Friday, December 19, 2014

Best Short Form Works of 2014

Best Essay Collections:

Another one that ranks in the top five overall for me - I devoured this collection and can't wait to read it again.  Gay is one of my favorite internet personalities and ties with John Scalzi for person I'm most likely to disagree with but still respect and love.

Beautifully written and completely engrossing.  My favorite essay from this collection is also included in this year's Best American Essays and it was thoroughly enjoyable both times I read it.

The whole issue of vaccinations and how our culture views them, why we need them, and why some people are afraid of them is fascinating to me, so it should come as no surprise that I devoured this collection over the course of a few hours.

Best Poetry:

Billy Collins is always a pleasure to read and one of the few poets that I can pick up with complete confidence in my ability to read and understand.  This contains a lot of previously published poems, but was still a joy to read.

Creepy Joyce Carol Oates stories about "love gone wrong".  I enjoyed all of them and would recommend them to any fans of her writing or of psychological thrillers.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for introducing me to this one.  I probably would have missed it if it weren't for the tour email, and I'm so glad I discovered it.  It's just my kind of story - slightly off-kilter, leave you thinking for days stories.

Another collection I discovered through TLC, this one sticks to a more traditional contemporary literary fiction feel.  Some of the stories are linked, which doesn't always work for me, but it was perfect here.

Another creepy collection, this one set in Vietnam, but with a slightly more supernatural twist than the psychological suspense of Oates.  It was a great mixture of Eastern superstition and literary depth.

Similar to The Frangipani Hotel, this is another set of short stories, set in Japan this time, with a slightly twisted version of reality.  Less supernatural in tone than Kupersmith's collection, but still delightfully bizarre and creepy.

This read is so recent that I haven't even had a chance to review it yet.  It's been on my list for a while and once I realized it's set in my neck of the woods I had to read it immediately.  It didn't disappoint on the local-interest, of course (my husband's and my favorite restaurant gets a mention!), but the real highlight here is the quality.  It's been on my mind daily since I finished - there are several stories I just can't stop thinking about.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: The World of Post Secret by Frank Warren

From the publisher:
A decade ago, Frank Warren began a community art project that captured the popular imagination and became a worldwide obsession. He handed out postcards to strangers and left them in public places—asking people to share a secret they had never told anyone and mail them back to him anonymously. More than half a million secrets, 600 million hits to the award-winning PostSecret blog, and five huge bestsellers later, the PostSecret phenomenon is bigger than ever. By turns funny, heartbreaking, thoughtful, and moving, this compendium of graphic haiku offers an intimate glimpse into both individual private lives and into our shared humanity.
Included in this compelling new book are dozens of the best archived secrets from the original PostSecret app; inside stories about the most controversial secrets Frank Warren has received; moving text from the new PostSecret play, foreign secrets, "puzzle" secrets, and much more!
If you've somehow missed out on the PostSecret phenomenon, you'll definitely want to click here to check it out. Once you've seen it, I'm pretty sure you'll be as hooked as I am.  This collection is the (maybe) last in a series of books that collect the post card secrets sent to Frank Warren, as well as some secrets submitted to the app.  In addition, it contains several short essays that describe significant moments in the project's history, controversial posts, and how the app influenced the project.  You can read it slowly and savor each secret, or, you can do like I did and devour it in one sitting.  It's definitely earned its spot on my coffee table, and I'm looking forward to seeing future guests pick it up and thumb through - I know they won't be able to resist.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Best Speculative Fiction of 2014

This one is definitely in my top five overall for the year.  It may even be the best.  I struggled with putting this in adult fiction or in speculative fiction, because it reads more like an adventure/survival book than it does a science fiction book.  But it's also set on the surface of Mars, so I wound up deciding to feature it here.  Basically, an astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to figure out how to survive until NASA figures out a way to rescue him.  

You can also find this one on my list of audiobooks, but it deserves a place here as well.  It's about a terrifying post-apocalyptic world where opening your eyes can drive you to suicide and murder and a mother who wants something better for her children.  

Another post-apocalypse story, this time in a world whose population and culture has been decimated by a plague.  It was particularly harrowing to read this fall during the panic surrounding ebola.  I can't say enough good things about the writing and the plot itself.

I don't usually read straight-up paranormal horror, but this one was absolutely impossible to resist.  The book is designed to resemble an Ikea catalog and features illustrations of progressively disturbing products.  It's worth reading for the design alone, but the story is also compelling.  I'll be so disappointed if I don't get a sequel next year.

Not really a dystopia and not really a post-apocalypse, this is really just a somewhat bleak imagining of our world's future, particularly in the East.  We move from India to Africa and follow a young girl's search for her birth mother.  It's one of the more difficult books I read this year, but also one of the most rewarding.

I'm not even going to try to describe this one because of spoilers, but trust me when I say that it's a must-read if you're fans of post-apocalyptic settings, horror, or suspense.  It fits all three categories quite well.

Another candidate for top five overall, this is probably the most beautiful writing I read this year.  It fits into the speculative category because the main characters are mythical immigrants to New York City (a golem and a jinni), but it would work just as well in literary fiction.  The story is moving but the real star is the writing.

The first in the Southern Reach series, this one is honestly hard to sub-classify within speculative fiction without having finished the series (the second two books are waiting for me at the library right now).  It has adventure and conspiracy and mysterious disappearances from Area X, where our main characters are sent to try to discover why all other expeditions have failed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mini-Reviews: The Children Act and My Other Ex

From Goodreads:
Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in London presiding over cases in family court. She is fiercely intelligent, well respected, and deeply immersed in the nuances of her particular field of law...But Fiona's professional success belies domestic strife. Her husband, Jack, asks her to consider an open marriage and, after an argument, moves out of their house.  She decides to throw herself into her work, especially a complex case involving a seventeen-year-old boy whose parents will not permit a lifesaving blood transfusion because it conflicts with their beliefs as Jehovah's Witnesses. But Jack doesn't leave her thoughts, and the pressure to resolve the case—as well as her crumbling marriage—tests Fiona in ways that will keep readers thoroughly enthralled until the last stunning page.
Well, we're talking about McEwan, so there's really no question here as to whether or not the writing will be superb, right?   He lives up to his reputation once again in this book, with strong, dynamic characters and a plot that forces them to grow and change throughout the story.  As with his other works, it's certainly character-driven, but he does an impeccable job of developing his characters and making them both believable and sympathetic, even in their faults.

Entertainment Value
Not necessarily fast-paced, but definitely engrossing.  It's short and the plot is compelling, but the real draw is in seeing how the characters evolve over the course of the story and in watching how their interactions with each other change the direction of lives.  The moral dilemmas faced by the main character, both personally and professionally, are intriguing and captivating.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's short and not necessarily a difficult read, but it's also not fast-paced.  Nevertheless, I found myself unable to put it down, which is always a great quality to find in a book.  It's also fairly short and won't require a huge time commitment from readers who may be on the fence about character-driven fiction.

From Goodreads:
Not all friendships are meant to last forever. There can be so much good, so much power, so much love in female friendships. But there is also a dark side of pain and loss. And surrounding that dark side there is often silence. There is shame, the haunting feeling that the loss of a friendship is a reflection of our own worth and capacity to be loved. My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends is a step toward breaking that silence. The brave writers in this engrossing, diverse collection of 35 essays tell their own unique stories of failed friendships and remind us of the universality of loss.
As much as I enjoyed the content of this book, the essays are not all from professional authors and, in certain essays, it shows.  That really didn't hurt my estimation of the book as a whole however, because I enjoyed reading what felt like the stories of everyday people, not essays crafted as works of literature.  There was something genuine about reading a less-than-perfectly-written essay when describing a personal story.

Entertainment Value
The great thing about having a sister is that not only is she stuck with you forever, but she can also tell you the truth with an honesty (and bluntness) that a friend might hesitate to give.  My sister was kind enough to tell me that my interest in end of friendship stories is "weird" and "creepy" and "twisted".  But I can't help it.  I love to hear women tell stories about friendship that just didn't work out.  I don't know what it is about them that just captivates me, but I love reading them.  This is the second book I read this year featuring essays about the end of friendships and I loved it just as much as the first.

If you're intrigued by other people's drama, this is a great book for you to read.  It's also good for those who have lost a friendship or those who have a more academic sociological interest in how female friendships work and then stop working.  Or you can just tell yourself it's academic when really you just like hearing the juicy details.  My interest is purely academic of course.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Best Adult Fiction of 2014

I just finished this one over the weekend, but it's definitely worth inclusion on my list.  I really love pretty much everything I've ever read by McEwan and this is no exception.  I love moral quandries of any kind and the premise of this book revolves around a teenage boy who is a Jehovah's Witness and wants to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion and the judge who must decide whether or not to honor his wishes.  Completely engrossing.

Another recent read that I've yet to review, this epistolary novel uses letters of reference written by a beleaguered English professor who is in a constant struggle to get his department the respect it deserves in a university that values the sciences more than the humanities.  

Yes, yes, you already saw this on my Best Audiobooks list, but I couldn't resist including it here too.  It's just that good.  One of the best love stories I've read in ages and, I think, the perfect romance for anyone who has been married for a while.

I had a hard time deciding whether to put this with fiction or with domestic suspense, but in the long run I think the literary merit outweighs the very low-level suspense.  It's there, of course, but the real focus is on the character development of the narrator.

Another choice that has an element of suspense, but, again, focuses largely on character development and how the tragic circumstances affect the dynamics of the family.  Beautifully written and completely deserving of all the praise it's garnered.

Right up there with Yes, Please in regards to the funniest books of the year.  I completely identified with this story of a young boy being raised by ultra-conservative evangelical missionary parents and the way he tries to balance his beliefs with being embarrassed and sometimes confused about his parents' behavior.  If you grew up in a conservative family, this is a must-read.  And the best part is that it's not written in a harsh or critical way - there's no mockery or finger-pointing.

One of the darkest books I read this year, but beautifully written.  It's a historical fiction set in Germany during World War II.  It was intensely unsettling to read from the Nazi point of view and to waffle between caring for the characters and being horrified by their casual cruelty.  It's incredibly hard to read and definitely not a happy book, but the writing is stunning.

Another work of literary historical fiction, this one set in Iceland surrounding the upcoming execution of a woman convicted of murder.  It's also bleak, both in terms of setting and outcome, but the writing is just beautiful and the characters are completely captivating.

I worried that my lack of ballet knowledge would keep me from fully enjoying this novel that centers around the world of professional ballet, but that was far from the case.  It's incredibly readable for those who are familiar with the world of dance and for those who have no clue.  Beautifully written and completely engrossing.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Book Review: Black Swan, White Raven by Ellen Datlow

From Goodreads:
Unforgettable stories of witches and wishes, Sleeping Beauties and Snow Whites, ingeniously twisted into darker, more grown-up shapes by fantasy fiction’s most talented practitioners

Once again, World Fantasy Award–winning editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling prove that fairy tales don’t have to be for little children and that happily ever after doesn’t necessarily mean forever. Black Swan, White Raven is Datlow and Windling’s fourth collection of once-familiar and much-beloved bedtime stories reimagined by some of the finest fantasists currently plying their literary trade—acclaimed writers like Jane Yolen, John Crowley, Michael Cadnum, and Joyce Carol Oates, who give new lives and new meanings to the plights of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, and more.
Dark fairy tales are definitely one of my things, so I knew I had to read this fourth in a series of dark fairy tale anthologies (Snow White, Blood Red) edited by Ellen Datlow.  This particular ebook is a re-issue of the original 1997 release from Open Road Media, which I'm a huge fan of.  Anyway, in every anthology there are stories that you love and stories that fell short.  Overall, however, I was quite impressed with the quality of writing found in the anthology.  I found quite a few authors whose books I'll be adding to my TBR list.

Entertainment Value
As with writing quality, this varied from piece to piece.  I loved "Snow in Dirt", "No Bigger Than My Thumb", "Sparks", and "On Lickerish Hill."  Towards the end, I went through several in a row that really just did not resonate with me, and that slowed me down from what was otherwise a quickly devoured book.  I'll definitely be checking out the other titles in the series.

If you're a fan of fairy tales reinterpretations, particularly those with a dark twist, this is a collection you should certainly look into.  I think readers who have enjoyed recent YA reinterpretations like the Sisters Red series and Cruel Beauty will like this as well as fans of the short story genre who also appreciate a bit of fantasy.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best Adult Non-Fiction of 2014

I'm not a huge reader of foodie books, because I'm definitely not a foodie, but I am intrigued by the more bizarre things that people find to eat, and I'm glad I tried this one.  Thoroughly enjoyable and will appeal to foodies and non-foodies alike.

One of my first five star reads of the year, this one just blew me away.  I love books that really wrestle with moral/ethical dilemmas, and this is nothing if not an ethical gray area.  It's the true story of patients who were euthanized by doctors and nurses during Hurricane Katrina as an act of mercy.  Absolutely fascinating and heartbreaking.

The only poetry on my list this year, and I know it's a pretty cliche choice to go with Collins, but I like him, so you can just take your poetry snobbery to another place.  I'm very defensive about Billy because he's one of the few contemporary poets who makes sense to me.

Why yes, I do love diagramming a good complex sentence.  Dr. Susan Wink taught me well, and this book delighted every part of my grammar-loving brain.
Recommended by my favorite new author this year, Roxane Gay, this book has totally changed my ability to space out in front of mindless reality TV.  It took me a while to work my way through it but it was fascinating and brought up so many good points that I hadn't considered before.

Another in a genre I don't typically read but absolutely fell in love with.  This is a great in depth look at four women who played an important role in the Civil War.  It reads like a novel, but is so well-researched and documented.

I loved this sweet memoir about the time Mills was able to spend with an aging Harper and Alice Lee in their hometown.  It had some controversy surrounding it, but it didn't take away from the sweetness of the story and the insider's glimpse of the small Southern town that inspired the setting for To Kill A Mockingbird.

If you're at all interested in reading, psychology, or the way the brain works, this is an absolute must-read.  I can't believe I still don't have a copy on my shelf, but I plan to rectify that as soon as possible.