I read 29 books this year (plus two I didn't finish), which proves that deleting Candy Crush from my iPad was a really good decision. Here are some statistics:
- 20 fiction, 11 non-fiction
- 17 female authors, 14 male authors
- 23 American/British authors, 8 from elsewhere
- 18 books about American/British characters, 13 books set elsewhere
- 8 countries represented: Greece, Liberia, India, North Korea, Turkey, Nigeria, Burundi, Russia
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ = best books of the year
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ = honorable mentions
⭐️⭐️⭐️ = decent, entertaining reads
⭐️⭐️ = dull or flawed
⭐️ = did not finish
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book has haunted me for months, and it is unquestionably the best book I read this year. Based on a Russian fairy tale, it tells the story of a childless couple who move to the Alaskan frontier to start a new life. One night, they build a little girl from snow; the next morning, there's a strange child roaming the woods. Just remembering the spare and elegant prose gives me chills (and I do mean that literally).
Eleni by Nicholas Gage ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
When Nicholas Gage was a child, his mother was executed by Communist guerillas in thier Greek mountain village. Her crime? Helping Nicholas and his siblings escape a plot to send Greek children to Eastern Europe to be raised by Communist families. Nicholas grows up to become a reporter for the NY Times, and decades later, he returns to Greece to piece together the story of his mother's life and find the people responsible for her death. This piece of non-fiction is every bit as compelling as a novel. I could barely put it down.
Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Leymah Gbowee helped to organize the women's peace movement in Liberia, which helped to end that country's decades-old civil war. For weeks, Liberian woman held silent vigils in the capital city, standing in brutal heat and pounding rain. They followed international negotiators to conferences and some even refused to have sex with their husbands until the war was over. Gbowee's journey is all the more remarkable for the fact that she spent much of her adult life in an abusive marriage, which she recounts in the first half of the book. Read this book if you want to be reminded that there is good in the world.
The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
An achingly real look at a teenage boy at a prep school for teens who have been kicked out of other prep schools. As the story unfolds, we hear the defects in his privileged life and find out exactly what sins he committed at his old school. In some ways, this was a tough read because characters we genuinely like do terrible things -- but then, that's also what makes the book so good. Contains potentially triggering content.
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I can't remember being so absorbed a book in a long time. A kind of Forrest Gump for North Korea, the novel tells the story of a young man whose life somehow spans all of North Korea, from near-starvation in an orphanage, the military, labor camps, and the privileged enclave of Pyongyang. What's even more amazing is that so many of the details of daily life in North Korea are completely true.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book chronicles everyday lives in North Korea by interviewing several defectors who escaped to the South. I've re-written this blurb three times trying to eliminate the overuse of the word "fascinating" beause this book seriously is fascinating. You get a huge variety of subjects: people who were faithful to the regime, people who were always poor, people who grew up in privilege. You get to hear their young loves, their high school studies, and the experiences that turned them against North Korea. Then you get to read about how hard it is to adjust to a free society after living in such a controlled one. Fascinating!
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Another fascinating peek into lives that are different from our own. Journalist Katherine Boo spent a year chronicling the life of an Indian slum. I like how she shows that they are ordinary people living ordinary lives, albeit in difficult conditions.
The House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Journalist Helene Cooper had a privileged childhood in Liberia as one of the "Congo People," the ancestors of the freed African-American slaves who settled in the country after the American civil war. When Cooper was in high school, tension between Congo People and indigenous Africans spilled over into a brutal war that forced Cooper and her family to escape to America. The book is beautifully written, gives insight into a little-known country, and doesn't shy away from the role that the author's family played in creating their own misfortune.
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Above-average writing distinguishes this coming-of-age story about two girls who take the bus alone to live with distant relatives after their mother abandons them.
Trapeze by Simon Mawer ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I should really stop reading novels about British girls spying behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France. They only break my heart. This was a really, really good novel though. I loved the main character -- she felt young, flawed, a little naive -- exactly like a real person plunged into an extraordinary circumstance. I missed her a lot when the book was done.
Americanaha by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Characters who feel like real people are my biggest literary turn-on (if you couldn't tell from the other reviews). This book delivers beautifully with a sympathetic but flawed heroine who negotiates college, relationships, and American race relations while mourning a failed love affair. The book is probably a hundred pages longer than it should be, but I still really enjoyed it.
Grace Land by Chris Abani ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
A beautifully described novel about a teenage boy trying -- and failing -- to make a life for himself in the slums of Lago, Nigeria. The main character is a real literary achievement, so believably flawed that he feels like a real person.
The Island by Victoria Hislop ⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book is not going to win any awards for writing style, and some of the plot developments were a bit soap operatic. Still, when you're reading, this story about two Greek women exiled to a leper colony, is pretty riveting. The setting is practically a character all by itself! I recommend it for a day when you want something entertaining and escapist, but not necessarily high-brow.
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Interesting non-fiction about a guy who was born into a North Korean labor camp and became one of the only people on earth who ever escaped from one. I really liked it, but it was later supplanted by other books that gave a deeper picture of life in the country.
The Cuckoo's Calling by J.K. Rowling ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Not a lot actually happened in this book, yet I was completely enthralled. Every time I see this book in my library, I remember how much I liked the characters and how excited I am for a sequel.
Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder ⭐️⭐️⭐️
A book-length interview with a man who survived Burundi's genocide in the early 1990s and rebuilt his life in the United States. Does it make me a bad person if material like this didn't leave much of an impression? I know it was good, but I barely remember reading it now.
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman ⭐️⭐️⭐️
When I found out the popular Netflix series was based on a true story, I immediately had to read the memoir. The real Piper's prison experience isn't as sensational as her video counterpart's, but this was still an interesting read with some invaluable perspectives on what puts poor women in prison.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan ⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book was a slow start (hence the three star rating), but by the end it reminded me why Ian McEwan is one of my favorite authors. The characters are so achingly real and ordinary that it almost makes me uncomfortable, the signature plot twist at the end made the whole book resonate in unexpected ways.
You Are One of Them by Elliot Holt ⭐️⭐️⭐️
At the height of the Cold War, two best friends write letters to the Kremlin. One of the girls is invited to the Soviet Union and becomes a celebrity, then dies mysteriously in a plane crash. Years later, after the Cold War is over, the other girl moves to Russia to start a new life and find out how her friend died. A quick and engrossing read that perfectly captures the alienation of living in a new country and not knowing what to do with your life.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri ⭐️⭐️⭐️
The thing I most want from a book are characters who feel like real people. This book delivered plenty of them, so I feel hypocritical for not liking it better. The story focuses on Subhash, the quiet, steady brother of a Communist guerilla in Calcutta. When said brother is killed, Subhash marries his widow. Does that sound like a bad idea? If not, it definitely should. Unfortunately, this book hit a couple of my literary pet peeves: one, a dull protagonist who mostly observes a really interesting woman who needs more screen time. Two, characters who could solve their problems if they would have even one honest conversation. It is well-written, so I give it three stars, but I don't suggest reading it yourself.
I'm Down by Mishna Wolff ⭐️⭐️⭐️
The bottom of the three star heap. I find the premise of this memoir -- white girl grows up in a black neighborhood -- problematic, but I read it anyway because the first chapter was so funny. In truth, it has little to do with race and a lot to do with growing up in a dysfunctional household with self-absorbed parents. I've read a lot of memoirs about that, and this one doesn't stand out.
The Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Goines ⭐️⭐️
This book is at the top of the two star heap. It has lots of interesting pieces, none of which add up to a coherent whole. I really enjoyed the book's historical fiction plot line about female missionaries unwisely staking out territory in far rural China. The present-day story line was pretty WTF, and it was totally unnecessary to the book.
A World Apart: Women, Prison, Life Behind Bars by Christine Rathbone ⭐️⭐️
Apparently the Department of Corrections made it very, very hard for this writer to interview female inmates, which is probably why the book feels thin and unfinished. The historical details about the development of women's prisons in the United States just felt like padding to make the book long enough. Orange is the New Black covers similar material in a more engaging and thorough way.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell ⭐️⭐️
Engaging writing covers up a number of logical inconsistencies, which I ranted about in my original post. Not recommended for Vulcans or debate coaches.
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky ⭐️⭐️
Bronsky has a real gift for creating characters who feel like real human beings. Unfortunately, the lead charactr of this book is such a vile person that it's hard to want to read about her. Not much happens in the book, and it ends pretty abruptly. I did enjoy the peek at life in Dagestan after the fall of Communism, but not enough to recommend the book to others.
Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith ⭐️⭐️
This novella chronicles one day in the life of a vintage loving bibliophile in Portland. It sounds like exactly the kind of thing I would love, but this book seriously dragged, even though it was only eighty pages. Now I can barely remember it.
A Clash of Kings and A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin ⭐️⭐️
Sorry fandom! I tried to love these books, but I did not succeed. I feel about them the same way I do about Lord of the Rings: this dude needs an editor, and probably also a thesaurus. I'll only devote my precious reading time to books this long if every single word needs to be there. These books don't meet that standard.
Canada by Richard Ford ⭐️⭐️\
What was this book doing on NPR's best books of the year list? The plot sounded interesting enough: twins' lives take an unexpected turn when their parents decide to rob a bank. Unfortunately, there's not one likeable character in the whole book, and a lot of events just left me feeling...icky.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers ⭐️
I tried to like this critical darling written by an Iraq war veteran. Maybe the relentless (and undeserved) comparisons to The Things They Carried threw me off, or maybe it was the impossibly ornate sentences that actually said nothing. No thanks.
Snow by Orhan Pamuk ⭐️
Orhan Pamuk writes pretentious and dull books. I really, really tried with this novel about a down-on-his-luck poet sent to investigate a string of teenage suicides in a remote region of Turkey. When three Turkish people told me they hated the book too, I decided it was okay to stop.