Books Read in 2018: Five Star Books

Five Star Rereads

The Book of Lost Things by John ConnollyHigh in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness. Angry and alone, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a world that is a strange reflection of his own -- populated by heroes and monsters and ruled by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things.
Taking readers on a vivid journey through the loss of innocence into adulthood and beyond, New York Times bestselling author John Connolly tells a dark and compelling tale that reminds us of the enduring power of stories in our lives.

I first read this in August 2011, and reread in May of this year. I really like Connolly's regular series - dark mystery/thrillers with a magic realism-style layering of the supernatural - but this is something really wonderful. It reads like an instant classic to me, and I imagine I will reread it many times. The themes are timeless - coming of age, finding one's courage, loss, division, love, death - and the writing voice has the requisite gravitas and beauty to carry them. It's very dark and very sad, but not nihilistic.

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith - Michael Marshall Smith’s surreal, groundbreaking, and award-winning debut which resonates with wild humour interlaced with dark recollections of an emotional minefield.
Stark lives in Colour, a neighbourhood whose inhabitants like to be co-ordinated with their surroundings – a neighbourhood where spangly purple trousers are admired by the walls of buildings as you pass them. Close by is Sound, where you mustn’t make any, apart from one designated hour a day when you can scream your lungs raw. Then there’s Red – get off at Fuck Station Zero if you want to see a tactical nuclear battle recreated as a sales demonstration.
Stark has friends in Red, which is just as well because Something is about to happen. And when a Something happens it’s no good chanting ‘Duck and cover’ while cowering in a corner, because a Something is always from the past, Stark’s past, and it won’t go away until you face it full on.

In a kind of twisty way, this book goes well with the previous one, and not because I also read it first in 2011, although that's kind of funny and weird. Before rereading, I remembered I had liked it, but the only thing that stuck in my mind was a futuristic setting, the protagonist climbing over some kind of weird structure, and someone - well, I won't say that, it would be a spoiler. It was fun to read again, and it corresponds with The Book of Lost Things because of Stark's dialogue between his past and future selves, and the incredible power of stories. It's inventive, has some wonky humour, and it's surprising and sad and sort of kind in the way that very good science fiction is. Now that I've read pretty much everything else by this author, I can see signs of this being a first novel, but the voice has only grown more assured, not changed substantially. 

Five Star Fantasy

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonThe Rules of Blackheath
Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. 
There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit. 
We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer. 
Understood? Then let's begin...
Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others...
The most inventive debut of the year twists together a mystery of such unexpected creativity it will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

Holy freaking crap this was cool. It's very rare to find an inventive, intricate plot like this with writing that adds layers of insight and inspiration. The way the narrator deals with being in different hosts and battling their core personalities was one of the most compelling parts of the story. I love the feeling of not knowing what's going on but being able to feel that it's something special, and then not being let down by the culmination. I stayed up way too late finishing this the night before New Year's Eve. It was totally worth it. 
Homecoming by Susan Palwick - Homecoming, by Susan Palwick, is a dark fantasy novelette about  a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who yearns to leave her village and go to sea with her best friend, a boy about her own age, despite natural and supernatural dangers. 

Actually a novelette (99 cents on Kindle!) by one of my favourite authors. Beautiful writing, beautiful story. Do yourself a favour and read it. 

Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley #1 New York Times bestseller Maria Dahvana Headley’s soaring sky fantasy Magonia is now in paperback!
Since she was a baby, Aza Ray Boyle has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.
Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found by another. Magonia.
Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

Probably would have been four stars on a different day, but the worldmaking really blew me away. It was kind of like John Green meets Philip Pullman. I do foresee a love triangle in the sequel, which, bleah, but still. 

The Lie Tree by Frances HardingeFaith Sunderly leads a double life. To most people, she is reliable, dull, trustworthy - a proper young lady who knows her place as inferior to men. But inside, Faith is full of questions and curiosity, and she cannot resist mysteries: an unattended envelope, an unlocked door. She knows secrets no one suspects her of knowing. She knows that her family moved to the close-knit island of Vane because her famous scientist father was fleeing a reputation-destroying scandal. And she knows, when her father is discovered dead shortly thereafter, that he was murdered.
In pursuit of justice and revenge, Faith hunts through her father's possessions and discovers a strange tree. The tree bears fruit only when she whispers a lie to it. The fruit of the tree, when eaten, delivers a hidden truth. The tree might hold the key to her father's murder - or it may lure the murderer directly to Faith herself.

I discovered Hardinge a few years ago and, because the stories seemed such timeless classics, was a bit surprised and wholly delighted to learn that she was still writing. This year (2019) was the first year in the past few that I didn't begin by reading a Hardinge book, only because I didn't have one at hand. This book was my first read on 2018 and was full of marvels and wonders. Much of Hardinge's work features young girls in dire circumstances who go on to discover their considerable powers and do amazing things, with magic thrown into the heady mix. I wish I had been able to read these as a middle-grader or young teenager.

The Anomaly (The Anomaly Files #1) by Michael RutgerNot all secrets are meant to be found.
If Indiana Jones lived in the X-Files era, he might bear at least a passing resemblance to Nolan Moore -- a rogue archaeologist hosting a documentary series derisively dismissed by the "real" experts, but beloved of conspiracy theorists.
Nolan sets out to retrace the steps of an explorer from 1909 who claimed to have discovered a mysterious cavern high up in the ancient rock of the Grand Canyon. And, for once, he may have actually found what he seeks. Then the trip takes a nasty turn, and the cave begins turning against them in mysterious ways.
Nolan's story becomes one of survival against seemingly impossible odds. The only way out is to answer a series of intriguing questions: What is this strange cave? How has it remained hidden for so long? And what secret does it conceal that made its last visitors attempt to seal it forever?

Surprise! Michael Rutger is also Michael Marshall Smith AND Michael Marshall, and no, I don't know why he needs to be ALL of the Michaels, but I'll happily read any and all Michaely stuff he cares to generate. Again, five stars might be stretching it a bit, except that, like The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I find it a rare and remarkable thing when a tight, terrific plot is clothed with praiseworthy prose, and Smith's or Marshall's or Rutger's voice just really strikes a chord with me - it's how I think I would write if I wrote thrillers, or how I would want to. 

Five Star Mystery

Snap by Belinda Bauer - On a stifling summer's day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack's in charge, she said. I won't be long.
But she doesn't come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever.
Three years later, mum-to-be Catherine wakes to find a knife beside her bed, and a note that says: I could have killed you.
Meanwhile Jack is still in charge - of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they're alone in the house, and - quite suddenly - of finding out the truth about what happened to his mother.

But the truth can be a dangerous thing .

A mystery is never just  mystery where Belinda Bauer is concerned, except in the larger sense that life and human relationships and coincidences and fate are a mystery. So this isn't just a great mystery novel, it's a great novel, period. 

Five Star Fiction

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson - Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The good ones. The not-so-good ones. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. But Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like the indignity of school is worthwhile. Who makes the idea of growing up less terrifying. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.
Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she is very sick and won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a plan. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand just what Ms. Bixby means to Topher, Brand, and Steve—and what they are willing to go to such great lengths to tell her.
John David Anderson, the acclaimed author of Sidekicked, returns with a story of three kids, a very special teacher, and one day that none of them will ever forget.

This was incredible. Sad but not depressing, intense but not melodramatic, heartwarming but not cheesy. Will be looking for his other book. 

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf - A spare yet eloquent, bittersweet yet inspiring story of a man and a woman who, in advanced age, come together to wrestle with the events of their lives and their hopes for the imminent future.
In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf's inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis's wife. His daughter lives hours away in Colorado Springs, her son even farther away in Grand Junction, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in houses now empty of family, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with. 
Their brave adventures - their pleasures and their difficulties - are hugely involving and truly resonant, making Our Souls at Night the perfect final installment to this beloved writer's enduring contribution to American literature.

Someone recommended this to me just with the title, so I had no idea what to expect. It was so lovely - quiet and simple, and yet plunging right to the heart of human grief and loss and yearning for connection. 

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell - A Reunion of Ghosts is the shared confessional of three sisters who have decided to kill themselves at the end of the 20th century, honoring the dark legacy that has haunted their extraordinary family for decades
How do three sisters write a single suicide note? 
In the waning days of 1999, the Alter sisters—Lady, Vee, and Delph—finalize their plans to end their lives. Their reasons are not theirs alone; they are the last in a long line of Alters who have killed themselves, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the first poison gas used in World War I and the lethal agent used in Third Reich gas chambers. The chemist himself, their son Richard, and Richard’s children all followed suit.
The childless sisters also define themselves by their own bad luck. Lady, the oldest, never really resumed living after her divorce. Vee is facing cancer’s return. And Delph, the youngest, is resigned to a spinster’s life of stifled dreams. But despite their pain they love each other fiercely, and share a darkly brilliant sense of humor.
As they gather in the ancestral Upper West Side apartment to close the circle of the Alter curse, an epic story about four generations of one family—inspired in part by the troubled life of German-Jewish Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize winner and inventor of chlorine gas—unfolds. A Reunion of Ghosts is a tale of fate and blood, sin and absolution; partly a memoir of sisters unified by a singular burden, partly an unflinching eulogy of those who have gone before, and above all a profound commentary on the events of the 20th century.

This won't be for everyone. It reminded me of All My Puny Sorrows, and I know my book club was pretty sharply divided over that one. My family (my parents and sister and me, and my husband and kids and me) has a habit of dealing with serious subjects with twisted humour, so books that deal with suicide and dark family legacies and still manage to be hilarious are right up my alley. There was also a major Baader Meinhof phenomenon going on soon after I read it, in which I stared at Collette for a full thirty seconds when she started talking about the chemist who developed the poison gas used in the gas chambers and I couldn't figure out why I knew exactly what she was referring to, and everyone thought I was having a stroke. 

An Ocean of Minutes by Thea LimAmerica is in the grip of a deadly flu pandemic. When Frank catches the virus, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him, even if it means risking everything. She agrees to a radical plan—time travel has been invented in the future to thwart the virus. If she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded labourer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.
But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a new life and find a way to locate Frank, to discover if he is alive, and if their love has endured.

I usually like my time travel stories to be a little more Hollywood-ish, and I'd been having trouble maintaining focus on straight fiction lately, so I thought this might be a tough read for me, but I loved this so much. I usually have trouble reading on vacation, but I devoured most of this in Mexico and then finished it on the plane even though my glasses were not the best for reading and it was extremely awkward. I can't even articulate why it seemed so perfect to me - it may just have been the right book at the right time. It was a beautiful love story and a clear-eyed examination of what can happen to a beautiful love story under the intrusions of pitiless circumstances. Every word seemed perfect for its purpose, and the story was so plausible and sad and vivid. I was outraged that it didn't win the Giller Prize, which was ridiculous because I hadn't read any of the other books that were in the running. Still. Loved it. Gave it to three people for Christmas.


StephLove said…
Do you by any chance listen to Radiolab? That could be why you'd heard of that chemist. They did a long story on him and they've played it more than once.
Oooh I have been waiting for this! You know, I read Ocean of Minutes and I didn't really care for it. I think it's me, because everyone else has loved it. I think I'm just not a time-travel-sci-fi girl, no matter how much I try. But I was glad to have read it because it was SO well written, and I did enjoy the writing, if that makes sense.

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