This is my favorite spot in the house for reading, when I can shoo Ozzie off my chair. I know many of you enjoy my book reviews, so I thought I would share with you my favorite books of 2017. I read 93 books this year, most of them a pretty solid three stars out of five. There are a dozen or so that stood out for me as exceptionally good 5 star reads, so grab yourself a cup of coffee and let's dive in.
First up, I have to mention the Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb. She is an American author who has written a fabulous fantasy series compiled of five trilogies: The Farseer Trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, The Tawny Man, The Liveship Traders, and the Rainwild Chronicles. She creates a fantasy world populated with characters you won't forget and a world that is completely believable. She also features lots of strong female characters. The books are long, but so very entertaining and engrossing. I do not read fantasy, as a rule, but once I started with Robin Hobb, there was no turning back. I have never spent more time with one particular author than I have with her. Start with The Assassin's Apprentice, and I bet you will be hooked too.
Early in 2017 I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. At the time of reading, I found it a bit slow going, but kept at it. In retrospect, I keep thinking of the main character, a Russian aristocrat put under house arrest in a grand hotel in Moscow across from the Kremlin. His circumstances, though very much reduced by the Bosheviks, place him in a new world full of interesting characters and situations that cover all aspects of the human condition. Just imagine Count Rostov, sitting in his small attic room with a few of his favorite possessions from his previous life; one of which is a curiously heavy desk whose hollow legs are filled with gold coins. Since this book has stuck with me over the past year, I have to rank it as one of my favorites. It is not a book you will read and forget.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein was an amazing book. Here are a few words of description by Amazon: "Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun". The surviving passenger is captured by the Gestapo, and her story is told through flashbacks to the years prior to the war and her current situation as a prisoner. There are twists you won't see coming. Gosh, this was a good story. And best of all, there is a sequel recently published called "Rose Under Fire". These books are categorized as Young Adult, but the theme is definitely mature.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers was inspired by real life events. Placida, a newly married teenaged bride is left alone to manage the homestead while her husband, a Major in the Army, goes off to fight in the Civil War. When Major Hockaday comes home two years later, Placida has been arrested for bearing a child in his absence, which she is accused of murdering. And she's not talking. This book will keep you on the seat of your chair, turning the pages as fast as you can.
While the men are at war, the ladies of Chilbury defy their village's stuffy vicar and form an all women's choir. There are five main characters in Jennifer Ryan's The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, and we get to follow along with their personal struggles and secrets. I loved this book, and think you will too. Set in the 40s, in an English village, full of interesting characters, this book kept me rapt from beginning to end.
Midway through 2017, I was inspired to diversify my reading. My goal was to read more books by foreign authors and subjects about people very different from myself. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, winner of the Penn/Hemingway award, was a choice I do not regret making. The story concerns two African sisters in the 1700s. One is married off to a British military person to live a life of luxury and the other is captured and shipped off to America to become a slave. Each chapter of the book is narrated by the next generation of their descendants in chronological order. It was an ambitious undertaking to write this book, to be sure. My only complaint is that the chapters were too short! I would get all interested in the current character's story and before I was ready, we were on to the next generation. The book was well researched and the story very well told and easy to read.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is based on a true life shameful scandal. In the 1930s a woman named Georgia Tann, the director of The Tennessee Chidren's Society made her living by kidnapping the children of poor people and selling them to more privileged families. Families were absolutely destroyed by this evil woman, and this book is a fictional accounting of a family of five children who were stolen from their family and sold to other more affluent families across the country. This book will break your heart, but ultimately give you hope. A great read, and an eye opening look into a real part of our history, of which not many of us are aware.
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo was another selection in my program to read more diverse fiction. Set in Nigeria in modern times, the story is about Yejide and Akin, a married couple who desperately desire to have a child. Fairly prosperous, the young couple live in new apartment building in a nice part of town. Akin is a banker and Yejide owns her own beauty salon. Despite their comfortable life, the two of them cannot find true happiness until they are able to have a child of their own. In Nigeria, a man can have multiple wives, but the couple has decided that is not for them. Imagine Yejide's surprise with her in-laws turn up for a visit accompanied by a younger woman they are presenting as Akin's second wife. Filled with more twists than rotini pasta, this was a very entertaining read. I was laughing on one page and crying on the next. A unique portrait of a marriage.
During the Fall of 2017, I added another goal to my reading program, and that was to read more books that had been nominated for literary awards. Elmet by Fiona Mozley was a finalist for the Booker Prize this autumn. Narrated by 14 year old Daniel, he tells the story of his close knit family (father and sister) who live together in a primitive rural setting in modern day Yorkshire. A local landowner threatens not only their home, but their family unit. There are several themes throughout the book: unionization, gender identity, the corruption of rural life and family love. The author's prose is just beautiful, almost poetical, which is in sharp contrast to the brutality inflicted by the evil landowner. A complex book, beautifully written.
I hardly know where to begin to describe this book, probably the most innovative I have ever read. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders won the Booker Prize for 2017. The main character in the book is none other than Abraham Lincoln, distraught after the death of his beloved son Willie. Lincoln pays nocturnal visits to the Bardo (cemetery) where Willie has been interred. There is an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, both living and dead, real and fictional. Saunders spins a tale from a grain of true historical fact and goes crazy embellishing it with the supernatural and fantastical. I listened to the audio version, which was exceptionally well done. It features a cast of dozens of famous actors, each with their own part. At first I had trouble figuring out who the heck was speaking, but I got with it pretty quickly. It was an incredible book, and so far, I have not met anyone who was willing to read it! Let me know if you do.
Quirky and funny-although with a dark side, Eleanor Oliphant by Gail Honeyman was a good read. Eleanor struggles with social skills to put it mildly. She has a job as a bookkeeper, but is considered pretty much a joke by her co-workers. No doubt about it, Eleanor is weird. Her work week consumes her, but her weekends are devoted to watching tv, eating frozen pizza, drinking vodka and having creepy phone chats with Mummy. Everything takes a turn when Eleanor meets Raymond, the new IT guy at work. He is refreshingly kind, endearingly unhygienic, and only slightly more socially adept than Eleanor. Eleanor is a completely one of a kind, unique character. You may think you don't like her at first, but I guarantee she will make you laugh. There is a sweet romance and a satisfying emergence of Eleanor from a past that is terribly dark.
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund was also a finalist for the Booker Prize. It would be a great winter read, as it is set during the season in the woods in Minnesota. The main character is a teenager named Linda who lives with her eccentric parents in an abandoned commune on a lake in the woods. Linda is a loner and pretty much ostracized at school. When an attractive young family renovates and then moves into a house across the lake, Linda becomes obsessed with them. They hire her as a babysitter for their young son, and consequently our narrator observes many things she does not completely understand. We are wired to accept that adult decisions must be correct, but Linda comes to question many things that go on in the enigmatic couple's household. Very suspenseful.
I am pretty excited to tell you about this book, As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner. Book of the Month Club contacted me and asked me if I would be willing to read and review an upcoming, as yet un-published book that they were considering offering as a monthly selection in 2018. Of course I was wild to do it! They sent me the manuscript copy and I dived into what turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year. The story is set in Philadelphia in 1918, during the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Did you know that the Spanish flu killed 50 to 100 million people around the world, making it the worst natural disaster ever? The book is told through the points of view of the members of the Bright family who move from their rural farm to the city of Philadelphia to provide more opportunities for their three children. The father is employed by a wealthy uncle who is in the undertaking business. Twelve thousand people died from this flu in Philadelphia alone, so you can imagine the impact on the funeral industry! Anyway, the story was gripping, and Susan Meissner is a wonderful author who has written a number of wonderful books. This one is due out in early February, so put it on your To Read list!
This review is getting super long so I will just list five more books that I enjoyed and gave 4 star ratings to:
English Animals by Laura Kaye
The Girl Before by JP Delaney
The Dry by Jane Harper
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
The Story of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall
I have no particular reading goals at this point for 2018, other than to read, read, read. I wish you all a year full of good books!