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Best of 2016: Book Edition, Part 2

This year I’m in the unusual position of having already written posts about almost every book in my top 5. Sometimes it’s harder to write about books that I really love because I just want to say, “It’s sooooo good,” but I’m happy to have longer musings to offer. Here are my favorite books of 2016!

5. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead Wake Cover

I feel like I’ve read a great deal about World War II and very little about World War I. Thankfully Erik Larson, the wizard of history writing, turned his attention to that era. Dead Wake follows the events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania, one of the catalysts for the U.S. entering the war in Europe. This being Eric Larson, he gives the full scope of the event, from the ship’s passengers to military intelligence to the soldiers aboard the German submarine. I consider it one of his most fascinating works. (You can read my full review here.)

4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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As Gillian Flynn did in Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins plays with timelines and perspectives. The Girl on the Train follows Rachel, an alcoholic woman who becomes interested in a couple she sees from the train every day. Although this thriller is mainly focused on plot, I keenly felt Rachel’s loneliness and desperation. Other perspectives come from Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex, and Megan, the girl she watches from the train. I relished looking into these flawed women’s psyches. (You can read my book-to-film comparison here.)

3. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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Eowyn Ivey made us wait four years for her second novel, but this was worth the wait. To the Bright Edge of the World is another piece of exquisite historical fiction set in Alaska. While her first novel focused on quiet moments, this one has plenty of action as Colonel Allen Forrester leads an expedition up the Wolverine River. Yet their journey also contains simple moments of human connection. Back at the military barracks, his wife Sophie pursues an interest in photography that raises eyebrows with the other wives. A beautifully written, beautifully human novel with a hint of the uncanny. (You can read my full review here.)

2. Room by Emma Donoghue

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Room is a triumph of character voice. The story of a woman held captive in a single room is narrated by her five-year-old son Jack, who has never known the outside world. Even though I committed the cardinal sin of watching the movie first, I could appreciate what Emma Donoghue achieved with this novel. Jack has a distinctive way of speaking that reflects his age and bizarre upbringing. I wanted to jump through the page and hug him, but that’s not to say that the story is saccharine. As was mirrored in the film, Ma and Jack are perfectly imperfect.

1. Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

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Suzanne Rindell is my favorite new author on the literary fiction scene. Three-Martini Lunch deals with three characters searching for literary success in 1958 New York City. As in her first novel The Other Typist, Rindell explores the ways that we present ourselves to others and how small decisions shape our lives. The narrators range from Cliff, a deluded Greenwich Village hipster, to Miles, a black man coming to terms with his identity. Even as they made mistakes, I cared so much for these characters and hated to leave their world. I suspect this isn’t the last time Suzanne Rindell makes my list. (You can read my full review here.)

Thanks for joining me on this year-end review!

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Dead Wake Brings World War I to Life

Dead Wake Cover

For me, 2012 was the year of Erik Larson. As part of a concerted effort to return to better reading habits, I read The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. Although nonfiction is still a small fraction of my overall reading intake, I can thank Erik Larson for reminding me that true stories can be just as engrossing as fiction. I knew that I would eventually read his 2015 release.

Erik Larson’s latest book is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I’ve always felt distinctly lacking in World War I knowledge, especially compared to the relatively large number of stories I’ve read about World War II. The sinking of the Lusitania is one of the major events you often hear mentioned in relation to the United States entering the war, but I discovered that even my broad understanding was mostly incorrect. The Lusitania was a British liner with some American passengers. Even after the ship was sunk by a German submarine attack, it was another two years before the U.S. entered the war.

Dead Wake is presented in Larson’s typical novelistic style. Chapters provide perspectives from British naval intelligence, the White House, the U-boat that would eventually sink the ship, and the Lusitania itself. I hope that any historian worth his salt would explore all sides when recounting an event, but I still appreciate Larson’s efforts on that score. Even a seemingly simple act of war comes from a chain of cause and effect. How did Germany reach the point of attacking passenger ships? And why was the Lusitania sailing unprotected through waters that had been declared a war zone?

History books make me lament the end of letter-writing. Mostly on the basis of letters written during and after the voyage, Larson is able to paint a detailed picture of life aboard the Lusitania and single out some of its passengers as “characters” for his story. The same can be said for his portrayal of Woodrow Wilson, the heartbroken widower trying desperately to keep America out of the European war. Larson’s handling of the U-boat takes a slightly different tone because its primary source is the captain’s log. Historians have detailed knowledge of the U-boat’s movements, but can only speculate on the captain’s true feelings about sinking a civilian vessel. However, because of those passages, I can say that life on a U-boat might well be my worst nightmare.

As a reader I was less disturbed by the U-boat’s actions, however brutal they may be, than by the role of naval intelligence in the Lusitania‘s demise. More precisely, information was withheld that could have saved the ship at several turns. The Imitation Game touches on the same dilemma: if you act on every piece of intelligence, the enemy will likely figure out that you’ve broken their code and your advantage will be lost. Moral dilemmas and potential conspiracies abound in Dead Wake, making it a fascinating read for any history fan.

I feel like I should read more history books. The narrative aspect appeals to me, yet I’m also learning something. Add that to the ever-expanding reading goals.

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Read More for Four: The Wrap-Up

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Gentle Readers, I apologize for keeping you in suspense! Yes, I’m sure there have been many sleepless nights wondering, “Did she read the last two books? Did she meet her goal?” The answer is yes!

Since I never completely fell off the reading wagon, it probably comes as no surprise that I met my Read More for Four goal. Eight books in four months was a very satisfying conclusion to the year. My first December book was Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Although it didn’t eclipse The Devil in the White City, it kept me interested by shining a light on a lesser known part of history. That is, the way that diplomats chose to deal with Hitler’s government in the 1930s. The issues weren’t considered as black-and-white as you might expect.

I ended the month on a delightful reading note. My name finally reached the top of the library waiting list, and I read Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier. The previous book in this series made it onto my best of 2012 list. I could easily have included either title, but I was still reading Flame when the time came for writing lists. Although I most often read realistic fiction, I’m glad that certain writers can inspire me to branch out. The Sevenwaters series fulfills my occasional desire for escapism reading while giving me characters that I really love.

Read More for Four helped me match the number of books I read last year. As previously mentioned, I keep track of my reading on a website called Good Reads. However, the site provides more stats than just number of books read. It also tallies the number of pages read each year. By that measure, 2012 trounced 2011 by more than 1,000 pages! 

Of course, all these statistics aren’t the point of reading. It’s just fun to challenge myself now and then. I never regret time spent with a book, and two new books per month was a nice pace. I’m hoping to continue it in 2013 — with less obsessive documentation on the blog. As always, happy reading!

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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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The Devil in the White City: A Foray into Nonfiction

I don’t usually read nonfiction. And by don’t usual, I mean almost never unless it’s for an assignment. Working at a bookstore, I see the wide variety of nonfiction books, and it has challenged me to expand my reading horizons. Erik Larson, in particular, is a wildly popular writer, perhaps because his books present history as an intertwining narrative. After ringing up endless copies of The Devil in the White City, I decided to read it for myself.

Its full title is The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. (That’s a mouthful that you would only find in the nonfiction section.) The book tells the stories of two men. One is Daniel Burnham, the architect who orchestrated the 1893 World’s Fair. The other is H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair to find victims. The premise is just as fascinating and disturbing as it sounds.

Whenever one of my managers recommends this book to customers, she tells them that some people have trouble getting through the early chapters about architecture, but she found them fascinating. I was prepared for a bit of a slog. Instead, I found the political and artistic in-fighting just as engrossing as the fair itself. Larson wisely alternates between chapters about the fair’s complicated beginnings and the personal history of H. H. Holmes. Any time the architectural history feels overwhelming, the reader is offered the very specific story of a charismatic, perplexing psychopath. Not exactly a respite, but certainly a change of pace.

Reading The Devil in the White City was like going to school without the pressure. The World’s Fair was an international event, so countless historical figures were involved in its creation or among its attendees. Its grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind Central Park. The first Ferris wheel debuted at the fair. I could go on and on, but that would ruin the historical name-dropping game that Larson loves to play. If the serial killer storyline makes you squeamish, I wouldn’t worry too much. I was able to enjoy the book because Larson focuses on the psychology of Holmes more than the details of his crimes.

The 1893 World’s Fair was the catalyst for incredible beauty and ingenuity, but also incredible evil. Whether you’re interested in American history or human nature, The Devil in the White City is a good read.

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