Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Books of 2016

It's time to revive this blog to publish my Best Books of 2016 list.  (You can find my previous lists here:  2013, 2014 and 2015).

It was a good reading year for me in terms of the amount of reading I did.  I met my goal of reading 52 books, which is a record number of books for me!  The most I had read before was 49.  I also had a record number of pages read (thanks to Goodreads for keeping track!):  21,060 pages!  A few more stats courtesy of Goodreads (and because I like them): I gave 13 5-star ratings, 19 4-star ratings, 16 3-star ratings, and 4 2-star ratings to the books I read this year.

This Best of 2016 list is made up of books that I read this year that were also published this year.  (If I were voting for my favorite book that I read this year that was NOT published this year, my pick would probably be 11/22/63 by Stephen King).


Best Fiction

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (5 stars).  
I was afraid I wouldn't be able to pick a Best Fiction book this year, because I have read a lot of books that I liked but not many that I loved.  Until I picked up this book as my final read of the year.  I guess I just wanted to save the best for last.  This is a lovely, delightful book with an intriguing setting and story and unforgettable characters.  It took me about 50 pages to really get into it, but then it was just so good.  I highly recommend it!





Honorable Mentions in Fiction:
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (3.5 stars).  The book is very formulaic and written in typical Picoult fashion, but the subject of racism in modern America and the thought provoking response it evokes makes this worth a read.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (4 stars).  This gets a mention because it is unique and twisted and a memorable book for me this year.  It's a book about a serial killer turned governess, and it is inspired by Jane Eyre.  It's a bit dark (obviously!) but intriguing, especially through the first (stronger) half of the book. It's got a little mystery, some dark humor and a side of romance all thrown together in the spirit of a Victorian novel.

Best Young Adult Fiction

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow (4 stars)
This is a dark book about a girl who has been through some horrible things, and then she becomes friends with others who have also been involved with some horrible things.  So there are a lot of horrible things going on in this story.  For some reason, I am drawn to these tragic type stories, and this one completely pulled me in.   Again, this is a dark story and it may not be for everyone, but I did think it was very good.

Honorable Mention in Young Adult Fiction:
The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson (4 stars).  If you prefer something a little lighter in the young adult category, this is a much happier choice.  It's a sweet teen romance but it's also about friendship and family.  It's a little bit too long in my opinion, but still an enjoyable, easy read.


Best Science Fiction

Morning Star by Pierce Brown (5 stars)
This is the third and final book in the Red Rising trilogy.  I was a huge fan of this whole series, and the third book did not disappoint.  The ending was so much fun, and I just loved the way that Brown wrapped everything up.  I've heard people describe this series as "Braveheart in space," which is probably fairly accurate!  This is not my typical genre of choice, but I loved and highly recommend the Red Rising series if you are looking to escape into space for a few books!





Best Fantasy

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. (5 stars)
This is book 2 in the "An Ember in the Ashes" series.  I loved the first book, and I loved this book too.  It's just a good, page-turning series.  With both books, I could not put it down until I finished.  This book has an interesting twist at the end, and I'm curious to see how it plays out in the third book.







Honorable Mentions in Fantasy:
  • Blood for Blood by Ryan Graudin (5 stars).  This is the second book in a two book series.  It's an alternative history book with a touch of fantasy, imagining what would have happened if Hitler did not die and if the Allies did not win World War II.  The first book is called Wolf by Wolf, and I would highly recommend them both if this sounds like an interesting premise to you.
  • A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas (4 stars).  I thought this was a young adult book, but I think it is more like new adult (geared towards older, more mature young adults).  There are several sex scenes that were more graphic than I would expect in this genre.  Just wanted to start with that warning.  Beyond that, this is a great second book in this series about faeries.  Yes, faeries.  I thought the first book was just okay, but I'm so glad that I picked up the second book because the story totally changes, and it is so much better.  
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling (4 stars).  If you are a Harry Potter fan, this is a must read in my opinion.  It is a screenplay and not a book, and it is nowhere near as good as the original books.  But, I still think it is fun to jump back into that world and see where all of the characters end up.
Best Memoir

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner (5 stars)
This is the story of a girl who grew up in a polygamist community in Mexico, one of her father's 42 children!  It is so interesting and well-written, and while the subject can be difficult to read at times, it is worth the read!






Best Nonfiction

Evicted by Matthew Desmond (5 stars)
I don't read a lot of nonfiction, so I didn't have much to choose from in this category.  But this book is worthy of the title!  It is an eye-opening look at the housing rental industry in America, specifically focused on the city of Milwaukee.  Featuring 8 different families, Desmond gives a detailed account of the great problems with the current rental system and the role evictions play in contributing to poverty.  I finished the book with a great desire to do something to fix this problem and a more sympathetic attitude towards those stuck in this vicious system.  I walked away with a firm belief that a decent place to live should be an inalienable right for everyone in our country.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Morning Star

Morning Star
by Pierce Brown

Genre:  Science Fiction
Published: 2/9/16 by Random House
Pages:  544
Format:  Hardcover

My rating:
4.5 out of 5 stars






Morning Star is the final book in the Red Rising trilogy.  In preparation for reading this, I re-read the first two books.  The first book, Red Rising, was so much better for me the second time.  I liked it the first time, but I loved it the second time.  After my re-read, I was anxious and curious to see how Pierce Brown would wrap up the series in this final book.  I don't read much science fiction, but I have really enjoyed this trilogy!

It had to be a daunting task to write this ending.  It is such a big world and a wild, crazy story that Brown created with this series.  I can only imagine how hard it would be to make everything come together and wrap up in a satisfying way for all readers.  And all the hard work paid off, because this was a great final book and an amazing ending to the whole trilogy.

I won't give away any spoilers in this review, but Brown continues with the chaotic pacing and storyline that he began in the first two books.  Alliances are broken, betrayal is inevitable, and no character is safe.  Brown has proven again and again in this series that he is not afraid to kill off his characters, even beloved main characters!

I was a little uncertain through the first half of the book.  I was liking it okay, but I wasn't blown away and was afraid it would not live up to my expectations.  However, at some point around the middle of the book, my interest peaked and I was hooked the rest of the book.  I especially loved the ending.  The last 75 pages or so more than makeup for the slow start.  I gave this book 4.5 out of 5 stars, but the ending was good enough to bump that up to 5 stars.

One thing I have loved through this series is seeing Darrow's character development.  This is evident in the final book, and I love how he has grown up.  How he sees the good in people.  How he gives second chances to his enemies, perhaps too many second chances.  I love how Brown has blurred the lines of good and bad, especially during times of war.  The good people sometimes do bad things, and the bad people sometimes do good things. In the end, they are all just fighting for what they believe to be right.  These themes of forgiveness, redemption and morality are prevalent in Morning Star, and I found it all to be thought provoking.

I also loved the themes of friendship in this novel.  Some of the best characters can be found in Darrow's friends, and they all play an important role in drawing this story to a conclusion.  I think the final sentence of the epilogue might be my favorite of the whole series, as it highlights the importance of the friendships Darrow made along the way.

 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Wolf by Wolf

Wolf by Wolf
by Ryan Graudin

Genre:  Young Adult/Fantasy
Published:  10/20/15 by Little Brown
Pages:  295
Format: ebook

My rating:
5 out of 5 stars 

I loved this book!  I wish I would have read it last year, because it would definitely have made my Best of 2015 list.  I have been in a major book rut for the last few months trying to find a good book that will inspire me to keep reading.  This book was just what I needed!  Easy to read and interesting, I quickly devoured the book in just a couple sittings.

This book imagines what the world would look like if Hitler had not been killed.  What if the Allies had not won World War II?  What if Hitler and Japan's Emperor Hirohito continued their quest for world dominance?  What if the Holocaust continued for 10 more years with no end in sight?  This alternative history novel begins with this premise and adds a slight touch of fantasy to create an intriguing story about survival, sorrow, resilience and vengeance. 

The main character is Yael.  As the result of an experiment in a Nazi concentration camp, Yael is a skinshifter, with the ability to change her appearance to look like anyone else.  With this unique gift (curse?), Yael imitates the famous Adele Wolfe, a Victor in the Axis tour, a motorcycle race across the world sponsored by Hitler and Hirohito.  Yael'sgoal for the upcoming Axis tour is simple:  impersonate Adele, win the race, gain an audience with Hitler and kill him.

At first I wasn't sure if I liked the "skinshifting" part of this story.  Every other part of the story is set in reality and could possibly have happened.  The "skinshifting" adds a fantasical element which makes the story unrealistic.  But it also makes the story interesting!  With Hitler's extreme emphasis on race and appearance, what if it was possible for a Jew to completely change her appearance and look like a perfect Aryan girl?  What possibilities and difficulties would this ability present?  It's a fascinating look at identity and how appearances play a role in who we are and what we do.

When Wolf by Wolf was over, I was genuinely sad.  Of course, I was eager to read what would happen next.  But I was also sad to have to stop reading a book that I enjoyed so much.  While I am waiting for the sequel, the next book on my reading list is going to be Ryan Graudin's previous novel, "The Walled City."
 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Best Books of 2015

This has been a rough reading (and blogging) year for me.  I haven't blogged or written a review since July!  My goal this year was to read 52 books, and I didn't quite make it.  I finished the year with a total of 49 books read.  However, according to Goodreads, I did read more pages this year than I have ever read before with a total of 17863 pages.

But I really struggled to read this year.  I had to force myself to read many days, and I just didn't enjoy the books like I usually do.  I only gave a handful of 5 star ratings, and a lot more 3 star ratings than I have ever done before.  I'm not sure if this is the fault of the books or myself.  Sometimes I feel like the "goodness" of the book directly corresponds to my mood at the time of reading it.  

However, I did find some good books that I can recommend this year.  I use the following rating system when I review books:

  • 1 star = hated it (I usually don't finish books that I hate, so I rarely give 1 star)
  • 2 stars = didn't like it (but usually it is worthy of at least being finished)
  • 3 stars = it was okay, I liked it but probably wouldn't highly recommend
  • 4 stars = I really liked it and would recommend it to someone else
  • 5 stars = I loved it and want everyone I know to read it!

I find that a lot of books fall in between the 3 and 4 star category for me, so I've started giving books 3.5 and 3.75 stars too.   

This "Best of" list is limited to books that were published in 2015.  To make it easier to pick my favorites, I have separated the books into categories.

And here it is!

Best Chick Lit:

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
My rating = 5 stars

In the world of serious literary fiction, this is not a 5 star worthy book.  But for fun, fluffy chick lit, it was really good!  It is basically a fictionalized version of the love story between Prince William and Kate Middleton.  Except in this book "Kate" is from America.  I devoured the 454 page book in no time at all, and then I was sad when it was over.  If you are looking for a light and entertaining book, I definitely recommend this one!


Honorable Mention:
After You by JoJo Moyes
My rating = 3.75 stars
This is the sequel to Me Before You (one of my all time favorite books!).  I didn't think it really needed a sequel, and this book was not nearly as good as the first.  But it was still fun to read about what happened to the characters.  It got off to a slow start for me, but I thought it got better as the book went on.  If you have read Me Before You, it's worth a read.  (And if you haven't read Me Before You, why are you still reading this?  Start reading now!)


Best Mystery/Thriller


In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
My rating = 4 stars

Everyone else will probably put The Girl on the Train here (and I did like that one) but I liked In a Dark Dark Wood too!  And it is not getting nearly as much publicity.  I thought this story was engrossing and suspenseful, but it wasn't super scary or creepy.  I'm not a huge fan of super scary stories, so this is my kind of thriller.




Honorable Mention:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating = 4 stars
This was the "it" book of the year.  One that everyone (yet again) dubbed the next "Gone Girl."  I still liked Gone Girl better, but this one was good.  I read the whole book in less than 24 hours.  You can read my full review, and my comparison between this book and Gone Girl here.

Best Historical Fiction


Girl at War by Sara Novic
My rating = 4 stars
I like learning about history through fiction, especially when the fictional story teaches me about a part of history that I knew very little about before reading it.  That is the case with Girl at War, a novel about a girl who escapes from the Yugoslavian Civil War in 1991.  She moves to America and experiences life in New York ten years later during 9/11.  The story moves back and forth between those two places and time periods.  I thought the contrast between war in Croatia and "war" in America was thought provoking.  This was a book that my book club read, and not everyone liked it as much a I did. It's a short little novel that could probably benefit from being a little longer.  But the glimpses into this girl's life and her experiences with war were interesting and worth the read.

Honorable Mention:
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
My rating = 4 stars
My favorite kind of historical fiction is novels that are set during World War II.  I've read a lot of them!  While not my favorite WWII novel, The Nightingale is highly readable and one that I would recommend to most people.  Read my full review here.

Best Science Fiction


Golden Son by Pierce Brown
My rating = 4.5 stars
This is the second book in the Red Rising trilogy.  I had mixed feelings on the first book, Red Rising.  But Golden Son redeemed this series for me, and I am now eagerly awaiting the third and final book, Morning Star (to be released this February).  You can read my full review here.





Best Young Adult Novel


All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
My rating = 5 stars
I just loved this book so much!  It is about teen suicide so it is a difficult subject to read. (On a side note, this must have been the year for books about teen suicide because I read four novels on this subject in 2015 alone!).  However, Niven writes with the perfect balance of wit and humor while still treating the subject seriously and with gentle care.  It was both funny and devastating, and the character of Theodore Finch still haunts me today.  You can read my full review here.


Honorable Mention:
Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway
My rating = 4 stars
The cover of this book makes it look like a cute romance, and it is!  But it is more than that too.  Emmy and Oliver were childhood best friends, until Oliver was kidnapped by his dad.  10 years later Oliver is found and returned home, and this story explores how time changes people and how everyone adjusts to having Oliver home again.  A cute book with some depth to it as well.  It's a good one!

Best Young Adult Fantasy


An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
My rating = 5 stars
For me, this book was unputdownable (though I have a friend who does not share my enthusiasm for this book!).  I read nearly the whole 450 pages in one day!  It is set in a world that is inspired by Ancient Rome and tells the story of two characters on what appear to be opposing sides: Elias, the empire's finest soldier and potentially the next emperor and Laia, a poor slave girl whose sole purpose is to find her brother and exact her revenge on the Empire.  But when Elias and Laia meet, they discover that they both are on the same side with the same goal: to take down the Empire.  I loved escaping into the world Tahir created, and I look forward to continuing in this world and this story with the upccoming sequel.

Honorable Mention:
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
My rating = 4 stars
I read A LOT of these young adult fantasy/dystopian trilogies.  Red Queen reminds me of a lot of those other trilogies. It's not a highly original story, and in the end it is not all that memorable.  But it fun to read while I was reading it.  And sometimes, you just need something that is fun to read in the moment!

For more book recommendations, here are my previous "Best of" book lists.
Best Books of 2014
Best Books of 2013

Here's to finding more great books in 2016!


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Paper Towns

Paper Towns
by John Green

Genre:  Young Adult
Published: 9/22/09 by Penguin Young Readers
Pages:  336
Format:  Paperback

My Rating:
4 out of 5 Stars






It's been at least five years since I first read Paper Towns, and I decided to re-read it before the movie is released this weekend.  Paper Towns was the first John Green novel that I ever read, and I immediately became a fan of John Green's writing.  Green has a distinct formula and writing style, and I've found that people seem to either love it or hate it.  I love it.  I enjoyed Paper Towns quite a bit (both times I read it), although it still falls third on my list of favorite John Green novels (after The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska).

Paper Towns tells the story of Q, a teen boy who has long been infatuated with his neighbor, the infamous Margo Roth Spiegelman. One night, Margo enlists Q's help in conducting an adventurous night of pranks and payback. The next day, Margo disappears, leaving a trail of clues for Q to follow to find her, that is, if she wants to be found.

Even though John Green's teen characters talk with more wit and sophistication than any teen that I know, I still find his characters to be refreshing and believable.  While they are teens who make mistakes and bad choices at times, and teen boys who are full of dirty trash talk, they are also thinkers who seek answers to life's biggest questions.  I think John Green writes these teenagers better than most young adult authors.  His characters are authentic and thoughtful, fun and good natured, like teens I would have wanted to hang out with in high school, or like teens I will want my kids to hang out with when they get older.  Green has a great talent for combining witty writing with thoughtful insight, and that formula works great throughout Paper Towns.  It will make you smile and laugh, but it will also make you think.

Paper Towns is definitely not an original novel; it shares many striking similarities in both plot and style with Green's first two novels: Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. But who cares?  It is fun to read.  The road trip at the end of Paper Towns was probably one of my favorite parts.  While reading it the second time, I kept thinking, how fun and crazy would that have been to go on a sporadic 20 hour road trip with my high school friends?  (I never would have done it, but still it's a fun thought!)





Monday, June 29, 2015

Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl Alive
by Jessica Knoll

Genre:  Fiction
Published: 5/12/15 by Simon and Schuster
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover

My rating:
3.5 out of 5 stars








TifAni FaNelli knows what she wants...a successful career, the perfect skinny body, a rich husband with a new last name.  And she knows how to manipulate people and her body to get what she wants.  With just a few weeks until her wedding, TifAni is close to reaching her ultimate goals. Yet, TifAni is haunted by a secret, tragic past.  With a documentary movie being made to tell her story, TifAni is forced to come face to face with the past and her secrets.

First, I must address the name:  TifAni FaNelli.  Has there ever been a more obnoxious name in the history of literature? Every time I read her name, I was immediately just annoyed.  Perhaps this was purposeful on the author's part; maybe she wanted the readers to be annoyed every time they read her name.  In addition to the name, there are many other things about Ani (she wisely chose to drop the TifAni as an adult) FaNelli that make her unlikeable.

At least at the beginning of the book, she was unlikeable.  As more is revealed about Ani  and her past, I did grow more sympathetic to her character.  I really just felt incredibly sad for her.  I was sad for her superficiality and the immense way that she cared  about what other people thought of her.  From as early as middle school, she was obsessed with altering who she was in order to fit in and be what other people wanted her to be.  And that led to some tragic events and a very miserable existence.  This was a theme with a lot of characters in the story.  Are people really this superficial and shallow?  It felt stereotyped to me, but perhaps there are people who really live this way.  If that's true, I'm sad for them too.

It was also sad to read about the tragic events that happened to TifAni in high school.  What she experienced then helped me to understand why she was the way she was as an adult, thus increasing my sympathy for her character.  I still can't say that I liked her, but I did feel sorry for her at times.  Many other characters in the book suggested that TifAni deserved what she got due to some bad choices that she made.  I disagree with that.  Despite her bad choices, TifAni did not deserve what she got.  The teens at this school were so very vicious.  Are teens really like this today?  Every time I read a book about high school kids today, I am terrified for my own children to ever become teens.

Overall, this was a dark story.  It was a bit too vulgar for me at times, but I did get caught up in the story and wanted to keep reading to find out what happened to TifAni as a teen and what was going to happen to her as an adult.  I thought the end was a little anti-climactic, as I was expecting something bigger to happen.  I don't know that I would recommend this book to everyone, but if you like dark stories with cold, shallow characters, this could be a book for you.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Cinder

Cinder
by Marissa Meyer

Genre:  YA Fantasy
Published:  1/3/12 by Fiewel and Friends
Pages:  400
Format: Harcover

My rating: 
4 out of 5 stars








I have seen this book around a lot the past couple of years, but for some reason never read it until now.  I'm glad I picked it up; it was a fun read!  And now I have to read them all.

I always enjoy re-imagined fairy tales and also YA fantasies...so this one was right up my alley.  Set in the future, it is about a girl named Cinder, a cyborg who can't remember what her life was like before she had her mechanical parts.  She must deal with the injustices of her cruel stepmother and also her society, as cyborgs are not socially accepted. And right before the annual ball thrown by the royal family, Cinder meets Prince Kai and discovers he has some big problems of his own.

While there are variations from the traditional fairy tale, if you know the story of Cinderella, then you know the basic plot of this book.  The twists in the story are very obvious and heavily foreshadowed.  I'm not sure that the big twist at the end was really supposed to be a surprise at all.  I felt like the fun part of reading this book was not guessing what was going to happen in the end but instead seeing how the story would get to that point.  

Now, I'm off to start Scarlet...