Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 in Review

I have read a lot of good stuff this year, and some stuff that was less good. Here is a summary:

My Favorite Books of 2012:
1. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
2. The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
3. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
4. Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson
5. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks

My 2012 favorites were widely varied, featuring Greek mythology, Russian fairy tales, psychopaths, imaginary friends and social anxiety humor, among other things (barely not on this list are Every Day from David Levithan and Sailor Twain from Mark Siegel, so I suppose body-switching spirits and mermaids can be added to the list). I am pleased with the variety of things that appear on this list. What started out as a year of "yeah, I suppose this is pleasant enough" ended strong with a lot of "wow am I impressed".

Most Disappointing Reads of 2012:
1. Divergent/Insurgent, Veronica Roth
2. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
3. The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho
4. Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley
5. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

I titled this section "reads" rather than books because not all of these books have been published this year. I felt very let down by Veronica Roth's first two books in her Divergent trilogy. I will read book three because I want to know how it ends, but I am not wowed in the way that evidently everyone else is. The Alchemist was the worst book I read this year (what a load of tripe), but it was not the biggest disappointment because I wasn't expecting it to be great. I heard such great, wonderful things about The Master and Margarita and I was left feeling very bored (which doesn't make any sense because it has a 4.32 average rating on Goodreads with almost 50,000 reviews. What is my life about?).

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (Matthew Dicks)

Sometimes, I read books that sneak up on me. As I read, I think "yeah, I like this book, it's pretty good" and then at the end, I am blown away and might even possibly cry. This is a good thing, and Matthew Dicks' latest book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, is one of them. Our narrator is Budo, the imaginary friend created by Max. Max is in third grade and created Budo five years ago--Budo is old in the world of imaginary friends. It's clear early on that Max has some level of autism or Asperger's, and so Budo is there to help him make it through each day.

We spend quite some time just following Max and Budo, seeing the world from both Max's perspective and from Budo's. Of course, Budo's is more interesting: he knows that he is doomed to die, to be forgotten by Max when (if?) Max outgrows the need for an imaginary friend. These perspectives are part of what make the book so great and at their very best reminded me of Emma Donoghue's Room and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I am a sucker for unusual perspective.

Eventually, we get to the driving event of the narrative, that one of Max's teachers steals him from school. This is the point at which the book switches from "pretty good" to "really good": Budo realizes that if Max stays kidnapped forever, Budo will never die; he simultaneously realizes that he is the only one that can save Max from his teacher, at the probable cost of his own existence. Budo doesn't know what to do. This is what makes the book so emotionally resonsant--the character complexity is so believable and real that watching Budo struggle with these decisions is heartbreaking and beautiful.

It feels cheap and punny to use the word "imaginative" to describe a book about imaginary friends, but it is. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is one of the best examinations of friendship and love that I have recently read, handled from such an unexpected, wonderfully unique perspective. I will confess that I cried at the end of the book, and I can't decide if these tears were happy or sad. It doesn't matter. Any book that I can invest myself in enough to cry is, in my opinion, an excellent book.

Matthew Dicks' book drew me in and tore me apart; it is not to be missed.

My rating: 5/5
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend on Goodreads
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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce)

I have been trying to cram this last month of 2012 with books published this year, books that I have heard really good things about, that have received a lot of praise, critically and from the "average reader". One of these books is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. Published in July, it has a 4.01 average rating on Goodreads at the time of this review, with over 8,500 ratings. It made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. These all seem to be good qualifications, so I decided to add it to my winter break list of books.

The titular Harold is a recently retired man who receives a letter in the mail from an old co-worker and friend, Queenie Hennessy. She is dying and wants to say goodbye. Harold quickly writes her a response and  walks to the nearest mailbox when he feels the urge to keep walking. He is reluctant to send his response and continues to walk. He stops for a burger and the girl who serves him talks about the importance of faith and belief of recovery in fighting terminal illness (Queenie has cancer). Her story inspires Harold and he decides that he must walk the 500 miles from his home to Queenie's hospice because it will give her something to believe in. Abandoning his house and rather empty marriage, he sets off unprepared (yachting shoes! no cell phone!) to make his pilgrimage.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)

I have heard so much about this book since its publication. I feel like I've been saying that a lot in my reviews lately (mostly because I have been trying to read a bunch of 2012 books I've heard a lot of good about), but this book has had so much buzz and hype that I initially chose to ignore it. I know, I am the biggest snob in the whole world. "Ew, this book is a popular book regularly categorized as a 'thriller'. I'm too good for that." This is how I genuinely think.

And then, for some reason, I decided not to ignore it. I really wanted to read Gone Girl. And I am so glad that I did. First, I would like to disagree with the classification of this book as a thriller. I have never read a book from the mystery/thriller department (talk to my grandmother, who has read many a James Patterson and Sue Grafton), so I am not sure what exactly qualifies a book as so: a murder mystery? Is that all? I don't know. This book felt a lot more psychological study than it did mystery, which is not a bad thing. Gillian Flynn's book succeeds so marvelously on all fronts.

Nick and Amy have been married for five years; she is a rich Manhattanite, the inspiration for a once-popular series of children's books, Amazing Amy, and he a magazine writer from Missouri. For several reasons, they have to move back to Missouri, where their marriage begins to rapidly dissolve. On the day of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears. Nick becomes the prime suspect.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Graphic Novel Super-Review

For whatever strange reason, I have accidentally waited until the end of this year to read any graphic novels. Four years ago, I was firmly against reading them. I thought that comics and graphic novels were stupid. I said I hated looking at the pictures and only wanted words. Clearly, I am a giant, snotty snot. Now, I count some graphic novels among my favorites: Craig Thompson's Blankets and Habibi, David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, the entirety of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (my favorite is volume nine) and David Small's Stitches are, in my opinion, the art form at its peak. Of course, I am still a snot about it; I refuse to stoop to the level of reading "comic books" with superheroes. Maybe one day I'll read them (I hear so many good things about some of the Batman comics, so I'll probably start there).

Every year, then, I like to sample some of the graphic novels out there, trying to spread myself out over the various options--fantasy, memoir (I am of the opinion that graphic novel memoirs are superior to written-word memoirs), "realistic" graphic fiction (I hate the term "graphic fiction" because it makes it sound sexual and violent...which it frequently is, so I guess it's fair). Here are the results of my experimentation this year:

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (Jenny Lawson)

I am not particularly a fan of the humor book genre. I am frequently confused by them: are they essays? Are they memoirs? I have a difficult time understanding their purpose and function. I don't know whether to laugh or try to glean a life-lesson or some deep emotion from the book. There is, of course, the chance that the humor book won't be funny, in which case it has failed at its most basic goal (my experience with David Sedaris has left me wanting).

I read Bossypants earlier this year and, though I liked it, I found myself occasionally disappointed. The material wasn't too consistent and at times veered from the completely humorous to the overly sentimental. Jenny Lawson's memoir, fortunately, never once failed to make me laugh aloud (I measure consistency as at least one laugh per chapter/essay/whatever the heck the sections of a nonfiction humor book are called).

Let's Pretend This Never Happened is an exercise in sustaining a zany, breathless deluge of comedy, and it succeeds perfectly. This is no small feat: Lawson commands humor even in the darkest of situations (namely, a chapter devoted to her pregnancy horrors and several instances where her overpowering social anxiety disorder causes a disaster). There are true moments of genuine emotion that the reader feels alongside the author, sadness and happiness and success and failure, feelings that never cover everything in a suffocating blanket of forced importance.

It is, of course, important that these moments of non-humor appear in the book; without some heavy anchors, the book will appear over-the-top; humorous, but not memorable. There is an almost impossible-to-achieve balance between humor and seriousness in writing a book like this, but Jenny Lawson tightrope walks it like she's been doing it her whole life (which, I suspect, she has).

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It is so funny in every way that I can imagine: sarcastically, genuinely, darkly, cutely, relatably hilarious.

My rating: 5/5
Let's Pretend This Never Happened on Goodreads
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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)

I have been subjected to a lot of "diversity fiction" in my lifetime. Middle school literacy programs, it would seem, have become fixated upon books about a few key topics (the Holocaust, slavery and the civil rights movement come to mind immediately) in which there is one group being treated very badly by another group and the narrative is about overcoming this difficulty. Obviously, I don't support the hate groups responsible for these historical periods, but after awhile, all the books sort of blur together and only the awful things stick out in my mind. My point here is that, having read so much of this type of fiction, I can recognize it on sight. Tell the Wolves I'm Home felt like that sometimes, and it upset me.

I was really looking forward to reading this book--it sounded interesting and has been highly rated on Goodreads since its publication (with a current 4.22 average rating; that's insane!). Perhaps that's why I was so let down. Expectations once again ruin the day. Boo.

So here's the premise: June has a gay uncle, Finn, who dies of AIDS-related complications close to the beginning of the book. She is devastated, and not just because she has lost her best friend. June also realizes that she was deeply in love with her uncle and has to come to terms with her inappropriate feelings and with losing him. She finds out after the funeral that Finn had a live-in boyfriend, Toby, and he repeatedly attempts to reach out to her in an attempt to connect to the only person who cared about Finn as much as she did. Meetings ensue. Stuff happens. No spoilers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)

Howl's Moving Castle is a book that I wish I would have read in my "ages 8-12 fantasy" phase, because I'm pretty sure I would have loved it. In fact, I did try to read it years ago and got bored by the slow opening (one must remember that I was only a wee lad and generally was interested only in attention-grabbing openings).

Our focus in this children's novel is Sophie Hatter, a young girl who works (unsurprisingly) in a hat shop in the magical land of Ingary (this is the slow opening: chapter one is called "In Which Sophie Talks to Hats"). Sophie is cursed by the evil Witch of the Waste, her body rapidly aged to one of a 90-year-old (give or take a few years), and she goes off in search of the fearsome Wizard Howl, who she believes can remove the spell.

Pretending to be a cleaning lady, Sophie takes up residence in the titular moving castle with the wizard (who turns out to be not so much evil as dashingly handsome and something of a heartbreaker), his apprentice Michael and the wizard's fire demon, Calcifer, who is under a contract with Howl and promises to break the Witch's curse on Sophie if she can break his contract. And so begins the rest of the novel.

And what a delightful story it is! I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read a Diana Wynne Jones book before, and what a shame that I haven't. The events transpire in a fascinating, engaging landscape that is described in a perfect balance between "can picture in my mind" and "want to know more about it". The characters are incredibly engaging and well-defined; they never feel stereotypical or dull. Jones sustains the perfect amount of kook and wacky--it's enough to remind us that she had fun writing it and we're having fun reading it without overpowering the book and making it a silly comedy.

I can say nothing bad about the character and world creation, which are very near perfect. My issue is with the plot: everything is excellent up until the last 50 pages or so, when Jones begins to throw everything together in a madcap attempt to resolve everything fairly quickly. Too many things conclude too easily--SPOILER--for example, the contract between Howl and Calcifer appears to be pretty central to the plot. And it goes unbroken until almost the very end of the book when, poof, Sophie suddenly solves the problem. Jones took her time building up the book as a whole, and so it feels disappointing in moments like this one when it feels like she is hurrying us along to the ending (which features some other questionable outcomes regarding the magical nature of a certain character and the evident "true love" between two characters that I didn't feel existed until we were told it did).

But these are just small things. This is a fantastic book, especially for the age group Diana Wynne Jones had in mind when she wrote it. Howl's Moving Castle is a clever novel that will delight and awe whose only setback is an ending that occasionally feels poorly put together. I have no reservations recommending it for the young, eager reader.

My Rating: 4/5
Howl's Moving Castle on Goodreads
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Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Light Between Oceans (M. L. Stedman)

I think that the Goodreads Choice Awards are pretty nifty. I am a big fan of awards, but I think that sometimes (especially for books), the critics can get it wrong (why the heck do people keep giving awards to Dave Eggers?). It's interesting to watch a community of people who really like books come together to vote about the best books. I think they get it right far more often.

That being said, I don't understand why The Casual Vacancy won best fiction this year. Yes, I liked it, but I did not love it. No one did, apparently. There were plenty of other books in the fiction category that could have won (and I am trying to read them all in a mad frenzy over the next fifteen days). One category I normally ignore is historical fiction, because I have in the past been generally uninterested in it. However, the winner this year, The Light Between Oceans, caught my eye when it was published in the summer. Seeing that it took its category (beating out the Booker-Prize-winning Bring Up the Bodies and my beloved The Snow Child) affirmed my need to read the book.

Here is the premise: It is post-World War I. Husband and wife Tom and Isabel live alone on an island off the coast of Australia. Tom tends the lighthouse on the island. Isabel wants to have a family but has several failed pregnancies. One day, a boat washes up to the island. Inside is a dead man and a living baby. Isabel, having just suffered a stillborn birth, convinces Tom to keep the baby, assuming that its family is dead. A few years later, they discover that the mother is still alive.

I found the novel to be quite an engaging one--there were passages of real beauty that were never too flowery nor too sparse; they were quite balanced in their creation. The novel, while historical, never felt overly didactic, which is my real issue with historical fiction: "Look, things are different in this book because it's 1920, not 2012! No cell phones!!" The setting was quite natural and never got in the way of the book. Stedman's book is categorized as historical fiction but could easily also be categorized as a psychological study. The book raises a lot of interesting questions about love, family, secrets and guilt and creates some quite flawed characters to explore these issues: two young ladies dealing with children and birth and loss, a trench veteran and a little girl torn between homes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Every Day (David Levithan)

How's this for a high concept? A is a spirit sentient of its own existence, and existence in which the spirit must inhabit the body of a new person every day. The only rule governing this body-switching is that the person must be of the same age as A, but everything else is free game. Normally, A drifts from body to body without thinking much, trying its (I keep saying "it" because there really isn't a gender attached to A) best to get the rented body through the day as normally as possible.

One day, A meets Rhiannon while inside Justin's (her boyfriend) body and falls in love with her. A breaks all of its rules to be with her, doing things outside of Justin's normal behavior (which includes things like being nice to Rhiannon, which is very sad), and when A wakes up the next morning, all he can do is think about Rhiannon. A starts hijacking the lives of people it is inhabiting, skipping their classes to drive to Rhiannon's school. There comes a day when A cannot bear it any longer and comes clean to Rhiannon about its existence; so begins their romance.

I was immensely thrilled by this book. Each chapter is one day, which pleasantly reminded me of The Time Traveler's Wife. The love story was engaging because the concept was so intriguing--can love work if one of the people involved is in a different body every day? Can Rhiannon love somebody who can be (and is) everybody else? I get annoyed with positive reviews of books that go on about the book being so compelling that it's hard to put down (especially when the word "unputdownable" comes into the picture--that's not even a word! Fools.) because it's something that I rarely experience. However, Every Day was like that for me. I purposely walked away from the book to do other things (namely, write other book reviews) but found myself drawn back; I had no desire to do anything but read Levithan's book!

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Woman Who Died A Lot (Jasper Fforde)

Jasper Fforde is an absolute genius. I mean that sincerely. I don't know of any author who is able to write books with such complete wackiness that is simultaneously clever and full of emotions. I first discovered his Thursday Next series in 2008 and have been absolutely charmed by them ever since. Here is the basic premise of the series: Thursday Next is a detective (although this does not feel like the right word because she isn't what the word "detective" traditionally describes) who lives in an alternate universe (dodos as pets! George Formby as president-for-life!) where there is a policing service for the bizarre called SpecOps (short for Special Operations, which always leaves me to wonder if the "c" is "SpecOps" is a "k" or a "sh"). She is also able to read herself into books, where she discovers that there is a policing agency called Jurisfiction that makes sure books run as they are intended to. Of course, for someone who loves books, what more could possibly be asked for?

All those things I've mentioned are details from books one and two. The Woman Who Died A Lot is book 7 in this series, and it was an absolute delight. Books 5 and 6 were, in my opinion, the weaker books in the series, and I was afraid that Fforde had hit a slump and would be unable to maintain the zany in tandem with the good. My fears were (thankfully) allayed. TWWDAL is as delightfully crazy as the series at its best (book 4, Something Rotten, is my favorite).

Son (Lois Lowry)

I had no idea that this book was being written until about two months before it was published. As I have mentioned, I love The Giver, so book four the quartet (which, last I knew of it, was only supposed to be a trilogy) was a must read.

I still haven't really decided how I feel about it. That is, I definitely liked it. I'm just not sure if I loved it. The book has three parts, called "Before", "Between" and "Beyond", and without a doubt I loved "Before" because it is set in the Community. Our character this time is Claire, who we learn very early on is the Birthmother of Gabe, the fussy child from book one. It is such a pleasure to return to this absolutely terrifying place and see it from another perspective.

Claire is elected as a Birthmother and is getting ready to deliver her first Product (just another horrific aspect of the community--the fetuses are called Products!), but the process goes wrong and the newchild must be cut out of her. She's "fired" from making babies and must be reassigned to the Fish Hatchery. But Claire misses her baby. Claire wants her baby back.

And so begins the book. Section two, "Between", was perhaps the weakest of the three parts. Claire washes up in a seaside village with no memory and she must rebuild. There's a nice love story, but the section overall feels bloated. The events of the section take a long time (I can't remember an exact number, but 7 years feels right, so we'll say around 7 years), but it's a long time where not much happens event-wise.

Section three, "Beyond", takes us back to the village in Messenger. At this point, we have jumped ahead another seven years. There is some jumping around in point of view, but for the most part we are lodged in Gabe's head. Yes, that Gabe. He's about 16 when we reach him, and he, too, has some sort of magic ability. I wanted to love this part most of all because it is the bringing together of all the parts--Jonas and Kira are here again and their gifts come to the forefront of the story quite engagingly. We even see the Trademaster again in the form of the final conflict (I am trying to to spoil anything here), and it's this conflict that ultimately held me back from loving "Beyond" as much as I loved "Before". The conclusion is a letdown; it feels hurried and things are resolved a little too easily. The poignant ending is, of course, gratifying, but I wish that we didn't have to rush toward it so fast.

Overall, I was very satisfied with Son. Lois Lowry has yet to disappoint me. If you read and loved The Giver and its subsequent sequels, don't delay in reading this book. Despite its flaws, it is enchanting.

My Rating: 4/5
Son on Goodreads
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Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger (Lois Lowry)

I am no fan of rereading. I have a hard time maintaining interest in something I've already read when I know that there are so many other things out there to discover for the first time. That said, there are a few books out there that I love to reread: Harry Potter (two years ago, I reread the series from first book to last and it was such a pleasure to see how carefully and cleverly Rowling laid her clues and built her characters), The Time Traveler's Wife (though I have never read it all the way through it a second time--I enjoy flipping through the book and reading a few random scenes every now and again), The Perks of Being a Wallflower and, perhaps most of all, The Giver.

When I read Lois Lowry's Newbery winner for the first time, I was eight years old and I remember being amazed and a little bit frightened. In the subsequent four or five times that I have read it, I find myself discovering new things to love and be frightened by. That's part of the magic of the book: it can find new ways to make you look at and question your world (which should be the ultimate goal of dystopian fiction).

The book is set in the hypersterilized Community and our protagonist is Jonas, a soon-to-be twelve-year-old. Initially, nothing seems particularly different about this place--people live in houses and go to school and their jobs. Families are happy. The longer we spend inside this place, the more it becomes apparent that it is a very different world. Marriages are things that are applied for--a person is matched to another person by a committee, the same committee who assigns them children. These babies, "newchildren" in the book, are not born to the parents. Instead, there are women whose job it is to deliver them. All professions are assigned to a person, again based on the committee's evaluation of everyone's strengths.

Everything is the same. No colors, no weather, no different hair cuts or skin colors. This is, for me, the most disturbing and frightening aspect of the Community, and what ultimately makes the book so successful. Jonas is elected to be the Receiver of memories from a world in which these differences existed previously--our past world. I cannot think of a way of discussing the rest of the plot without further spoiling the magic of the book, so I will end it there. I recommend this to everyone and I think it is something that should be reread with frequency.

My Rating: 5/5
The Giver on Goodreads