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Top Ten Litpicks of 2017

10 Dec

I’ve been postponing putting this list together in hopes that one more might make its way on here, and the one I’m reading now MIGHT be a contender (Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak) but who knows. This year I’m feeling a little shaky with my list – I know people who haven’t loved these in the same way I have. But these definitely topped my list. I read 67 books this year and here are my ten favorites, roughly in order, followed by some runners-up:

1. One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain. Chances are good you haven’t heard of this one, that your bookstores don’t stock it and your library might not either. BUT boy is it good! It’s the story of a woman named Sarah Creamer who ends up raising a boy on her own (even though she has not one good mama bone in her body, as her mother told her). They are so, so poor and she worries that she won’t be able to provide for him – can barely provide for him now. She reads in the paper about the huge cash prize awarded to the 4H’s Grand Champion steer and decides that she will sell every last thing she owns and buy a calf for her boy to raise, thinking of course he’ll win the next year’s competition. It’s not as easy as it sounds, turns out, to raise a calf into an award-winning steer and she finds help in some unlikely places. Perfect small town family story, highly recommend.

2. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. My cousin described reading this book as “feeling constantly carsick” and that’s definitely true, it’s not an easy read. It’s dark and back-woodsy but written so, so well and so compelling that it tops my (and many other’s) list. It’s the story of a young boy living with his elderly black grandparents. His white grandparents want nothing to do with him or his little sister, his mom is deep in a drug addiction and his father in jail. When his father calls to say he’s being released, the mom grabs both kids and heads to the prison to pick him up. I loved the grandfather, the boy himself, the way it was written.

3. Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. I’m coming to think of J. Courtney Sullivan as sort of an Alice McDermott with much more plot. I loved this story about two young sisters who come over from Ireland – and then don’t speak for 50 years. We go back and forth between their arrival in New York City and their reunion years later, the mending of fences.

4. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This is on a lot of lists this year and I’m sure it’s crossed your radar. I loved this story of two families that get all tangled up in Shaker Heights..little fires sparking up everywhere.

5. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. She is just a beautiful writer – I never read Olive Kitteridge but I get the feeling this is similar. Short stories about a lot of people in a small town that are somehow connected to Lucy Barton (the heroine of her previous novel). I didn’t read My Name is Lucy Barton but it’s in my stack now, I loved her people so much.

6. The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak. It’s sort of shameful that this is the only book by a male author on my list (and I only had one last year? seems crazy). This guy reminds me so much of Kent Haruf and I loved this story of a young man and his mother living on the outskirts of town and waiting for their brother/son to come back from Vietnam. Krivak’s previous novel, The Sojourn, was a National Book Award finalist when it came out and tells the story of the father/husband of these characters – and I believe there is a third that will pick up where this one left off, or perhaps with the next generation. I didn’t read the last one, you don’t need to to love The Signal Flame.

7. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti. Something about this novel really hit me the right way. I loved the quirkiness and the heaviness and the whole atmosphere. It’s the story of Samuel Hawley and his twelve bullet wounds (12 was maybe too many, my only criticism) and also the present day story of his daughter’s coming of age struggles.

8. Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. I love a good sweeping generational story every now and then and this one was just what I needed at the time I read it. Set in the Middle East, it opens with Salma reading her daughter’s tea leaves on the eve of her marriage. The forecast is fairly devastating, but Salma keeps it to herself. We follow Salma, her daughter Alia and Alia’s children as they bounce from Jaffa to Kuwait to Paris.

9. I Found You by Lisa Jewell. These last two are pretty much thrillers with a slight literary twist, more my usual now than ever before because they really suck you right in. Pretty much the only way I can get a book finished now, sadly, is to be sucked right in. This one was a creepy story starting with a man who washes up on the beach and cannot remember who he is. As he learns more about what he was doing at the beach far from home, as we learn more about him – eeek I thought this was really good.

10. If We Were Villains by M.L Rio. Kind of a modern-ish day retelling of Secret History. Or at least similar enough to be compared. Fast-paced story about seven young Shakespearean students at a small but elite college for the arts. There’s a death, an investigation…10 years later the detective still isn’t sure the right person is serving time in prison.  Again, maybe not the best work of literature to hit the shelves in 2017, but it worked for me.


These were all close runners-up for 2017 – definitely worth checking out. I cried pretty much the entire way through Arthur Truluv and would recommend it completely for anyone who likes those sweet, feel-good stories that deal with life after loss and aging and unlikely friendships. You can find reviews of all of the other titles back in the archives. I’m looking forward to a great year of reading in 2018!

Catching Up & Surpassing Goals

27 Sep

It’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve been keeping up with my reading, just a little slower than I’d like. With this last batch of books, I surpassed my goal to read 50 books this year. I finished Child Finder today, my 55th book of the year. I definitely didn’t think I’d hit this and am thrilled to have done so – with time to spare!

A lot of these were good, but the best one, for me, was definitely Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. There was a lot of hype about this one since her last, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award the year it was released. I haven’t read that one, but this one really hit the spot for me (you know I like those dark, depressing, character driven family stories with no happy endings). It’s the story of a young boy living with his elderly black grandparents. His white grandparents want nothing to do with him or his little sister, his mom is deep in a drug addiction and his father in jail. When his father calls to say he’s being released, the mom grabs both kids and heads to the prison to pick him up. I loved the grandfather, the boy himself, the way it was written. Definitely one of my favorites this year. 5 (depressing but great) stars.

Maybe next on my list would be The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas. This is a massive novel. Physically massive. I think it clocks in at over 500 pages. But I really loved it! Most of it, at least. It’s the story of Joan Ashby, acclaimed author of two collections of short stories published at a young age. She built her career on the idea that as a writer, and a woman of her own making, she would never marry, never have kids. She shocked the literary world when she married, and then shocked herself when she accidentally wound up pregnant. We follow her into motherhood, see her give up her name and her fame and her writing to raise two sons. But then she starts to take her life back and I loved watching her/reading about her doing it. The shortcomings for me were the excerpts of the stories that made her famous (also fictional). I just didn’t think they were that great, in fact I didn’t like many of them and was skimming or skipping completely all of the parts that she “authored” by the end. 4 stars

Two thrillers on the list were just what I needed when I needed them. Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips – a woman and her son stuck inside a mostly empty zoo that is apparently under attack by two snipers. Fast-paced, hooked me right away, loved the mom. The Child Finder I just breezed through today during preschool/nap times. VERY fast. A woman named Naomi has a career of finding missing children (she’s known as “The Child Finder”). She takes a case in her hometown trying to locate a girl who went missing in the woods three years ago. She, of course, has her own back story and working in her old hometown forces her to face a lot of things she’d forgotten. Kind of reminded me of Descent by Tim Johnston. 4 stars.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun kept popping up in my social media feeds so when I saw it at the library I snagged it. It’s short – maybe 120 pages – and reminded me of a lot of things I’ve liked. Part In the Time of the Butterflies, part Paul Theroux/Mosquito Coast. The story of a man who flees Germany with his family after WWII (he had been Leni Reifenstahl’s (fictional) main camera man) and lands in La Paz, Bolivia. He goes on lots of expeditions working on a nature documentary and sometimes takes one or two of his three daughters along. Chapters alternate between daughters – one later becomes a revolutionary. All the pieces for something great are here, it just felt a little chopped up to me. 3 stars.

Rabbit Cake was a light-ish book club book last month – a coming of age story of a young girl named Elvis who is dealing with the sudden death of her mother. Grief finds everyone in different ways and between Elvis, her father and her sister…things get a little weird. Easy, fun even though it’s dealing with death and grief, and just really quirky and weird. 3.5 stars

Serpent Essex is kind of a slow burn that has been growing on me little by little since I finished it. Also kind of a weird one, but very atmospheric. It’s the story of a woman whose terrible husband dies and she finds herself free to live how she pleases (late 1800s, I think, England). She decides she wants to be an archaeologist of sorts and moves to a small town rumored to be home to a monstrous sea creature. Part of this were slow, but it all felt very misty and muddy and foggy. Some great characters that keep popping back into my head. 3.5 stars.