BOOKS

2017 | A Year in Books

Seoul Cafés | Mangwon | Hungo Ringo Bread
I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who read 100 books (or more!) a year, and in 2017, I finally accomplished that goal! To be fair, I read a good number of graphic novels as well as a few short books of poetry, but I felt like I more than made up for it by suffering through my fair share of duds.

Last year, I set a goal of reading 50 books so it was a total surprise that by the time August rolled around, I had already read over 100 books! I was on such a roll and then… I fell off the face of the Earth. It took me months to get back on track and re-establish my reading routine, but by the time December came, I finally started reading again. I couldn’t read anything too serious or too complicated at first — mostly just light reads or easily consumable thrillers — but it felt good to be reading again.

The thing about reading so many books is that one realizes almost immediately which books rise to the top and which books should never have been published. A vast majority fall somewhere in the middle – books that are neither her nor there and/or are not memorable for either good or bad reasons. This was certainly the case this year. Most of the books I read were either just okay, meh, or very average.

Here are the books I read this year that stood out from the pack, good and bad:

THE GOOD

Best Creepy Graphic Novel Series| Locke & Key by Joe Hill. OMG I LOVED THIS SERIES! Locke & Key has been on my TBR list since forever but was one that I put off reading. This summer, I gave the first book a try and I was immediately hooked. I could not stop reading until I finished the entire series. After the Locke family suffers a devastating loss, they move from California into the old Locke Mansion on the opposite coast. The mysterious home has been in the family for generations, and while exploring the house, the youngest Locke discovers keys that open magical doors. They also unlock a sinister force that wants the keys to do evil things. It’s dark and sometimes gruesome, which is what you’d probably expect from the son of Stephen King. Definitely not for kids! This series has been nominated and won a couple Eisner Awards and has been adapted into an audiobook (I’m still confused about the translation of graphic novels into audio books, but now I’m curious) that was nominated for four Audie awards. There are also plans by Hulu to adapt the series for television. Can’t wait!

Best Book About the End of the World | The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. A book I started (years ago!) but re-started and finished this year. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world and while that probably would turn a lot of people off, it also is about relationships, nature, and yes, a dog. Overall, I thought it was a beautiful book, so much so that when Peter Heller released Celine this year, I quickly added it to our book club book list. Unfortunately Celine sucked (see below) which makes me think The Dog Stars was a fluke.

Best Audiobook | The Clancy of Queens by Tara Clancy. This memoir about growing up in a working class family in Queens felt more like I was hanging out with a really funny friend over a comedian, if that makes sense. Like one (comedian) is trying to be funny and is always “on” but a friend (I wish the author of this book was my friend) is just naturally funny? I highly recommend listening to this book in audio format as the author has a very charming, one-of-a-kind personality that is extremely entertaining.

Best Historical Fiction Book on a Subject I Knew Barely Anything About | Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. A sweeping historical drama spanning several generations that takes place Korea and Japan from 1900s to 1970s. While I found the plot to be a bit on the Korean drama side, the historical backdrop of the story was so fascinating to me. Before reading Pachinko, I had a vague idea of what happened between Japan and Korea in the early to mid-1900s, but there were a lot of details in the book that I had to Google to understand more fully. Once again, a time, place, and people that was left out of history books, at least in my school. An eye-opening book about a culture most Westerners (self included) know very little about.

Best Nonfiction Book that Doesn’t Read Like a Nonfiction Book | The Lost City of the Monkey Gods by Douglas Preston. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age there could still be anything left undiscovered. The Lost City of the Monkey Gods recounts the real-life recent expedition to discover a lost city hidden deep in the Honduran rainforest. Besides the Indiana Jones aspect of this story, the book covers topics like deforestation, the idea of treasure hunting, and the consequences of human interaction in an inhospitable environment. It’s a compelling story that is part Lost City of Z and part Hot Zone. The author, who penned the best selling Relic series, definitely knows how to tell an adventure story. I expected TLCOTMG to be a bit dry and dragged down by scientific and archeological details, but instead, it read like a movie script.

Best YA Book that Unexpectedly Gave Me the Feels | Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson. This was such an unexpectedly special book that totally took me by surprise. I don’t even know quite how to describe it. It’s aimed at a Y/A audience, but it was a lot deeper than many of the Y/A books I’ve read, and the relationships between characters a lot more complicated. The story begins with the main character, Adri, who has been on her own for quite some time, reuniting with a long lost family member who she didn’t know existed. In two weeks, Adri will be leaving Earth for Mars, and will never return. During this time frame, as she trains for her mission to Mars, Adri discovers lost journals and letters in the old house where she is staying that tie together several generations. Just as she’s finally starting to feel a connection with her past, she has to make a decision on whether or not she will leave Earth forever. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t get too emotional when it comes to books or movies, but this book, for whatever reason, really got me in the gut. One moment, in particular, was so simple, so profound, and so very bittersweet that I might have shed a tear or two. I promptly put all of the author’s novels on my TBR list after finishing this book.

Best Depressing Book | Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. Imagine Me Gone was nominated for just about every book award, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.  Set in Maine, this book is about a family’s struggle with mental illness that hit waaaaay too close to home, making it difficult for me to read at times. It’s hard to say you enjoyed a book like this, but it was definitely worth the read.

Best Book that Kept Me Up All Night Reading | The Passenger by Lisa Lutz. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to stay up into the wee morning hours to finish a book, but from the moment I picked up this thriller, I couldn’t put it down. The Passenger is somewhat like The Fugitive in the sense that the story revolves around a woman who has been running from her past, only to have it catch up with her.  Relying on smart, fast-paced, storytelling over gimmicky twists and turns, The Passenger feels fresh and original instead of just a copycat Gone Girl/Girl on the Train. I really enjoyed reading this book.  It would make a great summer/beach read.

Best Adventure Thriller That Featured a Strong Female Lead | The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis. Whoa, this book was not at all what I expected. I guess I wasn’t expecting a cat-and-mouse thriller – even though it was clearly described as such.  It’s probably best that I don’t say too much about The Wolf Road but it reminded me of a mix of The RoadThe Revenant, and for some reason, The North Water. It’s so rare to find an adventure story featuring a strong female lead who isn’t also some fantasized version of a cool girl or a damsel in distress. A brutal story that takes place in a brutal environment. Once I got past the way the main character talked, I could not put down this book.

Best Book of Poems Written by Someone Who Actually Understands Poetry | A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver. Mary Oliver has such a beautiful way with words and with writing about nature. I don’t often read books of poetry these days, but it’s such a joy to find a book of poems that I can read over and over again. If I ever had a cabin in the woods, I would totally stock up on Mary Oliver books.

Best Book I Started off Hating but Ended up Liking | Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. I started reading this behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant service industry + coming of age in NYC book last year, and couldn’t get past the first few chapters without rolling my eyes. I hated the writing style and the tone of the book and thought I had fallen victim to marketing hype. This year, I gave it a second chance and ended up really enjoying it.

Most Heartbreaking Graphic Novel | The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. A beautifully drawn and haunting memoir that tells the story of author’s family’s life in war-torn Vietnam, their escape after the fall, re-building a life as refugees in a new country, and forging ahead and hoping for better from the future. It’s a heartbreaking story that left me feeling gutted by the end, maybe even a bit misty-eyed because all I could think about was my mom and her family and what they must have endured both in VN and as unwelcome refugees. This makes a great companion book to The Sympathizerwhich covers a similar topic but tells the story in a very different, more relatable (for me) way. One of best books I’ve read this year.

Most Atmospheric Thriller with a Not-So-Predictable Plot | The Dry by Jane Harper.  A better-than-average (because there are so so many very average books in this genre) slow burn murder mystery that takes place in an Australian farming community. The town has had an extremely dry year and crops, livestock and the people are all suffering. Then three murders happen, bringing to surface a murder that happened many years ago. Are they related? The main character returns to his hometown to attend the funerals and gets caught up investigating the murders. The Dry is character-driven and unfolds much like an episode of one of my favorite British cop shows, Broadchurch  In addition to the smart writing, I was thoroughly immersed in the author’s description of small town life in Australia. It was both a thriller and an escape to another location wrapped up all in one book. I’m not usually a fan of cop books in a series, but I’m definitely looking forward to reading Jane Harper’s second book.

Best Book For Those Who Liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette? | The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn. A light read that takes place in a Stepford-esque community where everyone tries hard to project perfection when their lives are anything but. In the world of happily curated lives, one family agrees to an “arrangement” whereby they will see other people for six months. What could possibly go wrong? This book was an unexpected like for me, perhaps because I was expecting something shallow and stupid like most books in this genre. (It wasn’t.)

The Book I Read This Year That I Still Cannot Stop Thinking About | The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Sympathizer is an oftentimes uncomfortable and difficult book about Vietnamese people during and after the Vietnam war. 40 years later, the story feels so very current, relevant, and applicable (and scary) given the events and politics of today. It’s a tale as old as time, as if history keeps repeating itself on an endless loop with different new wars in different countries and a new influx of refugees. Did I love this book in the same way as, say, I loved reading the Harry Potter books? No. Did I think it was an important book that every person should read? Yes. I read this book early last year and I still refer to it often.

THE BAD

For all the hype surrounding many of the books on this year’s reading list, so many turned out to be painfully boring and/or disappointing. This was especially true for our book club book picks, which were selected because they were buzzy, well-reviewed books!

Most Pretentious Book That Critics Loved but I Hated | The Idiot by Elif Batuman. I hated this book so much, not because the plot was necessarily terrible (just boring AF), but because it was so damn pretentious. It’s a sort of coming-of-age story about an annoying and awkward woman who attends Harvard, likes to speak Russian, and is obsessed with Russian culture. I think I sighed heavily throughout the first half of the book and then contemplated not finishing. After Googling other reviews to see if it got any better, I pushed on. The second half of the book was nominally better – only because she actually left Harvard/Russian class and traveled to Hungary, but not by much. I’m convinced that the only reason this book got published was because the author has a Harvard pedigree and most likely has some connections. I guarantee if I wrote the same book and submitted it to a publisher, I would get an immediate rejection notice that read “Your book sucks. Never write anything again.”

Debut YA Fantasy Series with the Worst World Creation | Caravel by Stephanie Garber. One of this year’s hottest Y/A Fantasy debuts. For the first third of this book, set in a magical parallel Renaissance Venice (Carnival ~Caravel), I was completely and utterly absorbed. And then, the world started to feel like a Renaissance-Festival-Theme-Park-one-dimensional sort of world filled with paper cut out characters with no substance. Allow me to put on my nerd hat for a moment. The number one reason I love reading fantasy/sci-fi novels is because I love “traveling” to highly-creative imaginary worlds. Thus, the most important aspect of this type of book is successful world creation. For me, that means all the aspects of the imaginary world are flushed out; I should be able to “walk” through this world and immediately imagine its sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and the physics of the world. Creating a successful world usually involves inhabiting said world with more than one complex character (oftentimes many) and describing mundane things in minute detail. I think this is especially important in the first book of a series because it sets the stage and builds the world in which the successive books can inhabit. Caravel’s world buidling was very basic when it could have been so much more.

Worst Book Written by a WeeabooPretty Good Number One by Matthew Amster-Burton |  A clueless weeaboo goes to Japan for an entire month, prides himself on eating kawa yakitori, cucumbers, and udon (ooh! so daring!), and walks away an expert in all things Asian. Then tries to write about it. Yawn. Same story, different white guy. As a self-published book, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected too much, but as a food writer, I kind of did.

Most Forgettable Book | Chemistry by Weike Wang. In a year of reading so many forgettable books. this one stands out because to this day, when I look at the cover and read the synopsis, I have to ask myself, “Did I read that book?” Because I don’t remember it at all. At least some of the other books on this worst of list are memorable, which begs the question, is it better to write a so-so book that is forgettable, or a terrible book that is memorable?

Worst Book by an Author Who Wrote Something on My Best of List | Celine by Peter Heller. Celine was July’s book club pick. Camping, the Great Outdoors, and National Parks are all happy summer triggers for me so I love any book set in Western America. I also really loved one of Peter Heller’s previous books, The Dog Stars (see above). As a contributing writer to many outdoors publications, the author is at his best when he writes about nature, and from the book’s description, it seemed as if there would be a good amount of nature writing. Unfortunately, Celine is about an “aristocratic” private investigator who goes to Yellowstone National Park to conduct a search for a missing person. I barely even remember the plot beyond the extensive descriptions of how great Celine was, how smart, and how fluent she was in French. Ugh.

Most Insufferable Memoir Written by a Millenial | Buffering by Hannah Hart. A millenial’s tale of her special snowflake meteoric rise to YouTube stardom. Disclaimer: I had no idea who Hannah Hart was prior to reading this book, and, after reading this book, I still don’t really care? Hannah definitely had an interesting life (all twenty-something years of it): a Jehovah’s Witness father who thinks she’ll burn in hell for being gay; a loving, but mentally unstable mother who left them to essentially fend for themselves; her battle with depression, self-harm and sexuality, but is her story any more exceptional than anyone else’s? And does everyone with a shred of fame, who endured any sort of hardship, have to write a book about it? I listened to Buffering as an audio book and I could barely get through it; the dramatically-read story at the end about a monk and a quiet child made me want to bang my head on a table. Granted, I never heard of Hannah before this book, and I’m not really a huge watcher of YouTube channels, so I don’t fall into her target audience of rabid fans who all showed up to write 5 star reviews of this book. Hannah seems like a wonderful, positive, intelligent, and accomplished woman who has indeed led a storied past, but I still stand behind what I said about people (not) writing memoirs in their 20s.

Worst Book About a Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold | Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (although I think it could be a tie between this book and Britt-Marie was Here).  Lillian Boxfish is the story of an 80-something year woman who takes a long walk in NYC on New Year’s Eve and recounts her past through various touchstones along the way. The story jumps back and forth from present (1984 NYC) to past (1930-50s NYC) and felt disjointed and, at times, unbelievable. I preferred reading about old New York over the scenes where the 80-year old lady describes how much she enjoys rap music. Gramma, please. No you did not just say that. I love hanging out with elderly people, and especially love listening to their stories, but I’m not sure if I would have liked hanging out with a borderline pretentious, upper-crust, try-hard grandma like Lillian. PS: what is with all the books recently about crotchety old people?

Worst Book with the Most Misleading Cover and Description | Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman. From the cover and description I anticipated a story about a woman’s adventures in dog sledding in Alaska. It was so not that. Maybe one or two chapters of that and then the rest of the book covered the author’s struggles with the past, sexuality, and abusive relationships. In Norway. Maybe if I hadn’t been expecting something different, I would have enjoyed this book more,  but I still maintain that writing a memoir in your early 20s is way too young to be writing memoirs unless your target audience is teenagers.

Worst Book About a Boring Family That I Suspect is an Oprah Book Club Book| A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. Bor-ing. This was the first Anne Tyler book that I’ve ever read and I’m pretty sure it will be my last.  While I tend to enjoy “slow-burn” “family dramas,” I didn’t enjoy ASOBT. I ended up skimming chunks of the book, especially the parts that kept dwelling on things like painting a bench and cutting down a tree. Oh sorry, should I have prefaced that by saying “spoiler alert” because that was basically all that happened in this book. I got that these were symbolic events (that dragged on chapter after chapter) but at that point I did not need to be hindered by any more tedious details.

Dumbest Chick Lit/Summer Read | My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie KinsellaI don’t usually gravitate towards “chick-lit,” although I confess that I read, and loved, Bridget Jones Diary, and love watching girly movies with my sister. I never read The Shopping Diaries or whatever books Sophie Kinsella is known for, but I knew what I was getting into, and was kind of in the mood for some light reading. I said light, not stupid. My Not So Perfect Life was just dumb, and not in a hate-read-somewhat-enjoyable sort of way.

Worst Book Club BookHis Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet This March book club pick barely edged out some other bad book club books (there seemed to be a good number of duds on our list this year) and probably only won the honor of Worst Book Club Book simply because I couldn’t bring myself to read Lincoln in the Bardo (also hated by our book club). His Bloody Project was essentially the definition of anti-climatic. The most exciting elements of the story happen within the first chapter, after which the story unfolds very slowly to reveal the motives behind the murder. I kept expecting some kind of “a-ha” moment, but that never happened. I appreciated the moody atmosphere and dark characters, but the book just never went anywhere for me, and by the time I reached the end, I thought, “Is that it?” I described this book in our book club as being similar to watching a long, drawn out, BBC miniseries. Except one of the more pointless ones where nothing really happens, not the Downton Abbey ones. Readable, but ultimately disappointing.

Worst Book of Any Genre I Read This Year (and Maybe Ever) | The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace. Dear Lord who did the author have to sell her soul to to get a book deal because there is no way this book should have ever been published. It’s like the type of angsty teenage poems people write/read on shows like The Bachelor that are so cringey you have to hide your eyes from second-hand embarrassment. Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. It’s one of the worst books of “poetry” I’ve ever read. If you’re a Rupi Kaur fan and are smugly thinking that TPSHITO (even the acronym seems fitting) was a direct rip off of Milk and Honey then you are correct. But don’t think this means Kaur’s book, Milk and Honey, is great. It also sucks, just nominally less. It is a shitty rip off of an already shitty book.

THE NUMBERS

Total Books Read: 106
Number of Pages: 31,228
Shortest Book: 64 pages, Murder Mysteries by Neil Gaiman
Longest Book: 672 pages, Habibi by Craig Thompson
Average Book Length: 295 pages
Fiction: 66
Nonfiction: 14
Graphic Novels: 22
Audio Books: 4.5 (I started one book as an audiobook, but finished it off as a regular book later)

What were your favorite books of 2017 and what do you look forward to reading in 2018?

For even more in-depth book reviews click here.

For a full list of what I read this year, click here.

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2 Comments

  • Young Zoo Ahn
    February 13, 2018 at 7:28 am

    Wow, congrats for achieving your goal, Veronika !

  • veronika
    February 14, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Thanks, Abunim! If only I hadn’t stopped in August – I wonder how many more books I could have read!

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