A variety of factors conspired to make this a not very good reading year for me, but I’m bound and determined to put 2014 behind me and forge ahead.
I’ve once again accumulated a pile of unread books by the bed and have only two novels checked out from the library (which is most unusual), so I have decided to take on James’s TBR Double Dog Dare once again. This was an utter failure for me last time around, but I need to get back in the swing of things already. Other than that, I will not be setting myself any other book challenges this year. For now.
And now the awards!
Most Recurring Theme: Crime. Probably because I was having trouble actually sitting down with a book, I ended up reading a decent amount of fiction about crime. I’m sure this was simply because it was gripping enough to get and hold my attention. Some of these novels were rather literary, such as Burial Rites (from the 2014 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist) and Child 44 (from the 2008 Booker longlist). Some were from series or authors I had enjoyed in the past, such as A Dark and Twisted Tide (Lacey Flint #4) by S.J. Bolton, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, and The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2) by Robert Goldbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. Two were debut novels I had heard a lot about, The Weight of Blood and Before I Go to Sleep. Besides crime, one thing that tied these novels together is that they generally had satisfying endings, which are all too rare.
The Book I Can’t Stop Recommending: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This was one of two favorite books of the year (the other being Americanah). A great example of a dual narrative that works, with beautiful writing, an interesting mystery, and wonderful characters. I didn’t think I had it in me to love yet another WWII book, but there are so many layers to enjoy here.
Best in Braids: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This novel captivated me right from the start with the visit to the braiding salon. The writing is absolutely gorgeous and made me able to relate to a world and perspective that I have very little experience with. I do think it falls down a bit when it shifts narrators, but ultimately that’s a minor quibble. I look forward to reading Half of a Yellow Sun.
Best in Beheading: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. That’s not a spoiler by the way, you know from the beginning that the main character, Agnes Magnusdottir, is based on a real person, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. The story takes place in the early nineteenth century and is told through multiple first-person narratives as well as documents and letters relating to the murder case in question. I had a hard time getting into it, but eventually I fell under its spell. This book has a quiet power and an incredible atmosphere. Jennifer Lawrence is apparently playing Agnes in the film, which I can totally see.
Best in Butter: My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. I read this for my (auto)biography book salon. It’s not really a traditional autobiography, but more of memoir, specific to her cooking career. I liked it more than the usual expat Paris books (although it had the same sense of naïve privilege that those often do). However, I think my appreciation is due to my familiarity with and interest in France and French cooking; if you don’t have that, this rambling, excessively detailed book will drive you batsh*t.
Best in Barbary (tie): The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Ashbury and Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown. The Barbary Coast isn’t about actual pirates, but it might as well be, since it tells the gritty story of the early days of San Francisco. It suffers a bit from pervasive racism (it was first published in the 1930s) but is otherwise an interesting read. Cinnamon and Gunpowder is actual fiction about actual pirates. If you can get over the fact that the narrator’s voice is very twenty-first century for an early nineteenth-century character, this tale of a chef who gets kidnapped by a female pirate is rather delightful. However, as with My Life in France, if you don’t like excessive details about food and cooking, this might not be for you.
Best in Booker: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. I learned of this crime novel set in Stalinist Russia from my Facebook reading group. A number of guys recommended it and I figured if it was up for a Booker, how bad could it be? Not bad at all. Yes, it is grisly crime fiction, but also a literary look at the realities of life in a police state. It weaves in a good deal of history and felt I learned a lot about life in Russia during the 1950s.
Best in (metaphorical) Blood: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh: This is a (mostly) dual narrative that works really well. And, unlike other novels that seem to rely on this type of conceit, the ending was not a huge disappointment. I love the sense of place (the Ozarks) and it fit right in with my recent discovery of (and delight in) the series Justified.
Best in (actual) Blood: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. While this wasn’t as gripping as Gone Girl, I was much more interested in the characters and their fates. Like The Weight of Blood, it is really grounded in its setting and I felt very connected to the story. The ending is a bit pat, but satisfying. The murders are grisly though so be prepared.
Best in Bombyx: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. This reads a bit faster than The Cuckoo’s Calling and the plot was infinitely more interesting. I especially loved the puzzle element provided via the decoding of an author’s latest novel. And, of course, it was great to see Rowling take on the London literary world as a setting. There was a bit too much mooning about relationships for my taste but that did make it seem more “real” than other crime fiction I’ve read.
Best in Bands: The Sound of Letting Go by Stasia Ward Kehoe. I haven’t been reading much YA of late, but I really enjoyed this. The verse style was a beautiful fit for the story being told, both to convey the creative nature of a musician and the staccato struggles of dealing with autism. Plus, it got me listening to my Miles Davis albums, which, if you know me at all, is some kind of bibliomiracle.
Best in Bennetts: Longbourn by Jo Baker. I read this for my fan fiction book salon. The novel tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the maid, a conceit that reminded me of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s essay on Jane Austen, where she dissects the sentence “Miss Tilney always wears white.” Here you learn exactly what that entails. While it is interesting to know the trajectory of Pride and Prejudice, it is not absolutely necessary as the narrative stands on its own. In fact, I probably would have liked a little more integration of the two, although the story really picks up when it leaves Longbourn.
Best in Bedtimes: Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson. Like The Weight of Blood, this is an unusual conceit for a narrative that mostly works (but only if you are willing to suspend your disbelief). It was also a real page-turner; I honestly couldn’t wait to see how it turned out. The plot revolves around a woman with unusual memory loss who wakes up each morning next to her husband with no idea who she is. It was reminiscent of Memento but without the noir element (not that it’s all puppies and unicorns, far from it).
Best in Baja: The Pearl by John Steinbeck. I decided to reread this classic, which I first read in high school, because I was headed down to Baja for a wedding and it was one of the few books I knew was set there. Although I know I was a big fan of Steinbeck in high school, I couldn’t remember if I had liked this particular work. The injustice of the story as a whole is certainly depressing, but this time I think I was more positively impressed by Steinbeck’s use of language and the vivid characters he manages to create in such a short tale. Also, I was more attune to the “western” vibe throughout than I’m sure I was then. I definitely enjoyed this reread.
Best in Bluffing: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. I liked this, but I don’t think it lives up to the promise of its opening pages. It is clever, but ultimately too clinical in its execution. It’s a fun quick read, but I feel like it could have been so much more.
Best in Bears: Off Course by Michelle Huneven. This was a light read that I probably related to mostly because it is about a woman taking off to the High Sierra (in the 1980s) to write her dissertation in her parents’ cabin. Oh, and there’s a bear. Living the dream.
Best in Boyle: San Miguel by T.C. Boyle. I read this for my “No Man Is an Island” book salon and it was an absolutely perfect choice (as the island setting is completely integral to the narrative). The reason I chose this novel above other options is the fact it is set on the Channel Islands, one of nine national parks in California (which I have since crossed off my list). I hadn’t realized that any of the islands making up the park had been inhabited by Euro Americans, so this story of multiple generations of settlers on the furthest island, San Miguel, was fascinating to me. The writing was beautiful and the structure mostly worked, although I thought the middle interlude got a bit short-changed. A very interesting perspective on life on the California coast in the 1880s and 1930s. I’ve heard this is not like Boyle’s other works but it makes me want to check them out.
Best in Binding: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. What I loved about this novel was the depiction of the everyday life of women in nineteenth-century China, particularly the ritual of foot binding and the practice of nu shu, or women’s secret writing. However, for a book that dealt with such fascinating topics, it was sadly lacking in characterization and story, particularly at the end. But it’s a short, quick read, so if you are interested in those topics, I’d recommend this one.
Longest: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan (589 pages). Amy Tan is one of my favorite authors, but this was a bit of a slog. I did appreciate that she flips her usual flashback trope—this time starting with a daughter in Shanghai and flashing back to the mother’s life in San Francisco—but I think that we could have done without the San Francisco passages altogether. Or, the Shanghai storyline should have been severely edited to make room for more exploration of the mother’s story. I really hope she hasn’t become one of those authors who is “above” being edited.
Total books read: 25
Books on my shelves as of January 1, 2014: 5 (20%)
Books acquired in 2014: 0
Books borrowed from the library: 20 (80%)
Audiobooks: 1 (4%)
Classics (Prior to 1945): 1 (4%)
Recent Books (2010-2014): 16 (64%)
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: 20 (80%) vs. 5 (20%) This is probably my ideal split for this category.
Female authors vs. Male authors: 16 (64%) vs. 9 (36%) This year was much more weighted toward female authors, but I have a feeling next year won’t be.
New to Me Authors: 18 (72%)
Books by Authors of Color: 3 (12%)
US vs. UK Authors: 17 (68%) vs. 5 (20%)
Non-US/UK Authors: 3 (12%)
Number of Author Nationalities: 5
Clearly I need to diversify my reading, but mostly I just need to read more in 2015.
Did you meet the reading goals you set for 2014? What was your favorite book of the year?