Top Five Friday: Best Books of 2014

I only get to sneak my “Top Five Friday” posts in occasionally these days, since the Pink for All Seasons recaps generally happen on Fridays. But I finished my GoodReads 2014 Challenge on Wednesday (with only hours to spare), so I’ve been thinking about all the books I read in 2014.

Do you use GoodReads? If you do, it’s fun to look at your stats about what you read. I know that I read 85 books in 2014, but GoodReads tells me that I read a total of 26,865 pages. Of all the books I read, I rated seven books as 5 stars and also seven as 2 stars. No books in 2014 got a 1 star rating – how excellent. The vast majority of the books I read were mysteries, and then several of my other categories (like books about India, fairy-tale inspired books, and nonfiction) were tied for second place. The majority of the books I read were published after 2000, and the oldest book I read was Around the World in Eighty Days (published in 1873). Maybe it’s nerdy of me to think that’s interesting, but I definitely do!

Looking back over everything I’ve read this year, I’ve come up with my Top Five list for 2014 reads. I’m excluding everything written by Lauren Willig, since I cover that pretty extensively in Pink for All Seasons. Here they are!

thousand stars 1. Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn. Don’t get me wrong or come after me with your torch and pitchforks. I love Lady Julia, but Deanna’s standalone novels from 2013 and 2014 are what put her on my list of favorite authors. A Spear of Summer Grass made my 2013 list, and she’s absolutely at the top of this year with Night of a Thousand Stars. Deanna has a gift for hooking you with her first lines. This story is no exception. Have a look: “I say, if you’re running away from your wedding, you’re going about it quite wrong.” When we meet Poppy, our heroine, for the first time, she is literally paused with one leg over a window sill in the process of bolting from her wedding. I loved this book. Poppy was funny and spunky, the setting was exotic, the mystery had a great pace, and Deanna’s storytelling is absolutely on point. I gulped this book down in two sittings and loved every page of it. Yes, it has connections to the Lady Julia series and also to A Spear of Summer Grass and City of Jasmine, but you can read this one and still thoroughly enjoy it without having read the others.
 every secret 2. Every Secret Thing by Susanna Kearsley (writing as Emma Cole). This book is different from Susanna’s projects of the last few years. Kate Murray is a journalist who is covering a high-profile court case when she witnesses a terrible accident. A stranger is hit by a car and killed only moments after he tells her that he has a story she could research – a story that stretches back to World War II and a killer who has managed to hide his crimes for decades. As Kate begins to trace the stranger’s past, she finds an unexpected connection to her own family, and she realizes that she is placing both the people who are close to her and the people who can help her in serious danger. The story flickers between Kate’s research in the present day and flashbacks to the 1940s in Canada, the US, UK and Lisbon. I really enjoy stories about World War II, but somehow this one hit me on an extremely personal level. The mystery was excellent (I did NOT see the end coming), the period detail is flawless, and if you are a fan of Mary Stewart novels, you will really appreciate this one.
 cress 3. Cress by Marissa Meyer. This is the third book in Marissa’s Lunar Chronicles series that began in 2012 with Cinder. In the Lunar Chronicles, Marissa creates a futuristic world where the citizens of Earth have been brought to the brink of war by a devastating plague, the threat of invasion from the Lunars (who live on the moon), and a tangle of international and intergalactic politics. Cress is a Rapunzel story, but instead of a beautiful princess locked in a tower by a witch, we have a young girl trapped in a satellite orbiting earth by an evil queen. Cress has been watching the situation between Earth and Luna deteriorate for years, and with nothing but computers and television for company, she has grown sympathetic to Earth’s cause. When an opportunity comes to be rescued from her satellite, she jumps at it, although she learns quickly that Earth is not the welcoming sanctuary it has always appeared from several thousand miles away. In this book, Marissa does a great job of bringing together several different plot lines she created earlier in the series, and I cannot wait to see how she will move the story forward. Cress stood out to me as the best in the series so far, and I feel like Marissa is preparing us for an unbelievable ride in Winter (due to be released in November 2015).
 Princess 4. A Princess Remembers by Gayatri Devi. In this book, Gayatri tells the story of her life in India, and it is fascinating. She lived in a time of unbelievable change – the India from the days of her childhood is so incredibly different from the India she knew as an adult. She grew up as the daughter of a Maharaja and became the third wife of the Maharaja of Jaipur after a secret six-year courtship. She was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, and she was the last Maharani that Jaipur would ever see. After Partition, Gayatri Devi ran for Parliament in 1962. She won her seat by the largest landslide in the history of democratic elections, confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records. Her story is fascinating, and her descriptions of both day-to-day life and political events are wonderful. I don’t read many memoirs or biographies, but this one was wonderful.
 fortune2 5. The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin. This story is based on true events from the lives of Charlotte Baird, Bay Middleton, and Empress Elizabeth of Austria. It’s a great period piece, and it will satisfy that part of your soul that wants to watch Downton Abbey and drink tea in your pajamas all day. I wrote a full review for NetGalley back in May, if you want more details.

 

So there you have it – my favorite books from 2014. What were the best books you read last year?

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Top Five Friday: Fairy Tale Retellings

I haven’t done a Top Five Friday post in a while – I’ve been too busy posting Pink recaps! But we just started Pink II on Wednesday, so Erin will be posting the first Pink II recap next Friday to give you time to read. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about fairy tales.

My first exposure to fairy tales was Disney movies. I remember feeling very surprised when I learned that Cinderella wasn’t a creation of Walt Disney, and there were many versions of her story that came before the cartoon I loved (and who didn’t – those mice were adorable). My first fairy tale retelling was Ella Enchanted, and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since.

So here is today’s Top Five Friday – my favorite novels based on fairy tales.

 goose girl The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. I actually had never heard the story of the goose girl before this book. Ani is a princess who is sent by her mother to marry a prince from a kingdom far away. On the journey to her new home, her lady-in-waiting Selia stages a mutiny so that she can be presented as the princess when the group reaches their destination. Ani escapes and considers starting a new life somewhere else, but she feels responsible for the few servants and her beloved horse that she knows will be mistreated at Selia’s hands. Ani gets herself a job as a goose girl for the king and starts planning a rescue for her friends. This was a great story! Now I just need to get around to reading some of Shannon’s other books – there are three sequels to Goose Girl, and she has a Rapunzel series as well.
 bitter greens Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. This is a retelling of the Rapunzel story, and it’s narrated through the eyes of three women. There is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the first women to ever tell the story of Rapunzel. Then there is Margherita, who is kidnapped by a witch as repayment because her father stole a handful of parsley from the witch’s garden. And finally, there is the witch herself – Selena Leonelli, the infamous muse of the artist Tiziano who fears nothing in the world except the passage of time. I’ll admit, the first few chapters were slow going, but in the end, Kate weaves these stories together beautifully. If you like books where the villain gets to tell her version of events, I found this one particularly interesting.  Evidently, Kate is currently studying at a university in Sydney for a doctoral degree in fairy tale retelling, and this novel is part of her doctorate work. She’s currently writing a theoretical examination of Rapunzel. I need to go back to school, clearly. My major was not this cool.
cinder Cinder by Marissa Meyer. This is by far the weirdest fairy tale retelling I’ve come across, but it was incredibly compelling in a bizarre way. The story is Cinderella, but nothing like the way you’ve seen it before – our heroine, Cinder, is a cyborg. You read that correctly. In a futuristic world, Earth is in trouble. There is a new strain of plague that has no cure, there are conflicts between humans and cyborgs, and the Lunars (who live on the moon, led by their evil queen Levana) are just waiting for their moment to stage a hostile takeover of Earth. Cinder has her own problems to deal with, but she’s swept onto the big stage of events when she catches the eye of both Prince Kai and Queen Levana. And no one, not Cinder’s horrid stepmother or even Cinder herself, knows who Cinder really is. Again, weird and fascinating. I’ve read the sequel Scarlet (based on Red Riding Hood), but I haven’t had a chance to pick up the third in the series. I will get there eventually.
ella enchanted Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. Please, please don’t judge this book by its movie adaptation. This is another Cinderella retelling, although it’s for a much younger audience. When she is born, Ella is given the “gift” of obedience by a meddlesome fairy, but her gift turns out to be be a curse – she cannot ever refuse a direct command. As she grows up, Ella learns creative ways to prevent her stepmother from using her curse against her, but she eventually decides to track down the fairy to have the curse removed. There’s a glass slipper and a Prince Charmont, and I thought it was a fun retelling.
 beauty Beauty by Robin McKinley. Okay, I’m actually cheating on this one. I haven’t read it yet, but I have a copy and have been meaning to for at least two years. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (clearly), and Robin’s writing comes highly recommended by several of my favorite authors (including Lauren).

 

What are your favorite fairy tale stories?

Top Five Friday: American Classics

Today, I finished reading a really interesting adaptation of a classic novel. I don’t want to say any more about it now (I’ll save it for my review!), but it got me thinking about my favorite classics. This is such a wide category that I thought for today, we’d narrow it down to classics in American literature. I don’t think it’s the English major in me that makes me love these stories. Some of the books I had to read in high school, I absolutely loathed and swore never to teach when my time came (I’m looking at you, Huckleberry Finn). I think I loved these particular books because they stuck with me, demanded that I think and feel something, and made me go back to them over and over. Sometimes, I read books that make hardly any impression on me at all, but each of these books left its mark in some way. So for today’s Top Five Friday, here is my list of favorite American classics.

 

 mockingbird 1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s strange to me that I love this one the way that I do. Even I have to admit that not a whole lot “happens” for the first third of the book. But by the time Lee introduces Tom Robinson, I’m always hooked. Sometimes, I pull it off the shelf and just read the trial scene. Do I hate Mayella Ewell? Do I feel sorry for her? It’s a different story every time I read it. And I can’t, absolutely CANNOT, ever stop reading until the end once I get to chapter 27. I cry every time. I love Atticus and Dill and Boo Radley and the whole crew, and there is something really magical about Lee’s writing style.
 OM&M 2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I think that somehow, of all the book characters I’ve met in my entire life, Lennie might be the one who touches my heart the most. That’s saying something, isn’t it? There must be hundreds of thousands of book characters rattling around in my head, but Lennie inspires the most compassion of any of them. I’ve given up trying to convince Brad to read this – he knew the minute that Lennie got a puppy that things were headed somewhere he didn’t want to go. I know I’ll never get Brad to see it my way, but I think this has to be one of the most beautiful stories I know.
 little women 2 3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This is a comfort read for me. I used to imagine that this book must be exactly what it’s like to have sisters. I love the episode of Friends where Joey reads this and has to put it in the freezer, and I especially love the Broadway musical original cast with Sutton Foster as Jo.
 streetcar 4. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Can I include this one, even though it’s a play? There is just so much going on in this play that, every time you read it, something different jumps out at you to focus on. Blanche is really fascinating to me. I always hope it will end differently, and I can’t help being sad when it doesn’t.
daisy miller 5. Daisy Miller by Henry James. I always think it’s interesting to watch the way Americans behave abroad. Beth and I were talking not too long ago about how so many people seem to want to experience other cultures and countries, but when they get there, they spend their entire trip wishing for things to be just like home. It’s especially interesting to get perspective on this from an American author who spent most of his life living in Great Britain.

 

What are your favorite American classics?

Have a wonderful weekend.

Top Five Friday: Historical Mystery Series

In the spirit of gearing up for Pink for All Seasons, I have been thinking a lot lately about my favorite historical mystery series. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that historical mysteries were a thing – but now, they make up a surprising percentage of my reading! So for today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite historical mystery series. You’ll never guess which series is number one…

 

 pink carnation 1. Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. I’ve talked endlessly about this series, so for now I won’t reiterate all the reasons why the books are great. If you haven’t tried this series yet, make sure to drop by in September, when we’ll start reading The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.
 vienna 2. Tracy Grant’s Suzanne and Malcolm Rannoch series. The series begins with Vienna Waltz, and I have to tell you, I was hooked absolutely from the first line. I tore through that book and have snapped up each installment in the series as it was published. The first book is set in Vienna in 1814, just after Napoleon’s defeat, when major players from the dominant European countries are getting together to determine the fate of the Continent. It’s a fascinating time historically, so Tracy’s first murder mystery has an excellent backdrop. Suzanne and Malcolm are really wonderful, complex characters, and Tracy just keeps making them more interesting with each book.
 silent 3. Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia series. How can you not love a story that begins like this: “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.” The first book, Silent in the Grave, introduces us to Lady Julia Gray, a Victorian aristocrat whose eccentric family and unconventional interests make for really interesting reading.
 anatomist 4. Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series. This series caught my eye because I thought the premise for the first book was really unique. Kiera Darby is a widow whose ghastly late husband forced her to use her considerable artistic talent to illustrate his cadaver dissections for an anatomy textbook. After his death, she is considered a freak (or something even more sinister) by most of society, and she gets caught up in a murder investigation when her knowledge of human anatomy comes in handy. The first book is The Anatomist’s Wife, and there are now three books in the series.
 blue death 5. Charles Finch’s Lenox series. Finch’s books are set in Victorian London (no pattern to see here, folks), and they revolve around a private detective named Charles Lenox. In the first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, Lenox investigates a maid’s death in the household of his lifelong friend Lady Jane. The maid appears to have committed suicide, but Lenox discovers that the poison that killed her was rare and expensive – not something the maid would have easy access to. As Lenox tries to uncover a motive for murder, another dead body turns up in a ballroom at the height of the Season. This series is possibly “cozier” than the others (Finch describes Lenox as “an armchair explorer who likes nothing more than to relax in his private study with a cup of tea, a roaring fire and a good book”), but it is still a great one.

 

I have to also give an honorable mention to C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries and Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series – I’ve read several of these as well, and they are excellent. C.S. Harris is particularly good if you’re looking for fewer ballrooms and more fistfights with Bow Street runners.

I know that this list is skewed towards female protagonists and stories set in Britain. Am I missing out on a great historical mystery series? If you’ve got a favorite that you don’t see listed, let me know!

Top Five Friday: Authors as Characters

Anyone who knows my reading habits or has ever looked at my bookshelves knows that I have a definite preference for historical fiction. I’ve gotten accustomed bumping into historical figures like Anne Boleyn, Napoleon, and King George in my books, but it still surprises me when well-known authors pop up as characters. Sometimes they just have little cameos, but in some books, they can be major players in the story. For today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite books where authors appear as characters.

mistletoe 1. The Mischief of the Mistletoe, by Lauren Willig. Without a doubt, this book is my favorite in Lauren’s Pink series, and who should put in an appearance but one Jane Austen, friend and confidante of Lauren’s heroine, Arabella. Although Jane only appears in a few chapters, I loved that she was present to be Arabella’s sounding board for everything from her new career in teaching to a developing romance.
 alice 2. Alice, I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin. This is the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who the world remembers as “Alice in Wonderland.” Benjamin tells the story as an 81-year-old Alice looks remembers the events that would turn out to be the most formative of her life, in both positive and unforeseeably damaging ways – her early friendship with Lewis Carroll.
 good hard look 3. A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano. Although she is not the main character, all of the action in this book hinges on Flannery O’Connor. At twenty-five, Flannery is struggling with lupus, and her mother has insisted that she leave her life as a famous author in New York City and come home to Georgia where her family can look after her. When her mother drags her to the wedding of a family friend, Flannery sets into motion a chain of events that will impact the entire town. Flannery once wrote that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” and the cast of characters in this book is forced to acknowledge her truth.
 wide and starry 4. Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan. In 1875, the only socially acceptable way for a woman to leave a cheating husband was to travel to Europe. So when Fanny Osbourne realizes her husband Sam is having yet another affair, she takes her three children and boards a ship to Belgium with the hope of attending a painting school. Fanny’s trip to Europe leads her from Belgium to Paris and, when tragedy strikes, eventually to a house in Grez where a group of poets and playwrights are taking a few weeks of vacation. It is here that Fanny meets Robert Louis Stevenson, and though are initially skeptical of one another, they forge a passionate relationship that will survive terrible illness, betrayal, relentless traveling, and the disapproval of Stevenson’s friends and family.
 paris wife 5. The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. This is the story of Hadley Richardson, who was quietly resigning herself to spinsterhood when she met Ernest Hemingway. From the minute they meet, they have an undeniable connection. Their whirlwind courtship and wedding take them to Paris, where they fall headlong into the social circle that will become the “Lost Generation” – Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and the Fitzgeralds. Hadley loves Ernest more than anything else in her world, and she constantly rearranges her life to accommodate him, but she finds that life with Ernest, even though he confesses that he “would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley,” is not the romantic adventure she anticipated.

Does anyone have good recommendations for books where authors are characters?

Happy Friday!

Top Five Friday: Books That Should Be Movies

I’ve been thinking this week about movies based on books. I think it has something to do with all the adaptations that are either out now or coming soon – The Fault in Our Stars, Mockingjay, The Giver, etc.

I’m sure most people have at least one book that they feel deserves to be a movie. Plus, it’s always fun to think about which actors you would cast for the characters if you got to make the important decisions. So for today’s Top Five Friday, here is my list of books that deserve movie adaptations.

 

pavilions The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye. Okay, I know this book already has a TV mini-series adaptation, but it’s from 1984, and I really think it deserves its own movie. The story is set in India in the late 1800s. A young boy named Ash who doesn’t know that he is British (makes sense when you read the book) and the Indian princess Anjuli are playmates when they are young. The book spans two decades, so you see Ash and Anjuli’s relationship develop as the people of India endure the Sepoy rebellion, British retaliation, and the Second Afghan War. Kaye’s historical and cultural details are so rich, and the story is really immersive.
 pink carnation The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig. Since this is one of my favorite book series, naturally I’d love to see it picked up for movie adaptations. It’s a dual timeline story; in modern London, an American grad student named Eloise is trying desperately to find source material for her dissertation on British spies in France during the Napoleonic Wars. She’s hoping her research on the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian will lead her to the identity of the highly effective and still unmasked spy, the Pink Carnation. In 1803, Amy Balcourt and her cousin Jane Wooliston sail to France to visit Amy’s brother, but Amy has an ulterior motive for the trip – to find the elusive British spy, the Purple Gentian, and establish herself as his second in command. Lots of swashbuckling, secret assignations, and snatching French aristocrats out from under the nose of the Chief of Police. I think the frame story format would make for a great movie.
 king The King Must Die, by Mary Renault. Movies based on myth tend to do pretty well – I’m thinking of Troy and Clash of the Titans, and there’s the new Hercules movie coming out in a few weeks. This is the story of the Greek hero Theseus coming into his own as a king, and it’s the story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur. Renault’s version is great! Political intrigue, revolution, romance, and mythology all packed together so that a story that feels familiar is also original and exciting. Also, I think Luke Evans would make a great Theseus. Just saying.
 chased the moon The Girl Who Chased the Moon, by Sarah Addison Allen. I think this story would go over well with people who like magical movies like Big Fish or southern movies like Steel Magnolias. Emily Benedict is in high school when her mother dies, and she moves to Mullaby, NC to live with her grandfather. It’s a small town, and Emily learns quickly that whatever scandalous past her mother had here (which somehow involved the prominent Coffey family) has caused the people of Mullaby to treat Emily with caution. Although she feels she has been singled out, Emily is hardly the only oddity in Mullaby – her grandfather is over eight feet tall, the wallpaper in her bedroom changes color to suit her mood, and mysterious lights dance in her backyard at night. Also, her neighbor Julia bakes cakes as an outlet for expressing her feelings and hopes that they can somehow bridge the gap between her and someone she used to love. It’s a story about second chances and about embracing the quirky things about yourself that make you who you are.
 cinder Cinder, by Marissa Meyer. So if I write a list like this again in a month, this book might not make the cut. But I just finished reading it last week, so it’s on my mind. This is a really interesting futuristic sci-fi take on the Cinderella fairytale. I can’t think of an adequate description at the moment, so here is what the book jacket says: “Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless Lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl…  Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.” I feel like all the world building that Meyer does in this novel would make for a pretty awesome summer blockbuster.

There are so many other books I want to see made into movies. What about you?

Happy Friday, and Happy Fourth of July!

Top Five Friday: Young Adult Books

This summer’s release of the movie version of The Fault in our Stars seems to have revived the debate about adults reading young adult books. There are people who stand firmly in the “adults should be embarrassed to be seen reading kids’ books” camp, and then there are those who feel like YA is more easily accessible or relatable than “literary fiction.” There are also booksellers, teachers and librarians who argue (rightly) that they can’t hope to be effective at their jobs if they don’t read YA.

My feelings on this are similar to my feelings about reading romance novels – I think everyone should feel free to read whatever they want without feeling remotely embarrassed by it. Even though YA doesn’t make up the majority of what I read, there are plenty of books that fall into that category that I’ve read recently and enjoyed. When I was teaching, I liked reading the books that my students recommended to me so that we could talk about them. That’s how I read Twilight, Prophecy of the Sisters, and Wicked Lovely.

For today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite young adult books (or series!) that I know I will be rereading for years.

 harry potter 1. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. These books will be special to me for my whole life. Beth and I were just talking about how wonderful it is to reread these books and find references hidden in the early books to something that happens at the end of the series. I find something different to love each time I read them or listen to the awesome audiobooks narrated by Jim Dale.
 sweetness 2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Really, I enjoyed all the books in this series, but something about the first one was so wonderful and unrepeatable. I loved the setting. I loved the mystery. I loved snarky little Flavia and laughed out loud on a regular basis when she would talk to her bicycle, Gladys, or exclaim, “Oh, scissors!” when something didn’t go her way.
 trickster 3. Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce. I know Pierce is prolific, but these were the first books I ever read by her. She does a really great job of world building, and somehow in less than 500 pages, I’ve gotten a new mythology, class and political systems, and geography down without feeling like I’ve been hit over the head with it. I thought the story was unique and really interesting.
 smack 4. Smack by Melvin Burgess. Unlike the other books on the list, this book isn’t fantasy, or funny, or lighthearted. It’s a book about heroine addiction, and it is pretty terrifying – not because anything particularly gory or horrific happens, although there is plenty of drama. It’s terrifying because it is such an accurate portrayal of a slippery slope, or the way that we talk ourselves into things. The message that jumps out of this book on every page is that, when we say we’ll do things “just this once,” we never really mean it. Somehow, Smack manages to drive home a powerful lesson about addiction, or really about poor choices, without being preachy.
westing game 5. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I’ve talked about this one before, but I read this book for the first time in 6th grade and kept on reading it on a regular basis afterward. Somehow it doesn’t get old for me.

Happy Friday!