ABC’s Favorite Reads of 2011, part Blogmistress

At last!  The final installment of our Favorite Reads of the Year! Here are Part A, Part B, Part C, Part D, Part E, Part F, Part G, and Part H.

These favorites come your very own Tweet– and Blogmistresses: Hayley and Sophie. Besides tweeting and blogging, Hayley also writes most of the newsletters that drop into your inbox every month and buys books for ABC Amsterdam’s Children’s Book section.  And besides tweeting and blogging, I buy the books for the Romance, Military, Military Fiction, Audio Books, Crafts and Nature sections at ABC The Hague.

We would like to thank all of our colleagues for rising to the occasion so magnificently in these busy times, and giving us so many Top 5s!  We would also love to thank all you wonderful readers, for continuing to visit our blog. We love working on it, and we hope you love reading our efforts.  Happy holidays!

We would still like to hear about what YOUR favorite reads of 2011 were, too! They don’t have to be books published in 2011, just read in 2011. Please send your top 5 to blog@abc.nl, and be sure to include your mailing address so we can send you an ABC gift voucher as a thank you. We’ll be publishing your Top 5s at the beginning of 2012, so you have the rest of the month to hand them in. Thank you to those who have already mailed them in!

And now, without further ado… our lists!

Hayley

1. The Night Circus –  Erin Morgenstern
Wonderful, in every sense of the word. An exquisitely imagined, multi-sensory delight with vivid and fantastic images on every page. One of those rare books that you pick up whenever you can just so you can immerse yourself in the world within its pages. Morgenstern makes it very easy to disappear into her book – every sight, sound, smell, taste, texture and sensation is perfectly rendered; from the velvet curtains, to the caramel apples, to the crispness of the autumn air. I regretted having to turn the last page of The Night Circus, and that is always the sign of a great book.

2. Moab is My Washpot – Stephen Fry
My favorite of all of Fry’s books. A funny, endearing, entertaining and very, very honest account of the great man’s early life, up to the infamous point at which he ended up in prison for fraud. The highlight for me was the detail about his days at boarding school and his literally shocking misadventures. Fry writes in the same way that he talks – eloquently, self-effacingly, warmly, and with many, many fascinating detours that make even the most mundane of details sparkle.

3. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Mary Roach
“Being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.” If that amuses you, then you will love this book as much as I did. Roach takes a wry, matter-of-fact approach to her subject, exploring the unusual and surprising uses and abuses of dead bodies on body farms, in medical schools and crash test labs and even, perhaps, the kitchen. The tone is macaber but light, irreverent but respectful, and the facts are fascinating and plentiful. I found this surprisingly difficult to put down.

4. Jane Eyre –  Charlotte Brontë
I’m sure I read this, or a version of it, when I was ten or so but I don’t remember much beyond what happened to Jane at boarding school. Reading it again, I gained an entirely new perspective. Far from the tacky gothic romance that I remember, this is a book with surprisingly modern attitudes to love and spirituality, and it contains episodes that are quite shocking for a novel published more than 160 years ago. With a delightfully imperfect hero and heroine, passion, pathos, suspense, drama and dark beauty wrapped up in some wonderful prose and a killer story, its really no wonder it has remained a bestseller. I was so sorry to finally finish Jane Eyre that, prompted by a fellow fan, I embarked on a thoroughly enjoyable month-long quest for the definitive cinematic Rochester. I can announce with absolute conviction that you’ll find him in the 1983 BBC adaptation. 🙂

5. The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
For such a fascinating country, with so much scope for human drama, there’s a surprising dearth of fiction about North Korea. Not much is known about what really goes on beyond the DMZ, and that makes it all the more intriguing. The Orphan Master’s Son does a great job of satisfying people like me who have devoured everything they could get their hands on about the regime, and also those who know little about the stranger-than-fiction life under the Kims. He is particularly effective in showing just how an entire nation can believe the crazy lies promulgated by its leaders.
This was a hard book to get into: the pacing, different voices, the narrative jumps, and some of the casual violence and horror were difficult, and I found that none of the characters really ‘stuck’ for me in a way that made me want to spend time with them. But I’m glad I carried on reading because there was so much to love: the simply brilliant prose, the wonderful juxtaposition of bleakness and beauty, and the elements that could have come straight from a bestselling thriller or romance.

Sophie

The Hunger Games trilogy – Suzanne Collins
It seems that Hunger Games fever has hit ABC The Hague this year, with Ester, Martijn, and Nyjolene also picking this trilogy as part of their favorites. It’s worth it, though, and you should really try to read the book(s) before the movie hits theaters next year. Get to know Katniss and Peeta as they head to the Hunger Games as tributes from their district, to join 22 other tributes in a fight to the death. And this is young adult literature? Yes. Collins manages to combine both grisly and human elements in her story, a heroine who is more than a little reluctant, and secondary characters that inspire and revile. Middle/High school teachers, if you are reading this, consider part 1 of this story for your curriculum! More than enough layers and themes to be found here.

Bury Your Dead – Louise Penny
I raved about Penny’s Canadian-set Inspector Gamache series last year also. 🙂 I’ve now read all seven that have so far been published, and I think it’s one of the best contemplative detective series out there, but I have to make a special mention for book 6. For this is Armand Gamache’s darkest hour. A wrong arrest, a terrorist attack, the police force in direct physical conflict – and Gamache, that wise, kind, compassionate, admirable man, is right in the middle of it all. He is truly one of my favorite literary characters to spend time with, as he looks and listens far more often than he runs and shoots, and to see him emotionally suffering so deeply was heart-wrenching for me. If you are looking for a crime series that focuses on the little pleasures and blessings in life as much as whodunnit, give this series a try.
Also, although you *can* read the books separately, you really *should* read book 5, The Brutal Telling, before Bury Your Dead, as they are directly linked. Although really, you should start with book 1, Still Life, so you can be properly introduced to Inspector Gamache and his team. He would appreciate it. 🙂

In Europe – Geert Mak
I actually read this in Dutch – gasp! I didn’t know I could still enjoy reading Dutch books, but Mak’s style is kind and easy-going, as he takes you on his journey throughout Europe, visiting those places that were instrumental in the continent’s 20th-century history. He manages to blend travel writing and historical writing in a truly pleasurable way. You learn so much along the way, not just about Europe’s history, but also about the patchwork of countries that make up the continent. He is very good at conveying the devastation of wars, sometimes even decades later, and his thoughtful interjections about the EU, to name one of the subjects he touches, are enlightening to someone like myself who knows only what she hears on the news.

The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook – Tarek Malouf
I was gifted this book by my friend, and it was one of the most useful gifts ever! My 9-year old daughter and I decided to make every single recipe in the book, and, although we are momentarily stalled (thanks to her new school schedule, which leaves less time for mother-daughter baking)(an outrage, I know, and I’m writing a protest letter as you read this), we have made all of the cupcakes and a few of the regular cakes so far. Big hits have been: Hazelnut Chocolate Cupcakes (featuring NUTELLA!), Marshmellow Cupcakes (her favorites; far too sweet for mom!), and the Hummingbird Cake.

Stitch by Stitch: Learning to Sew, One Project at a Time – Deborah Moebes
I’ve had a sewing machine for two years, but not really a good idea of what to do with it. Sure, I made a dress for my daughter, but that was beginner’s luck. Then Stitch by Stitch came in for stock, I took one look, and I simply had to reorder a new copy for the store because this one was coming home with me (this happens too often). Moebes writes with infectious enthusiasm about the craft of sewing, manages to answer the niggling doubts that your self-consciousness throws out there every now and again, and helps you get thoroughly comfortable with the machine. The book is filled with projects that start simple (sewing napkins) and, step by step, incorporate more and more daunting skills until you have yourself a hand-sewn blouse, with buttons and cap sleeves.
The only issue I have with the book is that the included cd-rom with patterns did not work properly for me (but then, I have a Mac at home). I managed to open the documents eventually, but it involved some rather creative thinking. Also, the sizes of the patterns only go up to Size Fit Person, whereas I am a Size Not As Fit As She Ought To Be. Again with the creative thinking there, then. 🙂

Honorable mentions go to The Song of Ice and Fire series (all 5) by George R. R. Martin (immersive fantasy by an author not afraid to kill his main characters)(with the disclaimer that I haven’t gotten to Rothfuss yet ;-)), It Had to Be You by Susan E. Phillips (great contemporary romance with a hero and heroine that don’t exactly start out like you would expect them to in this genre), and Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (such a joyful main character set in such a dismal part of London – this story will break your heart; and High School Teachers, if you’re still reading, this is also highly recommended for your curriculum!)(paperback just out, too).