Book Chase By-The-Numbers: 2016

Another calendar year is in the books, and in just twenty-one days, I will mark the completion of a full decade of Book Chase blogging.  I am very much looking forward to 2017, but as much as I fight it, I feel myself slowing down a bit these days – it’s starting to be a struggle to blog at the relatively steady pace I’ve tried to keep for the last ten years. Please know how much I treasure all of the friends and contacts I’ve made over the years of book-blogging because without you guys (and the internet that allows us to find each other) none of this would have been possible – or nearly as much fun. So thank you one more time.

I always enjoy looking at my year-end reading numbers because that process brings back some great reading memories – and 2016 was a  year filled with remarkable books that I will remember for a long time.  One of the highlights of my year was (finally) discovering Hoopla, the service that combines with my county library system to allow me to stream as many as seven audiobooks per month. Even though I have never managed more than two audiobooks in a given month, I find myself going through the Hoopla catalog at least three or four times a month.  Thanks to Hoopla, the ten audiobooks I read this year are the most I’ve managed since 2011.

I’ve previously posted my Top 10 lists in fiction and nonfiction plus a list noting the best “older books” I read this year – from 2015 and earlier. Here are some direct links for anyone curious about my 2016 favorites:
Now, still with the remote possibility that I will finish one more nonfiction title in the next two days, here is 2016 by the numbers:
Number of Books Read – 137:
Fiction – 99:
Novels -87
Short Story Collections – 12 
Nonfiction – 38:
Memoirs – 13
Biographies – 4
Books on Books- 7
Sports – 1
Travel – 1
True Crime- 2
History –  2
Science – 1
Sociology – 2
War – 4
Aging – 1
Written by Men – 90
Written by Women – 53
(Includes six books by authors of both genders)
Audio Books – 10
E-Books – 31
Library Books – 42
Review Copies – 73
From My Shelves – 21
Abandoned Books: 15
Translations: 6
Average Number of Pages Read per Day: 102
Total Number of Pages Read (Excluding audio books) = 37,197 

In one sense, I did better with books by foreign authors this year than last – 31 in 2016 as opposed to 17 in 2015 – but 25 of those were written by British, Canadian, or Irish authors and that just seems way too easy.  Of the remaining six, two were French translations, and one-each were from Egypt, Gaza, The Netherlands, and South Korea.  

I got in more reading this year than I had anticipated having time for coming into the year, and I discovered a few authors I’m hoping to read for years to come, so if 2017 can be as much fun as 2016 turned out to be, I will be one very happy reader this time next year.

Book Chase 2016 Nonfiction Top 10

I am ending the year the way I end pretty much every year: wishing I had read more nonfiction.  No matter how good my intentions might be at the beginning of the year, I always ended up reading somewhere between thirty-five and forty nonfiction titles.  The total never seems to vary by much, and this year is no exception.  Fortunately, however, I did discover some very good nonfiction titles:

Book Chase 2016 Nonfiction Top 10

c4134-dcf67587a4cf2d8597338566c774443415873431.  When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi – When Breath Becomes Air is part autobiography and part memoir, but most of all it is a very talented doctor’s farewell to a world that is surely less than it would have been were he still a part of it.  I should note, too, that the last part of the book is his widow’s memoir because, after Kalanithi’s surprisingly quick death, she finished the book for her 37-year-old husband.  Just twenty-two months after learning of his illness, Paul Kalanithi’s journey was over, a journey described by his wife as “one of transformation – from one passionate vocation to another, from husband to father, and finally, of course, from life to death, the ultimate transformation that awaits us all.”

f7777-0805097678-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_2.  The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer –  Skip Hollandsworth – Skip Hollandsworth, a regular columnist for Texas Monthly magazine, became so intrigued by a true crime story from Austin’s past that he turned it into his first book, The Midnight Assassin.  The book recounts a series of murders that happened there in 1884 and 1885, murders that were so horrendously bloody that they rivaled those committed three years later by London’s Jack the Ripper.  The murders in the two cities were in fact similar enough that some newspapers of the day speculated that London’s Ripper may have tested and developed his skills in Austin before bringing them with him to Europe.

48415-97816231701273.  Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War – Perry A. Ulander –  Perry Ulander managed to come out Vietnam in one piece, and in Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War, he tells us how he did it.  The memoir begins with the stunned nineteen-year-old Ulander reading a letter from his Uncle Sam directing him to report to Chicago for his pre-induction physical.  It ends more than a year later when a very different Perry Ulander, having just completed a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, is equally stunned to so suddenly find himself back on U.S. soil.

65f09-9780062309914_105c3-14.  The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones – Rich Keinzle – Four years after Jones’s death, his legacy has become more settled and his whole story can be told in one volume – and that is exactly what Rich Keinzle has done in The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones.  From the very beginning of his career, country music fans were intrigued by the craziness that followed Jones around the country as he performed.  By the end of that career, George Jones had become a much-respected vocalist (still with a reputation for craziness) who had managed to grab the attention of music lovers around the world.  It was never easy for the shy, insecure performer that Jones was throughout his lifetime, but, public warts and all, he was just too good to ignore.

a4d35-1616205024-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_5.  Dimestore: A Writer’s Life – Lee Smith – Lee Smith is a wonderful storyteller, and for the last forty-five years she has been telling us stories about life in the Appalachian Mountains, a region and a people she knows like the back of her hand.  Now, in Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, Smith finally shares her own story.  I see that the book’s subtitle changed somewhere between its publication as an Advance Readers Copy and its final version, but I actually find the ARC subtitle to be the more fitting of the two (“A Memoir in Stories”) because that perfectly describes the approach Smith takes here in recounting her life for readers.

0062300547-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_6.  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J. D. Vance – What J.D. Vance has accomplished in his young life is almost a stereotypical representation of the American Dream. His grandparents came to Ohio as very young newlyweds with almost nothing to their names where they managed to raise a middle-class family that included Vance’s mother. Vance, as it turned out, would spend more of his childhood with his grandmother than with his mother (and barely knew his father), but would go on to become a Marine and would earn degrees from both Ohio State University and Yale Law School. So in just three generations, Vance’s family had gone from dirt poor to having a member of the immediate family graduate from one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. But it was not easy.

6f419-hi2bres2bcover2bmiddleweight7.  West Texas Middleweight: The Story of LaVern Roach – Frank Sikes – Middleweight boxer LaVern Roach was a very successful professional boxer from the end of World War II to early 1950 but today his name is a relatively unknown one even among boxing fans.  But despite being unfamiliar with the name LaVern Roach, I was very familiar with several of the boxers who were his biggest rivals at the time for the middleweight world championship, names like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jake LaMotta.  As an amateur, he had a record of 100 wins and 5 losses (with four of the losses coming before he turned eighteen), so his fast start as a professional was not a surprise to those in the sport.  His unusual good looks and his success made him one of the more popular boxers of his day, and LaVern Roach seemed destined for great things.  Sadly, it was not to be.

de17e17ed9ec6db596d73496e414443415873438.  Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq – Sarah Glidden – Frankly, I had doubts about Sarah Glidden’s decision to use “comic panels” to tell the intriguing story of her visit to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq with her two journalist friends and a friend of theirs who just happened to have seen military action in Iraq as an American soldier.  Rolling Blackouts manages to pack in more factual information than I expected from graphic nonfiction genre, but it is more effective when illustrating the emotions of the interviewer and those being interviewed. Sarah Glidden’s 2,500 illustrations (she calls them “comics”) are truly wonderful, and they greatly add to the book’s emotional impact on the reader. This one was a pleasant surprise.

ed3d4-b016tg5rgu-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_9.  Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide – Michael Kinsley – Michael Kinsley’s guide to old age is primarily aimed at his fellow boomers, the millions of us born between 1946 and 1964.  As a group, boomers are the next generation in line to “lose the game of life,” as Kinsley puts it, so it is time to prepare ourselves for the inevitable.  And, early on in Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, Kinsley makes the case that since we are all destined “to stay dead many years longer than we were alive,” the only thing we are going to leave behind is memories of ourselves – our reputations.  But here’s the kicker, boomers: if you want to be remembered as a good person, now is the time to get started because that old game clock is busily ticking away even as you read this.

e0e9d-0807049107-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_10.  The Drone Easts with Me: A Gaza Diary – Atef Abu Saif – It is difficult to read Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary and simultaneously keep oneself divorced from the politics that caused the situation to happen in the first place.  But that is exactly what Saif, who hardly addresses the cause of the 2014 war that Israel waged in the Gaza Strip, asks his readers to do.  Doing so allows the fifty-one days of war he describes in his 2014 diary to be experienced strictly through the eyes of those helplessly caught up in the middle of it all with no place to hide.  And that makes The Drone Eats with Me a very effective war memoir.

Book Chase Top Ten Fiction List (Books Published Prior to 2016 but Read This Year)

Roughly half of my fiction reading this year has been of books published prior to 2016, so I decided to post two Top Ten Fiction lists instead of combining old and new books into a single list the way I’ve done in the past.

Book Chase Top Ten Fiction List (Books Published Prior to 2016 but Read This Year)

the-shootist1.  The Shootist (1975) – Glendon Swarthout – The central character of The Shootist is one John Bernard Books, a nineteenth-century gunfighter with a fierce reputation as a sure-shot with a quick hand. But time is beginning to catch up with Books and now, in January 1901, he has come to El Paso to see the doctor who saved his life years earlier when Books took the only bullet that ever came near killing him. Books is in pain and he knows that something is seriously wrong with him. And when the doctor tells him that the pain is being caused by the prostate cancer that is killing him, Books knows that he will die in El Paso – and soon.

c9383-1250018781-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_2.  The Dealer and the Dead (2014) – Gerald Seymour – The Dealer and the Dead is about a man who might have to pay the ultimate price for a mistake he made almost two decades earlier.  In 1992, Harvey Gillott promised to deliver heavy weapons to an isolated Croatian village located along the border with Serbia, weapons the villagers desperately needed if they were to prevent their village from being overrun by the Serbs who were determined to destroy everyone who lived there.  Gillott took payment for the weapons but never delivered the promised weapons.  Some eighteen years later, what remains of the bodies of the four men who had been sent to collect the weapons are discovered in a farmer’s field – and in the pocket of one of the dead men is a tiny piece of paper with a name written on it: Harvey Gillott.

0207a-1471137392-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_3.  England and Other Stories (2015) – Graham Swift – This is a remarkable collection of twenty-five stories about people who, regardless of their age, have reached a point where regret and self-doubt are something they confront every day.  These are people living in fear that their lives may never again be as good as they were in the past.  Not only do they fear that possibility, they are certain that it is the truth.  What makes this collection a bit unusual is that none of these stories have ever been published elsewhere.  These are new stories (written, I’m guessing, within the amount of time it would normally have taken Swift to produce a novel), and taken as a whole they present the diversity of a country that is all too often confined to its stereotypes in the minds of foreigners.

8ad0e-md38031527194.  The Long Goodbye (1953) – Raymond Chandler – Marlowe is a cynic with a good heart, a man attracted to the down and out characters he so often finds on the streets of Los Angeles.  He still believes that he can help them, even though more times than not, he fails.  One of those whom Marlowe tries to help is a hopeless drunk by the name of Terry Lennox.  Marlowe and Lennox meet late one night when a woman angrily drives away and leaves the appallingly drunk Lennox standing alongside Marlowe outside a restaurant.  After Marlowe takes the man home with him so that he can safely sleep off his drunk, the two men become friends of a sort. Things get interesting a few months later when Lennox comes to Marlowe looking for a quick ride to the Tijuana airport.

51vc-6vtuzl-_sx334_bo1204203200_5.  The Cartel (2015) – Don Winslow – When it comes to controlling drug traffic and territories, everyone is fair game to the resulting violence: family members, newspaper reporters, teachers, women, children, policemen, the innocent and the guilty, alike.  And worst of all, like their terrorist cousins on the other side of the world, the gangs now capture the shootings, explosions, and decapitations on video for the entire world to see.  Don Winslow’s The Cartel schools us on just how horrible the situation along the U.S./Mexican border really is today – and why so many Mexicans cross that border to escape the mayhem at home.

deadf-1455524190-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_6.  The Burning Room (2014) – Michael Connelly – Harry Bosch’s days with the LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Unit are numbered – and have dwindled down to what Harry considers to be a precious few.  Harry figures that if he doesn’t rock the boat so much that the upper brass finds a reason to cut him loose early, he might have one more year in him before the department forces him into retirement.   But it won’t be easy because a cold case with huge political implications has just been dumped in Harry’s lap.

1476738025-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_7.  A Man Called Ove (2012) – Fredrik Backman – The novel opens with Ove shopping for an iPad, an electronic gadget about which the 59-year-old man knows next to nothing. Ove, however, would never allow even that level of cluelessness to keep him from expressing his opinion about the object in question and the two salesmen attempting to explain its mysteries to him. By the time this early scene is over, the reader (and the two abused salesmen) will assume that they know everything they need to know about Ove – mainly, stay out of his way.  All of themwould be wrong – very, very wrong at that.

f7538662-3a68-41a1-96b5-5c114da5841fimg4008.  The Haunting of Hill House (1959) – Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House is still the standard by which haunted-house stories are judged today even though it is based on some of the same plot devices common to more run-of-the-mill haunted-house novels and movies. For instance, Hill House is a large, isolated old house with a reputation for being haunted, a place the locals don’t want to be anywhere around after dark – and then along comes a party of outsiders who have decided to spend a few nights inside the house to see if anything spooky might happen while they are there. Throw in the rather creepy caretakers of the place (who always leave before it gets dark), long hallways with lots of closed doors, mysterious staircases that lead to unexpected rooms, plus lots of unexplained noises in the night, and The Haunting of Hill House could easily have ended up being little more than a mediocre story filled with clichés.  That’s not what happened.

1439183376-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_9.  Savages (2010) – Don Winslow – Stylistically, Savages is a hard book to describe. It is dark, violent, and sexy just the way one would expect a crime fiction novel featuring the Mexican drug cartels would be. But it is also a hilarious and touching love story (albeit one involving two men and one woman) that makes it easy to forget just how much trouble the novel’s main characters really are in. Ben, Chon, and O, for lots of reasons (some good, some not so good) are going to stick in readers’ minds for a long time. And the good news is that in 2012 Winslow published a prequel to Savages called The Kings of Cool, so readers of Savages will be able to spend even more time with them.

1250077060-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_10. Time and Time Again (2014) – Ben Elton – Hugh Stanton, ex-Army, is a man who cannot think of a single good reason to go on living. Not only has he been kicked out of the army, but a hit-and-run driver has recently struck and killed Stanton’s wife and two young children. So he plays along when his old Trinity College professor says to him, “If you could change one thing in history, if you had the opportunity to go back into the past, to one place and one time and change one thing, where would you go? What would you do?” After much debate, Stanton and Professor McCluskey agree that the best way to save the twentieth century from itself would be to prevent World War I from ever starting. But although he agrees to give it a shot (pun intended), Stanton remains a time-travel skeptic right up until the moment he steps out of a 1914 hospital basement.

Book Chase 2016 Fiction Top 10

2016 has been a good year for fiction and short story collections, and I’ve made the most of it by reading almost 100 fiction titles this year.  It probably helped that I attended three different book festivals around the state in the past several months (San Antonio, Kingwood, and the state festival in Austin) because festivals often bunch three or four authors into single sessions, ensuring that attendees are exposed to writers and books of which they may have otherwise never heard.

2016 Fiction Top Ten

cd73c-51ikroqj35l-_sx327_bo1252c204252c203252c200_1.  A Friend of Mr. Lincoln – Stephen Harrigan – Abraham Lincoln is one of the best-known presidents in the history of the United States, so most people are familiar with the story of his life.  They know about the poverty of Lincoln’s boyhood, the prodigious strength he developed as a teen, his debate skills, his presidency during the Civil War, and his tragic end.  The most common gap in most peoples’ Lincoln biography is the time during which he was a young lawyer and aspiring Whig politician – the 1830s and 1840s.  Stephen Harrigan’s novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln spans precisely this period of the young Lincoln’s life.  Harrigan recreates a well-meaning, but flawed, young Lincoln in the process of deciding what kind of man he wanted to be.

258174932.  News of the World – Paulette Jiles – What could possibly be more intriguing a main character in a book about Reconstruction Era Texas than a seventy-year-old retired Army captain who makes his living  traveling the vast state as a “professional reader” of newspapers? Perhaps a ten-year-old girl who has spent the last four years of her life as a captive of the band of Kiowa who butchered her parents and little sister in front of her would do it. And then, if you have these two characters cross paths, as Paulette Jiles does in News of the World, you have the makings of one of the most remarkable plots of the year.

57b53afc9d427-image3.  I Will Send Rain – Rae Meadows – It has not rained on the Bell farm in almost three months. Samuel Bell, his wife Annie, and their two children have never seen a drought like this one, but unlike some of their neighbors who have already abandoned their own farms, the Bells are determined to hang on until the rains return. Samuel and Annie tell themselves that it cannot possibly last much longer – but both know that if next year’s growing season is anything like this year’s they will end up dead broke and homeless.  And that’s when things really go bad.

louise_erdrich-larose_cover-harpercollins4.  LaRose – Louise Erdrich – It is difficult to imagine anything more devastating to a man than accidentally killing his best friend’s only son, but Landreaux Iron does just that when the little boy somehow manages to get between Landreaux and the elk at which he has just taken a shot. But according to Ojibwe tribal custom there is a way for the Iron family to recompense Dusty Ravich’s parents for their loss: all the Irons have to do is give LaRose, their youngest son and Dusty’s best friend, to Pete and Nola Ravich to raise as their own.  And that’s what they do.

0385542364-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_5.  The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead – From what I understand, there is some controversy about Colson Whitehead’s decision to fashion his novel about the Underground Railroad into a one that fits firmly into the alternate history genre rather than to write a more traditional piece of historical fiction on the subject. Frankly, that is precisely what drew me to the book in the first place. I have found that novels of alternate history, as opposed to more traditional historical fiction, often reveal the more essential truths about motivations, emotions, and what was really happening behind the scenes. Whitehead’s novel is no exception.  He artfully uses the alternate history genre to hammer home the harsh realities of one of the most brutal experiences in human history: slavery. In the process, he spares no one, be they black, or be they white.

winters_undergroundairlines_hc6.  Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters – Underground Airlines is set in the present day but Winters alerts readers early on with the insertion of a striking United States map that things are just a little bit twisted in this version of the present day world. Three things about this map are very, very different from the one that is so familiar people around the world: Texas, one of the most recognizable state-shapes on the map, is labeled as “Republic of Texas (Disputed); there is a color-coded legend identifying “Slave States” and “Free States;” and four states are clearly shaded in as slave-holding states. The four slave states are Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Carolina (the Carolinas having merged into one state) and, for obvious reasons, the rest of the country refers to them as the “Hard Four.”

51zfuwbbuvl-_sy346_7.  Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves – The novel, set in 1920s rural Alabama, tells of an electricity visionary whose dream of electrifying the family farm his wife inherited inadvertently destroys two families, one of them his own.  The novel is filled with haunting characters that suffer greatly because of the actions of one man. None of them is perfect – far from it – but they need each other if they are to survive what has happened to them. The ultimate question they all have to answer now is how willing they are to forgive Roscoe Martin – and themselves – for what happened.

13935024_1222720154425432_2923937362586033090_n8.  Fields Where They Lay – Timothy Hallinan – As Fields Where They Lay opens, Christmas is just days away and Junior’s worst nightmare has come true.  He is spending all of his normal waking hours – and many others he would much prefer to be asleep – inside the Shopping Mall from Hell. The mall has already lost all its anchor stores, much of its third floor is locked up tight, and most of the businesses still able to keep the doors open are just hoping to hang on long enough to bank a few Christmas sales dollars before calling it quits in January. Even worse, Junior has been forced to listen to the same recording of a “The Little Drummer Boy” so many times that he has to look in a mirror every so often to see if his ears are bleeding.

56a71-cover88521-medium9.  The Jealous Kind – James Lee Burke – Thanks to a combination of selective memory, old movies and television shows, and iconic musical memories, we tend to think of the 1950s as a simpler, safer time that went by too quickly.  That’s as true for those of us who actually lived through the decade as it is for those of who simply wish they had.  I  doubt, however, that Hackberry Holland’s grandson, Aaron Holland Broussard, would agree.  Aaron, the latest addition to James Lee Burke’s Holland family tree series (and the main character and narrator of The Jealous Kind), sees the decade differently from the vantage point of his Houston neighborhood.

0804141290-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_10.  Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood – Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the fourth book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that began in October 2015. Crown Publishing has invited a group of notable novelists each to retell one of Shakespeare’s classic plays as a Shakespeare-inspired novel in their own style, and Atwood’s Hag-Seed is based upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Atwood has cleverly insured that even those readers unfamiliar with The Tempest will recognize the connections between Shakespeare’s plot and her own modernized version of it by making her main character a formerly successful theater director who now spends his time teaching a literacy class at a local prison. Felix, that director, has his class perform one of Shakespeare’s plays each year as a way of encouraging them to read and study on their own – and this year they are doing The Tempest.

(So there you have it, the Book Chase Fiction Top 10 for 2016.  I do reserve the right to modify the list if one of the 2016 books I will be reading between now and the end of the year knocks me off my feet with its sheer awesomeness – but that is unlikely to happen.)