27. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
In an undefined future world, humans have lost the ability to see all parts of the color spectrum. Color vision is inherited; some folks can see red; some yellow; some blue, etc. A caste system has been created where those who can see color are arrayed above the Greys, who can see no colors. There are also dangerous beasts and human-eating plants around the countryside, so everyone must stay inside carefully defined habitation areas. Plus, it's dark at night. Not being able to see the full spectrum means eyes that can't see at all in the dark.
It's a very different sort of book from the Thursday Next novels, full of a certain disturbing menace and confusing plot twists, and a government that passes and enforces ridiculous rules like Leapbacks, where certain technologies become illegal, and a ban on spoon production.
26. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
This was SUCH a good book! It follows a company of Marines in Vietnam, led by Waino Mellas, the main protagonist. Mellas begins the story as a new lieutenant, fresh out of training, dropped into the war. I had a hard time getting through the first chapter, with its welter of names and lingo that you'd never keep straight. However, towards the end of the chapter I realized this was intentional; throughout the book the author is at great pains to bring the reader into the story, to make you feel what they are feeling. Mellas is just as confused at first as you, the reader, are. From there we follow the company through their first small battles, long marches, leeches, jungle rot, razor wire, larger battles, racial tensions, and deaths. There's anger at the callous orders coming from the higher-ups, which result in a lot of suffering for the soldiers; there's the joy of friendships between people who would never have gotten to know each other outside the war; there's the nihilism of being involved in a pointless war; there's the deep love that the Marines feel for each other and the pain when they lose comrades. By the end of the book the reader feels almost like a veteran. I actually felt disdain for the new people coming into the company towards the end. I'm not a big reader of war novels, though I'll read anything if it's good. This was good.
25. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
The story of Elinor and Marianne seems rather incongruous with the rest of Austen's work. There is a lot of description of the countryside, perhaps in parallel to Marianne's tumultuous nature, and the Dashwoods are always going on walks up into the hills, down through the valley, over fields, along lanes, always walking. I've read this a couple times now, and as before was rather surprised at the youth of the main characters, especially having Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in my head. They are only 16-17 and 18-19. No wonder Marianne's like that; it's pretty common for sixteen-year-olds.
24. Boston: A Topographical History by Walter Muir Whitehill
Started in Spring 2012; finished in Spring 2013. I set this aside for most of a year before picking it up again. It's a very good history of the changing landscape of Boston; it's just rather large and ponderous, and the final chapters are tacked on as the author updated it every 10 years or so. He likes City Hall! Appalling.
23. The Shield of Three Lions by Pamela Kaufman
I read this book 10 years ago when I was in the Peace Corps. I remember being completely obsessed with it. It took me about three days to read, and I would go to work and could barely contain myself until I could get home and keep reading. I remember it being super gripping but not the greatest writing. It actually seems like a pretty good book, upon second reading. The author had done her research; for example in the Middle Ages people believed that the liver, not the heart, was the site of the passions. Plus this novel is one of my favorite kinds of story: historical fiction involving cross-dressing. The main character is a nobleman's daughter, Alix of Wanthwaite, whose family is killed and their castle sacked. Alix disguises herself as Alex, a boy, to travel and try to get redress from the King. There's a lot of suspense as Alix is trying to get her castle back before puberty kicks in and she can no longer be believable as a boy. There are sequels, which I didn't know about, though I suppose there must not be any cross-dressing in the later books.
22. The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
I first came to like Michael Chabon with his underappreciated novel Wonder Boys, and the other novels of his that I've read, even the celebrated Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, didn't make as much of an impression. I enjoyed this novel, set in an alternate reality where the state of Israel has basically been established on an island in Alaska and called Sitka. It is populated mostly by European Jews and their descendants who escaped before the Holocaust (given another name in the novel), and also some survivors and Israeli settlers who were forced out in the 1948 war with the Arabs. Sitka is about to be re-absorbed by the USA and its citizens have to apply for residency, so many of them need to leave again.
This is all background to the real story, though, a murder mystery with wide-ranging implications. It was hard to imagine an entire civilization similar in size to Israel, but in Alaska, and I kept reminding myself to picture an actual city rather than a sparse settlement.
21. Houdini Heart by Ki Longfellow
I've never read a book quite like this. The protagonist is an novelist and ex-Hollywood screenwriter escaping a recent tragedy by returning to her fondly remembered town in Vermont. Shades of Lovecraft (thought I haven't read his stuff) and a sense of horror permeates the novel, but it's never really realized and it takes a long time to find out the full extent of her past. At first it seemed like a ghost story, or I thought perhaps she was having a break with reality, and I'm actually not sure even now what was going on in the story, and I don't think I was supposed to.
20. The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
This was for my feminist sci-fi and fantasy book club. This is possibly the best urban fantasy I've read, not that that's saying a whole lot, but I enjoyed it. Alysha Gale is a member of a family of magic workers, who seem to use mostly charms which they draw on people and objects; a woman-centered sort of magic although there's some question as to whether the Gales are completely human. Aly goes to Calgary to run her grandmother's junk shop, and discovers there a lot of humans and non-humans who need saving. Also, there are sexy dragons. It was a fun book, and I'll probably check out the sequel(s?).
19. Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall
I have a rather morbid fascination with the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Church. It blows my mind that there can be people with such vastly different views on life in the same country as me, not to mention the way everyone but especially women and girls are treated in the sect is horrible. This is the memoir of Elissa Wall, who grew up in the FLDS church, and believed its teachings but had a bright mind and asked too many questions, and was married off at 14 when she started to get to uppity. On top of that, the man chosen for her was her 19-year-old cousin who had bullied her and was the only person in the community she couldn't stand.
Ms. Wall eventually became the main witness in the court case that sent Warren Jeffs to prison for accessory to rape, for having orchestrated her marriage and disregarding all her pleas, first that she didn't want to get married in the first place, and later that her husband was hurting her. The same thing happened to many other girls, but she was the one who came forward. Unfortunately, although Ms. Wall is happily married now to someone else and living outside the FLDS community, many other folks are still enmeshed in the sect, which really is a cult. The people are brainwashed to believe that if they don't follow the Prophet's dictates, they will be cast out of the community and will not go to Heaven with their families. Over the years they have been more and more cut off from the outside world, most of them now living in walled compounds and continually expecting the return of Jesus on Earth. The author's bravery in the face of all that is pretty astounding.
18. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Twelve-year-old Jason is in the middle rung of popularity at his school, but his standing can go up or down at a moment's notice. He's a stammerer, a fact he goes to great lengths to hide, and his parents are not exactly happy with each other. His older sister is hard on him, as siblings can be, and he has odd experiences that seem almost on the lip of magical realism.
David Mitchell can write. Every sentence is perfectly constructed, and he brings out the terrible side of being a young teenager (and is there a good side?) with a visceral immediacy that reminded me of a lot of feelings I might have preferred to forget. The descriptions of bullying brought back Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye in my mind.
I enjoyed this one a lot more than Jacob de Zoet, which I found tedious in places. Black Swan Green is never tedious, and I didn't want it to end.