I wasn’t sure I would be able to top 2015 for all the quality reading I was able to do in the year, but clearly this year is shaping up nicely.
I had wanted to do a wrap-up but waited until I was sure that I was going to be able to sustain the pace. Since February was as strong a reading month as January, I feel ok about sharing the progress I have made.
Let’s get to the books!
I started the year off on a beach vacation with my family, with the first day of 2016 spent poolside with nothing to do, and nowhere to go. It was an ideal way to kick off the new year for a reader. I wanted to start off with something that I thought I would surely enjoy and something that I could read quickly. So that book was 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I already did a book review about that book, so I won’t say more about it here. Suffice it to say, it is a book lover’s dream read.
In order of completion, here is what I read in January, and the corresponding task it served in the 2016 Read Harder Challenge.
- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
A woman is repeatedly reborn in England during the time of the WW2 to the same family, remembering only allusions to her previous lives, like shadows. With subtle details changing, we see how her life could be very different. The literary fiction book has themes of how much of life is fate and how much is up to chance, what stays permanent and what is fleeting, among other concepts. The construction of the story is so smart without being too smug or self-congratulatory about how she has managed to take this extremely complex concept of reincarnation/rebirth and make it work. The book is over 500 pages long, so it served the task of ‘read a book over 500 pages long’. The characters are wonderfully drawn. I actually missed them when it was over.
Good for: those who like historical and literary books, readers interested in WW2, anyone who wants a new take on the trope of repeating lives, someone who wants an engaging long book that has surprisingly twists and turns without being a thriller.
- Written In My Own Heart’s Blood (Outlander #8) by Diana Gabaldon
I don’t think I have enjoyed a series as much as I love the Outlander volumes. I find the characters so interesting and the ways that Diana Gabaldon is able to weave historical fiction, time travel and romantic adventure all into one book (or 8 books, so far) is a feat. I think Jamie Fraser is one of the best romantic characters in modern literature, and Claire is more than his equal.
Good for readers: who like strong women characters, adventure readers, historical fiction fans, those interested a fictionalized visit to the American Revolution, fans of Scotsmen, and those who want to find a good series that maintains as it progresses
- Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea
I was drawn to this book because it has appeared on some of the Best of 2015 lists and due to the subject matter- the wife of Frederick Engels, also known as the co-parent of Communism along with Karl Marx. It fulfilled the Read Harder task of reading a book of “historical fiction before 1900“.
The women in the lives of these infamous men are the focus, and you get a glimpse behind the scenes in a different way. I really liked Lizzie (aka Mrs. Engels) and her spirit, doubts and struggles. I especially loved her struggle to befriend and stay friends with the Marx family. They were interesting and compelling characters to read about. I especially liked how the author just dropped you in the story and if you wanted the backstory of the people named, you could Google it, but it wasn’t necessary or done in a way that was pedantic. You could read it like any other book, or stop to research and glean insights about Marx and Engels if you wanted.
Good for: those who like historical and literary books, readers interested in fictionalized accounts of the wives of political figures, anyone interested in the imagined inner workings of the Engels and Marx households.
- Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
This book has appeared on the NYT best seller list for almost all of 2015 and it fulfilled the category of a ‘book to be made into a movie‘ for the Read Harder challenge. A bonus is that it has been in my Kindle for a while so that’s also a win for the Read Your Own Damn Books challenge.
It’s a thriller, so I won’t spoil anything but will leave you with this nugget- that shame unconfessed leads to more shameful behavior.
Good for: fans of thrillers, people who like complex women, those who likes mysteries
- The Quick by Lauren Owen
When one of your favorite and trusted bookstores has a shelf talker, which sings the praises of a book, and there are great quotes from authors on the cover, you just shut up and buy the book.
The narrative follows two kids as they grow up, separated in adulthood only to have the brother turned against his will into a vampire. Then the story introduces and follows the complex structure of vampire gangs in London in the 1800s.
Good for: vampire fans who want a new take on the trope, those who love dark Victorian England settings, gothic and books with steampunk elements
- The Ghost Fields (Ruth Galloway #7) by Elly Griffiths
This is an ongoing series of the brilliant but socially introverted archeologist/ mother, Ruth Galloway. In this installment, Ruth is pulled into a mystery when a body is found in a field, having been apparently buried alive in a plane. The usual cast of characters are included, which makes it a fun read.
Good for: mystery series fans, people who like smart but imperfect women characters, those looking for a good palate cleanser
These were the starting point in a manga series I have wanted to read for a very long time. I found them in my local library and grabbed them happily. The series has 8 volumes. It is a deep while fun study of the story of the Buddha.
From the Amazon blurb:
The series which began in September 1972 and ended in December 1983, is one of Tezuka’s last epic and greatest manga works. Buddha received the 2004 and 2005 Eisner Award(referred to as the Comics Industry’s equivalent of the Oscar Awards).
I was really impressed with the pacing and depth of the story. He takes his time to distil the complex story into beautiful, simple yet profound art and storytelling.
Good for: manga fans, Buddhists and those interested in the philosophy, those interested in new interpretations of old Indian mythology
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
I picked this because it’s a classic that I hated when I first read, but I wanted to revisit it as it was recommended by Patti Smith in M Train. There was a retelling of this story published last year, The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud that I want to read, also. And, bonus- this fulfilled the task of reading a “book set in the Middle East“.
With the experience that a decade (or two) will give you, I did appreciate this book differently. But I also spent more time trying to decipher and understand what Camus was trying to impart to the reader. With the contextual background of the horrors of WW2 in the forefront of Camus’ thinking when he wrote this, I can now see how stark and pointless life could seem and why he would choose to tell this story in the manner with which he did.
Good for: someone who wants to read a classic, those who like close reading, anyone who likes intellectually challenging books
- Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
This is also one that stood out so much for me that I did a special review of it, so please see that write up for the details. (Bottom line- It was simply lovely.)
- The Killing Moon by N.k. Jemisin
I heard about this author based on a conversation I had about my love of The Sparrow and Dune. I may have also mentioned that I wanted to read more women science fiction authors, which led her to recommend N.K. Jemisin and Ursula Guin. When I saw a category on the Book Riot Read Harder challenge 2016 to read ‘the first book in a series, written by a person of color‘, I knew that was my impetus to move her work up in my TBR pile.
- The Library on Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
I needed a book for the Read Harder Challenge task of ‘read a horror book‘. I was determined to do the one task that made me most nervous early in the year so I didn’t end up in a panic in December like I did for 2015. I saw this recommended in the Goodreads forum and then on Twitter I saw that Rincey Reads was sharing her progress. She responded to a tweet that I sent asking her if it was terrifying because basically, I’m a big baby. She said this might be perfect for me. She was right.
This is a fantasy story of a group of orphaned kids who are taken in by an old man and the main character we follow is a young woman named Carolyn. The old man (called Father) assigns each child a specialty field of study in “the library” and trains them in brutal and terrible ways. The book begins with Father being lost and the now young people have to discover what happened to him, mostly out of fear.
The style of the novel is fantasy/horror and while there were plenty of squeamish (fairly gruesome) moments, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat nor was I particularly scared. I think it’s because the fantasy elements provided a nice foil and created some emotional distance for me to be taken along with the plot and not have my psyche scarred.
Good for: someone who is looking for a thriller of a different kind, who want a new type of fantasy book to try, someone who gets scared easily but wants to fulfill the read harder challenge.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster
Confession time- I picked this audiobook up because I loved the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens so much, that I wanted more time with it. (And now I am laughing out loud.)
I really was hoping that the book would go much deeper into the backstory of the characters. But unfortunately, it was almost a screenplay of the movie so I didn’t glean any new insights or tidbits. But it was still fun.
Good for: Star Wars fans
- The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
After the last book which was a horror story, I needed a guaranteed cozy feel book. This was recommended by people saying that it was like 84, Charing Cross Road so I knew I was in good hands.
This is a story of a pen pal relationship between an older woman in Iowa and a young Swedish bookseller. Sara, the Swedish girl comes to visit Amy in her small town of Broken Wheel, Iowa only to discover that Amy has died. So Sara proceeds to spend her few months vacation in a depressed town of people whom she only knew about from Amy’s letters.
Sara is a great main character. She is both tentative and assertive in small ways. And you see her coming out of her shell and growing as the story progresses. Amy you see in retrospect, only in her letters, which also details the dramas and stories of the town’s people. The style is a bit ‘Lifetime movie’ in book form, and would be too sappy without the literary references. Ultimately, it wrapped up a little too neatly for my tastes. I’ll stick with the acerbic New York wit of 84, Charing Cross Road.
So that’s how I spent my January of the year. Not too shabby, if I say so myself.