Tag Archives: book reviews

My Favorite Books of 2016

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had a book review blog. And then I started this blog and it was just too much. Though I was still reading just as much as ever, I couldn’t keep up with Ultimate Bridesmaid and work a full-time job and have a life and blog about books. So my book blog fell by the wayside, but I certainly didn’t stop reading and I definitely didn’t stop having opinions about what I read. So once a year I like to share my favorite books from last year with you. Let me know what you’re reading and loving too!

My Favorite Books of 2016: Find reviews of The Heart Goes Last, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Incarnations, Purity, The Girls, and Slade House.

If you have a macabre fascination with cults (like me), try The Girls by Emma Cline.

I’ve always been interested in books about cults, and this is probably the best one I’ve ever read. Set in California in the 1960s, the story follows Evie, a young teenage girl who is drawn in to a group of hippies—mostly women—living on a decrepit ranch off the grid with a charismatic leader who dreams of becoming a celebrity folk singer. The book captures the feeling intensity of wanting to belong to something at that age, of searching for intimacy and excitement. It shows a certain type of young woman—sexual but aloof, powerful in her confidence and ease, her messy hair and wrinkled clothing—and Evie is drawn to the leader of these girls, wanting to be like her, feel loved by her, be part of her world. But people are going to end up dead.

If you identify with tales of disaffected youth or like a dark coming of age tale, try Purity by Jonathan Franzen.

Apparently this was the year of me reading books about young girls being lured into organizations by charismatic older men. I loved Franzen’s The Corrections and didn’t much care for Freedom. Purity felt like a return to the style of The Corrections, but Franzen’s voice has matured. I still feel like he has a woman problem, but nonetheless, I liked Purity. Young Pip takes an internship The Sunlight Project, an organization ferreting out the world’s secrets and using them for good, based in a remote valley in Bolivia. Isolated from the world she’s known, Pip draws the attention of the Julian Assange-type head of the Project, Andreas. Soon she’s not sure what’s she’s doing in Bolivia. Andreas has promised to help her find the identity of her father, whom her mother has hidden from her for her whole life. Is she just waiting for those answers? Does she believe in the Sunlight Project? Is she just glad to be out of her dead-end call center job in Oakland? Or is she trying to exert her sexual power over Andreas…or vice versa?

If you like Chinese historical fiction or stories of reincarnation, try The Incarnations by Susan Barker.

A few years back I read Life After Life and was kind of obsessed with it. Since then, books about past lives have been a draw, so I picked up The Incarnations. Set in modern-day Beijing, the story follows taxi driver Wang and his stalker, who claims to be his literal soulmate, with whom he has shared his past six lives. This mysterious figures leaves letters for Wang detailing the lives they have lived together—as slaves on the run from Genghis Khan, as a fisherman and English captain during the Opium Wars, as two concubines in the court of the Ming dynasty. The souls are yin and yang—they complete each other and destroy each other, again and again. An addictive read.

If you want a peek into New York high society’s golden age, try The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.

Reviews of this book have been love/hate, but I really enjoyed it. The story follows Truman Capote’s friendship with a group of New York socialites in the 1950s. As a period piece of New York, it’s lovely, showing the transition from the graceful socialites of the 50s to the celebrity culture that rose in the 60s, leaving many of Manhattan’s elite behind. It’s also an interesting look at Truman Capote, painting him as a social climber who recognized that these Manhattan swans (his name for the women who befriended him) were using him as a gem in their collection of artists and writers. It shows how he at first uses this to his advantage, forges at least one true friendship, but ultimately lets his addiction to fame drive him to ruin.

If you love gothic horror stories, try Slade House by David Mitchell.

If you asked me to pick my two favorite authors (I get two, because I say so), I’d easily pick David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood, so it’s no surprise their newest books made this list. But I think this might be David Mitchell’s most accessible book to the uninitiated. This creepy gothic horror novella centers around Slade House, a hidden residence in London that lures victims in once every nine years. But for those who are familiar with Mitchell’s work, you’ll also catch links back to many of his previous books in the expanding, lightly interconnected world Mitchell has been building over the past decade.

If you can’t wait for The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, try The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

While not as revolutionary as some of Atwood’s earlier work, The Heart Goes Last has her characteristic extraordinary world-building balanced by thoughtful character studies and chilling moments that make you think “oh my god, this could really happen!” The story is set in a poverty-filled world in which the central couple, Charmaine and Stan, are living out of their car trying to keep safe from roaming gangs of street thugs. They decide to enroll in an experimental government program in which they will be provided with everything they’ve ever dreamed of—a home in a safe, gated community with paid, stable employment. The only catch? They’ll have to spend every other month in the community’s prison system.

See last year’s list here.

My Favorite Reads of 2015

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had a book review blog. And then I started this blog and it was just too much. Though I was still reading just as much as ever, I couldn’t keep up with Ultimate Bridesmaid and work a full-time job and have a life and blog about books. So my book blog fell by the wayside, but I certainly didn’t stop reading and I definitely didn’t stop having opinions about what I read. I even tried to write a really long recap post of every book I read last year, but it was exhausting. So finally I just decided to share a selection of my favorite reads from last year with you. 

My Favorite Reads of 2015

If you’re looking for something totally different, try The Bees by Laline Paull
Tired of reading about how messed up we humans are? Take a break from the cares of the human world with this book told from the perspective of a lowly worker bee. You immediately get sucked into the captivating but alien world of the hive as Flora 717 struggles to find her place. Born a sanitation worker, she stifles an unnatural urge to have a baby, the sole duty of the hive’s Queen. I ended up learning a lot about bees while also being totally engrossed in the Handmaid’s Tale-like struggle of one bee to rise above her birth.

If you already miss Downton Abbey, read Below Stairs by Margaret Powell.
This kitchen maid’s memoir inspired both Downton Abbey and the older television show Upstairs, Downstairs. Margaret Powell went into service at a young age and eventually rose through the ranks to become a cook. Her exploits include trying to find a nice young man to marry at any cost and her work in several houses across England gives a broad picture of the different circumstances servants endured. Her voice is so witty and fresh and she does a marvelous job of having a laugh at the goings on both upstairs and down. I sped through this book. Reminded me a lot of Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin, another really chatty and fun little memoir.

If you’re looking for a vacation read with substance, try The Vacationers by Emma Straub.
Sometimes you’re in a space where you need a certain book and The Vactioners just fit the time in my life when I read it. It’s a little bit like The Corrections lite, but with better scenery. It may have officially renewed my desire to go to Spain, but it’s by no means a fluffy beach read. Behind the stunning portrait of Mallorca is a family in crisis: Franny and Jim are dealing with the fallout from his workplace affair with a much-younger woman, their daughter Sylvia is hell-bent on losing her virginity before she heads to college in the fall and their son Bobby is trying to find a way to ask his father to bail him out of debt from a pyramid scheme he’s sunk his savings into.

If you love dystopian novels, try Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mendel.
I might have said I was getting a little worn out by the dystopian genre, but then I read Station Eleven and realized I was just tired of poor renditions on that theme. Station Eleven manages to take well-trodden territory and make it fresh. Part of its appeal is the unique premise: a group of minstrels moving through the post-apocalyptic wilderness trying to maintain their humanity by performing for survivors.

If you want a fun, light beach or plane read, try Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t read all award-winning serious literature. Sometimes I just needs something easy breezy and fun. Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians fits the bill, opening a window on a world I knew nothing about: the lives of the super-rich Asian JetSet elite of Singapore. Kwan grew up in this world, so his stories are by no means exaggerations (in fact, he claims he toned it down a little bit).

If you love historical fiction, read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
Wolf Hall manages to add something to the conversation about a period of history that’s been absolutely papered with fiction. I’ve read a lot of books about the reign of King Henry VIII, but this is the first to be told from a perspective outside the royal family (Thomas Cromwell is the novel’s focus). It’s also the first fictionalization of this time period I’ve read that isn’t dominated by the romance, seduction and gender politics of the court. Though that’s certainly still an element of the story, both the religious revolution and feudal struggles for power are given equal weight, which forms a more interesting (and probably more realistic) picture of what was going on in Henry’s court.

If you’re looking for a tragic romance, try Euphoria by Lily King.
A really lovely book with a captivating, unique premise. Euphoria is set in the thirties at the very dawn of anthropology as a science. Established anthropologist Andrew Bankson has made a name for himself studying the Kiona tribe in New Guinea, but feels utterly alone in the field. He meets a young couple, Nell and Fen, who are just starting out in their research and immediately latches on to them in hopes of companionship and maybe more. Bankson helps Nell and Fen find a nearby tribe to study, but it become clear to him over time that Fen feels threatened by his wife’s natural affinity for working with native peoples. Fen’s professional jealousy combined with Bankson’s growing attachment to Nell leads the threesome down a dark road.