Archive for December, 2010

My 2010 Favorite Reads

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

Unlike the lists of respected publications like The New York Times, I don’t claim these are the best books of the year, just my particular favorites. In other words, I might have read more serious and literary books, but these were the most enjoyable — to me. Most were reviewed on this blog. A few were listed on my “What I’m Reading Now” page. And not all are 2010 releases.

So, in no particular order:

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving.

Irving is a long-standing favorite of mine. I love his quirky characters, recurring themes, and his delightful writing. This book seemed his most self-referential yet, but that didn’t hurt it any. Of course, he and his father were never on the run from a violent lumberjack bent on revenge. Go to Jan. 22, 2010 for my original review.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.

I’ve been recommending this book to lots of friends. Its interrelated stories feature people working on a newspaper and cover the gamut from laugh-out-loud funny to heart rending. It was thoroughly enjoyable, though I do warn people the first story is a bit of a downer. Go to July 22, 2010 for the review.

Super Sad Super True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Set in the near, highly-possible future, this book is both quite unnerving and wildly funny. People largely interact through what is basically a smart phone on steroids and youth is prized above all, yet somehow a technology-challenged man approaching middle age and a young beauty still connect with each other. More or less. An awesome satire. Go to August 22 for the review.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I expected to be intrigued by this non-fiction story exploring how the cells of a poor African American woman changed medicine forever. Actually, I was wowed. Skloot could have made this a real melodrama, instead it’s a clear-eyed portrayal of accepted medical practices plus the impact on Henrietta’s troubled children when they discovered their mother’s cells are alive and used around the world. Reviewed on March 9. 2010.

A Visit from The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Another book set in the near future (and the near past), the characters in this novel swirl in and out of the music industry. This book just grows in richness the further you delve into it and the more you learn about each character’s past and future.  Reviewed on September 10, 2010.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell.

With her entertaining yet quite serious exploration of the Puritans who sailed to the New World on the Mayflower, Vowell delivers a deep understanding of her subjects: the highly educated and highly opinionated Puritans.  While her respect is obvious, her witty observations keep this book enjoyable as well as highly informative. Reviewed January 2, 2010.

Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor.

I read this for one of my book clubs and thought it was fantastic. A group of starving Irish immigrants sail to America during the Potato Famine, along with some supposedly wealthy passengers, and one person intent on murder. The events of the crossing are interspersed with backstories about the main characters. This was simply an awesome read.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry.

Another book club selection, this book might be short on plot (in its first half at least) but it is long on pleasure — if you like philosophical discussions, which I do. The central characters are a rich 12-year-old girl bent on suicide and  her apartment building’s old, plain, and secretly intellectual concierge. A lovely and rewarding read.

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir.

Noted historian Alison Weir can weave an outstanding non-fiction tale, too. This novel about Lady Jane, the young girl manipulated by her family in hopes of snatching the throne from Elizabeth Tudor, is far above the usual for this genre. Plus, Lady Jane’s story is as remarkable as it is tragic. With Weir’s impressive body of factual work about the Tudor years, you know you’re getting an accurate description of the times. I didn’t originally review this book, but did praise Weir on July 26. What’s not to love?

The Paris Vendetta by Steve Berry.

This fast-paced thriller deserves to be on someone’s list! Berry’s cunning combination of fact and fiction runs circles around Dan Brown. This outing includes the lost, legendary treasure of Napoleon Bonapart as well as a secret group of international tycoons bent on enriching themselves further by using catastrophes to manipulate financial markets. How can you resist?

So those are my favorites. What were yours?

And, a Happy New Year in books to one and all!

The Distant Hours

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010


By Kate Morton

The Short Take:

In the best gothic romance tradition, this book combines family secrets, craziness, a long lost letter, eccentric characters, even a decaying castle complete with tower, filled-in moat, and secret passage. How can you possibly resist? I couldn’t.

Why?

Though set in the recent past, the roots of this enjoyable novel lie much farther back in the creation of a timeless children’s book, Raymond Blythe’s The True History of the Mud Man, and the years of England’s entry into  WWII (yes, this is fiction and there is no such book — unfortunately).

Two generations of an ordinary modern family become intricately involved with Blythe’s daughters and their historic castle. Secrets abound among the characters, as they all strive to hide lost loves and frustrated plans. Until Edie. She seeks to unravel the mysteries and lies that strain her relationship with her parents as well as those that trap the three Blythe sisters together.

This haunting gothic novel brings together all the elements you want most in one gloriously complex tale. It contains so many half-truths, lies, and omissions that even those most skilled at guessing a mystery’s outcome are bound to be at least partly wrong.

A Little Plot:

Edie’s mother receives a letter that has been lost for 40 years. Though obviously shocked by its contents, she hides her reasons. Edie pushes for information and discovers that during the war her mother was evacuated to Milderhurst Castle and the letter came from there. But her mother reveals little else.

When Edie stumbles across the castle while lost in Kent, she wrangles a tour and meets the elderly Blythe twins and their mad younger sister. She doesn’t tell them who she is or about her mother, creating secrets of her own. But her visit sets the stage for the unraveling of family intrigues that stretch back for decades.

And, let me tell you, there are a LOT of intrigues.

For more about Kate Morton, The Distant Hours, and her other books, click here.

Isle of Dreams

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010


By Keizo Hino

The Short Take:

Like a haiku poem, this eloquent novel packs vast quantities of beauty and meaning into a mere 168 pages. Acclaimed in Japan 25 years ago, I’m grateful it has finally made it into English. Brilliant.

Why?

There are so many layers to explore and think about in this book, it is a true literary treasure. If you’re the type of person who enjoys existentialists works and classic European movies, this one is tailor made for you. Even if you’re not that type, this book still deserves your attention.

Of course I have no idea how Isle of Dreams read in its original Japanese, but Charles De Wolf’s translation certainly felt right: landfill dumps take on rare beauty, nature writhes with intense sensuality, even concrete skyscrapers come alive.

Sleep walking each day

Unaware that everywhere

Life and death entwine.

OK, that’s my poor haiku verse that tries (and certainly does not succeed) to encapsulate the core of this lovely novel. This is a rare gem that deserves to be read far beyond courses in Japanese Literature.

A Little Plot:

On a whim, middle-aged architect Shozo Sakai stays on a public filled bus filled with young people till they reach their destination — a comic convention taking place on “reclaimed land” in Tokyo Bay. It is just one part of an immense landfill project where Tokyo’s waste is reborn as more Tokyo. Struck by the wide open spaces, so different from the Tokyo concrete canyons he builds and loves, Shozo lingers till twilight, when he encounters a daring motorcyclist — a young woman.

Shortly afterwards he is irresistibly drawn to a shop window display, where a young woman is adjusting mannequins that somehow convey more awareness that actually beings.

These two events reshape Shozo and his world. It is a journey you should take with him.

The End Is Near. And Boy, Is It Entertaining.

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

I’ve recently come across two books that deal with “the end” but are strictly for your amusement — and they both do an incredible job of delivering plenty of entertainment — and something more.


In The Gates, a fairly recent book by John Connolly, the end is coming because the Large Hadron Collider somehow causes a small opening between our universe and the parallel world we think of as hell. And, naturally, the devil is determined as hell to take over here.

The only thing standing in his way of opening up the gates completely in the town of Biddlecombe is a young boy with a different way of seeing things, and some surprising gumption on the part of his neighbors. Suitable for mature tweens, teens, and adults alike, this delightful book celebrates resiliency, bravery, friendship, and many other positive qualities. I absolutely blew through it I enjoyed it so much.


In Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet, the end is coming with the maturity of the antichrist. Unfortunately for doomsday, said antichrist was accidently switched at birth with another child and hasn’t exactly been raised to meet his destiny. Never the less, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyspe are on their way — on motorcycles no less, and it looks like the end is coming one way or the other.

This book is laugh out loud funny but still manages to keep you in suspense about the end. What surprised me completely is that the end of this totally irreverent and outrageous book includes a highly moving message. Don’t know how that got in there, but it was the icing on a devilishly good cake for  me.

Good Omens was first published in 1990, but reads just as great today. There’s continuing talk of a movie version. We’ll see.

The Gates is Irish crime writer John Connolly’s first book aimed at young as well as adult readers and was just published last year. It would make a terrific movie.

I would be there on opening day for either of them.

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