Thursday, December 31, 2015

What I've Been Reading: 2015 wrap-up

You may have noticed that there wasn't a November What I've Been Reading post, and that's because honestly, I wasn't reading much. A couple of audiobooks and a non-note-worthy novel, and that was about the sum of it. But December has seen a noticeable uptick, both in quality and quantity, so I thought I'd share everything together in one big year-end post. I'll be back to my normal posting schedule starting after the first of the new year, too!


The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs. I may have mentioned recently that I've been knitting. As a result, I've picked up a few books about knitting, both fiction and non-fiction. This one, a novel about an eclectic group of women in New York City who get together in a yarn shop once a week to share their stories as well as their love of knitting, found its way home with me. I thought that given the holiday season, it would be an appropriately light, fast read. It was fine, entertaining, with some interesting characters. But it felt hollow. Some of that, in my opinion, came from Jacobs's style, which relies heavily on telling, and not so much on showing. I love books where I feel deeply immersed in the setting, but this wasn't the case here--I felt instructed more than immersed. Or a description was given, and then clarified, when I prefer an author to trust readers to pick it up without repetition. Overall, a disappointment, and one I cannot recommend.

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, by Joanne Fluke. I was still on the hunt for a light diversion on the reading front, and so I picked up the first in Fluke's Hannah Swensen mystery series, which features an amateur sleuth and cookie-shop owner protagonist. The series is currently 18 books long, and Fluke is pretty dependably putting out at least one new title every year, so it's not a small undertaking to get caught up. Here, readers are introduced to Hannah, who splits her time between running popular small-town bakery The Cookie Jar and dodging her mother's efforts to marry her off. That is, until a deliveryman is killed in the alley behind her shop and Hannah is on the hunt to catch a killer. Cute, with some good laughs, and some great recipes.

The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff. I tend not to read a lot of non-fiction, but I make exceptions for books like this, with a strong narrative style that unfolds a historical event in a very readable, compelling way. For those familiar, or not, for that matter, with the sequence of events starting during a raw Massachusetts winter in the small village of Salem, culminating in a panic which ultimately cost 19 men and women their lives, this is a beautifully compiled account of the story. Exceptional.


Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. First in this duo's FBI Agent Pendergast series, Relic is a taught psychological thriller that begins just days before a new exhibit is slated to debut at the New York Museum of Natural History, as visitors begin disappearing, only to be found horribly mutilated. The method of the killings makes it plain to investigators that the killer cannot possibly be human, yet the debut celebration continues as scheduled, with disastrous results. I am so taken with the series that in the last month I have also read book two, Reliquary, which follows several of the characters from the first book into the vast underbelly of New York City, the miles and miles of tunnels and passageways that weave below the city streets, in search of a killer with disturbing similarities to that in the first book. And I'm just finishing book three, The Cabinet of Curiosities, which finds Agent Pendergast, with the help of new allies from both NYPD and the Museum, tracing the origins of a charnel house found below a construction site. When a string of murders occur, seeming to be copycat crimes, Pendergast suspects something even more sinister is at play. Really, this series is fascinating, and I am helpless to stop reading!

The Lake House, by Kate Morton. I have enjoyed some of Morton's earlier novels, having read The Forgotten Garden, The House at Riverton, and The Secret Keeper over the last few years. So understandably I was excited to read a new novel by the same author. The story here is that during a family's annual Midsummer gala, the youngest of the children, a boy of eleven months, disappears without a trace. The tragedy drives the remaining family members apart. Decades later, a detective on holiday stumbles upon the old estate, long-abandoned and derelict, and immediately begins to research the estate's past, ultimately happening upon the old case and becoming obsessed with solving it. Somehow, this particular novel was a slow read for me. Sometimes that's just timing, so I may come back and try this again another time--I got halfway through it before it was due back at the library, and I decided to let it go. I'll update if I try it again.

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline. I read this back when it came out in 2013, but I needed to reread it for my book club. You can read my original review here.

Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom. Another book club read here, and a particularly good one, I thought. Disappointed by their parents, half-sisters Iris (the star) and Eva (the sidekick) travel from their boring lives in the midwest to the golden era of Hollywood, and later to share a different kind of life in post-war Long Island. It's hard to believe that such a relatively small volume houses such a rich, vast story as the one shared by Iris and Eva over a span of decades, both in and out of the limelights. Richly detailed and evocative, this is one of those stories that haunt a reader, lingering long after the last page is turned.

Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson. Popular blogger Lawson's second book, after Let's Pretend This Never Happened, has the added title of "a funny book about horrible things", and that's just what it is. In this series of autobiographical essays and excerpts, Lawson talks with refreshing honesty and candor about her experiences living with mental illness, and yes, it's funny. Uproariously, outrageously, laugh-until-your-sides-ache funny. And poignantly touching, and though-provoking. She invites people to embrace everything that makes them who they are, even the weird, funny, scary, flawed parts. This isn't for everyone, but it should be.

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman. See, I told you I found my reading juju again in December! This latest offering from the always luminous Hoffman actually came out back in August and I've only just gotten around to it now. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, as I've been listening to it to and from work, and as the weather has started to finally get cold, I am transported to St. Thomas in the 1800s, a melting-pot of European, Creole, and African cultures where Rachel Pomie grows up, the daughter of French Jews, and marries to help her father's failing shipping business, only to be widowed and finally, in her 30s, marry for love, only to scandalize the island with her choice of husband. Yet one of her children with her second husband would grow up to become the famed Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro. Truly a fascinating novel, and one of Hoffman's finest.

And that, fellow readers, makes for 72 books read in 2015. Here's to a very happy, healthy, and book-filled 2016. Thank you for reading along with me, and I will see you next year.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Meg's Picks: January 2016, part 3

I know for many of you, it's hard to think beyond the holiday just now, but I promise you, you'll make it to the other side! And once things slow down a bit and you have some time to yourself (I'm funny, right?), here are a few titles with which to relax and unwind.

The Longest Night, by Andria Williams. In 1959, Nat Collier moves to Idaho Falls with army specialist husband Paul, who is tasked with overseeing operations at one of the country's first nuclear reactors. Paul quickly discovers that the reactor's core was not constructed correctly but hides this frightening news from Nat, who feels increasingly isolated both from him and from the town's holier-than-thou military wives. Inspired by the nation's only fatal nuclear accident.

The Winter Girl, by Matt Marinovich. Newly married couple Scott and Elise have relocated to Elise's dying father's home in the Hamptons. As his condition deteriorates, Elise spends much of her time at the hospital with her father, a volatile man who mistreated Elise as a child and disrespected the young couple even after marriage. During her days out, Scott becomes fixated on the seemingly vacant house next door. One night the couple breaks in together. After engaging in a spontaneous tryst in a spare bedroom, the pair attempts to clean up after themselves, and make a grisly discovery in the process. Then things start to get really creepy. If you're feeling the need for a noir-esque thriller to pass some winter nights, this would be a good one.

Once A Crooked Man, by David McCallum. The name here may ring more bells as an actor (The Man from UNCLE, NCIS, The Great Escape, etc.) than as an author, but that doesn't stop this debut from being an entertaining, globe-trotting mystery. Harry Murphy has had some success as a New York actor, but when his paychecks start coming from things like voice-overs in mayonnaise commercials, he figures it's time to consider a new line of work. His first mistake involves overhearing the Bruschetti brothers discussing an assassination being planned in London. Harry compounds his troubles by acting on what he overhears, hoping to warn the intended victim by flying to London. Funny, a little madcap, this should win McCallum a whole new set of fans.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Meg's Picks: January 2016, part 2

I know, I know. The holidays have me running around like a maniac, too. Some years, I'm organized and coasting by now. This year? Is not one of those years. I have a feeling I'll be shopping and wrapping right up to the eleventh hour this time around.


I do have some things organized and planned out months in advance, like ordering new fiction for the library! Here are some of my picks for great reads in the New Year.

Love in Lowercase, by Francesc Miralles. This little modern fable is a bestseller in 18 countries already, so I have a feeling that this will hit a sweet spot with readers here in the US this winter, especially since it's being likened to recent favorites like Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, among others. Here, forlorn bachelor and linguistics professor Samuel is led through a series of unexpected events leading him to a second chance at love. Expect this to hit you right in the feels. I'm also recommending this to readers who enjoyed Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop, just FYI.

Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin. It's likely that Benjamin's name rings a bell or two with readers after her splash a couple of years ago with The Aviator's Wife. Now she brings us to New York in the 1950s and 60s, where Truman Capote rides high on his early literary successes and delights in his circle of "swans," a group of wealthy, married women who flock to him both for his charisma and his love of good gossip. Chief among them is Barbara "Babe" Paley, wife of CBS president William S. Paley, but when Capote betrays his swans by publishing their darkest secrets, things get ugly. I expect this to be a hit among historical fiction fans and book clubs, among others.

Eleanor, by Jason Gurley. This is not your average debut fiction. Described as literary fantasy, the novel was originally self-published, only to sell like wildfire and garner lots of praise before being snapped up by a big publisher (Crown) and reworked before republication. Eleanor loses her identical twin in a terrible accident, and in the aftermath, her mother drowns her sorrow in drink and her father walks out. By the time she's a teenager, strange things are happening to Eleanor, culminating in her finding herself in another land and led by a mysterious guide to what may save her family. Think a grown-up version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, only gritty and more somber.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Meg's Picks: January 2016, part 1

It has been really hard waiting to share some of these titles with you--I have ordered some of them months and months ago! Here are a few of the titles I know you're going to want to know about, coming out next month!

After the Crash, by Michel Bussi. If you're unfamiliar with Bussi's name, I have a feeling you won't be for long--he's France's best known crime-writer, and this particular title was on the best-seller's list there for two years. He's also been likened to Stieg Larsson, so that's not a bad thing either. The premise of the novel?
A night flight from Istanbul bound for Paris, filled with 169 holiday travelers, plummets into the Swiss Alps. The sole survivor is a three-month-old girl--thrown from the plane onto the snowy mountainside before fire rages through the aircraft. But two infants were on board. Is the miracle baby Lyse-Rose or Emilie? Both families step forward to claim the child--one poor, one powerful, wealthy, and dangerous.

The Ex, by Alafair Burke. Burke isn't new to the publication game, but this may be the breakout novel that makes her a household name (think Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl style). Widower Jack Harris has resisted the dating scene ever since the shooting of his wife Molly by a fifteen-year-old boy three years ago. An early morning run along the Hudson River changes that when he spots a woman in last night’s party dress, barefoot, enjoying a champagne picnic alone, reading his favorite novel. Everything about her reminds him of what he used to have with Molly. Eager to help Jack find love again, his best friend posts a message on a popular website after he mentions the encounter. Days later, that same beautiful stranger responds and invites Jack to meet her in person at the waterfront. That’s when Jack’s world falls apart. My best guess is everyone you know is going to be talking about this novel by spring, so place your hold now!

The Golden Son, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda. I am expecting book clubs in particular to pick up on Gowda's new sprawling family saga, which follows two friends along very different paths as they grow up, and apart.
The first of his family to go to college, Anil Patel, the golden son, carries the weight of tradition and his family’s expectations when he leaves his tiny Indian village to begin a medical residency in Dallas, Texas, at one of the busiest and most competitive hospitals in America. When his father dies, Anil becomes the de facto head of the Patel household and inherits the mantle of arbiter for all of the village’s disputes. But he is uneasy with the custom, uncertain that he has the wisdom and courage demonstrated by his father and grandfather. 
Meanwhile, back home in India, Anil’s closest childhood friend, Leena, struggles to adapt to her demanding new husband and relatives. Arranged by her parents, the marriage shatters Leena’s romantic hopes, and eventually forces her to make a desperate choice that will hold drastic repercussions for herself and her family. Though Anil and Leena struggle to come to terms with their identities thousands of miles apart, their lives eventually intersect once more—changing them both and the people they love forever.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Reading Ahead: January 2016, part 3

This is the final installment of January's Reading Ahead posts, but don't worry! There is SO MUCH that made my list of Meg's Picks, I'll be regaling you with them all month long! And honestly, the two titles below could be on that list, too. Curious? Read on!

The Girls She Left Behind, by Sarah Graves. If you're a fan of authors like Linda Castillo or Lisa Gardner, you really should try Sarah Graves's Lizzie Snow series a try--this is the second in the series, following 2015's debut, Winter At the Door. Ex-Boston homicide detective turned sheriff's deputy in Maine's Great North Woods, Lizzie Snow is finding her first brutal Maine winter bad enough. But near the small town of Bearkill a stubborn forest fire now rages out of control, and as embers swirl dangerously in the smoke-filled air, a teenage girl with a history of running away has dropped out of sight again. The locals and the law both think Tara Wylie is up to her old tricks—until her mother receives a terrifying text message. Lizzie must race against the clock and the encroaching flames to save an innocent and corner a monster.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. I have been a fan of Pulitzer winner Strout's work for over a decade, since reading Amy and Isabelle way back in 1999. So I am always delighted to see a new title of hers slated for publication. Here, she explores the tender relationship between mother and daughter:
Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. I really can't wait.