Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Reads of 2011

I have mixed feelings about end-of-year lists, especially as there now seem to be so many of them. I figured, however, what is the point of keeping track of everything one reads in a year without reflecting back on those books?

I set out in 2011 to read the equivalent of one book a week, or 52 books total. I ended up with 79 titles on my list, with books for children, for young adults, and both adult fiction and nonfiction. I did not count picture books because, well, as a children's librarian, 52 picture books would present no challenge at all. Perhaps in 2012 I'll blog about my favorite picture books, too.

Here's how my reading broke down (yes, I really made a pie chart):

And, the real point of this posting, my ten best reads of 2011:

Best Children's Fiction, Fantasy: The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley

Best Children's Fiction, Historical: The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

Best Children's Fiction, Humorous: The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris

Best Children's Fiction, Realistic with a Female Protagonist: Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Best Children's Fiction, Realistic with a Male Protagonist: Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry

Best Young Adult Fiction: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Best Young Adult Series Fiction: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Best Adult Fiction, Comedic: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Best Adult Fiction, Dramatic: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Best Adult Nonfiction: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

May the year 2012 bring you many wonderful opportunities for reading discoveries!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Last Reads of 2011, or Books #78 and #79

I finished off the last bit of the year--the busy holiday time!--with two very different reads: a classic mystery (to make up for the nonsense that was the last mystery I read), and a children's graphic novel set in Wonderland post-Alice. Here are some brief details:

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie's classic mystery novels starring Hercule Poirot, Belgian detective extraordinaire. Poor Monsieur Poirot, even a simple trip back home from Persia turns into a murder mystery. When one of the passengers on Poirot's carriage of the Paris-bound Orient Express is murdered, the head of the company insists Poirot investigate. The premise is even more interesting and potentially menacing giving the fact that the train becomes stuck in the snow shortly after the murder is presumed to have been committed--meaning the murderer is likely still on the train. This limited set makes for a perfect backdrop to both Poirot's deductive investigative style and Christie's wonderfully adept mystery writing.

Wonderland, originally a series of comics written by Tommy Kovac and illustrated by Sonny Liew, is the graphic novel story of Mary Ann, the White Rabbit's housemaid, and the nonsensical and head-threatening situations she and her employer get into some time after the "Monster Alice" visited Wonderland. Mary Ann is something of a neat freak, and the White Rabbit is a bit irrational and twitchy, and the rest of the characters from Lewis Carroll's original tales are also present in a form slightly diluted from their originals. What seems like a totally pointless story ends up being a bit of a political commentary, though, which surprised me as I was reading--and I'm wondering if maybe that makes this graphic novel not a children's book after all, despite its being published by Disney. The art is really fun, however, with Liew paying homage to John Tenniel's well-loved illustrations. Not the best book to end the year with, but not a total loss for an Alice fan, either.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book #77: Death Comes to Pemberley

I love Jane Austen.

I hate this book.

I read and heard so many really positive reviews of P. D. James's murder mystery Pride and Prejudice sequel Death Comes to Pemberley--there was so much positivity, in fact, that a mass-market-reviews skeptic like me ought to have expected disappointment. Supposedly the novel is a lovely cross between a true-to-the-oeuvre P&P sequel and Clue. Except that P&P is beautifully and ingeniously written, and Clue is funny; this book is neither.

I read this book on my Kindle, and I highlighted passages that bugged me--many made me yell out in frustration (this is true; ask my coworkers). Perhaps don't read this list of a) you plan to read the book, or b) you read it and enjoyed it. You've been warned.

The shades of Pemberley are thus polluted:

  1. Everyone seems to drink coffee. Tea was the fashionable drink in the Regency period, especially in aristocratic private homes.
  2. There are dopey, suck-up-to-Jane-Austen moments like this one, where Elizabeth reflects on the incredibly short courtship between herself and Mr. Darcy--that period between his proposals: "If this were fiction [it is!], could even the most brilliant novelist [brown-noser!] contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome [yes a novelist could! and let's state the obvious!]?"
  3. Not only are we, the readers, privy to conversations exclusively between men, we are availed of the goings-on among servants with no reference to their employers. Jane Austen only wrote what she knew, and so we never get these perspectives--conversations about which she would have had no first-hand knowledge. Except, apparently, here we do.
  4. Jane Bingley talks more in one paragraph than Jane Bennett did in the entirety of P&P.
  5. The servants answer direct yes-or-no questions from their employers with unnecessarily wordy answers. Since when do the servants turn into Whit Stillman characters and qualify all of their answers?
  6. Really? Mrs. Elizabeth Bennett feels some pangs of emotion for "the handsome agreeable and gallant George Wickham"? "Gallant" definitely took that bit too far.
  7. It is entirely unnecessary to work in contemporary mechanical developments, for example the Darcys' inclusion of a water closet at Pemberley. It is even more unnecessary to go on to say how said developments have "caused much ribald interest in the neighbourhood."
  8. It is never necessary to know the name of a character's horse. Ever.
  9. Lots of these characters have really stupid names. Joseph Joseph? Obadiah? Jeremiah? Really? You do know P&P is in the polite society of Regency England, right?
  10. I may be mistaken, but I was under the impression that folks in England stopped calling America "the New World" well before 1804.
  11. Mr. Darcy "could not speak but the joy which brought a tear to his eyes suffused his face..." Mr. Darcy does. Not. Cry.
  12. And the worst possible offense, in my opinion: the crossing over of characters from other of Austen's novels. In an effort to provide some back story as to what the Wickhams have been up to over the past few years, the reader learns that the pair spent some time in the company/employ of Sir Walter Elliot. Lydia flirted with Sir Walter, Mr. Wickham flirted with Elizabeth Elliot; this idea in and of itself is mildly amusing as a character interpretation. But then there is the mention of a former Miss Anne Elliot, now married for several years to navy man Frederick Wentworth, recently made an admiral. Death Comes to Pemberley is set in 1803-04, and the Wickhams would have been around the Elliots in 1802. According to the FIRST PAGE of Persuasion, Anne Elliot was born in 1787. She would have been 15 at the time of the events in which she is mentioned, which is a full four years before she ever met her apparently promoted-before-he-joined-the-navy husband. Then, in a desperate bid to resolve a bit of bastardization at the end of the novel, we hear of these kind folks in a place called Highbury; Mr. and Mrs. Martin want to take in a baby, and Mr. and Mrs. Knightly of Donwell Abbey pledge their emotional and financial support for the arrangement. Austen's Emma--the Mrs. Knightly in question--would have been 7 at this time. That was too young even for French monarchs to wed, and given how much the English disliked the French at this time (James does at least mention Napoleon), 7 was definitely too young for well-bred English ladies to be married. Strange chronological discrepancies aside, it is still entirely out of the realm of the Austen oeuvre for these characters to be moving amongst one anothers' spheres, especially given they aren't related to one another. Austen's novels are largely set in small country villages and towns, where the social circles are small. These characters may each have dined with four and twenty families, but the chances of them ever coming into contact with one another, especially given their substantial geographical distances, are negligible at best and preposterous in effect. After enough Austen story lines intersect, one half expects mention of a Mr. Kevin Bacon.
I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; I am not averse to retellings and reimaginings of Jane Austen novels. But this? This felt sloppy and clunky and simply uninteresting, even as a straight up historical mystery. And that's all in addition to the infuriating bits. Overall: badly done, indeed.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Books #75 & #76

Despite a seemingly accelerating programming agenda, my reading has not slowed as of late. I recently finished two books, each by one of my entertainment favorites:

The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde - It is no secret that I love love love Jasper Fforde. In fact, I love his writing so much that I happily special ordered the most recent book in the Last Dragonslayer series from the UK. The novel, meant for a juvenile audience, did by no means disappoint. The story picks up where the first book left off. Foundling Jennifer Strange is still acting manager of Kazam, a house of magic-for-hire, although things haven't drastically improved for the motley assortment of sorcerers despite the recent Big Magic. Jennifer and her assistant Tiger Prawns must seek to protect their establishment, use their sorcerers' powers for good, and prevent an all-too-gullible royal household and public from letting themselves be overtaken by the conniving, malevolent, and flat-out mean competition. Throw in a few particularly disgruntled sorceresses and the threat of Quarkbeast-induced localized singularities and you've got a thrilling good story. (Don't understand a word of that description? That's because you haven't read it yet. Jasper Fforde is so funny and fanciful, and it all makes sense in the end.)

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is the recent memoir by that hilarious customer service rep lady on The Office, Mindy Kaling. Kaling tells the tales of how she got to be the normal, average woman who lives the crazy cool Hollywood comedy life that she leads today. There were so many times in this book when I laughed out loud--Kaling really has a talent for finding the complete humor in situations that are universal in growing up, pursuing your dreams, and dealing with the day-to-day nuttiness that is life. I love how over-dramatic she is--and that she fully realizes she is being over dramatic! This book is worth reading, if for no other reason, for its sensational one-liners peppered throughout the text. Geez, that funny lady is perceptive!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Books #73 and #74: For a Mock Newbery Discussion

All of the children's librarians in the library district at which are work are busy reading what have been called Newbery Medal contenders for this year. In an effort to all be aware of some of the best titles to come out for kids this year, at our December meeting we'll share with the group the details and our thoughts about these books. My two follow.

The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris is a really laugh-out-loud funny retelling of the classic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lots of folks read SG&tGK in high school or college, and for that very reason we tend to forget that the story itself is perfect for elementary school kids. After all, the Arthurian tales originated as oral stories--why not tell them in a way that not only is accessible to children but appeals to them as well? The author takes us with Sir Gawain in the year preceding his fateful meeting with the Green Knight, and along the way we meet the somewhat incompetent other Knights of the Round Table, some odd characters throughout the kingdom, and the idiosyncratic Sir Gawain himself. The tale is true to the traditional telling with the added benefit of the type of humor kids love. I can't wait to use this as a read-aloud at some sort of school-age program.

The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm is something completely different. This historical fiction sequel to the Newbery Honor Book Our Only May Amelia is definitely funny in its own way--after all, children being terrorized outside their school house by a bull wrongly-named Friendly is a humorous situation. But the depth of May Amelia's character makes for a really compelling read. Being a part of an immigrant Finnish community in the Pacific Northwest is struggle enough, but when misfortune seems to settle on May Amelia's family, we're left to wonder if her spirit can be enough to see everything through. This novel displays some wonderful historical background, moving family dynamics, and a flat-out good story of a really likable heroine. I'll definitely be recommending these books for readers asking for something historical besides American Girl and Dear America.

Have you read anything this year meant for juvenile readers through grade 6 that you think might be in the running for a Newbery? Please share!