I’m closing the book on 2015 with the final installment of my quarterly reading update, covering the books I read in October through November. You may recognize a few of these books from my year-end wrap-up posts on my favorite fiction, non-fiction and kids/YA books. I finished 2015 on a high note, not only doubling the goal of 35 books read I set for myself at the beginning of the year, but reading some fantastic stuff towards the end.
You can expect more posts on books in 2016, but with some tweaks to the format. I’m thinking of updating my reading updates more frequently, as well as changing how I write them. The quarterly updates still seem too lengthy, so I’ll be updating either monthly or every other month. I’m also thinking about how I review books. Do you enjoy hearing about all the books I’ve read – the good, the bad and the meh? Or would you rather I only reviewed the books I enjoyed and would recommend? Please let me know in the comments! Next week I’ll share what I’ll be reading for the 2016 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. I really enjoyed participating last year, as it forced me to read outside of my comfort zone as well as include some books I might not have read otherwise. I hope you’ll participate, too – and share your picks with me! But for now, let’s look back.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Some books were provided to me for review purposes.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
At 83-years-old, Etta realizes she’s never seen the ocean and she must do something about it. So she packs up her boots, some chocolate and a gun and begins to walk there. Never mind that it’s over 3000 kilometers away. Her husband, Otto, awakes to find her note. Instead of panicking, he understands. In her absence his memories of his time at war come back in full force and he tries to keep them at bay by making all of Etta’s recipes as well as creating a menagerie of life-size paper mache animals. Russell, their neighbor and Otto’s lifelong friend, can’t just stand by and let Etta go. He’s loved her all his life and this is his chance to let her know. And James? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out the part he plays. I wanted to love this book so much, from the rave reviews I read and the adorable cover. And yet, I didn’t – it just never came together for me. I’m still not quite sure what happened at the end, and what it all means!
The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
It takes a lot to get me to read a book out of order on my To Be Read list, but when I spied The Royal We on the shelf at the library I pounced on it. I started it as soon as I got home, would pick it up at any given opportunity to read just a few more pages, and stayed up way too late for a few nights to finish it. I devoured this book and loved every page of it! Rebecca (Bex) Porter isn’t looking for a fairy tale when she leaves America for school in Oxford, England. Yet a prince (specifically Prince Nicholas, the future King of England) is exactly who she finds on her very first day. Despite the warnings and against her better judgement, she can’t help but fall for Nick. He can’t help himself either, but dating a prince is anything but easy. The Royal We follows Nick and Bex as they try to navigate two worlds and two personalities: the real one and the royal one. The book obviously takes inspiration from Prince William and Kate Middleton, but it holds its own as a delightful and entertaining love story with a royal twist.
Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg
This is the second book I read this year where the main character loses her entire family in one fell swoop. The first (Wave) was non-fiction, and gutted me with the raw pain and anguish. Clegg’s book is fiction, and it gutted me with the quiet sadness and desperate feelings of loneliness and guilt in those left behind. The day before June’s daughter, Lolly, is to be married, a horrific accident takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancee, her boyfriend and her ex-husband. The accident, as well as who is to blame, is the talk of the town. June flees for the opposite side of the country, and though she feels completely alone, she’s connected in ways that unfold as the days pass. Eleven characters take turns reflecting on the time before and after the accident, including June, her boyfriend’s mother, Lydia, and a town teenager, Silas. They’ve all been touched in some way, but it is this trio, who share the burden of blame, that must connect to set each other free. The writing is beautiful, and I read certain passages over and over again – not out of confusion, but out of wanting to let the words soak in. My favorite is this:
“Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part. Even if that part is coughing to death from cigarettes, or being blown up young in a house with your mother watching. And even if it’s to be that mother. Someone down the line might need to know you got through it. Or maybe someone you won’t see coming at all will need you. Like a kid who asks you to let him help clean motel rooms. Or some ghost who drifts your way, hungry. And good people might even ask you to marry them. And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day. Maybe someone or something is watching us all make our way. I don’t think we get to know why.”
After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I read Reid’s previous book, Forever, Interrupted, and loved it. I added the rest of her titles to my To Be Read list, and this is the first one I’ve read, or rather, listened to … and that may be part of the reason I didn’t care for it nearly as much as Forever, Interrupted. I was reminded once again what a difference the narrator makes in an audio book. This particular narrator didn’t resonate with me, and as a result I think I ended up disliking many of the characters simply based on the voice she gave them. Another issue with listening to a book like this is that it’s heavy on conversational dialogue. When reading a book, this kind of banter in your head can be enjoyable. It moves fast and helps keep the story engaging. Listening to it, however, is another story. I feel like I have an unfair dislike of this book simply because of the method I used to consume it. One of my most trusted sources for book reviews thought it was Reid’s best, so please check out the review on MomAdvice and decide for yourself! From now on, I’ll be reading Reid’s remaining books.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
This is the fourth book set during World War II that I read in 2015. Coming off the heels of the best book I read last year on the same subject (All the Light We Cannot See), it took me nearly half the book to get into the story and the characters. But once I did, I read furiously. (The fact that I got it 3 days before book club may have also played a part in my furious reading.) Vianne and Isabelle are sisters only in the sense of the word. Their maman died when they were just girls. Broken by the first war and grief, their father abandons them to a less-than-loving caretaker. Each girl copes in her own way, and neither leans on each other. Vianne marries and begins a family of her own. Isabelle flits from boarding school to boarding school, running away or getting kicked out time and again. When the Nazis take over France, Vianne and Isabelle must find their own ways of surviving. Isabelle uses her good looks and rebellious spirit to become The Nightingale, rescuing downed Allied airman and leading them to freedom through treacherous hikes across the border to Spain. Can Vianne find her own way to survive and help in her own way, even with a Nazi sleeping in her own home? And will the horrors of war deepen the long-standing sisterly war or bring them closer together? I was moved to tears often, and gained even more respect for the women and the terrible, impossible choices they had to make during the war. A great book club selection as well.
After Birth by Elisa Albert
One year postpartum, and first-time mother Ari still can’t get her bearings. She’s deeply in love with her son, Walker, but ambivalent about motherhood. She’s still in shock over her horrific birth experience, can’t begin to think about picking back up on her dissertation when she can’t even get a solid night’s sleep, and finds herself alone in this strange new world of mothers. When Mina moves into the small college town Ari calls home, she can’t help but get her hopes up. On her own and nine months pregnant, one-time cult rocker and general badass Mina seems like the friend and savior Ari needs to keep her own life afloat.
At 208 pages, this book is a quick read. It made several “Best of 2015” lists, including NPR, Oprah and People. I imagine that as a new mother, this book would’ve resonated with me in much the same way Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions did when I read it shortly after Elena was born: with laughs and fist-pumps in the air. Someone gets it! Instead I found that being so many years removed from the shock of new motherhood made the topic not so fascinating. While I could see myself in Ari’s all-consuming obsession with nursing, sleep and mom’s groups, I could also find myself getting annoyed with her. I can see how this book can be a gift for new mother’s looking for fiction that doesn’t patronize the gamut of feelings having a baby brings upon women.
The Marranos by Liliane Webb
This was the book I chose for the category of “A Book My Mom Loves” in the 2015 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. My mom has been subtly and then not-so-subtly recommending this one to me for a couple of years. She eventually put a copy in my hands, so I didn’t have any excuses. It’s out-of-print historical fiction based on the lives of the Jews in hiding during the Spanish Inquisition. In 1478 the monarchs of Spain established an office to maintain Catholicism in the Spanish kingdoms. As a result of the Inquisition, a royal decree was issued which required all Jews living in Spain to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. Isabel Valderocas grows up believing she is part of one of the finest old Christian families in Spain. When she learns the truth – that she is actually a Jew (a Marrano), she must make a decision that could mean life or death. Does she leave her family history behind or find a way to stay true to her faith and change Spain for the better?
Whiskey and Charlie by Annabel Smith
Twins are known for having a close relationship, a bond that others often don’t understand. Charlie and Whiskey were like that … until they weren’t. Best friends as boys, spending hours talking to each other on their walkie talkies using the standard military alphabet, they grew apart as they got older. In the transition from boys to men, Charlie felt apart and excluded from his “big” brother. Identical in looks, they couldn’t be any more different in personality, Charlie’s exploits and personality big enough to squeeze Charlie out. An icy relationship is finally frozen as adults, and the brothers no longer speak to each other. When an accident puts Whiskey in a coma, Charlie is forced to rethink his relationship with Whiskey. Was he the bad brother he’d always made it out to be? Or did Charlie play a part in their falling out as well? And what good can come of the truth when he may never get the chance to make things right with his brother? I found Whiskey and Charlie to be a nuanced look at sibling relationships, told in an interesting back and forth pattern of the present and the past.
The Storm of the Century by Al Roker
How strange is this? I randomly picked up, and quickly became engrossed in Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm near the end of August 2005. As I was finishing the book, I first heard rumblings on the news of what would soon become Hurricane Katrina. Fast forward 10 years, and I pick up Roker’s book just as Hurricane Patricia is picking up steam. I think, for the sake of anyone living in and around the Gulf of Mexico, I should refrain from reading books about hurricanes between August and November.
I did not care for Al Roker’s style of writing. It was confusing at times (especially when discussing meteorological topics) and chapters describing the time before and after the storm were not compelling. I found myself skimming quite often. The strength of the book lies in Part II of the book (The Maelstrom) which describes the events just before, during and after the storm. Whether his writing improves in this section or the story is just too compelling to be ruined, this is where the book shines. If the story of the Galveston storm interests you, I highly recommend Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson.
I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks
For a child of the 80s, this book was a fantastic trip down nostalgia lane. I was a 6-year-old in Fort Wayne, Indiana when MTV first appeared on our TV. What was I doing watching MTV? Well, when you have a 17-year-old brother and parents that don’t have a clue what happens on 24-hour music television, you get to watch a lot of MTV. I fell in love with those early VJs the way other kids fell in love with the characters on Sesame Street. The authors take you from the early days of MTV’s improbable conception to the Real World era, when it became less about the music and more about the television. In between are first hand accounts from the VJs, executives, bands, video directors, and the infamous video girls (you might not remember their names, but you remember them). The format isn’t great. Instead of a narrative the book is made up of thoughts and reflections from the hundreds of people that shaped MTV. But for anyone who grew up anxiously awaiting the next world premiere video, the book is pure fun.
There were moments when I was reading this book when I could feel my pulse quicken and my hands clench. Tobar does an amazing job retelling the story of the 33 men buried alive for in a Chilean mine for 69 days. The story could not have been an easy one to tell. How did these 33 men resist the urge to share and profit from their story via other outlets? How do you bring 33 different men, with vastly different personalities and from very different families, to life in just 336 pages? And how do you make a story from which we all know the ending so compelling that this reader found herself furiously flipping through to see if everyone comes out okay? I don’t know, but Tobar does it, and does it very, very well.
This compact little book is a handy guide to dealing with the middle school years. As we’re heading into the end of the 8th grade, I wish I had picked up this book sooner – I could’ve saved myself a lot of worry and grief in the beginning. That being said, we haven’t had a lot of issues with the typical drama that comes with middle school and the tween/teen years. Covering topics such as dating, changing friendships, and social media, anyone with a middle-schooler is sure to find something helpful and comforting in this book. The author does a great job of relating her own experiences along with giving examples of how to navigate difficult topics and conversations.
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Shelly Turkle
I was excited to get my hands on this book as soon as it came out earlier this year. Shelly Turkle tackles an issue that is near and dear to my heart: how has technology affected our ability to be present and have uninterrupted connections and conversations? Turkle looks at the topic by addressing what Henry David Thoreau called the three chairs: one chair for solitude, two chairs for friendship and three for society. Using this framework, she discusses how our dependence on computers, tablets and smartphones is negatively impacting our ability to be okay with solitude, interact with our friends, family and partners, as well as function is our work and community environments.
There were lots of ideas and examples in the book that resonated with me and the struggle I have in my own relationships with ever-present phones and tablets. Unfortunately I struggled with the writing. Between nuggets of powerful stories and interesting thoughts, there were large sections of the book that felt drawn out or disjointed. Three-quarters of the way through the book I also began to feel very discouraged. There were plenty of examples of how technology is destroying our ability to have real conversations with people face to face, but what can we do about it? Out of 377 pages, only 14 were devoted to ideas of how we can fix the problem. Still, I’m glad I read it because it’s opened my eyes to my own dependence on my phone and made me more mindful of encouraging screen-free, face-to-face interaction with my friends and family.
Kids and Young Adult
Wildwood by Colin Meloy
This was a hefty book (over 500 pages) that Eli and I tackled as a read aloud this fall. Written by The Decemberist’s Colin Meloy and filled with gorgeous illustrations, Wildwood tells the story of Prue McKeel’s fantastical journey to find her missing baby brother. Left in charge one afternoon, Prue is horrified when a murder of crows descends upon the playground and lifts Baby Mac up and out of his wagon, carrying him off to the Impassable Wilderness. Though the I.W. has been just over the river on the other side of her hometown of Portland, Oregon for as long as she can remember, no one actually goes there. Or, at least, no one ever goes there and returns. Prue will stop at nothing to get her brother back, leading the reader through a mysterious land filled with memorable creatures of both human and animal form. I’d give this book a high rating for being good read aloud material – it’s a good mix of narrative, dialogue and illustrations. However it is very long, and even despite the very unusual characters and exciting battles, Eli wasn’t in love with the story enough to request we read the sequel. Still, I’d recommend it for middle-grade readers, as it might capture their attention a bit more than Eli’s.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Elena and I listened to this book together over the course of a few weeks and multiple trips back and forth to art lessons and summer camp. We both loved it, and the ending gutted both of us. Violet Markey is counting down the days until graduation. It’s everything she can do to get through the school year after a tragic accident claims her sister’s life while sparing her own. Theodore Finch is counting up, measuring each day he’s “awake” following a severe bout with depression as a major accomplishment. Their paths in school never cross, Violet being the pretty and popular one, Finch being the freak, until they meet in a precarious spot. Partnered together for a school project, they wander Indiana, and along the way discover in each other the only person they can be themselves with. After reading Hoosier native Niven’s book, Elena and I are ready to wander the same quirky parts of Indiana as Violet and Finch.
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I chose this book for the category of “A book you should have read in high school” in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. I was even more motivated to read it after I found out Elena would be reading it in her English Lit class this semester. After reading, two thoughts immediately came to mind. One: I was thoroughly impressed with how easily this book reads sixty-five years after it’s debut. Two: There’s a whole lotta talk about sex for a bunch of 8th graders to read and discuss! Unlike when I read another classic earlier this year (The Sun Also Rises), this book seemed to still stay relevant despite its age. The narrator, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, relates his story in a way any teenager can relate to, past or present. One thing I particularly enjoy about reading classics I never got around to in my youth is finally feeling a connectivity to cultural references to a book or a character. I’m looking forward to discussing this with Elena after she reads it!
What have you read and loved lately? Be sure to weigh in on your preference for how I review books in 2016!