in 1939 just before the outbreak of WW2, and Europe was tense. Our protagonists, an Oxford professor and his wife, have been asked to find a missing asset on the Continent. The narrative never disappointed.

36. Nimona (Noelle Stevenson): What was not to love about Nimona? She was, hands down, one of my favorite characters of 2016. Based on Stevenson’s web comic, this graphic novel was charming and funny and featured one of the best supervillain-sidekick combos ever. Looking forward to a re-read and to pretty much anything Stevenson writes.

37. Exit Wounds (Rutu Modan): Modan’s The Property was one of the last books I read in 2015. Eager to read more, I ordered Exit Wounds, a graphic novel set in Tel Aviv, without hesitation. The protagonist Koby Franco investigates a suicide bombing in which his father may have been a victim. Looking forward to more of what Israel’s bestselling graphic novelist does next.

38. The Travelers (Chris Pavone): After having been disappointed by the first two Pavone novels not meeting the high expectations of sparkling jacket copy, I was going to skip this one. However, I was glad to have stuck with him for one more go. In The Travelers, the author delivered a satisfying spy thriller with a great unpredictable ending. And, the book is set in travel magazine publishing--what's not to like?

39. How to Cook a Moose (Kate Christiansen): This easy, delicious, sometimes inspiring memoir--a riff on MFK Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf--is set in Maine. My Down East summer vacation was prolonged whenever I dipped into it.

40. Lab Girl (Hope Jahren): This truthful and hopeful memoir rooted in lab/field science was on many Best of 2016 lists. I listened to the audio, which was read by the author. Such immediacy. 

41. Cook Korean (Robin Ha): Surprisingly, the St. Paul Public Library carries Cook Korean, a comic book memoir/cookbook that walks the reader through many favorite Korean dishes making them accessible. Unfortunately, I had to return the book before I could test drive the kimchi or bibimbap recipes. Next time!

42. The Woman in Cabin 10 (Ruth Ware): Perfect dog-walk audiobook. This locked-room thriller is set on a "soft opening" for a luxury cruise ship. The protagonist, a travel magazine writer with evident neuroses, sees a woman jump overboard. Or did she? 

43. You Will Know Me (Megan Abbott): Always happy to read the latest Megan Abbott psychological thriller. She writes about teen girls in a creepy, authentic way. This book takes a dive through the world of elite gymnastics and the messed up parental control, athlete perfectionism, and cutthroat competition.  

44. The Shadow Hero (Gene Luen Yang): My oldest son persuaded me to read this sweet, funny take on comic book origins.

45. Siracusa (Delia Ephron): The novel was told in four points of view--two couples on vacation together in Italy--and the audio was read by four actors/actresses who are actually two husband-wife couples. So many uncomfortable situations and characters pushed to the edges. The audio captured the drama well. I'm glad I chose this medium.

46. A Man Called Ove (Frederick Backmann) Book group read. My biggest complaint about this incredibly popular novel is that it felt sentimental and predictable, but I read on because I thought my perceptions would be changed. Ove was quite a character. I liked what the author did with the novel even when schmaltzy. Ultimately, I couldn't help but love Ove.

47. Stories of Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam): Smart, crisp writing. Intriguing situations and characters in every single story. This was a massive collection--475 pages--with recurring themes (expatriates, abandoned affairs, ghosts), but the stories all varied in style and tone. Gardam is so subtle and clever, I look forward to getting back into her longer fiction because it always rewards.

48. A Fatal Grace (Louise Penny): Penny's second book in the Inspector Gamache series. These are not fast-paced, escapist mysteries. I love all the details of community and characters, even when the mystery is lame. This book featured a curling match (bonspiel), and I appreciated that. Sweep! 

49. Dark Matter (Blake Crouch): This sci-fi thriller was our audiobook pick for a fall road trip to Itasca State Park. Fast paced and complex Crouch's novel plays with alternate realities and time. I was never 100% sure about what was going on until the very end. We had a great time as a family trying to figure it out.

50. Being a Beast (Charles Foster):  The author got down on the ground (and in the air) and experienced the rhythms of the animal world by emulating a fox, badger, redtail deer, and swift.

51. Today Will Be Different (Maria Semple): Released on my birthday. Happy birthday to me!! Where Did You Go, Bernadette was an all-time favorite of the 20-teens so I eagerly awaited whatever Semple would do next. The follow-up has let down a lot of readers, but not me. I recognized myself in the main character, which made me alternately laugh and cry. I suspect it hit home with others too, which may be what they didn't like. Still, I would encourage readers to hang in there (or just go ahead and re-read Bernadette).

52. Fine Romance (Susan Branch): This book is similar to Vivian Swift's illustrated travel narratives, which is why I picked it up. However, Branch and her artwork are schmaltzy, and there were many points in the books where I felt I should have put it down. That said, Branch demonstrated an occasionally interesting point of view, which helped me to see the books through to the end. And, what can I say? I'm a sucker for England.

53. Howards End Is on the Landing (Susan Hill): I loved the premise of this book. After the author made herself a challenge to read only books she already owned for a year, she toured her house making her selections. Her shelves provided a collection of essays base themes and habits in reading. I would love to have written this book!

54. Something New (Lucy Knisley): Lucy Knisley is a long-time favorite. I have read her comic book memoirs about traveling to Europe with her mother, being an artist, and learning to cook, so naturally I would read her treatment of being a bride. I wasn’t disappointed. She’s smart, talented, and honest.

55. Man at the Helm (Nina Stibbe): Last year I read Stibbe’s hilarious letters, which she wrote to her sister when she was a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the long-time editor of the London Review of Books. Her keen eye and comical turn-of-phrase compelled me to run out a buy MatH, her first novel. It was slow-going but because I thought I would love it, I ran out to buy Stibbe’s follow-up, which I have yet to read. Despite occasional draggy-ness, there was an undeniable charm and wit to this, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

56. There Is Something I Want You to Do (Charles Baxter): Baxter’s linked story collection was a book group selection. While I was unable to attend the gathering during which the story was discussed, I started it and read in earnest until something shinier distracted me. I decided to finish it as the end of year approached. The last quarter of the book was fantastic.

57. In the Dark, Dark Woods (Ruth Ware): DH and I listened to most of this audio book on a road trip Up North (Park Rapids and Itasca State Park). It’s about a hen party gone awry. The setting was a glass house in the deep woods, and as such there is a moody atmosphere and a bit of a locked room feel. This was Ware’s first book.  

58. Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Marie Kondo): That Marie Kondo is a handful. I've taken away as may good ideas as those I've rejected because they just don't compute, such as having a wardrobe for only one season, which is just silly (sez a resident of a four-season environment). That said, I am now read to start purging and organizing in the new year. AS I do every year. Maybe some LCMoTu technique will work this time.

59. Super Sushi Ramen Express (Michael Booth): The last book of the year was a travel/culinary memoir in which the author took his family to Japan. To eat. It's smart, breezy entertainment and always left me hungry (for food, for travel). Booth filled the void that Bill Bryson left when he stopped writing witty books about his travels. 

Total: 58 as of 12/18/16 (2015: 60)
Fiction: 42/37
Nonfiction: 16 /23
Women: 39/39
Men: 19/21
Donna Leon: 1/1 (all caught up now)
Alexander McCall Smith: 0/2
Mysteries: /5
Thrillers: /7
Science Fiction: /6
Elin Hilderbrand: 0
Audio: 10
Post-apocalyptic: 3
Travel: 6
Food: 3
Graphic novels: 7
Stories: 3
E-books: 2
Shelf-sitters: 10
Books published in 2016: 18
Memoirs/bio: 8
Book group: 3
Kid’s: 6
Sheep: 2
Trilogies: 2

Total pages read: 16,442

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