Best of 2011 and plans for 2012

2006 - 103 books, 2007 - 99 books, 2008 - 77 books, 2009 - 79 books, 2010 - 82 books, 2011 - 85 books

(click chart made via to embiggen)

Every year, same goal of reading 100 books, but the only year I made it was 2006, before I started reviewing.

Newsflash: reviewing cuts into reading time!  But, that’s OK, I like to blog.

To break down the books I’ve read, you can check out goodreads. There you’ll see I read 86 “books”, but I didn’t count the one graphic novel. I did count a couple of novellas because I read some longer 500+ page books as well and figured they balanced each other out. So in 2011, I read 85 books.

Out of those books, I have my favorites, and my favorites have two categories. Those books that blew me out of the water, and those that came very close to doing that. Blew me out of the water always a difficult group to get into, because it’s based on sheer emotion. If I feel euphoric LOVE after I finish a book, it goes on the list. Not many books do that to me. So:

Blew me out of the water:

Close to perfection:

(each image links to my review, if I have reviewed the book).

There are so many books not on this list that I consider keepers. Another 20 books at least, so 2011 was not a bad reading year at all. Check out my goodreads to see all the 4 star books this year not on this list here. I was actually good about putting the books I read on there this year.

Goals for 2012:

  • Again keep trying to get to 100 books read
  • Since I can’t finish a challenge to save my life.. try not to join so many challenges (hah, we’ll see)
  • Buy whatever books I want to. 🙂 I have given up the fight against the TBR, but I know what’s reasonable.
  • Stay relaxed with the blogging thing.
  • And this year, the goal is to catch up on some series. I have a lot of series that I’m realizing I’m behind on and would like to get back into.

Let’s Get Lost by Sarra Manning

Let's Get Lost
Sarra Manning

I loved Sarra Manning’s adult offerings quite a bit, but I had not (until now) tried her young adult books, which I’ve also heard good things about. I bought many of her backlist in a glom-fest a couple months ago and grabbed Let’s Get Lost for a plane ride from NY to AZ.

The Premise: Isabel is a troubled kid. She’s the Queen of the Mean Girls at her all-girl school, and there seems to be no particular reason for her reign of terror. No one can reach her, even after her mother’s recent death. Girls expecting a softer Isabel at school at the start of her last year are disappointed by an Isabel that is just as cold as ever. That is how it looks on the outside. Internally, Isabel feels stuck. She decided to be mean in high school because she was bullied and insignificant in middle school, but now she can’t afford to relax her facade. Her crew aren’t really her friends and are constantly waiting for a slip. That’s when a chance encounter with college-aged Smith comes in. He doesn’t have expectations of what Isabel is like, and when she’s with him, she can be herself. That is, except for the fact that Smith doesn’t know Isabel is still just 17 and still in high school.

Read an excerpt of Let’s Get Lost here

My Thoughts: Of the three Manning books I’ve read so far (Unsticky, and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me are the other two), Isabel is the most difficult character to like as a reader. The girl is no angel. We see Isabel at school, keeping her cohorts and other students in line with well placed verbal bombs, guaranteed to make the recipient squirm, and at home she bulldozes and back talks her frustrated father. Whenever she can, Isabel is out at clubs, stealing drinks off tables to get drunk, and pretends to be older than she actually is. Flanking her are three girls who she doesn’t like, who don’t like her, and who are just sticking around for the power and protection of their alpha girl group.  I think that if you can’t forgive Isabel for her many mistakes and nastiness, this story will be a difficult one to enjoy, but with Isabel as the narrator, at least we get an explanation for her actions, and we know that she doesn’t particularly like herself or what she’s doing. For me, it was a case of understanding why she acted the way she did, but not condoning it.

Smith on the other hand, is a much more sociable character. An easy-going guy with lots of friends, he accepts people as they are, including Isabel. The pull of this story for me was seeing the effect that being with Smith had on Isabel. For Isabel, being with him is like being on vacation as a normal teenager, not a girl constantly on guard. That side of her made me hope that somehow she could find a way out of her rut as Let’s Get Lost progressed. It was clear that Smith was a catalyst on Isabel’s life, but I wasn’t sure if he’d be a source of strength, or a point of weakness. On one hand Smith is a relief from the constant scrutiny Isabel deals with from school and her dad, but on the other, I wondered at the consequences of her lies, both to Smith and to everyone else about Smith.  I wanted Isabel escape the hole she’d dug for herself.  Throughout her narrative, you can feel Isabel’s underlying sadness. It’s like she has a dreamworld where Smith belongs that she’d also like to be, but she doesn’t believe she can attain it.

“My whole life had split into two: Smith and not Smith. I liked the Smith parts of it so much better. Already I was calculating how much of the weekend we had left and greedily clutching every hour to me as if it was precious. Was this what it was meant to feel like when you were really into someone? Was this what it felt like if you were in love?
As soon as I thought it, I knew that it was true. I kinda loved him. Or, like, I was in love with him. Either state of being was just too freaky to contemplate. The dripping toothbrush stilled in midair as I tried to pull myself together. I was a heartless, ungrateful wench of a girl who promised everyone who came into contact with me a one-way ticket to pain and hurt. I didn’t know how to love and I didn’t deserve to be loved back.”

If you’re wondering where Isabel’s parents are in this picture, her mom died pretty recently, and her father, (coincidentally a professor at the university Smith attends), is still devastated by the loss. Unresolved issues about her mother’s death hang in the air between them, and Isabel’s father ping-pongs between not being quite there, and being positively draconian. I really liked the complexity and imperfections of their relationship, and I liked that they share a prickly outside and high intelligence, which only leads to their butting-heads even more. This was refreshingly true-to-life. Also refreshing: that this was a Young Adult story that deals with the consequences of someone’s actions in a realistic way. There is no convenient lack of parents or neat resolution that absolves the teenaged protagonist of their sins. Isabel has to bear the reactions of others for what she’s done. And her mother’s death is an event that has it’s own consequences which Isabel has to deal with too.

Overall:  This was another good one but you have to work a little bit for it. The narrator does some unlikeable things, and that along with the high wall she’s built around herself makes her difficult to empathize with at the beginning, but as the book went on, it became easier to understand Isabel and what is beneath her mean girl veneer. It is well worth it to be patient and see where Isabel’s path leads, but if you can’t bring yourself to forgive her her misdeeds, this book will be more difficult  to enjoy. I found an unhappy girl who wants a different life under there, and the story doesn’t let her off easy – her actions have consequences that she must face. If you want a great story that deals with redemption, loss, first love, and teenage rebellion, Let’s Get Lost has it all. After reading it I have this sense of having returned from being in someone else’s headspace with a little bit more insight than I had before.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
About Happy Books – positive

You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me by Sarra Manning

I didn’t even look at what the blurb for You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sarra Manning was about – I was so pleased with Unstickythat I went and bought it. It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized that this was a story with a heroine with weight issues – not my favorite trope, but I kept reading, and I wasn’t disappointed. It managed to not offend me by treating the heroine’s problem with a lot more thought than I usually see when this trope is involved.
The Premise: Neve Slater was once morbidly obese, and weighed 358 pounds. She’s been working hard and is half the size she used to be, but she’d still like to shed some more weight and be a magical size 10 (US size 6). That way, when William, the man she’s been in love with since university, comes back from his three years overseas, she can surprise him with her improved self. The problem is that Neve has never been in a relationship, and this is where Max, her sister Celia’s co-worker at fashion magazine Skirt comes in. Max is a total man-slut, and willing to be her partner in a “fake” relationship, where she can learn what it’s like to be part of a couple. With Neve and Max knowing that this is a throw-away, pancake relationship from the outset, there’s no danger of hurt feelings or becoming too involved. Right?
My Thoughts:  Neve Slater is a heroine who is very different from that of Unsticky. She’s a good girl; more of a reader and thinker. She’s not much for partying (and has to be dragged out by her sister Celia), and works at a literary archive. And she’s got a romantic idea of what she wants in a relationship, as exemplified by her crush on William and her dream that when he gets back from the U.S., they can be together. Towards this end, Neve has been improving her body, writing him letters, sending him care packages and generally obsessing about his return. William’s arrival back in England is six months away when Neve realizes that she may changed outwardly, but inwardly, she’s still just as inexperienced as she was when he left. Luckily there is Max, her sister Celia’s co-worker and general womanizer who Neve went a little too far with one night when she was a little drunk. When she explains how she’s holding out for William but needs practice in being in a relationship, Max is completely fine with volunteering for the position as a fake boyfriend to figure out the ropes and then bowing out when William gets back.
This premise sounds a little hokey, yet it seems to be perfectly reasonable the way it’s presented in this story. Neve is not an idiot and this is not a set up for comedic effect. Instead the pancake relationship is taken seriously and has it’s strict ground rules. With his reputation as a shallow man-whore, Max could have been a big jerk (and Neve’s friends and family are concerned about how he would treat their sweet Neevy), but Max turns out to be a rather nice guy. For all his flirting and easy charms, Max is surprisingly caring and perceptive. It’s just that he has his way of keeping people at arm’s length, the way that Neve has hers. That’s why the “pancake relationship” arrangement is so good for the both of them. With Neve’s declaration that William is the man she’s in love with, there’s no pressure for Max and Neve to be anyone but themselves around each other. Things start off awkwardly between them, yet they soon settle into an easy understanding. Before long they’re sharing things with one another and Neve is surprised to find herself getting a thrill from seeing Max’s name on her caller ID instead of William’s.
When I compare this story with Unsticky, it felt less dark than that one. It felt sweeter and more open. I think that although the characters had their share of problems (particularly Neve with her body image issues), they don’t feel as broken as Vaughn and Grace felt to me. They’re very different couples, but both these stories share the characteristic of really well plotted relationships, where small moments build upon each other to give us a satisfying window into a love story. (Speaking of Vaughn and Grace – I was eager to see any update on those two, but they’re mentioned obliquely and separately – not as a couple, but fans of Unsticky will recognize Neve’s trainer, Gustav).
The only thing I was bothered by was how fixated Neve was about becoming a certain size, but I was eventually satisfied by how this was handled. And perhaps the only reason I was bothered at all is that I’m very close to someone with an eating disorder, and let’s just say it has colored my view of certain things. I believe that offhand comments that imply what a person should look like can be damaging, and that you can be gorgeous and still be a miserable, miserable person. I don’t have much patience for stories that feature some character who sound like they have an average body size whine about wanting to lose 5 to 10 pounds (*coughBridgetJonescough*), and I’m also not fond of reading about characters who go from overweight and miserable, to svelte and have their self-confidence issues solved. Blergh I tell you.
Anyway, with these hot buttons of mine, when I read about Neve’s concerns about her stomach and her body while at a club with her sister, I was full of trepidation, but I soldiered on based on my love of Unsticky. I am so relieved that You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me has a character who has weight problems that felt realistic.  I could believe in a character like Neve, who is incredibly smart and bookish and very likable, but who still has issues with how she looks, despite how much weight she’s lost. This is because the story doesn’t dismiss the path Neve had to take to where she is now. She may be thinner and have much healthier habits, and physically she’s doing well, but mentally she’s also still dealing her recent past, like a bully from her school days who torments her even into adulthood, and to a family member she won’t speak to because of what they said about her weight.
I liked how supportive and protective Neve’s family was of her, particularly her sister, Celia. Actually I found many secondary characters reacted wonderfully to Neve’s weight problems, including Max. He still managed to be something of a guy, but I loved how he dealt with Neve’s hang-ups. Alternatively, I love how she dealt with his.
Overall: I want chocolate right now so I’m going to go for a chocolate analogy. I feel like You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is milk chocolate and nougat to Unsticky‘s 80% cocoa dark chocolate bar: less edgy; complicated in a different way; still rich and satisfying. After reading this story, I have that same experience of having pieces of the story stuck in my head for days afterward, but the couple is very distinct and separate from that of my previous read by this author. This is good. Also good: a heroine with weight issues that were thoughtfully done and a story that addresses a serious topic without becoming depressing. Yes, Neve’s body issues are a part of Neve’s life, but it’s not all the Neve is and not all that this book is about.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
About Happy Books – positive
Dot Scribbles – positive

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Sarra Manning

(Reason for the quiet over here: I’m SO ludicrously swamped at work – we’re talking 15 hour days. Weekends too. I’m behind on blog email, but trying to keep up with comments when I can. This review is a result of my brain needing a break from work to save my sanity).

Usually when I hear about a book these days, I’ll wait for news in the ether, let my awareness build and then this percolates into a desire to read the book. Very rarely do I read one review and I HAVE to get the book right away, but this is what happened when I read the review for Unsticky at Angieville (the ‘Bibliocrack’ in the post’s title had my book lover sense’s tingling). I’m so, so glad I for my impulse buy.

The Premise: Grace Reeves is a twenty-something working for a pittance at the fashion magazine Skirt, and massively in debt. Her relationships with a string of grungy rock-band boys never seem to last, but it’s still a surprise when her latest boyfriend dumps her on her birthday – in the middle of her favorite high-end store. When Grace refuses to take the break-up quietly, she’s rescued by bystander Vaughn. This chance encounter becomes something more when Grace and Vaughn meet again and Vaughn proposes an arrangement. Grace has to follow specific rules and cater to Vaughn’s demands in return for thousands of pounds and exposure to the jet-set she’d never meet otherwise.

My Thoughts: Yep, this is sort of a Pretty Woman scenario, and I have to admit having qualms about how this would be portrayed. Thankfully, the story does not sugarcoat things – it’s pretty messed up, but on the other hand, so are Vaughn and Grace. At first Grace is horrified by the idea of being under contract to have a relationship with a man (which includes sex), in return for gifts and money, but she also has no idea how things work in Vaughn’s world and he makes it seem like the most reasonable thing. After some time to think about her ridiculously high debt and the rationalization that she wanted to have sex with Vaughn before he made his offer, she enters into a contract.

It’s a case of mutually using one another. Vaughn demands all Grace’s free time outside of work, and expects her to make him look good. This means weekends socializing in places like New York, Paris, or Beunos Aires, and weekdays preparing for these parties with spa treatments and shopping for new designer clothes, on top of her job at Skirt.  Grace gets cash which she uses to try to pay off her credit cards, and a new luxurious lifestyle.

In a typical romantic comedy, this would be all conveyed in a fun, frivolous way, but in Unsticky, this is not the case. The narration feels grounded (and very British), and it has a gritty underside – there’s drinking, swearing and sex, and questionable actions from the characters. Vaughn is an obnoxious dictator, a hard man, and he’s eighteen years older than Grace is. Grace has to deal with his demands as well as those of her equally scary, bordering on abusive, boss at Skirt.

I have to admit that part of the pleasure of reading this book is the ‘Did they really just do that?’ factor and wondering if I was watching a train wreck about to happen or not. There were things that Grace does that I can’t see myself doing, but it fit her character to make the decisions she did. And I rooted for her. She’s passionate about fashion and I sympathized with her issues with money and the way she bought things to make herself feel better, only to make herself sick at the thought of more debt. She goes through a culture shock at Vaughn’s world but her determination rise to the occasion was very endearing. At the same time, Vaughn has his own demons. Clearly a man who insists on having his mistress sign a contract has issues, and he has them in spades. He’s aware of what a obnoxious bastard he is, and that’s part of why he wants to pay Grace.

“Despite their differences, because of their differences, they were a perfect mismatched set. Two sides of the same tarnished penny. An out-of-step Fred and Ginger. Vaughn was just as fucked up as she was – he was just so much better at hiding it.”

Vaughn’s childhood and Grace’s have left them both with scars. The story works because despite the scars they each bear, there’s something lovely between them.  I loved how their broken pieces fit each other, but it’s not an easy relationship at all. These two may have excellent chemistry, but their understanding of each other and of themselves is sorely lacking. I think they both want to cross the divide, but the mercenary aspects of the relationship and their own hangups with love get in the way. They may be dropping their walls despite themselves, but there are also setbacks.  Parts of this story put me on the verge of heartbreak, but somehow despair becomes hope. I loved that both these characters have dark sides to them, but I loved more that they found each other and were better for it.

Overall: I am blown away. This book may be classified as chick lit, but I think I’d call it dark chick lit. It has such deliciously complex characters that it stands apart from the frothy, light reads that people associate with this genre, but it is ultimately not a dark story.  I felt like I’d fallen for Grace and Vaughn myself when I read this book, vicariously lived through their heartache and self-discovery, and came out the other side feeling like I had a good cathartic cry without having had one at all. I am seriously hooked.

I’m currently reading Manning’s other adult title You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me which I bought before I even finished Unsticky.

(I’m putting lots of buy options today because it’s only available in the UK right now, so may be hard to find)
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository | Awesome Books | bookcloseouts

Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
Emily’s Little Pink Notes – 4/5
About Happy Books – positive
Book Harbinger – positive