Top 10 Books for 2014

I haven’t been a diligent reader this past year, which is an irony since I started a book review site over the summer. To be fair, most of the books I reviewed are self-published, and only a few are even worth reading. But that is not an excuse for me not to discover and read new books. I cannot go back to reading Catcher and the Rye and Franny and Zooey every time I run out of good books to read.

Anyway, while I have not read a lot of books in 2014, I think the few that I will list here are interesting ones. Looking back at my past two top 10 lists, I’d like to believe that I’ve grown to appreciate a wider range of genres. I’ve gone from reading mostly YA books in 2012 to reading more poetry this year. And by poetry, I mean actual, good poetry and none of the cringeworthy crap that Lang Leav writes.

Anyway, here goes.

1. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith – Having enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling, I looked forward to the release of The Silkworm. In the first book, the victim was simply pushed over a balcony and the incident mistaken for a suicide attempt. In The Silkworm, the victim is doused in acid, disemboweled, and carefully posed in a particularly alarming position. Compared to the first Cormoran Strike novel, this is much darker, more graphic, and quite audacious—all of which I loved, naturally. But I think the most interesting quality of the book is that it is almost completely devoid of the J.K. Rowling I grew up reading, which is not a bad thing at all.

P.S. BBC One is adapting the Cormoran Strike novels into a TV series, and J.K. Rowling herself is writing the script. Something great to look forward to in 2015!

2. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer – One of the main reasons why The Interestings is listed here has nothing to do with the main plot of the novel, which involves a scandal. The reason this book made a mark is the strange familiarity readers will develop with each of the characters at one point in the novel and the stark realization of how small we all are, with our ordinariness and humdrum lives, and how each of us tries to make peace with that. Simply put, it struck a chord.

3. Winger by Andrew Smith – I read this only because I was paid to review the book after. I didn’t have any expectations going into it, but this turned out to be one of the most memorable YA books I’ve read in two years. Laugh-out-loud funny for almost 80% of the book, Smith cold-bloodedly snatches the comedy away within the last few chapters and turns the entire novel upside down, with it becoming heartbreaking and emotionally scarring. The narrative is well-written, the illustrations complement the story, and despite feeling betrayed by the author, I can’t help loving this book.

4. Mission 66 by L.E. Fryer-Stokes – Technically only a novella, this is another book I read only because I was paid to write a review. A self-published author, L.E. Fryer-Stokes is a fantastic storyteller and incredibly skilled in creating different distinct voices. The protagonist is a hired gun who is an expert in creating a different identity with every mission he is given—slightly reminiscent of Sean Bean’s character in Legends sans the FBI badge. Mission 66 delivers a cogent narrative that draws readers in immediately. It is refreshing, full of wit and action, and the ending is so satisfyingly good and frustrating at the same time. I can’t believe the book isn’t a big hit yet.

5. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger – I’ve had this book for a decade but never read it fully because I have never felt ready to fully appreciate it until recently. I think the best way to describe it is to say that different versions of me have different favorite Salinger novels. My fifteen-year-old self will always have a special place for The Catcher in the Rye in her heart; the twenty-two-year-old version will swear that Franny and Zooey just reverberates through her in an almost spiritual way; and the twenty-seven-year-old version has rediscovered so much about herself and other people because of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction.

6. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs – Initially, I thought this was going to be over-the-top scary, what with the book cover and the vintage photos included inside. But the book was a pleasant surprise—it’s original and weird and magical and riveting. Ransom Riggs did a great job incorporating the photographs into the story and they add to the charm of the book, but even without the photographs, the novel is a great read all on its own.

7. No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay – I have rekindled my love for spoken word poetry in the past year, and Sarah Kay had a lot to do with it so I was psyched when I found out that she was releasing a collection of her poetry. No Matter the Wreckage speaks to everyone’s inner dreamer. It’s raw and delicate at the same time, truthful without being rude, and brave without being a brag.

8. I Wrote This For You by Iain Thomas (pleasefindthis) – I only came across this book because it was one of the suggested titles on Amazon when I checked out No Matter the Wreckage. This is an altogether different experience, sort of an art mash-up, with the photographs and accompanying poetry and short verses giving readers a sense of nostalgia. I’ve never really been into contemporary poetry because there are too many people pretending to be poets but are not (I’m looking at you, Lang Leav). But I Wrote This For You is neither pretentions nor annoying. It’s a precious book that will make readers go “Awww” at every turn of the page.

9. The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan – This is another unique book that I came across this year. And the main reason I bought it is because there was a mention in the blurb about one of the characters being in love with Holden Caulfield. When I bought it, I thought it was going to be a novel. When I opened its pages, I thought it was a collection of poetry. But somehow it is neither. It is almost a stream of consciousness from the characters, some written in verses, some in prose, but all the time it is always touching and stark, and each voice captures teenage angst, love, hope, and heartbreak.

10. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath – I haven’t finished this nor would I want to anytime soon. But I am including this on the list nonetheless because it is too great to leave behind. Sylvia Plath has always been the female version of J.D. Salinger in my life. She is so profoundly fascinating, and she is more than her depression and consequent suicide—her journal entries prove that. More than anything, her journals humanize her.

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First Fictional Love

We’ve all had a first love, but for many people it involved a real person with which they had an actual relationship. For me, it happened through a book.

I read Little Women when I was thirteen. It was my gateway to a lot of firsts—the first time I read a classic novel, first coming-of-age story, too; first time I truly identified with the protagonist, the first time I fell in love with a fictional character, and the first time that my heart got broken by that character. In many ways, it was my initiation into the reality of love. I understood it and didn’t at the same time. How could two people who go along well and seem to be perfect for each other not end up together? I was stumped. The movies were wrong.

At thirteen, I knew little about how things around me worked. I barely understood fractions. I had no idea how many bones were in the body. I didn’t understand why I had to wake up at 5 AM for school; it wasn’t technically morning yet. And after reading Little Women, love was included in the already countless things that baffled me.

The novel was a challenging read because it was so long, and it seemed like a book that only grownups could appreciate. I don’t remember exactly what made me decide to go from reading The Baby Sitters Club to Little Women, but I remember the feeling when I was first introduced to the March sisters. It was like reuniting with long-lost friends. And I remember the first time I encountered The Laurence Boy. I think it’s safe to say that Theodore “Laurie” Laurence ruined men for me very early on. He was perfect. Articulate, a lot of fun, a bit moody but charming, very thoughtful and caring, Laurie is literally the boy next door. And he loved Jo. Usually, with that kind of formula, the story ends happily ever after. But theirs wasn’t the happy-ending variety. It was tragic.

Christian Bale as Laurie in  the 1994 adaptation of Little Women

Christian Bale as Laurie in the 1994 movie adaptation of Little Women. I know. He’s beautiful.

John Green supposedly said, “We romanticize the people we adore.” But when you fall in love with characters, it’s already there. The romanticizing has already been done. All you need to do is fall. So when you believe in something, and the author shatters it for you, it’s like sweeping the rug from under your feet so suddenly that you hit your head and you’re left with a terrible headache that lasts for years.

But this is not a pathetic confession of my inability to see beyond the fact that fictional characters are exactly that—fictional. Quite the opposite, this is to say they are more real than others set them out to be. At best, these characters are a combination of all the things we wish we (or others) were. At worst, they are personifications of all our fears.

The point is that today, fractions still confuse me, I’m not sure if there are 205, 206 or 207 bones in the body, and I still don’t think it’s fair to make little children wake up at 5 AM for school. But one thing did change. Laurie showed me what it means to love someone. And how, after a rather horrific heartbreak and rejection, you could find yourself again. And isn’t that the point of first love? More than show you that it will not last, it gives you insight into yourself and other people through the characters.

I got over my frustration over Jo and Laurie many years ago. But just like any other first, I will never forget their story and what it taught me.

Brevity is the soul of wit

I know. The previous post was very verbose, and the lack of photos and variety in my blog make me sound more uninteresting than I probably am. I’ve done this before and I’ll do it again now. Here are photos of random things I love, with brief descriptions about them. And yes, the title is a quote from Hamlet.

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What the house looked like when I moved in last year. I like black and the gloominess of it. Looks cozy lol

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My favorite part of the house, for obvious reasons.

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I’m back working in Makati. Not sure for how long, and that’s both exciting and terrifying at the same time.

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Cabin Pressure. The only radio comedy I listen to. It’s hilarious.

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What else can I say? I kind of miss Singapore. Or maybe just the idea of being somewhere else.

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One time when I was bored out of my wits, I drew the Cat in the Hat.

Books I bought with the GCs I won early this year.

Books I bought with the GCs I won early this year.

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And the books I bought just out of impulse.

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Together, they look like this. Arranged by color, not by height. Because it looks prettier that way.

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Staple cure for being sad.

Top 10 Books for 2013

Let me start off by saying that I really tried to read more books this year. Granted, not all of my reading choices were particularly good (Yes, I managed to finish 50 Shades of Grey. Yes, I regret it. Let’s move on). But at least now I can say with absolute certainty that it is full of crap.

That being said, it’s that time again when I make a list of the top 10 books I’ve read all year. I know 2013 hasn’t officially ended, but I doubt I’ll be able to finish more books by December. I’m backlogged as it is with the reading challenge I started in Goodreads. I set a total of 30 books I needed to finish by the end of the year. I’m currently 14 books behind schedule, Goodreads tells me.

But on a lighter note, I did manage to read some pretty cool books, not counting Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed and E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve also rediscovered my love for Shakespeare, specifically Hamlet. Plus, I was able to get a copy of Sherlock: The Casebook, based on the BBC production, and reading it was awfully entertaining.

Anyway, here are my top 10 books. Be warned. This is going to be a long entry.

1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer – this book is a work of art. And not like other good books are works of art. If this book were music, it would be one of Boccherini’s cello sonatas. And if it were a painting, it would be a Matisse. If it were poetry, even, it would be one of Keats’. It has a gentle, melancholic flow to it, sometimes playful, other times funny, but overall contemplative.

Favorite quote: I like to see people reunited, maybe that’s a silly thing, but what can I say, I like to see people run to each other, I like the kissing and the crying, I like the impatience, the stories that the mouth can’t tell fast enough, the ears that aren’t big enough, the eyes that can’t take in all of the change, I like the hugging, the bringing together, the end of missing someone.

2. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz – a friend recommended I read this and I’m grateful I took her advice. The book offers an interesting view of relationships, love, and life. The book is a compilation of stories about Yunior, a Dominican, and the different relationships he’s had from youth to adulthood. I mostly enjoyed Diaz’ metaphors; I’ve always liked people who could state truths in an original but piercing manner.

Favorite quote: You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You quote Neruda. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. Because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.

3. 11/22/63 by Stephen King – I’m a little embarrassed to say that this is the first Stephen King novel I’ve read. I’ve never really developed a liking to horror novels, but I couldn’t resist reading this thriller. It has JFK and time travel in it. I just HAD to. Plus, King is a brilliant storyteller. He’s not overly dramatic and doesn’t drone on with painfully detailed descriptions of almost everything that you lose focus on what you’re reading. Reading this book has been a great adventure. And wow is it long!

Favorite quote: Don’t look back, never look back. How often do people tell themselves that after an experience that is exceptionally good (or exceptionally bad?)? Often, I suppose. And the advice usually goes unheeded. Humans were built to look back; that’s why we have that swivel joint in our necks.

4. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) – after being disappointed with The Casual Vacancy, this book was a pleasant surprise. It isn’t as riveting and as the Harry Pottery series, but why would it be? It still keeps you on a short leash, though, and you start missing it when you put it down long enough; you start thinking about the absurdity of the web of controversies in which most characters are involved. By the time I finished it, I did want to read another Cormoran Strike case immediately.

Favorite quote: How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.

5. Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen – I’d seen the movie first many years ago before I realized it was based on a book. The movie adaptation was brilliantly set in the 60s. It captured the innocent and lighthearted spirit of the book. The book was set in present day and is equally lovable. For me, Flipped is a profound book about self-discovery disguised in teen fiction about a thirteen-year-old girl’s first love.

Favorite quote: A painting is more than the sum of its parts,’ he would tell me, and then go on to explain how the cow by itself is just a cow, and the meadow by itself is just grass and flowers, and the sun peeking through the trees is just a beam of light, but put them all together and you’ve got magic.

6. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick – Pat Peoples is adorably hilarious. This is such a feel-good love story about two unusual people finding their way through their own craziness and in love. Reminds me a bit of Benny and Joon, now that I think about it. The book leaves me with the same feeling of fondness for the characters as much as Joon and Sam did.

Favorite quote: So I’m thinking this is the part of my movie where things appear as if nothing is going to work out. I have to remind myself that all movie characters go through this sort of dark period before they find their happy ending.

7. Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding – Bridget Jones is not my personal heroine. I’m nothing like her, but I find her ridiculously lovable. You can’t help but root for her throughout her misadventures and be genuinely happy when she finally ends up with Mark Darcy. And now that Helen Fielding’s just released Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (now featuring a middle-aged Bridget), I can’t wait to know how her life turns out.

Favorite quote: When someone leaves you, apart from missing them, apart from the fact that the whole little world you’ve created together collapses, and that everything you see or do reminds you of them, the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts adds up to you got stamped REJECT by the one you love. How can you not be left with the personal confidence of a passed over British Rail sandwich?

8. Sherlock: The Casebook by Guy Adams – The Casebook is basically like a behind-the-scenes look at all the episodes from the two seasons of Sherlock, but more enjoyable. The book is a split between John Watson’s journal, with a lot of funny exchanges between him and Sherlock through post-it notes, and commentaries by Guy Adams about each of the six episodes, giving readers an exclusive scoop about the littlest details in the show that makes it so fantastic.

Favorite quote: (from Sherlock, in response to one of John’s journal entries) If you ever use this many quotation marks in a sentence again, I’ll have the locks changed while you’re out.

9. The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett – I’ve been a Whovian for only nearly a year, but I’ve become a huge fan ever since watching my first episode. I believe Doctor Who is one of the most brilliantly written shows not only today but of all time. It’s difficult not to be amazed with The Doctor. And because I got officially hooked with the show because of The Eleventh Hour episode, I consider Eleven to be my Doctor, but Ten is easily a close second. This year is the show’s 50th anniversary, and BBC has produced a lot of merchandise commemorating this event, including eleven novels, each one featuring a different Doctor. The Silent Stars Go By is Eleven’s story, so I bought it first. And although Dan Abnett doesn’t belong in the newer generation of Doctor Who, he still manages to perfectly capture the voices of Eleven, Amy, and Rory. Plus the story features the Ice Warriors, which are menacing and scary Martian soldiers. Overall, perfect Christmas story, if I may say so. This may be considered cheating because my favorite quote is not from the story itself, but from the author’s foreword. But as it’s still part of the book, I think it counts.

Favorite quote: We measure our personal journeys against the space-time curve of the programme’s history. Certain moments along that curve vividly evoke special things for each of us, and whisk us back to a particular time and a particular place, like a Proustian TARDIS. Yes, I know. I can’t believe I just wrote ‘Proustian TARDIS’ either, but we’ll move past it and remain friends.

10. Hamlet by William Shakespeare – I love Shakespeare, okay? I love Hamlet, and once you get used to the flow of the Shakespearean language, it gets easier for you to read it. Hamlet contains some of my favorite quotes of all time, and you can’t really fully grasp the weight of each line if you don’t know the context from which it came. I love the complexity of Hamlet’s character, his demise at his uncle’s betrayal and his inner dilemma between suffering and death. It’s very difficult for me to pick just one favorite quote, but I have to. This is from Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia when he was already suspected of losing his mind. Was Hamlet going crazy because he was too besotted with Ophelia as his letter implies; or was his infatuation merely the result of his madness? Huh. Insanity or true love? Is there really a difference? Regardless of the real motive, Hamlet’s words still reverberate through me.

Favorite quote: Doubt thou the stars are fire,
                         Doubt that the sun doth move,
                             Doubt truth to be a liar,
                                 But never doubt I love.

50 Words or Less

More often than not, I decide to read a book all the way through because of the first sentence (or two). While I believe in giving books a chance regardless of rather weak beginnings, powerful opening sentences immediately get me hooked. For me, it’s the litmus test for novels. That may sound biased, but there you go. Ironically, this is not the case when I meet new people—first impressions mean nothing to me. But this post is not about my strangeness. This is about great novels that will make you miserable, snort in laughter, nod in instant agreement, or doubt your own existence in 50 words or less.

1. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.”

2. The Stranger by Albert Camus

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

4. Anthem by Ayn Rand

“It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see.”

5. Little Women by Luisa May Alcott

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

6. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

“Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.”

7. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

“Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend—the weekend of the Yale game.”

8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions.”

9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

10. The Giver by Lois Lowry

“It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.”

11. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

12. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?”

13. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

As with rules, this list has exceptions. The following are opening sentences that have more than 50 words but less than a hundred.

1. A Curious Incident the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

“It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shear’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.”

2. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green

“When I was little, my dad used to tell me, “Will, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” This seemed like a reasonably astute observation to me when I was eight, but it turns out to be incorrect on a few levels.”

3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”