Wednesday, October 11, 2017

the books of 2017. so far.

2017 has proven to be an excellent year of reading for me, so far. With a good 2.5 months to go in the year, I've so far finished 50 books, already surpassing my 2017 goal of 40- it's the first time I've made and met a goal so far (that I remember, haha)! Anyway, since several folks have asked for book recommendations and/or reviews lately, I thought I would share my thoughts about some of my favorites (and not-so-favorites) this year. As always, keeping up with me on Goodreads will give you my real-time reading updates, which is probably fascinating to about maaaybe 4 other people in the world besides me, ha.

(P.S. For those of you who might wonder how I manage to read so much (while working full time, momming so hard (bahaha), etc), here's the deal. For starters, I'm a REALLY FAST READER. I always have been. So I can get a lot of pages read in a short amount of time. That helps. Secondly, I sacrifice basically everything else in my life in my desperation to read, hahaha. Let's be honest. Millie goes to bed by 8:30, so I'd say that four or five nights a week, I'm on the couch reading by 8:45 p.m. I read until 10 or 11, when I go to bed. I don't work out. I don't blog. I rarely watch TV. I barely talk to Matt. I don't clean the house or chat on the phone or bake or craft or go out with friends. So when you look at it like that- I just DON'T do all the other stuff people spend their evenings doing, and then I have lots of time to read! That may or may not be a good thing, so feel free to judge me.) 

Favorite Books that Made Me Think:

This is probably my favorite genre of books, overall. I like books that challenge my thinking, or open my eyes to something I didn't know or didn't know enough about. For the past few years, most of my favorite books have been about World War II, something I can probably never learn enough about. But I like to think about other hard things, too, so here are some books that took me there.

  • The Girl You Left Behind (Jojo Moyes)- This book (based on true stories) alternates between the story of a woman living in occupied France during WWI and a girl in modern-day England, and centers on a painting (the painting's name is the title of the book). I learned a lot about art restitution, something I'd never considered before, and this story absolutely enthralled me. It is perfect. If you're not much into "heavy" reading, I still think you would like this- it's written by Jojo Moyes, author of "Me Before You" and lots of other wonderful stories, and her writing is engaging, her characters well-developed, and her ability to tie together all the loose ends of various plots is unparalleled. I've recommended this book to practically everyone I've met this year!
  • The Storyteller (Jodi Picoult)- This is another story that flip-flops between WWII and the present. Although I've probably read 100 WWII novels at this point, both fiction and non, I was shocked at how deeply this one touched me. If you've read anything by Jodi before, you KNOW she can tell a good story, and she'll probably find some way to get your emotions and morals all twisted up inside so that you don't even know how to feel about something. Well, she does it here, too. The central question this novel posed to me was this: can you- or are you obligated to- or should you- offer forgiveness to someone if you were not the party who was wronged? It sounds vague, and maybe simple, but I promise that this book will rip your heart around. I read this book in March and I'm still wrestling with some of the questions it brought up.
  • Necessary Lies (Diane Chamberlain)- This book takes place in North Carolina in the 1960s and is a fictional story about a very real horror: the state's Eugenics Sterilization Program that was in effect from 1929 until 1975. I had never heard of this program or situation before, and it's as chilling as the name indicates. Poor women (and female children) in NC were being forcibly sterilized,without their consent and often without even realizing it, as state social workers would tell them they were having appendectomies or other similar surgeries. This book led me to several days of fevered Googling for more information, which is always the sign of a good read! Despite the topic, it was a relatively easy/quick read, and my book club had PLENTY to discuss that month!
  • The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)- This book has been around for 30 years, so I doubt I'm the first person to tell you about it, but this was the first time I'd read it and I'm SO GLAD I did. This dystopian fiction tells the story of a monotheocracy in what used to be the United States. The story will make you thankful for separation of church and state, and horrified at what could happen if power were to run unchecked. And if you happen to be reading it for the first time, I would recommend you NOT read the very last chapter (I can't remember if it's called the epilogue or if it's just the last chapter, but you'll recognize it when you see a huge time jump to some unspecified time in the future with new and unfamiliar settings and characters). It's terrible and almost ruins the whole book. Just quit right before then and make up in your own head what you think happened. :) And I still haven't gotten around to watching the Hulu series, but I plan to...when I run out of books to read.
  • Small Great Things (Jodi Picoult)- I know, I know- another Jodi Picoult. What can I say. When she's good, she's good, and she is on fiyah in this one. This compelling, un-put-down-able story about "race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion" (just shamelessly stole that from the Amazon description, but I can't really improve on that list, so whatever) will challenge and inform and sadden and inspire you, and you won't be able to stop thinking or talking about it. 
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Bryan Stevenson)- Oh look, a nonfiction (memoir!) made it to my list finally! This book. Guys. You just need to read it. It's hard. It's about death row and race. It paints a picture of American history that isn't as pretty as you would maybe like to think. But it's true and it's something we need to be talking about so that we can change. Read it.
Books that Are Just Plain Enjoyable:

These books will probably still make you think, but are not as weighty or emotional as the books on the top list, haha. You will note that I don't normally read a lot of truly "light" reads (chick lit, romance novels, etc.) maybe my 'light reads' are not as light as they could be, but whatever. These books were all great.

  • Dark Matter (Blake Crouch)- This book is a truly fun and mind-bending ride- considering it's a book based in QUANTUM PHYSICS, something I know absolutely nothing about. So I had to work hard to wrap my brain around some things, but this story is compelling enough to make the hard work worth it. A little off my usual path, but the engaging characters, interesting dilemmas, and overall storyline made me really glad I gave it a go!
  • Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan)- This book was just plain FUN. There were a LOT of developed characters, and I would highly recommend reading this book in PRINT and not on your Kindle, as I did, because then you will be able to easily refer to a handy family tree at the front of the book. That would have helped me a LOT...but I didn't know it was there because my Kindle just started me on the first page of the story. Anyway. This book was hilarious as well as educational, and I look forward to reading the other two in the trilogy. 
  • The Lake House (Kate Morton)- I was shocked by how much I loved this book. It really took me a little longer than usual to get into it and enjoy the story, but once I did- I was all in. This book was a fun mystery in what I think of as the more "classic" style of mysteries. Not a twisty psychological thriller a la Gone Girl or whatever...this is a good old fashioned whodunnit (and whodunWHAT) that keeps you guessing and I was truly almost giddy towards the end of the book (I believe I solved the mystery like 80% and the other 20% was the MOST FUN REVEAL EVER). I don't know how to describe this other than to say it felt very different than most of the mysteries/thrillers I've read in the past few years, and I very much enjoyed it.
  • The Sound of Gravel (Ruth Wariner)- Memoir alert!! This was a fantastic true story about a woman who grew up in a polygamist compound in Mexico and harrowingly escaped from it as a teen. Ruth has become one of my favorite people to stalk on social media now. This isn't a light read at all- her childhood stories will break your heart and make you mad, but it's well-written and enlightening.
  • The Serpent King (Jeff Zentner)- This was a high-quality YA read about a misfit teenage boy growing up in the Bible Belt (the title refers to his snake-handling church). I thought that the characters were well-developed and believable and the story heartbreakingly possible. 
  • Beartown (Fredrik Backman)- I would almost say that Fredrik Backman can do no wrong, but then I read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, which was fairly terrible, so...I can't say that. BUT I can say that I enjoy ALMOST everything he writes, and Beartown was no exception. This hockey story takes place in a small town full of interesting and engaging characters. It's a coming-of-age story, a story of violence and small-town thinking, and a story that challenges both characters and readers to grapple with the ugly truth. I loved it.
  • Winter Garden (Kristin Hannah)- I'll be honest- this story was SLOW GOING for me for the first almost half. Slow. I just couldn't get into it, and I couldn't understand all the five-star ratings and glowing reviews. I wasn't connecting with the characters and I would've given up except for a) I'm stubborn, and b) this is KRISTIN HANNAH- she of The Nightingale, one of the most wonderful books ever, and SURELY she would redeem a couple hundred pages of non-excellence!! And MAN- am I glad I stuck with it. The story finally got rolling for me about halfway through, and the last...I don't know, 25%, maybe...INCREDIBLE. Like the ending had me literally sobbing and ugly crying and filled with joy and hope and like, you don't even know. I gave the book 5 stars, even with that rough start, because the final few pages deserved like 20 stars on their own. This is a story that alternates between the present (the storyline that was SO hard for me to get interested in) and the past- occupied Leningrad. If you've got the stamina to power through (and it's not like the first half is terrible, it's just not great...and I just have too many things to read to be wasting my time on 'not great,' normally) it.

Ugh, come on. There are just so many books I loved. I feel bad if I don't include all of them in some way! (I would be the type that gives all the kids a participation trophy...hahaha...only for books it's like "you are a book! someone wrote you and cared very much about you! you win!") These books all also receive my stamp of approval and enjoyment, only I'm not going to keep writing individual summaries, ha.
SO! This accounts for 31 of the 50 books I've read so far this year. HA. Very exclusive of me to manage to omit 19 from my list of recommendations!! 

I do truly tend to be very happy with the books I read, so I often ponder whether it's because I'm just easily satisfied, I have low standards, or what. I've decided that it's because I'm really selective at what I set out to read in the first place. I know what I like. I know authors I like. I know which friends make recommendations that are typically home runs for me. And so I think that means that I just rarely even try a book that has much of a chance of flopping. I mean, I have had a few "flop" books this year- you can see on my Goodreads, if you care. But I think that doing my homework up front, before I crack open the book, results in me being generally thrilled with everything I read. So there's my tip for how to curate a reading life full of five star books, hahaha.

Soooo I doubt anyone really made it this far, but if you did, congratulations, you are a big nerd like me. You shall be rewarded with a picture of Millie in her new dinosaur shirt, aka the cutest thing I've ever seen (the kid AND the shirt). 

How I feel when I'm laying on the couch reading a book. Only I'm less cute than this.

So anyone wanna Book Club it up about any of my selections here? Read them? Loved them? Hated them? Want me to tell you why you're wrong for hating them? Ha. Most importantly: based on what you know now about the kinds of books I love...what should I read next?

(P.S. If you're into podcasts AND reading- all three of us- you definitely need to be listening to What Should I Read Next by Anne Bogel. Such a great podcast!)

Note: All book links are Amazon affiliate links!


  1. I read The Handmaid's Tale many many years ago and I remember it left me with feelings I cannot describe. So many thoughts after the fact. I should re-read it as I do remember enjoying the book. I do wonder though if my version contained the last chapter as you describe above? If I recall while reading the book that part of my feelings were related to the book not being tied up in a nice little bow!

    1. The final chapter definitely did NOT tie it up in a bow- I would have preferred that, almost!!! It just introduced an unrelated layer of chaos and confusion to the whole thing. Probably your subconscious just ignored it, as it should. ;) It probably would be a good time to reread, though!!

  2. UGH. Erika. Now I want to read all your "favorite books that made you think" instead of the textbooks I have guilt complexes about needing to read ALL OF THE TIME. Like, the one on R coding that I am ignoring right now to instead read your blog.

  3. We had a couple of overlaps! Just got The Hate U Give from the library. I also Winter Garden in my list, too, based on your review. I've been finding random novels this year that I am loving.

  4. Ive read all of Jodi Picoult books, most several times. The Storyteller is my favorite! I’ve read probably 75 books this year, I’m also a very fast reader and read probably 2 hours a day :). I just discovered a new great author named Ann Patchett. I’ve read 3 so far - Commonwealth, The Magician’s Assistant and The Patron Saint of Liars. All 3 amazing - if you love Picoult you’ll love her.

  5. Love all Kate Morton! I don't read a lot of non-fiction but I read Just Mercy and it was thought-provoking and heartbreaking. Try the Alice Network (thank you Reese Witherspoon instagram!)and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

    1. (I couldn't find your email address to reply to you via email- maybe you will see this?!) I don't believe I've read anything else by Kate Morton other than The Lake House- what else did you particularly like? I will look into those others you suggested- thank you! :)

    2. The Forgotten Garden was the first one I read and my favorite but really I have enjoyed all of them. I love the way Morton layers her stories with the past and weaves everything together.

  6. "I don't blog. I rarely watch TV. I barely talk to Matt. I don't clean the house or chat on the phone or bake or craft or go out with friends."---This is the best!

  7. Great post! Fellow book nerd here too. I've either already read most of your lists above, or have them on my "to read" list! A few good ones I've read lately, since we seem to have similar tastes...Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys; The Kitchen House and Glory over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom; A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold; and The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin.

    1. I LOVED The Kitchen House!! I keep meaning to get Glory over Everything! I'm not familiar with the rest of your recommendations, though, so thank you- I will look them up!!

  8. Okay, admittedly, I'm stuck in the stupid chick lit/romance genre right now and can't get away from it. They're just such QUICK (and crappy...) reads; I fly through them and it just makes me feel so accomplished! Books that challenge me and make me think just make my brain hurt after a long day at work. I usually end up falling asleep a few pages into it or reading the same sentence over and over again because I can't process the depth of it. Ugh. But you've inspired me to try to read at least ONE non-romance this month. I think I can, I think I can... Thanks for taking the time to put together this list of suggestions!!! I wish I could find a book club near me to join!

  9. I so wish I had time to read a book let alone many books! Maybe when Bowen is like 10? haha

  10. I watched The Handmaid's Tale but I haven't read the book, now I am curious how they compare!

    Have you read anything by Ellen Marie Wiseman? I think you would really enjoy her books, she is our book clubs new favorite author. Jodi Picoult and Kristin Hannah were always my go to's and now she is on that list. I really enjoyed What She Left Behind, which alternates between present day and 1930's life in an asylum. We also read The Life She Was Given which we all loved as well.

    Happy Reading!

    1. I have heard that Handmaid's Tale book/show are quite similar, but the show has made some excellent improvements!! Hahaha. I have had What She Left Behind on my to-read list FOREVER and never gotten around to reading it, but I will have to do that soon! Thanks for the recommendations!!

  11. Start with Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. A great book. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. (There's a dark movie version w/ Frances Dormand. I much preferred the book.)

    1. I enjoyed The Burgess Boys, so I would like to read another by Elizabeth Strout! And everyone seems to love Ann Patchett, so I will have to try that one!!

  12. I had to open this post in another window so I could flip back and forth because there is so much I want to comment on. So you've been warned. ;) First, I do a monthly book post, and I think you should too so that you can give more description every month, ha.

    1) The Handmaid's Tale - our book club read that about 18 months ago, and I didn't love it. I felt like it could have been amazing, but it just wasn't. And I don't remember the ending introducing new stuff? I need to check the end out again.
    2) I have The Hate U Give reserved at the library. So many reviews online about it, and everyone raves about it.
    3) I've never read anything by Jodi Picoult. GASP. Maybe I have a wrong impression of her, but I feel like all her books never have happy endings?
    4) I have read everything by Kate Morton, and they're all similar - mystery from the past that is unraveled in the present. They are all great!
    5) Winter Garden - your description was PERFECT - I could NOT get into for the longest time - I thought the sisters were SO annoying at first! Truthfully, I think there's The Nightingale and then a LONG drop and then (so far) the rest of Kristin Hannah's books. I've read 5) I think and other than The Nightingale I have been moderately happy reading them, ha. I sound like such a book snob - which is a joke considering the number of Nora Roberts books I read this year!
    6) I just started Wool based on your IG comment
    7) Harry Potter!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    8) Loved Lilac Girls - I have read quite a few WW2 books about women (inspired by loving The Nightingale so much) - War Brides, The Alice Network, The Paris Architect...all AMAZING!
    9) My favorite book this year has been Cancel the Wedding by Carolyn T. Dingman - it probably deserves a place on my all-time favorites - go read it NOW. And anything by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
    I told you I had a lot to say! Ha!

  13. Erika Bates: probably the only person I know who loves books as much as I do! I found myself nodding along with this entire post... people are always shocked that I have so much time to read, but I'm like, well my kids take naps/go to bed at 8:30 and I don't watch TV or blog (sadly) or interact much with my husband (love that I'm not the only one). Books are my thing. If I have a moment of downtime, I'm reading.

    So thank you very much for this list! Despite my love for reading, I haven't read many of the books you reviewed here and I just spent a fair amount of time adding them to my list. I'm even giving The Storyteller a chance despite the fact that the only Jodi Piccoult I've ever liked of the 15 or so I've read was My Sister's Keeper. (I just read Small Great Things... I do think she's a great storyteller but that one just didn't do it for me). But still, I'm willing to give her another shot!

    One way we're different though is that I'm very picky... I very rarely award anything 5 stars. I'm so stingy with my stars! Recently I gave the coveted 5 star award to Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen even though I hated the ending. I'm a sucker for fictional stories based in foreign countries, particularly middle eastern countries (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, etc). I have no idea why... I am just so fascinated by cultures that are so different from my own. Anyway, the story is awesome and really makes you think "What would I do in this situation?" And it's set in Africa, so of course I was all about it!

    The second reco for you is one I just finished - The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Holy character development, Batman! Like you, I am an incredibly fast reader, and I know that I love a book when I find myself intentionally slowing myself down to make it last longer. This book was like that for me.

    Happy reading! Keep up these types of posts, yes I read the whole thing and I look forward to your next one 50 books from now. So... next month maybe?

  14. Woo hoo!!!! I've read a bunch of these and have a few new ones now to read! I am almost done with The Fire By Night which is a historical fiction from WW2. Definitely good! I love reading too and am a fast reader. I always feel a touch of guilt when I talk to people about reading because ALL of them say "I don't have time to read!" But apparently I'm like you and just read fast and furious and don't get my other stuff done. ;)

  15. That's cool you read so much! I end up watching too much TV! We read The Handmaid's Tale for my book club recently. Was really good. I love Jodi Picoult books too. And jojo moyles.

  16. Just read Beartown after seeing it on this post a few months ago.... and thanks for killing my productivity levels today haha! I was sucked in and spent so many hours reading the book, because I HAD to see how it ended. And I just learned that it's the first in a trilogy?! The second one has been released in Swedish but won't be available in English until June!

  17. OOoohhh!! I didn’t know it would be a trilogy!! Good- now I can feel like learning all that stuff about hockey wasn’t for no reason. �� I’m glad you loved it!!


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