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Top 25 Favorite Books, 2018 edition

This is a list I update every year, and every year the first question I have to answer is what I want this list to be. When I started it back in 2008 the answer to that question was closer to “my favorite books from the last year or so,” but over the years, the list has changed. If you’re looking for recent favorites, let me direct you instead to my best books of the year lists for 2017 and 2016.

For this list, I looked back at every book I can remember ever reading, and I compiled my favorites. From there, I narrowed it down to 25 books that were not only enjoyable to read, but somehow influential to me and my reading life. I have more than 25 favorites, of course, but this year, these are the books that I’m feeling the most grateful to have had in my life.

Side note: I’m not going to give 25 synopses. Instead, I’m going to talk a little about why each book is important to me, which will probably include a brief snapshot of what each book is, in a nutshell.

Also, I started trying to order these by favoritism, but I have loved these books for such different reasons and at such different times of my life that I couldn’t find a way to rank them adequately. So I’ve organized them by date read, from earliest to most recent. This list will take you on a tour of some highlights in my reading life.

  1. The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis. This is the first book (chronologically) in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which is the first fantasy series I read. This book introduced me to alternative realities. Ordinary children discover something extraordinary– a doorway to other worlds that most people aren’t aware of, don’t believe in, or maybe can’t even imagine. This book taught me about the power of perspective, and the vast possibilities in storytelling… at the ripe age of 8.
  2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling. I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until I was 10 or 11, after the 5th book had been published. I could say so much about the merits of this series, but I’ll just focus on the reason this one stood out: Hermione’s Time Turner. This is the book that introduced me to the concept that time didn’t have to be a fixed constraint in literature, and that opened doors for me. Books can have their own worlds, their own rules, and as long as they follow their own code, anything is valid.
  3. The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen’s novels reminded me as a teenager that it’s okay to be whoever you are. This one in particular made me feel better about something that’s always plagued me: perfectionism. I recently reread this book, and even as an adult it made me laugh, it made me feel, it made me appreciate that made-up stories can carry real messages that can help real people.
  4. Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. When I first read this book, I loved it for it’s romance, the fantasy love story that’s more about friendship and trust and just appreciating another person for being themselves than about all-consuming love. But as the years pass, I still reread and adore this book for that and so much more: it’s emphasis on the importance of peace and acceptance, the characters’ willingness to sacrifice and fight for the greater good that they believe in… It’s a powerful book, all the more inspiring for being written by a teenager.
  5. Atonement by Ian McEwan. This was the first adult book that I read (other than Stephen King who’ll be making a later appearance) and I remember being afraid that I would find it boring. I didn’t, which opened up new literary avenues for me to explore. Furthermore, what I liked most about this one is that it tells a story that didn’t happen, even within its fictional bounds. It tells a what if, in my first brush with metafiction, which I loved for the same reason as Hermione’s Time Turner.
  6. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. A friend recently told me she excluded this one from her favorites list and discourages people from reading the book because watching the movie provides basically the same experience. I think it’s not the fault of the book if the film makers did a good job, and I also think that the book gives more nuance to the characters. But primarily, this one makes the cut for me because it was the first classic that I read (as a high school freshman), and loving it enabled me to take more literary chances.
  7. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I’m not one of those people who hated all of their mandatory reading assignments in high school, but I was surprised to appreciate this one as much as I did. This is fiction that acknowledges it’s fictional nature in a fascinating way. It highlights the horrors of war even while outright admitting to the lie in its narration. That blend of a real issue told through creative fiction is something that has fascinated me ever since, and the classroom discussion about this book is one of the few group talks I actually enjoyed in school.
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Here’s another school assignment book from the same year (high school sophomore) and the same class. This is a book that reminded me 1) that it can be fun to read about children even when I didn’t feel like one anymore (haha), 2) that there are very readable classics out there, and 3) that some books carry transferable messages despite how very different the characters’ lives may be from the reader’s own. This was the book that cemented my interest in those deeper themes and topics behind the main plot; after this book, I rarely wanted to read a book for entertainment alone.
  9. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I read this book for a college project for which I was able to choose my book; I thought it would be too zombie-like and I would need that extra push. It turned out to be much more about morality. The commentary about correcting/accepting the choices one has made, especially choices that affect other people, is a widely applicable narrative. Feeling pity for Frankenstein’s monster changed the way that I live and read, making me more aware of other peoples’ perspectives and motives outside of my own experiences.
  10. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I generally think that I don’t like politics, but I think my problem is that in the real world I feel too insignificant in that realm. A Game of Thrones helped me see that even at the level of power that operates on words and laws, it all boils down to individual motivations. What I love most about this series is that the reader can choose sides, and all sides are valid– Martin doesn’t use any stock characters, they’re all unique, morally gray, and undeniably human.
  11. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. I read and enjoyed quite a few mandatory books for various college classes, but this one has stuck with me the longest. It affected the way I think about money– how important it is, what’s worth doing to keep it, how it can drastically change a life if one has too much or not enough. It’s scary how much money can alter a person and their choices, and I want to be self-aware enough not to take anything I have for granted, no matter what changes I encounter in my life.
  12. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This is a fictional novel that reflects a bit of the author’s real struggle with mental illness. It is the book that made me aware of how powerful a story can be, when it comes from an author who has experience in that area (“Own voices” was not a familiar term back in 2013). By this point I had read surprisingly few books about real issues that I could apply directly to my own life, but I found a sort of kinship in this narrator that made me feel less ashamed about being occasionally depressed or morbid or just generally feeling outside of humanity.  I think I just have a normal level of weird thoughts, but this is the book that sparked my interest in reading about psychological elements.
  13. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. If I had known this was nonfiction when I picked it up, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Fiction is my art form of choice. But this one covers several topics that intrigue me: the turn of the 20th century, architecture, invention, and true crime, and once it grabbed my attention it reminded me that it’s important to step outside of my reading comfort zone now and then, to take the time to give new things a chance. It also piqued my interest for learning about lesser-known moments in history.
  14. You by Caroline Kepnes. Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to find really unique stories anymore with all the books that are already out there. But then I find someone like Caroline Kepnes. Her books are weird, yes, and I don’t love everything about them, but I will say that I never know where they’re going next and I’ve never read anything like them. If you want to talk about most-anticipated sequels, I have been dying for the third book in this series for over a year and there’s still no word on when it will be released. Some cliff-hangers are truly cruel.
  15. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I thought that knowing the ending of the story would make the journey less interesting, but that was before I read this one. I used to get so anxious about book endings that I would let myself read the last page before I got there, but I haven’t allowed myself to do that in years. I’ve really turned against any sort of spoilers. But this is the sort of narrative that emphasizes the importance of the journey, and while it does that it also examines the psyche of a killer, who seems shockingly sympathetic.
  16. Golden Son by Pierce Brown. You may have noticed we’ve gone past the books that inspired the most personal growth and change in me now. By the time I read Golden Son I was more actively on the hunt for surprising books because my personality was pretty set by this point and I had read so many books that I was occasionally falling into ruts where everything seemed repetitive. There is nothing repetitive about Golden Son. I wouldn’t say generally that I’m a big sci-fi or dystopian reader, but I will read anything Pierce Brown writes at this point. Books like this remind me never to discount an entire genre– the right author can make anything worth reading.
  17. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. This is the book that cemented my interest in adaptations. I’ve always been drawn to book-to-film adaptations, but more recently I’ve been interested in retellings, in old stories told in a new way. I didn’t particularly like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but this book redeemed the original for me in a big way. It’s fascinating to see which elements carry over in adaptations, which parts from the original seem the most important to another artist. It’s a whole other way to have a conversation about art.
  18. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I’m back to talking about stepping outside of my genre comfort zone. I didn’t think I was particularly interest in sci-fi, so I was a bit skeptical picking up this sci-fi thriller. And it constantly surprised me. I have never met such a twisted book, and with this one, the subject matter is real enough that it also inspired an interest to learn more about the topic.
  19. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. There’s been surprisingly little YA literature on this list, and the reason for that, sadly, is that YA just doesn’t surprise and impress me much anymore. But this one is an exception. It covers tough topics (rape, abuse, alcohol) in realistic, unromanticized ways. There are some admirably strong friendships in this book, a fast and intriguing plot, and so many important messages about strong women, fighting for justice, and the importance of teen voices. I wish this one had been around when I was younger.
  20. Persuasion by Jane Austen. I do love a good classic. I have not yet read all of Austen’s novels, but this is my favorite so far from her list. I appreciate the message of making one’s own choices. There’s nothing wrong with taking input, but in the end you are the one who has to live with your decisions, and they should at least be your own.
  21. A Million Junes by Emily Henry. As with The Female of the Species, it came as a relief to discover that there are still YA books that I can appreciate. This one also deals with real topics (grief, disillusionment of one’s parents, loyalty) in unique and helpful ways. It’s also one of the only magical realism books that I’ve enjoyed, which again goes to show that even one’s least favorite genres contain some gems, when they’re approached by the right authors. This is a book that reminds me not to believe everything I hear– but that even the most outrageous stories can contain a kernel of truth.
  22. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I have many favorites from King’s oeuvre, but the absolute top of that list is this nonfiction volume, which reveals a bit of King’s own life and is also highly encouraging for wannabe authors. I think there are some valuable lessons in here for anyone who wants to create, but as an aspiring writer this book felt particularly tailored to my life. King is an absolute inspiration, not just as a writer but as a person who achieved his dream because he just kept chasing, even when it would’ve been so much easier to give up.
  23. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Have you noticed that almost all fantasy stories are in some way advocating equality? There’s just something uniquely compelling about seeing that fight in imaginary worlds, with imaginary species and castes, even though the basic lesson is one we can (read: should) apply to our own world. I have a feeling book 2 is going to usurp this one for me, but in the meantime I love these characters and their unique backgrounds, and I love that they’re trying to do what we’re all trying to do: level the playing field without getting lost along the way.
  24. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. There is a quickly growing number of great books about racism (and misogyny) out in the world now, but this is the one that has most impressed me. It’s full of shocking grit and resilient spirit, and it felt encouraging to me on so many levels. It acknowledges where society has gone wrong (albeit southern US 1930’s society rather than modern days), but instead of lecturing from there it empowers.
  25. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but this is the kind I like to read: a whimsical, yet heartrending story that also encourages readers to reach for their dreams, no matter what their background. This is such a unique story, but it’s one that’s also widely applicable. I like real stories that are shocking but also uplifting. I want to be enabled. And as much as I like picking out the little nuggets of truth and wisdom from fiction, sometimes a higher dose is necessary.

top25

If you’ve made it this far, thank you, and I’m impressed by your list-reading stamina. (Skimming is all right too, that’s why I made the titles bold.) Every year this list fluctuates because I’m not always looking for the same things from my reading life. Nevertheless, a few titles have been steady in my favorites list for several years now, and someday I might actually know what to say when people ask what my favorite book is. 🙂

What are your favorite books? Which of these books have you read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Another Year of Classics

In my 2017 Wrap-Up I mentioned meeting my goal of reading at least 12 classics throughout that year. (Check out A Year of Classics for last year’s titles.) I want to do the same for 2018.

In 2017, I read 15 of 12 classics, although I only read 10.3 of the classics I originally designated. Nevertheless, having a classic planned for each month did help me reach that goal of 12, even if I did make some changes to it as the year progressed. So I’m here to designate another 12 classics for the months of 2018.

Here are the titles I’m hoping to read this year:

January- Emma by Jane Austen. (I read two of Austen’s books last year and loved them. Now I’m on a quest to read the rest of Austen’s novels– not too fast, because I want to savor them, but Austen is the only author with two books on this list.)

February- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. (My enjoyment of Jane Eyre last year sent me in the direction of this mysterious Gothic romance. It sounds like exactly the sort of intrigue I like to read to get me through the long tail-end of winter.)

March- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson.
(I read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and it wasn’t my favorite, but I did enjoy the plot enough that I wanted to try another of his books. I’m hoping that I’ll like this one better.)

April- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (A Christmas Carol was the first and only Dickens novel I’ve ever read, but even though I knew the plot going in, the writing and the characters drew me in and made it such a fun experience– especially during the holiday season. I have no excuse to put off trying another Dickens title this year.)

May- The Odyssey by Homer. (I haven’t finished The Iliad yet, so putting The Odyssey in the top half of this list is meant to encourage me to keep working at it in a timely manner. I always intended to read the two of these close enough together that The Iliad is still fresh in my mind when I read The Odyssey, so I’m aiming to wrap up the whole endeavor in 2018.)

June- The Waves by Virginia Woolf. (There are several Woolf titles on my long-term TBR, and while I’ve read lots of excerpts and shorter pieces of Woolf’s, I’ve never read any of her full-length books. If this one goes well, I’ll probably pick up more of them in the future.)

July- The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (It’s been years since I read The Great Gatsby, and I still haven’t picked up any of Fitzgerald’s other works. My opinion of The Great Gatsby has fluctuated over the years, so I’m not sure what to expect from picking up another of Fitzgerald’s novels, but I’m ready to find out.)

August- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. (I switched this one out of my classics list last year because I was starting A Game of Thrones again that month and didn’t want to read two really long books in a row. That’s a poor excuse and “epic revenge story” still sounds pretty fantastic, so I’m more determined to actually read this one this year.)

September- Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. (My knowledge of Sherlock Holmes is vague at best. I have yet to read any of Doyle’s stories, which means I also haven’t watched any corresponding films or TV shows or read any retellings. It’s time to change that, I think. From what I’ve heard, Sherlock sounds like someone I’d be very interested in reading about, so that’s what I’m going to do.)

October- Dracula by Bram Stoker. (This is the other title I switched out of last year’s classics list, and if I’m honest, I’ve been meaning to read it for several Octobers in a row now and always procrastinated until it’s too late. I don’t know why, but here’s to giving it another go.)

November- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. (As noted above, this is my second Austen title of the year, which will leave only one of her novels for me to read in 2019. I like the idea of spacing them out a bit, to keep the stories and characters from melding together in my mind and also because it’s so sad when there can’t be forthcoming novels by an author you appreciate– I don’t want my first experiences with Austen’s books to be over too soon.)

December- King Lear by Shakespeare. (I wanted a short classic for the end of the year, in case I’m busy trying to wrap up other reading endeavors. It should prevent me from shirking on my classics. I picked this one specifically because it was recommended to me multiple times after I posted my review for Macbeth last month. I’m still on the hunt for my favorite Shakespeare play, and I’m hoping this one will be a contender.)

classics 2018

(p.s I know it’s Macbeth in the picture instead of King Lear. I haven’t bought my copy of King Lear yet but I’m planning to do that later in the year.)

I love classics, but I know I don’t reach for them as readily as I do modern works. A challenge like this helps me to pick up books that might take a little longer to read but will (hopefully) be worth the time they take in the end. I tried to assemble a good mix of genres and authors for 2018 while also selecting books that I genuinely believe I will enjoy. I’m looking forward to reading these, and I hope I’ll have just as much success (or more) with this challenge as I did last year.

Do you read classics? Do you see any favorites on this list?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Favorite Reads of 2017

2017 felt like a bit of a meh reading year, but even though I’m looking back at a lot of books that seemed just okay, there were still some gems. The difference (for me) between a 5-star read and a favorite book is lasting enjoyment and respect. Some of these books did not even receive 5 stars from me at the time that I read them, and I stand by those ratings– but I would pick up any of these books to read again, and I know I would still appreciate them just as much as any other book from my favorites list. Generally, my favorites include a good plot and great underlying messages or impressive techniques. I would recommend every one of those books (though I know they will not fit every reader as perfectly as they did for me), and these are the new titles I’ll be looking at when I update my Favorite Books of All Time list in February– which I limit to only 25 slots every year. I did not aim for any certain number with this favorites list; some years are better than others. This year I couldn’t go any lower than 12.

A disclaimer: these are listed in the order I read them, not in order or favoritism. I’ll save ranking for my February list of All Time favorites.

Without further ado, my biggest stand-out reads of 2017:

  1. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. darkmatterThis was one of my first reads of 2017 (the year of thrillers, apparently), and at the end of the year I am still as excited about it as I was when I read it. It’s a science fiction thriller, which I had never read before, but it was a chance I’m glad I took. Dark Matter is all about… well, dark matter. It’s about alternate universes and chances not taken. The plot twists may be less surprising for someone going into this book with a strong knowledge of dark matter, but for the layman, they’re mind-boggling. This is a book that makes science fun– the explanations are not confusing or overwhelming, the suspense is incredibly high, and it broadens the reader’s interest in its subject. At least, that was my experience.
  2. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. thefemaleofthespeciesIt’s rare that I find a YA book that I really love anymore. I’m way past believing high school is one of the most significant experiences of my life, and many of the lessons YA books have to offer have become too repetitive for my taste. Also, now that I’m in my 20’s, I find that many YA books feel like they’re talking down to their readers. Youth does not equal stupidity, and I wish writers wouldn’t approach YA as ‘literature for the less intelligent.’ But I’m not here to rant. I’m saying these things because The Female of the Species is one of the rare teen books that uses the YA genre well, and because it does that, it’s a good book to read even as an adult looking for more than a few hours of mindless entertainment. It has an engrossing and important plot that examines rape culture and female strength. It’s real and encouraging and eye-opening. It’s a constant reminder to readers of all ages (though I would recommend mature readers only) that there are unseen struggles for so many people, secret struggles, painful struggles, and that we can all make the world a better place by practicing kindness and standing up for those who need help.
  3. Persuasion by Jane Austen. persuasionBefore Persuasion, I had only read Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which I liked but did not consider a personal favorite. I was curious about reading more of Austen’s classics, but my hopes weren’t especially high. And then I read this one. It was heart-wrenching and heart-warming and sparked an avid interest in Austen’s books that I hadn’t felt with Northanger Abbey or any of the films that I’d seen based on her novels. In fact, it’s not often that even with classics I thoroughly enjoy that I’m inspired to reach for more works by the same author. This is romance, without the cheese. I love Austen’s ordinary and flawed characters. I’ve now read three of Austen’s books, with Persuasion as my current top choice among those, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Austen’s novels in the coming year.
  4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. janeeyreThis is, perhaps, a predictable favorite, but I would like to acknowledge that I found much of the third section of the book boring– when Jane meets her cousins and is forging a new life despite all the tension built up with Mr. Rochester and his secrets in section two. But even so, I found Jane’s character admirable throughout the book. Her relationship with Mr. Rochester is intriguing, and Mr. Rochester himself is perhaps the most intriguing of all, what with the madwoman from his past. But the reason Jane Eyre will be a lasting favorite for me is Jane’s strength. She fights with every ounce of her being for what she believes to be right. She does not accept anyone else’s rules without first examining the truths in her own heart, which she does intelligently. She is kind, despite her hardships. She is not fickle, despite others’ willingness to cast her off. And most importantly, she considers the greater good, and the good of others, before that of herself. She feels tragedy without being broken by it. And she will always be one of the first fictional characters to come to mind when I search for evidence of strong women in literature.
  5. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. iletyougoAlthough I read many thrillers this year, this one takes the cake. Or deserves a cake. Or something. Thrillers are often immediate entertainment for me rather than lasting loves, but every time I remember this one I am awed again by how well-crafted it is. The first section seemed bland at first. I thought perhaps I had read enough thrillers that the excitement of them had faded. I thought there must be some subtle secret woven into that plain first section, but I couldn’t find it, and doubted myself. But as the story continued, a twist in the middle did make me rethink the entire first half of the book. I wanted to stop and read that whole “boring” section again, in the new light of a later revelation, but I couldn’t resist learning what would happen next as the pace picked up. I have never read a thriller with such carefully planted clues, and by the end I was awed not only by the intricate plot but also by the way it was written.
  6. The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy. thesisterschaseI found this book through Book of the Month, and chose it because it sounded character-driven and “cute:” a perfect summer book. The main characters are sisters, a teen and a young girl at the start of the book, and all I knew going in was that they shared a unique but strong relationship. I expected cuteness. What I didn’t expect was hard-hitting tragedy, wily characters, doomed relationships, and a close love that is also a constant challenge. The sisters’ relationship is remarkable, but despite one of them being named Bunny, “cuteness” was not something I found in The Sisters Chase. Orphaned and alone, these sisters make some questionable choices in their quest for survival, but those choices take them on an incredible journey and reveal heart-breaking secrets about their past. Books like this are my favorite thing about lit fic.
  7. Final Girls by Riley Sager. final girlsHere we have the final thriller of the list. This one is classified as a slasher thriller, with a knife-wielding villain, grisly deaths, and a cast of strange characters. The thing about thrillers is that once you’ve read enough of them, they lose their ability to surprise. You learn how they work, and can spot the clues a mile away, making the twists disappointing. So at this point, what makes a “good” thriller for me is one that I can’t predict. I could not predict Final Girls. Or any of the other thrillers on this list, but this one seemed the most “classic:” no science, no lit fic techniques, just your basic thrills and chills– done superbly well.  It also had some good messages about fighting back, being a survivor rather than a victim, but even those themes didn’t stand out to me the way that the plot did. It was twisty and unusual and just downright fun.
  8. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. gameofthronesI’ve only read two and a third of the five books published so far in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I suspect that one of the later books might surpass this one as a favorite eventually, but this year A Game of Thrones is the stand-out. I love the scope of this story– the elaborate world-building, the incredible characterization over a wide range of unique people, the intricacies of the politics, and the sense of certainty through every chapter that each detail fits together in some immense puzzle that’s going to have an amazing pay-off in the end. It’s wonderful to have such close looks at such small pieces of something that promises to be so huge. But most of all, I love that there’s not a clear “right” and “wrong,” no obviously evil villain and equally blatant overtaxed hero. It’s up to the reader to choose sides, and each side has its own merits, which makes the series such an interactive experience. I had to pause while reading this series because I didn’t have enough time and attention to spare for it, but continuing this series is one of the reading endeavors I’m most looking forward to in 2018.
  9. A Million Junes by Emily Henry. amillionjunesI suppose I would technically call this a YA book, but the characters gradually mature throughout the course of the novel. The character development is exceptional. But even so, I do think of it as a YA book, which means it really impressed me to find it’s way onto this list (see rant above). It’s hard to describe exactly what makes this book magical. There’s some magical realism, but that’s just the icing on top of the cake. I loved the dialogue– it made me laugh out loud a few times. And that level of humor added a great layer to the more serious themes throughout: dealing with grief, of learning your parents aren’t who you always thought they were, of taking a chance on your future. It’s heavy and light at the same time, deals with real subjects in a helpful and fun way, and why aren’t all YA books like this?
  10. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. eligiblePart of appreciating this modern take on Pride and Prejudice is also owed to the fact that I read and loved Pride and Prejudice this year. But in the end, I preferred Persuasion to Pride and Prejudice, and I just had more fun with this updated version than Austen’s most-read classic. It’s a little silly, a little odd, maybe a little unrealistic, but I was continually impressed and amused by the changes Sittenfeld made to the original to create this new novel from old bones. Can we encourage writers to move beyond retellings of fairy tales and super hero stories to retellings of old classics? But to be clear, part of the fun comes from comparing it to the original; sure, you’ll know the gist of the plot then, but the plot alone isn’t what makes Eligible a remarkable book– the remarkable part is the homage it pays to one of literature’s greats.
  11. On Writing: A Memoir if the Craft by Stephen King. onwritingI was not intending to read this book within the year, much less within a week of buying it. The day it arrived in the mail, I thought, “I’ll get around to this eventually,” but then I opened it up just to check out the layout and… I couldn’t stop. Something about King’s writing pulls me in every time, but when he’s writing about his own life, his own experiences with writing, and his advice for aspiring writers, it’s pure gold. Grammar has never been as enjoyable as King makes it in this book. I felt so encouraged, so motivated, so in love with the craft of writing. This is a book I know I’m going to revisit plenty of times in my life, and it is worth it. Even if you’re not an aspiring writer, if you’re just a Stephen King fan, or a lover of books in general, On Writing offers a fascinating look at an artist’s life, at a man striving toward his goals until he reaches them– and even then, finding reasons not to quit.
  12. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. sixofcrowsOne final book– another YA novel. If I’m skeptical of YA generally, I’m so much more wary going into YA fantasy. No matter how unique and incredible the worlds, the plots are so often mirror images of every YA fantasy book that came before, and riddled with tropes and cliches besides. But not Six of Crows. The reader unearths the plot gradually right along with the characters– only one of the six main characters knows the complete plan for the heist in this novel, and when he goes off-script, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. But despite the excellent twists and threads in Six of Crows‘s plot, it’s the characters that make this one a personal favorite. Each one is so unique, so thoroughly fleshed-out and important to the story in his or her own specific way. They’re a diverse crew with an incredible skill set, valuable messages to share with readers, and all the best kinds of love: romantic, friendship, and the family that you chose. It’s a crime that I loved this book so much and still haven’t picked up the sequel. I’m dying to find out where these characters will go next.

That’s it for my top reads of 2017. As I’m looking back on what I loved about these books and also looking ahead to the kind of books I want to see in my 2018 favorites, I think I should pick up more books outside of my usual range. Clearly it’s becoming a stretch to find favorites even in my preferred genres– how much more do thrillers really have to offer me? 2018 is a time for positive change, and I think the first item on that list will be to pick up more quirky reads, take more literary chances. I loved my foray into fast-paced science fiction, and that Stephen King memoir… that classic retelling… I want to read books unlike anything I’ve read before. My 2017 favorites are inspiring me to find 2018 favorites in unexpected places. I love this list, but… I can’t wait to see where 2018 will take me.

What books did you add to your favorites list in 2017? Have you read any of these?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Reading Challenge Update 3

My interest in completing a reading challenge this year was starting to wane because I was picking up different books than I’d planned early in the year, and I was becoming disheartened by my lack of progress. But I realized that even though I wasn’t necessarily reaching for the books I thought I would be to complete these challenges, I was still fulfilling some of the categories. So after re-examining my list and changing a few of my plans from earlier in the year, I’m feeling good again about my progress and the possibility of completing the challenge (or at least coming close).

User’s guide: the books in parentheses (and orange type) are titles I intend to read but haven’t yet. No parentheses means I’ve already read it and checked it off my list this year. I’m not providing links this time to my corresponding reviews, but if you’re curious about my thoughts on any of the books I’ve read from this list I’d be happy to talk about them in the comments, and I do have full reviews on my site for most of the books I’ve read this year. Stats will be listed at the end.

Here’s where I stand:

  1. A book with more than 500 pages: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
  2. A classic romance: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. A book that became a movie: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
  4. A book published this year: A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas
  5. A book with a number in the title: (Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo)
  6. A book written by someone under thirty: (The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon)
  7. A book with nonhuman characters: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
  8. A funny book: A Million Junes by Emily Henry
  9. A book by a female author: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
  10. A mystery or thriller: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  11. A book with a one-word title: Caraval by Stephanie Garber
  12. A book of short stories: Because You Love to Hate Me by various, ed. Ameriie
  13. A book set in a different country: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  14. A nonfiction book: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  15. A popular author’s first book: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
  16. A book you haven’t read before from an author you already love: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
  17. A book a friend recommended: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  18. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book: (All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr)
  19. A book based on a true story: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  20. A book at the bottom of your to-read list: (The Color Purple by Alice Walker)
  21. A book your mom loves: Vows by LaVyrle Spencer
  22. A book that scares you: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
  23. A book more than 100 years old: Persuasion by Jane Austen
  24. A book you picked up because of its cover: Faithful by Alice Hoffman
  25. A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t: (The Lover by Marguerite Duras)
  26. A memoir: Talking as fast as I Can by Lauren Graham
  27. A book you finish in a day: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  28. A book with antonyms in the title: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  29. A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit: Lies She Told
    by Cate Holahan
  30. A book that came out the year you were born: (The Alienist by Caleb Carr)
  31. A book with bad reviews: Lucky You by Erika Carter
  32. A trilogy: The Grisha trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
  33. A book from your childhood: (The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen)
  34. A book with a love triangle: Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
  35. A book set in the future: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson
  36. A book set in high school: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
  37. A book with a color in the title: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  38. A book that makes you cry: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  39. A book with magic: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  40. A graphic novel: (Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
  41. A book by an author you’ve never read before: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
  42. A book you own but have never read: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
  43. A book that takes place in your hometown: (Still not sure about this one. There are no books that take place in my hometown. I’m still considering adjusting this prompt, but if I can’t come up with a nice compromise, I’ll concede this slot.)
  44. A book that was originally written in a different language: (The Iliad by Homer)
  45. A book set during Christmas: (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)
  46. A book written by an author with your same initials: (The Wonder by Emma Donoghue)
  47. A play: (Macbeth by Shakespeare)
  48. A banned book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  49. A book based on or turned into a TV Show: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare
  50. A book you started but never finished: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

My stats –>    Completed Categories: 37/50      Undecided Categories: 1/50     Left to Read: 13/50

My thoughts on reading challenges have changed a lot over the course of this year, and my next (and final) update on this list will reveal those. For now, I’ve got 13 books to fit into the last three months of this year in order to complete this challenge for 2017. I feel like it’s possible, but also I know of several other books I’m going to be reading in these last three months as well, so it’ll be a surprise even to me whether I’m going to check off every item on this list or not.

Are you still working on a 2017 reading challenge? Have you read any of these books? Which of my unread titles here do you recommend I pick up next?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Popular Books that Impressed Me

A couple weeks ago I started a list of popular books that didn’t live up to my expectations, and now I’d like to even it out with another list: popular books that impressed me more than I expected. I believe this will be an ongoing series; I’ll add to both lists as the titles stack up.

A lot of these are YA books, and I could say the same thing about almost all of them: I expected a light, standard YA story, be it romance, supernatural, etc. I was expecting quick, easy reads with the usual tropes and story arcs that I could check off a list and then forget about– but none of these are forgettable reads. Instead of sharing a long synopsis of each, I’m going to stick to explaining why they surpassed my expectations. If you want to learn more about any of these books, follow the links to my full reviews of each title. Without further ado, here are five popular books I wasn’t expecting to appreciate as much as I did:

  1. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. There’s a bit of an exaggerated focus on rape in this book, but it’s put to good use. The Female of the Species is empowering, it’s positively moralizing, it has bark and bite and grit. It’s a story about standing up against all kinds of wrongs. But it’s also about forgiveness, about finding healthy relationships and giving chances to unlikely friends. There are some great parents in this book, a cop who knows how to talk to teens, and aid for abused and abandoned animals. McGinnis doesn’t just look at the big picture, she gets all the little details right, too.
  2. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. This is a book for readers of adventures. For readers who aren’t afraid to suspend their disbelief. It’s a story of gods in which even the gods are fallible. This is a collection of ancient stories brought to new life. They’re stories that test limits: the limits of immortality, of invincibility, of impossibilities and other absolutes. The characters aren’t particularly lovable, but the end of their world is as heart-breaking as it is exciting. In this realm of gods and magic, anything is possible and the reader can never know what to expect. The lessons don’t often apply directly to life as the reader knows it, but there are valuable lessons nonetheless, and there’s something so satisfying in learning about the traditions and beliefs of long-lost times and peoples.
  3. A Million Junes by Emily Henry. This book was described to me as a romance– a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, to be exact. And there is that, but it’s only one small part of this masterpiece. A Million Junes is a romance, but it’s also magical realism, it’s a family history piece, it’s a testament to grief, it’s a father-daughter relationship at its best. June is reconciling her family’s past with its future, she’s finding her place in school, she’s enjoying her senior year with her good friends. And she’s seeing ghosts, and ghosts’ memories, and traveling to an in-between place where love and life collide. This is a book for anyone who’s ever lost something, or doesn’t quite know who they are.
  4. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This book seems like it should be a romance. It starts with a girl and a curse– the boy she loves will die when she kisses him. Seems like a pretty standard forbidden-love-romance-story, right? Wrong. Blue (the girl) finds the boy she’s going to try hard not to love and kiss and ultimately kill. But then she decides to try a relationship with a different boy, same rules, just in case. Except none of the four boys she’s freshly befriended are anything close to ordinary, and for that matter neither is Blue. She comes from a family of psychics, and her new friends are on a quest to find a lost king who may or may not be dead and buried. This is more a story of friendship and adventure than romance. The quality of the magic is strange and compelling– not quite serious but not quite a joke. Here are five teens being teens, and then stumbling upon secrets larger than life. The writing is gorgeous, and the plot unfolds like nothing I’ve ever seen.
  5. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. Good is always battling evil. Angels vs. demons seems like no exception, but this book is not so black and white. The Shadowhunters are no angels, and demons come in all shapes and sizes: full-blooded horrors and creatures much closer to human. But this is good vs. evil in a whole new way, in the midst of a war for equality between the earthen races, five teens are struggling not only with literal demons, but with the complications of their mortal lives. It’s about the bond between parents and children, the cost of secrets, the difficulties of loving the wrong person, the responsibilities on the shoulders of almost-adults who didn’t ask to be heroes. It’s a story about growing up, about judging right from wrong, about treating other groups of people fairly. It’s a world hidden inside our own, but the same lessons apply.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Have you read other popular books that surpassed your expectations? Let me know in the comments below.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Popular Books I Didn’t Like

When I write my regular book reviews, I try to be objective about the contents and the layout of the book, to talk about things the books do well or poorly instead of listing my likes and dislikes more specifically. Since you can find all sorts of synopses on the internet already, I do let my opinions show through the review instead of discussing at length the facts you could easily find elsewhere. But at heart, my reviews are always meant to promote the books I’ve read, because even if I didn’t like them, other people probably will and I’m a promoter of reading. Yet sometimes it’s fun to compare what other reviewers have liked or disliked without reading through dozens of individual reviews, so I’m starting a list.

I’ll probably post more lists like this periodically, alternating between popular books that didn’t live up to expectations for me and popular (or even not-quite-so-popular) books that I didn’t expect much from but they surprised me with their greatness.

A disclaimer: these are just my opinions. You might agree or disagree, and that’s valid. I’ll link each of the titles to my reviews, and you might be surprised to find that I haven’t rated many of these lowly. I rate on a 5 star scale based on the merit of the writing, and I base my personal likes and dislikes on my emotions about the book after some time has passed since reading it. I still recommend these books to readers who like similar books even though I personally didn’t enjoy them. So the fact that I don’t like them does not necessarily mean they’re bad books.

And now, as the straightforward title of this post announced, here are some popular books I didn’t like:

  1. Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and the rest of the Lunar Chronicles series. I liked the plot enough to read the whole series, but most of the characters seemed very similar and predictable to me, and I could not stand the slow, repetitive pace of the writing. There is a lot of internalized worry about what could happen instead of a lot actually happening. And as the books continued, all of the main characters, the females especially, felt like the same person inside who’d just been born into different circumstances. This is one series that I loved in concept but not in execution. My opinion of these novels might have improved, because I did enjoy the fourth volume the most, except I also read the accompanying novella, Fairest, which sealed my dislike of all things Lunar Chronicles when it failed to show how the villain of the series became villainous–instead, we had a look at the same villainy earlier in the evil queen’s life, the explanation seeming to be more or less that she was born with it. And yet it took 200 pages to make that clear. I don’t think I’ll be reading anything further from Meyer.
  2. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. This is a magical realism novel, and when I read it I thought maybe the reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d expected had to do with a dislike for the genre, but that wasn’t it. I liked the main characters at the beginning of this novel, when they were young and first discovering magic and science, but when magic and science and nature all crossed in the end, things got too weird for my taste. There was just too much going on, too many threads crossing at once into something so big it just seemed ridiculous and no longer plausible with any amount of suspended disbelief.
  3. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. Similar to Cinder, this book is a retelling of a familiar story: in this case, the Wizard of Oz. But the main character was so slow to understand things and asked so many obvious questions that even the other characters were annoyed with her inability to put two and two together. Beyond that, the main character doesn’t do much of anything on her own–she’s always following someone’s instructions instead of making her own path. Many of the characters, especially the evil ones, seemed so stereotypical and cruel for the sake of being cruel, which is the least entertaining sort of villain, in my opinion.
  4. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. I actually like the other two books in this series a lot, but there was not much in the first novel to redeem it. First, the part of the plot in which someone under extremely odd and unlikely circumstances must fall in love with someone in particular and then somehow they orchestrate it to happen exactly that way was too far-fetched for me. It’s the 11th hour, and in comes Feyre the savoir playing *coincidentally* right into the only loophole of a weirdly specific curse. She’s given three tasks to break it, the riddle is so obvious that it’s insulting and it was painful to see Feyre fail to answer it immediately, and oh, even if she wins, no one seems to believe the villain will even honor her word and end the curse. It just feels so fictional, and even the foreshadowing with Rhysand was obvious, though that might be the only part of this book I would ever be interested in reading again.
  5. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare. I’ve been a Cassandra Clare fan since 2010, and I do like a lot of her other books and even some of the characters that appear in this one. But I reread this one this year and was shocked at the cruelty of the characters to one another. Some of the rudeness plays into the plot, but it felt like it went way beyond that. Jessamine seemed like an entirely unnecessary character whose presence felt like a plot device, Charlotte and Henry fall pray to that bad plot confusion where they could settle all their problems if they’d only have an honest conversation for five minutes, and the main character’s introduction to London is so dreary and unpleasant that the entire book felt dreary and unpleasant to me.

These are five books that I’ve read in the last year that I no longer like to think about much. I’ll be following these up soon with five books that surpassed my expectations.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

June Wrap-Up

It’s been a weird reading month. I didn’t exactly stick to my June TBR, which is unusual for me. I feel bad about having skipped some of the books I meant to read because they were all high priorities for me in June, but even though I read some extra books that were not on my June TBR they were related to my original goals. So I don’t feel guilty about what I’ve neglected as much as I feel sad that there weren’t about 10 extra days in June for me to read everything I wanted to get to this month. But, in the end, I really didn’t do too badly.

The picture on the right is what junetbrI meant to read in June:

What I didn’t read:

  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo and
  • Vicious by V. E. Schwab have both been pushed back to my July TBR.
  • I was hoping to read the entirety of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which didn’t happen, but I am glad that I at least read the one I most meant to (plus a couple extra pieces) and I do intend to get back to the rest of the content of the book at some point this year.
  • Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was one of three books that received a tied winning vote from my first ever Choose My Next Read interactive post, and while I feel badly about not getting around to a book that I gave my readers the chance to choose, I did read the other 2 of 3 voted books and put The Night Circus back on my October TBR, where it came from. I will get to it then, if not sooner.
  • And finally, I didn’t read the exact Book of the Month Club book pictured there, but technically I did plan that I would read a BOTM book, not that specific one. So I didn’t read Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter (yet), but I did read 2 and 1/2 other BOTM books, so I’m still counting that a success and I will also get to this one eventually.

Thanks for sticking with me. Now for what I actually read this month. As usual, you can follow the links of the titles to my complete reviews with more info about the books and my thoughts while reading them. Pictures and links for the reviews that haven’t been completed yet will be updated shortly. Here’s what I read:

  1. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. 4 out of 5 stars. adiscoveryofwitchesI had this one from the library so I made it my first read of the month, which was somewhat unfortunate because it’s the one that threw me off of my TBR. It was a total guilty pleasure and not at all what I was expecting when I picked this off the library shelf after reading one short blurb about magic and a lost book. So I read this one, loved it but kind of hated myself for loving it, and immediately picked up the next volume in the All Souls trilogy.
  2. Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness. shadowofnight3 out of 5 stars. Here’s the second All Souls book, which was another guilty pleasure and not even as good as the first book in my opinion, but I was still hooked. This trilogy is full of nearly-600-page books, so straying from my TBR to read all three took a good chunk of reading time out of my month. This one was even more problematic than book one, but it had some interesting new elements as well and I was already committed to reading the entire series at once instead of taking breaks between books to savor it like I usually do. All Souls was such a guilty pleasure series that I didn’t even care about giving myself a chance to savor it, I just had to devour the whole thing at once and I’m almost to the point where I want to pretend it didn’t happen at all.
  3. White Fur by Jardine Libaire. 3 out of 5 stars. This is one of the June selections whitefurfrom Book of the Month Club. I was greedy this month and ordered three new books in my June box. Since I had already added 1000+ extra pages to my June TBR with the All Souls trilogy, I kind of wanted to just put my entire June TBR behind me and read all three of my new BOTM books, as well. But before that happened, I started simple with White Fur, which was allowable based on my TBR plan (one BOTM book). I didn’t love it as much as I expected, but I did enjoy reading it. It’s definitely the most unique love story I’ve ever encountered, and I’m glad to have it on my shelf.
  4. The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness. thebookoflife4 out of 5 stars. And we’re back to the All Souls trilogy. This third book was the best of them all, and I flew through it in about two days. I wasn’t as ashamed of loving this one, but as soon as I finished I reviewed it immediately and sent it back to the library and was glad to have the whole series behind me to get back to my original TBR.
  5. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. 3 out of 5 stars. This dorothymustdiewas one of the books that tied for a winning vote from my first Choose My Next Read interactive post. I really liked reading a book that I knew someone specifically wanted to see a review for, but unfortunately that was one of the only things I liked about this book. The plot had so much potential–enough potential that I will also be reading book two of this series, though the writing style was definitely not for me.
  6. The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. thequeenofthetearling5 out of 5 stars. Here is another book that won a Choose My Next Read vote, and even though I was getting a little tired of reading so much fantasy by the time I picked it up, I ended up loving everything about this one. I was tempted to follow my All Souls path with this trilogy and just marathon all the books, but this is one series I do want to savor. Still, I plan to pick up book two in this trilogy in July because I have to see where this story is going.
  7. The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy. 5 out of 5 stars. This was one of my June BOTM thesisterschaseselections, and it was one of those books that BOTM members are lucky enough to receive before the book’s actual publication date, which made it all the more exciting for me. I’m glad I made time for this one within the month because it’s a phenomenal story and I’m still over here crying about it. There are good things, too, mixed in with the tragedy, so it was just an all-around great, emotional read. It’s my favorite book from June.
  8. City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare. 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve been sporadically reading Shadowhunter books all year, and now I’m done with the fifth book in the Mortal Instruments series and I can hardly wait to read the final volume. This one was both better than expected and also a little frustrating because some of the relationship problems in this one feel like variations of the same relationship problems Clare has been using since book one. Either way, I had a good time reading this one and I’m planning to continue in July. Full review will be up tomorrow.
  9. “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. 4 out of 5 stars. This was my classic of the month. It’s a short story rather than an entire book, although this story came from a volume of Kafka’s collected short works and I was hoping to read the whole thing. I’ve only read a few of the stories so far, but I do plan to revisit this volume later in the year and probably read all the content a little at a time. “Metamorphosis” itself, though, is pretty memorable. I already knew going in that it was about a hard-working man waking up one morning as a cockroach, which renders him unable to return to work and thus take care of his family. If you read for plot, you hardly need to read the rest of the story once you know that. The main focus of the piece is character development–or character revelation, more specifically. The man’s family have some pretty interesting reactions to his turning into a cockroach. I never thought I would find myself sympathizing with a giant bug, but more than anything I wished the man/cockroach had not let his family take advantage of him. To the very end, the man wants the best for his parents and sister, but he is not looking out for himself. Perhaps it’s the wrong moral to take away from this story, but “Metamorphosis” seemed to me a reminder that while benevolence is commendable, one must also make sure oneself is getting what is needed to go on–or all those good intentions will be for naught when you’re no longer capable of carrying them out. Overall, I did enjoy the story. I find Kafka’s writing a little odd but easily readable, creepy but entertainingly so. I’m glad I read this story, and I do want to read more Kafka in the future.

And an honorable mention. By the end of the month I had started but not finished reading:

  • A Million Junes by Emily Henry. This was the third and final book I received from BOTM in June, and I’m glad I had time at least to start it within the month, considering its title. Also, I’ve gotten into the habit of adding “extras” to my box after selecting my book of the month, and this is the first time since…February, I think, that I’ve actually managed to read all the books in my box before the next month’s books have arrived, which I’m proud of. This one is a YA magical realism story with some romance and an exploration of grief. There’s a great father/daughter relationship, a little not-too-spooky ghost presence, intense family history, and possibly the most entertaining flirting I’ve ever read.

So there you have it: my reading achievements of the month of June. 8 full novels completed, plus part of a 9th, plus a short story. I felt like I was reading nonstop this month so I kind of expected higher numbers than that, but some of the books I read were long. In any case, I’ve already started my July reading and I intend to accomplish even more. We’ll see what happens. I did mostly enjoy what I read in June, and that’s what counts more than any numbers do, so I hope to continue that trend in July as well.

What was your favorite June read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant