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 that you might not have found otherwise. (Reviews of books I read in 2014 and 2015 have been moved to their own pages.) Comments about your own enjoyable reads are also welcome.
The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, by Mitch Albom, literary fiction, 2015. The spirit of Music tells the story of the life of brilliant guitarist Frankie Presto, whose guitar has six magic strings. Presto started life as a Spanish war orphan, achieved fame in America, and retreated to an island. Music’s tale is interspersed with anecdotes shared by people attending Frankie’s funeral after his dramatic death. These people are genuine music legends who agreed to participate in the creation of this story, and their anecdotes include events that really happened behind the scenes. I loved this story almost the whole way through, although the ending was an annoying exercise in neatly packaging it up and tying a bow. I’ll read more by this author.
The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra, literary fiction, 2015. Essentially this novel is a collection of short stories, some of them interdependent, about people whose lives are connected through an obscure nineteenth century Russian painting. Mostly set in the far north, the story spans a century, from the era of Lenin to a post-apocalyptic future. It’s the kind of book one needs to come back to and read again, to understand how the stories weave together. Really beautifully written … and yes, I will read it again.
The Swarm, by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston, science fiction, 2016. This is the first book in a series on the Second Formic War. It follows a trilogy on the First Formic War, and these two series form a prequel to the Ender’s Game series. The Formics, beaten back in their preliminary attack on earth, are back in force. Ehhh. I loved Ender’s Game, but I kinda wish Card had stopped there. This story was gripping enough to keep me reading to the end, but I don’t think I’ll bother to go back and read about the First Formic War (which I didn’t know about until I read this), and I’m not likely to bother with any more in this series.
The Sleepwalker, by Chris Bohjalian, mystery, 2017. After Annalee Ahlberg disappears while presumed to be out sleepwalking, her teenage daughters struggle to come to terms with her fate and her sexually-driven history. This struggle forces them to explore the darker recesses of their own sleep disorders and sexuality. Powerful and eerily disturbing, this is the second Bohjalian I’ve read, and it won’t be the last.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, literary fiction, 2017. It’s New Year’s Eve in 1984, and as 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish takes a rambling walk through Manhattan, she thinks back over her life in the city. As the highest paid advertising woman in the country she was an enthusiastic participant in an era of dramatic social change. As her thoughts shift between her past and the present, she remembers what was, and ponders what her beloved city has become. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. Lillian and I have little in common, but Rooney does an excellent job of drawing the reader into her mind.
Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan, memoir, 2012. Susannah Cahalan had found her feet and was carving herself a niche as a journalist in New York, when she began experiencing frightening episodes of forgetfulness, emotional instability and seizures. This book, based mainly on hospital and doctors’ records as well as interviews with medical providers, family and friends, describes her inexorable descent into madness and her groundbreaking recovery. Sometimes a little heavy on detail, it is nonetheless a gripping story.
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, memoir, 2016. As a fan of The Daily Show I’m very familiar with the sound of Noah’s voice, and hearing it in my head as I read his memoir definitely added to my enjoyment. It made me laugh, it made me angry, it made me ashamed and sad. It gave me insight into what it meant to be mixed race in apartheid South Africa that I, as a middle class white South African, could never have had otherwise. Strongly recommended.
Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, literary fiction, 2007. Alice Howland is a brilliant and respected cognitive psychology professor. In her fifties, she’s at the peak of her career. But odd things begin happening – gaps in her memory, moments of disorientation – and eventually she, and then her husband and grown children must come to terms with her diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. A powerful and gripping story of a formidable intelligence pitting itself against an irresistible enemy.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, YA historical fiction, 1960. After thousands of years, the peaceable inhabitants of the Island of San Nicolas were decimated when they tried to resist a group of hunters who descend on their island in search of sea otter. By 1835 there were few survivors, most of them women, and the Santa Barbara Mission sends a ship to rescue them. Within weeks of having left the island, they are all dead, victims of unfamiliar pathogens against which they have no resistance. There are only two survivors: a young woman and her little brother, who were accidentally left behind, and forgotten for 18 years. This evocative little tale tells their story. Beautifully written and haunting.
The Revenant, by Michael Punke, historical fiction, 2002. This fictionalized account of the life of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman and tracker with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the early 1800s. He is mauled by a grizzly bear and then robbed and abandoned by his companions. Driven by his determination to have his revenge, the appallingly wounded Glass survives, traveling alone through hundreds of miles of wilderness. I found it gripping.
The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian, thriller, 2016. Richard Chapman hosts his ne’er-do-well brother’s bachelor party. There are strippers, and then there is murder. Shifting between the viewpoints of Richard, his wife, and the stripper, the story weaves together the evil of the sex trade, and a privileged couple’s struggle to find forgiveness and reconciliation within their marriage. A powerful story about innocence, betrayal and forgiveness – so much more than an ordinary thriller.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson, psychological fiction, 2017. The most dangerous place on earth is a high school serving an ultra-privileged community just north of San Francisco. Written as a series of short stories that almost stand alone, it peels back the cruelty, callousness, cowardice and neediness of adolescents struggling to cope with a world in which the consequences of small choices can be deadly. I couldn’t put it down.
Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll, women’s fiction, 2015. Well, I read the whole book. I think I enjoyed it – enough to finish it, anyway. But I procrastinated over reviewing it and I just cannot remember what it’s about. Scanning through it again there’s a teenager in the middle of a sexual scandal at school … and mean girls … and she gets away and has a lovely new life … but she has to go back and face her past. Meh. Forgettable.
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.
A Time to Kill, by John Grisham, courtroom drama, 1989. One of Grisham’s earliest books, this is based on a real case he followed as a young lawyer. Two rednecks rape a young black teenager and leave her for dead. She survives, and identifies them. Lacking faith in the justice system offered within this small Southern town, her father murders them. This story is about his lawyer’s fight to win her father’s acquittal. This is one of Grisham’s best.
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.
Caviar, by Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction short stories, 1955. A young man rescues a girl in a futuristic world in which such unplanned actions are not merely forbidden, but unthinkable … but then she gets well and wants to leave. A reclusive biochemists extraordinary inventions give him the power to run the world … but all he wants to do is carry on inventing things, so someone else tries to take his power. Eight great stories in the old SF style.