Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Top 17 Stinkers of 2016

There are some books that are poorly executed, and some that are just blah, and then there are some that you're prepared to love but are just plain disappointed by. Here are the books that most disappointed me this year. They all fell short in some area, whether in technique or execution, or didn't measure up to my expectations. This isn't necessarily a list of my least favorite books of the year, just the most disappointing. (I'd only call one or two of them truly bad books.)

Crossing to Safety
This book was beautifully written. It was quiet and heavy on character and light on plot. I love all three of those things in fiction, and everyone who reads the book seems to love it, but it really fell short of my expectations. I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters, which is the kiss of death in a character novel.

Death Comes to Pemberley
I watched the movie before reading this, but I'm not sure that mattered. I think writing other chapters to Jane Austen's novels should be banned, and I didn't think that until I listened to this book. There was no spark, no Austenian wit. It fell flat. (This cover, though, is one of my favorites of the year.)

Eighty Days
I'm unsure where this one went wrong for me other than I didn't particularly like either Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland, and although parts were very interesting, I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth. Ethics weren't necessarily something Bly valued.

Harriet the Spy
I was prepared to love this book, but I ended it feeling kind of angry. I think I was looking for something a little more moralistic with a happier ending. The book depressed me.

I Never Had It Made
Jackie Robinson's memoir is not at all what I was expecting, and I definitely came away with a different impression of him after reading it. For one thing, it wasn't really about his baseball career, it was about race relations and his activism since he left baseball. Given that it was written not too long after the Civil Rights era, perhaps it's forgivable for being so political, but I felt blindsided by the turn it took.

Into Thin Air
It's no secret that I tend to detest books written by journalists. Too many journalists just don't seem to have the skills to move from fact-reporting to story-telling, and although I think Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven is one of the finer books in nonfiction, he writes like a journalist in this one. There were too many characters to keep straight, too many ill-explained details, and the whole thing was too defensive. I ended up skimming and reading with only half my attention on the drama. Everyone thinks this sets the bar for adventure/survival stories, but in my opinion, In the Kingdom of Ice blows this out of the water.

Lily and the Octopus
Occasionally my book select-o-meter goes haywire and throws me a book like this that is touted to be all the things, so I succumb and just totally detest it. This one puts the contempt in contemporary fiction. It was poorly written and manipulative, the two things I dislike most in a book.

Love Warrior
It pains me to put this one on my Stinkers list, but I have to be honest. I looked forward to this book for months, but it was not simply a case of too-high expectations that landed it here. The book was just too dark and too tell-everything for my taste. There was no subtly and not enough of the wit and charm of Melton's first book. I felt bad for days after finishing it.

Watch the movie instead. It's sad and heartwarming and charming and thought-provoking. The book deals a lot more with Philomena's son's gay lifestyle than it really needed to. I thought the movie had it right: the real story here is a young Irish mother forced to give her baby away, not a promiscuous gay man contracting AIDS.

I will never forsake Pumpkin's Instagram feed, but her book was not much like it at all. The hilarity and picture quality was just not there. It felt rushed and thrown together.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice
I was so excited for this book, and I fully expected to find a series to really sink my teeth into. The writing here was fabulous, and I think King has a good handle on Sherlock Holmes's character, and yet, I don't think I'll go on to read others in the series. The book was unexpectedly violent--and if not always bodily violence, psychological violence--and I found it too intense to be pleasant. I'm sure it's nothing in comparison to most psychological thrillers and current crime/mystery novels, but the writing is so good, it kind of got into my head.

The Bridge Ladies
I did not like a single character in this memoir. I don't think you can call what these four bridge-playing women share "friendship." It didn't make me feel good at all.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
This book taught me a lot about what I need in a novel, and for that I'm thankful. I did not expect to like this one, and I really, really didn't. The book asked for too much suspension of disbelief, and I think the author masked her immature writing skills with rather fantastical situations.

When Breath becomes Air
Didn't expect to see this one here, did you? Don't get me wrong, I think the writing is beautiful and the situation touching. I'd lost my father just months before reading it, so parts of it hit home, and I did cry. I think of all the books on this list this is the one that most fits the "it's not you, it's me" label. I had no business reading this book, knowing that my beliefs about death differ from the mainstream population, but I just had to know what was going on here since it was a huge bestseller. 

Gone with the Wind
I'm amazed that I can put this book on my Stinkers list without a twinge of regret for having spent hours and hours of my life this summer reading it. Yay me. I found the writing here masterful, and I learned an unexpected amount about the Civil War and how it affected southerners. But I was so bothered by the utter lack of growth in both Scarlett and Rhett that I was angry about it. I think this one is worth the read because it really is quite a sweeping story and wonderfully written, but it will never be a favorite for me.  

My Kitchen Year
I have loved a number of Ruth Reichl's books, but this one was a dud. It is part memoir and part cookbook, but I constantly found myself wanting more memoir and less food.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Brief is right. And I think brief is the problem. If you don't grasp the concept in a particular essay, you go away feeling like you've learned nothing. And even if you grasp the concept (and I generally did), the essays are so brief you don't retain what you've learned. My husband was a physics major once upon a time, so I would recap the concepts for him to see if I understood them, and he found some flaws in the material and how it was presented. I mean, some of this is theoretical, but I began to question Rovelli's stance from time to time. He has another book that just came out about reality which I plan to read, as the nature of reality is at the heart of my religious beliefs. Perhaps it will be better.

And now that I've complained 17 times, I'm ready to get back to finding unexpected treasures on my 2017 booklist.

Tell me, what is on your 2016 Stinkers list? Do you agree or disagree of any of these?

Monday, January 30, 2017

What I'm reading this week (1/30/17)

Last week I finished:

Last week I finished three books that will be vying for top spots on my top ten list this year. First was Carrying Albert Home, the semi-true story of the author's parents' journey in the early 1930s to take their pet alligator home to Florida. I listened to this on audio, and the adventure was amazing. I loved every minute of this book. Not only did it make my winter mornings much easier to face, it was just so much fun. The couple and their alligator get involved in all kinds of mayhem and misadventure, but the underlying story is about them finding a deeper love for each other. They're newly married, and Elsie, the wife, is still carrying a flame for her old beau, Buddy Ebsen (of Beverly Hillbillies fame), which the husband (and the reader) hopes will be extinguished for the sake of the young couples' marriage. I'd put off reading it for a long time because I was a little put off by the "somewhat true story" part of the subtitle. I don't like the blurring of the fact/fiction line (I think of Big Fish), but I think the subtitle in this case actually helped me deal with my discomfort of that blurred line. Also, since the writing was so good, I was able to give myself over to the tall tale. It was just a fabulous adventure just when I needed one. I highly recommend it. My rating: 5 stars.

I also finished the outstanding children's book Wonder last week. Since I'm about the last person in America to read this book (soon to be a movie), I'll summarize the plot this way: a boy with a "facial difference" (according to Amazon) that makes his life different from other fifth graders. This is the story of his first year in a traditional school facing all the situations all kids face but with the added burden of looking very different. It really is as wonderful as I'd hoped it would be. Three things I especially loved about it: It wasn't preachy. It wasn't maudlin. It was very true-to-life. My grandson is in fifth grade this year, so I gave him a copy of this book for Christmas, telling him if he read it, I'd take him to the movie in April. After reading it myself, I'm now thinking of ways of making sure he reads it. But it's not just a book for kids. It challenged me to examine my thoughts and reactions to those different from myself, not necessarily in looks but in outlooks, where a lot of disharmony comes in adult interactions. This book was indeed a wonder. My rating: 5 stars. P.S. Will Schwalbe has an essay about Wonder in his Books for Living, which I reviewed last week.

Lastly, I finished the fabulous cookbook of American recipes, Mario Batali's Big American Cookbook. Batali presents readers with 250 recipes categorized by region (Midwest, Southwest, Great Lakes, etc.). The wonder of this book is there's not much you haven't heard of here, and there's a recipe for most any regional dish you can think of. Recipe selection was so well done. I kept trying to think of things Batali had omitted (as if I'm smarter about this kind of thing than he is), but I couldn't think of a single recipe. I also enjoyed the recipes themselves. There weren't a lot of weird, expensive, or hard-to-find ingredients, and the instructive portion of the recipes were short and straight-forward. Plus, there was Batali's odd sense of humor throughout to keep you on your toes. It was an all-around win for me, and a cookbook I can actually see myself using. My rating: 4.5 stars.

Okay, so I finished all my main January reads by Jan. 22, so I had a whole week to fit in another longish book. So, I moved up one of my February books: Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. I finished it this weekend, and I'm kind of glad to be done with it. It is not what I expected at all. Amazon makes it sound like a story about a family in Germany at the start-up to WWII, but it isn't really about a family in Germany, it's about Germany itself. The American ambassador's family is secondary, kind of the American foil to the German changes in the 1930s. I found this book frustratingly dense. I had a very difficult time keeping track of all the key players and really wished there was a "cast of characters" page in the back. Once I realized that the book wasn't a personal account as I expected, but a blow-by-blow account of Hitler's rise to power, I hoped to have one things answered that all the books I've read about WWII don't seem to be clear on: What did America know and believe about Hitler and Germany at this time, and especially, what did they know about the concentration camps? I felt like that's where the book was weakest. The American home front wasn't fully discussed, no doubt a conscious decision on Larson's part, but one that would have given the whole book context for this reader. Also, Larson takes us through 1933 and 1934 month by month, but then skips all the way to 1937, then ends the book. It seems there should have been another hundred pages or so--not that I was wishing for that. It just wasn't what I was expecting or prepared for. It was well done, as all Larson's books are, but it was too clinical and scholarly for my taste. My rating: 3 stars.

This week I must finish:

I finally got some uninterrupted reading time to begin Fredrik Backman's novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.

My audio:

I'm back in Botswana with Mma Ramotswe in the second book of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Tears of the Giraffe. It's wonderful.

Next up:


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

29 2017 releases I'm excited for

My TBR runneth over, so it's time to put out another post about what I've added to it. Here are 29 new or soon-to-be-released titles that I can't wait to read.

With the presidential handover of power we recently witnessed, Bred Baier's Three Days in January is a timely account of Eisenhower's farewell address. Always looking for personal accounts of what the presidents were really like, I look forward to The President Will See You Now about President Reagan. Presidents and drama or scandal go hand-in-hand; Never Caught is about the Washingtons' search for their runaway slave. Jackie's Girl is by Jackie Kennedy's personal assistant. And The President's Kitchen Cabinet is about the black cooks throughout history who served the presidents.


Robert Klara, author of one of my favorite books, The Hidden White House--which touched off my affair with Truman and the White House--is back with another book, The Devil's Mercedes about Hitler's limousine in America. Also looking forward to Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service.


One of my favorite things is movies about sports. That bleeds over to books, too. Fredrik Backman has a new book coming out this spring called Beartown about an amateur hockey team. Ed Henry (I love Ed Henry) has a book coming out about Jackie Robinson and faith called 42 Faith. And Dust Bowl Girls tells the story of girls' basketball in the early days.

Biography & Memoir

I'm very excited about Coretta Scott King's (Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow) new memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy which was released recently. And I'm beyond excited about Sally Bedell Smith's biography, Prince Charles (Bedell Smith is the author of Elizabeth the Queen one of my favorite biographies ever). Marilyn in Manhattan is about Marilyn Monroe's year of joy in New York. There's a new, short biography of Margaret Thatcher coming out that I'm excited about. And there's a biography coming out about Daphne du Maurier called Manderley Forever. And last but not least, Mr. Feeny (Boy Meets World, anyone?) has written his memoir, There I Go Again.


Having fallen in love with Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, I'm excited for another novel by Smith called My Italian Bulldozer. It seems quirky and plot-light which really appeals to me. And the author of Appleblossom the Possum (and Counting by 7s, which is still on my TBR list) is coming out with another children's book, Short.


Carlo Rovelli, who wrote Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, is back with Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Rise is the memoir of a mother and her children who build a house from the ground up. Word by Word is a memoir about the writing of dictionaries (how cool is that?).


My love affair with de-cluttering guru Peter Walsh continues with his new book Let It Go, a great title for a new year. I've seen Chasing Slow all over lately; I believe the author is a friend of Shauna Niequist's. And Bill O'Reilly is slipping in a book before his September release of the next (last?) installment in his Killing series, called Old School.


Yay, poetry! I've been meaning to read something by David Lehman for awhile now, so I think I'll start with his forthcoming Poems in the Manner Of... where he writes poems in the style of other poets. I recently picked up a copy of Poems That Make Grown Men Cry only to realize there is also a Poems That Make Crown Women Cry, the paperback of which will be released this year. And last but not least, Eat This Poem pairs poems about food with recipes. Win-win!

New in Paperback

Lastly, two books that I dithered over in hardcover are to be released in paperback soon: The Rainbow Comes and Goes and The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.