Friday, December 29, 2017

2017: A Year in Books

Another year peels off the calendar. As I age, every cycle happens faster and faster.

Seward, Alaska, the place that most epitomizes my 2017
We like to imagine New Year's as some sort of definitive delineation, a border wall keeping the years strictly separate. Every New Year's is an opportunity to redefine and re-imagine ourselves. We engage in all sorts of ludicrous, nonsensical traditions that epitomize this symbolic holiday. From grapes to countdowns. Midnight kisses to "Auld Lang Syne," that song that posits "should all acquaintances be forgot?" Whether meaningful or not, we do lip service to these traditions anyway, and name every year at exactly 12:00 am on January 1st a "fresh start." Our deeds from yesterday are wiped clean. The deeds of tomorrow practically a different life.

This year I'm going to invent a new approach to celebrating this imaginary line in the sand: a look back on what was one of the most varied and interesting years in my life through the lens of the books I read.

Every Book a Signpost Along a Circuitous Journey

Each book not only carries me away into a fictional dimension but also fixes my mind in the time and space where I read it. When I think about The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett, for example, crystalline images of sitting on the porch of a charming bed and breakfast in Medocino, California with the sun lancing down on my bare shoulders and the boom of the Pacific Ocean in the rugged hollows of nearby crags comes instantly to my mind. The sights and smells of that day flood back like a dammed river returned to its former course. I didn't read the entire book while sitting on that porch, probably only twenty or thirty pages. But it is to that setting I will forever return when reminiscing on that book.

Or with Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I recall sitting in the forward lounge of the M/V Malaspina while we lurched our way up the Inside Passage towards our new home in Alaska, the thrill of adventure and the unknown future fresh in my mind. Or mention The Circle by Dave Eggers, and I am curled up in a hotel room in the downtown core of Seattle, edgy and writhing like a fish out of water as a small-town boy in the heart of a huge city.

On and on it goes. My year comes back to me, each book a signpost on the adventure that was 2017.

I began the Homer-esque epic of 2017 in a living room on New Year's Eve, laughing nearly to tears with family and friends and we played a silly board came called Telestrations (sort of a combination of telephone and Pictionary) back in Colorado. I didn't know at the time that the tortuous path of 2017 was already laid out before my feet.

My journey in 2017. Starting in Colorado in January, heading west to California for four months, then up through Oregon, Washington, the Inside Passage to the Yukon and into Alaska. This route is about 3,800 miles and doesn't include several lengthy side trips....
Just a few days later, the blur of towns and states, the rush of miles under the wheels, the hundreds evening beach walks, thousands of vistas of snow-tipped mountains and glinting rivers was underway. Utah, Nevada, California. Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon, Alaska.

Books carried me along.

The Tomes

What follows is every book I read in 2017. A grand total of 24. Not bad. Probably not as many as you. But considering the numerous distractions I suffered this year (writing a novel, traveling, job seeking, two major relocations, etc) I think I did all right.

Twenty-four books in 365 days is an average of 15.2 days per book. Such numbers reveal only a partial story. Some of these books, like Ender's Game and The Remains of the Day, were short and engaging, and I blasted through them in a couple of days. Others, like Outlander, were long and tedious, bogging me down and stretching on for weeks. 

Overall, I am proud of what I read in 2017. The list spans a broad spectrum from sci-fi tales like Look to Windward, Ender's Game, and Journey to the Center of the Earth to fantasy romps like American Gods, The Fifth Steason, and Uprooted. Nobel or Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpieces like All the Light We Cannot See, The Remains of the Day and The Underground Railroad to even a few indie books like City of Slaves, Aes Sidhe and Druid's Portal.

2017 was a great adventure. And the books that carried me through it were journey in their own right. 

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
A Pulitzer Prize winning tale about a blind girl in the midst of WWII-torn France. This stunningly beautiful tale might perhaps take the prize as my favorite book of 2017. All the Light was one of those books which just reading it probably made me better writer.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
A modern fantasy classic. A battle between gods of the old cannon, like Odin and Loki, against the new gods (internet, television, etc). American Gods won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2002.

The Circle (Dave Eggers)
A near-future sci-fi in which today's over-saturation of social media is taken to its logical conclusion. Hints of 1984, but where the power to watch you comes from a Google/Facebook-like company called The Circle and all of its vehement followers.

City of Slaves (Abby Goldsmith)
An excellent indie tale (published only on Wattpad for now) about a civilization of mind-reading humanoids who enslaves all other inter-galactic races. Intriguing implications of mob rule, the internet, and other social phenomenon throughout.  

The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
An uncomfortable literary dystopic novel in which a hyper-conservative, patriarchal society subjugates women for their own benefit.

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi)
A Nebula and Hugo Award winning dystopic sci-fi about a future empire in Thailand where food is scarce and tightly-controlled by Monsanto-like gene corporations, and people can be mulched for the fuel contained in their decomposing bodies.

The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
The first book in the Broken Earth Trilogy and winner of the 2016 Hugo Award. A massive earthquake has sent the world into a "fifth season," a state of near-apocalypse. Orogenes, humans with the power to influence tectonic activity, are deplored, exploited and persecuted by society. 

The Obelisk Gate (N.K. Jemisin)
Second book of the Broken Earth Trilogy and also the 2017 Hugo Award winner. The broken society settles into its new state as the continued apocalypse wages all around.

The Stone Sky (N.K. Jemisin)
The conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy and my guess for the winner of the 2018 Hugo Award. The ancient battle between the "Evil Earth" and humans finds its dramatic end.

Look to Windward (Iain M. Banks)
Part of Banks's "Culture" series, Look to Windward posits intriguing and prescient notions about artificial intelligence and future society.

Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
As a futuristic society of human/AI symbiosis known as the "Culture" expands their holdings into the galaxy, they discover a race who plays a most interesting and complex game with the highest stakes. The Culture sends in their best player of games into to conquer it.

Druid's Portal (Cindy Tomamichel)
A small-press novel, Druid's Portal unfolds the story of an archaeologist who mistakenly travels through time into Ancient Rome in pursuit of a thief. The tale includes, adventure, mystery and romance.

The Color of Magic (Terry Pratchett)
This whimsical faux-fantasy is the introduction into Terry Pratchett's cultural phenomenon known as Discworld, a flatearth land of nonsense, side-splitting humor, intriguing characters, and even a sentient, finger-eating treasure chest full of gold.

Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
A 1991 classic that helped launched the "time-traveling romance" genre into the mainstream. A WWII nurse inadvertently travels back to 18th century Scotland. 

Wool (Hugh Howey)
Another dystopic sci-fi. The world's air has become poisoned so thoroughly humans are forced to live in massive, underground structures known as "silos." A web of conspiracy, lies and murder is uncovered and the distinct hierarchy of the silo is upended.

Court of Twilight (Mareth Griffith)
A urban fantasy novel that uncovers the world of trows in Ireland.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead)
Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award (a feat only accomplished by seven or eight books in history), The Underground Railroad is not exactly a joy to read, but it is important. America was built on slavery, genocide and subjugation. This tale humanizes that terrible time in our history with brilliant understatement.

Aes Sidhe (Fergal Nally)
An indie novel written by writer friend and colleague, Fergal Nally, Aes Sidhe is a fast-paced thrilling fantasy ride that draws its power from folklore and legendary traditions such as King Arthur and, of course, the Aes Sidhe.

Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow)
A massive yet engaging epic biography that covers the life of one of the most intriguing and fascinating of all America's founding fathers. This massive tome was also the inspiration to the smash Broadway hit, Hamilton, which became a cultural phenomenon and perhaps the greatest play thus far of the 21st century.

Uprooted (Naomi Novcik)
A finalist for the Nebula Award, Uprooted is a page-turning fantasy tale of a village girl named Agnieszka who lives on the border of a malicious forest known as "the Wood." Agnieszka is taken by a mysterious wizard to his castle to function as his servant and disciple in his efforts to counter the Wood's horrible power.

This House of Sky (Ivan Doig)
Perhaps the most brilliantly written prose I read in 2017. Having grown up the son of a struggling rancher in rural Montana, Doig baffles me how he learned to write so brilliantly. This House of Sky is Doig's memoir. It unfolds his life in Montana and the unique drama that encapsulated his family.

The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
When Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature I admit I didn't know who he was. I decided I better find out. For most of The Remains of the Day I couldn't decide what was so great about it. It is very slow paced and rambles on for pages and page about things like what makes a great butler. In the last few pages, however, the book turned on its head, making me reconsider what I thought about everything else. 

Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)
Ender's Game is a modern sci-fi classic. Though there are some who object to Card based on his occasionally inflammatory social commentary, and the apparent misogynistic nature of his tales, Ender's Game nonetheless is a page-turning romp that contains elements of Star Wars-esque space opera as well as the placing-children-in-the-fatal-heart-of-conflict nature of Hunger Games.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne)
I picked this up at a thrift store for a couple of quarters because I occasionally like to read the classics. Jules Verne is without question one of the grandmasters and original minds of science fiction. However, by modern storytelling standards this tale probably would never have gotten off the ground. This is an unfair comparison, however, as it was written a century and a half ago and is one of the foundation blocks of the genre. It still reads fairly well and contains an interesting tale of adventure and science.

There it is, a journey through space and time and the strangest corners of my imagination and the imaginations of the authors who guided me there. 2018 is sure to bring wonders of all sorts. New people, places and yes, of course, books. I hope to see you there!

EPILOGUE: My 2017 Book Awards

My personal awards for 2017. The "best of" list from the 24 books I read this year.

Best Fantasy 
The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
This is a tricky one for me because The Fifth Season is one of those genre-bending books that occasionally tips into science fiction. However, of the three books in this series (all of which I read in 2017) it is the most fantasy-like, and was an engaging, page-turner.

Best Sci-Fi
The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
This was a bit of a toss-up between this book and Wool by Hugh Howey. However, I found that the ideas in The Player of Games, like many Banks novels, are the type that make you wonder "how did he come up with that? His writing always seems startlingly prescient and predictive of a believable trajectory in our technological future. Additionally, this book was a page turner and kept me on my toes right up to the blistering conclusion.

Best Literary
All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
Fresh out of college, I was a bit of a book snob and read "literary" novels exclusively. Now, I like to dabble in books of almost every ilk. Literary Fiction may be hard to define, nevertheless I feel confident that at least four of the books I read this year would land on those shelves in most bookstores. Each of them was amazing and I felt like a better writer after reading them. However, I just loved the way Doerr tackled an over-used topic like WWII in a fresh and intriguing way. The prose was painfully brilliant, and the complex characters and thematic development are what tip me into giving this book the nod over the others.

Best Non-Fiction
Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow)
It is a bit embarrassing to admit I only read two non-fiction books this year, this one and Ivan Doig's memoir, This House of Sky. Both were brilliant in their own ways and very hard to compare. One is a biography of a colonial-era founding father, the other an autobiography that details life in the American West of the mid-20th century. I'm going with Hamilton because, despite its brick-like appearance and massive attention to detail, it was an engaging and enlightneing page turner. I found myself wishing for someone, HBO or Netflix or Showtime, to adapt it into a drama series. If I didn't have so many projects already perhaps I would start scribbling up a screenplay....

Grand Prize: Best Book
All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
There it is, my grand prize winner. I just can't say enough about it. Brilliant, complex, critically beloved (Pulitzer Prize winner) and commercially successful. This is my kind of book. It tickles the literature major and the writer in me and remains a powerful glimpse into one of the most fascinating time periods in world history, yet does so in an interesting and original way.


If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up for my mailing list. When not reading as many books as I can get my hands on, I blog about all sorts of crazy, educational, entertaining, and occasionally funny topics from what makes an effective first paragraph to giant redwoodsmedieval sailboats, the ancient Mayans and more. If you do sign up, you will get a once-a-week update on my posts and NOTHING ELSE! No spam, no selling your email to third parties. Okay, if I ever get around to publishing one of these works in progress that are constantly haunting me, I might send out an email letting you know. In the meantime thanks for reading!

find us on facebook

All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions 

No comments:

Post a Comment