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Best of 2012: Book Edition, Part 2

These five books are so wonderful that most of them have already been mentioned on the blog. Still, they each deserve another moment in the sun. Here are my favorite books of 2012!

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is not a thriller that you can enjoy and then forget about the next day. More likely you’ll to want to reread it searching for clues and tell all your friends. This story of a disappearing wife and her suspicious husband moves beyond the thriller genre to be an all-around stellar book. As I said in my original review, it’s part mystery, part thriller, part relationship drama. You may think you know where it’s going, but you’re probably wrong. There’s more to Gone Girl than meets the eye.

4. The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

This is Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, and I can only hope it’s the first of many. (A synopsis can hardly do it justice, but I tried.) I have rarely seen such intricate, beautiful writing in contemporary fiction. It is a novel of juxtaposition: darkness and light, sweltering heat and bitter cold. From Mabel’s first description of the unsettling silence of the Alaskan wilderness, I felt immersed in her claustrophobic world. The Russian fairy tale influence infuses the story with magic. The Snow Child is lovely from start to finish, and I was sad to see it end.

3. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

If I were to write an English paper about Sweet Tooth, it would be challenging just to pick a topic. Should I write about its exploration of the relationship between reader and writer? Should I analyze the complex narrator Serena Frome? I got to do that a bit in my original review, but there’s so much more I could say. Ian McEwan lays his characters bare in a style that keeps me fascinated. In terms of quality, Sweet Tooth is right on par with Atonement. A few spy-versus-spy plot twists and a surprise ending are just icing on the cake.

2. The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

When I compliment the beauty of Eowyn Ivey’s writing, the only rival on this list is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The Prisoner of Heaven is a continuation of both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. I was a little nervous to read it since The Shadow of the Wind is one of my all-time favorites. As it turns out, I should have had more faith in this incredible writer. He wisely focuses The Prisoner of Heaven on Fermin, a colorful secondary character whose story is not fully revealed in Shadow. Barely scratched the surface might be a more accurate description. As Fermin tells his story with characteristic wit and wisdom, the reader learns how the characters of all three novels are connected. If you’ll pardon me the pun, I was in heaven.

1. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

John Green has become one of my heroes. I’m revealing my bias when I say that it brings me so much joy to see him succeed as he has with The Fault in Our Stars. This book is proof that young adult novels can be both respected and beloved by more than just teenagers. Hazel is the truest of narrators — she just happens to be sixteen and have cancer. I often tell customers that this book has everything to offer:  laughter and tears, romance and tragedy. We don’t always want our fiction to savor so strongly of real life, but I think the best fiction usual does. If you haven’t already, please read my blog post about it. The Fault in Our Stars is worth your time, I promise.

The Fault in Our Stars

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Best of 2012: Book Edition, Part 1

Last year I could only scrape together a measly five books for my list. This year it was easy to find ten books that I loved, and I probably have my bookstore job to thank for that. Enjoy numbers 10 through 6.

10. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

I don’t read much fantasy these days, but Neil Gaiman is a living legend. When I saw Stardust at the library, I decided that it was worth a read. The movie was also a distant memory, so I figured it wouldn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book too much. In fact, the two are such different entities that it’s easy to avoid comparisons. Gaiman performs an impressive feat by writing a fairy tale that feels unfamiliar. At the same time, his unsentimental tone reminded me of the original fairy tale texts that I studied in college.

9. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

It took some time for me to warm up to The Help. Eventually I fell in love with the characters, and there was no going back. As most readers probably know, it tells the story of a young Southern woman who wants to write a book about the lives of “the help.” The point of view alternates between Skeeter, the young white writer, and the two black maids who collaborate with her. I loved the descriptions of Skeeter’s experience writing for the local newspaper and her complicated relationship with Aibileen and Minny.

8. Seer of Sevenwaters, by Juliet Marillier

I may not read much fantasy, but Juliet Marillier is too superb to quit. I’ve been reading the Sevenwaters series since high school. If you want an epic romance/adventure set in ancient Ireland, well, they don’t come any better than this. I thought the series was going downhill with the fifth book, but Seer of Sevenwaters was a return to form. Although Marillier has a talent for plucky heroines, this time she offers a more thoughtful protagonist. Of course, there’s enough inner turmoil and outward adventure to keep things interesting.

7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Madness, and Magic at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson

Sometimes the truth is more fascinating (and more frightening) than fiction. Erik Larson specializes in detailing historical events that make the reader say, “I can’t believe that happened!” This month I also read his book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. It was entertaining and probably an easier read, but I ultimately prefer The Devil in the White City because I learned so much about turn-of-the-century America. (My full-length review can be found here.)

6. The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The story of Oryx and Crake continues with The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s precise narration is perfectly suited for speculative fiction. The details of her not-too-distant future are inventive while still feeling like a plausible extension of the world today. I enjoyed this female-centered installment, which focuses on God’s Gardeners, a religious splinter group that is peripherally mentioned in Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood makes clear the complexity of the world that Atwood has imagined. I can only read and be amazed — and wait impatiently for the final book.

It was hard to narrow them down, but I did it. Tomorrow I will unveil the illustrious top 5!

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Best of 2012: Movie Edition

As I already complained in a previous post, I have been having trouble finding good movies this year. A top 10 would have been a pathetically half-hearted effort, so I’m limiting my list to a top 5. Here they are, a few shining examples in a sea of “eh.”

5. The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises

I considered several options for the number 5 movie. In the end I picked the movie that left the biggest impression on me. Since The Dark Knight Rises was a cultural event of sorts, it may seem like an obvious choice. Still, fresh faces made for a fresh experience in the third film of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Based on the previews, I was skeptical of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, but she surpassed my expectations as a worthy sparring partner for Christian Bale’s Batman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is always a welcome addition. And despite being an easy target for mockery, Bane was a villain with the power to truly frighten me.

4. Sweet Land

Sweet Land

My friend Jenny has been telling me about Sweet Land for years. It’s a simple pioneer tale about a German bride sent to marry a Minnesota farmer. Because of prejudice from World War I, the community is suspicious of her and won’t allow the couple to marry. It’s charming to watch them fall in love, sometimes following social norms and sometimes making their own rules. The cinematography captures the beauty of the prairie in a way that any Midwestern girl can appreciate.

3. The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games offered a rare opportunity to see a midnight movie premiere in my post-college life. The atmosphere just can’t be beat when you’re sitting in a theater full of excited fans. I already discussed some of my qualms with this film adaptation in a lengthy review, but now let me list some of best attributes. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. Elizabeth Banks as Effie. Amandla Stenberg as Rue. And did I mention Jennifer Lawrence? That casting director deserves a raise.

2. Moneyball

Moneyball

A baseball movie without a baseball game. It sounds like a horrible idea, but Moneyball finds the drama in the office instead of on the field. This movie made me think differently about a game that I’ve been around my whole life. The real triumph of Moneyball is the chemistry between Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. On paper it shouldn’t work, but their characters are perfect foils for each other. I laughed out loud many times, but I also felt the tension of the game without a single extended action sequence. That’s an achievement in itself.

1. Argo

Argo

Argo had me from the first five minutes. With typical Affleck flair, he drops the audience right in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis. I felt genuine fear during the scenes of the embassy takeover. Shots of one female embassy worker almost brought me to tears. The fact that I felt so much empathy is a credit to the actress’s performance (I have tried in vain to find out her name) and also to Affleck’s talent for creating tension. Yes, this is the second year that I’ve picked a Ben Affleck movie as my favorite. At this point I have probably said all I have to say about his talent as a director. No other movie excited me like Argo, got me thinking and made me want to tell my friends.

Come back tomorrow for the first installment of my top 10 books of the year!

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Best of 2012: Music Edition, Part 2

I only have to look at these five songs to know that it’s been a good year for music. From toe-tapping indie rock to straight-up dance music, here are my favorite songs of 2012!

5. The Shins, “40 Mark Strasse”

I was driving home one January night when The Current suddenly made my day. They played “Simple Song,” a new tune by The Shins, and announced that a new album would be released in March. I like many songs on Port Of Morrow, but this tender ballad wins my heart. When it hits the chorus, I just want to hold up my arms and sway along.

4. The Decemberists, “Down By The Water”

The Decemberists will forever remind me of my college friends, in the best way possible. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard “Down By The Water” until this year, but it was probably another discovery on The Current. As is often the case with The Decemberists, I’m not entirely sure of the song’s subject, but it sucks me in all the same. I adore the instrumentation and sing-along vocals.

3. Anais Mitchell, “He Did”

When I agreed to see Anais Mitchell in concert with my old roommate Lisa, she shared some of her music so that I could prepare. Not only was the concert a wonderful experience (detailed here), but I became a bona fide Anais fan myself. Her album Young Man In America is loosely themed around manhood and fatherhood with surprisingly compelling results. While showcasing Anais’s ethereal voice and storytelling power, “He Did” also paints an absorbing portrait of a father figure.

2. Florence + The Machine, “Shake It Out”

“Shake It Out” is quintessential Florence + The Machine:  soaring, pounding, empowering. I bought the entire Ceremonials album, but I always found myself skipping back to this song. It’s an anthem for anyone who’s struggling to move on from hard times. The fact that it was played during a pivotal moment on How I Met Your Mother is just icing on the cake in my world. “It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back / So shake him off” is a simple sentiment, but beautifully true all the same.

1. Morgan Page feat. Tegan and Sara, “Body Work”

I usually try to avoid posting music videos because I don’t want to distract from the song. In the case of “Body Work” though, the video is such a big part of how I experience it. I watched and listened on YouTube over and over again until I finally bought it for myself. It makes me think of getting ready for a night out, hoping to see that special person. I love indie music as much as ever, but I also love dance music with heart. When one of my favorite bands decides to make both, it’s a good year for Courtney.

Tomorrow I will return with my top 5 movies of the year!

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Best of 2012: Music Edition, Part 1

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — the time for best-of lists! Just like last year, my lists are open to any song/movie/book that I encountered for the first time in 2012. Let’s kick it off with my favorite songs of the year. Here are numbers 10 through 6.

10. Fiona Apple, “Get Him Back”

I realize that I’m one album behind in the Fiona Apple catalog, but I recently stumbled upon a used copy of Extraordinary Machine at Cheapo. I was familiar with some of the songs from sharing music with college friends. Among the unfamiliar offerings, this funky tune quickly became a favorite. I love the gleefully sinister tone when she sings, “Wait till I get him back.” Is she going to get him back or get back at him?

9. Ingrid Michaelson, “Ribbons”

This year Ingrid Michaelson released Human Again, which features some top-notch breakup songs. As I mentioned in my album review, I like to think of “Ribbons” as a continuation of “Parachute,” which appeared on last year’s best-of list! Maybe I’m just a sucker for flying metaphors.

8. Fleet Foxes, “Montezuma”

“Montezuma” could be the most beautiful song of the year. I heard it quite frequently on The Current and eventually added it to my own music collection. The harmonies are what initially grabbed my attention, but the lyrics make it more than just a pretty song. “Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love? / Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?”

7. Tegan and Sara, “Closer”

Tegan and Sara want to make us dance, and I’m more than willing to let them. “Closer” is a genuinely sweet song about the anticipation of new love. If you aren’t singing along by the end, well, you definitely aren’t me. I can’t wait for their new album in January! (More thoughts on “Closer” and the upcoming album can be found here.)

6. Taylor Swift, “State Of Grace”

Taylor Swift is my not-so-guilty guilty pleasure. I must admit, it was hard to pick a favorite song off her new album Red. So many of them make for great singalongs in the car, including the classic Swift ballad “Begin Again.” In the end I had to pick a triumphant love song because I love a triumphant Taylor. I’ve heard the sound of “State Of Grace” compared to U2, and I think it’s an apt comparison. The dramatic flair suits Taylor nicely.

Come back tomorrow for the top 5!

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