Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fiction Reads of 2012

This past year was definitely a year for young-adult fiction. In between finishing the Harry Potter series and tearing through the Hunger Games trilogy, I squeezed in a couple of classics and a few other selections. I'm hoping to read more old novels this year; it's easy to get swept up in the contemporary books everyone is talking about and fall victim to (as C.S. Lewis calls it) "chronological snobbery." But unlike my nonfiction selections this past year, I really enjoyed the majority of the novels I read in 2012. 

My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens*****
I fell in love with the title character from the first few pages. Dickens has such a gift for creating delightful, memorable characters. This novel was massively long, but I was never bored.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (#4) – J.K. Rowling (audiobook)****
Though by this point I was sold on the series, I felt impatient as the first half of volume four really seemed to drag.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (#5) – J.K. Rowling (audiobook)****
Again, still hooked on this series, but in general I found this extremely long fifth volume a bit less delightful, myself a bit more easily distracted while listening and a bit less desperate to find time to pop my earbuds in. Still, by the time I finished, I was definitely very much anticipating the next book in spite of my lack of enthusiasm about this one.

The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien***
A reading of The Hobbit in junior high made me despise Tolkien, so I certainly had no desire to ever pick up the famed LOTR trilogy. But after discovering a few fantasy series that I LOVED, plus just knowing so many others who adore his work, I decided to give Tolkien another try. I still feel kind of “meh” about it. I was interested enough to continue the rest of the series, but not delighted or dying to start the next book (and in fact, I picked up The Two Towers later in the year only to abandon it for lack of interest). I’m not sure why this didn’t grab me as much as other fantasy series (Harry Potter, the Wingfeather saga, Narnia, Lewis’ space trilogy)—perhaps in part because *everything* was different; there were almost no familiar elements of Middle-earth on which to hang my hat. Or maybe I only like juvenile fantasy? I definitely got bogged down in all the lo-o-o-ng descriptions, the songs and poems, etc.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6) – J.K. Rowling (audiobook)*****
After books four and five were a bit slower, six had me hooked again. The plot twists, the characters you love and the ones you love to hate…Rowling has a gift.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (#7) – J.K. Rowling (audiobook)*****
I couldn’t wait for opportunities to listen to this final audiobook: one unexpected plot twist after another, right up to the beautifully satisfying ending. The epilogue was perfect. Happy, contented sigh. Yet I felt sad to finish the final lines—it was like the end of an era. How can there be no more new stories about Harry, Hermione and Ron? I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong about books…after pointedly ignoring these for more than a decade, they now go on my all-time favorites list. I’m confident I will enjoy them even more the inevitable second time around, catching all the foreshadowing.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith*****
It took me a long time to get around to this classic—but like many others, I’m so glad I finally did. I loved Francie Nolan, the narrator who comes of age in the tenements of Brooklyn at the turn of the century.

Crossing Six – Robert Wilson
When I found out that one of my all-time favorite teachers (11th and 12th grade English) had written a novel (a self-published e-book), of course I had to read it. But I don’t think I can give it a fair review or rating…the subject was high school students in a small Ohio town, so I couldn’t lose myself in the story enough to forget that Mr. Wilson was writing from experience (a lot of things were disguised barely or not at all!). Quite unnerving to see yourself and your friends from a teacher's perspective...

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins*****
It didn’t take me nearly as long to get hooked on this as it took me to pick it up in the first place. I enjoyed it more than I thought I might; as one of the endorsements said, the plot and the pacing are brilliant. Though I still think the name “Katniss” is one of the dumbest names I’ve ever heard. I made myself only read this while running on the elliptical, which served the dual purpose of helping me be self-controlled (rather than “couldn’t put it down, stayed up until three a.m. and/or neglected my children all day”) and motivating me to exercise :)

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins*****
The second volume of the Hunger Games trilogy featured several major plot twists that I never saw coming, and the characters continued to captivate me.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows *****
This charming, quirky book, set in the years immediately after World War II, takes the unusual form of a collection of letters and telegrams between a dozen or more characters. For that reason, I wasn’t so sure about it when I first started, but I quickly fell in love with the main character, Juliet (who stumbles across the delightful people of Guernsey, a Channel Island which was occupied by the Germans during WWII), and the old and new friends she writes to and about. I did find the ending somewhat dissatisfying, but on the whole it was a delightful read.

My Hands Came Away Red - Lisa McKay****
I enjoyed this novel about a group of teens who travels to Indonesia on a mission trip, then ends up on the run in the jungle after the village they help is attacked by Muslims. The main character, Cori, is raw, honest, likeable, and believable; the plot is heart-wrenching and suspenseful.

100 Cupboards – N.D. Wilson**/***
As much as I’ve loved Wilson’s other work, I expected to find this YA novel (the first in a series) delightful and save it for a future read-aloud. Not so much. The story was a little too out-there, a little too hard to follow. I couldn’t really get into it. Won’t be bothering with the subsequent volumes; this went back on PaperBackSwap

Washington Square  – Henry James**
This was the strangest book--maybe the most anticlimactic I've ever read. I picked it up because I hadn't read any old novels in quite a while, and I was on the lookout for New York books. Unlike some classics, this one was easy to read and I was able to get into it right away--the characters drew me in and I found it compelling; I didn't have to force myself to persevere. But...nothing happened. I kept reading, waiting for a plot climax...the end drew nearer and nearer, and still nothing really happened...then the big finale, and it was like, "Really? That's it?" In the end it felt like a pointless book--the kind where you wish you could have back all those reading minutes for a more worthwhile and rewarding book.

Mockingjay  – Suzanne Collins****
I had a harder time getting into this one, maybe because I had a big gap between #2 and #3. But in the end, I was as hooked as everyone else. Collins definitely knows how to pace a book and keep the plot twisting and turning. More than once my mouth fell open and I actually said, "WHAT?!" as something unexpected happened. Having read both hugely popular young-adult fiction series in the same year, I can't help comparing The Hunger Games to Harry Potter. Both had twisting plots that drew you in and made you want to keep reading and reading, but I think the characterization in HP was far superior. After three books I still wasn't quite sure what to think of Katniss (and I still totally hate that dumb name). Rowling just made you LOVE or HATE the characters in a way that I don't think Collins achieved. Her characters were interesting, but I didn't feel as attached to them. Still great books--just not as deeply satisfying and "I-can't-wait-to-reread-these" as HP.

The Associate – John Grisham**/***
Meh. I still think Grisham has lost his touch. The beginning featured a nice twist, but in hindsight it was not overly believable. The rest definitely kept me reading; however, the ending was anticlimactic and disappointing. I was hoping to be proven wrong in my theory that Grisham stopped writing to tell great stories and started writing purely for profit after his first four bestsellers. In the end, I stand by that theory, and won’t be picking up another Grisham novel anytime soon except perhaps to reread one of those early greats.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – E.L. Konigsburg*****
I remember reading and loving this in fifth grade English--one of the best English classes I ever, ever took. It was the first time I had a teacher who departed from the traditional textbooks and used the "whole language" method--introducing us to a slew of excellent juvenile novels. I haven't reread it since then, I don't think, but I loved it even more as an adult. The author manages the triple play: tell an interesting story, develop delightful characters, and go beyond characters and plot to explore more profound and timeless truths. Look forward to reading this aloud to my kids someday.

 The Great Divorce  – C.S. Lewis*****
I had a hard time getting into this right at first, but once I got my bearings and understood what Lewis was doing, I loved it. Classic Lewis—he has such a way of using story and characters to smack you in the face with brilliant theology, to awaken you to the reality of what you thought you already knew but did not really SEE about God and about yourself.

Before Green Gables – Budge Wilson****
The happiest sort of surprise: going to your local library and discovering that one more new book exists about your very favorite literary character! This prequel to Anne of Green Gables (authorized by L.M. Montgomery's heirs) was somewhat dark--it's one thing to know the barest facts about Anne's miserable early life; it's another to experience the deaths of her sweet parents or see her enslaved and unloved. But even with all the heaviness of what Anne had to endure as a small child, it was delightful to see fleshed-out versions of characters and events that get only the slightest passing mention in later books, or to meet characters that Wilson uses to explain various aspects of Anne's character and personality.

I will say that at various times, events or descriptions didn't *quite* ring true to what I remembered. I also found the quotations and conversations attributed to five-year-old Anne to be somewhat unbelievable...but to Wilson's credit, she managed to bring to life a child who is exceedingly precocious without making her the least bit obnoxious--which is rare, I think. This prequel made me fall in love with Anne all over again--in fact, as soon as I finished, I had to go back and restart the old series. Now that I'm reading those, I'm finding more and more inconsistencies in Wilson's prequel! I guess ultimately I *wanted* to like this a lot, so I got swept up in the delight of reading more about beloved Anne and overlooked the book's flaws. But without a fair amount of distance between the originals and this new addition, the style differences and the failures to stay true to the originals may well drive you crazy. I *liked* the story Wilson wove...but in hindsight, I can't say it's realistic.

I'm afraid to ask, because my to-read shelf on Goodreads is already out of control...but what novels did you love in 2012?


Robin said...

Gone Girl, The Angel's Game, and though I'm struggling to find time to finish it, I am loving Anna Karenina!

Amy said...

Gone Girl is on my list. I have several friends who love Anna Karenina...I read it back in 2006 and just didn't get into it. I felt dumb, like it was really deep and I just missed it. :P

Danielle said...

You might want to try listening to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I've only listened on audiobook, never read them. I think they'd be harder for me to read. I'm interested in Gone Girl but keep hearing such mixed reviews. I'd be interested in what you think. As for Anna Karenina, I loved it, but it could depend on the translation you pick up. That makes a difference.

I planned on listening to HP last year but didn't. I'll try this coming summer.

Amy said...

I'm pretty sure I read the Oprah book club translation of AK--it was what the library had. Just looked and that was Pevear and Volokhonsky. Now I'm really curious whether that's one you'd recommend, because the only reason I haven't read Crime and Punishment is because I'd heard P&V were the best translators and I haven't found their translation of C&P for Kindle.

And I am dying for you to fall in love with HP! Don't put him off another year! :)

Ali said...

We have so much in common with books. Josh has been reading the LOTR trilogy to the kids for quite some time now and I still can't get into it. I don't even like the movies! I haven't yet tried the Hunger Games. I think the premise just horrifies me so much that I'm not willing to read it. I've heard it is very well written though. We read From the Mixed Up Files to the kids and they LOVED it - as did we.

I see a couple on here I'll have to check out. I have so little time to read that I always feel a little guilty reading fiction, but with a new baby on the way, my brain will be tired enough to justify ONLY fiction for some time. :)

Ali said...

One more note: I agree with your decision not to continue with the 100 Cupboards series. While I enjoyed the first book a fair amount, the second was much darker, and I couldn't bring myself to read the third. I was getting stressed out. Josh thought they were pretty good, but David tried them and hated it. I'd say, if you're not enjoying the first, it's definitely not worth your time to continue the series.