to date: best books of 2014

I was trying to hold off til the end of this calendar year, but I’ve been asked several times recently for book recommendations, and have sent this list privately to a few friends. So why not share? Below you will find the best books I’ve read this year, so far. Hopefully there will be more in these last few months!

Some reviews haven’t even posted yet, but here you are, getting a sneak peek at my ratings.

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

* = audiobooks.

There have been lots of 8s, too, including for example the latest from Stephen King and James Lee Burke; this lovely novel; a little literary history (oh and here’s another); some plants*; and two that are still to come: We Make Beer, and Older, Faster, Stronger.

What have you read so far this year that’s blown you away?

best of 2013: year’s end

My year-in-review post is coming, but first, as the year ends, let’s take a look at the very BEST books I read in 2013. Not necessarily published in 2013, you understand, although several were that, as well. Others were quite old. And while we’re at it, do check out Shelf Awareness’s best-of list, which has three books in common with mine. The Shelf and I, we continue simpatico.

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

There were lots of 8s, too – it’s been a great year. For example, late in the year I’ve discovered a love for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which hasn’t gotten a 9 on an individual book lately – but I wonder why, because I’m certainly enjoying the series that much! My, I’ve read so many books that it’s difficult to think back this far; but this list helps me remember the very best of my reading year.

What did YOU read this year that’s blown you away?

the books I’ve listened to that simply must be audio

It has taken me weeks to post this – sorry! But I did have some interest, in the comments on a past post, in those books I’ve listened to that I feel really must be experienced as audiobooks. Here’s a briefly annotated list.

  • Bossypants by Tina Fey, and read by the author: surely this will be obvious? Tina Fey is hilarious and you should let her tell you her story. Qualification: there are images in the book that you miss on the audio version.
  • The Likeness by Tana French: I’ve enjoyed some of hers in print and in audio, but this is my favorite and I feel strongly about the audio. For one thing, they’re set in Dublin and the Irish accents are amazing. For another, the plot of this novel involves faking someone else’s identity, and to hear how her voice changes when she’s in character is really something. Well done, narrator Heather O’Neill.
  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: also read by the author, and what an amazing feat, for her to be such an artist both of literature and of voice acting! Characters include Russians, Mexicans (of different social castes), a New York Jew, back-woods Appalachians, and a young man raised in between cultures; the importance of all those accents couldn’t be overstated, and Kingsolver executes them beautifully. It’s a magical audiobook and I wouldn’t let anybody I liked read this in print.
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: a memoir, read by the author, and she sings her chapter titles, operatically. That should be all I have to say.
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King: also read by the author, as it happens, and I enjoyed knowing that I was hearing King’s own impression of things. He does a great job. (If you’re noting how many on this list are author-read: I’m as surprised as you are.)
  • Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende: this is a historical novel of the founding of Chile, and thus another one with accents done gorgeously by narrator Blair Brown.
  • all of the P.G. Wodehouse novels read by Jonathan Cecil: I love Cecil’s voices for the very very silly Bertie Wooster and all the rest; I now am opposed to the print versions, and wary of the non-Cecil-narrated audio version. What can I say, I’ve found the Wooster I like.
  • The Dorothy Parker Audio Collection: a collection of stories and articles read by a handful of different women, who more than narrate; they act out Parker’s caustic wit.
  • all the Lee Child books read by Dick Hill: I really like Hill’s expression of Jack Reacher. (He also narrates a few of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, which I also recommend. In other words, I like Dick Hill.)
  • bonus: I have it on good authority – although I have not listened yet (it’s in line!) – that the audio version of the new novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is not to be missed, for the southern accents.

Further, I would recommend the following books in their audio format, although I would stop short of saying they must by heard rather than read.

  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: New York of the 1930’s and 40’s perfectly evoked via Rebecca Lowman’s lovely narration.
  • Crossing the Borders of Time by Leslie Maitland: the author reads this work of nonfiction herself, and because it’s the story of her own family, I think that’s important (and it is well done). Her voice is warm, she clearly cares for her subject, and she executes the French and German accents (and words) well.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: Robin Miles narrates this work of history in a beautiful, warm voice that I found helpful to the subject.
  • The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger: read by Richard M. Davidson, it has all the taut, tense action it needs without ever feeling over-dramatized. Bonus: at the end, it includes a recording of the author speaking about the making of the book, which was awesome.
  • Loving Frank by Nancy Horan: Joyce Bean’s narration immersed me in a time and place and helped me learn to care very much about the characters.
  • Touch by Alexi Zentner: a magical, otherworldly, immersive feel to this novel is helped along by Norman Dietz’s wondering performance.
  • Left Neglected by Lisa Genova: I felt intimately close to the female lead character in this story thanks to Sarah Paulson’s reading.

I’m sure there are more out there, and I can’t wait to discover them! Do share – are there any books you’ve listened to that you would say have to be heard?

best of 2012: year’s end

My year-in-review post is coming, but first, let’s take a look at the very BEST books I read in 2012. Not published in 2012, you understand – although several were that, as well. I was able to narrow it down to a list of 14 books and 1 short story; and I’m hoping you’ll forgive me for such a long list because 1) I read 126 books in 2012, and 2) I’ve broken them out into categories for you. :)

Best print nonfiction of 2012:

Best print fiction of 2012:

Best audio nonfiction of 2012:

Best audio fiction of 2012:

Many thanks to my editor at Shelf Awareness who sent me 4 of the 5 books in that first category to review! You’re doing a great job, Marilyn! And, bonus: Shelf Awareness just the other day published an issue entirely devoted to the best books of 2012. Their list includes two of my best of the year; one I really wanted to read but didn’t get around to (Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways); one I reviewed; and one that I would totally rate a runner-up for audio nonfiction (Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened). Not to mention, a whole bunch I never heard of, so there you are! Always more to read!

What did YOU read this year that’s blown you away?

best of 2012 to date: second quarter

As we enter the sixth month of the year, I want to share with you my favorite books of 2012 so far. Consider these my strong recommendations. I review a lot of books here at pagesofjulia (I’ve read 61 books so far this year! although some of those reviews are yet to come, they will all be reviewed), but I do not recommend all of them, as you know.

Two sections here: first, I have four books that I’ve loved and encourage you to check out. And then, some general notes about what I’m enjoying, in broad categories.

The four best books of 2012 so far come in an even mix. Two audiobooks, two in print; two brand-new, two a few years old. (None older than ten years here, but see the second section below.) Three fiction, one non. In the order I discovered them:

  • A Difficult Woman, a new (April 2012) biography of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris. Hellman was a controversial and contradictory figure, multi-faceted and fascinating, and I love Kessler-Harris’s handling of her complicated life, which touched upon so many areas of politics and art; K-H presents H as a sort of representation of the United States in the twentieth century. This book made me want to do huge amounts of further reading!
  • The Likeness (two-part review) was Tana French’s first novel, and my favorite of her three (though I enjoyed them all). Cassie Maddox, a Dublin detective, goes undercover as a dead girl, who was posing as a fictional person, one of Cassie’s earlier undercover personas, to try to catch this mystery girl’s killer. She infiltrates an incredibly close group of cohabitating students, almost a family, and fuses into their world alarmingly well. I listened to the audio version and adored all the accents.
  • The Lacuna I listened to as an audiobook, read by the author, Barbara Kingsolver, and I recommend this format as well as the book itself. It is the (fictional) story of a man who is raised back-and-forth between the United States (where his father lives) and Mexico (where his mother is from), spending his formative years in Mexico City employed by the household of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and for a time, Leon Trotsky. This is a fascinating book about people, some famous, some not, and the McCarthyist period in the US. Kingsolver performs the voices and accents beautifully.
  • The Song of Achilles is Madeline Miller’s first novel, and what a feat! This is the story of Patroclus, a minor character in Homer’s Iliad. Here he becomes protagonist and narrator, telling the story of his upbringing and lifelong close friendship with Achilles (eventually his lover), and the ten years they spend at Troy making war. Very moving.

EDIT: Check out last night’s announcement of this year’s Orange Prize winner: Madeline Miller, for The Song of Achilles! I have good taste. :) If you look closely at past years’ winners, you will see another of my top four as well!


SECOND EDIT: Also check out my interview with Madeline Miller, which was such fun!

Section the second:

After choosing the above four individual books (no difficulty really, as each jumped out at me decisively), I wanted to share a few areas I’ve been reading in with great enjoyment. For one thing, you have probably noticed (if you follow me) that I’ve recently (re)discovered Edward Abbey and other nature writers. I can’t choose one book by Ed Abbey to especially recommend. So far in 2012, I have loved all of his that I’ve read, and the two “further reading” books he’s inspired. They are:

  • Fire on the Mountain, a lovely novel (based on history) by EA about an old man holding out when the government tries to take his ranch from him to use as a missile range, and the grandson who stays to fight it out with him.
  • The Journey Home is a collection of EA’s essays and journalism, every single one a gem, and similar to
  • Down the River, another collection, with a river theme.
  • The Monkey Wrench Gang is EA’s best-known novel, about a gang of social misfits practicing sabotage against industry & government when they threaten nature. Wild and wacky.
  • Edward Abbey: A Life is a biography of EA by James Cahalan, and I found it well-done, on top of the obvious attraction of its subject being totally engrossing.
  • Walking It Off is a memoir by Doug Peacock (EA’s close friend, and inspiration for the hero of The Monkey-Wrench Gang) of his life as a war veteran and untamed eco-defender, and as EA’s buddy.

Along these sames lines, I found Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac lovely, beautiful, inspirational, educational, and an important part of my study of Abbey and his ilk.

And finally, I have to mention my consistent favorite guy, Ernest Hemingway. In this case, the standout book is by his son Gregory. Papa: A Personal Memoir, is heartrending and sensitive, and a uniquely loving portrait of EH.

I have been long-winded as usual. In a nutshell: the four titles up top, and any Edward Abbey or Ernest Hemingway (or select related readings), deserve your attention this year!

What have YOU read so far in 2012 that has blown you away?

best of 2012 to date: first quarter

Hey friends, I just couldn’t resist sharing this with you, even though neither review is up yet (!) and one book isn’t even published yet (!!) – I have just finished reading two amazing books, one fiction, one nonfiction, and they’re definitely the best two of the year so far. You know how I know? When I can’t stop talking about them to anyone who will listen, even when they are suspected of being not interested. (Husband is so patient with me!) So what are they? …

Fiction choice of the first quarter of 2012:

Tana French’s The Likeness. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Heather O’Neill, and highly recommend it. My early review has actually posted already, here. The final review will come this week.

Nonfiction choice of the first quarter of 2012:

Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. I read an advanced review copy; the publication date is April 24, so get ready! My review will be published just about then, at Shelf Awareness, and of course I’ll share it here when it is. It was a really engrossing biography of a truly fascinating, contradictory woman, who inspired a full continuum of strong reactions amongst everyone who knew her, and Kessler-Harris presents her so thoroughly with such full context that she had me enthralled – and looking for further reading.

That’s it: my two big recommendations of the year to date.

What have you read this year that’s amazing?

2011: A Year in Review

Well! I have tended to appreciate other bloggers’ wrap-up posts, so I thought I’d join in. This was my first full calendar year of blogging (I began in October 2010) and I definitely read more books this year than I have in a number of years, maybe ever. Although I’ve always been a big reader, this year was exceptional for several reasons: working in a library filled with tempting books; blogging about them; discovering audiobooks for my commute; and taking on a book review gig with Shelf Awareness, to name a few. (See some of my SA book reviews here.) I read 139 books this year.

Here are a few statistics…

  • 17% were nonfiction
  • 46% were by female authors
  • a whopping 63 of the 115 novels I read were mysteries; 10 were historical fiction and 11 were classics, the rest a smattering of short stories, drama, poetry, romance, fantasy, and “other.”
  • 38 were 100-300 pages; 80 were 300-500; 15 were over 500 pages, and 6 were under 100. Husband asked how many pages I read this year, so for his sake we’ll estimate, using the midpoint of the ranges (which may throw us way off but what the heck), and say I “read” some 50,580 pages this year! (keeping in mind that some were listened to and not read…)
  • 31 books, or 22%, were audiobooks – look what good use I made of my commute/driving/gym time!
  • 60% of the books I read came from the library! the vast majority came from the library where I work, with just a few coming from the Houston Public Library. another 24% came from publishers for review, leaving only a combined 22 books that came from my personal collection, books I was loaned, books I purchased, or (those treasured few) books I was given as gifts.

What fun.

Of these, I did of course have favorites… you can refer back to my premature Best of 2011 post of December 1, to which I’ve since added 11/22/63 and The Home-Maker, for an unwieldy list of 22 (!) books I loved this year. What can I say, I’m full of gushings. In honor of this Year in Review post, I have culled it down (painfully) to my Favorite 11 Books of 2011 (thanks Thomas for the idea, and for sending me two (!) of the books on the list*):

Whew! That’s a year! I see other bloggers discussing reading goals for 2012, and I don’t really have any to contribute… I think I’m going to pass on reading challenges this year. (You may recall that of the three I signed up for in 2011, I completed two and quit the third. I also participated in several readalongs: the Maisie Dobbs series, Gone With the Wind, and Their Eyes Were Watching God.) If anything, I’m most tempted by the TBR Double Dare (to read only books already on my TBR shelves from now til April 1…!), because my house is so full of books I want to read that I feel like I’ll never get to them all! But even if I didn’t encounter new books through my job that I want to read and probably should so I can talk with patrons about them, there’s my book review gig, which I love. So. No challenges. If anything, I’d like to make a dent in my TBR shelves at home; and part of that dent-making may come in the form of giving books away unread. Sigh.

My real reading goal in 2012 is to continue to read a diverse selection of new and old books; to continue blogging; and most importantly of all, to continue enjoying it. The day that reading feels like work will be a sad day, and the day I need to take a break; here’s to not finding that day in 2012!

Do you have reading goals this year? What challenges have you signed up for? (Don’t twist my arm…!) Did you do a year-end post that I may have missed? Please do share!

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