Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 book 331

Daniel Handler's Why We Broke Up
This was a much better book to end the year on--sweet story about a high school girl returning a box of stuff to her ex, along with a letter detailing the history of their (brief) relationship. Handler totally nails the teenage girl thing. The only downer here is that obviously my Kindle didn't do justice to Maira Kalman's illustrations (I love her!)--this might be better read in print or on a tablet or something. A/A-.

2011 book 330

Donna Leon's Death and Judgment
This Guido Brunetti mystery involved sex trafficking and was horribly dark and depressing. I'm not reading any more of this series.

Gonna try and squeeze in something light now--this is a terrible book to end the year on.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Favorite Books of 2011

Without further ado, and because I'm not expecting to read any more 2011 releases in the next couple of days, here are my favorite books of 2011! (Alphabetical by author.)

Josephine Angelini's Starcrossed
Kate Akinson's Started Early, Took My Dog
Libba Bray's Beauty Queens
Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing
Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns
Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot
Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow
Melina Marchetta's The Piper's Son
Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus
Haruki Murakami's 1Q84
Ann Patchett's State of Wonder
Rainbow Rowell's Attachments
Elissa Schappel's Building Blueprints for Better Girls
Amor Towles' Rules of Civility
Carrie Vaughn's After the Golden Age

I read a lot of really excellent books this year, but I think these were the standouts, the ones I kept recommending to everyone (or the ones that were just extra-awesome).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 book 329

Nevil Shute's On the Beach
I've been on a Shute kick lately, so imagine my delight at discovering he wrote a postapocalyptic novel! Written in 1957, this is impregnated with Cold War fears--it's gradually revealed that there's been a nuclear war, but Melbourne, Australia wasn't hit and is functioning pretty normally . . . at least until September, when the radiation comes their way. Shute neatly shows the probably psychological effects of two groups of people--a bunch of American naval officers, who know their loved ones are dead, and the Australians who know their deaths are coming but are powerless to stop them. The protagonists are an Australian naval officer (and his wife, though she's not a particularly fleshed-out character), the American commander of a submarine, and the young Australian woman who befriends him. Also, her scientist cousin, who finds and exciting and reckless hobby. Shute beautifully illustrates how these characters come to terms with everything. Surprisingly un-grim. A/A-.

PS. Apparently this was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire. I have GOT to see that.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 book 328

Rosemary Clement-Moore's Texas Gothic
Very well-done story about a girl who, with her sister, is housesitting for her aunt over the summer--but things aren't easy, b/c the whole family has supernatural gifts and a local ghost story is threatening to wreak some havoc. Not to mention the cute cowboy whose family owns the supposedly haunted land. The story unfolds at a nice pace, the romance feels organic, and I loved all the details of the quirky Goodnight family and their gifts--they are ripe for a series and it's one I'd read. A/A-.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 book 327

P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley
I've been dithering for a while about whether or not to read this, both b/c it's gotten mixed reviews and b/c I find the cottage industry of Pride and Prejudice sequels/takeoffs to be off-putting and mildly distasteful. But James' books have been recommended to me a few times, and this NYT review convinced me. Unfortunately, I wasn't really feeling this AT ALL. Even ignoring the butchering of classic characters, there's a lot to dislike here--overly stilted dialogue, really clumsy exposition ("You know Mr so-and-so, you were there when blah blah blah and have met him a zillion times"), and really bad attempts to sound Austen-ish. Plus the mystery--involving that jerk Wickham as a murder suspect--is really boring and the big reveal feels blah. Very disappointing. C.

Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 book 326

Nevil Shute's Pied Piper
Shute's A Town Like Alice is one of my favorite books, but for some reason I'd never read any of his other works. This one has a similar structure to Alice--someone's harrowing 1940s wartime adventures are being told after the fact to some random English person (in this case, an old man is telling his recent adventures to a member of his club during an air raid--this book was actually published during WWII). Anyway, this is really a powerful story about an Englishman on a fishing trip in France who, as the Germans invade, prepares to return home--but is asked by a married couple to bring their children with him. As he makes his way across France, he somehow collects other children, but finds himself right in the war zone. How will they make it out???

As a side note, interesting commentaries on Jews here, especially considering it was published in 1942. Clearly Shute knew the Germans were targeting Jewish people/putting them in death camps of some sort and he thinks it's appalling (it's mentioned several times), though one of his heroes is very mildly anti-Semitic (well, there's one comment involving the Jews/money stereotype) and one Jewish child is completely bloodthirsty (understandable, in context). Still a very strong work though--I kind of wished for a sequel. A-.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

2011 book 325

Lisa Mantchev's So Silver Bright
Mantchev really packs a lot into the final book of her trilogy, so much so that it feels like something new and zany and/or dangerous is happening on every page. Like I said of the last one, I was REALLY not into the love triangle, which didn't work for me at all (the Ariel stuff rang really false) but that ended in a manner that was mostly ok. Really I just liked this series for the fairies. B.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 book 324

Lisa Mantchev's Perchance to Dream
The second book in this series picks up right where the last one stops, with protagonist Bertie taking a motley crew to try and find a kidnapped friend--and maybe her father. I will say that this book is a little weird, or maybe "interesting" is a better word, since it doesn't follow the usual YA fantasy formula, and Mantchev packs a LOT of action into the story (which is kind of all over the place). It is the second installment of a trilogy, though, so the lack of resolution makes sense. I'm not going to comment on the love triangle, which is kind of silly and contrived. I like the characters, though, especially the fairies. B/B+.

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 book 323

Lisa Mantchev's Eyes Like Stars
Very likable YA book involving a girl raised in a magical theatre where all of the characters from all the plays are hanging out (her friends are the fairies from A Midsummer's Night Dream). When she's threatened with having to leave her home, she has to suddenly find a place for herself . . . which obviously leads to craziness and secrets and stuff, since this is a YA fantasy book. A very likable one, though. A-.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011 book 322

Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys
I'm pretty sure I read this in college, but I didn't remember a thing about it, so when it suddenly became available for the Kindle this week (thanks, Mr. Chabon!), obviously I wanted to revisit it. And of course it's a solid, solid novel, though one that I still can't believe was made into a movie (with Michael Douglas as the protagonist, no less--I don't think I've seen the movie, is he still a total pothead? I kept picturing Jeff Bridges in the part while I was reading). Mainly I love this book for all the Pittsburgh mentions (including my high school, alma mater of the protagonist's brother-in-law!). Anyway, Chabon is basically the bestest, though I prefer his more overtly Jewish-y books (there is a pretty good seder in this one though). 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 book 321

Sonia Taitz's In the King's Arms
 This book was so frustrating, and I can't figure out why it got so many great reviews (the writing is gorgeous, and it has a happy ending, so I guess that helps). It starts off strong, focusing on the daughter of Holocaust survivors who goes to Oxford to study--but when she falls for a classmate's brother the story bogs down in poetics. The author is apparently a playwright and actually it reads like a play--you have to infer all the emotions and motivations that the characters should be having. There's no meat to the story or to any interactions, it's all just facile talk. I think the two main characters were supposed to be actually in love, but they read like jaded hipsters, everything cloaked in layers of irony (and this takes place in the 70s, before there really were hipsters cloaked in irony). I never felt like I knew any of these people at all. In fact, I found the whole thing really annoying--it never breaks beyond that surface level and it had so much potential! B/B-.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 book 320

Tamora Pierce's Mastiff
The third Beka Cooper book finds her and a special team on the track of a royal kidnapper. Pretty good conclusion to the trilogy, but I wasn't really interested in the romance that popped up (especially after a nice lack of romance in the first two books). Plus there was an epilogue involving some other Pierce characters entirely. A-/B+.

Monday, December 19, 2011

2011 book 319

Tamora Pierce's Bloodhound
The second Beka Cooper book is as strong as the first, as Cooper and her partner try to track down a counterfeiting ring that threatens to completely destroy the kingdom's economy. And this time there's an awesome dog to help! A/A-.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011 book 318

Tamora Pierce's Terrier: The Legend of Beka Cooper
Pierce is one of those authors whose books I always hear good things about, but for some reason had never read--and I'm glad I finally changed that, b/c this was a solid book. This really hit a lot of my buttons--it's a YA fantasy, but it's a mystery at its core (although I guessed the villain really early on, it was still a satisfying read). The heroine is a great character (though her shyness is made too much of early on), just out of training to be what is basically a junior police officer in a crime-ridden world. And she's driven to solve two sets of crimes--who's kidnapping small children for ransom, and one involving some missing men--with the help of her magical cat and the ghosts she can hear. Because she has a magical cat and can hear ghosts, of course! But Pierce's storytelling makes it all work (and made me cry more than once). A/A-.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

2011 book 317

Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram
I found out about this book through the Forever YA blog, and saw it on at least one YA best-of-2011 list . . . but I would argue vociferously that this is NOT a YA book (unless YA is super literary in England). I wonder if it's marketed that way because the main character is a teenager through most of it--a feature of pretty much all coming-of-age novels, which this is, DUH. Anyway, the novel traces young Clem from his birth at the tail end of WWII through this childhood with his eccentric family, his school years, and then his pivotal teenage meeting with Frankie, daughter of the local rich guy (if Masterpiece has taught me anything, it's that all small British towns have one rich guy), and how everything comes to a head during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Solid writing and story--I had some mixed feelings about the very end but otherwise liked this a lot. A-.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Favorite Music of 2011!

2011 was a pretty good year in music, so now I will commence with the annual Listing of the Albums I Liked.

In no particular order, except The Rosebuds is first b/c seriously, that album is GREAT, why isn't it on more end-of-year lists?

1. The Rosebuds --  Loud Planes Fly Low
2. Des Ark -- Don't Rock the Boat, Sink the F----er (my Mom hates when I swear, hence the dashes)
3.  Mates of State -- Mountaintops
4. The Generationals -- Actor-Caster
5. Destroyer -- Kaputt
6. Real Estate --  Days
7.  Crooked Fingers -- Breaks in the Armor
8. Mount Moriah -- Mount Moriah
9. Wye Oak -- Civilian
10. Megafaun -- Megafaun

Also, you can listen to some of my favorite songs of 2011 on Spotify here (not all the albums listed above were available, hence no Des Ark):

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011 book 316

Kate Saunders' Beswitched
Ignore the silly title of this book, b/c it's actually a super cute modern version of Charlotte Sometimes (that book is awesome, if you haven't read it), where a bratty British twelve year old on her way to boarding school is suddenly whisked away to . . . a boarding school. But a boarding school in 1935! Now she has to deal with the crazy ways of the past and try to get back to the future with the help of her new friends (and of course she will learn Valuable Life Lessons, but not in an annoying way). This is an MG book so parts of it are pretty clearly telegraphed, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. And I enjoyed it quite a bit. A/A-.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2011 book 315

Donna Leon's Death in a Strange Country
I was looking for a new mystery series to get into and Elizabeth recommended this one, about a police commissioner in Venice, saying that although the mysteries themselves were pretty standard stuff, the relationship between the protagonist and his wife was pretty great--and since I tend to like mysteries that are more about the characters than the crimes they solve (cf. the Spellman books and that series about cupcakes), that seemed promising. This is actually the second in the series (the first isn't available for the Kindle) but I didn't feel like I was missing anything major.  The crime here involves a murdered guy from a nearby American Army base who seems to have been a robbery victim--but the commissioner soon realizes there's much more to the story than that. It all plays out in a manner both compelling and melodramatic, but the main character is great and I did really enjoy his family dynamics. I'll definitely be reading the next one. B/B+.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

2011 book 314

Jessica Gregson's The Angel Makers
WWI has just started, and for once Sari--the oddball in her village, a learned girl who knows a lot about plants and healing, and is generally an outcast--finds herself part of a community, as the women band together to keep things going. But when a prisoner of war camp full of Italian men comes to town--and then the war ends and their own men return--things get a little messy, as most of the women preferred life when their men were away. Apparently based on a true story, this novel is full of a kind of dark humor that I found really enjoyable. This needs to be a movie, like, now. A-.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

2011 book 313

Megan McCafferty's Perfect Fifths
The only bad thing about this book is that there isn't more of it! (Oh, and that the middle section is a bunch of annoying haikus.) What can I read next that will possibly make me as happy as these books do?

2011 book 312

Megan McCafferty's Fourth Comings
Jessica and Marcus, you just keep on breaking my heart! Actually, for a lot of this book I was kind of thinking, "these books would be more effective if we ever really saw Jessica and Marcus together-together" but even that is addressed pretty well by the end. Which is why I love this series and am about to start the fifth.

And by the way, with this book, I just tied the number of books I read last year . . .

2011 book 311

Megan McCafferty's Charmed Thirds
Jessica is slightly less likable--but no less realistic or relatable--in the third book, which features her college years. Man, I love these books.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

2011 book 310

Megan Mccafferty's Second Helpings
I'm rereading all the Jessica Darling books b/c she and Marcus Flutie are the BEST. Teen drama has never been done as well as these books do it.

ALSO, I'm totally going to break my book record again this year. I read 312 last year. How many will I manage for 2011?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

2011 book 309

Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts
Aaaahhhh Jessica Darling and Marcus Flutie, I love you. Some of the best characters ever, really, and well worth a re-read.

Which reminds me--I'm hoping to get into a new series over Christmas--like one year I read all these, and one year all the Percy Jacksons. What other awesome series might I have missed? Any genre (but I don't want to read Dance of Dragons, ok?), from any time period.  Help me discover something new!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

2011 book 308

Markus Zusak's Underdogs
So before Zusak wrote the incredible I Am The Messenger and The Book Thief,  he apparently wrote a trilogy about a couple of teenage brothers and their slightly downtrodden family. Now they're published in one volume in America--which is fine, b/c they're not very long, and the first two aren't particularly strong works. They're likable, and of course the characters are compelling b/c it's Zusak, but each book has these short interludes interrupting the story (in the first, the younger boy's dreams; in the second, his late-night conversations with his brother; and in the third, his attempts at writing, which are just excruciating to read and which I mostly skipped). It's possible to see the roots of Zusak's awesomeness here, but on the whole this is just good solid general YA. B/B+.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

2011 book 307

Emily Arsenault's The Broken Teaglass
This is not a great time of year for new books, unfortunately, and none of the samples on my Kindle seemed appealing. So I decided to reread this--it was one of my favorites of a few years ago, and I wanted to see if it held up. And it did! But I think I'm predisposed to like a literary mystery that's maybe more literary than mystery, and that's narrated by a young man who works for a dictionary company defining words.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

2011 book 306

Marie Lu's Legend
This is basically the buzziest YA book to come out in a while, but I wasn't sure if I'd read it--and then the NYT gave it a rave and I was convinced. Now, it's not perfect--the writing is occasionally heavy-handed, lots of telling-instead-of-showing (mainly in terms of the romance)--but it is a really fun read, about a future militaristic dystopia where a young (girl) prodigy is tasked with hunting down an infamous (young boy) criminal. But obviously things are more complicated than that--I mean, it's a dystopia, after all. I've read that the main characters were inspired by Javert and Jean Valjean but can't comment on any other parallels to Les Miserables, as I haven't read it in well over a decade. A-.

Friday, December 02, 2011

2011 book 305

L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero Lost: Prospero's Daughter, Book I
Blah blah characters from the Tempest blah blah immortal and powerful blah blah the father is in trouble and Miranda has to investigate and warn her siblings blah. For a book that has so many action-packed scenes, and features a 500-year-old businesswoman/magic-user, this was surprisingly slow and boring. Not to mention that Miranda is kind of a nimrod. And despite all the fight scenes, the plot doesn't progress much, and the end is taken up with some really stupid romance. The sequels to this seem to be better-reviewed, but I really don't care what happens to these characters next. I only finished this b/c I'd invested so much time in it already. C.