Top Five Books

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2021

While today has a definite summer feel, there were some decidedly fall-ish days (mornings, especially) when we were up north last week. In fact, there were a few times when I needed to put on a sweater!

It's coming. . . 
A change in the seasons.
(The fall equinox is on Wednesday - the 22nd - this year.)

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And you know what that means?
It means its time to share my Top Five summer reads with you!

(The book links below will take you to published reviews of each book.)

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First up, I've got Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I've had this book on my to-read list for quite a while, and I'm so happy that I finally took the plunge and dove in earlier this summer. Because this one, friends, is truly a book to savor! This smart and savvy collection of essays brings a bit of everything: nature, ecology, science, storytelling, indigenous wisdom and spirituality, history, the environment. It is engaging to read, informative -- but not overly technical, with beautiful writing that strikes a perfect balance between science and poetry. This book is a gift: Life affirming; possibly life changing. I loved it!

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Then, I've got The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade. This book has all the ingredients for a truly enjoyable read: a compelling storyline, excellent pacing, a setting that you can walk right into, and believable characters with heart -- oh . . . and flaws. (Lots of flaws.) The author does a brilliant job balancing the big hearts and deep souls of her characters . . . complete with all of their delusions and all of their (many) bad decisions. This is a rich story of redemption -- tenderly told and definitely worth reading!

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Next, I've got one that's a little . . . tougher, a little darker. In What Strange Paradise, author Omar El Akkad invites us to witness the world refugee crisis through the eyes of children. This short, impactful novel is tender and brutal, hopeful and horrifying. The writing - spare and precise - is so effective and the story so compelling I couldn’t put it down; couldn’t get it out of my head. This book cracked my heart wide open.

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Then, I have one that I finally got around to reading . . . The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. (This one kept coming up in my library holds last year . . . when I didn't have the "reading capacity" to get to it. Sometimes it works that way with library holds.) Anyway. I'm so glad I finally had a chance to get to it. Y'know, every time I read a book by Louise Erdrich, I think . . . THAT’s my favorite. Every time. So now that I’ve recently finished The Night Watchman, well . . . you can guess where my loyalties currently lie. Erdrich is such a gifted storyteller. Her characters are wonderfully drawn and her settings are so vivid that it always feels like you just walk right into her stories. She weaves a kind of magic with her words. It’s all so good -- and definitely worth my wait.

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And, last, I bring you a two-fer, both re-reads for me: My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. I decided to re-read both books sequentially in anticipation of Strout's newest novel, Oh, William! (which continues the series), coming out next month. I am a total fangirl when it comes to Elizabeth Strout. I have read every book she's written, and many of them more than once. No one does love and tension in familial relationships quite like Elizabeth Strout. She is simply a master . . . at putting together a series of "snapshots" or little vignettes to tell stories that go so much deeper than the words on the page. I love her spare writing style, the intimate connections present in her stories, the delicate family dynamics she highlights, and mostly just . . . the human-ness she writes into her characters. She breathes life into what might seem to be bleak settings and lonely people. She really does show us that, indeed . . . Anything is Possible! (And now I can't wait for Oh, William!)

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How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of Summer reading?

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If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2021

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2021

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019

 


Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2021

The Summer Solstice passed quietly around here last weekend. No party for us again this year (we thought about it, but couldn't muster the energy in time to make a go of it), but we did toast Summer's arrival - just the two of us - out on our patio.

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Now that Summer is officially here, it's time for me to share the best of my Spring reading. Looking back over the last 3 months of books . . . well . . . I read a lot! Some of the books I read were pretty awful, actually. But a lot of them were excellent. After reviewing all the books I read since my last Top Five list, here is my new Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2021 list:

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First up . . . Shuggie Bain (5 stars) by Douglas Stuart. I know I've talked about it a lot already (being our last Read With Us selection and all), so I won't say any more about it now. But it deserves its place at the top of my list because - hands down - this was the best book I read during the last three months.

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Next . . . The Office of Historical Corrections (5 stars) by Danielle Evans. I was actually reading this one while coming up with my Top Five Winter list, so it nearly found a place on my previous list. But I wasn't technically finished with it, so it had to wait. (You know. Arbritary Rules.) Anyway, I thought this short story collection was absolutely brilliant with layers of nuance, exquisite writing, strong characters, and gasp-worthy storylines. I’ve always been a short story fan, but Danielle Evans really elevated my standards for the entire genre with this collection. While each story is strong and entirely unique, “Boys Go to Jupiter” had the biggest gut-punch for me, and I especially enjoyed the cleverness of “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want.” In the end, though, it was the title novella that really stole the show.

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Then . . . I've got another excellent short story collection, Milk Blood Heat (4 stars) by Dantiel W. Montiz. I’ve heard this collection of short stories described as “visceral” and “raw,” and . . . yes. I'd have to agree. Visceral and raw, indeed. These are stories that grab you by the heart and then make it skip a beat, with writing so clear it sings. And even though most of the stories don’t end with resolution . . . I never cared. (Ambiguous endings FTW!) Dantiel Montiz is an author that gives you just what you need. And no more. What a gift.

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Next . . . Secrets of Happiness (4 stars) by Joan Silber. (Although the title sounds like a "self-help" sort of book . . . trust me. It is not.) Now Joan Silber is one of those authors I love reading so much that I will drop whatever I may be doing to grab her latest book. She is simply a master with interconnected stories, a genre I particularly enjoy. It’s so easy to just sink down into her books and make friends with her various narrators and characters. Although it's always hard to leave someone you’ve come to love when the story moves on, Joan Silber has them popping up in some other new-and-wonderful narrator’s story later on, so it’s not all bad. This particular batch of stories feature wonderfully developed characters revealing slowly-emerging connections just brimming with hope, redemption, and love . . . all in pursuit of happiness (however you define it).

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And last, I've got Writers & Lovers (4 stars) by Lily King. I picked up this book because I wanted something a little “lighter” to read after Shuggie Bain. . . and it was immediately available through my library. What a delightful surprise! I thoroughly enjoyed the well-drawn characters (ALL of the characters, major and minor), the storyline, the setting, the pace. And the writing was just so . . . smooth; very engaging and a pleasure to read. The book was clever and funny and quite a bit more romantic than I expected (despite the word “lovers” right there in the title). I loved the bits about the writing life, and the main character’s commitment to her craft. And while I’d say the main character is too old to feature in a typical coming-of-age story, it’s still kind of a coming-of-age story. I guess it’s more . . . a becoming-a-full-adult kind of story; a perfect bridge between “idealistic youth” and “git’r’dun adulthood.” Although everything does wrap up maybe a little too neatly in the end, I didn’t mind a bit much.

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How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of Spring reading?

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If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2021

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019

 

 


Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2021

As the seasons change (if I say that often enough, it's bound to happen) (isn't it?), one of the things I like to do . . .  is wrap up my previous season's reading with a Top Five list. Looking back over the last 3 months of reading, here's my Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2021 list:

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First up, I've got A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. I'd been waiting a long, long time to get my hands on this book (it wasn't released in the US until late January). It was actually on the Women's Prize long list from last year (up against Hamnet) . . . and totally worth the wait. A Thousand Ships is a brilliant retelling of Homer’s The Iliad from the perspective of women - both Trojan and Greek - with a huge cast of characters (goddesses, wives, daughters, muses, Amazons, and priestesses). The writing is clever and playful, yet pulls no punches in describing the true costs of war. The story is not told in linear fashion, but rather in a highly effective series of “mini-stories” with “thematic narrative interludes” sprinkled throughout. Vivid characterization brings these women to life, and I felt connected to each of them, even though several make only brief appearances. (I found the letters from Penelope to be especially delightful. I laughed right out loud!) This is actually a great book to listen to as it is narrated by the author, a famed broadcaster and comedian. Her narration is wonderful.

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Next, I've got the fabulous Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. (This one is on the just-released Women's Prize long list for 2021, by the way.) This is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in quite a while. This novel explores the tension between science and religion, the power of familial love and loyalty, addiction, depression, shame, determination, reflection, and achievement -- all set against the backdrop of racism. The writing is exquisite, and the unfolding narrative just builds and builds through the entire novel. Not one word is wasted or out of place. Transcendent, indeed! And absolutely worth the praise and hype it's received.

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Then there's Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Okay. I'm going to admit it. This book sounded too heavy to me, and I almost didn't read it. I really did go back and forth about it. . . read . . . don't read . . . read . . . don't read. In the end, I decided to give it a try. And I'm so glad I did -- because this book is simply brilliant. The writing is amazing. The story is poignant, raw, and absolutely compelling. (It is kinda heavy. Just sayin.) It’s fiction . . . but it's so heavily based on the author's autobiographical details that it reads like a memoir. It’s fiction . . . but it's organized like a collection of essays based on the most pressing social issues of our times. It’s fiction . . . but it includes non-fiction topics like finance, the economy, politics, and immigration. It’s fiction . . .  but with a strong historical perspective. It totally defies categorization! All these genres in one book? Sounds like it could never work. But it does. Seamlessly.

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Next up . . .  The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. This one . . . is an achingly beautiful, poignant story of identity, boundaries, grief, and love. The very title of the book is a give-away -- you know where you’re headed before you even open the book. But - oh! - the journey is a surprise, brilliantly executed through a series of “snapshot flashbacks” and the voices of Vivek’s family and friends -- and even Vivek himself. I especially enjoyed the back-and-forth structure of the book. It's powerful and heartbreaking. (This book just makes me . . . sigh . . . every time I think of it again.)

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And finally, there's The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. This one is historical fiction -- but good historical fiction! It's a compelling and entertaining look at the free speech demonstrations of 1909 Spokane - events I was only peripherally aware of prior to this reading. Walter gives us a fabulous cast, adeptly mixing fictional and “real” characters (think E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime), while creating that perfect “outpost” feel of a gritty American Northwest in the early 20th-century. The writing is smooth and bright; Walters is just a master at weaving bits of humor through an otherwise tragic slice of history. Bottom line? This is beautifully written historical fiction; a delightful coming-of-age story about loyalty, integrity, honor, social justice, and brotherly love.

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How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of winter reading?

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If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019

 

 


Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2020

Next Monday is the winter solstice . . . the First Day of Winter, the longest night of the year. As we - officially - make that jump to winter, it's time for me to wrap up my fall reading with a Top Five list. My bookshelf was filled with solid, enjoyable books this fall, along with a few clunkers. I read a couple of mysteries, some fantasy, several books that are appearing on "best of 2020" lists, and more memoirs than usual. Mostly, I read actual book-books (from the library) this fall -- and listened to fewer audiobooks than usual (I've been craving silence). I read a lot of poetry. It's been a season of good reading!

Looking back over the last 3 months of reading, I've put together my Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2020 list:

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First up is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke -- easily the best book of the season for me. I am very particular about fantasy novels. When they’re good, I really love them. And when they’re not-so-good, I find them incredibly tedious. In fact, I tend to stay away from the genre altogether, I’ve been burned so often. (Looking at you, Starless Sea. ) Anyway. Piranesi is not only good . . . it’s astonishingly good! Susannah Clarke is brilliant. She’s created a mystical world full of statues and hallways and staircases and water . . . and then she dropped in an endearing main character to solve a compelling mystery. The storytelling is excellent in this tightly-paced, perfect fantasy novel. Compelling and oh-so-satisfying.

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Next . . . The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. Although I had been really looking foward to this new one by Emma Donoghue, I put it off for a while . . . because reading a book about a pandemic DURING a pandemic? At first, I just couldn't. But then figured . . . Oh, hell. Why not! Emma Donoghue is a master at developing characters and placing them in historically accurate settings (and small rooms). . . so of course this one works just brilliantly. I actually think there was a benefit to reading it in the midst of the current pandemic . . . plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose and all. I was completely captivated by the exquisite detail of this book -- feeling as if I were right there in the room with Julia, Bridie, and Dr. Lynn (who happens to be an historical figure, by the way, making it even more interesting). Fascinating and compelling, I made quick work of this well-researched book.

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Then . . . Monogamy by Sue Miller. This one is really right in my "reading sweet spot": I just love slow burn novels where the characters reveal themselves slowly, gradually . . . until suddenly they feel absolutely real. Sue Miller’s Monogamy is about so much more than . . . monogamy (although there is that). It’s about marriage, of course, and family; what it means to be committed to one another. But it’s also about grief and discovery and the general messiness of life. Beautifully written, and entirely satisfying.

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And . . . The Searcher by Tana French. Again, this one is right in my "reading sweet spot": another slow-burn of a read with a deliberate, unhurried pace. As usual with a Tana French novel, the characters are excellently drawn and fully developed -- but in this one, the setting itself may actually be the most important “character” in the book. Moody and a little bit gritty, French explores the challenges of preserving small, rural Irish towns in our rapidly-changing world. With atmospheric writing, memorable characters, a bit of mystery, and maybe the most delightful pub scene ever written . . . I found The Searcher to be a delight. (I listened to the audio version narrated by Roger Clark. His excellent narration really made the novel come to life.)

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Last but certainly not least . . . The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. My daughter recommended this one to me back in September. She told me it would bring me hope -- and she was right! It's charming and delightful, through and through -- and just what I needed to be reading These Days: a happy story filled with hope. Tenderly written, it's got quirky characters, a whimsical setting, and just enough adventure . . . all shot through with gentle life-lessons about friendship, family, empathy, acceptance, and hope. I want to bottle the feelings in the book and carry them with me every day!

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How about you?
What books made it to your Top Five list of fall reading?

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If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019

 

 

 

 

 


Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Saturday is the summer solstice . . . so it's time for me to wrap up my spring reading with a Top Five books list.

I read a lot during the last 3 months! I had made a serendipitous pick-up at my library the day before it closed for the pandemic, so I had a fresh stack of 7 books to read. Plus there were audiobook downloads and ebook loans and books from my own library to keep me occupied. Truly an embarrassment of riches!

Here we go . . . with the Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020 list:

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I was reading this extraordinary book, Aperiogon by Colum McCann, just as the pandemic shutdowns were beginning. This book will stay with me forever! Not because of my timing (although I will probably always have a link in my brain between this book and the world falling apart all around me) but because it may be the best book I've ever read. It is a brilliant, layered portrait of friendship, grief, and moving forward under the most challenging of circumstances. It is . . . moving, powerful, poignant -- and unlike any other book I have read.  I highly, highly recommend this one (and especially the audiobook version, where it is a special treat to hear it read by the author).

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I have read most of Anne Enright's books over the years, but somehow missed reading her 2007 Man Booker Prize winning entry The Gathering. It may not have been the best book to read during the early days of the pandemic, but there it was . . . in my library pile. The Gathering is a beautiful book of characters and feelings, and probably won’t appeal to those craving action. That said, it is a gorgeous and very precise look at the workings of one woman’s mind loosed by tragedy and reflection; a redemption story of family love and memory, beautifully written and tenderly told. I recommend this one especially for readers who enjoy contemporary Irish literature.

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The Far Field by new author Madhuri Vijay was another book in my pandemic library pile. I really enjoyed this one -- a beautiful and compelling read about good intentions gone bad. It builds slowly . . . until, suddenly, you realize you just can’t put it down. The writing is lovely -- clean and crisp, with wonderful descriptions of the setting; the characters are well-developed and believable. I’ll look forward to more books from this new author. Highly recommended.

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I debated leaving this book, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, off my Top Five list . . . because it is a re-read for me. But then I decided I liked it too much to leave it off! Last fall I read The Topeka School . . . which reminded me how much I love Ben Lerner’s writing. I decided then that I would re-read his Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 over the summer, just to immerse myself in Lerner’s words again. (I guess you could say that Ben Lerner is my literary “crush” . . .) I was a bit apprehensive about re-reading. Frequently I regret re-reading books I really loved the first time around because they just don’t stand up to the test of time for me. Not to worry, though. I enjoyed Leaving the Atocha Station as much (maybe even more) with a second read. I highly recommend this one, knowing that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But for my friends who appreciate words and how they can be formed (more than plot) . . . well, this is a book for them!

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And now I have the series of books that got me through the pandemic spring: all four installments of the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowlings). While they aren't perfect, they are certainly entertaining! I was surprised and delighted with the series -- perfect for my mood during the early pandemic, stay-at-home days. I enjoyed the developing characters of Cormoran and Robin, and found the murder storyline to be entertaining and engaging. Excellent storytelling -- and I especially enjoyed the  fabulous narration by Robert Glenister. I'm ready for a break from these books now (until a new installment comes out later this summer), but I highly recommend them for your summer reading. (Note: These are not "cozy" mysteries. If you're squeamish, there is some gruesomeness and gore. . .)

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How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of spring reading?

==========

If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my other Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019

 


Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading

Recently, Tom and I watched High Fidelity . . . again.  It's one of our favorite movies, and we've watched it many, MANY times over the years.  (There are very few movies I can watch over and over again.  High Fidelity is one of them.  If you haven't seen it - or haven't seen it in a while - I highly recommend it.)  In the movie, the main character - Rob (played by John Cusack) - owns a record store and is working through a recent breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Laura.  Rob summarizes pretty much everything in his life with Top Five lists.

Thus . . . my inspiration for today.  
Top Five:  Best of My Summer Reading

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I started my summer reading in a strong way, with Normal People by Sally Rooney.  Now I know this one won't be for everyone, but if you like spare, witty writing and well-done character studies (but . . . not a whole lot of action), this one might be for you.  I loved it, and found it to be heartbreaking and authentic.

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Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips is a compelling story told in a unique style -- spreading different characters’ voices and points of view across a 12-month period of time. I very much enjoyed the structure and style of this book – it reads like a brilliant, interconnected short story collection (think There There, Winesburg, OH, Olive Kitteridge, or Reservoir 13).  If you like that kind of structure, this might be a great book for you, too.

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During the summer, I tend to pick at least one book to re-read --  AND I also read at least one big, sprawling epic.  Beach Music by Pat Conroy checked both those boxes for me!  I initially read Beach Music back in 1995 when it first came out.  I remember lugging the beast of a hardback around with me when my kids were very young . . . Anyway.  Re-reading it this summer did not disappoint.  I was, once again, moved to tears by this sweeping tale of forgiveness and reconciliation set in Rome and the South Carolina Lowcountry. (And if you haven't read Pat Conroy, you really ought give one of his books a try.)

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I really don't know how to describe Lanny by Max Porter . . . except to say it may be one of the most perfect books I've ever read. It's compact, completely unique, creative, mystical and so engaging that I sat and read it in one sitting.  (Which is not that hard to do, as it is pretty short.)  There is just . . . a lot going on under the surface in this one.  If you liked the "experimental" style of Lincoln in the Bardo, you might enjoy Lanny, too.  (And I recommend reading the actual book instead of listening -- because the physical book is a visual treat and adds to to overall effect of the story.)

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I just managed to squeak in reading Inland by Téa Obreht over Labor Day weekend, so I ended my summer reading on a high note.  This one was rather a slow burn for me, and it did take a fair amount of attention while reading.  Totally worth it though!  There are two storylines that spiral in seemingly disconnected ways throughout the novel. . . until they DO connect in a most magical way, creating a wholly satisfying ending.  Give it a try (especially if you liked Téa Obreht's previous novel, The Tiger's Wife) -- but you might want to keep a glass of water nearby for sipping-while-reading.

If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.

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How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of summer reading?