My Favorite Books of 2016

It’s been quite a year!  …that may be the understatement of the year.  Luckily I’ve read some amazing books to see me through these tough times.  Here are my ten favorites, linked to reviews and in reverse alpha order by title.  Just because.

25607518Why God is a Woman by Nin Andrews

This was my first prose poetry collection and I fell so hard.  Deep and funny and skewering in turns, Andrews uses satire to show how binary gender norms are arbitrary and absurd.  If you’re not a poetry buff fear not, this is accessible and beautiful like no other.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman25067884

It won the Best Translated Book Award for a reason – the writing is both light and deep, and Dillman does an awesome job with the translation.  Short and powerful, I’ll be coming back to it in the years to come.

25330335Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell

This book clawed into my brain and never left.  The image of blood gushing into her eye, robbing her of sight, and her journey as an “apprentice blind woman” are relentless, haunting, and real.

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente3973532

The Night Circus-sized hole in my heart has finally been filled.  A novel of image and character more than plot, Palimpsest is a place to get lost in, marvel at, and be horrified by.

9780062363596_b2357Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Women and minorities regularly get left out of our histories, but here they’re finally front and center – the black women “computers” who calculated our path to the stars.  It’s inspiring and fascinating, a natural fit for the silver screen.

Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins25760151

My favorite Jenkins novel so far. Fascinating subject matter, firmly set in time and place, and the love story is oh so sweet. I learned a ton and the research tidbits at the end are delightful.

2635587Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang

A wide-ranging, deep, and humanizing look at life in modern China.  Chang’s prose is beautiful, and her own family’s story adds nuance to an already deep story.

The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui, translated by27135621 Emma Ramadan

Finally, a short story collection I love!  Laroui plays with language while exploring what it means to be foreign. Add in some absurdity and laugh-out-loud lines and it’s the new Kazen catnip.

26633749The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M.A. Orthofer

This year I got into translated fiction and Orthofer is a wise and learned guide.  Whenever I’m in a rut I flip through it and find something I just have to read – great stuff.

Committed by Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson29955558

A thorough and thoughtful look at involuntary commitment.  Miller and Hanson talk to all sides (including a Scientologist!) and cover the issue from many issues and viewpoints.  Fascinating.

Honorable mentions: The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, and Columbine by Dave Cullen.

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The South Side by Natalie Y. Moore

Audiobook narrated by Allyson Johnson

25663734Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel have touted and promoted Chicago as a “world class city.” The skyscrapers kissing the clouds, the billion-dollar Millennium Park, Michelin-rated restaurants, pristine lake views, fabulous shopping, vibrant theater scene, downtown flower beds and stellar architecture tell one story. Yet, swept under the rug is the stench of segregation that compromises Chicago. Unlike many other major U.S. cities, no one race dominates. Chicago is divided equally into black, white, and Latino, each group clustered in their various turfs.

In this intelligent and highly important narrative, Chicago-native Natalie Moore shines a light on contemporary segregation on the South Side of Chicago through reported essays, showing the life of these communities through the stories of people who live in them. The South Side shows the important impact of Chicago’s historic segregation – and the ongoing policies that keep it that way.

Review:

Radio people are the best, especially public radio people.  As NPR affiliate WBEZ’s South Side reporter Moore has in depth knowledge about her beat, and having grown up in the area gives her a sense of perspective few authors would be able to match.

She talks about her own family’s history in the area but it doesn’t overwhelm or derail the narrative.  It isn’t a lens but more of a frame to hang the story on and it works well.  We learn about the history of the South Side, the policies that have shaped segregation in Chicago, the rise and fall of public housing projects, the larger story behind “Chiraq”, and more.  The topics range from government policy and mayoral politics to crime and public schooling.  I bookmarked a bunch of passages to share but I waited too long and the book has since been returned to the elibrary. 😦

I enjoyed The South Side as an audiobook.  Moore’s radio roots mean that there are lots of fitting quotes from her reporting, preventing things from getting too heavy or scholarly.  It tickles me that narrator Johnson is also a Chicago native.  She doesn’t put on a broad Chicago accent (for the best, methinks) but it’s comforting to know that the story is being told authoritatively by someone who lived there.

This book is wonderful for anyone with an interest in cities, segregation, or urban planning, as well as anyone who lives in (or just plain likes) Chicago.

A Date at the Altar by Cathy Maxwell (Marrying the Duke #3)

Synopsis:

28819991A duke can’t marry just anyone. His wife must be of good family, be fertile, be young. Struggling playwright Sarah Pettijohn is absolutely the last woman Gavin Whitridge, Duke of Baynton, would ever fall in love with. She is an actress, born on the wrong side of the blanket, and always challenges his ducal authority. She never hesitates to tell him what she thinks.

However, there is something about her that stirs his blood… which makes her perfect for a bargain he has in mind: In exchange for backing her play, he wants Sarah to teach him about love.

And he, in turn, has a few things to teach her about men…

Review:

A fun read that did some things really, really well.

The good:

  • Our heroine Sarah is strong and confident and happy in her own skin. She’s doing what she wants with her life and it’s refreshing and wonderful to watch. Some people may doubt the likelihood of the plot so Maxwell shares some of her research in an afterward.
  • Many Regencies talk about mistresses, often in the context of “oh no you don’t” or “I can’t believe he/she did”. Here we get to see that experience from the other side and how the transaction often worked.
  • The plot moves at a nice clip with some effective external conflict. I like how it stayed just this side of romantic suspense, with realistic but not overly done angst.
  • Some prickly situations come up where I thought, there is only one way this can end well. If the character does one of these ten other things I would be so mad… but it always ended that one way, well. Phew.
  • Virgin hero, yea!
  • Not being able to have children, and what it would have meant at this time in history, is thoughtfully and compassionately considered. I was afraid it would be a “barren until you” storyline but the issue is handled realistically and well. Kudos to Maxwell.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • This book qualifies as a Regency-not-in-a-ballroom, which is kind of amazing considering nearly all of the action is set in London.

The not-so-good:

  • The first chapter is pure info dump, and even so I didn’t realize that I had already read the second book of this series. Oops. Partly because…
  • In book two of this series the Duke comes off as a boor, while here he seems like a totally different person. If you read this as a standalone you won’t notice, though.
  • The hero, who we are told has zero experience “knowing” a woman, still manages to give the heroine an orgasm effortlessly on the first try. Sigh.
  • The plot is telegraphed, sometimes chapters in advance. The suspense factor is low so it wasn’t a deal breaker, but I don’t think the twists had the effect the author intended.

Overall I enjoyed A Date at the Altar as a quick, satisfying read despite the nitpicks.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

25058120Bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street and feels impelled to return it to its owner. The bag contains no money, phone or contact information. But a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?

Review:

I was looking for a quick read and stumbled upon The Red Notebook.  While it’s short and easy to get through it’s not fluff – there are beautiful observations and turns of phrase, just enough to keep your brain happy without overload.  Many are of the ah-yes-I-know-that sort:

As soon as she stepped inside the door, she was hit by that feeling of coming home after a long time away, when the dust seems to have been blown off things you had become so used to looking at you had stopped seeing them.  Everything suddenly seems more intense, like a photograph restored to its original colour and contrast.

The story stays small and fills out the short-ish page count perfectly.  There are just enough secondary characters, the right amount of conflict and romance, and a satisfying ending, all rolled into 200 pages.  It’s not a life changing book, or a thinking book, or a testament to the beauty of language… it’s a good yarn.  And sometimes that’s exactly what you need.  Just the thing for a lazy Sunday.

The Fire Inside by Steve Delsohn

Synopsis:

y648While there’s an abundance of television shows about police officers and more than a few about emergency medical folks, lesser attention is paid to fire fighters and their day-to-day dealings with disaster. But Steve Delsohn has found a wealth of material by interviewing scads of fire fighters across the country, from smoke jumpers flown in to fight forest fires to crews in action-filled urban departments. You learn the humorous lingo of fire fighting, where “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff” is paramount. You’ll also relive more than a few gripping, emotional stories–the kind that might make good fodder for a drama series.

Review:

Recently I ran across a metafilter thread titled What single book is the best introduction to your field for laypeople?  Go have a look – it’s chockablock with fascinating introductions to everything from materials science to brewing beer and graphic design to poetry.  I fell into the thread and emerged some time later with a longer TBR (so much good stuff!) and grabbed The Fire Inside from my e-library.  My brother recently became a volunteer firefighter and I wanted to learn more about what he’s doing.

This book is awesome for that.  It covers a large range of firefighting experiences – full-time paid, volunteer, wildland (think smokejumpers), women firefighters, paramedics, the gamut.  Delsohn interviewed over 100 people and let them speak anonymously so they can be perfectly honest about the highs and lows of their work.  The statements are short and grouped by topic under headings like Rookie Mistakes and The Psychological Toll.  The wide range of people interviewed makes for sweeping examples of things that can go right or wrong.  A section called The Scariest Things They Face is a list of situations I hope I never have to deal with – steam leaks that can boil you alive.  Booby traps in burning buildings.  Being overcome by a forest fire.  Riots.  Arriving at an assault before the police and facing down a shooter unarmed. Falling through a roof. There are juxtapositions, too – one person praising counseling after a deadly fire is followed by an old-timer too tough to talk about their feelings.

Delsohn does a great job pacing and ordering the stories so the reader isn’t faced with too much death and despair at a time.  That awful list of fears includes one firefighter deadpanning,

Well, none of us likes propane much.

I appreciate the well-placed chuckles and rescue stories amidst the more gruesome aspects of the job.

This book was written in 1996 and while it is a product of its time it has aged surprisingly well.  Hurricane Andrew and the Oklahoma City bombing are illustrative examples, as well as the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco.  While the equipment and disasters have changed over the last twenty years the basic principles – put the wet stuff on the red stuff – remain.  I would even argue that the age of the examples makes them feel more real, as the images aren’t seared into my brain like more recent events.

If you work in a medically-adjacent field, as I do, you’ll love the last chapter about EMS and paramedic care.  Where I grew up ambulances were separate from the fire department, but in many areas they are one and the same.

See, I have these three rules.  One is, You don’t spit on the floor of my ambulance.  Two is, You don’t get sick and throw up back there.  The third rule is, You don’t die in my ambulance when I am back there with you.

In particular I love the section about the importance of bedside manner, especially when the bed is a stretch of asphalt, including whether it’s okay to lie to a patient (“Doc, am I gonna make it?”).

If you couldn’t tell I love this book.  The stories are compelling and you get a feel for each firefighter even though they may only speak for a paragraph or two.  I wouldn’t recommend pulling it out in public, though, as rescues and failed rescues can be a surprise attack on the tear ducts.

Required reading for those who work with or are related to first responders, and guaranteed to be fascinating to pretty much everyone else.

Exotica by Eden Bradley

Synopsis:

17614972Welcome to Exotica. Leave your inhibitions at the door

Lilli DeForrest is hoping for a week of pampering and relaxation, but when the beautiful Rajan steps into her suite, the attraction is immediate. Rajan is her ideal lover: tender, commanding and intensely erotic.
But, as Lilli is about to discover, his masterful touch is just the beginning.

Review:

The two linked novellas in this book have a split personality that threw me for a loop.

First, the Kama Sutra half. Exotica is a luxury resort where your room is more like a castle (or pirate ship, or Casablanca) and comes complete with a man to pleasure you in every which way. You stay for a week while he makes your erotic fantasies – both those you know of and those you don’t – into reality. Lilli is set up with a week’s stay by her college friend Caroline, the manager of the resort. After a nasty divorce Lilli needs some cheering up (and opening up) and Rajan, one of the Kama Sutra lovers, is at her service.

There are little bits of genius in here. Setting the resort in Palm Springs’ heat means it’s reasonable to be naked all the time. The men work on generous rotations with two months off at a time, allowing for thorough health checks. “Condoms break the fantasy far too easily,” Caroline says, and we’re freed of STD/birth control guilt in one fell swoop.

Lilli heads to the private Kama Sutra area and gets it on with Rajan who, of course, falls in love with her. Instalove usually bothers me but I can forgive it here because A) novellas are short and B) holy cow the sex is hot. A week of fantasy leads to an unpleasant reentry into real life, and Rajan has to decide if he’d rather chase his dream or his girl.

This is the happy awesome half – I could read fifteen stories in this vein and be totally happy.

But then.

Caroline, the manager of the club, needs some opening up of her own. She also has a troubled romantic past but it’s left her scarred and reluctant to jump into bed. What better than telling the new guy, Kian, that she auditions all the hires personally?

Troublesome in the extreme, but Kian doesn’t believe a word of it (and is at the resort on false pretenses himself) so more guilt absolved. He agrees to the arrangement because he loves women and Caroline looks like an interesting nut to crack. Not as great as the first story, but I’m mostly okay with this.

Until they get into bed. Caroline is obviously fighting demons, turned on but still flinching from Kian’s touch. So what’s his solution? To bind her spread eagle to the bed. WHAT.

I was seeing red from all the danger flags flying in my brain. He is taking someone with issues and instead of talking through them or even figuring out what’s going on he makes her as vulnerable as possible. That could almost break someone. It’s domination without power exchange, which basically equals being an asshole. BDSM is never brought up, but Caroline finds that she likes having her agency and personality and choice taken away… I mean, being “dominated”.

“I’m going to fuck you so hard, Caroline. And you will never be able to deny me anything. Do you understand?”

O.o

This bothers me so much. The underlying assumption is “if she likes it despite herself and gets off it’s fine” but it’s not. It’s really not.

Then there are passages that just made no sense. While looking out at a sunset Kian says,

“‘Even the boats on the water remind me of the Impressionists. That white against the blue, the way the sun lights the ocean with pink and gold.’

She’d never met another man who talked to her in terms of art, someone who understood her on that level.”

What the hell does that mean?

I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the book because I was worried for Caroline’s safety – there’s a scene with Kian yelling at her while rattling the gate to her house that had me thinking, call the police! Get a restraining order! You don’t need him! Downright scary.

The second story was a big disappointment after loving the first one so much. Looking back as a whole there’s also some sheik-esque issues I could dive into (white woman seeks exotic lover, which equals a rich, foreign, darker skinned, and dominating man) but I need to wrap my brain around it first. Read the first half of the book for some hot erotica but do yourself a favor and stay the hell away from Kian. ~shivers~

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

Synopsis:

12384157Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she’s had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic’s doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.

Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.

On dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic.

Review:

This novel has to do with the Titanic and from the description I thought a large chunk of the action would take place on ship, both before and after the crash. When the ship went down and our main characters were rescued by chapter three I knew I was in for a very different novel.

Most of the story is about the Congressional hearings following the disaster and how they affected a small cast of characters. If you don’t know much about the Titanic you may find this interesting. However, if you’re like me and have read the full hearing transcripts and newspaper reports of the time (it was a phase, I tell you) you’ll be bored.

Add in cardboard cutout characters and a stereotypical love triangle (shall she fall in love with the rich but sketchy man or the poor but awesome sailor?) and you get an unremarkable tale.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis:

8857310Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

Review:

Like I said in my review of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Vowell is the definition of my audiobook wheelhouse.  Funny but substantive non-fiction with public radio roots?  Always, all the time please.  This is the third book of hers I’ve listened to but sadly, it’s my least favorite.

I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out why.  The problem may be me – I didn’t know much about Hawaiian history and didn’t have mental scaffolding to hang the narrative on.  I don’t think that’s everything, though, as Vowell isn’t at her best.  While there are some personal stories they aren’t as funny or interesting as in Assassination Vacation.  The history is outlined and gentle fun is poked, but it lacks the oomph of previous efforts.

Thinking about it, maybe Vowell is pulling her punches out of respect to Hawaiian culture.  It’s much easier to lampoon your own, and the last thing a marginalized people need is more skewering.  So in that sense, yea!  I’ll take a drop in laughs for that if I must.

Beyond the content this is my least favorite audiobook of hers so far.  It’s not Vowell’s fault, she’s as lovely as ever, but the supporting cast is large and each person only gets a few lines.  And despite the large cast it sounded like there was only one woman voice actor doing several roles, which confused my wandering attention.

All in all… enh.  Not awful, but I expected much better.

Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole (Off the Grid #1)

Synopsis:

23500162Arden Highmore was living your average postgrad life in Rochester, New York, when someone flipped the “off” switch on the world. No cell phones, no power, no running water—and no one knows why. All she and her roommate, John, know for sure is that they have to get out, stat. His family’s cabin near the Canadian border seemed like the safest choice.

When scavengers attack, it’s John’s ridiculously handsome brother, Gabriel, who comes to the rescue. He saves Arden’s life, so he can’t be all bad…but he’s also a controlling jerk who treats her like an idiot. Now their parents are missing and it seems John, Gabriel, their kid sister, Maggie, and Arden are the only people left alive who aren’t bloodthirsty maniacs.

No one knows when—or if—the lights will come back on and, in the midst of all that, Arden and Gabriel are finding that there’s a fine line indeed between love and hate. How long can they expect to last in this terrifying new world, be it together or apart?

Review:

Mixed feelings about this one – it’s alright but not what it says on the tin.

I like how the first chapter hits the ground running.  Our apocalypse is introduced (cause unknown) and Arden and roommate John have to make their way to safety.  They get ambushed and there’s a fight scene that pulled me into the story immediately.  We meet the hero Gabriel, John’s brother. They make their way to the cabin and hang out.

For a loooooong time.

Food stocks are secure, there’s a generator if they really need it, boards are on the windows.  All they need to do is wait for… something?… to happen.  The apocalypse/romantic suspense vibe is replaced with a snowbound romance plot, with the unwelcome addition of Gabriel’s siblings thrown in. So we go from “fight all.the.things the world is ending, ahh!” to “let’s talk about our family relationship issues, shall we? It seems the world might be ending.”

Which would be fine, normally.  Cole shows the friction between characters to great effect and their relationships are thought out.  But the plot evolves in such a way that the mysterious Big Bad turns out to be not much at all, and the questions I had on page one were left unanswered.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great stuff in here.  A romance that is both interracial and intercultural, believable inner lives for the characters, and that great first chapter.  I was hoping the action-plus-romance would continue, but no luck there. Ah, well. I’m interested in reading Cole again – I see she has a civil rights era romance, ooo – but I’ll pass on the rest of this series.