Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books of 2017

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week, we're looking at our favorite books of the year. Instead of doing a list of my favorite books I've read this year, I like to focus this list on my favorite 2017 releases. The books I read that came out this year are a bit of a mixed bag, but here were my 10 favorites!

The Bear and the Nightingale: I absolutely loved this YA fantasy based on Russian folklore. The best part? It's the first of a trilogy!

Shattered: This book relied heavily on interviews with staffers and painted an inside picture of a campaign that some people I know (who worked on it) disagree with, but seems like it comports with what we saw happening on the outside. I thought it was really interesting and well-written.

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?: As a woman who works in politics, I'm always interested in reading about the experience of other women who work in politics because there aren't nearly enough of us. And Alyssa Mastromonaco's book is funny and smart and wonderful.

Lincoln In The Bardo: This was a weird book, tbh. It's written more like a play than anything else. But once you kind of get used to the way it's trying to tell its story, it gets inside your head and your heart.

La Belle Sauvage: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series is one of my all-time favorites, and I'll admit I was nervous about whether this, the first in a second trilogy, would measure up. It's not as immediately great as The Golden Compass, but it's very good indeed and I'm so excited for the other two!

The Hate U Give: This was one of the most-hyped books of the year, and while I didn't think it quite measured up to the stratospheric expectations, it was very good and very timely and very much worth reading.

Stay With Me: From the blurb, you think you're getting into about a book about a marriage tested when a second wife enters the picture. But with each new twist, it becomes about so much more, and it's an unforgettable story of love and loss.

If We Were Villains: This is so heavily "inspired by" Donna Tartt's The Secret History that it's almost more of a retelling, but it's an entertaining read.

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud: I love Anne Helen Petersen's writing about celebrity, so I wanted this book about famous women who transgress social expectations to be brilliant. Alas, it is only good, but it's still very much thought-provoking.

Chemistry: A Chinese-American grad student who seems like she has it made blows it all up and then tries to figure out what's next. On the way, she comes to terms with how unhappy her "great" life had made her and has a reckoning with the ways her upbringing has continued to resonate through her life.

Book 106: The Emigrants

"Even the least of his reminiscences, which he fetched up very slowly from depths that were evidently unfathomable, was of astounding precision, so that, listening to him, I gradually became convinced that Uncle Adelwarth had an infallible memory, but that, at the same time, he scarcely allowed himself access to it. For that reason, telling stories was as much a torment to him as an attempt at self-liberation. He was at once saving himself, in some way, and mercilessly destroying himself."

Dates read: November 21-24, 2016

Rating: 7/10

One of the hardest things I've ever done is leave home. I love the Ann Arbor area where I grew up. The trees, the lakes, the restaurants and bars...I know them and love them and miss them. When I got back from my three years in Tuscaloosa for law school, I swore to myself that I'd never live anywhere else long-term ever again. But then, of course, I've ended up doing just that. And as much as I love Reno and our life here, there's a part of me that still thinks of Michigan as "home".

Leaving one's area of origin, and the emotional impact of doing so, is at the heart of W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants. I thought it was a novel when I picked it out for my Kindle, but it's not: it's a collection of four short stories on a common theme. The first two stories are fairly short and deal with men displaced in Europe as a result of their Jewish heritage during World War 2, and the second two are longer and deal with transnational migrations, with one story having no apparent connection to Jewishness and the second being the most explicitly tied to the Holocaust of all four of them, as well as being the only story primarily based in a female perspective.

All of the stories end in tragedy, and only one is told even in part as a first-person narrative. It gives the book a sense of remove, and the beauty of Sebald's language makes it feel like almost like an elegy in prose form. The power of loss and memory is gorgeously and movingly conveyed...every one of these stories gently rips your heart out. As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy short stories, I found that this was a very well-done collection of them. There aren't too many, and they are all arranged around a similar theme in a way that really works and keeps the stories flowing together and seeming like one piece. Like four movements to a piece of music. I would definitely recommend it, but maybe if you're not in a low mood already, because as lovely as it is, it's a downer.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever lived away from home for a long time?

One year ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Bookish Settings I'd Love to Visit

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week we're talking about book settings we'd love to visit. There are SO many places I've read about that I'd like to go that this was hard to narrow down! I've divided my list into two sections: those from fantasy novels and don't actually exist, and those that are based on/are places in the real world.

Hogwarts (Harry Potter): Obviously. For real, though, I am expecting to see this on just about every list today haha!

Jordan College (The Golden Compass): Philip Pullman creates such a magical place in this grand university that I'd give anything to see it in person!

Abhorsen's House (Sabriel): The ancestral home of the Abhorsens sounds so cozy and lovely! (PS: this book, one of my favorites, is on Kindle sale right now for just $1.99)

Lothlorien (The Fellowship of the Ring): It was so hard to pick just one setting from this book! Because of course I want to visit the Shire, and Tom Bombadil's house, and Elrond's house too. But if I could only see one, it would be the beautiful forest ruled by Celeborn and Galadriel.

The Fairy Market (Stardust): The way Neil Gaiman paints this enchanted festival makes me want to be able to wander the stalls and see the goods for myself!

The unspoiled Nebraska prairie (My Antonia): This would be impossible to actually visit because it's long gone, but the way Willa Cather describes the loveliness of the prairie before widespread settlement makes me wish it was still around to be marveled at.

Napoleonic St. Petersberg (War and Peace): This one goes back in time, because the way that the balls and parties of the old nobility are portrayed seems so exciting!

Charleston (The Lords of Discipline): This book, apart from its primary narrative, also serves as a love letter to Charleston, which made me really want to see the city.

Hampden College (The Secret History): The northeast is packed with beautiful little liberal arts campuses, and while Hampden is technically fictional, it's apparently based heavily on Bennington College.

Hever Castle (The Other Boleyn Girl): The next time I go to England (which is an amazing thing to be able to say), I really want to just go all-out on a royalty binge and visit castles...and I'm particularly eager to see this one, which was the home of the Boleyn family.

Book 105: Eleanor of Aquitaine

"She had inherited many of the traits of her forebears, and was energetic, intelligent, sophisticated, headstrong, and perhaps lacking in self-discipline. She possessed great vitality and, according to William of Newburgh, a lively mind. Impetuous to a fault, she seems to have cared little in her youth for the conventions of the society in which she lived. Sharing many qualities with that company of ambitious, formidable, and strong-minded female ancestors, she was to surpass them all in fame and notoriety." 

Dates read: November 15-21, 2016

Rating: 8/10

It's easy to forget that the world didn't always look like what it looks like today. Obviously, everyone knows that Egypt now is different than Ancient Egypt, but what we think about tends to be the cultural differences between them. The very borders of what land was considered Egypt aren't the same. So, too, in Europe. We think about the countries of Europe as being more or less settled, but it wasn't always so. It took the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella to bring together much of what is modern Spain. And when she married the King of France, Eleanor brought much larger and richer landholdings, in Aquitaine and Poitou, to the marriage than did her husband.

Alison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine brings to life a remarkable (and remarkably long-lived) woman. She married two kings, and was the mother of three more. She went on Crusade. One of the kings she married was the son of a man she'd likely had an affair with before her marriage, and she was rumored to have been a little too close to her own uncle. Despite having been a desirable wife to the kings of both France and England because of her inheritance, she never really ceded control of those lands to her husbands. She actively encouraged her sons to rebel against and try to overthrow her husband, Henry II of England. This is some soap-opera level stuff.

Weir has quickly become one of my favorite historians to read, because she has a way of synthesizing lots of information into an easily readable and understandable narrative. She's open about when the scholarship is unclear, or there's more than one version of a particular event, and she tells the reader why she has chosen to take a particular position on what likely really happened. She knows that her reader isn't as immersed in the subject as she is and provides context for the events she relates...she finds a good middle ground between assuming her readers know too little or too much.

My only real exposure to Eleanor's story had been the movie version of The Lion In Winter with Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, which I saw several years ago and remember little of apart from Eleanor being portrayed as a ruthless schemer. Weir never stoops to that kind of caricature of the people involved in Eleanor's life, especially Eleanor herself: she was a political opportunist to be sure, but she also lived in an era that was especially skeptical of women in power and the accounts of her that survive reflect that bias. I've got quite a few of Weir's books on my TBR, and I always look forward to them and recommend them (including this one!) heartily.

Tell me, blog you have any family history in areas that have had changing borders? We found my great-grandpa's immigration records, and he's actually recorded as being ethnically Polish, but with Austrian nationality, because the area in Poland where we're from was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire!

One year ago, I was reading: Freakonomics (review forthcoming)

Two years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men (my favorite of that year!)

A Month In The Life: November 2017

Well, somehow we're only like a month away from the end of 2017, which doesn't seem possible. Like most of us, I suspect, the winding down of the year usually inspires a look back, and while I'll probably get more fully into it next month, I suspect I'm going to feel like while this year had some high points, I'm ready to move on. But before we get into December and start winding it down, I've got a monthly update to share with you!

In Books...

  • The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter: I was worried this book was going to be just "sad lonely people being sad and lonely", but the writing is gorgeous and I found its themes around the human need to feel connected to and understood by others to be deeply touching. That a 23 year-old wrote this is incredible.
  • La Belle Sauvage: I tried so hard not to overhype myself for this book in case it was disappointing, but I shouldn't have doubted Philip Pullman. While it's not as amazing as The Golden Compass, it's a worthy prequel and I loved getting to spend time in that world again. 
  • The Underground Railroad: This was a super hyped book last year, and while Whitehead's writing was incredible and I appreciated the story he told, I never got as sucked in as I would have hoped. Very very good book, and an important one at that. 
  • A Vast Conspiracy: I was only about 10-12 when the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was happening, so while I vaguely understood what was happening I didn't really get it. This was an interesting and informative perspective on that time and the nebulous atmosphere of scandal that seems to surround the Clintons. 
  • The House of Mirth: This treaded very similar territory to The Age of Innocence about the artificiality and coldness of "society" and how it stifles and represses people who do play by its rules and punishes those who don't, and but this one felt more like it was a social critique first and a story second, in a way. It's good, but not great.
  • In The Woods: I'd heard this first entry in the Dublin Murder Squad series was the weakest, so I went in with low expectations but I actually really liked it! It was a bit of a slow burn as it started but by the end I was racing through it to see how it all played out. I'll definitely be reading the rest!
  • The Hate U Give: This was one of the buzziest books of the year...and to be honest, while I enjoyed it and found it well-written and certainly very timely, I didn't think it was exceptional. I loved Thomas' characters, though, particularly Starr, and I'm looking forward to seeing what she writes next!

In Life...
  • The holidays began: While I love the family time and nesting that comes with the holiday season, I've been trying to make a concerted effort on the diet and exercise fronts and all the extra opportunities to eat yummy food make it hard on the waistline. I do love shopping for presents for my loved ones, though, so I'm excited to try to find something thoughtful for each person on my list!

One Thing:

Since we're all about to abuse our Amazon accounts ('tis the season!), it's time to remember to make sure you're starting your shopping trip through Amazon Smile, which automatically donates a portion of the proceeds from those dollars we're already spending to a charity of your choice. Personally, I have it set for Bikers Against Child Abuse, which pairs motorcylists with children needing support as they get ready to testify against their abusers. 

Gratuitous Pug Photo:

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Winter TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week, we're looking the books we'll be reading over the next couple months. Winter tends to be my power-reading season (brrrr-y outside means it's best to stay in snuggled up with a book!), so hopefully I get beyond these books even, but here are the next ten on my list (not counting the yet-to-be-decided book club picks).

The Lady Elizabeth: I didn't love Alison Weir's debut novel about the life of Lady Jane Grey, but I'm giving her another shot since I love her nonfiction so much...this novel is about the youth of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Games: With the Winter Olympics (my favorite ones!) coming up a few months, I'm going to read this nonfiction about the history of the Games.

The Girl in the Tower: I LOVED The Bear and the Nightingale, so I am pumped to read my advance copy of the sequel!

The Lady of the Rivers: Back to English royalty historical fiction, this is yet another in Philippa Gregory's series on The Wars of the Roses, focusing on Jaquetta Rivers, the mother of Elizabeth Woodville.

The Power: I've heard some mixed reviews about this book, which posits a world in which women are suddenly given lethal power, prompting new gender relationships, but I'm intrigued anyways.

Rebecca: I've seen the (excellent) movie version of this gothic tale, but it's very popular in its original novel format as well.

Fourth of July Creek: This was a whim Kindle deal purchase (like, three years ago) that has gotten pretty good reviews.

Ghost Wars: I actually was originally recommended this book about American covert influence in Afghanistan in the 80s by my college boyfriend, and even though it's been a LONG time since we dated, I've always remembered and been curious and I'm finally going to read it.

An Untamed State: As much as I love her Twitter presence, I've never actually read any of Roxane Gay's books...time to fix that.

An American Marriage: I won a copy of this book, about what happens to a woman when her husband is unjustly convicted and she turns to a good friend for comfort, through LibraryThing's giveaways and I'm really excited to read it.

Book 104: The Paper Magician

"From her pocket she pulled a tiny snowflake, the one she had stowed there after her first day as a Folder. She rubbed her thumb over its tiny, delicate cuts, grateful she hadn't yet washed this particular skirt. The snowflake still felt frosty, just like real snow. Snow he had made for her. All of it had been for her in one way or another, hadn't it?"

Dates read: November 13-15, 2016

Rating: 5/10

When I was a child, like many other children, I desperately wanted magic to be real. From Tamora Pierce's Wild Magic series to the J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, the idea that people could have secret powers inside themselves, just waiting to be harnessed, was, well, enchanting. I kept waiting for my own magic to manifest, because of course if magic were real I was going to be special enough to get it. I think most of us longed for a world where we had extraordinary powers at some point, and that helps explain the enduring popularity of these kinds of stories.

It's not really clear in Charlie Holmberg's The Paper Magician if one needs to have been born with magic. Ceony Twill doesn't seem to have manifested any particular powers from what we learn about her life before attending Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined. But she does want to learn magic, and maybe that's good enough. In the world Holmberg builds, students take the classes they want and experiment and may aspire to a particular kind of magic, but ultimately are bonded to one particular kind of substance through which they can perform it. Ceony longs to be bonded to metal, but instead, because of a lack of paper magicians, she's sent to Emery Thane, to become his apprentice.

Ceony sulks a little but I was pleasantly surprised at how non-mopey she generally seems like characters like this are usually 100% pro-pity parties. But even though she wishes it hadn't been so, she dedicates herself to learning the craft of paper magic. She's settling into a mostly comfortable groove when suddenly she and Emery, on who she is starting to develop a bit of a crush, are brutally attacked by an evil magician, and although she's been forbidden to, she (of course) adventures to save him. She has to make a journey, both literal and metaphorical, through his heart in order to do so.

The journey through the heart is where most of the character development comes from. It's in a way a kind of blunt plot device...instead of having to learn things about her Emery's inner life organically, she's treated to highlight and lowlight reels of the most sensitive, defining moments of his life. But I think it works, mostly. It not only rounds out his character, but it makes her growing crush seem less like the oh-so-tiresome InstaLove trope. And the system of magic that Holmberg creates for her world is fresh and interesting. But at the end of the day, this isn't high literature. It's fluffy, and perfect for the way I read it: on an airplane. Or at a beach. It's pleasant and light and thinking about it too hard isn't recommended. There are sequels, but I'm not nearly invested enough to seek them out. If you need something to help pass the time, though, you could do a lot worse.

Tell me, blog friends...were you, too, convinced you had magic inside you as a child?

One year ago, I was reading: The Emigrants 

Two years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology