Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What I've Read Lately (+ Recommended Reading)

I happened to be looking through some old blog posts the other day when I realized that I haven't done a full update on what I've read lately since August of last year.

Whoops.

Sure, I covered some of the more recent titles in my post on the top 10 books I read last year, but I have been seriously slacking in the department known as letting-you-know-what-I've-been-reading.

So, if you're in the mood for a new book, check out some of my latest recommendations.

If You Feel Like Leaving the Country (or the Planet)...

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow
Author: Amor Towles

This title made my top 10 list from last year, so faithful-to-reading-every-last-post readers will have heard of this one already.

This book is set in Russia starting soon after the close of WWI, and it follows an aristocrat who is accused of crimes against the new Russian government and ideologies who is sentenced to live out the rest of his life in the Metropol hotel or be shot.

Although Towles's writing style tends to be slower, his fabulous setting descriptions and memorable characters make this well worth your time.
Title: My Brilliant Friend
Author: Elena Ferrante

This book is actually the first of a series (the Neopolitan Novels) that has received a decent amount of press over the past little while (although, admittedly, I came rather late to the game, having never heard of it until fairly recently).

The series basically follows the friendship of two Italian women over the course of their lives, and this book covers their childhood and adolescent years, where one girl was able to realize the dream she sought for of obtaining the top education available to her at the time, and the other girl was forced to stay home and work for her father's shoemaking shop.

I've heard many people praise these books to the high heavens (some even calling them among their favorites of all time), but I'll admit, it took me awhile to get into this one, and I wasn't even sure I'd continue reading the later books. However, when it had been weeks and I was still thinking about the characters and their lives in rural Italy, I've decided to just go ahead and finish out this series in 2017.

Title: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce

This story about a middle-aged man in England who sets off on an unexpected journey after finding out that an old friend has cancer seemed, at first glance, like it was going to be pretty stereotypical and stale (middle-aged man faces midlife crisis and goes out on a life-changing journey, learning how to actually embrace and live life again along the way).

While the book did meet some of those stereotypical expectations, it also surprised me with its depth in various places throughout the novel, and the MENTAL journey that is covered during Harold Fry's physical journey is what made this one really stand out for me.

This one made me think more deeply about my own past than I have in years, and I was pleasantly surprised by how this one turned out. (Warning: this one is a bit on the slow side.)

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir

I'm sure most people have heard of this one since the movie came out, but just in case you haven't, The Martian is the story of an astronaut sent up in the first space mission to Mars who accidentally gets left behind on the planet by the rest of his crew and has to use every last bit of ingenuity and willpower he has in order to try and survive.

While I loved the ending of this one and thought the overall plot was fantastic, I felt like the book could have been better about fleshing out the emotional state that he must have been going through--overall, the main character lacked depth for me, and I felt like the book got a little bogged down by all the scientific explanations sometimes (although many people have said that those were their favorite parts of the whole thing).

If you're looking for a thrilling sci-fi pick that actually reads like something that could potentially happen not too far off in the future, you'd probably enjoy this one. (Warning: several instances of strong language throughout.)

If You're in the Mood for an Epic Family Saga (told from multiple perspectives)...

Title: Commonwealth
Author: Ann Patchett

I know Patchett's been big for quite awhile now, but this was actually the first book of hers that I picked up. Considering that I knew nothing of the book or of the author either really, I was pleasantly surprised to find a well-written, well-paced book that I easily finished within the span of about 3 or 4 days.

Commonwealth is the story of the blending of two families after an adulterous kiss at an after-christening party. While the kiss is what sets off the rest of the story, this book is not really so much about the infidelity, but rather about the intertwining of all our decisions and their impact on far more than just ourselves.
Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi

This debut novel got huge praise last year for its epic scope and strong sense of history, not to mention its unforgettable structure and characters.

Two half sisters from Ghana are set on two different paths--one marries a white man who's in Ghana as a slave trader, and the other gets traded across the ocean as a slave herself. This book follows their posterity over 300 years of history, briefly exploring key events such as the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, and the jazz movement in Harlem through the eyes of the two half-sisters' posterity.

This book is heartwrenching and uncomfortable, which is exactly what it's supposed to be.  While I didn't feel the ending matched the grand scope of the rest of the book, I still am glad I picked this one up. (Warning: if you're super sensitive to abuse, violence, or acts of human cruelty, you'd best leave this one on the shelf--it has triggers galore.)

Title: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Author: Julia Alvarez

This book follows four Dominican sisters as they acclimate to American life after their immigration to the States as children. The book follows a backwards-plot structure (meaning it starts in the present and then works its way back through time) and is more a collection of loosely-connected stories rather than a novel with one cohesive plot.

While this was well-written and had some stand-out moments, I felt like I would enjoy this one more in a class setting, where we could discuss the structure of the book and the differences in the sisters' developments through time. As it stands, this was one of my picks from last year that fell a little short for me (although I could definitely see why it was chosen to be on many recommended-reading lists).




If You're Not Sick of Historical Fiction Yet...

Title: China Dolls
Author: Lisa See

It seems like there has been SUCH an explosion of historical fiction books lately, especially ones based on WWII, so if you're totally sick of that era, you'd better pass on this one.

With that said though, Lisa See has always been one of my favorite authors, and this novel based on three girls who form an unlikely friendship in the seedy entertainment business during the 1940's was still an enjoyable read.

While I didn't find the three main characters as likeable as the main characters of her other books, I found this particular segment of history fascinating, especially as it was less about the war itself and more about the boom of nightclub entertainment that came about as a result.
Title: Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles

This is the kind of book I would pick up again just for the writing style alone, but luckily, it also has a pretty memorable story behind it as well.

A young woman and her roommate meet a handsome (and unbelievably wealthy) young banker during the late 1930's. Both girls are captivated by the man, and he proceeds to show them the kind of life that only loads of money can buy. Obviously, problems arise with there being one man and two women, not to mention an unexpected accident and a series of life-altering secrets coming to the surface.

While this will occasionally read slow, the dazzling prose makes up for it twofold.

 


If You're Not in the Mood for Anything Too Serious or Realistic...

Title: Cinder (Lunar Chronicles #1)
Author: Marissa Meyer

I'd been hearing whisperings of the Lunar Chronicles series from students and fellow book-lovers alike for years now, but I was hesitant to start this series because of how cheesy it sounded.

Basically, the Lunar Chronicles is a retelling of several fairy tales, with the main story portraying Cinderella as a second-class cyborg in a futuristic post-WWIV world who somehow gets into the middle of a saving-the-world scheme when the Lunar Queen tries to take over.

While it sounds cheesy, this series is surprisingly well-done and totally fun, and, just for the record, I liked this WAY more than Hunger Games or Divergent or any of the other dystopian series that have come out recently.

Title: Flora & Ulysses
Author: Kate DiCamillo

Sometimes you just need a refreshingly light YA read that ends happily and makes you laugh, and this recent book by the same author who wrote The Tale of Despereaux fits the bill exactly.

Flora's life takes an unexpected turn when she saves a squirrel from certain death, and that same squirrel appears to have superpowers much like the beloved heroes of Flora's favorite comic book.

Told partly in graphic novel form and partly in novel form, this book is fun and easy and just heartwarming all around.
Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern

I'll say this right off--

This is one of the most unusual books I've ever read.

Part magical realism, part gothic romance, this is the story of a mysterious circus that only shows up at night where two magicians are competing against each other for terribly high stakes.

This book reminded me of such movies as The Prestige and The Illusionist, and as far as escapist fiction goes, it isn't half-bad. While I thought the plot sometimes got lost a bit in the descriptions, I've heard many people mention this book among their favorites to come out recently.




Title: Holes
Author: Louis Sachar

I had so many students review this book for book projects that I felt like I'd already read it a million times, but I'm glad I finally took the plunge last year and read the whole thing for myself.

Whether you've seen and love the movie or not, this book about a boy who is wrongfully convicted of stealing shoes and sent to a camp for delinquent boys is just awesome. This book combines a family legend passed down through the generations with a modern-day mystery that needs solving, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this even now, as an adult (especially since I unhappily discovered a few years ago that young adult fiction doesn't *usually* hold the appeal it used to for me).

I think all kids and teens should give this one a try, as well as any adults who didn't have the pleasure when they were younger.

If Your Heart Can Take a Good Beating...

Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author: M. L. Stedman

In a writer's group discussion, a fellow writer reminded us that as authors, we have to give our characters "an impossible choice" in order to give our novels the kind of tension that makes for gripping writing.

Well, this book sure delivers on that front.

A man and his wife live alone on a remote island, where he operates the lighthouse. One day, a boat washes up on shore with a body and a baby inside, and the couple makes a choice that day that will affect far more than they ever dreamed possible.

This book grabbed my heart and didn't let it go until the very end, and I still have spent months thinking about this one.


Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi

When I initially heard of this book, I thought to myself, "No way. Not for me. WAY too depressing."

Then I saw it on my library's "new books" shelf, and I fell prey to a moment of weakness and checked it out.

When Breath Becomes Air is the true account of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon in his final year of a decade-long residency who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 36. All of a sudden, this man who has treated the dying himself for years has become one of them, and he must discover for himself the answer to that all-important question: What should he do with the time he has left?

Equal parts philosophy and personal narrative, this book is not for the fainthearted. It's made even more poignant by the fact that it is unfinished, the epilogue written by his wife.

If You Think This List is Shockingly Void of Nonfiction Titles...

Title: Comfort Me With Apples
Author: Ruth Reichl

Having read two of Reichl's other books, I know I'm a fan of her writing style, especially of her to-drool-for descriptions of memorable meals and dishes (a talent she honed over years of being a food editor and restaurant critic).

Comfort Me With Apples is the account of how Reichl finally broke into the restaurant critic business, and how the commune that she lived in had distinctly negative feelings towards it.

Honestly, this is by far my least favorite of Reichl's works that I've read so far, not because it wasn't well-written or interesting, but just because I had a hard time dealing with the subject matter (about the multiple affairs she had while still married).
Title: Outliers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell

I thought I knew what this book was about before I picked it up, but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. In this nonfiction pick, Gladwell argues that success is rarely the American Dream story we make it out to be and that people who are phenomenally successful have to have a fair amount of luck and timing on their side in order to make it big.

A fascinating look at what breeds success, and a book I found equal parts motivating and disheartening (you'll see what I mean if you ever read it).

A book that's well worth at least one read, if for nothing else than the fact that it will change your views on success forever.




What have you been reading lately? And what should I add to my To-Read list for 2017?

2 comments:

  1. Oh gosh.. When Breath Becomes Air... sounds like one of those books I'd never want to read but would totally do it to torture myself :) haha
    I just couldnt get into the Martian. If I hadnt seen the movie, I would have been so lost in the book. I just struggle with Sci-Fi stuff anyways. & that was LEGIT Sci-fi ;)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love when you post book lists because get new ideas and I know that if a book had bad language, I'll get a warning so I can then decide if I want to deal with it or not! Thanks for some good recommendations!

    ReplyDelete

Thanks so much for leaving a comment! I love reading your thoughts :)

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