Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Fiction Reads of 2013

This was the year of venturing back into the glorious world of juvenile fiction. Elijah and I have transitioned into mostly chapter books with a few picture books sprinkled in--and it is so fun to both revisit childhood classics with him and discover new favorites together. So most of my fiction reading this year was for the younger crowd, but I did have a couple of fantastic adult reads sprinkled in. I hope to read more adult novels (including at least one classic, argh!) in 2014.

My favorite novel in 2013 was The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Tied for a close second were two novels by an author whom friends of mine have recommended for years, but I just now discovered: Kate Morton. I absolutely adored The Secret Keeper and The Forgotten Garden. To quote another writer I discovered this year, I am treating Morton's books like chocolate: "I am always greedy for more, but I’m desperately concerned I’ll run out."

Here's the rundown of the fiction I read in 2013. My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery*****
Anne of Avonlea
Anne of the Island
Anne of Windy Poplars
Anne’s House of Dreams
Is there anyone who doesn't adore Anne Shirley? If so, I don't want to know her. These books are perhaps my most beloved ever--they are certainly my most-read. I returned to them when I had the flu last January, and despite the fact that I have been through them so many times I practically have the stories memorized, I still can't bear to put them down once I've picked them up. Anne is an old friend that I find more endearing the more familiar she becomes.

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White****
An endearing story. I had fun attempting different voices for all the different animals.

Stuart Little – E.B. White**
The first half was kind of quirky and charming. Stuart is not a member of a mouse family, as I assumed; he is a mouse inexplicably born to a human family. Each of the early chapters is sort of a stand-alone story about his adventures as a mouse living in a human world, and Elijah and I enjoyed these. But then it changes to one extended plot about Stuart on a quest. The chapters got too long to read in one sitting at bedtime, and bogged down with description. And the ending was terrible--unresolved, unsatisfying; it didn't seem apropos for a children's book.

Henry and Ribsy – Beverly Cleary***
Elijah really enjoyed this. A sweet, entertaining story with likable characters (including Beezus and Ramona Quimby).

James and the Giant Peach – Roald Dahl***
This was the first Roald Dahl I've read since I was a kid...I didn't love it as much as I remembered. Fun, fantastical, an engaging story (and the short chapters make it perfect for a read-aloud) and Elijah liked it...but not a favorite, and not one we'll bother reading a second time.

Beezus and Ramona – Beverly Cleary (audiobooks)****
Ramona and Her Father
Ramona the Pest 
Charming stories, and Stockard Channing's performances are really excellent. I remember reading the stories as a child, but I'd never heard the audio version and hadn't read/heard the stories as an adult. I found myself smiling a lot and even laughing out loud, and Elijah was totally enthralled (four hours of total silence in the car). I discovered upon picking up the printed copy of Ramona the Pest that the chapters are a bit long for read-aloud times with my young boys, and I much prefer Stockard Channing's voices over my own (how can she come up with SO many distinct human female voices?!)--so I definitely recommend the audiobook versions for long road trips vs. sitting down with the books.

The Secret Keeper – Kate Morton*****
WOW. Brilliant. Did not see the ending coming at all! The writing was lovely and wonderful and the story had one intriguing, enthralling twist after another.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins – Richard & Florence lionAtwater***
A fun read. Not my favorite ever, but Elijah (and Jude) and I enjoyed it. The marriage/family dynamics were definitely odd...but whatever.

The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton*****
Man, I love Kate Morton! Could not put this down. It was very similar in style to The Secret Keeper--an old woman's mystery, unraveled over the course of more than a century, solved in the end by one of her descendants. Lots of twists and turns on the way to an unexpected but satisfying ending. And the writing is vivid, lovely--I absolutely loved it.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis (audio)***/*****
The story, which I’ve heard/read several times, is five stars, but the audio version gets about three. The volume fluctuated WAY too much, making it really annoying for in-car listening: You'd have to turn the speakers up as high as they go while the narrator was mumbling quietly through narration, then all of a sudden someone talks excitedly and your eardrums get blasted. I also just wasn't overly impressed by the reader--though maybe I am just biased because I've heard the Radio Theatre version of this, which is more enjoyable. At any rate, this was Elijah's first trip through Narnia, and he was enthralled.

Winnie the Pooh - A.A. Milne**
It feels heretical to admit this, but I really did not enjoy this classic.  Elijah seemed to enjoy it, but I'm not entirely sure why. You know how some books are written for kids, but also written with adults' enjoyment in mind, with jokes that go over the kids' heads? This felt like it was written mainly for adults' amusement, with almost everything going over the kids' heads. And I wasn't even amused, not like I am with other children's books. It just felt too...smug, or something. It's hard to describe, but suffice to say I wasn't a fan.

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (audio)
I tried to read this years ago and couldn't get into it. Then I saw Tim Challies recommend the audio version, so I gave it another shot. I was definitely better able to enjoy listening. The narrator is an older man with a soothing, pleasant voice, and that helps it feel more like a letter an elderly father is writing to his young son (which is what the novel is). For a while the book was just meandering—lovely, but meandering—then it got surprisingly suspenseful in the middle. A few times I had to pause it to scribble down a really beautiful or profound quote. In the end I did enjoy it, but it wasn't my favorite. I think mainly it's a case of "not really my style."

Prince Caspian – C.S. Lewis (audio)****
I liked the narrator for this much better than for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And we all enjoyed the story.

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh*****
This book absolutely wrecked me. I don't know when I have ever so desperately pleaded for a happy ending. The intimate look inside the mind and heart of Victoria, a girl who is "emancipated" from the foster care system on her 18th birthday, is gripping and devastating. Victoria sabotages every good thing that happens to her, and I found myself gasping, clapping my hand over my mouth, crying, shaking my head...yet totally seeing why she would think and feel the way she did. Oh, it was heart wrenching. The "hook" of the hidden meanings of flowers adds such richness and depth to the story, and the chapters alternate powerfully between Victoria's past experiences in foster care and her present struggle to establish a life for herself. The characters are believable people you want to root for. A masterpiece.

Little House in the Big Woods – Laura Ingalls Wilder***
I didn’t love this as a read-aloud. I remember enjoying the series as a kid, but this one, at least, is SO very descriptive that I think it is probably more enjoyable to read to myself because I can read so much faster silently than I can read aloud. Still, Elijah enjoyed it--enough to want to move immediately into book two.

Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder****
I enjoyed this as a read-aloud much more than Little House in the Big Woods. I have to say, though, that as a parent reading this to my child, I have a very different perspective than when I read these books as a child. The time and culture in which they were written are so very different from our own, and two main things I found repeatedly troubling: the parents' shaming attitude toward any display of emotion whatsoever, and the racism. To be fair, Pa is repeatedly painted as a sympathetic character to the Indians, drawn in sharp contrast to Ma and the neighbors. But still, it is so sad to see and hear the white settlers' thinking and treatment of the Native Americans whose land they forcibly took--I had a lot of explaining to do, so that my son wouldn't come away thinking the events and conversations the book described were OK. And say what you will in nostalgic remembrance of "a better time" when children were taught obedience and respect...I do *not* want my children to learn that crying is shameful, that adults are more important than children, etc. The book was peppered with little comments that conveyed these lessons and others like them. Despite these hang-ups, I still think it's an engaging story and an important firsthand account of American history.

The Horse and His Boy – C.S. Lewis (audiobook)***
I think this one is my least favorite of the Narnia books. I found it hard to listen and focus--zoned out/fell asleep more than once. And Elijah wasn't interested at all, surprisingly. Not terrible—I’m always deeply moved by the profound spiritual truths Lewis can weave into fantastical fiction—it just wasn’t as delightful as the others.

Abandoned fiction:
The Complete Stories - Flannery O'Connor
The first story left me with that familiar but uncomfortable "I feel like this was super profound but most of it must have gone over my head" sensation. Then I found out you're not supposed to start with her most famous stories. At the advice of an O'Connor scholar I skipped to "Revelation," which was OK, and then "The Enduring Chill," which I can't say I enjoyed. After one more, I gave up. I like Flannery's nonfiction *way* better than her fiction, which I won't be reading any more of unless I first get my hands on one of the books that explains it (which I'm not highly motivated to do).

New York Stories - Diana Secker Tesdell (editor)
I think I'm just not really a short-story kind of girl. The first three in this collection left me totally nonplussed (and feeling slightly stupid). I hung in there for one more story and it ended with the character committing suicide! I don't think I've ever found a short story or a collection of short stories I really loved. Just not my genre.


Danielle said...

Haven't quite made it into chapter books with the boys. On audio books yes, but not my reading to them. Probably because we're still reading so many shorter picture bookish type stuff for school. I need to start. I've never read any of the Ramona books but remember my sister loved them. I added them to my list for the boys. We are listening to Mary Poppins right now and loving it! I never read the book!

The Secret Keeper twist. I KNOW!

I'm not a fan of Winnie-the-Pooh either as an adult, but remember laughing my head off about it as a child. We listened to it on cd and it was better. Judi Dench makes everything better. :)

I added "The Language of Flowers." I keep seeing people rave about it so.

The "What You Missed in History" podcast JUST had two podcasts a few weeks ago on Laura Ingalls Wilder. You might enjoy! They delve a bit into the racisim.

I actually dislike short stories. Just not interested.

Amy said...

I saw those podcasts! Unfortunately I haven't done any podcasting for a while because I've had major issues trying to get them synced on my phone, for some reason. I downloaded a different app but now I have a huge list of things to catch up on.

I haven't ever read Mary Poppins either...but I didn't like the stage musical, and my understanding was/is that the parts I didn't like were based on the book rather than the movie...?

Danielle said...

I have no idea about the musical. We're only a couple of chapters in and I think the writing is very very good. It's read by Sophie Thompson too (Emma Thompson's sister--she's in Emma).

Amy said...

Well let me know what you think at the end. I remember thinking in the musical that the kids were total BRATS, not just mischievous. And something else I can't remember...the nanny MP replaced was really sinister and evil, or there was something else especially dark that I didn't enjoy. It's been too long since I saw it; I just know I was disappointed and definitely preferred the movie. And since the stage musical was based on *both* the movie and the book, I figured the different parts I disliked must have come from the book.

Danielle said...

I'll let you know. She's definitely more stern than the movie version, but nothing sinister as yet. Have you seen the Mr. Banks movie? I haven't. Apparently the author had quite an interesting life when I read her bio on wikipedia.

Briana Almengor said...

Hey there. Thanks for popping over to my blog and leaving a comment. I imagine you found me via Danielle. As you could tell, I am technologically inept and write sporadically. I do like to write, but I LOVE to express myself. The blog has provided a nice space for me to express myself with no interruptions, eye rolls, sighs, or argument (at least none that I can see). I quite like it that way.

Danielle and another friend encouraged me to pick up a Kate Morton novel a while back, and I was so glad I did. I began with "The Secret Keeper" and LOVED it! This is saying a great deal coming from a person who can probably count on one or two hands the number of adult fiction books I've read.
That said, I have begun to pick up more fiction with the help of Danielle's and others' suggestions.

My kids and I loved listening to "The Little House" series via audiobook. We have made our way through 3 or 4 books in the last several months.

I am hoping to write some more on the blog, but we'll see what reality actually surfaces. Stop by again.

Danielle said...

BTW, I HIGHLY recommend Focus on the Family's Radio Theater Narnia series. Amazing! And the same guy who reads "The Jesus Storybook Bible" is Aslan. Now, it's not an audiobook. It's not a straight reading of the story. But it's soooo good I don't care. We'll be reading them later, so as a first introduction to the books I'm fine with it.

Amy said...

ooh, didn't realize the JSB guy was Aslan! we got the Radio Theatre version of LWW for Christmas. I'm pretty sure I've heard it before but the boys haven't. I don't think I've heard it for any of the other books.

Kristin Middleton said...

I don't think I've ever disagreed with one of your book recommendations before, but I just finished the Forgotten Garden, and I didn't love it. I appreciated the writer's style, but I found the story quite predictable and the last 150 pages a little dull because of it. Morton did a great job at making me care about the characters, so I may try the Secret Keeper, but, for me, she dropped too many clues throughout the beginning of the book to keep it suspenseful.

That said, you've never steered me wrong before, so I'll keep adding to my list of "must reads" according to your recommendations! :)