Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2009 Reading List

Well, another year is upon us so it is time for another Reading List to begin. You can still read the reviews of all of the books I read in 2008 here. I'll be keeping a list of all of the books I read in 2009 on my sidebar and the reviews of all of those books will be in this post. You can link back to it any time you want.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: I really enjoyed this book. It isn't a cheery type of book and there isn't a happy ending, but it is very well written. The language is beautiful and the story is completely engrossing. I couldn't put this book down. It has a couple of twists/mysteries in it, which I always love. I love a book that keeps you guessing until the very end. This book is a novel inside a novel. "The Blind Assassin" is a novel published posthumously by the narrator's sister. So in some chapters we have the narrator telling us the story of her life in early 20th century Canada and in other chapters we have excerpts from the published novel. The story itself focuses on the lives of two sisters growing up in a wealthy, but dysfunctional, family outside of Toronto. Family is a major theme of the novel but it delves in to communism, war, revolution and economic depression as well. A really good novel, over all.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the book: "Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence."

Odd Hours by Dean Koontz: I love Odd Thomas. He is one of the purest, sweetest, most lovable characters in literature. As a twenty something fry cook with psychic abilities he gets himself into some unlikely situations...usually involving aliens or sadisitic mad men trying to destroy the world with nuclear bombs. Koontz' writing is so clever and witty and easy to read. If you are squeamish or opposed to a few supernatural forces in your books you might not enjoy the Odd Thomas series, but I'm betting you just might find Odd's character so intriguing that you can overlook the "ugly" things that are happening around him. I highly recommend an Odd Thomas book. I think there are 4 of them.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson: This wasn't a bad book. It had its good moments, but overall it was really weird. I love, love, loved Marilynne Robinson's book Gilead so I had high hopes for this novel as well, but no such luck. Robinson tells the story of two sisters, abandonded by their mother (she committs suicide) and left to the care of their slightly senile grandmother. When she dies they fall under the care of two old spinster aunts that simply cannot deal with the responsibility so they call in a long lost aunt who prefers the life of a boxcar riding vagrant to living in an established home, but decides to take the job of mother to these two girls anyway. The family is SO dysfunctional and sad. The younger sister is finally driven away to live with a kind teacher and the town begins to demand that the older sister be removed from the home as well. Instead of losing her last remaining charge the crazy aunt takes the girl on the road with her and they become hobos....never telling the other girl that they didn't actually die in the fire that engulfed their house the night they ran away. (Of course they set the fire.) It was just weird and depressing and too wordy. I don't reccomend it.

The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory: This is the second Gregory novel and I loved this one just as much as the first. I was completely ignorant of the history of the English monarchy before I read these books. Their true stories are like a train wreck....you just can't look away. It is unbelievable how self-centered and paranoid and powerful these people were. The books are so well written and make the characters really come to life. I would recommend any of her books. She makes history so personal and interesting. I really enjoy her work. My only complaint is that it is difficult to determine what order the books should be read in. I think it would make more sense to read them in chronological order or the events they portray...but she didn't write them in that order....so it makes it difficult. I think there may be some explanation of the chronology on her webiste but I haven't checked in to it yet.

Sail by James Patterson and Howard Roughan: I did not like this book. James Patterson needs to give up the co-authors and get back to writing the suspensful thrillers that made him famous (i.e. Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider). This story is about an evil stepfather that sets out to kill his wealthy wife and stepchildren by blowing up their sail boat. The family survives and grows closer in the process of living on a deserted island. Boring, predictable, and blah in general. Don't waste your time.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: I liked this book, however, I don't necessarily recommend it. It was dark and depressing and likely to cause nightmares about cannibalism and killing your own children, but if you can see past all of that to the beauty of the father/son relationship then it is a good book. They story is about a man and his son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. There is no hope that they, or anyone else, will survive on the dead planet, but in times of desperation McCarthy shows us that we all revert to our true natures. Would you resort to evil or remain good if all was ultimately lost? It is an excellent commentary on the true nature or man and the innocence of children. If you can handle the graphic content the writing is absolutely stunning. I will warn you that most of my book club did not enjoy this book at all.

The Choice by Nicholas Sparks: This is the worst Nicholas Sparks book I have ever read, but....it was still good. I was expecting "the choice" to be the whole focus of the novel and expected to come upon it at every turn of the page. Instead, the heartwrenching choice doesn't even come in to play until the very end of the book. The rest of the novel is just background information. It was a touching love story in typical Sparks fashion. I recommend it...just go into it knowing what to expect.

Mississippi Solo by Eddy Harris: This is a book by a local author about his experiences as a black man travelling the entire length of the Mississippi River in a canoe in the fall of 1986. The St. Louisan learns a lot about himself and the human race in general as he makes his month long journey. I enjoyed the book (even though it isn't the type I would normally read. It was a book club selection.) because I learned a lot about the river. It was so intriguing to hear all about the workings of the lock and dams and the history of man's attempt at harnessing the mighty river. Harris' experiences with people along the way were interesting too. There was plenty of excitement as he fought off a wild dog pack and drunken rednecks. He had a gun and wasn't afraid to use it....let's leave it at that. Overall I would say that the book was "interesting". I don't know that I would highly recommend it, but I don't have any reason to discourage you from reading it either. I guess I'm rather ambivalent about it right now.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski: YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK! It is so beautifully written and the story is so touching that you just won't be able to put it down. The story centers around 14 year old mute, Edgar Sawtelle and his family. The Sawtelle's breed and train an amazing group of dogs in rural Minnesota in the 1960s. I don't want to give away what happens but I will tell you that the story is a re-telling of a well known Shakespearean tragedy. The family relationships and canine relationships are really wonderfully portrayed. If you love dogs....or teen aged boys.....or books about dogs and teenaged boys then you will absolutely love Edgar Sawtelle. READ IT SOON! Then come back and let me know what you think.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire: I really loved this book. It started out kinda weird and it was a little raunchy in some spots, but overall it was a really great book. As you probably already know, it is the story of the Wicked Witch of the East, the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch before, during and after Dorothy enters the picture. It is a history of Oz politically and socially. It is a story of friendship and family and love. If you really like the beauty and childhood innocence of the movie "The Wizard of Oz", you may not like this book. If you love the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Chronicles of Narnia" then you will probably like this book. It has a very dark, mystic feeling. The story is wonderfully written and makes you take a whole new look at the version of events portrayed in the movie. I've never read the Baum Oz books but I get the feeling that "Wicked" is more true to the books than to the movie. It definitely left me wanting to a) watch the movie again with a new perspective, b) go see the musical, and c) read another one of Gregory Maguire's books.

The Yada Yada Prayer Group Gets Down by Neta Jackson: This is the second book in the Yada Yada series. It closely mirrors the first book (see review below). It, like all of the books in the series, has a good message and a good story line but it is slow to get started and has a lot of repition, presumably so those that missed the other books in the series will be kept up to date. It is a little fluffy, but the characters are very real and so are the conflicts they experience. It isn't like typical christian fiction where everything turns out great in the end...and I, for one, think that is a good thing.

The Yada Yada Prayer Group by Neta Jackson: This book is about a multicultural group of women who are randomly assigned to the same prayer group at a women's conference. They decide to continue meeting after the conference and end up supporting each other through all sorts of circumstances. The book is written from the point of view of Jodi Baxter, the white, middle class, conservative, born and raised Christian good girl. She discovers that her view of God and her brand of worship isn't the only kind and isn't necessarily the best kind either. Her journey through faith is interesting and inspiring in some ways. This is an easy read that you can get through really quickly. It is also the first book in a series of 7 or 8 others about the Yada Yada group.

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie: read my complete review here.

The Appeal by John Grisham: I'm not sure what to say about this book. It's not that I didn't like it, or it wasn't well written, it just kind of bored me. I wasn't that eager to keep reading it. The story just wasn't that gripping. I think the biggest thing that bothered me was that there isn't a clear good guy, a hero. I knew who the bad guys were. I knew I wanted them to be defeated and exposed and arrested, but I had no clue which character was fighting them. As it turns out nobody really was. It isn't that kind of book. I'm used to the Grisham storyline of a small town lawyer who is just barely scraping by defeating the wealthy and corrupt corporate moguls. In this book several characters battle their own demons related to the corruption of a wealthy mogul but none of them have the power, wherewith all or money to fight him. I guess it is more of a realistic look at the justice system, not a feel good underdog story. But it was still good and had an interesting plot. I guess I just can't slog through all of that legal jargon without a big fairy tale payoff at the end.

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory: This was an excellent book. Gregory is also the author of The Other Boleyn Girl which was recently released as a movie starring Scarlett Johansen. She writes historical fiction about the English monarchs and their many trials and tribulations. I learned SO much from this book about a time period and a part of history that I had never really studied before. The Other Queen is about Queen Elizabeth's imprisonment of her cousin (and rightful heir to the English throne...hence the animosity) Mary Queen of Scots. Both being queens and relatives and held to a certain standard of decorum, Elizabeth couldn't just lock Mary in the tower and throw away the key. Instead she "imprisons" her at the palatial estate of one of her faithful English lords and enlists him and his wife as her guards and keepers....at their own expense.....for 16 years!!! The book is full of Mary's escape plots, uprisings against Elizabeth, Elizabeth's quest to hold her throne and force protestantism on all of England, and the personal struggles of Lord and Lady Shrewsbury who alternately love and hate their queen and the other queen. I highly recommend this book and any of Gregory's other historical novels.

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck: I loved this book! I hadn't read any Buck before and I completely fell in love with her literary style. The book is about faith, family, marriage (arranged and otherwise), life, death, and above all love in 1930s and 40s China. It is beautifully written and is as educational as it is entertaining. I learned so much about Chinese culture and traditions that I never knew before. It amazed me how easily Buck got in to the Chinese mindset. Her life in China didn't fail to have a brilliant effect on her writing. The characters are very believable and I felt very close to them all by the end of the book, even though we had absolutely nothing except a human soul in common. I highly recommend this book and any of Buck's other novels, which include Portarit of a Marriage, The Promise, Dragon Seed, Today and Forever, Other Gods, The Patriot, This Proud Heart, A House Divided, The Mother, The Good Earth and East Wind: West Wind, among others.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: I really liked this book and completely recommend it. it is much better, in my humble opinion, than The Grapes of Wrath. You can read my complete review of this book here, at The LOST Books Challenge.

The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O'Neal: This book was just OK. It is about a female chef trying to start a new restaurant while dealing with excruciating pain from old injuries, falling in love with her boss, and being haunted by the ghosts of her dead family members. The story line is pretty good but there are some graphic scenes in it that I skipped and some bad language too. The one redeeming factor is the recipes that are interspersed throughout the book. There are recipes for several Mexican dishes and drinks. I actually want to try quite a few of the recipes from the book.

Time is a River by Mary Alice Monroe: There isn't anything necessarily wrong with this book, it just wasn't my type. It's one part romance, one part mystery and one part female empowerment. It's about surviving breast cancer and adultery and learning to fly fish. Lots of fly fishing, actually. It was a weird combination. You can read it if you want to but I wouldn't waste a lot of time on it.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch: *sniff*sniff* Please read this book. Check out my post about it here to see why.

The Abstinence Teacher by Thomas Perrotta: I don't recommend this book. I read it as part of my book club and it did inspire a lot of great discussion about our responsibility as Christians to represent God accurately. In the book a woman has a very skewed view of religion and God because the radical evangelical Christians that have been harassing her. I was mad most of the time during this book, but it did demonstrate some real truths about the secular view of God and of Christians in general...not just on the sex ed question.

The Coalwood Way by Homer Hickam: The Coalwood Way was a beautifully written book. It reminded me of John Grisham's "other" novels, like The Painted House. Hickam's photographic memory of the home of his childhood and the characters that filled it is remarkable. The descriptions of rural America, and particularly small mining communities in the backwoods of West Virginia, in the mid-1950s are excellent. The reader comes away with a real sense of the people and the times.

The story centers around the author, Homer "Sonny" Hickam. Sonny, through the help of a favorite science teacher and the press coverage of Sputnik's flight, develops a great interest in the space program and rocketry in general. He and his like-minded friends begin to design and build their own rockets and plot their trajectory using complicated algorithms and trigonometry. For a bunch of teen aged boys in the a coal mining town in West Virginia this endeavor is completely unheard of and viewed as slightly crazy. Sonny's own family has doubts about his new found interest.

Homer Hickam Sr. is a supervisor in the local coal mine and takes his job, and the lives and livelihood of his employees and neighbors, very seriously. So seriously that he puts his own health and well being on the line daily. He also leaves very little time for his family in his schedule, especially his awkward second son that is more of a brain than a jock....or a coal miner, for that matter. Sonny is also surrounded by his no-nonsense, long-suffering mother and a host of townspeople that know his business practically before he knows it himself. The "Rocket Boys", as Sonny and his space loving friends are called, spend all of their spare time thrilling the town with rocket launches and dreams of going to Cape Canaveral to work after college (a dream that Sonny realizes, while many of the others never make it further than the coal mine down the street).

Throughout the book Sonny is desperately trying to identify the source of the gnawing sadness that overtakes him occasionally. Following the advice of "Little Richard", the preacher of the local African American congregation, Sonny finally discovers that his desire for his father's approval, and fear that he can never attain it, are causing his melancholy. As he tries to deal with these feelings he finds it difficult to keep the Rocket Boys supplied with the properly crafted parts and maintain straight-A's for the first time in his academic career.

This is a beautiful novel about teen aged self-discovery, family dynamics and small town mentality. Sonny sees discrimination, domestic violence, murder, and labor strikes play out in his town, but he also sees generosity, kindness, and an amazing example of community spirit. Hickam is quick to point out the good, the bad and the ugly in his hometown and it's people.
I would highly recommend this book, and Hickam's other two books Rocket Boys and Torpedo Junction as well as the movie October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhall, Laura Dern and Chris Cooper which was based on Hickam's life. It is a great movie that really captures the feeling of the novels.

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham: At my book club we were discussing all of the Grisham books we have read. One girl said she had read everything he had ever written except for his brand new one that just came out, The Appeal. I've read a ton of Grisham so that made me curious as to how many of them I had missed along the way. I discovered that I had never read The Summons, An Innocent Man (non-fiction), The Appeal (of course) and Playing for Pizza. My library didn't have any of these (probably why I haven't read them) except for the latter. Playing for Pizza is one of Grishams little forays in to lighter, more relationally driven novels, similar to The Christmas Train and The Painted House (both of which I enjoyed). This book is about a washed up NFL player that goes to play in the "Pizza League" in Italy. He explores the culture, food, and language as he learns about being a true team player and the importance of integrity....something he didn't pick up from his NFL coaches, teammates or agent. There was a little bit too much football (descriptions of games and plays, etc) in the novel for me and the ending was a little unresolved, but overall it was a nice book. The characters and plot were not nearly as developed as I am used to with Grisham but it was a short, easy read with a fairly predictable plot and a lot of education into the Italian mindset and even architectural history. I got the feeling Grisham took a vacation to Italy, fell in love with it, and decided to hang out for a couple of months and write a little novel about it. As a matter of fact, the last Grisham book I read, The Broker, was also mainly set in Italy. I think he really likes the food there.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai: This book was just OK. It was interesting to read from an Indian-American point of view, but I didn't enjoy it a whole lot. A lot of it was pretty depressing and most of the characters were hopeless. The writing was very good and the perspective was thought provoking but the overall feel of the book was very "blah". Nobody turns out happy in the end...which isn't a prerequisite for a good book....but it helps if at least one character has some hope. I did learn a little about Indian history and mentality, so I guess it wasn't a complete waste of time.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: READ THIS BOOK! I loved it so much I devoted an entire post to it here.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff: This book is very unique...not so much for it's subject matter (polygamy), but rather for it's layout. It is really two books in one. The first is a historical account of the life and trials of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young and a lecturer on the horrors of plural marriage and campaigner for anti-polygamy legislation. The second is a fictional novel about a young boy who escapes a polygamous home and tries to rescue his mother from it's clutches (and a false murder charge) as well. The two "stories" are intertwined very well and interestingly play off of each other, but the real-life story of Ann Eliza was much more interesting to me. Ebershoff recreates (not quotes, this is historical fiction) passages from Ann Eliza's book Wife No. 19 (really published in 1875), Brigham Young's sermons, and other historical documents. The whole history of the LDS church, and polygamy specifically, is covered in this part of the novel. I found it very, very informative and interesting. The story of young Jordan's escape from the Firsts (the radical Mormom branch that still practices polygamy) was fine in and of itself but it was full of crude language and homosexual references. I have to recommend one half of the book without the other. Or you could just read Ann Eliza's own book and get the same information, although not as much of the background and the other side of the story.

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd: I really liked Kidd's book "The Secret Life of Bees" so I thought I would try another one of her novels. I didn't like this one nearly as well. It was pretty predictable and a little trite. It is the typical story of a middle aged woman who is discontent with her life and her marriage and sets out to "find herself". In the case of this book she falls in love with a benedictine monk while visiting her mother who has mysteriously chopped off her own finger with a meat cleaver. Yeah, I told you it wasn't great. This is one I think you could skip.

The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton: In college I read Wharton's "House of Mirth" and I've seen the movie of her novel "Age of Innocence" so I thought I would try another of her novels. This one is very reminiscent of Fitzgerald. Set in the fashionable set of the 1920s it follows the lives of Susy and Nick, two hangers-on who prey on the rich for the small gifts and trips they can get from them. In the process they find that they have to compromise many of their own beliefs and moral standards. Finally unable to do so any longer, they find that being poor and scrupulous is better than being rich and amoral. I really liked the book and the love story of Susy and Nick. The lesson they learn is a good one and the message timeless.

1 comment:

Christina M said...

The Wharton book sounds good! Although, I have never heard of Glimpses of the Moon. I really like her works. Have you ever read Ethan Frome? It is rather depressing but a very good story!