I only made it through about 20 novels in 2015—I’ve had better showings, that’s for sure—but toward the end of the year, I seemed to save the best for last as there were several books that had me weeping, they were so good. Plus, I watched a lot of TV that last quarter—drop what you’re doing and devour all 10 episodes of The Man in the High Castle if you haven’t already—in the little downtime I had, so by the time I go to bed, my attention is zapped and I’m out like a light (OK, after a few minutes on Snapchat, that is!). Still, here’s what I managed to read toward the end of last year and the beginning of this.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
After I sung the praises of the Chet and Bernie series, many of you responded with: “but have you read The Art of Racing in the Rain? You must read The Art of Racing in the Rain?” And you were totally right: I loved it. Or rather I should say: I LOVED IT.
This oft-times somber story is told from the POV of the family dog, Enzo, who watches the matriarch of the family slowly perish of cancer and all the repercussions that result from her death (like a custody battle over the kid between the sweet dad and the monstrous in-laws). It bounces forward and backward in time and while it’s sad rather than uplifting more often than not, the writing is beautiful and the ending is worth it. If you haven’t read this book, make it the next one that you read. I cried ugly tears at several parts, but despite that, it’s one of the loveliest novels I’ve read in years. And even if you don’t like dogs or car racing—as the name implies, there are many racing metaphors throughout, a nod to the dad’s profession—I guarantee that won’t stop you from loving this book.
Rating: 5 out of 5
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
I went straight from Racing to The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and it was like being in Oprah’s book club during its glory years (think: White Oleander times)—that’s how great this book was, too. In a nutshell, grumpy A.J. Fikry runs an independent bookstore on Alice Island that’s seen better times thanks to the boom of the Internet and the e-reader, his prized collection is stolen, and a newborn baby is abandoned in his shop one night. He doesn’t know what to do with the child other than to adopt her; what unfolds is a complete metamorphosis within A.J. and a story of love, loss and sacrifice told through emotional depth, complex characters, and witty banter and dialogue.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
OK, I know everyone and their mom read this book in 2014 when it came out, but I only finally got to it on my list over the holidays. And holy cow, this was one of those reads I wished would never end. I loved the premise: A 1950s movie star goes to an island to heal from a deadly disease only to become enchanted with the place and the owner of the dilapidated inn in which she stays. The book spans 60 years and multiple locations only for the innkeeper to go in search of said actress much later in life with the help of a motley crew of Hollywood types. I loved that, at its core, Beautiful Ruins was so different than any other book I had ever read and that it was told from the perspective of different narrators, some who you loved and others who you loathed. It also made me want to hop the first plane out to Italy, despite having been there plenty of times.
Rating: 5 out of 5
What She Left by T.R. Richmond
I usually veer away from books about crimes entirely as I’m your classic wuss—no horror movies for this girl—but something about the cover made me pick this one up. Comparisons to What She Left have been drawn to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and while I think they’re not really anything alike, if you’re a fan of either of these suspense novels, I do think you’ll enjoy What She Left.
Told through a series of diary entries, school essays, blog posts, news stories, Tweets, texts, phone conversations and more, this book chronicles the life of English journalist Alice Salmon from teenage years to death at 25 (she dies very early on in the book, so I’m not spoiling anything). When her body is found in the river one snowy winter day, it’s unclear: Did she take her own life or did someone else take it from her? Richmond introduces a number of characters—a former roommate, a best friend, a professor—who all seem to be obsessed with the protagonist in different ways and leaves it up to the reader to figure out who killed Alice, and I have to admit: I had no idea until it was finally revealed in the end. But I was hooked from beginning to end.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Vacationers by Emma Straub
I had high hopes for this book. A family of New Yorkers, the parents both magazine journalists, goes on a big vacation in Spain to get past an infidelity. There are multiple, smaller story arcs—their gay besties come along for the ride and are trying to adopt, their dimwitted son has made bad financial decisions, the teenage daughter is hoping to lose her virginity before she goes to college—but ultimately, the whole thing fell flat. While the writing itself was fairly solid—Straub has a journalism background, after all—the story line just didn’t grab me, I found the characters unlikable and the plot was a bit uneventful. Overall, unlike Beautiful Ruins, I was more than ready for this one to end. Skip it.
Rating: 2 out of 5
You by Caroline Kepnes
First of all, I should preface this review by saying that You is not for the faint of heart. If you don’t like swearing or are uncomfortable with sex, this is not the book for you. But if you liked Dexter in all its twisted glory, you’ll likely find You entertaining as it’s told from the vantage point of a bookstore manager who may or may not have stalking, bi-polar and murderous tendencies. Me? I found it riveting. I had no idea what the book was even about when I checked it out from the e-library—with the name, I suppose I assumed it to be vaguely romantic comedy-ish—and it started off harmless enough, then ventured quickly into graphic territory while managing to be engaging and well-written all at once. Let’s just say I already put Hidden Bodies, the sequel, on my reading list (and it comes out on my birthday, too!).
Rating: 4 out of 5