Sunday, January 1, 2012

My favorite books from 2011

This was my second year to track the books I read, and again, I found it interesting to look back on those I really enjoyed during the year.  Of the 106 books I read this year, here are my top 10:

1. My favorite of the year was Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland.  Based on the life of Clara Driscoll, a glass cutter and later designer at Tiffany, I found the story fascinating and the characters engaging.  Plus, I love historical fiction!

2. I read a number of non-fiction books in 2011, but my favorite was Ted Gup's Secret Gift.    Gup discovered that during the depression, his grandfather placed an ad in the newspaper under the name of a fictitious benefactor, offering $5 to families in need.  The response was overwhelming and the letters sent by families in true form the basis of the book.  Gup was able to follow up with the descendants of many who wrote and determine how his grandfather's small gift made a difference in the lives of the families he touched.

3.  I discovered Kate Morton this year, starting with The Forgotten Garden, and then read her other two books (The Distant Hours and The House at Riverton), both of which I also enjoyed.  She's a writer I'll be adding to my list of favorites!  At age 5, Nell is discovered alone on a ship that just arrived in Australia.  Adopted by the harbor master and his wife, Nell lives a full life in Australia.  Upon her death, her granddaughter goes on a quest to discover her grandmother's roots and how she ended up abandoned.  All three of Morton's books feature a mystery in a family's past.

4.  I read about Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House in an email from the library.  I put in on my list of books to read when I had time and discovered it at the end of the year.  At age 7, Lavinia traveled from Ireland to America with her family.  By the time the ship landed, Lavinia was alone and was brought to work in the kitchen house of a Southern plantation under the guidance of a slave named Belle.  Straddling the two worlds that co-existed on the plantation, Lavinia's struggle to find her place creates trouble for all.

5.  Chosen at the book to be read by all incoming KSU freshmen this year, Zeitoun is the story of Hurricane Katrina and prejudices faced by US citizens of Middle East descent.  This non-fictional account of a contractor who decides to stay behind during the hurricane to protect his assets was a fascinating account of the hurricane and its aftermath.

6.  Yet another non-fiction winner this year was Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by journalist Thomas French.  Tracing the history of the animals at the Tampa Zoo, French spent 6 years researching this book.  As an animal lover, I have always struggled with zoos.  I understand the need for species protection as well as genetic diversification, but reading these stories again brought home the true lives of these animals on display for our entertainment.  I am very thankful that our Sunset Zoo focuses on education and conservation.

7.  Lisa See is another author I discovered this year.  I read three of her books (Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) and found all fascinating.  While Snow Flower was my favorite of the three, I would strongly recommend Shanghai Girls as well.  Set in the China of the 1800s when foot binding was the norm, Snow Flower tells the story of a friendship between two girls, Lily and Snow Flower, that is arranged much like an arranged marriage.  At age 7, Lily and Snow Flower become "old sames," signing a contract that will bind them together in friendship for life.  Lily narrates the book, telling the story of her life as well as that of Snow Flower and their communication through a secret language written on a fan. 

8.  I previously wrote about this Target Club Picks selection, One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus.  Trading a life in an insane asylum in Chicago for a life as the bride of a Cheyenne Chief, May Dodd is part of a program established by the US Government to trade 1,000 white women as brides for 1,000 horses.  The Cheyenne believe that children belong to the tribe of their mother, and in having children with the "white tribe" believed they could bring peace to the future.  While this was fiction, it was true that a Cheyenne Chief proposed this trade to President Grant. 

9.  Shilip Somaya Gowda's Secret Daughter tells the story of Asha.  Adopted at birth from an orphanage in Mumbai by an American doctor and her Indian husband, Asha leads a life on privilege in the United States.  Now in college, Asha travels back to India to discover her roots and the true meaning of family. Another Target Club Picks selection that I truly enjoyed!

10.  I feel somewhat guilty about including a Stephanie Plum book on my top ten, but no one makes me laugh like Janet Evanovich!  This was her best effort since book eleven (which I read on an airplane and was laughing so hard I was crying, causing my seat mate to ask me what I was reading!).  Will Stephanie settle down with her long-time boyfriend Joe Morelli (my pick for her beau!) or will she chose Ranger?  If you haven't read the Stephanie Plum books, I suggest you skip the first one and start with Two for the Dough.  I can always fill you in on the history! 

11.  Okay, I know I said top 10, but I had to add this one at the end.  Another Target Club Pick (can you tell I generally like their selections?), Wildflower Hill by Kimberely Freeman tells the story of Emma, a prima ballerina, and her grandmother Beattie who owned a very successful clothing business started at her Australian sheep ranch.  Definitely worth reading!

12.  Finally, some of my favorite authors had new books this year that were some of their best in years.  I truly enjoyed Stephen King's 11/22/63, Michael Connelly's The Drop, and John Grisham's The Litigators.

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