I love sharing books, but there’s nothing complicated or academic about these brief reviews. All I want to make time for is, essentially, “I liked this, and here’s a bit about why”, with a few extra words thrown in to give an idea about the kind of book it is.
I no longer review the books I don’t enjoy, because I know too painfully well how hard it is to write a book and I don’t want to be the person who calls a fellow struggler’s brainchild ugly. Also, life is too short for a crappy book, and if I’m not enjoying reading something I’ll put it down without a moment’s regret.
I hope fellow readers might find this list helpful in introducing you to authors and movies that you might not have found otherwise. (Reviews of books I read and movies I saw in 2014 and 2015 have been moved to their own pages.) Comments about your own enjoyable reads are also welcome.
January, February, March (and a few from last December)
My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, literary fiction, 2016. Lucy is in the hospital, taking months to recover from a simple operation. Her mother, estranged for years following Lucy’s marriage to a man they didn’t like, comes to keep her company. Their time together creates an opportunity to heal the relationship and build understanding, but there is a constant undercurrent of unacknowledged hurts and betrayals as they gossip casually about the people Lucy used to know in her home town. This book meanders like a slow stream through a forest, here flashing with reflected light and there vanishing into the dimness beneath hanging roots and shallow caves. Just beautiful!
Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood, speculative fiction trilogy, 2005, 2009, 2015. The first book focuses on Snowman, apparently the sole survivor of a plague that wiped out the human race, his memories and perceptions of society before and during its collapse, and his relationship with a race of neo-humans, the Crakers, created through genetic modification. It also tells the story of his relationship with the brilliant Crake, who created the Crakers, and the beautiful, inscrutable Oryx. In the second book we revisit the collapse of humanity, as viewed by various other survivors. These include members of a green pacifist religious group, an underground resistance movement, and individuals from different segments of the pre-apocalypse society. MaddAddam brings these groups and individuals together in the early stages of creating a fresh start for humanity. I absolutely loved this series – I’m an Atwood fan anyway. Her vision of the future is bleak, but her writing is rich and her characters are fully alive.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, literary fiction that looks a lot like memoir, 2012. Sheila is a newly divorced artist and playwright. She has been commissioned to write a feminist play, and is finding it hard going because everything she knows about how to be a woman, and even how to be herself, she has learned from men. The story shifts between conversations between Sheila and her eccentric friend Margaux; musings on her marriage, herself and life in general; and the play. The person who wrote the blurb thought it was “hilarious” … I found it interesting but contrived.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein, science fiction, 1966. The Lunar Penal Colony is the perfect solution to crime on earth: a captive workforce generating huge profits for the Lunar Authority that controls it, and nobody can possibly escape. But they can rebel – and it turns out that they’re not as easy to quell as expected. I don’t know how I managed to miss this book. I got fed up with Heinlein’s obsession with free love that still manages to be chauvinistic. But this is one of his earlier books; he doesn’t bang the love drum too hard, while I enjoyed his ideas about government and his speculations about technology, all wrapped up in a gripping story with believable characters.
The Face Thief, by Eli Gottlieb, psychological thriller, 2012. This is a story about a hunter and her prey. The ancient Chinese art of face reading enables Margot both to read people with uncanny accuracy, while herself being an accomplished social chameleon. With wicked skill and intelligence, she traps weak and foolish men and strips them of their wealth, and even their lives. Pretty intense stuff! The story line moves around in time and space, so it can get complicated, but it was a good read.
H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, memoir, 2014. In this beautiful verbal tapestry Macdonald weaves together her relationship with her goshawk, memories of her hawk-obsessed childhood, information about hawks and hawking, thoughts about author TH White and his twisted relationship with his own goshawk, snippets of history and nature writing, musings about grief and loss. A stylishly written, compelling read.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers, science fiction, 2014. The Wayfarer is a scruffy old space ship crewed by an assortment of humans and others. One day they’re offered a fantastically rewarding contract tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet in an unfriendly area. Space opera with glitter – a fun read, not badly written, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to find more by this author.
The Weaver, by Emmi Itaranta, fantasy, 2016. The people of the Island live by rules and customs that just barely keep them away from dark secrets. Since moving into the House of Webs, Eliana has lived as a model citizen. But when she rescues a girl who has been mutilated and left for dead, she finds herself drawn into a relationship that threatens to unravel her complicated web of secrets, until she finds herself the target of powerful forces determined to destroy her. An intricate story, well told.
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, children’s fiction, 1964. Harriet plans to be a writer so she becomes a spy, with a fixed daily route that takes her past different people in her neighborhood. Wherever she goes – in school, at home, and on her route – she writes down everything she sees and what she thinks about it – thoughts that she’d mostly not want to share. A delightful book about growing up and learning to cope with a real world that isn’t always warm and cozy, while continuing to be your own authentic self.
Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique, historical fantasy, 2014. In the early 1900s the Virgin Islands were transferred from Danish to American rule, bringing changes to the culture and fortunes of the people. I’m mentioning this book because it was on one of those lists of “Must Read Books”, but I quit about halfway because I realized that I just didn’t care about the characters, plus the theme of incest made me feel icky.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, literary fiction, 2013. As teenagers living in Lagos, at a time that Nigeria is disintegrating under the control of a military dictatorship, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. When Ifemelu wins a scholarship to study in America, they swear to remain faithful and to reunite when they can. But in America Ifemelu learns for the first time in her life what it means to be Black, and the experience sears her in a way that tears them apart. Meanwhile, Obinze goes through his own successes and challenges – a few years in London, and then back to Nigeria, where he becomes a wealthy man. Eventually Ifemelu returns to Lagos and they reconnect. This book reads like a memoir. Although fiction, it is immersed in the author’s personal experience and her thoughts about race. I found it a beautiful and compelling read, that left me richer and better informed.
The Road, by Cormack McCarthy, post-apocalyptic fiction, 2006. America has been destroyed. The countryside is scorched, and civilization has broken down into lawless bands of marauders and frightened villages. A father and his young son are traveling along a road in search of something better, without any real hope that anything better exists. This story was entirely built around the relationship between the two of them – their love, mutual dependence and endurance in the face of the unspeakable. Absolutely beautiful.
Her, by Christa Parravani, memoir, 2013. Christa and her sister, Cara, were born into an environment of poverty and family violence. Already close due to being identical twins, the bond between them becomes increasingly intense as they try to shield each other from the pain of their reality. But when Cara is the victim of a brutal crime she falls into a life of self-destruction through drugs. Her collapse and early death threatens Christa’s ability to function. This is an enormously powerful story, beautifully told, with some intriguing insights into what it means to be an identical twin.
Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson, literary fiction, 2011. Raised by hippies in a small, paralyzingly boring Vermont town, Jude has spent much of his early adolescence getting high with his friend Teddy. But Teddy’s death by overdose sends Jude into a self-destructive spiral until he’s sent to live with his pothead father in New York. Here Jude discovers straight edge, a hardcore underground youth movement featuring both intense aggression and rigid intolerance toward sex, drugs or meat-eating. This book was an interesting, even gripping take on different perspectives of the drug culture, community, family and coming of age.
Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, literary fiction, 2014. Boy Novak moves to a small town where she marries a widower and becomes stepmother to the beautiful, sweet-natured Snow. Then she gives birth to a daughter, who is dark skinned, revealing that her husband’s family are light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Boy finds herself morphing into the Wicked Stepmother of fairy tales as the relationships between them warp and change. An interesting story, with depth added by a shifting point of view.
The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov, speculative science fiction, 1972. Humanity has discovered a mysterious source of unlimited power, which it is using with enthusiasm. Only a small group – a discredited scientist, an alien living on a dying planet, and a luner-born human with strong powers of intuition – know the true and deadly cost of this power. This is one of Asimov’s best, with not only an interesting plot but also a rich array of characters.
Cadillac Jack, by Larry McMurtry, literary fiction, 1982. Jack is a rodeo cowboy turned enormously successful antique scout. He spends his life roaming through flea markets and small auction in remote Texas towns and the high life of Washington DC, and also drifting from one liaison to the next. His travels bring him into contact with an array of intriguing characters. This is satire at its best – funny, witty and sharp.
Methuselah’s Children, by Robert Heinlein, science fiction, 1958. America has evolved socially to the point where it really does offer liberty and justice for all … but this starts to fall apart when people learn of a community of individuals who appear to be immortal. This is one of Heinlein’s early novels, before he became obsessed with promoting free love and libertarianism, and it was pretty good.
Contagion, by Robin Cook, medical thriller, 1995. There are people dying of mysterious diseases as the giants of the American healthcare industry battle for profit and market control. Lots of technical medical terminology and clunky prose … It’s actually a gripping story, but if you’re sensitive to style you should avoid Cook at all costs. I think I was desperate. On the other hand, it was worth finishing.