My favorite books of 2021

If ever there was a year to need escapes, this was one. I read some really fun novels, some that were swoon-worthy romantic, and some that simply took me far from reality into magical places. On the nonfiction side, I was fascinated by learning new things.

And the big news in my personal book world: the launch of a newly redesigned Rated Reads. I’ve been running that site for nearly 14 years, and it really needed an update. It now looks beautiful and has lots more functionality. If you’re looking for ratings for content for a specific book or author, or if you just want to browse for something new to read, go visit Rated Reads.

Read on now to find out the books I enjoyed most in 2021. First, the fiction and young adult books:

  1. The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox. When I learned that Knox had written a new fantasy novel, I barely even looked at its summary on Goodreads before I plunked down my digital dollars for a Kindle copy and scampered away with my e-purchase. She’s just that talented. The world of The Absolute Book encompasses demons and fallen angels, Norse mythology, Irish fairy folk, a touch of Arthurian legend, and heavy-handed, secretive government agencies. Anything can and does happen in the story, and it’s far from being predictable. I just let myself fall into this brilliant, wondrous and nearly indescribable brew Knox cooked up and savored each morsel. It’s a bit quirky and may not be for everyone, but it is magical and thoroughly memorable.
  2. All the Murmuring Bones, by A.G. Slatter. OK, my best-of lists are always going to include gothic tales. I love them. This one is a richly layered story filled with fabulous tales the main character has been told all her life. It’s populated by strong women who can work just a little magic and one or two who can work a great deal; powerful men who always seek to have their way but who, to their detriment, underestimate the women; mythical creatures like mer, ghosts, rusalki, kelpies, werewolves, and an enchanting clockwork singer. Danger and peril are the norm, the backdrop mostly darkness, but there are moments of sweetness and beauty, bright rays of light breaking through. Such a satisfyingly atmospheric novel with a finely crafted plot.
  3. Amelia Unabridged, by Ashley Schumacher. This is one of those books I doubt many people heard of and I want to promote the heck out of. The main character, Amelia, is a young woman who loves a magical set of books that transported her and made a difference in her life. Through a series of events, she gets to meet the reclusive author. The story is set in a bookstore that any reader would love to visit, and it draws readers right along on the adventure that Amelia has lived over and over while reading the books. Any of us who have been transported through the wardrobe into Narnia or via Platform 9¾ to the world of Harry Potter will know right away how Amelia feels. It’s a beautiful book about friendship and loss, about grief, about finding one’s way, and it is an homage to the magic of books and the power of reading.
  4. The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling. A woman who lives in an era where women generally can’t be truly independent proposes a marriage of convenience to a doctor in a small town. He accepts, and they get along well and even work together. But strange things happen at his family home when they go there. The book is a story of specters and horrors, about misguided people going down paths they should have avoided. It involves magic and a haunted house; a man with a past, riddled with guilt. It’s gripping, and the last stretch delivers a decidedly clever and fascinating conclusion. And yes, it’s another gothic story.
  5. The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern. I enjoyed Morgenstern’s The Night Circus but didn’t read this book when it first came out. I’m just glad I got to it this year! It involves books, a door that transports the main character to a magical world below ground, and a story that plays out over many, many years. The Starless Sea, much like the place in the book, is for those who cannot resist fairy tales, timeless and impossible love stories, and beautiful words. It’s made to be fallen into, swept up in, and relished. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
  6. The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman. At a retirement village in England, the four-member Thursday Murder Club meets once a week to discuss and investigate cold cases. When a man connected to the retirement community is murdered, the two men and two women of the club dive in to help solve the crime. Not that the local police want their help, but the unexpectedly sneaky club members manage to insert themselves into the investigation using their useful pooled skills, taking advantage of their ages and the typical expectations younger folks have of them. This is the kind of murder novel that isn’t necessarily about the mystery or the solving of it but about the characters. It’s clever, light and entertaining.

Now for the nonfiction:

  1. Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker. A couple in the mid-1900s had 12 children, and six of them, all boys, were diagnosed with schizophrenia. This book is a story of real people who suffered tremendously, and it is heartbreaking to read; it’s also a reminder that there are so many more stories like this, just in smaller families, and each is just as tragic. At the same time, it holds hope because of how some of the surviving members have been able to heal or begin to heal; it offers hope also because these same people were able to contribute to science so that others may suffer less. It’s educational, it’s a succinct history of the study of schizophrenia and an overview of the current understanding and trends. It’s an excellent book overall, and one that helped me learn and touched me deeply.
  2. Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Pérez. For millennia, men have been the “default” or “standard” humans, and women the “atypical” humans, writes Perez, citing the opinions of Aristotle and numerous other men over the years. The “male-unless-otherwise-indicated” approach is baked into our language; it’s evident in many data sets and algorithms that we all assume are neutral. We simply are not gathering data from women and tagging it as such, and that impacts women’s lives in ways small and large, from merely annoying up to deadly. And the impact on women’s lives impacts all of society, so this data gap is one that should concern everyone, male and female, from scientists to governments, from academia to corporations. Perez walks readers through a number of situations where bias affects women’s lives. This is one of those books that absolutely makes sense and from which I want to share details and anecdotes with people around me. But easiest is for you to read it and then we can talk about it together. Even better, share with a friend.
  3. Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann. In the early 20th century, the Osage Indians in Oklahoma were incredibly wealthy; when the U.S. government had moved them yet again to less-desirable land, they wisely made sure the contract accompanying the relocation included their rights to any minerals beneath the land. When oil was struck, each Osage was granted a large regular income thanks to the sales. That incredible wealth, however, attracted danger. One Osage woman in particular saw several immediate family members murdered in quick succession, and more and more wealthy Osage were murdered in different ways. Corruption kept the case from being solved for years. Finally, the fledgling FBI enlisted Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, to head the investigation, and White then quietly put together a trusted undercover team to come in and root out the evildoers. Together with several Osage, they fought against the graft and exposed a broad conspiracy that would stop at nothing to take away the oil rights and money of the Osage. Grann’s book is thoroughly and painstakingly researched and brings to light an important part of history that I dare say many Americans today are ignorant of (I certainly was). He does excellent reporting and puts together a compelling true-crime narrative.
  4. The Plague Year, by Lawrence Wright. Yes, this is about the Covid pandemic. More reading about Covid? Why? Well, this book presents a timeline of events, with pertinent context, and with the benefit of hindsight, time, and proper weighing and sifting to present a full but not bogged-down account of the pandemic up to the date the book was published. It’s readable and interesting and may help clear up some popular misconceptions and confusion. Information is power, after all.

Best books I read in 2019

Fiction

35674125._SY475_ Night Film, by Marisha Pessl: This novel gave me all the satisfying feels that I got from reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. Pessl’s book is a top-notch gothic tale with an atmosphere that’s practically a solid character looming in the background. Only drawback is the few-dozen instances of strong language.

Recursion, by Blake Crouch:  Recursion is a mind-bending novel that delves into the nature of time, memory, and reality. It’s philosophical; it’s brilliant science fiction; it’s a thriller. There are lots of pieces to this 3-D puzzle that come together in unexpected ways. I read it all in one evening; it was nearly impossible to put down. It’s complex and unexpected and one of those books to remember. I can’t say enough about how fascinating and mind-blowing and thought-provoking it is. Again, like above, would be perfect if there weren’t a couple of dozen uses of strong language.

The Labyrinth of the Spirits, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I suppose it’s fitting that since I’ve already mentioned how much I loved Zafon’s first novel in his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, this past year he published his last book in that quartet. And while the third one was just so-so, in hindsight a useful piece of the whole picture but not fabulous on its own, this one was just about everything I would have hoped for in the final book. This gorgeously crafted novel holds within it layers of stories that have run through the whole set of books and whose threads end up tying off together by the end in some way. And each story pays homage to other stories, to the power of literature. It’s all such a love letter to books, and masterfully done. Bless you, Zafon. I still want more.

Ascending and Bright Shards (books 1 and 2 of the Vardeshi saga), by Meg Pechenick: These novels read like a nonfiction account of a real woman’s experience going on an exchange program, immersing herself in a foreign culture that just so happens to be alien. The story could very well seem a bit dry or slow to some readers, but I found it fascinating because the author makes it all seem so authentic. Pechenick fleshes out the Vardeshi culture and some of the language and approaches it with a scholar’s view. Ascending and Bright Shards are really cool books but possibly more for cerebral readers who enjoy the concept, the world-building and well-crafted characters. I’m cheering them on because this author probably isn’t getting tons of attention and I just enjoyed the whole experience of being transported in what seemed such a real way (and that the writer used linguistics to do so). I’m so eager to read the next book that I keep checking back on Goodreads to see when it pops up with a publishing date.

Nonfiction

40539150._SY475_The Valedictorian of Being Dead, by Heather B. Armstrong: Armstrong was a popular and successful “mommy blogger” who struggled with depression for decades. After one particularly bad bout of depression, her psychiatrist suggested she enter a trial that was happening at the University of Utah, very close to where she lived in Salt Lake City. She would be the third person to be “put under” so deeply with the anesthetic propofol that her brain activity would go down to almost nothing. The process involved 10 visits to the hospital over the course of just a few weeks, with doctors administering the medication and monitoring her brain waves and then bringing her back out of what essentially was a deep coma or near-brain death within an hour. The protocol had the same effect on the brain of essentially “jump-starting” it as happens with the seizures produced by electroshock therapy, but with far fewer side effects than that old but still effective treatment for depression that is resistant to medication. Armstrong captures so well the feelings and ideas that are so common in those experiencing clinical depression, those that people who have not experienced it cannot fathom, and she relates her experiences with great insight, some wit and even great compassion.

Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action, by David Fajgenbaum: This is the story of a young doctor’s battle with a disease that nearly killed him several times and his drive to not only help thousands of other people with the disease but even to change the traditional system that has made it so difficult for researchers and doctors to make significant progress in finding causes and cures for other so-called “orphan diseases.” At the same time, Fajgenbaum describes how through his experience he found ways to better connect with loved ones and find happiness. Fajgenbaum’s story is fascinating not just because of what he brings to the table as a patient, bright doctor and researcher and even businessman, but because of how much he’s done in a short time to make tremendous progress.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants, by Bill Bryson: Before this book, I had not read any of Bryson’s work. I had heard of his talent and the light but informative style he so skillfully uses, so when this book came up for me to review on NetGalley, I snatched it. And now I am going to move some of his other books up on my to-read list. If you’d like to know more about your whole body and like to be entertained while you learn, Bryson’s for you. You should end up with plenty of tidbits to share with your family and friends. Bonus: it’s completely clean reading.

Young adult

Finale (Caraval, book 3), by Stephanie Garber: OK, I loved these books. I want there to be more and more. But all good things must come to an end, sadly. This book was just as magical and transporting as the previous two, and I gobbled it right up within a few days.
Finale wasn’t perfect; I thought the ending was a bit rushed and got tied in a bow more quickly than I thought was organic, but it was so enjoyable nonetheless that I didn’t mind.

24795172The Start of Me and You, by Emery Lord: This is a good example of a fine YA romance with a bit of heft. It got me invested in the characters. I felt for the main character, Paige, and her challenges: She faces grief and guilt and frustration over being pegged as one Thing wherever she goes. She worries over a lot of things and struggles with anxiety. Her beloved grandmother has health difficulties, and her divorced parents throw her a curveball to worry about. All that’s not to mention just the standard high school challenges any teen has to face. But she works on ways to find happiness and has a great support system, with her family and friends. I liked her friends and their personalities and the way their group gets along. And her friendship and all the interactions with the love interest were really fun to witness. It stuck with me and I was pleased to be able to read the follow-up, which was just published this week (January 2020), The Map from Here to There.

My favorite books in 2018

Goodreads says I read 41 books this year. I’m going to pick 10 of my favorites, just because, hey, 10 is a nice round number. I’ll even helpfully divvy them up by genre. Interestingly enough, my favorites were fairly evenly divided among these three categories; some years, that’s not the case. I’m linking each to my review on my website, Rated Reads, where you can get the full review and my content rating on each.

So here goes:

Fiction

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: On occasion, a book comes along you just don’t want to spend much time trying to describe because you don’t want to give anything away about the original way it’s set up. This novel about a murder with a “Groundhog Day”-like twist and a man trying to stop it from happening — even though it already happened decades ago — was just plain cool. I couldn’t put it down.

coincidence makersThe Coincidence Makers: Here’s another book that’s utterly original and clever and about which I don’t want to give too much away. And it left me just sitting dumbfounded when I read the last page. I was in awe at the complexity of the story and how every piece fit together in ways I never saw coming. I thought the premise of the book was clever but I had no idea the direction the book would take, its tone and messages. The story had much to say about what love is, and I had to sit quietly and savor it all for a while.

Once Upon a River: Diane Setterfield’s third book doesn’t pack the surprise punch of what I consider a gold standard for gothic stories, her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, but that’s OK. This story did have a feel to it of mystery, of the touch of the supernatural, but it’s more human and weighty, more well-rounded, and quite satisfying emotionally.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway: This was my introduction to author Ruth Ware, and I am a sucker for gothic tales (as is evidenced by my previous paragraph). The tale of a young woman in dire need of funds who can’t help but take the opportunity presented her to possibly finagle some from the estate of a recently deceased woman was good enough I’m going to be reading more of Ware’s books.

Young adult

Legendary (Caraval, book 2): The magical immersive game experience at the heart of this book and its predecessor promises/warns its participants that they will get swept away. That’s true also for readers. I lapped up every last little bit. Now awaiting another book in the set. Impatiently.

million junes

A Million Junes: I was moved by the loveliness of author Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World, so I was eager to read this second book of hers. It’s a beautiful story about love and loss, about grief and vengeance and finally being able to let go. It’s said that the best fiction is the truest, and this story struck so many true chords. I loved the characters, their flaws and strengths, the wonderful heritage the main character carries with her because her father planted it in her through all his stories that were just a bit too outlandish to be completely true but somehow still were at their core. I loved all the bits of magic floating through the story while it still was grounded in reality.

Furyborn: In one era, a young queen with tremendous magical power brings her land to ruin. A thousand years later, a young bounty hunter is just trying to survive, but she gets pulled into a faction that’s rebelling against the ruthless leader of the empire. And the two women are somehow connected. I was blown away by this story. It raced along at high speed, and I could not put it down. The world of the book is fascinating; the two women are complex characters, facing complex dangers. The stakes are high and the action is practically nonstop through 500 jam-packed pages. I cannot wait for more; luckily, the sequel is coming fairly soon.

Nonfiction

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer: A true story not just of a rapist and killer who terrorized several areas in California, but the writer who spent years digging into the story and trying to solve the case. The writer died before finishing the book, and the alleged killer was caught just this year, shortly after publication. Compelling reading.

The Library Book: The story about a fire that ruined hundreds of thousands of books in Los Angeles Public Library, but also just a paean to books and libraries. Irresistible for book lovers, and doubly good in the masterful hands of writer Susan Orlean.

The Future of Humanity: What will happen when our planet (sooner rather than later) becomes uninhabitable? Michio Kaku explores the possibilities open to us in the next century and more. If you’re a science junkie, whether it’s astronomy, space travel, robotics, quantum physics or technology, this book is an absolute treat. Thought-provoking and even riveting.

My favorite books from 2016

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.

The 10 best books I read in 2015

According to Goodreads, I read 51 books this year, a total of 18,639 pages. There were just a few more that I didn’t enter onto the site, but that pretty well sums it up. Thanks to that site, I end up not having to plow through many stinkers, so I did enjoy almost all of the books I read. A few stand out, however. Here are my 10 faves from this year of reading.

Young Adult

illusionsIllusions of Fate, by Kiersten White: This was practically perfect. I borrowed it from the library but then had to buy it because I loved it so much. Kiersten White has created a world not unlike ours, set in a time much like that of the early 20th century, but has imbued its nobility with magical powers only they know about and use. Her heroine is smart and courageous and all too human, and though she is “just an ordinary girl,” she is a force to be reckoned with. That’s what makes her — and the book — so great. I just lost myself in the setting, the characters and their interactions with each other, and the story. I absolutely adored this book. Bonus: it’s clean. I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley: This middle-grade book is about faith, magic and hope. It’s about opening your eyes to the possibilities. It’s about family, love and dedication. It’s sweet, poignant, delightful. It’s written for children, sure, but adults will be charmed as well. It’s one of those books everyone should get to read and keep on a bookshelf at home. And since it’s for younger readers, it’s clean. I rated it None on Rated Reads.

The Storyspinner, by Becky Wallace: This book with a strong female heroine is an engaging tale of danger, cunning, political intrigue, magic and a few touches of romance. The plot and writing are excellent, seeming to have come from a more seasoned writer, and once I got into the story, I could hardly put it down. It’s clean; I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

weight of feathersThe Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore: The prose in this Romeo-and-Juliet tale set in the Central Valley of California that swings between two carnival families is just so, so lovely, and the writing is so masterful it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. It’s gotten some hype, and it actually lives up to it. I rated it Moderate on Rated Reads.

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman: This book is one of those Important Novels people should read to gain a bit of empathy, understanding and awareness about mental illness, particularly in teens. It could have foundered in less skilled hands, but Shusterman has the chops to make this brilliant. He writes in an author’s note at the end that his own son “journeyed to the deep” and with his help, he’s “tried to capture what that descent was like.” He also points out the reality that helping people who are dealing with mental illness “is not an exact science, but it’s all we have – and it gets better every day as we learn more about the brain, and the mind, and as we develop better, more targeted medication.” I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Fiction

lake houseThe Lake House, by Kate Morton: Yes, I adore Kate Morton’s books. This one did not disappoint. Morton is a master at crafting these kinds of novels: long and richly detailed stories of family secrets that span generations and decades, that have long-reaching consequences. As I reluctantly and slowly closed the back cover, I was overcome by that sadly delicious, mixed feeling of completion that means a book has brought me much gratification as I’ve taken it all in but regret that the experience is over and can’t be duplicated. And it’s clean reading: I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Us, by David Nicholls: The book is practically perfect: it examines so beautifully a longtime marriage between two very different people, the highs and lows and in-betweens, without resorting to cheap plays for readers’ sympathies. Even serious matters that could, in the wrong hands, be maudlin are deftly and lightly handled. Nicholls’ previous book, One Day, was a good one, but it did resort to a big bang of a twist that could be seen as a nasty trick by the writer. Here, however, the story plays out naturally and is balanced wonderfully. There are laugh-out-loud moments that gave me no choice but to read them aloud to whoever was near and descriptive passages that made me in awe of Nicholls’ cleverness. I can’t say enough about how well written this book is. It’s not clean reading, though: I rated it High for strong language on Rated Reads.

Nonfiction

body of truthBody of Truth, by Harriet Brown: I have not yet posted a review of this on Rated Reads, but it’s coming soon. I’m also hoping to write a nice in-depth analysis on here in coming days. It’s that important. Brown shares what she’s learned in a decade of examining research on weight, obesity, eating disorders, etc., as well as from interviewing hundreds of women and scientists. The reality is this: our society is completely obsessed with weight. And though the media and doctors tend to go on certain “truths” as givens, those are not necessarily true or even based on solid research. Weight is a very complex matter, and we still know far too little about how best to regulate it. We certainly know far too little about how to help people lose weight and keep it off “for good.”

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: Husband-and-wife writing team Kristof and WuDunn explore ways that we can all make a difference by donating our time, talents or resources to help others in this world. Even a little helps. They share inspiring stories and then tell readers specifically how to make our money or time really count. I was galvanized by this terrific book. It’s simply inspiring, but it’s also practical and addresses concerns and problems with charities even as it shares solid advice on how to tailor your giving to your own interests and capacities. I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty: If you are a fan of Mary Roach’s fascinating book on what happens to our bodies after death, Stiff, you are likely to appreciate Caitlin Doughty’s book focusing mostly on the aspect of cremation. While the book is informative and curiosity-slaking while also liberally sprinkled with dry wit and gallows humor, it’s also a reminder that Americans today are far removed from death. And this is much of Doughty’s point: after spending about a year working at a crematorium in Oakland, California, she then decided to pursue the career and attend mortuary school. The experiences served to incite in her a passion for helping people in our culture reacquaint themselves with death. Rather than fearing aging and death and dead bodies and shoving all we find distasteful off onto professionals who work behind a screen, we would be better served mentally and emotionally if we had more to do with the whole process. I rated it High for language on Rated Reads.

Nonfiction dominated my favorite books in 2014

I like to read a variety of genres and subgenres, from adult fiction and nonfiction to young adult and some middle-grade books, but I thought I typically tended to skew more toward fiction. This year, however, the books that have really spoken to me and stuck with me have been more often nonfiction. I’m not sure if that speaks to the quality of the nonfiction I’ve read or to some disappointment I’ve had in fiction I’d thought would be better this year. So I’ll start with the nonfiction books I’ve found compelling in 2014:

  1. The Good Spy, by Kai Bird: This story about Robert Ames, a CIA agent in the ’60s and ’70s who spent his career in the Middle East, had me absolutely fascinated; it was challenging reading, to be sure, that required real focus so I could absorb all the pertinent details about places, people, and politics. But it kept my interest and left me feeling well informed about the big picture, better educated. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the complex history of the divisions in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land area and its immediate environs, and all the repercussions of each action taken by locals and world governments.
  2. EichmannEichmann Before Jerusalem, by Bettina Stangneth: This fine book that will likely change the whole conversation not just about Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann but about future research into Nazi Germany and its continued relevance. As with The Good Spy, this book is not a quick and easy read; it is a work of scholarship that is comprehensive and thoroughly researched and the conclusions of which are meticulously documented and explained. But it is well worth the time and effort to tackle: anyone who has ever been acquainted with Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem (he made Arendt conclude that “evil” often exhibits itself as “banal”) must read this more accurate examination of the mass murderer.
  3. On Immunity, by Eula Biss: Biss examines the issue of people choosing not to vaccinate, not primarily to persuade “anti-vaxxers” to change their minds, but to show how our culture has fostered this dangerous movement. And the result is a fascinating, informative, and thought-provoking look at parenting in 21st-century America. Not only is On Immunity a quick primer on the history of vaccination and the current attitudes about it, it is an interesting examination of a new kind of class inequality. Regardless of one’s attitudes about vaccination, this book should spur some good discussion about attitudes in our modern society and our responsibility to each other.
  4. Invisible HistoryThe Invisible History of the Human Race, by Christine Kenneally: This book is just as much about genealogy and its popularity and history as it is about how DNA relates to it. The author sets up how DNA comes into the picture by exploring the interest in and history of family history research, of cultures, of eugenics, of how people look at race (for one thing), and then adds in the puzzle piece of DNA. Her writing style and approach are engrossing and interesting, and I found myself dog-earing a lot of passages that spoke to me in various ways.

Now, on to a few works of fiction that particularly pleased me. First, this year brought the conclusions to a few good series, including Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments, Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, and Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. I enjoyed all three but I think I was most satisfied with UnDivided, the fourth and last book in the Unwind dystology. I wrote earlier this year that I was disappointed in Harkness’ failure to share certain vital information that was pertinent to the whole series in the final book, The Book of Life. Are we supposed to accept that she made us expect a conclusion and did not provide it for us? I didn’t think so. And while I was mostly satisfied with The City of Heavenly Fire, I didn’t think it was as great as earlier books in the series (let’s face it: the first three books were great, and the next three after what seemed like a “conclusion” weren’t quite up to Clare’s previous standards). So an official mention of Shusterman’s achievement comes first in my fiction list (which is going to just include young adult fiction, so I admit I’m mixing genres, which seems fitting now that YA fiction is being read just as much by adults as teens):

  1. UndividedUnDivided, by Neal Shusterman: A conclusion to a series that’s been as thought-provoking as it’s been action-packed. It fit perfectly with the rest of the books and did not let me down. I loved how he wrapped things up. So cool. Just read the series about a future in which the U.S. has settled on a “compromise” between pro-lifers and pro-choicers by not allowing abortion but by allowing parents to “unwind” their teenagers if they cause problems (or for any other reason): their bodies are dismantled and every part is donated to others.
  2. Love and Other Foreign Words, by Erin McCahan: I loved this author’s first YA romance, I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, and this second made me just as happy. This book’s heroine is only 15 and quite precocious for her age in some ways because she is so ridiculously bright. Josie attends high school for half the day in her town of Bexley, Ohio, but starts the day with classes at a nearby college. She especially enjoys languages and how they are used by their respective groups. She is precise in her approach to the use of words. This love of precision (oh, how I love her for that!) causes her difficulties, though, when it comes to “love.” Love and Other Foreign Words is funny, real, vibrant, clever and utterly charming, and a bonus is that it has at its heart a girl who is deeply loved and nurtured by her parents and older sisters and who loves them back; the family is intact and very happy. Refreshing!
  3. The Casquette Girls, by Alys Arden: I reviewed this one for the San Francisco Book Review without knowing much or expecting much of it and was quite pleasantly surprised. Yes, this is YA, and yes, it’s paranormal, but it’s pretty cool. It’s an engaging story that’s rich in historical detail and has a richly developed setting. Readers who love magic and the supernatural will particularly eat up this well-written novel about supernatural creatures causing problems in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And there you have it: some wonderfully researched, intelligent, absorbing, informative nonfiction reads, and a few fun fiction picks that just happen to be written for young adults. Apparently, the “adult” fiction titles disappointed me a bit this year. Let’s hope for better in 2015.

My favorite books of 2013

So it’s time to jump on that bandwagon and share what I enjoyed the most in 2013. Of course, since I didn’t read all the new and hyped books of the year, I can only include my opinions on what I did read, but I think it’s a pretty good list nonetheless. So let’s get right to it:

The best

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein. A friend who really knows her YA/middle-grade stuff loved this, so I thought I’d check it out for myself and my 11-year-old. I got it from the library, handed it over to my young book-devourer, then enjoyed it after she did. It’s everything you’d want from a book for young readers: fun, clever, kind of adventurous, and highly imaginative. It made me and my daughter both wish there was a real library as amazing as the one imagined by Grabenstein. Every town needs a Mr. Lemoncello with deep pockets and a desire to give back to the community via a well-appointed library.

Just One YearJust One Year, the follow-up to Just One Day, by Gayle Forman. Forman can do no wrong when it comes to young adult/new adult books. They are utterly real and honest, with characters who are just as real. The stories are moving and touching without cheaply playing on heartstrings. This latest pair of books focus first on the young woman who falls for a guy during a trip to Europe and the one day they have together, then the guy. We get each of their perspectives and see how they come together initially, but, more importantly, how they grow individually so they could stay together.

Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox. Knox proved she has solid writing talent with this first new book since her YA “duet” of Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. I can’t recommend her enough. The stories are mysterious and fascinating while delivering big on setting. Like Forman’s books, there is poignancy and sweetness without overdoing it. I gobbled them up. I wrote a whole post about Knox.

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. This British book was actually published earlier but hit it big this year through word of mouth in the U.S. — and rightly so. It’s a sweet story of two unlikely people falling for each other: a formerly successful businessman-turned-quadriplegic and the woman who’s hired to care for him and lift his spirits. It really tugs on the heartstrings and makes you think. Get a box of Kleenex ready.

Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. Here’s another that sparked lots of word of mouth, months before it was published. I was forced to wait to read it closer to its pub date, and let me say it was worth the wait. This was another story of unlikely love, this time between a man with Asperger’s and a girl who is definitely not the type of woman he’d expected to fall for. Clever, sweet, funny, insightful. I laughed, I read cute segments out loud to my daughter. When I feels the need to read passages out loud to family members, you know it’s good. Only drawback: a couple dozen f-words.

The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley. I ran across the gothic-y The Shadowy Horses on my library’s e-book website and gave it a try. Definitely enjoyed it. Then when I saw this new book would be following one character from that book later in life, I felt I must read it as well. After being caught up in the two parallel stories in this newest book for a very enjoyable 500 pages or so, I wished there was more. Luckily, Kearsley has plenty of other books for me to enjoy in the same genre, and I got extra-lucky a few days ago to get some e-copies for a special $1.99 on Amazon. Life is good. If you like clean gothic tales, Kearsley is a must-read. And read a bit more about her and other fave authors on this post.

Now for some nonfiction:

The World’s Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne. I laughed, I was fascinated, I learned. This memoir took me inside the head and life of a really cool and smart guy who happens to wrestle with Tourette syndrome. It was so interesting and entertaining that I introduced it to my book club, and it made for a great discussion. Read more on my post about it.

Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill. I already wrote a long post about this book on our health care system and what we deem to be “health insurance,” but what should be more precisely termed “health coverage.” In short, this book is what I think EVERYONE should read when talking about health care in the United States and the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. It might take a little concentration for some readers, but this is another I read out loud from a bunch and dog-eared and underlined a ton. Just a must-read.

The most disappointing:

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. I have seen this on a number of “best-of” lists this past couple of weeks and still am stymied as to why that is. I sometimes think that editors and critics jump on bandwagons just because everyone else seems to think the book “should be” good. I thought the premise of this book was fascinating but that its execution wasn’t so hot. It just didn’t seem to “mean” anything. If everyone supposedly loved it because the premise was great but thought they were the only ones who didn’t “get” the bigger meaning and didn’t want to admit it, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you’d like to read more about my disappointment with this book, look at my original post.

Bellman and BlackBellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield. Dang it, this was so disappointing. I guess it was almost inevitable. I count her first book, The Thirteenth Tale, as probably my favorite gothic book. So that’s a lot to have to live up to. But this second book just didn’t deliver any big twists or messages. It kind of just went along, told its story, and said goodbye. Ah, well. Maybe she can write a third somewhere down the road and redeem herself just a bit.

There you have it, folks. I’m eager to see what 2014 brings in the way of great new books. Happy reading.

My top books of 2012

Since 2012 is winding down very quickly, I thought I would jump on the bandwagon of “top of the year” lists with my top reads this year. Most are books that were also published this year. I’m not making it a top 10, just a top whatever. (I don’t want to give a couple of extra books kudos they don’t necessarily deserve just to make it an even 10. So there!)

So here goes:

  1. outlanderThe Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. (This is actually the only entry on this list that wasn’t published this year.) Another blogger mentioned these books, and I decided to try them out. I got hooked just as thoroughly as many other readers. Normally, I would say they’re too long and full of far too much detail, but the characters and the interesting premise kept me reading. I read four, dying to know what would happen next, and then did get slowed down in the fifth, (finally coming to a point that I felt I knew enough about what had happened to them) so I’ve put it aside in favor of other books. The only downside is the sex: there’s a lot and it’s described in a lot of detail. 
  2. Goodbye for Now, by Laurie Frankel. I just read this book and found it utterly charming and funny at turns and at other times sweetly poignant and heartbreaking. Frankel describes so perfectly how it feels to lose someone you love dearly. She balances grief and new love all in one lovely book that made me both cry and laugh out loud. Plus, it has a very clever premise.
  3. EdenbrookeEdenbrooke, by Julianne Donaldson. The first in a new “series” of books called “proper romances,” this book takes readers into Regency England and brings it to life with a sweet, clean romance almost as well as Austen herself. A really fine work that aspires to grand heights of Jane-dom and doesn’t disappoint.
  4. The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton. I’ve become a Morton fan over the past few years she’s been writing her Gothic stories full of family secrets, and this newest novel just cemented my fanaticism. Always a pleasure.
  5. On the note of further books by authors I’ve come to appreciate is also the latest middle-grade book by Rebecca Stead, Liar & Spy. She was rightly awarded a Newbery for her fantastic book When You Reach Me (the plot revolves around A Wrinkle in Time: she got my attention right away), and this newest, though not so cleverly plotted, was still poignant in just the right dose and a charming read for young readers and adults alike.
  6. Then there are the books that came next in series that lived up to the hype of the previous books. First, there’s UnWholly, an unexpected sequel to Unwind, a YA book with an incredibly thought-provoking premise that was packed with action to boot. I’ve already written in detail about these books, so just click here to read that post.
  7. Pandemonium was a great sequel to Delirium, another YA dystopian series, in which society has decided that love is a disease that can be eradicated. I thought that the sequel was just as entertaining and interesting as the first book, perhaps even better. I am now chomping at the bit to read the conclusion.
  8. Clockwork-PrinceClockwork Prince was one of two new books this year by Cassandra Clare. It was the second in her Infernal Devices series, and I enjoyed it even more than the first in the series, and definitely more than the fifth book in her Mortal Instruments series, City of Lost Souls, which was really disappointing. I love her combination of hot romance, supernatural demon-fighters, and wit. I just wish someone had made her take some time to make City of Lost Souls better. I hope that the last in the Infernal Devices series doesn’t disappoint.

A brief introduction to my favorite books

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.