Thursday, July 6, 2017

Top 10 books of 2017, so far

Total cliché to say that I can't believe it's halfway through the year already, but it's totally true. I've read 67 books this year so far, which is pretty respectable! Looking over my list I've read some really good books so far, so actually making this post was pretty tough. These are my top 10 so far, in the order I read them because I suck at ranking things. And, of course, this isn't necessarily books published in 2017, just books that were new to me this year.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of…1. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
I'm a big fan of both Marys, and having studied a little about their lives I wanted to know more. This is such a good, interesting take on the lives of the extremely talented and extraordinary mother and daughter duo, who of course never got to know each other, Wollstonecraft having died eleven days after giving birth to her daughter. This book alternates chapters of biography of each of the women which actually works out as a really good structure, as we can compare their lives and their writing. There's a wonderful background cast of enlightenment and romantic folk and all sorts of wonderful historical detail, as well as the inevitable scandal (Byron is a major character, after all...) But the book also avoids the stereotypes the women tend to fall into. Also, reading a literary biography of this period that deals with women is great, as it deals with questions like "how did Mary Shelley write when she always had young children around?" All in all, one of the best biographies I've ever read and wholeheartedly recommended.

2. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
I did a module this year called "Literature in Crisis", and although it was a bit of identity crisis itself- part African-American writing, part international crime, part dystopias- I did read some pretty good books I probably wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. This was actually the first book I read for it and it blew me away. It's difficult to describe this book in a way that won't make it sound completely bananas- spoiler: it is completely bananas- but it follows our protagonist in the small black town of Dickens after the death of his father and his attempts to reinstate slavery and segregate the local high school, among other things. Yep. There's so much going on in this book where one second you're laughing and then you're thinking that actually, it's not that nonsensical after all considering the world we currently live in. Such an interesting and entertaining read.

3. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Okay, so total mood whiplash here. This is definitely not a barrel of laughs. Mirielle is visiting her parents in their home country of Haiti with her husband and young son when she is kidnapped and held at ransom. Which is apparently a serious thing that happens in Haiti pretty often. This is a dark, dark book about her captivity and what comes after, as well as the struggle between her family- her father refuses to pay the ransom, to the horror of Mirielle's husband. It would be weird to say I enjoyed this book, as I read it pretty much with a permanent look of horror on my face, but I did whip through it super quickly. It is gripping stuff. Really looking forward to reading some more Roxane Gay later this year, especially her memoir Hunger which just came out.

4. Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
I was super excited to read this book, as it's probably the only book I've ever read with a non-binary main character. Hooray for representation! Even though Riley is genderfluid and definitely experiences nonbinary gender in a different way to myself, I still found so much to relate in them. Riley is the child of a congressman, still closeted, who starts a new school and starts writing a blog about their experiences which suddenly goes viral, thrusting them into the spotlight and forcing them to come to terms with their identity and their relationships with others. I pretty much loved this except for one spoilery/triggery thing which I find to be a bit of an unwelcome trope in queer literature and made the book possibly darker than it needed to be, but that's really just my own preference. In general, I'm just so happy that this book even exists and I hope it gets the attention it deserves- I haven't seen much hype about it so far.

5. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock
Second trans book in a row, woohoo! So I hadn't actually heard of Janet Mock until this book came out and started getting so much attention, and I finally picked it up (yes, I'm very late to the party). This is a memoir of Mock's life until about the age of twenty or so, growing up poor, mixed race, and trans. This is wonderfully frank and open, as much of a cliche as that is to say about memoirs. The trans stuff is definitely written in a way accessible to people outside the community, but it doesn't pander to them- and I feel like this is one of the things I liked the most about it. For example, she's honest about the privilege she has by being a conventionally attractive, cis-passing trans woman. I just really loved this and I'm excited to read her follow-up, Surpassing Certainty, about her twenties which just came out.

6. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Anna and the French Kiss (Anna & the French…I have to be honest, I was not expecting to like this book nearly as much as I did, much less put it on this list. You know those books that don't really personally appeal to you, but you read them sort of semi-begrudgingly because they keep being recommended to you? Yeah, I have to admit this was one of those. So Anna is an American girl who is sent to boarding school in Paris for her senior year, makes friends with a boy but wants something more from him. It's a fairly straightforward romance, the type of thing I usually avoid. I mean, even look at the cover! But I don't know, something about this book really charmed me. I think it was partly Anna herself but mostly the lovely descriptions of Paris, a city I used to live pretty near and spend a lot of time in... and it was weirdly nostalgic on that front. This book will definitely make you want to go to Paris. And I went and bought the sequel, which to my understanding is not even set in Paris, on the strength of this, so that's a good sign.

7. Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls' Boarding Schools 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Grahame
Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls'… By contrast, this was a book I knew I wanted to read as soon as I first laid eyes on it. I'm weirdly fascinated by boarding schools, having read far too many Enid Blyton boarding school books as a kid and have spent the last few years working on a novel set in one (So this totally counted as research, right?). This is a really fascinating, entertaining look at girls' boarding schools in the 20th century and the weird things that went on in them. Graham interviews former students who have wonderfully vivid memories. If you're looking for somewhat funny, somewhat tragic, very British anecdotes about boarding school life, this book is full of them. The schools vary from stringently academic places such as Cheltenham to places where practically no formal education went on at all. It's an interesting look at girls' education in general and how much it has changed in such a short time.

8. The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman
The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone Bye…I'm super late to the party, having never read nor watched any The Walking Dead. And I'm trying to combat that now, thanks to my girlfriend's substantial collection of the graphic novels. If, like me, you've been living under a rock, basically our protagonist is police officer Rick Grimes, who wakes up in hospital to find zombies have taken over. Separated from his wife and son, he heads out in search of other survivors. I realise this is the very start of what has become a substantial franchise, so there's not really much I can say! Except that this was awesome- character driven and creepy and shocking and I can't wait to keep reading the series.

9. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky…Simon Spier is a closeted gay teen who strikes up an email conversation with 'Blue'- another gay teen at his school, neither knowing who the other is, but gradually falling for each other. Except Simon's emails are discovered by another kid at school, Martin, who then basically blackmails Simon in exchange for setting him up with Simon's hot friend. This is another case of a reasonably straightforward romance which ended up totally charming me. The email exchanges are lovely and really well done if that's your thing (which it totally is, for me). I also really enjoyed this book for presenting the situation where you're gay, you're comfortable with it, you're fairly sure no-one's going to have a bad reaction if you come out... but you keep avoiding coming out anyway, because you just don't like awkward conversations. It's an experience I've had and I think a lot of others have had, but not one I've seen in fiction before. Also, I guessed the identity of 'Blue' pretty early on, but it didn't really impede my enjoyment of this. Albertalli just released another book so I definitely want to check that out too.

10. Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
Girl Mans Up by M-E GirardYep, another LGBTQ+ YA book! They're becoming my jam, what can I say. But that said, I'm still choosy and won't just read something because it has a gay main character- I like original experiences to be portrayed. And I was super excited to find this book, which has a masculine of centre lesbian main character! This is still so rare, as most lesbian YA seems to feature feminine characters and lack of masculine girls/tomboys/butches/whatever in fiction in general is one of my bug bears. Anyway. Pen is a boyish girl whose best friend Colby is, well, kind of a douche, but she doesn't have many friends so she kind of sticks with him. Until she falls for the gorgeous Blake, and ends up befriending Olivia, Colby's ex. She also has to deal with her traditional immigrant family's disapproval of her, as well as the struggles of everyone wanting to put a label on her and find out what her deal is- when Pen just wants to be herself. This is basically about her growing up and standing up for herself and doing the things that she wants to do, not the things her family and friends want her to do. It's so good. I didn't rank this list, but if I did this would definitely be near the top. There's so much to chew on with gendery things and female friendship and toxic masculinity, and, seriously, I hope this book gets the recognition it deserves. I loved it so much.

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