Marie’s Favorites of 2017

Here we are, nearly at the end of another year of reading, and it’s time to tally up the favorites!

Below please find my list of my favorite books of the past year.  These aren’t necessarily books published in 2017, just ones I read this year.  If I wrote a blog post for a title, I linked to it.  If I didn’t, I linked to the Goodreads page.

It’s been a pretty good year, as far as books go.  I found a couple of new favorite authors (Amy Stewart and Karen Maitland) and re-visited some old pals (like Ottessa Moshfegh).  I ended up enjoying quite a bit of weird/fantastic fiction, which isn’t usually my thing.  Nice to get out of the old comfort zone!

I suppose it’s a little pessimistic to say I’m not going to find another favorite book in the next three weeks, but I don’t think it’ll happen.  Unless my current reads really take a turn and deliver something extraordinary, I think I’ll leave it here.

Marie’s Favorite Reads of 2017:

The Hike by Drew Magary

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions by David Quammen

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

When the English Fall by David Williams

Slade House by David Mitchell

Enjoy the last few reading weeks of 2017!  I hope you found lots of new favorites this year, too!

–Marie

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TBR Challenge 12th and Final!

I’m calling it here: I’ve completed the 2017 TBR Challenge.  By which I mean I am done, not necessarily that I completed the challenge fully or anything.

Here are the last books I read:

Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan.  This novel is about an academic trying to balance her research and her family life.  It’s got nice details about academia and the fictional writer’s wife she’s devoted her work to is really well-fleshed out.  Though I have to admit the story hits a bit too close to home for me at this point in my life (minus the brilliant academic doing groundbreaking research part).  The characters were easy to identify with, the style flows nicely, and the hook of the research into a famous Russian writer and his wife is great.

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub.  I feel like Straub has been on my to-read list for a million years and I’ve never quite gotten around to him.   I like his style–it’s compelling and always has the feeling that there’s a lot lurkingn under the surface.  This particular novel is about a writer trying to work out (and through) a mysterious and deadly event which occurred involving his wife and group of friends decades ago.

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch.  I learned about the main character of this novel, Julia Pastrana, years ago when I read a book about medical curiosities.  Hers is a heartbreaking story, both in life and after death.  But at the same time, she had such a rich, full life.  I didn’t think the contemporary storyline was entirely necessary, but I get why Birch did it.  The writing is lyrical and absorbing, and Julia really does come to life as a full, real person.  Knowing what was going to happen sure did lend a lot of melancholy to it, though.

I’ve got a few more round-up posts coming your way this month–the tally of what I’ve read in 2017, my favorite reads of the year, and the Most-Circulated at the Library, which I promise I will not forget this time.

In closing, here’s the official list of books I read off of my TBR list in 2017.  Not too bad!  Though I wish I’d enjoyed more of the ones I had once wanted to read.

TBR Challenge 2017, Completed:

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill
The Father of the Rain by Lily King
Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
This House is Haunted by John Boyne
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor
The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland
The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill
Medieval Women by Eileen Power
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz
Somebody With a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill
The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice
The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker
Deception by Denise Mina
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
A Sudden Light by Garth Stein
The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller
Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
House of the Lost by Sarah Rayne
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
The Thing About December by Donal Ryan
Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart
Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville
The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny

Stay tuned for 2018, when I’ll probably decide to do this or something like it to myself again.

–Marie

November Staff Picks

Wear-1

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Graphic Novel by Isabel Greenberg.
This graphic novel is an intricate story about stories–about storytelling, myths, and folklore, and how they shape human experience.  The art and words flow together, with so much detail in every picture.  It’s also got a lot of humor, both visual and textual.  The core story is about a storyteller from the cold land of Nord, and his travels to find the missing piece of his soul.  References to ancient cultures and their myths abound.  This is such a rich, rewarding story (or set of stories)!
–Marie

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
This real and very raw book is hard hitting from the beginning!  It is a no holes barred story in the trenches of the inner city projects in Chicago.  It involves gangs, police injustice, discrimination and a fuel to use words to make change happen.  The language is rough, but it was a story so relevant to today’s world and I loved Starr and her family! A must read for teens and adults in the world we live in today, where we must remember to treat everyone with respect, even when we disagree!
–Miss Amy

Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine by James S. Leamon
It explains a lot about the place of Maine in the British Empire, how the end of the French and Indian War finally allowed Camden and the Penobscot area to be settled, how the new settlements were not yet on their feet when the Revolution arrived, how Maine got little support from Massachusetts, even though we were part of Massachusetts, how and why Maine eventually separated from Massachusetts. The “two Maines” are present right from the very beginning and in all the politics of the era.
–Ken

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandrai Marzano-Lesnevich.
As recent law-school graduate, the author was working for an anti-death-penalty program when the case of a child murderer hit her desk.  The perpetrator’s story compelled her to dig deeper into his history and, to her unhappy surprise, stirred up her own childhood memories.  A true-crime/personal-story balancing act, The Fact of a Body leads readers into sometimes uncomfortable terrain to explores the ways in which society often fails both victims and criminals.
–Diane

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
I revisit Virginia Woolf’s brief masterpiece every couple of years, reveling in the brilliance of the prose and the depth of Woolf’s grasp of the wonders and horrors of everyday experience.
–Diane

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater.
It was gorgeous. Fiction woven with legend, this is a tall tale that seems like it could really happen. Stiefvater has a gift for character-writing that makes everyone just so HUMAN. There is Beatriz Soria, “the girl with no feelings”, who turns out to have some very deep ones. Pete Wyatt, the boy with a hole in his heart searching for a future. Joaquin Soria who dreams of being a radio DJ and reaching the hearts of his listeners.

Daniel Soria is The Saint of Bicho Raro, who is able to call hidden darkness out of pilgrims and make it visible. The problem, then, is what the pilgrims do about the visible darkness. Some live with it for years – the girl with a constant rain cloud over her head, the twins bound together by a fierce black snake, the priest with a coyote head. For as long as anyone can remember, the Soria family has been warned that they cannot interfere with the pilgrims while they struggle to solve their problems. But now, Daniel has been claimed by the darkness in the name of love, and the Soria cousins are determined to find a better way and save him. The book is shot through with fantastic details of the desert, owls, black roses, and the trials of love in all forms – romantic and familial. Above all, it is about learning to forgive yourself and trust hope.

–Cayla

TBR Challenge Update #11

Only a little over a month to go in 2017, and there are 715 books still on my To Be Read List.  I managed to eliminate quite a few just by ruthlessly trimming the titles which no longer held interest.  There were a surprising number that, on closer investigation, I realized I’d already started and then discarded.  Off the list they went!

Here are three I actually managed to read:

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville.  A strange yet moving novel, about two very different young women in two time periods.  In 1899 Vienna, a psychiatrist is drawn to a girl with a mysterious past.  In 1940’s Germany, a troubled little girl lives with her doctor father at the “hospital” where he works.  At the end, the two narratives converge in a surprising way.  Deeply influenced by fairy tales, and very much about the power of storytelling and the way the stories we tell shape us and allow us to cope with life.

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier.  I picked this up on a whim and then realized it was on my TBR list!  Probably from back when I read Rebecca.  Anyway, these were fun.  Dark and creepy to varying degrees.  du Maurier is great with atmosphere.

The Lives they Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny.  I’m not sure where I heard about this, but I’m glad I picked it up.  Hundreds of suitcases filled with patients’ belongings were found when Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995 after 125 years of operation.   They’d been abandoned in the attic, never reclaimed.  This is a really sad, moving look at the very real lives which usually ended at Willard.

When I began this challenge back in March, I had 831 books on the old to-read list. 116 eliminated, yay!

Only 32 of those actually read.  Heh.  I suppose I’m doing pretty well when judged according to the letter of the TBR Challenge, if not the spirit.

Let’s see how many I can read for real by the end of the year!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” by Dan Jones

templarsJones makes history so accessible and interesting, without sacrificing depth and scholarship.  His accounts are vivid and make great use of historical sources.  The Templars is about the order of the Templar Knights, including how the order was formed, their influence over the centuries, and the way they’ve been transformed into myth.

I went into this book knowing nothing about the Templars except that they existed.  The Knights Templar began as a group of knights dedicated to protecting Christians in Jerusalem, as well as the holy city itself.  They took vows of poverty and chastity, and lived lives similar to those of Cistercian monks.  However, they were also allowed to go into battle and to kill. In a very short period of time their power and money exploded.  When they finally fell out of favor, it was in spectacular and bloody fashion (short but not spoilered version: they ran afoul of the king of France, who did not trust the order…and was also in debt to them).

I have read several books about this era (about 1119 until about 1312), but always with a focus on England.  The Templars explains what was going on  in Jersualem and in Western Europe during the Crusades.  I especially enjoyed learning more about Spain and France during this period, and the capsule history of the city of Jerusalem was illuminating as well.  Again, after so many books from, say, Richard the Lionheart’s point of view, it was also fascinating to learn more about Saladin.

Jones finishes the book with a discussion of how pop culture has transformed the Knights Templar, and the way their legacy has shifted and turned to myth, which makes a nice bookend to the historical narrative.

If you enjoy narrative history and are interested in the Middle Ages, definitely try Jones’s work!  He also wrote the wonderful The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses.

–Marie

TBR Challenge Update #10

I took October off for reading scary stuff for Horror Month and re-reading The Shining and IT and The War of the Worlds.  But I did manage to pick a few off the TBR list here and there!

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.  I really liked The Owl Killers, so I wanted to come back to this one–I remember beginning it almost ten years ago and then never getting beyond the first chapter.  This is a loose retelling of The Canterbury Tales, set against the backdrop of the Black Plague in 1348.  I really enjoyed it!  The characters, each with a secret, are very distinct and well-drawn, and the atmosphere is great.

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan.  I went through a contemporary Irish fiction phase a few years ago, and added this one to my list.  I enjoyed it very much!  Johnsey, lives in rural Ireland, and he inherits the family farm after his parents’ deaths.  He’s a man who doesn’t quite fit in, and this makes for a melancholy read–it’s lyrical, though, with passages of beautiful writing and imagery.

Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart.  Why the shift to third-person narration in this third book?  One of the things I enjoyed best about the first two was being inside Constance’s head.  I really missed that in this novel.  I also missed the mystery element. But the story itself was fun, and ripped from the mid-1910’s headlines, with young women getting hauled into court on charges of “waywardness.”  As ever, funny and fun, with a nice pace and great characters.

I’ve managed to cross a few more off my list by beginning them and realizing that I’m no longer interested.  I’m in a bit of a fiction slump, but I’ve got some good nonfiction going: In the Great Green Room, a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, and Friends Divided, a new book about the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

–Marie

 

Cayla’s Reading: “The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck

women in the castleI’m drawn to World War II fiction, particularly centered around women. Therefore, the premise of the widow of one of the men who plotted to assassinate Hitler gathering other Resistance widows in her family castle post-war was irresistible. After finishing, and pondering over this book for about a week, I am still of mixed emotions.

Marianne von Lingenfels is a formidable, complex character. She is passionately idealistic to the point of being unable to see the human complexities of the people she encounters. To Marianne, you are either a Nazi or you are not, there is no grey area. The other widows and children she manages to pluck out of the post-war DP camps are not quite as black and white. Fragile, romantic Benita burns with her own quiet strength, yearning for a life she’ll never have. Stoic Ania harbors secrets darker than anyone might imagine. Their children struggle for any resemblance of normal childhood after losing their fathers and living through the horrors of war.

The book starts in 1945 and then jumps forward to 1950, and then 1991, with several flashbacks to during and before the war. At first, I thought the author should have lingered in 1945 a bit longer. I was fascinated by life for the widows in the castle, learning to live with each other and find meaning in their new lives.

But as the book went on, I realized the book isn’t so much historical fiction as it is a study in psychology and how each person handles tragedy. The plot in itself doesn’t really matter. It was, of course, an interesting look at post-war Germany, a perspective we don’t often get in fiction. We got to see insight into how German society put itself back together after such a terrible and divisive war. But it really is about the characters. Some find purpose and passion in reconstructing Germany. Some struggle to adapt, some try to forget, and some are trapped in regret and pain and cannot move on at all.

We also got to see how each of the grown children handled their lives after the war. Some want nothing to do with their histories, some study it, and all struggle with relationships and connections. Seeing each character at each point in time was really a remarkable study in human psychology. The events in the book didn’t feel like a nicely arranged plot, either. I actually had to check if they were based in reality, they had that certain random quality that made me think it had to be partly true. It turns out, the only true part is the assassination plot against Hitler. But, Shattuck is half-German and based a lot of the emotional content on her grandparents’ experience during the war.

All in all, I think I liked it, but it isn’t an easy book to read or to digest!

–Cayla