sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

February 1, 2018

best books of 2017
posted by soe 1:41 am

Finally! It took me an entire month, but at long last, I’ve settled on and summed up the top ten books of the 79 I read last year.

I’ll be honest. I was stuck on nine for a long time, not because I didn’t read enough good books to merit including ten, but because I read so many solid 4-star books last year that I had a really hard time figuring out which one to elevate. But in the end, convention dictated that a best-of list has ten or maybe twelve books and not nine, so I picked one that I wouldn’t mind owning and that I’d certainly re-read.

The top three books were the best books I read in the first half of the year. If I’d remembered at the time that I finished The Girl Who Drank the Moon in January, rather than in the previous calendar year, I would have included it in the list as well.

Without further ado, my favorite ten books read last year:

  1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

    Sixteen-year-old Starr is the sole witness when a white police officer shoots and kills her childhood friend, a guy the officer said had a gun and who the neighborhood gang leaders claim as one of their own. But Khalil didn’t have a gun and maybe he didn’t run with the local gang. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what happened, even though Starr (and maybe that officer) is the only one who could possibly know for sure. Every faction wants something from Starr and seems to see fit to push their agenda on her, but she just wants to figure out how to do right by her friend, her family, and her community as well as by herself, if right is even an option. None of the answers are easy, but if Starr can take a step, it may lead others to take their own irreversible single steps.

    Not ripped from the headlines, but instead relating the real-life struggles of far too many of our country’s teenagers (and adults), this was one of the most talked about books of last year and is going to be one of the most talked about movies of this year (or next, depending on when it’s released). This should be required reading for every American.

  2. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

    Written by a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, this book tells you everything you ever wanted to know and a lot of things you didn’t even know you wanted to know about dictionaries, how they get made, their role in society, and their history. You’ll be surprised to find how many rules about language you thought you knew aren’t really rules at all. You’ll be reminded that a dictionary can only use words in their definitions that are defined elsewhere in the book (which can be harder than you’d think), that words and their definitions are constantly evolving, and that lexicographers are not, in fact, the gatekeepers to language but instead are its documentarians.

    A must-read for lovers of language, even if it does make you question how that can possibly be so.

  3. The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

    Scientific-minded, ambitious Natasha and her family are a mere dozen hours from being deported from the United States back to Jamaica, where she hasn’t been since she was a little girl and where her younger brother, born in New York, has never lived. Another girl might spend the time packing or saying fond farewells to favorite friends, but Natasha is still trying to follow final leads in hopes of getting a stay of execution on the INS order. And she’s doing just that when she literally bumps into Daniel, the obedient younger son of Japanese immigrants who dreams of being a poet, but who is on his way to a college interview by way of a barber to cut off his ponytail. He falls in love with her on the spot. She does not reciprocate. He says the universe wants us to be together. She says the universe doesn’t want anything. And for the next twelve hours, they’ll work on proving themselves and each other wrong.

    In a year when DACA and Dreamers are a daily part of our conversations about what it means to be American in the 21st century, it feels fitting to find a book about a Dreamer and a dreamer coming together, and particularly one that demonstrates through interspersed chapters from the points of view of minor characters exactly how interconnected we all really are.

  4. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

    Yesterday, Will’s beloved older brother, the one who taught him the rules of life, was murdered, shot dead in front of their apartment building. This morning, before his mother, who wept herself to sleep at the kitchen table, wakes, Will is going to go seek retribution. He didn’t see who pulled the trigger, but he knows who it had to be. So he takes his brother’s gun, puts it in his waistband, and steps onto the elevator at the seventh floor, unwavering in his knowledge of what is right. But as the elevator stops at first one floor, then another, Will may find that what is right isn’t quite as clearcut as he’d originally believed. But will he have the answers he needs by the time the elevator reaches the lobby?

    This book is the fastest I’ve included here, both in terms of time in which it’ll take you to polish the the verse novel off (a couple hours) and of the setting, which are mostly a couple minutes on an elevator ride. I shouldn’t have loved this book; after all, it is comprised of a set of ingredients I don’t especially like individually, let alone mixed together, but in this novel, under the masterful hands of D.C.’s own Jason Reynolds, it works amazingly well. Read this with our book group or with your child: it will lead to discussions (about choices, about masculinity, about gun violence, about what makes us who we are) that will probably go on longer than your reading session did.

  5. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

    In an unnamed Middle Eastern country on the brink of war, Nadia and Saeed meet in a college lecture and fall in love. He lives with his parents, works in advertising, and loves the stars. She lives on her own, wears an abaya, and rides a motorcycle. They text, they go on dates, they make each other laugh. And then a religious war comes and their spheres tighten and then tighten more. As circumstances become more desperate, they begin to give more credence to a rumor that whispers around the edges of conversations — that doors exist all over the world that will take you from one place to another in the matter of an instant if you just know where to find them. And so they sell all their belongings and put their money and their faith in a total stranger, who sends them through a doorway to the west. But will it be the answer to what they seek — a life in peace?

    While the details of Nadia and Saeed’s burgeoning romance are unique to their circumstances, they are timeless enough for us to recognize them for what they are — the start of a fairy tale — and Hamid’s language is formal enough and distant enough that you’re meant to think of the whole book in that way. After all, escaping through a magic doorway seems like childish fantasy when you can afford to scoff at the idea, but that form of escape becomes a nearly impossible dream — and simultaneously your only hope — when it’s all that’s left to you. A beautiful take on the refugee crisis and what it means to take care of one another in our all-too-human ways in terrible, difficult circumstances.

  6. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

    On the edge of a bog a solitary, downtrodden town filled with downtrodden people offers up an annual tribute of the youngest baby to the local witch in exchange for her mercy. Or, at least, that’s the story the town government (including a young man in training to the council) tells everyone. In reality, they do it as a way to control the inhabitants, leaving the baby to be eaten by wild animals. Except, of course, there is a witch, Xan, who isn’t evil at all, but compassionate, picking up what she believes is an abandoned baby every year and taking it to a home elsewhere in the land where it will be loved.

    But one year, everything goes slightly askew. The mother of the baby refuses to give up her baby and is imprisoned. And later, the witch accidentally feeds the baby magical moonlight instead of nourishing, but benign starlight, imbuing the child with witchy powers of her own, forcing Xan to bring the baby home as her grandchild. As the child grows and begins to come into her powers, a reckoning is in order, which will bring the paths of the girl, the witch, the mother, the young man, and an old sorceress into collision.

    This middle-grade fantasy novel asks its readers to imagine what happens if we surrender our responsibility to question policies that harm our most vulnerable residents in an effort to allow the rest of us a more comfortable existence.

  7. Dear Martin by Nic Stone

    Justyce is a senior with a promising future at an elite Atlanta high school when a White police officer misreads a situation and puts him in handcuffs. To help process the emotional fallout of that event and other racial microagressions it highlights in his day-to-day life (such as the way his BFF Manny’s white friends act), Justyce decides he’s going to start writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who also had experience with being unfairly profiled by the law. The book doesn’t just highlight the major events in Justyce’s life, but also the more mundane, but tender moments in his life, such as interactions with the girl he likes and his favorite teacher and his mom, which gives us perspective later in the second half of the story when a truly awful thing happens and Justyce responds in some eyebrow-raising ways.

    It is entirely unfair to lump The Hate U Give, Long Way Down, and Dear Martin together as 2017 YA novels dealing with gun violence against young Black men and to judge them in relation to one another, but in some ways it’s impossible not to consider them siblings. At first, I considered Dear Martin to be the least of the three, and in some ways it is, with less developed secondary characters and a looser plot. But now, several months later, it is Justyce who has stayed with me the most, as I wonder about his life after the final pages of the book.

  8. Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

    This list covers the year in its reading entirety and includes both the first book I finished last year (The Girl Who Drank the Moon) and this, the final novel I read.

    In Far from the Tree, Grace, reeling after deciding to give up her own baby for adoption, learns that not only does she have two birth siblings, but also that they live nearby. Maya, a year younger, also grew up in an adoptive family, but one that’s become more fractious over the years, with adolescent spats with her adopted sister alternating with the bonding that came with her parents’ fighting and her mother’s drinking. Joaquin, their older biological brother did not get the happy adoption story his sisters had as babies. Instead, he bounced from foster home to foster home, learning quickly never to make deep connections and always to expect to be rejected. But he’s been with the same couple for a few years now and they’ve offered him the chance to make their bond permanent. Now that the three of them have found each other, will they be able to develop a trust that they’ll be there for each other in the dark times as well as the light? And will they decide to pursue a relationship with (or, at least, answers from) the woman who gave them all away?

    This book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature this fall and I was surprised at the time, not having heard much about it. But having read it, I can understand the appeal, with a strong story line and exceptionally drawn characters, each dealing with their own frustrations and insecurities, particularly as they relate to family.

  9. Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford

    Set in 1926 London, Radio Girls deals with the early days of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Unlike American radio, privately owned from the start, British radio is owned by the state and the state is very concerned about the role the medium is going to play in the future of the country. Would it be just a passing fancy fading away after a few years, or would it be substantive and august, as befits the Empire? For Canadian-born, American-raised Maisie Musgrave, who is on her last pennies after being passed over for job after job, the BBC holds an immense amount of promise. There’s the promise of steady employment, but also of doing something important — being a secretary to the director-general himself. But when her job turns out to also include working for the woman in charge of talks programming, she finds herself changing in unexpected ways and hoping for the promise of advancement, both for herself and for other women around the country, as they finally gain the right to vote. But along with all the good the BBC is doing, there are also less positive forces at work, with Continental and British fascists making a bid to use this new form of media able to reach into people’s homes and hearts to promote their conservative agenda.

    In addition to being a fast-paced mystery (who are the bad guys?) and general coming-of-age story, this was a fascinating piece of historical fiction sadly made especially relevant by the current role of the internet in the U.S.’s political and social spheres. While according to the end notes, Maisie is a function of her author’s imagination, the major players at the BBC (including Hilda Matheson) were real, as were many of the guests who popped in and out of the pages of the novel.

  10. A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

    Lady Charlotte Holmes has just done something so scandalous that she’s been forced to leave home, but, it turns out, her backup plan for making it on her own was not as immune to gossip as she would have expected. But when the old woman at the heart of Charlotte’s fall from society turns up dead and first Charlotte’s father and then her sister become the leading suspect in the murder (and then another), Charlotte must put her keen powers of observation and her quick mind to the work of protecting her own. With the assistance of the former actress Mrs. John Watson (to whom Charlotte endears herself by ferreting out a swindler), the legwork of Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard (with whom Charlotte corresponds as Sherlock), and the support of her former beau, Lord Ingram, Charlotte will make sure the murderer faces justice.

    A feminist retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories, this was my favorite of the gender-bending takes on our favorite Victorian sleuth I read last year. The mystery is based on the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet, the characters echo their counterparts while still remaining true to their new identities, and the series looks to continue in this vein for a while. A solid recommendation for those who like historical mysteries.

Also highly recommended: The powerful feminist memoir, Hunger, by Roxane Gay. (If I’d read it in print, rather than listened to the audiobook, I suspect it would have made the top ten. However, I kept dozing off while listening, and it’s hard to elevate a book past that, but sometimes the format just really isn’t the right one for you at the time.)

Category: books. There is/are 4 Comments.

Wow. YOu have read some fascinating and difficult subjects. Good for you !!!! We will be having a reading giveaway soon as Allison had started a Tuesday post on my blog where she discusses her reads.

Comment by kathy b 02.01.18 @ 11:30 am

I just finished reading Hunger, and it was very powerful.
I gave my 14 yo The Hate U Give for Christmas and I think she’s just finished it. I’ll definitely get to it and to Word by Word, which I had previously noted from your blog. I’m noting #4 and #5 as well. Great year of reading for you!

Comment by raidergirl3 02.03.18 @ 6:28 pm

@raidergirl3: I agree that it was powerful & I’ll probably check out a print copy at some point, although I have other titles of hers in the works before that.

Comment by soe 02.04.18 @ 11:52 pm

@kathy b: I read a lot of really good books last year. These were just the creme de la creme as my French teacher used to say!

Comment by soe 02.05.18 @ 12:31 am