Thursday, January 14, 2016


Best Books of 2015


I have had such a wonderful reading year! I read a total of 84 books. At the beginning of the year, I made some modest reading goals, and they paid dividends in the variety of books I had to draw upon. There was bookish gold to be found in every category and niche, no matter how they were sliced and diced. That was my single biggest takeaway of the year.

My list of Best Romance Books of 2015 will be published by All About Romance on February 6th. Here are my non-romance books.

CHILDREN'S BOOKS

I read some wonderful children's books this year. All were recommendations by my daughter and they were all five-star reads. Here are the top few:

Wonder by R.J. Palacio was such a tender story. A few chapters in and my heart felt like a ball of wax to be molded by this lovely boy of ten. He was born with severe physical challenges and homeschooled till fifth grade, at which point he goes to a private school. This book is about his experience there—the challenges he faces, the friendships he makes, and the personality growth that occurs.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli is a gentle love story of an unconventional girl and a conventional boy. Her gentle strangeness and unorthodox views are what draw him to her. He likes her but is very conscious of his fall from social grace because of his unpopular choice. The first part of the story establishes her personality; the second half is his story and how he negotiates his relationship with her and society at large.

Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret is an achingly sad, true story of a child suffering from polio at the height of the disease and its lifelong aftermath. And Kehret was the lucky one. She learnt to move all her limbs, was able to talk, and was eventually able to fulfill her dreams of becoming a writer. Most sufferers either die, get paralyzed, or are besieged by agonizing afflictions their whole life. I grieved for that little girl as I read the book. So much suffering at such a young age.

Truckers Terry Pratchett was a delightful story about a race of "nomes" who are little people who came from outer space and now live under the floorboards of a department store. It was funny, silly, and heartwarming. The nomes have built an entire world within the department store, including a religion. We always talk about detailed world-building, and this is one of the finest I have read.

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott is a story with a lot of historically true events and people. There's lots of flashy magic, icky creatures, intrepid child heroes, wise adults, and just plain old-fashioned derring-do. Thoroughly enjoyed it!


LITERARY FICTION

This category for some reason this year was filled primarily with British-set stories. The fourth is set in Australia.

How many, many times have I seen North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell? And yet till 2015, I hadn't read the actual book, and it was so much better than the miniseries, Richard HAWT Armitage notwithstanding. The romance was muted and that allowed the class and culture differences to stand out more starkly and vividly. I especially enjoyed reading the religious discussions, the business discussions including the ones about the rights of workers to unionize and strike as opposed to masters' rights, and seeing Margaret's relationships with her parents and her aunt's family and her role in the presence of these people. Gaskell's language is beautiful and accessible and it's a fast-paced novel.

For a big fan of Enid Blyton books and the miniseries Cranford, I instantly fell in love with Thrush Green by Miss Read. The voices and scenes were so distinct, I could picture them in my mind as I read the book. The inciting event is that the owner of the fair, which does a show every May Day in Thrush Green, might be closing down the show after this last hurrah. Set against this event, the lives of the main inhabitants of the small village revolve. The enjoyment of this book is in the very small details. While to some this could be boring, to me they're what make the story so enjoyable. Entire lifetimes and personalities unfold in those delicious details.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope was brought alive for me by the incredible performer Simon Vance. Trollope elevates the ordinary into the extraordinary through his minute observations, subtle nuances of story and character personalities, sudden asides of biting humor, and wry observations of the vagaries of human nature. The plot is relatively sparse and nothing hugely of import seems to be happening on the surface, and yet, it has a deep impact on all the principal parties concerned.

Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion was clever and uproariously funny with low-key delivery. Don has high-functioning Asperger's but is such a capable, brilliant man, Rosie's such a capable, brilliant woman, and they're together because they admire/like/want each other, not because they need each other in a dependent way. As a result, as a reader, you relate to them head-on as people with strengths and foibles and moments of laughter, but not as characters requiring our emotional support. It was refreshing to read about intelligent, mature people behaving in an intelligent, mature way; the uproarious humor is only on the part of the reader; the characters are very much in earnest. And so endearing!


MYSTERIES

My mystery choices this year were characterized by gentlemen detectives: aristocratic, inquisitive know-it-alls.

Who Buries the Dead by C.S. Harris was one of the best mysteries I read this year. Every spring, I read a C.S. Harris mystery novel. I never fail to pick the newest one up, because it's a guaranteed great read for me. No one I have read thus far does ominous scene-setting like Harris does. You fall into the mystery from the first page, immersed into the crime and into Regency England. She writes good stories with a muted but stylized approach to plotting and characterization. While her plotting is good, it's her characterizations that are the chief draw for me. Her protagonist, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is marvelously complicated.

Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers I have read Sayers before and have really enjoyed her detective Lord Peter Whimsey and how he and his (now) wife Harriet aid each other in solving mysteries. However, I read this book primarily because of its emphasis on how the Whimseys negotiate and conduct their marriage. What intricately developed subtlety between Whimsey and Harriet about each other's identity, sense of self-worth, respect, and wishes. They demonstrate what love is, with what care one must nurture it, with what delicacy one must treat the other, with what forethought one must treasure it.

Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross is an example of historical mystery at its finest. I enjoyed the writing and total immersion in history that's not overwrought or pointedly historical (i.e., includes details for scoring points). Ross has a gift with characterization. The pacing of the mystery was good, too. I can't wait to pick up the next book in the series.


NONFICTION

The first four of these books deal with the effect slavery had on people in one form or the other: historical, children, modern. The next two deal with oppression of people in Asia. And the last one is about geriatric medicine.

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne is a companion guide to the movie Belle. It is a story of a portrait painted in the late 18th century at Kenwood House that showed two beautiful, happy, young girls, one Caucasian and one African, on par. It was unheard of during those times that the African girl was not shown subordinate to the Caucasian one. The Caucasian girl was Lady Elizabeth and the African girl was Dido Elizabeth Belle, both British, half-cousins by blood, and adopted children of the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice. What could've been a dry recitation of facts of how slaves were treat in Britain, the nobility's culpability in the slave trade, and the abolition movement was brought to life by Byrne getting out of the way and allowing the reader to see the characters and their actions and the events that happened to them so vividly. A superb piece of narrative nonfiction writing. (Writers: This is an excellent book on Georgian research to have.)

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson has got to be the most gorgeous book I have read in ages. And I mean beauty—beauty of words, beauty of thought, beauty of emotions, beauty of relationships, beauty of images—and I luxuriated in it. It is billed as a middle-grade book, but it is a book for all ages with everyone taking something different away from it. The story is recounted entirely in flashback, je me souviens..., and the prose-poetry style works very well in evoking that mood. Jaqueline spent a part of her childhood in segregated South Carolina and she puzzled over the separation between the two races.

I was drawn to Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, because I had just finished reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and it dealt with race in the 1960s and 1970s. Citizen is 21st C, so it seemed like an ongoing conversation to have. These days, as societal events have shown and #BlackLivesMatter and #IStandWithAhmed have highlighted, racism is no longer under-wraps but very much out in the open. But there are also some people who consider themselves post-racial and are still involved, perhaps unknowingly, in microaggressions. What do these microaggressions feel like by the recipient? That's the thrust of Rankine's book.

I finished my meditation on the aftermath of slavery with Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, my best book of the year. I was in the middle of the book, when I got into a discussion with author Alyssa Cole about the book and she said, "So happy to hear that you're loving it so much!". To which I replied, "I don't know if 'love' is the word there. I'm moved by it. I'm excited by it. I'm awed by it. I'm awed by the power of his words. I'm awed by the progression of his thoughts—the compassion is devastating. My heart's grieving. And I'm learning." That is the power of this book. It evokes a visceral response to the sharp precision of his words that paint a stark and eloquent picture of what it means to be a young African-American man in present-day America. Toni Morrison says of the book: "This is required reading." Yes. It is. You only think you understand Black America until you read this book and realize the true depths and breadths of what it truly means.

I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai is written with joy and the voice of a young girl, despite the horrors, strife, discrimination, and pain it talks about. Malala is such a hopeful person in the face of extremes. And in this past year, she got a Nobel Prize and six A*s and four As in her GCSE examinations. I adore this young person and I'm in awe of her. In this book, I learned a tremendous lot of the history, politics, and emotional landscape of the Swat Valley of Pakistan and of the connections it has—tribal and sentimental—to Afghanistan, all through the eyes of Pashtuns, rather than Americans.

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim was an eye-opening look at the dark country of North Korea. South-Korean-American author Suki Kim visited North Korea in various guises since 2002, but lastly in 2011, as an English teacher. She was primarily a journalist, who disguised herself as a missionary—so she was acceptable to the group of missionary volunteers—who in turn disguised themselves as teachers—so they could get entry visas to teach English. She taught the 2011 summer and fall terms at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the elitist of colleges in North Korea. This book is about her experience and gives a first-hand account of the young men of DPRK like no other.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande is a sucker punch to the solar plexus. It deals with that subject that makes us the most uncomfortable: dying. We're all going to be doing it, but none of us wants to talk about it. Well, Gawande is talking about it—how impossible the choices are for the elderly to get the medical and physical help they need while maintaining their dignity, their autonomy (to what extent possible), their privacy, and their zest for life. Gawande certainly has not come up with a magical solution. But he's the only one willing to bring up the topic in a straightforward fashion and lay it out in all its ramifications. That he does it with elegant prose and anecdotes, makes what would otherwise be a dry read into an engrossing read.


6 comments:

avidmysteryreader.com said...

That's a pretty decent list. I need to read more non fiction titles but they will probably be more crime related. I've read C.S. Harris and I've always wanted to and I love Sayers. I need to get back on the bandwagon with that series.

Keira Soleore said...

One of the best nonfiction on mysteries I've read is "Talking About Detective Fiction" by PD James. A great overview of the Classic Crime-writing style started in the 1920s. Sayers feels every golden to me no matter how many years go by between reads (or re-reads).

avidmysteryreader.com said...

Do you read Agatha Christie? I'll look up the PD James. --Keishon

Keira Soleore said...

It's been many years since I last read Agatha Christie. Loved them! Are you a fan? Gosford Park was such a tribute to them and Christie's style.

avidmysteryreader.com said...

Yes, I've read a few Christies. Her backlist is so vast. I plan to read more.

Keira Soleore said...

If you would like to co-read a Christie, let me know.