I’m so excited to write my fourth annual Great Reads post. I’m so excited, in fact, that I’m not even going to apologize for not writing enough content for the blog. (It’s been so long since I’ve updated this website that WordPress didn’t remember my log-in credentials. Worse, it’s been so long since I’ve even visited my own website that Google Chrome couldn’t auto-complete the URL…)
To be clear, the idea of this post is to list the top books that I read in 2017. Not all of them were actually published in 2017.
Before I begin, I have to give a big shout out to the Book of the Month club, which helped diversify my reading list. (Last year’s list was, regrettably, brought to you by all white male authors. Great books all the same, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t amplify any other voices.) Beyond adding women writers and writers of color, BOTM has helped me balance my 2017 reading list with contemporary authors, so this year’s list does feature a lot more new books than my previous lists have.
I joined Book of the Month in November 2016, and it’s been so much fun reading their selections this year. Fifteen of the thirty-nine books I’ve read this year were from BOTM, and six out of my nine top books listed here (including all of the top 5!) were from BOTM. My subscription was the best gift I have ever given myself. (If you’d like to check it out for yourself, use my referral link to get your first book for $9.99 plus a free tote bag.)
So here they are, folks: the nine books that earned a five-star rating from me on Goodreads this year along with the short reviews I wrote for each of them. Check ’em out.
- Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance
Ruth Emmie Lang
St. Martin’s Press, 2017
I expected to not like this book based on the premise, but I love magical realism, so I gave it a shot as my October Book of the Month pick. I’m so glad I took a chance on it – it’s easily one of my favorite books of all time. It was one of those books that you start reading really fast until you get close to the end, and then you start dragging it out just because you don’t want the dream to end! For me, the initial hook was the To Kill a Mockingbird allusions, but the characters quickly took hold of me and carried the narrative from there. I loved the structure; it was a unique way of letting the story unfold but not gimmicky in any way. Even though it’s classified as adult fiction, I can see a lot of my students loving this book as much as I do. I’m so impressed that this is a debut novel and can’t wait to read more of Lang’s work in the future.
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane
William Morrow Books, 2013
I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.
One of the biggest questions I had before reading this book was whether or not it could be classified as YA. But like the neopagan mythology Gaiman calls back to once again with his Triple Goddess from The Sandman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is neither YA nor not-YA. It just is. Most of the story is narrated from a child’s POV, and I think many of my teenage students would appreciate it, but I agree with other reviewers that the reader who will get the most out of the story is the one with nostalgia for childhood lost.
It’s a short, quick read with a dreamlike – at times, nightmarish – quality that feels expansive while you are immersed in it but slips away as soon as you set it aside to return to reality.
- The Sun Is Also a Star
Delacorte Press, 2016
It’s difficult for me to review this book because it is so great that anything I write about it will feel lame by comparison. I expected to like this novel because of all the science – specifically, the interplay between cosmology and poetry – and I did love all of the scientific and historical interludes, but what really blew me away was how much heart the characters had. The main characters, yes, but even the minor characters, who still get to have their story heard no matter how few pages we meet them for. It would be easy for this love story to feel cheesy or sappy, but it was so earnest that I never questioned it. Beautiful stuff. My new favorite YA novel.
- Exit West
There is something brilliant about the language here – wholly unique and yet completely ordinary at the same time, just like the story itself. The narrative is at once timely and timeless, and the book’s multiple identities couldn’t be more appropriate for a story of migration. I was unprepared for the supernatural turn, but it was a pleasant surprise because I love speculative fiction. I highly recommend Exit West for any reader who doesn’t mind a little magic in their realism.
- Dark Matter
I had so much fun nerding out with this one. Dark Matter has just the right amount of suspense, science, and heart. I can’t say too much more without spoilers.
- In the Woods
Dublin Murder Squad #1
This was exactly what I was looking for. I don’t normally read crime fiction, but I was trying to find a solid series that would hook me like a good TV procedural while still having the depth and texture of literary writing. I binge-read the first installment in a weekend, and though I feel a bit icky claiming a book this dark is “amazing” with my five-star review, I was literally amazed at what French accomplished. I can’t wait to devour the series; I hope she can keep this up.
- The Graveyard Book
Dave McKean, Illustrator
This was such a perfectly written story. Loved it.
Note – I feel I should elaborate now since I wrote such a sparse review of this one initially. I’m a late-comer to the Neil Gaiman party – just started reading his work three years ago – and I’m still playing catch-up. The Graveyard Book was my first introduction to Gaiman’s writing for middle grade/young adult readers, and it was such a treat. At least once per trimester, I cry in front of my students during sustained silent reading (SSR), and this was the Fall 2017 Made-Ms.-Trout-Cry book. The closest analogy I can make – though I am loathe to do it – is to Harry Potter but with the heart and magic of the entire series condensed into one volume. On the one hand, a part of me wished Gaiman had stretched out the narrative, so we could spend more time with Nobody “Bod” Owens, but there is such a gorgeous simplicity to the way Gaiman leaves so many of his stories open ended. It makes it impossible for him to disappoint me.
Dave McKean, Illustrator
HarperCollins, 2012 (first published in 2002)
Such a great book! Coraline is technically middle grade, but due to the creepiness, some kids might want to wait until they are young adults to read it. As an adult, I loved it! It’s really only the brevity and inclusion of illustrations that make it middle grade. Gaiman uses great words for young people building their vocabulary, but like a pro, he uses them sparingly so they can learn their meaning in context without getting lost as to what is going on in the book. I plan on buying a few copies for my classroom. It will make a great choice book for fall literature circles!
- Lucky You
I can see why so many people have given this book lower reviews. The characters felt realistic but were not always likable – it was hard to want to relate to them. And the plot was not conventionally driven. There were plenty of opportunities for conflict between characters, but the narrative largely skipped over all that to resonate in the quiet internal conflicts within each character. It’s not a long book, and it doesn’t come to a firm – or necessarily satisfying – conclusion.
And yet, there’s something remarkable about this book. The narrative voice is luscious and lyric without being overwrought. The momentum is incredible, alternating points of view and skipping through time with each chapter to focus on set-piece moments that define each character’s experience. It was funny but serious at the same time, making me cringe, laugh, reflect, and keep turning the pages until – just like that – it was over.Many thanks to BOTM for the recommendation and for the opportunity to read a gorgeous early release of Lucky You. This is Erika Carter’s debut novel, and I can’t wait to read what she publishes next. Note – I had a couple random people comment on my Goodreads review about how Lucky You did not deserve the rating and praise I had given it, so I had to add: “I would agree that this is not a ‘five-star’ book if five stars means it’s one of the best and most important works out there, but we aren’t defining the literary canon here. Goodreads defines five stars as ‘I really liked it,’ and since I really enjoyed reading this book, it earned five stars from this reader.”
Several wonderful books that I gave four-star ratings in 2017 almost got honorable mentions here, but since this year’s list features more books than any of my previous Great Reads posts, I thought I’d let these nine awesome novels bask in their five-star glory without any end-of-the-year amendments.
That’s right – every one of my top nine books is a novel. Apparently, I only read two nonfiction books and three graphic novels this year – no books of poetry, plays, or even short story or essay collections. Oops! I guess they got pushed down by all of the YA novels I added to my never ending To Read list…
Good thing there’s always 2018 – feel free to comment with recommendations.
Happy Reading in the New Year!