Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The 16 Best Reads of 2016

Hi all,

I wont waste a lot of words on a pointless introduction.  As an avid reader, it isn't difficult to come up with a list of awesome books I would recommend.  What is challenging is narrowing it down to the best of the best.  Once armed with an awesome book, I cannot think of much that is better then a gripping read, a hot drink and something sweet to eat.  Can you?  However, here goes my most valiant attempt at listing both the most entertaining and highest quality reads which I experienced in the last year:

I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did.  The setting is a chilling prophecy for the future.  Something of a SciFi Horror, I was hooked quickly by this one which didn't let me go until the end.  The vision this story presents is a haunting one for the world, which is what makes it so engaging and gripping.  I highly recommend 1984, given that its a classic and that its a genuinely awesome read.

My god, did this book pack a wallop.  It was incredible.  This one took me about 2.5 weeks to finish (running at about 800 pages) but it is without question one of the most powerful books I have read since I can remember.  It took my breath away.

The story follows four men and the trajectory of their lives and friendships with one another.  First off, the authors prose is excellent.  She is a superb writer, on par with Patti Smith and a few other literary heavyweights.  And secondly, the story is riveting.  We learn about these four fascinating men, their friendships wrought with contradiction and complexity over the years (as most close relationships tend to be) as well as what happens to each of them personally as they go through life.  You will be gripped easily by this one.

The book eventually hones in and focuses on one of the characters, Jude, more so then the others.  His life story is absolutely captivating.  Its horrific, tragic, and beautifully told.  Somehow, this woman (the author) is able to inhabit her characters to such a degree that is just mind-blowing.  While reading, one feels the entire gamut of emotions run through them.  Everything from being deeply moved, to outraged on a characters behalf, to horrified, to feeling a rush of joy for a characters triumph.

One of the things I personally loved about this book was how she paints the friendships.  When a friendship stretches over a period of years, there will be moments when friends will let the other one down.  When they might unintentionally hurt the other, or even at times, intentionally.  Close friendships, just like a romantic relationship, become layered and complicated as the years go by.  I think this makes them all the more beautiful and meaningful.

I am by no means suggesting that we should accept and expect ill treatment from those we love, or that its a part of a healthy relationship.  Not at all.  It isn't.  There are of course behaviors that once exhibited, are deal breakers.  But I also believe that within any close relationship, there will also be moments of anger, or moments of feeling hurt or let down.  All of this is part of being human.  We will make mistakes and hurt those we love sometimes.  And it does not necessarily mean that this person is automatically a terrible friend or a bad person.  In fact, sometimes someone is an amazing friend who just made a terrible mistake.  This book shows us that lesson in vivid color, in a myriad of ways.

To provide one brief example (dont worry, no spoilers), there is a moment in the story when one of the men does something AWFUL to another of the characters.  One of his supposed best friends.  Your blood boils with rage as you read it, the scene springing forth in your mind.  And yet, this same is actually a fantastic and genuine friend.  There are numerous moments throughout their friendship when he is unwavering there for his friend, both in spirit and literally.  He is loyal and clearly loves his friend deeply, despite the fact that he did this truly horrible thing to his friend in one awful moment.

So, what I love about this book is the way it presents a friendship, in all its beautiful layers, splinters and complications.  To me, that its a realistic reflection on what a long term relationship really is.  And I was utterly captivated by the story of Jude, which is a wild, jaw gaping, emotional ride to be sure.

I have to preface this review with saying, there are obviously a number of sexist, chauvinistic, violent aspects of the story which I do not think are good things to be glamorizing or sensationalizing (which to some extent, the popularity of this show and of these books absolutely does).  However, in going along with the times of the story, I can deal with it for the sake of the book.

That aside, the writing is vivid, clear and strong.  Similar to The Wire (a television series, and a kick ass one at that), there are many, many characters and yet the author is skilled at keeping all of them memorable, distinct, and shifting gears frequently within the story with cleanliness and with clarity.  The book is densely layered with numerous plots playing out at the same time.  Yet similar to his characters, he is able to handle this seamlessly.

The characters themselves are intriguing and gripping.  The book is filled with suspense, romance, atmospheric details, darkness and lots of fun.  The fantasy and magical parts of the story merely add to it.  I really never thought I would say it but I LOVED this book.  I would highly recommend it.  The story in fact does live up to all the hype (though I am not sure about this with regards to the TV show but it definitely applies to the book).

This was a fun fictional read.  Its the story of Nathaniel, a young a partially-rising star in terms of his writing (he has just had a book published and is a continued aspiring writer/intellectual).  This book follows the trajectory of his dating life, from his own perspective.  Yes, its fictional I imagine there is a fair bit of truth in here when it comes to men and how they think about dating/women/relationships.  This is a majorly fun read, especially for the ladies I would imagine.  This is chick lit but with far more heft, more of an intellectual flair.

Within his newly risen status of becoming a fairly accomplished writer, he seems to have his pick of a few promising women.  His gorgeous ex-girlfriend turned friend, a hotshot reporter, or Hannah who is regarded as "cool, smart and nice," who seemed to be his intellectual and conversational equal.

When one of these relationships grows more serious, Nathaniel is forced to confront the issue of what he truly wants at the moment.  For Nathaniel, its all about wit, intellectualism, lively banter and always-engaging, constantly analytical conversation.  However, what about romance, deeper feelings and relationships?  Maybe not so much...

I loved this book.  Flew through it in two days.  I highly recommend it.  Its currently an international bestseller.  Though I imagine it will appeal to women more, I can think of a number of men who would likely enjoy it as well.

This book falls firmly into the "chick lit" category, however it has a bit more complexity to the characters and stories then other chick lit books I have enjoyed in the past.  I thought Amazon.com summed up the synopsis quite well:

For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano. As three generations of Kelleher women arrive at the family's beach house, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago.

Another excellent read.  This explores the less-frequently-voiced-out-loud but often-thought-about universal human dilemma of: can you want what you already have?  After a few years in a relationship with the same person, despite it very likely being a legitimate relationship and love, we still tend to feel like facets such as excitement, sexual attraction, novelty and thrill can and very often have begin to decline.  This is normal.  Yet, it doesn't necessarily have to be this way.  Intrigued yet?  You should be.

This book explores the potential question of, is it possible to instead keep some of the mystery alive even when these euphoric and heart racing emotions find themselves on the wane?  It explores ways to maintain excitement and deep interest in your partner.  The book introduces ideas of slightly alternate ways and out of the box ideas with regards to how you approach your relationships which can offer one much more potential for maintaining this state of mystery, engagement and enthrallment in ones relationship (while still being close).

I found this book to be especially readable, relatable, thought-provoking and inspiring.  Really good and worthwhile read about relationships.  I would vouch for this being recommended reading for everyone actually.  

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved this book.  I expected a potentially dry or dull read but was stunned to find it ended up being one of the best I have experienced in months.  Part memoir, part inspirational and engaging how-to on writing by someone with genuine weight in the literature world, both parts were excellent.  I am not a particularly passionate Stephen King fan.  I have read a few of his books and greatly enjoyed a couple while others not so much, this one was superb.  I read it within 3 days, actually finding it difficult to put down!! 

I have read one previous Anita Shreve book and found it interesting enough, though it certainly didn't knock my socks off.  This was actually quite good.  The writing was visual and rich, the story line gripping and intriguing, the characters equally interesting.  I found myself very much into this while reading it.

I read this book in 36 hours during my solo trip to Sweden (along with finishing the second half of Wild by Cheryl Strayed and reading The Art of People by Dave Kerpen).  This book was a fast one.  Gripping, dark, seedy, and disturbing, akin to witnessing a train-wreck in which one cannot look away.  It was intriguing, creepy and suspenseful.

Based on the Manson murders, from back in the 70s out in California.  That is already a dark, fascinating story in and of itself.  (Other reading, I highly recommend Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi.  He was the prosecutor in the real Manson murder trials and he wrote this book.  Its RIVETING.  I could not put it down.  Nonfiction.  Read this book for sure if you like thrillers).

Anyway, I recommend The Girls.  Its a fast read and a gripping one at that.  The prose and language is stellar, if sometimes a little overdone.

This is a really neat book.  The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  The messages within this small story have stayed close to me.  Its certainly worthy of reading, but even more so, of an examination into its deeper and very relevant hidden meanings.

Upon first glance, this book is about a boy (a prince, to be exact), on whose planet the author has crash landed.  A friendship blossoms between the author and this Little Prince and within this friendship, the Little Prince offers the author a number of oft ignored or forgotten life lessons, which he claims adults tend to disregard or let slip from their minds as the years of their lives wear on.  He calls this a symptom of having grown up.

The Little Prince reminds us that before life taints their impressions as they age, that children often see the unblemished truths of life.  The simple and straight forwardness of what lies both before us and within, and that as adults we usually forget these.  They slip away from us.  We over complicate, over-analyze, put our values and hearts in the wrong things or thoughts.  And thus, according to the Little Prince, is the tragedy  of the human condition.

This book was a surprising, shimmering delight.  And no, its not a children's book (though I know it resembles one based on the cover).  The story follows an ancient Russian fable of a man and woman who cannot have a child of their own which has caused distance and sadness in their marriage.  One night after a blanketing snowfall, they venture outside and in a moment of emotional openness and playfulness, and they build a snow child together.  The next day, the snow child is gone.  However, a little girl shows up at their door who seems to know more about the forest then she should, her hair the whitest of blondes, her eyes the lightest of blue.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this book.  I thought it might be boring, lackluster or cheesy.  It was none of the above.  I was swept up in the mystery, magic and saddness of this story.

In addition, the author is excellent at painting the scene of the wild Alaskan wilderness.  I nearly felt as though I were there.  I could almost feel the chill of the bracing wind, the crunch of snow beneath my feet as my boots would sink down deep.  I could practically see the darkened woods, hear the winds howling outside my windows after dark had fallen, the snow glittering in the moonlight.  I could see the trees like lacework against the sky during day light, the cranberries like glistening rubies clinging to the tips of gnarled branches.  For the setting alone, this book is worthwhile.

She is a poetic and visual writer, absolutely worth reading.  I highly recommend this one.  I couldn't predict any of it.  The entire story as it unfolded was an unexpected surprise.

Let me preface this with saying that The Girl on the Train is by no means great literature.  Its fairly low in terms of intellectual stimulation, as well as the ending which I found kind of outlandish.  However, the reason this one makes the list is because it had me in a vice grip for two days straight.  I blew through it, hanging on in wide eyed suspense.  Again, the ending was a letdown and the writing/story itself wasnt phenomenal, but while reading I enjoyed it immensely.

I blew through this book.  Its essentially about a marriage, and all the details, the ups and downs, the nuances and complexities, if you will, of a decades long relationship.  I found it gripping, emotional and fascinating.  This story is about a couple, both of whom are quite different from one another.  Doug is serious, pragmatic, logical, grounded and stiff.  Connie is adventurous, imaginative, insightful, creative, reckless and romantic.  This story takes us along for the trajectory of their story, from their first meeting right up to the present day, when Connie has told Douglas that she is thinking she would like a divorce.  After they tour Europe for three weeks with their teenage son that is.  

Douglas is shaken and devastated.  Thus, we are taken along for the ride to learn the details of their story.  I read this book in three days.  I didn't want it to end.  I liked how it explored the intriguing contradictions of relationships.  And actually, I really enjoyed the (what I think was) realistic and somewhat surprisingly nontraditional ending.

This was another delightful surprise in terms of Anita Shreve.  I expected a boring, dragging story.  A wannabe swirling romance that sweeps one up but fails to deliver.  However I found myself also enjoying this one immensely.  The characters intrigued me, the language was romantic and poetic, the storyline intruiging.

This is one of my favorite books of all time.  I cannot recommend it enough.  Ive read it twice and will undoubtedly read it again.  Cheryl tells us the story of her emotional struggle following her mothers death.  She reveals her teetering on the edge of heroin addiction.  She talks about her relationship with her soon-to-be ex husband, Paul (a relationship that is both deep and incredibly touching).  She explains how all of this led her to the decision to hike the PCT trail, hundreds of miles on foot, never having been a hiker previously, never having trained.  Her experiences on the trail are fascinating and suspenseful.  In this book, I love the openhearted way she tells her story, laying herself bare.  I saw myself in some of her words and passages.  I identified with this book and was just bowled over by it.  The story is heartfelt, raw, romantic and true.  Definitely worth a read.

I had seen this book come up on numerous "must read" lists time and time again.  I heard Natalie was rumored to be an effective, especially engaging, awesome writer.  However, a book about writing was one I imagined to be like pulling teeth to get through.  I could not have been more mistaken.  I flew through this book.  Natalie has a way with words.  She has a talent for taking the typically mundane and making it sparkle and entice.  She takes everyday details of life and makes them vivid.  I absolutely loved this book.  I could not get enough.  I found myself filled with inspiration and a desire to get my pen moving after each time reading this one.

Reading is an amazing thing, for many, many reasons.  For those of you who do not agree, its because you arent doing it right ;-) and I can help you change that with the list I have just given....

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