Here are the results—the books I’ve read in the past seven months (January 1, 2013 through July 31, 2013), NOT including anything I’ve read for work or school:
A Light-Hearted Look at Murder by Mark Watson
This was an offbeat, sad, and quirky reintroduction to reading after a long, busy break. I was expecting, based on the premise, that this would be a hilarious book, but it was actually quite depressing. It’s about a girl who begins writing letters to a man in prison through a companionship program, but since his letters come in German, she must rely on the translations provided by her lazy roommate. In the letters, this man describes his years in college, when he acted as a Hitler impersonator and dated a seven foot tall girl. His voice in the letters is deep and engaging, but the story is full of sadness, and the ending is especially unsatisfying emotionally—though not narratively.
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
When his avid reader mother is diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live, editor Will Schwalbe begins sharing his thoughts on books he’s read when he accompanies her on trips to treatment appointments. Their meetings turn into a book club of sorts, and they read various books they’ve wanted to read their whole lives, as well as rereading favorites and foraying into new genres. As they both confront Schwalbe’s mother’s imminent death, this memoir unfolds into a touching ode to her life. More about his mother than about the books they read, The End of Your Life Book Club is a definite tearjerker, but also a must read for writers and anyone who’s ever had a mother. After reading it, I gave it to mine for Mother’s Day.
The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis
I’d heard so many wonderful things about this book that I decided to read it, despite it being young adult, which I do not read very often. Sort of a story within a story, this book follows a teenage girl as she develops a relationship with a drug dealer who is caring for his young sister after their mother has disappeared. I had the notion that I would love this book based on the first chapter, but the more I read, the more I despised the narrator, this teenage girl. Young adult is a genre populated with weak female leads, and it is a genre that needs them the most. This drug dealer, while hurting deeply, did some terrible things to this girl, unforgiveable even in his sympathetic situation—and the narrator stayed with him. That really upset me and ruined the book for me, I have to say. Her actions were meant to be seen as forgiving and compassionate, but she just seemed needy and submissive to his abuse. The characters were extremely well developed, and the writing was, no doubt, absolutely beautiful, but I found it hard to stick with some of the characters’ actions and to understand their motivations.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
The end of humanity is approaching. After a nuclear war that wiped out most of the planet, only Australia is left, and the inhabitants know that the radiation is wafting their way. With only a few weeks before they will die, this small community inquires about how and when it will happen while simultaneously hoping it will not. Kind of a slow progression toward their deaths, and hugely sad, this book is not for those who want a tightly wrapped ending. A focus on the present moment and the hope derived from that type of life manifests here. It’s a whisper instead of a bang sort of deal.
Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich
Every time I think, “I should probably read some young adult fiction. This one looks good,” I always feel I’ve made the wrong decision. Maybe young adult is simply not my thing, and I should finally recognize that and stop trying so hard to enjoy it. With this one, I felt the wealthy, snobby Elliot was too archetypal, as was the quiet, smart narrator. I’m sure there are a few middle-school kids who would love it, though.
The Memory of Love by Linda Olsson
I read Linda Olsson’s previous two books and loved them, but this one was slightly too pretentious for me. The main characters are too introspective and self-absorbed, even when they seem to try to be helping other people. Gorgeous prose at times, though, certainly.
Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm by Mardi Jo Link
I read this memoir because I know the author’s family, and I work for the book review company she co-founded, ForeWord Reviews (Shameless plug. But seriously,book lovers should probably visit. You know, if you want to.). While the premise does not seem all that engaging (newly divorced woman struggles through raising three teenage boys on a farm), Mardi Jo Link is such an astoundingly great writer that she drives her story forward with crazily badass strength. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and a tear jerker at the same time. Highly recommended.
Island by Aldous Huxley
More an exposition on spirituality than a novel, this is quite different from A Brave New World, the only other of Huxley’s works I’ve read. A man crashes on an island to discover a group of people who have lived separated from civilization (by choice) for decades. Curiosity ensues. I recommend it for people with a dozen hours to use reading spiritual texts or novels of the like who wish for a change of pace. A slow pace, but one that takes you through a story that will reveal wise insights into the way we behave.
Doctor Who: Shroud of Sorrow by Tommy Donbavand
Because I’m a major nerd, I saw this book and absolutely had to read it. It was pretty awesome. I’m definitely going to read more of the Doctor Who books as I see them.
The Carriage House by Louisa Hall
The father of three young women has a stroke, and his long-time sort of girlfriend moves into his house to care for her—while his dementia suffering wife is still living there. The three daughters come home as well, and they lobby against the neighbors when they decide to tear down the carriage house that is on their property after some lines have changed. The girls (the oldest a young mother, the middle child a architecture student contemplating getting back with her ex, and the youngest still in high school) each tell their own side of the story, the author using perfect narrative distance in a third-person point of view. There is humor, there is sadness, and there is truth in these characters—they are whole people. As I was reading this, I was thinking, “This is the type of book I want to write.”
Bay of Fires by Poppy Gee
This reminded me of a less gory, less emotional, more community-centered version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A fisherwoman visits her family on the Tasmanian coast, where the body of a tourist washes up on the shore, reminding residents of the disappearance of a teenage girl the previous year. The characterization in the novel is marvelous. Poppy Gee gets so deep into each character’s head you feel you can understand what they will do next and why. This does not make the plot predictable though; you’ve got to continue reading to find out who-dun-it (also easy to figure out) and to see where the relationships between the characters will lead. I don’t really recommend it if you find the plot interesting, but for writers, this is a must-read for skills in characterization and narrative distance.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
A genius plot with characters who, while not entirely likable, drive the story forward with their intricate and diverse motivations. It captures a realistic picture of the relationship between highbrow academia and inner city dignity. The characters are all relatable and vividly real, though they are all extremely difficult to like, likely because they’re so real.
Best New American Voices 2010
In an effort to read more short stories (and write them) in preparation for applying to MFA programs this fall, I read this collection of stories from the top MFA programs, hoping some of the talent would rub off on me—or that I could recognize myself in them. These are all fantastic stories, some of them I could see myself writing, some of them not really fitting of my preferences, and others I wish I had written. This is probably the most important book I’ve read all year so far.
The Incurables by Mark Brazaitis
This collection of short stories I had the impression by the cover and the author’s credentials would be absolutely amazing, but I was vaguely disappointed. The author captured the mental states of a handful of characters from a town in Ohio with imagination, but I wasn’t extremely impressed. Great intent and decent hand at the craft, but this book just wasn’t for me.
So there you go. The books I read in the past seven months.