Normally this time of year I write a post called “My Year in Books” in which I describe every single book I read in the past year. To be honest, I do it (at least in part) so I can brag. In 2016, for example, I read close to 60 books, which I think is brag-worthy.
Well, no bragging this year. I didn’t read nearly as much as I normally do, and I one hundred percent blame my baby, who was born in January of 2017.
I also didn’t do a great job keeping track of the books I read. Normally I use goodreads for my read and to-be-read lists. I still used goodreads this year, but not as consistently.
This year I also abandoned a lot of books halfway (or less than halfway) through. These days, unless a book really holds my attention, my sleep-deprived brain decides it’d rather be sleeping or watching Netflix.
For all of these reasons, this year I will only be listing the books I read in 2017 that I really enjoyed and would recommend to others. Here they are!
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The Best Books I Read in 2017: Adult Novels
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Oh, how I loved this spooky, gothic tale! When Dr. Farraday, a country doctor, treats a young maid at a crumbling British estate, he forms a friendship with the respectable (but going broke) family and becomes privy to the decline of not only their house but of their mental states as well.
Sarah Waters is an amazing writer, and this book is so full of tension and gorgeous gothic imagery… It’s the perfect novel for a dark and gloomy day, and I might even say it’s one of the very best books I read this year. It is now tied with Tipping the Velvet as my favorite Sarah Waters novel. (The Paying Guests is a close second.)
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Since the HBO show is getting so much attention, I decided to reread the book, which is set in a near-future dystopian society in which a Christian patriarchy has taken over the United States government. The protagonist, Offred (named because she belongs to a man named Fred), has no rights, and her sole purpose is to bear children.
I hadn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale since I was a freshman in college, and in my second reading I was interested in the way Atwood breaks a lot of the “rules” of plotting. The inciting incident doesn’t happen until halfway through the novel, there is a ton of backstory, and the ending is ambiguous. Normally these things might doom a novel, and yet, The Handmaid’s Tale totally works. It’s a compelling and thought-provoking page-turner… a modern classic.
Burntown by Jennifer McMahon. This is McMahon’s latest novel and has all of her hallmarks: suspense, paranormal, secrets in the past… and yet it seemed different to me, too. It was the oddest, most-genre-defying and, perhaps, the most literary of McMahon’s novels. I should know, because I’ve read all of McMahon’s paranormal thrillers and written a blog post about them.
I’m not sure I even want to explain the plot of Burntown because I won’t be able to do it justice. Instead, let me describe some of the characters. Teenage Eva, who goes by the name Necco, has been living on the streets ever since her inventor father died in a mysterious flood years ago. Necco’s mother, Lily, is part of a group of homeless women who grow and consume a powerful hallucinogenic they call “the Devil’s Snuff.” Speaking of drugs, there’s Theo, the Catholic school girl slash drug dealer, who has recently been double-crossed by her college girlfriend, and Pru, the overweight, slightly-delusional, circus-obsessed cafeteria worker who has become one of Theo’s customers. When Eva’s boyfriend is murdered, and it looks like the crime might be pinned on Theo, these characters’ stories come together in a most unusual and interesting way.
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. This is your basic family/friends contemporary drama about three former college bandmates — Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe — who are now middle aged and all living in the same gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. Told from the perspectives of the adults and their teenage children (who happen to start sleeping together), I found the characters and relationships interesting and the whole novel compulsively readable. This was one of the first books I read after my baby was born, and the fact that it held my attention while I was getting an average of three hours of sleep a night says something. It’s a good vacation read – which is funny, because I just remembered I also read The Vacationers by Emma Straub this year and enjoyed it as well.
The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin. I read parts of this book while walking around my house in circles, the baby in the Moby wrap, trying to get her to fall asleep. I’m really not joking. Ironically, I’m not sure I recommend this book to new moms (or moms at all) because of its premise: Single mom Janie’s eccentric four-year-old son Noah has been asking for his “other mother” (goosebumps!!), and a doctor with a memory disorder wants to prove that Noah is remembering one of his past lives. The three of them go on a search to find Noah’s mother from his past life and figure out why he has such a deep fear of water. Kinda creepy and super compelling.
The Best Books I Read in 2017: YA and Middle Grade Novels
Small Steps by Louis Sachar. When I decided to write a post called What Holes by Louis Sachar Can Teach Us About Writing Children’s Fiction, I realized to my chagrin that Holes — one of my all-time favorite middle grade books — has a companion novel called Small Steps! Obviously I read it, and it was such a page-turner that I stayed up hours past my bedtime to finish it.
It’s not really a sequel (Stanley, the protagonist of Holes, never makes an appearance), and I would classify Small Steps as a YA contemporary/romance instead of a middle grade adventure. Still, it’s definitely worth a read. Two years after his release from Camp Green Lake, Theodore “Armpit” Johnson is trying to get his life on track: pass summer school, keep his landscaping job, and stay out of trouble with the law. But he puts everything in jeopardy when he gets involved with a sketchy, money-making scheme hatched by his fellow Camp Green Lake friend, X-Ray. Although can he really complain when X-Ray’s plan leads to a romance with famous teenage singer Kaira DeLeon?
The Leaving by Tara Altebrando. I mention this book in my post How to Write YA Mystery Books as an example of a YA book that adults will enjoy, too. The premise is super intriguing: eleven years ago six Kindergarten children went missing. Now, suddenly, five of them are back. They all seem fine… except they have absolutely no memory of where they have been.
Told from the perspectives of two of the missing children and the sister of the one who didn’t come back, this book has a very interesting narrative style, a thoughtful theme, and a plot full of twists and turns.
Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han. This is the third (and I’m assuming final) book in the Lara Jean series. (The first two are To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You.) From the cover, these novels look like super girly romances, and I suppose they are. Besides Lara Jean’s dreamy boyfriend, there’s also a lot of cookie-baking and sister-love. But these books are also SO well-written that I don’t want you lumping them in with all YA romances. Jenny Han has created funny, specific, three-dimensional characters, and these books have some of the best, most fun/realistic dialogue I’ve read in YA. Han knows how to create tension in small moments, and even though the plots of these novels might not sound like much, they are page-turners all the same.
I think Always and Forever might be my favorite Lara Jean novel, although maybe that’s just because I’ve gotten to know and love the characters and come to admire the world Jenny Han has created. It takes a lot of talent to make a story this (deceptively) simple be so engaging. In Always and Forever, Lara Jean is trying to decide where to go to college… and wondering if her decision will mean breaking up with her boyfriend, Peter.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. I reread this classic recently and was overcome — not just with emotion (this book absolutely guts me every time) — but also with pure awe at what a stunning novel it is. It inspired me to write a post called What Bridge to Terabithia Can Teach Us About Writing Children’s Fiction (the first in my Great Children’s Literature Study series).
Set in rural Virginia in the 1970s, Bridge to Terabithia is about a shy 5th grade boy named Jess and how his life is forever changed by the eccentric new girl who moves in next door. Written with elegance and heart, this may well be one of the best books of all time — period. Be ready to cry your eyes out at the end.
Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig. I also mentioned this novel in my post on How to Write YA Mystery Books as an example of a YA mystery novel that incorporates a “coming of age” theme. In Last Seen Leaving, Flynn not only investigates the strange disappearance of his girlfriend, January, but confronts his own sexuality — finally coming out to his family and friends. I thought it was really well done, and though I was of course interested in the mystery of what happened to January, I was just as engaged by the emotional tension of Flynn confronting the secret he has been keeping from everyone — his friends, his family, his missing girlfriend… and himself.
What about you? What are the best books you read this year?