2015 was a big year for me. I was a newlywed, I got pregnant, had my dear baby boy, started waging war with postpartum depression and anxiety, and began adjusting to life as mother. I’m impressed that with all that I still averaged to finish a book at least every 2 weeks. I would’ve read more than that as I started a couple other books, but they accidentally got packed when we had to move and are buried in storage somewhere.
I’m aiming a little higher in my reading goals for 2016. But in the meantime, here is my literary year in review in chronological order. The good, the bad, and the boring. No spoilers here.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
As the title implies, this book is based off The Jungle Book but set in a graveyard. Despite its borrowed material, The Graveyard Book was nothing short of clever, fun, and light-hearted despite its macabre material. Though Gaiman intended for it to be a children’s book, it’s a read that any adult would enjoy while maintaining family friendliness. Gaiman’s finesse and subtlety was brilliant! I’m glad to have my own copy as this is a book I will read again and again.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Water for Elephants is the story of a young man in an Ivy League school who suddenly loses his parents. Unable to cope, he drops out and finds himself working as the veterinarian at a travelling circus during the Great Depression. This book was critically-acclaimed and had all the elements it needed for me to like it: different time period, interesting setting, and animals! However, I didn’t enjoy it very much. I feel like I kept waiting for it to get better and it never did. There’s no question that Gruen is a great writer in her technicalities. But the characters held little interest to me. I didn’t feel invested in them. The book was also filled with bawdiness, which doesn’t bother me if it serves a purpose. But it was scene after scene of sexual contact that had little relevance, and I found it distasteful. Perhaps, the author wanted a sense of shock factor with the setting being a circus. But it unimpressed me.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
A great read in my opinion. After a divorce and a bout with severe depression, Elizabeth Gilbert goes on an adventure to find herself by spending a year abroad in Italy, India, and Indonesia. While I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s choices leading up to these events, I appreciate her willingness to be vulnerable and tell her story. I found her voice to be humorous, self-deprecating, relatable, and honest. The memoir is also far superior to the film adaptation. I also loved her perspective and insights on the places she went as a person who loves travelling myself. It was interesting to read her efforts to truly delve into the various cultures and to see the self-growth gained from her experiences.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Can you tell that Neil Gaiman is a favorite yet? This was one of the best books I read last year. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a short read, but not overdosed with info dumping in order to get through the story. Again, Gaiman’s finesse and subtlety when it comes to his writing and details were displayed here. It’s magical and enchanting without a completely structured and set magic system. His prose is beautiful, lyrical, and thought-provoking. The writing is almost poetry. There were also a surprising amount of twist and turns for such a little book. Give it go! You won’t regret it!
Content advisory: PG-13 sexual content. It’s from the perspective of a watching child so there’s no details or real comprehension of what’s going on
Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubryn
This novel is a satire focused on a prestigious literary competition in the UK and the authors lobbying for the award. My word for it is meh. Good enough to finish, not good enough for me to say much about it. It doesn’t exactly scream satire either. The humor is a bit flat in my opinion.
The Giver by Louis Lowry
I decided to re-read this book since it had been several years and the film adaptation was released. It’s just as good as I remember. The Giver has revolutionized modern dystopian novels and is sure to go down in history as a classic from our age. Lowry so wonderfully captures that beautiful struggle between equality vs. individuality and their effects. A good reflection of The Giver is sure to challenge and enhance your opinions of society and politics.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
I was so excited to read this book because the film is a favorite of mine. Surely the book would even be better. Unfortunately, this is one of those rare instances where the film completely knocks the book out of the water. I was entertained at the beginning, especially with Alex’s narrative, which, though at times difficult to read, was hilarious. I lived a year in Russia and actually know a few people who do in fact speak English like that. But the more I read, the less I wanted to read and the more I wished it would just end. The pace slowed down to excruciating speeds and the portions of the novel written by the character Jonathan about his Jewish ancestors living in Ukraine, were typically long, confusing, pretentious, and full of content, sexual and otherwise, that seemed to have little relevance to the story, and left loose ends left dangling all over the place. As I read, the majority of the time, I just wanted to get back to reading Alex’s part of the story, because it was like the M&M’s in a bag of trail mix or the marshmallows in a bowl of Lucky Charms; let’s get back to the good stuff! They were the best parts of the book though. There are some good pieces of writing, some great messages that the book attempts to send, but there’s also a lot of muck to go through to get to them. This is one of those rare instances where I say, go watch the movie; it will be a better use of your time.
Lives of Tao (#1) and Deaths of Tao (#2) by Wesley Chu
While this is a trilogy, I only got around to reading the first two books. I give it props for the concept. Basically, there’s a secret war going on between two alien races who survive on our planet by taking over the bodies of humans. They then commune with these humans, get them to join their cause, and turn them into secret agents. This war is ultimately what is behind both modern-day and historical wars and politics. That’s the best way I can sum it up. It sounds a bit corny when I write it, but I thought the premise could have a lot of potential. There are some interesting bits and characters, but the writer’s style and technique is a bit juvenile. In this case, that was distracting for me and made the story feel contrived. But I was interested enough to get my husband to tell me what happens in the third book. I wanted to know what happened but no longer wanted to wade through the author’s prose.
Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
I love this book! I might be biased though because I love Russia. I couldn’t put it down though. This is my favorite Orson Scott Card book, and it’s pretty hard to beat his Ender’s Game. The story follows a Russian studies graduate student who’s immigrated to America as he encounters a princess from his motherland’s folklore. The popular Baba Yaga features as the villain and explains her origins. It isn’t Card’s best work writing wise, but the technical mistakes aren’t a distraction. He also imbues a sense of humor in here that I haven’t picked up on in his other work. I’ve encountered some criticism for this piece amongst his LDS/Mormon fans (I’m also LDS), but none of the content strikes me as inappropriate or out of place so I can’t sympathize. It’s just good, solid fun and entertainment.
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Okay, here’s a Gaiman book that I’m not going to praise to the high heavens. Once again, I had high expectations because the film was so brilliant and hilarious. And once again, the film was way better. The book and the film could not be further apart than night and day. I was expecting the quirky, funny tone from the film. But instead I received super dark, eerie, and grotesque. Admittedly, if I hadn’t seen the movie first, I might have had a different opinion, and I admire Gaiman for being secure enough to support a different interpretation of his work. I think he was trying to replicate the darkness of original fairytales in the creation of his own. But unlike some other adaptions of fairytales, the brighter, happier version was better.
Ready, Player One by Ernest Cline
This book was great! I wasn’t sure that I’d like it. It’s about a boy who loves to play on this massive virtual reality. The creator of this virtual reality has passed away and left clues to his fortune within the game. Whoever solves the puzzle will inherit his assets. There’s nothing crazy as far as the basic plot structure goes, but nevertheless, the book was brilliant and filled with all of these delicious 80s pop culture references. If you don’t know anything about 80’s pop culture, I expect this will be a difficult read. But for those super geeks out there, you’re just going to eat it up. It’s definitely one of those novelty, cult books.
Content advisory: some language and sexual content. The protagonist is a teenage boy
Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
This biography was great and insightful. For anyone who has seen the film The Duchess, this is the biography that the movie was based on. One section of the book spent too much time on the political demography within this time period. While some of the information was helpful, I feel that most of it could have been omitted so we could have resumed learning about the star of the novel. Georgiana was truly a star! She was a woman with amazing amounts of intellect, potential, and creativity, but dragged down by a bad marriage and social expectations, ultimately leading to her own gnawing insecurities and self-destructive behaviors. It’s tragic, really. I truly felt for Georgiana and her circumstances. As far as authorship goes, I loved that Foreman was able to admire her subject while putting her on a pedestal. She lays it all out there and goes with the evidence presented, giving us a look at the good and the bad side of Georgiana.
Steelheart (Reckoners, #1) and Firefight (Reckoners, #2) by Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson has done it again and wowed me with his originality and creativity—all too often hard to come by within the fantasy/sci-fi genre. If you’re not acquainted with Sanderson’s work, then you need to pick some of his stuff up. This is my favorite series that he’s done so far. The world is now filled with Epics, human beings possessing a variety of superhuman powers. While humanity thought they had come to save them. Instead, most are vile and ruthless, claiming different territories around the world. After David witnesses an invincible Epic named Steelheart murder his father, he
joins a covert group determined to find a way to bring the Epics down. The world building here is amazing. Originally I thought this was going to be an X-Men knock-off. But it’s not. The similarities are minute. While the base plot is a generic revenge story, Sanderson adds these amazing twists and turns, and it becomes a wild ride! What’s even better is that the second book doesn’t disappoint. It’s even better. I can’t wait to read the final book, which will be released in a few months.
Lord Sunday (#7 in the Keys to the Kingdom Series) by Garth Nix
For anyone who hasn’t read this series, I recommend it. I started it when the books first came out, and I’ve been waiting for years to finish it as time in between all seven books added up. You know a series is good if I’m willing to invest 10+ years into it and enjoy it as an adult just as much as I did as a pre-teen. I can’t compare it to anything else or even adequately describe the plot in a few sentences. The books aren’t too long but satisfying. The setting is so unique, and there is ample amounts of interesting imagery and symbolism. This book, the conclusion, was more than satisfactory and ended in an unexpected way. I’ll have to read more from this author.
Fire Bringer by David Clement Davies
A YA adult that’s rather good if you like anthropomorphic novels, which I do. Animal lover in the house! But what’s even more interesting is that this isn’t your typical anthropomorphic about wolves, or mice, or some awesome predatorily species. The main subject of the book is deer, of all things. But it’s great! I love that the author was brave enough to go out of the box on this. And it worked! Aside from the over usage of the word “ruminate,” I have little criticism for this book. It follows the story of a herd as a new leader is brought into power, changing the structure and traditions of the herd into a militarized dictatorship. However, a prophecy of a birth of a young buck destined to bring peace threatens the herd’s new form of government. It’s like Tolkien meets C.S. Lewis meets The Lion King meets Bambi. I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical, but I suggest giving it a whirl!
I Am China by Xialou Guo
Don’t judge a book by its cover because I admit that I only picked up this book due to the catchy cover art. The story follows a young British translator as she translates letters between a Chinese man in political exile writing to his lover in China, who’s desperate to find him. The book was supposed to relate the political and cultural angst of mainland China. A noble cause to be sure. But completely ineffective because the writing and pace of this book were so blah. That’s all I can really say. I was basically bored out of my mind.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
The novel was an anthology of stories about the protagonist’s ventures to start a detective agency and the local jobs she takes. Some were interesting. Some were not. And I didn’t really believe the male, white author’s attempts at writing from the perspective of a middle-aged, female African. And yeah. That’s pretty much all I have to say about that. I neither passionately liked nor disliked the book.
The Lotus War Trilogy by Jay Kristoff
The trilogy had a ton of potential. A steampunk version of imperial Japan?! Crazy! However, the execution fell short. The first book started off super slow. The exposition and world building went on forever and forever. However, once we got to the heart of the story, I thought okay, it will get better. But nope, the next two books were just as slow and disappointing. There was enough to keep me reading because I was curious how it would end. But I just wanted it to end. Then when I finally reached the conclusion, my reaction was, that’s it?! That’s what I wasted reading all of this for?! What a waste! If you’re more of an enthusiast of Japanese culture
and mythology, maybe you would enjoy it more. But I couldn’t get past the pace and excruciating, unnecessary detail. And I’ve heard a lot of criticism on the Japanese semantics and references since apparently the author didn’t do any research beyond Wikipedia.
Content advisory: Language and PG-13 non descriptive sexual content
The Testing Trilogy by Joelle Charbonneau
Again, another trilogy with great potential. It had all the right elements to be a successful dystopian. An interesting world, strong female protagonist, a different government set-up, a survival element, the twisting of every day life into something more sinister. But it lacked heart. The characters and plot devices seemed like archetypes with no real depth. It all felt contrived and pretentious. The author was trying to do something that was just not happening. It wasn’t fitting together organically. I thought there might be room for redemption in the 2nd book, arguably the best of the trilogy. But the 3rd book was the worst by far, full of illogical plot choices, so…
The Martian by Andy Weir
As most of you probably know from the success of the movie, the plot follows the story of a man accidentally trapped on Mars after a failed mission and his quest for survival as NASA concocts a plan to rescue him. I have mixed feelings about this. The plot was awesome. The narration at times could be entertaining and humorous. At other times, it was a drawn-out handbook on how to survive on Mars. While much of the humor was appropriate for the situation, there was never a moment of seriousness from the protagonist that displayed the mental exhaustion of his isolation and circumstances. We never see any vulnerability. As a result, we never get the sense that he’s actually in peril, detracting from the tension of the narrative. It’s weird how many books I read in this last year where I actually prefer the movie, but this is one of them. Not as badly as the others, but the script and Matt Damon’s performance in the Martian left you on the edge of your seat wondering, is he going to make it?! There was no sense of that in the novel.
Content advisory: Language
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Another book that I loved! A memoir, it follows Cheryl as her life falls apart and she completely self-destructs after the death of her mother. Like really, I’ve never heard of someone being at such a low rock bottom. She decides on a whim to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, and her adventure turns into a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment. Wild is a tale of redemption, repentance, peace, and change. I was reading the memoir at a time in my life that was difficult for me. Like Cheryl, I felt completely out of control. It hit a nerve with me, and I found her story inspiring. It made me want to try backpacking along with getting onto the other things I’ve wanted to do in my life. It inspired me to believe that I can overcome hard things emotionally, mentally, and physically. If you need a book to help restore your belief in yourself, then this is one I’d recommend.
Content advisory: Language and sexual content
What about you? What were the best books you read this last year? What are your reading goals for 2016? Comment away!