Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014

Unlike major news outlets & many of my friends, I've waited until the last possible moment to compile by best reads of 2014. My procrastination was merited, seeing as I just finished one of these books four days ago!

Of the 134 books I read this year, here are my top ten, with links to my review here or at the Morningside Muckraker, as appropriate. I've also noted the other books that won my rarely-given five-star rating on Goodreads at the bottom. What were your best reads of the year?

1. "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin - I can't sing this book's praises highly enough, and it is the only book this year to win a place on my permanent favorites shelf.

 2. "An Untamed State" by Roxane Gay - although "Bad Feminst" was a close contender for this list, it didn't shake me to my core in the same way "An Untamed State" did.

3. "The Martian" by Andy Weir - great SciFi, even for people who don't usually like SciFi.

4. "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt - this book doens't need my praise, but I'll add my voice to the chorus clamoring over its magnificence.

5. "A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman - though Ove is similar to A.J. Fikry, his story still hit me in the feels.
6. "Black Chalk" by Christopher J. Yates - a solid thriller with twists that will actually surprise you. I've been recommending to those who don't understand my disappointment with the predictability of the twists in "Gone Girl."

7. "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami - a wonderful entrance point to Murakami's work.

8. "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson - only so low because it was added so recently I haven't fully absorbed it or had a chance to experience its staying power yet.

9. "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy - I'm picky with my classics, but I was surprised at how readable and enjoyable I found this tome.

10. "We Were Liars" by E. Lockhart - mostly for how widely I've recommended this book, and how much fun I had with the audio.

My other five-stars, in no particular order:

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson

I'm usually a bit wary of books in verse. Poetry isn't my preferred genre, and novels in verse tend to fly by a bit too quickly when I read them. But Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming" received too many rave reviews to ignore. After she handled the racist joke that marred her acceptance of the National Book Award with perfect grace and dignity, I bumped this book up to my must-read list & got the audio from Overdrive.

As I mentioned in my brief Goodreads review, this book is entirely deserving of all of the accolades it has and will receive. Woodson's prose is simple and elegant. She tells her life story from her infancy in Ohio, to her time with the grandparents in South Carolina, to her move to New York with her mother. She writes of her four siblings, her cousins and other relatives, growing up during the Civil Rights movement, and finding her passion for writing at a young age.

Despite the verse, there's still a definite story of a young girl growing up in a rapidly changing world. The simplicity of the poems belies the universality of her experience. One poignant poem describes how she went by Jackie in school to avoid having to write a 'q' in cursive on the board.  Who hasn't gone to desperate lengths to avoid embarrassment in front of peers? For young writers, her story inspires. Her older sister was the smart one, Jacqueline had to work hard to succeed in school, but she just kept writing. Clearly, it has paid off.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you're looking to diversify your reads, this is a great place to start. Though marketed as middle grade, adults will enjoy this quick, deep read. Additionally, Woodson does the excellent audio narration herself, ensuring you'll hear the poems read as she intended.

"Brown Girl Dreaming" written and read by Jacqueline Woodson, published on August 28, 2014 by Penguin Audio.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 12/26/2014

Happy holidays everyone! This weekend, I'm listening to (& LOVING) "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson, and switching between my Christmas present books - "The Little World of Liz Climo" by Liz Climo and "The World of Ice & Fire" by George R.R. Martin. And I'm already thinking of what will make my list of the top 10 of the year!

Just a few year-end links today:
  • This list of the best new & used bookstores in DC has some good spots, but it's missing my favorite, Books for America.
  • The Huffington Post compiled a master list of which books were recommended the most on various best of 2014 lists.
  • Gawker's list of the best things read by contributors in 2014 includes short stories and articles with books.
  • The New York Times compiled their list of best books read this year, old or new.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Belzhar" by Meg Wolitzer

When I saw the author of "The Interestings" was releasing a new YA book, I was quick to add my name to the long wait list for "Belzhar" on Overdrive. It's an entertaining and moving piece of fiction, but unfortunately, it didn't stand up to Meg Wolitzer's adult work.

Jam is at the Wooden Barn, a special school for students who have experienced trauma, after the loss of her boyfriend. She winds up in "Special Topics in English" with four other students for a semester-long exploration of the work of Sylvia Plath. Soon these five students are experiencing strange things while completing their school work. This proves to be both exactly what they need, and what may prevent them from moving on from their traumatic experiences.

I loved "The Interestings" for how well it captured the complexity of relationships as we grow older - how people grow together and grow apart, how group dynamics shift over time, how changes in our individual personalities can shape our relationships with others. "Belzhar" purported to be about a group of adolescent students navigating impossible loss, but lacked the depth of relationship exploration that made "The Interestings" so vivid. The strengths of "Belzhar" lie in its exploration of loss at a young age and how different people process different types of loss.

This strength leads to my next complaint - the book's twist, while not unexpected, greatly shifts the theme of the book away from loss. The rest of novel is spent driving home this new theme around writing. I do think that my figuring out the twist early on speaks to how carefully Wolitzer constructed the book. The hints are there from the beginning, if you look, and it ensures that the twist isn't just a plot device to make you gasp. But while the plot elements were there, the thematic elements weren't. The book's abrupt thematic shift wasn't predicated on any hints that writing was important, so the ending felt disjointed and overwhelming.

Verdict: Jury's out - it's predominantly a good book, but the ending cheapened the power of its thematic exploration of how we cope with loss.

"Belzhar" by Meg Wolitzer, narrated by Jojeana Marie. Audio published by Listening Library on October 14, 2014.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 12/19/2014

I finally turned in my last paper of the semester yesterday, so today I am treating myself to a day at home catching up on reading for fun. Bring on the tea & good books! I'm reading Amy Pascale's "Joss Whedon: The Biography" in print & have to finish it today since it's due back to the library in a few days. I also started reading "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss aloud with Kyle in the evenings, and it's been a great way to unwind together. Finally, I'm listening to "Fangirl" by Rainbow Rowell, which has been charming and I expect to finish today or tomorrow.

A short list of links today so I can get back to reading!

  • For each tweet or facebook post with #GiveABook, Penguin Random House will donate a book to children in need. They've now upped their goal to 35,000 books.
  • Macmillion CEO John Sargent posted an open letter to authors and illustrators regarding their ebook pricing deals.
  • Exciting "Americanah" casting news.
  • The Huffington Post made a list of books they're looking forward to in 2015 - get on the hold list at your library now!
  • Texts between Harry Potter characters, in case JK Rowling's new writing on Pottermore isn't enough to sate your eternal Potter appetite.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Three Serviceable Audio Books

During exams I race through audiobooks and make zero progress on reading anything but my casebooks. Although I had a fairly condensed schedule this semester (only two exams, on the first and third days of the exam period), I still made it through five audio books in rapid succession. Two were quite good, and reviews are forthcoming as I compile my thoughts into something coherent. The other three were just fine. Not bad, but not worth deeper reviews.

Since I don't have many substantial thoughts on either, I'm collecting them here. Note that they have nothing in common beyond my reading them in succession.

"The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases " by Michael Capuzzo, narrated by Adam Grupper, audio published on October 10, 2010 by Simon & Schuster Audio

I discovered "The Murder Room" in the best possible way - a recommendation from a fellow book lover. Waiting in line for the restroom at a Barnes & Noble, I began chatting with another woman about the books we were each holding, and somehow that conversation resulted in an emphatic recommendation of the book. The non-fiction true crime book discusses the creation and successes of the Vidocq Society, a group of top criminal investigators from around the world who gather regularly to discuss, and attempt to solve, the coldest cases. The book discusses many of the group's cases alongside the stories of its founders and a very interesting discussion of the development of criminal profiling and other investigative techniques. While the content was intriguing, the formatting wasn't ideal for audio. The book jumps back and forth between cases in a way that made it difficult to recall which case was being discussed at any given time. Maybe the structure is clearer in print, but that combined with the narrator's slight tendency toward the sinister at what felt like odd moments made this book just average for me.

Verdict: Jury's out. Fans of true crime and mysteries should definitely look into it, but others probably won't be interested.

"The Wishing Spell" written and narrated by Chris Colfer, audio published on July 17, 2012 by Hachette Audio

In addition to sticking to audio, I also take advantage of the opportunity to catch up on my middle grade TBR list, since the simpler plots are easier to pick up and put down in between cases. I had been intrigued by the premise of Chris Colfer's book, the first in a series. Two twins find themselves transported into the Land of Stories via a book of fairy tales given to them by their grandmother after their father's death. In the Land of Stories they meet many of the characters from their favorite fairy tales while trying to gather the ingredients to a spell that will take them home. I wanted to like the book - I love new takes on fairy tales. But this was a bit too simple, the similes both too plentiful and too obvious, and the plot line a bit predictable. What's more, the siblings didn't seem to have significant differences in their personalities beyond Connor's being "bad" at school and Alex being "good" at school. Colfer's narration was fine, if a bit over-acted at times. Nothing too distracting though, and kids will probably appreciate the different voices he uses for each character.

Verdict: Jury's Out. Kids who haven't read deeply into fairy tale re-tellings yet will find a lot that's entertaining here, but there isn't anything that makes this stand out for adults. There's nothing bringing me back for the other two that have already been released.

"Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)" by Christian Rudder, audio published on September 9, 2014 by Random House Audio

I had wanted to review this for Muckraker, but upon finishing I just didn't have enough to say about it. One of the founders of OkCupid digs into data collected through social media sources and explains what can be discovered through such massive data collection. Sites we thoughtlessly use every day are collecting huge piles of information about us. Rudder argues that this data has untapped potential for exploring how people really behave and what motivates them, while adequately acknowledging the limitations of this data. I was particularly inspired by his chapter on how Twitter may actually be improving the use of language, rather than destroying our ability to communicate. The only big BUT is that a lot of these studies were released before the book's released or during the promotion. If you follow sociology and psychology news (even just through io9), a lot of this will be studies you've already read.

Verdict: Affirmed if the topic is interesting to you. Bonus points for a book that translates charts, graphs, and tables into audio descriptions very well.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 12/12/2014

Now that my exams are done, I can get back to reading paper books. I'm halfway through "Yes Please" by Amy Poehler, and hoping to finish today to get it back to the library. On audio, I'm listening to "Hollow City" by Ransom Riggs, the sequel to the delightfully strange "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children."

Some links to click through this weekend:

  • Buzzfeed rounds up 19 Sci Fi & Fantasy novels by women of color. It added several to my TBR, as did this follow up with even more standalone fantasy novels.
  • Margaret Atwood's 10 rules of writing were particularly interesting since I got to see her in person last week at the 92nd Street Y!
  • Paste Magazine collected the 30 best covers of 2014
  • Book Riot shared some literary things that should exist - I'd really like the "War & Peace" advent calendar, please!
  • At the Toast, "How to tell If You Are in a Baby-Sitters Club Book."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Tiny Beautiful Things" by Cheryl Strayed

After listening to "Wild," and being completely blown away, I immediately checked "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" on Overdrive. I was just as impressed, enamored, and fulfilled by this collection of advice columns as by Strayed's memoir.

Strayed was the advice columnist anonymously penning the Rumpus's "Dear Sugar" column for two years. Through this role, she gave heartfelt advice to readers facing problems ranging from complicated to simple, unusual to common, specific to broad. Her advice invariably transcends the context in which it is given, as Strayed draws from her personal history to give the best advice she can. Like in "Wild," Strayed lays her personal history bare, sharing stories of her marriages, her children, her volatile relationship with her father, the death of her mother, drug abuse, and theft.  Yet whatever walk of life you tread, you will find something in her advice that speaks to you. Above all else, Strayed encourages readers to be the best version of themselves, striving for a life of truth, self-care, and compassion for others. No matter the trouble you're facing, this broad principle is applicable and her advice will resonate.

Reading this book is like being wrapped in a word-hug as Strayed soothes the fears you didn't know you had. She doesn't shy from giving tough love when required, but couches it in the most comforting of tones. She narrates the audiobook herself, ensuring that her tone of voice is exactly that she intended when she initially wrote the piece (a subject I occaisionally pondered when listening to "Wild"). Most impressive, she avoids judgement toward her letter-writers, addressing their situations as manifestations of the troubles we all face, whether self-caused, imposed by others, or produced by something larger.

I'm bummed that "Dear Sugar" appears to have gone dormant, but look forward to flipping through the archives to read the columns that didn't make it into this book.

Verdict: Affirmed - whether you feel emotionally adrift or like you have everything together, this collection of advice will give you a fresh perspective on whatever ails you.

"Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar" by Cheryl Strayed, published by Vintage Books on July 10, 2012.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Reads & Links - 12/5/2014

With finals underway, I've only had time to start Chris Colfer's "The Land of Stories: The Wishing Well." It's been pretty meh, honestly, but it's light enough to listen to before bed when I'm trying to turn off the law-school thoughts.

'Tis the season for best of lists & gift guides! Some links below that are sure to grow your TBR & holiday wish lists:

  • Left Bank Books in St. Louis put together lists of books (broken out by genre) and articles "intended to provide some history and context for the recent protests" around the failure to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
  • Jacqueline Woodson wrote a piece for the New York Times responding to the racist joke made at her expense by Daniel Handler at the National Book Awards.
  • Toni Morrison announced a new book coming out next year. I can't wait!
  • Apparently the Chinese government doesn't like puns.
  • President Obama went book shopping during Small Business Saturday, and here's what he bought.
  • Longreads picked their top long-form articles from the year.
  • These gift guides for book lovers from WiseBread and Buzzfeed had gifts I hadn't seen before. Buzzfeed also had a collection of t-shirts for book lovers that would also make great gifts.
  • Finally, the best of 2014 lists from The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and NPR. (Bonus points to NPR for their fun, interactive format.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

November Reviews at the Morningside Muckraker

After a brief publication delay in observation of "A Day of Silence for Michael Brown" and to collect student pieces for a special section focusing on Ferguson, the Morningside Muckraker Issue 8 is out today. I am particularly proud of the hard work that went into this issue and encourage you to check it out.

My last set of reviews for the year include "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami, "Bad Feminist" by Roxane Gay, "The Fever" by Megan Abbott, and "Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography" by Neil Patrick Harris. Check them out here!