Here are the books I’ve read so far in 2010! Click on the book cover to link to the author’s website.
(1) Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear (completed Jan. 2)
This is the fourth book in a series about Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator, who solves mysteries in post-World War I London. I am a big fan of the who-dunit genre, historical fiction and quirky mystical characters, and this series covers all three bases!
(2) The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill (completed Jan. 5)
My friend, Kimbra, recommended this book because it’s set in Vientiane, Laos, where I’m now living. I found it in the Siem Reap, Cambodia, airport, and I devoured it in two days. In some ways, it fits in the same categories as the first book I listed: it’s a historical fiction/detective novel combo with a big dash of mysticism. The main character, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is a feisty and cynical physician who is focused on retirement when the communists appoint him to be State Coroner. I am madly in love with Dr. Siri, and I can not WAIT to get my hands on the other five books in this series.
(3) Misadventure in the Middle East by Henry Hemming (completed Jan. 12)
I slogged through this nonfiction account of 20-somethings traveling and making art in their quest to shatter Western stereotypes of the “Islamic world.” Some parts were fascinating; the guys did have incredible experiences and encounters with interesting people, and they went through an important psychological transformation. I found it a bit slow, but it’s a bestseller and has been shortlisted for “best travel writing” awards, so what do I know?
(4) Last Orders by Graham Swift (completed Jan. 14)
(I couldn’t find an author website, so this book cover links to his Wikipedia page.)
This London-based novel is full of complex characters and richly painted settings. It’s a tale of four men, who carry out their friend’s last wish: to scatter his ashes in the sea. Their interconnectedness is revealed during the journey. I generally find books by Booker Prize winners to be engaging and thought-provoking, and this was no exception. Maybe a little too serious for a girl on vacation, though.
(5) The Black Echo by Michael Connelly (completed Jan. 18)
My reading selections generally alternate between heavier “literature” and mind-candy thrillers. This gritty detective novel was a real page-turner. Compelling characters, insomnia-inducing suspense, and a plot with some Vietnam War history, which is particularly of interest now that I live in that neck of the woods.
(6) Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (completed Jan. 21)
This is my third book by Ian McEwan (after Saturday and Atonement), and I have to say he’s 3 for 3. Winner of the Booker Prize, McEwan is a master of crafting seemingly throw-away lines that capture the essence of the moment. For example: “He concealed a gasp of self-pity behind a loud adult laugh.”
(7) Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai (completed Jan. 26)
What’s with authors not having their own websites? Click on the book cover to link to Anita Desai’s page at contemporaryauthors.com.
I’m heading to Mumbai in about 10 days for a workshop, so I particularly relished this story set in India and full of references to the clothes, food, religion and traditions. Anita Desai’s style creates a sense of familiarity, taking an exotic setting and making it feel comfortable and almost routine. The American scenes actually felt more foreign to me.
(8) The Coastliners by Joanne Harris (completed Feb. 2)
I must have picked up this book at one of our Shanghai book clubs. It sat on my shelf for quite awhile, but I’m running out of options so I decided to give it a whirl. It was great! I didn’t realize she was the same author who wrote Chocolat (I only saw the movie). One thing I liked about this book was that it was so different from everything else I’ve read lately.
(9) Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotteril (completed Feb. 6)
Well, it’s no secret that I’m nuts for this series about a 70-something coroner in Laos. The author will be the guest speaker at our school’s fund-raising gala next week. Can’t wait to meet him! And can’t wait to read the next book …
(10) Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs (completed Feb. 12)
The main character in this book was the inspiration for the forensic anthropologist in the TV series Bones. I’ve always loved these books, but I’ve been reading them out of order. This one was the first. It scared the pants off me.
(11) The Magicians by Lev Grossman (completed Feb. 21)
Although this book felt like a bubbling brew of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Catcher in the Rye and a big dollop of the Chronicles of Narnia, it also somehow felt fresh and different. It kept me guessing right up till the last few pages. I’ve heard a sequel is on the way. Looking forward to it!
(12) Committed – A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert (completed Feb. 26)
I relished Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love because every page revealed something else we had in common: wanderlust, a quest for meaningful spirituality, a passion for yoga, liberal politics, extreme extrovert tendencies, and so on. I wasn’t sure I would be so pumped about a book on marriage. Parts were a bit repetitive, and sometimes I got bored with her over-the-top fretting (although, I can’t deny it’s another trait we share). However, I thought she deftly wove the history of marriage with her own quirky stories and interesting social research. I appreciated her desire to buck tradition and view marriage as a subversive act. Overall, a good read!
(13) The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman (completed Feb. 28)
There’s a fantastic little bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, called The Raven. It specializes in mysteries, and one of the staff members, Rochelle, has known me since my college days at KU. Whenever I visit Kansas, I pop in to the Raven, and Rochelle helps me stock up. She knows what I like to read, and she found another winner in this author. Gilman’s protagonist, Mrs. Pollifax, is a trusting older lady who specializes in growing flowers and occasionally serves as a courier for the CIA. This book takes her to Bulgaria and features just the right mix of history, suspense and whimsy.
(14) Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson (completed March 5)
I’m very slowly working my way through all the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction, and this collection of short stories about blacks and whites in America won in 1978. I found some of the stories a bit challenging to muddle through and some truly enchanting. Sometimes I stopped and reread passages in awe.
(15) The Narrows by Michael Connelly (completed March 10)
Another riveting detective novel by Connelly (see #5). I needed a fun page-turner during my Team Dai ride. My brain couldn’t focus on anything heavier, so this was perfect.
(16) Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (completed March 16)
As I’ve mentioned before, historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I think this book is destined to become a classic. It traces the experiences of a young Englishman in the First World War. I always know I’m enthralled by a book when I occasionally pause, set it down, and think about the passage I just read.
(17) In Plain Sight by Barbara Block (completed March 18)
I love a good thriller/mystery/detective novel, but I found this one a bit dull. The amateur sleuth, Robin Light, just wasn’t interesting. Two thumbs down.
(18) The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston (completed March 27)
I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages, and I kept meaning to read it. It just seemed so heavy. But once I jumped in, I was completely smitten. It now ranks among my all-time favorite reads. So much to love: fantastic description of a completely unfamiliar landscape (Newfoundland), richly drawn multi-layered characters, brilliant irony, and a beautiful story. I’m feeling a bit sad that it had to end.
(19) Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill (completed March 29)
Another fabulous Dr. Siri mystery by my author crush. And it’s another hit. Like expensive chocolates, these books are a special treat and over all too quickly. I’m trying to space them out so there will always be one waiting for me.
(20) Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (completed April 11)
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge fan of nonfiction, but this classic was a real page-turner. I was actually happy to go on a long flight so I’d have time to really settle in with it. Fascinating, horrifying, titillating, sad, but suspenseful even though the ending is no mystery. I’m looking forward to reading Krakauer’s other books.
(21) White Teeth by Zadie Smith (completed April 17)
This book had received lots of press but mixed reviews from my friends, so it’s been sitting on my shelf for a few years. I took it on vacation with me this week and found it hot and cold. The sharp writing and dry sense of humor sucked me right in, but some of the scenarios were just too drawn-out. There were definitely some interesting twists and unexpected weirdness. Overall, I’d recommend it.
(22) A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman (completed April 19)
Mrs. Pollifax mysteries always provide a great escape to some interesting part of the world – this time, it’s Switzerland. The plot is unpredictable, and the main character’s easy-going nature creates a fun juxtaposition with the danger she faces. This is the fourth book in the series.
(23) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (completed April 30)
At times I found the Spanglish completely unintelligible, but the author’s acerbic commentary on the political goings-on in the D.R. were brilliant. This book is a case study in how to give characters a voice. Diaz made such unlikely choices in writing this novel, such as telling the story from the perspective of the sister’s boyfriend, intertwining a multitude of complicated family histories and pulling the reader away from the plot with copious footnotes. Yet it all worked.
(24) Our Game by John Le Carre (completed May 4)
This was my first book by this master of the spy genre. I found it compelling, but a bit of a slog.
(25) Bones by Jan Burke (completed May 8 )
I had been saving this book because I knew it would be good. Holy cow, it was more than good. I could barely function at work over the last couple days because all I wanted to do was get home at read this book.
(26) The Road by Cormac McCarthy (completed May 12)
I just finished this book, but I found I couldn’t step away from it. I reread the back cover and blurbs inside the front cover. I reread the first page and flipped through, rereading passages and reflecting on the language. I actually found myself stroking the book. It was so horrific and yet beautiful at the same time, the most unfathomable tragedy interwoven with the deepest most profound love.
(27) Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill
Another awesome episode in the life of Dr. Siri. Still savoring this series and trying not to read them all too quickly!
(28) Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs
This is another favorite mystery writer, and again, I’m trying to space out her books. Happy to report I’m still enjoying the series.
(29) An Angel for Solomon Singer by Cynthia Rylant
As a teacher, I use Rylant’s books in the classroom a lot, but I had never read this one before. It’s a beautiful story of an older lonely man living in a big city.
(30) Wild Swans by Jung Chan
Having just lived in China for four years, I found this book fascinating. So many of her stories resonated with me as I could see how modern China still reeled from the Mao years. The hardships suffered by three generations of women were shocking, but ultimately hers is an uplifting story of a family that sticks together and supports one another through horrific conditions.
(31) Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen
I’ve always loved Anna Quindlen’s writing style. Everything flows so smoothly, and then BAM – something completely unexpected happens. She captures those emotions and fears that we all keep guarded. This was a beautiful, although sad, tale of an abused wife who makes a break for it with her young son. Loved it.
(32) An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear
I continue to love delving in to these historical novels, which are rich with description of a bygone era. Many of the scenes and much of the language is actually indecipherable to me. But her stories are fascinating with unpredictable endings. Can’t wait to buy her next one when I’m home over the summer!
(33) Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill
Another quirky fascinating read about my favorite Lao coroner. It’s such a treat to read this series while I’m living in its setting.
(34) The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
I heard Kiran Desai speak at the Literary Festival in Shanghai one year, so I bought this book. It’s a Man Booker Prize winner, but I found Desai to be uninspiring as a speaker and I was a bit put off by the length of time it took her to write this novel. I expected it to be overworked and dull, and in fact, some parts were. Overall, though, it portrayed a diverse group of characters with rich detail, revealing their histories and peeling away their layers. I often set down the book to ponder the powerlessness experienced by people trapped in a certain place and time (in this story, India and New York) while political events tear away traditions, possessions, and relationships.
(35) The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Since reading this book, I’ve been told that it was overhyped. I’m glad I didn’t hear all the hype because I genuinely enjoyed reading it. The relationships between Southern white families and their domestic help in the 60s were so interesting, albeit awful.
(36) New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
(37) Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
I read these two Twilight books in a row so that I could quickly catch up and go see the Eclipse movie. I have to say I have changed camps: I am totally a fan of Jacob now! Bella is such an idiot not to realize that best friends make the best long-term lovers! Anyway, I’m taking a little break from this genre for awhile…
(38) The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
I read this last night while I was suffering from insomnia. Quick engaging read with a sweet sappy message.
(39) Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
I have to admit I scoffed at the idea of this romance/historical novel. Over the summer, my dad was reading it, and I gave him all kinds of crap about it. But I also have to admit it was a fun read. The sexy stuff got a bit stale. Yes, yes, you’re crazy about each other. But the historical stuff was interesting. I look forward to the checking out the next book in the series.
(40) Despite the Falling Snow by Shamim Sarif
This beautiful book, full of twists and turns, bounces between Post-Stalinist Russia and modern-day Boston. A love story. A mystery. A darn good read.
(41) An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
Most of this historical thriller was absolutely riveting, especially the details about health care in the 1600s. A story is told from the perspective of four different characters, each with very different ideas of how the events unfolded. I couldn’t have predicted the ending!
(42) The Twits by Roald Dahl
I read this children’s book to see whether it would be fun to teach in my ESL classes. Unfortunately, I found it a bit weak compared to some of Dahl’s other work.
(43) The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
Another Pulitzer Prize winner, this historical novel appealed to me on so many levels. I cherished the stunningly crafted descriptions of Tsarist Russia. I enjoyed the explorations of spirituality and politics. I felt indignation on behalf of the character, who was wrongly accused of a crime.
(44) 206 Bones by Kathy Reichs
This author never disappoints!
(45) Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
This book was named Best of the Booker; of all the books that have won the Booker Prize, this book was considered the best. I found it to be an incredibly difficult read, mainly because I wanted to savor every word. The intermingling of Indian history with magic and fantasy created a riveting tale full of fully developed characters. So many voices, so much color.
(46) Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
This novel was based on the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress. It was interesting to look at the famous architect through another person’s eyes, but I thought the characters were all a bit too shallow. The ending threw me for a loop!
(47) Fatal Voyage by Kathy Reichs
This is the fourth installment in the series about Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist. Somehow I’d missed this one. Always good fun, although I probably shouldn’t have read this one on a plane!
(48) Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
After reading so many heart-banging suspense novels and heavy works of literature lately, this book was like a gentle spring breeze. Artfully crafted descriptions and well-developed characters created a lovely – if not action-packed or emotionally challenging – story. As a horse lover, I empathized with the main character, and as a lover of historical fiction, I found the tales of pioneer life quite riveting.
(49) Tinkers by Paul Harding
This thin novel won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I wish I had kept count of how many times I set down the book to call Tony and read passages to him. It’s not hard to find a book that tells a good story, and it’s not hard to find a book full of fresh, creative wordplay, but it is truly rare to find a book that does both without diminishing either goal. Pages-long descriptions of things as banal as a still-life painting were mesmerizing.
(50) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
This was one of the hardest books I’ve encountered lately. The writing flowed beautifully, and the stories were clear, but the topic was so painful. I’ve read heaps of fiction set in World War I and II, but I can’t recall reading any other Vietnam War novels. I suppose it’s a little too close to home with so many family members in the military, as well as friends and family who served in Vietnam. Still, it was an important book to read. As we ponder a trip to Vietnam in the spring, I will keep the images and events of this book in mind.
(51) Bright Lights, Big Ass by Jen Lancaster
I don’t really know why this book was on my kindle. Did I really purchase it? It’s not at all the type of stuff I usually read. Her writing style is sharp, sarcastic and judgmental – a lot like my own, I think. So why didn’t I love it more? I was quite amused by some of her antics, but I also got a bit bored when stories dragged on too long. Kudos to her, though, for getting off her big ass and getting her book published.
(52) Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
This book was a loaner, and I kept putting it off in favor of hand-picked goodies on my kindle. I finally gave it a go this weekend, and I read it straight through. I simply cannot praise it enough. I don’t need to dwell on my usual disdain for nonfiction; suffice it to say that I soaked up every word and alternated between wanting more about George Orwell and wanting more about Burma. I never got bored – not once! I never tired of the subject matter. Fascinating, fascinating, fascinating!!
(53) Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
I have to admit I enjoyed the Twilight series. But I also have to admit I’m happy it’s over. This culminating novel was a bit slow and the ending was surprisingly lame. All the other books featured nail-biting suspense and battles that kept me up reading late into the night. This one hinted at a big confrontation for hundreds of pages but ultimately petered out. Entertaining enough, but I’m over it.
(54) Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos
The plot summary for this novel sounded bleak: a woman dying from a brain tumor befriends a younger woman with heaps of emotional baggage and a broken heart. However, the story stayed bright, witty and uplifting with a completely fresh premise. Creative, meticulously researched and fun to read!
(55) Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
The characters in this post-WW2 novel personified many prevailing issues and emotions of that era: prejudice, the toll of war, oppression against women, and the American dream. It’s not a happy tale, but it was evocative and artfully written. I was sorry to see it end.
(56) Kaleidoscope by Dorothy Gilman
Gilman’s “Mrs. Pollifax” novels have been a favorite for a long time. When I realized I couldn’t load any of those on to my Kindle, I opted for this one. It didn’t do the trick. The stories seemed trite and the loose ends too easily tied.
(57) Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon