Thursday, May 12, 2016

Books: 2016 Quarter 1

As you probably already know, I've been reading a classic a month for the last two years. It started as a one-year project in 2014, but I've enjoyed it enough to keep going with it & will probably continue until it starts to feel like a chore.

(Apologies that we're now halfway through Quarter 2 and I'm only just finishing this post. You probably shouldn't be surprised by now. Again, that post marathon = sudden additional free time thing.)

These were my first three classics of 2016:

January: Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut (1973, 302 pages). 3 stars. I dunno, I guess this book was pretty revolutionary for its time and Kurt Vonnegut clearly put a lot of himself into it, and it's mildly entertaining for the tone & drawings. But I did not come out of it feeling particularly wiser or more enlightened. Also, there is a kind of irony to reading a book written in 1973 about how everything in the country and planet has gone completely to shit and there's no hope for anything or anyone anymore and chuckling to yourself about how quaint the whole thing seems compared to the capitalist hellscape we're currently living in. Then weeping quietly.

February: The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (1982, 295 pages). 5 stars. Yeah; this is another of those books I'd give six stars if I could. Or maybe 10. It's up there with To Kill a Mockingbird, in any case. True story: I actually got to the end and flipped right back to the beginning. The story is told by the main character, Celie, a Black woman living in 1930s rural Georgia, as she navigates family, marriage, motherhood, business, race, class, friendships with men and women alike, and above all, the subject of God. There are some tragic parts (because how could there not be), but it's also *hilarious* at times, which keeps everything in balance. Definitely one of the deepest, most thought-provoking books I've ever read and also one of the most beautifully written, both in terms of structure and voice. Can't recommend it highly enough!

March: Middlemarch, by George Eliot (1872, 904 pages). 4 stars. Really I'd planned to read To the Light House this month, but I read Middlemarch by accident, so oh well. Anyway, based on the jacket copy, this books sounded like all my least favorite literary elements rolled into one (old-timey English setting, workaday lives of plain old average people, lots of parlor scenes & talk of "making a good match" and local politics and hand-wringing about things that are *just not done*). But it kept showing up over and over again on lists of "Greatest Books Ever Written in the English Language," so I decided to give it a shot. And, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it! Yes, there were a bunch of parlor scenes & a good chunk of the story is devoted to a kind of matrimonial musical chairs (in a way it reads like a Victorian soap opera), but alo multi-dimensional characters with well fleshed-out personalities and relationships, strong female characters (I mean, for the 1830s), and some really entertaining Victorian snark. That said, at 900+ pages, it's not exactly a quick read, nor is it an action-packed three-ring circus, so if that's what you're looking for, I'd look elsewhere.


Here were my favorite reads for January through March:

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah. (2015, 440 pages) 5 stars. I don't usually pick up historical fiction, so I was a little wary of this one, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Well; "pleasantly" maybe isn't quite the word. I mean, it is the story of two sisters, plucky, recalcitrant, 20ish Isabelle and 30ish domestic wife and mother Vienne, in World War II France, so in a lot of ways it's a pretty sobering book. The characters were really well-written and fleshed-out and 3D feeling; I was invested in their stories and dreams and desires and fears from early-on, so instead of feeling like I was reading a story about women in World War II Nazzi-occupied France, I felt like I was reading the story of real people that could have actually existed. In the end, this ended up being less a story about war and more about what people will and will not do during war, and how it can and can't change us as humans.

Symptoms of Being Human, by Jeff Garvin. (2016, 352 pages) 5 stars. This is one of those books you read and go "DAMMIT, every teenager in in America should have to read this!" 16-year-old Riley Cavenaugh is the gender fluid, not-out child of a Catholic Orange County congressman & has recently transferred to public school for the first time ever; the usual gauntlet of teasing and harassment ensues, except for two unlikely friends. Also, Riley starts an anonymous blog as therapy which promptly takes on a life of its own. The rest of the book is about how all those elements interact and play out. All the feels ensue. For sure there are people who will read it and complain about the author pushing an agenda, but the thing is, the characters in this book reflect real, actual people and the real, actual crap they have to deal with for no other reason except that they're trying to be themselves just like everyone else gets to. And we need literature (ESPECIALLY YA literature) that reflects the diverse realities of all people, not just that of the privileged majority.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness. (2015, 343 pages) 5 stars. Originally, I just wanted to read this book because I found the premise utterly brilliant: At a certain small-town high school, bizarre supernatural events periodically engulf a small, close-knit group of hip, trendy kids with names like Satchel and Finn and Dylan. They fight zombies, or fall in love with vampires, or save the world from angry gods. All this gets pretty annoying for the Mikes and Melindas and Jareds of the town who are just trying to live their ordinary, non-supernatural lives and deal with mundane, teenage concerns like getting into college and mooning over crushes and dealing with moderately messed up families. But, there is much more to love beyond the clever premise. The ordinary kids (and their parents) feel three-dimensional and real, and their ordinary problems are beautifully written. There are some emotional moments, but also enough tongue-in-cheek and/or hilarious ones to keep it fairly light and from veering into melodrama.

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon. (2013, 452 pages) 4 stars. In not-too-distant-future dystopian UK, people with some type of pyschich/supernatural mental ability (collectively known as clairvoyants) are feared/looked down on/hated, and many make their living in underground criminal organizations. In the wrong place at the wrong time one night, Irish clairvoyant Paige learns the truth: The corrupt government has for the past 200-some-odd years had an alliance with a mysterious yet human-looking alien race called the Rephaim, who also have powerful psychic clairvoyant abilities and train the human clairvoyants they collect as soldiers to fight against their enemy, the Ammites. Incredibly well-written, emotionally powerful & realistic-feeling without becoming melodramatic. That said, I spent most of the book thinking to myself, "Oh god, please just don't [spoiler]. If you can just avoid that temptation, this book will have been truly amazing start to finish." But no, which broke my heart. Still, it was well-written enough that I will probably read the next in the series to see what happens and if [spoiler] is somehow justified.

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff (2008, 384 pages). 4 stars. I picked up this book because I loved Fates and Furies & the hive mind seemed to agree that Monsters was Groff's best otherwise. On the brink of finishing her PhD in archaeology at Stanford, Willie Upton finds herself in the midst of a scandal with her advisor. Certain she's about to be kicked out of Stanford & blacklisted in her field, she returns to her childhood home of Templeton, [unspecified New England state]. Events conspire such that Willie ends up using her summer trying to hunt down her biological father, about whom her mother has never told Willie much, and soon the search has her digging through generations of the town's own scandalous history and mythology. A sick friend, her mother's love life, hometown admirers, and a giant sea monster that turns up dead in the town's vast Lake Glimmerglass all figure prominently. Mellower than Fates and Furies, but beautifully written with lots of gorgeous detail, the characters are believable and interesting, and there's enough comic relief to get you through the more sober historical pieces.

The Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore (2015, 320 pages). 4 stars. A really beautifully written YA along the lines of The Night Circus. Maybe Night Circus meets Romeo & Juliet. Though I suppose Night Circus had some R/J elements as well. Basically, two older teens from two different feuding troupes of traveling performers (the Latino Palomas, who perform as mermaids, & the French Corbeaus, who perform as acrobatic/tightrope-walking birds) collide, & have to deal with a) their warring family members & b) the prejudices they've grown up with. Writing convincing, realistic teenagers (particularly teenagers in love) whose dialogue doesn't make me roll my eyes and/or cringe is incredibly difficult and fraught so I'm super impressed any time someone manages it.

Orphan X, by Gregg Hurwitz (2016, 356 pages). 4 stars. I don't read a ton in this genre but enough people with ARCs were raving about it that I decided to give it a shot. As a child, orphan Evan Smoak ("Orphan X") was recruited into a black ops program designed to turn orphans into highly trained assassins. After an upsetting encounter with a fellow orphan, though, Evan decides to leave the program and disappear, using his unique skill set to bring justice to the lives of the downtrodden. Now someone is hunting him down, using those he tries to protect to get at him. Clever, well-written, with interesting characters and not too many genre tropes. Also, enough humor to cut the overall darkness of the story. This was a fun read and I totally recommend it to anyone who enjoys action/thriller/intrigue.

Be Frank With Me, by Julia Claiborne Johnson. (2016, 304 pages) 4 stars. This was a really cute, funny, touching book about famous, reclusive, misanthrope/one-hit wonder author M.M. Banning and her extremely odd but lovable ten-year-old son Frank. When finances force Banning to commit to actually finishing and delivering a manuscript for the first time in decades, twenty-four year old nanny/personal assistant (Alice) comes to manage the household. Hijinks and feels ensue. Will not change your life probably, but funny, entertaining & well-written. Fans of Where'd You Go, Bernadette will enjoy.

* * *

Currently Reading:
The Heart Goes Last
, by Margaret Atwood

Currently Listening To:
, by M.R. Carey

Up Next:

And who knows, whatever else tickles my fancy. (Taking future suggestions as always!)


  1. I read "Middlemarch" and "The Color Purple" in college. I remember really liking "Middlemarch" but I think I should re-read "The Color Purple" because I have no recollection of it and it sounds really good!

  2. Now I just added to my never-ending Goodreads list, so thank you!

  3. I love your book posts. Thank you! Interested in seeing how you feel about the Heart Goes Last, I just finished it.