Posts Tagged 'literary fiction'

2015: A Bookish Year in Review

Yes, ideally a reflection on the year’s reading gone by is done before the year is over, but better late than never, right?

In 2015, I read 86 books in total, which is an all-time record for me, and blew past my annual goal of 65 books! I’m not really sure what to credit for this huge leap in numbers, other than 1) I received a Kindle, which makes it easier for me to immediately begin a new book after finishing an old one, 2) I have a long subway commute to work, and 3) a loss in my family resulted in me reading near-constantly for a week or so in order to cope with some of the stuff I was thinking and feeling. Reasons both good and bad, then.

The average length of the books I read in 2015 was 341 pages, with the shortest read being Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant, and the longest being The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. My average star rating was a 3.3, or pretty average. (Still wishing there were half-star options on Goodreads, argh!)

There are a ton more interesting stats on my Goodreads Year in Review page. I encourage you to check it out!

What I think is a bit more telling of me and my reading style, though, are the 2015 books that I gave 5 stars to, 6 out of 7 of which were written by women. Mini-reviews of each can be found after the jump!

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Book Review: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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Somewhere, I heard Everything I Never Told You described as “an Asian Gone Girl.” Though I had some issues with Gillian Flynn’s smash hit, I enjoyed it more than not, and especially appreciated the unrepentant, malevolent, genius female sociopath at Gone Girl‘s core. (Why are there not more truly-despicable female characters out there? Authors?)

Like Cersei! Love her. Even when Martin writes himself into a corner regarding her character.

So when my library hold for Everything I Never Told You came up, I dove in excitedly, eager to unravel the mystery and discover the dark heart at the story’s core. Ng does an admirable job of gripping the reader by the throat from the first sentence:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.

Almost immediately, things slow down as we enter the point of view of each of the remaining family members in turn, and watch them deal with the numbness and grief that accompany losing a daughter and sister.

For me, this was a case of pre-reading expectations dampening my enjoyment of the actual novel. Expectations: the great enjoyment-killer. If I had been expecting a more straightforward family drama, with my mind primed for the mystery to be more of a “mystery,” perhaps I would have found this to be a four- or even a five-star read. As it stands, this was a solid three stars for me.

Still, there was a lot to like about Everything I Never Told You. Some of the imagery was beautiful; many of the thoughts and actions from the point of view of Hannah, the youngest and most-ignored child, were honed to a scalpel’s edge and cut just as deeply.

Parents James and Marilyn are the most fully-formed characters in the novel, given extensive backstories so the reader understands just how they ended up being the people that they are. Again, this produced some of the finer writing in the book. James, the son of Chinese immigrants, craves acceptance and the ability to blend into mainstream white American society; Marilyn is the daughter of a single mother who sees how domesticity can be a prison, and vows to fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor. Both of these driving motivations are placed squarely on the shoulders of Lydia, the much doted-on–and stifled–daughter.

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Book Review: The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

There are winter books and there are summer books. Summer books aren’t necessarily light, but they are warm and irreverent and sometimes a little silly. I like my summer books to be close to home, about New York City and people like myself (or close enough). Winter books are heavy–not physically heavy, but dense–and challenging. They’re atmospheric. They’re cold on the surface, keeping you at a distance before finally letting you in.

The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan, is a winter book if I’ve ever read one. And not just because of that cover:

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The bare bones of the plot: Valentine Millimaki is a deputy officer whose job is, more often than not, to work with his canine partner to locate the missing and the dead. When he isn’t searching the lost places of Montana, he works the night shift at the local jail, drifting away from his wife. John Gload is a serial killer who has finally allowed himself to be caught. He takes a friendly interest in Millimaki, in whom he sees flashes of himself: a farmer’s son, someone appreciative of nature, an insomniac. Our story progresses from there.

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Book Review: Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Rarely have I read a novel that self-destructed as spectacularly in its conclusion as Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. In my experience, at least, if a book is going to go sour, it happens quickly and early on. You probably know the feeling: you crack open a book you’re excited about, or that’s been recommended to you by someone you trust, and start to read, and it dawns on you almost immediately that you are going to hate this book, but you gamely struggle on, hoping against hope that it will get better. And when it doesn’t, you’re disappointed, but not necessarily surprised.

Year of Wonders is different, in large part because it starts out so strongly–making that fact that it ends so poorly feel almost like a betrayal.

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Year of Wonders is, on the one hand, an impeccably-researched historical fiction novel about a small English town that, when faced with an outbreak of the bubonic plague, chooses to isolate itself to prevent the disease from spreading. Inspired by the true story of Esam, this novel follows the journey of one woman in particular: Anna, handmaid to the wife of the village’s rector, who has lost both her husband and her children. Rather than becoming broken due to the circumstances, Anna is built up. She steps into the vaccuum left by many of the town’s traditional leaders and becomes a powerful force in her own right. Anna learns to read and write, and–along with her employer and friend, Elinor–learns about herbal remedies that may be the key to stopping the devastating sweep of the plague.

Cool, right?

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Book Review: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

I’ve got a problem. A NetGalley problem. Like most other bookworms, I’ve got eyes bigger than my stomach when it comes to free books–I will request way more than I can feasibly read!

However, when I saw karen’s review of The Weight of Blood, I knew I had to make space on my crowded iPad–and even more crowded TBR list–for this debut novel. I’m grateful I did–based on this novel alone, Laura McHugh is an author to watch.

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In the small Ozarks town of Henbane, Lucy Dane sees a friend go missing with no explanation and no closure. She has already lives without a mother, who–according to town memory–killed herself in the extensive cave system in the wild lands surrounding the area. After finding a clue as to her friend’s disappearance, Lucy begins to pursue the twin threads of the missing women in her life. In the process, she begins to unwind the network of secrets and lies that her family, and the people of Henbane, have woven to keep her and themselves safe.

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Book Review: Zoology by Ben Dolnick

My feelings about this novel exactly.

I can be bored by books, or bewildered by the author’s choices, or unable to suspend my disbelief enough to buy into a story, but it’s rare that I feel the visceral level of dislike that I felt while reading Ben Dolnick’s debut novel Zoology.

Henry Elinsky fails his first year of college. To escape the boredom of living at home with his parents for the summer, Henry accepts his older brother’s offer of a place to live in New York City and a job working at the Central Park Zoo. He ends up befriending another summer transplant, Margaret, and bonds with her as various tragedies befall them both.

Zoology is a slim novel, topping out at 300 pages, but it felt longer for me. A huge stumbling block was our “hero” himself, Henry, who is just straight-up unlikeable and not in an interesting way–in an 18-year old man-child way. I kept getting the sense that Dolnick was trying to reach for Holden Caufield-esque protagonist in Henry. But Holden, despite how you may feel about him, felt things and felt them strongly–not just about himself, but about the injustices and hypocrisies he saw in the world around him.

Henry is, by contrast, a boring sadsack. He has no sense of relativism, no curiosity, no unselfishness, no compassion. He gets angry when a girl he likes doesn’t want to date him and hopes that by staying friends with her, he’ll win her away from her boyfriend. (Um, respect her choice, dude; she said no.) Perhaps I’ve been spoiled, but the 18-year old boys I grew up with–like my brother and my boyfriend–were not like Henry at all. Thankfully.

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Book Review: Hemlock Grove, by Brian McGreevy

My honest reaction upon finishing Brian McGreevy’s debut novel Hemlock Grove:


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And I was so, so disappointed, because I had wanted to read it since it first came out, even moreso after I heard it was being adapted into a series on Netflix. I love werewolves, I love post-industrial town settings, and I love creepy paranormal murders, all things that I was promised in this updated take on the Gothic novel.

Instead, I got lackluster characterizations, a slow and frequently-lost plot, bizarre allusions to concepts that were never resolved, tortured writing, and some final twists that were eyeroll-inducing.

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