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2019 Almost-Favorites

Last year I started a new bookish Thanksgiving tradition: looking back at some of the books that aren’t quite going to make my favorites list for the year and exploring why I’m still thankful to have read them! (Here’s the link to my 2018 almost-favorites if you’re curious.)

Since I’ve not had the best reading year, putting this list together has been a great reminder that there have nevertheless been some gems in my 2019 reading! I’ll post about my actual top favorites next month, but these are books that I really liked, that I can’t let go without mentioning again! It’s not an exhaustive list of all the books I’ve enjoyed this year, not even when combined with my favorites list. I’ve narrowed it down to a reasonable length: 10 books. I’ve even made an attempt to rank them! (Titles are linked to my reviews if you’re looking for more info.)

thesilentcompanions10. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. This is a historical gothic/horror novel with a unique supernatural element. It stands out for its atmosphere and tension, its hint of modern feminism as a lens through which challenges in historic women’s lives are examined, and it’s pacey plot. What held me back from favorite status here is that the plot was really the main focus (evil paintings taking over a secluded house!), and plots don’t tend to stick in my memory very well. I’ll remember I loved reading this one, but the specifics (except for those evil paintings, of course) will fade away pretty quickly, I’m afraid.

mysistertheserialkiller9. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize and the Booker, this little book captured a lot of attention this year. It’s a quick-paced mystery about a woman murdering her boyfriends and the sister who helps clean up after her. The deaths and details are intriguing, but what stood out to me most were the strong women and their close bond. I had so much fun reading this one, but it’s missing from my favorites list because it didn’t leave me with much food for thought; closing the cover really is the end of the experience with this one.

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovel8. The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault. I thoroughly appreciated Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a few years back, and this graphic novel format of the same story reignited my interest. The standout elements were the bold colors and clean lines of the artwork, and the superb narration. Everything about this was gearing me up for 5-star favorite status (even though the original novel was only a 4 for me!), but what held me back was the ending, deviating from the classic script just enough to change the entire direction of the story, paving the way for The Testaments and marring the read for me.

womentalking7. Women Talking by Miriam Toews. This short novel, based on the true tragedy of numerous sexual assaults in a Menonite colony, stood out to me for it’s jaw-dropping details, the cleverness involved in effectively utilizing a male narrator in a story about female power and voice, and for the intricate way the characters’ actions are tied up in their religion. The only aspect that held me back was the utter lack of plot; the title is perfectly informative in describing what happens in this book, and while I loved the statements it made, I have to admit it wasn’t a story with much momentum.

nonficminireviews6. Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli. In little more than a hundred (nonfiction) pages, Luiselli manages both to educate her readers about the children caught up in the US border crisis, and to give a sharp tug to the heartstrings. It’s a standout for its emotive prose, its bravery in speaking out against the US government, and its unique structure: framed around the 40-question form immigrating children need to fill out upon entering America. The only thing holding me back here- through no fault of Luiselli’s- is that this is an ongoing problem, which understandably means there are no answers or conclusions here.

aspellofwinter5. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. The most compulsively readable Women’s Prize winner I’ve read so far, this historical gothic-toned tragedy kept me up nights because I just had to know what would happen next. It’s darkly beautiful and absolutely haunting, which are standout details in my opinion. I adored the style and atmosphere through most of the novel, and appreciated the focus on how women have been stifled and taken advantage of through history. What held me back is a shift in tone and direction at the end, along with how incredibly sad some of the details left me.

askmeaboutmyuterus4. Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman. Someone in my life talked to me about endometriosis this year, I heard about this book soon after, and was shocked to realize how big a problem it is for women not only to get diagnosed, but treated properly for this condition. What stands out most here is the way Norman uses her own diagnosis in this memoir as a springboard to explore a larger issue in medicine- unfair treatment of ailing women- both in history and modern day. Similar to my hang-up with the Luiselli piece, I’m holding back here mainly for a lack of resolution to an ongoing problem; I was left with plenty of questions, though I understand Norman couldn’t possibly have answered all of them.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedead3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Much like with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Overstory, the plot didn’t entirely work for me with this one, though I appreciated basically everything else. I don’t often read (and even less often enjoy) books that focus heavily on animals, but the standout narrative voice (an old, eccentric Polish woman) hooked me immediately, and by the time I closed the novel I couldn’t look at animals the same way as before. (The narrator tries convincing her village that animals are murdering humans in revenge for their mistreatment.) What held me back was only that the structuring of this story as a mystery felt like tacking a cheap thrill onto a story that might have been a bit stronger as a straightforward exploration of a very intriguing premise.

humanacts22. Human Acts by Han Kang. This brutal little book delves into a student uprising in 1980 Korea; it’s a fictional account of the real event. The stand out element for me here was the way Kang posits that both vulnerability and abuse of power are inevitable human traits, necessarily existing side by side. It’s incredibly dark and sad, but certainly hard-hitting and effective. The only aspect that held me back was the frequent switch of perspective, not only from one character to another but also in point of view (1st, 2nd, 3rd person); these switches could be confusing at times, and did not always seem to serve any productive purpose.

marysmonster1. Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge. Here we have a graphic fictionalized biography of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein); it also includes the famous monster and plays up themes found in Shelley’s novel, transposed onto the stage of her real life. Standout features are the soft gray-scale artwork, the free verse narration, and the impeccable blending of fact and fiction. What held me back from including this on my favorites list is that it took me a while to get into this one; the book opens with Shelley’s childhood, through which both the “plot” and the writing are more simplistic and just felt a bit too YA or even MG for my current taste. (It becomes much more adult later on, I would not recommend to an MG or young YA audience- perhaps 16+.)

There you have it, folks: my 2019 almost-favorites!

After writing all of those little paragraphs for each book, I’m realizing it was a bad idea to end them all on the downside I found to each of these books- the goal was to talk them up and hopefully persuade some more readers to give these titles a chance! Even though each of these stories comes with a reason it won’t be on my favorites list, these were all highly enjoyable 4- or 5-star reads for me that didn’t miss the mark by much! Some of the “flaws” I’ve mentioned are inevitable side effects of their topics (as with the ongoing-problem nonfiction pieces) or personal opinions that other readers might feel very differently about (like the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, which I think Testaments fans will appreciate, or Mary’s Monster feeling too young at first, which is unlikely to bother readers who pick up MG/YA more regularly than I’ve been doing).

And so, I’ll close here with a reminder that there’s more to reading than lists and numbers (even though both are present in this post…). Take a moment to look back at your reading year with me and appreciate the upsides to some of the books that you won’t be featuring on your favorites list; consider what you’ve gained even from the books you aren’t going to be gushing about at the end of the year. Sure, we all find some duds, but at the end of the day, we still love reading.

Happy Thanksgiving.


The Literary Elephant

Favorite Reads of 2018

Okay, I guess it’s time to call it. I probably won’t read any more favorites at this 11th hour of 2018, so here’s the final roll call on my best books of the year!

Disclaimer: these are listed in the order that I read them, I would never be able to rank in order of favoritism.

P.S. Please don’t mind my poor photography skills, I just wanted to show you the editions I read.

  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. theglasscastleI haven’t read many memoirs, but I should pick up more if this one is anything to judge by– I absolutely loved it. I loved the specific writing aspect of Walls’s story, but I also loved how transferable the theme of chasing your dreams and fighting for them to become realities is. (Please slap me if I keep using the word “love” this frequently, it’s going to get sickening fast!)
  • It by Stephen King. it2Stephen King’s novels have been on my favorites lists for years, though I don’t enjoy all of his books equally. This one is deliciously creepy but it also showcases one of the best childhood group-friendships I’ve ever seen. How did I grow up without a Losers Club? I was also captivated by the deterioration of Derry, a popular King novel setting familiar from others of his works.
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. theblindassassinI’ve been a fan of Atwood’s writing since the first of her novels that I picked up (The Heart Goes Last), and none of her titles I’ve read since have let me down, though they’ve all been very different. This one is a brilliant balance of tragic family saga and imaginative fantasy, and it’s a book I’m appreciating more the longer it rattles around in my mind.
  • Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. letterfrombirminghamjailI don’t read much nonfiction, and I had read parts of this short work previously, but I was impressed anew this year how well King’s messages still apply even beyond his own historic moment. This is a truly inspiring little book that I believe every person should read. The additional works in this volume are more religion-focused, but I would highly recommend reading at least the famed letter.
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. rebeccaI should read more classics. So often I find favorites when I do pick them up, including this one. This was my first du Maurier novel, but it will not be my last. I loved the psychology, the mystery, the Gothic elements, the characterization… Plus it’s got the big creepy house that doesn’t feel like home without throwing in any cheesy haunting cliches. This book is dark perfection.
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. freshwaterHere’s a book that really challenged the way I view the world this year. This one is about a piece of African culture, the Ogbanje, and the way these bad spirits compare to a more Western idea of fractured self. Ultimately, this is a book about identity and choice that changed the way I see the world, and the way that I made unknowing assumptions about experiences I couldn’t even imagine before reading this book.
  • Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture ed. by Roxane Gay. img_2017This is the last (but certainly not least) of the nonfiction on this list. Here is a collection of 30 writers, most but not all women, who talk about their experiences with rape culture. I have loved Gay’s writing more for its content than its prose in the past, so her influence in the structure of this book with 30 other writers at the forefront was the perfect combination for me. There is so much here that many people– mostly but not exclusively women– will relate to, even if you think you’ve never had any experience with rape. It’s a powerful book.
  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. whenihityouThis is the book that I thought should have won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for 2018. It’s hard-hitting and feminist and reminded me so much of The Bell Jar, another of my all-time favorites. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about abuse before that felt so heartbreakingly honest, and it was one of those books that I felt like I just got, even though I had nothing in common with the characters. I felt like I learned a lot while reading this one, which features Indian culture.
  • Asking For It by Louise O’Neill. askingforitThis is the only YA book that made the list this year– I’ve been reading increasingly less YA, but I think now that I’ve properly outgrown the age range I just need to find a YA niche that works better for me because some stories are ageless. This one was a hard choice to add to the list because it was so upsetting to read that it hardly seemed like YA material, though I do think young readers should know about rape as much (or more) as older readers. Enter this one with caution, and beware the unlikable (though sympathetic) MC.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. homegoingA friend lent me this book with high recommendation, but I didn’t really know what to expect going in. I don’t like historical fiction as much as I used to, but this is a multi-generational narrative that speaks more about African and African American culture than any individual or specific event, a technique I adored. I thought it all came together so well, but each piece was also completely captivating on its own. An all-around win.
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. homefireThis is the book that actually won the Women’s Prize for the year, and even though When I Hit You stole my heart before I picked this one up, I could absolutely see why it won. This book is full of betrayal and misfortune that’s both revelatory and highly addicting. Different characters lead each section of the book, which disappointed me at first but came together so well in the overall narrative that I was completely sold by the end. This is also a modern retelling of Antigone, which made it all the more interesting.
  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. everythingunderI read the entire Man Booker longlist this year, and though Everything Under did not win the prize it did become one of my favorite ever magical realism books. So often the magical element of magical realism seems nonsensical and overdone to me, but I thought it fit perfectly in this story that is also full of social commentary, another Greek play retelling, and a focus on words. The main character is a writer of dictionary definitions, which I found fascinating. I just loved everything about this book, including its cover.
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder. thepiscesThere was a definite trend toward mermaids this year, so I picked up one with a particularly attractive cover and more Greek ties to check out the buzz– and ended up finding this completely bizarre but incredible favorite. This one is definitely not going to be for every reader, but if it is for you it’s really for you. The narrator has such a distinct voice that it doesn’t even matter that she’s kind of awful. This book is a disaster in the best possible way.
  • Milkman by Anna Burns. milkmanAnd here we have the winner of the Man Booker prize for 2018. A nice cap to the list. The prose of this book is so unique that it is admittedly difficult to read, but once I came around to it I was hooked. I loved the use of titles rather than names, the circular way of introducing new elements, and each eccentric character. I will be thinking about this one for a long time, and I will certainly be rereading.

Fourteen favorites this year, which I think is a record number for me. It’s been a couple of months since I read the last one, so I was a bit surprised to find that there were so many I had to include for 2018.

Tell me a favorite of yours for 2018! Have you read any of these?


The Literary Elephant


2018 Bookish Disappointments

Last month I created a post of my 2018 almost-favorite books, and before I get into my true faves this year I wanted to look at the other end of that spectrum: my greatest reading disappointments of 2018. These are not exactly least favorites, or even my lowest rated books of the year– those categories are too depressing to dwell on. Instead, I’m going to list the books that for one reason or another I expected more from than the book had to offer.

Without further ado, my Top 2018 Bookish Disappointments (listed in the order that I read them, with titles linked to my full reviews):

asbrightasheavenAs Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner. 

Expectation – This was my first Book of the Month Club selection of 2018, and after a wonderful year with BOTM in 2017 I had high hopes for the new year. I chose this historical fiction about the Spanish Flu in America in the early 1920’s in an attempt to read something outside of my normal range. I was looking for hard-hitting tragedy, and hoping to learn something about that epidemic.

Reality – I didn’t learn much. The story is overly sentimental for my taste, with the focus on one family whose tale encompasses so much more than the difficult months of the influenza crisis. The flu actually seemed like such a small part of this narrative, which mainly left me feeling like I was reading a different book than the one I’d signed on for.

thepowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman.

Expectation – A bizarre (supernatural) feminist story that impressed a lot of readers before I got around to picking it up. This one had been getting so much buzz and the premise sounded perfect for me: women develop the ability to channel electricity through their hands, which changes the world order of power.

Reality – The book is not much more than its premise. It sounded so good, but the execution fell flat for me. Not only did many of the characters seem unlikely and somewhat uninteresting, but the scope of the story tries to go a bit too far with a major war and upheaval that becomes much more political than character-driven. Furthermore, Alderman seems to be making a point of showing that a world ruled by women would be no better than a world ruled by men, which is… beside the point.

originOrigin by Dan Brown.

Expectation – A fast-paced thrill full of art and history and a bit of science. I’ve read the entire Robert Langdon series through the years, and have always enjoyed them in the past. I had no reason to think this newest addition to the series (book 5) would be any different.

Reality – I just couldn’t engage with this one. I had a good time looking up images of the art that’s mentioned, but the artificial intelligence aspect of the story did not seem innovative and much of the chase seemed surprisingly low stakes compared to earlier Robert Langdon novels. It’s likely my reading tastes have changed in the four years or so since I read Inferno (book 4).

thedeathofmrs.westawayThe Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware.

Expectation – This is another case of judging an author by her earlier work. I’ve loved a couple of Ruth Ware’s previous thrillers, though admittedly I don’t think I would like them as much if I were reading them for the first time this year as I did when I actually read them. Still, Ware writes such great atmosphere.

Reality – The atmosphere was definitely there, but not much else. I found the plot predictable and unnecessarily convoluted. I saw through the red herrings easily and never felt that the potential killer would get away with murder even if it could be brought about. The creepy old house and the insights into tarot readings were the only aspects I enjoyed, and my faith has definitely been shaken in Ware. One more dud will probably turn me away from her books in the future.

snapSnap by Belinda Bauer.

Expectation – This thriller was nominated for the 2018 Man Booker prize, and the combination of anticipated thrills and a fresh literary list had me reaching for this book as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. I hadn’t quite decided to read the entire longlist at the time I read Snap, but I was excited about many of the titles and thought this would be an easy and exciting start to the list.

Reality – This story is so riddled with plot holes I’m surprised it holds together at all. There are a few characters and concepts that I found intriguing, but I mourned them appearing in such an unpolished book. I was left a lot more uncertain about reading the Man Booker longlist after this rough experience.

youthinkiti'llsayitYou Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Expectation – I read Sittenfeld’s Eligible last year and had a uproariously good time with it. I found it so light and funny, and yet all the pieces fit so well together that Sittenfeld’s skill was absolutely apparent. I wanted to get back into reading some short stories in the latter half of 2018, and this was my first collection of that attempt.

Reality – I was turned off of wanting to read more short stories in the immediate future. I tried to deny it by acquiring a few other collections, but I haven’t actually mustered the will to try those others yet. In theory, there’s a great idea (discouraging assumptions about other people) behind this set of stories, but that’s established early on and once I figured that out all the stories seemed basically the same with different characters. I was profoundly bored.

crossherheartCross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough. 

Expectation – I’d been having a bad year with thrillers by this point, but Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes so impressed me with its twist so far out in left field last year that I thought this one might be weird enough to give me the change I needed in that genre.

Reality – This was such a run-of-the-mill thriller. The characters were a bit bland, the stakes too low, the format tired. This is not a mystery one could solve along with the characters because the clues aren’t provided sufficiently throughout the lead-up to the big show-down. My biggest disappointment though was simply that this was nothing like Behind Her Eyes. Apparently a common theme for me this year was leaning too heavily on authors that had impressed me in the past.

elevationElevation by Stephen King.

Expectation – Here we have yet another (and the final) case of hoping to see the same level of work from an author I’ve loved in the past. Actually I still love King’s writing, but I’m on a long quest through his oeuvre now that’s definitely challenging my earlier assumptions. In any case, I picked up this book looking for horror and compelling characters, the two things King is most known for.

Reality – I have no idea why this book is marketed as horror. The underlying concept is maybe a bit horrifying to contemplate, but it is not presented in any sort of terrifying way. Furthermore, the characters lack any subtlety or nuance, and the whole (short) book seemed rather confused about its target age range. Maybe if King hadn’t attempted an unimaginative “accept the lesbians” commentary here he might have teased out a more interesting story. But it wasn’t a total loss for me; I’m continuing through King’s works with a fresh eye for flaws, and I think I’m getting a more accurate impression by exploring the ups and the downs instead of just the ups.

joshandhazel'sguidetonotdatingJosh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren.

Expectation – I read romance novels pretty rarely, but I’ve had good luck with the titles I’ve chosen this year. Christina Lauren was a new-to-me author duo, but they seem to be popular lately and have high ratings. I was just looking for some feels and a predictably good time.

Reality – There is no tension in this story whatsoever. Putting aside the cringe-worthy blind double-dating game, there are simply no obstacles to Josh and Hazel ending up together. I appreciated the diversity and acceptance of all kinds of minorities that’s promoted through the writing, but I didn’t find any emotion or noteworthy commentary.

eclipseEclipse by Stephenie Meyer.

Expectation – I mean, my expectations were low for this one to begin with. I’ve been doing a slow reread of the Twilight saga for over a year now in the interest of some reflection on how my reading tastes have changed, and though the first two books were not exactly funEclipse had once been my favorite of the series and I expected at least the same level of nostalgic enjoyment and self-enlightenment (from the reflection, obviously, not the content).

Reality – This is now my least favorite book in the series. I did take some quality reflection away from the experience (linked through title if you want to check out my opinions on subjectivity and books), but this was the longest and worst reread yet. I was never a fan of the Jacob-Bella romance, but it’s absolutely abhorrent in this volume. I’m not sure how my teenaged self overlooked that, but it was definitely torturous this time around. The bar was already low when I started reading, but the actual reread was worse. Much worse.

And that’s a wrap.

Fortunately, it was harder to put this list together than it was to assemble potential favorites, but there are always some disappointments and 2018 was no exception. This is not to say that any of the books on this list are “terrible” or that it’s bad to like them– again, they’re just titles that left me unhappy with my reading experience.

What was your greatest reading disappointment this year? Why was it so disappointing?


The Literary Elephant



2018 Almost-Favorites

As the year approaches its end, it’s time to start thinking about the year in review- the best and worst books we’ve read in 2018. But looking back on my reading year, I realized that there’s another category I want to acknowledge: the Almost-Favorites. This year, I feel that I’ve really branched out my reading, and taken chances on books that I hoped would educate me as well as entertain. These probably won’t make it to my all-time favorites list, but with Thanksgiving celebrations tomorrow I wanted to take a moment to appreciate the books that have helped me learn and grow as a reader this year. Each of these titles changed my perspective or resonated with me personally in some way.

Without further ado, my 2018 Almost-Favorites (in the order that I read them):

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. eleanoroliphantiscompletelyfineThis novel is probably about a character on the Autism spectrum, though the likelihood that Eleanor has undiagnosed Asperger’s is not discussed in the text. That’s why I loved this book. I had never read a character like Eleanor, and loved the way her perspective was portrayed fairly and casually- this is not a book that sensationalizes autism; instead, it introduces the reader to a new viewpoint that it endeavors to normalize. A bit more subtlety would have made this a true favorite for me, but even at 4 stars Eleanor and her dark past will stick with me.

Emma by Jane Austen. emmaI’ve read 4 of Austen’s novels now, and loved every one. Though each of her stories are entertaining, Emma is the most impressive in terms of structure and dramatic irony. This book is heavy on dialogue that reveals so much of each character to the reader that the plot itself offers little surprise as the characters march toward their inevitable conclusions, but seeing them clash and change along the way makes the novel worth the read. I devoured this book the way I imagine one watches a ventriloquist show- with my eyes not on the characters, but on their master; Austen’s skill is obvious in Emma, and never wavers.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. goodbye,vitaminHere is a story about a grown woman whose life is in shambles, returning home to help her parents through worsening Alzheimer’s. This disease of memory runs in my own family, and though I haven’t personally seen a case as bad as the one in this story, it struck a chord with me. The plot is a bit far-fetched and predictable, but the way that Alzheimer’s affects this family feels real and impactful. It’s not only the forgetting that’s hard, but the change of personality and behavior that accompanies it. I felt for this family, and won’t forget them.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. thesevenhusbandsofevelynhugoThis book took me completely by surprise. I don’t pay much attention to real celebrities and didn’t expect to enjoy reading about a fictional one- but Evelyn Hugo won me over. This is not a book about a glamorous movie star, but about a woman who does whatever it takes to make a name for herself in an industry that doesn’t want to accept her. She faces discrimination based on her race, gender, and sexuality, but finds a way to become beloved by millions. She taught me a bit about how wrong assumptions can be. If I hadn’t guessed a few key plot points before reading them, this book might have found its way to my favorites list.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. incoldbloodI had never read a true crime book before this year, unless you count The Devil in the White City which is only partially focused on historical crimes. But this nonfiction narrative is a classic, the first of its genre, and for the most part it does read like a novel. Capote takes the reader through the Clutter family’s last day, the long and difficult investigation, and their killers’ trail. The writing is strong and memorable. I only wished it had focused more on the victims than the killers.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang. img_2044This story is a narrative work of genius. It is divided into three sections, each of which focuses on a character who affects or is affected by a Korean woman who turns vegetarian. The story actually has little to do with vegetarianism- it is about the way people react to someone whose life choices are very different from societal norms. Each of the three perspective characters imposes their own view onto the woman’s choice, and the ways that they take advantage of her or let her down are the true focus of the story. There are so many powerful messages wrapped up in here and Kang’s writing is brilliant and revelatory, but I also found it too uncomfortable and disturbing in places to say that I truly enjoyed it. Even so, this is one of the most intense and unforgettable novels that I’ve ever read.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. onchesilbeachCovering mainly a single evening on Chesil Beach, this short novel delves deeply into the failed relationship of a 1960’s newlywed couple. Despite their feelings for each other, their inability to talk about their sexual preferences may drive them apart. McEwan deftly weaves past and future events into the scope of that single eventful night, and turns it all into a portrait of identity and communication. For a story so rooted in time, the themes and tragedies explored still seem surprisingly relevant. I had never read about an asexual character before, and this book was a fantastic introduction to that perspective.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. themarsroomI don’t know why narratives about women’s prisons fascinate me the way they do. There’s something so gripping about injustices in that setting, and though it’s still fairly new to me this was not my first time reading a story of that sort. What impressed me most about this novel though, is that readers must decide for themselves which events are injustices, which are tragedies, and which are fair. Despite a few small sections of the book that felt completely unnecessary to the overall plot, this is a fascinating novel about the wrongs people do to each other, and how they pay for them. It blurs the line between the innocent and guilty, offering instead an all-encompassing moral gray area.

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg. theemigrantnovelsThis is a Swedish classic about a family that emigrates to America. Though this volume is only the first chapter of a broader saga, it touches on a part of my own family history in a way that made this book a compelling read for me. Though the writing didn’t impress me on a sentence-by-sentence level, the scope and structure of the story pulled the narrative together. I have not yet read the rest of the series (I’m afraid the feeling of personal connection to these characters’ journey will fade after the actual emigration), I am looking forward to them. My experience with the first book taught me how important it is for all people from all places to be represented accurately in literature.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. normal peopleI have read twelve (so far) of the thirteen Man Booker longlist titles this year, and I could’ve included most of those books on this list for one reason or another. But Normal People is the one I related to most, and I didn’t want it to be overlooked even though it won’t turn up on my list of 2018 favorites. This is a story about two distinct but ordinary people who begin a relationship as teens and can never quite let each other go afterwards. Though my own life has been very different from either of theirs, I was repeatedly struck by the similarity of their thoughts and feelings to my own. Though I found the plot slightly repetitive and sparse, I found the characters understandable and compelling, and I cannot wait to find out what else Sally Rooney has to say. Full review for this book coming soon.

Have you read any of these books? What are some Almost-Favorites you’re thankful to have read this year?

Happy Thanksgiving!


The Literary Elephant

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.


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?


The Literary Elephant

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?


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?


The Literary Elephant