Books read in 2008 with comments!

Whew--well here's to another year of reading underway!

1. The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
I read this book because it won the 2005 National Book Award for Children's Lit. I don't get it. It was perfectly sweet, and perfectly forgettable. I felt like the author was trying to imitate a Noel Streatfeild book, especially with the stereotyped sister characters, but none of their characteristics really led to anything. The eldest was (of course) the responsible one, the middle kids were the tomboy and the drama queen, the youngest was eccentric. Yawn. There was even a "Penderwick family chant" which seemed like a rip off of what the sister's in Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes do. Why not just read a Streatfield book which actually has things to say about family and shaping your own destiny?

2. The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby
Excellent YA novel set in an alternate Manhattan. Gloomy, funny, really well-drawn quirky characters and good plotting. I loved the Sewer Rats who loved kitties.

3. Poison Study by Maria Snyder
Well potted but poorly written. The sentence level stuff was messy and could have used some good editing. But the plot moved along really well and the characters were pretty well defined.

4. Slam by Nick Hornby
Wonderful novel about teen pregnancy told from the point of view of a 16 year old boy. Fast, funny and also moving reflections on how decisions shape your life and how much or how little control you have over your future.

5. The Zoo Keeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
I enjoyed the content of this Non-fiction book but struggled with the way the story was told and the writer's excessive style. I would have preferred it to be told more simply.

6. The Chaos King by Laura Ruby
Sequel to The Wall and the Wing. Still wonderfully inventive--I loved the way she characterized the vampires who loved poppyseed bagels because they loved to count all the seeds. Still quirky and good action sequences.

7. The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh
An entertaining, though not flawless, YA novel that relies heavily on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. I liked the vision of ghostly New York and the tension of the main character's mission, but it was very linear storytelling. And I don't get the last paragraph which has a big impact on the ending.

8. Cassandra's Sister by Veronica Bennett
A fictional novel about what young Jane Austen was like. I much prefer the recent PBS film "Miss Austen Regrets" which portrayed Jane as very sharp and realistic, not so mooney.

9. The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
Really fantastic children's novel about a plucky 11 year old who saves the world with the help of her alien friend, J.Lo. Inventive, quirky, funny and sweet at the same time. Lovely illustrations scattered in the book (Rex is also an illustrator) add to the pleasure.

10. The Old Country by Mordicai Gerstein
A fable-like story about a girl who changes places with a fox. It feels like a story you should have heard, though I'm pretty sure it is original, not a retelling of an existing tale. The prose is lovely and spare, particularly the descriptions of nature and the way human society would be perceived by a wild animal.

11. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
Lovely re-imagining of the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty fairy tale via one woman's survival of the Holocaust.

12. Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
Nice retelling of the 12 dancing princesses story, this time with 5 sisters set in Transylvania. Richly imagined Other world.

13. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
I decided to re-read the classic. I liked all the whimsy and the physics and the way evil was represented, but had forgotten entirely the "God" facet. I was kind of disappointed when I realized that God was going to be the ultimate explanation.

14. Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
I liked this retelling of the Maid Mareen story well enough, but it didn't transport me the way Goose Girl or Enna did. Still, the heroine is clever and resourceful.

15. The Facts of Life by Graham Joyce
Best book I've read this year! Full rave here.

16. The People of Sparks by Jeanne Duprau
A sequel to The City of Ember. My opinion of this book may be slightly tainted by the fact that I listened to an audio version rather than read it and I thought the reader, Wendy Dillon, was pretty annoying. The plot was ok with the underground people learning to live above ground and the surviving above ground people feeling threatened by their presence, but the climactic scene was really predictable.

17. A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
A fun read about the Nazi occupation of northern Italy. The writing is quite beautiful and the plot is a page turner, though many of the characters come across as too good to be true. Still, a fun escape.

18. Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst
A clever tale about Rapunzel's daughter in the period after Rapunzel (and other fairy tale characters) have escaped from their stories (the Wild of the title). Some fun stuff in here about narrative conventions and storytelling.

19. The Forger by Cioma Schonhaus
A fascinating, though clunky, memoir about a Jewish forger and his "hiding in plain sight" survival in wartime Berlin.

20. Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke
I listening to the audio version and thought it was a wonderful adventure.

21. Ingo by Helen Dunmore
YA book about Mer people and two cornish kids who travel to Ingo. Pretty good descriptions of what it is like under the sea, though a bit predictable.

22. Letters from Rapunzel by Sara Lewis Holmes
OK YA book told through letters. A little basic and a little too cutesy the way depression is called "the evil spell" and the main character refers to herself as "Rapunzel".

23. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
Wonderful novel about a town told in a wide variety of voices. Quirky, lovely, sometimes funny, sometimes sad.

24. The Swan Maiden by Heather Tomlinson
fehhh. A YA book that is trying to ride the Shannon Hale re-telling of classic tales trend, but that just doesn't cut it. The main character is inconsistent, the landscape never comes alive and the "baddies" (mainly the mother) are so one dimensional as to be dismissed by the reader. The super dangerous remaking that the main character undergoes is rendered absurd by her payment--the loss of a pinky toe.

25. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
I listened to the audio CDs of this one. Lynn Redgrave was the reader and she was really good. The story was perfect for a book lover--I think it would be the perfect gift for an 11 year old girl who likes to read.

26. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Beautiful, but depressing stories.

27. My House in Umbria by William Trevor
Trevor is better at discomfort than pretty much any other writer I can think of. The unreliable narrator in this story is sympathetic, yet makes my skin crawl at the same time.

28. Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman
A little companion story to the His Dark Materials trilogy, this time focusing on Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison.

29. The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan
Wonderful fourth installment in the Percy Jackson series. Rip-roaring plot, still nice characterizations and great creativity with Greek myths.

30. Set in Stone by Linda Newbery
A not particularly good YA novel set at the turn of the century. The book is told in the first person by two different characters who alternate chapters. The only way I could tell which character was doing the narrating was by looking at the heading on the page which, helpfully, listed the character. Not a good sign when two characters sound so much alike that you can't tell one from the other (unless, of course, one mentions something that clues in the gender--skirts are good for that!)

31. The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
An interesting read from an author I haven't read in a while. However, it seemed to be doing some of the same things as Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and not doing it as well...

32. The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
Barrett's lovely prose, this time set in the Adirondacks in the early 1900's when TB patients went there to cure. I loved the setting and most of the characters, though I thought that the group narrator was a little odd. Who exactly "we" was remained kind of vague, even at the end.

33. The Tale of Desperaux by Kate Di Camillo
I think this is my favorite of her books and this time we listened to the excellent audio CD version of it. It made a long trip from Colorado back to Michigan much more pleasant and we were all sad when the book was over.

34. Inkspell by Cornelia Funke
I liked this one even more than the first and can't wait for the third, Inkdeath, to be published in the fall.

35. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
Exquisite novel. One of the best.

36. In the Woods by Tara French
A mystery with good prose, but I found it a bit unsatisfying. And the number of psychopaths that one character encountered seemed a bit far fetched and convenient.

37. Well Witched by Francis Hardinge
A decent 2nd novel by the author of the wonderful Fly by Night. I'm still hopeful that she'll write a sequel to Fly.

38. Life Class by Pat Barker
A WWI novel. It was vivid but the characters were a bit uneven. I never really got a hold on Eleanor and never really believed she loved Paul, even though she claimed to. I'm not sure why the author would think that a reader would follow her character's emotional arc.

39. The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Very good book by an Irish author whose plays I was familiar with but not his prose. Though the arc of the story is a little predictable, the way it is told is just lovely. There are wonderful lines in the book too, like this one: "...we are never old to ourselves. That is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body." I'll be reading some of his other novels which feature characters who played a minor role in this book.

40. The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block
There were compelling moments in this novel that is about two people dealing with family members who have early on-set Alzheimer's, but it didn't hang together for me as a whole. There were a number of threads that were dropped in the Seth plot (why introduce the Sloth character? What happened to his crush on the popular girl?) and there were moments with the Abel character that were too hokey, as though the man grew up 100 years ago, not 50 years ago. Parts of it just didn't ring true.

41. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Tim Riddell
The illustrations are nice, but the concept is thin in this children's novel. I got the sense that the author was aspiring to Eloise status with lots of quirks, but it didn't do it for me.

42. Out of the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst
The sequel to Into the Wild and a terrific adventure with lots of fairy tale reference. The only problem I have with both books is that I can't picture the main character, Julie, except by negation--she isn't wierd, she isn't fantastical--but I don't know what she is. No picture of eye color, hair, height, etc. I guess she's just "every-girl".

43. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Really fun middle grade book about a group of four gifted and quirky kids who band together to take down an evil genius. I loved how each of the characters had some really endearing trait and how they complemented the strengths of each other. Nice to see the theory of multiple types of intelligence so clearly exemplified in the characters.

44. A Free Life by Ha Jin
It took me a while to get into this, but once I did I loved it, more so than the other novel of his that I've read--Waiting. It was a much less predictable exploration of the immigrant experience than I anticipated when I began the book.

45. About Alice by Calvin Trillin
A beautiful meditation on the moments that make life meaningful, written by Calvin about his wife Alice after she died. The book is a celebration of living and loving.

46. Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus
Pretty clever children's novel about major historical figures in Manhattan who have now become "Gods" and a boy who is able to see them. The only thing that I realized was at the end, I had no idea what the main character looked like--I don't know if there is any description of him, or if there is, I missed it. I seem to be noticing this more often in children's books...

47. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart
A fun sequel though it doesn't really stand on its own.

48. Family Shoes
49. Theater Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
A little Noel Streatfeild binge--two of his books that I never read as a kid. I was more impressed with Family Shoes than I thought I'd be (owing mostly to the spunk of the Ginny character which was more quirky than any other Streatfeild character I've read) and less impressed with Theater Shoes than I thought I'd be. With the latter book, the ending was about as rushed as any I've ever read--ta da! Daddy's back from being MIA in WWII! Book ends. And the youngest sister, Holly, is hardly developed at all. Much less ballanced than I remember the other books being. Anyway, it was a fun little binge. Now back to "real" books...

50. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Read this for book group and thought it was ok. I thought the parts about Oscar were the strongest and there just wasn't enough of the book devoted to him. I thought the mother's story was one I'd heard before and no where near as compelling.

51. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
I was underwhelmed by this book. It had lots of clever moments making fun of the conventions of old fashioned children's literature, but other than that, not much to offer.

52. The Size of the World by Joan Silber
Another wonderful interconnected book of stories from the author of Ideas of Heaven. These stories are a bit more tightly linked than those in Heaven. I particularly loved the one titled "Paradise".

53. State by State ed. Matt Weiland
A fun book, though uneven. Some state meditations were quirky, some lyrical but a few (South Dakota?) seemed like they got shafted. I can't figure out why they chose a New Yorker who went to South Dakota for a week-long vacation to write that state's piece.

54. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
I'd love to see this book, and the book that preceded it, included in class discussions of the Revolutionary War. It completely changes the perspective of the struggle and the hypocrisy. The book is also beautifully written. The only thing that I would have liked to see was some inclusion of the anti-slavery population such as the Quakers and where they fell in the divisions of the Revolutionary War. They were pacifists but were they considered to be more sympathetic to the Loyalist or the Rebel side?

55. What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
Quirky, sad novel about contemporary England. For anyone who over-romanticizes the Island, this picture of contemporary culture rings so true.

56. Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke
A wonderful concluding book to the Inkheart series. I think this was one of the most fun books I've read this year--After putting it down to do some essential task, I couldn't wait to get back to it. I've read some criticism that the character Meggie is more passive in this book, but I always thought of Mo as the main character of the series and I liked how his wife, Resa, finally got to play a significant role. Also there were plenty of intertextual references to how adventure and fantasy books are traditionally written (such as when Meggie comments on how Finoglio never lets his women characters do anything in his books) which seemed to be playing with and winking at narrative convention.

57. When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
Such fun! Third book in the Jackson Brody P.I. series. I love how Atkinson deals with really traumatic stuff but always maintains a skeptical, witty edge which makes the idea of dealing with traumatic stuff much more tolerable.

58. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Yea, had to see what all the furor was about. My feelings about the book are better expressed by Sarah Haskin's hysterical video "Target Women: Vampires".

59. Dumbfounded by Matthew Rothschild
Fun memoir. His portrait of his abrasive, powerful grandmother is wonderful.

60. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
Great to end the year with a fantastic book--one of my favorite books of the year. Her stories are strange and ominous and surreal, but this collection also had a touch of whimsy and optimism that I don't remember in her other collections, but which I appreciated very much. I particularly loved "The Wizards of Perfil," "The Surfer," and "The Constable of Abal."

The Sad List of Abandoned Books

The Inheritance of Loss by Kirian Desai
Pretty writing, but the plot is going nowhere half way through the book. Is there even a plot? I gave up at around page 150.

The Eighth Promise
A Sluggish memoir that I am only reading because my book group is craving Chinese food...I made it about 2/3 and couldn't take it any more.

The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian
Seemed very clever (maybe too clever?), though I didn't have time before it had to go back to the library to get into it. Will probably try again sometime.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby