Five-Star Books Read in 2015

Songbook by Nick Hornby: “All I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don’t like them as much as I do.” —Nick Hornby, from Songbook. 
Songs, songwriters, and why and how they get under our skin…Songbook is Nick Hornby’s labor of love. A shrewd, funny, and completely unique collection of musings on pop music, why it’s good, what makes us listen and love it, and the ways in which it attaches itself to our lives—all with the beat of a perfectly mastered mix tape. 

I thought that I had only started this years ago and left it unfinished, but according to Goodreads I had it marked as read. I had almost no memory of it, which is weird because on this read-through I was utterly captivated. I started reading it at physio and was cracking my face in half smiling, welling up with tears and laughing out loud within the first few pages (which caused the man on the table across from me to notice, comment and then begin oversharing alarmingly which made me rather regret my imprudent display of emotion, but fortunately his appointment was almost over). You know that quote about writing about music being like dancing about architecture? (I think that's a real quote, unless I just generated it out of my fevered brain). I feel like Nick Hornby could do a waltz that would make me instantly comprehend the totality of the Taj Mahal. I didn't even like all the songs, although I did download some of them. There was just some weird alchemy in these essays where he would start writing and I would start hearing music and by the end it had evoked a complete symphony of emotion. It was masterful. 

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins: Neil Gaiman meets Joe Hill in this astonishingly original, terrifying, and darkly funny contemporary fantasy. 
Carolyn's not so different from the other human beings around her. She's sure of it. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. She even remembers what clothes are for. 
After all, she was a normal American herself, once. 
That was a long time ago, of course—before the time she calls “adoption day,” when she and a dozen other children found themselves being raised by a man they learned to call Father.
Father could do strange things. He could call light from darkness. Sometimes he raised the dead. And when he was disobeyed, the consequences were terrible. 
In the years since Father took her in, Carolyn hasn't gotten out much. Instead, she and her adopted siblings have been raised according to Father's ancient Pelapi customs. They've studied the books in his library and learned some of the secrets behind his equally ancient power. 
Sometimes, they've wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God. 
Now, Father is missing. And if God truly is dead, the only thing that matters is who will inherit his library—and with it, power over all of creation. 
As Carolyn gathers the tools she needs for the battle to come, fierce competitors for this prize align against her. 
But Carolyn can win. She's sure of it. What she doesn't realize is that her victory may come at an unacceptable price—because in becoming a God, she's forgotten a great deal about being human.

Reviewed on blog. If you're going to read it, wait until spring.

Emergence by David R. Palmer: Candidia Maria Smith-Foster, an eleven-year-old girl, is unaware that she's a Homo post hominem, mankind's next evolutionary step. 
With international relations rapidly deteriorating, Candy's father, publicly a small-town pathologist but secretly a government biowarfare expert, is called to Washington. Candy remains at home.
The following day a worldwide attack, featuring a bionuclear plague, wipes out virtually all of humanity (i.e., Homo sapiens). With her pet bird Terry, she survives the attack in the shelter beneath their house. Emerging three months later, she learns of her genetic heritage and sets off to search for others of her kind.

I was actually surprised to find this on this year's list - I could have sworn it was last year, if not the year before. Holy CRAP this was good. By any measure it was good, but for a first novel? It was David-Tennant-as-the-tenth-doctor good. I started out thinking, okaaaaay, an eleven-year-old girl genius as the main (and possibly sole) character? Written mainly in shorthand without articles or pronouns? I don't know, I do not know... but he pulls it all off, explains it all with (almost) air-tight plausibility, and somehow the lack of pronouns and articles makes the funny stuff funnier and the tragic stuff tragicker (oh shut up) and you sort of stop noticing the offbeat style. And he makes you sit through a lot of technical science stuff and somehow you're happy to do it, which if you're me is quite unusual. And then, well, big stuff happens (it's quite something to start with the virtual end of the world and then build up from there), and it's just a wondrously marvelous full-of-wonder creation. And now that I've made you want it, my friend Kerry has drawn my attention to the fact that you probably can't have it, because it's stupidly rare and out of print (WTF, publishers?). I have to search for a copy I can buy without mortgaging my house so I can donate it to the Ottawa Public Library (because 0 copies, WTF OPL?) If you live near me you can borrow mine if you're very, very careful with it.

The Magicians (The Magicians #1) by Lev Grossman: Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn't real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn't bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin's yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they'd imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians, the prequel to the New York Times bestselling book The Magician King and the #1 bestseller The Magician's Land, is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world-where good and evil aren't black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.

 I reread this in preparation for the third book coming out. I hadn't realized when I first read the book that it was the first in a trilogy, and while I felt that it was complete on its own, I was seized with excitement when I realized there was more coming. 
This is what I wrote when I first read it: 

I can't think of an adequate superlative for this book, or enough glowing adjectives. More than anything it made me excited about reading, and writing. It was like that amazing book you read when you've just started reading that makes you aware of the breadth and richness of imagination and possibility there is in literature. It's a brilliant character study and coming of age story, with magic. It has the most marvellous, assured, wondrous language and the most imaginative, questing plot. It's strange and wonderful, it makes you desperate to know what's going to happen next and desperate to read more slowly so it never ends. I wanted to live in the world of this book. I stand in awe of the imagination that created it.
First read in September 2009.

The Magician King (The Magicians #2) by Lev Grossman: Return to Fillory in the riveting sequel to The New York Times bestseller and literary phenomenon of 2009--The Magicians.
The Magicians was praised as a triumph by readers and critics of both mainstream and fantasy literature. Now Grossman takes us back to Fillory, where the Brakebills graduates have fled the sorrows of the mundane world, only to face terrifying new challenges.
Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent's house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.
The Magician King is a grand voyage into the dark, glittering heart of magic, an epic quest for the Harry Potter generation. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling. Once again Grossman proves that he is the cutting edge of literary fantasy.

Reread this too, of course. I felt like this performed the brilliant and daring task of asking: once you get your heart's desire, and have to go on living, well what then? It gets very dark, and I really admire that in this fantasy, there are no loopholes for the sacrifices required - they are actual sacrifices. Once again, I was sated and replete when the book was done, but breathless with excitement about how the trilogy would end. 

The Magician's Land (The Magicians #3) by Lev Grossman: Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose, he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, but he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.
Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of gray magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica, and to buried secrets and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcery masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, and a new Fillory--but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.

I never felt like I needed another book when I finished each one of the books in this trilogy, and yet each successive book added something valuable and enriching. Quentin's character arc is wonderful. This gave me everything I could have hoped for from the end of this series - which mitigates the suckiness of it ending only marginally.

A Corner of White (The Colours of Madeleine #1) by Jaclyn Moriarty: The first in a rousing, funny, genre-busting trilogy from bestseller Jaclyn Moriarty!
This is a tale of missing persons. Madeleine and her mother have run away from their former life, under mysterious circumstances, and settled in a rainy corner of Cambridge (in our world).
Elliot, on the other hand, is in search of his father, who disappeared on the night his uncle was found dead. The talk in the town of Bonfire (in the Kingdom of Cello) is that Elliot's dad may have killed his brother and run away with the Physics teacher. But Elliot refuses to believe it. And he is determined to find both his dad and the truth.
As Madeleine and Elliot move closer to unraveling their mysteries, they begin to exchange messages across worlds -- through an accidental gap that hasn't appeared in centuries. But even greater mysteries are unfolding on both sides of the gap: dangerous weather phenomena called "color storms;" a strange fascination with Isaac Newton; the myth of the "Butterfly Child," whose appearance could end the droughts of Cello; and some unexpected kisses..

I felt like reading this busted me right out of my "I'm so jaded, I've read too much, nothing feels fresh and sparkly anymore" rut. This was like discovering the world of Narnia when i was ten, without all the Christian subtext. There's something so effortless about how she juxtaposes the 'real' world and the 'fantasy' world so that they're both totally believable. the story feels weighty and portentous and yet her touch is light. Love the characters. Love the story. So fresh and sparkly.
Sacré Bleu (A Comedy d'Art) by Christopher Moore: In his latest novel, Moore takes on the Great French Masters. A magnificent “Comedy d’Art”, Sacre Bleu is part mystery, part history (sort of), part love story, and wholly hilarious as it follows a young baker-painter who joins the dapper Henri Toulouse-Lautrec on a quest to unravel the mystery behind the supposed suicide of Vincent van Gogh.

Every time I read a Christopher Moore novel, I wonder why I don't drop everything and do nothing but read all the Christopher Moore novels until there are no more Christopher Moore novels to be read. This is on a shelf in my mind with the Doctor Who episode "Vincent and The Doctor", firmly in the category of fictional rehabilitations of Van Gogh which, if they ain't true, they oughta be. Moore seems to handle everything - sadness, happiness, death, the general ridiculousness of things, sex, religion, magic, art - with the lightest, most loving touch. His work is hysterically funny without being frivolous in the least. It's a great gift. 

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld: A wondrous and redemptive debut novel, set in a stark world where evil and magic coincide, The Enchanted combines the empathy and lyricism of Alice Sebold with the dark, imaginative power of Stephen King.
"This is an enchanted place. Others don't see it, but I do."
The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries magical visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs, with the devastating violence of prison life.
Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest, and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners' pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honor and corruption-ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.
Beautiful and transcendent, The Enchanted reminds us of how our humanity connects us all, and how beauty and love exist even amidst the most nightmarish reality.

I was incredibly tempted to read other reviews before trying to review this because it's sort of rendered me wordless. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, and then I got a little ways in and thought that it might be kind of a cop-out to write about Death Row in a borderline magical-realist style. And then I got a little further in and I changed my mind. She somehow manages to capture the absolute tragic horror of the place, while somehow rendering the only kind of justice and redemption that is possible here, which is extremely slight, but not completely absent. I found this book extremely sad and intense and beautiful and affecting. 

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride: Eimear McBride's debut tells, with astonishing insight and in brutal detail, the story of a young woman's relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist, to read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator's head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn't always comfortable - but it is always a revelation.
Touching on everything from family violence to sexuality and the personal struggle to remain intact in times of intense trauma, McBride writes with singular intensity, acute sensitivity and mordant wit. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is moving, funny – and alarming. It is a book you will never forget.

I don't mean by the five-star rating that I enjoyed this. I read the first few pages, though "WTAF?" and put it down. Then I realized I was being lazy, and how seldom I read things that really challenge me, and picked it up again. It was difficult going on many levels. I felt like the fragmented syntax was a very effective rendering about how the twin poisons of sexual abuse and a religion that was wielded like a truncheon completely unmade the world for the protagonist, and made linear, traditional language useless to communicate her reality. I felt like the author set out to do something incredibly ambitious and succeeded in spades, which I always find amazing. 

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge: The first things to shift were the doll's eyes, the beautiful grey-green glass eyes. Slowly they swivelled, until their gaze was resting on Triss's face. Then the tiny mouth moved, opened to speak. 
'What are you doing here?' It was uttered in tones of outrage and surprise, and in a voice as cold and musical as the clinking of cups. 'Who do you think you are? This is my family.'
When Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows that something is very wrong. She is insatiably hungry; her sister seems scared of her and her parents whisper behind closed doors. She looks through her diary to try to remember, but the pages have been ripped out. 
Soon Triss discovers that what happened to her is more strange and terrible than she could ever have imagined, and that she is quite literally not herself. In a quest find the truth she must travel into the terrifying Underbelly of the city to meet a twisted architect who has dark designs on her family - before it's too late..

Delicious. Dark and intricate with classic themes and archetypes fleshed out with storytelling that felt completely original. Another thumping good read.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby: Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?
Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.
As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

What the ever-loving? One of the things that's been abundantly clear lately is that I've reached some critical mass of reading where a lot of things start to seem derivative. Settings. Plots. Themes. Villains. Heroes. Relationships, particularly romantic ones. It's one thing to know intellectually that there are only seven plots, and another thing to feel like you're actually reading the same seven books over and over again. So you stop, take a breath, get over yourself and realize that there are a limited number of musical notes also, and yet new music is still being made, and it doesn't all suck and sound like a pale imitation of Beethoven or Hendrix. 
Then again, you start keeping your expectations a little low. No matter how many critics or publishers trumpet the words 'original', 'searing', 'raw', 'luminous' or (one of my favourites) 'instant classic', you realize that it's very rare to be truly surprised by a book.
This book surprised me. I don't want to say too much because anyone else who reads it deserves the chance to be surprised as well. It was an intriguing story in a well-woven setting, with some fascinating relationships, and a sense of wrongness and injustice that prodded at me, and there was something else going on that I didn't understand, and then I did, and it was surprising and delightful. I read this on December 27th while I was sick, and I was so grateful to have found it to (nearly) end the reading year on. 


Nicole said…
This looks good. I'm really interested in Bone Gap - I like surprising stories!
Lynn said…
Just put all of them on my to-read list, or the for-my-husband list. Thanks!
Maggie said…
Damn it, my library doesn't have Emergence and it is RIGHT up my alley. Amazon wants $44 for it. ARGH. I hate it when I can't get books I want free or at reasonable prices. Boo.

I recently reread the entire Magicians series and liked it even better the second time around probably because I didn't have to wait a long time between books like I did the first time around and everything just worked really well together. Really book 2 contains one of the most disturbing but entirely perfect within the world he's created scenes. So great.

Just added several books to my library hold list. Cannot wait! I love your lists! In return I can only offer a recommendation for the most recent book I've enjoyed: Carry On. Highly entertaining.
Bibliomama said…
Thanks, Maggie, I'll take it happily. And I'm SO bummed about the Emergence thing. It's not right.
D said…
THANK YOU!! for writing so well about these books. I'm not typically a SciFi reader, but on your recommendation I read the Magicians series and loved it, and today I finished The Library at Mount Char. I was walking around the house with the book in my hand because I was so engrossed. Interesting to think about the overlap between Carolyn and Alice, no? Thanks again for the reviews. Please keep 'em coming!
Alison said…
I love Nick Hornby, especially his nonfiction. Have you read the collections of articles on books that he wrote for The Believer magazine?

Completely agree with the Magicians series.

If a book is "David-Tennant-as-the-tenth-doctor good," then not only is it going on my TBR list, it's going at the top!
Alison said…
Maggie, does your library have an interlibrary loan system? If so, I'm sure some library would have it.
Mary Lynn said…
By the way, I recently bought Bone Gap for Hana (because I'd gone through your GoodReads ratings) and she ended up LOVING it. Said it was so different from other books. So thanks! Now I'm sifting through your old YA posts to find more books for her.

Also, have added Bone Gap to my to-read list.

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