2019 Book Review – Fiction

December 31, 2019

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: This is my Novel of the Year! Cue the confetti and trumpets! I adored the writing, adored Eleanor, adored the unfolding of her story. Eleanor’s character is odd and opinionated and off-putting, and she obviously has reasons for being so, and as you discover those reasons your heart breaks more and more for her and you just want to step into the book’s world and hug her (if she’d let you) and take her out for coffee. I laughed, I cried, and when I finished reading it I immediately wanted to read it again. Status: Novel of the Year. (NB: a friend, who is a reading kindred spirit, listened to the audiobook and had a strong negative response to the character, so I listened to a few minutes of the audio and discovered that I felt similarly. This may be one for the paper crowd only!)

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (audio): Set in the marshes of the North Carolina coastline during the mid-20th century, this book pulled me entirely in to its world. I haven’t felt so captivated by a book’s setting in some time, and the story’s heroine is a perfectly-written extension of that setting. I listened to this one through Audible and I can’t say that I loved the reader, although she wasn’t bad at all, but I do wish that I had read this one with my own eyeballs. Status: highly recommend.

Matchmaking For Beginners by Maddie Dawson: A delightfully silly book, with an uninspired story but inspired storytelling. I kind of suspect that Ms. Dawson doesn’t realize what a good storyteller she is, and I’d love to see her write something with a little more depth. (And maybe she has! She’s written other books too, but this is the only one I’ve read.) Anyhow, the author does a great job writing quirky characters and drawing attention to the things that make them tick, the things that make them ridiculous, and the things that make them human. Status: lightly recommend.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde: I don’t know why, but it makes me terribly happy that the same person who wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray in all of its disturbing (yet insightful) darkness also wrote THIS light, clever, incredibly funny little play. It’s a fast read, even if you’re not much of a reader of plays or classics, with plenty of unstressful misunderstandings and lots of entertaining wordplay. Bonus: when you’re done, you can watch the movie with Reese Witherspoon, Rupert Everett, and Colin Firth! Score. Status: highly recommend.

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King: This isn’t a novel, it’s just a novella, and it’s one of four in the book that I’ve linked. I can’t speak to the other three stories just yet, but I’m here to offer my applause for this one. If you’ve somehow never seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption, read this first, and then for heaven’s sake, go watch the movie. Whenever I watch that movie I feel really uncomfortable for the first half, and I keep thinking Why did I like this so much? And then it gets to the second half and it’s so beautiful and heartbreaking and Brooks’s story makes me weep every time, and by the end I’m like THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY WHOLE ENTIRE LIFE. Reading the book is much the same. It has all the same pain. The same ugliness. The same beauty. (But it doesn’t have Brooks.) This may be one of those rare instances where I think the movie actually pulled off something bigger and better than the book did (for reasons I’d be happy to discuss), but as source material, this one’s a winner. Plus, it’s short! So go read it! Status: highly recommend. (Content warning: It’s Stephen King, so, you know. It’s not horror, but there are graphic elements to it.)

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion: I don’t know how a book about zombies can be so philosophically stirring, but this book is oddly lovely, with pretty little lines all throughout in which the main character laments the loss of his humanity. He lingers to notice sunsets and music, to see the intricacies of created things, to ponder the importance of having a name. None of that changes the fact that this IS a zombie book, with all the requisite brain-eating, so it’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s also an exploration into what makes us human, and whether or not that’s worth saving. Status: unexpectedly recommend.

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (audio): Nick Offerman is basically Mark Twain reincarnated, and this book was made to be read by him. I listened to this with my boys, and we all enjoyed it heartily. If you’re looking to dive into Mark Twain with your kids, this is the way to do it. Status: highly recommend (this version).

Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers: Long have I wanted to read something by Dorothy Sayers, and I’m happy to finally check one of her books off my list. I’ve often seen her essays about education or work quoted in other things I’ve read, so I assumed I would read The Mind of the Maker or some other one of her nonfiction works first, but this mystery novel (published in 1923) was a delightful surprise. It’s funny in the way that P.G. Wodehouse is funny, and reveals a sharp and clever wit in Ms. Sayers. It’s not a must-read, but it’s a fun one. Status: lightly recommend.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry: Well, I wanted to like this. I waited long enough to read it, and it came recommended by many whose opinions I trust. Additionally, I’m a big fan of Wendell Berry’s poetry, so I had looked forward to finally reading a novel by him, but I’m sorry to report that I didn’t care for this book. I like the way Wendell Berry writes, as usual, but I just didn’t find Jayber to be a sympathetic character. He was an odd, foolish kind of person, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to root for him. At a certain point in the book, I wasn’t even sure what I’d be rooting for anyway. His desires were misplaced, his ambition unimpressive, and his relationships shallow. I just don’t know what I was supposed to take away from this story. I’ve heard it said that people tend to like either this book OR Hannah Coulter, so I will probably try reading that one sometime soon to see if I like it more. Status: not a fan (sad trombone).

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (audio): This is one of those childhood favorites that I thought I might never share with my boys, since it is, after all, a “girl book.” And then one day I was like, “What?! A ‘girl book’?? What does that even mean?!” It’s not like we’re not talking about The Babysitter’s Club here. So I got this version of the audiobook on Audible and we all listened to it and I loved it and the boys liked it just fine. This book has really stood the test of time, folks, so if you’ve never read it or if you just want a literary palette cleanser from all the yuck out there, give this one a read (or listen). Status: highly recommend. (P.S. There are roughly one thousand two hundred and forty seven audio versions out there. Probably lots of them are good, but I spent a while listening to samples before picking this one that I’ve linked to, and I was really happy with it.)

The Lost Husband by Katherine Center: This was a sweet, obvious little romance about a widowed woman with two young children who all go to live on the farm of her estranged aunt and (spoiler!) she falls in love with the fellow who helps out around the farm. The writing was average, the story was too. It was nice, I liked it just fine, I’ve already half-forgotten it. Status: neither recommend nor…un-recommend?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: YOU GUYS. There’s this book — you’ve probably never heard of it — called The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s cuh-razy. Yes, yes, I realize I’m more than thirty years late to the game, but I’m finally here to weigh in (you’re welcome), and you fans out there will be relieved to know that I very much enjoyed the book. Atwood’s writing is fantastic, and I loved the way the story unfolded, with tidbits of information coming in slow but captivating pieces. I wasn’t a huge fan of the epilogue. If you’re also late to the game I don’t want to give too much away, but I think the book would have been better without all of the explanations that came at the end. I don’t think the epilogue should have been omitted entirely, but I think it should have been much shorter. Status: recommend.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: The opening chapter of this book had me completely spellbound, and the rest of the book continued in like manner. It wove a dystopian tale of a world destroyed by a deadly flu virus, but it told the story by moving fluidly back and forth between the present and the past to give us ever-converging vignettes of the various characters. Mandel writes prose like poetry, and describes scenes of chaos like she’s describing art. It was a lovely read. Status: highly recommend.

The Green Ember by S.D. Smith (audio): Oh, this book is so great. It’s like Redwall mixed with Watership Down with a dash of Lord of the Rings and/or Tale of Despereaux. I love the characters, love the world Smith created, love letting the rabbits’ hope for the Mended Wood resonate in my own soul. The reading level would be too high for my seven-year-old, probably just right for my twelve-year-old, and too low for my fifteen-year-old, but that made it a great book to listen to together as a family, because the story itself can appeal to all ages. Status: highly recommend for families.

North! Or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson: Number two in the Wingfeather Saga, and it’s even better than the first. I’m an Andrew Peterson fan, and I love that this series of books exists in the world. I read it to my older two boys, and we’re looking forward to numbers three and four, but I will say that it’s not the easiest book to read aloud, and I’m not exactly sure why. I usually like reading aloud, but I can never quite get into the flow with this one for some reason. The story itself, though, is exciting and fun and sometimes deeply moving, and I love the memorable characters and magical world of Aerwiar. Status: recommend.

That’s a wrap on this year’s books! My list for 2020 is already long, but I am always happy for more recommendations, so keep ’em coming! Happy New Year, and may you find plenty of beautiful stories to feed your mind and nourish your soul in the year ahead. xoxo

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Elisa Joyful 

Hi friends! You have landed at elisajoyful.com, and if you are looking for some warm and witty words to read, you’ve come to the right place, so get comfy and settle in. If you’re looking for the SiNes of Life podcast, you’re almost in the right place - just click on the “Listen to Podcast” link below. And if you’ve come here because you’re interested in having me speak at your event, you can contact me below!

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