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.
Hello, readers! I’m trying something new today. I didn’t finish any books this past week! So instead of a review, I’m sharing a list of some anticipated future reads. I hope you find something that sounds intriguing.
Recently Added to My To-Be-Read List:
The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.03
Published: February 28, 2017 by Viking
Source: Publishers Weekly listing
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman’s Tale comes a new novel about an obsessive bibliophile’s quest through time to discover a missing manuscript, the unknown history of an English Cathedral, and the secret of the Holy Grail. SOLD!
The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn by Lori Benton
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.29
Published: April 29, 2014 by WaterBrook
Source: Fan of the author
Western North Carolina, 1787 ~ To escape a threatening stepfather and an unwanted marriage, Tamsen Littlejohn enlists the aid of Jesse Bird, a frontiersman she barely knows, to spirit her away from Morganton, North Carolina, west beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Trouble pursues, as the two men intent on seeing her recovered prove relentless in their hunt. . . . Gaining the freedom she longs for will mean running yet again, to the most unlikely refuge imaginable—the Cherokees, a people balanced on the knife edge of war.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.08
Published: October 21, 2008 by Atheneum
Source: Heard wonderful things about this book and the author
As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight . . . for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.05
Published: May 3, 2016 by Atria Books
From the bestselling author of A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, a heartwarming and hilarious story of a reluctant outsider who transforms a tiny village and a woman who finds love and second chances in the unlikeliest of places.
Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact, and Unsinkable Strength by Kelly Williams Brown
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.00
To-Be-Published: April 18, 2017 by Rodale Books
Source: Saw it on Goodreads
From New York Times bestselling author of Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps Kelly Williams Brown comes a funny, charming guide to modern civility in these—yes, we’ll say it—rather uncivil times.
Throughout the book, she provides tips on how to deal with the people and circumstances that challenge even the most socially graceful among us, advice on how to practice graciousness in everyday life, and thoughtful discussions on being kind to those around you without ever losing your sense of self.
Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.24
Published: April 5, 2016 by Simon and Schuster
Source: Listening to The Kitchen House now and loving it! I heard about that book through a trusted bookish friend.
From the author of the New York Times bestseller and beloved book club favorite The Kitchen House, a novel of family and long-buried secrets along the treacherous Underground Railroad.
Jamie Pyke, son of both a slave and master of Tall Oakes, has a deadly secret that compels him to take a treacherous journey through the Underground Railroad.
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!
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:
Riveting, brutal, and deeply powerful, The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee is the story of two families—one Lakota, one white—and the tragedy that links them. This book is a masterpiece with a plot that’s as winding as Agee’s lyrical sentences. The story begins with two murders. The first victim is Star, a Lakota woman that Nebraska rancher J. B. Bennett finds by chance. When he stumbles upon the crime scene, he is gunned down. The rest of the novel centers on the families of these two individuals. A literary mystery, this tale of vengeance, guilt, love, and betrayal is set ten years after the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the characters are as scarred as the land in which they dwell.
“I am only a girl, a wound in the earth that will not close, I unbury myself over and over until there is justice.”— Star, a murdered Lakota woman, speaking to her sister in a vision
Along with Agee’s gorgeous sentences, the complexity of the characters and their relationships to one another is one of the book’s greatest strengths. I disliked almost every character at various points, which is something I normally find off-putting. However, the personalities were so vivid that it didn’t matter. Agee strategically reveals only small portions of each character’s backstory at a time, which kept me very engaged and compelled to find out the rest of the story.
The timeline of The Bones of Paradise is very fluid, and at one point we are transported back to the historical tragedy at Wounded Knee. Agee’s writing in this section is stunning as we view the massacre through the eyes of a first-hand witness. The events are horrifying in the extreme, and she does not shy away from the violence. Still, her lyrical prose softens it slightly. I was completely transfixed by the narrative.
Overall, I thought the Native American representation in this book was well done, as was her depiction of racism. Agee’s portrayal of white attitudes is honest and multi-faceted. We have a racist white man’s POV and other racist minor characters, but we also have the POV of Dulcinea (the wife of J. B. Bennet), a white woman who is unaffected by racism. The one qualm I have with The Bones of Paradise is that I would have liked to have more from Rose, the sister of the murdered Lakota women. She is such a fascinating character!
If you’re a literary fiction reader or a fan of historical fiction, this beautifully crafted novel is a must-read.
That’s all from me. Shout out to fellow Litsy users! You can find me posting daily about my reading life @annahenke
I found this historical novel—which will especially appeal to fans of Arthurian legends—both accessible and captivating. I couldn’t put it down! A medieval Anglo-Saxon tale set in the late 500s, this is the story of a young Welsh princess born into a cruel world of scheming kings. Branwen is an only child, so the fate of her father’s dynasty rests entirely on her shoulders. Like most noblewomen of the time, she is used as a bargaining chip in a game of kings, like a piece on her father’s chessboard. But Branwen has a strong will and a mind of her own. She will have to overcome many obstacles in order to have the life she desires. . . .
The Publisher’s Summary:
Saxon barbarians threaten to destroy medieval Wales. Lady Branwen becomes Wales’ last hope to unite their divided kingdoms when her father betroths her to a powerful Welsh warlord, the Hammer King. But the fledgling alliance is fraught with enemies from within and without as Branwen becomes the target of assassination attempts and courtly intrigue. A young woman in a world of fierce warriors, she seeks to assert her own authority and preserve Wales against the barbarians. But when she falls for a young hedge knight named Artagan, her world threatens to tear itself apart.
Caught between her duty to her people and her love of a man she cannot have, Branwen must choose whether to preserve her royal marriage or to follow her heart. Somehow she must save her people and remain true to herself, before Saxon invaders and a mysterious traitor try to destroy her.
We follow Lady Branwen as she enters into an arranged marriage to a forbidding warlord and soon finds that her situation is not what she was led to believe. Branwen’s transformation over the course of the novel is empowering and one of the book’s strongest assets. We see her grow from being completely intimidated by her own father to confidently voicing her opinions on military matters—and, eventually, defending herself like a lion from would-be assassins.
While the publisher’s cover copy makes the inevitable Game of Thrones comparison, it’s not a good one in my opinion. For one thing, this novel is a middling length of 336 pages; for another, it is not graphic at all and will, therefore, appeal much more widely. I really appreciated the lack of graphic content in this book, as so many novels set during this era are astoundingly brutal.
I found two things surprising about Between Two Fires. The first was the somewhat abrupt switch in focus to what I would consider a typical historical romance plot in the last third of the novel. Although this is indicated in the cover copy, the tone of the last section just didn’t quite gel with the rest of the novel for me. I think it could have been handled more deftly. NOTE: It is possible that this was fixed in the final book, which I do not have access to. The other surprising aspect was the presentation of religion. Throughout the book, Branwen simultaneously feels great loyalty toward the pagan Old Tribes (her maternal heritage) and Christianity. Noce dives into this internal balancing act in the last part of the book. I found this interesting, even if it did get a little heavy-handed.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and recommend it to fans of historical fiction.
My Favorite Quote:
“They call him the Hammer King. He wears an iron mask into battle and wields a war hammer said to have slain a hundred foes. My nightmares of late consist of a shadowy, faceless blacksmith. Each evening he swings a massive hammer down upon the anvil of my heart.”—Lady Branwen, on the eve of her arranged marriage
Comparable Reads: These are more heavy on the history but excellent if you’re into this time period. I’d recommend all three, depending on your commitment and comfort with historical detail.
The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Hild by Nicola Griffith
Thank you to the publisher, Bloomsbury USA, for the review copy I received through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This last bit contains spoilers, so stop scrolling now if you plan to read the book!
I had two qualms with Between Two Fires. The first is that the galley didn’t contain a historical note, which is essential for all works of historical fiction. The second is how neatly everything was tied up in the end. I realize that romance typically necessitates a happily ever after, but the presentation felt very sudden and kind of forced. It was still a good read, but it felt so unrealistic that it knocked me right out of the story. NOTE: It is possible that these elements were fixed in the final book.
Wow. Poignant, vivid, and gut wrenching, this is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. In fact, it’s so good that Oprah (who has ALL THE POWER) picked it for her book club and worked her magic. As a result: The Underground Railroad dropped into bookstores like a surprise Beyoncé album five weeks ahead of schedule, and it’s clear the literary community agrees with me and Oprah: this is a must-read for all Americans.
The publisher’s summary (shortened):
From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent, wrenching, thrilling tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves, but Cora is an outcast even among her fellow Africans, and she is coming into womanhood; even greater pain awaits. Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, and they plot their escape. Matters do not go as planned, but they manage to find a station and head north. . . .
The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage, and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
Reimagining U.S. history, master craftsman Colson Whitehead transforms the metaphoric Underground Railroad into a real train and “a secret network of tracks and tunnels built beneath Southern soil” (from the full publisher’s summary). This slight departure from reality was brilliantly portrayed, enhancing and in no way detracting from the gravitas of this book and its subject matter. I read this in a single sitting and was so immersed that, for the most part, I forgot about this unhistorical addition entirely. It just seemed a natural part of the route. This tweaking of history was what initially drew me to the book and created increased interest and intensity in some pivotal scenes—not that The Underground Railroad suffered from a lack of either of those things.
“Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavors—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”
The writing in this book is, in short, incredible. Perhaps the most affecting aspect of The Underground Railroad for me was the matter-of-fact way Whitehead relates the horrendous violence of Cora’s life as a slave. Whitehead’s depiction renders the terrible injustice of her life as almost normal—and, tragically, it is to Cora and to the white masters who think nothing of whippings and “taking her behind the shed” (where she is obviously but not graphically raped). I cried within the first twenty pages and again and again throughout this novel. Whitehead pulls no punches. And I’m glad. This is an ugly, tragic part of our history that deserves a clear portrayal of the horrors it entailed.
“To see chains on another person and be glad they are not your own—such was the good fortune permitted colored people, defined by how much worse it could be any moment.”
The main character, Cora, gives a name to the countless individuals whose lives and liberty were ripped from their grasp during the years in which America perpetrated this institution. Whitehead portrays everything from the extreme violence slaves endured to the smaller indignities, like being robbed of the one thing Cora had that was hers (a garden plot) and evicted into the cabin of outcasts when her mother abandoned her to run away. Her trials continue beyond the plantation, unfortunately, where she and Caesar find that the freedom they so desperately long for is always just out of reach.
“[Cora] trusted the slave’s choice to guide her—anywhere, anywhere but where you are escaping from.”
Amid all the devastating twists and turns in this novel, the most horrifying thing about this work of fiction is the inescapable truth that lies beneath. And this history plagues our country to this day. While slavery is abolished, we are still a divided nation in a devastating state. Racial violence. Police discrimination. #BlackLivesMatter has become a well-known movement. How tragic that 150 years after slavery was abolished, this statement is even necessary.
Is there hope for racial reconciliation in America? I don’t know. But I hope and pray that there is. That we can look within and realize that the same blood flows within all human beings. That compassion will triumph over perceived differences. That we can truly become, perhaps for the first time, “one nation, under God.”
I leave you with this sobering quote:
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”
Here we are.
***I received an advance copy of this novel via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.***
**********This last bit contains a SPOILER!!!! **********
I loved the ending of this book. It is fitting that we are left without knowing Cora’s fate. We simply leave her at the start of another leg in her long, terrible journey. We can hope that she survives, but we’ll never know. Like so many black men and women before her, she vanishes from the written record. But we need to remember her. To remember them all—now more than ever.
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’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!