book reviews,  books

2015 Reading List

What a year it has been.  At the beginning of the year, hopeful that motherhood wouldn’t impact my habits too drastically, I set a reading goal of 52 books.  I made it about halfway, with most of my reading being in the time before Baba could grab things out of my hands and knock the books off the shelf.  I came to love magazines this year, for their portability, destructibility (I admit that I underestimated the fascinating power of a crinkling page) and short attention span reads about a world that has become increasingly puzzling.  In the world of magazines, I developed a particular love for Vanity Fair, which deals a lot more substance than I had expected when the issues first started showing up on my doorstep, and The New Yorker, which combines my love of politics, my city and short fiction.

I also developed a critical appreciation for books targeted at young readers.  While I have read Giraffes Can’t Dance and Five Little Ducks far more times than I would care to, I fell in love with the beautiful artwork and simple storytelling of Neil Gaiman’s Chu’s Day and Chu’s First Day of School.  So has Baba, as it happens, and it makes me smile to see her always pull out my favorite books from her book shelf first.


                  Why read only one at a time?


Well, here’s to longer fiction in 2016.  Still, there were some very memorable reads this year; books that haunted me for months after I finished reading them.  I am still thinking about the gritty beauty of the Congo in The Poisonwood Bible, the beauty of a kind man in The Orchardist, the tension-building effect of Philippa Gregory’s present tense in The Taming of the Queen and so many other ways that the books I’ve read this year have brought imagination and inspiration into my life.




How do you compare a tell-all of flapper-era literary Paris with the gothic tension of one of the world’s classic horror stories?   Throw in the dusty and cold warfare of For Whom the Bell Tolls and the bitter parody of the Ivy Leagues in This Side of Paradise and my classics reading this year couldn’t be more varied.  Ernest Hemingway was my surprise discovery in graduate school.  I had read him in undergrad, of course, but had missed the intense beauty of his dialogue, no matter how many times I was assigned “Hills Like White Elephants.”  For anyone looking to dig in to Hemingway, I’d also recommend The Sun Also Rises or The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for a shorter introduction to his style.



The theme of my fiction reading was apparently setting; each of these books left me with such a distinct sense of place that the title is enough to cast me instantly back into the mood of the book.  A Girl with a Pearl Earring was actually my third or fourth reading, because I love the lush and delicate world that Chevalier paints in her coming-of-age story.  The Orchardist is a book that I have thought about all year long, for both the gritty independence and originality of its characters and the beauty of its setting.  I often wonder, as I read adult fiction, what a book would be like if none of the characters had romantic attachments to each other.  What peaks of creativity could we reach if we abandoned the central narrative of so much of our art and fiction?  The Orchardist answers that, while exploring the love of parenthood and friendship, in a truly thought-provoking narrative.

Speculative Fictionstation11

  • No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, James Smythe
  • Station Eleven, Emily St. Mandel
  • Starfarers (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Transition (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Metaphase (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Nautilus (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre

Science fiction took up a larger portion of my reading this year than it usually does, largely because I was swept into the imaginative world of Vonda MacIntyre’s Starfarer’s Quartet.  I’m a bit of a sucker for the idea of space ships that can grow their own environments, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series.  Starfarer reminded me of that, with spaceships that were as much characters of the story as the story itself.   Emily St. Mandel’s Station Eleven is beautifully unique work of fiction, that felt like The Stand retold by artists and sold as literary fiction, while James Smythe’s No Harm Can Come to a Good Man thoughtfully questions our growing relationship and trust of analytic technologies and search engines.

Now, in the beginning of January, I’m midway through Maynard Solomon’s tome-like biography Mozart and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  It’s been a tough month so far, with a lot of stress, and I admit that I’ve been looking for something lighter.  I’m eagerly awaiting the launch of Julie Christine Johnson’s In Another Life in February, but can anyone recommend something smart and light to keep me busy until then?



  • Julie Christine

    Oh, you just made my heart swell so big. Thank you for the beautiful mention.

    I have a few recommendations! American writer who has lived in Ireland for thirty+ years, Christine Breen’s Her Name is Rose is a lovely, cozy read- set in the west of Ireland and Boston (St. Martin’s Press 2015). Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover. It’s missing the edge of what made me love Allende, but she remains a wonderful storyteller. I read this in December over a 36-hour flu period, and it was precisely what I needed to take me to a comfortable, quiet place. If there were a literary category known as “men’s fiction” as there is “women’s fiction”, surely Nikolas Butler’s “Shotgun Lovesongs” would be on display. Easy, breezy, but interesting read, based on Justin Whatshisname from Bon Iver, whom Butler knew from high school.

    That’s all I got. 🙂 xoxoxo Julie

    • Mae McDonnell

      Thanks, Julie! I actually had The Japanese Lover queued up for pre-order, but some fraud on my card made it fail and I somehow forgot to get back to that. Thank you for the reminder! Those sound like just the thing.

  • ccyager

    Very interesting reading list. It made me think that i need to include more classics on mine. Do you like mysteries or thrillers? I’d recommend P. D. James’ mysteries or Daniel Silva’s thrillers for lighter fare with flare. I’d also recommend Lauren Groff’s “The Monsters of Templeton” for an unusual literary mystery set in upstate NY. Happy reading! Cinda

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