20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

ghostsBook – I didn’t love every story in this collection, but I loved the collection as a whole. There’s an art to putting together a short story collection, and most collections just don’t quite make it. 20th Century Ghosts flows smoothly from one story to the next, sometimes featuring a kind of free-association logic that’s downright humorous in effect. A mention of Kafka in the end of “Pop Art” ties into “And You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a story about a boy who wakes up one morning having turned into a giant insect, and the Biblical overtones in that story give you completely the wrong impression of “Abraham’s Boys” until you finally learn the good doctor’s surname. It’s a little thing, a fun trick, but I enjoyed it.

I’m having a hard time picking a favorite story, to be honest. The opener, “Best New Horror,” is a fairly predictable sort of “but it was all really true!” story about a horror writer and an editor, but the self-awareness of the story raises it to a new level. “The Black Phone” is a terrific anti-serial-killer story (as opposed to all the stories in which the serial killer is the star of the show), “The Cape” features a very convincing creeper of the sort you’d hate to meet on a dark sidewalk but probably already have, and “Voluntary Committal” is both the scariest and the most heartwarming story in the book (and won a well-deserved World Fantasy Award).

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates

fallsBook – The Falls is a haunting tale that stays with you even after you finish reading it.  It begins tragically, as Ariah’s newly wedded husband throws himself into Niagra Falls on the first day of their honeymoon. Ariah becomes known as the “Widow Bride of the Falls” and considers herself damned, but remains in the area.  She meets Dirk Burnaby, a handsome successful lawyer and they soon marry. Life is good for the Burnaby’s. They have 3 children, a lovely house, and Dirk’s law practice is thriving.  All that begins to unravel when Dirk is approached by a young mother pleading for his help.  As a result, he decides to launch a lawsuit against a chemical company polluting the Love Canal that causes environmental disasters and illnesses of nearby inhabitants, including the woman and her family. Dirk becomes obsessed with the case and commits all his time and resources to it. Although his heart is in the right place and his need for justice is intense, he is no match for corrupt politicians and big businessman. His altruistic act leaves him ruined and his family broken.  Though his children were young at the time of his lawsuit, when they reach adulthood they re-explore the man that their father was and take up his cause to restore honor to his name.  This absorbing story spans over thirty years and is very thought provoking and well researched.  It is an epic family drama with characters that are well developed.

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

story hourBook – Lakshmi is an immigrant from India, married but desperately lonely. With no friends or family nearby and a husband who belittles or ignores her, she attempts suicide to end her pain. She ends up at a psychiatric unit, where she meets psychiatrist Maggie Bose. Lakshmi opens up to Maggie, who empathizes with her plight. As a condition of Lakshmi’s release, she must continue to have weekly sessions with Maggie. As the treatment continues, the lines become increasingly blurred between professional detachment and friendship, with unexpected confessions and repercussions.

The story is told in alternating chapters by Lakshmi and Maggie as they explore the themes of love, passion, forgiveness and friendship. This book is thought-provoking and I didn’t want to put it down. I loved the gentle wit, the confusion and compassion of the characters. Lakshmi, especially, is a character I’ll remember for a long time.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

hogfatherBook – Every year on December 32nd, the Hogfather climbs into his sleigh pulled by four wild boars to delivers pork products to all the good girls and boys (and sacks of bloody bones to the bad ones). At least, every year before this one. This year the Hogfather is missing in action, and it’s up to Death to make sure the holiday goes forward as planned – and Death’s granddaughter, Susan, to find out what’s happened to the real Hogfather.

Hogfather is the 20th in Terry Pratchett’s sprawling and renowned Discworld series, a collection of novels all set on the fantastical world in the shape of a disc which travels through space on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle, a place where magic works and the laws of nature are somewhat more literal than they are in our own. You don’t have to have read any of the earlier novels to enjoy this one; in fact, Hogfather is one of the earliest novels I recommend, as I think the series is better in its later incarnations. (The newest novel, Raising Steam, is #40.)

Pratchett’s books all have an edge of satire to them, and this one bites just a little bit: it’s full of holiday spirit, but it also skewers the consumerism of the holiday and the sanitized nature of modern stories based on old myths. There’s also a rather fantastic TV adaptation of Hogfather, which is in my regular holiday movie rotation.

Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Choose Your Own AutobiographyBook- You are Neil Patrick Harris. You’ve been on Broadway, starred in 2 wildly popular TV sitcoms, are breaking into the movies, and have a loving husband and twins. You are Neil Patrick Harris. Magician. Actor. Husband.

A choose your own adventure style is an interesting and intriguing choice for a memoir. The reader picks and chooses what parts of NPH’s life to read about. But if they choose incorrectly, they die a horrible, horrible death. Usually right before an imaginary sequel. In that sense, it’s a lot like a choose your own adventure work of fiction.

NPH’s life comes with a lot of privilege, and it’s a very feel-good story. I listened to the audiobook version, and even though I lost the ability to choose which parts I wanted to listen to next, I still got to listen to the trick endings, and was given options. Rather than, “…turn to page 65,” I got, “…be patient, it’s coming.” It’s littered with celebrity testimonials, crossword puzzles, and recipes, which can be found on the bonus PDF CD and downloaded to your home computer. The audiobook is also read by NPH, so if his voice soothes you, like it does me, listening is the preferred method of enjoying this book.

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes

mebeforeyouBook – Louisa Clark has lived in her small village all of her life with her younger sister, nephew and parents. She hasn’t explored much of life beyond her town in which the main object of interest is a tourist attraction castle. She works at a local café, has been dating her boyfriend for seven years and the most flamboyant thing about her is her fashion sense. When she loses her job, she desperately accepts a job as caretaker of a quadriplegic, Will Traynor, who lives on the castle grounds. The events that unfold change Louisa’s life in ways she never imagined. Moyes transported me into the lives of both a caretaker and a quadriplegic to examine the choices, heartache and stresses of their everyday lives. I liked these characters and the dilemmas they face are compelling and complex. While the story is often amusing, it brings serious issues to light and would be an interesting book for a discussion group.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark

strangeBook – Mr Norrell is a practicing English magician. He actually does magic, which is considered beyond strange by all of his colleagues, who focus on research and analysis. And he is about to make a name for himself when Jonathan Strange appears. Jonathan Strange is also a practicing magician, and what’s more, he is young and handsome and a part of Society, which is not really something Mr Norrell can manage. Of course they will study together, and of course they will be rivals.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s long. There are rambling, divergent footnotes. It combines Regency romance sensibilities with war narratives and an approach to magic that’s based more on medieval English folklore than on The Lord of the Rings. There’s a tonal shift three-quarters of the way through that reminds me of nothing so much as Jane Austen writing the adventures of Richard Sharpe. And if you’re like me, that makes this book perfect. This is one of those books I would like to recommend to everyone, even though I know there are so many reasons why many people would not like it. I just love it so much, I would like to be able to share that love with everyone. Do you have any books you feel that way about?

Festive in Death

festiveBook - Festive in Death is the 39th book in this series and while you don’t technically need to read them in order, they’re nowhere near as much fun to read if you don’t.

When Eve’s nemesis, Trina, stumbles over a dead body with one of her friends, Eve is enmeshed in an investigation where the deceased is hard to like. A womanizer who juggles and uses is found dead with a kitchen knife pinning a note through his chest that says, “Santa Says You’ve Been Bad!!!” Sifting through the muck of his relationships and planning for the ever exasperating holidays, Eve does what she always does, looks for justice, regardless of the victim.

I love this series. Saying that, I’m totally biased when it comes to the Christmas themed stories. Some of my friends rolled their eyes and said, “Here we go again, same old, same, old,” but I love that. I love the fact that each year Eve is a little more comfortable with her new extended family, with shopping, and there is an awesome excuse to look into the lives of the bit-players from earlier in the series. I will continue to not only read, but purchase these books for as long as JD Robb keeps writing/publishing them.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

zooBook – Zinzi December finds things. It’s her Talent, the mildly useful side effect that comes along with her Sloth, a physical manifestation of her guilt over her brother’s death that also renders her unfit for work in polite society. She only finds lost things, not lost people, but when her latest client is murdered, she has to take on a missing persons case. Songweza, half of the twin teen pop sensation of the moment, has disappeared, and her manager needs her back before the new record drops.

I had a fantastic time with this book. A South African urban fantasy with a heist plot, it was very different from Beukes’s outstanding serial-killer thriller The Shining Girls, but just as excellent. This feels like it should be a movie, the better to show off the contrast between Zinzi’s lower-class lifestyle and the glitzy pop music glamor of her employer’s world. I also really liked the way Beukes recast the animal companion trope – they’re a little bit like the daemons of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy with a grittier edge. Anyone who’s a fan of Jim Butcher or Seanan McGuire should enjoy Zoo City.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

leavingBook – Thirteen-year-old Jenna Metcalf is searching for her mother, Alice, who has been missing for more than a decade. She disappeared after a tragic accident at the elephant sanctuary where she worked with Jenna’s father. Jenna’s father has been institutionalized in a mental hospital since that day and can’t provide any information. Her grandmother becomes upset whenever Jenna tries to broach the subject of her mother. Jenna is haunted by the lack of closure – did her mother abandon her or did she die? She becomes determined to learn the truth and in the process finds two allies: a disgraced psychic, Serenity Jones and a seldom sober PI, Virgil Stanhope. I learned a lot about elephants and their survival as Jenna reads through her mother’s journals and notes on her scientific study of elephants. This book is a page-turner with surprising twists and turns. Picoult has written over twenty popular novels, including My Sister’s Keeper, Handle with Care and The Tenth Circle.