Monday, January 30, 2017

Favorite Books of 2016

I was aiming to write four blog posts this January--I'll gladly settle for two :) And, hey! I thought I'd return to my blogging roots and take a look at some of my favorite books of the last couple years.

CUCKOO'S CALLING/Robert Galbraith
Also the subsequent two books in the Cormoran Strike series, written by JK Rowling under her chosen pseudonym. Mysteries are my genre of choice and I fell hard for the former military officer turned London private detective. I believe my initial response was: "Holy crap, this woman can write!" The only downside is once more being at the mercy of how fast Rowling can write . . . but hallelujah! It's being adapted for TV in Britain, and Cormoran Strike is being played by Tom Burke, my favorite ever Musketeer :)

Brilliant YA novel about once inseparable twins torn apart by their mother's death. The story goes back and forth chronologically, slowly revealing the individual miseries and gradual attempts at moving forward of the brother and sister. Contemporary YA is a hard sell for me, but this one really worked on all levels.

THE CALLING/Inger Ash Wolfe
First in another new mystery series (of which, yes, I have compulsively read the following four), starring police officer Hazel Micallef in a small Canadian town with crimes darker than the surface might indicate. Hazel is late fifties, divorced, living with her eighty-something-year-old mother and often at odds with authority. I love her :)

Known as The Bloggess online, Jenny Lawson writes intimately and hilariously about mental illness, anxiety, unusual families, and her love of ethically-taxidermied animals in costume. (Seriously, her first book has a mouse dressed as Hamlet on the cover; the second has a rather terrifyingly happy raccoon.) A friend sent me the first one in the aftermath of our son's admittance to rehab and never has laughter been more welcome. I recommend her blog as well as her books--look for the post about the dead duckling that showed up on her bedside table without warning, and Lawson's subsequent attempts to dress it as Marie Antoinette.

LADY MIDNIGHT/Cassandra Clare
The first in The Dark Artifices series, part of Clare's Shadowhunter world. Considering that my favorites in that world are The Infernal Devices, set in Victorian London, I didn't expect to love this contemporary, LA-set addition. But Emma Carstairs is an amazing heroine and I heart Julian Blackthorne.

It's no secret that Penman is one of my all-time favorite historical fiction writers and she does not disappoint in this novel of England's first civil war, fought in the mid-12th century between cousins King Stephen and Empress Maud. The title comes from a chronicle of the time, noting how England fell prey to destruction and death during those nineteen years. This novel ends with Maud's son being named Henry III as Stephen's successor--and then Penman launches into more books covering the tumultuous marriage and family of Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Harris's novel GENTLEMAN AND PLAYERS is one of my favorite boarding-school set mysteries of all time, and Latin master Roy Straitley is a brilliant character. After surviving the attacks against the school in the fall semester (from GandP), Straitley is not convinced the new Headmaster--a former student--has the school's best interests at heart. As the two of them clash, Straitley must return to a tragic event in the school's past and consider it from a new angle.

I would--and, I think, have--read anything Bryson writes, but I have a soft spot for NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND. In LITTLE DRIBBLING, Bryson once more travels his sometimes-home country of England to examine how both it and he have changed over the years. From the very first paragraphs, in which Bryson is hit on the head by a descending parking barrier, I laughed and loved the whole way through.

These books by new novelist, Ware, are brilliant additions to the field of stand-alone psychological thrillers. Atmospheric, claustrophobic settings (an isolated cabin in winter and a luxury yacht, respectively) add to the unsettling sense of peril that stalk the main character. From the time I was little and started reading Agatha Christie, I have loved closed-setting mysteries and I will read everything Ware releases from now on.

TRAITOR'S BLADE/Sebastien de Castel
First in the Greatcoats fantasy series, de Castel takes the Musketeer tradition, with all its adventure and swashbuckling, and sets it firmly in a kingdom falling apart. Here's the review I wrote on Goodreads after the first book:
"Yeah, it's pretty good. I mean you can't go far wrong with swords and disgraced scoundrels and a quest to honor a dead king's final wishes. I see the point, but it's nothing to shout about--WAIT? WHAT?! WHAT EVEN IS LIFE AND THIS STORY AND FALCIO VAL MOND AND I AM ACTUALLY CRYING AND CHEERING . . ."

KING HEREAFTER/Dorothy Dunnett
This was a re-read, as I tend to re-read all of Dunnett's books at various times. I picked it up again after my trip to England with my daughter last summer. We saw Macbeth at the Globe Theater, so it seemed a good time to go back to Dunnett's story of Thorfin, Earl of Orkney, and his doomed attempt to unite the various battling kingdoms of Alba (now Scotland.) She makes a convincing historical argument for Thorfin as the real-world basis for Macbeth, then takes such elements as the woods of Dunsinane and turns them into ingenious and realistic plot points in the 11th-century world. If you're not ready to launch into her 6 book Lymond series or her 8 book Nicolo series, then give this standalone a try.

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