write meg!’s 2012 reading honors

reading honors

Happy day-after-Christmas, everyone! Hard to believe we’re here again, glancing over our shoulders at another year of living, loving, eating — and reading. Though 2012 proved to be a slower reading year for me, completing 71 books to last year’s 82, I found myself really enjoying what I was reading — and focused on branching out.

That meant I discovered some narrative non-fiction for the first time in my adult reading life, and I challenged myself to step out of my chick lit box. That’s not to say I don’t still love women’s fic — trust me, I do — but I also enjoyed the change of pace that biographies offered me.

Audio books were my good buddies this year, too. Since discovering the joys of being read to (you know, elementary-school style), I’m rarely without an audio book on my drives around town. Since my music is all stale and boring and blah, it’s great having something to keep my attention when I’m running errands. And now I feel less annoyed about having to go get diet soda from the grocery store again.

Last year’s reading honors celebrated literary fiction, young adult and more — and at the end of my post, I hoped 2012 would find me continuing “all the things I hold dear: excellent literature; prose that stops me dead in my well-worn tracks; journeys to new places, continents and cultures. I hope to read more non-fiction in the coming months, especially about American history, and to get excited about women’s fiction again. On the personal writing front, I hope to finish another novel by the spring and to continue making creative writing a priority in my own life.”

With the exception of that last bit (I’m severely slacking on the novel-writing front), I’m going to stamp a big ol’ mission accomplished. Feels good.

In the coming year, I’m going to be realistic: as Spencer and I get rolling on our wedding plans and my sister prepares for her nuptials, too, much of my free time will be consumed with bridal-related excitement. And that’s okay. Reading (and blogging!) are meant to be fun; I just can’t stress over my reading pace. I’m never without a book, so that won’t change — but I have to figure I won’t get through as many novels as before. I’ll likely have to be choosier with what I pick up and review, so that should be an interesting challenge.

But on to the best of the year! What makes a book end-of-the-year-recap worthy? How do I whittle 71 books down to the cream of the bookish crop? I ask myself a few important questions: months after finishing, am I still thinking about it? Can I recall details, characters, settings? Did it spoil me for other books? Am I grateful — maybe changed — for having read it?

If the answer is yes, you’ll find it below. And what a fun reflection it’s been.

Meg’s Top Five Reads of 2012

1. Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer

My foray into young adult literature was limited this year, but I’m so incredibly glad I didn’t miss out in this one. You’re probably sick of me talking about it, but hopefully my constant chatter has convinced you to pick it up. I’m serious: it’s moving and funny and unforgettable. Hummer is a true talent, and this book was a life-changer for me. If I’ve talked you into picking up one book from write meg!, I hope it’s this one. You won’t regret it — and that’s why it’s in my No. 1 spot.

2. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Read in the summer, Beautiful Ruins is just the sort of book that lodges in your brain and refuses to leave. Though I always picture a scene while reading, this book inspired full-blown movies in my mind — which works well, considering it’s partially about movies. It’s gorgeous, lush, vivid — and filled with incredibly memorable, endearing characters. Plus, it’s set in Italy — and Elizabeth Taylor is a quasi-character. I described it as “spellbinding” back in June, and you know what? I’m a smart lady. Spellbinding only begins to cover it.

3. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Surprising, heart-wrenching and utterly lovely, I didn’t go into Harold expecting to come out a tearful, washed-up mess — but Joyce’s unforgettable language rendered me speechless. The tale of a middle-aged man who traverses the whole of England on foot in his own way of reconciling the past “took me by surprise,” if I may quote myself, and it was literary without being dull. For a book with a simple premise, it was incredible.

4. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

February and March were spent with Isaacson’s epic tome on the life and death of Steve Jobs, an iconic American visionary. Though I went into the book with little knowledge of Jobs’ life, I now consider myself well-versed in Jobs-ology. Accessible, detailed and compelling, Steve Jobs packs a mighty punch. And if I got a little mired down in the details at points, I’d expect nothing less from a book on such an influential, exacting man.

5. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Never have I loved and hated a character so completely and simultaneously. Young heroine Victoria’s story was engrossing, though difficult at many points — but I was completely addicted to this book. As we teetered toward the story’s conclusion, I didn’t want it to end. Plus? I feel quite comfortable with the Victorian language of flowers now. Sometimes a rose isn’t just a rose.

Most Delicious

Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas

Macarons, pies, cupcakes — and more! Thomas’ sweet, frothy recollections of her year in Paris working for Louis Vuitton is a treat for armchair travelers and foodies alike. Though the narrative itself could have used a little more meat, Thomas’ memoir was a fun and delicious read — and one that has me desperate to book a flight to France tomorrow.

Most Inspiring

Heaven Is Here by Stephanie Nielson

To know Stephanie Nielson is to love her. After surviving a small plane crash that left she and her beloved husband badly burned and broken, Stephanie works tirelessly to keep her family together — and to find a way to be happy again. Told with endless faith, her memoir is raw and realistic. Though Stephanie herself seems perennially upbeat, she doesn’t hesitate to discuss the depression, fear and emptiness that threatened to overtake her after waking from a coma. I’ve followed her blog for a while, and her story is incredible.

Packing the Sultriest Punch

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason

Um . . . is it hot in here, or is it just History of a Pleasure Seeker? Mason’s tale of a social-climber in belle époque Amsterdam is sexy, literary, lovely. The author’s language captured me from page one and refused to let go. In January, I wrote the novel is “lush, sensuous and finely-wrought story of how, through charisma and seduction, one man is able to change an entire family and free them from their stuffy, well-made cages.” And it’s definitely one that stays on the brain.

Most Inspiring of Hepburn Nostalgia

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson

Wasson’s ode to the power of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” made me want to don pearls and parade through New York City. Not that, you know, I wouldn’t do that on a normal day. But choosing to read Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. on my way back from a sisters trip to the big city in May elevated the story to magical status. It was informational, entertaining and fun.

Other books I loved in 2012: FaithBridge of Scarlet LeavesWife 22We’ll Always Have SummerI Never Promised You a Goodie Bag

See past reading honors: 2011201020092008

Book review: ‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Growing up in foster care, Victoria Jones knows all about instability. Her only constant has been the need for self-reliance — especially as she bounces from one bad situation to the next. Now reaching her 18th birthday, the time has come for Victoria to hit San Francisco’s streets alone — though she doesn’t expect them to hit so hard. Now jobless, homeless and without any prospects, the future seems bleak. Victoria is just too stubborn to realize it.

Without any skills or real education, Victoria is a drifter . . . until she runs into a local flower shop owner in need of help. Victoria’s passion for flowers and the Victorian “language” of communicating through blossoms is reawakened, dormant since a falling out years before, and she works tirelessly for enough cash to keep her off the streets. With the help of Renata, her mentor, she begins to establish herself — and her beautiful, offbeat arrangements develop a reputation as a curer of ills.

Everything she’s worked to build threatens to unravel, however, when she falls in love with Grant, a local farmer — and the challenges Victoria has already faced seem like nothing compared to what’s to come . . .

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers is a heart-wrenching, frustrating, enveloping piece of fiction. Though I alternated between wanting to slap Victoria and desperately needing to give her a hug, I found myself really caring about her — and everyone in the story. For good or for ill, they were all up in my headspace for the week in which I listened to this novel on audio. And though I was emotionally spent by the end, I didn’t want it to be over.

Victoria is a pretty complicated character. On one side is this scared, rebellious, defiant girl — this child who wants no one; no one who wants this child. When Victoria gets this one chance at having a family and categorically blows it, I felt unbelievably upset with her . . . just like her social worker, who plays a large role in young Victoria’s life. But as the angry kid grows into a frightened and belligerent teen, we’re given a glimpse at a very raw and vulnerable Victoria — one no one really sees.

Diffenbaugh was masterful in this way. Just when I wanted to write Victoria off, shake her or run from her or lecture her, she showed us a tender view of this 18-year-old misfit — and how could I walk away from her then? She clearly needs help, and doesn’t know how to get it. Having never really felt like she received or was worthy of love, how could she offer it to Grant? Her first instinct is always to run and ruin, and I kind of . . . understood that.

Though the novel’s “twists” weren’t terribly shocking, I was too caught up in this fast-moving plot to care too much about its predictable turns. The author flips between present-day Victoria and her childhood, revealing the truth of what happened to rip her away from Elizabeth, Victoria’s one-time hopeful adoptive mother. I liked the alternating chapters and thought the story was touching and heartbreaking. It made me think about how so few questions in life provide easy answers — and that what we think we want often turns out to be so different than reality.

Arguably the most interesting part of the story was the actual “language of flowers,” though. Victoria is well-versed in what different blooms “mean,” and she finds differing descriptions of this language fascinating. As she and Grant develop a dictionary of definitive answers for cherry blossoms, tulips, roses and more, Victoria begins to speak not in blooms but . . . well, in words. Like, English ones. She’s hidden so much of herself away, blocked off and stunted, that it takes communicating in an old Victorian tradition to emotionally jump start her.

The story didn’t always go the way I wanted, and Victoria herself could be as annoying as she was endearing. But at the end of The Language of Flowers, I was in her camp — and ready to support her. Her character’s growth was tremendous, and I chalk Diffenbaugh’s excellent storytelling up to forming what would have otherwise been a sad, sad tale into one of hopeful redemption. It was heartwarming and raw and maybe not completely realistic, but who cares? I really liked it.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0345525558 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Facebook
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

A note on the audio: Narrator Tara Sands did an excellent job shifting between 18-year-old Victoria and Victoria as a child, though I found her voice just on the edge of being too young for the adolescent narrator. It was a little discomfiting sometimes, hearing the voice of such a young woman dealing with so many difficult, frightening “adult” issues. Though maybe that was the point?