Monday, December 31, 2012

My Favorite Books of 2012!

My Favorite Book of the Year
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was long listed for the Man Booker Prize and made a few “best book” lists as well but my reason for loving it more than any of the other great books I read this year was simply that it made me happy and it made me think. After the horrific events in Sandy Hook earlier this December, it was the book I most wanted to revisit.  It’s a powerful, yet light novel that reminded me to live in the moment and to appreciate everything and everyone around me.  I’ll post a complete review of it soon but please read this fine review to learn more about it.

Links to complete reviews of books reviewed on this site are embedded in the titles. Short descriptions of all the titles listed below can be found here.

2012 – My Favorite Novel of the Year (almost a tie with my favorite book)

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Runners-up: 
The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye and 
Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

2012 – My Favorite Nonfiction Book of the Year

2012 – My Favorite Memoir

House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterston and 
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

2012 – My Favorite Debut Novel

Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

2012 – My Favorite Historical Fiction Novel

The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

2012 – My Favorite Book Club Book

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

2012 – My Favorite Thriller or Suspense Novel

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

2012 – My Favorite Mystery

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

2012 – My Favorite Super Nutrition Novel (It entertained and informed.)

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

2012 – My Favorite “Dessert” Book (it just made me happy)

The Darlings by Cristina Alger

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn and 
Delicacy by David Foenkinos

2012 – My Favorite Ironic Book(s) (Sushi)

Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

2012 – My Favorite “Emotionally Tough but I’m Glad I Read it” Book

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Runner-up: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

2012 – My Favorite Book(s) for the Soul

Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer into Your Life by Kate Braestrup
and Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess

2012 – My Favorite Children’s Book for Anyone over the Age of Eight

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

2012 – My Favorite Young Adult Novel

Every Day by David Levithan

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2012

The best mysteries and thrillers are like delicious phyllo dough pastries. You never know what's inside them until you take a bite. Then their flavors begin to meld and spices that might seem overwhelming alone blend with others to reveal surprising sensations. The best pastries satisfy your yearnings and make you want eat every last crumb as quickly as you can.  The best mysteries and thrillers of 2012 offer tantalizing blends of evil and kindness, madness and mayhem and you'll want to find a cozy spot where no one can bother you as you devour them without interruption. 

The Best Thriller of 2012:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a deftly sculpted psychological thriller that resembles an upside-down cake laced with arsenic. Amy disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary and her husband Nick is accused of her murder even though no body has been found. As more facts about each of the characters reveal themselves, the reader is caught up in a web of deception, madness and cruelty that only a skilled writer could pull off.  You will either adore this book or find it "too much." Regardless, Flynn's skill at weaving the intricate threads that keep the story taut must be admired. Once you start the book, be prepared to do nothing else until you finish. 

The Best Mystery of 2012:
A Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (although her A Trick of the Light could have tied for first place).  Penny just keeps getting better and any title in the Inspector Gamache series is almost impossible to beat. A Beautiful Mystery is set in a remote monastery where a monk's murder poses a "locked" room quandary. Only the monks were there and none of them could have done it - or could they?  This order of monks may be ready to make real money with their Gregorian chant recordings. Inspector Gamache and his aide Jean-Guy Beauvoir have problems with headquarters and their personal lives that may interfere with finding the killer. As always, Penny makes each character a blend of complicated emotions as she shows how evil can be overcome. Read all of these mysteries (eight thus far with another on the way) before the debut of the Canadian public television series soon to come of the first two books. 

Other great mysteries I read in 2012 include: 

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke is a debut mystery that won high acclaim last year.  Jay Porter is an African-American attorney in Houston in this piece set in 1981.  He lives in fear because only one juror stood between him and a felony conviction and the FBI file on him is thick so he never wavers from being upright and law abiding. But when a mystery involving politics, oil and corruption literally falls into his lap when he saves a woman from drowning, his proper life begins to unravel. Will his investigations of Houston's power elite ruin his quiet life? Locke's newest novel, The Cutting Season, is one I hope to read soon as it's also garnering lots of critical praise. 

Defending Jacob by William Landay is a fast-paced courtroom drama and story of the son of a district attorney who's accused of killing a classmate.  As the father tries to save his son, he has to ask if a tendency to violence is an inheritable trait and then to explore his own past. The courtroom scenes are crisp and realistic as the author is a former district attorney.  The book will keep readers on the edge until the extremely clever ending. 

The Paris Directive by Gerald Jay introduces Inspector Paul Mazarelle, a droll, sly, unkempt, seemingly slow, cognac swigging, former Parisian star inspector who now lives in a small Dordogne village where a grisly murder is committed. The victim's daughter and the inspector track an international killer and find unexpected hurdles to overcome. This is the first in a series I predict will capture readers everywhere.  It's cinematic touches in evoking the countryside and the mischievous inspector seem perfect for the screen as well.  I can already envision some great actors portraying Mazarelle. 

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is part mystery, part historical fiction and part classic British domestic drama. Sixteen-year-old Laurel watches a man die at a 1960s picnic and recalls the memory at her mother's 90th birthday celebration as she seeks clues to the death in her mother's early days as a young woman in WWII's London blitz era. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Best Nonfiction of 2012

Most of us don't have the time or the funds to visit the world's most beautiful libraries, those erudite repositories of wisdom both ancient and modern.  Yet, we all have access to phenomenal nonfiction titles - books that can inform us, change our view of the world, shape us into the individuals we were meant to be, or just entertain us with facts so surprising that we assume they're fiction.  

Nonfiction includes memoir and autobiography but many argue that no memoir can possibly be entirely factual.  On that I beg to differ - a great memoir writer checks facts by finding multiple sources to confirm the details found in memory.  Earlier this year I spoke with Mark Richard, author of one of my favorite memoirs The House of Prayer No. 2, and asked him about his quest for the veracity of some of the memories of his childhood spent in a state hospital.  He told me that he searched for patients and workers in the hospital as well as the memories of his own family to make absolutely certain that what he was writing was factual. That attention to detail and belief in always telling the truth is one of the hallmarks of great memoir. 

This year Katherine Boo's magnificent story of the slums outside the Mumbai airport set a new standard in the narrative non-fiction genre. For many the idea that a true story can be presented with plot structure, character development, and themes to make the tale compelling is an oxymoron.  How, they ask, can anyone be creative with nonfiction and still present facts.  Reading Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers will put an end to such questions. That's why it's my nonfiction book of the year.  Here's the complete list: 

Best Nonfiction Book of 2012: 
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity 
by Katherine Boo

The night the National Book Awards were announced, I sat glued to my computer screen with fingers crossed and when the announcement came that Boo had won, I leaped up and cheered.  Believe me, I'm nuts about books but I don't do that every year.  This is different; this is a milestone book.  The fact that Boo embedded herself and her translators into the under city to listen, listen, listen will have those who teach narrative nonfiction classes revising their syllabuses. And for the rest of us average readers, we can just say thanks to Boo for reminding us that we can't possibly learn anything if we don't listen.  

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a heart wrenching yet compelling view of the lives of the real people living in extraordinary poverty in Mumbai. If you only read one book this year, read this and take time to let it seep into your soul.  Read my complete review and the words of praise from so many others here

Best Memoir of 2012:
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

In a year of phenomenal memoirs, it was almost impossible to choose one title but for book lovers how could anyone resist a book that offers so many thoughts about why we read and so, so many great titles.  When Schwalbe's mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, he sat with her during her chemo treatments and they talked about the books they were reading.  They became a two-person book club and Schwalbe allows readers to join their optimistic, hopeful and enticing world.  The book is a tribute to Mary Ann Schwalbe and to carpe diem.  It's an ebullient homage to the power of both the written word and to the joy of sharing anything we love with those we love. Don't be unsettled by the title - this is a happy, hope-filled, wonder of a book. Read it and share it with someone.  Read my complete review and the reviews of others here

The other "best" nonfiction titles that will fill your hunger for a great read are:

Flunking Sainthood: a Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess is a thorough introduction and a delightful explanation of twelve ancient and modern spiritual practices.  It's exceptional because it shares what practicing faith really means - that the practices will make you more open to love.  Riess's use of humor coupled with scholarly research makes the practices accessible to those on any journey of faith. Riess, a former Religion Editor at Publishers Weekly, has the credentials to back her research and the heart and self-deprecating light touch to make this a book for everyone. 

House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard is a gothic, southern stunner filled with staccato word pictures and Richard's compelling second person narrative of his childhood spent in acute physical pain while suffering the indignities of being treated like someone less than human. If you love words and exceptional writing, read this.  Read the complete review here.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain explains why people talk, what shyness means, and why introverts are essential.  Cain's examples are compelling and if you haven't yet taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment, you'll immediately want to learn your type.  If you already know your preferences and functions, this book will help you understand how people in your world at home and at work function. If I ruled the world, this would be required reading. 

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterston is raw, honest, heart-wrenching, funny and flat-out mesmerizing. It was chosen as the best book of the year by almost every British publication and is on many best book lists in the U.S. It's a hard-hitting story of Winterston's life as the adopted daughter of a mentally ill, strangely religious woman who couldn't fathom that her child could be a lesbian.  It's easy to see why Winterston is one of Britain's favorite authors.  Her razor-sharp images will capture even those who think her story might not fit them.  Read the complete review here.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed is exasperating and makes you want to shake Strayed because of her lack of preparation but ultimately you'll cheer for the young woman who found herself by testing her mettle on an 1100-mile hike.  Strayed's emotional turmoil after her mother's death that results in her addiction to heroin and a decision to have an abortion might make some readers shy away from this title but this is a tale of redemption and healing that warrants attention. Strayed's exceptional writing elevates this above the usual travel adventure or coming-of-age story. This book will appeal to adults of all ages especially to those in their twenties and thirties. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pigeon Pie with Floating Island or The Best Historical Fiction of 2012

My grandmother's 1906 - 1910 "Line a Day" diary lists many of the foods she ate at the parties she attended. She went to fancy fraternity balls, meals and dances at area clubs as well as to elegant dinner parties in mansions in Lafayette, Indiana. Pigeon pie, pheasant under glass, oysters Rockefeller and beef steak appeared regularly. Posset Punch and other concoctions laced with cognac and fortified wines helped her dance the night away. Chocolate desserts and fruit trifles tempted her but her favorite sweet ending was floating island, a meringue concoction borrowed from the French that may have come from her Huguenot ancestors.  On the days after she feasted, she often noted that she "lay in bed reading."  Nana loved history so I imagine that historical novels might have made their way onto her chaise lounge.  In her honor I present my choices for the best historical fiction I read this year.  And the winner is:

The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

Norwegian immigrant Thea's journey to the United States in 1893, her experiences as a cook in a lumber camp, a brutal attack, bone-chilling cold, and the birth of her baby Odd (pronounced Ode) in 1896 are evocative enough to warrant an award but it's Odd's life in the small Minnesota town of his birth that made this novel soar for me.  Odd, his guardian and his ward, his friend Danny Riverfish and the boundary waters town that reared him will permeate the soul of any reader.  The ending will also provide fodder for spirited book club discussions - perhaps while enjoying a bite of floating island and a cup of Posset Punch. I've begged author Geye for a sequel and a novel about the Riverfish family. Stay tuned and in the meantime read my full review and links to what others say here

The other savory selections in this category are winners as well.  I'm listing them alphabetically by title as they all have much to offer.

A Good American by Alex George celebrates the immigrant experience in a tale about Frederick and Jette who move from Germany to a small Missouri town in 1904 just as their first child is born.  Their grandson, James, narrates the panorama of their lives telling of Frederick's fighting for his adopted country in World War I, the bigotry shown to German immigrants during the war and the power of music to enrich life.  While this novel provides many historical details that readers will love, it's exploration of identity is what made it capture me. Devouring it will transport readers to a different time while making them think about ways our culture challenges others and their loyalty. And the music, George's descriptions of the music provided a stirring soundtrack for the novel. I can't wait to hear Frederick and his sons sing in what I hope will soon be a film based on this book. 

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan won the 1911 Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Historical Fiction but I didn't discover it until this summer when I was thinking about how Geraldine Brooks' novel The People of the Book depicted fifteenth century Granada, Spain, a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in harmony. I wanted to know more about how the Inquisition ended that peaceful coexistence.  That led me to By Fire, By Water, a novel of the Inquisition and of conversos (Jews who conoverted to Christianity) and their treatment under Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor. Kaplan uses a real figure, Luis de Santangal, the Spanish Chancellor at the time, who was himself a converso, to illuminate the period. Kaplan's former life as a screenwriter and script consultant is clearly visible in this cinematic treatment of a period we all need to understand. While some might find it difficult to "witness" some of the horrors of the era, this book is guaranteed to offer a scintillating book club discussion. 

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain came out in 2011 but I didn’t read it until this year.  It’s recently out in paper so I hope book clubs will soon choose it.  Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson’s courtship and marriage was something out of a fairy tale especially during their early years in Paris. McLain’s powerful evocation of the fireworks of the marriage and the way it burned itself out blend with a portrait of 1920s Paris to provide a must-read view of literary history.  With minor characters including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald this book transports readers to a magical time and place. But it’s Hadley Richardson who’s the star of this novel and Paula McLain brilliantly makes her so real that she absolutely convinced me that I know Hadley – and I know her well.

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian forces us to encounter the Armenian genocide. "Nineteen-fifteen is the year of the Slaughter You Know Nothing About. . . If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians." You will live that history in this, the book Bohjalian was born to write, as it illuminates his own culture while he makes it compelling through the love story between a young Bostonian woman visiting Aleppo, Syria after graduating from college and and an Armenian who joins the British army to fight the Turks. Narrated by a contemporary writer who wants to tell her grandparents' story, this cinematic view of a forgotten time will make readers wonder what to do to keep such history from repeating.  Read my full review and links to what others thought here.