I read 95 books in 2017.
That’s a bit off the mark for me. Last year I complained about a reading slump while still reading 158 books. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but that slump continued to plague me all year.
Last year I blamed fewer audio books while running , reading fewer books aloud to the kids, and just a general slump. All three problems continued.
This year I all but gave up on YA and middle grade books. Those books usually make up a significant portion of my reading (a third? half?), and this year they’re probably 15% (helped along by some Star Wars books in December). I do love those genres, but this year I was just tired of kid stories. I was tired of whiny YA protagonists and problems that just so happen to feature child-size heroes. Meh.
But my real problem was finding books I loved. I started and stopped a lot of books this year. I gave up on more books than I ever have before. All that quitting did result in finding some gems. But it’s hard.
I re-read several books this year. That’s one way to deal with a slump.
I also read a lot more non-fiction than I usually do. Sometimes it’s easier to tell when a non-fiction book is going to be hard to put down.
If you want to read more, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.
The Books I Read in 2017:
- Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow – 4 stars
This was a hard book to read. It follows a girl with a very hard life who self-mutilates. It starts in a mental hospital. After a suicide attempt. So yeah, it’s pretty dark. I nearly quit a few times, but I kept at it and while it is very dark and real, there is light at the end. Not exactly a happy ending, but it’s not a more depressing ending. That’s at least something.
- Star Wars Darth Vader Vol. 4: End of Games by Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca, Edgar Delgado – 3 stars
The best part about these Vader comic books is the evil C-3PO and R2-D2. The rest of the plot is kind of meh.
- Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen – 4 stars
This supernatural western is so steeped in gun totin’, rough and rowdy cowboy themes that I almost didn’t care where it went. The plot did meander quite a bit, but the characters and voice were great.
- The Rook by Daniel O’Malley – 4 stars
Ghostbusters meets Harry Potter meets Jason Bourne. A secret government agency that handles supernatural threats, and one of the leaders wakes up one day with no memories and has to piece together what happened. It’s bizarre and fun.
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe by Ryan North, Erica Henderson – 4 stars
Squirrel Girl is cloned, the clone goes bad (of course), and tries to take over the world. What’s not to like?
- Boxers by Gene Luen Yang – 4 stars
Re-read this for book club. It’s such an interesting exploration of this history.
- Saints by Gene Luen Yang – 4 stars
Re-read this for book club. Such a thought-provoking series.
- March Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell – 5 stars
This is just a tremendous series. The final chapter in the series focuses on the lead up to and aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the march in Selma, Alabama. It gives a powerful overview of the civil rights movement, introducing us to many of the personalities and organizations involved. It’s a complicated time in history, with warring factions on all sides of the issues. Sometimes we think history is inevitable, but it takes the actions of so many brave people to move things forward and create positive change.
- The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman – 4 stars
A fantasy adventure story where librarians jump into alternate worlds to rescue prized books, like some kind of literary Dr. Who or Indiana Jones. It moves pretty quickly and has some fun twists and turns.
- Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much by Tony Crabbe – 3 stars
Some really interesting ideas and practical tools to better approach and overcome busyness. Read my series for iThemes.
- On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis – 3 stars
An autistic girl faces the end of the world with a comet that smashes into the Earth. It turns into a post-apocalyptic story as she struggles to find her sister and joins a ship that’s supposed to take off and leave Earth behind. The perspective was interesting, but it felt like it dragged on.
- Dawn by Octavia Butler – 4 stars
What a brutal story. It explores the nature of humanity, the dangers of collaboration, and the hope of life. I think the scifi alien stories that are less Starship Troopers war and more weird, alien-as-in-different feel more accurate. This is one of those. Accurate and horrible.
- Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler – 3 stars
I enjoyed the wonderful inventiveness of this series, but it also felt vaguely frustrating that we never seem to get the full story. This chapter seemed to expand things, but not as much as I wanted. It also had the perplexing feeling of making me side with the aliens and against humanity, only to see the tables turn as the aliens finally relent. It raises deep questions of the value of humanity and life itself, and which we owe a greater allegiance to.
- Imago by Octavia Butler – 3 stars
This final chapter in the trilogy seemed like an even greater departure, even in something as minor as the shift in perspective (to first person). I never felt quite sure what was happening.
- Black Panther #1 by Ta-Nehesi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze – 3 stars
I couldn’t get into this opening chapter. It felt like a lot of set up, and not much action or payoff.
- Silence by Shusaku Endo – 4 stars
I read this dark, brooding exploration of Christianity in Japan during college, and it’s one of the books that really helped shift my perspective on faith.
- Ms. Marvel, Vol 6: Civil War II by G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona – 4 stars
I like how Ms. Marvel has really come into her own and is telling complete, coherent stories. That’s one of my frustrations with comics, that the arcs are often inconsistent and it’s hard to know when you’re reading several different arcs or one piece of a giant arc. This volume is a complete arc, though it doesn’t entirely resolve, which keeps you engaged in the series and wanting more. It has a great mix of history and culture clashing with present day challenges. Good stuff.
- Dark Matter by Blake Crouch – 5 stars
Fast paced and fun. I loved the mystery and the slow reveal with absurdly crazy science. I needed a fun read like this.
- Poe Dameron Vol. 1: Black Squadron by Charles Soule, Phil Noto – 3 stars
Felt like a fairly pedestrian Star Wars story. These comics often feel hit and miss.
- The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu – 4 stars
Aliens and spies, what more can you want? It moves quickly and feels fresh and original.
- Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor – 4 stars
This is such an intriguing sci-fi story. It’s all aliens and space, but really it’s about family and culture. It ends in a cliffhanger though, so it’s not entirely satisfying. I’m eager to read the third in the series and get this entire story.
- The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – 4 stars
While it starts out similar to Starship Troopers, it quickly becomes less about the space age military battles and more about the effects of relativity. The soldiers travel to battle at near the speed of light, so 100 years elapses on earth for a simple 10 month tour of duty. As a result, the war goes on for a thousand years and human culture changes dramatically, while the soldiers are hundreds of years old and hopelessly out of date. The story shifts back and forth between hammering home this relativity angle and mostly glossing over the action and then diving deep into the action. That seems like a bit of a failure, but overall it’s an engaging story and an interesting thought experiment.
- Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – 2 stars
I should have quit this book early on. It had a post-apocalyptic vibe, but it did not have a rational vibe. As in nothing is ever explained. It’s all surreal weirdness. Not my cup of tea.
- Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers – 4 stars
A princess turned gunrunner turned princess again, just in time to step back into the kingdom during an attempted coup. This story moves around quickly and has lots of attitude. It’s fun, though a few plot points started to feel plodding. It works best when it’s moving at breakneck speed.
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale – 3 stars
A fun middle grade novel diving into the world of Squirrel Girl. We get to see some of Squirrel Girl’s earlier roots, though it wasn’t quite as good as the comic. Still has the fun footnotes though.
- The Burn Zone by James K. Decker – 3 stars
There’s a really engaging story here and the action moves pretty quick, but it felt a little disjointed. There were a few big ideas that were too big and not well explored. It ended up feeling like they were tacked on. The story would have worked better without that extra layer. Also felt like some hints were dropped and never fully explored, though maybe that comes up in the sequel.
- The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi – 4 stars
Such a good book. Scalzi is really a master of weaving a wonderful yarn out of some funky fictional science. My only complaint is that we don’t have a real hero to focus on. We jump back and forth a lot and there’s not one character that stands out and we really connect to. The empress is close, though it starts to feel like she’s just along for the ride.
- All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai – 5 stars
A fun and fresh feeling approach to the time travel genre. It has an interesting voice and an engaging way of framing the story. There are some parts in the middle where it lagged just a bit, but then it really took off again.
- Squirrel Girl: I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked It by Ryan North, Erica Henderson – 3 stars
The initial story is a choose your own adventure, which sounds amazing in theory, but I didn’t enjoy reading it at all. After that the story picks up and we get some fun dating misadventures, which makes up for the iffy opening.
- 100 Days of Trump: Daily Quotes From the Most Unpredictable Three Months in U.S. History by Jason Boyett – 4 stars
This quick read of Trump quotes and context from his first 100 days in office is kind of mind-blowing. In the day-to-day it’s hard to have any broader perspective on this weird time in our political history, but this little book really shows that we are indeed in strange times. Boyett does a good job of giving context and explaining why each quote is significant.The whole thing made me wonder how a similar approach to another president would look. Every politician says something ridiculous from time to time, but the selection criteria wasn’t making fun of Trump, it was the most noteworthy quote. That makes the whole thing a little disturbing.
- After the Crown by K.B. Wagers – 4 stars
This series really came into its own in this volume, where the Empress really proves that she is a former gunrunner and gets in on the action. The opening volume was good, but we didn’t get to see Hail in action. Now we do, and it’s fun.
- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand – 3 stars
This is a powerful story. The life of Louie Zamperini is pretty incredible. But ultimately I think the plot fell short. The narrative didn’t have the right pacing to it. By the time we get to Zamperini’s conversion, it doesn’t resonate the way it should. But the World War II history was worth the read.
- The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey – 4 stars
This is a prequel of sorts to The Girl With All the Gifts, and I enjoyed stepping back into this world. It felt a little disjointed and like we didn’t always know the whole story, but part of that was the perspective of one of the main characters.
- American War by Omar El Akkad – 5 stars
This is a story about a future second civil war in America, but it’s really making terrorism and war around the world more understandable for Americans. Often we see terrorists blowing people up and we wonder how or why anyone would do that. This story shows how that could happen in an American context. It’s not exactly a happy or uplifting story, but it’s real and honest.
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – 3 stars
This is one of those brutal books about a young person dying from cancer. It has a philosophical bent to it as he struggles to write the book before the end. I don’t think I found it as compelling as everyone else, and I struggled with some of the conceits of why it was being written. But it is a profound and up-close glimpse of the process of dying (and yet living).
- Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between by Lauren Graham – 3 stars
OK, I’ll admit the main draw of this book was hearing Lauren Graham dish about her time playing Lorelai Gilmore on the Gilmore Girls. I was expecting a modified version of Lorelai as narrator. Of course that’s not what it is. But it’s close. There are similarities. It has its funny moments, even without Amy Sherman-Palladino putting words in Lorelai’s mouth. But the best parts really are hearing about Gilmore Girls. There’s not much dishing, but more hearing how it all came together, how it fell apart, and how it came back together again. Most stunning revelation: When the original series ended, they didn’t know if that final episode was going to be the final episode. I find that hard to believe. Another stunning revelation: When the Netflix revival was finally greenlit, they hadn’t secured any of the actors. Yet somehow they managed to get most of them. Hollywood is weird.
- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling – 3 stars
As celebrity comedian memoirs go, there’s nothing ground-breaking here. It has its moments. She has some funny insights and some refreshing normalness (I liked her rant about hooking up: “That guy is not complimenting your decor, he’s casing the joint so he can murder you!”). One of her best insights is predicting the all-female Ghostbusters reboot and ensuing backlash.
- Time Salvager by Wesley Chu – 4 stars
This is a fun time travel adventure, where the future is a crumbling dystopia of environmental collapse where they use time travel to salvage resources from the past. It has a lot of fun elements to it, but my biggest complaint is that it feels longer than it should be. Ultimately it’s setting up to be a series instead of a stand-alone book. I know that’s the thing to do these days, but it always seems to make for a lesser story. I’ll keep reading because it’s fun and unique, but I think it would have been stronger on its own.
- Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay – 4 stars
This collection of essays is intriguing, insightful, and challenging. It took me a while to finish and I had to set it aside for a while (I lost interest when she was critiquing things I wasn’t familiar with). She’s a pretty harsh critic, often destroying arguments with brilliant insights and a refusal to put up with BS. I’d hate to come under her magnifying glass, though I have a sense I’d be better for it. When people don’t understand (or refuse to understand) the black, female, or LGBT perspectives, I think they need to spend some (probably uncomfortable) time with Roxane Gay.
- Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by Tanya Lee Stone – 3 stars
Girl Rising is a film that follows the stories of girls throughout the world who rise above their harsh circumstances and give back. The original film brought in a diverse range of authors to help each girl tell her story. This book goes deeper, diving into stories of girls who didn’t appear in the final film, but also further exploring some of the girls who are in the film. It’s eye-opening, if a little broad and scatter-shot. I think it’s valuable to hear stories from around the world, but it starts to feel a little watered down.
- Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson – 5 stars
A powerful plea to white America from a black man, urging us to grapple with race. It’s beautifully written and structured like a church service—I imagine the audiobook would be great. The author has some hard words for white America, and for some it will be a difficult, uncomfortable read. But it is so very necessary. If you want to truly wrestle with this issue, this book has a lot of the rebuttals, the explanations and suggestions for ways to move forward.
- Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau – 4 stars
How can you resist a blurb about a time traveling business that sends people back in time to hear their favorite indie bands? How could anything go wrong with that premise? It’s a fun setup, though I don’t know if the writing and story entirely lived up to it. In the middle it started to feel a little slow and I wondered where it was going. By the end I think it came back around and finished on a stronger note.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling – 5 stars
I read this one out loud to the kids. Probably one of my favorites in the series. Hard to believe it’s nearly 20 years old.
- The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón – 3 stars
This was a beautifully written yet intricately complex story. At times I would lose interest, but then it would pull me back in. Not quite the mystery thriller romp about books I expected, but much darker and more grim.
- Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – 4 stars
It’s not as funny as I would have hoped, but the history and context of South Africa under apartheid more than makes up for it. It’s definitely a more interesting celebrity memoir than the standard fare.
- The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley – 2 stars
There’s a lot to like in this book, but ultimately it felt like a letdown. The beginning started with such promise: space fights and lost memory and betrayal. But as the story continued it just got weirder and weirder for no good reason. I held on to see if it paid off in the end, and it never really did (though it did get marginally better at the end).
- Farewell Speeches by Barack Obama & Michelle Obama – 4 stars
These are the final official speeches from Barack and Michelle Obama as president and first lady. They are inspiring, soaring, and hopeful. They are a powerful reminder of the American spirit and the idea that politics doesn’t have to be a cess pool.
- The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson – 4 stars
This is one of those ‘how to be a writer’ books that’s incredibly inspiring and practical. However, it’s very much not a touchy-feely, ‘you can do it,’ let’s laugh about writing shitty drafts kind of thing. This is pretty much the opposite of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This is a workman’s approach. Johnson is very literary and smart, and he’s all about working hard—damn hard—to be a good writer. John Gardner was his mentor, and he pulls a lot of thoughts and ideas, and especially exercises, from Gardner. At times it’s a little too intellectual for me, but in all seriousness I wish someone had kicked me in the ass like this when I was learning. I always wanted to write a novel (and then fully revise a novel), but I never had the commitment or the know-how. That’s always something you just have to wrestle with to figure out, but this is as close to an instruction manual as I’ve ever found.
- Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damages Per Second by G. Willow Wilson, Mirka Andolfo, Takeshi Miyazawa – 3 stars
The election story is the best part of this volume, hands down.
- Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin – 4 stars
What a weird and wonderful story. I think it’s classified as YA because the main character is 15, but it’s really a bigger and broader story than the usual YA story. I only mention that because I’ve been in a reading slump, and although I enjoy the YA genre, I haven’t been able to get through any YA books thanks to my slump. This one was something different. It’s about life and death and love. It’s a weird imagining of the afterlife, and it’s probably better to just read it than try to explain it.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – 4 stars
I read this one aloud to the kids after seeing the trailer for the new movie. I’m always amazed at how science-based this story is, how little action there is, and yet how entertaining it still is. I do think Meg gets a little whiny, which is probably realistic but is kind of a turn-off. I’m also amazed at how unabashedly Christian the story is. Christians like to proclaim C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, yet L’Engle offers up scripture as dialogue and Christians aren’t as keen to embrace her.
- Wild Seed by Octavia Butler – 4 stars
Re-reading this book, I’m still struck by how darkly intense it is. I remember the first time around I felt put off by the unexplained weirdness, but also sucked in by the intensity. It’s very much the same this time around, though I also noticed how spare the writing is. Octavia Butler manages to write in such a way that there’s virtually no description. It’s almost completely unadorned. Yet it’s still engrossing.
- Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler – 3 stars
This is the second book in the Patternist series and the sequel to Wild Seed. Much like she did in the Xenogenesis series, Butler changes the point of view in this story and there’s very little focus on the Wild Seed‘s Anyanwu, who was really the focal point and most engaging part of Wild Seed. We still get Doro, but the story is mostly told from the perspective of one of Anyanwu’s descendants. It’s ultimately a story about control and how (SPOILER ALERT) Doro is destroyed. It’s interesting, but I didn’t find it nearly as engaging and addictive as Wild Seed. Doro’s eternal nature was (after Anyanwu) one of the most compelling parts of Wild Seed, so it leaves me wondering where the series will go from here.
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson – 5 stars
This is an incredible book. It tells the story of the great migration of blacks out of the South by following three different people and telling their life stories, from birth to death. It includes wider historical context, and just sets a powerful backdrop for how the great migration has influenced just about everything in the modern era. I was vaguely aware of the great migration before, but I never realized the sweep of its impact. Now, countless other books and stories have a new context for deeper understanding. It’s also very timely reading for today as it helps us understand how race relations have morphed over the years (it’s much more complex than Jim Crow=bad, though that was certainly true). This is a must read. My only complaint is that it’s a little repetitive. The author often comes back and touches on the same point. Listening as an audio book over a 10-day vacation, I didn’t mind so much getting a reminder, but it seems unnecessary.
- The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri – 3 stars
An interesting exploration into the design of books covers. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but as a book nerd it’s fun. I also have to confess a love for tiny books.
- Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 4 stars
A quick book (I’m a sucker for these tiny books) offering advice for raising a feminist daughter. It’s helpful parenting advice and a solid introduction to some practical feminist concepts.
- The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin – 4 stars
This has been a hard series for me. Nothing is quite explained, and you have to sort of muddle through until you understand (at least, that’s been my experience). Normally that would make me give up and move on to something else (and I almost did), but the writing and the story sucks you in and pulls you along, even when you don’t understand what’s happening. This book brings the trilogy to a close, finally wrapping everything up. I kind of feel like now that I know what’s what, I would be better served to go back and read the whole thing again. It’s engaging and multi-layered, but also dense and complicated, but also gripping and inventive.
- Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds – 4 stars
This isn’t the standard super hero story where they have to juggle homework and battle super villains, and hijinks ensue. Miles Morales is up against the wall, trying not to get kicked out of school, trying to overcome his family history and the pull of the streets. There’s not even a lot of super hero action, but just getting through the week is hard enough for Miles. I do have a minor complaint about the way racism is presented as villainy, though that’s not the whole story and it gets better.
- A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota by Sun Yung Shin – 4 stars
This a collection of essays exploring race in Minnesota. It offers a wealth of perspectives (black, Asian, Latino/a, native, LGBT, biracial, adopted, etc.) and it’s a challenging read. But it’s worth taking a look at, and I’d guess valuable even beyond Minnesota.
- March Toward the Thunder by Joseph Bruchac – 3 stars
A civil war story from the perspective of a Native American soldier. It’s a solid story, engaging and well written. But there’s not much of a plot. It’s mostly just following the solider through the battles and the lulls, without a real sense of climax.
- Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – 5 stars
This is one of the hardest books I’ve read in a while. I would read a section and have to set the book down because I was so angry. It recounts stories of injustice in our criminal justice system, instances of innocent people being put on death row, children sentenced to life without parole, the mentally challenged punished for it, women jailed because they lacked health insurance—and then these victims abused and raped in prison, our violent anger ripping away their very humanity. Most of the book is a straight factual accounting of these court cases. Hope eventually comes, but it takes a lot of pages to get there. And not much of the book really slogs through the ideas of mercy and redemption and why our society is so eager to exact vengeance. Maybe the book should have, but I think it was intentional so that the simple facts and story of what happened can leave us free to contemplate where we go from here. If you want to understand poverty, race and class in America, this is a must read.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – 5 stars
Despite the current climate, YA stories of police shootings of black people are not new (Jacqueline Woodson’s Hush was published in 2000). The conversation about race is harder to avoid these days, and this is a powerful story diving into all the complications of race. It’s not an easy book to read, but what I appreciated the most was how it handles the topics with a gritty realism, fairness, and a little humor. There are white characters who struggle to understand and others who don’t get it. There are black characters who fit the gang member stereotype, and others who defy it. I pretty much gave up YA this year. But this one was a worthy read.
- The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel Wilson – 4 stars
A gripping thriller that’s kind of a steam-punk version of Robopocalypse. I found myself reading it too quickly, jumping ahead to find out what happens, so I had to slow myself down to take it all in (I think the same thing happened when I read Robopocalypse). It’s a fun story.
- The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy – 3 stars
I don’t like demon stories, and that’s quickly what this became. It switched from an engaging sci-fi story to a fantasy/tech/demon mashup. Pretty good story, but I could do without the spooky demon worship. I also have a very hard time with any story that uses evil/demons/monsters to explain away human behavior. If you blame slavery, the Holocaust, or genocide on some kind of supernatural evil, you instill the idea that humans are incapable of that kind of evil. Sadly, we are very capable.
- Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott – 3 stars
I love Anne Lamott’s rambling, self-deprecating, wishy-washy spirituality. But sometimes she treads the same ground too many times and it starts to fall flat. That feels like the case here. She’s done a series of these short explorations of faith, and they’ve been wonderfully refreshing. But this one feels scattered and without focus, which is saying something for Anne Lamott. It still has its moments, but overall it’s not as wonderful as some of her other works.
- Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry – 5 stars
An old man tells his life’s story, and so it’s slow and meandering, full of asides and not a lot of action. Jayber is orphaned as a boy and eventually settles in a small town as the bachelor barber—effectively orphaned as an adult as well. It’s a story of solitude and purpose, as well as a critique of the modern mechanization that has consumed small town life. Re-reading the book this time around, I recognized the slow places that would bore other readers or even myself in another book. But I came back to it wanting to feel that slow, quiet observation that seems to pervade Jayber Crow. He is an introvert, or more, and I can’t help feeling a certain kinship with him.
- Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin – 5 stars
This is just a fun book. Zevin has a kind of light, breezy style and applied to the world of Congressional sex scandals, it has the potential to be fluff (carrying the book into a dentist appointment, I found myself hoping the hygienist wouldn’t ask what it was about). But it approaches the story from multiple, very unique angles (not just different characters, but wildly different ways of telling the story… including one side of a pen pal exchange and a choose your own adventure). While it feels light and tawdry, it’s ultimately exploring deep issues about our culture and how we condemn and forgive.
- Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler – 4 stars
This is a fascinating sequel in the Patternist series, especially because it seems to have no relation to any of the books that came before it. It’s ultimately a horror story of an alien microbe taking over humanity. It’s told in multiple perspectives, in a kind of stutter-step style, that keeps overlapping a bit. It really showcases some of the best of Butler—her incredibly unique ideas fleshed out in a very engaging story. I would have enjoyed more in the series along the lines of this one.
- Patternmaster by Octavia Butler – 4 stars
This book pulls all the stories in the Patternist series together, and interesting it was written first. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the series starting with this one—it helped to see how each of the different powers came together (and I actually liked Wild Seed, the first in the series chronologically, the best). This one leaps a few centuries ahead of Clay’s Ark and in some ways completely abandons the thread of that story (which is a shame) and returns to the psychic abilities. It’s intriguing how far Butler went with her ideas, thinking through all the scenarios and situations and how things would play out, both how the world got to where it was and where it will go in the future. Fascinating stuff.
- Solo by Kwame Alexander – 2 stars
I really like Kwame Alexander’s poetic novels. His way with words is captivating. But I had issues with this story. It’s eventually revealed [SPOILER ALERT] that the main character, Blade, is adopted. Adoption stories are hard to tell, and there are a lot of ways things can go off course. In this case, not learning that you’re adopted until you’re 18 feels like a cheap plot trick. Keeping a child’s adoption a secret has been frowned upon in adoption circles for decades. So it feels like a plot point from the 1980s. Blade, the rich musician’s son, then goes on a quest to Africa to find his birth mother (who is from Louisiana but is in Ghana as a missionary of sorts) and we stumble into a story of colonialism, clashing worlds and a barely addressed Savior complex. Someone without a personal connection to adoption probably wouldn’t have as many issues with this story, but I found it hard to overcome. It’s not explicitly stated in the story, but it sounds like Blade is the product of rape. It’s possible there was a reason his past was kept from him, but we’re not given the chance to explore those issues. Instead, the hidden adoption feels like an easy way to prompt a spoiled rich kid into a crisis. There are some interesting threads here and I did read all the way through, but overall I’m disappointed. I think it could have been more.
- The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard – 3 stars
This had an interesting premise, but it felt like it just meandered along and didn’t engage that premise as thoroughly as I had hoped. In some ways, that’s fitting with the 72-year-old main character—it’s not meant to be an adventure story. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.
- American Street by Ibi Zoboi – 4 stars
A gritty story of escaping Haiti only to lose her mother to customs officials and descend into the crime-ridden streets of Detroit, where things are not quite as they seem. It’s a powerful story with engaging characters. I listened to the audiobook, and the Haitian accent really added to the experience.
- Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View by Multiple – 5 stars
I’m not a big fan of short story collections or Star Wars novels. But I loved Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View. It’s a collection of 40 stories offering unique points of view surrounding the original Star Wars: A New Hope movie. The stories offer glimpses of the main characters—Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, etc.—and even some dialogue straight from the movie, but mostly we’re following the stories not told in the movie: How the Imperial gunner who didn’t fire on the escape pod with no lifeforms used bureaucratic paperwork to cover his ass; An excerpt from the celebrity memoir of one of the Cantina band performers; The untold story of what really happened with the red R2 unit that Uncle Owen almost bought instead of R2-D2; The harrowing saga of how the trash compactor monster came to be on the Death Star and the larger role it had to play. Read my full review.
- One: Unity in a Divided World by Deidra Riggs – 5 stars
The world has felt so intensely divided lately. How are we supposed to get along? As a Christian, am I allowing my affinity for causes to overcome Christ’s command to love my enemies? This book started out a little slow for me, but about a third of the way through it really picked up for me and Deidra Riggs was kicking my butt. Much of what she says isn’t anything new, but it is a helpful reminder of what the church is called to. She manages to not take sides as she challenges us to avoid drawing lines that can inadvertently build walls between us. Actually applying what she says will be the real challenge, but I feel like she’s offered a way forward.
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich – 4 stars
This is the story of a family, told following multiple different people in at least three different generations. The family tree is messy and confusing and hard to follow, and while the stories are all connected, it’s not at all linear. All the mess and brokenness is really quite beautiful. It’s a little slow to get through, but it’s an impressive literary work.
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – 4 stars
Told in free verse, this is the story of a teenager whose brother is shot, and spends the length of an elevator ride contemplating revenge as he’s revisited by the ghosts of his past. So yeah, the plot is an elevator ride, but it’s pretty good. Short and powerful.
- Patina by Jason Reynolds – 4 stars
The second in Jason Reynold’s track series, this one follows Patty, who lives a complicated life. Her father has died and her mother lost her legs to diabetes. Patty and her younger sister live with her aunt and uncle. Patty is black and her aunt is white, so there’s a interracial adoption angle, though it’s pretty unique (since Patty’s mother is still around and they see her weekly, she just can’t care for her children). Patty attends a rich private school and has to straddle the class lines. There’s actually not a ton of plot going on, but it’s still really engaging. Reynolds does an amazing job with voice. I think I liked this one better than Ghost, but mostly because I had more in common with Patty’s situation.
- Then Tweets My Soul: The Best of The Church Curmudgeon by David Regier – 4 stars
This a short collection of tweets that only someone steeped in the church could really enjoy. But enjoy it they will! It’s full of puns and groan-worthy jokes about church. There is some repetition and a few too many jokes about skinny jeans and bad church drummers, but there are plenty of gems to make up for the duds.
- Turtles All the Way Down by John Green – 4 stars
This story takes us inside teenager Aza’s head, where she struggles with OCD and “invasive” thoughts that seem to drive her. Like all of John Green’s work, he has wonderful characters, descriptions, and dialogue. It’s a joy to read. The plot feels a little lighter than Green’s other stories, perhaps because it takes a backseat to the portrayal of OCD. But all the right pieces are there.
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – 5 stars
This book has all the feels. It’s an intricate story woven together with such care and ease that you hardly notice how complex it all is. It’s engaging and moves along with enough plot to keep it interesting, but still finds time to wander into asides and backstory that add just enough detail to be wonderful, yet still move the story forward. There are so many different threads in this book that there’s a lot to hang on to, yet it doesn’t feel scattered or disconnected; it’s all woven together. Finally, the drama at the heart of the story—which we’re sort of adjacent to, following characters connected but not intimately involved—explores transracial adoption in an honest, painful and very real way. And as if I don’t already have enough to gush about, the story ends so perfectly—not one of those abrupt endings that you see coming but resent all the same. No, it walks you out of the book, giving each thread in the story the right amount of closure. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time.
- Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places by Kaitlin Curtice – 4 stars
This is a collection of short, slice-of-life devotionals that’s both poetic and dripping with grace and wisdom. It’s the right mix of insight and observation, holy wonder and captivating words. Some of the phrases are delightful, and if anything, I wish I had read the book slower.
- Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac – 4 stars
A straight forward account of the Navajo code talkers during World War II. It’s an incredible story, full of the irony of our mistreatment of Native Americans.
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – 4 stars
This is the brutal life story of a gay man born out of wedlock in 1940s Ireland. He grows up with his adoptive parents who continually point out he’s adopted, and basically struggles his entire life to find acceptance in a society that would rather just beat the crap out of a gay man. It can be hard to read at times, and throughout the first half of the book I was tempted to give up. But about halfway through it started picking up, and while it was still brutal, there were so many connections and near misses and poignant moments that it really pulled me in.
- The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes – 4 stars
A time traveling serial killer? That’s a premise I have to read. The actual serial killer details weren’t fun reading, but the time travel element was intriguing. The main (victim) character was engaging and I liked the concept, though I thought the ending was a bit of a letdown.
- The Original Storyteller: Become a Better Storyteller in 30 Days by Robert Carnes – 4 stars
I read early drafts of this and saw it improve, and was pleasantly surprised to see the final version and how it all came together. It’s a great rumination on the elements of story. Perhaps the best part is just the plethora of story examples and snippets used to make Robert’s points.
- Yes Please by Amy Poehler – 3 stars
These celebrity memoirs are hit and miss, usually good for some laughs on a long drive. Amy Poehler delivered enough of those, and tried to slip in a larger purpose (though I’m not entirely sure what it was).(And as a side note, the multiple references to the now-disgraced Louis C.K. are pretty awkward. Especially when Poehler says we’ll be hearing a lot more about him.)
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – 5 stars
I read this a few years ago and came back to it in anticipation of the movie coming out next year (and because I wanted a fun thrill ride). It’s just a fun, super-nerdy story about the crumbling real world and a ridiculously wonderful virtual world. It’s also full of 1980s nerd nostalgia, so how can you go wrong?
- Serenity Found by Jane Espenson – 3 stars
Because one collection of essays about a TV show canceled after half a season is not enough. There are some interesting takes in this collection. A few veer a little too deeply into academia, but overall it’s an interesting read for a Firefly/Serenity fan.
- The Legends of Luke Skywalker by Ken Liu – 3 stars
A collection of stories about Luke Skywalker told through a weak frame of deckhands shooting the breeze. The first story was lame, the second was a bit better, the third was good and offered a unique perspective on Luke’s post-ROTJ days. The fourth, droid-focused story is also good. The fifth story is a mockery of Luke and a reminder that the narrator is not always trustworthy. The sixth story takes us inside a space slug. So that’s three stories worth reading and three you can skip.
- Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein – 4 stars
If you watched The Last Jedi and wanted more of Rose (yes!), then this is it. This is the backstory of Rose and her sister Paige involved in a Resistance relief operation against an outer rim planet oppressed by the First Order. It’s heavy on space war strategy and runs right up to the end of Force Awakens. But you get to see Rose in action. It’s not an amazing background story and it really doesn’t tell you anything jaw-dropping. But it’s just enjoyable to see more of Rose.
- Artemis by Andy Weir – 4 stars
Following up The Martian is a difficult task. This is not the same book. The pace is vastly different, the main character is vastly different. It’s not a hero story, it’s a criminal caper. It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s full of science. It made me really think about life on the moon and why the heck we don’t have a settlement there. It’s not as good as The Martian, so don’t go expecting the same book, but it’s a fun read. I just wish Weir could crank ’em out faster.
- The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney – 2 stars
Rich people banking on a windfall that doesn’t come through because of rich people stupidity flail around trying to figure out what to do. Meh.
- Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray – 4 stars
I didn’t expect much from this, maybe some teenage Leia on thinly veiled diplomatic missions. But it turned out to be a coming of age story as Leia learns about the depths of her parents’ involvement in the fledgling Rebel Alliance. We meet Amilyn Holdo and get our first glimpse of Crait (both from The Last Jedi, though nothing close to ground breaking is revealed). We also see the planet Wobani (where the rebels free Jyn Erso in Rogue One). But perhaps the greatest connection to the movies is the Imperial Officer Panaka, who served as Queen Amidala’s head of security in the Phantom Menace, and is struck by Leia’s physical resemblance to Amidala. We also get mentions of Saw Gerrera. But none of that is really central to the plot. Instead we see Leia becoming a princess—and really a general.
- A Booklet of Uncommon Prayer: Collects for the #BlackLivesMatter Movement—and Beyond by Kenji Kuramitsu – 3 stars
Prayers are a hard thing to write. Is there a wrong way to pray? We want to say no, but listening to a rambling and self-important prayer and the answer is obvious. We want our prayers to be proper and balanced and safe—in no way offensive. Which is hard to do when offensive things need prayer. This is a collection of liturgical prayers that attempts to cover difficult topics. I don’t think it always succeeds, but it’s difficult, necessary work.
- You’ve Got This: A Pep Talk for Church Communicators by Kelley Hartnett – 5 stars
OK, I edited, proofread, and pitched the very idea for this book. I’m the definition of biased. But I love it, so I’m going to review it anyway (and I must have read it six times this year, so you better believe I’m including it in my reading list). Church communicators have an incredibly hard job, and they don’t get the respect of a pastor or the power of actual leadership. Communicating the gospel is hard work, and they do it anyway. Kelley Hartnett is the perfect voice to give these weary workers a pep talk. She has the humor, grace, and, yes, the occasional kick in the pants that’s needed.