2017 in Reading: Fiction

I didn’t read a lot of books last year and I haven’t posted on this blog in a while, but the turn-of-the-year revives an interest in reflecting back on what I read, so I’ll share.

In very rough order of most liked to least liked, the fiction I read in 2017:

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave –  “There’s wit, and profundity and tragedy all fixed up together.” [review]

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord – This was the first book of 2017 that I really escaped into, and it was such a relief to fall under its spell. [review]

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – the Baltimore story and the story of the prisoner in the mines were my favorites of this multi-generational epic story.

Pretty Face by Lucy Parker – perfect combination of chemistry and humor.

Mrs. Mike by Nancy and Benedict Freedman – Mrs. Mike has a brisk pace, of the sort that I really like. Sometimes you want a novel that just moves. [review]

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf – Read this short, simply told book in one night. In a world where stories are dominated by young characters, it was refreshing to get immersed in a story about two characters in their 70s.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – I will ever be grateful to this book for getting me through a long layover at JFK. Page-turning, engrossing – exactly what I needed. The miniseries was great too.

Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe – Jaffe captures a scene and an era with storytelling flair.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner – Turner has a gift for hiding plot twists and revelations in plain sight. Her surprises never feels hokey.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – A woman returns home after her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The novel is packed with observational details which I enjoyed. There is a funny payoff regarding the cruciferous vegetables that still makes me smile to remember it.

kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata – the family dynamics and the setting had a great specificity. Also made me cry.

North of Boston by Elizabeth Elo – The main character gets as close to a magical power as you can get, while still staying within the bounds of a “real-world” setting, and that is still just a small part of what’s going on in this mystery. Not for everyone, but I liked it.

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine 1881 – 1901 by Nancy E. Turner – old-fashioned Arizona frontier story, a little too long, but considering I also read Mrs. Mike in 2017, clearly it was the type of story I was gravitating toward.

The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang – A tale of a family road-trip following their financial ruin. Haven’t thought about it much since I finished, but now that I stop and think about it, I remember enjoyable little turns in the story, and my appreciation for where the story ended up.

The Thing About Love by Julie James – The premise of the leading couple having very different perspectives about their shared history was well done. James’ contemporary romance always seem to hit the spot for me.

The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne – it’s a sexy book *shrug*. Also, found this hilarious plot summary on another blog I will share an early part of:

Sexy Spy Friend: This dirty French whore-spy whom I find delightful and already implicitly trust is also totally blind.

Grey: WTF.

Annique: Yup. I’m awesome. Frenchly awesome.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen – read another book by Dessen years ago, thought it was solid young adult contemporary. I think I liked that other book more than this one, but one thing is constant: all the characters, not just the main character, feel fleshed out, and clearly have their own things going on.

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra – a unique format, as it’s written in the style of a standardized test, but didn’t leave much impression on me

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – started off all right with the explosion and first quest, but I did not like the writing or the main character and I hate-read through the rest, because I was recovering from mono and I didn’t have much else to do.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir – So boring.

 

 

 

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Muslim Girl – Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

In February I read Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story. Al-Khatahtbeh is the young passionate force behind the Muslim Girl web community. In this short book, Al-Khatahtbeh describes growing up in New Jersey in a post-9/11 atmosphere (she was in fourth grade during the 2001 terrorist attacks). She also expounds upon the challenges that Muslim women face in the United States, while also highlighting the public voice of advocacy that she and other Muslim women are rightfully claiming. I appreciated Al-Khatahtbeh’s examination of the ways that tokenization and stereotyping dominate society’s narrative about Muslim women. I was also very interested in her account of the brief time in her life that she lived in Jordan as a teenager, and how she navigated culture there. I wished there had been even more of that, but that is more a reflection on my own interests in Jordan than on Al-Khatahtbeh’s story.

My main criticism of the book is that it needed to have been fact-checked better – I suspect it was rushed too quickly to print. I caught several errors in the book’s descriptions of news events, when my curiosity had led me to look up the incidents online. For instance, in her book she describes a father and son being killed in the Gaza Strip in 2000, but it was only the son, Muhammed, who was killed.

Another example: when a group of anti-Muslim activists decided to host a “Draw Muhammad Day” in Garland, TX in 2015, Al-Khatahtbeh’s Muslim Girl team cleverly offered an alternative Draw Muhammad online event which invited people to draw a Muhammad that they know (brother, friend, etc.). In her book she says “our campaign effectively drowned out any negativity surrounding the event.” What she does not mention in the book is that, unfortunately, two gunmen did show up to the inflammatory Texas event and were killed by police. So to say that because Muslim Girl’s campaign went viral, that it drowned out any negativity surrounding the event seems naive – and to not mention the gunmen at all seems like trying to dodge the complexity of the situation. I think what the Muslim Girl team did in response was creative and awesome and in no way diminished by what those gunmen did, but I was bothered by how the gunmen weren’t mentioned at all.

I’ve dragged my feet on publishing this review because I worried that my criticisms about fact-checking could be taken as criticisms about the cause and mission of Muslim Girl. But this review reflects my reading experience of the book. I am still impressed by how Al-Khatahtbeh has built an online advocacy community at such a young age and if you visit the Muslim Girl website, it is consistently intersectional, and consistently boosting the voices of people who are underrepresented in general media.

 

 

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The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

I don’t recall exactly when I started reading it in 2016, but finally in April, I finished Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s first-hand account of the tragic 1910-1912 South Pole expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott. The Worst Journey in the World is a lengthy tome (640 pages in some editions) and I did not find it easy to read, especially in the last half. Cherry-Garrard often writes well – I actually quite enjoyed the book at first, as he described the perilous ship journey to Antarctica and the first stages of the expedition. However, so much of the book consisted of highly-detailed descriptions of sledging – the snow conditions, the weight, the actions of people and animals – that the book became an absolute slog. I am capable of quitting books, even those I’ve invested in, but I chose to finish anyway. That decision came with giving myself permission to skim as necessary, however. And while I came away from the book with numerous interesting passages highlighted, any enjoyment of the book had been leached from me by the end. I cannot recommend it in good faith to anyone.

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Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man) by Primo Levi

In February, I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (US title: Survival in Auschwitz). Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish man, was captured toward the end of World War II, shortly after he had joined a partisan resistance group. He was transported to Auschwitz, where he would labor and suffer deprivation for almost a year until the end of the war. His book describes the experience of Auschwitz – the grind of dehumanization, the systemic cruelty, the harsh conditions. The book most comes alive when the prisoners themselves become more alive – after the camp has been deserted by the camp command. Though the weak and starving prisoners have to fend for themselves, the desertion of their oppressors allows some of the prisoners’ humanity to re-emerge again after months of degradation. The book was published in 1947 in Italian, and in German and English in 1959. In the wikipedia entry for Primo Levi, it notes that he diligently attended Holocaust remembrance events and would tell his story in schools. He saw revisionist history at work, trying to diminish or deny the horror of the Holocaust, and his book serves as a testimony refuting those efforts. Though a chemist by trade, If This is a Man also shows that Primo Levi was just as much a writer, able to capture Auschwitz in all its brutal aspects. I’m curious to read the book he wrote about his long, harrowing return to his home after leaving Auschwitz.

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Quick takes: recently read fiction

I’m not a prolific blogger, but even by my own standards, my posting has been sparse this year. It’s just been hard to simultaneously possess the mood and the energy and the time for it.

Anyway, rather than do separate posts for the below fiction reads, here’s my quick takes on them:

In February, I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, first in a YA dystopian fantasy series. It was really really boring. I only finished it because I own it.

In March, I read Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice. The author is Chilean and used a standardized test format as a vehicle for satire. I can’t say that it made much of an impact on me, but it was good to try some translated slightly experimental fiction.

I don’t read much middle grade fiction, but my sister gave me Cynthia Kadohata’s kira-kira as a gift a couple Christmases ago. Winner of the Newbery Medal, this novel is about two Japanese-American sisters who move with their parents from the Midwest to Georgia in the 1950’s. I appreciated the relationship between the two sisters – loving, but not immune to sibling squabbles – and the family dynamics and the setting had a great specificity that was very interesting. And it’s a tear-jerker too, so, you’ve been warned.

My book club read for this year was Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. It’s a family saga that follows the descendants of two half-sisters. One half-sister is taken on a slave ship from Ghana to the United States. The other half-sister’s family is – at least initially – complicit in the slave trade while remaining in Ghana. Each chapter captures the story of one generation in each family line. As with all novels in this format, there will be certain people’s stories that resonate more than others. I found the Ghana chapters fascinating because it was a history that I was less familiar with. However, the chapters that were most emotionally resonant with me were the one about a descendant in Baltimore living in fear of the Fugitive Slave Law and a later chapter about a descendant in the Reconstruction-era South arrested under ridiculous pretenses and, as a prisoner, forced to work in the mines. An impressive book overall.

I read most of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in an airport. It is the perfect airport book – page-turning family drama, great character dynamics, a little mystery. The ads for the TV show made me curious about the book, and now I want to watch the TV show.

In the romance vein, I read new-to-me author Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, which I really enjoyed. I also read Lucy Parker’s Pretty Face, her follow-up to Act Like It. I think I liked Pretty Face even more than Act Like It. The challenges of the relationship are real, the dialogue is great, and it’s just a perfect combination of chemistry and humor. I also picked up the latest Julie James’ The Thing About Love. I think this is her first that has a female FBI agent as a protagonist? (She has a whole series that is FBI agents and district attorneys.) Anyway, Julie James is a reliably good author and The Thing About Love was no exception.

Despite romance being nearly every girl’s goal in Rona Jaffe’s 1950’s classic The Best of Everything, it is not a romantic book. Set in New York City, the book follows three young women who work for a publishing firm. All are working girls, but the expectation and hope of each is to find love and marriage (with the possible exception of Caroline, who seems to have more career aspirations than the others). However, the world is of course horribly sexist and the women find themselves having to navigate the minefields of lascivious bosses and callous rich playboys. Jaffe is writing a world that she knew and it shows – she captures a scene and an era with storytelling flair.

Just before the fifth book of the Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series came out, I read the second: The Queen of Attolia. As with the first book, the slow build-up absolutely pays off. Turner has a gift for hiding plot twists and revelations in plain sight. Her surprises never feels hokey. I love the character of Gen, and his character evolves in this book in compelling ways. The only part of the book I did not love was protracted passages of military strategy. I know it supported the world-building, but I just wanted to get back to scenes of conversations and action.

The most recent fiction book I’ve completed is Elizabeth Elo’s North of Boston. It’s a mystery set mostly in Boston. Elo packs a lot into her book. I particularly enjoyed the complexity of her main character, Pirio Kasparov. The book starts with the funeral of Pirio’s friend, who died in a boating hit-and-run. Pirio was on the boat too but managed to miraculously survive floating in the cold water for a long time (which makes the US Navy very interested in her). There are some plot turns that stretch credulity, but I didn’t really care. I liked the crazy stuff. I was however super annoyed that Pirio was given a love interest. It wasn’t believable and it wasn’t necessary. It came late in the book, so I had been getting excited that I might have a book in my hands about a single person who stays single throughout. But alas, here came a rushed romantic subplot – a tiny one, but a terrible one.

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Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

1962. 214 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny and Teresa of Shelf Love

In January, I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In 1960, the author went on a road trip around the U.S. with his dog Charley. (I loved that one of his first visits was to Maine, my home state.) As with his novels, Steinbeck displays good humor and is incredibly insightful about people, to include himself. Reading this book so soon after the Presidential inauguration, this passage about Steinbeck and his sisters seemed appropriate:

Each evening we promised, “Let’s just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight.” And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other…

“Father would turn in his grave if he heard you.”

“No, don’t bring him in, because he would be a Democrat today.”

“Listen to you. Bobby Kennedy is out buying sacks full of votes.”

“You mean no Republican ever bought a vote? Don’t make me laugh.”

It was bitter and it was endless. We dug up obsolete convention weapons and insults to hurl back and forth . . . A stranger hearing us would have called the police to prevent bloodshed. And I don’t think we were the only ones. I believe this was going on all over the country in private. It must have been only publicly that the nation was tongue-tied.

Steinbeck’s descriptions of nature, too, are evocative – there’s a passage about redwoods that I particularly liked.

As far as the subtitle goes, Steinbeck makes no conclusions or pronouncements about America, but he does capture some of the country’s appeal and also its sins. Toward the end of the book, he stops in New Orleans to witness “The Cheerleaders” – a group of women who had been gathering at a school every morning to scream obscenely at young black schoolchildren who were being integrated into the school. The sight and the conversations he has later with other people in Louisiana on the way out make him feel very weary.

I love travel memoirs and I loved Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, so this book was definitely right up my alley.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book Chase – “I admit to being a little disappointed that Steinbeck misrepresented the origin of some of what he claims happened in Travels with Charley mainly because it makes me wonder if he simply set out with a specific agenda in mind and made sure that he got the answers that supported his own views about the social condition of the country.”

Pining for the West – “As I said, I really loved this book but for me it was too short. I would have liked more details. Things like how far he was actually travelling between various states and maybe a bit more in the way of descriptions of the scenery. It probably didn’t occur to him that such details would be of interest to someone sitting reading it in Scotland, or for that matter someone reading it 50 years after it was written.”

Teresa of Shelf Love: “Travel stories bring out the humor, especially when the travel is unconventional and involves a dog! But for me, it was his treatment of the people he met that really stood out. He does seem to want to find the dignity within each one”

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In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Wartime Judah

2015. Tim Duggan Books. Hardcover. 257 pages.

Review:

British journalist Tim Judah’s book In Wartime is a collection of short dispatches from towns and regions around the country of Ukraine. These dispatches are mainly focused on current events – the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the fighting in the east. However, the book is also an exploration of Ukraine’s history and its citizens’ framing and understanding of that history.

I was not keen on the structure of this book. The author could not seem to decide whether the chapters were independent pieces or part of a greater whole. That said, I learned a lot about Ukraine that I didn’t know before. It’s a country that has seen repeated upheaval of its population: the Holocaust, war, famine, forcible exile and relocation. Many towns and regions are full of residents who have only lived there for a generation or two.

There were also thematic through-lines, even if the structure didn’t develop those themes as much as it could have. Themes include the interpretation of history (as mentioned before), the complicated nature of national identity in the region, and the havoc wreaked by corruption.

Russia’s disinformation campaigns in Ukraine was a topic covered in the book that was of course of interest to me, considering their own disinformation campaigns in my country. I think people overestimate their independence of thought, and underestimate the power of such campaigns to influence popular framing of people and events.

Overall, I found the book slow going due to the structure, but I’m glad I read it, as I feel more informed about Ukraine and the challenges it faces as a country.

I received a copy of this book for review via Blogging for Books.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Hadrian (from Goodreads): “Gives the locals plenty of space to talk about themselves, and takes pains to understand the historical roots (and the exploitation of history) behind current grievances. At turns gruesome and understated. Important stuff.”

Lance Charnes (from Goodreads) “The effect is pointillistic: a quote here, a poignant sight there, a bit of history to explain a particular point, some fact-checking. When you pull back, the dots become a picture. He reports what his interviewees say, but he later debunks their more egregious lies and fantasies (which are distressingly common; weaponized history and fake news are like air there, especially in the eastern part of the country).

Maphead’s Book Blog – “While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine.”

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