Books: Picks and Pans of 2012

I must tip my hat to my old college roommate — Kathy — who sends a Christmas card each year that includes a list of all the books she’s read during the year, as well as those of her husband and two daughters. I look forward to her card so I can compare my reading year to hers. I will never forget the year we moved and her card never made it to my new house. I was bereft. So here’s to Kathy and a happy 2013 of reading to all.

In order of worst to best:

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford — I am not sure if I was more appalled by the writing, the plot or the fact it’s been on the New York Times Best Seller List for months. This is Bugsy Malone meets World War II, a tear-jerker in which improbably enough, two 12-year-olds fall in love. It is chock full of modern sentimentality which makes much of the actions of the cast (and I mean cast since all of the characters are made of cardboard) seem inauthentic for the 1940s. If it hadn’t been a pick for my book club I would have tossed it after the first chapter.

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin — The topic was interesting . . . Henry Ford’s venture into creating a rubber plantation in Brazil. And I did learn a few interesting facts; i.e., rubber is native to Brazil and hence has many natural enemies so when rubber tree seeds were spirited out of the country and planted in southeast Asia, they thrived without the disease and insects from their native land. This fact was lost on Mr. Ford. The problem with this book? The story only provides enough material for a long magazine article. A lot of redundancy and beside-the-point side trips.

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry — Yeah, I know. Great title. I had to read it. Besides, it is the true story of an English girl who is working in a Japanese bar as a “hostess” and suddenly disappears. The first three-quarters of the book was a page-turner about all sorts of twisted people and lifestyles, mostly in Tokyo’s murkier districts. But once we know what happens to the girl, the rest drags. Still, it’s worth picking up if you like true-life crime stories.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstein — Since this was also a book club choice and a best seller, I went in with low expectations. It is hard not to like this books since the writing is quite lovely, and the love story between the main characters sizzles. My biggest complaint is that the plot tends to drift, and there are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the book, which is a pet peeve of mine.

No Longer a Gentleman by Mary Jo Putney — Since I began writing romance, I no longer read it. I don’t want to subconsciously absorb other writer’s ideas. Also, I need a break from romance after working on my own. But now and then, I just want something delightful to read with lots of drama and a happy ending. This particular book was a recommendation from Oprah, who doesn’t often recommend romances. Fun read with a wounded hero and a fearless heroine. Good for beaches, airports, standing in long lines, etc., or wherever you need a quick escape.

Midnight in Peking by Paul French — This was another nonfiction book set in one of my favorite time periods, the 1930s. The setting is the English quarter of old Peking on the eve of the Japanese invasion. It is a murder mystery surrounding the discovery of the mangled body of a young English woman. The book traces her life and last days, as well as the investigation by the English, Chinese and, subsequently, the Japanese. If you like period pieces and a good mystery, you’ll enjoy this book. A great cast of dissipate, sinister characters.

Gabriel’s Woman by Robin Schone — As I mentioned before, I don’t read much romance anymore, but I met Robin at a meeting of my writer’s group, the Chicago North Chapter of the RWA. She came with Kathryn Falk, who is the founder of RT Book Reviews. Robin gave a very nice talk so I wanted to read one of her books. Gabriel’s Woman was orginally published in the 1980s and is one of the first “erotic” romances. It also has the psychologically scarred hero who is saved by the innocent love of a woman . . . a popular theme for romances of that period. I loved it.

Kingdom of Stangers by Zoe Ferraris — I blogged about this book this past summer so I won’t go into detail here. I will simply say that I am curious about the middle east and day-to-day lives in places like Saudi Arabia. Great insight, plus a killer is on the loose.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson — It is not often that I am fooled by a twist in a book that upon reflection makes total sense. This reminded me of the movie “Sixth Sense.” Great story and lots of twists and turns that will keep you turning pages until well past midnight. Read this book.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson — My favorite book of the year. In addition to my fascination for all things 1930s, middle east and World War II, I am interested in North Korea. It started last year when I read “The Ginseng Hunter” for book club, which chronicled some of the experiences of North Koreans during the recent famine. Although “The Orphan Master’s Son” is written by an American, it does not lapse into an American POV (look at our supermarkets, free speech!, we can pursue our dreams, etc.). The viewpoint is always North Korean and the characters are more savvy about the world than I would have expected. Still, life in North Korea is harsh and uncertain, and I was cheering on the intrepid, unforgettable hero as he navigated the dangerous political waters of this closed, brutal nation.

That’s it. I wish you a happy and fruitful new year. See you all in 2013.

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