Books of 2015

books of 2015
I’ll add to this list throughout the year. This will help me keep track of what I’m reading and it will be a way to share quick, mini-reviews as the year progresses. I’ll link to their full reviews or the weeks that I gave them mini-reviews as well. And as always, please feel free to share what you’re reading – I’m always looking for additions to my stack (or discussions about books we’ve finished).

Fiction:

1.Station Eleven: A novelby Emily St. John Mandel. My mini-review can be found in this post: Words on Wednesday: True Faith. Overall verdict: it’s not a perfect novel (if such a thing exists) but I enjoyed it and would recommend it. Very few disclaimers, even though the subject matter is bleak (99% of the world’s population is gone after a quick moving virus).

2.The Curse of the House of Foskett: The Gower Street Detective: Book 2by M.R.C. Kasasian. The murders are brutal and graphic (and numerous), I guessed the “bad guy” far too early, and some of the angst grows thin. Yet I enjoyed this book, possibly more than the first in the series. Why? The characters are excellent, the dialog is witty and intelligent, and the action pulls you along. Recommended for mystery buffs with strong stomachs.

3.A Fine Summer’s Day: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mysteryby Charles Todd. I’ve read all the books in the Ian Rutledge series. The last book published (before this) was a good entry. This one, well, I wanted to like it more than I did. There’s no real reason why a prequel would be needed. It doesn’t give us much (if any) new information. It makes you wonder why Rutledge cared at all about his fiancee basically abandoning him (there is absolutely no reason given why a man like Rutledge would actually love this awful woman). It was nice to see Rutledge solve a case without the tired trope of Hamish over his shoulder. (Which needs to stop in any future books anyway.) I do wonder if this mother-son writing team just alternates who writes each book, because if that’s the case, I like one of the authors so much more than the other.

4.All the Light We Cannot See: A Novelby Anthony Doerr. A gorgeous and moving novel. Marie-Laure and Werner are unforgettable and the cast surrounding them is equally fascinating. The chapters are short, perfect for reading in snatched moments between other tasks (something I know a lot about). Some of the chapters could probably have been edited out: nothing really happens and nothing new is disclosed, but they are all so lovingly crafted I can see why an editor hesitated to slice too fine. When I finished this I thought of Forster’s dictum: “Only connect.” I don’t know if Mr. Doerr had that in mind, but that is what his characters and his novel do. They connect. They connect to each other. They connect to things that matter. They connect history. They connect us. Highly recommended. (Disclaimers: this novel is set during the Second World War. There are intense scenes and occasional expletives used by soldiers. There is nothing gratuitous about it, but some readers may prefer to steer clear.)

5.Motherlandby Maria Hummel. My library recommended this one to anyone who enjoyed “All the Light We Cannot See”. This book has very little in common with the first, other than its place in history (World War 2). The style is very different and the characters are drawn with far less precision than Doerr used. But the story is still moving and poignant. This is an often neglected perspective, perhaps understandably so. It is difficult to tell the story of “ordinary Germans” without looking like you’re excusing Nazism or the horrors of the Holocaust. Hummel’s attempt is better than most, I think because it was inspired by her own family. What really comes through is how awful war is, especially for the youngest and most vulnerable. (Note: if you’d like a similar post-war perspective for younger readers, try The Arkby Margot Benary-Isbert.)

6.Dying in the Wool (A Kate Shackleton Mystery Book 1)by Frances Brody. Reminiscent of the Daisy Dalrymple or Dandy Gilver series. Post-WW1 is a rich setting for British writers with female sleuths. So much upheaval in their world placed women in many situations that would have been closed to them just years before. This particular book never really “grabbed” me. Its heroine didn’t really seem unique and the mystery itself was less than compelling. However, the book did have a certain charm and I’m going to give the series another chance because sometimes it just takes a bit for the author to warm up.

7.The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (Miss Marple Mysteries Book 9)by Agatha Christie. This may be one of my favorite Miss Marple mysteries. Christie’s knowledge of human personalities and foibles (via Miss Marple) is sprinkled throughout. The plot makes sense. The uneasiness of the time (once again Britain is post-war and thrown into upheaval) seems surprisingly fresh and modern despite the book’s age.

8.A Medal for Murder (A Kate Shackleton Mystery Book 2)by Frances Brody. Rather frustrating in some ways. I want to like Kate Shackleton, but I don’t yet. I want to get immersed in the stories, but the structure continually throws me out (I do not like the awkwardly positioned flashbacks that give the reader information Kate does not have). I see a spark of talent, and a heroine who could be the equal of Dandy Gilver or Daisy Dalrymple, but she’s not all the way there yet. Because of the spark, and the setting (post-WW1 Britain), I’m inclined to give Brody a few more chances before I abandon this series.

9.The Mysterious Affair at Stylesby Agatha Christie. First in the series about Hercule Poirot. We love watching the Poirot series with David Suchet. Somehow, I don’t think I’ve read this particular mystery before. A little rougher than her later work, but the style and writing sense is all there.

10.When the Doves Disappeared: A novelby Sofi Oksanen. Bleak and hard to get through. I always think these translated novels must lose a lot in translation. The reviews of this book in the original Finnish call it “lyrical” but I don’t think it was at all. No redeeming characters, not much to recommend. Unless you’re particularly interested in the Second World War or Estonia, I doubt this would hold many readers’ interest.

11.The Nightingaleby Kristin Hannah. At first I wasn’t sure I would like this novel. The main characters didn’t immediately grab me (although I had more sympathy for one of the sisters) and I’ve never read anything by Kristin Hannah so her style irked me a bit (overuse of similes and occasionally too wordy in general). But I kept reading, and oh, what a story. Yes, some of the “twists” are predictable. But the heart and soul is deep and abiding. The story could be brutal (it’s set in WW2) but also moving and poignant. It reminded me in some ways of Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace. If you appreciate WW2 historical fiction, don’t miss this one.

12.The Heroes’ Welcomeby Louisa Young. Set just after “The Great War” in Britain. Occasionally lovely and insightful but often brutal and heartbreaking. I hadn’t realized it was the second in a series. I made it through but it probably would have meant more to me if I had already cared about the characters.

13.Who Buries the Dead: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteryby C.S. Harris. Latest in this compelling series. I didn’t really enjoy the appearance of “Miss Jane Austen” in this story. These books can be gritty and graphic and the addition of the Austen family didn’t really feel organic to the story.

14.A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders. I’ve enjoyed some of Flanders’ nonfiction in the past. Her first attempt at a mystery has some charm and humor, but it is ultimately uneven in tone and execution. I’ll probably read more in the series (if she writes them) but I won’t be waiting anxiously until the next one comes out.

15.The Silent Sisterby Diane Chamberlain. Not nearly as twisty as the author seemed to think and the ending is pure, unrealistic wish fulfillment. This novel had a great start and set-up but ultimately unsatisfying.

16.The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency)by Alexander McCall Smith. Latest in the beloved series.

17.Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?by Agatha Christie. Good fun, if frothy. (Kind of like a milkshake – and I love milkshakes.)

18.The Night of Four Hundred Rabbitsby Elizabeth Peters. Dated, but humorous and memorable characters.

19.The Copenhagen Connectionby Elizabeth Peters. Peters dearly loved her eccentric older ladies and this book’s version is one of the most over the top.

20.Devil May Careby Elizabeth Peters. Every author is entitled to a dud. Especially an author as prolific as Michaels/Peters/Mertz. This is one of her duds.

21.The Water Room (Bryant and May, Bk 2)by Christopher Fowler. I liked this better than the first book in the series. The rivers hidden and forgotten beneath London make a fascinating setting for a mystery novel.

22.Seventy-Seven Clocks: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteryby Christopher Fowler. I did not like this third entry in the series. It’s just completely over the top and ridiculous as far as body count and how the mystery is resolved (most unsatisfactorily in my opinion). The author seemed to throw too many elements into one story and then wrote himself into an impossible plot corner.

23.The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Series)by Stieg Larsson. What happens when you throw the IKEA catalog, stacks of legal papers, a business newspaper, and the grossest, most depraved crime reports into a blender? This book.

24.Peril at End House: A Hercule Poirot Mysteryby Agatha Christie. This one is classic Christie: full of twists, turns, and improbable drug fiends.

25.The Big Four: A Hercule Poirot Mysteryby Agatha Christie. This one felt like Christie was trying too hard to be someone else (John Buchan, perhaps?). It’s a spy or international intrigue story more than an Hercule Poirot mystery and as such it doesn’t hold up as well as some of her other works.

26.The Master of Blacktowerby Barbara Michaels. Jane Eyre meets Elizabeth Peabody by way of Scotland. Fun but not as tightly constructed as some of her later plots and the ending is ridiculously abrupt.

27.The Royal Weby Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. My expectations for this one were probably too high. I enjoy the authors’ blogging (it’s witty, at any rate) and I’m an Anglophile and Royal Watcher, so this book ought to have been a new favorite. Instead I found it unwieldy (that’s an editing problem. Someone needed to trim the deadweight in this.) and unloveable. The characters (pastiches of the actual royal family) never become truly sympathetic. The drinking, sleeping around, and otherwise bad behavior just becomes tedious in the extreme. Oh well, like I said: I was probably expecting too much. (Oh and side note: “Bex” is a ridiculous name. Just had to put that out there.)

28.At Bertram’s Hotel: A Miss Marple Mysteryby Agatha Christie. Good fun, although Miss Marple is not actually present in much of the story. Still, when she’s there her skills at understanding human nature are undimmed.

29.The Dead Sea Cipherby Elizabeth Peters. Somewhat dated (and sad because of it: the characters travel through undamaged Lebanon and Syria in a way we can’t imagine today) and containing another unbelievable plot. Peters never fills in details when she doesn’t have to (she’s willing to leave a lot to the readers’ imaginations), which is a strength when writing a story as wild as this one.

30.The Secret of Chimneysby Agatha Christie. This early work by Christie doesn’t hold up as well as some of her other things. The plot is ridiculous, the characters over the top, and the stakes are never very high. But it’s good fun to read (if you can ignore the equally dated views on race and class).

31. Superfluous Women: A Daisy Dalrymple Mysteryby Carola Dunn. Dunn’s skill as a writer has improved over this 20+ book series. This latest entry veers into a preaching tone a few too many times for my taste, but otherwise, it’s one of the best in the series.

32.Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery Book 1)by Louise Penny. For such a highly recommended book (based on Amazon reviews and Goodreads), this shocked me as truly terrible. The POV is all over the place. Not a single character rises out of stock material. Gamache himself is a Poirot – Dalgliesh pastiche and pales in comparison to both of those detective predecessors. I really wanted to like this because I’m searching for a new mystery series to love but this decidedly was NOT it.

33.The Distant Hours: A Novelby Kate Morton. Another highly recommended book. Includes two of my great loves: WW2 and great English houses. Morton has a way with words, particularly when describing the decaying wreck of a castle, but no single character leaps off the page and makes the reader care. Some of the “twists” are truly ludicrous. Still, I see a good writer here, even if she does bury herself in too many descriptions and sentence fragments, and I’ll look for some more of her work.

34.The Girl on the Train: A Novelby Paula Hawkins. Doesn’t work as a “suspense” novel. DOES work as a picture of what happens to people who make nearly every wrong choice you can make.

35.Balm: A Novelby Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Great descriptions, although I could have done without a few of the more graphic type. Very evocative of time (post Civil War) and place (Chicago).

36.The Art of Baking Blind: A Novelby Sarah Vaughan. The author was obviously inspired by a love of The Great British Bake-Off, which is something I also love. I didn’t love this novel, but there were parts I really enjoyed. The main female characters aren’t different enough in voice or style (when you find yourself needing a spreadsheet or cheat list of the characters and their issues, well, that’s not a great sign). I saw another review that said this book is primarily about motherhood and, after considering it, I think I agree with that.

37.The Forgotten Garden: A Novelby Kate Morton. My second attempt at Morton. This earlier work has what must be her standard operating procedure: a plot that spans generations, a once great house fallen to ruin, secrets that needlessly ruin something, and someone who writes or wants to be a writer. I didn’t feel like the characters’ behavior was consistent in this one, and it could have stood some more editing. Some of the scenes, particularly the ones set in 1900 or so, could have been cut with no loss to the story.

Nonfiction:

1.The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifestoby Mortimer J. Adler. Mini-review in this January 14th post.

2.Forever Mom: What to Expect When You’re Adopting by Mary Ostyn. We’re not adoptive parents (nor are we planning to adopt) but I would recommend this book for any parent. Why? Ostyn’s advice is down to earth, full of grace, scripture saturated, and inspiring. We may not be adoptive parents, but we do have some children that challenge our parenting skills more than the others. I’ve been trying some strategies inspired by this book and I think that, not only do they work, they improve our home’s atmosphere.  Highly recommended.

3.The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life by Lyndsy Spence. No new insights, no new information. Filled with gramamtical errors, typos, and vocabulary problems. (One example: “spendthrift” does not mean frugal or thrifty.) The personal interviews at the back were the most interesting part. No one can quite explain why these six sisters have so captured imaginations for years, and this book doesn’t add anything to the more thorough biographies and letter collections.

4.True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex Worldby David Skeel. Not your typical Christian apologetics book. Skeel takes on deep philosophical issues in an understandable way (although the book is, at times, quite dense, which requires some careful reading). These are deep questions about things that really matter. Do Christianity’s answers measure up? Highly recommend this one.

5.Make it Happen: Surrender Your Fear. Take the Leap. Live On Purpose.by Lara Casey. Complete review here: Make it Happen with Lara Casey’s Help.

6.Every Bitter Thing Is Sweet: Tasting the Goodness of God in All Things by Sara Hagerty. This memoir was, at times extremely moving. Hagerty’s writing style is not really my favorite, but I could easily tell why so many women have appreciated this heart-rending and inspiring story. That said, as an INTJ, there were definitely times that I thought, “That should have been between you, God, your husband, and possibly a good therapist.” The emotion is so raw at times that I felt almost uncomfortable reading it, as if I had been sneaking a peek at someone’s diary. Of course, the fact that I was reading this on my Kindle in the middle of the night as I deal with pregnancy related insomnia, is probably coloring my opinion. Your mileage may vary, as always.

7.The Fantasy Fallacy: Exposing the Deeper Meaning Behind Sexual Thoughtsby Shannon Ethridge. I felt like I needed to read this one with all the hoopla about the “50 Shades” movie coming out. Ethridge is a respected author about relationships and purity issues. There were some strong points, but I felt like this book relied a little too much on Jungian psychology. I would recommend this book for Christian counselors or anyone struggling specifically with these issues.

8.The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcockby Lucy Worsley. What enabled the English mystery to take over the literary world? Why has Agatha Christie been translated into so many languages? This book traces the fascination the English (and the English speaking world in general) have long had with death and the macabre. The rise of formal policing and detecting coincides with the rise of the murder mystery in a fascinating way. Highly recommend this one to fans of mysteries. (Although, fair warning: some sections of this are gruesome and horrifying.)

9.Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Contentby Ann Handley. Loved this practical and helpful guide to creating better content as a writer (or blogger, or whatever). Forget what you learned about writing in high school (seriously, that’s one of her excellent suggestions) and start creating content you’re proud to call your own.

10.Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Betterby John Holt. Radical, in the best sense of the word. If you think that our schools are failing, you need to read this. Because they’re not failing: they’re doing what they’re designed to do and what they’re designed to do is not necessarily in the best interest of our children. Highly recommended.

11.Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Familyby Kathleen Flinn. Breaks the rules of memoir: it isn’t dark, it isn’t tragic, it isn’t unbearably sad. It is real, and recognizable, and you might just have a family tree somewhat like this one. Definitely recommended for genealogy or memoir fans.

12. The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Yearby Susan Hill. Gentle and humorous. Anyone who loved the “Anne” books or any British village stories (Miss Read, anything by D.E. Stevenson, etc.) would probably appreciate this nonfiction look at a year of life in a British village. Hill has a winsome way with words.

13.Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilkin. Complete review here: Becoming Women of the Word.

14.That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Usby Erin Moore. A fun look at the similarities and differences between the US and the UK, not just in language but in philosophy and habits. Lighthearted but perceptive.

15.The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menuby Dan Jurafsky. Food and words, two of my most favorite things ever. Fascinating reading and I particularly enjoyed the thoughts on “the grammar of food”. Definitely recommend this one to foodies and word lovers alike.

16.Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiographyby Laura Ingalls Wilder. Edited by Pamela Smith Hill. A must for any “Little House” fan. This is the non-fiction attempt to tell her story that Wilder wrote before fictionalizing her family in the lovely Little House series. The annotations are helpful and packed with interesting information. One thing I really appreciated was the demonstration of how Rose Wilder Lane contributed (and used the source material herself) but this should help put to rest the theory that Lane actually wrote the series. My one complaint: this book is huge and unwieldy. If you had planned to curl up in bed with this one, the way you used to with a Little House book, you will be uncomfortable, to say the least.

17.Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britain’s Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WWIIby Deborah Cadbury. Fascinating and generally well written. The only thing I really don’t understand is the author’s decision to leave the Princes’ sister (The Princess Royal) out of the story. If you liked the movie The King’s Speech, you would probably enjoy this book.

18. Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literatureby Lisa Borgnes Giramonti. Beautiful rooms that will make you wish you can just climb into the pages of this book.

19.Go Ahead & Like Itby Jacqueline Suskin. See full review here.

20.Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day by Todd Henry. Inspiring and thought-provoking, along the lines of Jon Acuff’s Start or other business type books. Whether you work in an office or for yourself, this book will help you evaluate what’s working and what isn’t and how to fix it, without giving such ridiculous (and pointless) advice as “follow your heart”.

21.The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemptionby Matt Chandler. An insightful look at The Song of Solomon. Would be good for pre-marital counseling but it’s also a good read for people who have been married for years.

22.How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Lifeby Ruth Goodman. Thorough and well researched. Never loses sight of the real people who lived in these days.

23.Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spentby N.D. Wilson. Defies simple categorization. I’d probably list this one as memoir.

24.How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poemby Rod Dreher. An excellent book – one of the best published in 2015 so far. Self-help for people who don’t read self-help (and way better than most self-help books anyway).

25.How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Muchby Samantha Ellis. I realized this wasn’t going to be a favorite when the author was discussing her love of Wuthering Heights so breathlessly at the beginning of the book.

26. Blessed by Less: Clearing Your Life of Clutter by Living Lightlyby Susan Vogt. Primarily interesting to me because the author is local. I suspect we wouldn’t agree on much regarding politics or religion, but I appreciate the reminder that More Stuff does not equal Better Life.

27.The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wallby Mary Elise Sarotte. I highly recommend this look at the “accidental” fall of the Berlin Wall. Well researched and well written, this book challenges assumptions and ably introduces the real lives involved. Even if (maybe especially) you’re old enough to remember these events, you ought to read this book.
Favorite summary quote:

In short, how the Wall opened is a story of highly contingent events. Many of the causes would even be historical trivialities, if not for what followed. These causes…show that significant events do not always happen for significant reasons.

28.Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latinby Tracy Lee Simmons. A masterpiece. If you’re interested in education or society or history or any number of other topics, you ought to read this book. I found it inspiring. (And yes, we’re going to try our hand at making Greek one of our pillar subjects in our homeschool.)

29.The Living Page: Keeping Notebooks with Charlotte Masonby Laurie Bestvater. I wanted to like this one. After all, many of my homeschool friends do and I’m an inveterate “Keeper” since childhood: notebooks, papers, interesting scraps from magazines and newspapers…

The problem comes with the fact that Bestvater is a True Believer in Charlotte Mason. I’m beginning to find CM’s followers almost cult-like. They examine her books, her writings, and any related ephemera seeking for further insights about what is the “right” way to apply her method. What notebooks should we keep? How? What are the ways these methods are FAR superior to all other?

It’s tedious in the extreme to this non-believer. And, yet another mark of cult-like behavior, if anyone dare point out an inconsistency or fault, the True Believers say something like, “You don’t understand her [or her book or what she meant or…]. She actually said[meant / implied…]…”

If this book had been a look at the notebooks that Charlotte Mason actually kept for herself, that would have been one thing. But it also purports to be a prescriptive for what type of notebooks (or Keeping) our children (and we ourselves) ought to be doing and that is where it loses me.

30. The Best Yes: Making Wise Decisions in the Midst of Endless Demandsby Lysa Terkeurst. Do you have trouble saying “No”? Do you manage to say “No” but second guess yourself or feel guilty for ages after? Do decisions paralyze you or do you believe there is such a thing as a perfect decision?

You need to read this.
31.The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williamsby Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. This is not a complete biography of any of the four cover subjects. It is a look at their literary lives and how they intersected with the others. An unsung Inkling also gets a second glance: Warren Lewis (the older brother of C.S. Lewis). If you love Narnia or Middle Earth, you will want to read this book. This is one of the best books of 2015, in my opinion.

32.How to Love Your Neighbor Without Being Weirdby Amy Lively. I’m sure if Ms. Lively and I could sit down together we could have an interesting discussion about interpreting scripture (I’m assuming a discussion wouldn’t cause me to lose my temper with this problem as much as reading it in a book did). I appreciated some of the practical tips in this book, including some of the suggested questions or things we could say to break the ice with neighbors we haven’t met yet. Things I didn’t love: the tone (frequently condescending), the pacing (it really drags in a few places), or the advice to introverts. (Which was basically: just get over it. Wow. So helpful.)

33.The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizingby Marie Kondo. Yes, some of this deserves to be parodied. No, I don’t think she’s entirely practical for large families (A lifestyle very foreign to her own), but over all I enjoyed this book more than I expected too. Some of the translation was clunky, but it has a quirky charm that grew on me. You can see some more thoughts that were inspired by this book here: What Marie Kondo and L.M. Montgomery Taught Me About Homemaking.

34.So You’ve Been Publicly Shamedby Jon Ronson. Kind of like a long-form Wired piece. Really needed to deal with the fact that this is what “PC” speech has wrought. Ronson dances up to some interesting, difficult issues, but then he dances away to something else, almost as if he’s afraid to really deal with the big issues.

35.The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile Worldby Owen Strachan. See my review here.

36.How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracyby Stephen Witt. Fascinating story. I’m the generation that used (and loved) Napster but I’d never heard most of this story.

37.Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of Englishby John McWhorter. Some truly fascinating material but I’m not sure what audience McWhorter was writing for. It’s not quite scholarly enough for scholars and it’s a bit too scholarly for laymen (like myself). Anyway, much of it went over my head, but the parts I understood (or think I understood) were truly interesting.