My Best Books of 2016!

In honor of New Year’s Eve, I am posting a list of my favorite books of the year. Since I read books published in 2016 as well as many, many books written in previous years, I decided my list will include any book I finished (and loved) this year, irregardless of when it was published. I have also included two books I read last year, but re-read this year so I feel like they are fair game for a “best of” list.

Here they are…

All the Light You Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) A true masterpiece and one of the best books I have ever read, All the Light is a story of war, loss, and survival for two children during World War II. Written with some of the most magical, enchanting language I have ever come across. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/01/10/all-the-light-we-cannot-see/

Career Of Evil (Robert Galbraith) This is book three in the incomparable murder mystery collection, the Comoran Strike series, told by a master storyteller.  A fiercely intelligent, funny, and honest book with two main characters that are impossible not to love and a mystery that will keep you guessing until the end. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/career-of-evil/

Carry On (Rainbow Rowell)and Landline, and Attachments, and Eleanor & Park, and Fan Girl! I discovered and read every single word Rainbow Rowell has ever published this year and I loved every last one of them!  In Carry On, Rowell has crafted a YA fantasy that is magical, funny, modern, and lovely. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/carry-on-by-rainbow-rowell-2015/

The Revenant (Michael Punke) A gripping, fast-paced historical novel about the rugged, dangerous lives of the men who were working to create a home for themselves in the wilderness of the upper Midwest in the mid-1800’s. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/the-revenant/

Journey to Munich (Jacqueline Winspear) The most recent installment of Winspear’s wonderful series which are set in early 20th century England and focus on “psychological investigator” Maisie Dobbs. All of the books in the series are intellectual mysteries told in stunning historical detail. This one is her best yet: https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/journeytomunich/

Monsters of Templeton (Lauren Groff) This novel was unlike any book I read this year: a story about a young woman, her family, and her hometown that is told using stories both past and present about the main character as well her relatives and neighbors. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/08/14/the-monsters-of-templeton/

Euphoria (Lily King) A slim novel documenting the experiences of three brilliant anthropologists living and conducting research among the native peoples of Papua New Guinea in the 1930’s. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/euphoria-by-lily-king-2014/

Prodigal Summer (Barbara Kingslover) In one of Kingsolver’s most gorgeous books, readers will find a story of about the magic that comes alive in the (human and animal) world during the heady months of summer. An epic piece of writing about our intimate connection to the world around us and the other people who inhabit it along-side us. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/prodigal-summer-by-barbara-kingsolver-2000/

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce) This book tells the story of an aging British man who breaks with years of routine to set off on a walk across England to visit a dying friend. Along the way he sheds years of grief and pain and becomes a new version of himself. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/the-unlikely-pilgrimage-of-harold-fry/

Blindsighted (Karin Slaughter) Although this singular book is not exceptional on its own, I am including it because discovering Karin Slaughter’s two intertwining series of murder mystery books (the Grant County and Will Trent series) this past year meant that I was given hours upon hours of wonderful (if a bit gruesome) reading material from this talented and prolific author. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/blindsighted-by-karin-slaughter-2002/

As a side-note to those of you who have children or love to read children’s literature, my sons thought I should mention some of the books we read as a family and really loved this year.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (Books 1-4). These four delightful books follow the lives of the spirited, loving, independent Penderwick sisters and tell of their many adventures. A review of book four can be found here: https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/the-penderwicks-in-spring/

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Chris Grabenstein) This wonderfully inventive story tells of a group of children who must work together using clues from their favorite books to find a way to escape from the new town library, built by a wacky gamemaker named Mr. Lemoncello.

Illustrated Versions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets These editions take our family’s most beloved books and give them new energy and a renewed sense of magic. Jim Kay’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous. https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/01/10/harry-potter-and-the-sorcerers-stone-by-jk-rowling/

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)

In this slim novel, Kent Haruf introduces us to two residents of rural Holt, Colorado: Addie and Louis. Both Addie and Louis have been widows for more than a decade; both have weathered years of grief; both are living away from their grown children; and both are desperately lonely.

Tired to spending every night alone, Addie proposes to Louis that they begin an affair: not one based on sex, but rather of companionship. Louis, a bit reluctantly, agrees and so he begins to visit Addie every night to join her in bed where they talk and offer comfort to one another.

Freed from the emotional baggage that defined their marriages, Addie and Louis share their life stories — the good and the bad — and fill the long, lonely nights that have marked the years since they were widowed with companionship.

Despite a small dust up among the other residents of their small town (some who disapprove of two older people entering into what appears to be a purely physical relationship), Louis and Addie continue to meet each night. Soon they are falling in love with one another, and they begin a full relationship with dates, trips, meals, and — eventually — sex.

Told in sparse prose, vaguely reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, Haruf tells readers of the blossoming relationship between two people who will no longer stand for loneliness and who are determined to carve out as much time for love and happiness as they can.

 

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (2014)

The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

japanese-house-exterior

Two different people who saw me reading this book asked me, “are you reading a book about cleaning?” The answer is yes and no. Marie Kondo’s book is, on one level, a book about how to tidy up your home; but on another level it is about the psychological relationship we have with our possessions and the ways that those items might be interfering with our happiness. The result is a book that deep and insightful, as well as practical.

“When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state. You can see the issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them.”

Kondo introduces readers to an extremely simple two step process for tidying your entire home (or office) which she promises will never need to be repeated: discard all but your most beloved, useful possessions and then find a specific home for those remaining items to permanently reside. Her argument centers mostly around her belief that we all own far too much stuff and that mountain of stuff is making us unhappy and disorganized. By unburdening ourselves of all of the surplus in our homes, we can reveal our true selves: the books we truly love and use; the clothes that make us look and feel our best; the mementos that bring us true joy; and the tools that help us live our best lives.

Tidying is the act of confronting yourself; cleaning is the act of confronting nature.”

Told in a no-nonsense manner, Kondo explains why we need to discard almost everything we have been struggling for years to organize or store and then we will have no need to find a place for all of it. Gone are the mementos we have convinced ourselves we must keep to remember friends and events! Gone is the “aspirational clutter” that does not inspire us to learn new things, but rather causes us to constantly reflect on who we are not! Broken items, duplicates — gone and gone! Paperwork — all gone! Books pared down to just a few most treasured volumes!

The end result is, Kondo tells us, a home that is a place filled only the few treasured items that bring us joy every day. With so few possessions, she argues, there is no need to tidy…simply put the remaining items where they belong and your done.

While it does seem excessively simple, there is something profound about Kondo’s approach. The connections she draws between our mental state and the state our home feel momentous. If our home is messy and crowded, if we are in a constant battle to find things or methods to corral all our junk, then we live a life in which we are too busy to reflect deeply on our choices. By overcoming our messes, we can create room for our true values to shine through.

This is a wonderful book filled with great ideas and lots of interesting insight in to modern Japanese culture. It might be worth picking up a copy if one of your New Year’s resolutions is to tidy up your home.

“When we delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear of the future. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

marie-kondo-photo-book-cover

Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (2016)

Ruth Ware’s previous novel, In the Dark, Dark Wood, was reviewed last year. Read it here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-y

north-sea-satellite-image

Satellite image of the North Sea.

Following the success of her debut novel, In the Dark, Dark Wood, Ware’s second thriller was released with a great deal of publicity and an early spot on the best-seller’s list. However, while Ware has crafted a wonderful story, her story-telling skills are a bit shaky and — as a result — Woman in Cabin 10 never becomes as good a novel as it could have been.

The story centers on the experiences of Laura Blackfoot, a second rate travel writer who is given a chance to set sail on the maiden voyage of the luxury yacht the Aurora Borealis and write a story of her trip. However, Laura (or Lo) is a very woman whose fragile mental state has been further taxed the night before leaving for her trip by a burglary of her home.

Lo arrives on board feeling an under-prepared outsider who is still recovering from her attack, which she manages to dull by drinking too much. When she wakes in the middle of the night to hear what she is certain is a murder taking place next door in Cabin 10. Her erratic behavior, her excessive drinking, and her lack of professionalism combine to make the staff and passengers of the ship disinclined to believe her. In fact, she soon learns that there are no passengers registered to Cabin 10 and the woman Lo is certain was killed may never have even existed.

Despite the fact that she has been warned from away from pursuing her own investigation, Lo finds she cannot let it go; she cannot leave a woman’s death unsolved. Soon, Lo has turned all of her time and attention to learning who the missing woman was and who — from the small number of people aboard the ship — murdered her. The deeper she digs, the more she finds strange things happening to her (missing items from her cabin, threatening messages, stolen cell phone) and before long she begins to wonder if her life is in danger as well.

My primary critique of Woman in Cabin 10 is that the first-person narrator seems flimsy, needy, and childish which makes the book seem more Young Adult than Adult fiction. (Indeed, this was was same criticism I had for In the Dark, Dark Wood.) That said, the story really was exciting: Ware’s plot moved swiftly and her secondary characters are an nerve-wracking collection of possible murder suspects. Additionally, the setting of the luxury yacht adrift in the North Sea with a cast of reporters, millionaires, and staff was a excellent choice for a thriller.

norwegian_fjords_4

Norwegian Fjords

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton (2016)

“I marvel at the honesty and pain. We’ve never brought to each other the heavy things we were meant to help each other carry. We’ve only introduced each other to our representatives, while our real selves tried to live life alone. We thought that was safer. We thought that this way our real selves wouldn’t get hurt. But it is clear that we are all hurting anyway. And we think we are alone. At our cores, we are our tender selves peeking out at the world of shiny representatives, so shame has been layered on top of our pain. We’re suffocating underneath all the layers.”

g-d-melton-photo-from-blog

A picture of Glennon Doyle Melton at one of her events (from her blog Momastery.)

Wow! This memoir was absolutely stunning. Glennon Doyle Melton has not simply written her story, but rather used her experiences to create a manifesto about feminism, faith, marriage, self-love, forgiveness, and courage. This book is a call to action to men and women of the world: you are important, you are loved, you are worthy of wonderful things and you can choose to live an authentic life without fear.

Glennon’s memoir chronicles her struggles with depression, anxiety, and addiction with aching honesty and a vulnerability that is breath-taking. We are allowed to see inside the mind of a young girl whose disconnection with the world makes her feel, starting at age ten, alone and brokenhearted. Terrified at how different she believes she is, she seeks out first one self-sabotaging behavior (bulimia), after another (promiscuity), after another (drug and alcohol addiction), always searching for a way to be numb to the pain of living.

When an unexpected pregnancy and sudden marriage force her to get sober and adopt a healthier relationship with food, she assumes that she has– in becoming a mother and wife — insulated herself from the loneliness that has plagued her. Of her new marriage and baby she writes, “we are living so close to the surface of ourselves that it seems easy to touch each other. There is so much laughing and crying during the first year of our son’s life. The laughter and tears are each of us bursting through our own skin to get to one another.”

Soon, her self-loathing returns and she becomes disgusted that her new family and sobriety have not delivered her into a perfect life. When her health and then her marriage begin to deteriorate, she and her husband seek out a therapist. Rather than healing their marriage, the therapy session deals it a potential death blow…her husband confesses to decades of infidelity and Glennon throws him out.

In the grief and madness that follows, Glennon faces the darkest days she has ever known. Not only has she lost her husband, now she must make her way as a single mother. Always religious, she finds that her church and its members have turned their back on her for “giving up” on her husband and, as a result, she feels as if her faith has failed her too.

She cannot turn to addiction to numb herself, and so, she turns inward to find a way to heal herself and — perhaps — heal her marriage.  With the help of a cast of mentors: a devoted sister and parents, a yoga instructor, a breathing coach, and a therapist; Glennon digs deep into her mental health issues and searches for ways to find peace with the challenges life has presented her.

What she finds is that she has lived for too long in the roles that others have chosen for her — by religious doctrine, gender norms, anti-woman businesses and marketers, sexual politics — have never been right for her. Now she decides, she will rebuild her entire life and her entire self, into exactly the person she wants to be and then she will seek out people to support rather than challenge her new choices.

The book documents — with gorgeous prose and raw, naked honesty — Glennon’s transformation from a woman controlled by her demons to a woman in charge of her life and her health. Now leading a generation of women in a revolution to discard old rules of who they should be and forge their own path to love, happiness, faith, and family. Stunning and not to be missed!

“We forget that our maker made us human, and so it’s okay — maybe exactly right — to be human. We are ashamed of the design of the one we claim to worship. So we sweep up our messes and hide our doubts, contradictions, anger and fear before showing ourselves to God, which is like putting on a fancy dress and makeup to prepare for an X-ray.”

Read Glennon’s blog and learn more about her and her work here: http://momastery.com/blog/

After You by Jojo Moyes (2015)

Two weekends ago, exhausted from an extended holiday vacation, I spent a Sunday afternoon in bed watching movies that my husband and sons had declared –loudly! — that they wanted no part in watching, namely tear-jerker and chick-flick films.

movie-poster-me-before-you

One of the movies I watched was the film adaptation of Jojo Moyes Me Before You. The movie follows the book very closely and was well-cast and enjoyable (if very sad) to watch. As soon as I completed the movie, I added the book’s sequel, After You, to my library hold list and read it yesterday. Below is a re-post of my review of that novel.

Enjoy!

Originally posted on November 18, 2015 +++++++++++++++++++++

SPOILER ALERT: This post may contain a few spoilers about the Jojo Moyes bestseller, Me Before You, because it would be quite hard to write about the sequel After You without talking about about its prequel.

This past Saturday I spent a lovely afternoon curled up with the new Jojo Moyes book, After You. It was a delightful read, if a bit of a tearjerker, completely worth staying up late that night to finish. This book is the sequel to her previous novel, Me Before You (2012) which was also a heartbreaking sob-fest. While this book does stand alone if you were interested in reading it without completing the first novel, the two really are a set and I strongly recommend that you read them in order.

At the opening of After You we find Louisa Clark eighteen months after the heartbreaking loss of her beloved boyfriend Will. After traveling the world for a bit, Louisa has moved to London and is living a meager existence in a dingy flat, working a dead-end job at an airport bar, drinking her nights away. She is at a complete loss for how to put her life back together. Distanced from her family and Will’s, she has cut herself off from life and is making no effort to move forward. Soon a series of shocks and surprises mean the Louisa can no longer hide behind the veil of her grief. She is forced to take control of her life, even if it means that she makes a bad choices and mistakes along the way.

Told in first person by Louisa, the story almost feels like Louisa’s diary as it catalogs the ups and downs of her life as she tries to get a handle on her grief and depression. What emerges is an honest portrayal of how one woman deals with “one step forward two steps back” aspect of loss. Readers get a front row seat to Louisa’s struggles, her confusion and constant insecurity about whether she doing anything right. More importantly, we get to see Louisa’s small triumphs as she slowly moves out from under her sadness. And it in these moments, when Louisa’s life starts to look upward, that the novel really outshines it’s predecessor. In the first book, Louisa has such a hard time of things and suffers so much — humiliation, mental distress, familial stress and (of course) guilt and grief — how wonderful to finally see Louisa vindicated! She is starting to have good things come her way and is so deserving of them.

The book is lovely and very touching. Although the subject matter is dark, there are many moments of levity and laughter as well. In its lighter moments, Louisa’s story faintly echoes Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary since readers get to witness not just the darker moments of her journey but also get to laugh at her crappy boss, her bad fashion choices, and her rag-tag group of friends and loved ones.

I love all of Jojo Moyes books. Even when the topics she writes about are serious, her books still manage to be touching, as well as fresh, quirky and fun. While there are definitely tears to be shed while reading any of her work, Moyes always leaves us with a hopeful ending. Her characters may not have found love and happiness at the end of every book, but it seems likely they will find both soon. (Among my favorites of hers are: One Plus One, Ship of Brides, and The Girl You Left Behind.)

after-you-book-cover

Jeweled Fire by Sharon Shinn (2015)

Book #3 in the Elemental Blessings series. Book #1 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1q1 Book #2 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1re

“In Welce we affiliate ourselves with one of the five elements — fire, water, air, earth and wood. But there is more to it than that. Each element corresponds to a physical component. Fire and mind. Water and blood. Air and spirit. Wood and bone. Earth and flesh.  But we’re never just one element. We realize we need all of our elements, all of our physical selves, to function in harmony.”

In the third book of her Elemental Blessings series, Sharon Shinn focuses the story on her fiery and reckless princess, Corene. Leaving behind a life of boring responsibilities and rules in Welce, Corene, and her faithful Royal Guard Foley, set sail for adventure in Malinqua.

Malinqua is a wealthy, more cosmopolitan neighboring country whose own royal family — in an attempt to strengthen ties to its trade partners — has made it widely known they are searching for princesses to marry their princes too. Deciding she would like to be be in the competition to rule a country other than her homeland of Welce, Corene becomes a guest of the royal family, moves into the Malinqua palace, and sets herself to the task of wooing the princes.

Corene is a sweela woman, aligned strongly with the element of fire, which makes her wild, tempestuous, often careless, and hot-tempered. During her childhood in the palace of Welce, she was raised by her cold and ruthless mother to be in a constant, cut-throat competition to be named that country’s queen. As a result of her mother’s influence, Corene is mistrustful of others and assumes everyone is determined to do whatever it takes to win. She arrives at the palace in Malinqua ready to hate the other foreign-born princesses and enter into a dirty fight to win the hand of the most eligible Malinqua prince. Her only ally, she assumes, is Foley her faithful guard.

To her great shock, the other women brought to Malinqua do not become her enemies but loyal and loving friends. The four women find that Malinqua is not a kind country and its royal family is cruel and violent. Soon the friends are working as a team to keep each other safe from the deadly scheming of the royal family. Foley’s presence at her side becomes more vital than ever and the two of them grow very close and Corene begins to realize that she has come to just trust Foley with her life and with her heart as well.

Corene finds the best sides of herself emerge: she is fiery but “a thinker as well as a lover. Creative and passionate and full of imagination.” She puts these talents to the task of keeping herself and her new friends safe, with help from Foley, of course.

Jeweled Fire was the best of the elemental Blessing books so far, and I am looking forward to reading the next one, Unquiet Land.

jeweled-fire-cover