Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favorites: 2013

The Best of my year of reading.

In 2013, I read a lot of good books, some mediocre books, and too many books of marginal value. I read 53 books from the stash that have accumulated this year. My husband calls UPS the Bookmobile.  Additionally, I have a lot of books on my Kindle and in hardback that I didn't get to read no matter how much I wanted to read them. Even though the intent and desire was there, time and energy interfered. 
 This has been a hard book year. Because I worked so much this year, I read a lot of terrible student essays and a couple of books about education. All that work meant that my personal reading and blogging suffered. The other problem was that I reviewed a lot of books for publicists and publishers that I didn't particularly want to read. I am a bit nonplussed about how to deal with the problem of too much of a good thing. 

 Best Novel: The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I read this with my book club and have grown in respect for Erdrich. She tells a good story.  This is quickly followed by The Submission by Amy Waldman. Morally intense. 
Most clever mystery: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Loved how it kept me guessing. I didn't peek at the ending--not once! 
Most profound exploration of grief: Enon by Paul Harding. I was pleased to see it on some best of 2013 lists, because I thought it was incredible. Also loved Let Him Go by Larry Watson, another exploration of loss. 
Best Gothic (and only Gothic!) Moonrise by Cassandra King. My introduction to her as an author. 
Best International Mystery: I loved Police by Jo Nesbo. Also liked The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach. 
Best book about aging: Fierce with Age by Carol Orsborn. Quickly followed by The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, which I absolutely loved. 
Best classic to read again for the first time: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald which I listened to on an audio book before seeing both the Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio versions of the movie. 
Best Essays: My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach. Laughing at the crazy stuff of life. 
Best Memoir: The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagame because of his extreme honesty, humor and hopefulness . 
Biggest Surprise: Ship it Holla Ballas by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback. Can you believe I read a book about how online gambling works? Oh, and also Shot All to Hell by Mark Lee Gardner about Jesse James robbing the Northfield Minnesota bank. 
A book I wanted to like: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. This was well reviewed but I just couldn't relate to it. 
Other notable books:
Reconstructing Amelia Kimberly McCreight 
 Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen 
 Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sweet Nothings

by Janis Thomas
 Berkley Books  2013
386 Pages     Fiction

The title says it all--"Sweet Nothings."  It is a trifle, a cupcake of a novel. It can be read in a couple of sittings, much like a cookie can be eaten in a couple of bites. But like a cookie, or a cake, you just gotta have a book like Sweet Nothings occasionally. Janis Thomas, the author, calls her books "Chick lit grows up" by which she means matrimonial suburbia, where the mundane aspects of life take over.

Sweet Nothings is a book about resilience. Ruby is the owner of a sweets bakery called Muffin Tops. In the opening chapters of the book her husband leaves her and their two children for another woman--not a sweet young thing, but a woman of his own age. This is almost a bigger insult than if he had left Ruby for a 20-something hottie. Ruby pulls herself together in short order with panache and great humor. She has a very rye way of looking at the world, but she is nothing but honest with herself, her children, and her world. She figures out a way to make her bakery profitable so that she can support her family. Ruby is a very likeable character, and her journey to a new life is inspiring. The closing lines of the book share her journey: "It's never too late to dream. It's never too late to believe."

The beauty of Sweet Nothings is that the serious topic of a woman left in the lurch could have been told with pain and suffering, but instead it is told with humor.There's a lot of baking in this book which adds to its enjoyment. Although there is very little remarkable about Sweet Nothings, it was a perfect book to read the week before our huge family descended on us for Christmas. Thank goodness for that, because there was no way that I could have read a heavy book as I was doing my own cooking and baking before the holidays. It actually may be the reason that I baked more than I usually do. Ruby's efforts inspired me.  My children and grandchildren should thank her.

Ruby reminded me a little of Diane Mott Davidson's character Goldy, and although there is no mystery involved in Sweet Nothings, the feistiness and humor are similar. I also remembered a friend whose husband left her for another middle-aged woman. She came to work one day with a picture of her ex with the new woman, who looked older and chubbier than my friend. The first thing out of my mouth was "He left you for her!" My friend told me that was the best thing that anyone said about the divorce. Ruby had some of those same emotions. All jilted women should be so strong.

Janis Thomas' website:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Police: A Harry Hole Novel

by Jo Nesbo
Knopf     2013
448 pages      Fiction

I dropped into the middle of the Norwegian Harry Hole series of mysteries with the tenth book, Police. According to the review in the New York Times, I shouldn't have done that. I was confused for quite a while, so I would suggest, along with the Times reviewer, that you begin with Phantom, the book that precedes Police. That being said, if you love dark, twisted mysteries and police procedurals, you are going to love Jo Nesbo and Police. By far, it's the best mystery I read this year.

Harry Hole is an incredibly intuitive police detective, and although he doesn't appear until the middle of the book, his presence fills the pages, and when he finally does show up, the plot thickens so rapidly that the reader is left holding her breath, glancing out the window for intruders, and making sure her husband is secure in the next room. The intensity is awe-inspiring.

There are grisly murders, unexpected deaths, suspenseful moments, and unlikely escapes. At the same time, there is the political maneuvering that one would expect in an urban police department, no matter where the story takes place. The characters are all multidimensional and clearly drawn, but this is one of those books where I needed to keep a list of characters. First of all, they were all introduced in previous books, and then they all have Norwegian names that don't slip off an American tongue--even one with a Norwegian sister-in-law. Bad things keep happening to these interesting characters, and I had to keep scratching them off the character list. As I said before, it is intense.

If you need more than my recommendation, I would suggest that you look over this brief review from Booklist:  "Police officers in Oslo are being murdered by a serial killer with a bizarre agenda: each victim is discovered at a crime scene that mimics the scene of an earlier unsolved murder. Not only that but the new victims all participated in the investigations of the earlier crimes. Is the killer a fellow cop? Working as an off-the-books task force, Harry’s former colleagues—Beate Lønn, Stale Aune, Bjorn Hølm, and Katrine Bratt—set out to find the answers. It’s clear that Chief of Police Mikael Bellman and his henchman, Truls Berntsen, are dirty, but are they killers?" Hope that piqued your interest!

The reviewer in the Boston Globe says that Nesbo "never fails to surprise" just like his hero, Harry Hole never fails to surprise.
He goes on: "It’s a dizzyingly taut feat of storytelling. The murders are grisly, gruesome, and gory without overwhelming the narrative, and Nesbo deftly juggles multiple plotlines using terrific sleights of hand to gradually reveal where they might intersect while lovingly rounding out each of his characters, heroes and villains alike." I couldn't have said it better myself.

P.S., The book is extremely well translated. 

Jo Nesbo's website:

Friday, December 6, 2013

Shot All to Hell

by Mark Lee Gardner
William Morrow     2013
309 pages     Nonfiction

Shot all to Hell by Mark Lee Gardner is about the robbery of the Northfield, Minnesota bank by the Jesse James and the Cole Younger gangs in 1876. This is not my usual book choice, but I had a personal reason for reading it. Our teenaged great grandmother was there on that day, and her story has been part of our family lore for all these generations.

My son called me all excited one day. "Mom," he said. "They're talking about the Northfield robbery on the radio." Sure enough. There was a new book about the robbery and the author was on NPR. Now, you must know that our whole family had arrived in Northfield from all over the country just prior to the radio report to bury our mother and grandmother. We had walked around downtown Northfield and looked at the spot where Great Grandmother Alice Finney had hidden during the robbery. We had driven out to Stanton, the tiny village where our family lived, and we had clocked the distance from where Alice and a friend first saw the bank robbers until she got into Northfield and the hardware store where the owner hid them from the robbers and the gunfire. Then, my sister and I did some research, collaborated the family lore with the actual history, and wrote up the story as one of three stories in a picture book that was illustrated by my son. 

As you can imagine, I read Shot All to Hell with a great interest. There is a lot that is mythological about Jesse and Frank James, and Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger. Several movies have been made and many books written. Gardner has used the 1876 Northfield Minnesota attempted bank robbery as the centerpiece of the history of the gang. Prior to reading the book, I didn't know how the men got to be outlaws. During the Civil War, there were bands of mercenaries or bushwhackers, as they were called, that struck fear in the hearts of the people who lived along the Missouri/Kansas border. There were murders, assassinations and massacres during the war. It was all about slavery, of course. Jesse James and his brother as well as the Youngers were part of the group of men who followed General Quantrill in those brutal raids. Over the years, Jesse and Frank James became folk heroes of sorts and their adventurous lives were followed closely by the press. They continued robbing trains and banks, sometimes with Cole Younger and his brothers, all the while living fairly ordinary lives as farm owners and settled citizens in Missouri.

Gardner tells particularly of the fateful day that they decided to rob the bank in Northfield, Minnesota. It was harvest time and this was a prosperous bank. The men teamed up with the Younger brothers and a few other men, and tried to rob the bank just like they had robbed other banks and trains. What they didn't know was that this was a little town that was going to fight back. A fierce battle ensued on the streets of Northfield as well as in the bank. A couple of the outlaws and a couple of townspeople were killed as well as the bank's clerk. Our great grandmother saw the whole thing peeking out the second-floor window of the hardware store next door.

Most of the robbers escaped but they were followed by posses of several hundred men who combed southern Minnesota in search of them. This part of the history is really the most interesting. After several days the Youngers were captured and put in jail in southern Minnesota. Jesse and Frank made it all the way back to Missouri. Amazingly, after Frank was captured, he was acquitted in a trial--his jurors not wanting to convict someone they considered to be a Civil War hero. He lived to be an old man. Jesse was killed by a spiteful gang member seeking a reward. The Northfield raid was the beginning of the end of their careers.

As you can imagine, the lore of Jesse James has remained prominent in the history of the little town of Northfield. Every year the raid is reenacted as a part of a huge community festival. The town is very proud of their part in history. 

Gardner tells a compelling story.
It reads like a great adventure novel, with the outlaws hiding by day, riding by night, stealing horses, begging food, torn, dirty, and bedraggled. There were sightings everywhere as the men made their way across the bottom of Minnesota into South Dakota, Iowa and then into the safer territory of Missouri. The adventure is a real page turner, and the odd thing is, the reader cheers on the outlaws. You want them to get away.

Reading the book makes my great grandmother's story all the more intriguing. Most of her newspaper obituary in the1940s told of her grand adventure seeing Jesse James rob the Northfield Minnesota bank. 

Shot All to Hell is out in hardback right now but the paperback comes out in June. it is an Indie Next List Selection. A reviewer called it a meticulously researched history...the kind of compelling narrative that all historians should emulate.

 Mark Lee Gardner's website: