Our Best Reads in 2013

Amanda

These are the books that I think have best stuck with me this year-though there are definitely others.  

#1 Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  This was just a beautiful love story.  I can’t find the words to describe it so here is the Goodreads blurb.

Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn’t know is she’s about to lose her job or that knowing what’s coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he’s going to put a stop to that.

What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time.

This was the kind of book that makes me do a happy dance.  The characters are well written, the story surprises you and I found a new author with a collection of books to look forward to trying.  I loved seeing Will and Lou first see each other as more than they appeared and then finding out how strong they each were.  Read this!

#2 Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta.  This is the conclusion of Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles. At my polite request (ahem), Holly just read and reviewed Book #1, Finnikin of the Rock which is also a 5 star book for me.  Quintana wraps up the Lumatere Chronicles beautifully and this is another book that made me cry. Read them!!

# 3 My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor.  Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor is just freaking amazing.  She’s brilliant and she rose into her position against pretty overwhelming odds.  My friend Kara said in her review of this book, “She is what America is about;” which is a perfect summation.  I feel good having a woman like this on the bench. I hope she can write another memoir to share what her years as a judge were like.

#4 Chimes at Midnight by Seanan Maguire.  This is book 7 of Maguire October Daye series, which I highly recommend if you like urban fantasy/paranormal. October is a changeling, half human and half fae and is something of a detective in the fae world.  The series has only gotten stronger as it continues and this last book brought me to tears– I didn’t know a pie could break my heart let me tell you.  Its really hard to say something about just one book of a series! So I’ll just say to give Toby a try.  She’s not perfect, but she is a champion at heart.  Rosemary & Rue is the first book so start here!

Honorable Mention – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.  I heard the author on the NYT Book Review podcast discussing how she wanted to write a love story intermixing her culture with that of her husband.  And so Chava -our golem and Ahmad-the jinni were born.  I loved the movement of this book, from Europe to New York, from ancient Syria to 1899 in New York again.  Clearly I like fantasy books, but I didn’t find this to be too “fantastic”.  There was so much realism brought out I thought in the setting and in the cultural influences of Judaism and the Syrian immigrant community.  I recommend this for just a really different book-also a good story of of how strong relationships can be and what love is like even without the physical. (Pssst – Goodreads is giving this book away -sign up!  https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/72308-the-golem-and-the-jinni) 

Holly

When Amanda said, “oh, we should write a post on the best books we’ve read in 2013,” I had to really think about what I’ve read this year that I loved. This was a much easier task for Amanda, I’m sure, because a) she reads books basically by osmosis, so she’s got a plethora of books to choose from for the year, and because b) she tracks everything on Goodreads. I, on the other hand, read a fraction of what my sister does in a year, and just started to get the hang of Goodreads sometime in the last few weeks (admittedly, I am now hooked).

So, what did I read this year that really stood out to me?

# 1 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I LOVED this book. When I finished it, I posted something on Facebook about how I was probably (as always) behind the times, but that if you hadn’t read this book yet, you should. I got lots of agreement from friends about how fascinating the content is, but also some mixed reviews about the writing style. I however, was completely drawn into the book, and I appreciated the mix of science and personal narrative that Skloot used, including her discomfort as she got more and more involved with the Lacks family. Do I have to add that Amanda was the one who told me to read this book? I swear, she is (almost) always right-on. You should listen to her too.

#2 Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. I know I have already waxed poetic about how much I loved Devil in the White City, and I never would have picked up Thunderstruck if not for my complete obsession with that book and Larson’s writing style. This one is different, and it did take a bit to get into, but this book has definitely stayed with me. What I love about Larson’s books is the level of detail about people and places and trends during the period he’s writing about. I started Thunderstruck just after reading Alice I Have Been (a novel based on the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland), and I remember noticing (and recognizing) a reference to Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) as the book opens with an 1894 (I did not remember this fact 6 months later…I had to look it up) scientific lecture in London, and Dodgson was a member of the hosting body. I appreciate the facts and all the context, though looking at reviews of this book on Goodreads, I see things like “an interesting book but often slowed by side journeys into minutia,” so I guess that’s not for everyone. I say, bring on the minutia!

#3 Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Since I just told you about how much I love this book, I’ll spare you the details – but I will link to my review! Just read it, because I am not going to shut up about this one anytime soon. Or ever.

Honorable Mention  – The Tao of Martha by Jen Lancaster. Yes, after writing a pretty awful review of Jeneration X, I am giving The Tao of Martha an honorable mention for my best of 2013, and I’ve even rated it 5-stars on Goodreads. I really liked this book, and  I’ve  given unsolicited recommendations of this one on more than one occasion.  One of my best friends went through a phase of being fascinated with organizing – not actually doing the organizing, but wondering why there are so many organizing gurus and organizing step-by-step workbooks and organizing professionals who will manage your life and your closet, etc. And this book, through Jen’s style of writing memoirs about her (repeated) attempts to not be an asshole, gets to that point – that having yourself slightly pulled together in one area of your life, often makes other areas work better. That’s a pretty solid message for the end of one year and the start of a new, no?

Advertisements

Yes, Chef

Yes, Chef, Marcus Samuelsson

Amanda

Image

From Goodreads…

It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. This book is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations.

Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up.

Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of  “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.

With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures—the price of ambition, in human terms—and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.

That is a serious blurb for one book.

Autobiographies are a funny category to me.  I find them fascinating, but also so irritating when I’m reading how self-congratulatory the subjects can be.  I guess, if its your own book about your life you’re allowed to brag, but have a little humility please!  I like how Samuelsson comes across on television, but to an extent this was his description of being the best and most ambitious chef ever.

I have not seen Samuelsson’s season of Top Chef Masters, but I do enjoy him on Chopped so I was curious to read his story.  It was quite a journey from his birth in Ethiopia to his adoption in Sweden with his sister and then his travels as a chef.  I hadn’t given much thought to issues of race in the culinary world or in the celebrity chef scene and I was glad to read his experiences and perspective. I think its always fascinating to read stories of immigrants to America and Samuelsson’s story was interesting because he has made so many stops in between Sweden and New York.

I’ve never worked in a restaurant in any capacity, so I enjoyed the descriptions from his cooking school to the fine kitchens Samuelsson has worked in.  I particularly laughed at his calling out of Gordon Ramsey for being a pretentious jerk!  This book definitely made me hungry as I was reading it!  I liked reading Samuelsson describing as he tried to come up with his first signature dish at Aquavit.  As I was reading this I was excited for Samuelsson to hit it big-even though I knew he already had.  He seems reasonably honest about his missteps in life-as a father (he was basically a sperm donor until his daughter turned 14) and as a chef even if they were glossed over as part of his larger story.   I would have liked to read more about how he has experienced Ethiopia as an adult and with his wife having the experiences of an immigrant, but I can also understand keeping that part of his life more private.

Read this with snacks on hand!

3 stars.

Review: Code Name Verity

Verity

Title: Code Name Verity

Author: Elizabeth Wein

Well, we took a bit of a Christmas hiatus, and there may be a New Year’s hiatus (you’ll have to ask Amanda. She is in charge of hiatuses), but anyway, I am bursting with excitement over how much I loved this book, so I had to tell you about it RIGHT NOW. Only I’m not going to tell you much.

When Amanda told me that I must read Code Name Verity, the conversation was something like: “you must read this. I don’t want to tell you anything about it and give anything away, so just read it.”

I finally listened (six months or so later), and that is exactly what I want to say about this book: You must read this. I don’t want to tell you anything about it and give anything away, so just read it.

Worst book review ever, eh?

Okay, let me try and expand (slightly). Code Name Verity is the story of a young British woman caught by Nazis in Occupied France.

Here is the basic basic description from the jacket: “Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

And here is a list of things that happened to me whilst reading this book, in no particular order:

1) I fell in love with all the characters. (Well, not ALL of them, obviously. Some of them are awful people. But I am in love with all the good ones.)

2) My mind exploded. (I texted Amanda halfway through to tell her that.)

3) My heart broke, but in the best way possible. (Probably more than once.)

4) I fell in love with the author, especially when I read these details on the jacket about her: “She is an avid flyer of small planes. She also holds a PhD in Folklore from the University of Pennslyvania.” (Did you know that was even a thing?)

5. I fell more in love with the author reading her “debriefing” at the end, where she wrote: “it pains me to admit that Code Name Verity is fiction – that [names withheld] are not actually real people.” (For the record, the author lists the names in her note, but I withholding them. It’s part of the story. I am serious – don’t read any reviews or comments on this book. Just go read it, now. You can thank me later.)

Parting Words: I’ve decided to try and add a line or two that jumps out at me from each book to my reviews. Here goes:

“Maddie gasped at the river’s inadvertent loveliness, and all at once she found herself spilling childish tears, not just for her own beseiged island, but for all of Europe. How could everything have come so fearfully and thoroughly unraveled?”

Review: The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen, Alana Albertson

Amanda

Image

From Goodreads.com

Five years ago, Cambridge Ballet’s Sugar Plum Fairy vanished after performing The Nutcracker. Despite extensive city and statewide searches, no traces of her, besides her ballet slippers, were ever found. Every year since, another member of the cast has gone missing after closing night: a Spanish Hot Chocolate, an Arabian Dancer, The Dew Drop Fairy, a Flower. Nieves Alba, who as a thirteen-year-old played Clara in the first ill-fated performance, is now cast as the Snow Queen. On closing night, every police officer in Boston surrounds the theater, determined to catch the perpetrator whom they’ve dubbed “The Nutcracker.” Can Nieves break the curse or will she be the next victim of America’s favorite ballet?

Thank you Netgalley and Bolero Books for this ebook.  This cover is so pretty I was drawn to this novella immediately.  I love the Nutcracker and was intrigued by the mystery surrounding the missing dancers.  The story begins with Nieves watching the drama of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s disappearance, and unfortunately she takes that moment to give you a clue that you can’t miss of what has happened to the ballerina.

Spoilers ahead.

Flash forward 5 years and Nieves is about to dance herself as the Snow Queen.  She is nervous about disappearing this year, but has no doubts about dating the ex-boyfriend of the missing Sugar Plum Fairy.  I was pretty much done with Mikhail when he opened his door for Nieves holding a dress and told her “I prefer when ladies dress like ladies.  Change into this.”  I was also pretty much done with Nieves when she “touched the back of my neck and felt a drop of blood, which wasn’t shocking because Mikhail and I couldn’t keep our hands off each other last night.”  Ew.  How kinky are you getting that you’re bleeding from the neck and its ok?

I felt like Albertson had a lot of potential with this idea of this story, but sadly it wrapped up too quickly and really lost me with the douchey boyfriend.  The snow globes could have been so cool!  How did the dancers manage to escape?  If they can visit other snow globes I want to see that!  Is no one still looking for Nieves?  What happened when she disappeared?

If you’re looking for a very light holiday read and love ballet you might enjoy this. It really only took me about an hour to finish.

One star.

Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday: The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

Amanda

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Image

Ok I have to start by saying I think this is a horrid title.  I love Lauren Willig and her Pink Carnation Series, and while I think all the flower titles have been fun, however, this is just way too much in one name.  I’m all for alliteration, but in my mind this just gets silly! I enjoy historical fiction and these have just enough modern chick lit to be different from the average historical romance.  I was very disappointed when I looked this book up today because I was thinking it would be out in January-August seems ridiculously far away! I feel like her publication schedule changed without my approval -boo! The Pink Carnation is a spy in her twenties helping the British Crown mostly in the war against Napolean, but her influence extends as far as India as well.  Through the series her friends and acquaintances get caught up in her schemes and ultimately end up in love. They’re not overly complicated, but they are entertaining and feel good books.  The series also features a modern graduate student who is researching the Pink Carnation and enjoying her own romance in London.   I enjoyed Sally Fitzhugh in her brother’s book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe and I look forward to seeing what she gets up to with a “vampire” in her own story.  If you’re like me and enjoy getting drawn into long series of books I recommend checking out The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.  Or if you want one book, the above mentioned Mischief of the Mistletoe is a good Christmas read.  The first is not the strongest of the series, but they get much better from there.  I definitely don’t want the series to end, but I really do want to see some romance in Jane’s life! Also, Lauren Willig’s website is a good source for finding more suggestions of historical fiction, historical romance, and sometimes a few other random reads.  I should stay away as my to read list grows daily-but I think you should check it out!

It’s a book! It’s a t-shirt!

Remember when I warned you on Friday that it was about to get super-nerdy in here? Sigh. It’s only going to get worse, because I’m about to talk about a t-shirt I bought, based on a book, all because I heard about it on an NPR economics podcast.

Yup.

I like listening to podcasts while I run or while I cook, and I’m particularly attached to NPR’s Planet Money podcast. They describe themselves this way:

Imagine you could call up a friend and say, “Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.” Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening. That’s what we’re going for at Planet Money.

tshirttravels

When I first started listening, they had read this book, Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli, and had come up with the idea to make a Planet Money t-shirt to follow through the global process. And they talked about this idea, sporadically, every few months, without ever really reporting on any progress.

Of course, when I saw the book at a library book sale in Kansas, I had to buy it (I love bargains, if I have not already made that abundantly clear). And, I really liked this book because it made dense material readable by focusing on one particularly commodity, but more than that, because it challenged my thinking. You see, most of my social/political/economic insight comes from studying sociology, while Pietra Rivoli is a business professor. She started the book at an anti-globalization rally protesting the World Trade Organization in 1999, and begins with questioning the accuracy of a student’s speech about clothing made in sweatshops. In the first few pages, she says of the student, “my first thought was that the young women, however well-intentioned and impassioned, just didn’t ‘get’ it. She needed a book – maybe this book – to explain things. But after following my T-shirt around the world, my biases aren’t quite so biased anymore.”

Of course she discovers, as the reader will too, that the global textile industry is neither an entirely soulless void where small children labor mercilessly making designer duds for Americans, nor is it a perfectly self-regulated market based on classical economic supply and demand. It’s complicated. Along the way, she visits cotton growers, importers, exporters, laborers, and also a place where a whole lot of donated t-shirts end up, telling individual stories and putting a human face on global trade. It’s funny and sad and interesting and thought provoking.

My shirt...appropriately wrinkled like the book cover

My shirt…appropriately wrinkled like the book cover

But, you don’t have to believe me, and you don’t even have to read the book to get the stories – or, similar stories, at least. The Planet Money people finally announced this spring that they were going ahead with the t-shirt project. I was sold – along with 20,000 others, and I was really excited when I got my shirt a couple weeks ago. They’ve put together a site with all the stories about the t-shirt’s creation here, so you can listen to the whole chain of production, very similar to Pietra Rivoli’s book (she was hired as a consultant on the Planet Money t-shirt project).

I have not actually made it through all the t-shirt podcasts yet (they are on itunes, as well as on the t-shirt website), but this one about two sisters working together in Bangladesh is among my favorites. I will say there is also plenty of criticism of the story and the project, for presenting manufacturing jobs as opportunities for better lives in places like Bangladesh, without acknowledging that conditions for workers are far below what would be considered “fair” or even “passing” in the US. To that end, I would say the point of the t-shirt project, and the t-shirt book, was not to present a particular position on how the global textile industry should or shouldn’t work, but to tell the stories of the people who work in the industry. From there, of course, everyone might have a takeaway on what could be better, or different, or more efficient, or more fair. For now, I know a heck of a lot more about who made my t-shirt than I do about who made the rest of my outfit.

/End dorkiness for the day, unless anyone wants to further discuss textiles!

Site Reading

Sight reading is something about reading music (for which I have no inclination). Site reading is the term I just made up for wanting to read about a particular place after visiting it. And, a forewarning, it’s about to get super nerdy in here (I should probably preface everything I ever say with that statement).

Midnight RisingI just finished a book that I really enjoyed, but it’s not necessarily one I would go around demanding that everyone read. So instead of reviewing it, I wanted to talk about how I came to read Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz.

Let’s start here: I never really gave very much thought to reading non-fiction books for fun until embarrassingly recently. I don’t mean Jen Lancaster-style nonfiction, I mean reading books on history or science or or culture. In my head, there was a divide between “school” books and “fun” books. This, despite the fact that I generally thought school was fun (right up to the point where I decided grad school was no longer fun and left). Anyway, somewhere post-student-life I realized that I could read books about whatever I damn well pleased, and sometimes that means reading about teenagers in dystopian futures and sometimes that means reading about John Brown.

If you’re still with me, I’ll try to connect that leap. Now that I’m the sort of person that likes to read about just about anything that interests me, I will look for books when I’m intrigued by a particular story. John Brown, the radical abolitionist, was not that story, or at least not the whole story.

My partner-in-crime/fiancé  and I lived in a small town in Kansas for a few years, and while we were there, we made it a point to visit just about anything significant within driving distance (we still do the same now, but our to-see list is longer in Virginia). One of those sites, naturally, was the John Brown museum in Osawatomie, Kansas. To me, the most interesting story told at the state historic site was that of Florella Adair, John Brown’s half-sister, who lived in Kansas with her husband. I’m still kind of obsessed with Florella, and unsatisfied with what I know about her. She was one of the first female graduates of Oberlin College, and she put up her half-brother and his band of men while they were running around (read: killing people) in Kansas, over her husband’s disapproval. Interesting, right?

Anyway, after visiting the John Brown museum, I googled for books and didn’t find anything that jumped out at me, so I mentally filed that one away for another day. Then, just recently, we took a trip to Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, the site of THE John Brown ill-fated raid. Thus, my interest in John Brown – and Florella – was reignited, and I googled again. I added this book to my To-Read list, especially after I realized the author, Tony Horwitz, also wrote Confederates in the Attic (which is pretty awesome).

I think that brings us to the present, where I finally checked this book out of the library and read it. And, I really liked it – it was slow going to get through the beginning, as there were tons of family members to introduce between John Brown’s brothers and sisters, and his own children. Tons. After all that, once we got to the raid, the pace quickened, and the scope broadened. John Brown was neither a sympathetic character nor a fringe lunatic, and the story was well-rounded. Of course, my first question in any historical event is always “what were the women doing?” In this case, the answer was “not much.” It’s a pretty dude-centric story, and therefore a dude-centric book, with unfortunately just a few brief mentions of my buddy Florella. However, Brown’s daughter Annie figures into the story, and in his acknowledgements, Horwitz calls Annie his “favorite figure in the Harper’s Ferry drama.” (That’s “favorite figure,” not “favorite female figure.” Important distinction.)

Midnight Rising is not light-reading, but it’s not overly dense either. Generally, if anyone (Dear J, don’t read this sentence) starts talking to me in military terms about who’s flanking who, I start thinking about what’s for dinner, but the descriptions of the raid are manageable. It helps that I visited the scene just months ago, and could *almost* follow along, though spatial and directional things are not really my forte.

If you’re into this sort of thing – small history lessons, reading about people and places, nonfiction – then I definitely recommend this book. Any other site-readers out there have book recommendations?

(Tangent: this weekend, I picked up a copy of March for 50 cents at a thrift store, because I saw that is was by the author of Year of Wonders – an Amanda-demand that I really enjoyed. It wasn’t until I got it home that I realized that the author, Geraldine Brooks, is married to Tony Horwitz. Weird, huh?)