My Best Reads 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

4.5 stars. Patchett crafts a wonderful story about science, anthropology, reproduction and loss. I was lost in the Amazon, conflicted and drawn to possibility right along with the main character Marina. The only thing keeping this book from 5 stars is its last 50 pages, which come so fast and so improbably, that I was drawn out of the story. Still, I loved this book.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

4 stars.  Erin Morgenstern has created something quite spectacular in this debut novel. Playing with ideas of magic, illusion and perception, she unveils a truly fantastic circus. I really felt as though I were walking through someone’s dream. It’s worthy of its buzz.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

4.5 stars. Darkly comic (and sometimes just dark), the Fangs live at the border between life and art. “Art, if you love it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain.” Buster and Annie (the children of the family now struggling into adulthood) are exactly the products we might expect from a dysfunctional family. I couldn’t help falling in love with them as the story twisted through to its conclusion.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

5 stars. Geraldine Brooks is the Queen of Historical Fiction. Brook’s attention to detail, especially to the voice of narrator Bethia, is fascinating. Bethia’s diary put us squarely in the time and place of the book, 17th century Martha’s Vineyard. The story is also about her young Indian friend, whom she names Caleb, but this is Bethia’s book all the way. A must read for historical fiction lovers.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

4.5 stars.  From the opening line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” Jones hooked me with this wonderful, heartbreaking, honest novel. Told first by Dana Lynn, James’ “outside” daughter, then by Chaurisse, the one the world sees as legitimate, the novel unfolds rather quickly. Without ever choosing sides, Jones allows her story to do the talking. I was left aching for both girls and unsure if the ending is how I would have written it, just what I look for in a great book.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

5 stars.  This stunning debut novel unfolds around Jude, Johnny, Eliza and the always-present Teddy. Not for the faint of heart, these kids are seriously screwed up, into drugs, sex and violence. Given these circumstances, I am amazed that Henderson has crafted something so beautiful, and often gentle. There are no real good guys or bad guys, no carefully crafted heroes or victims. There are just people — broken and hopeful, angry and funny, determined and resigned.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

5 stars. This book took my breath away. Given my family’s history with Alzheimer’s, I took this on with some trepidation. Once I started though, I could not put it down. Alice’s insights into her disease are so honest and interesting. I laughed and I cried. Definitely didn’t want it to end.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

4 stars. Margo’s life on the Stark River is brutal in all ways – physically, emotionally, and psychologically. But if you can get past the descriptive writing of savagery, you can appreciate the beauty of Campbell’s other writing, especially relating to river life. I cared about every character – even those I despised. That’s quite an accomplishment for a writer. And best of all, she writes a perfect, fitting ending.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

5 stars. One of my all-time childhood favorites, Francie is a charming and witty protagonist whose observations about poverty, family, beauty and courage are what propel the novel. The very idea that we can’t kill hope, no matter how much we ignore it, or how many people try to chop it down is a great message. In Smith’s hands it never becomes sappy or trite.

A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

4 stars. I’m surprised that Jarrar was able to make something so humorous out of the constant abuse Nidali suffers at the hands of her father, but she does it beautifully. Jarrar manages to touch the exact spot of where love, respect, anger and fear all come together. As Nidali searches for a sense of “home,” I found myself rooting for her, with all her imperfections. That’s a novel that inspires me.

Honorable Mentions: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand; This Side of Brightness by Column McCann;  The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer, The Girls by Lori Larsons, Hello, I Must be Going by Christie Hodgen, Every Last One by Anna Quindlen; The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs; The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

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