My Favorite Books of 2017

Yea for best of lists!  I’ve had putting fun putting this together, as looking through 2017 through the lens of my reading is better than nearly any other lens out there. (And we thought 2016 was bad!)  Here’s hoping that 2018 turns things around, or at least provides as many quality reading experiences as this year.

The list is pretty representative of my intake as a whole – evenly split among non-fiction, romance, and other fiction; plenty of authors from marginalized groups; and the overwhelming majority are written by women.  It’s nice when it works out like that!

So without any further ado here’s my ten favorite books of 2017, in reverse alphabetical order by title and linked to reviews where possible:

29242461When the Marquess Falls by Lorraine Heath

The perfect novella topper to the Hellions of Havisham series.  It doesn’t work as a standalone, though, so be sure to start with Falling into Bed with a Duke.

25189315Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

A look at what it means to have a good death, written by someone who has been closer to that abyss than most.  Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?), things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?), and things we should really think about (what do I want to become of my remains?).

30347690A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero, translated by Frances Riddle

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. Guerriero takes us to a competition in Argentina where winning means never dancing the malambo again.  The writing is exquisite and the story sticks with you like no other.

30755704The Red by Tiffany Reisz

Reisz is at her best in erotica mode and it’s all left to hang out here – kink, mind-bending twists, and fine art (for good measure).  Not for the faint of heart but everyone else? Jump in.

31843383Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

The book I’ve pushed on recommended to more people than any other this year – the best bits of historical fiction, queer stories, and magical realism rolled into a tight novella.  I rationed it out to myself so I wouldn’t finish too quickly; the writing is that wonderful.

28186071Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress

These vignettes are a joy, and I love the look at what it’s like to be a black domestic worker in 1950’s New York. While the way of life is different there are other parts that are eerily familiar, making it a forever timely read.

25376011For Real by Alexis Hall

A BDSM, LGBTQIA+ romance that flips all.the.tropes in a satisfying, hefty way.  Each hero’s point of view is specific and completely different from the other, making the story believable and authentic even though it’s far from the usual.  Totally deserving of its RITA.

32311672Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life by Jessica Nutik Zitter

My favorite Nonfiction November read.  Zitter says that doctors are awful at helping patients having a good death because as far as they’re concerned dying on their watch is a failure.  She examines what the “end-of-life conveyor belt” and how to avoid it with engaging stories and cases.  Not an easy read but an essential one.

25489134The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This book reminded me that adult (as oppossed to YA) fantasy is straight up awesome.  A fairy tale of sorts set in a Russian winter, Arden gives the reader all the respect they deserve while telling engrossing tale with magic and demons and a tiny hint of love.  The second in the series just came out and I can’t wait to get to it.

35297339Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize this one – it hasn’t come out yet but I had to include it.  Halliday weaves two completely unrelated stories together in a mind-blowing way that only gets better the more you think and reflect on it.  A longer (and even more gushy!) review on its release day in February.

There we have it, my favorite books of 2017!  What was your top read of the year?  Is there anything I should keep my eye out for in 2018?

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An Extraordinary Union and A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole (Loyal League Series #1 & #2)

I love historical romances, and while I’ll never turn down a good Regency I’m getting more and more interested in other places and periods.  The Civil War era is often ignored by Alyssa Cole has stepped in with two well researched and plain awesome books, the beginning of her Loyal League series.

30237404In An Extraordinary Union Elle is a former slave that is working as one again, but this time undercover, to spy for the Union Army.  Her path crosses with Malcolm who is also undercover but for Pinkerton’s Secret Service. They discover a Confederate plot and end up teaming up and doing all their sneaky spy stuff to save the day.

To be honest sneaky spy stuff is not my thing but I really like this book anyway.  I love that Elle is smart and has tons of agency and doesn’t let Malcolm’s charm get to her.  The interracial romance has lots of obstacles, as you can imagine, which makes getting over them all the sweeter.  So while An Extraordinary Union isn’t exactly my sort of thing it made me excited to pick up the next book.

34570037A Hope Divided follows Marlie, a free black woman that learned the art of making tisanes, poultices, and other medicines from her mother.  She’s a scientist type, always extending her knowledge and finding ways to hone her craft.  While she’s at it she attends to men at a Confederate prison, using the access to pass coded messages and aid those who are fleeing the South.  There she meets Ewan, who is working for the Union from the inside, and they end up saving each other in turns as they do their thing.

I liked this book even more than the first, mostly because the spying stuff wasn’t as nail-biting.  We get to follow another interracial couple navigate their relationship and this period of history in an unvarnished, unflinching way.  I learned a ton and eagerly await further installments.

Perfect for those who like historical romances that are not set in ye olde England and are true to their time without pulling any punches.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire (Wayward Children #2)

31450908This book languished on my to be read list for a long time, but not because I was putting it off.  On the contrary, I thought about picking it up constantly but was looking for the “right” moment.  A moment I needed an escape, a moment long enough to devour 189 pages in one sitting, a moment I could be quiet and sink into the world McGuire introduced in Every Heart a Doorway.  Those moments lined up on an evening in late December – add a proper cup of chai and you have a near perfect escape.

The Wayward Children series is about children who fell into other worlds via some sort of portal (think Alice in Wonderland or Narnia) and, for whatever reason, eventually found their way back to the real world. This is a happy thing for some but twin sisters Jack and Jill have a… let’s call it a complicated relationship with both the realm they grew up in and and the realm they slip into.

I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll end the particulars there.  I’m a fan of McGuire because she builds worlds right under your nose, no info dumps required.  The narrator is not part of the story, not really, but relating it to the reader.  It’s a remove that lets McGuire talk to us directly – we’re all around a campfire, hanging on her every word.

There are moments that change everything, and once things have been changed, they do not change back.  The butterfly may never again become a caterpillar… [the girls] will never again be the innocent, untouched children who wandered down a stairway, who went through a door.

They have been changed.

The story changes with them.

I highlighted many passages from Doorway for this reason, but fewer in Sticks and Bones.  On the whole this book is more solid and assured in its plotting and length but I still liked it a touch less than the series opener.  The message – we should let kids be who they are and not impose gender or other roles upon them – is awesome, and I appreciate that there is LGBTQIA+ representation (f/f relationship), but it hasn’t stuck with me as much as I hoped.

Fear not because the next installment, Beneath the Sugar Sky, comes out in a few weeks.  I’ll keep my chai close at hand, ready for that elusive perfect moment.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

34127677Ehrlich visited Wyoming on assignment and, while there, her partner died.  She decided not to leave.  Her essays are a thoughtful, deep, well-observed look at the life, places, and people of the American West.

First things first – you should know that despite being raised in the country I’m a city girl, happier in canyons of concrete than wide open spaces.

My mother is the exact opposite and would be most at home at a ranch like the one Ehrlich worked on, and Solace has helped me see why.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

She takes the myth of the cowboy straight on and describes how life on a ranch, mostly alone if not for the animals, molds them.

To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power.  More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him.  It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts.  In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.

The writing is gorgeous, flowing, evocative.  Ehrlich’s love for this unforgiving landscape seeps from the page and while I won’t be moving out West any time soon I finally get the appeal.

The Solace of Open Spaces invites you to inhabit and know a place on its own terms and I’m so glad I did.

Dance with Me by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #2)

35832887Natasha Díaz is having a day. She’s trying to prove she can make it as a professional dancer, but when she comes home to find a hole in her ceiling and her bedroom flooded, she’s desperate enough to crash with the one guy she can’t quit.

Dimitri Kovalenko has never lived with a woman before. But when Tasha’s in need of a place to stay, he suggests she move in. Since their first dance, she’s never been far from his thoughts. Sure, she’s a pro and he’s one of her show’s judges, but they’re not currently filming, so no one needs to know.

When an injury forces Natasha to take it easy or risk her ability to dance, it’s his chance to show her that the rules have changed, and she can trust him with her heart.

Review:

In one line – “I really want to love this book because it’s so good but this particular collection of tropes is working against me, gaaaaah-”

It is good.  The storyline has much more angst than the first book, though, and that’s where you start to lose me.  If you don’t mind angst and (well explained!) miscommunication this is your jam.

The good:

  • The writing is solid and little things that sometimes fall by the wayside are perfectly in place.
  • The characterization is spun out slowly and realistically, aided by the duel points of view.
  • It’s a friends-with-benefits to lovers storyline, which I haven’t seen in quite this configuration before.
  • The baddie gets her due and ooo boy is it good.
  • Dimitri’s backstory is interesting and even fun in places.  Wait until you see what his breakout movie role was, bwahahahaha. 🙂
  • I love what Daria has to say about acceptance, the importance of friends, and the different ways one can be Latina.

The not-for-me:

  • Miscommunication is rife.  There are good reasons for it but my tolerance is pretty low.
  • One of the characters is always prepared to believe the worst and it drove me a bit nuts.  ‘This awful thing will totally happen, leading to this and that which mean ruin!’ No. Please breathe and think for a sec.
  • The reality show the series is based around is in the off season so there’s none of the associated happy crazy.  I don’t usually read contemporary romance and having something a bit outside of everyday real life makes it more interesting for me.

Even though this wasn’t the best book for me it’s still an easy recommend if your tastes run counter to mine.  I’m excited that Daria has more books planned in this universe, and a f/f relationship is teased in the prologue!  Love it.

Thanks to Swerve and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #3)

93938August 1923. All is quiet in the Holmes household in Sussex as Mary Russell works on academic research while Sherlock Holmes conducts malodorous chemistry experiments. But the peace quickly disappears as out of the past comes Dorothy Ruskin, an amateur archeologist from the Holy Land, who brings the couple a lovely inlaid box with a tattered roll of stained papyrus inside. The evening following their meeting, Miss Ruskin dies in a traffic accident that Holmes and Mary soon prove was murder. But what was the motivation? Was it the little inlaid box holding the manuscript? Or the woman’s involvement in the volatile politics of the Holy Land? Or could it have been the scroll itself, a deeply troubling letter that seems to have been written by Mary Magdalene and that contains a biblical bombshell…

Review:

I love this series. It’s been two years since I’ve read the last book and everything came back quickly – the awesomeness of the characters, the interesting mysteries, the glimpses into human nature that are striking, quiet, and earned.

The mystery is good but it’s not the real reason I’m here. I mean, I enjoyed it, of course! The setup is interesting, and it’s always fun to see Holmes surprise Russell in some sort of disguise. But the whodunits aren’t why I keep coming back to the series. It’s the characters. They live and breathe, have faults and tics and ideals and tendencies. They’re people, damnit, and I want to spend more time with them.

At the end of the previous installment the relationship of Holmes and Russell goes through a major change… a change I was afraid would squick me out. I should have known King would have things well in hand, though. A gap of four years between the last book and this means that we miss any troubles our leads may have worked through, instead seeing them now as intellectual partners that have a deeper insight into each other than before.

Are they in love? You bet. But they don’t drool over each other. It’s an intellectual and emotional partnership first, with the physical aspects falling far behind. With both Holmes and Russell being analytical minds insights abound. For example, Russell notes:

An unread paper meant an unsettled mind, and to this day the sight of a fresh, folded newspaper on a polished surface brings a twinge of apprehension.

Some parts are just fun, like Holmes writing to Russell while on a train:

“I should prefer to have the patterns reflected either by your perception or Watson’s lack thereof; however, a stub of lead pencil and this unsavory length of butcher’s paper will have to suffice. (From the expressions on the faces of my compartment mates, none of them has ever before witnessed the miraculous generation of the written word. I shall attempt not to be distracted.)”

My e-library doesn’t have this book so I ended up buying a paper copy. I liked filling it with post its, but not being able to carry it around easily meant it took much longer to finish than I would like. I think it may have been a four star read if I were able to keep the momentum and get through it faster… guess I’ll have to reevaluate when I reread it. (‘Cause I’ll totally reread it!)

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

1580804Atul Gawande explores how doctors strive to close the gap between best intentions and best performance in the face of obstacles that sometimes seem insurmountable. Gawande’s gripping stories of diligence, ingenuity, and what it means to do right by people take us to battlefield surgical tents in Iraq, to labor and delivery rooms in Boston, to a polio outbreak in India, and to malpractice courtrooms around the country. He discusses the ethical dilemmas of doctors participation in lethal injections, examines the influence of money on modern medicine, and recounts the astoundingly contentious history of hand washing. And Gawande gives us an inside look at his own life as a practicing surgeon, offering a searingly honest firsthand account of work in a field where mistakes are both unavoidable and unthinkable.

Review:

Medicine is unforgiving because every mistake could be a disaster.  Wrong prescription, wrong dose, wrong operation site, wrong treatment… any of these could kill a patient.  But how can you be error-free every time, never mind a job with so many technical details and judgement calls?

Perfection is impossible, of course, so Gawande looks at how doctors can improve their performance.  The three main sections cover diligence, doing right, and ingenuity, and while the stories are interesting only a few moments have stuck with me.  For example check out this cystic fibrosis doctor working with a teenager:

At school, new rules required her to go to the nurse for each dose of medicine during the day. So she skipped going. “It’s such a pain,” she said…. Warwick proposed a deal. Janelle would go home for a breathing treatment every day after school and get her best friend to hold her to it. She’d also keep key medications in her bag or her pocket at school and take them on her own. (“The nurse won’t let me.” “Don’t tell her,” he said, and deftly turned taking care of herself into an act of rebellion.)

Points of brilliance like this and the afterward with tips on how to become a “positive deviant” are my highlights.  Gawande’s writing is as good as ever but this isn’t as game-changing as The Checklist Manifesto. I’ll get back to you once I read Being Mortal. 😉

One Hot December by Tiffany Reisz (Men at Work #3)

29568847Never mess with a woman who carries a blowtorch in her backpack. Welder and artist Veronica “Flash” Redding’s playful sense of evil sometimes gets the better of her. Like when her insanely handsome, wealthy, suited-up boss gave her the most sensuously wicked night of her life…then dumped her. Yep, revenge is a dish best served hot.

Only Ian Asher isn’t quite letting Flash get away quite so easily. He’s not ready to forget the intensity between them. The searing heat when they touch. And the deliciously demanding control Ian wields in the bedroom. Now he has only the holidays to convince Flash that they belong together…and that even the most exquisite, broken things can be welded back together.

Review:

While I loved the first book in this series One Hot December was a so-so read for me.  The snark and fireworks I expect from Reisz are here but it’s not a solid story.

The good:

  • An own voices bisexual heroine, complete with spiky red hair and kick ass ink. Right on.
  • Flash is unapologetically strong and goes after what she wants.  As a welder at an all-male construction company she deals with a lot of crap but she gives as good as she gets.
  • The mental strain of dealing with prejudice and harassment in the workplace is explicitly covered.  Yes, Flash is doing a great job as a welder, but it saps her of the energy she needs to do her own metal art.  Changing jobs wouldn’t be giving in or giving up, it would be getting what she wants.
  • Feminism for the win.

    “He couldn’t date a professional welder when he worked as a teller at a bank.  His friends would never let him hear the end of it, he said.  He just couldn’t date a woman, no matter how hot – his words, not mine – who came off as more of a man than he did.  I said that was fine.  I didn’t want to date a guy who was less of a man than I was, either.  He called me a couple nice words after that and then he was gone.  Good riddance to him and his poor little ego.”

  • Everyone is reasonable and talks things out, from our couple to the hero’s father.  While there is a misunderstanding it’s legit and not even between the hero and heroine.
  • While Christmas is name checked and Hanukkah is a minor plot point it doesn’t feel like a “holiday romance”, which I really appreciate being agnostic myself.  And two religions mashed together in one book without feeling religious is pretty awesome.
  • Reisz’s snark is here in spades.

The not-so-good:

  • Said snark is of the shocking, no-filter variety, which isn’t everybody’s thing.
  • Flash and Ian have been lusting for each other since they met 18 months ago so we don’t see their relationship develop very much.  ‘I thought you hated me!’ ‘Nope, I love you!’ ‘Oh, good!’ ~sexy times~
  • Flash’s best friend is her downstairs neighbor, an elderly Jewish woman.  That is neat, but I don’t care for her role in the story.  Category romances often have a best friend that provides perspective and advice, but here it feels like allll advice, and of a motherly bent to boot.  I wasn’t sold on it.
  • There isn’t much of a plot.  Hero and heroine state that they’ve actually been in love all this time and… that’s about it.  I saw the misunderstanding from a hundred pages away so there was no suspense there, either.

A diverting read, but more enh than anything else.

Nonfiction November Wrap-up

NonfictionNovember-e1506979820517It’s kind of hard to believe but Nonfiction November is wrapping up!  Thanks to the organizers – Julie (JulzReads), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Katie (Doing Dewey), Lory (Emerald City Book Review) and Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) – for putting on such a wonderful event.  I’ve had an excellent time reading as well as meeting fellow bloggers, and I’m looking forward to following everyone’s reading, both fiction and non, in the new year!

As far as my own reading goes I’m happy where I ended up – ten books in November (an improvement over a slumpy September and October) and fully half were nonfiction.  That’s better than my usual 30-ish percent.

Here are the five books I started and completed:

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Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich (review once I give it as a gift)
Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life by Jessica Nutik Zitter
Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot (review closer to its February 2018 release)
Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande (my last finish, review soon)

If you were mean and made me pick a favorite I’d probably go with Extreme Measures, but Heart Berries made me think the most.  I thought I would be tired of nonfiction by now, but I went to the library and ended up getting four more nonfiction books:

20171130_132511.jpg

That’s three books on interpreting (notetaking, vocab memorization, and “reprocessing”) as well as a book called Newspaper University.  The author is in his 90s so I’m hoping he works some historical perspective into his discussion of journalism.

Okay, now it’s my turn to be mean – what was your favorite nonfiction read this November?