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12 Thumbnail Reviews Of 9 Books I Really Loved And 3 That Everyone Else Loved And I Didn’t


I’m always looking for good books and for some reason it’s harder to find them in this time of All The Information than it was in the days of What Is That Interesting Cover On The Bookshop Table?

So here’s the table in the front of my pretend book store. Complete with quirky signage and thumbnail reviews scribbled on little index cards. Organized into sections that have you wandering around the store thinking, “Why are biographies near fantasy?” and then getting lost in a semiotic haze from which you may never emerge.

Loved Them

2 Young To Young-ish Adult Fantasy Series

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

A series about some boys in high school, in Virginia, and their quest to find a legendary buried king. Also some bad guys, and a girl who lives with her mother and some friends and is actually the magical protagonist. The characters are so finely portrayed that I carry around an invented picture of each of them in my mind. You have your Kennedy-esque kid, your troubled poetic sort, your disappearing spirit. Of course a spirit disappears. It’s not that the characters are new, but they are vivid and particular and you feel you know them. I’m waiting for #4 in the series. Hopping from foot to foot kind of waiting.

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

A story of some young men and women in college, in upstate New York (I think). I’ve seen it described as Twisted Harry Potter, and Narnia Grows Up Weird, both mostly apt. This series wins not for the characters, but for what I understand is called, “world-building,” by lovers of fantasy. In other words, the settings, the processes of magic, the depictions of creatures and beings. There’s an interstitial land, for example, that brings to mind Escher Does Venice. Read them all. But, heads up, the first one is the best, the second disappointing, the third pretty good again.

2 Books That Put You In A Different Reality That Isn’t Fantasy Per Se

How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life by Sheila Heti

The author is really asking, how should a person be today? The novel — mostly about the friendship between two young women — is written in very minute but evocative detail. Heti manages to incorporate modern technological communications, texts, etc., very naturally. She also manages to make us feel the thrum of anxiety and ironic despair that prevails in times when everything seems to fall apart, without provoking our own worry or sorrow. In other words, she narrates alienation without provoking it. Quite something.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeymi

Almost impossible to describe without making it sound like too much work to read. I suppose the book is centered in the telling of fiction, and the nature of relationships between men and women? Imagine a writer, and a woman who is sort of the spirit of the women in his books? The writing is so deft, lovely, and graceful, you feel almost no disbelief to then suspend. A conceptual novel that can be read at bedtime. How does she do it?

Two Books That Feel Almost Too Real

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel by Karen Joy Fowler

A regular story about a regular family. Well, the parents are maybe more academic than many, the children a little more rebellious. But regular. Except. And I won’t say more but I thought this book’s “twist” was brilliant, creating meaning that echoes still.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

A regular story about a less common family. Chinese-American husband, Anglo-American mother who dreamed of becoming a doctor, their children. The New York Times’ review is perfect.

Two Books, Completely Different From Each Other, That Men Wrote About Being Men

I know that books written by men aren’t all the same. It’s probably dangerous, and outside my expertise in any case, to generalize about gender-associated characteristics in literary fiction. That said, the following two books illuminate such different aspects of singularly male stories that it seems productive to group them here.

Family Life: A Novel by Akhil Sharma

A young Indian boy grows up in America, his older brother has an accident, then the boy gets into Princeton. That is, of course, not the whole story. Excruciating and beautiful. The social anxiety of immigrants, fathers, mothers, grief, life as a man. Really, an experience of tragedy.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Had I known how good but muscular this book is I wouldn’t have tried to read it at bedtime. Not sleep-supportive. War. Lots of war. Men. Lots of men. But Flanagan has a talent for slow story-telling, for letting people’s lives and the meaning therein play out patiently. Historically, even. I’d never thought about Australian soldiers before, my apologies to our Antipodean friends, but I suppose now I’ll never forget them. Key locations – the jungle-horror of a prisoner-of-war work camp, a beachside hotel, a chip shop. Oh, and an automotive journey through fire you won’t forget. One caveat, a little image at the end weakened the impact for me, but, that might have been due to my skipping some of the earlier violence and therefore across the novel’s power like a stone. See, bedtime.

One Book Unlike Any Other

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

I just finished this. Gawande, to my mind, is one of our national treasures. He uses his Harvard Medical School education not only to doctor, but to write about how to make doctoring better. And, not incidentally, does the same for our inevitable processes of lgetting sick, failing, dying. It’s uplifting. How weird is that? A book about how to die in medical America, for that’s really what it is, that can comfort and elucidate all at once? And he tells his patients’ stories so beautifully. Especially the story of his father.

Didn’t Love Them And Actually Didn’t Even Like Them Maybe Even Disliked Them

Unlike real stores, I get to tell you which books I didn’t like.

Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford

A young woman feels class anxiety and lies about a bunch of stuff and suffers indignities while canoeing. I hate narratives – television, stage, literary, all of them — in which you wait for someone to be Found Out. The details of upper class life didn’t seem particularly vivid or new, and I  felt bad for the heroine throughout all 200+ pages.

Speculation by Jenny Offill

Told, like “How Should A Person Be?” in modern technology-supported conversations. Unlike Heti’s book, however, I never engaged, I could not suspend disbelief. It should be said that this is the story of a marriage, and I may have baggage.

Revival: A Novel by Stephen King

I LOVE Stephen King. Sometimes. “It” terrified the bejeezus out of me, deliciously so. Drains, clowns, adolescents, oh my! I found “Revival” boring, I saw the ending coming a mile away, the territory felt all-too-King-familiar, I paged through the last 100 pages as fast as I could.


And there you have it. These are thumbnail reviews, you might explore other scrupulous opinions, but do keep on reading. There’s room in our lives for a revelatory great novel, or insightful, kind, non-fiction, right alongside the good binge-watches (Sons of Anarchy I’m looking at you.) But you knew that. I know you did.

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56 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing these mini reviews…I am immersed in a mystery by my favourite writer Louise Penny. I am relatively new to mysteries and as luck would have it I have found one of the best to start with…if you like a mystery I highly recommend her series of books…start with the first. I think there are 12 and she is currently editing her newest one.
    Happy Holidays Lisa!

  2. did we talk about how strongly venice reminded me of the interstitial world in the lev grossman books? i haven’t posted any of those piazza photos yet, but OH MY GOD.

  3. I didn’t much like “Dept of Speculation” either; as you said, never could engage. But I have read some of your other “liked” books, which I liked myself, and “Being Mortal” is on my to-read list. Have you read “A Little Life”? A difficult read, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since finishing it a few months ago. Definitely one of my best reads this year.

  4. Thank you for very interesting clasification (you are magician of algorithms and clasifications :-)) and reviews.
    Unique list for me: Can’t believe it-I didn’t read anything on it!
    Wow,what a treat!
    I am reading very weird book now : Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,not sure yet what to think
    about it

    1. @dottoressa, I hope you find something here you like! And I do love to make algorithms and classifications, to overlay patterns wherever I can. You have a good eye for human behavior.

  5. I struggled with both the books that you so accurately described as being too real, Lisa.I just couldn’t get into ‘We Are Completly Beside Ourselves’and gave up while it too me forever to read ‘Everything I Never Told You’.

    I will and must read ‘Being Mortal’. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    SSG xxx

  6. Thank you! LOVE book reviews/recommendations, the sheer quantity of possible choices is so overwhelming sometimes. Just one minor correction – it’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (ie, not The Long…) As an Antipodean myself, I couldn’t risk anyone missing out on finding this masterpiece! Definitely not a “light evening reading” kind of book, but the beauty of the writing is absolutely worth the trauma if you can push through – plus the complex, very clever plot makes it a very entertaining read, albeit a grueling one.

    I’m interested that you never knew the history of these soldiers – we learn as much Allied history as purely Australian, probably because we have always felt ourselves to be very much a minor player on the world stage. But Australia – then and still a very young nation – bore a very heavy burden in both World Wars.

    While I have reservations about the jingoistic nature of much war commemoration, I think it’s important to remember what we as humans are capable of doing to one another, for good and ill – particularly as nations decide how they will respond to the waves of people fleeing conflict. The particular horror that they are escaping may be different, but their need is as great.

    1. @Elizabeth, Thank you for the correction! “I think it’s important to remember what we as humans are capable of doing to one another, for good and ill – ” Yes it is. And of course we don’t think of it as Allied history, it’s American history, and we are far too focused on our own story and not nearly enough on the rest of the world. At least when I was young, maybe now we’re doing better.

  7. I rarely tell people that they ought to read a book because literary tastes are so divergent, but I’m making an exception for “Being Mortal”. The subject–getting old, sick, and dying–sounds grim but Gawande treats the topic with compassion, insight, and clarity. The result is a life-affirming, thoughtful read about something we will all face in the future.

    1. @Marilyn, Agreed, tastes are so different, all we can say for sure is what we ourselves have loved. And I felt the same way about Being Mortal as you do.

  8. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Everything I Never Told You were the only two that I read. I liked them but I thought others in the same vein were better. For example, Paper Daughter by M. Elaine Mar and Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates. I also found the collection of essays China Dog and her memoir The Year of Finding Memory (both by Judy Fong Bates) were wonderful. Well, just my two cents. Thanks for sharing your recommendations.

    1. @Jane, Correction: I meant to say that China Dog is a collection of short stories. Also, there are a number of YouTube videos of Judy Fong Bates doing readings and interviews that are quite interesting.

  9. Amazing that you mentioned Being Mortal.
    My husband and I just got back from an emergency trip to New York where my almost 96 year old father-in-law seems to be in the process of “ending his story”.

    I picked the book up in the airport on the way to New York and read most of it before we landed. Had it not been for this book I wouldn’t have understood how crucial it is to consider the things that are important (and the things that give pleasure) to the person whose mortal life is ending when one is making decisions about how and where he or she will spend their final days.

    My father-in-law isn’t a “typical” 95 year old – he has been active and working every day until just recently, in spite of being nearly blind,very hard of hearing, almost unable to walk, and in a great deal of pain.

    His work is very important to him, and is the reason,I think, that he has soldiered on, in spite of the almost unimaginable effort it has required.

    When the hospital had done what they could to stabilize my father-in-law’s condition, and they were ready to discharge him to rehab, we were given a list of facilities to choose from. Because I had just read “Being Mortal” I realized that we needed to think about it from my father-in-law’s perspective – what place would best allow him to do the things that give his life meaning – instead of only focusing on safety, medical expertise, and “ratings”.

    We chose a place very near the university where he is an emeritus professor, a place where his colleagues at the university could visit and discuss the work he is still doing.

    The result was better than we could have imagined. He is still very weak and tired(and his prognosis is unchanged) but his spark has returned! He stayed up Tuesday night to watch the Republican debate (his field is conflict resolution and he is very involved in politics) and he apparently had a long and animated conversation about it with a visitor yesterday. His appetite has improved (he has always loved food) and my husband was able to talk to him on the phone today to get information about bank accounts and bills so everything can be kept up-to-date (my mother-in-law is still living but hasn’t been involved in the finances and bill-paying for a while).

    Had I not read the book, I wouldn’t have understood the true priorities that need to be considered when making end of life decisions.

    I highly recommend this book to everyone (we will all be faced with mortality eventually).

  10. I am excited to look into your suggestions, but the only one that I have read (We are All Completely Beside Ourselves) was such a sad, grim book that I was depressed for days after reading it. It was heartbreaking, and I have actually warned people not to read it!!

    1. @Kate, You found it sad? I suppose I should have, but the creative power of the author buoyed me so I did not have the same response. Which is not to say that yours is wrong in any way, only that it’s always so interesting to see how people experience literature.

  11. I am unfamiliar with most of these books. Read about Sheila Heti’s book Women in Clothes, paged through it at the book store but didn’t purchase even though it looked interesting. I must remedy the fact that I have not read anything she’s written. Given your (and Diane’s) recommendation I will probably try to get my hands on Being Mortal. Something I need to start thinking about with an 88 year old mum…I guess. Thanks for a great start to my 2016 “To Read” list, Lisa.

    1. @Sue Burpee, My pleasure. I write a handful of book posts/year, and I rely on people like you who do it more often to find what I’m going to read in the first place;).

  12. This is a interesting and individual list which is what I like to see in reading recommendations! I wouldn’t care for some of these I think but others I’m adding right away to Goodreads.

  13. I had a tough year with books, so many I didn’t like. I haven’t read any on your list, but I’ll take a look. I did love Americanah, and Isabel Allende’s new book, The Japanese Lover – both excellent.

    1. No, if you’re not a fan, you shouldn’t bother. Do you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Or not a fan of magical realism?

    2. @Kathy, Not a fan of magical realism, even had issues with Magic For Chocolate, so, probably not my thing. Love magic. Love the real. Get impatient with the mixture;).

  14. The Seven Good Years, by Etgar Keret. On the Guardian’s Best List for Memoirs. And the nicest best favoritest person and author.

  15. OMG, these books just do not resonate with me. But… if you’re thinking of Sons of Anarchy you mush watch Peaky Blinders on Netflix. British gangsters and characters that leave you bereft when it’s over. Wonderful writing and visuals!

    Books this year? My favorite “Boys Life”, “The Boys in the Boat”, and “All The Light We Cannot See.”

    But love reading about peoples favorite books.

    1. @Sandra Sallin, If you liked All The Light We Cannot See, then in fact you would like some of these books. I suspect that it’s my reviewing style that has put you off. And, watched Peaky Blinders a ways back and yes, loved. That lead actor is almost too beautiful for words.

  16. Thank you for the recommendations – a number of these have gone onto my Wish List. I read and enjoyed (if you can truly “enjoy” such a sad story) Everything I Never Told You. I recently read The Maid’s Version, by Daniel Woodrell, and recommend it highly. He also wrote Winter’s Bone, which I haven’t read yet, but saw the excellent movie starring Jennifer Lawrence (before she got famous). He has a very distinctive voice which I am looking forward to enjoying again and again in his other books.

    1. @Sherrie, I love that movie! It reminds me so much of the lives of the KY kids I used to work with as a counselor. (My delinquents, whom I loved with all my heart…well. Most of them!)

  17. Thank you for the book post, Lisa! Everything I Never Told You has stayed with me, it’s haunting. Will read Being Mortal next. The Emperor of All Maladies is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I imagine your daughter has read it.

    1. @Marie, My pleasure! And I wonder if she’s read the Emperor of All Maladies, it’s true we are prone to giving her medical books;).

  18. I’m so with you on these books, Lisa. It seems we have similar tastes. “Being Mortal” is the best book I read this year (also good, in a similar vein: God’s Hotel).

    And LOVED “We Are all completely beside ourselves.” So unexpectedly funny and touching.

    “Everybody Rise” and “Speculation” — uggh.

  19. You’ve got several on your list that I’ve wanted to read, si they’re in the “Must” pile: We are all…, Being Mortal, and Everything I Never…

    I just read The Round House by Louise Erdrich, and loved it, as I do everything she writes.

    Binge watching, “Indian Summers” on PBS, “Home Fires”…basically everything PBS, and suffering through pledge drive because I know it’s necessary.

  20. Loathed Everybody Rise!!! LOATHED and didn’t like We are all beside ourselves either but finished them both any way!!! xxx

  21. I agree with another comment, Being Mortal is my best book for 2015. I read a lot and there were some good books during the year but this one will be with me a long time

  22. Love the thumbnail sketches. A few of these books are already on my list; a few I now question, a few more need to be added. I stopped posting reviews for a while because I decided I am preternaturally inclined to find something worthwhile in everything I read. I am not yet sure that this is not a character flaw. I do want to read Being Mortal. It should probably be moved up to the top of the pile.

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