I'm home sick with a terrible virus thing, slightly hallucinating with fever, so what better time could there be to recap six months' worth of reading?
We Are Water by Wally Lamb. It feels like I read this about a hundred years ago. This is not a book for you if you are at all sensitive about Terrible Things Happening to Children. In my memory, it's one trauma after another, to the point that you feel like the author is just piling on. Give your characters a BREAK, man.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. I have historically not been much of a war books person, and I'd say I am even less so after becoming a parent. However, I am actually glad I read this. It's extremely well written and gave me more insight into the daily life of servicemen in the Iraq war than any movie, with things blowing up and suspenseful music building every two minutes, ever could. It also captures the dislocation and depression that so many feel when they come home. Certainly not a happy book, but one I felt was very worthwhile to have read.
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman. This one had a slow start for me, but it turned out to be a very good summer read (it takes place largely in Martha's Vineyard from the 30s to the 50s -- roughly, my memory is a bit hazy), although I came away with the impression that all people did in the book/in that era was drink huge pitchers of martinis. Seriously, every scene in the whole book involves martinis by the pitcherful. Some parts of the plot were a bit tiresome even beyond the consumption of gin, but on the whole a solid beach book.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman. The title suggests absolutely nothing about the plot or characters; it's actually about a girl who is essentially an orphan and is in the midst of trying to figure out some pieces of the narrative of her life. At times, the characters are too preciously written to be real. I may be overly sensitive to this, but I've grown weary of fictional heroines who have adorable quirks and whose pants are always sliding down because they're so skinny. Also, the narrative unfolds in a tricky way, and in the end you discover that in fact the crucial plot points that have been withheld from the reader have been known to the narrator THE ENTIRE TIME. So it's SUPER annoying to have it revealed as a big AH HA when you think the whole time that she DOESN'T know the crucial thing and is going to discover it alongside you. Argh. This review, which I read after I'd read the book, captures the problems with it PERFECTLY.
Once Upon a Time, There Was You by Elizabeth Berg. Well, her books are like warm blankets, aren't they? Good as palate cleansers when you don't want to think too much, but not be insulted or pandered to. This wasn't my favorite of hers, but it was a nice quick read.
The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills. The author of this book spent several years getting to know Harper Lee and her sister in their small Alabama town, first for an article and later for this book. Apparently the Lee sisters are extremely private and media-averse so it was a big deal for them to let her into their circle of trust. At times, I felt a little too conscious of that, because I could imagine them reading the book and cringing at one detail or another that they might not have wanted her to share. Not that she's all tabloidy or anything, and the book doesn't contain any particularly juicy tidbits, but for people who are that private, I imagine even having the world know where they prefer to have lunch is discomfiting. Anyhow, I didn't think the writing was particularly strong and at times the author was too caught up in details about herself, but it was fun to get the inside view into the town that inspired To Kill a Mockingbird.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I honestly did not think I was ever going to finish this book. I was sure I would be reading it until my last days on earth. Not that it was a bad book, but MY it's long (830 pages). It is a novel about the Gold Rush in New Zealand during the Victorian Age, and perhaps the obscurity of its context is what made it difficult for me to get into. It won the Man Booker Prize, and I can see why: it's highly complex and involves themes and nuances that I am sure I did not fully appreciate because it just went ON AND ON. And I think the repressiveness of the Victorian age that was being conveyed made it difficult to become fully invested in any of the characters. Also, there were A LOT of characters, and I found them difficult to keep straight. It's one of those that for the first 100 or more pages, you have no idea what's going on or what mystery they're trying to unravel, and actually I could have probably just read the final 150 pages and that would have been sufficient because it finally got to the point.
The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. After the endless tome, this was particularly refreshing because it was short and simple and moved at a normal pace. I actually wished it were longer, as a matter of fact. It was by no means a perfect book, but I loved the setting (a fictionalized Nantucket) and the main characters (a bookstore owner, a book publisher, and an abandoned child). The story was a bit cute to the point of being implausible, but that is also part of the book's charm. It's rather fairy tale-ish. Recommend.
Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss. This book follows the friendship of two girls from California in the...1950s? to roughly present day. It was fine, but didn't completely grab me.
The Secret Place by Tana French. I couldn't WAIT to read this. I love her writing so much, and this had some truly beautiful passages in it. Ultimately, I thought it could have used a bit of editing, and I didn't head-over-heels love it like I did The Likeness and In the Woods -- but I did like it a lot and the ending surprised me. This one also had a bit of supernatural stuff in it, which I'm not sure how I feel about.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. Shew, I sure am glad I wasn't born in North Korea. This is one of those things that you read and you're like, how did we have NO IDEA that this kind of thing was going on. I mean, people were dying by the thousands in the 1990s of starvation and I knew nothing about it. This is such a fascinating account of what it was like day-to-day during that time, and also what it's like to be an expatriate of NK (talk about culture shock). Super interesting and disturbing to read.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian. This year I have read several books about children/young people having to survive basically on their own, and I realized as I was reading this one that I find those kinds of stories both irresistable and utterly devastating. This one is about a girl who is orphaned after a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Vermont. I expected it to be post-apocalyptic and in a sense it was, but not in a "the whole earth has been wiped of all but a few people" way -- more in a "a bunch of people got displaced by a terrible thing and this one girl had to figure everything out for herself" way. I liked it a lot, although it made me extremely sad and stressed. And also, these kinds of books always require a high amount of suspension of disbelief, because it seemed difficult to imagine that a child would so totally slip through the cracks like this (see also: The Goldfinch, especially how no one ever made Theo go to a HOSPITAL after he was in an EXPLOSION).
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. So I went on a Bohjalian kick after that last one, and none of them held up to Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. This one was about a woman in the present day researching her grandparents' relationship back to Syria and Armenia. I ended up skimming the second half. It just didn't do it for me.
The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian. This seemed so promising, but the writing didn't work for me and the plot was kind of tiresome and then there was a big GOTCHA at the end that kind of irritated me. I was especially annoyed by the writer's habit of referring to someone by their occupation rather than just using a pronoun: "Laurel went to get a cup of coffee. The social worker's head was clouded from the night before..." UGH. No.