Best Reads of 2013: The Good, the Bad, and the Boring

Yep, it’s that time of year again. I’ve read several really good books this year. A lot more that were merely okay. And a few that were awful. Here are my memorable reads from the year. Some good, some bad, and some that were just plain boring.  First, the good.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.  I absolutely loved this book with it’s quirky humor and character based drama. Or maybe that’s humorous drama and quirky characters? Bernadette_Semple  It’s certainly filled with both.

Bernadette Fox is a gifted architect who no longer practices her craft. Apparently, she’s one of the few people who keep their side of the bargain when making a deal with God. However, this means she has no outlet for her creativity, not to mention her boundless energy. This is a recipe for trouble. Add in an annoying neighbor in a permanent state of outrage and denial, a husband who’s busy being a technological genius at Microsoft, and a genius daughter who wants them to take a cruise to Antarctica of all places, you get chaos. Especially when Bernadette disappears during an intervention. This book chronicles a family’s struggle to remain together despite themselves in a light, airy style that makes you smile even as it makes you think. If you’re looking for a good, character driven story with brains and heart, this is definitely it.

The-First-Phone-Call-From-Heaven_Mitch-AlbomThe First Phone Call From Heaven by Mitch Albom.  This book is a wonderful, but rather sad, portrait of the modern world with its globalized brain and cynical heart.

Imagine it.  By some miracle you are given the priceless gift of a conversation, however brief, with the dead.  Your mother.  Your son.  Your sister.  What would you do?  How would you react?  Would you be skeptical, thinking it was a scam?  Or would you accept it on pure faith?  Maybe you would rejoice and tell the world?  Hold it to you as a precious, comforting secret?  Or would you see it as an opportunity?  And how would you feel if you weren’t one of the lucky few?

The people who live in the small, fictitious town of Coldwater, Michigan find out when their phones start ringing.  The First Phone Call From Heaven packs a powerful punch, managing to entertain at the same time as it provokes a lot of deep thoughts and soul-searching.  This book is a wonderful, wrenching experience.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. Talk about thought provoking. How many of us give much thought, really, to the methods with which we “cook” our food? Cooked_PollanI mean, do most of us do more than vaguely wonder to ourselves, occasionally, about the bread and cheese we use to make a sandwich? Or the wine or beer we drink to wash it down?  Michael Pollan does it for us, here, in his usual highly entertaining, yet informative, style.

I grinned through just about the entire first part of this book where Pollan discusses the fine art of Southern Barbeque, because it is all just so true! The endless arguments and debates about sauces (vinegar or mustard) and meat. Not just what kind of meat (pork or beef) but what parts (shoulder, ribs, or whole hog), constitute true barbeque. And that’s just the beginning. Don’t get people down here started on method. Wood? Charcoal? A combo of the two? And if it’s wood, what kind? Hickory? Apple? It’s complicated, convoluted, and just plain tasty. 🙂

And this is just the beginning.  Pollan takes us on a gastronomical, yet cerebral, adventure filled with the science, culture, and lore of cooking and preparing food.

The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriLowland_LahiriI love Lahiri’s stories. She has a true gift for portraying first the shock, then the gradual, eventual melding of cultures between India and the West, and The Lowland is no exception.

This is one of those rare books that I actually liked even though I really didn’t like any of the main characters.  I found Subhash to be a doormat, Gouri a cold, selfish bitch, and Udayan a spoiled, idealistic child.  Still, I couldn’t help but love this book. The growing pangs of a family and a nation, the tumult of separation and rupture of them both paralleled so tragically in this skillfully woven story.

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Shomaya Gowda. Even better than The Lowland, in my opinion, Secret Daughter is a tale of courage, tenacity, hope, and tragedy. This one made me cry.

Secret-Daughter_GowdaKavita, a village wife in India, has borne a daughter for the second time. That first daughter was cruelly snatched from her and ruthlessly killed because she was not the longed for son. This time, Kavita is determined to save her child. Still bleeding from childbirth, she and her sister walk most of the way from that village to an orphanage in Bombay, where they leave the child. This act of defiance and bravery, and the events that triggered it, staggered me. From those opening moments, my heart was caught in the words leaping off the page.

That daughter goes on to be adopted by a couple in the United States. He is from India, but she, Somer, is American. This causes all kinds of self-induced complications and self-defeating actions after the addition of an Indian child to the family. And Kavita goes on to bare that long desired son. The contrast between her secret daughter, who she never forgets and thinks about everyday, and her spoiled, treasured son is immense. This book is a gloriously wrenching read that I know I’ll revisit someday.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant.  From the maven of Renaissance fiction comes a richly detailed novel of that most notorious of Renaissance families, the Borgias, in all of their gaudy, even gruesome, glory. Talk about dysfunctional.

Borgia-1_DunantNo one writes Renaissance Italy as vividly as Dunant.  We are taken into the secretive vipers’ nest that was the College of Cardinals as they jockey for the throne of St. Peter with alliances, chests of silver and gold, and the fear of poison.  In joyous, sumptuous, style, Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alessandro VI.  A dynamic man of Machiavellian cleverness, fiery passion, and a gigantic blind spot of affection and sentimentality for his children.  Juan was his favorite, if that gives you a clue.  In fact, some of the most moving passages in the whole novel involve the Pope’s reaction to the shocking, though no doubt deserved, assassination of Juan.

We follow the sweet, innocent Lucrezia as she becomes a poised, clever, slightly cold, woman through the farce of her first marriage to a minor Sforza, to the passionate love match to a Neapolitan royal bastard, her tragic widowhood, and her betrothal into the illustrious House of d’Este.

And let us not forget the enigmatic, charismatic, darkly fascinating Cesar.  I can’t wait for the second book.

Also of note:  Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh.

The BadImpostress by Lisa Jackson, Francesca by Bertrice Small.

The BoringRose Harbor in Bloom by Debbie Macomber, The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, Headed for Trouble by Suzanne Brockmann.

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