Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 in Review: October through December

I made a really big list

I'm a list maker, so of course I HAD to make an end-of-the-year list recapping all of the books I read in 2016. It's like a snapshot of reviews, but you can click on the titles to go to my full reviews.

In the past I've categorized the books based on rating or on "type" of book (like, "fluffy books" or "special shelf books"), and I've both left out and included rereads. This year I've decided to just run straight down my "Read in 2016" list and cover every single book that appears there, in the order in which I read them. 

Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland
I was looking for something fluffy, light, and contemporary, but not necessarily romantic so I scrolled through my TBR until I found this one, which I had shelved way back in 2011. This was exactly what I was looking for! It even had a beachy, vacation-town vibe, which is perfect for relaxing and taking things a little slower. The blend of Pride and Prejudicy language worked very well and gave the main character a charming quirkiness that helped drive home the message of being true to yourself. It was nice to see the main character totally mess up everything (with the best intentions!) and then see everything work out in the end. This hit the mark.     

The King's General by Daphne du Maurier
I'm really starting to realize all the silly "rules" I've made for myself, and how they just contribute to making things worse. One of those rules is the idea that it is bad to read a book I just bought because this is messing up TBR precedence. Which, really, doesn't that just contribute to my ever-growing stack of unread books on my shelves? Not to mention to absurdity of reading rules and guilt in general.

I picked this book up during the Great Hastings Closing and I decided to start reading it simply because it called to me. I'm glad I did! Historical, Gothic, mysteries, war, and characters that crackled with life, plus du Maurier's amazing writing made for an absolutely absorbing read.

Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas by Jonathan W. Stokes
So, apparently October is the month of revelations: Not only did I realize it's ok to break TBR precedence for newly acquired books, but all review books are also not obligations. Technically I learned this lesson back in January (The Cat Who Came in off the Roof) and again in February (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency), but, hey, I'm a slow learner. Anyway, lesson learned: When a review book grabs my attention so much that I want to drop everything to read it, that's a good thing! And when they don't, I shouldn't feel obligated to force it.

Addison Cooke was the kind that grabbed my attention, and it continued to do so until I turned the last page and wished book 2 was already published.

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire
I had shelved this book back in 2015 when I started to realize that maybe I don't dislike paranormal/urban fantasy in general, but that there is a type that I actually really enjoy. A lot of it seems to boil down to the main character: is she a tough as nails, gritty, badass with a lot of sass and sexy times? If so, her stories probably aren't for me. If she's a down to earth, modest, "just trying to get by" but skilled in her own ways kind of character (think, Amelia Grey, Alex Craft), then we'll get along just fine.

Thankfully, October Daye turned out to be the latter and I was instantly hooked by her story. Add in lovable side characters, intriguing mysteries, and a very slow burn hate-turned-love romance and it's clear why the rest of 2016 is filled with these books.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Sometimes I like listening to audiobooks, but I've learned long ago that my attention doesn't always stick, especially when I'm listening while driving. For that reason, I try to only listen to books that I've already read, which means I can get distracted without missing key story points and I get to revisit old favorites.

It took me the better part of 2016 to finish this one, but after about seven months of intermittent listening, I think I can probably pronounce Feyre's name properly now. I was also reminded again why I like this book and why I'm sure I'll revisit it again.

The Woman in Back by Susan Hill
What better book to close out October with than a spooky ghost story? I first read this back in 2009 and I've been trying to get my husband to read it ever since. He finally gave in and we read this together over the last week in October and celebrated Halloween with a Woman in Black discussion and movie event. It's a classic and my reread only solidified my love of this most excellent ghost story.

We started watching the Harry Potter version, which I had long anticipated and had high hopes for. Unfortunately, we couldn't get very far because it was absolutely absurd, they changed everything, dumbed down the plot, and totally lost the spirit of the book (ha!). We quickly switched to the 1989 TV movie version, and while it was definitely not up to modern filming visuals, the storytelling was much, much better and we happily watched the whole thing.

A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire
On to November! I picked up the next October Daye book as soon as I finished the first and finished in the first week of November. Everything I liked about the first book continued and just got better and better. It's been nice to sink into a series with a likable (even fuzzy!) cast of characters and engaging mysteries. There's also a very human element to these books that makes them more emotionally impactful.

Doomed Queens by Kris Waldherr
Ugh, everyone was getting sick at work, and I too succumbed toward the end of November. I was in and out of sleep and feeling crappy, so I impulse downloaded this book from the library. Short chapters, each focusing on a different doomed queen, and arranged chronologically, this book was the perfect format to help get me through the day. There was just enough content in each chapter to give a good idea of what happened to each lady, while piquing my interest enough to lead to numerous foggy-headed internet searches to dig deeper. 

An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire
Back to October Daye, but, wow, this book kicked the series up a level. The creep factor and emotional impact was near-devastating and I was totally sucked into this story. New characters are introduced, more clues are dropped, and characters I thought I knew turned out to be very different indeed. I was into the series before, but this book got me into this series.    

Great Tales from English History, vol 1 by Robert Lacey
Inspired by how much I enjoyed Doomed Queens, I decided to seek out more bite-sized history and stumbled across Robert Lacey's English history series. This first volume starts out with ice age remains and runs all the way through the Black Plague of the 1300s. Each chapter covers an event, person, or legend in history and spans only a handful of pages. Depth isn't the focus, clearly, and that's ok. The episodes are told like stories, entertaining and easy to read. This was a great companion to Thomas B. Costain's The Conquering Family, which is told in a similar conversational tone but with more depth.

The real value of this book, for me, came in the broad view of chronology it provided. Events, people, and time periods that I had previously known but were disconnected in my mind were drawn together. Finally, the waves of Saxon, Danish, and Norman conquests fit together for me and provided context and an understanding of influence for the future Plantagenet etc. reigns.

Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuire
Episodic mysteries are giving way to a greater overarching story, still filled with mysteries, but tying to a bigger picture now. The shift isn't diminishing anything and I'm still invested. The ending had a Big Reveal that makes sense and somehow manages to change everything while not changing a thing (that's a good thing). Side characters are still holding their own, but the barely there romance is getting a little one-note. Still picking these up one after another.

Wit'ch War by James Clemens
You know, much as I love this series, I really could wish for better covers. I read this one through most of November and finished it up in the beginning of December. Inventive, creative (while also totally cribbing from the Lord of the Rings), and exciting, this one still holds my interest despite years of rereads. It's a shame these books aren't more well known.

Great Tales from English History, vol 2 by Robert Lacey
I had even higher hopes for this volume considering I love the first and the period of history in this book is even more well known to me. This picks up just as the Black Plague of the 1300s is winding down, runs through the Wars of the Roses, the Tudor era, through the Stuarts, the Civil War, and the Restoration. Maybe being too familiar with the time was the problem? Events and people I think were important were completely skipped over or barely mentioned. While I'm sure the same happened in the first book, I knew less about that time and so I didn't notice it as a problem. I ended up liking this volume and I still recommend it, but it didn't deliver for me the same way the first book did.

Austenland by Shannon Hale
This was a total whim. I saw it on a Goodreads list of short books and I figured, why not? I had already seen the movie and enjoyed it, and while Shannon Hale and I have a mixed relationship (The Goose Girl, yay! The Book of a Thousand Days, meh) I figured it was so short I might as well give it a whirl.

Mostly, I liked it. The main character was conflicted, and her lack of direction and sense of uncertainty made the book feel a little directionless and confused. Like it, like the main character, couldn't quite decide what it wanted to be and what message it wanted to send. Just when I thought we were going in one direction, we dropped that idea and picked up a new one. It was flighty enough that I don't think it managed to make any great point and it lacked the Austen-inspired sparkle that the movie version (and Scones and Sensibility) managed to achieve. Still, the ending was sweet and since I wasn't expecting much I enjoyed the experience.

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I often feel like I'm being pulled in too many directions and I don't have enough time to focus on anything, let alone focus on myself. I'm a quiet person and I need those moments to recharge and reflect, but lately I've been thrust into very public, very busy positions. This book provided some much needed refocusing and moments of tranquility.

This book is super short (130 pages!), but I stretched it out from the end of October through the end of December, reading in bits, savoring, rereading. It's more of a reflective book than a book with answers or advice, and I appreciate that. I'll probably revisit this a lot as I try to find those moments of peace and stillness.

Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone by Dene Low
Another find from the Great Hastings Closing. I had never heard of this book before, but I'm a sucker for a Proper caper (think Kat, Theodosia) and this was under $2.00!

At first I thought this was going to be "ok but forgettable," but I ended up elevating that assessment to "ripping good fun, but forgettable." I don't think I'll remember Petronella in particular forever and ever (she just didn't stand out enough), but I very much enjoyed the adventure we shared. I wish this series had taken off more, because I definitely would have continued on with her adventures.

Saranormal: Ghost Town by Phoebe Rivers
I've had this book on my TBR for ages and ages, but I could never find a copy. Then I moved here and my local library actually has the series, but I never managed to get around to it. I think I've even had it on hold once or twice, but never picked it up. Well, I grabbed it on an impulse when I found myself in the library (picking up the dvd of Austenland) and read it that same day.

This is a middle grade series, so it really could have gone one of two ways: good but too young to resonate, or excellent. Thankfully, it leaned toward excellent! There are a lot of "human" moments that transcend age and made for a lot of poignant scenes (I would totally be that lady with the pie). The mystery was ok, but it was really the characters that I found so engaging. The old, beautiful house is also a bonus (octagonal rooms!). The basic premise and general feel also remind me of a slightly younger Mediator series, which is a very good thing. I will be continuing on with this series for sure.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
All the early reviews were glowing and used words like "lyrical" and "beautiful" and I have to agree on all counts. I'll post up a full review soon, but the shorty version is that I loved this book.

In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
I read this book back when it was published in the '90s and I've periodically reread it throughout the years. I had no intention of rereading it now, but I was blow drying my hair and forgot to grab my book, so I picked a random book off the shelf in front of me so I'd have something to occupy my time. It's such a short, fast read that I decided to finish it off that night.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I started rereading this one in the early part of 2016 and slowly read it throughout the year. I think I appreciated it even more this time around. Definitely a book I see myself returning to again and again.

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund
Ah, I've had the itch to reread this one and decided, why not? I picked it up toward the end of December and turned the final page about a half hour before the new year started. Still enjoyable.

Reflections and next up

October through December definitely saw the return of reading for me, and I've been much happier for it. It's funny, but when I read based on whims and totally threw out obligation and lists, I ended up actually accomplishing some of my goals. Two books and one series had been on my TBR for years, one author has been on my "must read more of this one" for years, and three were books I owned but hadn't yet read. One was even a review book.

Guess I need to learn to just let things go? If I make that a goal for 2017, is that being constructive or feeding my obsessive goal-setting and organizing?

But, let's be real, I'm still me and I'm still a goal-oriented list-maker and that isn't likely to change. Plus, I do like the sense of accomplishment of a goal achieved. I think the answer may be in balance. Setting broad goals, like "Read books that have been on my TBR a long time" and "Read books that I own" will give me the sense of accomplishment without the strict "You must read this specific book" and without the guilt when I choose to read something else.

So, broad and flexible, but with targets I want to achieve. And, honestly, my 2016 challenges reflected just this approach. It was just me who decided to pile guilt, obligation, rules, and "shoulds" onto them. Like I said, I'm a slow learner, but what my 2016 reflection has shown is that at least I am learning, and that's a good thing.

Well 2017, let's give it a whirl!

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