Books: What I Read in December

Sad news: I didn’t achieve my goal of reading 50 books in 2015. I got to 45, which isn’t bad, but isn’t quite the mark I was going for. After not really getting through many books in November, thanks to play reading season, I picked things up again in December and read six. Having two five hour flights to Iceland, plus about five hours on the train from Philly to JFK airport each way kind of helped with that. Without further ado, here’s  what I read in the last month of 2015.

Shopaholic Takes Manhattan and Shopaholic Ties the Knot

I’d admit it. There’s no shame. I enjoy the “Shopaholic” series. On my way to and from Iceland, I tore through both Shopaholic Takes Manhattan and Shopaholic Ties the Knot. In case you’re not familiar with the series, it follows the adventures of Rebecca Bloomwood, a Londoner with a shopping problem. In the first book in the series, Becky’s a personal finance writer who’s deep in debt thanks to her impulsive purchases. By book two, she’s got a spot on a TV show and is invited to head to Manhattan with her boyfriend, who runs his own PR firm. By book three, her boyfriend, Luke has proposed to her, and she faces the conundrum of having a big blow out wedding at the Plaza hotel in  NYC or a quiet home wedding back at her parents’ house in England. Thing is, she doesn’t make the decision in time and both weddings end up being planned.

That might not sound that interesting, but it’s all pretty hilarious. Becky gets into what you can only describe as “scrapes” because she doesn’t say “no” or make the right decisions when she should. Her situations are pretty ridiculous, and sure, the series isn’t very realistic, but that’s not really the point. Maybe I’m weird, but I see the whole thing as comedic gold. It’s wild and over-the-top and pretty great airplane and train reading.

Wonder by RJ Palacio

I read Wonder for one of my book clubs. It’s the story of a 10-year-old boy, Auggie, who has a severe facial deformity. At the start of the book, his parents have decided to enroll him in school for the first time and he’s quite nervous about it. The book takes place over the course of Auggie’s first year at school, showing how he adjusts and how his classmates adjust to him.

Wonder’s target audience is younger readers, but I was surprised by the sophistication and depth of the characters throughout the book. Although the first part of the story is from Auggie’s perspective, narration changes throughout the book, and we get to hear the story from a variety of characters, from Auggie’s older sister Olivia to some of the friends he makes at school. Even smaller characters, such as Via’s new boyfriend and her once-best friend, get a section.

Admittedly, the message of the book is a little heavy  handed (be kind to others), and there were points when I was like, OK, I get it. But, it was still a good read and if it helps kids and teens understand why they shouldn’t bully kids who are different from them, then all the better.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I know some people are way into Nick Hornby. I’m not really one of them, but I did love High Fidelity and About a Boy (the book versions, though the  movies were good too). Funny Girl has a different feel from either of those two novels. For one, it’s a historical work, set mainly in the 1960s. For another, it’s not really a first person point-of-view. There’s a weird distance between the narrator of the story and the characters, which feels strange. At first I thought it was because so many of Hornby’s leads are male and here he is writing about a woman, but no. Because although you might think based on the title that the focus of the book would be on that woman, Sophie Straw, a comedienne from Blackpool who ends up getting her own TV show pretty much right after moving to London, well you’d be wrong.

Sure, Sophie figures prominently in the book. A lot of it is about her. It’s a lot of telling though, not really showing. OK, so she’s pretty and has a big chest, but how is she funny? The book also focuses a lot on the writers who create the show she ends up starring in. I felt that their story (being two gay men in a time when being gay was illegal) overshadowed hers quite a bit. Let’s not even get into the guys Sophie ends up with, including her failing leading man co-star Clive and the sort of drippy but all around OK guy producer she ends up marrying. It felt as though in trying to highlight each character’s challenges and struggles Hornby ended up shortchanging each of them.

All this is to say that if you love Hornby’s other books, Funny Girl might be a bit of a change. I’m not sure if it’s a bad change or not, or if the book is weaker than it could have been. It just felt that way.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Here are a few things I though while reading Gold Fame Citrus: This feels like Margaret Atwood.  And wow, I want to write like this.

The book is set in the near future, after California and the west have given way to drought and a “dune sea” replaces much of the land as we know it today. Luv, a former child model and piece of living propaganda, lives in the desert with her boyfriend, Ray. They’ve shacked up in the abandoned home of a starlet, making use of her discarded evening wear and Hermes scarves. At one point, they find a toddler at a rave and that’s where things get weird.

The couple decide to travel east, abandoning the drought ravaged West. Things go wrong, they get separated and Luz and baby end up at the camp of a cultish group, led by a strange dowser, with whom Luz begins an affair.

Gold Fame Citrus (the title refers to the three things that led people to seek their fortunes out west  originally) is a great piece of dystopian fiction. Watkin’s created a weird, gripping and believable world. Sure, parts of it feel overwritten and I’m not quite able to visualize what a dune sea is (may be it sort of looks like an expanse of sand that shifts from time to time, swallowing up things without a care?), but it was book that I pretty much couldn’t put down from start to finish.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Speaking of Margaret Atwood, I spent the last week of December reading The Robber Bride. It’s described as a reversal of the Grimm tale of the Robber Bridegroom. A woman, Zenia, seduces, discards and for the most part destroys the partners/husbands of three college friends over the course of several decades. The novel looks at the three women’s pasts, the role Zenia played in their lives, and how she got to their men.

Who is Zenia? The answer varies based on which of the characters you ask. She’s a former prisoner of war, a former prostitute, or a cancer survivor. She fakes her death at least once. That she uses and discards men isn’t up for question, but whether that makes her a malevolent figure or not might be. In her mind, she was doing Charis, Tony and Karen a favor, but they don’t see it as such.

One of things I love about Atwood’s work is that going into a story you’re never sure if you’re getting something speculative or something more realistic. Sure, the story of Zenia is a bit out there, and there are some other worldly elements, thanks to Charis, who’s all into auras and such. But, feels psychologically realistic. The characters live in Toronto, much of the action takes places in the 1990s at a restaurant, much of their pain is believable and real. The premise might come from a fairy tale but it’s fully plausible.

What Else Did I Read in 2015?

Here’s everything I read last year:

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