Wow! What a year! In an effort to hide from the collapse of my state and country, I’ve distracted myself admirably. I’ve had a great year of reading! These are my favorite books of 2017, which is when I read them, not necessarily when they were published.
I’ll start with a triple by Neal Stephenson:
Reamde by Neal Stephenson (A)
Reamde is a ransom-ware virus that Chinese hackers put on computers that play the popular online game T’Rain. The virus shuts down the user’s computer until gold is delivered to a spot in the game. The virus is a minor irritant to some, but to a Russian mobster it creates a life-or-death situation that sucks in a whole crew of innocent and interesting people, in a series of crazy dangerous adventures around the world. Nail biting, breath taking, funny. Stephenson genius.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (A)
Magic used to exist, but somehow, in the mid-1800s, technology blocked and ended its ability to function. With the help of a cryogenic chamber and the world’s oldest witch, linguist Melisande and government agent Tristan are able to re-start magic, using it to time travel. The official goals of D.O.D.O. are to subtly change the past to benefit the current US government, but there are side-efforts and secret agendas. The story is told through journal entries, emails, classified reports, PowerPoints, and other documents, starting with with Mel’s journal in which we learn she has been trapped in 1851 London. Fast-paced, mind-blowing, hilarious.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (A)
Snow Crash is a computer virus that is able to physically harm people when they are exposed to it in the online world called the Metaverse. Pizza delivery guy, hacker, and Metaverse warrior, Hiro Protagonist teams up with female skateboarding courier Y.T. to save the world. The story doesn’t pause for you to breath and brims with technology that no one knew existed/would exist when Stephenson wrote it in 1992. In this book, Stephenson invented the word avatar (in part–read his notes at the end).
My other top books, in the order in which I read them:
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (MG)
This won the 2017 Newbery and rightfully so. The residents of a village make a yearly sacrifice of a baby, leaving it in the forest so the forest’s witch will leave them alone. The witch finds the babies, astonished they have been left alone in the forest. She feeds them on starlight and takes them to loving families. One year, she accidentally feeds the baby on moonlight, filling the child with magic. The witch raises this baby herself, keeping the child’s magic muffled. When the girl hits adolescence, her magic becomes too strong to hide. A wonderful story: suspenseful and smart with fascinating characters. I was blown away by the idea of the “sorrow eater”: a person who gets strength from others’ anguish. I’ve known a few of those!
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (MG)
My vote for the 2018 Newbery. (Note: I don’t actually have a vote.) In 1913 a baby washes up on the shore of an Elizabeth Island near Cuttyhunk. She is adopted by a hermit-like man who names her Crow. By the age of twelve, Crow’s curiosity about herself is set to bursting. This is the story of a girl trying to discover who she is and who she wants to be, but it is also a fast-paced thriller with kidnapping and buried treasure, a murderous escaped convict and a shipwreck. The characters are wonderful–quirky and lovable and real. The lessons Crow learns about people and herself are profound. The writing is fabulous.
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsythe (A)
The Rapunzel story told in alternating parts: the story of Rapunzel, the story of Rapunzel’s witch, and the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the 17th century noblewoman who wrote the version of Rapunzel we know today. Forsythe brings to life the historical settings, and the way she weaves together the three stories is genius.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (A)
The story of four friends: Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm who meet in college, move to New York City, and continue their friendship through the years. Over the decades, their friendships change, and the reader learns more about each of them and their pasts, especially about Jude whose secret, horrible childhood makes him the man he becomes. This story will wring you out emotionally. Beautiful and painful. So much wisdom and insight.
Euphoria by Lily King (A)
The setting is 1933 in the jungles of New Guinea where three young anthropologists (a woman and two men) study tribes most of the world know nothing about. I was fascinated by the characters, their relationships, and the tribes of New Guinea. An unpredictable, gripping story.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (A)
In the near future, the entire human race is nearly destroyed by a virus. Station Eleven follows several characters in several time periods, some before the infection spread and some trying to eek out an existence post-apocalypse. You don’t know who will survive and who exactly all of the survivors are. The plot is well crafted, but what drew me in were the characters: fascinating and realistic.This book has been criticized by some readers, I think, because they expected a science fiction thriller, and it isn’t that. This is a story about people.
The Strays by Emily Bitto (A)
The story of a fictional family, the center of an artists’ commune in 1930s Australia, and how their lives fells apart. Lily is the outsider-narrator, yearning to belong to this family she is always a part of and yet always apart from. Bitto’s prose is poetry, and she paints her characters in bold, colorful strokes. You want to meet and be included in their lives, and yet at the same time, you are grateful it is only a story and you are allowed your distance. The Strays is sweet-nostalgia and bitter-tragedy.
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (YA)
In Rowell’s novel Fangirl, the main character writes fanfiction. In that novel, there are excerpts of her stories, which copy a sort of fake Harry Potter series. Rowell’s fictional writer assumes that the characters in the fictional story are gay and incorporates that into her fanfic. Carry On is the final volume of the fictional series, as written by the fictional writer in Fangirl. (Is this too confusing?) Carry On is brilliant on many levels: the way it is like Harry Potter but is all its own story, the way it is the final volume of a series that doesn’t actually exist. The story itself. The characters. I recommend reading Fangirl first.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (A)
What if the underground railroad were literally an underground railroad? Whitehead won the National Book Award for this amazing story which chronicles the atrocities inflicted upon Black Americans by white people. Depressing but also inspirational. The writing is outstanding; the characters true. A must read.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi (MG)
Through a plausible mishap, young teenager Charlotte Doyle finds herself the only passenger on a ship sailing from England to America in the 19th century. The captain uses her to spy on the crew, who he believes are planning a mutiny. They are, and Charlotte finds herself trapped in the middle, not sure who to trust. She is a wonderful character, and like the ship in its storm, the story will leave you gasping for breath.
Wishtree by Katherine Applegate (MG)
Red is a several-hundred-year-old oak tree known to the humans in her area as the Wishtree because once a year they tie their wishes on her branches. Slated to be cut down, Red decides to try to answer one of the wishes: that of a girl in an immigrant family who asks for a friend. As a tree she cannot do much, so she calls on her animal friends to help. Beautiful, beautiful story. This may win the Newbery.
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (YA)
I heard about this book in the uproar of the announcement that a bunch of men were making a “girls” Lord of the Flies. Beauty Queens is THE Lord of the Flies with girls. Teen beauty contestants survive a plane crash on a jungle island (or some survive). The way these women handle the dangers of their situation: no food or water, giant snakes, sexy pirates, murderous state department thugs, a volcano, and more, is brilliant. Hysterically funny, with spot on social commentary, commercials, and surprising plot twists.
Intended audience key: MG: for middle grade readers (children ages 8-13), YA: for teens, A: for adults