My Year in Books (Part 1: Fiction)

books

I read my way through this year to avoid getting sucked into a vortex of disappointment, and while I have long agreed with Lang’s sentiment, no year has his words rang truer for me than 2017.

I read 73 books this year – roughly a book every 5 days!

It’s hard to despair when you’ve spent 365 days awash in wonderful words, urged out of your own myopia by Haitian immigrants, gender nonconformists, African inventors, social justice seekers, and people grappling with their own cultures, pasts, and losses. Some of the books I read purposefully strove to be a spiritual salve, but just about all of them accomplished this goal.

For the last couple years, I’ve started the New Year with a blog post about my previous year in books, but this year, one entry isn’t gonna cut it.

This year, I’m breaking that list of 73 into three manageable chunks by genre, starting with the longest list of 37 fiction titles. (The next day’s list will be nonfiction titles, and the following day I’ll share the memoirs.)

If you DID get sucked into the vortex this year, my prescription for you in 2018 is more books, and I hope these posts give you some titles to add to your medicine cabinet, er, book shelf.

Fiction

This graphic shows you the fiction titles I read in chronological order. As I finished these, I gave them a 1 – 5 star rating on Goodreads.com and wrote a couple sentences about them on my Pinterest page, but some of the books I gave 5 stars to have long since left me, and I can’t stop thinking about some of the ones I granted fewer stars.

Thus, I’m doing this year-end list appraisal differently this year. (Feel free to skim and skip around!)

Books I keep thinking about

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – I finished this book in March, and I have thought about it ever since. It starts with two half sisters in Ghana and traces branches of their family tree for 300 years, with each chapter devoted to a family member and reading like its own short story. It as an absolutely beautiful book whose ending I cherished.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – This book has been on my shelf almost since its publication in 2002, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m embarrassed I didn’t read it sooner. If, like me, you’ve passed over this tale of three generations of a Greek-American family and its secrets, wait no longer!

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz – We need more coming-of-age books appropriate for younger audiences that discuss identity and sexual orientation in the nuanced way this delightful story does. I also really appreciated the healthy, happy parent/child relationships depicted here. (This was one of two books on this list that I gave my daughter for Christmas.)

 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – I started it and thought, “WTF?!” Then, I did some searching and stumbled upon NPR’s review, which was immensely helpful for giving me an orientation for the world I was entering. (I agree with just about everything that review says.) This book is ostensibly about Abe Lincoln’s grief over the death of his son, and the spirits his son encounters on the other side. In the end, this is a book unlike any other I’ve read, and its messages about grief and the purpose of life are worth it.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – Starr, an African American teenager witnesses police killing her innocent friend after a traffic stop. This debut novel takes us through how Starr processes that trauma while attending a predominantly White prep school where her classmates are relatively blind to the racial tensions she feels. This book deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. I’m critical of endings, and this one nails it. (This was the second book that made its way into my daughter’s Christmas stocking.)

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin – This Young Adult book serves as a primer for the concept of gender fluidity, one that many adults could benefit from as well. I love how Garvin doesn’t describe Riley or ever identify the character as male or female through other character’s eyes.

Disappointments

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – I had high hopes for this one given all the “Recommended” and “Best of 2016” lists it made, and it fell way too short of the hype.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – Although I’m from Massachusetts, I knew nothing of the infamous Lizzie Borden and her butchered family, so this fictional reimagining of those grizzly murders intrigued me. Three narrators tell the story, though, and they all sound the same…like 12-year old girls on a playground rather than adult women at the center of a double homicide. 

Surprises

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig – I can’t remember how I stumbled across this delightful book told from the perspective of an autistic girl in foster care. It is honest and heartfelt and hopeful.

This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel – This book was in a couple magazines as a must-read, and I loved this quirky (almost whimsical) family trying to understand and support its youngest family member, a transgender girl. It was easy to digest the larger message in the book, and you couldn’t help but feel for the whole family.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – A large cast of characters keeps this tale about a Russian sentenced to spend his life inside a hotel moving. It reminded me in some ways of A Man Called Ove, but more historical, more literary, and more humorous.

Books I should have ditched but didn’t*

Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam – Fans of Tom Perrotta might like this one, but its main character is an adulterous, selfish, insecure man incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions, and he reminded me too much of someone else I was trying to forget.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey – It’s a zombie book, but not. It’s a sci-fi book, but not. It’s definitely post-apocalyptic and dystopian. I knew none of this when I picked it up, and maybe those classifications would have helped me get in the right frame of mind, but probably not because I don’t like books with kids in peril.

A Working Woman by Elvira Nararro – I kept waiting for this book to get better or have some kind of twist. But there was no twist, and it did not improve. Thankfully, it was relatively short.

The rest…

The Nix by Nathan Hill – I liken this to The World According to Garp. There are many moving parts to this hefty novel, including ghosts, war, mother/son stuff, politics, social commentary, conniving students, and gaming. The Nix tells a tightly-woven tale, and just about all 620 pages of it are essential. I especially appreciated the story’s end, which satisfyingly wraps up all the storylines.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – I picked this up because it made so many “Best of 2016” lists, and I was unaware it was a “YA” book, which might have deterred me from reading it. I’m glad I didn’t know because this was as delightful as those who nominated it for those lists claimed. It is a book about young love. It is a book about clashing cultures. It is a book about immigration. But as the cover suggests, it also explores the interconnectedness of humanity.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – Fiction about the horrors of WWII is not my favorite genre, and I feel like I’ve read my fill of it via book club choices. But, when two people whose book opinions I value highly raved about this book to me, I had to put the ban on WWII books aside. I am glad I did. For anyone who does not feel saturated with this topic, I would highly recommend this title – and for those who haven’t read much fiction about this topic, this novel is the best of the bunch.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult – Picoult is not my favorite due to her trite endings and the fact she hasn’t met a headline out of which she didn’t want to make a story. This book is no different. But. It is an excellent novel that highlights important issues in race. I agree with just about everything Roxanne Gay wrote in her review of it.

Native Son by Richard Wright – I am glad I read this, as I would label it an American classic that I missed. I could understand Bigger’s actions, though some of Mr. Max’s legal speeches were difficult to agree with.

The Shack by William Paul Young – This as been on my shelf for over 8 years, and my desire to read the book before seeing the movie version is what drove me to finally open it. I found it a little schmaltzy, but I also have many dog-eared pages of good life wisdom.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – I had no desire to read this, but after seeing an episode of the series on HBO, I got sucked into the story. What a delicious, page-turning beach read with a twist I did not see coming!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I have watched Adichie’s TedTalk about “The Danger of a Single Story” many times and had been remiss in reading any of her work. I am glad I started with this one – very timely, incredibly engaging, and I absolutely loved it.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg – A librarian recommended this after hearing about some other books I liked, and I can understand why. I have been on a multiple narrator kick lately, and this fits the bill. It has mystery, grief, and misunderstood characters. A worthy read.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson – A fast, seemingly simple read that packs a lot of punch. This was my first book by Woodson, picked up based on a librarian’s recommendation, and it did not disappoint.

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington – A beautiful follow-up (prequel, actually) to Harrington’s Alice Bliss. She writes nuanced male characters and depicts complicated, loving relationships so perfectly, not to mention her messages about the ravages of war are timely.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton – It’s long and could probably have been at least 100 pages shorter, BUT…it’s very good. The relationships and characters are well developed, and the subplots seem plenty at times, but they all work.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and I can see why. It’s short but mighty, and the way Saeed and Nadia’s relationship evolves over time was beautifully, and sometimes painfully, realistic. This was a good one!

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons – This book was referenced in a few magazines as a good read, and because I am interested in more multicultural works, I grabbed it. The narrator’s South African mother dies, and it’s about her navigating that loss, and life with her American father, in the aftermath. If you liked Mothers, which I did, you’d like this.

The Blue Songbird by Vern Kousky – I picked up this children’s picture book from a Brain Pickings blog post. The bird is trying to find her unique song, and while the story is simple, it adds a twist on what we need to do to find ourselves. I would buy this for the little people in my life.

Frederick by Leo Lionni – I may very well have read this picture book before when the kids were young, but if so, I didn’t remember it. What a treasure and a wonderful story about everyone having a gift – and how valuable non-tangible gifts are!

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo – I liked it for what it was – sometimes schmaltzy fiction. The ending was maybe a bit too…convenient? Not sure. But it was an entertaining page-turner.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue – Oh, man, did I love this couple. It is a realistic and both heartbreaking and optimistic immigration story. I would put it on the same shelf as Exit West, but this had more…magic.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – I thought I would like this more than I did, but I honestly think it was ME and not the book (as in, I wasn’t in the right headspace when I read it). Richie’s story is haunting, and the final scene with Mam and Given is moving. But otherwise, none of the characters really “did it” for me.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny – More substantive than a beach read, but not as intense as a true literary novel. Enjoyable!

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Wood – I had never read this till now, though it’s been sitting on my shelf for probably over a decade. It is an important book, and I am glad I read it, but it’s not as gripping as I thought it would be. It took me about 50 pages before I got into it.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – I wanted to like this one more than I did. I liked the multiple perspectives, but I didn’t connect well with any of the characters.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi – I really appreciated the protagonist’s perspective of a Haitian immigrant trying to reconcile her culture while learning that of her Detroit cousins.

*It’s worth noting that I did ditch two books this year: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time when I was more than halfway through, because I didn’t care about the protagonist or understand what the point was, and Gary Taubes’s The Case Against Sugar due to his conflation of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

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