Monthly Archives: December 2014

My Favorite Reads for 2014

Another year is nearly over, and what a year it’s been! I self-published my YA dystopian novel, Among the Joyful, fulfilling a lifelong dream; moved from Chennai, India to Yangon, Myanmar (a.k.a. Rangoon, Burma); and, of course, read lots and lots of books. Here’s my idiosyncratic list of the best books I read in 2014:

Best Book I Should Have Read As A Kid

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. This award winning kid’s book came out in 1978, so why didn’t I read it until it showed up on my 5th grader’s winter break book list? Who knows? It’s a smart, fun, and twisty puzzle with great characters.

Best Extra-Sciency Science Fiction Novel

The Martian by Andy Weir. This suspenseful thriller is making lots of “best of” lists this year, and with good reason. Imagine a lone astronaut, left for dead on Mars, trying to survive against the odds. Now imagine he’s a wise-cracking smart ass with astonishing science knowledge and relentless optimism. This book is hard to put down, even when it’s making water out of oxygen and rocket fuel.

Best Fantasy Book

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I don’t read a lot of fantasy but this slender, lovely book blew my mind. It was first published in 1968 but the story is fairy tale timeless.

Best Collection of Short Stories

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. One of my all time favorite authors, telling stories that stay with the reader long after the book is back on the shelf.

Best Book Featuring Zombies

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. I first looked at this book because Joss Whedon blurbed it, then I read a free chapter online before the book’s release and was hooked. This is a haunting, relentless book with a breathtakingly perfect ending. Loved it.

Best Mystery/Crime Novel

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly. I hope Michael Connelly keeps writing Harry Bosch books forever, because I can’t get enough of this series. Connelly is in top form with this latest entry and I didn’t want it to end–because who knows how many more there will be?

Best Book About Burma

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. I’ve read several books about or set in Burma since moving here in August, but this moving and poetic memoir resonates like no other.

Best YA Book

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. I love the characters in the moody, magical, atmospheric Raven Boys series, especially Ronan and Blue. I’m already craving book four!

Best Big Fat Book About Magicians

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This tale of competing magicians in an alt-history Britain where magic is real was a complete and fascinating world in itself. I think it sat unread on my shelf for so long because it was so big and daunting, but it was worth its weight in literary gold.

Best Overall

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I love how David Mitchell tosses all conception of genre into the shredder and writes exactly what he wants, stories of epic scope and wild inventiveness, intricately structured and brilliantly written. Also, extra points for a gorgeous cover.

So that’s my list. Here’s looking forward to another year of happy reading in 2015!

Review: A Free Life by Ha Jin

Rescued from the bargain bin at a Landmark bookstore in Chennai, India

Rescued from the bargain bin at a Landmark bookstore in Chennai, India

This quietly powerful novel opens with a married couple, Nan Wu and Pingping, awaiting the arrival of their young son, who is flying unaccompanied from Shanghai to San Francisco. Their son, Taotao, has spent the previous three years living with his grandparents while Nan Wu studied political science, the subject assigned him by the Chinese government. The Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 convinces Nan Wu and Pingping that they must reunite their family and leave China behind for good.

Nan Wu abandons political science, which never particularly interested him. He always dreamed of becoming a poet and had published well-received poetry in China. His life in America, however, focuses almost exclusively on establishing financial security for his family. He and Pingping ultimately save enough money to buy a small Chinese restaurant in a suburb of Atlanta, and eventually a house. They work hard, exercise extraordinary thrift, and focus on ensuring their son receives a top notch education.

Based on that plot summary alone, the novel sounds like a stereotypical immigrant success story–the American dream with Chinese characteristics. In fact, Ha Jin has done something far more extraordinary: delved deeply into the soul of a man and the heart of a marriage.

Nan Wu is never content with his life. He works very hard, but derives little satisfaction from his acquired skill as a cook or his status as a homeowner. He maintains friendships with artists, writers and poets, but always finds reasons not to commit to pursuing his own creative dreams. He loves his son but ignores or shouts at him by turns; he feels no love for his wife, but remains steadfastly loyal to her, even as he clings to the lingering memory of another woman. In other words, he is as complicated and complex as any real person you might pass in a parking lot or a grocery store.

Ha Jin brings Nan Wu and his family to life with deft and subtle skill. This is not a novel of shocking plot twists or stylistic pyrotechnics. It builds slowly and requires thoughtful attention, but the reward is a deeper understanding of what it means to have a good life, a meaningful life. In that respect it reminded me of The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, another novel that shows how even the most apparently mundane life holds depths the casual observer could never guess at.

Genre: Literary fiction

Read it if: You are interested in the perspective of outsiders and peripheral figures; you enjoy exploring the nature of art and what it means to pursue a creative life; or you appreciate a deep dive into character.

Skip it if: You have a short attention span, you prefer plot-driven fiction, or the thought of reading a 600+ page novel about a guy who keeps not writing poetry has already put you to sleep.

Movie-worthy: I have no idea how you would convey the interior emotions experienced by Nan Wu and Pingping in a movie, but it would be cool if someone tried.