2015 Year in Review Recommendations

“The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.” – Abraham Lincoln

It’s that time of year again so here are my favorite books I got to read and review/preview in 2015 (there are more than last year, but I don’t think I loved any of them as much as I did The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August last year).

 

book cover - orhan's inheritanceOrhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which continues to be largely ignored and which is front and center in this novel.

 

 

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna Northbook cover - the life and death of sophie stark

This is a book that’s all about perspective, perception, and presentation. The narrative structure and how it ties together in the end underscores the novel’s themes.

 

book cover - dead wakeDead Wake by Erik Larsson

I’m a sucker for just about anything Erik Larsson writes but when I saw that he was live tweeting the events as they had happened 100 years earlier, I had to read the whole story.

 

book cover - cinderbook cover - winterThe Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

 

book cover - scarlet

book cover - cress

 

 

Technically I read Cinder last year and wasn’t overly impressed with Scarlet earlier this year but the final two installments in this series—Cress and Winter—more than make up for earlier weaknesses.

 

 

girl from the train - book cover

 

The Girl from the Train by Irma Joubert

I enjoyed this sentimental tale of reconnection in the years after World War II and learned about one of the programs that relocated German orphans in the wake of that war.

 

book cover - the shiningThe Shining by Stephen King

Not big on horror as a genre, I was surprised by just how much I loved The Shining—so much more psychological than I expected.

 

 

The Virgin’s Daughter and The Virgin’s Spy by Laura Andersenbook cover - virgin's daughtervirgin's spy - book cover

The first two books in The Tudor Legacy spin-off series that continues in the alternative history universe Laura Andersen created with her Boleyn Trilogy. Eager to see how it continues in 2016.

 

 

career of evil - book coverCareer of Evil by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling)

The third in the Cormoran Strike series, Career of Evil gets deeper into the characters of Cormoran and Robin and their personal histories.

 

 

medicis daughter - book coverMédicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

If you like novels about the Tudor Court, this novel of the Valois Court in France shows the English weren’t the only ones whose court intrigues and religious turmoil could turn deadly.

2014 Year in Review Recommendations

“If I like a book, I tend to read the author’s entire collection. But I choose mainly through personal recommendations, general word of mouth and book reviews.” — Randa Abdel-Fattah

This year I decided to do a year-in-review type of thing and post list of my favorite books that I reviewed or had a chance to preview. I don’t think I’ll get into the books I’d recommend staying away from (but if you’re curious, leave a comment or send me a message and I’ll get back to you with the dirt). So, in case you missed them the first time around, here are some of the best books I was lucky enough to read in 2014.

9780316399616_p0_v1_s260x420 The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

This is one of those books most people are going to either love or loathe. I happened to love it. Of the family and friends I recommended it to who also read it, they found it a very good book though not necessarily for the same reasons I did.

 

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson9780670012091_p0_v1_s260x420

I know so many people who have read and loved Speak so this book being good should come as no surprise to any of them. Its portrayal of living with someone suffering from PTSD is gritty and gut wrenching.

 


9781596439092_p0_v2_s260x420 The Truth About Alice
by Jennifer Mathieu

Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of not just how the high school rumor mill works but done in a way that doesn’t simultaneously have an attitude of “what can you do.” It manages to hold out a beacon of hope to those suffering who can’t imagine things getting better.

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)9780316206877_p0_v19_s260x420

51m4P63APoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Every once in a while I go through phases when I remember my childhood love of murder mysteries (I grew up on reruns of Murder, She Wrote and Columbo and watched oh so many seasons of Law & Order over the years). I’m glad to know I have a reliable series where I can look forward to pre-ordering new releases and get my mystery fix.

 

Virgin by Radhika Sanghani9780425276310_p0_v4_s260x420

This wasn’t some phenomenal work of capital “L” Literature but it made me laugh so many times, I can’t help including it on my list.

 

9781595141880_p0_v1_s260x420 Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

So I was a little late to hearing about this one but the narrative style and the content have both stuck with me. It’s one of those YA books that make me feel less guilty about taking my chances with the genre so frequently.

150 Years Beyond “Four Score and Seven Years Ago”

“If you go to Gettysburg and take the time, maybe take a tour, maybe just drive around, read some of the monuments, read some of the plaques, you will come away changed.” – Jeff Sharra

Now that the government shutdown is over and the National Parks are open again, history buffs are rejoicing. And at Gettysburg, it’s just in time for the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Check out a guest post I wrote for The History Girl about my visit to the Gettysburg battlefields last year.

I am a pretty big history nerd and the Civil War happens to be one of my areas of interest. Three years ago, I had the opportunity to walk the battlefields at Manassas on our way through Virginia on vacation and last summer I was finally able to hike around Little Round Top and other areas I’ve read so much about. Whether it be in novels, history books, or the surviving first hand accounts, walking the fields that have been preserved, seeing the bullet holes that remain in the bricks of the buildings, it makes what you read tangible. Continue reading

When a film adaptation surpasses its source material…

“Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable.” – David Mitchell

I almost always make myself read the book before I see a film adaptation. Sometimes, I find out after enjoying a movie that it was based on a book. I usually fall into “the book was better” camp. Either my favorite scenes were (often understandably but still disappointingly) cut or the book was changed so drastically that it is hardly recognizable. But every once in a while, those movie people turn a mediocre book into a film that surpasses its source material. Just a warning, there are spoilers ahead. This is, after all, a comparison and some of the biggest discrepancies are plot related. So, you’ve been warned. I must also say that you should read these books, if only to increase your enjoyment of or appreciation for the films.

Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

This is one of those books where there is absolutely nothing wrong with the book itself. What makes the movie stand out so much more is the approach Tim Burton took to the material. The vibrant visuals* of this sentimental tall tale and the way he pieced the story together merge in a way that the novel simply doesn’t. The flow of narrative is seamless and the jumps in time and place, the story and the family’s history are easier to follow on the screen. The heartwarming, hilarious, and tear-inducing performances from the cast make it difficult not to enjoy this movie.

*The visuals are like those used for Pushing Daisies where the vibrant color saturation can make you want to adjust the color settings on your TV for everything else because you’ve been reminded of how bright and cheery things can be.

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

There are so many aspects of Meyer’s final Twilight installment that manage to bother me, and on so many levels that it can be paralyzing. However, the biggest complaint about Breaking Dawn that anyone and everyone who has read it seems to have is the cop out, everybody lives ending. Reluctant, hesitant, or just plain scared, Meyer could not bring herself to kill off any of her main characters, good, bad, or in between. But it’s boring to build up to a lot of nothing. And the film cleverly found a way out of the corner Meyer wrote her characters into. It is not a very good movie (they relied too much on the novel for it to be really good), but it did fix the biggest problem I had with the book and for that, I give them props (but just for Breaking Dawn Part 2; I don’t want to go overboard).

 Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Like Big Fish, I don’t have any major complaints about this novel as it stands. But it doesn’t stand out the way the film does (at least in my mind). The descriptions of chocolate in the book are almost as mouth-watering as they appear on screen but there’s something about the visual combined with the score that epitomize the “a picture is worth a thousand words” concept. It’s mesmeric, as though people could be speaking but everyone is too wrapped up in chocolate to hear what’s being said (which is what the best chocolate on the worst day can accomplish). Having Johnny Depp thrown in with the chocolate doesn’t hurt either. More seriously, the biggest difference is in the resolution and the fact that there is something about film Vianne’s ability to let go of the past and settle down that is more satisfying than book Vianne’s decision to keep moving on. I usually like open-ended, ambiguous endings, but it didn’t add enough to Chocolat to justify it. The film’s character development is more engaging.

Jaws by Peter Benchley

The decision to ditch some of the clunkier aspects of the novel’s plot helped to streamline and focus this classic thriller. Keeping the shark as the focus of the film, several smaller plot lines were cut from novel to script, including Mrs. Brody’s tedious infidelity. Perhaps the biggest change from the book to the screen was originally included in the script. Richard Dreyfuss’ marine biologist, Hooper, falls victim to the shark in the novel and was supposed to follow suit on screen. However, while a secondary filming crew was working on those final scenes with the shark cage, the camera crew got an unexpected treat when a great white attacked the cage just after it was lowered into the water. Before the dummy diver was put in the cage. The footage was so good, the script was adjusted and Hooper lived.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

While Wicked has not yet been adapted (at least, not to my knowledge), it is probably only a matter of time before the musical makes its way to the big screen. I thoroughly enjoy Maguire’s fresh perspectives on classic fairy tales and other popular novels. As a fan of the original Oz series, I appreciated the way that Maguire incorporates more elements of L. Frank Baum’s books than the 1939 classic but this first installment of his Oz-inspired quartet, however, hit quite a few bumps along the yellow-brick road. Some portions of Wicked still don’t seem necessary or are too weird, even for Oz. The best decision in writing the musical was focusing on and developing the relationship between the novel’s two most recognizable characters. I love that they dabble in the politics of Maguire’s world, but the musical doesn’t get bogged down in it.

Recommendations for the less fictitious narrative

“There is no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative.” – E. L. Doctorow

I’ve been reading more non-fiction lately and, though I prefer the flow most fiction, there are some that I have found really interesting.

After 9/11: America’s War on Terror (2001-) by Sid Jacobson, Ernie Colon: Focusing on how a war that we started in Afghanistan wound up in Iraq, Jacobson and Colon chose to present their work in a graphic novel style that is easy to follow and eerily echoes the press conferences and sound bites that concealed much of the truth of what was happening.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss: Punctuation is important and everyone should know how it works, but it isn’t easy to make learning about it fun. Truss manages to do just that with this humorous look at the dangers of punctuation errors. There’s even a section where the differences between some religious sects is explained as being the result of punctuation interpretation.

Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 by Richard Godbeer: I had to read this short book for a class and it was easily my favorite book of the semester. It only lightly touches upon the more well known aspects of the witch hunts, spending most of the narrative focused on why the Salem trials went so far while others were conducted in a more reasonable manner.

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright: In the years since 9/11 there have been many books about Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the rise of Al Qaeda. Many of them can be difficult to follow but I found that The Looming Tower did a good job of keeping all the major players straight for the reader.

The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr: A Caravaggio painting appeared in history records but the painting itself was lost to the viewing public. Harr’s book follows how a few art historians and an art restorer tracked down the lost painting. Click here for a complete review of Harr’s book.

The Pirate Wars by Peter Earle: Giving the history of piracy, primarily in the Atlantic, from Captain Henry Morgan (yes, the one the rum is named after) through Blackbeard, Avery, and Kidd. Earle’s book is thoroughly engaging and a must for anyone who is interested in piracy.

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges: This look at the wars of the twentieth century examines the trends that made war possible and the psychology behind why it worked so well. This is one of those books that I think everyone should read.

I’m speculating here, but some of these books may change the way you think

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.” – Barbara Tuchman

Since Mockingjay finally came out (even though I’ve already finished it, I’ll be posting my full review on Sunday), I’ve been on a kick for speculative fiction so that’s the focus of this month’s set of recommendations. Just where is the world headed? Will the political tensions of the world hold or is there another World War in our future? How will global warming affect the world balance? Though it’s usually classified as science fiction, there are so many aspects of these that should not be dismissed the way that often happens in the case of science fiction. Here are some of my favorite books that have some guesses that might change your way of looking at things.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood: A man who calls himself Snowman watches over a colony of a humanoid species dubbed the Crakers. Seen as a religious figure to this unusual species, he recounts a past in which he was known as Jimmy and he wasn’t the only real human around. Is Jimmy responsible for the destruction of mankind?

The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler: As global warming destroys food supplies across the country, cities and towns have to fortify themselves against outsiders in order to ensure their own survival. Lauren sees some of those around her turning to faith for comfort. But Lauren has ideas of her own that don’t fit with what her family and friends believe. As she and her friends fight for survival, Lauren creates her own faith system, Earthseed, and seeks a place where it can grow and flourish. Even when it seems Earthseed has found healthy soil, there are those who are determined to keep it from flowering.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: A classic for science fiction fans, Huxley’s image of a world where people are grown and harvested instead of being born, drugged into a stupor called happiness, and the people worship Henry Ford was leaps and bounds ahead of its time.

1984 by George Orwell: A reaction to the Totalitarianism that rode in in the wake of World War II, Orwell’s famous novel about Winston Smith and his fight against the Big Brother that tries to convince him 2 + 2 = 5 remains a haunting warning about what people and governments are capable of.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Bradbury asserted that this novel about firefighter Guy Montag who burns books for a living wasn’t a comment on censorship, but rather on technology, human laziness, and is a portrait of what will happen if such attitudes and behaviors don’t change. Whatever his intention, censorship is what most people take away from it. And some intriguing guesses about the role television will play in everyday life (that are scary because they’re slowing proving true).

The Giver by Lois Lowry: Written for children, The Giver is a great way to introduce kids to the thinking these books inspire. In a seemingly reasonable and peaceful society, it is only after Jonas starts training as The Receiver that he learns the truth about his community’s history and what it cost to make it the way it is.

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut: So it’s only a short story but it’s a fantastic short story about the dangers of extremism, even when it comes to something that sounds like it can never be wrong. Something like the push for universal equality.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins: Since this is what put me on this kick for speculative fiction, I couldn’t pass up the chance to plug it (again). Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 of Panem where the annual Hunger Games force children to fight to the death for the entertainment of the Capitol. As Katniss finds herself intimately acquainted with the Games, the history of how Panem came to institute them in the first place unfolds, along with the plans of those who are willing to die to see the Hunger Games come to a permanent end.

The best of both worlds

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.” – William Martin

While my primary love has been literature, my second love has been history. The two get along well and frequently overlap. It can be difficult to distinguish one from the other. History’s imprint can be read through the books of any given time and through the evolution of literature. Similarly, there are books that have had an impact on people that can be seen in history.

I loved reading historical fiction as a child. It’s a great way to get children not only interested in history, but to show them that it isn’t always as clear as presented in textbooks. It was a while before I was able to distinguish between historical fiction and fiction written during a specific time in history I was interested in (I was very confused in part because of the Little House books; the ones written by Laura Ingalls Wilder were more fictionalized memoirs but there have since been so many written about her foremothers and her daughter that are almost purely historical fiction).

Like many young girls of my generation, the American Girl series were some of the first chapter books I read. Each girl was living during a special time in American history from Felicity during the American Revolution to Addie an escaped slave girl on the brink of America’s Civil War and Molly who listened to FDR on her radio during World War II. The company that makes the dolls and the books that tell their stories has also made an attempt to tell the stories that haven’t been told with the introduction of dolls from the American southwest and more. In recent years, the focus seems to have shifted more to making money, but the first five characters (Felicity, Kirsten, Addie, Samantha, and Molly) and their initial six-books each are still great for young girls starting to read who are interested in history. Spin-off series including the History Mysteries and American Sisters series are also very good.

Another series that showcases American history are the Dear America series (with it’s My Name is America series geared more towards young boys and The Royal Diaries series featuring famous royals). The diary/journal format is ideal for elementary and middle school aged children, always told from the perspective of children roughly the same age as their target audience. Some of the more popular original titles will soon be re-released along with new additions to the series.

For older middle schoolers or junior high age girls interested in historical fiction, Ann Rinaldi is one of the better authors. In some cases she finds a particular incident in history to work with like the Salem Witch Trials or the Boston Massacre while at other times her characters and the events of history are more general, the American Revolution or the Civil War. She has a knack for examining prominent historic figures through the eyes of their daughters or young household servants. I would highly recommend Mine Eyes Have Seen, the story of John Brown as told through the eyes of his daughter (though many of her other books are equally compelling).

Some lesser-known writers/books I enjoyed:

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse Presented primarily through poetry, Out of the Dust takes place in a home ravaged by tragedy beyond its Dust Bowl time setting.

The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline B. Cooney Though she’s best known for her Face on the Milk Carton series, Cooney’s other works are just as engaging and a few have historic connections, though none like the story of Mercy Carter, kidnapped by natives (maybe it just appealed to me so much because of the role the Native American raids of King Phillip’s war play in local history for my area).

Titanic: The Long Night and Remembering the Titanic by Diane Hoh I did a project on the Titanic two years before James Cameron’s movie made it cool when I was ten. I read many young adult novels about April 14, 1912 but these two books by Diane Hoh were my favorites. There were characters representing the different classes as well as both genders to show how each was treated during the crisis. Where most books concerning the Titanic end when the ship sinks and the survivors are rescued, Hoh wrote a sequel examining how those survivors dealt with their losses in the year following their rescue.

My recommendations for children in the flexible genre of fantasy

“Fantasy is one of the most flexible genres. It is one of the few genres in which the same book can be read by an adult and a 12-year old — comfortably and without any explanation.” – unknown

Fantasy is a genre that appeals to many children and can be a great way to get them interested in reading. Recent writers have made the genre more popular than ever. Here are a few of my recommendations for children (and their parents or siblings) interested in fantasy, some better known than others.

As a rule, I recommend that children move from Oz, to Narnia, to Hogwarts, to Middle Earth.

Contrary to the movie’s ending, Oz wasn’t just a dream for Dorothy. L. Frank Baum wrote fourteen novels for children centering around Dorothy and her friends in the land of Oz, including many characters Hollywood left out.

C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia can be read in many different orders (published order vs. the newer chronological order) but all children should read at least The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

 

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series got children interested in reading like never before. With midnight release parties for the last few in the series, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of Harry Potter (and it might be even harder to find someone who doesn’t recommend it after having read them themselves). For the record, my favorite from the series is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

 

The amount of detail that J. R. R. Tolkien put into Middle Earth, its peoples, and their history is greater than anything else I’ve ever read. While The Hobbit was meant to be a children’s book and the rest of The Lord of the Rings was meant for an older audience, I have found that most tend to favor one more than the other (I had a hard time getting through The Hobbit every time I tried to read it but The Lord of the Rings I’ve read multiple times).

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan (and upcoming spin-off series) have been gaining in popularity, especially since the movie was released recently. I plan to tackle this series over the summer when my dad finishes but have heard only good things about it so far.

Tamora Pierce tends to be less recognized than some of the others but her Circle of Magic series following four children with special gifts and a unique bond are a solid choice for pre-teen readers. She also has a spin-off series, The Circle Opens among other series.

The movie did not do justice to Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. Middle school age girls will fall in love with the characters and story of Ella of Frell and her prince Charmont. Following up Ella, Levine wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which was good but didn’t quite match the magic of Ella.

I’m not going to go into details for all of these books because it would take too long, but here are a few others I recommend:

The Unicorn Hunt by Elaine Cunningham (Unfortunately, this book is out of print but check libraries and used book stores)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (Classic)

Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville (Published in 1994, it was the first of a series the Coville has been working on for a while; Book 3 was published in 2008 and Book 4 came out at the beginning of this month)

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (Another classic)

Princess Nevermore by Dian Curtis Regan (Originally published in 1995, she finally published a sequel, Cam’s Quest in 2007)