Sunday, January 8, 2017

My Favorite Books of 2016

2016 turned out to be a pretty good year for reading.  I logged 30 books on my reading list and I usually miss recording a few due to my lack of regular posting these days.  As a matter of fact, I've added two while writing this post...because one of them was a favorite that was never recorded! One of the reasons for my having such a good a year was the gift I gave to myself of a Book of the Month membership. It has exposed me to books I may never have picked up on my own.

From my 30 known reads/listens this year, here are my favorites:

5.  The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
I loved this one so much that I purchased both the hardback and the Audible version so I wouldn't have to wait so long to rejoin the Cafe Society lives of Truman Capote and his swans - socialites Babe, Slim, C. Z., Gloria and Pamela.  Based on real people and true events, this work of fiction so swept me up in 1950's New York City that I found myself looking up pictures of the places mentioned and remembering some of my own visits to these once glamorous places. It even sent me on to read Truman Capote's novel Breakfast at Tiffany's.  It was a fun read and yet I found myself both admiring and feeling sorry for most of the characters.

4. The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
I heard about this one on the 'What Should I Read Next' [WSIRN] podcast and decided to download it from Audible.  BEAUTIFUL story!  Told so well that you can't help but care about everyone in it - including the crotchety old lady, the mostly absent, dream-chasing father and even the sometimes misguided and goofy scout leader.  I probably would never have picked this one up on my own because it's description says 'when the boy dies suddenly.' Not a spoiler, it is the premise of the book, yet the death of a child is hard for me to read about. This book, however, paints such a beautiful picture of how his short life touched others and how those he touched found their way through the grief together. It sounds horrible -- but it is 'oh so good.'  Try it!  It's short and easy to read -- or at least to listen to!

3.  The English Spy by Daniel Silva
Maybe it's because I have so much invested in this series (it's the 15th in the Gabriel Allon novels), maybe it's because I love the characters in this one (many of the same from the first book I read which got me hooked on the series The English Girl) or maybe it is because I decided to treat myself before this book was released and pre-order a hand signed copy from Barnes and Noble.  Whatever the reason I loved, loved, loved this one so much that I cherished every minute I spent reading and hated to see it end.  I've never seen myself as a spy novel kind of girl, but Israeli spy Gabriel Allon and his team capture my imagination and I feel very invested in their lives.  The Black Widow is the only one left that I haven't read, but I can't bring myself to start it until I know another one will be waiting in the wings!

2. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
This has been my absolute favorite from my Book of the Month selections. Again, I probably wouldn't have chosen this one if it hadn't been talked about so highly on the WSIRN podcast. I talked about my love for this book, it's beautiful prose and the quotes I can't stop thinking about in the post I won't bore you with a repeat here.  But let me add that I could see myself in many of these characters -- the teenagers, the parents and in the church mothers.  For good and for bad.

And now for my #1 book of the year:
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!  This one I bought on Audible but come Friday I could not imagine waiting until Monday morning's commute to rejoin the magic and intrigue, so I stopped at Half-priced Books and bought a hard copy. Again, this has beautiful prose and gorgeous imagery, with fantasy and magic on top.  It reminds me of a world much like J. K. Rowlings's created in the Harry Potter series but grown up a bit.  I have given this book to Deborah in hopes that I can have someone to talk it over with.  It's the story of a magical competition taking place in the setting of a black and white circus that travels about at whim and is only open at night.  It is beautiful and tragic and romantic and I really, really, really hope someone turns this into a movie because it has the potential to be a great one!

These were my favorites but I have to mention two others that were close contenders:

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley was a Book of the Month pick that kept me riveted until the very last page.  It is so well written that I could envision it all in my head like watching a movie. I guess that would make sense as the author is a screenwriter.  Great, fun thriller -- but not to be read on an airplane!

Still Life by Louise Penny was another one I kept hearing about on the WSIRN podcast.  I hear the books get better with time (#2 was mentioned in the post below and I just finished #3 while sick this weekend).  But the first one reminded me of how much I loved reading Nancy Drew as a girl and  Agatha Christie as a teenager.  I'm so glad to have found another series to enjoy!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

What I Read In November & December

 Denmark is officially the happiest nation on Earth. When Helen Russell is forced to move to rural Jutland, can she discover the secrets of their happiness? Or will the long, dark winters and pickled herring take their toll?

 A Year of Living Danishly looks at where the Danes get it right, where they get it wrong, and how we might just benefit from living a little more Danishly ourselves.

Helen Russell works as a Scandinavia correspondent for the Guardian and the Independent, as well as writing a column on Denmark for the Telegraph.

I first heard about this book on a podcast for a small independent bookstore in Thomasville, GA (From the Front Porch).  I was intrigued...and it was recommended by Shauna Niequist via Instagram, so how could I resist. 

It is interesting to me how we in America are held up next to these Scandinavian countries and shown lacking in areas like vacation time or family leave...but as I read this book I knew that there is no way in Hades that American's would agree to live under all of those rules. Nor would we agree to that level of taxation. Which made me wonder why those things are never mentioned in the global conversation.  It appears that by limiting your choices you can be happier and healthier.  (Seriously, it would be against the law for me to fly any other flag including my Razorback flag in Denmark...and bicycle lights have to flash exactly 'X' amount of time per minute or they are illegal.)  But are we ready for the loss of choice and the homogenization of our culture to get the things we see in them that we think we want? 

I was just reminded again that everything, even good things, come at a cost.

Only God knew why Jillian Slater agreed to return to New Orleans on the news that her father had finally drunk himself to death. It’s not like they were close. She hadn’t seen him―or her grandmother, the ice queen―in almost 20 years. But when Adella Atwater, the manager of her grandmother’s apartment house, called and said Jillian’s expenses would be paid if she’d fly in for the burial, a free trip to New Orleans was too intriguing to resist.

What Adella didn’t tell her was that the apartment house wasn’t a house at all and, whatever it was, bore the dead weight of a long and painful history. As soon as Jillian meets the odd assortment of renters and realizes that her grandmother had no idea she was coming, she hatches a plan to escape. But the investigation into her father’s death quickly unfolds and Jillian is drawn into the lives of the colorful collection of saints and sinners who pass through Saint Silvanus. She soon discovers there is more at stake than she ever imagined. Who is behind the baffling messages and the strange relics left on the steps? Is it possible that her family is actually cursed? Or is it just this crazy old house that holds them all under its spell?

Jillian walks into a web of spiritual and personal danger borne out of her family’s broken history, and despite Adella’s wiliest efforts, only God himself can orchestrate the undoing of all that is going on at Saint Silvanus.

I have been waiting for this one to come out.  Beth Moore's first novel!  What else to do but call all of my reading friends and invite them to Book Club.

The story is good.  The characters are rich.  I only wanted to shake Jillian about a hundred times, but I could see why she would respond the way she did.  The location of Saint Silvanus itself became a character in our minds and we spent a lot of time discussing it.  One word of warning...this book is LONG!  We barely finished it before the meeting...but, oh, did we have some great discussions.  It was the perfect novel for my very first Book Club.  Set the table with hurricane lanterns, throw in some seafood gumbo, red beans and rice and a rich bread pudding -- and you've got yourself a nice evening with friends.

It was so much fun we decided to do it again in January!

In October 1843, Charles Dickens ― heavily in debt and obligated to his publisher ― began work on a book to help supplement his family's meager income. That volume, A Christmas Carol, has long since become one of the most beloved stories in the English language. As much a part of the holiday season as holly, mistletoe, and evergreen wreaths, this perennial favorite continues to delight new readers and rekindle thoughts of charity and goodwill.

With its characters exhibiting many qualities ― as well as failures ― often ascribed to Dickens himself, the imaginative and entertaining tale relates Ebenezer Scrooge's eerie encounters with a series of spectral visitors. Journeying with them through Christmases past, present, and future, he is ultimately transformed from an arrogant, obstinate, and insensitive miser to a generous, warmhearted, and caring human being. Written by one of England's greatest and most popular novelists, A Christmas Carol has come to epitomize the true meaning of Christmas.

I read A Christmas Carol for the very first time!  It is absolutely lovely! 

I happened to be in Barnes and Noble picking up a gift when I saw a beautiful gift book covered in red satin and I just could not pass it up.  I didn't get to finish it until Christmas Day.  It was very moving and a great reminder of where our hearts and attentions should be during this time of the year.  I had recorded a movie with George C. Scott from 1984 which Jim and I watched that evening. (I honestly don't think I had ever even seen a movie adaptation all the way through!) It was a wonderful way to process this year's Christmas season.  It really should be on my reading list every December.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

What I Read In October

October means the beginning of fall (even though temperatures were still well into the 90's most days) and nights curled up with good mysteries.  That was reflective of my reading this month.

A Fatal Grace

Written by Louise Penny
The Second Installment of the Chief Inspector Gamache Series
CC de Poitiers managed to alienate everyone in the hamlet of Three Pines, right up to the moment she died. When Chief Inspector Armand Gamache begins his investigation, it seems like an impossible murder: CC was electrocuted on a frozen lake, in front of the entire town, during the annual curling tournament. With compassion and courage, Gamache digs beneath the idyllic surface of village life to find long buried secrets, while his own enemies threaten to bring something even more chilling than the bitter winter winds to Three Pines. Taken from Amazon

I read the first novel in this series a few months ago (Still Life).  I enjoyed being introduced to the people of Three Pines and to the Canadian way of life in a small village.(I can't even imagine all the snow, the toboggans and mittens that are an essential part of their wardrobe -- especially during this Texas heat!)  These characters felt like people I would know -- neighbors, fellow parishioners in a small congregation.  A Fatal Grace returns to Three Pines and several of the characters feature in this novel as well.  However, I didn't love this one.  I have heard it said that the first three books in the series are a bit slippery, as they find their footing for the rest of the series (which is highly acclaimed).  I can see that.  I wasn't as invested in the outcome of this murder investigation...maybe because I figured out half of the plot twist early on...or maybe because I really, REALLY disliked the victim and was just glad that she was out of the picture.  BUT, I will say that my curiosity with the underlying big picture mystery involving the Chief Inspector himself was whetted BIG TIME.  So, I will definitely be reading more of this series.

The Woman In Cabin 10: A Novel

Written by Ruth Ware
Book of the Month: August

From New York Times bestselling author of the “twisty-mystery” (Vulture) novel In a Dark, Dark Wood, comes The Woman in Cabin 10, an equally suspenseful and haunting novel from Ruth Ware—this time, set at sea.

In this tightly wound, enthralling story reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

With surprising twists, spine-tingling turns, and a setting that proves as uncomfortably claustrophobic as it is eerily beautiful, Ruth Ware offers up another taut and intense read in The Woman in Cabin 10—one that will leave even the most sure-footed reader restlessly uneasy long after the last page is turned. 
Taken from Amazon

Let me just say, Lo drove me crazy!  But that is what she was supposed to do.  I kept wanting to scream at her, "No! Don't do that!" but she just kept going.  It was kind of like watching a scary movie and knowing that the kids shouldn't go into that house...but if they don't go in, there is no movie.  Let's just say, unreliable witness + private cruise ship + mysterious Internet outage = great page turning fun. Was there a woman in Cabin 10?  What happened to her?  What happens to Lo?  You will have to grab this one to find out. 

The Mothers: A Novel

Written by Brit Bennett
Book of the Month: October

Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett's mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. It begins with a secret.

"All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we'd taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season."

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother's recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor's son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it's not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a "what if" can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever.  
Taken from Amazon

This book!  If you didn't read that second paragraph above, a direct quote from the book, read it now and savor it.  This book is filled with such quotes.  I finally had to grab my post it arrows because there was so much I loved and wanted to go back to.  This is a story of things unsaid, of things said to cover the truth of the heart, of actions taken that changed the course of personal history.  There is heartbreak and strength.  There is reality and the much different appearances - seen through the eyes of a beholder whose vision is clouded.  Then, bringing all the threads together, there are the Mothers, the older women of Upper Room Church where much of this book is set.  Wise. Insightful. Well-meaning. Prayer Warriors.  But also caught up in their own understanding of events, unwilling sometimes to see how they have played into the drama that is unfolding before their very eyes.

This will definitely be one of my favorite books of 2016 -- perhaps of all time.  I am seriously thinking of reading it again because it is that good -- and I wonder what great things I may have missed as I devoured this book in less than 24 hours.  It was a good thing Jim was away on a dove hunt when I picked it up and began reading!

I also finally picked up Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living In A Fast-Moving World by Emily P. Freeman.  I have had this one on my TBR shelf since it came out.  I think I even pre-ordered it because I love Emily so much!  I'm only a chapter into it...but I am looking forward to the read. I think this is one of those books that needed to wait for the right time for me.  I am beginning to think about the need to slow down.  I know it is a combination of things contributing to my sense of rush and hurry...but it is time to take a seat on a bench, like the one on that cover, and have some heart to heart time with the Lord, with my family and with those friends who have earned a place of transparency and intimacy in my life.