best of 2015, to date

I’ve had several requests lately for recommended reads, and I always try to have those ready for my friends & readers! As you know, I’ll always do an end-of-year best-of list, but maybe it’s time for an interim selection. Not all of these will make the final 2015 list, I’m sure, but some will: my first entry is still the only 10 rating I’ve given this year. Now with a few annotations… click the links for the full review, and in the cases where it hasn’t yet posted, I’ll do my best to come back and add those links when they become available.

This is a fairly varied list, which I always feel good about: something for everyone, I hope.

Best of 2015 to date! Thanks for caring, y’all.

  • Martin Marten, Brian Doyle – fiction. A novel of two young creatures, a boy and a marten, showcasing outrageously fine writing and a unique sensitivity to the fact that we humans are not the only ones living and breathing on this planet.
  • Of Things Gone Astray, Janina Matthewson – fiction. A whimsical novel of lost things and what they mean, and the stories of the people who lose them, and sometimes find them again.
  • Travels in Vermeer, Michael White – nonfiction. A lyrical memoir of recovery and art appreciation; the best writing about the visual arts that I’ve encountered.
  • Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin – nonfiction. Memoir of a young female carpenter, about everything entailed in that life, and the balance between the mental and the physical.
  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander – nonfiction. Memoir of loss of a beloved husband by an excellent poet; lovely glimpses of global cultures.
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – nonfiction. Writing advice and wit from a respected mind, with a fun and singular voice.
  • Mislaid, Nell Zink – fiction. Quirky novel of mixed-up relationships with a strong sense of place (set in the South).
  • Wondering Who You Are, Sonya Lea – nonfiction. Memoir of a spouse’s traumatic brain injury: sex, love, art, identity.
  • Station Eleven*, Emily St. John Mandel – fiction. Imaginative post-apocalyptic novel of a traveling symphony and Shakespeare theatre company in a changed United States. Emphasis on character and story rather than sensationalism of collapse.
  • Old Heart, Peter Ferry – fiction. Brief, sweet, feeling novel of old age and end-of-life autonomy with impulses toward romance, but not an idealized version.
  • The Elements of Style, Strunk & White – nonfiction. Still an outstanding style guide, and surprising funny, enjoyable reading.
  • The Anger Meridian, Kaylie Jones – fiction. Novel of a traumatized widow seeking direction in vividly evoked San Miguel de Allende, with a little puzzle for the reader to work out.
  • Coming of Age at the End of Days, Alice LaPlante – fiction. Somewhat distressing, compelling novel well summarized by its title.
  • The Writing Life*, Annie Dillard – nonfiction. Lovely essays about Dillard’s writing life: glimpses into places and experiences and challenges.
  • South Toward Home, Margaret Eby – nonfiction. A review of one Alabama woman’s literary icons that resonated especially with me.
  • Dakota, Kathleen Norris – nonfiction. Lovely evocations of sense of place in essay form.
  • My Southern Journey, Rick Bragg – nonfiction. Funny, moving, evocative, beautifully crafted, very short true stories from the Deep South.

(* are audiobooks.)

Honorable mention goes as well to Paul Kingsnorth’s singular debut novel, The Wake, which tells a great story, a historical post-apocalypse set in England following the Norman Invasion. Kingsnorth makes the gutsy decision to tell the story in a modified version of Old English, making it quite hard to read: I fear he will lose readers by challenging them so greatly, but really, it’s a worthwhile book if you can struggle through. It gets better after 50 pages, I promise!

If you try any of these fine books out, I’d love to hear what you think. Thanks!

2014: A Year in Review

I’ve reviewed a few years now (2013; 2012; 2011), so we can do some comparisons.

Of the 135 books I read in 2014…

  • 44% were nonfiction (45% last year)
  • 44% were by female authors (48% last year)
  • of the 75 novels I read, 33% were historical fiction, 20% were mysteries or thrillers, 24% were miscellaneous fiction, and 15% were fantasy. (Last year 37% were mysteries, 10% were historical fiction and the rest included classics and misc.)
  • only 13% were audiobooks. (23% last year)
  • 20% of the books I read came from the library, and a whopping 71% were review copies; the few remainders were either ones I already owned or were gifts. (Last year, 35% of the books I read came from the library, 43% were review copies, and 14% came from my personal collection.)
  • I read 135 books this year, compared to 116 last year.

For the very *best* books I’ve read this year, see New Year’s Eve’s post.

How have my reading habits changed? Well, perhaps the biggest change is in all those books I read for review, over 70%. I did this on purpose, as part of my plan to quit my day job and move across the country (!). This trend will likely continue in the foreseeable future. It’s been a little tiring at a few moments, but overall is nothing I regret: I mostly get to read and review really good books, and I still love my job. I do regret the books I haven’t read yet, though. Currently begging for attention, for example, are Hemingway’s True at First Light and The Fifth Column; the remainder of Snyder’s Practice of the Wild; a fuller version of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac; and all these:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

(and more). Sigh.

Also, you’ll see that I listened to fewer audiobooks. I spent my working year of 2014 taking the train to work rather than driving (hooray!), which let me read or listen; I can only guess that accounted for a lot of this change. I quit my job in October, too, which has left me with almost no audiobook time: just cleaning & gym time, is about it, since I don’t spend any time commuting any more. I miss my audiobooks, and have so many good ones loaded, too. I guess I should put in more gym time? New Year’s resolutions…

And, my fiction choices seem to have moved away from mystery/thrillers, in favor of historical fiction. I can’t quite explain the shift to hist fict, but I have made a conscious effort to read fewer mysteries. Aside from the outstanding ones (ahem), they can all begin to really sound alike.

What about you? How has 2014 stood up to your reading years in the past; and what do you foresee in the near future?

Whatever that may be, I wish you a happy new year, and happy reading!

best of 2014: 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 2014. As usual, these were not necessarily published in 2014 (although several were).

(* are audiobooks.)

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. I had a very hard time choosing a short list of examples for you, so please be satisfied with The Drunken Botanist*, Euphoria, Wayfaring Stranger, The Fish in the Forest, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, The Kind Worth Killing (by Peter Swanson, review to come)…

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

on children’s books

In another episode of synchronicity, I was already going to write this post (for reasons below), when Shelf Awareness shared this item of “book candy”: 10 Children’s Books That Made Us, tagline “these beloved images and words defined the boomer generation.” Let’s be clear: I am not a boomer, but the child of boomers. So I was a little surprised to see that I grew up with all 10 of the books listed. Part of article author Linda Bernstein’s point was that boomer children loved these books enough to share them with their children, of course, so I can’t be all surprised. But still… I thought I was a Goodnight Moon baby, not that my mother was. Still fresh for me, you see. In fact, it was first published in 1947 – who knew? I guess that’s one definition of a classic: timelessness. I know there are new children’s books for every generation, and I know some of them are excellent (I’ve heard. I’m not a big reader of kid’s books myself), but I do hope that new parents are still turning to such geniuses as Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak for their children’s reading development and enjoyment.

But back to our regularly scheduled programming.

In reading Great Bear Wild by Ian McAllister (excellent!! but wait for my review at Shelf Awareness to learn more), I was charmed by discussion of the unique, complex, and surprisingly human-like social structures of wolves. This resonated with me because I remember clearly reading (and rereading) Julie of the Wolves, a kid’s “chapter book” by Jean Craighead George, and a Newbery Medal winner. Here is my plot summary, strictly from memory, so feel free to double-check me… a young girl (~13 years) escapes a forced marriage in an Alaska village into the tundra on her own. She has a few basic survival tools & skills, but of course finds herself in trouble in the winter, until she is adopted by a pack of wolves – not without her own efforts at observing them, mimicking their gestures of submission, and begging for food and help. They save her. And the reader learns a good deal about wolf packs.

This got me thinking about others in the category (children’s “chapter books”) that I loved, that I read and reread, and that helped form my love of reading. As a child, I read lots of books – lots! – but this is the list of those that still come to my mind, fondly, today.

  • Eva by Peter Dickinson
  • Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  • The Borrowers series by Mary Norton
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books
  • of course, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  • Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series
  • Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  • The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren
  • Hatchet (and others) by Gary Paulsen
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  • Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

(Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I browsed the list of Newbery Medal winners, I found several of these titles there.)

What do you remember fondly from your childhood? Do they still resonate with you today?

gift reviews

It’s that time of year again: coming up! Gift reviews! Oh wait, I should explain. I was well into telling Husband about this year’s prospects for gift reviews with Shelf Awareness, when he stopped me to ask who they are gifts for. I see I was unclear. These books are sent to me for *special* gift reviews: meaning, they are reviewed for a Shelf Awareness special issue that reviews books that might be given as gifts in the holiday season. Often these are coffee table style books. I’ve been writing gift reviews for, oh, several years for the Shelf – you can see some here.

So I’m excited this year to have received three big, beautiful coffee table books for gift-reviewing. Husband mostly no longer gets excited for me when books come in the mail! so I especially wanted to share these with you.

Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgittships

For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw by Nancy Marie Mithlo and the Smithsonian Institutionfor love

Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest by Ian McAllister, with a foreword by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.great bear

Beautiful, no? Reviews to come… oh, but if you want an early tip, let me say that I adored The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, republished with commentary by Terry Tempest Williams and Brooke Williams. As just a tiny little book, both a pleasure to read and thought-provoking, and easily taken in small pieces, I think it would make an ideal stocking stuffer for… well, any number of different loved ones, really.

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?

the best of scientific nonfiction

In yesterday’s post, Pops shared with me a list of good fiction-about-science, as presented by author Kirk Smith. As part of that same conversation, Pops asked for my favorite scientific fiction – with “good” science being part of the criteria. Well, unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot to offer in that regard. I haven’t tended towards scientific fiction much (nor traditional sci fi); my fiction tends to be mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, or increasingly, fantasy; there is always a variety, but I’ve been short on science. I did come up with a few. But I did far better in recommending some really great nonfiction that is scientific in nature: both “good” science, and well written, enjoyable, accessible, good reading. He asked for those two lists, so I’m happy to share them here.

Some great fiction about science:

By Lisa Genova: Love Anthony and Left Neglected, but especially Still Alice. Genova has degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience (the latter a PhD from Harvard, ahem), so one expects that her novels about women and families, in which someone in the family (usually the woman) suffers a neurological disorder or disease, are scientifically accurate. I love that they are scientifically detailed and yet extraordinarily enjoyable novels, too.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: you can read my review, and also note that Kirk Smith and I both recommend this one; in a nutshell, Kingsolver teaches science in the most charmingly accessible of packages, the one and only Dr. Ovid Byron. You must read this; or better, you must hear the audio, because the accents are amazing. (Read by the author, a woman of many talents.)

Madeline L’Engle’s series: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, etc. I hesitate here, because the science begins in reality and then moves outside it (see: farandolae), so I’m not sure it qualifies. But kids’ books – about science – with a female protagonist. Good stuff.

Some great nonfiction about science:

My review hasn’t published yet, but it will any day now, and I’ll come back and edit this post: A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger is an outstanding, fun, and informative look at the history of botany, really from the birth of botany as a science (relatively recent, since we didn’t think plants were all that important as a subject of study for many centuries). It’s extremely accessible and well written, even funny. One of my recent favorites!

On a Farther Shore, William Souder’s recent biography of Rachel Carson, is for me a classic example of science made reader-friendly and socially important. It doesn’t hurt that I find Carson a fascinating & important figure, and admittedly, this is more biography than science; but I think it qualifies for this list, especially considering Pops’s comments yesterday about the representation of women in literature & science (and literature about science).

Einstein, the biography by Walter Isaacson, was mentioned in Kirk Smith’s talk apparently as being “challenging,” and I wouldn’t disagree entirely, but no knowledge of physics is prerequisite – and I didn’t get all the physics Isaacson described, either, but that was no requirement for enjoying Einstein’s story.

Unfortunately, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot before I really began blogging. (I made a few posts on it early on: here, here, and here, but none qualify as a review.) So I can only say, looking back, that as with On a Farther Shore, science is made not only comprehensible, but oh so important and relevant for our past, present and future; not to mention the glaring & compelling social commentary. This is a great book (and one I gave away for World Book Night a few years ago).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (my review in parts one and two) is fascinating, varied, lyrical, fun, and whimsical. Both poetry and science. And the oddest chunks of science, too. Do check out some here and here.

River in Ruin by Ray A. March is a loving, informed but readable discussion of exactly what the title says.

Also pre-blog, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and it made a major impact on me. I had only recently recovered from a brain injury (from a bike wreck and yes I was wearing my helmet), and reading this book by a neuroanatomist about her stroke & recovery helped me understand my own brain better. She’s a scientist, so she has the “good” science, but she’s also a human being with a personal story to tell, and she tells it well.

When we talk about science writing, though, **the grand prize** has to go to Hali Felt for Soundings. How did I rate that book only a 9? In my memory, it should be a 10. Again with the added benefit of handling women in science and the special challenges they face, Felt tells the story of Marie Tharp’s life and scientific breakthroughs with sensitivity, insight, and yes, science.

Bonus: just the other day this review posted at Shelf Awareness (by my friend Katie at Cakes, Tea and Dreams). I haven’t read the book, but I think it sounds delightful: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, by Amanda Gefter.

That’s all I have today, Pops, but it ought to get you started! I’m pretty sure you’d put McKibben on this list; any others to share? Anybody?


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