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!

Challenge Update

My last update was at the beginning of June. Time to check in again.

Where Are You Reading? is hosted by Sheila at One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books. The idea is to read one book from each of the 50 states within the 2011 year. (Bonus points are awarded for foreign locations.) Take a look at my map to see where I’ve been. So far, I’ve read in 25 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, Washington DC, Wyoming) and 17 foreign locations (Canada: Toronto and BC, Wales, Mexico, Dresden, Dublin, Kenya, London, Nepal, Paris, St. Mark’s, Stockholm, Switzerland, Jerusalem, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Okinawa).

This has been a fun challenge because, so far, I’ve yet to start hunting down locations at all. It’s interesting to see where I’m reading. But soon… the pressure builds, and I think I’m going to have to start searching for some of these locations. It’s funny to see what’s been easy and what’s been difficult; I’m not surprised that Texas (home state), Louisiana (neighbor), New York, and California (big, important states) were easy to take care of. But I was surprised to see places like Nebraska and Connecticut get ticked off so easily. It will certainly be an interesting game to pull it all together in the final weeks of December!

The Classics Challenge is hosted by Courtney at Stiletto Storytime, and I signed up for the bachelor’s degree level, meaning 10 classics in 2011. It’s been a great motivator for me this year. I’ve read:

  1. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
  2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  4. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  5. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
  6. Don Quixote by Cervantes (just part one for now, but the rest is to come, I promise)
  7. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  8. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
  9. Othello by William Shakespeare
  10. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (just parts one and two so far, the rest to come by mid-October)

HEY look at me! I finished this one with months to spare! Yay classics! I did, of course, read a number of very short classics – the two Shakespeare plays, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Tender Buttons (short, but not quick!!), and Main Street of moderate length. But I think Gone With the Wind and Don Quixote should more than compensate. I think there will be more to come, too. Why stop here? (I did do some post-bacc English coursework after my BA and before my MLS. I guess I won’t stop at the bachelor’s level of this challenge, either. :)) I’ve got Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood going on audio as we speak!

What’s In a Name? is hosted by Beth Fish Reads. The goal is to read books with certain title attributes.

Wow! Another one! I tell you, when I started drafting this “challenge update” post I had no idea I’ve have 2 out of 3 completed this early. Very exciting.

So now it’s just down to the Where Are You Reading? challenge. I knew that one would be a doozy. Soon, it might be time to start seeking books out by state, sigh.

Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, trans. by Anthea Bell

Not being a big reader of YA, or time travel, or fantasy/alternate realty/insert-concept-here, it surprised me how much I was drawn to this book. But I was.

Before I tell you about this story, here’s a funny detail I noted right off: the translator, Anthea Bell, also translated the last book I read from-the-German, The Stronger Sex. This title is YA where that one was decidedly adult material, but I guess a strong German-to-English translator is the same across the board. I hadn’t really thought about it before. Just as I said about The Stronger Sex, Bell gets full credit for making the translation invisible. If anything, the language here is a little more awkward; but having read that other example of Bell’s translation, I think this awkwardness comes from the original. If I hadn’t known, I wouldn’t have suspected translation issues – I would have assumed just what I have come to feel is a common YA writing issue. It feels a little bit effortfully simplified, if that makes sense. It’s something I’ve encountered in YA before. I guess it’s a reading-level thing. Like in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it bothered me slightly when I focused on it, but the story ended up engrossing me enough that it faded into the background. I don’t read a lot of YA. If you don’t, either, this little issue may irk you as it does me; if you read a fair amount of YA, chances are good it won’t faze you.

Gwen is trying to live a normal teen existence in present-day London, but her obnoxious cousin Charlotte’s destiny is difficult to ignore. Charlotte has inherited the family’s time-travel gene, and any day now, she’s expected to take her first trip. She’s been trained all her life in languages, history, the mannerisms of different periods, fencing, dancing, and music. But when the first uncontrolled time travel occurs, it’s not Charlotte, but Gwen – of all people! – who finds herself in an unfamiliar era. She’s thrust unprepared into a complicated world, and finds herself partnered in adventure with Gideon de Villiers, the time-travel-gene-carrying teen of his own family. He is snotty and bossy… and sooooo handsome…

I enjoyed the intrigue, the plots and codes and ancient documents and secrets and mysteries. I enjoyed the world Gier builds. I even enjoyed, mildly, the juvenile romance. But I didn’t get enough of any of it. I felt like the set-up for the story took 3/4 of the book, and then the story began and –whoosh– please buy the sequel that comes out in 2012. Is this a YA thing? I was frustrated and unsatisfied; but I’m also intrigued enough to seek out Sapphire Blue, the aforementioned sequel. Sigh. I guess she got me.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

What an odd, fun, creepy little romp this was! I had been fascinated by the idea of this book months before it came out. The story is this: our first-person narrator, Jacob, has always been close to his grandfather. Grandpa Portman has told him stories all his life of the peculiar, magical children he grew up with, in a home for orphaned refugees during World War II. He even has pictures: a levitating girl (on the cover); an invisible boy; a skinny boy lifting a giant boulder. As Jacob grows up a bit, he begins to understand that perhaps Grandpa’s stories were just that, stories; but when Grandpa dies in a mysteriously disturbing fashion, in Jacob’s arms, and with the strangest of last words, he begins to wonder again. Under the care of a psychiatrist, Jacob travels with his father back to the tiny Welsh island where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was located. The story he begins to unravel… well. I don’t want to ruin anything for you.

This is really a YA (young adult) book, for two reasons: 1, the reading level, and 2, the young adult protagonist. Jacob is 16 or 17 years old. I found it very enjoyable, though, and I don’t read YA very regularly. It was a quick read, partly because of the rather basic reading level. But here’s the unique bit: there are quite a few pictures mixed in with the text. Grandpa Portman had a collection of pictures; Jacob has a few of his own; he discovers a cache of pictures in his explorations of Cairnholm Island. And every one of the pictures mentioned in the story is included, so we get to do our own examining of them alongside Jacob. This was very cool, because the oddness (or perhaps, the peculiarity) of these pictures is a large part of the point of this book. And here’s the kicker: while this is a work of fiction, and the impossibility of the photos is obvious, I found an interesting detail at the back of the book. The author writes, “All the pictures in this book are authentic, vintage found photographs, and with the exception of a few that have undergone minimal postprocessing, they are unaltered.” I don’t know what “minimal postprocessing” might entail, but it made me go back and reexamine the pictures all over again, knowing that they each have a real life mysterious story behind them. I love it: an additional facet to this curious tale.

This is a paranormal story, even one of time travel. I don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in these areas, but I found Jacob to be a likeable (if doofy – is this a regular facet of YA, too?) protagonist, and his Grandpa was a real hero. The peculiar children were extremely likeable and fascinating. I had a lot of fun with this diversion from my more normal reading.

Very Bad Men by Harry Dolan

A clever, complex thriller in which a killer hunts the perpetrators of a decades-old crime.

Anthony Lark has three names written down in his notebook, and he’s hunting them down one by one as part of his mission to avenge a 17-year-old crime. David Loogan (introduced in Bad Things Happen) is content with his life in Ann Arbor, with girlfriend Elizabeth Waishkey (who’s a police detective) and her daughter Sarah, and with his job as editor of a mystery magazine. Lucy Navarro is a tabloid reporter trying to dig up a story linking the old crime with a current political campaign. But David is drawn into the murky waters of Lark’s crusade, and Elizabeth is assigned to the investigation, so David feels compelled to help Lucy in her inquiries–especially after she disappears suddenly.

This fast-paced and intelligent thriller is told in David’s voice, but offers insight into Lark’s troubled psyche as well, as he battles the demons that make the words in his notebook breathe and tremble. Readers of the mystery genre will have a little extra fun with David’s work editing mystery stories; we even learn which authors Lark follows. Teenaged Sarah is a spunky addition to the diverse mix of characters trying to solve the crime: amateur David, tagging along with Elizabeth, the experienced professional; and indomitable Lucy, whose past holds a secret or two. Then there are the political players: an aging senator about to retire and his up-and-coming daughter-in-law, who may be tied to an old bank robbery. Complex and well-developed characters, a mind-bending plot and a wry tone make this novel impossible to put down.

This review originally ran in the July 8, 2011 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Challenge Update

Well here we are in June. It would be nice if I were on the ball and posting these challenge updates every month, but that does not appear to be at all realistic. My last update was at the beginning of April. Let’s check in again.

Where Are You Reading? is hosted by Sheila at One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books. The idea is to read one book from each of the 50 states within the 2011 year. (Bonus points are awarded for foreign locations.) Take a look at my map to see where I’ve been. So far, I’ve read in 17 states:
New York
South Dakota
New Jersey
New Mexico
….and 9 foreign locations:
Canada: Toronto and BC
St. Mark’s

This is a fun challenge because, so far, I’m not hunting down locations at all, just keeping track; and it’s interesting to see where I’m reading.

The Classics Challenge is hosted by Courtney at Stiletto Storytime, and I signed up for the bachelor’s degree level, meaning 10 classics in 2011. I’m catching up a bit, having now read — classics, and it’s been a great motivator for me, too. I still aspire to a few long ones this year; on my list are Gone with the Wind, Don Quixote and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, among others. But so far, I’ve read:

  1. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
  2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  4. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  5. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

What’s In a Name? is hosted by Beth Fish Reads. The goal is to read books with certain title attributes.

Well hopefully this one will come along all by itself.

I have found challenges in general to be great fun. I’ve only had this blog, oh, 8 months or so now; but it’s really expanded my world in ways that are satisfying both in my job and in my personal life. It’s a bit like having a book club that I can meet with whenever it’s convenient for me, lol. I get book recommendations (both for me, personally, and for purchase for the library where I work). I find out about book trends. I even got a gig writing book reviews for Shelf Awareness. The best parts are the parts that involve being part of a community. Memes like Teaser Tuesdays and Book Beginnings on Fridays call for participation; and challenges are another important way in which I get to interact. So thank you, challengers!

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (audio)

I know Chandler as the mystery author who inspired, among others, Michael Connelly. Connelly is one of my favorite genre authors and cites Chandler as an influence on his work. In fact, Shelf Awareness quotes him (as their Book Brahmin on April 22, 2011), in answer to a question of the book that changed his life: “The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. I was a casual reader of genre fiction. This book made me want to write it.” Thank goodness for that!

I read The Long Goodbye first (and before the above quotation!), and found it to be delightful. I recognized Connelly in his writing style and Harry Bosch in the style of his lead detective. (Of course obviously the influence went the other way around.) So when I saw The Big Sleep on audio – unabridged, necessarily – I snapped it up. I believe the latter was actually his most-renowned work.

You can’t help but like a guy who doesn’t write that “time passed slowly”, but rather writes

Another army of sluggish minutes dragged by.

That’s pretty great. And this:

‘It’s goddamn funny in this police racket how an old woman can look out of a window and see a guy running and pick him out of a lineup six months later, but we can show hotel help a clear photo and they just can’t be sure.’

‘That’s one of the qualifications for good hotel help,’ I said.

You see my point, right? There are some awfully clever, funny, classic moments in this story; Chandler is a fine writer with a distinct style.

The actual story qualifies, too, as clever, funny, and classic. It’s easy to see that this man is one of the fathers of the genre I love. I’m a bit ashamed to note that I’ve read mostly recent authors, and neglected their heritage.

In this novel, Philip Marlowe, PI, is asked to look into a little matter of blackmail for General Sternwood, who has two young, beautiful, highly deviant and troublesome daughters. Marlowe is a man of relatively few, but quite witty words. He fends off both sisters at various point or another while looking into the missing husband of one, unasked. He’s a classic PI; he drinks alone in the morning; I’m pretty sure he wears one of those pulp detective hats – a fedora? At any rate, he releases the Sternwoods from the blackmail and pulls all the pieces together at the end to explain the missing husband too. It’s a tidy little ending, crowned by some grumbled musings on The Human Situation and The Big Sleep.

I liked this book very much and recommend it to readers of detective fiction who want to go back to the genre’s roots.

Do you read in the present or in the past? Do you miss the past, if you read in the present? I know I love my current genre authors (Lee Child, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Elizabeth George) but it’s important and definitely enjoyable also to appreciate the pioneers. I’ve enjoyed Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and one little gem from A.A. Milne; I’ve got a P.G. Wodehouse waiting in the wings. What are YOU up to?

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