I tend to measure a year in the books I’ve read (in addition to daylights, sunsets, midnights, and cups of coffee 😉 ) I read about a book a week, so as 2017 draws to a close, I thought I’d share a re-cap review of my favorites from the 50 or so books I read this year.
While 2017 was a rough year for me (and the world!) it was a fantastic year for reading. My year in books ranged from a comfort re-reading of the Harry Potter series to reading way outside my comfort zone doing the BookRiot “Read Harder Challenge” (more on that below!) But here are my reviews of my all-time favorite books of 2017, sorted by genre
Best Fiction: Fantasy
Top Pick The Arcadia Project series by Mishell Baker
I’m a huge fan of fantasy (it’s what I write, and it’s my favorite genre to read – which is why I got into writing it in the first place) but then a book or series comes along that is so startlingly good, it makes me fall even more in love with this genre.
That book for me was Bordeline by Mishell Baker, and its sequel, Phantom Pains (the 3rd book, Imposter Syndrome, comes out in 2018, and I’m giddy just thinking about it!) Baker’s work is the most compassionate take I’ve ever seen on the subject of mental illness, cleverly disguised as an urban fantasy series. I think the strength of urban fantasy has always lain in the power of first-person, female narrative voice, and no one writes complicated women better than Baker.
The series follows Millicent Roper, a young filmmaker who lost both her legs in a failed suicide attempt. Now she’s trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life (and facing up to everyone she hurt) when she gets a second chance at a secret organization, the Arcadia Project, of humans who police the Fey world. Every member of this organization has their own struggle with various forms of mental illness, and in many ways, it makes them better at their job.
If a book that deals frankly with suicide and bordeline personality disorder sounds like a grim read, I swear to you it’s not – Baker’s writing is actually incredibly life-affirming, in both its raw, confessional honesty, and its wry humor and slowly simmering sensuality. It’s a book that can simultaneously make you laugh out loud and tear up, sometimes in the same paragraph.
While the Fey procedural subplot can at times be a bit thin and convoluted, that didn’t bother me, because it’s not what the books are about. The real adventure is Millie’s inner life. She’s a heroine who will roost in your heart forever, if you let her, like the great first person narrators of literature, like a Jane Eyre or a Holden Caulfield.
This isn’t just the best fantasy series I read this year; it’s become one of my favorite fantasy series ever.
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
When I saw the tagline “Reader, I murdered him,” I was expecting something fun but gimmicky, like Pride & Prejudice and Zombies. I was not expecting a wholly original, deliciously smart, deeply affecting homage to Jane Eyre. Jane Steele is an unforgettable heroine in her own right; I think even someone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre could enjoy this book, but fans of the classic (I’ve re-read it umpteenth times) will relish all the inside jokes. The novel manages a simultaneous black-humor gaiety and deadly seriousness. If you read the scene in Jane Eyre where Jane’s cousin, John Reed, knocks her down while she attempts to defend herself as being a veiled Victorian reference to sexual assault, Jane Steele takes that implication and explores it with a subtle honesty and empathy that does credit to Bronte’s masterpiece. Faye has a gift for prose that feels both perfectly accurate to the period and yet completely relatable to the modern reader.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
This book has become somewhat famous for its explicit BDSM scenes, but it’s also a fantastic epic fantasy novel. Yes, the two go together surprisingly well; even if the sex scenes are not your cup of tea, Kushiel’s Dart is fascinating as a study of power: what power means, what power does to people, and how the wielding of that power in both the courtroom and the bedroom can have world-changing consequences.
I often find myself comparing Kushiel’s Dart in the same breath to The Captive Prince by C.S. Pacat, which I also read this year, and was almost one of my “Runners Up” recommendations. There are a lot of similarities in subject matter. Both are brutal, erotic, and disturbing. Honestly, the quality of the writing is a lot higher in The Captive Prince, yet I didn’t love it the way I love Kushiel. The Captive Prince, for all its exquisite beauty, could be too unrelentingly brutal, where as Kushiel, though equally violent, has a warm heart underneath. I really cared about Kushiel’s characters, rooted for them, and the ending genuinely made me cry.
Kushiel’s Dart is a bit of a doorstop at over 700 pages, it has a very slow start, and feels dated at times. Also it is extremely graphic in both sex and violence and is not for the faint of heart (you have been warned!) and yet I totally see why this book is a cult classic.
Best Fiction: YA
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I’m always nervous to read a book that’s gotten a lot of hype, afraid it won’t live up to it, afraid it’ll inevitably be a disappointment. And then every so often there comes a hyped-up book that’s even better than its hype, a book so good you want to run out and grab everyone in your life and tell them to go read it right now! The Hate U Give lives up to it all. It’s not just that this book is incredibly timely, about the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by the police, and an exploration of what it’s like to grow up black versus grow up white in America. The book could have just been about the issues and it would have still been good, but the author goes beyond the simple narrative to develop complex, nuanced, believable family dynamics for all her characters. It’s a book about race, but it’s also very much a book about family (and about blended families) who love each other just as much as they drive each other nuts. Thomas didn’t have to take the time to develop these nuanced networks of relationships between her characters, the story of the shooting and its aftermath would have been worthy enough of our attention, but the fact that she does makes the book even more heartbreaking, as well as heart-healing. Highly recommended!
p.s I should note, I listened to the audio book of The Hate U Give, which also had one of the best audio book narrators I’ve ever heard, who didn’t just read but embodied every single character. It wasn’t just great writing; it was great acting too. So if you’re into audio books, I highly recommend the audio edition of The Hate U Give.
Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan
It’s rare to read anything about how the Internet has changed the world that isn’t either an alarmist screed that leaves out the “magic,” or a slick marketing pitch that leaves out the “loss;” Heffernan approaches online culture with a sense of wonder, playfulness, seriousness, and genuine curiosity, which is perhaps the best and only attitude one can adopt to the Internet, since there’s certainly no escaping it. She often wanders off on tangents quite far from the subject at hand (she hops from subject to subject like a late night Google search, which may have been intentionally meta) but she’s a delightful enough companion that I didn’t mind the detours. One of the most interesting side trips in this book was Heffernan’s personal confession of being that rare species, an academic who is not an atheist. I don’t often find theist intellectuals, so I appreciated this chapter being included, even if it didn’t fit the rest of the book. While I think some of her arguments are a bit of a stretch – seeing cyberspace as a Buddhist-like ocean of being, as opposed to JudeoChristian linearity of pre-digital culture – I admire the bold attempt. Like the online writing that is its subject, this book is at its best at its most personal, forthright, and vulnerable.
I also participated in Bookriot’s 2017 “Read Harder Challenge” (and I won!) If you’re not familiar with “the challenge,” you can read more about it here, Basically, the Challenge challenges you to read outside your comfort zone, and also recognizes that what’s outside of your comfort zone is different for different readers (for instance, I had no trouble reading an LGBT romance novel, but oh boy did I have a hard time reading a book about sports!) I heartily recommend taking the challenge, and am considering doing it again in 2018.
I was also a judge of a professional writing contest this year and for the first time had the challenge of reading books I would have never chosen, and frankly never finished, on my own, because I was judging them. I’ve listed those books among my 50 (though I can’t tell you which ones!)
If you’re interested in seeing all 51 books I read in 2017, here’s a link to the complete list
What were your favorite reads last year? What are you looking forward to reading in 2018? Please share in the comments!