Summertime, and the reading is easy! Well… maybe not easy, but certainly it’s the season of beach bag books, and reading on your back patio with a glass of lemonade into the long twilight… for everyone without kids, that is! My reading schedule is pretty much as it is the rest of the year – a few pages here and there, snatched in the coffee line and for an hour or so after the kids are finally asleep. ‘Tis the season of my current state of life. But I’ve read some great stuff in those little stolen minutes this year, so here (only a few weeks late!) is a list, in no particular order, of the best things I read from January to June. (As always, these aren’t necessarily books published in 2016 – I just happen to have read them this year.)
The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson – Starting off on a funny note, I absolutely adored Bryson’s follow-up to his classic Notes from a Small Island for its twentieth anniversary of publication. Bryson travels around his adopted home country and sprinkles his hilarious observations with funny family anecdotes and fascinating bits of history and general knowledge. He can be crass occasionally, but that’s (mostly) part of his charm.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot – This nonfiction bestseller had been on my to-read pile for ages, and I finally got to it in February, and WOW was I ever blown away. Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient in the 1950s whose cells were harvested, without her knowledge, and became HeLa, a famous strain of cells which keep perpetuating themselves. HeLa cells have been shot into space, blown up in atomic bombs, and made billions for the medical industry – and Henrietta’s descendants can’t afford health insurance. It was a stunning, sobering look at medical ethics and race, and it should be required reading for everyone.
March: Book One and March: Book Two, by Congressman John Lewis – I’m cheating a bit and adding both of the currently available volumes of Congressman John Lewis’s graphic memoir of growing up and becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement. The books are fascinating, poignant, upsetting and uplifting – and feel more relevant than ever, in our current racial climate. Lewis is still serving his country, doing important work – like leading a sit-in on the floor of the House, to demand gun control legislation. The third and final volume of this wonderful graphic memoir is coming out soon and I can’t wait to get a copy.
Greenbanks, by Dorothy Whipple – This was my first Dorothy Whipple (and the only one of her books that my library had in its collection) but certainly not my last. I loved this quiet, unassuming, but powerful family drama set in England around the time of World War I and between the wars. The strength in the book was in its characters – so perfectly drawn that they were fully alive – particularly matriarch Louisa and her young granddaughter Rachel. I closed the book reluctantly when I was finished, because I wanted much, much more time with these people.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler – Back when I first started book blogging, a reader recommended Octavia Butler to me and told me to start with Kindred. I finally got to it, and it was an amazing reading experience. Deeply visceral and troubling – Butler does not shy away from describing the brutality of slavery – but incredibly engaging and powerful. I had a major book hangover after finishing Kindred, and I’m already looking forward to my next Butler.
Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E.M. Delafield – Another one that had been on my list for awhile (which seems to be a theme for this year) I picked up Diary of a Provincial Lady and was laughing about three sentences in – and I didn’t stop laughing until the final line. The humor was dry and British – just how I like my humor – and had me absolutely rolling. The Provincial Lady describes all the tribulations of her life – French nannies, bad food, persistent lack of funds, hothouse flowers that won’t grow, and children who play the same pop song on repeat for days on end – and it’s one of those books where nothing much happens but it’s all wildly entertaining.
Journey to Munich, by Jacqueline Winspear – A new Maisie Dobbs mystery is always an occasion for celebration, and this was a good one. Maisie is tapped by the British O.S.S. for a secret mission into the heart of Germany, to retrieve an English political prisoner being released in Munich. While Maisie is in Munich, she also takes on the task of persuading the daughter of an acquaintance to return to her family – a painful task, because the woman in question is the person Maisie holds responsible for her husband’s death. Maisie confronts her personal demons while feeling increasingly troubled by the trajectory toward war that she is witnessing in Europe. This was one of the best Maisie stories I’ve read – I love it when Maisie gets involved in spying – and I can’t wait to see what she gets up to next. However, I have a request: it’s been two books now with hardly any Billy. That needs to change in the next book!
A Tyranny of Petticoats, ed. Jessica Spotswood – I absolutely loved this volume of short stories about “belles, bank robbers and other badass girls,” collected from acclaimed YA authors such as Elizabeth Wein and Marissa Meyer. Short story collections sometimes – usually – fall flat for me, but this one was an exception. Every story had me on the edge of my seat – but The Red Raven Ball, a spy story set in Civil War era Washington, D.C., was my favorite.
The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson – The new release from the author of the perennial favorite Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which I still haven’t read – must correct that) was hotly anticipated, and I was excited to get my hands on a library copy. It tells the story of Beatrice Nash, new Latin mistress (which is apparently a scandalous thing?) in the village of Rye (a real place). Beatrice quickly falls in with the two beloved nephews of her patroness, and before long the three are good friends. Meanwhile, refugees descend on the village, the boys go off to war, and love blooms. It was a wonderful, sad, lyrical story.
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin – This was the first Jemisin I read (although I have a copy of The Killing Moon somewhere, and it looks amazing) and is the start of a new trilogy. I had to press through about fifty pages before I understood what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks was going on, but once I got accustomed to the world-building and to the writing style, I was hooked. By the end of the book I was in tears and clamoring for more, and I insisted that my BFF Rebecca (an avid reader who loves science fiction and fantasy) download it to her kindle and read it IMMEDIATELY so we could discuss it. (She did, and she loved it too.) I won’t even try to describe the plot, because it would take paragraphs – I’ll just say that it was captivating and I’m anxiously awaiting the second book.
Not too shabby for six months of reading! I noticed a couple of themes in my reading throughout the year – or at least, in the books that impressed me enough to wind up on this list. There was a lot of “I’d been meaning to read this for ages and I finally got around to it” – both in terms of books (Henrietta Lacks, Diary of a Provincial Lady) and authors (Jemisin, Simonson). I read a lot of wonderful books about race and racism this year, which feels very relevant right now. And there was a healthy sprinkling of new discoveries (like Dorothy Whipple) and old favorites (Maisie!). I’m excited and energized by the books I’m picking up lately, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of 2016 holds.
What was the best thing you read from January to June?