Books Read 2013

I didn’t use this blog for most of the last year, but I’ve decided to start posting here again. It’s fun to have an ongoing record of what I’m reading, and to hone my selection and readers’ advisory tools this way.

Here’s what I read in 2013, according to my running list kept on Goodreads, along with the star rating I gave on Goodreads upon completion. One of the issues I have with Goodreads is that it is difficult to read books during the year yet not count them towards your total. I generally will count a book as “completed” if I read most of it. I also count audio books that I completed, because although it’s not technically reading, it does take time and I got to experience the book in one form or another. My goal this year was 50 and I just made it, with 50 completed and a few abandoned.

Completed books:

1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (5/5)

2. The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger (1/5)

3. Coal to Diamonds by Beth Ditto (3/5)

4. Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen (4/5)

5. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (5/5)

6. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (5/5)

7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline- Audio (4/5)

8. My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays by Davy Rothbart (4/5)

9. Saturn Returns to New York by Sara Gran (3/5)

10. Something Missing by Matthew Dicks (4/5)

11. The Mystery of the Magic Circle (Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators Series) (2/5)

12. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life- Audio by Jon Kabat-Zinn (4/5)

13. Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite- Reread for, I believe, the third time (5/5)

14. The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman- Reread (3/5)

15. Life After Death by Damien Echols (5/5)

16. The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman- Reread (3/5)

17. The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman- Reread (3/5)

18. Woodsong by Gary Paulsen (4/5)

19. Across the Universe by Beth Revis (3/5)

20. Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl by Stacy Pershall (3/5)

21. Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth (5/5)

22. The Archived by Victoria Schwab (4/5)

23. Attempting Normal by Marc Maron (3/5)

24. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (5/5)

25. The Saskiad by Brian Hall (1/5)- I read most of this and skimmed the rest. Didn’t care for it.

26. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (3/5)

27. Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran (4/5)

28. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (4/5)

29. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris (4/5)

30. Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money by Geneen Roth- audio (3/5)

31. The Girl with the Monkee Tattoo by Kathryn Lively (2/5)

32. 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill- Reread, audio (4/5)

33. Paper Towns by John Green- audio (2/5)

34. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (5/5)

35. You’re a Brave Man, Charlie Brown by Charles M. Schulz (3/5, clearly padding my numbers here)

36. Protecting Marie by Kevin Henkes (4/5)

37. Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets by Lars Eighner (4/5)

38. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed- audio (5/5)

39. City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte (1/5- the worst book I read this year, total train wreck, I read about 80% of it and skimmed the rest).

40. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed- audio (5/5)

41. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (5/5)

42. Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott- audio (2/5)

43. Cinder by Marissa Meyer (3/5)

44. You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay (5/5)

45. Dream Work by Mary Oliver (4/5); counting this although I didn’t read the entire thing. I read and loved the majority of it.

46. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich- audio (1/5)- wait, maybe this one is the worst book I read this year. So terrible.

47. Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet (5/5)

48. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (3/5)

49. The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (2/5)

50. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (5/5, hearts, unicorns and rainbows)

Abandoned books and why I stopped reading them or listening to them:

1. The Corn Maiden by Joyce Carol Oates (4/5) I read most of this and enjoyed it but had to stop because I couldn’t handle how crazy dark all of her writing is.

2. Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion edited by Virgie Tovar- I read about 60% of this. Repetitive and not all of the pieces were great.

3. First Test by Tamora Pierce- audio; did not get very far, didn’t like the story.

4. The Little Friend by Donna Tartt- audio; couldn’t get into this.

5. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle- I struggled with this for months and just find it too dense. May come back to it later.

6. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater- audio; far too slow.

Totals, not counting abandoned books:

Print Fiction: 16

Graphic Novels: 5

Print Nonfiction: 11

Audio: 8

YA: 10

Favorites: The Archived, Tiny Beautiful Things, Save Yourself, You Can Heal Your Life, Fangirl, Eleanor and Park and Never Let Me Go.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

I am so terribly behind on my blog and reviewing all of the books that I’ve read through the late summer and fall! The problem with waiting so long after having read the books to write a review is that I may have forgotten a few aspects of the plot or reasons for or against liking the book. Maybe this method of waiting months to review books will help me to see which books had memorable aspects or really resonated with me.

I picked up Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut from my library’s Too Good To Miss section, which always displays copies of books worth checking out. At first the novel seems to revolve around a simple murder story: David Pepin’s wife, Alice, has died as a result of her peanut allergy. Someone with a deadly nut allergy should know better than to down a plate full of peanuts, right? The question becomes: why did Alice eat the plate of peanuts? Did she knowingly kill herself, or were there other factors that led to her death? The rest of this review contains spoilers. Proceed with caution or skip! 

The mystery piece of the novel intrigued me but once I began to really get into it, I realized that there was much more to this book. Ross’ novel delves into the dark parts of marriage- the feeling of being completely in love with and committed to your partner, yet having murderous feelings about them. The way husbands and wives will hurt the ones they love the most. The torture that a relationship can sometimes be. He writes of the sadness of losing a child and the toll that can take on a couple, together and individually. One chapter, which details a miscarriage, was bitter and painful for me to read, yet so beautifully written that I was very much held captive by it. I both loved this book and was a little horrified by the dark places it took me to as a reader, as a married person and as a human being. I would recommend it for anyone in the mood for a very well-written yet heavy novel- with the caveat that if you have a hard time with the subject of miscarriage, do yourself a favor and read something else.

Another layer that makes this book interesting is the secondary story of one of the detectives who is investigating Alice’s murder, Sam Sheppard. The novel pauses with David and Alice’s story about halfway in to tell the story of Sam’s wife’s murder in the 1960s, which echoes the tv show and movie “The Fugitive.” The story within a story is just as deep, melancholy and beautifully written as the main bulk of this book. The only thing I did not enjoy about Mr. Peanut was the character of Mobius, who becomes integral in the unfolding of the story at the end, yet felt a bit like an afterthought of a character for me. I won’t ruin too much here, but I will say that the ending was a tad lackluster for me. Having said that, I was very impressed with this novel, which was challenging in its subject matter and storytelling, and both painful and rewarding- a rare task for a book disguised as a mystery novel. I rated it four out of five stars and I will be reading other books by Adam Ross.

Sweet Land Stories by E. L. Doctorow

Once again I’ve fallen behind both on reading and on keeping up with my reviews! I now have 8, nearly 9, books to write reviews for, so it’s time to return to my weekly habit of writing a blog post.

I was looking around on Netflix one day when I found the movie Jolene, starring Jessica Chastain, who I had also recently seen in the amazing film Take Shelter. I really enjoyed the story of this simple girl who travels the country, taking on different identities, but who has a difficult time finding an inner strength that would guarantee her true independence. I’ve learned throughout the years that the book is inevitably better than the film, so it’s usually best to skip the book if I wind up seeing the movie first. In this case, I stumbled across this collection at the library a few weeks after seeing the film, and decided to check it out anyway. I’d never read any E. L. Doctorow before but decided to give this a shot.

This is a quick collection of five short stories, each being quite different. The “sweet land” in the title at first led me to believe that there would be a common thread of a setting, but the settings vary- I suppose you could argue that these are all distinctly American stories, and that is the land that unites them. The collection contains a murder story, a kidnapping story, a very unusual tale of a cult in Kansas, the fascinating “Jolene: A Life,” and a political murder-mystery. If you’ve never read E. L. Doctorow before, and you’re interested in checking him out, this is a quick read which I really enjoyed. Each story manages depth while still being succinct. The author draws characters that become flesh within a matter of pages, which I think is a rare talent.

Not In Kansas Anymore by Christine Wicker

I picked up Christine Wicker’s Not In Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America at the library. At first I was interested in the book because it seemed like a serious survey of belief in the existence of magic in the United States. A more accurate summary is that the book includes tales of Wicker’s dipping her toes into a number of magical subcultures. The author profiles a variety of what she refers to as “magical people.” She talks to those who believe themselves to be vampires, werewolves, elves, and other mythical creatures along with practitioners of hoodoo and Voodoo, Wiccans and others.

I did enjoy this book and learned quite a bit about the practice of magic in contemporary culture, but was often very annoyed by Wicker’s treatment of this subject and the way she seemed to lump all “magical” people together. I see a huge difference between people who think themselves to be fantastical creatures (including dragons, psychic vampires, and other assorted mythical creatures) and those practicing magic as part of a serious religious belief and tradition. The author took every opportunity she had to describe the wackiest example of each group she could find- it was almost as though she were purposefully excluding herself by describing someone who she saw as at least somewhat crazy, in order to say to her audience, “See how weird this subculture is? Us skeptics are so much better than this.” I really didn’t like this approach and at times was very turned off by it. Wicker often came across as extremely condescending, particularly in the beginning of the book. You cannot write a serious book on a topic that anyone would admit is outside of the realm of ordinary science or established knowledge while at the same time expressing such a level of condescension yet also trying to have a valid journalistic interest in the topic. It just does not work.

Despite the myriad annoyances I had with Wicker, I really did enjoy this book. One of the points that I found most interesting was Wicker’s examination of the fact that even people who don’t believe in magic, in one way or another, put stock in the negative side of it and often steer clear for fear of attracting negative forces or consequences into their own lives. I have seen this over and over and always wonder about it.

Although Wicker is strong in her skepticism for much of this book, which I will admit is a good attitude for a journalist writing on religion or the unknown to have, she does manage to get into some deeply interesting aspects of what magic is, why people believe in it, and the force it can have on one’s life. This book would be particularly good for  anyone who has an interest in hoodoo, or American folk magic, as she spends a great deal of time learning about hoodoo, including its dark aspects, and profiling individuals including Cat Yronwode, founder of The Lucky Mojo Curio Co. Those interested in the practical side of why people believe in magic, and the various forms that can take, would learn much from this book. I’d recommend it with the caveat that the author’s perspective may often irritate the reader.

The Family Tree by Sheri S. Tepper

I was wandering around Half Price Books in Austin, TX while on a trip there and got into a conversation with one of the employees about female science fiction authors. I recommended Octavia Butler to her (obviously, since she’s been my favorite author for a few years now) and she suggested Sheri S. Tepper, whom I had never heard of. I picked this up for a few dollars on the suggestion of the clerk. I also recommend that Half Price Books to anyone who travels to Austin- they had a great selection, including lots of vinyl and a great rare books section.

I enjoyed this book from start to finish, which is rare for me and a long book. Although I love to read and get wrapped up in a story, I am the first to admit to being a reader who gets bored quickly. I tend to have little patience for meandering storylines, lack of plot, or poor characterizations. I guess I know what I like and I don’t put up with anything that doesn’t interest me. Really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s too much to read to put up with anything that doesn’t hold my interest. Yet I have the tendency to always finish books I start- at least after a certain point. Thus finishing books is sometimes torturous for me! Anyway, I digress. My point here is that it was nice to fully enjoy a book that was a bit on the longish side (about 500 pages).

At first this seems like a weird hybrid of detective/police story and science fiction novel. Something is awry with the trees and plants in Colorado, where police officer Dora Henry lives. Several locals turn up dead or missing, the victim of… plant attack. Tepper manages to take a very weird premise with the potential to be pretty cheesy (The Happening, anyone?) and crafts a complex story with many unique elements and an interesting plot. This is the type of book about which you can truly say that you never really know what’s going to happen next. It does take a while for the reader to really understand what’s going on though, which some people might have a problem with. Tepper alternates back and forth between the current day, plants and trees killing people and taking back the earth scenario and another story involving a group of ambiguous travelers in another world or era (you’re not sure which it is for some time). This probably sounds weird, and believe me that it IS weird, and difficult to describe. Yet it is completely captivating and Tepper manages to make it all work in the end. If you’re not the type for spoilers, you may want to skip the end of the review, but I will say that if you like science fiction, time travel, and something completely different, you might check this out. It has been one of my most enjoyed books of 2012.

*Beware spoilers below*

Alright, I don’t usually bother writing a section of any book review containing spoilers because I tend to gear my reviews towards the “would I like this?” type of reader. But I have to gush about how absolutely crazy this book is! First of all, I may be dense, but for a long time I did not understand what was going on with the band of travelers described in every other chapter of this book. I really got into that half of the story, and was intrigued by it the entire time, but had no idea Tepper was describing a variety of different animals, rather than humanoid creatures. The big reveal that this group is made up of pigs, monkeys, otters, dogs, and other creatures was one of the biggest surprises I can remember having while reading a book! Suddenly a lot of details made sense, including the ones about the horse-like creatures they use for pack and transport animals, which turn out to be humans, devolved to an animal status after generations of unbelievable guilt over ruining the ecology of our planet. I read the last third of the book in a state of: “Seriously!? Seriously!!” In addition to the unbelievable way this book is put together, Tepper challenges her readers by asking: What does it mean to be human, and what puts humans above other creatures? What happens when we finally ruin the planet? There are a lot of deeper themes here, which makes the whole package even more of a pleasure to experience.

The very end of the book seemed like a bit of an abrubt wrap-up, and at times some threads seemed almost unnecessarily- but it’s far from a simple book and must be accepted for that. It was challenging, interesting, entertaining, often funny and amazing to see unfold- it embodies everything I like about good science fiction, going new places with story while causing the reader to say “I didn’t know anyone could even think that way!”

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman

This is my first year with a plot in a community garden. The community gardening movement is something I believe in wholeheartedly: that people living in cities should have spaces to grow their own food if they want to, that working the land can bring people together, and that tomatoes are a good thing. Well, that last one may be my personal bias towards fresh tomatoes. At any rate, despite the difficulties I’m having with woodchucks eating my plants and some of my sowing efforts being more successful than others, I appreciate the opportunity to grow food, spend time outside and get to know others in my community.

This is a chapter book for younger readers, but one of the only books I found after searching for something to read about community gardens. Paul Fleischman tells the story of a group of inner-city residents who, one by one, turn a vacant lot into a busy garden. This would be a perfect book to teach younger kids some important concepts: the power of community, how people are all basically the same despite our perceived differences, and how simple acts can contribute significantly to positive change. The book is a simple, quick read, but has much going on underneath the surface of the story. I would recommend it to teachers, younger kids and community gardeners and organizers. This doesn’t get into some of the bigger political issues surrounding some community gardens (like the documentary The Garden from 2008); instead it brings the topic back to the basic idea of what a community garden is and what it can achieve.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

I am formerly a huge fan of Stephen King. It’s not like we had a falling out or anything, I just stopped reading his books regularly after high school. This after reading just about every Stephen King book I could get my hands on, often many times. He’s responsible for some of my favorite short stories, not to mention the genius of The Stand, which I love so much I’ve even watched the terrible tv miniseries a couple of times. I hadn’t read anything new by him in a while. I was going on a road trip and picked up the audio of Full Dark, No Stars, which consists of several stories, most novella-length. I loved many of his previous collections of novellas and stories. My paperback copies of Night Shift and Skeleton Crew were loved to death. So I was curious to see what a new collection from him would be like.

The first story in the collection is “1922,” and was the only one I couldn’t listen to all the way through. It tells the story of a man and wife at odds over their farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. She wants to sell and move to the city, and country life is all he’s ever known, so he, since it’s a Stephen King story, resorts to murder, with the help of his young son. The premise didn’t really turn me off that much, it was the seemingly neverending detail of a body being devoured by rats that made me move right along to the next story. I understand description being in the eye of the narrator- the character was appalled by the sight, so were were to be similarly appalled. Maybe it just went too far for me. Maybe hearing the grotesque narrated out loud is more disturbing to me than reading it. I’m sure I would have finished the story if I had read the actual book. After reading the rest of the collection, I went back and tried to finish the story but had to stop soon after upon hearing another gory account of a cow dying a painful death. Have I gone soft in my old age? No, I really think it’s just that the audio brings to life those gory details with a generous helping of performance that you don’t get when reading.

I enjoyed the other stories much more- “Big Driver,” a story of an unlikely revenge killer, “Fair Extension,” a modern day sell-your-soul-to-the-devil tale, and “A Good Marriage,” a story wherein we see once again that the people we know may harbor much unknown darkness. My favorites in the book were “Big Driver” and “A Good Marriage.” “Big Driver” for the way King kept the story going in an engaging way for me- it’s a story that’s been told before, but maybe not in this way. The internal dialogue the main character engages in, talking to herself via animals and random objects like her car’s GPS, really worked for me in the audio version. And you have to love any story with a truly evil librarian. In the epilogue to the book, King says the true story of the BTK killer, who was married for many years and whose wife never knew of his dark side, inspired him to write “A Good Marriage,” which has similar elements to “Big Driver.” There are common threads in all of these stories, the biggest being violence towards women (with the exception of “Fair Extension”); the saving grace that let me enjoy this book and not get too hung up on how King treats women, is that some of those women are allowed their revenges and become very strong characters in the end. I would recommend this book to non-squeamish fans of dark fiction and those who want to check out a newer Stephen King title without the commitment of a long novel.

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler

I haven’t been a big fan of Chelsea Handler in the past, having only watched snippets of her show a couple of times. Although I did think she was funny, I always sort of saw her as one of the mean girls from high school, laughing at everyone else’s expense- the sort who always deflects negative attention and can never laugh at herself. Recently I listened to an interview she did on WTF with Marc Maron that opened my eyes to the fact that not only is she funny, but she’s also much more than the big personality we see on her talk show. Of course, I do know that celebrities are more than what they appear to be on the surface (well, most celebrities are anyway), but it’s hard to get past the brash exterior of someone like Handler.

I picked this book up randomly at the library, from a “too good to miss” display. I generally enjoy lighthearted books of funny essays, so it seemed worth a shot. The funniest parts of the book are those in which Handler reflects on her own embarrassments. The first essay chronicles her childhood obsession with masturbation in some depth, and I found it to be the most entertaining part of the book.

After a while, the essays sort of felt like they derailed a bit for me, and some felt like filler material. Many of the stories go into depth about recent funny situations in her life; while they were entertaining enough, she just seems to use them as a vehicle to make fun of people, such as her limo driver (who she treated to a Caribbean vacation), her family, and her ex boyfriend. I guess her book shows that each one of us has ridiculous qualities, which seems to be what she’s all about. Pick this up if you’re looking for a quick, funny read and you enjoy the insult comedy style she can’t seem to avoid for long. I gave this one three stars after finishing it, but looking back, it should be two stars: enjoyable enough but not a favorite.

Conquer CyberOverload by Joanne Cantor

I picked up this slim book to see what advice it had on battling the phenomenon of “Cyber Overload”- that is, feeling overwhelmed and tied down by overuse of technology. Since I work primarily in front of a computer, I often fall victim to too much screen time- my sleep is sometimes affected, I get obsessed with checking my email and social media sites, and I often suffer from eye strain. This book seemed like a good way for me to reinforce some good behaviors and learn more about the effects of technology overload.

One of the things Cantor touches on in the book is multitasking, and how people today tend to try to do so many things at once due to constantly making use of one technology or another- people text while they drive and check Facebook or Twitter while they watch TV. After a while, multitasking seems to become normal and it gets more difficult to focus fully on one thing. I learned in this book that multitasking is actually impossible due to the way our brains work, and that in order to perform a task properly, you must devote your full attention to it. She also includes some interesting facts about brain function and the effects of overuse of technology and multitasking, including its effect on our sleep, which studies have shown is negatively affected by the busy mindset of checking social media, screen time and multitasking.

Earlier this year, my husband and I decided it was time for us to cancel our cable. We were having a difficult time justifying paying money for something which essentially encourages us to be lazy and waste time, and which we don’t use very much. I only watch two or three TV shows at any one time, and can find them all online easy enough, so it was not a difficult transition. In any case, while I still do watch shows and movies on Netflix and online, I’ve found the reduction in screen time from that one small choice has made a positive impact on the quality of my sleep and my general well-being. After reading Conquer CyberOverload, I decided to take a bit of a hiatus from Facebook for similar reasons. I felt frustrated with it, as it seems so easy to waste time on the site, and it becomes a bit of an obsessive game for me to check it constantly. Taking a break from social media was a great thing for me, and I would encourage anyone feeling overwhelmed with their own runaway use of technology to check out Cantor’s book and cut down on their screen time, if only for an hour or two a week. Your body and mind will thank  you.

This book is an easy read, and almost pop psychology in some ways- the author includes a number of very specific practical things you can do to battle your own overuse of technology. There may be more academic or in-depth volumes on this topic (The Information Diet comes to mind), but if you have a casual interest in the topic or are just looking for a few suggestions on breaking the chains of internet or technology addiction, this is a good place to start.

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

Wow, somehow I fell behind on updating my blog again and now have five, nearly six book reviews to catch up on!

 

I had Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day on my reading list for about a year after spotting it in a local bookstore. In the past I’ve read a few of his books including Rosemary’s BabyThe Stepford WivesThe Boys From Brazil and the truly awful Son of Rosemary. His books may not always be that great, but they’re usually quick, fun reads. I haven’t loved reading all of them but have generally found them enjoyable enough.

This Perfect Day, published in 1970, is Levin’s attempt at a dystopian story. In this version of the future, a central government controls the population with weekly treatments, or sedatives. As a result, life is easy. There’s no crime, the hard decisions are made for you, and any negative emotions have been erased due to sedation. All decisions are made by a centralized computer- from what an individual will do for a living to who they will partner with and where in the world they will live. The main character, Li, also known as Chip, is shown a glimpse that there may be more to life than this simple, drugged existence at an early age by his grandfather. He grows up to become what is thought of as a “sick member”- one who questions the decisions made by Uni, the centralized computer and controller of global society, and joins a group of fellow questioners, who manage to wean themselves off of the sedatives and feel for the first time. There are parts of many different books here but it has the most in common with 1984.

There is a very good premise here and Levin touches on some very important things; it’s just bogged down with a lot of boring writing, which I don’t say lightly. In some ways I think he was ahead of his time where the concept of a heavily drugged society is concerned. One of the reactions the characters have when they are coming off of the sedatives is an aversion to feeling anything bad- similar to what may happen when someone stops taking antidepressants and is forced fo feel sadness and unhappiness fully once more. Maybe my problem with the novel is that I have read too many dystopian novels and they don’t seem that creative to me at this point, or are starting to blend together. Still, that’s not true. Some of my favorites, like M.T. Anderson’s Feed and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale seem as original as when I first read them. But taking a break from the genre is probably not a bad idea at this point.

I’ll just sum this one up and say that it is for Levin completists only- those who want to read all of his work for some odd reason. I do like Ira Levin as a writer but this is one of his weaker works, and it really never delivered for me. It dragged on and on and I felt it was nothing special compared to all of the other great books in this genre that I’ve read. One could probably skip it and re-read the entire Hunger Games series instead- it would be quicker and much more fun.