We’re getting close to the end of the year, so it’s time to consider my favorite reads of 2017. In addition to assorted reading for research (I’m now a bit of an expert on Chicago history and contraception and abortion in the 19th century) I finished 45 novels this year. I started probably at least a dozen more, but I’ve decided to move past the need to finish what I start, no matter how glowing the reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. It’s noteworthy that only six of the 45 novels I read were written by men. This wasn’t an intentional choice, but it seems to be where my tastes take me.
General Fiction Favorites
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. This book is loosely connected to Strout’s earlier masterpiece (I must admit I think pretty much everything she writes is a masterpiece) My Name is Lucy Barton. And the chapters within this book are also loosely connected stories, each a gem in its own right, telling of the often painful lives in small town America. The writing is heart-wrenchingly lovely.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Little Fires is a novel about family, class, and race set in the well-planned suburbia of Shaker Heights, Ohio. As a reader, I connected with the complications of the characters confronting the moral implications of motherhood. As a writer, I kept finding myself thinking about craft elements like Ng’s great use of an omniscient point of view and a compelling structure.
All That’s Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe. All That’s Left to Tell is a rather strange novel. It is the story of a prisoner in Pakistan and his interrogation. But then the questioning takes a turn to stories of what might have been if events in the past had taken a different turn. It is a story about storytelling. It’s difficult to describe and a bit challenging to understand. But I couldn’t stop reading.
Saints for All Occasions by Courtney Sullivan. This is just a straight-up good read. It’s a multi-generational tale of two sisters who come to American from Ireland and end up living very different lives. One is a cloistered nun and the other is the matriarch straining to maintain control of her large family. The narrative is never strained as the characters confront difficult choices both past and present.
General Fiction Honorable Mentions
Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin. This is a perfect book to read in this time of #metoo. It’s a redemptive take on the story of Monica Lewinsky, with a structure that highlights the ways such a political (and personal) crisis plays out for women on all sides of the events.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. At one point, the protagonist of this novel points out that we view the phrases “to father” and “to mother” very differently. For me, this observation is at the heart of this evocative novel about marriage, parenting, and chances taken and foregone.
On the Lighter Side
Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny. This is just a sweet and lovely book. I want to be part of Audra’s world and live within the orbit of her charmed and charming life.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. The central themes of this book – loneliness, dementia, and the like – are definitely not on the lighter side, but Eleanor is just a total hoot.
Historical Fiction Favorites
I’ve always liked this genre, but as I’m now writing historical fiction, I read a LOT of it this year. Here are three I loved for different reasons.
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. I’ve always been drawn to books that take a person glimpsed in history or art and then build a compelling world and story from that glimpse. This book does that for the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World.” This book is beautifully written, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who loved Girl in a Pearl Earring and similar novels.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Captain Kidd is an itinerant newsreader in Texas just after the Civil War. He is asked to take charge of a girl who has been “rescued” from the Kiowa Indians who killed her family and kidnapped her four years before. News of the World is a story about an unlikely pair on a journey that neither want to take. It is well-researched and written in a way that draws you in with language and situations evocative of the time and place.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. This one is a more “classic” historical fiction read. One plotline takes us to a spy network of women in World War I. The second involves the search for a missing cousin in the aftermath of World War II. The book is well-paced and well-plotted and includes plenty of romance for those who like that sort of thing (as I sometimes do!) in their historical novels.
And now on to 2018 – happy reading, all!