My 2017 Year in Reading: Highs, Lows, and Discoveries

I like to wait until the last possible minute to write a yearly roundup post, mostly as a way of justifying my procrastination, but also because I’m reading up to the last day and who knows what I’ll find? I’ll finish a book today, probably, but we can call the year done for all intents and purposes. So how was it?

Overall, despite the horribleness of the public year, my personal year was pretty good, especially on the reading front. Here, in no particular order, are my highlights, lowlights, and new discoveries.


  • I found my reading mojo and read a lot of great books across a diverse set of categories. I discovered that the less I was online, the more I was reading and the better my concentration was. This meant I didn’t only seek refuge in comfort reads but also stretched myself with my reading choices. And it never felt like work. Reading for discovery is more important to me than reading for recognition, and when I’m out of balance I don’t get enough of what I want and need out of it.
  •  I completed two reading challenges and read more books than I have in ages. I finished the PopSugar Reading Challenge a month early (as opposed to the previous two years, where I either didn’t finish or had to fudge categories to finish). I completed the second tier of the Mount TBR Challenge (36 books), as opposed to last year where I completed the first tier of 24 books. And I read 103 books across all categories (text v. audio, regular novels v. manga/comics, different lengths of fiction, poetry).
  • I bought a new ereader and made Kobo my main ebook retailer. I linked my account to my favorite St. Louis independent bookstore (a wonderful store that is a terrific community resource) so I give them back a little with each purchase.
  • Reading various book awards longlists led me to vibrant discussions on Goodreads, so I reactivated my dormant account. And as a result I also found category romance readers and old friends. So when Twitter is dominated by talk about books I won’t ever read, I hop on over to Goodreads and get a whole different set of recommendations.

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Review: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

I ran across a couple of articles about this historical mystery earlier this year, put it on my mental to-read list and promptly forgot about it. Then Liz Mc2 discussed it in a recent blog post and I discovered that it was available through the library. So I took advantage of some extra reading time and sat down with it. I discussed the book in comments to Liz’s post as I was reading it, but rather than filling up her comment feed I decided to write up my thoughts more fully here.

I wanted so much to like it. A mystery set in 1919 Calcutta about a British policeman, which is written by a British Asian rather than the usual white author? Yes please. And the reviews have been very favorable. Sadly, I think the reviews are as much about the intention and effort as the execution. This is so clearly a first novel, and maybe the second one will address some of the many flaws. I hope so, because there is stuff to like here, but the problems are glaring. Some are undoubtedly consequences of first-novelitis, but a lot of them should have been dealt with long before the book was released.

Captain Sam Wyndham is paired with Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee to investigate the murder of a high-ranking civil servant. Wyndham has just come to Calcutta and this is his first case. In addition to Banerjee he works with Digby, a veteran police officer who is resentful at being passed over for promotion. Wyndham soon finds that the murder is more complicated than it seems, potentially implicating British officials, Indian activists, and millionaire businessmen. Wyndham moves between the British and Bengali communities, trying to piece together evidence.

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Bookish check-in

Much has been happening, including reading, but not including blogging. Time to rectify that, so here are some random updates:

E-reading: I broke down and got a new ereader last week, a Kobo Aura H2O Edition 2. That is an even worse name than Nook Glowlight Plus, but I will give it a pass because the reader itself is terrific. I’ve been using Kobo as my ebook store more and more over the past few months and it still offers a Blackberry app, so I’d been syncing across my phone, tablet, and computer. And my Glowlight was starting to get a bit glitchy. The great thing about the Kobo is that it’s a 6.8″ screen in a form factor that is only slightly larger than the Nook. The larger screen size lets me read pdfs! This is very exciting, since I still occasionally get a book in pdf form that doesn’t want to convert nicely to epub. And while the Kobo store is sometimes more expensive than Amazon, they have a price match feature (difference + 10% of the lower price) and I’ve taken advantage of that.

Goodreads & LibraryThing: Readers, I updated my lurker account at Goodreads. I know I said I’d never go back, and I’m staying far, far away from the romance, YA, and m/m communities, but there are a bunch of people reading general and literary fiction who don’t kerfuffle and say interesting things. Not that interesting things aren’t said in the rom community, I still lurk there, but once bitten etc. Anyway, if you have a GR account you can find me under sunita_p and I’m writing brief notes on books as I finish them. I’m not commenting much but I’m there. And I’m still at LibraryThing (also as sunita_p). I like their cataloguing system and interface a lot, they just don’t have much conversation.

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Recent Reading: More award nominees and a timepass

Well, the Booker prize winner was announced last week. Now I know how people who disliked The Sellout felt last year. I loved The Sellout and didn’t mind that a US author won. This year half the shortlist was made up of US authors (writing very US-focused novels) and the best known, most garlanded author’s book won (George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo). Eh. Never mind. The longlist was awesome and I found new authors and novels I really enjoyed, and in looking for other longlist readers I stumbled across a couple of reading groups on Goodreads and blogs I didn’t know about.

I read two National Book Award longlist novels (neither made their respective shortlists), another Booker nominee, and one of the Goldsmith shortlist books:

Hate U Give coverThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This seemed to be the It Book of its season, at least it was all over my Twitter feed and there were lots of feature stories about it in the press. I don’t read much YA so I didn’t put it on my TBR, but then I put a library hold on it out of curiosity and it came in right around when the NBA longlist was announced. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It feels like a debut; the structure is quite transparent, the plot goes pretty much the way you think it will, and if you’ve been paying attention to the many protests since Trayvon Martin’s killing some of the set pieces will look familiar (although they’re well written and integrated into the characterizations and storyline). The characters provide a little too much symmetry: there is a bad cop and also a good cop, a bigoted white teenager and an oblivious but trying-to-learn white teenager, good mothers and bad mothers. But the authorial voice is terrific, and the protagonist gives readers an important window into various aspects of middle- and working-class (and lower) African American life. The characters are quite nuanced and there’s something unaffected and fresh about the telling of the story, and it’s an important story to tell and tell well. Thomas does. Continue reading


Recent reading: Awards season

I’m still reading, somewhat more slowly given other demands, but steadily. Fall is awards season in literature-land and new short and long lists are popping up all over. And of course October is when the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced. This year the committee went for a candidate whose choice lots of people could understand and approve: Kazuo Ishiguro. Like many readers, I’ve read Remains of the Day, and we have several other books of his on our shelves. I didn’t love Remains of the Day, which I read soon after it came out, so I hesitated to read more from him, but that was definitely my problem not his. It’s a brilliant, lovely book, but I encountered it just when I was really tired of reading about the travails of comfortably situated white people and I couldn’t see past that, even though I could see the quality and artistry. I need to reread it, but that will have to wait until I’ve read some of the other works. I’m especially looking forward to The Buried Giant.

Man with seagull coverI read one more off the Not The Booker Prize list and loved it: Man With A Seagull on His Head by Harriet Paige. It’s a debut novel from a small press and it’s just as quirky as the title suggests, but it’s also insightful and quietly satisfying. It tells the story of artist Ray Eccles and the people around him. Ray is (literally) hit on the head by a diving seagull while he’s at the beach and he becomes obsessed with painting a woman he saw there at the same time. He’s discovered by a couple, George and Grace Zoob, who find and publicize “outsider artists,” and becomes quite a sensation. I hesitate to describe Ray as an artist, although he clearly produces art, because I think of artists as guided by intentionality, and Ray is compelled to paint rather than choosing to do so. His talent and fame affect the Zoobs and their young daughter, as well as the object of his paintings, Jennifer Mulholland, and Ray himself. The story is told from multiple POVs and stretches over a couple of decades despite being a fairly short book. And there is a pigeon. It’s a meditation on art, loneliness, attachment, and other aspects of the human condition, all told in an understated, unpretentious but deeply thoughtful way.

I also discovered that one of the major Canadian literary prizes, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, had just released its shortlist this week:

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The Man Booker shortlist

I woke up knowing that the Booker shortlist had been announced while I was asleep (10am BST). My first intimation that it was not what I and some other readers were expecting came when I read Rosario’s and Theresa’s tweets. Whoa. There were three I expected and three I didn’t, two choices that I agreed with and multiple omissions I didn’t. So, I suppose, a normal Booker year? Here’s the list:

  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
  • The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozely
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • Autumn by Ali Smith

What was different for me this year was that I had read over half the list, which is far and away the most, and I’d been so sure, along with a few other people, that some of the books were slam dunks. In that category were the Ali Smith , which made it, and Reservoir 13, which didn’t. In the next category (probably but not a slam dunk) were Solar Bones, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Home Fire. I thought Days Without End and The Underground Railroad might suffer from the “too many awards already” problem, but the Barry certainly deserved to be there on quality grounds in my opinion, and the bookies and the rest of the literary world thought the Whitehead did too.

This year’s longlist was really strong, and there were always going to be worthy books left off. I’m still kind of stunned, though. I shouldn’t be; after years of reviewing genre novels I certainly know the importance of taste, and when you have a high quality threshold like you do here, taste is going to play a key role.

Of my choices that didn’t make it, the one I feel most strongly about is Reservoir 13. It’s a terrific accomplishment, it’s innovative while still being accessible, and McGregor is a long way from a household name. McCormack has already won awards for Solar Bones, and I’m guessing Home Fire will do well in upcoming award competitions.

Right now my first choice on this list is Autumn, but I plan to read the Fridlund and the Mozely before the announcement, and I’ll see how much headway I can make on the Auster. My taste-wise least favorite is the Saunders; I can see why it was chosen, and lots of smart thoughtful readers love it, but if it wins I’ll know how the anti-Sellout people felt last year. 🙂

The winner is announced on October 17.

How about you? What do you think? Are you surprised, pleased, befuddled, or some other emotion completely? Which ones are you going to read (or not)?


Booker longlist reading: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Just under the wire, I finished one of my most eagerly awaited longlist nominees. Shamsie’s novel has received rave reviews all over the place and is the bookie’s favorite to make the shortlist. It’s a topic that I’ve studied and written on and one that matters a lot to me: the way in which the post 9/11 (and in this case, 7/7) attacks have reshaped the way Muslims are perceived and treated in western Europe and North America. Shamsie’s novel is set in the UK and focuses on the particular issues there, but the larger themes apply across many settings.

Liz, Rosario, Theresa, and other Booker Longlist readers have described the plot so I won’t rehash that here (you should definitely go read their reviews and the comments to them). Shamsie models her story on the plot of Sophocles’ Antigone, with a few modifications in the cast and family relationships. In her telling there are two central families, one comprising Isma, Aneeka, and Pervaiz Pasha, the children of a British-Pakistani man who died fighting with Islamist terrorists; and the other headed by Karamat Lone, rising front-bench politician and current Home Secretary whose marriage to a wealthy, successful American businesswoman has propelled his career. Karamat and Terry have two children in their 20s: Emily, an investment banker in NY, and Eamonn, a somewhat aimless but charming and handsome 24-year-old.

Isma is the older mother-substitute, who finally has the chance to pursue her own intellectual ambitions when twins Aneeka and Pervaiz reach adulthood. But her decision to pursue a Ph.D. in the United States sets a number of actions in motion, actions that will have devastating consequences for all of them. And Karamat Lone is drawn back into the Muslim community that has both raised and rejected him, with his political ambitions tied to events he can only imperfectly control.

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Booker longlist reading: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

I’ve been looking forward to this novel since I read about the shortlist, although I can’t exactly tell you why. I don’t gravitate to Irish-set fiction, I’d never heard of the author, and the entire text is one long sentence (more on that later). That should be at least two strikes against it. But something in the description grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

I wish I had the talent to write this entire review in one sentence but I don’t so I’ll spare you and just use my normal rambling, overly-comma-filled style. Marcus Conway is a middle-aged engineer who lives in County Mayo, in a small village near the coast. The book opens with him listening to the Angelus bells tolling at noon. The reader knows (from the blurb on the back of the Irish version) that Marcus is dead, but Marcus doesn’t seem to. He stands in his kitchen, thinking about his life and his family. The rest of the text is made up of his memories of various events, although they often have an immediacy that makes them feel as if they’re happening in the present. Maybe when you’re no longer alive time doesn’t work the same way.

Anyway, Marcus reflects on his various roles: as a son, a father, a husband, and a civil servant. He’s mostly performed these roles very well, although he’s fallen down hard a few times. His marriage has weathered some storms but he and his wife, Mairead, have a strong, loving, and still passionate relationship. His daughter Agnes is an artist with a promising future ahead of her, and his son Darragh is off spending a year working his way through Australia and other countries far from home. Through Marcus’s recollections we get crisp images of each family member, as well as of some of the politicians and businessmen he clashes with as part of his job. McCormack does a phenomenal job of immersing the reader in Marcus’s life. At one point I was almost afraid to keep reading because I didn’t know if one of his family members would pull through, and I really didn’t want anything bad to happen. This is the power of fiction: in a hundred pages I was fully invested in people that I had no idea I’d even be interested in.

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Booker longlist reading: Books-in-progress update

I was hoping to have a couple of more Booker books finished, but instead I have two on the go and two to start and finish. So here’s an update in the meantime.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I have been switching between audio and ebook and neither is working for me. I see a lot of rave reviews but I’m more on the 1- and 2-star side of the ledger (there are quite a few  of these ratings as well). It feels less like a novel and more like a collage which started as a play, not because of the lack of plot, but because of the cacophony of voices and the lack of a clear through line. I’m fine with no plot (see my review of Autumn, among others), and I’m fine with multiple voices and an experimental style. I just can’t figure out what the author is trying to do here, and there’s not enough in the text itself to draw me in so that I don’t care that I don’t know. It also doesn’t help that David Sedaris always sounds like David Sedaris to me and the narrations feel overacted and/or self-consciously “historical.”

Three-quarters of the way through, I’m trying to figure out what on earth the use of “Bardo” in the title has to do with anything, since it doesn’t resemble the Buddhist bardo(s) with which I’m familiar. The African-American characters are introduced in discomfiting ways, and I’m still not sure why Lincoln’s pain is foregrounded in the title and blurb when the bulk of the book is about other characters. Maybe it all becomes clear in the last quarter.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. This was a complete surprise to me. I borrowed it from the library on a whim, started reading, and just loved it. It has received a lot of mixed reviews, with the Booker reading group at The Reading Room ranking it at the absolute bottom of their list so far. I can see how the book could fail for readers, especially readers who are unfamiliar with India’s past and present sociopolitical contexts, as well as readers who prefer less political ranting and a more linear plot. But from where I sit, this is the book I’m so glad someone as talented as Roy has chosen to write about contemporary India. The BJP motto of India Shining, emerging superpower, etc. has dominated a lot of western (and Indian) discourse, which buries the enormous costs of the country’s economic gains of the last 25 years. Income and wealth inequality is higher than it’s been in decades (certainly since Independence), and Hindu nationalism is dominant (if you want to see how far white nationalism can go in a country and what it can do, this is your analogy).

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Booker longlist reading: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry is a highly respected and fêted Irish author, and this latest book has already won the Costa Best Book award for 2016. I’d been on the verge of buying it all year, and I’m not sure what held me back. I finally bought an ebook version and started with that. I also picked up the audiobook to finish the last few chapters.

This book has received a mixed reception among our little Booker longlist reader community. Liz loved it but it didn’t work for Teresa or Rosario, and I’ve seen similar criticisms in a Goodreads New Fiction group I lurk on. I’m a sucker for Western-set litfic, both historical and contemporary, so I was pretty sure I’d like this and I did.

The story opens in 1851, when the narrator, Thomas McNulty, meets his future friend, lover, and partner, John Cole, under a hedge in Missouri. They’re both young and broke and join together to find ways to support themselves, falling in love along the way. After a couple of years masquerading as young women to serve as dance partners for miners, they outgrow their roles and join up with the Army. As soldiers they remain side by side, experiencing the Indian wars on the western plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, the Civil War in Maryland and Virginia, Andersonville prison camp, and finally farm life in Tennessee (with interruptions along the way). They adopt an American Indian orphan, Winona, and together the three of them make a family that does its best to stick together through some of the country’s most turbulent times.

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