My favorite reads of 2010

Everyone’s been posting their “best of” lists for 2010, so I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon. :)  I wanted to wait until I was absolutely sure I was done reading for the year, and as I’m currently reading 4 books and not past page 100 on any of them, I’m thinking I won’t finish anything today.  I decided to just pick my favorites of the year, however many they ended up to be, instead of choosing to list an arbitrary number of books.  I read 203 books this year (the most I can ever remember reading in a year, yay!) and I read a good mix of genres.  When I put my lists together, I randomly ended up with 21 favorites, which is about 10% of my reading, a good number I think!  For simplicity’s sake, I decided to break my favorites up into three categories:  nonfiction, adult fiction, and young adult fiction.  These books weren’t necessarily published this year (in fact, most of them weren’t), I simply read them this year. Links are to my reviews of the books.

Nonfiction:

Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma by Emma Larkin – I knew just about nothing about Burma before reading this book, and Larkin just made me want to know more.  The book is sad, disheartening, and upsetting but it does exactly what it needs to do – teach.  I needed to learn about this country and its people, and Larkin taught me, and I’m grateful for that.

The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman – This book, about Hoffman’s travels in many parts of the world using some of the most dangerous transportation in existence, really surprised me.  I wasn’t expecting to be so entranced and entertained by this one but I absolutely was.

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon – Chabon is absolutely hilarious, and his observations about life, parenting, families, etc. are just spot on.

There is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene – This one is about AIDS orphans in Africa, and about one woman who runs an orphanage there for these children.  My heart went out to her for what she’s done for the kids, for how much of herself she gives up, and for the situation as a whole.  I also learned a lot about the politics of AIDS – I understand so much more about the various things that go into the epidemic than I did before.  Also, I’m now considering adopting an AIDS orphan (not tomorrow, just someday).

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – I think many people are curious about North Korea because it is such a closed country, the world knows so little about what really goes on there that it’s difficult not to be curious.  Well, this book really delivers on the knowledge front – Demick got into the hearts and minds of real people who lived in North Korea, and this is a book not to be missed because of that.

My Maasai Life by Robin Wiszowaty – Another surprise for me.  The author traveled from her cushy life in the suburbs to Africa to become a member of the Maasai people, and wrote a book about it.  Not only did she go there, but she fell so in love with the culture and the people that she now lives in Africa and organizes student trips for others to experience the same things she has.  I didn’t expect to be so captivated by her story, but I absolutely was.

Columbine by Dave Cullen – No way could I leave this one off the list.  Cullen went beyond the media sensationalism of the tragedy of Columbine and delivered a factual account of what really happened there.  This book is amazing, a must-read.

Fiction:

Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood – One of the best dystopian novels I’ve read.  Atwood is just a brilliant author, she really is.  The writing, the story, the characters – everything just comes together perfectly in this one.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See – This novel, starring two sisters who were forced to move from their fabulous life in Shanghai to the United States, is just gorgeous.  The characters were perfect, the story took my breath away, and I loved every second of this book.

The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez – This book, about one girl’s search to find the father she’d never met, is really beautiful.  I loved the character Miraflores, I loved the setting, and I LOVED the writing.  Another one not to be missed.

The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff – Beyond love for this one.  It is the real-life story (put into fiction, of course) of the first ever person to go through a gender reassignment surgery.  Everything about this book spoke to me and I couldn’t put it down for one second.  It’s possible that this is my favorite of the favorites list.  Not everyone felt so enthralled by this novel as myself, but still I say – a must-read!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – This novel made me remember why I need to read more classics!  I couldn’t believe this one had been sitting on my shelf all these years and it was SO FANTASTIC!  I need to spend more time on my backlist, people!

Finny by Justin Kramon – Finny was one of those books that I just got.  I felt wrapped up in it, like I wanted to live in its pages and never leave.  I loved the character of Finny and reading about her life was a wonderful journey.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book, and even now I’m surprised by how much it’s stuck with me since I finished it.  But there you have it.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens – When I think of this book even now, my heart immediately starts to pound.  That’s the way I felt the whole time I was reading it – on edge, waiting for something to happen, nervous and scared for Annie, the main character.  I’m putting this book on the list because it’s unforgettable – I loved reading it for the story itself, and I know it’s one I will keep with me for a long time.

Room by Emma Donoghue – This one really is as good as everyone says.  It’s stunning, amazing, unforgettable, and completely unputdownable.  Literally – I read it on Thanksgiving Day and had to be dragged away to socialize with my in-laws.  I cannot more highly recommend this book.

Young Adult Fiction:

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan – I read this one very early in the year, and it got my young adult fiction started with a bang.  The novel is about three teens living in New York City in the wake of 9/11, and it’s beyond fabulous.  David Levithan is a genius as far as I’m concerned.

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr – I read this book twice this year, once as an impulse read and then again because it was on the shortlist for the INSPY awards (it won!).  It is about Samara Taylor, a pastor’s kid with a lot going on in her life, and it just so accurately portrays so many aspects of the faith journey of a teen that it is a must-read.  Plus, the writing is great, the characters are extremely complex, and the book itself is just wonderful.

Between Mom and Jo by Julie Anne Peters – Julie Anne Peters is another genius in my book.  She so accurately portrayed what it must feel like for a child to be in the middle of separating parents – in this case, two moms – it was absolutely heartbreaking.  But awesome at the same time.

Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick – I was lucky enough to be a judge for the Nerds Heart YA tournament this year and Purple Heart is one of the two books myself and my partner, Katie, had to choose between.  It is about an eighteen-year-old Army Private serving in Iraq, and it conjured up so many emotions for me because my youngest brother, at the tender age of seventeen, signed up to join the Marine Corps and is now an active member of our military.  But even if you don’t have a personal connection to the military, I suggest reading this book because it is just so heartbreaking and beautiful.  McCormick is a fabulous writer who really shows her talent in this novel, and Matt (the main character) shines with her writing.

This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas – This novel, about a teen girl being stalked by her priest, was another one I literally did not put down.  It got to me emotionally, I connected with the book on a personal level, and I just loved it.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness – One of my most anticipated reads of the year, it did not disappoint.  It was every bit as wonderful as I wanted it to be, and completed the trilogy perfectly.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – This was probably my MOST anticipated read of the year, and I was ultimately very, very happy with it.  While I said in my (very spoilery) non-review that it wasn’t perfect, looking back I now feel that it was.  The things I was unhappy with immediately after finishing it have found their way into my heart over the past few months and I feel like Collins wrapped everything up perfectly.  I feel like the book said so much while still being so action-packed – it was everything I could have wanted.  I know many readers disagree, but for me it was absolutely wonderful.

So there you have it!  Tomorrow I will be back with a post about my non-goals for 2011, and hopefully next week I’ll get back to regularly posting most days.  I hope you all have happy, healthy, and SAFE New Years celebrations.  See ya next year!

 

Broken Birds: The Story of My Momila by Jeannette Katzir

Broken Birds: The Story of My Momila by Jeannette Katzir
Published by Jeannette Katzir
Review copy provided by the author

Jeannette Katzir’s mother Channa and father Nathan both survived the Holocaust, after which they traveled to the United States to raise Jeannette and her four siblings.  Although the war was over before any of her children were born, Channa’s parenting is heavily influenced by how broken she is from what she suffered during that time.  Jeannette (or Jaclyn as she is called in the book – all names have been changed due to factors that become clear as you read the book) and her siblings are taught to trust only family and nobody else, which makes things even more emotionally difficult for these siblings when some of them turn out to be untrustworthy.  This is the story of Jeannette’s broken mother, her father, her siblings, and most of all Jeannette’s own story as she grows up in this family.

Broken Birds is a thoroughly engrossing, emotionally charged memoir that chronicles the history of one family struggling in a lot of ways.  The memoir begins with Katzir telling the story of how both her parents came to survive World War II, how they traveled to America, and how they met and fell in love.  The family drama is present right from the start, as Channa’s brother, loyal brother that he is, is also a manipulative and selfish person.  So it’s clear right from the beginning that Channa will have some issues to work through – and as the reader learns more about her life, we learn how these issues impacted her children.

While Broken Birds was clearly inspired by Katzir wanting to tell the story of her mother’s life, the story of her own life is much more prominent.  By that I mean that the book is very much about the drama and issues between herself, her parents, and her four siblings.  Two of Katzir’s siblings are incredibly manipulative, spiteful, and just plain mean – looking out for their own interests and not having a care in the world about how their actions affected the rest of the family.  Much of the memoir is devoted to the fights and disagreements between these two siblings and the rest of the family.  I have to admit that I found a lot of this interesting, and I was completely sucked into the family drama.  It was like reading a reality TV show, in a way.  I was completely distant from the struggles that were happening but it was like I was right in there with the family, a fly on the wall.  I found it entertaining, to say the least.

I must admit that while I enjoyed reading about the family struggles within the book, it might have been a touch overdone.  The reason I say this is that the parts of the book I most enjoyed had more to do with the history of Katzir’s parents and all of that, and while I was interested to read about the current family issues, I think some readers will feel that it’s too much.  The book is on the longer side, and as most of it is made up of the present-day stuff, it can get a bit tiresome.  However, I did enjoy it so I’m certainly not cautioning people against reading it.  Just that I can see how some readers may not enjoy it as much as I did for that reason.

Overall, Broken Birds is an interesting, engrossing memoir about one family’s struggles to get along and the mother who was the glue that held everything together.  While it wasn’t a perfect book, I definitely enjoyed it.  I couldn’t help being intrigued by this family, and Katzir’s memoir certainly provided me with the insight I was looking for.

The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

The Girls of Murder CityThe Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry
Published by Viking Adult, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publicist

The subtitle of The Girls of Murder City is Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired CHICAGO. I have to be up front about the fact that the entire reason I read this book is that subtitle – I love musicals and Chicago is one of my absolute favorites.  When I realized that this book tells the story of the real-life killers who inspired the absolutely amazing musical Chicago, I knew I had to read it.

Lucky for me, The Girls of Murder City has a LOT going for it.  It is such a compelling account of the murderesses of the 1920’s that there were times I forgot I was reading nonfiction and was completely sucked into the “story” of these women.  I found it so fascinating to read about the true stories of the crimes they committed, how they were treated by the media and the public, and how many of them got away with their crimes.

The book is not just about the killers themselves, it’s also an account of the media and specific journalists who covered their trials.  It was so interesting to me reading about how the women played up the all-male juries, how the reporters covered their cases, and how the public perceived them.  For example, one of the killers was a poor, unattractive Italian woman and she was not treated well by the public.  Another woman, however, who was gorgeous, rich, and played with the jury and the camera, was released and not convicted of her crime (the crime that she, I must add, confessed to).  It also was a powerful depiction of the city of Chicago in the ’20’s.  Due to various social factors, more women were feeling independent and willing to go it alone, willing to cheat on their husbands, willing to drink with other men – and lots of these social factors contributed to the fact that several women of that era killed their husbands (or other men).

In addition, I got what I was hoping for with this book – a real glimpse into the true stories of the women who inspired the musical Chicago.  I loved reading about the woman who Roxie Hart was based off of,  as well as some of the other women at the prison who inspired characters in the musical.

All in all, The Girls of Murder City is a fascinating account of the “beautiful killers who inspired CHICAGO”.  Readers who enjoy history, especially history that is closely tied to societal factors, will enjoy this book.  I certainly did!

Merry Christmas!

I got a NOOK for Christmas from my sweet, wonderful hubby. :)  It was a complete surprise and I’m loving it already!

I hope you all have wonderful Christmases with the people you love.

Stay With Me by Sandra Rodriguez Barron

Stay With Me by Sandra Rodriguez Barron
Published by Harper Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

In 1979, five toddlers were found alone on a boat off the coast of Puerto Rico after a hurricane.  There are no clues as to where they came from or who they are, so it is assumed they are Puerto Rican citizens, and each child is adopted by a different family.  Over the years, despite the distance between them, they stayed connected, united by a bond unlike any other, always considering one another siblings.  Now adults, Taina, Holly, Adrian, and Raymond have been asked by David, the fifth, to spend a week together at David’s girlfriend Julia’s beach house, as David’s brain cancer has become aggressive and he’s not sure how much time he has left.  This reunion brings old tensions to the surface, and it inspires David to search for the truth of their origins.

Stay With Me is a complex novel that strives to do many things.  It is a character-driven story, as each of the five siblings play their own part in their unconventional family.  It is a story of the relationships between these five, and also of the relationships they have with their own families and loved ones.  And it is the story of how these five toddlers came to be on a boat together, abandoned by adults.  In many ways, Stay With Me succeeds in making all these aspects of the book come together.  However, the novel is not perfect and there were a few aspects of the book I didn’t love.

I’ll start by revealing my favorite aspect of the entire novel:  finding out how and why the five main characters came to be in that boat.  This is not explained until very close to the end of the novel, and I have to admit that the suspense was killing me throughout much of the novel.  No matter how engrossed I was in the story, I always had the thought at the back of my mind that I couldn’t wait to find out what happened that caused them to be on that boat in the first place.  Perhaps I was a bit too distracted by this part of the novel, but admittedly it’s sort of the crux of the entire thing and the truth of why they were on the boat was an excellent resolution to my questions.  That aspect of the book was absolutely perfect.

Another thing I enjoyed about Stay With Me was the relationships between the five siblings.  They were all so different, and consequently each relationship was its own entity – David interacted with Holly in a different way than he interacted with Adrian, and so on.  It was also interesting to see how they grew into five such different adults, despite staying close throughout all those years.  As I’m a fan of family sagas, these five sort of reminded me of a shorter version of a chunky family drama-type novel, and I enjoyed that quite a bit.  I could have explored their relationships with each other for many more pages.

I now have to explain the one major thing that detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book, and unfortunately it’s kind of a biggie:  I didn’t connect to any of the individual characters.  With this many main characters, I’d expected to fall in with at least a few of them, but it just did not happen that way.  In fact, the character I felt the closest to when all was said and done was Julia (David’s girlfriend) who’s not even one of the five!  Strange, yes?  I thought it was, anyway.  Had my connection with the main characters (at least one or two of them) been stronger, I can see how I might have loved the novel.  As that wasn’t the case, I still enjoyed it but that’s about all.

Overall, Stay With Me is an incredibly creative novel that may be attempting too much.  I loved the plot, the resolution of it all, and the relationships between the five main characters, but my lack of connection with any of the characters themselves left me wanting more.  I would still recommend that lovers of contemporary adult fiction give this one a try, as I found it overall better than average.  And I can definitely see myself trying more of Ms. Rodriguez Barron’s work!

Mini-reviews: recent library books

I’ve been slowing down on reading library books lately (I’m trying to cut my ARC stack down significantly before year’s end) but I have read three so far this month, and I’d love to share with you my thoughts on them.

First is This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper, a novel about a family of four adult children and their mother, who slowly unravel and spin out of control after the death of the patriarch of the family.  When Judd’s father passes away, his dying request is that his family spend the following seven days in the same house, together, like the cohesive family unit they used to be.  Tensions erupt, grudges come to the surface, and old family secrets are uncovered throughout this week of family “togetherness”.  I was pretty impressed with this novel, it captivated me and I was emotionally invested in this family from the first page.  There is no shortage of drama within these pages, but the characters read so much like real people who I just wanted things to get resolved for and everyone to rebuild their relationships.  Tropper provides a nice mix of plot points and character development, as these characters certainly have a lot going on in their lives (I mean drama with a capital D, seriously) yet he still managed to craft interesting characters that I wanted to get to know.  A solid novel, I enjoyed it immensely.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach was quite the entertaining read.  It feels like I’ve been meaning to read something of Mary Roach’s forever, so Ibook cover finally snagged this one on audio and I was very pleased with it.  What’s great about Ms. Roach is that she isn’t afraid to ask questions – any questions – about subjects that interest her.  I personally wasn’t thinking about whether astronauts have sex in space, how they go to the bathroom, and if it might be terrifying to space walk; however now I know the answer to all those questions and I am happy I learned!  I was impressed with the author’s “immersion journalism” – she was super involved in what she was writing, she spent a ton of time at the space center and participated in simulations, interviewed astronauts, etc.  It’s clear from reading Packing for Mars that Ms. Roach is passionate about the space program, and the book itself is a compelling argument for keeping the space program alive in the United States.  I would absolutely recommend Packing for Mars, even if you aren’t particularly interested in the outer space exploration – it is interesting and funny either way.

9780316014557_94X145Sweethearts by Sara Zarr was such a great read.  The story is about childhood best pals Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick – both social outcasts who have found solace in one another’s company.  One day, Cameron disappears without warning, and Jennifer is forced to realize that she has no one in her life who really understands her.  So she reinvents herself, losing weight, changing her name, and becoming the happy, popular Jenna Vaughn in high school.  But when Cameron suddenly shows up in one of her high school classes, Jenna is flooded with memories of her childhood, and forced to examine with Cameron how differently their lives have turned out.  Sara Zarr is really great at writing these incredibly authentic, complex teenage characters.  I couldn’t help loving and rooting for Jenna and I really felt for her throughout the story.  She was literally caught between two versions of herself and couldn’t figure out who she truly was inside.  The book’s ending is pretty ambiguous, which I sometimes hate, but in this case it worked.  I would advise any lover of young adult fiction to pick up Sweethearts, it’s an excellent read.

Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr.

Everything Matters!Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr.
Published by The Viking Press, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publicist

Junior Thibodeau grows up in rural Maine, a typical child and teen except for one thing:  he knows with absolute certainty that the world will come to an end when he is thirty-six.  Realizing this, he spends his life searching for meaning in a finite world.  This is a story of fathers and sons, of teen love, of family drama and the one person who, through it all, is trying desperately to figure out if any of it really matters.

Everything Matters! is definitely a high-concept novel – the entire book revolves around the fact that Junior knows the world will end via comet, and he knows exactly when it will happen.  Going into the novel, I was really excited about it because I thought it sounded incredibly creative and interesting, while at the same time I was nervous that it wouldn’t live up to its potential and may end up turning into some kind of hokey, clichéd novel.

I’m happy to say that I enjoyed Everything Matters! about as much as I possibly could have.  I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and complexity of many of the characters in the novel (Junior in particular) as this is such a plot-driven book.  At least, I was expecting it to be a plot-driven book, and in many ways it absolutely is the story that moves things along.  However, the characters are so well-drawn and authentic, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed the book nearly as much if Junior hadn’t been such a compelling character.  Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t actually like his character for much of the novel, believe it or not.  But he was so realistic, so interesting and so honest that I couldn’t help caring about him, couldn’t help caring about the people he cared about and getting drawn into his world.  And the funny thing is, I knew from the very start that these characters were doomed – yet I loved them anyway.

The interesting thing about Everything Matters! is that it asks a lot of questions but doesn’t offer any clear-cut answers.  Junior spends most of his life operating under the assumption that nothing matters, and while he annoyed the crap out of me with this attitude, I could sort of get where he was coming from.  If you knew the world would end in thirty years, or twenty, or ten, would you be motivated to make any sort of difference in it?  I’m not sure that I would.  But the last quarter of the book shows a huge turnaround for Junior, and it’s then where he starts to feel like some of the things in his life do matter, and that even if he can’t change the fate of the world, it’s still important to live life.  I don’t know – I can’t explain it without giving plot points away, but truly, Everything Matters! gave me a lot to think about.  After I closed the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  And upon finishing it, I knew exactly how I felt about the events in the book, but I know with absolute certainty that other people will feel drastically different from myself.  And that’s the beauty of this novel.

Everything Matters! is the type of book that elicited a profound emotional reaction from me, but at the same time could easily have a different effect on everyone who reads it.  I thought it was marvelously written, with a clever central concept executed perfectly, and with interesting characters to boot.  So, yes, I really enjoyed this one and would highly recommend it.