& Fridays: Best Books of 2015

Welcome to the Second Annual Ampersand Read Best Books of the Year Award!

It seems so strange that I can say “second annual” on this blog – I’ve been doing this for almost two years? WHAT?

Okay, I’ve recovered. This is my end of the year coverage of some of the best books that I have read all year. They were not all published this year, and they are by no means the only good books I read all year, but I did read every single one of these between January 2015 and December 2015, and they all stuck with me. Many of the categories are similar to last year’s, with a couple new ones thrown in.

Without further ago, THE BEST BOOKS I READ THIS YEAR!!

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Fiction. Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

The Royal We

Most Surprising: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
I think I was definitely just expecting a fluffy, light read that I would read for fun and then be happily on my way. And while that was the case: it is a light, happy romance that basically rips a love story from real life and tweaks some of the details and names, I found that Ireally, really liked The Royal We. It was beautiful and wish-fulfilling and so much fun to read. I devoured it and pushed it onto all of my friends.

 

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Fiction. Publisher: Simon & Schuster, August 2015

A Window Opens

 

Close Second: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
This one was so surprising because its synopsis makes it sound so frivolous and obnoxiously chick lit-heavy. While it did have some of those tropes, it was also heartbreaking and real and a good read.

 

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Del Rey June 2006

The Lies of Locke Lamora 

Best Start of a Series I Read All Year: The Lies of Lock Lamora by Scott Lynch
I love a fantasy series that pulls you in to a complex, well drawn world and holds you there. I found it hard to put Lamora down because the setting was so intense, the characters so witty and fun to be around. The plot kept you guessing and the heists kept increasing in complexity. A good first book keeps a reader for the rest of the series. I intend to keep going with the Gentleman Bastard series (partly because that’s an awesome series name, too).

 

goldensonBest Sequel I Read All Year: Golden Son by Pierce Brown
Uggghhhhhhhh….remember how I hated this ending? A cliffhanger, Pierce Brown?! WHY?! Luckily, Morning Star, the third and final installment of this amazing series, comes out February 9th. Which is still two months too long. I might buckle down and re-read the first two (like I did when I first read Golden Son) just to get in the proper mindset. I also freaking love the books, so that’s just an excuse. If you can’t already tell, I want all of you to go read this series right now.

Poison by Sarah Pinborough. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Titan Books

Poison

Best Cover: Poison by Sarah Pinborough
This cover is probably best appreciated in person. The texture, embossed details of the title and graphics, and the simple feel of it in your hands is really, really well done. It’s so eye catching to me. I think this fairytale re-teller did an awesome job capturing a reader’s attention.

Close second (and third): Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff will win another award later one, but I certainly waxed poetic about the effort that went into this entire book, including the elaborate cover

And The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, whose dreamy watercolor painting cover of a girl in an ethereal gown and setting made me lunge for it on the shelf.

The Fold by Peter Clines. Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Crown.

The Fold

Best Twist: The Fold by Peter Clines
The whole premise of The Fold is a brainy consultant goes to investigate a mysterious machine, which claims to have mastered teleportation. What it really does is so much more dangerous and interesting, and the whole mystery is revealed very skillfully in this novel.

AND FINALLY (drumroll please)………..

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Published: October 2015

Illuminae

The Best Book I Read All Year 2015: Illuminae

Ah, Illuminae. I didn’t really know what to expect from this collaboration between one of the authors of the Starbound series, whose first installment I loved and whose second installment left me a bit disappointed, and another author I had never read, but Illuminae is fantastic. The sheer work and writing and designing that went into the book is so impressively mindboggling to me, but the story is great to boot. The two enemies: a zombie-like virus, and a smart and vindictive AI system that controls the whole ship, are amazingly balanced. The story and obstacles had me flipping pages rapidly, pausing only to admire the beautiful artwork and design choices the authors made. 600+ pages flew past in just a couple of days.

Close Second: Golden Son by Pierce Brown
I feel bad for the books I read close to the beginning of the year, because I don’t remember them as fresh as I do books at the end of the year for these awards. Perhaps if I read Golden Son and Illuminae back to back, I would give the edge to Golden Son. Who knows. Both are excellent. I am excited there is at least a little more in each series.

Honorable Mentions:
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
A fantasy novel that is surprisingly lovely, complex, and interesting. Another book I stayed up late flipping the pages for. Novik can expect a regular reader out of me.

In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen
I almost put this as a “Close Second,” in a couple of these categories. This common trope, of a group of people’s lives and relationships over the span of a few years, can be overdone. But this story brought something fresh to the table with really, really good writing and characters I wanted to hear more from.

So there you have it! What were some of the best books you read this year? What do I absolutely have to read that I haven’t yet?

Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

 

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& Review: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Fiction. Publisher: Simon & Schuster, August 2015

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Fiction. Publisher: Simon & Schuster, August 2015

The Book Itself: Graphic and Inception-y  = awesome! A book about a woman involved in books.

My ReviewIn “A Window Opens,” beloved books editor at “Glamour” magazine Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as “wearing many hats” and wishes you wouldn’t, either). She is a mostly-happily married mother of three, an attentive daughter, an ambivalent dog-owner, a part-time editor, a loyal neighbor and a Zen commuter. She is not: a cook, a craftswoman, a decorator, an active PTA member, a natural caretaker or the breadwinner. But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in–and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers―an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life―seems suddenly within reach.

Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new “balancing act” (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up and her work takes an unexpected turn. Readers will cheer as Alice realizes the question is not whether it’s possible to have it all, but what does she―Alice Pearse―really want?

I am disappointed with that synopsis.

You know why? It makes the story sound flippant, the characters sassy but flat. Whereas I found the characters, for the most part, to be complex, flawed (in a good way), and nice to spend time with. I think the book deserves a better blurb.

It makes this sound like chick lit to the max, with a healthy dose of glamorous magazine world thrown in (the author was, after all, a writer for Glamour – it’s a magazine I happen to love, but I didn’t want a book obsessed with that). I found it to be much more about finding oneself in a job…and maybe not liking what you see. It was about dealing with a sick parent…amongst life in all of its busy, stressful glory. It was about trying to be there for your kids…and your husband, and your parents, and yourself. I liked the layers at work here, and found that even if Alice complained a lot and made a lot of questionable decisions, I liked reading about her coming to realizations and balancing everything.

The book certainly triggered an emotional reaction in me as well. No one wants to think about a parent getting sick, let alone getting seriously, life-threateningly sick. And for Alice, this is the cherry on the top of a husband who has lost his job and is trying to strike out on his own,  three kids who are growing up with less and less of their mother, a best friend who hates where Alice has chosen to work and considers it a personal insult, and a new job that is proving much more challenging, and different than what she signed up for. All of these things make you feel bad for Alice, but the way her father’s illness is handled in the book is deft and, in a way, lovely. It affects the tone of everything else in a way that it should.

All this is not to say that there aren’t some cloying aspects to the story. It product-name drops. Alice sometimes picks up her Baggalini bag and chooses between her Tommy Hilfiger minidress or the Herve Leger wrap dress (these aren’t actually the brands used within the narrative, but you get the idea). It might add a touch of modernism, but I don’t want to have to look up the exact bag Alice is rooting through, or the dress she keeps smoothing over her legs when she sits. Maybe the core audience knows all of those brands right off the bat, but I just found it to detract from the story as I read.

And Alice herself can get cloying. She clearly has an awful boss, and you want to shake her every time she flip-flops about liking her as a person. She sometimes treats her husband (a rather flat character, even though he’s a key factor in everything that’s going on. I wish he got more story time) like total crap, and the same goes with her parents and brother. But she’s your main character, and you want to root for her. Eventually she sees the error of her ways.

So this book isn’t as fluffy as that synopsis and the recommendations in the magazines would have you believe. There’s a real emotional root and backbone to Alice’s character arc. I liked it, and you will too – just ignore the blurb.

My Grade: B