Five Favorite Books I Read in 2017

I chose poorly in 2017, which is perhaps why I was unable to reach my 40-book goal this year. (I’m still reading No. 32 The Man Who Smiled and listening to No. 33 Artemis). I selected no less than a dozen books that ended up being ho-hum or outright bad, which made my resolve for reading a weak one. Some books I didn’t even review on the blog, if that tells you how uninspired I was (Believing the Lie, The Graveyard Book, and more). Plus, four of the books I read this year were for my literature and creative writing class, so while they counted toward the total, I didn’t review them here.

Yet, since I read so many unremarkable books this year, choosing my favorite five was easy! (Original reviews are linked.)

  1. Ready Player One
    Hands-down, this is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read, and credit goes to Susan (of “Susan and Lesli”) for recommending it to me. Granted, I listened to it on Audible instead of reading it on paper, but if there was ever a book to listen to instead of read, it’s this one. Narrated by Wil Wheaton, Ready Player One is a love letter to the 80s kid who longs for the good old days of Family Ties reruns,  and Atari.
  2. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
    There are two time periods that capture my heart in equal measure. One is the back-to-back Tudor and Elizabethan Eras in England, and the other is the Roaring 20s, specifically the Lost Generation writers who lived an expat life abroad. Zelda Fitzgerald surely would’ve had a different life with access to proper mental health care. Alas, her tragedies flowed straight from her mixed-up mind into real life. If you are equally interested in the Fitzgeralds (and Hemingways), you’ll love Z. 
  3. The Great Divorce
    I’m not sure why it’s taken me until my late 30s to enjoy C.S. Lewis, but better late than never. In a time that feels spiritually void, The Great Divorce reminds me that God is always present and always listening, offering perfect love for our imperfect selves, and the white noise of our collective bickering is small potatoes when it comes to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. From a literary standpoint, I am all over the imagery and symbolism of The Great Divorce. The writing and message are a perfect pair.
  4. Wonderstruck
    I selected Wonderstruck as one of four novels I taught this semester in my literature and creative writing class, so there isn’t a stand-alone review to link (yet). Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck begins with two stories – Rose in Hoboken, 1927 and Ben in Minnesota, 1977. Rose’s story is told via illustration, while Ben’s is a traditional narrative. The pair of children seem to have nothing in common, but as each side unfolds we see that Rose and Ben have much in common, from their hearing impairments to their search for family. Told in three parts, Wonderstruck is a fast-paced, emotional tale of endurance and an exploration of what one might do to find a home. (Wonderstruck has been made into a film!)
  5. A Column of Fire
    Aside from Hogwarts, Kingsbridge is my favorite fictional setting and I was thrilled to go back there one last time. Just in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, A Column of Fire brings together several families – some Protestant, some Catholic, and a few who long for religious tolerance. Not only did it quench my thirst for the Elizabethan era, it was the perfect book to read after a series of duds. Per usual, I didn’t want it to end.

An honorable mention goes to Faceless Killers by Henning Menkell, the author of the Wallander series. If you’re into crime/thriller novels, and especially if you’ve watched the BBC TV show Wallander, check it out! I’m currently reading a second Menkell book (The Man Who Smiled) and have a third waiting in the wings. He’s joined the company of Tana French and Mo Hayder on my crime/thriller bookshelf.

My goal for 2018 is to MAKE BETTER CHOICES. I’m not sure where my brain went this year, but I wasted a lot of time on books I didn’t enjoy. Not again! Cheers!

Book Review: A Column of Fire

In 2007, I was the young mother of a one and four-year-old. I wrote a column for our city paper, and I had just started running long distances to eventually run a half marathon. I was 29 years old, and I relied on Oprah’s Book Club recommendations in between the release of Harry Potter books and films.

It was in 2007 that I saw her enthusiasm for Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and wondered, “Do I really want to read a 900-page book about the building of a cathedral in the Middle Ages? Seriously, Oprah. That’s a lot to ask.”

Oprah’s Book Club selections had never failed me. It was how I came to love Wally Lamb and Barbara Kingsolver. It was how I found The Rapture of Canaan and Middlesex and Midwives. It was pre-social media, pre-Google, pre-GoodReads. If Oprah hadn’t failed me yet, why would she fail me now? I bought the book and started reading.

Pillars of the Earth was life-changing, and I’m not being dramatic. Only in the Harry Potter series had I experienced the weaving of plots with such fluidity, but even then, the writing was basic and everything had been created from the ground up. I loved the series, but I was inspired and entertained by the content, not the writing.

Pillars of the Earth upped the game tenfold. It was this sweeping, engulfing, epic story that opened my eyes to what storytelling was all about. I was hooked. World Without End came out shortly after, and I was hooked all over again. It took place two hundred years after the Kingsbridge Cathedral was built and focused, this time, on the building of a bridge and a hospital during an outbreak of plague.

I’ve been itching for A Column of Fire ever since I heard it was being released. A true fangirl, I checked websites and blogs regularly looking for any information I could find on plot summaries. Though this is the third in the Kingsbridge series, it, like the others, can stand alone. The books have a shared history, but on account of the time span, they don’t have shared characters. You can read A Column of Fire without knowing how Prior Philip and Tom Builder struggled to get the church built in Pillars of the Earth.

In A Column of Fire, there is no great structure to build, and the story stretches beyond fictional Kingsbridge. Instead, it focuses on a large-scale problem in the 16th century – the Reformation. Europe is divided, so readers leave Elizabethan England to experience the Spanish Inquisition, the power struggle in France, and a hotbed of budding religious ideas in the Netherlands. Though we don’t officially meet Martin Luther or John Calvin, they are mentioned, and we get a keen view into the three groups – the Catholics who wanted to kill Protestants, the Protestants who wanted to kill Catholics, and the peacekeepers in the middle who fought for religious tolerance. 

In between the fictional bits is actual history – the rise of Elizabeth I and her creation of the first secret service, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, the mass murder of French Protestants in Paris, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (Guy Fawkes, anyone?).

Though you could read A Column of Fire independently, I recommend you start from the beginning and read all three, and when you’re done with Kingsbridge, jump into the 1900s and read Follett’s Century Trilogy – Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, and Edge of Eternity.

When you’re done, let’s discuss!