Last year, we published an article about our team’s favorite books of 2016. Everyone seemed to enjoy it (including a couple of the authors), so we decided to create another roundup to close out 2017.
Some of us found this rather difficult — for writers, choosing a favorite book is like choosing a favorite child. But alas, we had a deadline and a two-book limit.
So here is a list of books that made our lives a little better this year.
I’ve spent 2017 digging back into reading more fiction and narrative nonfiction, a continuation from my love of memoirs and biographies in 2016. For this reason, I have two favorite books to recommend in 2017, as I know most will either love one or the other (though I love them both equally, for different reasons!).
I was pulled in from the beginning, when Colgan writes a detailed introduction letter to readers on the best places and ways to read. If nothing else, this book is a love letter to books and readers.
The story (originally called The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, which may still be the title in various releases and countries) follows an English librarian, Nina Redmond, who is made redundant at her city library job. She could be described as a book romantic, or at least a book nostalgic, longing for the days of unencumbered bliss and enjoyment from the simple act of reading — without the modernization of making everything so connected and technical.
So she does the only logical thing … She buys an old bus that she doesn’t know how to drive, and decides to move to Scotland and turn the bus into a mobile bookstore in the North and Highlands.
Through her adventures, she learns how to depend on herself (and others), discovers the importance of taking chances and chasing ridiculous dreams, and is reminded that life rarely ends up in the happy-ever-after we imagine — because no matter how much we may love our books and stories, they are rarely real life.
Of course, there’s also the personal connection for me. Something about this book piqued my extreme curiosity about — and connection with — Northern Scotland and the people there. This led to me renting a flat in Aberdeen (along the Northeast coast), where I did not know a single soul, and falling so madly in love with the area and culture and people that I’m now looking at making it my home.
I love a good book biography, and this one did not disappoint. I would love to see this genre continue to explode in the coming years, much as the fixation and fascination with the habits and routines of famous and creative people seem to have found a foothold in our collective interest.
This particular book focuses on my favorite era of writers, the Lost Generation of Paris in the 1920s.
There has always been speculation that Hemingway’s first commercial novel, The Sun Also Rises, is far more autobiographical (with some changed names and events to protect the “innocent”), and here Blume dives into just how much the story follows the exploits and dramas of Hemingway.
For anyone who loves Hemingway and the Lost Generation writers, this will be a fascinating foray into the personal experiences of a group of people for whom creating and leaving a legacy was the only thing that mattered.
Well, that and drinking.
Honorable Mentions: All over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft by Geraldine DeRuiter, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
If your 2017 felt anything like mine, you know it’s been a year for finding rays of sunlight in a fog of catastrophic darkness.
Not to be melodramatic or anything, but, amidst the world’s calamities, I have turned to books for a reminder that it isn’t all a shitstorm.
Few books have ever made me laugh so hard that beer shot through my nose. This book is one of them.
Jenny Lawson — or The Bloggess, as she is known by her followers — might just be my hero and/or spirit twin. With outrageously frank honesty and killer wit, she pens tales of her life as a writer, mother, and wife living with multiple mental illnesses.
Where others might sheepishly push such vulnerabilities out of view, Lawson claims hers boldly and hilariously. With her hodgepodge of accounts of spotting a pharmacist eating dog biscuits, adventures with a taxidermied raccoon named Rory, or marital disputes including “George Washington’s dildo,” if you’re not wiping back tears of laughter while reading, you are most certainly dead inside.
Perhaps the best part about Lawson’s writing is that she makes living with mental illness a relatable story to be a part of, and even celebrate — not a dirty secret to keep hidden. Whether or not you face the challenges of mental illness in your own life, you will find inspiration and joy in her chutzpah, and even get a little push toward becoming furiously happy yourself.
Honorable Mentions: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World by Colin Beavan, and Think Wrong: How to Conquer the Status Quo and Do Work That Matters by John Bielenberg, Mike Burn, and Greg Galle
To be honest, I didn’t read nearly as many books as I wanted to this year. With my shift toward film, I’ve started reading a lot more scripts. Nevertheless, peer pressure and research led me to some incredible finds this year that reminded me how awesome actual books are.
If you read the Harry Potter series and thought, “Hmm, this would be so much cooler if Harry was a cop,” then this is the book for you. Okay, bear with me here …
Midnight Riot is the first in a series by Ben Aaronovitch. It’s about a constable in London named Peter Grant who develops the ability to communicate with the dead. His gift is discovered by Detective Thomas Nightingale, who runs a unit of the police dedicated to magical crimes (oh, and he’s a wizard). Together, Peter and Thomas must solve a puzzling murder incited by supernatural riots and calm two warring gods of the River Thames.
The plot’s a little out there at first, but wasn’t Harry Potter when it first came out? The real selling points of this book are that the characters are incredibly diverse and they’re adults, so they deal with more mature issues in a broader supernatural context.
Plus, this great quote: “Fuck me, I thought. I can do magic.”
I’ve read quite a few historical fiction novels about the Tudors, so I had a very specific point of view on each monarch. So, when I decided to write a script about “Bloody Mary,” Elizabeth I’s older sister and first Queen of England, I assumed she’d be the villain. When I read this book, my perception totally changed.
Okay, so she still had a hand in the murder of many Protestant citizens, but she wasn’t totally evil. If anything, she was a victim.
This book details Mary’s position as a King’s daughter, a King’s sister, and finally England’s first Queen. It paints her to be a sympathetic character, told one day she is being disowned and illegitimized and the next day that she has been restored to the succession. Then, she is told that her 15-year-old brother will be King before she is Queen and that she must change her religion to deserve the love of her father. And then when she finally becomes Queen, everyone tells her that her 25-year-old sister (who her father divorced and disavowed her mother to create) is the real Queen.
Wouldn’t that make you angry?
Biographies aren’t always interesting, but when you find a good one, it can change your whole point of view.
Honorable Mentions: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
This year flew by so fast that I definitely didn’t get a chance to make as big of a dent in my reading list as I would’ve liked. As someone with two degrees in English, I had much higher reading goals for myself … But, that being said, the several books I did read this year had a lasting impact on me. While I’m typically a fiction reader, my pick this year is a nonfiction book with a message that was perfectly timed with what I was going through in life:
I’m a sucker for “behind the scenes” type of content. I love pulling back the curtain and reading/listening/watching something that explains how everything works. Besides the fact that it’s pretty cool to learn the backstory behind people’s lives or movies I enjoyed, I also love to learn these things in the hope that they’ll inspire me to figure out my own way to make magic happen.
I’d been meaning to read Yes Please for a while after I received it for a graduation gift last year. Plus, Amy Poehler is one of my favorite comedians, and Leslie Knope is one of my favorite characters on television, so like, I had to know more about Poehler’s backstory. That was all I was expecting with this book. Poehler details her path to success (and uses awesome photos and guest chapters with other people, like Seth Meyers) — from her improv days to her time on Saturday Night Live to the creation of Upright Citizens Brigade and, finally, Parks and Recreation. It was so fun learning her perspective on what was happening in the comedy world at that time, and I especially loved seeing the scripts from Parks and Rec alongside her commentary (seriously, I love behind the scenes stuff).
But what I really took away from this book was that, even if I don’t totally know what I’m doing 100 percent of the time, it’s going to be okay. Saying “Yes, please” to new projects — especially ones that scare me — will help me grow as a writer/editor and person in general. As long as I put in the effort, things will work out. I mean, that was Poehler’s approach to comedy, and it all worked out well for her, right? So, if you’re looking for something that’ll unintentionally spark your creative side, and motivate you as a writer, give Yes Please a try.
The second I finished this book, I started reading it again.
Even now, thinking back to the final scene makes me tear up. I’ve never read such a perfect ending to a book.
As with most of my favorite books, I have a hard time describing it. The best I can do is to press a copy in your hand and say “Read. This. Now.” Instead of a Coke, I’d like to buy the world this book and then have a big book club that talks about life and death and love and soulmates and the stunningly beautiful language that makes me cry because it’s just that damn good.
With the best fictional female FBI agent since Dana Scully and an interesting mystery, it’s a solid story. But it’s the fact that just when I thought I’d figured out where the story was going, it would take a hard left turn, run a few upside down loops, and drop over the steep side of the roller coaster — and do it all in a way that respected the characters and the reader — that made it the best read of the year.
Seanan McGuire has written the only ghost stories I really enjoy, the only ones I re-read, and definitely the only ones I wish were real.
In this novella, everyone has a specific amount of time allotted to them; it doesn’t matter if you’re dead or alive. But ghosts can play with time, stealing it from the living to keep themselves connected to the living world, or giving it back to the living and thus moving closer to their “death date,” or the time they move on.
Jenna is a ghost trying to save the living by working at a suicide hotline, but the main plot point centers around a mystery of why ghosts in New York City are disappearing.
The plot is perfect, but it’s everything else that gives the book its soul. It’s a story about growing up and moving away and then going Home. It’s about family, both of your blood and of your heart. It’s about finding your heart’s desire and choosing to do the right thing.
Honorable Mentions: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, The Day of the Duchess by Sarah MacLean, and The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge
This year, I definitely struggled to keep up with the ever-expanding to-read section of my bookshelf. I have more than enough material to keep me occupied for a while, but some books get to skip the queue. One novel that I don’t regret fast-tracking in 2017 is:
This is a novel that manages to be at once wildly entertaining and intensely thought-provoking. Lately, dystopian fiction has been largely associated with teen novels, but as is her talent (see novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale), with The Heart Goes Last, Atwood delivers a close-to-home dystopia that banishes all comparison to love triangles and plain-yet-beautiful teenage heroines.
It tells of a couple who, living in their car after society’s economic collapse, agrees to live in an experimental town where everyone is guaranteed a house and a job — on the condition that they spend every second month in prison. What follows is a web of slightly off characters, sexual deviance, and secrets both delicious and horrifying that explore questions of institutionalized greed and human exploitation.
The Heart Goes Last at first disguises its complexity, but soon enough dives into an increasingly tangled plot with twists that can only be labelled as bizarre. My attempts at describing the book in detail to someone usually result in about a dozen different tangents, and inevitably end with, “Oh, you’ll just have to read it.”
I’m the mom of a very active (read: rambunctious) two-year-old boy, so I did not get a chance to read as many books this year as I typically do. But as a member of a local library’s book club (jealous?), I found some time to read a few pretty good novels this year.
My favorite book of 2017 was The Silence of the Sea by award-winning author, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the queen of Icelandic crime fiction (bet you didn’t know that was a thing!).
Ægir, a banker who travels to Lisbon to prepare paperwork for repossession of a client’s luxury yacht, takes along his wife and two of his children so they can go on a vacation, with part of the trip including sailing back to Iceland. On the night they are expected to return home, the boat crashes into a pier in the harbor in Reykjavik — with no one on board.
What happened to Ægir, his family, and the crew on the boat?
Thora, a lawyer (the main character in a series of the author’s books), is hired by Ægir’s parents to investigate the family’s disappearance in the hopes that she can provide proof of death, as they wish to gain access to life insurance money for the toddler granddaughter left in their care.
Told from the perspective of both Thora investigating the disappearance of those on the yacht and Ægir sharing his harrowing experience on the boat, this page-turner is a thrilling whodunnit, with some red herrings thrown in here and there to make things interesting. Sigurðardóttir neatly ties up all the loose ends, finishing with a gut-wrenching end to the book.
I wonder if Björk is also a fan of Nordic Noir …
John Green has never been shy about discussing his battle with OCD. He’s also been vocal about the limitations of language when trying to describe pain or mental illness: how the only tool we have to express what we are feeling is metaphor; we can describe what mental illness or pain is like, but not what it is.
In Turtles All the Way Down, Green attempts to break through the limits of language and express the struggles of mental illness — the pain and uncertainty and confusion and shame — and allow the reader to feel it themselves, as directly as possible.
And he succeeds.
Turtles All the Way Down focuses on 16-year-old Aza, as she teams up with her best friend, Daisy, to solve the mystery of the disappearance of her childhood crush’s billionaire father. But the mystery isn’t the heart of the story; its soul is in the mental anguish of Aza as she fights to have some semblance of a normal life despite her OCD — which causes her to constantly reopen a wound on her finger to squeeze out any potential infection, to recoil at a kiss because of the microbes entering her body, and to lose herself in hours of panicked ruminating when her stomach makes a strange sound that she’s certain means she’s finally contracted Clostridium difficile.
In common Green fashion, Aza is deeply concerned with the more profound questions her illness presents: Are you really yourself when your thoughts are controlled by a disease, or is the illness more you than you are? Can you let someone else in, when you aren’t sure you have room for yourself in your mind? Can you be loved with mental illness, or is too much to ask someone else to accept? (She also spends hours debating the personhood of Chewbacca with Daisy — an avid fanfic writer; Green’s wit and pop culture obsessions are present, balancing out the heavy subject matter.)
As someone who has battled OCD since I was five years old, Turtles All the Way Down was a revelation. It made me feel seen and heard, exposed and vulnerable, comforted and terrified. Most of all, it made me feel understood and that a life with mental illness is still a life worth living — and a person with mental illness is a person capable of both loving and being loved (as is Chewbacca).
Having invested in a Kindle for when I needed to disengage a bit on my travels, I expected to do a lot more reading this year. However — who’d’ve thunk it! — I ended up reading significantly less.
I got through quite a few nonfiction reads to help ease me into a life of remote work, but the fiction I read started taking on a theme of significance of place that began with my devouring the entire Inspector Gamache series (12 books at the time, but 13 as of September) by Louise Penny, based in French Canada.
In one of these books — The Long Way Home — a main character disappears, and the paper trail leads back to his having sought out artistic awakening in a tiny town in Southern Scotland. Therein began my love affair with a country I’d never visited — in which I now live all these months later. And it was on my first trip of an eventual three to Dougie MacLean’s bonnie “Caledonia” that I was recommended my top read of the year:
A Glaswegian by birth and Frenchman by association, May explores the Highland Clearances in Scottish history in a fashion that is simultaneously exquisite, delicate, savage, and bleak, ebbing in and out of two timelines, all brought on by one simple premise: modern-day murder in French Canada.
Sime — an insomniac divorcé — finds himself at the center of a murder investigation on a tiny island off the coast of Montréal, due only to his being a native English speaker — a rarity in the Sûreté du Québec. The inexplicable affinity and pull he feels toward the main suspect (though he has never met her) sparks an unfurling in his memory of stories told to him as a child about his ancestors, which serve to construct the historical storyline, playing out on the Scottish Isle of Lewis.
Sime’s internal recollections supply insight into the harsh lives of Gaelic-speaking crofters, fishers, and farmers in late 18th century Hebrides, and the brutal dispossession they suffered in the Clearances at the hands of the British after the defeat of the Jacobites — leading to a mass exodus to the North American colonies.
As the book unfolds, the timelines merge, and indications of how the past and present are linked are gradually, and satisfyingly, revealed.
It’s got the lot — adventure, tightly knotted mystery, plot twists, drama, something to root for, good character development, romance, meticulous historical research, an examination of human flaws, and peppered with humor but also with struggle. Written with heart, this is what historical fiction, crime fiction, and reading is all about.
As you can see, our team reads a heck of a lot of books in a year. But that’s kind of our job. With everything that happened in 2017, everyone deserves to experience something that entertains and delights.
And that’s exactly what books do.
So, read on, you crazy diamonds — and here’s to another year of creativity.
Erika Rasso graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.A. in English and marketing and the University of California, Los Angeles with an MFA in Screenwriting. She has worked as a writing consultant, an editor for literary and academic journals, and as an assistant to film and TV producers. In her free time, Erika enjoys playing games and writing screenplays (though mostly she just watches WAY too many shows on Netflix). She is the Director of Production for Craft Your Content.