Five-Star Books Read in 2016

As usual, I make no claim to any kind of objectivity or even consistency in applying a five-star rating -  it's a perplexing combination of the actual book, my mood, the timing and whatever else I'm reading at the same time. I try really hard not to feel 'obligated' to give a top rating - by the opinions of other readers or anything else - but this year I feel like maybe I could have been a little freer with the five-star appraisal, especially when looking over some of the four-stars. Whatever. Here they are.

Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Anne Whiston-Donaldson: On an ordinary September day, twelve-year-old Jack is swept away in a freak neighborhood flood. His parents and younger sister are left to wrestle with the awful questions: How could God let this happen? And, Can we ever be happy again? They each fall into the abyss of grief in different ways. And in the days and months to come, they each find their faltering way toward peace.
In Rare Bird, Anna Whiston-Donaldson unfolds a mother’s story of loss that leads, in time, to enduring hope. “Anna’s storytelling,” says Glennon Doyle Melton, “is raw and real and intense and funny.”
With this unforgettable account of a family’s love and longing, Anna will draw you deeper into a divine goodness that keeps us—beyond all earthly circumstances—safe. This is a book about facing impossible circumstances and wanting to turn back the clock. It is about the flicker of hope in realizing that in times of heartbreak, God is closer than your own skin. It is about discovering that you’re braver than you think.

Obviously I didn't LIKE reading this. But I also don't give five stars to any book by someone who's lost someone - I will give them my heartfelt sympathy, but grief doesn't make your book amazing. This book is amazing. She says you can't get an A in grieving (which coincides with my own indefensible sense that some people do grieve better than others) but I think she does. She captures her son's exceptional sweetness, but she doesn't idealize him beyond belief. She takes comfort in her faith and in signs and wonders without losing all skepticism. She's a devout Christian who cusses colourfully. I wish she's never had to write this book, obviously, but I'm so grateful I got to read it. (Was anyone else pissed off at the neighbours? I was so pissed off at the neighbours. Every day she has to watch the kids who played by the river while her son was drowning, and she gets chastised for not being NICE enough to them? Really? Clearly I am not as charitable and forgiving). 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?  
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a Foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an Epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality. 
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir. 
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

This book may have been amazing to me chiefly because if I had terminal metastasized cancer I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be up to writing a limerick, let alone putting together an insightful, gracious book devoid of self-pity and containing a wealth of wisdom, kindness and humour. Paul Kalanithi was definitely a type-A personality and had a surgeon's ego - "Let's see, to which field of study should I turn my prodigious intellect in order to solve the mysteries of life and death as efficiently as possible?" - and he was hugely intelligent and ambitious. I just find his determination to keep striving towards a good life and a good death in the face of an overwhelmingly disheartening and unlikely catastrophe very compelling.

Step Aside, Pops: A Hark, a Vagrant! Collection by Kate Beaton: The sequel to the hit comic collection Hark! a Vagrant, which appeared on best of lists from TimeNPR and USA Today; spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list; and won Harvey, Ignatz, and Doug Wright awards.
Cartoonist Kate Beaton returns with all-new sidesplitting comics that showcase her irreverent love of history, pop culture, and literature. Collected from her wildly popular website, readers will guffaw over “Strong Female Characters,” the wicked yet chivalrous Black Prince, “Straw Feminists in the Closet,” and a disgruntled Heathcliff. Delight in what the internet has long known—Beaton’s humour is as sharp and dangerous as a velocipedestrienne, so watch out!

Oh my god, oh my god, where has Kate Beaton been all my life? Well, she's been right there for a good part of it, being incandescently funny (in ways like this, for example) I was just too dense to discover her comic genius until this book practically had to fall off a shelf on my head. Like Emily Dickinson, Beaton tells the truth but tells it slant. The humour is sharp and whip-smart and often twisted. The words and pictures compliment each other perfectly. I bought this book or her first one for practically everyone I knew for Christmas. 

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: The world is at peace, said the Utterances. And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?
Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.
Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.
As Greta and Elián watch their nations tip closer to war, Greta becomes a target in a new kind of game. A game that will end up killing them both—unless she can find a way to break all the rules.

Erin Bow wrote Plain Kate, one of my very favourite books ever, even though it was terribly sad. Then she wrote Sorrow's Knot, which was also very good and possibly even sadder. When I saw the synopsis for this book, I had to keep double-checking whether it was, in fact, the same author, since the Modest-Proposal-adjacent plot device sounded like such a departure. Of course, while the subject matter has gone all future-y rather than past-ish like the other two books, the constants remain the same - heartachingly beautiful writing, wonderful, strong, fiercely intelligent, striving characters and thought-provoking exploration of issues. Erin Bow is a clear-eyed, fearless storyteller, and nothing here exactly follows the expected path. I can't wait for the next in the series. 

Louise Beeston is being haunted.
Louise has no reason left to stay in the city. She can't see her son, Joseph, who is away at boarding school, where he performs in a prestigious boys' choir. Her troublesome neighbor has begun blasting choral music at all hours of the night—and to make matters worse, she's the only one who can hear it.
Hoping to find some peace, Louise convinces her husband, Stuart, to buy them a country house in an idyllic, sun-dappled gated community called Swallowfield. But it seems that the haunting melodies of the choir have followed her there. Could it be that her city neighbor has trailed her to Swallowfield, just to play an elaborate, malicious prank? Is there really a ghostly chorus playing outside her door? And why won't they stop? Growing desperate, she begins to worry about her mental health.
Against the pleas and growing disquiet of her husband, Louise starts to suspect that this sinister choir is not only real but a warning. But of what? And how can it be, when no one else can hear it?
In The Orphan Choir, Sophie Hannah brings us along on a darkly suspenseful investigation of obsession, loss, and the malevolent forces that threaten to break apart a loving family.

I read this in the midst of a run where I disagreed with everybody on Goodreads about every book I had read lately, and it was no different, except for my eminently sensible friend Sarah (HI SARAH). I don't think I've ever seen a better illustration of the term 'psychological suspense'. Louise's twin aggravations - the neighbour who blasts loud music at night and the school choir that is co-opting her young son's entire childhood - are so sharply portrayed that I could feel my blood pressure rising. A fine balance is maintained between a suspicion of paranoia and the belief that terrible forces actually are at work, and the resolution was perfect and devastating.

A Tangle of Gold (The Colours of Madeleine #3) by Jaclyn Moriarty: His visit turned out to be ridiculously brief. Madeleine and Elliot barely talked before word came that he and his father would be bundled back to Cello. On the train platform, Elliot didn’t snap out of the distant fog he seemed to be in. And Madeleine’s nose bled—again!—just as she tried to say good-bye. Now she’s mortified, heartbroken, lost—and completely cut off from Cello.
Cello, meanwhile, is in crisis. Princess Ko’s deception of her people has emerged and the Kingdom is outraged. Authorities have placed the Princess under arrest and ordered her execution. Color storms are rampant, more violent than ever. And nobody has heard the Cello Wind blowing in months.
But Madeleine can’t let go of Cello. It gave her a tantalizing glimpse of the magic she’s always wanted—and maybe it’s the key to the person she is meant to become. She also can’t let go of Elliot, who, unbeknownst to her, is being held captive by a dangerous branch of Hostiles.
What will it take to put these two on a collision course to save the Kingdom of Cello, and maybe to save each other?
For fans of Lev Grossman and Deborah Harkness, this funny, suspenseful, and totally original fantasy comes to its brilliantly colorful conclusion.

I've written about the many-authored many-sistered Moriarty family before, not that I can find the post now. They're Australian, which not that many years ago would have meant that I would have been even less likely to stumble across A Corner of White, and I don't even want to think about the lifetime in which I didn't get to read these books. I've been a dismal re-reader for most of my life - there's always so many more books to get to it's hard to make myself go back - but I've started forcing myself to take the time, especially to reread the previous two books when the last one in a trilogy comes out. This is one of my all-time favourite trilogies, and this conclusion was completely audacious and assured and satisfying and wonderful. There is so much in this series to love, from Cambridge and the way science and philosophy and magic are all braided together so matter-of-factly, to Cello and its magical, dangerous colours. The world-building is so amazing that every wondrous new thing that's introduced is a jaw-dropping surprise and yet simultaneously seems absolutely inarguably right. I've heard the same complaints about A Tangle of Gold that I've heard about the third book in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy (which I also adored): that some hitherto-unintroduced matter was "suddenly" brought in. This complaint baffles me - is the whole point of a concluding book in a trilogy not to synthesize and build on the stories of the foregoing books while bringing in additional information to draw the whole thing to a magnificent conclusion? This was everything I wanted from this story and more. 


StephLove said…
I've been struggling with what's the criteria for a 5-star book. I want it to be "a book that made a difference in my life" but that's hard to know unless you're re-reading decades later.

And since you're done with your year in review now, I have a meta question. I've only been on GR for 6 or 7 months. About writing the reviews, Noah asked me, "What's in it for you?" I said I like seeing what my friends write about books we've both read, so I do it partly in hopes of that happening more often, but it's also a form of self-expression and way to engage with the book. So my question if you hadn't guessed is... what's in it for you?
Nicole Boyhouse said…
I'm putting all of these on my list!
S said…
Hahahah I just saw this. I usually love Sophie Hannah's stuff, with only a couple of exceptions. Of course I am also a sucker for the genre.

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