You Should Read These Books

Several months ago I reviewed a couple books that I loved so much I couldn’t wait until the end of the year to talk about them. You can read what I have to say about The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin in the reviews I wrote earlier this year. I read them back in February and they brought new perspective when remembering the role my Uncle Lonney played in my own family history. These two books continue to be among my favorite reads of 2016.

I always hesitate to write reviews. When I find books that I love, I feel like I can never say enough to really encompass the many things that make them great. Writing is complex and incredibly difficult and even with the books that I don’t enjoy all that much, I usually put the book down thinking that, even if not my favorite, the author still did better than I could have done myself.

I love to read. And I wish I had more hours in the day that allow for the close, careful reading I like to do. Most of the quiet hours I find during the day are spent trying to learn how to write stories myself (which, by the way, often only makes me realize how much I still have to learn). And the reading that I do is pushed aside to the time I have when I go to pick up my kids and find myself waiting for them to be dismissed or at night when I lay down with them in bed or the other bits of time I find here and there when I can pull out my phone and read. Maybe someday I’ll be able to figure out the balance between how much time I need to practice writing and how much time I need to spend carefully reading in order to develop the skills I wish I had.

In the meantime, I still managed to read thirty-five books this year. (About ten more than I did last year, but still embarrassingly low when I think of how many an aspiring writer should be reading.) Of those, I have several favorites, and I’d like to take a few of them and try to explain why I liked them so much. I know I won’t be able to do them justice, especially since several months have passed since I finished them, but I’d still like to try.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale coverI have to confess that it took me a little while to get into this book. There was something about the style of writing that I didn’t feel was on par with some other writers (like Khaled Hosseini or Anthony Doerr) whose prose—the cadence of the words, the images, the metaphors—is poetically stunning. With Hosseini’s writing I fall in love with the words on the page as much as I do the plot and characters those words create. That wasn’t the case with The Nightingale.

Perhaps The Nightingale didn’t contain poetic prose that carried me away, but it developed a plot and characters that certainly did. And it didn’t take long before I was invested in the story and characters enough that I knew I had to read to the end.

I’ve read a number of articles (like this one) that make the case that reading develops one’s ability to empathize with others. When reading books like this, it’s easy to understand why.

The story takes place in France during World War II. The main characters are two sisters—Vianne and Isabelle—who live in a town in France when the Nazis take over. Their relationship is strained before the war. Even then, each sister struggles to understand the other. When war overtakes France, both women respond in very different ways. Once again, they don’t understand each other—the older sister sees the younger as rebellious and dangerous, the younger sees the older as passive and weak. It’s not until the end when the two learn they were both fighting a common enemy but doing it in different ways.

This was an incredible story of love, acceptance, forgiveness, and understanding. It was not a war romance or a story of the men who fight. It’s a story about the women who are left behind and the struggles they find themselves in and how they, too, fight the war in (mostly) invisible ways.

I was a teary, snotty mess by the end of this book. I loved the plot and all the twists contained in it. I loved the characters. And I loved the gray—how the good and bad and right and wrong were blurred—how so much depended on the perspective and experience of the individuals involved. I loved that two points of view were used (Isabelle’s and Vianne’s) so that we could understand the heart of each character and also understand the perspective that both sisters were missing when judging the actions and words of the other.

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl coverI love reading Young Adult (YA) literature, but I have to admit that sometimes these books infuriate me. The source of frustration is usually the love stories and the unjustified emotional angst contained within them—relationships that don’t seem authentic, conflicts that are too black and white, and youth that can clearly see the black and white just as well as the reader but can’t help but writhe in emotional turmoil over a conflict that shouldn’t really be a conflict at all.

A couple years ago I read John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars and (I hate to confess this) I didn’t like it. A few months after reading it, a reader-friend of mine happened to bring it up in conversation and when I made the same confession to her, she gasped (literally). “It was so sad,” she said, “didn’t you cry?” No, I didn’t cry—not a single tear. I found the relationship to be simplistic. I wanted complexity. And I found myself rolling my eyes when (I know) the author intended for me to laugh or cry or—whatever. As emotional a person as I am, reading and writing emotion—finding a book that’s able to evoke emotion within me and knowing how to write emotion into the work I do myself—is incredibly tricky.

Anyway, several months ago I was reading book reviews and trying to decide which books I wanted to read next, I stumbled upon this review by Emily May. I usually trust her reviews and have found that we have similar taste, and it was her comparison of Me & Earl & the Dying Girl with The Fault in Our Stars that made me want to read Me & Earl. Like Emily, I loved Me & Earl much more—so much that it’s one of my favorite reads this year.

I have to quote Emily’s review because she says it so succinctly:

And the even better thing is that Andrews doesn’t try to manipulate the reader’s emotions, I didn’t feel like I was being forced to cry or pity Rachel, and I appreciated the author’s message that sometimes shit happens, things go wrong and people die, and we don’t necessarily learn anything useful from it, other than the fact that shit happens, things go wrong and people die.

The weird thing is, even though I didn’t feel like the writer, Jesse Andrews, was trying to “manipulate [my] emotions,” it’s this book (not The Fault in Our Stars) that made me cry and laugh and feel all kinds of things. The Fault in Our Stars contained characters that were wise beyond their years (and as a result, I didn’t really believe in them), but Me & Earl contained characters that were authentic—characters who found themselves in shitty situations and who responded sometimes in ways that aren’t very politically correct (or wise or sensitive). And at the end, even with a weak plot line, I didn’t want it to end. I have never ended a book with so many tears when I had spent so many pages laughing out loud (and with my sense of humor, it’s quite a feat for an author to make me crack a smile, let alone audibly laugh).

There is lots of swearing and crude jokes in this book. Maybe some people would be offended by that, but I’m of the viewpoint that as long as it fits with the characters, as it does in this book, it’s okay. Even with all the swearing and crude jokes, it ends up being a touching book at the end.

This author takes a mess of life—the absence of PC ideals, the abundance of f-bombs and tasteless jokes, the shitty things of life, the social awkwardness of high school—and he strings them together with a weak plot line, but he doesn’t just “make it work,” he takes it all and makes it into something that made me laugh and cry and, by the end, love Greg and Earl and Rachel so much that I was overcome with feeling.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Cruel Beauty coverThis isn’t a book that I would usually pick up, but I was trying to read different genres and wanted a YA book in the fantasy genre. I selected this one because it was written by an author I had never read before and because it was described as a Beauty and the Beast story, which I was specifically hoping to find.

I didn’t expect to like this all that much. The reviews spoke of demon lords and mythology—both things that I don’t usually dig so much in the books I read.

But, oh. My. Goodness.

This book totally blew me away. Maybe it’s because my expectations started so low. Or because it was a refreshing change from my usual picks. Maybe it was because the books that came before it in my stack of reading were such disappointments. But I don’t think so. I think I was blown away by this one because Rosamund Hodge knows how to combine stunning writing with superb storytelling.

As I stated before, I like books that have a sufficient level of complexity in the relationships contained in the stories. In this story, Nyx is raised to fight a demon lord. Even though I knew this was meant to be a Beauty and the Beast story, I wasn’t sure that the author would be able to create a demon lord that could evoke sympathy in the reader. (I mean, seriously. Isn’t a demon lord supposed epitomize evil?) But he does evoke sympathy. I understand why Nyx falls in love with him. And when she finally decides to destroy him like she was supposed to, I mourn for him and wonder if she is making the right decision. Hodge was able to create complexity with characters who, you’d think, would only be able to be black and white. But they aren’t black and white at all. And neither are the relationships these characters develop with each other.

Hodge’s talent is also evident in the story world she creates. The setting is unlike any I’ve read before. It is incredibly complex—how Hodge manages to dream up such a place is so far beyond my reach. And her descriptions make the place so vivid, she puts the reader right in the midst of it. It did take me a little while to get used to, but once I was there, I was there completely, and I couldn’t help but to marvel at her ability to create a world so unique and to do it so fully.

This was not a book that made me cry or wallow in emotion like the previous two books I mentioned. It was a book that kept me interested—fascinated even—and I had to keep reading to see what was going to happen next. It was an amazing feat to write, and it was done so well. It was a book that made me admire the many gifts of the author—so many individual talents and so many obstacles the writer had to jump in order to make the story work, and yet she made it work so marvelously that I’m looking forward to reading more of her novels.

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