Overall, this year of reading was a mixed bag. I read 84 books. Some of them were great. Some of them were good. Some of them were truly terrible. In the end, it was actually pretty easy to select these top seven reads from 2017. Here are my picks—click on the title for a link to buy the book!
Following an independent storyline in an alternate universe from the movie, this is an excellent origin story featuring a teenaged Diana. The Amazonian princess risks exile by rescuing a mortal—only to discover that the mortal is a warbringer, a descendant of Helen Troy with the supernatural power to destroy the world. This is a marvelous tale of adventure, female friendship, girl power, mythology, and just the teeniest bit of romance. I listened to the audiobook, and it’s fantastic.
This book felt like warm comfort food or getting comfy under a blanket with a mug of hot tea. I still remember my second grade teacher, Mrs. Knutson, recommending the LITTLE HOUSE books to me on the stairwell of Washington Elementary School, because reading these novels was one of my most formative reading experiences. I shared a room with my younger sister while growing up, and my mom read the entire series aloud to us. As a family of four girls, we went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder play; we stayed in a sod house; we visited the Minnesota landmarks. I am a huge fan girl. So when I heard that a new and authorized LITTLE HOUSE book was coming out in 2017, I was ecstatic—and I was not disappointed! As it is written from Ma’s (aka Caroline’s) perspective, this book offers a more realistic picture of life on the frontier than the children’s books. It is heartwarming but also deeply human. How would it feel to have a husband you love dearly who is always wanting to move on to the next place when you might be just as happy to stay? What can you find for your little girls to do that won’t drive you crazy while you try and get something done? There are some truly touching scenes between Caroline and Charles as well as some beautiful snapshots of motherhood.
What a delight! Originally published in 1970, this slim volume of real letters exchanged between Helen Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York, and a London used book dealer are an homage to the world of books and letters. Funny, irreverent, and showing humanity at its most generous, this book is more wonderful than words can express. At only 95 pages, I read this book in a single sitting and it was undoubtedly my most pleasant reading experience of the year.
And . . . another tiny book about books. I can’t help myself. In this novella, Queen Elizabeth II discovers a voracious appetite for the written word in the later years of her life. On a stroll with one of her hounds, which escapes its tether, she learns that a traveling library visits Buckingham Palace every week. It’s only polite, she feels, to borrow a book once she comes face-to-face with the librarian and a young kitchen boy perusing the shelves. Soon enough, the queen can’t stop reading for pleasure—something she’s never done before. She’s always read books, of course. But reading for enjoyment is a new concept. This begins a passionate affair with literature that leads to a surprising revelation at the end. I won’t tell!
An intense but ultimately rewarding read. “When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family” (from Goodreads). Excellently written, this a tale that will grab you and not let go. Set in the American South and exposing the harsh cruelties of slavery, this novel is not for the faint of heart but is so worth the effort. I think part of the reason I found it to be such a difficult (in the best sense) read is that I listened to it on audio. There was no escaping or skimming over the reality of injustice, and perhaps that’s a good thing. I was very satisfied with the ending, although there is a sequel that I haven’t read yet called Glory Over Everything.
This is a beautifully written, tangled-twisty mess of a feminism, deception, and shame. WOW. The Lie Tree is starkly true at particular moments, and there are many wonderful quotes within. I was riveted by the way this YA novel portrayed the way a lie takes on a life of its own and the power that even the smallest fib can wield over our lives and the lives of those around us. Read more about the book and what I thought here.
You and everyone you know should read this book, especially if they happen to love books. This is a beautiful journey of two people growing closer, of a mother and her son, of a lifelong love of literature, of what a well-lived life looks like, and of what a good death truly means. It is emotional and incredibly inspiring. I savored every carefully crafted word.
This book touched me on a deeply personal level, and I had to process it for a little while before writing about it. Anna Lyndsey’s amazing memoir is about her experience of a rare and unexplained physical condition that leaves her unable to be in the presence of light—not just sunlight, but soft lamps, LED screens, everything. She can’t even go to a doctor’s office. At first, I couldn’t imagine what this would be like, but her memoir describes her feelings and practical limitations with incredible detail. I was blown away by both the writing and Lyndsey’s keen insights into chronic illness and depression. This receives 5/5 stars from me!
One of the main reasons to recommend this memoir is Lyndsey’s ability to speak about her completely life-altering struggle with such eloquence, such candor, and such vulnerability. As someone who lives with chronic illness, I had many moments of, “Yes—that’s exactly what that feels like!” while reading this book. However, this is not to say that this book is all inspirational “a-ha” moments. There’s plenty of emotional turmoil here, too, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing those thoughts. Her struggle is real every step of the way—and real again after every setback.
“I am the prisoner only of my skin. Would I could claw that traitorous membrane from my bones.”
When Lyndsey’s skin comes into contact with light at the height of her illness, it literally blisters, and she is in excruciating pain for days. But thankfully she is not alone in her isolation. She has a boyfriend/eventual husband who loves her deeply and walks with her through everything. It is very touching and heartening to witness through words. For most of the time frame covered in this book, Lyndsey spends her days in a completely darkened room with cloth stuffed into the crevices of every window and door. Yet her and her husband still manage to have a meaningful relationship, despite the obstacles and depression her situation entails. This is pretty phenomenal in and of itself.
I found this memoir inspiring even though it contains so much darkness because of the magnitude of Anna’s condition and the way she handles it with strength and grace, particularly as a non-Christian. How does one endure such pain—such isolation—without the belief in the promise of eternal life or in the God who loves you just as you are? At one point, Lyndsey contemplates suicide and decides against it. I cannot imagine living life—particularly her difficult life—without the hope of the Lord, but I really admire Lyndsey for her endurance, her humor, and her choice to live the best life possible day by day.
Upon experiencing a period of remission, Lyndsey writes, “My heart is filled with gratitude and relief. Gratitude that I have been granted another chance. Relief that my worst fear, the fear of permanence, has yet again been proved unfounded.” This is the quintessential fear for so many with chronic illness—the inability to think beyond this moment, the belief that things will not get better. I love that she addressed this outright. It is such a silent, hushed thing—but it is a very real and important thing to talk about, too. I think she expressed it beautifully.
From her sense of self-loss due to periods of isolation to her humorous recitation of the ABCs of chronic illness, I strongly identify with Anna Lyndsey and various aspects of her experience. We are, as another famous Anne once said, “kindred spirits,” I think. Like me, Lyndsey is a booklover. She spends a great deal of her time listening to audiobooks. She speaks very positively about literature, saying, “I can, in my darkness, live so many different lives.” These brief forays into her literary life and the playful “Games to Play in the Dark” sections are the lightest parts of the book. Most of the games have something to do with words. These brief, engaging sections successfully break up the narrative; it was an excellent choice made by Lyndsey.
I was saddened to learn that Lyndsey’s illness continues in its intensity as of the writing of this book. But that is, alas, the nature of chronic ailments. I’ll leave you with the same hopeful words she closes her memoir with:
“Joy lurks in every mundane thing—just waiting to be found. Love is impervious to reason, and words are wonderful.”
Hello, readers! How is your February going? Mine has been flying by! I have been more social this month and have been doing a little less reading. Nevertheless, I couldn’t let another week go by without a new post. So without further ado, here’s my top fiction recommendation for the month of February
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
With spare prose, underplayed emotion, and true-to-life dialogue, this brief small-town novel about two older adults seeking companionship is incredibly moving and a pleasure to read. Widow Addie Moore reaches out to her neighbor, Louis Waters—also a widower—with a bold proposition. Might he want to come and sleep over at her house sometime so the two of them could have someone to talk to before bed? As they begin their unusual arrangement, Addie and Louis find real friendship, talking about their lives and their pasts as they fall asleep side-by-side. Then they start spending time together during the day and word spreads in town—and gossip starts circulating. Things get more complicated when their adult children make their opinions known about their friendship. Throughout the book, the dialogue between Addie and Louis is companionably easy yet poignant. They discuss hard memories with frankness and trust. I love how quiet Our Souls at Night is. There is little action, but there is depth and truth.
I listened to the audiobook of this novel, which I highly recommend. It is read by a gentleman with an even, kind of grandpa-like voice. The narrator, Mark Bramhall, could not have done a better job. As the novel is mostly dialogue, it is an ideal book to listen to and is only three and a half hours long.
What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments!
This was a great year for me and books! What with blogging, joining the Litsy community (@annahenke), and just loving the reading life, I’m perfectly content. I read over 120 books in 2016. It’s customary in the blogosphere to do some sort of “Best of” list, and I’m excited to share mine with you. Here’s my list of the best books I read in 2016 by category!
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Thorns and Roses #2
I devoured this book! I have loved everything Sarah J. Maas has written so far. The character development in A Court of Mist and Fury is astoundingly good. I really like how Maas handles Feyre’s grief and portrays her PTSD after the events of A Court of Thorns and Roses. I couldn’t put it down! This is a series that MUST be read in order.
NOTE: This is not a YA book, in my opinion – at least, not in terms of the romance. Full-on steamy. This should have been marketed as adult fantasy.
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
What a remarkable story! This fictionalization of the life of trailblazing horse trainer and pilot Beryl Markham blew me away. Set primarily during her formative years and early adulthood in Kenya, this novel about a strong historical woman who wasn’t afraid to smash boundaries is beautifully written. Beryl was flawed but fierce and endured much for “being a woman and daring to think I could be free” (Circling the Sun). I’ve put Beryl’s memoir, West With the Night, on my TBR, and I’m very interested to hear the full story from the woman herself. Beryl was a private person by all accounts, however, so I hear it doesn’t have much in the way of personal relationships, which was a strength of McLain’s fictionalization. But I still need to read it!
A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn, Veronica Speedwell Mystery #1
I enjoyed this book so much that I read it twice in one year! I had to prep for the sequel coming out in January 2017. Why I loved it: It’s a Victorian historical mystery featuring an intrepid lady/amateur detective who is also a lepidopterist (specialist on butterflies and moths). Sold! There is an enigmatic, handsome taxidermist who becomes her reluctant investigative partner. Yes! There is a romance, but it’s very subtle and develops slowly. Just my cup of tea! They take refuge in an abandoned private museum of sorts. Hooray! There is a mystery about the main character’s heritage. Love it! I could go on, but I won’t.
The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg
Brilliant! The artwork is amazing and perfectly fits the tone of the story being told. The fictional folktales within are everything one would wish for: clever, funny, poignant, and sweet. I think it’s a must-read for graphic novel fans and a great entry point for newcomers to the format.
Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye, Narrated by Susie Riddell
This book was so strange and I loved it. It’s a Jane Eyre-inspired story with a quirky twist: What if Jane had been a serial killer? The tagline for the marketing was, “Reader, I murdered him.” For those unfamiliar with the real Jane Eyre, the most famous line is, “Reader, I married him.” So clever! I was hooked by the fascinating premise; however, the book was something of a surprise. Jane was quite likeable. This is in itself is a remarkable achievement for a writer. I consider myself pretty sensitive to violence, and I don’t enjoy unlikeable characters at all, so I was very impressed that Faye pulled that off. Jane kills multiple people (only bad people, mind), but I was still rooting for her in the end. The audiobook is exceptional. I would not have changed a thing.
As a side note, the premise of this book is so bizarre that it makes a great conversation piece. I had about a twenty-minute conversation with my coworkers about it at the company picnic and they all thought I’d gone mad. 🙂
Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist
I loved what Nyquist had to say about grace, forgiveness, and shame. I learned so much. Read my review here.
The Wood’s Edge by Lori Benton, The Pathfinders #1
I was so impressed with the diversity, vigor, and historicity of Benton’s writing in this first chapter of a new family saga. The story is wonderful. Read my review here.
A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley
I loved this book and look forward to everything Kearsley writes. It contains her signature Scottish history connection, a mystery in a book, and features a beautiful, intelligent heroine who happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s real, and the romance is so heartwarming and completely believable. Apparently, Susanna’s daughter has Asperger’s, and that shows in the sensitivity and normalcy with which she portrays the social interactions of the main character. I thought it was fantastic! This is a solid, clean romance recommendation.
Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
This one took me a little while to get into, but I was more than amazed by the end of it! Its best qualities are the unorthodox storytelling, the various illustrations, and the gripping action/suspense. I literally gasped at the twists and turns in the last fifty pages. Definitely worth the read! A top-notch YA pick.
That’s all for 2016. 🙂 Happy New Year!
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
Read by Fiona Hardingham and Lorelei King
This book about books is well-written, sweet, and tons of fun. When Swedish visitor Sara arrives in Broken Wheel, Iowa, she finds her pen pal and fellow booklover, Amy, has died. However, the town is bound and determined that she stay and enjoy the two months she had planned to spend anyway. She decides to open up a small bookshop in the town square and the project enlivens the inhabitants – and the town itself – in wonderful ways. With plenty of quirky characters, humor, small-town antics, and romance, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is perfect for those looking for a cozy, comforting book about books.
This book is read very well, and I really enjoyed the overall experience. There were a few times when the narrator’s Southern accent wavered, but not often enough that it really took away from the story. I liked that Amy’s letters are read by a different voice actor, which adds variation and a refreshing break from the narrative.
In short, I recommend it!
Reading next: Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Here’s a look at the fiction I’ve finished lately!
Book Five in the Wilderness Series
Recommended to fans of Outlander, the Wilderness series is a sweeping historical romance and multigenerational family saga that begins in 1792 and carries on for decades after. The fourth book, Queen of Swords, opens in 1814 and is centered on the rescue of one of the family’s Scottish relatives who has been kidnapped by pirates. The plot also concerns the ongoing War of 1812. I found this part fascinating, as I know so little about that particular war. Why is it such a neglected part of American history? With white, black, and Native American characters, this book also provides an interesting glimpse into race relations during this time period—from day to day life to how each facet of society participated in the war. I liked Queen of Swords, although it took me a few chapters to remember who everyone was and where the last book left off. Like all the Wilderness novels, this book contains a well-balanced mix of action, adventure, and romance. The entire series is excellent narrated by Kate Reading. Unfortunately, Queen of Swords is the weakest book in the series so far—still not a bad book, but hopefully that’s not a trend.
If you’re intrigued, then start at the beginning of the saga with Into the Wilderness!
A modern classic, Kindred is the story of Dana, a black woman living in the 1970s, who is suddenly and inexplicably pulled into the past whenever one of her ancestors (a white man) is in mortal peril. I love time-travel books, but this one is a tough read. It’s enthralling and devastatingly bleak. Octavia Butler’s writing is plain yet precise; however, I would have liked a bit more detail and depth in some places. Some very ugly truths are played out in this story and it’s an important book, especially given the racial tension and discord in still evident in America today.
Read a full summary on Goodreads!
What I’m Reading Now:
Wow, September flew by! It’s been three weeks since my last post, but the truth is . . . I’ve been busy reading!
BOOKS READ IN SEPTEMBER: 13
New Releases: 4 Backlist TBR Books: 6 Surprise Finds: 3
Galleys: 2 Audio: 4 Ebook: 3 Print: 4 Graphic Novel: 1
Fiction: 11 Nonfiction: 2 Sequels/Series: 3 for #sequelseptember
FAVORITES THIS MONTH:
Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas, Throne of Glass #5
I absolutely love this series. SJM delivers everything fans love in this fifth installment: romance, action, phenomenal world building, fantastic characters, and so much drama! As usual for this series, this book gutted me emotionally. And that cliffhanger—how can we wait! NOTE: This series gets more explicit with each book. This is categorized as YA, but I wouldn’t recommend it for younger teens.
A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes #2
This is one of the best fantasy series being written today! This latest from Sabaa Tahir is riveting, beautifully crafted and packed with emotion. It’s impossible to talk about this book without spoiling book one, so pick up An Ember in the Ashes STAT if you’re into YA fantasy. I’m so happy that we are getting two more books in this series!
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
I can’t believe it took me this long to read this book. This story of two French sisters during WWII is moving, filled with fascinating historical detail and unputdownable! The audiobook is excellently read and so deserving of the Audie Award it won. If you haven’t picked this one up yet, do it! Confession: I had some bias toward this author based on the covers of her contemporary women’s fiction books. I was so wrong!
CHRISTIAN FICTION SPOTLIGHT
The Wood’s Edge by Lori Benton, The Pathfinders #1
This is a great historical fiction read. Set in the years leading up to the American Revolution, this tale follows the lives of two twins who are separated at birth. Benton presents the fascinating juxtaposition of one twin, raised by his birth mother—a white woman married to an Oneida Indian—and one twin raised by the redcoat officer, who took the newborn from his crib and raised the child in place of their own newborn who died. With gentle romance, well-researched history, and Christian elements, this is a solid read. I’ll be continuing the series. Highly recommended!
A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev
I was completely blown away by this book! I have heard such great things about this author that I requested it on Netgalley without even reading the premise. I went into to it totally blind. Man, was I in for a surprise! This story is dark, difficult, and brutally emotional. It’s so much more than a romance—there’s also a mystery and a crime investigation. It’s about two broken people, finding the courage to help each other heal and love again
Iron Cast by Destiny Soria
While I didn’t love this book, I think many teens will enjoy it. I recommend it to fans of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. It has a similar style and fell. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve read so much phenomenal YA fantasy this month, but this didn’t quite deliver on the intriguing premise.
Well, that’s all for now. Participating in the #hellooctober readathon and must get back to my book!
July was a great month for reading—partly because it was too hot to do anything else! I participated in the #24in48 readathon weekend, so I finished a lot more books than usual. I didn’t get close to 24 hours of reading done in 48 hours, but it was time well spent.
I read 14 books this month: 1 nonfiction (Cure), 1 short story, 4 audiobooks, and 10 print books.
The Chronicles of St. Mary’s by Jodi Taylor (#2, 2.5, and 3)
In this delightful, action-packed series, time-traveling Historians go on madcap adventures while doing hands-on research. Of course, there’s also an evil organization trying to sabotage “the timeline” and hijinks ensue. The audiobooks (narrated by Zarra Ram) are fantastic. Highlight: Loads of dry humor. Qualm: I’d love to see more character development in addition to the fun plots. My recommendation: Keep in mind these are light on historical detail and just enjoy the ride. View the series on Goodreads!
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
Isn’t this the most beautiful cover you’ve ever seen? This is a fictional account of the life of Margaret the First, one of the first English women to make a living as an author. I am still in awe of this slim but stunning work of literary imagination. Dutton’s fanciful and lyrical voice perfectly conveys the spirit of Margaret, who “made the world her book.” I have no qualms. If you like historical fiction, this is a must-read. View the publisher’s summary on Goodreads!
This one is right in my sweet spot! I adore historical novels with mystery elements. Set in 1840s England, Amy Snow is the story of a friendship between two women: one privileged, one a penniless orphan. While dying of a long illness, the wealthy girl sets up a treasure hunt for her friend using secret letters and clues only Amy will understand. On her journey—a fascinating undertaking for a woman in this time period—Amy learns more than expected about both her friend and herself. I enjoyed watching Amy come into her own while wrestling with how to honor her friend’s wishes and choose her own path. View the publisher’s summary on Goodreads!
That’s it from me. See you next week for my review of Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. It’s a gothic retelling of Jane Eyre—if Jane was a serial killer. The tagline is “Reader, I murdered him.” Need I say more?
I am a big Boot Riot fan—the posts, the podcasts, the whole shebang—so I decided to take up their 2015 Read Harder challenge. I like to take up a challenge every year to stretch my reading horizons (and be inspired to catch up on my TBR pile). It’s definitely made me pick up a few books that I wouldn’t have already, and I still have some interesting categories yet to fill!
Here’s a (slightly past) midyear update of my progress so far:
A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon
A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65
Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
A collection or anthology of short stories
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
A book published by an indie press
The Day I Met Jesus: The Revealing Diaries of Five Women From the Gospels by Frank Viola and Mary E. DeMuth
A book by or about someone who identifies as LGBTQ
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfield
A book by a person whose gender is different from your own
How to Enjoy Reading Your Bible by Keith Ferrin
A YA novel
Atlantia by Ally Condie
A sci-fi novel
This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner
A romance novel
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
A Pulitzer Prize winner from the last ten years
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A book that is a retelling of a classic story
Cinder by Melissa Meyer
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
A graphic novel, memoir, or comic collection
The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffnegger
A “guilty pleasure” book
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
A book published this year
The Accidental Empress by Alison Pataki
A self-improvement book
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
Tasks still to go:
A collection of poetry
A book that someone else has recommended to you
A book that was originally published in another language.
A book published before 1850
A book that takes place in Asia
A book by an author from Africa
A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous community
That’s it for now! If you have any suggestions for the remaining categories, I’d love to hear them! Happy reading!
I’ll be honest. Sometimes, I get turned off by too much hype. I listen to book podcasts, follow bestseller lists, and read book blogs. If too many people tell me about a book, I get to feeling like I’ve already read it.
That’s why I put off reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I’ve sold more copies of this book at Barnes and Noble than any other since I started working as a bookseller. Everyone I know has raved about the movie. I was determined to read the book first, but was in no hurry to do so–after all, I had heard all about it. The great secret of the “terrible-awful” thing that Minnie did had been revealed (shame on you, anonymous blogger). So I just figured I’d get to it at some point.
But, then I started listening to it on audio. I was hooked immediately. I started listening to it on the way to Rochester and seriously considered reading it behind the cash register at work (we have copies on display). Obviously, this sort of behavior is frowned upon–even at a book store. But I still might have done it, had I not been enjoying the audio version so much. Three narrators read the three perspectives of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minnie. There is something so transporting about listening to a book with well-read dialect, especially one as well-written as The Help. Kathryn Stockett describes the way I felt about the voices of Minnie and Aibileen (on audio) beautifully in the book, when Skeeter is describing the voice of her maid:
“If chocolate was a sound, it would have been Constantine’s voice singing. If singing was a color, it would’ve been the color of that chocolate.”
The Help is full of descriptions that will make you smile, because you know just what she means. Like when she says the room where the group of young Southern belles play bridge “smells like diamonds.” Well, that and hairspray, but that’s just implied. 🙂
It is funny, emotional, and will break your heart with its insight into Mississippi in the 1960s, the most violent state of the civil rights movement. Black women raise white babies, who grow up to learn that their beloved maid is colored. Then, they hire colored women to raise their babies, and make the same woman who changed their diapers use the “colored” bathroom outside–because they hear black people carry different, dangerous diseases.
The Help is engaging and absolutely deserves the hype. Read it!
P.S. And I don’t just mean watch the movie, although by all means do so if you are one of the minority of American women/majority of American men who haven’t seen it yet. The movie adaptation was fantastic. But the book is BETTER!