Don't forget about the contest from last post. I'm still taking suggestions/entries until the 10th.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
I reviewed this book on my last post. I've since read another 100 pages or so and I just love it more all the the time. As I review this year's rather mediocre list, I think this one is definitely one of the very best.
Jedi Knight and I have been doing this one as a read-aloud (as many on the list this year have been) this month. It is such a great book, but especially for boys--war, shipwreck, survival. At the same time, it creates a place for discussion about war and its fallout as well as racism. As a read-aloud, it is very fun because one of the main characters is from the South Caribbean and Taylor has written the dialect very well. It just about has to be read aloud to really appreciate the carefully crafted calypso speech.
This Newbery winner has long been a favorite. My re-read this year was for a December book group. I had forgotten what a great time of year it is to read this book for various things that happen in the story. The themes in this science-fiction light book are wonderful and thought-provoking. I was surprised that when I mentioned our book group's reading of this on Facebook just how many people either said "meh" to this choice or were firm in their dislike. Everyone that showed for book group really loved it.
Joseph and Emma: A Love Story
Marsha Newman and Buddy Youngren
I'm still trying to figure out just why I disliked this book so much, and even debating on plowing through the last few chapters. I think it was probably well-researched, and the authors did paint a very powerful picture of the Prophet and his wife. It was cheesy--Edward and Bella cheesy--in many places. Because these were real people, however, for whom I have enormous respect, I was sometimes uncomfortable with the level of intimacy the authors portrayed. . . it wasn't that there was anything inappropriate . . . . nope, still can't figure out why I didn't like it.
I love nearly everything I've read by this woman. This one was as charming and predictable as all of the others. Her leading ladies somehow manage to be smart and down-to-earth even while sitting smack-dab in the middle of one of the most indulgent and ridiculous societies ever.
The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment that Transformed Their Lives
This one was also reviewed in the previous post.
World War One
This was actually a rather old library book brought home by my son a few weeks ago. It was over 100 pages of dense print, most of which we read aloud. He has been fascinated lately by the history of war, particularly the world wars. As a borderline pacifist (even moreso after my reading this year), this has been very difficult for me, though I've tried very hard to keep my own opinions to himself and not quench his enthusiasm. I knew very little about this war before starting the book. I was horrified by the soldier's first hand accounts of the trenches, the stupidity which plunged the world into war in the first place, and the futility of the type of warfare the men were engaged in. It also helped to debunk another we-used-to-have-more-freedom myth. Just before the US entered the war, the military was extremely small in proportion to our population. A million-member army had to mustered in a short time. The draft was brutal and broad. In addition, our country was terribly unprepared to manufacture the weapons needed for this conscripted army. The president appointed a man who was not on the cabinet nor subjected to any congressional oversight to assess the US's ability to fight. He was given broad powers to enter factories and force the owners to convert them into military facilities or shut them down. Remember, this is before that "socialist" FDR came to power. How well do you think such policies would go over in 2011? Starting with the First World War, America created a war machine that became big business. If the government was to truly scale back on military spending and bring all the troops home, what do you think would happen to the unemployment rate then? Another post for another time.
I'm listening to a free Librovox download of this one. (iTunes has dozens and dozens of these--all older books, mostly classics, that are non-copyright protected.) It has been slow-going. I'm just having a really hard time liking any of the characters. And, true to its time, so much of the book's language is overblown. I'm about 2/3 finished here and will keep going because it is in the canon and all, but I just think whatever heartbreak Madame Bovary gets, she has 100% earned.
Fifth Avenue: 5 AM
This fall I worked with a high school student who had to write a massive research paper about an artist. She chose Audrey Hepburn. The project was fun and I think I learned as much as she did. This particular book was one of the best we found that moved beyond just biography and into a social critique about what Audrey has meant to our culture and to changing attitudes about women and being single. The book analyzes the writing, casting and aftermath of the classic, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Half the joy of the book was the cover--the lovely Audrey as Holly Golightly, the text and back cover in Tiffany blue.
World War Two
Another of Jedi Knight's picks. It was a great compliment to a lot of the other reading I did through the summer and fall. This one was actually very well written (this author is VERY good) for a kids' book. It was also full of maps and some light commentary.
Riding In the Shadows of Saints
One of the more unusual books I read this year. It is a memoir from a woman who long ago left the LDS church because her strong feminist principles and near-atheism were incompatible with the belief-system. If I'd had her father, I might be exactly the same way! The irony is, that no matter where she moved or who she met, she kept going back to the fact that the strongest women she knew were all LDS. She believes that her own strength is a direct outgrowth of the pioneer women in her ancestry. So, about ten years ago, she decided to get in touch with these ancestors by motorcycling the Mormon trail and visiting the sites she had grown up hearing about. I would love to do something like that--what a great blog that would be.
This book was too edgy for me, though the ideas behind it were interesting. It is a science fiction story set a few years into the future after a major terrorist attack in San Fransisco. I expected the book to be about capturing the terrorists, but instead it was about a group of techies whose main goal was to make sure that the government didn't take away broad civil rights in the name of catching terrorists. They related much of what they were doing to the hippie movement of the 1960's. It was good for me to view that time through a new lens to gain some level of balanced understanding. I didn't love the book, however.
I read all three Hunger Games books this year, but they will be reviewed here in opposite order. I thought that Mockingjay was merely an adequate conclusions to an awesome concept. I read it not long after the second, and I'm glad I didn't hang out eighteen months to get my hands on this one. I am not sure how else she could have ended it, and because they are away from the Hunger Games the setting is totally different. Collins does a number on characters--making them by turns more brutal and more sensitive--their suffering bringing out the very best and worst of human nature. She is not a happily-ever-after kind of an author, recognizing that some levels of trauma are not easily, if ever, recovered from. She also points out that power can corrupt a person with even the best of intentions, and that when we dehumanize our enemies, we can be capable of any number of atrocities. In the end, the victory barely feels like one because the price has been so high.
Maathi won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this decade, primarily for her work with the Greenbelt Movement whose goal is to basically re-plant Africa with trees. I had a hard time getting into this book; mostly I think my own cultural biases kept me from enjoying it from the beginning. I really love that despite being educated in the US, having friends all over the world, and being persecuted by her own government, she has never thought for a moment to leave Kenya behind to implode while she could do something about preserving it.
I think this was my favorite of the Hunger Games books. I'm not sure exactly why. Though the middle part of a trilogy so seldom resolves any kind of story, I often find myself really liking the second story the best. The first was just such a shock and so unique and the third was so dark. This second one still left some room for hope, and story-wise I really hit the ground running here. Collins very realistic and love story and characters makes Meyer's love triangle just look so juvenile.
The Secret Garden
Francis Hodgsen Burnett
When my book group picked this for one of our summer reads, it occurred to me that I've never actually read this book. I think it is unfortunate I didn't read it as a child; I would have liked it better then. As an adult, I read this book with a much more critical eye--for the times in which it occurred and the author's own religious background. I also think I would have enjoyed it more if I had actually read it, instead of listening to it. Hearing it out loud made some of the writing rather annoying and repetitive. Still, it is hard to argue with dozens of editions still in print. A childhood classic of the first order.
I discovered this sweet little gem some years ago, and finally got to read it to Jedi Knight this year. I don't think he loved it quite as much as I do; the writing style is a bit erratic. Though I think this is a large part of the book's charm, it might have been a little bit overwhelming for an emerging reader. I think that this book is probably best suited to middle schoolers, despite its short length. It explores themes of poverty, inclusion, racism and family. Good stuff.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
When we saw this film preview in front of Toy Story 3, I told Jedi Knight that he had to read the book before we saw the movie. We also did this one as a read-aloud. This might be Lewis' most allegorical Narnia book. (And that is saying something!) Or at least contains the greatest number of biblical allusions, including some to Moses and Isaiah. My favorite part of this book is Lewis' comparison of sin to dragon skin and the analogy of repentance to removing the skin. Quite moving. Most of the symbolism was lost on JK, and I'm not sure that the adventure story portion was well-written enough to be engaging for him. The movie was an entirely different story. These Narnia movies really expand and create something epic from some pretty straightforward writing. The acting is quite good. And though this isn't a movie review, there were at least three references in the film to a fourth movie likely based on The Silver Chair. Quite possibly my favorite of the seven books, though seriously lacking in Pevensies.
Three Cups of Tea
David Oliver RelinThis is Greg Mortenson's memoir. I reviewed the book here already. The one book I read this year that I would put on everyone's to-read list.
Children of the Promise
This is actually a five volume series about the Second World War, specifically an LDS family during the time period. I really enjoyed the first and the second. The last three dragged quite a bit and could have easily been condensed into two volumes by cutting out a lot of the fat. Some of the characters I really loved and I thought their inner struggles and conflicts were fascinating. I thought the author did a good job of showing just how terrible, and sometimes necessary, war is, as well as the deeply conflicting opinions in the LDS community about the US involvement in the war. I found his statements from the general authorities on the subject particularly illuminating. Hughes was able to make a story that allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about politics, changing societal values and family. A very compelling story, the author just dragged on certain portions of it way too long. If I was to recommend these to anyone, it would be to NOT read them all in a row like one huge novel. Too much.
This was another Librovox audio recording, and quite good. Nearly all of the sections were read by men and Americans, which I think added to the overall tone of the story. (Just as Austen should be read by British women!) London is a masterful storyteller. His raw, spare prose transports you instantly into the Alaskan wild. I listened to this book while doing papers on warm summer mornings, and I felt cold the whole time. London is at the pinnacle of nature writing. Good stuff.
The Story of Mormonism
Short. Probably rather slanted toward a particular viewpoint, obviously. Considering how long ago it was written, it was very interesting to see the thinly veiled bitterness the author had toward those who persecuted the Saints. Though the history of persecution is still part of the LDS collective psyche, I think the anger has been greatly diminished over the years. Talmadge lived at a time when a vast majority of LDS people had converted early enough to endure persecution and migration, or at least their parents and grandparents did. Times have changed; I'm not sure the book has maintained its relevance very well. Certainly not like Talmadge's masterwork "Jesus, The Christ.
Ida B and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World
The title is as charming and wordy as the heroine herself! This is a good book, and geared toward young readers. Jedi Knight enjoyed this well enough, even though it is from a girl's perspective, though Ida B herself and the writing style in general were sometimes a little bit overwhelming for him. This is one of those books written for 7-13 year olds that adults will possibly like more than kids will, though a girl might like it better than my son did.
Queen of the Shadows: A Novel of Isabella, Wife of Edward II
This book was mediocre. It is the story of a young, French Princess who was married to Edward II when she was just 13. Though she was completely unaware of it initially, it is fairly well accepted, historically, that Edward was gay, lavishing large favors on his partners who were systematically and ruthlessly killed by his enemies. Later he was deposed by Isabella and their son and also killed in a ruthless manner, though it seems that she tried to order it otherwise. The history is interesting, if probably not very reliable as these are events that happened a long time ago, and all but the barest facts and in dispute. It wasn't as distasteful as last year's disastrous pick "The Other Boleyn Girl," but at least that one was rather well-written.
Classic Short Stories
This is probably kind of a hokey selection, and if we are counting, this one probably doesn't! But if you are into audio books, Librovox has dozens of short stories available for free download through iTunes. Some of them are quite remarkable. I listened to them over several days and felt so transported back in time to Wharton and Fitzgerald; forward with Vonnegut and Bradbury; and into the frozen north with London. This tricky genre might be the true place of brilliance for American authors. Highly recommended.
I've had this one on my shelf for a long time, and picked it up because I remember my older brother reading it. The AP English teacher at our high school taught this one for years and mercifully quit before I was in her class. It isn't lengthy or difficult, it is just so depressing. Again, a main character with which there is no way to identify. This is actually part of the point of the book, and it teaches about modern man's connection only to self and not to others. There is a lot to discuss in the book about male and female relationships, loss of religion and its effect on morality, parent-child relationships, etc. etc. I can see why it is a modern classic. It doesn't have to mean I enjoyed it.
Pam Munoz Ryan
I remember this book being very popular in the Houston school where I taught because it came out that year in both Spanish and English editions, a huge thing for the population on our campus. I never read it then, and seriously missed out. This has all the elements of a classic coming of age story, and doesn't necessarily contain anything surprising, but it is just so tenderly written. Though set among Mexican immigrants from the 1930's, it is wonderfully relevant and gives a marvelous opportunities for young American readers to view the immigration issue from a totally new perspective. A lovely story that transcends culture while at the same time embracing it. My adult book group actually read this and carried on a very meaningful discussion.
Harry Potter 4-7
Jedi Knight and I read the first three in a row last year and then took a break. When I realized that he was re-reading the first three on his own, I asked if he was ready for the next. He enthusiastically jumped on that idea, and we spent the first six months of this year reading the last four. I let him watch each film as we finished the books. (I'm taking him to the 7th on Saturday). I credit the marvelous Ms. Rowling with making my son a reader. His skills advanced slowly, but it wasn't until he found books he really wanted to read that he kept at it and practiced the way he needed to. I always have a hard time choosing which HP book is my favorite. I think it varies with whichever volume I am reading! Re-reading them this year and seeing them anew through his eyes was almost as good as reading them the first time through.
The Book Thief
This was one of my favorite reads this year. It was just so strange. The book is narrated by Death and set in a small town in Germany during the Second World War. Somebody ahead of time told me this, which was really helpful to know from the beginning. It gave the book a first person perspective and the commentary that comes with that, but because it is Death it is also an omniscient viewpoint. On nearly every page there was a gem worth sharing. I think my favorite line, in talking about the men rushing and killing each other between the trenches in the First World War is when Death says, "In battle, young men think they are running at each other. They are mistaken; they are running at me." This chilling novel really emphasized the terrible reality and human costs of war.
Where the Red Fern Grows
This book was another read-aloud with Jedi Knight. (Are you sensing a pattern in my reading this year?) I read him the same copy I read my younger brother when he was just eight. And just like that night so many years ago, JK and I cried our eyes out when those dear little dogs give their lives up for the boy they love, and for each other. This story is so classic. Find a young boy to share it with this year.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
Grann is a long time New Yorker writer, and so this book on British explorers in the 1800's is very well-written. It also reads like a very long personal essay of the type you would find in the magazine--a mixture of personal experience past and present and highly engaging people-centered history. Plantboy found the topic a little bit more engaging than I did, but I still really enjoyed this book though I think it ended rather abruptly. If you like John Kraukauer books, or the writing style of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, then this one might be for you.
Bud, Not Buddy
Christopher Paul Curtis
Jedi Knight and I did a book group this summer with some other moms and kids from our ward. Unfortunately, it never really got off the ground. This was a fun read, and very funny. The child narrator is engaging and smart. The book provided a highly readable context in which to talk about poverty, foster care, racism, unions and the Depression. I didn't feel like the plot of this book entirely resolved itself, but it was a good read. Again, though, one of those books written for 7-13 year olds that actually resonates better with adults humor-wise as well as thematically.
I already reviewed this one over the summer. After I finished it, I watched a couple of different versions of this as a movie. I felt like each was unsatisfying in its way. Jane is a tricky character--plain and rather bland on the surface, but boiling with passions underneath. Because movies are so visually oriented, too much of Jane's placid plain-ness is all that we get. There is a new feature film version coming this spring, and I have really high hopes for it. This is such a dark story filled with passion and it needs a less Austenian approach. Yes, I just made up that term.
Love Comes Softly
This was a book club choice. I really did not like it. At all. Maybe if it hadn't been read for book group . . . I don't know. Or if I'd read it in junior high . . . . If the title sounds familiar you might have unfortunately caught the movie one night on the Hallmark Channel. It is the story of a young woman who gets married and goes west in the mid-1800's, but her husband dies just before winter when she is two months pregnant; she finds herself in an arranged and necessary marriage within a week. While it has all the elements of a nice, romantic story, the writing is just so juvenile. Elements of the story are anachronistic, and she ridiculously idealizes a world that would have been very harsh by our standards. The author makes no effort to resolve several plot-lines and then went on to write like 10 sequels because her adoring fans just wanted more. Yuck. I just couldn't get into it, and had to bite my tongue during book group when I realized that I was in a minority of exactly ONE in my opinion.
It was so fun to read this book at about the same time as Jane Eyre. At book group we discussed a list of Gothic literature elements and related them to the story. This was a very cool exercise and a different approach to a typical discussion. This is just a really great modern classic, and my view on it has changed through many reading. The greatness of this book is that it balances a suspenseful and romantic story with excellent writing.
Thematically, I thought this book was very interesting. It followed a lot of the stories I read this year, but from an Asian perspective. Particularly the Second World War and immigration. Until I read this book, I had no idea about the depth of the animosity between Japan and China, and the terrible atrocities committed by the Japanese against the Chinese. Yet, even before the Chinese came, Shanghai was a beautiful city on the surface that was morally rotting on the inside. At its heart, the book is a story about two sisters, and part of the characterization of the girls hit a little too close to home, perhaps. (I have just one sister.) Plot-wise, the novel has no subtlety and is very blunt in many situations. A little too blunt for my taste.
The Botany of Desire
This book was along the lines of Bill Bryson's. Lots of science interspersed with personal narrative and also colorful history. Loved it. Plantboy preferred some of his other books better and felt like this one was a little bit to philosophical.
I reviewed this one quite extensively back in May in the middle of another post.
A friend tipped me off on these books and this author five or six years ago. Since then I've read just about everything she is written. This trilogy, containing Daughter of the Forest, Child of the Shadows and Child of the Prophecy are all wonderful. If you like fantasy at all, especially fantasy grounded in real events, places and/or fairy tales then you will love this author. It had been a couple of years since my last reading, and I picked up the first because I shared it with a book group. (We hadn't really read any fantasy at all.) Of course, after reading the first, I had to just keep going. The book group had fun borrowing these too. What I did not have as much fun with is . . .
Heir of Sevenwaters
Too many authors now just keep writing sequels because they sell well and readers are already invested in the characters. The problem is that so many sequels are just attempts to further cash in on a once-good idea instead of being good ideas themselves. The first three Sevenwaters books were an exception--each with its own unique plot, heroine, story and filled with new adventure. This one (the fourth book in what had always been termed a "trilogy") is weak. The story wasn't nearly as developed or engaging as the others. There was no attempt to make the fantasy elements seem natural of normal like the others did. It was mostly just weird. The weirdness was tempered by some really boring parts. Good thing there is a fifth installment just out in hard back. Still, I love the author; you can probably look for Seer of Sevenwaters to be reviewed next year!
A Thousand Splendid Suns
This can be considered a companion volume to The Kite Runner. The story presents life in Afghanistan during roughly the same period as the other, but is told through the eyes of two very different women who end up as sister-wives in the same household. It is stark, bold, difficult and just so great. If you liked The Kite Runner then I you should read this one too. This book reinforces something I heard an American general say the week after reading Greg Mortensen's book, "There is no military solution in Afghanistan."
Meh. I re-read this in order to write a spoof. I did so, but it felt flat to me. The book was slightly better than the second, so there is just less to outright mock. However, that still doesn't mean it is very good. I was too bored to even put in the proper thought to be funny. I did think the movie was probably the best of the three. The screenplay really amped up the action sequences, and the flashbacks were a nice touch. Those two of you who were eagerly awaiting my fourth and final spoof of Breaking Dawn will just have to keep waiting. I don't think I have the stomach to read it again, though the pillows ripped to shreds bit is already almost a parody without any help from me.
This book was . . . all right. I really liked the first part set in England, and the journey that the boy and his father took to Utah. I liked the contrast of the later Saints coming across the plains--by rail. It isn't a time period we hear all that much about. The story of the colonization of Southern Utah was likewise interesting from a Church history standpoint. These are true to Lund's Work and the Glory format--characters present at all major, documented events, actual people are generally only assigned lines they actually had written somewhere. I like the protagonist until he fell in love with two sisters. He ended up messing with both of them badly enough that I wondered for a couple of chapters if Lund was actually writing a book about polygamy. The made-up story kind of undermined the rich history that exists here.
A Single Shard
Linda Sue Park
This is a wonderful kids' novel that won the Newbery a few years ago. This would make a wonderful read aloud with your kids. It is short, thematically rich and beautifully written. Just so lovely.
Fantastic. Worth both the critical praise and the sales. I listened to this one as an audiobook, and then later had to buy it and have Plantboy read it. He loved it too. This is such a clever idea. There are a wide range of themes to discuss here and I think some parallels to our own time are almost scary. What becomes of a society that consumes itself into oblivion and finds entertainment in whatever is most base and degrading? It might be time to ask ourselves some of these hard questions. Hunger Games is novel-writing at its best. This book reminds us why we read in the first place.
Yes. THAT Robin McKinley. And yes, this is a rather new title. It also happens to be about vampires. Because I love McKinley so much I had very high hopes despite the vampire plot line. This was my most disappointing pick of the year. It is vulgar, erratic and kind of stupid. She definitely sets up a whole future fantasy world that clearly exists in great detail in her own head, but so much is left out of this book that I felt lost much of the time, like I'd taken a visit to a culture vastly different and futuristic without the benefit of anybody to explain what I was looking at. Oh, Robin, thanks for proving once again how foolish it is to pick mere mortals for role models.
These is My Words
This was rather loosely reviewed in two different posts back in February. I liked the book. It was certainly a page turner, and it is clear to me why it was so well liked. Turner doesn't romanticize the time in which her frontier's woman lives (just her husband), but there were still things about her lead's character that struck me as anachronistic. I don't know. I've never actually met a woman who lived in the 1800's, so it is hard to say what women were really like. I liked this book until the last chapter or two when Turner introduced some new plot lines that she didn't resolve. It seemed like she was already writing a sequel before she finished the first. Sure enough, both sequels are sitting on my dresser. Not all that excited to read them, actually.
It is interesting that I chose to read this book the year that all of the controversy has arisen over the changes that will take place in this book to make it more palatable to censors. This was a very good audiobook--the reader did a large variety of voices and was very convincing with her Missouri/southern accent. I really enjoy the first half and a bit of this book, but then it just seems like Twain can't find a way to end the novel. His own, personal character and life evolved dramatically over the many years it took him to write the book, and my reading of it makes me feel like he started with a different ending in mind. In the end, the glorious running-away plot, falls apart into an exercise in futility. Twain might have been saying something about life in general.
Tess of the D'ubervilles
What a fantastic way to begin the year. This book made for a really fun book group night and Hardy was so ahead of his time in the telling of Tess' story.