Monday, March 1, 2010

Top Ten Books of 2009

My Top Ten for 2009, I cheated a little by combining the two Hunger Games books as one entry, the top 3 books were my hands down favorites for the year. All books link to a complete review on Amazon:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Hunger Games/Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
John Adams by David Mccullough
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Blue Notebook by James Levine

2009 Year End Totals

Total Books Read: 49
Audio Books: 15
Total Books Read: 64
Total Pages Read: 17,835
Total Hours Audio: 170
Average Pages per Book: 364

The Sari Shop Widow

Book No: 64
Title: The Sari Shop Widow
Author: Shobhan Bantwal
Genre: Chick Lit
Completed: 12/18/09
No. of Pages: 352
Rating: 3/5*****

The Sari Shop Widow was a pleasant if predictable “girl meets boy, they don’t like each other yet are somehow deeply attracted to one another” genre of chick lit.

Anjali Kapadia is a young widow and the owner, with her parents, of a Sari Shop in the Little India section of New Jersey. When it becomes clear that the business is in trouble the Kapadia’s reach out to their business savvy relative for help. When Uncle Jeevan arrives her brings with him Rishi Shah, his mysterious and attractive protégé. Sparks soon fly between Anjuli and Rishi as they lock horns and battle their attraction to each other.

There is nothing groundbreaking here, despite the Indian cultural background. It was pretty standard fare, you know where the story is heading and how it will end, it’s a enjoyable enough story but it isn’t anything you haven’t read before. Even with all the cultural references the story could have been set anywhere. Speaking of those cultural references a glossary would have been helpful for all the Indian words that were referenced. Nice read for the beach or if you are looking for a light, fluffy read. Fortunately it was a Kindle freebie.

Suite Francaise

Book No: 63
Title: Suite Francaise
Author: Irene Nemirovsky
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 11/30/09
No. of Pages: NA
Rating: 4/5*****

This is the kind of book that the background of the story colors the way you feel about the work, much the way the knowledge of what happened to Anne Frank makes her diary all the more moving.

What we have in Suite Francaise is really an unfinished work in progress. The author was Irene Nemirovsky, a well known writer who fled Russia and settled in France. She converted to Catholicism upon her marriage but was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 where she died at age 39. Her belongings were in the possession of her children, but for 60 years they did not go through them all; when the manuscript for this book was found it was published an became an international best seller.

What is most compelling about Suite Francaise is the story was written as the chaos of WWII was happening all around the author. Originally planned to be a Suite in 5 parts Nemirovsky only finished the two novellas that complete this book. The first is Storm in June, which details the utter chaos that occurred when the Germans invaded France and made their way to Paris. The tone of this novella is in itself written in a disjointed sort of way, focusing on a few characters, but jumping around quite a bit, which in essence reflects the panic and chaos of the exodus. There are a few characters we come to care about, but Ms. Nemerovsky comes down hard on those of privilege who used their status to obtain special favors while others around them died in the streets. Of course in the end it is what we have within that sustains us all, courage and honor do not always follow class lines.

The second half of the book is called Dulce (sweet) and focuses on the behaviors of a small village in the countryside that is occupied by a German Army unit in the year between the French armistice and the beginning of the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Although a few characters from the first part of the book are referenced we are introduced to an entirely new set of people. This part of the story is slower paced, and examines how the lives of the oppressed often become intertwined with their oppressors. Friendships are formed; love affairs are born, while under it all resentment and anger also wells up.

Although I enjoyed the book overall I didn't love it, mostly because it does feel incomplete- which of course it is. I would love to have seen what this book could have become had it been completed the way the author wanted it to be. It is that feeling of being cheated of a wonderful talent that remains after the last page is turned, to be denied that chance to see what more this author could have given us. The appendices of the book that describe the background story make the reading of the book that much more compelling.

The Secret of Everything

Book No: 62
Title:The Secret of Everything
Author: Barbara O’Neal
Genre: Chick Lit
Completed: 11/30/09
No. of Pages: 386
Rating: 3/5*****

Tessa Harlow is a tour guide recovering from a terrible accident on her last tour, a tour that ended with a death and Tessa recovering from severe injuries. After months of recuperation she is looking to get back to work and heads to Las Ladrones, New Mexico to determine if it would be a good tour for her company. Tessa has a bit of a past there, she lived there as a child and almost drowned. While there Tessa comes face to face with her past and she begins to discover “The Secret of Everything”.

This book was an easy read, pretty standard chick lit fare; beautiful emotionally damaged woman meets incredibly handsome but equally damaged man, sparks and sex fly and together they help each other heal. Nothing earth shattering here, although there was a bit of an interesting mystery involving Tessa’s past. Some small magical realism bits seemed a little out of place. The characters were very likeable, especially the character of Natalie, a little girl grieving the loss of her mother. The descriptions of New Mexico make you want to pack your bags tomorrow. The storylines eventually come together in one big happy bow at the end, not too believable but if you just want to have a nice beach read this is the book for you.

Sleepwalking in Daylight

Book No: 61
Title: Sleepwalking in Daylight
Author: Elizabeth Flock
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 11/19/09
No. of Pages: 324
Rating: 2**/5*****

I read Emma & Me several years ago and thought it was an amazing story, so I was ready to like this book, but I really, really disliked it.

Samantha Friedman is locked in a loveless marriage with her extremely distracted husband. Looking to feel something Samantha begins a flirtation that leads to more. Her teenage daughter Cammy has been looking for happiness in all the wrong places; since learning she was adopted she has made friends with a questionable group, is taking drugs, drinking and having risky sexual encounters. Both women are desperately trying to escape their lives and eventually do, but in totally unexpected and shocking ways.

I have no problem with sad books, or books that deal with difficult subjects, but first and foremost I need to care about the characters. With the exception of Cammy there was nobody in this book I liked. Sam was so self-absorbed in her own search for happiness she does not see her daughter crying out for help over and over again. Bob the father is a one dimensional nobody that evoked no feelings in me at all. Craig, Sam’s possible boyfriend is a sneak and a liar. The only one I cared about was Cammy but her downward spiral became increasingly difficult to read. Unrelenting in its bleakness this was not an enjoyable read, after turning the last page I was just glad to be done with this depressing story.


Book No: 60
Title: Drood
Author: Dan Simmons
Genre: Historical Fiction
Completed: 11/13/09
No. of Pages: 782
Rating: 3/5*****

Six months after starting this book I am finally finished. I’m not a stranger to big chunky books, I’ve read quite a few and in much shorter time. This book just seemed to drag on and on without actually getting anywhere. A good editor was desperately needed to make this a faster paced and more enjoyable read.

This book is ostensibly a story about Charles Dickens and the character of Drood, which haunted Dickens for the last 5 years of his life, after his near fatal train accident. I thought it would be a fictional look at Drood and what influenced Dickens to write this mystery, something he hadn’t really attempted before. Unfortunately this book was really about Wilkie Collins and his love/hate relationship with Charles Dickens; his friend, competitor and perceived enemy.

It is really difficult to enjoy a book where you dislike the main protagonist so much. Wilkie Collins as depicted here is a completely unreliable narrator. He is an abuser of both morphine and opium and beyond that a man so eaten alive by his jealousy of Dickens that you cannot believe any of his retelling of events This book is told entirely from Collins point of view and there are literally hundreds of pages taken up with his life with two women, the meals he ate, the long walks and talks he had with Dickens about projects they were working on, ad infinitum; my eyes glazed over more than once. For a story entitled Drood, although his presence permeates the book, I don’t think the character was actually in 50 pages of the book.

There were some parts of this book that were really creepy and scary, but these scenes were interrupted by other scenes so tedious I couldn’t wait for them to be done. Half the time you are reading this book you are questioning Collins’ sanity or wondering if what you are reading is one of his drug induced hallucination. In point of fact the final answer to this question comes in about the last 50 pages or so and is a complete let-down. Mr. Charles Dickens does not fare too well in this tale either, making me wonder what the whole point of this book was, in the end I think it was really about the destruction that jealousy can cause in a person’s psyche.

Another aspect of the book that I found annoying were the very many plotlines that were left unanswered, what really happened to Agnes and Joseph Clow? What occurred during Wilkie’s many excursions and conversations with a myriad of people – were they all hallucinations? There were just too many plotlines left dangling.

There were so many glimmers of excellent writing in the story that I rated it a bit higher than I normally would. I do have Simmons’ The Terror in my reading stacks, another large book, but after this it maybe a while before I have the strength or desire to read it.

Die For You

Book No: 59
Title: Die for You
Author: Lisa Unger
Genre: Suspense/Thriller
Completed: 11/9/09
No. of Pages: 352
Rating: 3/5*****

I’ve been a fan of Lisa Unger since her first book “Beautiful Lies” was published and I very much enjoyed her next two books. This book however was not up to par with her previous works.

The storyline has a good premise, what if your husband leaves for work and then disappears? What happens when you learn that your life for the past 5 years has been a total lie? This is exactly what happens to Isabel Raine; Marcus Raine goes to work, disappears and leaves the wreckage of all his lies and deceptions behind. Unable to understand what has happened Isabel begins to look for answers and puts herself and everyone around her at risk.

There were several things I did not like about this book, the main one was the protagonist. I just didn’t like Isabel very much, for a successful bestselling novelist she does some really bone head things. There were too many subplots; her sister Linda’s perfect marriage that is not quite so ideal; Detective Crowe’s marital problems; the death of the father that haunts both Isabel and Linda. Although I understand the question of trust is a huge part of the story it just seemed a little overdone and melodramatic. I don’t like when a book tells instead of shows, where two characters explain everything by having that confessional conversation, I find that to be a cop-out, it’s just too easy. Perhaps my two biggest problems involved the Prologue. Why write a prologue to a suspense novel that takes away all the suspense? Part of the fun of this kind of book is the question of what is going to happen. This thrill is gone from the start since we know who is telling the story. If you do write a prologue it should match up with the scene it foretells; the two scenes were completely different and that really annoyed me.

The book moves pretty quickly and the writing is generally very good, so I will probably read Ms. Unger’s next book. I’d also like to see a book that is a little different than the theme she has written about in all four of these books- although they are different stories they seem to be following the same pattern, I’d really like to see her tackle a different premise.

The Seance

Book No: 58
Title: The Séance
Author: John Harwood
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 11/03/09
No. of Pages: NA
Rating: 3/5*****

I love Victorian settings in books, I love gothic mysteries and I love a good ghost story, therefore I should have loved The Séance, unfortunately I didn’t love this book. It started out well but fell apart by the end, a similar complaint I had for The Ghost writer, Harwood’s first book. Once again I felt that the author didn’t know how to close out the story and started throwing in way too many surprises and twists, making the ending more complicated than necessary.

The story is told in three alternating narratives, Eleanor Unwin, Mistress of Wraxford Hall; John Montague, solicitor for Eleanor’s husband Magnus; Constance Langton, a young woman who has recently become the new owner of Wraxford hall, through an inheritance from a distant relative. Told by Montague to burn the house down and never live in it Constance is drawn to the mystery of the manor and the tragedies that seem to surround it.

All the elements of a good Victorian Gothic are here, a brooding manor house, ghostly apparitions, dark woods, a marriage that isn’t what it seems, a young woman estranged from her family and trying to make her way in the world, doomed lovers, mesmerism and secrets galore. Yet it somehow fails to all come together in the end. There are several plot threads that are dropped or never resolved and while the title of the book and the appearance of a few ghosts seem to indicate a paranormal story, there isn’t a lot of séance in the book and although a bit of a creepy story it wasn’t a very scary one. The ending was anticlimactic, although Harwood does score points for wrapping up one of the mysteries in a very believable way.

Although this book was very atmospheric and I liked the style of the writing, in the end it was a disappointing read.

The Hunger Games

Book No: 57
Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Science Fiction
Completed: 11/01/09
No. of Pages: 391
Rating: 5/5*****

It must be difficult to write a hugely popular book, like The Hunger Games, and then having to produce the sequel and not suffer the dreaded Sophomore Slump. Suzanne Collins need not worry, for Catching Fire is a terrific follow-up to book one. It’s hard to keep up the pace in the middle book of an expected trilogy, the first book lays the groundwork and the final book is the resolution and frequently the middle book has none of that excitement, but that is not the case here.

It’s also very difficult to review a sequel that gives nothing away from the first book and doesn’t reveal any spoilers for the second book. Therefore I will note here that there are spoilers ahead for The Hunger Games, so if you haven’t read it yet stop reading here. There will be no spoilers for Catching Fire, just a general review of the story and characters.

***SPOILER SPACE for The Hunger Games***

At the end of Book One Katniss and Peeta have upended the 74th edition of The Hunger Games, placing the Capitol in the position of letting them both be declared winners. Upon returning back to district 12 the two try to pick up their lives, but everything has changed. They are celebrities now and we rejoin their story as they prepare for the Victory Tour through the Twelve Districts. As they make their way through the tour, visiting one district every month, it is clear that there are signs of unrest and rebellion, fueled by Katniss’ act of defiance during the last competition. It’s seems as though the Capitol and President Snow have not forgotten their stunt either and have planned their revenge; it is an act of retaliation that sends tremors through all of Panem.

To reveal anymore would ruin the book for all. However Collins manages to keep the tension ratcheted up as the 75th Hunger Games begin and we are introduced to more characters to root for and against. The triangle between Gale, Katniss and Peeta is ongoing and there are twists, turns and betrayals that you won’t see coming. The ending is a cliff hanger that will have you clamoring for the next book now!!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Book No: 56
Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 10/21/09
No. of Pages: N/A
Rating: 5/5*****

Renee Michel is the concierge of a small but elegant Paris apartment building, inhabited by eight families who are part of the wealthy upper echelon of French society. Our concierge strives to blend into the surroundings, to present a bland but courteous demeanor to those who only see her in relation to what she can do for them. So Renee goes through life hiding whom she really is, presenting the demeanor of uneducated woman who could aspire to nothing more than the job she has held for 27 years. However when the door to her loge is closed we learn of another Renee, a self educated woman who glories in Tolstoy, Dutch artists, Mozart and Japanese culture. It is her secret life away from the world, one she works assiduously at keeping hidden.

Paloma Josse is twelve years old and lives with her wealthy family in the building where Renee works. An exceedingly bright child, Paloma too presents a different face to the world, trying hard to hide her intelligence and just fit in. Paloma is frequently at odds with her family all of whom she disdains for their clichéd lifestyle. It is for this reason Paloma has decided that on her 13 birthday she will commit suicide. Before she goes through with her plan she begins recording her Profound Thoughts in a journal that we become privy to. Although Renee and Paloma are aware of each other, they have little to do with each other; we just get to see the residents through two sets of eyes.

At first I wasn’t sure about this book, I wasn’t at all sure I liked either of the main characters, whose stories are revealed in alternating chapters. At times I found them a bit pretentious and very self-centered. After a few chapters they began to grow on me, and I enjoyed their wit and humor, as well as their rather astute observations of the people around them. Just as I was settling into a comfort level with these two protagonists, Mr. Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese gentleman, moves into the building. As Mr. Ozu befriends the concierge and the young girl both Renee and Paloma’s lives will become intertwined and changed in ways neither of them could foresee, leading to a series of events that are humorous, touching and sometimes heartbreaking. From the time he enters the story until the last page I could not put this book down. The writing is beautiful and as much as I wanted to finish this book I also didn’t want it to end. I was sorry to turn the last page and end my time with Paloma, Renee and Kakuro. Recommended very highly.

Shame on Me

Well I had an extremely busy several months, and therefore my poor blog has suffered benign neglect, I feel so bad. I am going to try and bring it up to date over the next few days, and will try and get back into weekly updates. I hope anyone who was following me hasn't given up entirely :)

The reason for my being so busy? I bought a house in Florida, here are a few photos: