Us by David Nicholls

usBook – Douglas Petersen, a scientist, is trying to cope with his wife Connie’s announcement that she thinks she wants to leave him. Also, his relationship with his recalcitrant seventeen-year-old son, Albie, has always been rocky. Douglas hopes that their family’s planned “Grand Tour” of Europe will somehow help them resolve their issues. He sets some personal goals for their inter-rail trip, including “It is not necessary to be seen to be right about everything, even when that is the case.” As they embark on the trip from their home in suburban London, Douglas narrates their experiences, and shares the story of his marriage to Connie and struggles as a father to relate to his son. Told in short chapters, and alternating from past to present, Douglas kept me entertained with his dry humor, insights and predicaments as he tries to approach his life in a new way.

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 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.

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?

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.

The Good Neighbors by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh

kinGraphic novel - Rue Silver is just an ordinary teenage girl. She’s got a great best friends, a boyfriend who’s in a band, a college professor father and a crazy mother. Who’s missing. Oh, and sometimes she sees things that can’t be real. No big deal. Okay, so maybe she’s not that ordinary. Her mother is a faery, which means that Rue isn’t entirely human, either. And her grandfather Aubrey has a plan – a plan that will wrest her town from the grip of the humans and leave it under the rule of Faerie. What happens to the humans who live there, well, Aubrey just doesn’t care. Rue cares. As much as she can.

The Good Neighbors (in three volumes, Kin, Kith and Kind) is a wonderful, eerie story about love, duty, and humanity. Rue goes from ordinary high-schooler to fully embracing her faerie heritage, with all that implies. Rue is culturally human, she grew up as a human, but she is fey too, and she finds it all too easy to leave human things behind. The story really belongs to her. The rest of the characters are more like stock fairy tale characters. It’s not a terrible flaw, given how fast-paced the story is. And, of course, Ted Naifeh’s art is stunning. The two-page spreads of faerie and human crowds are spectacular, and while the art never distracts you from the story, it definitely rewards a closer second (and third and fourth) reading.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniBook – In 1686, eighteen-year-old country girl Nella arrives in Amsterdam to begin her life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She doesn’t know him well and finds his household strange and unwelcoming. His sister, Marin, runs the household and seems to lead a pious, austere life. The servants, Otto and Cornelia, are friendly, but cautious. In addition, Johannes is often absent and when he’s home, he’s preoccupied. Then, Johannes presents Nella with an extravagant wedding gift, a miniature version of their house. Nella is confused and overwhelmed by the gift, but with little to occupy her time, decides to begin furnishing it. She hires a miniaturist through the mail, and when the contents start to arrive, she is both fascinated and terrified. The miniaturist seems to be able to not only replicate their household down to the last detail, but also seems to be able to predict the future. As events begin to unfold, Nella struggles to figure out what’s real and what is an illusion. What I found most interesting about this book was the historical detail. Events transpire to illuminate both the lifestyles and attitudes of Amsterdam during this time period. The characters were interesting and complex. This story was full of secrets and intrigues and kept me guessing until the end.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

houseBookHouse of Leaves is the scariest book I have ever read. It’s not gory or gross or even immediately frightening – there are no monsters or demons or serial killers. It’s just completely terrifying.

The story takes place in several layers. Johnny Truant is our primary narrator, telling us about this manuscript he was helping his neighbor Zampano write. Then there’s the film Zampano is writing about, a documentary made by world-famous photographer Will Navidson about the house he and his family have moved into. At first the house seems perfectly normal, and then one day they discover a hallway doesn’t seem right. They double-check the blueprints, they measure the house inside and out with a laser sight, and there’s no way around it – the house is three-quarters of an inch larger on the inside than it is on the outside.

And then it gets bigger.

I think it’s the different levels of narrative that make House of Leaves so effectively terrifying. In trying to figure out whether or not the film is real in Johnny’s world, you start to forget that Johnny’s world isn’t necessarily your own, and everything seems to bleed together around the edges. House of Leaves isn’t the kind of book you can read all at once and get it over with; even if you could get through it in one sitting, it’ll haunt you later.