Four Star Books Read in 2015: Genre and Fiction


Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge: Twelve-year-old Mosca Mye hasn't got much. Her cruel uncle keeps her locked up in his mill, and her only friend is her pet goose, Saracen, who'll bite anything that crosses his path. But she does have one small, rare thing: the ability to read. She doesn't know it yet, but in a world where books are dangerous things, this gift will change her life.
Enter Eponymous Clent, a smooth-talking con man who seems to love words nearly as much as Mosca herself. Soon Mosca and Clent are living a life of deceit and danger -- discovering secret societies, following shady characters onto floating coffeehouses, and entangling themselves with crazed dukes and double-crossing racketeers. It would be exactly the kind of tale Mosca has always longed to take part in, until she learns that her one true love -- words -- may be the death of her. 

For the past two years it's been kind of a tradition for me to read a Frances Hardinge book on the first day of the new year. Since I'm pretty sure I'm about to mainline everything she's written that I can get my hands on, this tradition may not be continuable next year. She is spectacularly imaginative and writes the best young female characters and then creates wonderful relationships and quests for them. I often start reading one of her books and wonder a few pages in if it's quite for me, and a few pages later still I find myself swept up and unable to put it down. This seemed like it might be too much of a madcap old-fashioned picaresque novel, but Hardinge's unique spin on it was fascinating. I love her. 

Slade House by David Mitchell: Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door.
Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents — an odd brother and sister — extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late...
Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story—as only David Mitchell could imagine it.

This shouldn't work as well as it does. He tells you so early on exactly what's going on, and then there's an info dump later on which I usually don't like, and it's way too accessible for a David Mitchell book. But it does work. Maybe it's the incredibly detailed history and characterization in each chapter, or the way the orison changes just enough every time, but I was totally engaged, I was rooting for the poor victim every single time, and it felt like a perfect haunted house story.

Joyland by Stephen King: College student Devin Jones took the summer job at Joyland hoping to forget the girl who broke his heart. But he wound up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and dark truths about life—and what comes after—that would change his world forever. 
A riveting story about love and loss, about growing up and growing old—and about those who don't get to do either because death comes for them before their time—Joyland is Stephen King at the peak of his storytelling powers. With all of the emotional impact of King masterpieces such as The Green Mile and The Shawshank RedemptionJoyland is at once a mystery, a horror story, and a bittersweet coming-of-age novel, one that will leave even the most hard-boiled reader profoundly moved.

I love this kind of Stephen King - beautiful, bittersweet, melancholy coming-of-age type stuff, with a subtle hint of the supernatural. 

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King: In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.
In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the "perk" and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.
Brady Hartfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again.
Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.
Mr. Mercedes is a war between good and evil, from the master of suspense whose insight into the mind of this obsessed, insane killer is chilling and unforgettable.

Interesting new tack for King, although anyone who has read on in the trilogy knows that, in fact, the supernatural does come into this story, just later on than usual. I really liked this - the opening set piece is vintage King, where quick character sketches have you caring quite deeply for people that you know are basically cannon-fodder. Bill Hodges is a fantastic character as well. This is what my irascible audio-publisher boss used to call a 'thumping good read'. 

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill: Aging, self-absorbed rock star Judas Coyne has a thing for the macabre -- his collection includes sketches from infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy, a trepanned skull from the 16th century, a used hangman's noose, Aleister Crowley's childhood chessboard, etc. -- so when his assistant tells him about a ghost for sale on an online auction site, he immediately puts in a bid and purchases it. 
The black, heart-shaped box that Coyne receives in the mail not only contains the suit of a dead man but also his vengeance-obsessed spirit. The ghost, it turns out, is the stepfather of a young groupie who committed suicide after the 54-year-old Coyne callously used her up and threw her away. Now, determined to kill Coyne and anyone who aids him, the merciless ghost of Craddock McDermott begins his assault on the rocker's sanity. 

After finally seeing the movie version of Hill's Horns (quite well done, Daniel Radcliffe turns in a fairly impressive performance), I reread that (I think it was last year, and maybe I forgot to record it, otherwise my four-star fiction list would be quite King-and-Hill heavy). I then thought about this and realized I remembered very little about it except that I had admired it, so I reread it too. Hill is Stephen King's son, and although I think some of his writing - especially his short stories - actually surpasses his father's, there is also a lot of homage woven into it. This is an eerie, satisfying story with a flawed character who is allowed to grow throughout the story. 

Redshirts by John Scalzi: Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.
Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that: 
(1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces 
(2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations 
(3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.
Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

I had put off reading this because I suspected it would be a bit of a one-off gag that would pall throughout an entire novel. It did seem like that might be the case for the first bit, but based on my prior experience with Scalzi I should have trusted him to do here what he did - deepen the plot to more than just a gimmick and give us situations to empathize with as well as laugh at. 

Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey: This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside. 

This was a confusing reading experience for a while, because I somehow bought it from Kindle without noting the 'Omnibus' part, and all the reviews were talking about how short Wool was, as I was reading and reading and thinking I'm usually a pretty fast reader, what the hell is going on? Then I realized I was reading the whole thing. I believe this was a self-published short that saw such success that the author continued, which is cool. It was really good. The atmosphere of the Silo, the great journeys and conversations and relationships that developed while traveling up and down the endless stairs was so well done I could see it in my mind; then, just when it would have been stultifying to continue this, the story opens up a little and goes somewhere else. 


Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads:
Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).
Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.
New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.
Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

I started reading it and thought that it felt a little junk-food-ish, and that this author seems particularly obsessed with the brutal intricacies of primary-grade school parent politics. I read a little more (and yes, neglected my children and the laundry and cooking until I finished it) and found that in a couple of places she was bang on about MY experiences with the brutal intricacies of primary-grade school parent politics, and being a wife and a mother. If I had any complaints, they would probably be that almost everybody is a complete 'type', and that she veers to the heavy-handed in delivering her 'message' once or twice, but mostly she maintains a very fine balance between propulsive narrative, startling moments of insight, a judicious dose of humour, and just a thumping good read.

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty: Sophie Honeywell always wondered if Thomas Gordon was the one she let get away. He was the perfect boyfriend, but on the day he was to propose, she broke his heart. A year later he married his travel agent, while Sophie has been mortifyingly single ever since. Now Thomas is back in her life because Sophie has unexpectedly inherited his aunt Connie's house on Scribbly Gum Island -- home of the famously unsolved Munro Baby mystery.Sophie moves onto the island and begins a new life as part of an unconventional family where it seems everyone has a secret. Grace, a beautiful young mother, is feverishly planning a shocking escape from her perfect life. Margie, a frumpy housewife, has made a pact with a stranger, while dreamy Aunt Rose wonders if maybe it's about time she started making her own decisions.As Sophie's life becomes increasingly complicated, she discovers that sometimes you have to stop waiting around -- and come up with your own fairy-tale ending.As she so adroitly did in her smashing debut novel, Three Wishes, the incomparable Liane Moriarty once again combines sharp wit, lovable and eccentric characters, and a page-turning story for an unforgettable Last Anniversary.

I wish I could get over this stupid guilty feeling I have when I enjoy one of Liane Moriarty's books. She's funny, inventive, and able to pull off quite convoluted plots with seeming effortlessness. She even avoids the Hollywood ending here - I think. Honestly, I was slightly baffled by the ending, and I still really liked the book. I'm just going to stop pretending that she hasn't become one of my favourite authors. It's not true that a million people can't be wrong, but it's also not true that a million people can't possibly be right, and I can overcome my inherent book snobbery enough to admit that. Also, scribbly gum trees - best thing ever.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
So begins Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen's witty comedy of manners--one of the most popular novels of all time--that features splendidly civilized sparring between the proud Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet as they play out their spirited courtship in a series of eighteenth-century drawing-room intrigues.

Okay, obviously nobody needs me to say anything about the book (like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory says, "he has too much pride, she has too much prejudice - it just works"). So I'll just talk about myself. I must have read this in high school, or university, but I don't remember exactly when. I finally decided to admit that I really didn't understand anything about it the first time I read it, so I read it again. I am not a passionate devotee of Jane Austen, I'm just not - I think maybe I just have a more modern sensibility where books are concerned. I still recognize the greatness in it. Although on this read I sort of thought Mr. Bennet was less funny and more of a dick. I could probably stand to read it again, and then read the rest of Jane Austen, because it might be like Virginia Woolf, where I only start to understand her writing more deeply when I'm in the Virginia Woolf groove, which takes several books to get into. 

Longbourn by Jo Baker: • Pride and Prejudice was only half the story • 
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them. 
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended. 
Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own. 

This, I loved. Which I probably would not have if I was a passionate devotee of Jane Austen, if the Goodreads crowd is anything to go by. She does take a couple of extreme liberties with the source material, but mostly she weaves this around it with a sweet dexterity. I reread Pride and Prejudice immediately before this, which made it a very rich reading experience - I loved this as a companion book to P&P, but I also agree that it's a wonderful story in its own right. 

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson: Crow Lake is that rare find, a first novel so quietly assured, so emotionally pitch perfect, you know from the opening page that this is the real thing—a literary experience in which to lose yourself, by an author of immense talent.
Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural “badlands” of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur—offstage. 
Centerstage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protegee, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world. 
In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one’s expectations right to the very end. Tragic, funny, unforgettable, Crow Lake is a quiet tour de force that will catapult Mary Lawson to the forefront of fiction writers today.

It took me forever to pick this up although it was on my shelves for years - I'm thankful that someone put it on the book club list. I thought it was quite lovely. The main character was not exactly likable but still somehow sympathetic, and the story was really great - one of those where events take place over such a space of time that great changes and small insights are able to develop. Good sense of place also. I didn't want to stop reading.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. 
Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air. 
Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. 
Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way--a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a "game" to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. 
As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lvies of all those involved--the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them--are swept up in a wake of spells and charms. 
But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration. With no knowledge of how the game must end, they innocently tumble headfirst into love. A deep, passionate, and magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. 
Their masters still pull the strings, however, and this unforeseen occurrence forces them to intervene with dangerous consequences, leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance. 
Both playful and seductive, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's spell-casting debut, is a mesmerizing love story for the ages.

It's beautiful and langourous and dreamy and spins circles within circles and all the games are long games. I absolutely understand why some people would find it intolerable, but I loved it. 

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.
Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes—a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.
With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation is a novel to be devoured in a single sitting, though its bracing emotional insights and piercing meditations on despair and love will linger long after the last page.

This was remarkable. I'd be really interested to read something else of hers - the style is so distinctive here, and I wonder if she'd be as compelling in a different style, or if she uses it all the time. I wondered briefly if it's actually easier to write a novel this way, in this spare, almost detached style. Then I stopped wondering in a frenzy of desire to highlight almost every single sentence - like this one: How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be. This isn't a book full of characters you want to hang out with, but she generates compassion for them, all of them, and it made me laugh in rueful self-recognition and want to be kinder to everyone. 

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan: The passionate and turbulent story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny.At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne leaves her philandering husband in San Francisco and sets sail for Belgium to study art, with her three children and a nanny in tow. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her brood repair to a quiet artists' colony in France where she can recuperate. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who is instantly smitten with the earthy, independent and opinionated belle AmericaineA woman ahead of her time, Fanny does not immediately take to the young lawyer who longs to devote his life to literature, and who would eventually write such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson's charms. The two begin a fierce love affair, marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness, which spans decades as they travel the world for the sake of his health. Eventually they settled in Samoa, where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried underneath the epitaph:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
(Requiem, Robert Louis Stevenson)

Both this and the Alexander Graham Bell book were on my book club list this year, which was neat because there were several resonances between them - the poem above was actually read at Bell's funeral. I'm not sure why the synopsis in this says it's about Stevenson and his 'tempestuous' American wife, since for the most part it was Stevenson who got to play the temperamental artist and Fanny was the steadying influence. But as another example of historicized fiction rehabilitating the wife of a famous man, it was captivating. Fanny is a prime example of an intelligent, artistic woman who would have been famous in her own right if she had been born in a different time. I also enjoyed learning more about Stevenson, though, and the relationship between them. 
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

Agh, I keep typing sentences and erasing them because they come out so trite. I loved this. I admire any book that really manages to humanize the effects of war, and this one made the whole thing seem so immediate. I know this type of thing has been done before - two characters on opposite sides of the conflict, and their stories eventually converging - and I can't quite articulate why this one seemed so effective to me, just that it did. The fact that both main characters were so young also gave a very particular perspective, as well as Marie-Laure's blindness, and the model cities, and the radio transmitters, and the cursed diamond. There was so much going on, but the author managed to keep it controlled. It just had that magical something that elevates a book from good to great.


StephLove said…
A friend of mine recommended The Night Circus to me a while back. Haven't read it yet.

I like that quote about having fewer things to make fun of as you grow older.

I liked Joyland quite a bit, too.
Magpie said…
oh dear. more things to read!

try georgette heyer. like jane austen but funnier.
Sarah McCormack said…
I loved All the Light... reminded me of the Book Thief, which is my favorite book!
Nicole said…
Oooh, these look really good. I love love LOVE Jane Austen. I first read her in first year university and I still have my P&P used copy with the Student Union bookstore sticker in the front. It's all worn out but I lurve it. That said, I haven't read the other book because of my love for Jane Austen. I have a confession to make: I haven't read any Stephen King except for Misery, and the reason is MISERY IS SCARY. I haven't been able to pick up King since then, but maybe that's unfair of me and I should try.

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