Recommended books: winter 2015

Reading time: Less than 4 minutes

Looking for some recommended books in time Christmas gift-giving? Here’s my semi-annual roundup — this time of books I’ve read since June.  

I aim to read 52 books every 12 months and my habit is to post the names of them for you, twice a year. This past June, I told you about the 29 titles I’d read by that point.  Now, here is a description of the 30 other books I’ve enjoyed in the remainder of my reading year. Yes, I really do read more than a book a week! I give you this list in November to help you with your Christmas gift book-buying plans or for your own holiday reading. 

I name the books I really liked in the “recommended” parts of the list. Books I didn’t enjoy (remember: reading is personal) I’ve placed in the “other” list. Please note I don’t generally read mystery/thrillers (although there are a few here this time), sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes don’t usually run in those directions.   

RECOMMENDED FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. A New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize this book utterly captivated me. The story of young blind French girl and a gifted young German boy, it presents World War II from two perspectives you normally wouldn’t think about. Gripping story and some of the most beautiful lyrical writing I’ve ever encountered. Definitely my favourite book of 2015 — maybe my favourite of the last five years. That’s the author pictured at the top of this column.
  2. Humphreys, Helen. The Evening Chorus. Honestly, I’m not obsessed with war books! In fact, I seldom read them because I find the subject distressing. But this is another fantastic, contemplative — even gentle — World War II book with an unexpectedly uplifting ending. Humphreys is a poet and it shows in her deeply thoughtful novel.
  3. Galloway, Steven. The Confabulist. This lightly fictionalized account of the life of escape artist Harry Houdini is engaging, entertaining and surprising. I highly recommend it, even if you have no interest in illusionists.
  4. Barnes, Julian. Arthur & George. Another rich novel based on the real-life 1903 story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a young South Asian lawyer wrongly incarcerated for a crime (horse maiming) he didn’t commit. Great story — with a wealth of interesting detail about Conan Doyle’s life — and very well written, too.
  5. Waldman, Ayelet. Love and Treasure. Another war story, this one an engaging account of the “Gold Train,” a vehicle carrying the treasures of Hungarian Jews following World War II. Gripping plot. The writing varies – sometimes just so much blah-blah-blah, at other times, magical — especially the ending. (And I’m very picky about endings.)
  6. Tobar, Hector. The Barbarian Nurseries. Engaging story about a family living beyond its means in LA and taking advantage of its Latina help. Both a family tale and a social commentary, the book is mostly very well written but I found it a tad too long.
  7. Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life. I adore Atkinson’s writing (her Behind the Scenes at the Museum remains a longtime favourite of mine) but the plot of this one made me want to throw the book across the room. The main character dies many times and I found the literary conceit infuriating rather than charming.
  8. Dunant, Sarah. In the Company of the Courtesan. I re-read this historical novel, set in Rome and Venice, as part of my preparation for travelling in Italy this fall. The story of a courtesan and her servant, a dwarf, is well written and gripping, plot-wise, but it’s also a little bit trashy.
  9. McCarthy, Mary. The Group. This famous novel — I first read it when I was 20 — captures the post-college lives of eight Vassar graduates, class of ’33. While it feels terribly dated it’s also extremely well written and I enjoyed my re-read.
  10. Gould, Emily. Friendship. The story of two female friends, about to hit 30, is engaging, easy reading. Not quite as deep as I’d hoped (from a Wall Street Journal Book of the Year) but a major step above most chick-lit or beach-read books.
  11. William, Trevor. Death in Summer. Found this one hard to read given the way it confusingly circled between three English characters, from three different social classes. Yet while not always straightforward, there was something gripping about this story focusing on a baby who is kidnapped.
  12. Cutter, Kimberly. The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc. The story of Jehanne d’Arc, is presented from a human point of view. Here’s she’s not a saint; instead, she’s a young woman who’s seeking escape from a violent father and a forced marriage. A biography presented with the flair of fiction.
  13. Cusk, Rachel. Saving Agnes. The tale of a naive young woman, living in London with her friends and recovering from her first love affair, the book has much captivating writing and not much plot, at least for the first half. It picks up, if you can stick with it that long.
  14. Hicks, Caitlyn. A Theory of Expanded Love. Set in 1963, in the home of a large and devout Catholic family in the US, the book tells the story of a young girl who creates campaign of lies to impress her friends when their family friend is on the short list to be elected the first American pope. Amusing.
  15. McCreight, Kimberly. Reconstructing Amelia. An elaborately plotted murder mystery this book compels with its plot but not so much with its writing. A good beach or plane book but it’s certainly not fine literature.
  16. Flynn, Gillian. Dark Places. Libby Day was the only survivor of her family’s brutal murder by her older brother. Some 25 years later, she investigates whether her brother is actually the guilty party. Gripping but very harsh story and not as well written as Flynn’s much better mega-bestseller Gone Girl.
  17. Fortier, Anne. Juliet. Shakespeare meets modern day romance in this New York Times bestselling bit of frippery, involving two Juliets/Giuliettas separated by more than four centuries. Sort of a chic-lit version of the Da Vinci Code. I don’t mean that as a compliment but it works well enough as a beach or a plane read.

Other fiction

  1. Tesssaro, Kathleen. The Perfume Collector.
  2. Flynn, Gillian. Sharp Objects.

RECOMMENDED NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

    1. Chodron, Pema. Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better. The book, which is basically the text of a commencement address to the graduating class of Naropa University, reflects on what Chodron, a noted figure in Tibetan Buddhism, calls “the fine art of failing.” I LOVED this book. The message was so sharp and so deftly delivered. It has the bonus of a charming foreword by Seth Godin.
    2. Sides, Hampton. In the Kingdom of Ice. Well written story about the harrowing voyage that ultimately disproved the existence of a (warm) “Open Polar Sea.” I’d had no idea that had ever been an assumption. Thanks to the blog reader who recommended this wonderful book to me.
    3. Godin, Seth. What To Do When It’s Your Turn. A dandy, not-so-little inspirational book. (As thick as a novel but magazine-sized in dimensions.)The best thing about it, however, is not the writing. It’s the design and layout. This book is simply beautiful.
    4. Blake, Trevor. Three Simple Steps. A business self-help book that suffers from some of the typical faults of the genre (assuming that everyone is the same, overly simplifying issues that are quite complex) but that also stands ahead. Also, it’s exceptionally well written.
    5. Gilman, Susan Jane. Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven. Gilman can write, but I found her voice in this story to be a bit irritating. She tells the story of travelling in China as a young adult. Interestingly, when she wrote from a later perspective, her voice sounded just fine. I think she worked too hard at channeling her inner whiney teenager. She’s very funny, though.
    6. Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Not so much the story of Wonder Woman as it is the tale of the man who invented her, and, more importantly, the shockingly violent story of suffragism. Very interesting to reflect on how far we’ve come in 100 years.
    7. Hesser, Amanda. Cooking for Mr. Latte. I love the concept of autobiography + food. And the recipes in this book are truly fantastic. (I especially like the blueberry pie.) But something about the author’s voice sets my teeth on edge. She seems a bit too full of herself…
    8. Mulgrew, Kate. Born with Teeth. You may know Kate Mulgrew from her starring role as “Red” in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The book is quite overwritten (it made me think of an actress chewing the scenery) but her story is so interesting. My goodness, she’s had a dramatic life!
    9. Burroway, Janet (ed). A Story Larger Than My Own. This book of essays by leading female writers and poets — including Margaret Atwood and Jane Smiley — suffers from much of a muchness. But the theme — the lessons learned by older woman writers — is interesting and I particularly enjoyed the essay “Old Woman” by Linda Pastan.
    10. Alexander, Elizabeth. The Light of the World. Best known for the poem she delivered at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Alexander is a professor at Yale. I read an excerpt from this book in the New Yorker and it made me want to read the whole thing. Alas, I don’t think she pulled it off. The story of her husband’s death at the tragic age of 50, the book lacks the grace and elegance of Joan Didion’s superb memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, to which it has been compared.
    11. Davis, Josh. Two Awesome Hours. Great concept for a book – focusing on how we can use science-based strategies to be more efficient at work — and well worth reading. But it needed better editing.

What are the best books you’ve read this year? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of Two Awesome Hours by Josh Davis. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below.