Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Literary Review

2015 flew by, and it's hard to believe that 2016 is almost here! As usual, I didn't read nearly enough, but I did read quite a few books that I really enjoyed. Here are the stats:

37 books read
19 books with an "A" rating
15 books with a "B" rating
3 books were marked Did Not Finish

After all is said and done, these were my top ten reads of 2015:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.

For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

Paperback, 416 pages
Published February 4th 2014 by Hogarth (first published January 1st 2013)
ISBN 0770436420 (ISBN13: 9780770436421)

My final word: This is one of those rare and uncommon novels that you come across every now and again. Provocative and riveting, it is a beautifully written story with well-developed characters that you can really care about. A lyrical and intelligent tale of war-torn Chechnya, I found myself moved. I feared for the safety of those in danger, was sickened by the brutality and indifference, and yearned for the security of all. In the end, I found this to be a hard-hitting novel that is soft in all the right places.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

In this astonishing book from the author of the bestselling memoir The Good Good Pig, Sy Montgomery explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus' surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature: and the remarkable connections it makes with humans.

Sy Montgomery's popular 2011 Orion magazine piece, "Deep Intellect"; about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death, went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. Since then Sy has practiced true immersion journalism, from New England aquarium tanks to the reefs of French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico, pursuing these wild, solitary shape-shifters. Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But with a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, and a tongue covered with teeth, how can such a being know anything? And what sort of thoughts could it think?

The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their color-changing camouflage techniques. Montgomery chronicles this growing appreciation of the octopus, but also tells a love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about consciousness and the meeting of two very different minds.

Hardcover, 272 pages
Expected publication: May 12th 2015 by Atria Books
ISBN 1451697716 (ISBN13: 9781451697711

My final word: The author successfully shows that octopuses are so much more than what we typically think. Their behavior is sometimes reminiscent of a pet dog, seeking human interaction and their tactile natures touching and tasting their human companions. The author succeeded in affecting me, and not only making me recommit to never eating octopus or their cousin the squid, but it made me begin to doubt my ability to continue to eat seafood at all. The consciousness of even fish like grouper is phenomenal and at times unsettling. Tender and amusing stories of starfish and anemones had me shaking my head in amazement. I adored this book, and it left me yearning to make the acquaintance of an octopus, envious of others who have been so blessed. 

The Bone Tree by Greg Iles

Greg Iles continues the electrifying story begun in his smash New York Times bestseller Natchez Burning in this highly anticipated second installment of an epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice, featuring Southern lawyer Penn Cage.

Former prosecutor Penn Cage and his fiancee, reporter and publisher Caitlin Masters, have barely escaped with their lives after being attacked by wealthy businessman Brody Royal and his Double Eagles, a KKK sect with ties to some of Mississippi's most powerful men. But the real danger has only begun as FBI Special Agent John Kaiser warns Penn that Brody wasn't the true leader of the Double Eagles. The puppeteer who actually controls the terrorist group is a man far more fearsome: the chief of the state police's Criminal Investigations Bureau, Forrest Knox.

The only way Penn can save his father, Dr. Tom Cage--who is fleeing a murder charge as well as corrupt cops bent on killing him--is either to make a devil's bargain with Knox or destroy him. While Penn desperately pursues both options, Caitlin uncovers the real story behind a series of unsolved civil rights murders that may hold the key to the Double Eagles' downfall. The trail leads her deep into the past, into the black backwaters of the Mississippi River, to a secret killing ground used by slave owners and the Klan for over two hundred years . . . a place of terrifying evil known only as "the bone tree."

The Bone Tree is an explosive, action-packed thriller full of twisting intrigue and deadly secrets, a tale that explores the conflicts and casualties that result when the darkest truths of American history come to light. It puts us inside the skin of a noble man who has always fought for justice--now finally pushed beyond his limits.

Just how far will Penn Cage, the hero we thought we knew, go to protect those he loves?

Hardcover, 816 pages
Published April 21st 2015 by William Morrow & Company (first published April 9th 2015)
ISBN 0062311115 (ISBN13: 9780062311115)

My final word: After Natchez Burning, and now The Bone Tree, I'll read anything by Greg Iles! He holds my interest every moment-- and that isn't an easy thing to do! He is one of the few authors who can make me eager to read an 800 page novel! If you like crime dramas, historical fiction centered around the civil rights era, and books about the deep south, dive into this one with both feet. Greg Iles knows how to weave a great yarn! 

 Genius Recipes by Food52

There are good recipes and there are great ones—and then, there are genius recipes.
Genius recipes surprise us and make us rethink the way we cook. They might involve an unexpectedly simple technique, debunk a kitchen myth, or apply a familiar ingredient in a new way. They’re handed down by luminaries of the food world and become their legacies. And, once we’ve folded them into our repertoires, they make us feel pretty genius too. In this collection are 100 of the smartest and most remarkable ones.

There isn’t yet a single cookbook where you can find Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread, and Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake—plus dozens more of the most talked about, just-crazy-enough-to-work recipes of our time. Until now.

These are what Food52 Executive Editor Kristen Miglore calls genius recipes. Passed down from the cookbook authors, chefs, and bloggers who made them legendary, these foolproof recipes rethink cooking tropes, solve problems, get us talking, and make cooking more fun. Every week, Kristen features one such recipe and explains just what’s so brilliant about it in the James Beard Award-nominated Genius Recipes column on Food52. Here, in this book, she compiles 100 of the most essential ones—nearly half of which have never been featured in the column—with tips, riffs, mini-recipes, and stunning photographs from James Ransom, to create a cooking canon that will stand the test of time.

Once you try Michael Ruhlman’s fried chicken or Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s hummus, you’ll never want to go back to other versions. But there’s also a surprising ginger juice you didn’t realize you were missing and will want to put on everything—and a way to cook white chocolate that (finally) exposes its hidden glory. Some of these recipes you’ll follow to a T, but others will be jumping-off points for you to experiment with and make your own. Either way, with Kristen at the helm, revealing and explaining the genius of each recipe, Genius Recipes is destined to become every home cook’s go-to resource for smart, memorable cooking—because no one cook could have taught us so much.

Hardcover, 272 pages
Published April 7th 2015 by Ten Speed Press
ISBN 1607747979 (ISBN13: 9781607747970)

My final word: The book offers up recipes that include "genius" techniques and twists you may not have thought of. For example, mashing up onions and cilantro into a paste, and folding that into mashed avocado for a smooth guacamole. Or cooking a whole chicken at super high heat with no basting to create a really juicy and delectable meal. Some things may seem contrary to what you would expect, but the results speak for themselves. Food52 knows how to do cookbooks right!

The Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo

From a bright new talent comes this debut novel about a young woman who travels for the first time to her mother’s hometown, and gets sucked into the mystery that changed her family forever

Mattie Wallace has really screwed up this time. Broke and knocked up, she’s got all her worldly possessions crammed into six giant trash bags, and nowhere to go. Try as she might, Mattie can no longer deny that she really is turning into her mother, a broken alcoholic who never met a bad choice she didn’t make.

When Mattie gets news of a possible inheritance left by a grandmother she’s never met, she jumps at this one last chance to turn things around. Leaving the Florida Panhandle, she drives eight hundred miles to her mother’s birthplace—the tiny town of Gandy, Oklahoma. There, she soon learns that her mother remains a local mystery—a happy, talented teenager who inexplicably skipped town thirty-five years ago with nothing but the clothes on her back. But the girl they describe bears little resemblance to the damaged woman Mattie knew, and before long it becomes clear that something terrible happened to her mother, and it happened here. The harder Mattie digs for answers, the more obstacles she encounters. Giving up, however, isn’t an option. Uncovering what started her mother’s downward spiral might be the only way to stop her own.

Hilarious, gripping, and unexpectedly wise, The Art of Crash Landing is a poignant novel from an assured new voice.

Paperback, 416 pages
Published September 8th 2015 by Harper Paperbacks
ISBN 0062390546 (ISBN13: 9780062390547) 

My final word: I enjoyed the writing. It was a playful and fast read with colorful characters. The author does a good job of building the story and providing well-developed characters. It is told first-person, with flashbacks providing insight into Mattie's past. The author succeeds in creating a severely flawed and screwed up character in Mattie, while she is able to keep her likable and sympathetic. The banter is fun, and counter-balanced with some deeply emotional and revealing moments. I really liked this story, and the author's writing style!

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

Neil Gaiman meets Joe Hill in this astonishingly original, terrifying, and darkly funny contemporary fantasy.

Carolyn's not so different from the other human beings around her. She's sure of it. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. She even remembers what clothes are for.

After all, she was a normal American herself, once.

That was a long time ago, of course—before the time she calls “adoption day,” when she and a dozen other children found themselves being raised by a man they learned to call Father.

Father could do strange things. He could call light from darkness. Sometimes he raised the dead. And when he was disobeyed, the consequences were terrible.

In the years since Father took her in, Carolyn hasn't gotten out much. Instead, she and her adopted siblings have been raised according to Father's ancient Pelapi customs. They've studied the books in his library and learned some of the secrets behind his equally ancient power.

Sometimes, they've wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God.

Now, Father is missing. And if God truly is dead, the only thing that matters is who will inherit his library—and with it, power over all of creation.

As Carolyn gathers the tools she needs for the battle to come, fierce competitors for this prize align against her.

But Carolyn can win. She's sure of it. What she doesn't realize is that her victory may come at an unacceptable price—because in becoming a God, she's forgotten a great deal about being human.

Hardcover, 388 pages
Published June 16th 2015 by Crown
ISBN 0553418602 (ISBN13: 9780553418606)

My final word: I was initially nervous about my choice to read this book, but by chapter four it started to get under my skin. Little by little things came together, and I began to see the big picture. It became more engrossing as time went on, and I was really impressed with the writer's ability to captivate and draw me in. I'll still be hesitant to read fantasy and sci-fi, as I still think it is a shaky genre for me, but this author has definitely won me over!

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

With a missing girl in the news, Claire Scott can’t help but be reminded of her sister, who disappeared twenty years ago in a mystery that was never solved.

But when Claire begins to learn the truth about her sister, nothing will ever be the same.

Hardcover, 397 pages
Published September 29th 2015 by William Morrow
ISBN 0062429051 (ISBN13: 9780062429056)

My final word: This book is graphic and filled with disturbing images, but I found it really suspenseful. It kept me on the edge of my seat, wondering what was coming down the pike next. The author is very readable, the characters well-developed, the storyline provocative. I really, really enjoyed this story, and that feels a little "wrong", given how violent the story was, but I just can't help it. The story could get a little preposterous at times and requires some "suspension of disbelief" to get through it, but it is really a great escape if you like mystery and suspense, and you aren't put off by graphic violence of a sexual nature. I'd give two thumbs up, if it weren't for the thumbscrews and shackles!

Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam

Big Fish meets The Notebook in this emotionally evocative story about a man, a woman, and an alligator that is a moving tribute to love, from the author of the award-winning memoir Rocket Boys—the basis of the movie October Sky

Elsie Lavender and Homer Hickam (the father of the author) were high school classmates in the West Virginia coalfields, graduating just as the Great Depression began. When Homer asked for her hand, Elsie instead headed to Orlando where she sparked with a dancing actor named Buddy Ebsen (yes, that Buddy Ebsen). But when Buddy headed for New York, Elsie’s dreams of a life with him were crushed and eventually she found herself back in the coalfields, married to Homer.

Unfulfilled as a miner’s wife, Elsie was reminded of her carefree days with Buddy every day because of his unusual wedding gift: an alligator named Albert she raised in the only bathroom in the house. When Albert scared Homer by grabbing his pants, he gave Elsie an ultimatum: “Me or that alligator!” After giving it some thought, Elsie concluded there was only one thing to do: Carry Albert home.

Carrying Albert Home is the funny, sweet, and sometimes tragic tale of a young couple and a special alligator on a crazy 1000-mile adventure. Told with the warmth and down-home charm that made Rocket Boys/October Sky a beloved bestseller, Homer Hickam’s rollicking tale is ultimately a testament to that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.

Hardcover, 432 pages
Published October 13th 2015 by William Morrow (first published September 28th 2015)
ISBN 0062325892 (ISBN13: 9780062325891)

My final word: Clever, curious, and colorful, this story keeps you guessing. You never really know how much truth lies in it, but you get the feeling that there may have been a fair bit of truth, dressed up to make it a little fancier and bigger than life. Elsie can be a bit off-putting much of the time, but then she redeems herself with some tender moment, kind gesture, or humorous quip. And I found myself continually rooting for Homer in his quest to make her happy. Just a man, his wife, her alligator and a rooster on a road trip. What more could you ask for? I can almost hear Albert happily expressing yeah-yeah-yeah.

Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

From a remarkable new voice in Southern fiction, a multigenerational saga of crime, family, and vengeance.

Clayton Burroughs comes from a long line of outlaws. For generations, the Burroughs clan has made its home on Bull Mountain in North Georgia, running shine, pot, and meth over six state lines, virtually untouched by the rule of law. To distance himself from his family’s criminal empire, Clayton took the job of sheriff in a neighboring community to keep what peace he can. But when a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms shows up at Clayton’s office with a plan to shut down the mountain, his hidden agenda will pit brother against brother, test loyalties, and could lead Clayton down a path to self-destruction.

In a sweeping narrative spanning decades and told from alternating points of view, the novel brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the mountain and its inhabitants: forbidding, loyal, gritty, and ruthless. A story of family—the lengths men will go to protect it, honor it, or in some cases destroy it—Bull Mountain is an incredibly assured debut that heralds a major new talent in fiction.

Hardcover, 290 pages
Published July 7th 2015 by G.P. Putnam's Sons (first published July 1st 2015)
ISBN 039917396X (ISBN13: 9780399173967) 

My final word: Clayton is the hero you can root for, and it's hard to feel too bad for his kith and kin as their livelihoods are threatened. Clayton's wife Kate is admirable and sympathetic, having battled with Clayton's demons for years. There is a nice twist or two in the story to keep things interesting. I really loved the author's writing, and I was already a fan of the subject material (I love southern lit and stories about Appalachian mountain families and the like). The jumping back and forth between different perspectives and time periods can be tricky to navigate, but you settle into the format and it does get easier as the story goes on. There is nice tension and suspense, a couple of twists and turns, some colorful characters with some very good character development. However one area I felt it fell short was in the character development of Agent Holly.

The New Sugar & Spice by Samantha Seneviratne

A wonderfully unique and unexpected collection of desserts that showcase spice over sugar, with 80 recipes that both reinvent classic sweets and introduce more unusual spice-infused desserts.

In Sugar and Spice, veteran food editor and recipe developer Samantha Seneviratne invites readers to explore a bold new world of spice-centric desserts. Each chapter centers on a different spice--some familiar, like vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger; others less expected (especially in sweet preparations), such as peppercorns, chiles, and cardamom. With fascinating histories, origin stories, and innovative uses for each spice, this book will inspire readers to rediscover and re-stock their spice drawers, and raise their desserts up to a whole new level of flavor.

Hardcover, 240 pages
Published September 8th 2015 by Ten Speed Press
ISBN 1607747464 (ISBN13: 9781607747468) 

My final word: I was so excited to open this book for the first time. It looks and feels high quality. There is beautiful photography throughout to entice you, charming stories shared by the author. The recipes are easy-to-follow and have some pretty common ingredients that should be easy to come by. I love complex flavors and textures, and this cookbook is right up my alley! This isn’t just a cookbook. It’s a memoir and world travelogue of the palate.

It was a pretty good year, and I look forward to 2016!


Melissa DeCarlo said...

So happy to discover The Art of Crash Landing on your list! Thank you, and I hope you have a New Year filled with Love and laughter (and books) :)

Heather said...

Thank you, Melissa! It was a pleasure! Best wishes to you in the New Year, and whatever you have planned next!