Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Best Books of 2012

This is always my favorite post to write.  I get to go back and look over all of the books I’ve read through the year and pick my favorites.  I seem to read between 80 and 90 books each year mostly fiction but with a healthy dose of history mixed in.  My list this year is as usual somewhat eclectic.  Half of my choices come from authors publishing their first books, guess that could bode well for great books in the coming years. I’ve chosen six books that are fiction, two that are history, a medical case study and one that almost defies categorization (Beautiful Forevers).  I try to keep my choices to books that are published in 2012 but I read two great books that were published earlier and I’ll mention them at the end.  Follow the link for the complete reviews.  So with no further ado and in alphabetical order my favorites from 2012.

The Age of Miracles (speculative fiction) despite a weak ending this coming of age story set in apocalyptic times is fresh, clever and memorable.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers –   the story of the underclass in a slum city in Mumbai blew me away. It is an unforgettable story that is rich and beautifully written, the characters are heartbreaking and the setting haunting. The story read like the best fiction, unfortunately it wasn’t.  A tremendous accomplishment for this author.

Brain on Fire (medical) the story of a young reporter with an undiagnosed brain infection is well written.  The author synthesizes complicated medical issues into readable prose offering yet another reminder not to enter today’s’ medical system without a strong patient advocate.

Broken Harbor (mystery) more tales of the Dublin Murder Squad result in an excellent psychological  mystery from the queen of them, Tana French. 

Casual Vacancy (fiction) the much anticipated JK Rowling adult novel was not everyone’s cup of tea but I enjoyed this English small town story for its immersive experience and well drawn characters.

City of Women (historical fiction) this beautifully told story set in wartime Berlin examines the personal courage it takes to work against a totalitarian government.  Memorable!

Double Cross - (history) the story of British double agents and their deceptions in WWII.  A quirky British tale; great history well told.

Gone Girl – (mystery) this one is on everyones’ best books list and deservedly so.  A complex, suspenseful mystery that keeps you guessing right up until the end.

The Last Lion – (history) the final installment in William Manchester’s massive biography of Churchill is admittedly not for everyone.  But for me the story of this Victorian politician who had only words to fight Hitler in 1940 was superb and inspiring.  I listened to the audio edition and loved it.  Review to come.

In the Shadow of the Banyan (fiction) a fictionalized telling of the genocide in Cambodia in the late 1970s. This story and these characters will be embedded in your consciousness for a long time. 

Art of Racing in the Rain (fiction) 2009 a poignant family story that is funny, sad and uplifting told from the point of view of the family dog Enzo.  Don’t miss this one.   

Child 44 (mystery) 2008 – a taut, chilling serial killer mystery set in Stalinist Russia.  The mystery is first rate and the back-story of the protagonist is excellent.  Best mystery I’ve read in a long time

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

by JK Rawling, Little Brown Publishing, September 2012

JK Rowling continues to tell stories that are interesting, well written,  funny and rewarding to read.

This story opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, “a man of generous spirit”.  He is a family man living in the small insular town of Pagford in rural England.  Barry’s death resulted in a “casual vacancy’ on the town council.  There is a polarization between the forces that want to close a drug clinic and cut loose a poor section of town, the Fields and those citizens who see some obligation to support those who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum.  Seems like a good v. evil plot but not so fast.

The local shopkeeper, Howard Mollison is the chairman of the council and is focused on closing the drug clinic and redrawing the town lines to exclude the lower income residents.  I could not get the Durnsleys’ (Harry Potter’s step parents) out of my mind when reading about Mollison and his wife Shirley.   The forces on the other side of the issue are led by an Indian physician Dr. Jawanda and Colin Wall a local teacher. There are way too many characters in this story to describe here but the ones who most came to life for me were the teenagers.  Maybe because they were not as jaded as most of the adults in this story.  Defamatory posts written by ‘the ghost of Barry Fairbrother’ start to appear on the council website and the election heats up.

The election and the machinations of the locals are essentially the whole plot.  This is not a plot driven novel but more an immersive experience in the characters and setting of the story.  The author, JK Rowling, has a well deserved reputation for writing richly imagined and wonderfully peopled stories.  She delivers here.  Pagford comes to life in this story.  Everyone knows everyone else and the claustrophobic feel of a small town is well described.   There are no heroes in this story, in fact most of the characters are flawed and in some cases downright evil.  There are humorous episodes and the humor is of the dry British variety.  There is some melodrama in the end but it might have been the only way to end this sad story.  I liked this book even though it cast of Muggles was singularly uninspiring and occasionally depressing.  JK Rowling continues to tell stories that are interesting, well written,  funny and rewarding to read.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Boy in the Snow

by MJ McGrath, Viking Adult, November 2012

This is the second Edie Kiglatuk novel by MJ McGrath.  In this mystery Edie, an Inuit from near the Arctic Circle is in Alaska to support her ex husband Sammy in his Iditarod race.  In a walk in the woods prior to the race, Edie finds a frozen corpse of an infant boy. Who he is, how he died and how he came to be placed in the woods serves as one of two major story lines.  The second story line centers on tourism land development and the cut throat politics that is involved in it.  Edie relentlessly follows the clues related to the infant's death wherever they take her.  An Old Russian Orthodox community comes under suspicion for the child’s death because Edie has reported seeing some members of this community near the spot where she found the boy.  Local prejudices against this reclusive community lead the local police to the Old Believers for their murder suspect. 
The look we get into Inuit culture and customs and descriptions of the landscape of the frozen North are the strong suites of this story.  The author knows this culture and is able to weave into this story many aspects of this fascinating native community.  A scene later in the novel where the characters fight for survival is compelling in its realism.  Unfortunately the mystery and its characters do not hold up through this story.  Edie as the heroine is hard to like; she is somewhat self righteous and lacking in emotion (is Derek a love interest a/o partner -impossible to tell from this story).  The two storylines which finally intersect are improbable at best.  The denouement is way too convenient to accept.  
In my opinion the first novel in this series, White Heat was stronger than this one.  I still think this could be a good mystery series.  Its settings and characters are  unique in a genre where many protagonists are indistinguishable from one another. I think a more focused story with a bit better character development could really improve this series.  Read this one if you love stories of the frozen wilderness, but read White Heat first if you haven’t. 

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean, narrated by Yelena Shmulenson, Harper Audio, September 2012, 7 hrs 7 mins

...highly recommend the audio for this one

I continue to punch my ticket with WWII novels.  This one is the story of a Russian woman Marina, who worked in the Hermitage in Leningrad during the terrible time when the city was besieged by the German army in 1941-43.  Marina has immigrated to Seattle and in old age is losing her hold on current events but can recall with total clarity the sufferings of her time in Russia during the war.  Marina struggles to identify lifelong friends at her granddaughters wedding.  Her son and daughter come to realize that their mother has Alzheimers and that their father can no longer care for her.  Her mind takes her back to her time as a young girl in Leningrad.  She describes the museum and the art treasures that were housed there.  We hear how the art was removed from the path of the Nazi advance and taken by train to more remote sections of Russia.  The deprivation that the Russian people endured during the siege of the city is told with staggering detail.  More than a quarter of the people of Leningrad succumbed to either bombing, disease, starvation or the cold during the 900 day siege.  Marina lives in the basement of the museum with her aunt and uncle and their children.  She survives this ordeal by concentrating of the beauty of the art that she has worked with at the museum.  The descriptions of the paintings, almost all Madonnas, are quite beautiful.
 I enjoyed the parts of this story that were set in Russia.  What happened to the Russian people in WWII was horrific and not a story that is often told.  The author does a good job with this.  The sections that deal with the Hermitage and the effort to save the art from the Nazi advance were something I did not know and found quite interesting.  Marina’s story told with this backdrop was quite compelling and at times heartbreaking.
Marina’s present day life with her encroaching Alzheimers is very sad, but sadder still is the fact that her children had no idea of the experiences their parents had during the war.  Is this really possible?  Could children be this incurious?  I had some trouble believing that her children could be so self centered, but I guess it is possible.
I liked this book even though I don’t think the two story lines came together well in the end.  There were for me a number of unanswered questions (what happened to her cousins?). I listened to the audio version of this story that was delightfully read by Yelena Shmulenson.  I’d highly recommend the audio for this one as the descriptions of the art when spoken came alive for me in ways that I don’t think would have happened had I read them.

I listened to a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.