My Top Eleven Books of 2016

 

Last year was the best reading year, numbers wise, that I’ve had in quite a while. I read 66 books (6 over my goal) and am pretty content with the mix of contemporary novels and classic novels that I completed. A lot of my reading was generated by the two “book buzz” presentations that I gave at my library, one in the summer and one in the fall, where I presented 10 buzzy books of those seasons. I’ve not chosen very many of those books, however, as favorites for the year. Most of them were really good and very enjoyable, but not memorable. Classics and books by favorite contemporary authors (like Hilary Mantel) will still always be my favorites.  I was originally only going to have 10 books on my list, but I finished Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham at the end of December and had to add it to my favorites – it is a little gem. Also, I intended to publish this post around the end of the year, but I had some pesky health issues going on and everything (reading included) fell by the wayside so I am only now sharing my favorites.

Here are my Top Eleven Books of the Year:

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman – I really enjoyed this well-written, novelistic biography of the quietly passionate author. It is very detailed about her writing life and about the life of the entire Bronte family – definitely a must-read for Bronte fans.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell – I listened to Cranford on my phone and I think it is the perfect classic to enjoy on audio – episodic, funny and heart-warming. It is one of the favorite books that we read in my book club this year.

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff – This beautiful novel about a family’s vacation to Bognor Regis was a highlight of my summer. It’s a book that’s not really dramatic or plot-driven – it quietly describes the relationships between parents and their children and the traditions of their yearly trip. Simple and lovely.

Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel – Mantel’s childhood is opaquely recounted in this dazzling memoir. I always find Mantel’s writing to say as much in what she doesn’t say then in her devastating observations. The combination is so chillingly good. I hope 2017 is the year her third Thomas Cromwell book is published!

LaRose by Louise Erdrich – LaRose is a marvelous book about redemption and justice set on a Native American reservation in North Dakota. Full of wonderful characters and really sensitive writing it moved me to tears several times and made me think so much about forgiveness. I just loved it.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard – This is the first novel in the Cazalet Chronicles, the most perfect family saga series. I devoured this book and am now almost finished with the second in the series, Marking Time. I’m sure I will read the entire chronicles this year.

My Antonia by Willa Cather – My Antonia is another book club book and one that I’ve read before. I also listened to this on my phone and appreciated how beautiful Cather’s writing sounds spoken aloud. I find her books, especially this one, to be achingly nostalgic and gorgeous.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles – This short, adventurous novel is what I would call a “literary Western”. It has lovely writing, suspense, great dialogue, a journey, and a heart-warming relationship. I really enjoyed this and recommend it if you are looking for something gripping yet well written to break you out of a reading slump.

The Past by Tessa Hadley – I read this way back at the beginning of 2016 but it has stayed with me throughout the year. I find Hadley’s writing to be so lyrical and the story of a family deciding whether to sell their grandparents’ home or not is riveting. I hope to read more from Tessa Hadley.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith – Reading Swing Time was my first experience reading anything by Zadie Smith and I was stunned by her writing. It’s so vigorous, intelligent and perceptive. And also very moving. I loved this story of two friends and the different paths they take from their childhood on a housing estate in North London.

Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham – As I mentioned above, I think this is a gem. It is very funny, fascinating and really engrossing. I want to read more about girls’ boarding schools so I’d love if Maxtone Graham next wrote a book about finishing schools (as she mentions she might). I would be first in line for that book!

I hope you’re all having a great start to the new year!

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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Well, hello there! It has been much too long since I’ve posted here. I didn’t mean to go so long without writing anything but, you know,…life. Not that I’ve had a lot of stress or craziness – it just seems that when I’m in the day to day stream of living blogging seems to come last. But I’d really love to make it a priority for the rest of the year. So, here’s to a new start!

Last weekend I was in the mood to read something engrossing, fast-paced with great characters, preferably set in England. While searching my shelves I remembered that I had checked Missing, Presumed out from the library and it was sitting in my library stack – it was meant to be. I opened it, began to read, and almost didn’t stop until I finished it on Monday evening.

Set in Cambridge and centered on DS Manon Bradshaw and her colleagues, Missing, Presumed starts off with a report of a missing Cambridge student, Edith Hind. The door to Edith’s house is ajar and there is blood on her kitchen floor which immediately elevates the case to a high priority status. As Manon and the rest of her team, including her supervisor Harriet and her affable friend Davy, rush to find clues frustration takes over as they find nothing to really lead them to locating Edith. As weeks go by their desperation grows until Edith’s surprising link to an ex inmate rushes them toward the startling resolution.

At the same time as we’re following the investigation we’re also learning about Manon’s messy love life and Davy’s dissatisfaction with his jealous girlfriend. Though the novel is told from multiple view points (Manon, Davy, the victim’s mother) I feel Manon is most definitely the main and most interesting character and the one I think the series will follow on to the next book. The character development in this novel is its strong suit as the actual mystery layer is not as well developed as in some of the best mysteries, but I’m hoping that the author will focus more on that aspect of her series in the next volume. So though this is not the most fantastic mystery I’ve read it is a solid start to a new series and I will probably read the next one when it’s released in summer 2017.

Have you read any good mysteries lately?

Fabulous Fall Reads

fabulous-fall-readsLast Saturday, my friend and colleague Melissa and I gave our “Fabulous Fall Reads” presentation at my library. We talked about the books we think people would love to read over the next three months. We had another great turnout, similar to our Sizzlin’ Summer Reads attendance, and plan to do it again for spring 2017. Without further ado here are my fall favorites with their US release dates:

The Ballroom by Anna Hope (Sept. 6) – The Ballroom is a bittersweet story of  forbidden romance and a fascinating look at how mentally ill people were treated in Edwardian England. If you like well-written, romantic, historical fiction like that written by Sarah Waters, Graham Swift and Sebastian Faulks you will enjoy The Ballroom.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Sept. 6) – Amor Towles writes like no one I can think of today. His sophisticated and elegant writing reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald but his stories are straight out of movies of the 1940’s. If you like old-fashioned and heart-warming yet complex stories, you’ll love A Gentleman in Moscow.

The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan (Sept. 6) – This clever and twisty thriller will satisfy fans of domestic suspense novels like The Widow by Fiona Barton, I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh and The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders (Sept. 13) – Mrs. Rodd is a delightful character reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. This is definitely a cozy series but has a darker edge so would appeal to fans of the Maisie Dobbs series or the Amelia Peabody series. I can’t wait for the next book featuring Mrs. Rodd!

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (Sept. 20) – This was absolutely riveting and clever — it’s a dark page-turner and a superb thriller that will appeal to fans of Tana French.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Oct. 4) – This novel has wonderful fully-developed characters, beautiful spare writing, is adventurous and suspenseful, and has a morally complex plot. I really loved this book and read it in one day. It is definitely a western, but a western that will appeal to anyone who likes good storytelling similar to The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin or Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky (Oct. 11) – In hazy and dreamy prose Dermansky takes not only the main character Leah, but the reader, on a journey that is humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring. If you like stories about women who take control of their lives, like Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, you’ll love The Red Car.

The Mistletoe Murder by P.D. James (Oct. 25) – I would recommend this to James fans and to those who appreciate literary British mysteries written by authors such as Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie ,Ruth Rendell or Minette Walters. Also, if you like to read mysteries set at Christmas (I certainly do) The Mistletoe Murder is a creepily good one to look for this holiday season.

My Lost Poets by Philip Levine (Nov. 8) – If you enjoyed Just Kids by Patti Smith, My Lost Poets will appeal to you. It is a lovely and uplifting artistic memoir.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Nov. 15) – Swing Time explores the nature of identity, cultural appropriation, happiness, fame and power and ambition and friendship- all in a witty, sharp, layered and compelling story that you’ll think about long after you read the last page. This would be a perfect choice for book clubs and if you like writers like Louise Erdrich or Amy Tan you’ll relish Swing Time.

Have you read or do you plan to read any of these titles?

August 2016 LibraryReads List

Today the August 2016 LibraryReads list was released. I think I’ve written briefly about this list before, but I’ll explain a bit further. Every month this handy list of librarian favorites is shared with public libraries across the US. The titles on the list are read and nominated by library staff across the country and the title with the most nominations makes the top of the list (this month it is A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny).

My library system actively promotes the list – we  have it available for patrons to take home, we have a permanent LibraryReads display at each of our branches, we write about it each month on our blog and we tweet about each title throughout the month.

My own personal efforts include reading lots of galleys, nominating titles I think are worthy and writing blurbs for the books I nominate. Four of my blurbs have been included on earlier LibraryReads lists (none this year, though I’m still trying!).

I have only read one title from this month’s list: Arrowood by Laura McHugh (release date is August 9). It is a gothic-tinged mystery set in a small Mississippi River town in Iowa and tells the story of a young woman, Arden, who returns to town after her father dies. She has some pretty bad memories of the town, though – because when she was 8 her 2-year-old twin sisters were kidnapped and have never been seen again. There’s long been a suspect but not enough evidence to arrest him. Arden’s mostly given up hope that her sisters will ever be found, but when strange things start happening in the house she decides to pursue any leads that will help her find out what happened to them – even if it challenges her memories of that day or puts her in danger. And when the truth is discovered it is more bone-chilling than anything she could ever have imagined. This mystery is a haunting story that gradually reveals its secrets – perfect for fans of moody mysteries like Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.

I usually try to read a few more titles from each list as the books are released, but, to be honest, I tried a few already and didn’t like them. I think Arrowood will remain the only one I read from the list this August.

Do any of August’s LibraryReads picks appeal to you?

The Girls by Emma Cline

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“I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.”

I had quite a struggle within myself when deciding whether I wanted to read The Girls or not. On the one hand I love reading about the sixties, the Manson murders are such a defining moment of that era and I always like to read hot debuts, especially by female authors. On the other hand, I heard a really negative opinion of the novel from a colleague, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book inspired by such a dark event and I was afraid the hype would let me down. In the end, I gambled on reading the novel – and won.

The Girls takes place over several months during the summer of 1969 when Evie Boyd, a fourteen year old, gets involved with a Charles Manson-like family in Northern California. Evie’s parents are divorced and neglect her quite a bit, her best friend has dropped her and she is bored, lonely and vulnerable. Then she sees a group of ragtag, dirty, unkempt girls picking through dumpsters behind a restaurant and is fascinated. Especially with the girl who seems to be their leader. When this girl, Suzanne, eventually invites her out to The Ranch Evie becomes embroiled in their drug fueled, seedy, criminal lifestyle which is all overseen by Russell, a manipulative sociopath. Then her mother finally catches on and sends her to live with her father. Running away she spends one last night with Suzanne before the girls carry out an act of revenge for Russell that seals their fate forever.

Cline’s writing is mesmerizing and her ability to create atmosphere is impressive. Her short, strong yet hazy sentences and carefully chosen historical details really evoke the whole California in the sixties vibe. Most impressive, though, is the way she inhabits the head of a teen girl, a girl who is intelligent and observant but still prone to being influenced by those whom she admires and finds attractive – which is why she cares more about what Suzanne thinks of her than of what Russell does. I liked that the focus of the novel is not on Russell but on the young women who choose to follow him.

My only whine about this novel is that it is unrelentingly dark. It takes you on a very grim trip that was hard to stomach at times. I’m not afraid of dark novels so I carried on – and there really isn’t anything else this book can be. I just had to take a breather from time to time.

I found The Girls pretty much as great as all the hype has cracked it up to be – and I think Emma Cline is a fabulous writer.  She’ll be on my list of “writers whose books I will always read – or at least try” from now on.

Have you read or plan on reading The Girls?

Sizzlin’ Summer Reads

Last Saturday, my fellow librarian Melissa and I gave a presentation for our library patrons called Sizzlin’ Summer Reads. It happened to be our hottest day of the year so far and the temperature reached 116 degrees that afternoon. It was not pleasant. So I was very happy that we got 11 people to come out and hear us book talk our favorite reads for summer. We had a Powerpoint with the book covers and release dates and other info projected at the front of the room as we went back and forth discussing our choices. After reading like a madwoman over the past 4 months I had quite selection to choose from, but I decided to limit my list to 10 for the sake of time.

As it turned out with both of us giving our book talks and a short introduction the program only lasted about 40 minutes – which I think is ideal. I don’t think I could have talked for much longer!

These are the books that I recommended:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (June 7) – If you like family sagas such as The Twelve Tribes of Hattie or Cutting for Stone, you’ll love Homegoing.

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry (June 14) – If you like the slower-paced explosive novels of Ruth Rendell or the contemplative tone of last year’s Disclaimer by Renee Knight (one of my favorite books from last year), Under the Harrow is the book for you.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay (June 21) – Though this is essentially a mystery novel the chilling supernatural elements will appeal to horror fans as well – especially if you like The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon or Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton.

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda (June 28) – If you like gritty mysteries with complex female narrators this is the book for you – fans of Cornelia Reade and Lori Rader-Day will love Megan Miranda.

The Last One by Alexandra Oliva (July 12) – If you like survival TV shows like Man vs. Wild or Alaska: the Last Frontier, if you like dystopian novels like Station Eleven, if you like imaginative stories with a thought-provoking tone – you will love The Last One. This is a genreblended novel that has something for everyone.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale (July 12) – If you like historical true crime like The Devil in the White City or are interested in the Victorian period you’ll enjoy The Wicked Boy.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron (July 12) – If you like really brilliant novels about betrayal, secrets and lies – like The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud or Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch – Siracusa is the book for you.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (July 19) – With a tone similar to The Girl on the Train or What She Knew by Gilly McMillan, a perhaps unreliable narrator and a deeply tension-filled plot The Woman in Cabin 10 is a perfect read for anyone who likes traditional locked-room or country house mysteries – with a twist.

The Muse by Jessie Burton (July 26) – If you like Sarah Waters or richly detailed historical fiction or reading about the art world this is the book for you.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh (August 9) – This mystery is a haunting and gothic story that gradually reveals its secrets – perfect for fans of moody mysteries like Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.

I think there’s something here for everyone – I tried to choose a varied selection of titles from those that I read. I hope it’s not bragging to say that the patrons who attended really enjoyed it and even asked us when we’ll have our fall session! It looks like I’ll be reading a lot more new books in the coming months. But I don’t mind – it benefits our patrons and gets our adult readers talking about all the exciting new releases. The only downside is that it doesn’t leave me much time for reading the classics I love so much, but if I manage my time better and take a more balanced approach ( I don’t have to read ALL the new books) then I think I can squeeze in a few older titles too.

Do any of these books appeal to you? What do you plan to read this summer?

Book Club: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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My book club has been meeting for almost 3 full years now and for much of that time I’ve lobbied to get Gilead on our schedule with no success – until last month! Since this year we took turns choosing the books I knew this would finally be the year we read it (since I’d pick it for my month) and I’m very glad we did. What a marvelous book!

Gilead is written in the form of one long letter from Reverend John Ames to his six-year-old son. Reverend Ames is dying of a heart condition and wants to set down his family history and his thoughts on religion and life in general for his son to read in the future since he won’t be able to tell him these things himself. In a rather rambling style he moves from the past to the present – much like our thoughts work, but all in a really beautiful, lyrical style that is a joy to read.

The first bit of the novel is Ames’s musings and explorations of his heritage and childhood and then the letter switches to a present day description of his struggle to communicate with or trust his best friend’s son, Jack Boughton. Jack is a bad egg, so to speak, and Ames doesn’t like how he hangs around Ames’s son and wife and his cynical, unbelieving attitude. One of the book club members said she thought this part of the novel was unnecessary – she loved just reading about Ames’s memories and philosophical meditations. I thought the conflict (even if just internally) with Jack was fascinating and revealed many more depths of Ames’s character that will someday benefit his son.

Since my book club met during Thanksgiving week we didn’t get a very good turnout, but those of us who attended had a very passionate discussion. This is one of those books that is not only a pleasurable and rewarding read, but also makes for an incredibly stimulating discussion title. I think this is one of the best books that my book club read this year.

Have you read Gilead?