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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Every year I like to do a round-up of the best books of the year. Since I don’t always read freshly published books, this isn’t technically a “best books OF 2016”; it’s a “my favorites that I READ in 2016.” However, that being said, many of them are pretty new. So let’s get started.

I read a lot of fiction and YA and this year it really showed. Only one of my favorite books that I got around to reading was nonfiction. So let’s start with that category, since it’s so small.

Nonfiction

the-geneThe Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author’s book about cancer a few years back, The Emperor of All Maladies, was excellent, and this book about the history of genetics, the code that informs all life, was just as informative and interesting. It takes readers on the odyssey of piecing together information about the human gene and genome since the early days, ending with the research and work that is happening now, in the decade after the completion of the sequencing of the human genome. The most recent research was news to me, and I found it fascinating and at times alarming. As Mukherjee posits about what we now know, “What will we do with this information?”

Fiction

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman. An older woman who really, REALLY likes to have everything just so finds out her husband has cheated on her and goes out in search of work. She can only find a temporary position in a tiny town that’s on the verge of essentially closing up shop. She slowly gets pulled into the lives of the people who live there and finds herself truly “getting a life.” The book is gently humorous, tender and at times sad. It’s entertaining and sweet. There are too many wonderful metaphors for me to have kept track of, and I loved each one of them. I ended up taking my time reading the book because my life was busy, but I was able to savor it more that way, which was a bonus. A lovely book.

every-heart-a-doorwayEvery Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. Children have been known to slip through hidden doorways into other fantastical worlds. And some return to their everyday lives, for various reasons. Some do not long to get back to those worlds; others do. The latter consider those fantastical worlds their true homes and miss them terribly, always looking for that secret door to open again. Of course no one, including their parents, understands or believes their stories. But someone actually does believe their stories — and understands their longing to be “home.” Eleanor West runs a boarding school that caters to these children and teens, that tries to help them figure out how to move forward in a life that may never have them seeing that door again.

I cannot express just how truly unique this book felt. I’ve never read anything like it. The premise is clever but then the feel, the world, the execution of it all… just amazing. I felt transported.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley. This is the 8th Flavia de Luce mystery novel, and if you haven’t read any of the previous ones, go and start from the beginning. Now. And any year that has a new novel, most likely, it’s going to be on my best-of. These stories are technically murder mysteries but are more about their tween/teen heroine than anything else. She is curious, precocious, a lover of chemistry, an annoyed youngest sister and proud sleuth. This go-round wasn’t the most “mysterious” of all the mysteries; I saw much of it coming from a mile away. But, again, since it’s more about time spent with Flavia and her charms, and chuckling a good deal, that’s almost neither here nor there. I’ll keep reading as long as Alan Bradley keeps writing.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. In the valley near the Wood where Agnieszka lives, the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in a tower, takes one girl from the villages to serve him, then lets her go, every 10 years. The girls who will be 17 in that year fear the possibility of being chosen, and their families dread it. Agnieszka (and everyone else) is sure her beautiful best friend Kasia will be chosen, so they are all taken aback when at the last moment, Agnieszka is selected instead. She herself is completely unprepared and is devastated when the cool, detached wizard takes her, and then, inexplicably, starts trying to teach her how to do simple spells. It turns out she, as opposed to the other girls, who were just taken to be servants, has potential as a witch, and she and the Dragon must find a way to keep the evil power of the nearby (and encroaching) Wood at bay. The story is complex and rich in detail and atmosphere. It’s essentially a Polish fairy tale set in the 1500s, where magic is real. I was caught up in it but the reading was slow going. I didn’t just breeze through it. But that turned out to be a blessing by the end, which was hugely satisfying and led me to want to just sit quietly within the story and appreciate it for all it contained. Just lovely.

Young adult

Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices, book 1), by Cassandra Clare. The Shadowhunters, humans with angel blood who fight demons, return in another series by Cassandra Clare. Those who have loved her other series (set in New York and Victorian London) featuring the defenders of humankind (or “mundanes,” as Shadowhunters call humans) will no doubt want to read this new one, set this time in current-day Los Angeles. I did love being back in the Shadowhunter world but I had a few quibbles. One, there wasn’t quite as much humor in this book as there was in City of Bones and other initial entries in the Mortal Instruments series. Two, these are teenagers. They admittedly have a great deal of responsibility, much more than the average human teen. But in these series, and in this new book particularly, they pretty much go about their business without much adult guidance and restraint. That’s kind of a plot point, but it leads to a lot of stuff happening that parents should know about if their teen is reading this new book/series. Not the best of Clare’s work, but I do love the world.

lady-janeMy Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, romantic and just a rollicking fun time. Plus, it turns a tragic romantic tale from history into a happy ending, that of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen of England, and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, who were beheaded after Queen Mary took over as monarch and after the Protestant rebellion of Thomas Wyatt the Younger. What’s not to love?

The Love That Split the World, by Emily Henry. This is one of those rarer books about which I don’t want to share very much. Discovering the story and what’s happening is one of the joys of reading this book. It unspools just a bit at a time, revealing at last the bittersweet and devastating truth. It’s beautiful and heart-rending and just cool in its exploration of the reason behind the strange things the main character is experiencing. The end grabbed me and shook me and left me a bit emotionally exhausted.

The Skylighter (The Keepers’ Chronicles, book 2), by Becky Wallace. This is a sequel to a fine book, and it’s just a duo, rather than a trilogy. There’s a world of magic and royalty and intrigue, with a few dashes of romance. The story follows several threads from various perspectives and pulls them all together at the end. I enjoyed this second as much as the first (The Storyspinner) and am still impressed with the skill of the writer.

These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. An intergalactic war hero and a young heiress controlled closely by her father are stranded together on an alien planet. They hope for rescue, but as time goes on it seems less and less likely. The two have to figure out how to get along and how to work together. How to stay alive. Strange things start happening, particularly to Lilac, and the mystery of why the Icarus crashed becomes compounded by the mysteries of an empty but terraformed planet and strange visions and “whispers.” It’s part romance and part sci-fi mystery. About two-thirds of the way in, the action and mystery ratcheted up and I was compelled to just keep reading because it was so interesting. I really enjoyed the story.

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As a newspaper book reviewer for more than a dozen years, two of which I was the editor of a book page, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, as well as having my own book review website, I think I could say I’m an expert on books. At the same time, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, so I hesitate to call myself much of an expert on anything at this stage of my life. I know how little I’ve read of so many things and would like to read more, but there’s only so much time, isn’t there? I’ve read a number of classics that have enriched my knowledge and understanding of all kinds of topics, but then I’ve missed out on a lot of them as well. So, that being said, I’ll talk a bit about what I enjoy reading, what moves me, enlightens me, inspires me, opens my mind, and just entertains me.

I read a bit of most everything. I like fiction and nonfiction and young adult literature. I still have a great fondness for the award-winning books I loved as a child, and it’s been a true delight to share those with my daughters as they’ve gotten old enough to appreciate them. I don’t think I read a lot of genre books, like science fiction, and even though I did get caught up in the Twilight books, I didn’t just jump on the paranormal bandwagon. I try to be selective about what I read, checking with friends and now GoodReads, for instance, to see what other people have said before I invest time in any book. I’ve collected quite a few books over the years I’ve been reviewing, since reviewers get free review copies, but I’ve also gotten rid of most of them except the ones I truly loved.

Sometimes I enjoy a book not so much for the story but for the way it’s written — poetic, lyrical, lovely, clever, full of great metaphors — and sometimes I just like it because it has fun characters or a super-clever or engaging plot. I love to be surprised, so I adore books (and movies and TV shows, too) that are able to pull off a great plot twist that I don’t see coming (but it has to make sense). I suppose that’s why I adore gothic stories; one of my absolute favorites is The Thirteenth Tale. Wowee. There just aren’t nearly enough good twists like the one Diane Setterfeld pulls off in this one. I don’t typically read a lot of sci-fi, but I have enjoyed a few good science fiction tales over the years (I do quite appreciate Orson Scott Card, even though I’ve still never managed to read what is by all accounts his best book, Ender’s Game). I like fantasy better than sci-fi, so I’ve read more of that (I loved Card’s Seventh Son series about Alvin Maker).

Sometimes I’m in the mood for a hefty tome that digs in deep to a topic, and sometimes I just need some good fluff. I’ve found that YA love stories satisfy me well on that latter count (I found Anna and the French Kiss to be delightful, for example, as well as I Now Pronounce You Someone Else). I like to learn about all kinds of topics, particularly science and health and different places (this book on memory research was fascinating: I didn’t realize just how complex it is to figure out biologically and chemically how our brains create memories), and I appreciate good memoirs (especially if they combine science and humor, like Richard Feynman’s wildly entertaining Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!). Any book that includes passages on grammar or punctuation earn points with me, as did one character’s two-page riff on a comma error in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a great book even without that hilarious-to-a-copy-editor segment, and once I read Jon Krakauer’s riveting account of disaster on Mt. Everest (I was skeptical when a friend suggested I read it), I’ve found myself attracted to other mountain-climbing books.

I still have all the books I acquired as a child and teenager, and I’ve shared them with (sometimes foisted them on) my daughters. It doesn’t get better than Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series. The latter especially has held up for me as an adult reader: the books are complex with lovely storytelling, great vocabulary and legend.

Ah, I could go on and on. But that’s what more posts are for. So stay tuned.

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